We Are All Complete Beside Ourselves (Review, ish)

They say that novels are about everything, but short stories are about one thing. In that way, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is more like a short story or novella than a novel. It’s got more than one thing to tell you, but the one thing it focuses on is brutal.

I was recently talking with my roommate about an essay of David Foster Wallace’s that I’d just read, about a scholar’s lifelong review of Dostoevsky’s work. As part of the essay, DFW mused that American novels–or maybe all modern novels–had gotten completely away from being serious. Serious was gauche, and all of the postmodernist novels seemed to be post-sincerity, too. I’ve often thought that about some postmodern authors – I still find Pynchon a little bit cold (although Mason & Dixon is feeling a lot warmer than The Crying of Lot 49 did).

But We Are All Beside Ourselves does that amazing thing – it’s profound, serious, deep and ruminative, but it’s still tinged with a flippancy that makes it easy reading. I was hooked because of the easy-breezy prose, I was moved by its heart, its immediacy, and its anger.

The novel’s narrator and protagonist is Rosemary Cooke, acting as an only child in a family where there were once three siblings. Her focus on her brother and sister is such that Rose herself is hard to pin down as a character; but this serves to highlight the real, lasting damage that their absence has done to her family. Because they are gone, Rose herself is uneasy with being fully present. This comes through in part in the meandering, a-chronological style of storytelling.

As a narrator, she’s both present and aloof: she’ll tell you the gist of her feelings, but she’ll elide facts and context until she’s good and ready to have you hear them. She’s up-front about her own narrative unreliability, pleading time, or emotion, or a willful forgetting for the gaps and irregularities in her narrative.  At first, this style made me worry that the book was trying too hard–but toward the middle I realized that it was a portrayal of Rose’s state of mind and way of thinking. Rose might be preoccupied with her siblings, but the novel is all about their effect on her.

The book is funny, and light, Rose’s tone conversational: but neither Rose nor the novel are at all afraid of serving up moments of heartrending, brutal emotion. The book’s cover promises it to be “bighearted,” and that’s true, but it’s also heart-rending, heartbreaking. Even now, I can feel an ache in my heart (and my ear, but that has little to do with the novel).

Part of the book’s power is how firmly it’s steeped in our own reality and the stakes of our own lives and our own circumstances. The world described in the novel is not some abstract world; its problems are our problems, its questions are our questions. Its narrative might be meandering, but the questions it demands of us aren’t. I’m being obtuse myself in not really describing much about it, but I really believe that going into this book completely ignorant of its premise (as I did–I liked the cover and was hooked by “Man Booker Prize Finalist” badge on it) is the best way to enjoy it. (In particular, please don’t read the back cover.)

In case it wasn’t clear, the book is highly recommended. Check it out of the library! Or buy it here if you want to support this blog.

The Week in Books

I’ve never been much for short story anthologies, but this past month has proved an exception, mostly because I borrowed a ton of books from my friend Ben.

I finished Vampires in the Lemon Grove, an anthology of short stories by Swamplandia! author Karen Russell. I wasn’t that impressed by Swamplandia!, so it was very rewarding to read Karen Russell’s short stories. Always imaginative, the stories in Vampires range from the haunting, to the insightful, to the soulful, to the downright disturbing. Some of the stories definitely left me cold, like a story about the Frontier which is implied is populated by ghosts. Too much suspense, not enough pay-off.

I’m also reading The Islanders by Christopher Priest, a “travel gazetteer” that aims to catalog the many islands in the Dream Archipelago, a continent of islands that even the book seems to pose is magical. There’s a short “chapter” describing each island, but although many of them include features of the geography and culture of the islands, many are also first-person narratives. Eventually (I’m up to page 140), the stories begin to interconnect, and stories that were told before are expanded and seen in a different light with more context (that seems almost like a mixed metaphor). But even the stories that don’t necessarily interconnect are at times interesting, moving, or hilarious–I especially liked an early description of a beautiful island filled with poisonous bugs: the industries that operate there say that the bugs are now gone, but you’ve still got to have incredibly good insurance if you want to work there.

Ben also lent me At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson. One story in, it seems very similar to Vampires: blending a little bit of magical realism with poignant human stories.

