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29. Rethinking Normal, by Katie Rain Hill

7 Jul

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The random books on my to-read shelf that I’m now being forced to read by the 20 Books of Summer Challenge turn out to be amazing! I should trust myself (or maybe not trust myself?) more often. Rethinking Normal by Katie Rain Hill was a book I received free at a charity event, in a bag with at least three other transgender memoirs and a lot of teen LGBTQ fiction. I’m not that into teen fiction. I tried a couple of the books from that haul and disliked them, and this one has been unexamined on the shelf ever since. I probably would have eventually given it away, and I’m so glad I didn’t.

Katie Rain Hill was the first openly transgender teen to graduate from high school in Oklahoma. She became a media star whose arc I now vaguely remember, since she had a transgender boyfriend, and the headline “transgender girl dates transgender boy” was of course irresistable. In Rethinking Normal she tells her story, from her happy pre-gender early childhood, through her increasing feelings of dysphoria, depression and despair—over a problem for which she had no name in the early 2000s—to finally her blissful discovery of transgenderism and eventual transition from male to female. There’s such a compelling natural arc to this material, and Hill and her co-author made a true page-turner out of it. Katie comes across as a reasonable, rational and generous narrator, who forgives people who shun her (when they come around), and credits even estranged family members for their best efforts. She’s likeable, and watching her become happy and healthy was really satisfying.

As a mother, I cried at the part where Luke (Katie’s pre-transition name) finally discovered transgenderism on the internet, and immediately went to get his mom to explain to her that this was what his problem was, and this was what he’d been wanting. The mother, poor woman, had been witless with helplessness and fear for years, unable to help her depressed, suicidal small child. (His first suicide attempt was at 8.) His mom was a religious woman in a conservative mileau, and had no affinity for trans issues but she (miraculously!) said, “Ok, if this will help, tell me what to do and I’ll do it. I’ll do anything to keep you alive. Make a list.” She admitted later she expected someone to firebomb their house, but she supported him anyway. As a mother, I completely understand that.

I also found this story uplifting for personal reasons. It was great to read a trans story that brought me back to the roots of why I think freedom of gender expression should be a human right. There are lots of people, like Katie, for whom the current categories really don’t fit well. Why shouldn’t it be up to her, or her family, to decide on her own identity? Making little kids like Katie less totally fucking miserable is a worthy goal in a humane society. To me, it’s worth some inconvenience to the majority.  I know trans activists think the bathroom issue is nonsense, but as a woman in her 40s, who has been at the receiving end of about 30 years of creepy behavior by men (not all men, but they’re out there, you know?), breaking down the gender wall in places like locker rooms and bathrooms is sort of a problem. And I don’t think it makes me a bigot to say so, though from the vituperation by trans activists, you’d think any reasonable woman who had her doubts was Satan incarnate. The bathroom issue is inconvenient. It will create scary situations for women. To deny that is ridiculous. I would find the activism a lot more compelling if people would just admit it, and say, “Let’s do it anyway, for kids like Katie.” Her story reminded me of that, for which I was grateful.

I could go on. I also am genuinely freaked out by all the people taking drugs and getting these surgeries because transgenderism is now trendy and considered to be radical…the types who think being trans is undermining the system, and who don’t compute that they’re directly enriching the drug companies, and are signing up to do that forever. The Man is laughing about that one all the way to the bank. But again, Rethinking Normal reminded me that being trans is a matter of life and death for some people, and they’re the ones who matter, not the politics, not the drug companies. Great book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

28. My Sister Life, by Maria Flook

6 Jul

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My Sister Life by Maria Flook is number one on my list in my 20 Books of Summer challenge, inspired by Cathy at 746 Books. I’ve been avoiding this one for a few reasons. One, it has a depressing subject matter: It’s a memoir about how the author’s sister’s disappearance as a young teenager. Two, it was a little unclear from the cover copy what kind of book it was, since it seemed that the sister’s story would also be told. I wasn’t sure if it was a true memoir or a fiction hybrid, which gave me an off-feeling about it. And Three, a shallow reason to not read something: I’ve been avoiding Amazon by getting used books through Powell’s, and this was a particularly yellowing and unattractive book. A fancy design conceit where there was a hole in the front cover to indicate the sister’s absence looked vandalized and disturbing.

