The Fiction Faction - Archive - January-June 2007
Elizabeth Baines

January 2007
The Sea by John Banville

Several members couldn't make it to this meeting, so it was a small group which gathered at Jenny's.

This novel takes the form of a diary-cum-memoir written by an art historian who has retired, after the death of his wife, to the seaside town where he once holidayed as a child, one year becoming fascinated and entangled with another holidaying family: Connie and Carlo Grace and their twins Chloe and mute Myles, and an older girl Rose. It is in the house once occupied by the Graces, now a boarding house, that he has decided to settle.

Doug had chosen the book because, he said, he thought it might provoke some interesting controversy. For his own part, he had mixed feelings about the book. There was much he admired about it, in particular the prose with its poetic flow and vivid descriptions, although he felt there were moments when the prose went over the top and wasn't so good after all, and the book was in fact flawed.

Jenny then said with great contempt that she thought it a 'typical Booker type novel'. What did she mean by that? Well, she said she had found the prose really pretentious and there were at least fifteen words she had never come across before in her life, the meaning of which she couldn't tell from the context. I said yes, I had had to look in the dictionary several times, often to discover that the unfamilar words referred to obscure trades or professions, eg 'deckle' (papermaking) and 'anabasis' (military). Usually these words were being used metaphorically to describe something else. I said, to strong agreement from John, that the point of a metaphor is to make things more vivid, but here the opposite effect was created. Not only that, there were several occasions when I came across words I thought I had known the meaning of, only to be thrown into doubt by the context, then to discover in the dictionary that they had been used in the book in an archaic sense. More generally we found the language over-formal or inflated (eg fingernails described as 'sanguineous red' rather than 'blood-red', 'refection' for 'meal', and the somewhat laughable 'At times the image of her would spring up in me unbidden, an interior succubus, and a surge of yearning would engorge the very root of my being'). While we accepted in theory that these linguistic characteristics are those of a narrator who has consciously and defensively created for himself a formal persona, we nevertheless found them alienating, and people said that as a result they found it very difficult to care about the characters. Ann, who had been nodding away but had been quiet up till now, said that she had given up on the book without finishing it.

Doug now grinned and said he knew that I in particular would have this reaction to the language, and this was why he'd chosen the book. As he'd said, he agreed, but there were also wonderfully vivid passages, and the book was brilliantly crafted and the story was stunning.

The rest of us agreed that the observations were often vivid and acute - Clare had been pulled up in amazement by the accuracy of a description of 'the way women used to smoke', and I by one of a woman leaning on a till, among others. Jenny said that the portrayal of the narrator's childhood yearning to better himself (and be like the Graces) reminded her of her own similar childhood feelings. We all thought the memories of the illness and death of the narrator's wife moving and the aspect of the book which rang most true. However, we didn't at all agree with Doug about the way the book was shaped.

Ann said that she found really irritating and confusing, and lacking in true connections, the shifts between the various time levels. There were situations and characters - the narrator's relationship with his daughter, a visit with her to a local farm, the shocking photographs taken by the dying wife - which were made to seem significant but their precise nature or significance either never became clear to us or indeed fizzled away. As for the story, John said, there is none for most of the book, but then the story is packed in towards the end in a way which he found contrived. Most of us were dissatisfied by the revelation of the identity of the narrator's present-day landlady. Looking back through this at the earlier representation of their relationship, we found that earlier representation both tricksy and psychologically unconvincing. None of us (apart from Doug) was convinced, in the final analysis, by the final denouement, the tragedy at the novel's heart, although it is most emotively described, and, as Jenny and Ann said, although we were clearly meant to accept that this was the narrator's formative experience, there was no real sense of how it had made him what he was or informed his other relationships.

And Jenny said that she found the narrator's sexual attraction as a boy to the mother of the Grace family 'disgusting', which made us all hoot with laughter.

February 2007
Jack Maggs by Peter Carey

Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang is the only book ever which has had a universal thumbs-down from the group – no one had been able to engage with it - and when Clare (who had not been a member then) suggested this book everyone groaned. In the end, however, we decided not to be so prejudiced and to give Peter Carey another chance.

It was a freezing night, and Clare's fire was roaring, which was a fitting setting for discussing this novel set in Victorian London and featuring an eponymous protagonist not a million miles removed from the character Magwitch in Dickens’ Great Expectations and antagonists with parallels in its hero Pip and in Dickens himself. Like Magwitch in Dickens’ novel, Jack Maggs, a convict deported to Australia, has made good there and now returns to find the young man (in this case Henry Phipps) who once as a boy took pity on him, and whose secret benefactor he has been all along. Unaware like Pip of his true relationship to the ex-convict, Phipps absconds on receiving news of Maggs’ imminent arrival, and Maggs becomes involved as a ‘patient’ with the Dickens-like novelist and mesmerist Tobias Oates.

