Here is a cheat-sheet if you’re following the Man Booker Prize to be announced on 17 October, but haven’t read the shortlisted books. I haven’t either, save two, but I still have a firm favourite (spoiler: it’s Lincoln in the Bardo) and thoughts about the others.
Exquisite. I read this through a haze of jet-lag and coffee, but couldn’t put it down. My fears of heart-breaking sadness over the death of the Lincolns’ son were well-founded but Saunders takes us through the grief with a light touch and it’s redemptive and satisfying by the end. The chorus of the ‘sick’ is comforting and often funny, the stories ring true, his language dazzles and the style is spare and inventive. Warmly recommended and my pick to win.
This sounds wonderful and I’m adding it to my Christmas list. Released 10 weeks after Brexit, it’s the first in a series, with Winter due out shortly. Ali Smith is an original, intelligent author so I’m excited to read this.
I heard she gave an amazing speech at the Goldsmiths Prize recently and have just found it in the New Statesman. It is brilliant – a stunning piece of writing, and I wish I’d been there to see it live (thanks to Liv at the Book Nook who talks about the evening here).
On the strength of this Ali Smith would be a worthy winner.
Hamid has a lovely, fluid writing style. I liked The Reluctant Fundamentalist (his nod to The Fall), which was conversational and witty, and thought-provoking at the same time.
In this story of refugees, he expresses universal concerns & ideas about relationships with simple beauty and poignant moments. But it lacks tension (despite their hardships) and is distant: I felt an ambivalence about Saeed and Nadia’s fates.
I would have preferred he name the home country. As it was, too many things were left vague or superficial, so I couldn’t get a grip on the story, although I admired it.
I wonder if this was deliberate – perhaps he wanted a fable or biblical tone rather than a visceral story. It succeeds well in that case, but isn’t my style.
I enjoyed Auster’s New York Trilogy but am not planning to read this. I’m put off by the length and mixed reviews, including that it’s a little repetitive and stale (including homophobic content, which – apart from offending – is so last millennium).
I heard an interview with his editor who said this was Auster’s magnum opus and most accomplished work, so it would be worth reading if you’re a fan.
Maybe the least likely to win. But again, what a great achievement for Emily Fridlund having a debut short-listed! It sounds quite beautiful, with an isolated landscape and an odd narrator, but probably not my cup of tea.
Finally, I was surprised that The Underground Railroad missed out. You can read my review of it here.
Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge has definitely broadened my reading horizons in 2017. Since my progress report in May I’ve braved fantasy, artificial intelligence and a graphic novel – I hardly know myself anymore!
The narrator reads a book & goes off to find the meaning of life & win his beloved Janan. Slow to start, I was soon immersed in Pamuk’s rich, lyrical prose. His sentences are intricate, but so exact they stop you in your tracks. I love the layers of meaning & imperfect characters. (My full review is here).
Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author
I love the originality of Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s work (although rooted in the tradition of such greats as Gabriel Garcia Marquez), and his rhythm – taut & lyrical, the prose flows beautifully with a wistful tone: “the nostalgia for things that weren’t yet lost”. He creates a strong sense of place – Colombia from the 1960s to 1980s – and a story within a story. Antonio’s slow, believable decline is matched by the sympathetic characters Ricardo, Elena & Maya.
Read an all-ages comic
Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chang, Matthew Wilson and Jared Fletcher
Not my usual genre! This was a fun, beautifully illustrated, fast-paced comic. I loved the strong protagonists (12 year old girls), smart, sometimes wrong, dialogue – showing the 1980s era – and detailed pictures. The inventiveness took me back to my youth, but it’s unlike anything I read when I was young.
Tim Moore has the somewhat mad idea of riding a 1967 shopping bike from the German Democratic Republic the length of the Iron Curtain (20 countries, 9,000km). The result is a mix of travelogue and memoir of a previous trip in 1990, mixed with history. Moore has a wonderfully self-deprecating style; it’s often laugh-out-loud funny. He paints a dismal picture of soviet Russia, and is glib at times, but also savours moments of friendly goodwill. A unique trip.
Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location
A slow start but I enjoyed this – in the end the thoughtful writing, immersion in the desolate landscape and determination of Hester kept me reading. The isolation, and the settlers’ cruelty to the Aboriginal inhabitants of South Australia depressed me (knowing it’s based on fact). Would be a good discussion for book clubs. My full review is here.