There’s a reason why I’m cycling through all of these at the same time. Short stories, especially these, tend to be a lot more intense than others, and I not only need, but want a little bit of time to digest the stories. That’s not true of all short story collections–with Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, for example (one of my favorite books, period), I immediately wanted to read more and more and more of her prose. Another example is Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger, where I am so luke-warm on the stories that I want to take a pause just because the story itself was underwhelming. (I just remembered that I’m also about halfway through that book).

Also, I’ll eventually return to The Savage Detectivesby Roberto Bolaño, but it’s just as meandering as 2666 without, in my opinion, characters or themes that are as interesting. I’m just not that interested in self-important poets. I also hope to finish Shadow Country at some point in my life, although it’s just as epically long as 2666.

Hopefully, I’ll get through all of the books I’ve borrowed from Ben  before I’m tempted to buy books at the airport.

Favorite Books of 2013

Four months into 2014, I want to write about my favorite books of last year. Some of these books are the latest from some of my favorite authors, like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowlands, and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. Others are books about which there was enough hype that I had to figure out what the fuss was about, like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Some books were accidental revelations–I read Bolaño’s 2666 in part because it was notoriously difficult, but got swallowed up by its prose and ambitious storytelling. Skippy Dies was endorsed at the end of a Culture Gabfest podcast, but unlike many of the books endorsed, I went further than just writing it down in an exponentially growing want-to-read list, and actually bought it and read it. Freedom and The Luminaries were among the best-reviewed of the year, and I gave in to reading each of them in part because of that.

The Luminaries was the 2013 winner of the Man Booker prize, but I think it got an extra boost in publicity because the gender, age, and nationality of Eleanor Catton, a young New Zealand author, were somehow a surprise. And yet, I think my list shows that, for me at least, the muses of good literature do not discriminate–my list has authors young and old, men and women, American, Scottish, Japanese, Chilean.

The only non-fiction book in the top five is Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which I read as part of a non-fiction memoir writing class late last year. This isn’t because I don’t like nonfiction–in fact, it’s become one of my favorite genres–it’s just that it’s that much more difficult to find good non-fiction books. You’ve got to like the subject matter, the writing style, the pacing, and you’ve also got to like and believe in the author; their efforts can’t be transparent. I hope to find more non-fiction books like that in 2014.

THE TOP FIVE 

2666Roberto Bolaño

2666  features, at least in part, a group of  four literary critics, with cosmopolitanly diverse European nationalities–French, Spanish, Italian, and a lone English female, are obsessed with German writer Benno von Archimboldi. Except, is he really German? Some critics muse that “Archimboldi” sounds almost Italian. Other mysteries about the author eventually convince the critics (in the original Spanish-language version, that’s how Bolaño refers to them: “los criticos”) to go on a search for the mysterious author. With and without them, the rest of the narrative takes us to Mexico, where the critics believe von Archimboldi might have gone.

The third section of the lengthy novel takes place in the fictional Santa Teresa, a place that maps closely to the existing city of Juarez. A beautiful, sophisticated, diverse city, Santa Teresa has lately been plagued by the murders of many women. The novel is concerned with the murders, it catalogues and describes the bodies, the state in which they are found, and how they were dressed. It’s repetitive, gory, heartbreaking, and strangely lulling. The way that the discoveries are portrayed–each one is one of many, yet each one has particular details, feels very human. Sometimes, the narrative is diverted enough to give us some biographical details about the dead, where they were going when they were captured, and their family.

2666 is messy but tight, it’s sprawling but self-contained. This book will haunt your dreams. It’ll chase you down and eat you up. It’ll kick you apart, kick you apart. 2666 takes place everywhere and no-where, always and never. The primary themes of the novel are violence and chance, mystery and coincidence. Although the thoughtless, senseless destruction of people in much of the book sends a chill down my spine in the way that it rings true, the book also convinces you about the global nature of humanity, and life: we’re all in this together, and we’re more connected than we think we are, and maybe more connected than we think we are.

What it Reminds Me Of: Infinite JestWhite Noise

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries is set in a prospector’s town in New Zealand, a town so new that the landscape still seems to be mostly mud, ramshackle wooden houses, and opium-supplying pharmacists.

With one of the novel’s protagonists, the hapless, pointless, and slightly clueless Walter Moody, we stumble into a meeting of 12 men determined to get to the bottom of a series of mysteries. At that point, the men launch  into stories that are connected to each other, and although the mystery isn’t solved when they’re all done, they come to the consensus that everything that’s happened to them is related. The first few chapters of the novel are so involved, with so many intersecting storylines, that I drew up a diagram to see if I could keep all of their connections straight.

