Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Atwood's novel of speculation demands a contemplation of the present

Margaret Atwood is an entrepreneur of weird worlds. Her futuristic The Handmaid’s Tale was near revolutionary with its depiction of a society bent on controlling reproduction, i.e. women. Familiar? Atwood’s skill lies in her ability to tweak recognizable reality into something bizarre but frighteningly believable. She has her finger on the pulse of both the humorous and grotesque aspects of humanity. In The Year of the Flood, her most recent novel and an expansion of Oryx and Crake, the combination is almost unthinkably strange. The Year of the Flood unsettles the reader because the future Atwood conceives is based on her clever warping of the banality of today.
Although a number of characters from Oryx and Crake appear in The Year of the Flood, the second novel stands on its own, and stands out in memory. The abstract was too present in Oryx and Crake and while mystery has its benefits, Atwood’s glaring and grotesquely gaudy vision of the future in her latest novel forces the reader to pause and reconsider.
Atwood’s story brings the reader to the years before the flood, alternating with the stories of Ren and Toby in the years that follow the aerobic virus that kills everyone else. Before the Waterless Flood, the world is a disastrous complex of plastic surgery clinics, chain restaurants serving mystery meat called Secretburgers, and a prison system where the inmates fight for their lives, using the principles of Paintball as a template. Atwood delights in puns and many of the monikers of the institutions are amusing, such as Anoo Yoo Spas and the security force CorpSeCorps working for the Corporations who are now in control.
Amongst the jumbles of Pleeb gangs roaming the crumbling streets of unnamed cities, there are groups of idealists trying to make sense of the world. Toby and Ren, into whose heads Atwood grants access, are a part of God’s Gardeners for different reasons and spans of time. This fictitious religion is an impressive creation on Atwood’s part. The Gardener’s beliefs are built on the teachings of the Bible that emphasize the necessity of kindness to all living creatures. They are extreme vegetarians and pacifists, living on rooftops and cultivating gardens away from the stench and degradation of the world below. Every third chapter Atwood includes a brief sermon-like oration given by Adam One, who is the leader of the Gardeners, on each day of a feast for saints who include Rachel Carson and Terry Fox. Priests and churches have vanished but a sense of God and hope remains. Adam One’s interpretations of the Bible are so sincere they are laughable, a much needed release from the tension, and somehow encouraging.
Quality of life has reached an unfortunate low for humanity but it is women who get the short end of the stick. As always Atwood’s women are well crafted and possess an impressive resilience. Ren narrates with a fairly light voice, even as she is trapped inside a healing chamber in the sex club she works in as the world outside dies. She doesn’t possess Toby’s dry wit or careful calculations but her expectant nature is a relief amongst the detailed descriptions of the depths humanity has reached.
Apocalypse, as a premise, does not interest me though its popularity is evident in the size of the science fiction of the bookstore (Atwood is adamant that her imaginings of the future not be relegated to that category, she prefers “speculative fiction”). But there are authors who know how to make the effects more than a paranoid hypothetical. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is an example of this success and so is The Year of the Flood.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Logic and Inexplicable wrestle in "Stranger"

Feudal grandeur and its loss prove to be painful for more than the immediate family in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. The dissolution of the house and the family that inhabits it marks a transition from the lost romance of an older era and the challenges of adjusting to what is new.
The courteous and somewhat stiff narrator, Dr. Faraday, takes the reader through the final chapter of the British estate Hundreds Hall. It is an emblem of the past in his small pastoral town and one that does not always have positive connotations. His mother worked there as a maid in its glory days and Faraday is drawn to the place for a number of reasons: nostalgia, awe, envy.
Since the years following the Second World War, the estate has slowly been broken down into pieces and plots. The patriarch is dead. His son Roderick Ayres is a nervous young man, badly damaged by the war. His older sister Caroline is the heroine, too plain and spirited to make a match that might salvage the property. Her mother, Mrs. Ayres, is a fragment of dilapidated glamour from the past. The three of them are in charge of the beautiful but deteriorating house. They have neither the money nor the strength to resurrect it.
By chance, Dr. Faraday appears at Hundreds to offer his services to the family’s only maid. He is not sure he likes the family exactly, but his visits become a regular part of his routine and slowly the doctor integrates himself into theirs. Underlying the development of these relationships, Waters brings to light the inherited and outdated class divisions. Dr. Faraday’s growing friendship with the Ayres suggests a breaking down of boundaries. There are moments when the differences of background become obvious and cause discomfort, marking the awkward and often reluctant abandonment of the implicit and imbalanced divisions of the past.
The propriety of the family and the failing beauty of the house are well constructed. Waters sets a good pace and the reader gamely follows where Dr. Faraday leads. It isn’t until a third of the way into the book that another element surfaces to complicate the fairly straightforward plot. Hundreds is already tearing at the seams and this is initially what is supposed to have rushed Roderick’s collapse. But by Roderick’s own estimation something else is at work in the grand old house. He does not point to existence of a bona fide ghost, but speaks of a haunting presence that urges malevolence. Dr. Faraday is a man of science and doubtful of such conjectures. He has a hard time swallowing the odd stories of the Hundreds’ inhabitants, and in time all of them mention or believe something extraordinary is at work. As the events grow more frequent and damaging, rational explanations seem to have less and less bearing on what unfolds.
The novel never quite sinks into the classification of a spook story. Waters maintains an excellent tension between straightforward, scientific logic and other less believable possibilities. She plays on whatever superstitions the reader might possess and writes convincingly of bumps in the night. Dr. Faraday continues to evaluate the existence of a malevolent force as preposterous, but as the novel draws to a close, his conclusions seem increasingly stubborn and narrow.
The reader isn’t rewarded with answers. Waters’ narrator might want to push one in a certain direction, but after a novel inside Dr. Faraday’s discerning if narrow head, one can’t help but ponder the other possibilities. Change works as a double-edged sword and the reader witnesses the measured need for a balance in the hands of The Little Stranger.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fantasy quelled by reality; plot by cast