I struggle with fantasy because it requires that extra suspension of disbelief, but Philip Pullman succeeds in creating a rich world with human concerns. I’m glad I read this, inspired by Kate and Rob from Adventures with Words, who are (re-)reading the series in anticipation of The Book of Dust, with La Belle Sauvage due out on 19 October. Lyra is a great protagonist: a strong, street-smart but caring 11-year old girl who goes on a quest to save her friend and uncle. Pullman creates vivid, alternate Victorian England and Lapland settings and nuanced characters. A well-crafted fantasy with much to think about.
Artificial intelligence & the possibility of ‘thinking machines’ is fascinating – & happening faster than we think. Robots can already write poetry and make music, so there is no reason they cannot learn to be more creative. We don’t know how conscious they can become though. My brain starts to hurt when I think about this.
Toby Walsh cuts through the hype to explore the likely advances, the benefits and dangers – in particular he warns against autonomous weapons, or ‘killer robots’, in war. Wonderful engaging style, clear writing & he brings expertise & thoughtfulness to the topic. Recommended.
Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (banned in Chicago schools and challenged in other states)
This is Marjane Satrapi’s story of her childhood in Iran during the revolution and Iran-Iraq war. It has not been banned or challenged in Australia to my knowledge, but it was a great prompt to read a book I would not otherwise have discovered. The beautiful pictures capture movement and emotion and her words are honest, to the point and unsentimental, with wry humour. I loved the feisty narrator and was troubled by the parents’ decision to stay when they had the choice to leave, amidst oppression and war.
The story of children in a Warsaw ghetto in the Holocaust. Aron falls in with a gang, but he is still an innocent, troubled child: his relationship with his mother is beautifully described. A sense of sadness & foreboding pervades the book. There is humour early on in the kids’ teasing & banter but this fades, as they move into survival mode & watch friends & family die. Dr Korczac is a hero to his orphans. An unflinching portrait.
Read a book published by a micropress
Mikumari by Misumi Kubo, translated by Polly Barton, foreward by Naomi Alderman
Fantastic, I recommend it. Strong writing, the protagonist schoolboy is funny but sympathetic and his lover, Anzu, a cosplayer, is interesting. Kubo has been compared to Han Kang and this reminded me of Murakami in the best sense.
An extraordinary collection. Spare, accomplished writing with wonderfully controlled weirdness. Characters are raw, honest and sometimes turn into animals. Despite these magical elements, the stories feel poignant, true and rooted in the earth.
Nearly there – I have five tasks to go, so will update again soon!
I bought this recently, prompted by doing this blog post and realising I had no books by indigenous Australian authors. This is a gap I need to redress, especially given one of the joys of reading is to gain a different perspective from my usual sheltered existence. Tony Birch has won multiple awards and this short story collection has received rave reviews. I shall report back once I’ve read it!
Inspired by the Heide artists, this perfectly evokes the time and place of 1930s Melbourne and captures their bohemian lives. Lily and Eva’s friendship feels like those of our teens, when a friend’s house was a wondrous playground, as they experience the thrills and risks of growing up. The dark side (lack of parenting) is explored too. Thoughtfully written with well-crafted characters, this won the 2015 Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing.
This is a bit of a cheat as it’s not released until October 2017, but I predict a 5-star read. I loved The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014 Man Booker prize winner), a thoughtful but unputdownable read with vivid prose and great humanity. And his earlier novel Wanting, a story of Matthew Franklin (explorer and Tasmanian governor) and Charles Dickens, was a beautifully woven and original tale.
I really enjoyed this thriller. A smart protagonist and some realistic local characters, with a strong, well-paced story. Harper creates the atmosphere of a small Australian country town, both the sunburnt landscape and a community on edge. Some bleak aspects but it kept me guessing.
A widow in 1820s Ireland struggles with her deformed grandson. Doctors are beyond reach, the church no help so Nance offers to cure the boy with herbs & fairy rites. As in Burial Rites, Kent brings to life women forgotten by history. The language is full of vigour & poetry, she evokes the way of life & land beautifully & the characters, with little to hold onto but their beliefs, feel real. Mary the maid has dignity & resilience, Nora is unflinching & Nance is firm in her wisdom but lives in poverty. A little slow-paced for me, but thought-provoking and her prose is a treat.
Shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin award. Another rural Australian thriller, this is distinctive for putting the women front & centre: Chris, whose sister was murdered, & journalist May. Maguire sustains the constant feeling of threat that men potentially pose to women, and the ambiguities & blurred lines in relationships. She also reflects on the sadness of women having to be on their guard, sometimes putting up defences against men who are trying to love them. None of the characters are simply good or bad though, and this attention to nuance is one of the strengths of the book. Chris is a memorable character and this is a strong, honest book.
A beautiful debut, intelligently written. We follow Alice from her rural Australian youth to Oxford, then to old age. Her bad marriage is hard to read but so sympathetically described and much is left unsaid. Subtle and infused with music: Zoe Morrison is a pianist and her knowledge and love of music adds depth to the story. Brava!
This is the latest by Kim Scott, twice a winner of the Miles Franklin award, and looks wonderful (the cover, for a start!). The first page is strong and, like Common People, his voice has the ring of truth and authenticity.
Another 5 star prediction from one of my favourite authors and four-time Miles Franklin award winner. I loved Cloudstreet, an epic family saga and modern Australian classic, and the distilled perfection of Breath. Winton is a masterful writer and I highly recommend all of his books.
I will admit that this has been sitting in my shelf for two years now because I’m too scared to read it. Winner of the Stella Prize and Prime Minister’s Literary Awards 2016, it has been highly recommended as an important, thought-provoking read, and is described as ‘feminist horror’ story of women who are drugged and imprisoned in a broken-down property in the middle of nowhere. I promise to brave it and report back soon!
And that’s a list of ten, hopefully diverse, Australian books that we should all be reading this year. Who are your favourite Australian authors?
Here are my top ten books by women in translation. It is Euro-centric, so if you have some more diverse recommendations, please send them my way!
Nona’s Room by Cristina Fernandez Cubas, translated by Kathryn Phillips-Miles and Simon Deefholts: Strange, compelling stories set in Barcelona and Madrid. Assured writing, the stories portray realistic families and homes (a girl and her ‘special’ sister, a woman mourning her husband) but twist and turn with elements that make you question reality or the narrator’s state of mind. It’s not often that fiction surprises. Her fearless exploration of the human mind reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abanonment.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein: I recommend all four books in the Neopolitan Quartet (this is the first). Her writing is clear and lyrical, with a sense of urgency that propels the story along. I loved the friends Lenu and Lila, the one studious, the other fierce, both vividly described so you can hear them speak, and see them gesticulate; you feel the heat, poverty and everyday violence of their neighbourhood. I love the girls’ strength, the feeling of being in Italy and Ferrante’s honest depiction of that place and time.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson: actually, everything by Tove Jansson. I loved the Moomintroll books as a child, there is something so cosy, comforting, gently funny about them and together with her illustrations, they tap into a child’s imagination in the most delightful way. In this book, a six year old girl spends a summer with her grandmother on an island in Finland. It has a wonderful sense of place and nature, and a story that is compelling but lightly told. She is so economical and her writing deceptively simple. It leaves much to think about, but most of all her characters are quirky, unsentimental but completely lovable. She’s an icon, what can I say!
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith. A beautiful book. Set in World War Two, it describes a family who flees Paris and moves to the countryside, and the tensions that arise when they have to host a German soldier during the occupation. Irene Nemirosvksy, then a celebrated author, wrote this in in the French countryside during the war, and tragically died in Auschwitz in 1942. I was swept away by the story of Lucile, and the contrast between the perfectly observed domestic scenes and constraints of village life, and the dangers of war, all written with musical fluidity and a sense of humour. Nemirovsky was an impeccable writer and this is her masterpiece. Read it!
Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb, translated by Adriana Hunter. I loved this novella about working at Yumimoto Corporation in Tokyo. Amelie Nothomb has a wonderful, wry sense of humour but also a deep understanding of Japanese culture. Her empathy for her colleagues and ability to laugh at herself make for terrific, laugh-out-loud comedy and an at times poignant study of the constraints of life in Japan working for ‘the company’.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Osagawa, translated by Stephen Snyder: The housekeeper goes to work for a maths professor whose memory, damaged by an accident, lasts only 80 minutes. He communicates in maths terms: she is less educated but sensitive, and learns to appreciate his love of numbers. The professor is kind to her son & they share a passion for baseball. Much is unspoken (what was his life like before the accident?), but there is a gentle message to treat people with respect, not condescension. I liked her carefully drawn characters and clean writing style.