Clare introduced the book briefly by saying she had really liked it because it was a ripping good yarn. The recreation of the Dickensian story-telling mode and atmosphere had really pleased her, she said, and Doug, who – The Kelly Gang apart – is a big admirer of Carey, agreed. Jenny then scowled and said she likes a good yarn as well as anyone, but she didn’t think that this was one: she thought the story was far too convoluted and meandering, with lots of extraneous elements and ends which she failed to tie up. Trevor agreed with her on that wholeheartedly and said that if Maggs and Oates hadn’t gone on that wild-goose chase to Gloucester, spending 20 pages on the coach journey, he might have finished the book in time, which he didn’t, and anyway there was nothing in the book beside story, which might be enough for others by not for him. Doug and Clare countered, But that’s Dickens!

I then said that I did think it stood up as a pretty good ripping yarn, but that like Trevor I don't find mere story enough in novels, and agreed that if you read the book on that level it’s unsatisfying. I said I would wonder what the point is of simply writing a pastiche of a Dickens novel in this day and age, if I had not read the book as a postcolonial ‘writing-back’, and Ann, who is studying postcolonial theory for her PhD strongly agreed.

Most of the others looked at us pretty suspiciously, and feeling therefore somewhat like the school swots Ann and I talked about how Carey switches the narrative/focal places of the Magwitch/Maggs and Pip/Phipps characters, taking Magwitch from the periphery of Dickens’ Victorian-colonial narrative to the centre of his own, and exiling Dickens’ hero to the periphery. Australia in this novel, which in the Dickens novel is ‘other’, is here ultimately anything but. By placing into the narrative a Dickens-type novelist who mesmerises Maggs in order to obtain his secrets and thus material for a novel (Maggs feels that Oates has stolen his soul), Carey explores in a dramatic way the process of colonial-novelistic cannibalisation. In the Dickens novel, Pip, who at first, like Phipps, tries to avoid the convict and is dismayed to discover he is his benefactor, comes to care for him, but Carey allows no such colonial false-heroic sentimentality. Neither does Carey give Maggs the narrative punishment of death which Dickens metes out (in the Victorian-colonial universe the only fate for an exile trying to return must be punishment). Instead, in Carey’s narrative Maggs learns to divest himself of his own colonial yearnings – his wish to ‘father’ the unpleasant Phipps - and to value the life he has built elsewhere.

Everyone else said that none of this had occurred to them in the reading of the book, and that they hadn’t even thought of the parallels with the Dickens characters – and certainly not with Dickens himself – even though they had read Dickens as children and even though the Magwitch/Maggs parallel had been mentioned when the book was suggested.

Ann then suggested that this novel is really nothing much unless read through the filter of Great Expectations, though of course those who had enjoyed it without doing so did not agree. I said that I had never been very happy with ‘writing-back’ fiction, as it seemed to me secondary rather than primary literature. I had often felt the same about a lot of feminist literature in which supposedly male texts were ‘recast’. Jenny eagerly agreed: she said that that sort of feminist fiction ‘re-gendered’ texts but ultimately retained their structures. At which point I got quite excited, as I have always maintained that it is only in structure and form and language that literature can be truly radical.

And then Mark arrived on his bike, true to form and too late to take part in the discussion, bringing in a bitter blast of air, and Clare shut the door quickly and got out the boxes of chocolates she’d had for her recent birthday, and the room disintegrated into several conversations which were nothing whatever to do with the novel.

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March 2007
Doctor Criminale by Malcolm Bradbury

Jenny chose this novel set in the late 1980s-early 1990s, the story of a search by young journalist Francis Jay for a famous but elusive 'Mittel European' philosopher, firstly for a proposed TV programme and later to satisfy his own fascination.

She said she had chosen it because she taught in a university at that time and witnessed for herself the conference bonanzas described in the book, and the worship of starry academics - plus the fact that she had also taught in Hungary for some of that time. She found the book very true in its merciless satire of these matters as well of British television and Thatcherite Britain and the East Europeans' emulation of the last. She had therefore enjoyed the read, but found that in spite of all the chasing about there wasn't much of a story since at the end we never actually find out the truth about Doctor Criminale. I said that, while the book makes a great deal of fun of Postmodernism, isn't that a postmodern joke of the book? And that the other joke is that while Postmodernism is considered a flowering of Western intellectual thought, it is the Eastern Europeans, supposedly innocent of it intellectually, who are its true practitioners in that through political necessity their politics and indeed identity are fluid in a way the Western characters don't understand.

At this point we had a discussion about what Postmodernism was, and whether or not you could define it and the notion that if you could it wasn't Postmodernism anyway, after which nearly everything that was said was followed by a joke about Postmodernism.