But how wrong I was to hesitate! This book was enthralling from the get-go, when, in chapter two, I realized that this would be a bad-mother memoir. In her first scene, the mother is getting dressed for a cocktail party, trekking “back and forth from her bureau to the closet dressed only in her strapless bra and panties.” She applies her “French Jean Patou perfume, pinching the rubber bulb of a cut-crystal atomizer. Next, she stooped before the full-length mirror to adjust her seamed stockings,” which she does “with insulated palms” wearing her short, white-cotton gloves for church. These details add up, gorgeously, until Flook explains that:

“Families take pride in their piety or in their prosperity, rejoicing in a father-and-son business venture, in a gifted child’s scholarship or in a prized commission in the military. But in our household Veronica’s enterprising sexuality overwhelmed our individual goals and spilled into family matters. Her erotic aspect emerged in her every routine and came more naturally to her than maternal duty.”

Flook’s thesis is simple but powerful. This cold, narcissistic woman did not provide love to her daughters and prevented their spineless father from doing so, either. The oldest sister, Karen, became promiscuous and ran away at age fourteen, to become a child prostitute. She lived in a trailer park with an abusive older ‘boyfriend’ named James and his other girlfriend, a woman named Ruth, who also ran a whorehouse where Karen soon started working. Amazingly, Karen preferred life with Ruth and James to the one at home with her well-off but frigid and mentally abusive parents. She left the world of luxury cruises and European vacations for the trailer park and prostitution without regret. Pitifully, she responds to Ruth and James’s affection and interest in her. James helps her steal a winter coat. They go out for ice cream and let her keep some of her earnings from prostitution. It’s extremely sad, but in Flook’s hands feels psychologically plausible.

Maria, the youngest child, also became a juvenile delinquent though a slightly more functional one. Her sister’s disappearance and the years where the family didn’t know if Karen was alive or dead turned Maria into a writer. She becomes morbid and obsessed with accidents and death, which she describes as “just keeping my eyes open.”

The book is powerfully written, full of subtle, sneaky metaphors for loss, and startling images that the writer uses to try to understand her experience.In one place she writes:

When one child goes missing, the remaining child is left untethered. I have seen a dog pull free of its collar and in its sudden freedom shudder, as if any connection it had had to the world remained in the coil of leather.

In another passage she recalls a childhood moment with Karen (as she does frequently) when little Maria has half-blinded herself with chlorine and her sister gives her a lollipop.

“I stared at the sucker” she writes. “Its glassy red bauble twinkled, exaggerated in my half-blind state. The candy warped the light with a kaleidoscope effect and it was just too beautiful to eat. ‘Aren’t you going to taste that?’ Karen asked me. Karen’s eyes weren’t blurred by the chlorine and she didn’t see the miraculous gift she had given me.”

Karen’s loss is a curse but it endows Maria with unusual powers.

I’ve written recently about terrible-stories-about-girls books, and how they unsatisfyingly present the drugs, promiscuity, abortions, etc., without seeming to delve into why. Flook delves. She may lay too much blame on her parents—the section where she explains that her mother bought her a pony to get her to spend more time away from home feels a little self-serving. But at least she’s looking for answers, making a powerful and articulate case for how she understands the forces that formed herself and her sister.

The second half of the book when Karen reappears and the sisters have some opportunities to be reunited but never really reconnect was less satisfying, especially since it brought up the same questions that made me hesitate over reading My Sister Life in the first place. How much of Maria’s startlingly clear retelling of Karen’s experiences is real? Karen doesn’t seem like she’d trust her sister enough to entrust such detailed recollections. One of the most unusual aspects of the book is that it does delve into the details and emotions of Karen’s experience  as a child prostitute so tenderly—Flook is retelling from a distance, and she doesn’t have the flatness of affect, anger, or defensiveness that often clouds such material when the author has been through it. The central question that kept me reading became How does she know? How did Flook and her sister heal the breach between them well enough to create this book? Frustratingly, that question was not answered.

 

27. The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith

30 Jun

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Thriller writer Patricia Highsmith—of Talented Mr. Ripley fame—published this groundbreaking early lesbian classic anonymously in the 1950s and later reissued it under her own name, when that could be done without destroying her career. (How times have changed, right?). But, amazingly, the changing times matter very little in the reader’s enjoyment of The Price of Salt. The book is a nail-biting romantic thriller that functions just as well today as it did in the fifties, despite that its forbidden love is now out-and-proud.