In Diamond Square by Merce Rodoreda, translated by Peter Bush: A five-star read. Set in Barcelona, this is the story of Pidgey, her marriage to Joe and her daily struggles to survive in the civil war. Told in a dreamlike prose, which is not normally my style, but its raw beauty, the urgency of the story and the characters won me over. A wonderful evocation of 1930s Barcelona but Pidgey’s quiet strength and the trauma of war have a timeless quality. Very moving. I loved this & will read more of Rodoreda’s work.
Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre, translated by Ben Faccini: I picked this up in Waterstones just before we visited Barcelona, and am just reading it now. It’s set in the civil war, but told with an originality and perspective (a village girl who is supposed to become a maid, until the war intervenes) that makes the story fresh. I like her dark humour and the character of Montse, now a spirited old woman but telling the story of her youth.
The Door by Magda Szabo, translated by Len Rix. Szabo was arguably Hungary’s foremost female novelist. The narrator (who I think remains unnamed) hires an older housekeeper, Emerance. She is a strong, eccentric character, and we don’t know what drives her but gradually learn about her past: the reader’s sympathies ebb and flow between the narrator and Emerance. It highlights the way older people are treated in society, and the afterpains of war. Slow at times but rich and satisfying, told in finely crafted prose. The singular characters and some vivid scenes have stayed with me long after reading it.
Subtly Worded by Teffi, translated by Anne Marie Jackson and Robert Chandler: I enjoyed these stories very much. Deftly written, Teffi has a deceptively light style, handling poignant subject-matter with elegance and a sense of humour. These stories open a window into the Russian literary circles of the early 1900s – fascinating in itself, not to mention her encounters with Tolstoy and Rasputin, which are wonderfully recounted. Teffi was forced to leave Moscow in 1917 and I recommend her memoir of this period, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea.
What are your favourite books by women in translation?
Hola! We were lucky enough to visit Sitges and Barcelona as a family in July, so I’ve been hunting down Spanish literature. I discovered some wonderful books and even managed to read some, in between the usual kids’ shenanigans.
I must say that it wasn’t easy to find books by local authors set in Barcelona – the exception being The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Luis Zafron, which is excellent and on every list, but I had read already. However, I had some good tips and found more while I was there (= luggage problems). So here they are!
The following list covers fiction and non-fiction – you’ll experience the Civil War, get to know Picasso, Miro and Gaudi and see changes in Barcelona pre- the 1992 Olympics.
Barcelona by Robert Hughes: a wonderful ride through Catalan history and tour of Barcelona, especially its architecture. Robert Hughes is a knowledgeable guide with a fluid, muscular writing style. I found this dense at times – so much (art) history – but I like Hughes’ honesty and unflinching directness. For example, the kitsch additions to the Sagrada Familia “could have been done by Mormons, not Catholics.” Liable to offend – but Hughes liked to rail against modern ‘sensitivity’.
Spain by Jan Morris: interesting and full of the colours and contradictions of Spain, in Jan Morris’ usual lucid prose. I love her idiosyncratic style: she gives you a sense of the history guided by her own curiosities. She wears her knowledge lightly and elevates travel writing to a lyrical narrative, filled with personal anecdotes.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell: Orwell’s highly engaging account of his experience in the Spanish Civil War. He was involved in fighting and later had to go into hiding in (and escape from) Barcelona as his group were suspected of being fascist spies. His wonderfully dry, understated style makes it a pleasure to read: for example, “The point about firewood was that there was practically no firewood to be had.” On the long periods of quiet: “I began to wonder whether anything would ever happen to bring a bit of life, or rather a bit of death, into this cock-eyed war.”
Homage to Barcelona by Colm Toibin: wonderful guide to Barcelona. Toibin devotes chapters to each of Picasso, Gaudi, Dali and Miro, and the civil war among other things. It’s not as heavyweight as the Hughes nor as lucid as Morris (Toibin is a fiction writer first and foremost) but interesting because he has lived there on and off since the 1970s, so he gives us insights into its people and some memorable anecdotes.