A.S. Byatt’s novel The Children’s Book contains a compelling confusion of fairy tales, families, sexual awakenings, and pottery. Victorian England is dying out and the 1900s are on the cusp; Byatt attempts to take it all in stride. She has a huge cast of characters to perform acts of rebellion, desire and distress. There is someone for every reader: author, anarchist, adulterer, child-at-heart. And if no one meets your fancy Olive Wellwood will inspire you to invent your own.
The novel starts with small mysteries, art, and a reigning matriarch who deals in fantasy. A boy, Phillip, is found hiding in the basement of a museum and his eye for design is the piece of magic that carries him from the industrial dirt of London into the pastoral beauty of the countryside where contentment and simplicity seem to reign.
Olive Wellwood is the matriarch who transports him. She is an author of fairy tales and the mother of a sprawling brood. The Wellwoods’ home is the perfect backdrop for the childish merriment she encourages. The adults take part in the magic as well. They host a Midsummer’s party annually, indulging their own fantasies, enlisting foreign puppeteers and participating in lengthy discussions about the problems of poverty and corruption in England. Olive writes for children while her husband Humphrey faces the problems of the world with words of his own.
In addition to the Humphrey Wellwoods, Byatt follows the children of his brother Basil, the Cains and the offspring of the eccentric and genius potter, Benedict Fludd. The latter is a mysterious and frightening force. Phillip becomes his apprentice and the relationship between art and its executor is fascinating. Fludd must be handled with kid gloves; his rages and the distress of his family are permissible because of his brilliance. Byatt successfully introduces the reader to pottery and examines the refuge provided by creativity and the delicate balance between genius and mania.
Entering further into the worlds of these families, the atmosphere of gaiety splits at the seams. Humphrey is repeatedly unfaithful and her children are largely cared for by her spinster sister, Violet. Sexual exploration inserts itself to the continually more tangled web of lives. This force has a tricky combination of fantasy and reality. The consequences are all too tangible and the repercussions are born by the women. Interspersed with the history of these families are segments of Olive’s fairy tales as well as summaries of the changing temperature in Europe as the years race forward; it is easy to see why the fantasy is preferable.
As they grow, the children begin to push against the magical inventions that encapsulate their lives. One finds refuge in Marxism, another pursues medicine. Those who cannot look beyond, remain in an unsettling limbo. Reality bursts in with the arrival of the First World War and has damaging effects on those who are unequipped with the tools to face the harshness of the world. Fantasy withers in the face of reality. The lucky ones can use it as a tool, but fantasy cannot be sustained. Byatt reveals that if one has nothing else, one is lost.
The strength of Byatt’s novel seems to fade as the vibrancy of her characters is dulled by experience. Byatt’s characters are distinct but the cast is too large. One or two minor characters wind up playing crucial roles and their importance feels misplaced without a clear understanding of them when others are known quite well. There are too many shrouds when there should be moments of clarity. When Byatt’s control of her complex cast slips, the book falls to pieces.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"Nocturnes" fails to live up to implications of title