Eventually, though, each of the characters involved in the mystery becomes so human that the story isn’t that difficult to keep in your head. Once the stories of each of the 12 men in the room are told, the men band together to solve that which is still mysterious: where did the bullet go, who killed a whore’s baby, and who is conspiring with whom.

The world that Catton creates is bold and post-modern in a way that’s different from Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, or Delillo. It is aggressively witty and yet unapologetically unironic. It’s about love and coincidence, revenge and vendettas; and what the stars can tell you about the people under them. The only cynicism in it is the cynicism of some of its characters. The Luminaries invites you to believe in fortune-telling, magic, and good people who do bad things when they’re misinformed.

An unexpected winner of 2013’s Man Booker prize (because she’s female, I guess? ugh, the world sometimes), The Luminaries shows that literature can still have surprises in tone–there’s something in between campy and genuine about Catton’s storytelling here, and the ‘twist’ at the end is surprising in its simplicity.

What it Reminds Me Of: 100 Years of Solitude, anything by Jorge Luis Borges

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Much like The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch [believes] strongly that ancient magic and art can exert real power, uplifting or destructive, over the lives of its devoted disciples. In this case, the novel’s protagonist is hopeless in the thrall of a three-hundred-year old painting that, once he takes it after a terrorist attack that kills his mother, shapes the course of the rest of his life. It’s not just the theft of the painting that affects Theodore–it’s the way in which it represents, for him, the possibility of meaning and beauty in a world that often seems like mostly shit and disappointment.

The world of The Goldfinch often seems to have an excess of rarified air–I’m not sure I know many thieves of centuries-old art or antiques dealers–but it’s air that still gets mixed up with the smog of busses, broken vehicles, and the warm heat of Las Vegas. Tartt mixes the sublime with the mundane in a way that makes you believe, really and truly, with an ache in your heart, that there are beautiful, ancient things that matter,  that are worth preserving, that are life itself. And yet, as grandiose as Theodore Decker’s life gets after he steals The Goldfinch, there’s enough raw humanity in the novel that there isn’t a page in which you don’t yearn, helplessly, that his mother had never died at all.

What it Reminds Me Of: Getting Kicked in the Stomach by a Van Gogh, repeatedly

Skippy Dies, Paul Murray

The boys’ boarding school at the center of Skippy Dies earned the novel the nickname of a “Scottish Harry Potter,” but Skippy and his friends seem more like the freshman dweebs in Freaks & Geeks. They’re dweeby, runty, nerds–and they’re not even that good at school (except for Rupert, their overweight friend. So, basically, they’re real boys, budding adolescents; all Skippy wants is for the bigger kids to stop picking on him, for his parents to give him a call every once in awhile, and to maybe get a pretty girl to dance with him. Their observations and naivete are at once hilarious and heartbreaking as presented by the narrator’s insightful and often biting wit.

What it Reminds Me Of: London Fields (although I never finished it), Looking for Alaska

WildCheryl Strayed

When Vicky and I read this for our Memoir Writing class, we love it so much that it inspired us to go hiking “as soon as the weather got better.” What’s followed is the longest winter Chicago or the world has ever seen. (That’s the way it feels, at least.)

Although the memoir is ostensibly about Cheryl Strayed’s month-long hiking trip along the Sierra Crest Trail, it’s also about grief, addiction, family, love, and coming to terms with who you are. With so much time alone and in the wilderness, Cheryl is forced to reflect on her choices and to accept responsibility for some–though not all–of the bad things that have happened to her.

Wild is enough to kindle anyone’s wanderlust, but there’s a lot more to Cheryl’s, awakening than nature. She awakens to herself – she accepts the parts of herself that she can’t change, and determines to abandon the more destructive forces in herself–or at least, to harness those powers for mostly-good.

What makes my skin tingle about the novel is not just that Cheryl is open to traveling, alone, stinky, in difficult nature, but that she’s also very open–to the people she meets, to almost every experience that opens up to her. Sometimes, this isn’t great–she sleeps with men a little too easily and sometimes regrets it, she falls off the wagon and back into her heroin addiction along the road. I wish that I could be so open, even though it’s dangerous. That’s exactly the terrain that Wild is a guide to–when being open can be dangerous, and when it can be great.

What it Reminds Me Of: Nothing, actually. Maybe a more humble, guile-less Joan Didion. 

 

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