Off Side by Manuel Vazquez Montalban: I loved this literary crime novel. Pepe Carvalho is a PI with colourful friends and contacts, authenticity and a love of good food. Great sense of place as he sees Barcelona changing but still has a grudging affection for the city. Poet-murderers and cynical business interests are at play and Carvalho questions his relevance in the new Barcelona. Not pacy, but a great read.
The Tenant and The Motive by Javier Cercas: two novellas by Cercas (whose novel Soldiers of Salamis I want to read). In one, a university professor (the tenant of the title) fears he is being replaced by a new academic who shows up his failings. It made me want to read The Double by Dostoevsky, which I think has a similar theme. In The Motive a writer obsessively watches his neighbours to gain material for a novel, but takes things too far. Witty and spare, I liked these and the somewhat abstract plots reminded me a little of Murakami.
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias: An immersive, layered story set in Madrid in 1980, tracing the ripple effects of the Civil War on a movie director & his circle of friends. I’ve been wanting to read Marias for a while, and enjoyed his beautiful, melodious writing. Male-centred, the men are interesting & powerful whereas Beatriz is seen more as a sex object, which bothered me. However, it is thought-provoking. The prose flows like classical music once you get used to the long sentences: “And those who had lost preferred to forget the atrocities committed, either by them or the still worse ones committed by the other side – more enduring, more brutal, more gratuitous – and they certainly didn’t tell their children … for whom their one wish was that nothing similar would ever happen to them and that they would be blessed with a boring, uneventful life, albeit a life lived with head bowed and no real freedom, because one can live without freedom. Indeed, freedom is the first thing that fearful citizens are prepared to give up.“
No Word from Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza: This was wonderful! Laugh-out-loud funny, quirky characters (aliens) in Barcelona setting and poignant observations of human behaviour. Strong writing, witty and playful. A touch of the absurd highlights the everyday strangeness of human lives.
In Diamond Square by Merce Rodoreda: A beautiful book. Set in Barcelona, this is the story of Pidgey, her marriage to Joe and her daily struggles to survive in the civil war. Told in a dreamlike prose, which is not normally my style, but its raw beauty, the urgency of the story and the characters won me over. A wonderful evocation of 1930s Barcelona but Pidgey’s quiet strength & the trauma of war have a timeless quality. Very moving. I loved this & will read more of Rodoreda’s work.
Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre: Still to read! It centres on Montse, a 15 year old girl living in a small village. She is supposed to become a maid but her life changes when the civil war arrives. It sounds original with a wry sense of humour.
Special mention also to Roads to Santiago by Cees Nooteboom – I loved his The Following Story so am keen to read this one. And Nona’s Room by Cristina Fernandez Cubas was recommended by a bookseller in Barcelona as her favourite Spanish author.
Hope this inspires you for your next Spanish trip, or read (or both)!
I’ve read four of the list (pictured below – missing my copy of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, back in London but probably my favourite of the list).
I am intrigued by First Love and have heard mixed reports of The Sport of Kings. My thoughts on the four I’ve read … :
Women have the power to electrocute you with their hands. This gives them swagger and confidence; men are afraid to walk the streets at night. Gender wars and global upheaval ensue, reverse-echoing current geopolitics (men must stay at home, genital mutilation, etc). Alderman seems to say: women would behave in the same way as men, given the chance. Muscular, engaging writing and interesting characters. The story is science fiction (which I don’t tend to enjoy because of the extra leaps of faith it requires) and works at a macro level, so I wasn’t ‘in’ its world. But a very strong book. I would not be surprised if it won.
Stay With Me
Yejide and Akin are married in 1980s Nigeria and trying to have a baby. Traumatic events occur, without being sensationalised. This is a gentle book, despite the emotional punch. The writing does not draw attention to itself but presents the characters with sensitivity and compassion. It took me a while to get into and I did not love it overall – I couldn’t get traction or immerse myself in the story – but I admired its originality and sense of place. A quietly strong book.
The Dark Circle
Beautiful writing, sympathetic characters sent to a sanatorium with tuberculosis, and an interesting moment in history – 1949-51 – I wanted to love this more than I did.