The word or category “nocturnes” evokes a particular sobriety. It transmits a dreamy but serious and often mournful atmosphere. The tones struck in a nocturne are haunting if not eerie. Even when the sound stops the mood lingers. One puts on an album of nocturnes for a meditative, gray afternoon or in the wake of desire. None of the stories in Kazui Ishiguro’s Nocturnes strike these chords and the title of the collection is unfitting. The narrators fly through their tales at an andante pace, rather than with the mix of caution and tumult that should be found in such meditative pieces of music
Although there is a jumble of narrators in Ishiguro's short stories, the variety of tone is indistinct. Each protagonist is male, each a musician or an aficionado, no one at the top of his field. Two play in St. Mark’s square in Venice, another in the rolling English hills, and a third is met in a Beverly Hills hotel where he is recovering from plastic surgery. All these characters share a plaintive tone. This exasperating quality is brought to the attention of a few of the protagonists, giving them another reason for self-righteous indignation. This evidence of Ishiguro’s understanding of his characters' whining does not alleviate the reader’s annoyance with their grating disenchantment.
I sailed through these stories of depression, friendship, and ending love. This rapidity alone contradicts the principle of a nocturne, a piece of music that is created to be savored, not hurriedly consumed. My brief and hasty encounters with the Ishiguro's characters never convinced me to care about them. They are too thoughtless and too self-pitying; shells of rejection and disappointment. Their passion for music is the emotion that should sustain them, but it no longer triumphs because they have lost their ear for their passion.
Additionally, many of the author’s premises felt preposterous. In the title story, a middle-aged saxophone player is all too easily talked into the need for plastic surgery in order to advance his career. In another a grown, if somewhat misdirected, man impersonates a dog in order to create a faux scene of destruction in a friend’s apartment to throw the owners off a moment of his own indiscretion. I didn’t buy these events and felt almost bitter to be asked to swallow the conceits upon which the stories were founded.
It is impossible to know if these are tales of deserving geniuses, or the gripes of decent musicians in a cutthroat business because everyone of Ishiguro’s narrators speaks in the first person. This narrow vision creates a slanted opinion and prevents the reader from hearing the music objectively. Whenever a secondary character bestows a compliment on the protagonist’s talent, it is always a remark complicated by another motive and does nothing to help the reader understand the plight of who is playing.
The secondary characters are often the real focus of Ishiguro’s Nocturnes. Their stories were often more interesting or glaringly tragic than the protagonists but they, also, fail to engage one’s sympathies. Ishiguro's tales orchestrate passing connections with people, and through these new acquaintances shades of past relationships are revealed. Music is usually the longest relationship a character is involved in. Had the stories been developed more thoroughly in this vein they would have both caught my attention and bewitched me. Music has the same ability as glue, it is able to attach unlikely persons to one another in odd or momentarily comforting ways. This is a premise I can accept and respect; it is a wonderful and true notion. But my interest was stunted by the deprecating whine of the protagonists and the inconclusive worth of everyone else.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Consequences of Complacency in "Brooklyn"

Colm Toíbín’s novel Brooklyn is as straightforward as its title. Eilis is a young, capable woman in Ireland in the 1950s. Despite her qualifications, she, like many others, is unable to find work. Her mother, her sister Rose, and a priest, who has moved to Brooklyn himself, plan for her to cross to American and begin a life there. She goes, obediently. Eilis is not ambitious, but she is willing. Her complacence is understandable, she is a “good girl.” But as the novel progresses her deferential attitude morphs from beneficial to damaging.
Eilis lodges at the house of an Irish woman with a gaggle of other Irish girls in Brooklyn. Despite America being a different world, Toíbín doesn’t spend a lot of time describing the changes in locale. He manages the new terrain firmly but without exaggerated emphasis. Toíbín’s character is adaptable; Eilis manages America as she does most things, without protest. But there are subtle moments of conflict. Toíbín stages a well-calculated encounter with race and there is a moment of uncomfortable boundaries crossed in Eilis’s relationship with a co-worker. She must face small moments of class discrepancy in the society that is more elastic than Ireland’s but still divided.
Eilis doesn’t spend her time making friends, She works hard at the department store where she has a position even though the work is below her qualifications. When homesickness catches up with her, night classes in bookkeeping are arranged to keep her busy. Her force of will allows this to be enough to help her mend and her willing intelligence aids her success. By and large her American life is dull.
Eventually, a young man appears on the canvas of the novel. Tony chooses her unequivocally and Eilis is carried along compliantly, but without much enthusiasm. Tony is a very good man. He is not Irish but Italian and Eilis has trouble explaining to her sister that in America his low status as a plumber is not a reflection of who he is as a man. Toíbín manages to depict Tony as a good, solid and dependable person without making him boring. He is simply loveable. But one wonders if Eilis is the one to love him. Moments pass in which she seems the happy object of his affection only to be followed by an almost violent desire to keep her distance.
In the last third of the novel, Eilis is called back to Ireland. Like most of the major decisions in her life, this one is made for her, shaped by extenuating circumstances. Her return is meant to be temporary but as Eilis faces the familiarity of her past Brooklyn, its heights and depths, begin to fade. With the reality of her new life paling in comparison her old one, Eilis is finally forced to confront her uncertainties.
Eilis is likeable and the reader is invested in her choices. It remains difficult for anyone to decide the “right” path for the heroine. America has transformed her into a person who stands out in a place where she had comfortably been part of the background. Her emergence from the shadows makes Eilis more certain of her worth but less confident of the choices she made in the past.
Toíbín artfully and shrewdly builds the simple novel to a point of irrevocable change and choice. He constructs a branching of opportunity and shows how easily one sort of life can be forever altered. Eilis’s initial, endearing complacency has unforeseen repercussions that suggests the necessity of always employing one’s own judgment rather than following someone else’s lead, however benign.