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The vintage cover with Highsmith’s pseudonym

The story is about a shop-girl in Manhattan with dreams of making it as a set designer, who meets and falls for a married woman living in New Jersey. At first the erotic subtext of their relationship is repressed. The ‘falling for’ is something neither one of them can quite admit, the shop girl because she has a boyfriend and doesn’t quite know she’s gay, and the married woman, who has had lesbian affairs before, because she has a small child and is in the middle of a divorce. Or possibly because she’s manipulative and prefers to watch the shop girl want her than to let the shop girl have her.

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Beautiful young Highsmith.

The “salt” of the title is passion. Both women are to some extent capable of passing in the straight world. Both have huge incentives to do so. Both have to choose between eroticism, thrill, “salt” over almost everything else. For the married woman the price is so high it’s not easy to say that she should pay it. She faces terrible choices, and her response to the escalating stakes in both the affair and the divorce is half-rational at best. The shop girl, despite her naive passion is a cool customer; it’s wonderful to watch her discovering her own mind and sticking to her own desires, against massive pressure.  The complexity of these characters is why the story still works. I’ve read it’s what set the book apart from the other lesbian pulp of the ’50s.

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This last bit will be a spoiler, so STOP HERE IF YOU’RE GOING TO READ THIS BOOK!!

It’s my theory that the happy ending was forced by conventions of the genre. There’s a chapter that feels like a real, complex, ending (a chapter I wanted to be the end), and then a last chapter that feels like the kind of movie scene where people run through the airport to catch each other before the plane takes off. I am so curious what the author’s thinking was about those two choices.

 

20. The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert, by Rios De La Luz

5 May

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It sometimes happens that I get an indie-press book whose author seems personally appealing or whose cover is beautiful or whose press I like, and then I get into the book and a) hate it and b) feel guilty about writing about how much I hate it, since the author is probably a nice person and certainly this book was their dream and it’s such an obscure book anyway, why bother?

Well, The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert, by Rios De La Luz, published by Ladybox press out of Portland, Oregon, is a classic example of that problem. I struggled through it. I thought it was actively awful. And despite that probably no one but its author cares about this book, I’m going to expound upon why.

So, it’s a book about race, about being a queer Latina, and the kind of myth-making and dreaming you need to do to make space for yourself if you are those things in an unfriendly world. That’s my best guess. The stories are about girls dating, grandmas, mean white boys, early girlfriends, cleaning houses for a living, sexual assault, with self-consicously lyrical flights like….

“During recess, I lugged the classroom’s bucket of crayons, color pencils and markers with me. The class played kickball and I sat under the shade of a palo verde tree because of asthma. I arranged all the greens together, blues and reds together…. Yellows owned the sun. Naranjas represented astronauts with Martian dust on their boots. Brown was my favorite. Brown represented the people I interacted with every single day.”

The  lyrical space-making mission isn’t a terrible idea, but its execution it struck me as so out of ideas. A crayon box? Really? The crayon box to talk about skin color? That is the biggest cliché in the history of writing about skin color. In a book that’s supposed to be lyrical and odd, a fucking crayon box?

None of the execution of these stories, from the good brown girls to the bad white boys brought any complexity beyond what you’d expect from campus politics. Brown girls might be more sympathetic than white boys. Many grandmas are lovely and deserve to have their struggles lionized. But these truths are not self-evident, both god and the devil are in the details, which De La Luz skips.

The story “Rosario,” is a two-page hash of bad things white boys have done to the narrator, one thing a sexual assault, another the annoying way they try to speak Spanish to pick her up, for example.  Those two things don’t seem the same to me, and erasing the differences between them obscure the possible stories therein, and the meaning of either anecdote. The point of the story is that the narrator is angry at white men and doesn’t forgive them for their crimes, but that’s not a story yet either. Lines like “Blatant sexualization of my brownness makes me gag,” are all tell, not show.