Well-crafted, I liked brash Lenny and Miriam in London, but the parts with bored, ill sanatorium patients dragged and I never got attached to the characters (although Persky the American was fun). The story felt contrived at times, pressing on the reader the symptoms of TB and historical treatment of the disease.
But – beautiful craftsmanship, each sentence honed and polished, thoughtfully written, intelligent and (I’m assuming) historically accurate. There is much wisdom here, but it’s put as the characters thinking, which was sometimes a stretch. For example, Hannah the German (“Germany had an innate dislike of chaos and untidiness”) reflects that “in the spirit of the British there was, she felt, a kind of human glitch, the system could handle a sense of humour …”
The patients analyse Metamorphisis and its parallels to their situation and the Jews (waking up one day and being in a body that is treated as though one might as well be an insect). This was interesting but I found it a little clunky.
The sanatorium part ends and soon after that I thought the story came to a natural end, without a neat resolution but the tension in the story (who survives) is answered. But then there is a long tail as the story goes on for 40-odd pages, following the surviving characters into old age, which I didn’t need. Perhaps it’s ‘completing the circle’ or to satisfy the readers’ curiosity, but I thought it weakened the novel.
I so wanted to like it more! I plan to read more of Linda Grant as she’s hugely talented and maybe with a story that’s more about the characters and less about an ‘issue’ I’ll have more luck.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing
A devastating story, beautifully told. It may inspire you to listen to Bach, Shostakovich or Prokofiev anew and deepen your compassion for all the people of China who lived through the Cultural Revolution, and their children. It’s long and intricate – I needed a cast of characters at times – but it weaves together whole lives with care and delicacy and the characters feel real. Accomplished, this feels like the novel Madeleine Thien was born to write. Highly recommended, with a tissue caveat.
This is my pick for the prize! Who do you think will win?
Thank you Jen P of The Reader’s Room for hosting an Infinite Jestbuddy read on Litsy – this was the perfect way to read the book that’s sat dauntingly on my shelf for years.
I cannot capture in a review what Infinite Jest is and why I love it. Here is a philosopher at work; but also a great wit and exquisite writer.
It sounds strange to say that he ‘gets to the heart of the matter’ when the book is this long but David Foster Wallace pulls from a myriad of conversations, tennis drills, night walks, family dinners and drug busts the essence of what it is to be human.
He does much more besides: predicts the future, gives voice to the marginalised, and entertains. One footnote alone had me laughing for hours.
It’s the story of the Incandenza family and a cast of characters, many and varied – mainly set in a tennis academy and a nearby halfway house for recovering drug addicts. Hal is a tennis prodigy and when the book opens he is in a college interview with Uncle C. T. Travis speaking for him; he has “already justified his high seed in this week’s not unstiff competition…”
And from the opening pages – with echoes of P. G. Wodehouse and Douglas Adams’ humour – I was hooked. 1,000 pages and there is not a pat sentence, much less a cliche, among them.
DFW skewers, variously: fast talkers, film students, sports jocks, conscientious mothers, white-haired AA veterans (‘crocodiles’), politicians and spin doctors. He is so observant, the humour so spot-on, that I laughed out loud throughout much of the book, and re-read passages for fun (the last thing you think you want to do with a book this length).
But what has stayed with me is the compassion for the addicts, the deformed, those on the fringe. The residents of Ennet House are in a battle for survival and he makes heroes of all (or most). An acne-prone student engineer, invisible to most, becomes the star of his own story.
Mario Incandenza, a homodontist dwarf with an extra-large head and permanent smile, who stands on a lean, is almost exaggeratedly deformed but emerges as the book’s wise sage and most poignant character.
Milan Kundera says the job of a novelist is to describe: “compassion for the ephemeral, salvaging the perishable.” (The Curtain).
DFW takes great care in describing the lives of each of his many characters. I felt the anxiety of waiting for a drug dealer with Erdedy: “He had never been so anxious for the arrival of a woman he did not want to see” and could picture the child Hal “holding out the mold, seriously, like the report of some kind of audit.”
Each paragraph shines a light on an aspect of human existence, so that by the end you feel like a country has been brought to life in all its messy glory; he has carefully woven a theory of the meaning of life.
Some say it is self-indulgent but I disagree – it is rather, a generous book in which not one word is wasted. DFW was having fun (I hope); perhaps showing off (who cares) but I had the sense he was trying urgently to communicate something essential about life: that everyone’s life is an absurd struggle, but each has value, if we would stop and cherish the small fleeting moments.
Albert Camus said that life loses meaning when we start doing things by habit and see ourselves as machines or drones, and that:
“There is only one serious philosophical question and that is suicide.”
Tennis is a metaphor for life: the beauty of the game, but also the repetitive drills the juniors undertake; they will become part of the entertainment machine if they make it to ‘the Show’ – but only one or two will, making the endless practice absurd. Jim Incandenza’s father says to him: “Jim, brace yourself against my shoulder here for this hard news, at ten: you’re a machine a body an object, Jim.”
Schtitt explains tennis to Mario in one of my favourite passages: DFW soaring into highbrow maths theory with a continuum of infinities: each shot in tennis leads to infinite responses, but they are contained by the skill and imagination of the player, “ie by oneself” so that tennis is “life’s endless war against the self that you cannot live without.”
Mario: “And then but so what’s the difference between tennis and suicide, life and death, the game and its own end?”
Schtitt answers, “the chance to play.”
Kate Gompert, severely depressed, in a later scene, says “I don’t want to play anymore.”
DFW has compassion for the down-and-out and empathy for the suicidal. He does not shy away, and respects those experiences as much as Orin punting a football or Pemulis scoring DMZ. The fact that DFW took his own life in 2006 makes these sections extra poignant.
Addiction is a major theme. We see Americans’ addiction to entertainment – DFW eerily prescient regarding a future in which people can programme their own TV and watch themselves.
Marathe, a Quebec terrorist, and Steeply, a spy, discuss this.
“Now what has happened when a people choose nothing over themselves to live … A USSA that would die … for the so-called perfect Entertainment.”
The Entertainment refers to the film “Infinite Jest” made by Jim Incandenza which is reportedly so addictive that anyone who watches it will die.
Hal muses towards the end of the book: “We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. … A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into. Flight from exactly what? These rooms blandly filled with excrement and meat?” Meaning running from the monotony of life. But one cannot escape one’s own life. And we are back to tennis and Schtitt: “life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without.”
Communication is another theme: Hal is precocious with language but his father believes he cannot speak; Gately is mute at one point; Marathe has translation issues; Joelle is ‘apparently mute’ earlier; Orin lies.
The way we survive and make life bearable is by communicating with others, and how we connect with family and each other. Hal and Orin’s phone conversations are some of the funniest passages in the book, true and touching. Ennet House is a family of sorts.
DFW also makes almost a cult of deformity, notably with the Union for the Hideously and Improbably Deformed, started by a woman insulted by Winston Churchill. Madame Psychosis’s radio show, where she reads out the PR circular for the union, has a wonderfully off-beat, Lynchian black humour: “Come all ye hateful. Blessed are the poor in body, for they.” This running theme shows DFW’s exaggerated quirky brilliance – combining comedy with sadness – that is so affecting.
The great pleasure of the book comes from its language. It is virtuoso and covers every tone, every register.
A street in Boston: “rained-on sienna-glazed streets … cars sheening by with the special lonely sound of cars in rain.”
Avril on Hal’s friends: “reptilian Michael Pemulis and trail-of-slime-leaving James Struck, both of whom gave Avril a howling case of the maternal fantods.”
The drug DMZ: “the single grimmest thing every conceived in a tube.”
Joelle in a moment of ecstacy: “deveiled and loved, observed and alone and sufficient and female, full, as if watched for an instant by God.”
Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner, “suddenly swept to quadrennial victory in an angry reactionary voter spasm.”
It goes on and on; every line is quotable and the endnotes are gold.
The ending is much debated and left me dazed and confused, but I would not have expected DFW to tied it up neatly. It left me wanting more. And it leaves other books – good, award-shortlisted books – seeming basic by comparison, or too perfect, vetted and boring. (DFW warned against the ‘tweed breeze’ of taught literature in an essay).
I’m left wondering how DFW could live with all those words, all those ideas, inside his head, with – I’m sure to him – an imperfect ability to communicate them to others – and yet the absurdity of trying to every day. Sadly for all of us, he could not. He burned too brightly.
It is said that IJ is the defining book of the 1990s. I loved the nostalgic 1990s feel. And but so it also made me wonder, what will be the defining book of the new millenium?