I’m going to write soon about The Mexican Man in His Back Yard, a collection of stories by the incredible Stephen D. Gutierrez on growing up poor and Mexican in Fresno and Los Angeles, a book with so much truth, passion, and pain that it makes the flaws of a book like De La Luz’s glare. Gutierrez’s stories are about race and class, but they’re about other things too: the history of illness in Gutierrez’s family; a local bully Gutierrez didn’t like. It is through talking about these other things—these characters’ real lives, because they are people first and race representatives second—that the insights about race bubble up. The cliche events in De La Luz’s book might be cliche because they’re true, but they’re so literal they allow no bubbling.

For example, in a wonderful story “Lucky Guys Forever,” Gutierrez writes about a local kid “a poor boy…. His name was Herrera. He was dark, with big, bulging frog eyes and a lambskin-lined jacket he wore all seasons of the year.” In Herrera’s one shining moment of social functioning he had a 10-speed bike early, when they were cool, and he loved it and was proud of it. That’s sad in a mostly-obvious way. I thought of the character Dukie from The Wire. But as the story goes on, it focuses not on the sad kid but on the narrator writing this kid’s story, and how much the narrator hated this kid. Gutierrez does some fancy meta-fictional footwork, circling through methods of telling that would allow his child self to beat this boy up—whom he had personal reasons to want to beat and also, we suspect, symbolic reasons. Symbolically perhaps he doesn’t want to be this sad kid with his perfect-bike sad moment. He doesn’t want to have to empathize. But eventually, he does. Here’s what he thinks:

Everything’s cool. I saw a little bit of myself in him. And I knew he needed only one thing, love. We had to help each other, the wounded. This came upon me in a flash, without premeditation. Later I would learn what it was called, an epiphany. And in that state, feeling much for him and the world, with myself included, I turned away for a second.”

The empathy is powerful because it was hard-won. It’s a brilliant story about rewriting stories. It’s a story about how much Gutierrez hates that sad-kid story, at the same time as he must admit that it’s related to his story, and find a positive, powerful way to incorporate it into his identity. The real killer in that paragraph is with myself included. At every turn, Gutierrez writes himself in, overwrites cliches about race. He’s brilliant.

Writing didactic stories De La Luz erases the details, turns everyone into caricatures, reveals nothing, includes neither herself nor the people she’s critiquing. The lyricism in this context feels like hiding from truth, or covering it. Don’t know how you really feel about your grandma? Invent her a time machine!  Sexually assaulted? Imagine throwing paint over yourself.

It’s so much easier than putting who you really are and how you really feel on the page.

 

 

17., 18. & 19. Two Books About Climbing Mount Everest

22 Apr

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I surprise myself by having a great, obsessive love for Jon Krakauer, based entirely on the man’s grip of reporting and narrative, which, honestly, if there’s any better nonfiction writer/reporter on earth, I don’t know about him. I recently re-read Into Thin Air, twice through, starting directly again from the beginning after having completed it once, bringing my total lifetime reads of Into Thin Air to five. This is just weird, I realize.

Into Thin Air, for the uninitiated, is the first-person story of Krakauer’s disastrous 1996 summit of Mount Everest. He was on the trip as a magazine journalist, writing for Outside magazine, covering the increasing crowds on the mountain and commercialization of the climb. The thesis of the piece was supposed to be that the new forces were making the climb more dangerous and that a big disaster was in the offing. No one knew how prescient that would be, but the big disaster in fact happened in front of Krakauer’s eyes. Eleven people died on Everest in the few-day time window that Krakauer was summiting the mountain, including two guides and two clients in his group, and the head guide of a rival group. This was the trip that included socialite Sandy Hill Pittman, who did manage to make the summit, but whose celebrity presence warped the climb in ways that directly led to several deaths. Krakauer’s chronicle of the disaster is just simply one of the most harrowing and riveting adventure stories of all time.

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The summit of Mount Everest!

You might think that with such good material, the story would be hard to fuck up. It’s not that Jon Krakauer is a great writer, it’s that he got “lucky” to be along on a trip where people died in spectacular circumstances. This couldn’t be more wrong. Into Thin Air reads so effortlessly that the reader barely questions that Krakauer has re-created, through painstaking original reporting, the timing, movements, thoughts, soul-searching, etc., of dozens of people wandering around on the top of Mount Everest in a snowstorm, most of them half-demented from hypoxia, some of them actually hallucinating. These were not reliable sources, but Krakauer sorted it all out. He also imposed a narrative on events, which could roughly be translated as “What went wrong? Why did this happen?” Again that seems so obvious that the reader doesn’t question it, but creating structure takes intellectual rigor.

And I have proof of this!, because my Kindle auto-prompted me to buy another Everest book, Dark Summit by Nick Heil, and I took the bait. This book focuses on an almost equally deadly season on Everest ten years after Krakauer’s, in 2006, when ten people died. You could teach a master class in narrative in comparing these two books, which are as close to apples and apples as you’re ever going to get, yet Krakauer’s is the classic of the genre and Heil’s is sketchy at best, despite that he also had a riveting and horrible story to work with, about a young climber named David Sharp who sat dying for days on the top of the mountain while teams of climbers walked past him without trying to help. A week later another experienced climber was left for dead in the same location. (He miraculously survived).

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Dark Summit is worth reading, barely, just because the story is so crazy, but Heil misses the boat with asking the interesting questions about it or imposing a moral narrative. I can’t say what that narrative should have been, but I feel its lack, and suspect that in the hands of a different writer the facts could have been orchestrated to mean more.

Heil’s reporting, also, is thin. He frequently quotes from websites, TV interviews and so on instead of directly from the sources. He doesn’t seem to have talked to two of the story’s villains, a couple who ran an adventure website that was generating scandal and misinformation. I found myself wondering if he’d had adequate financial support to write the book, and then wondering more in the epilogue when he mentions that some of the reporting was done on the tab of another of the book’s major players, Russell Brice, a prominent adventure-tour leader who was blamed (probably unfairly) for Sharp’s death. (Sharp was not his client.)

It’s not necessary to tear Heil apart by comparing him to Krakauer (we can’t all be Jon Krakauer, sigh) but it’s so tempting because of how illustrative it is. Into Thin Air starts with the information about who its writer was and how he related to the expedition. Krakauer was a journalist working for Outside magazine, a member of a luxury tour, basically a representative of the exact type of person not qualified to be on Everest but there anyway. He turned out to be physically up for the climb. His mountaineering expertise probably saved his life. But his presence as a journalist clearly added to the pressure on the tour-leaders, and was a factor in the body count. Krakauer puts this up front and wrestles with it, hard, for the entirety of the book. He is there to be critical, do his research, and tell the truth, the core tasks of the journalist.

I think it’s possible between-the-lines that Heil was hired by Brice to write Dark Summit. And if not, Brice was obviously his main source and the person he had the most access to. The book is Brice’s story, but it pretends not to be. It would have been stronger if Heil had just said OK, it’s Russell Brice’s story. Brice is a new microcosm of the dangers and problems of Everest, the “big boss” of the base camp, the man running all the ropes up the mountain, footing the bill for many a rescue of people not on his team, yet with no real authority. What does that ultimately indicate about life and death, good, evil, human society, the modern-day state of the commercialization of Everest?  Brice has too much power and too little and how does that get into the heads of guys like David Sharp, climbing in his proximity? That kind of synthesis is what Jon Krakauer excels at, and Nick Heil unfortunately does not.

Heil also fails to get into any of his characters’ heads. There’s a tediously in-depth chapter about David Sharp’s personal history, but it comes after two filler chapters about the history of climbing Everest, by which point I’d forgotten that Sharp was the name of the climber who’d died. In a well-written book that wouldn’t have happened.

Some people will say that Krakauer had the massive advantage of having been there. I don’t, actually, think it’s entirely relevant since he’s shown the same virtuosity and moral reasoning in Into the Wild, the story of a young man who died alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Krakauer wasn’t there for that one, but he recreated it as if he were. And, in fact, he entered the story himself, bringing in his own struggles with his family, mountaineering and the hubristic impulses of young men in order to shed light on the story’s mysterious subject. Krakauer is self-revealing, critical and honest, a brilliant combination in an investigative journalist. Amazing!

I could go on, but surely this is enough. Adding a 19. to this post because I have also just read Eiger Dreams, Krakaeur’s first book on mountaineering.

And here, I shall leave you with Krakauer in 1964, at age 10, summiting his first mountain. Taken from his beautiful Instagram feed. A little boy about to cause the world a lot of trouble, right there.

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15. USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid, by Vladimir Kozlov

8 Apr

USSR Diary of a Perestroika Kid

I took a gulp of lemonade, put down the glass, and took some cucumbers with sour cream from the salad dish. These were the first cucumbers of the year.

By the time I read the above quote about eating cucumbers, I was starting to wonder if anything, ever, was going to happen in USSR, Vladimir Kozlov’s exquisitely detailed but not exactly plotty autobiographical novel about an ordinary boy growing up in the late days of the Soviet Union.

The book’s protagonist, Igor, a seventh-grade boy, is moving through the ordinary, depressed, small events of childhood in the Belorussian town of Mogilev. His is a world in which, “Signs of a crumbling society were everywhere, but childhood forged on, largely structured around the daily schedule of school and activities such as clubs, sports, Pioneers and Komsomol (the mandatory youth and teenage communist organizations),”  one of the book’s introductory writers explains. Another introductory writer mentions that Kozlov’s other fictional works are usually about “the quick, intuitive, and often misguided adjustments that ordinary Soviet people were forced to make on the spot in order to survive in their rapidly changing surroundings, even as they remained rooted in their small, customary ‘Soviet’ worlds…”.

That understanding, I think, is crucial to reading this book, which is about what life was like just before the cataclysmic change occurred—the book’s project is to establish that small, customary world, with great tenderness. A little boy drinking lemonade and eating cucumbers with sour cream, not understanding anything, is the essential counterpart to what’s occurring elsewhere in the scene: The adults are discussing the appointment of a new Soviet premier—Mikhail Gorbachev. And even they don’t understand what it will mean. One says, “‘It doesn’t matter who they appointed, everything will stay the same.'” Hindsight is hilarious.

With this project in mind, the child’s unimaginative viewpoint, which does not see the larger picture, is a brilliant POV from which to catalog the last days of the empire.

And what Igor does see—the smaller picture—of model cars, brands of jeans, first crushes, dads who drink too much, and bootlegged Western music is entertaining too. The narration had a habit of hopscotching from scene to scene, so I wasn’t always sure where, exactly, we were. Was the grandma’s house in a village, or in Mogilev proper? Does Igor’s friend Kolya live in the same building? How did they meet again? But the scenes themselves were so beautifully rendered that I was along for the ride.

An old woman in a quilted jacket was leaving the bus stop with her net bag. There was a red and blue carton of milk and a round loaf of black bread in the bag.

I know just what that looks like! I’m glad someone has written a tribute to it.

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

7 Apr

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I bought this book—and even bought a second one as a gift for a friend!—based on the first few chapters and its resemblance to a 2001 Ishiguro short story published in the New Yorker, “A Village After Dark,” which is a masterpiece of weirdness and withholding.  In the short story, terrain shifts, memories change, no one knows quite why they’re here, a village becomes a warren closing in on itself. Forgotten crimes could indicate that the village is a metaphor for England’s colonial history. There’s a sublimely pleasurable sense of vague horror. As a writer I’ve studied this story’s technique. It’s a master-class in how to get away with changing the rules. The trick, we discover as Ishiguro knocks out the underpinnings of narrative (time? not working; space? not working; location? obscure; motivation? unclear; characterization? eh), is to pin everything on the serenity and matter-of-factness of the narrative voice. A reliable narrator—who can paint a scene as confidently as Ishiguro can—can narrate anything and we’ll believe him.

Well, at least it works for a short story, because The Buried Giant, which uses the same technique, goes on my list of officially irritating and unreadable books and might mark a parting of ways between me and Ishiguro. The idea is similar to the “A Village After Dark” premise: an old couple, this time in Dark Ages, post-Arthur England where the Britons and the Saxons were recently at war, live in a warren where the inhabitants are cruel to them and everyone is afflicted with a curse of not being able to remember much. It’s scary and it could be a colonialism allegory. Eventually the couple discovers the source of the memory curse and lift it, at which point things may get worse because they’ll all remember each other’s crimes.

The allegory, I thought, was heavy-handed. The pleasure of the narrative voice was not enough. Reading The Buried Giant, I longed for characterization. These people were not allowed to really be people and thus were impossible to care about. The loss of memory meant nothing when they weren’t distinct characters with distinct memories in the first place. I really had to slog through to the end, and found myself skimming.