Everyone (apart from John who couldn't read beyond page 50) agreed that the book was brilliantly written - Bradbury's choice of diction on every occasion apt and urbanely sly - and for much of the time extremely funny and always clever. However, everyone also agreed that it was basically a one-trick book, and that it could have been much shorter, and that the characters never amounted to much more than caricatures, which though some pointed out was a postmodernist point, left the book soulless. I also said, to the agreement of others, that I found the tone uneven, with situations presented as hilarious larks only to turn dark in the light of later events in a way which made the earlier tone, in retrospect, inappropriate - after which, the book would tip into farce again.

Hans said: so what do we think, then, that Bradbury was for or against Postmodernism? and Jenny said, 'Above it all', at which Trevor (I think) said that he thought that was disgusting, for an author to be above it all. I said that satires are always to some extent above it all, but I did agree that they don't necessarily have to lack soul. Clare said, Well, actually, Malcolm Bradbury was a show-off with all that history and theory, and everyone nodded.

And having thus despatched a giant of modern literature, we broke into several conversations, about every other topic under the sun, which seems to be our (somewhat postmodern?) habit of late, and Jenny, Clare and I discussed the girls' weekend away in Paris we have planned.

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April 2007
Mother's Milk by Edward St Aubyn

To Hans's for the first time, where his huge window gave a view of everyone looking tentative as they came down the road, scanning the houses for the number.

Mother's Milk was my choice, Booker short-listed and the recipient of rave reviews for its scintillating prose which I had pounced on when I scanned the first page in the bookshop. The novel begins with the perspective of five-year-old Robert, holidaying with his parents and his newly-born brother Thomas in the Provencal family house which his grandmother Eleanor has signed over to a New Age cult. As Robert's father Patrick agonises, or with savage wit tries not to agonise, over this disinheritance which symbolises the poor mothering he has always suffered from Eleanor, the child Robert observes the symbiotic attachment between his own mother Mary and his baby brother, and through this 'remembers' and grieves his own once-symbiotic attachment to her, and the traumatic separation of birth.

I said that I found this beginning absolutely brilliant, perhaps the most stunning psychological fiction I had read. Unfortunately, however, I did find that the rest of the novel failed to fulfil this promise. This strikingly innovative narratorial approach is lost as the novel moves into the adult Patrick's perspective (and later into Mary's). The prose never fails to be both excoriating and limpid, the searing observations and biting wit keep coming, and I never stopped relishing them. On this level I had only one real criticism which was that although I could take five-year-old Robert's verbal and intellectual precociousness, I found it unrealistic in Thomas at two (and everyone nodded). I could see that adult Patrick was potentially annoying in his self-absorption, but his wit prevented me from being annoyed with him, which I felt was a great authorial achievement. Finally, however, the novel somehow felt to me strangely empty. There's no real story, but I didn't think this was the problem (nothing much happens, except that the old lady deteriorates over the four August holidays examined in the book and the Provencal house moves into the hands of the cult, and the book consists mainly of people sitting talking or thinking about the situation). The real problem, I felt, was that the novel had no subtext: there are no connections to be made and no meanings to be had other than those spelled out by the characters themselves, and the novel thus ultimately lacks resonance, leaving the reader outside the loop in a very subtle but fundamental way. (Although later Hans's wife Jan said she much prefers it when things are spelled out.)

Sarah said that she more or less agreed: she liked the descriptions and, like me, the beginning. There had been a strange atmosphere in the room as I had been speaking, and now there was a silence. Then Hans broke it by saying: 'I thought it was terrible.' He said he hated the beginning, he didn't believe a word of it: how on earth could a five-year-old mimic the Nanny with a page-long satirical replication of her speech - for god's sake, you'd admire a twenty-year-old for being able to do that! And what about the Nanny: she falls over carrying the baby and breaks his fall and the others are simply angry with her and walk off 'leaving her still talking on the ground!' These were just horrible people! At which point Trevor, renowned in our group for liking most books, but who had been looking strangest of all, now jumped in. He said he just HATED this book! He said he couldn't stand the people. He said, what is this upper-class man doing whinging about his inheritance - he's a barrister for god's sake, and he (Trevor) had worked for enough barristers to know they were rolling in it!

He was very worked up. Nothing any of us could say could change his mind - that the loss of the house is a symbol of Eleanor's unconcern with which Patrick has been battling emotionally all his life (as Patrick indeed spells out in the way I find unsatisfying): Trevor thought he should simply get a grip. He said he couldn't stand the precocious children, or the way Patrick and Mary wanted in this way to make them better than anybody else's children, and look what a bad mother Mary was, wrapped up in Thomas to that extent and spoiling him. But, we said, isn't it (once again) spelled out that this is a tragic pattern: by consciously trying to avoid for their children their own bad mothering, Mary and Patrick are, ironically, repeating the patterns, Mary by overcompensation with Thomas, Patrick by hot-housing Robert intellectually and thus denying him his true childhood.

Trevor would have none of it, and Jenny joined in with her own objections: if Patrick was so resentful of his mother why did he keep going along with her wishes, executing the handing over of the house etc - and what was wrong with her, too, the way she let herself rot away more or less wilfully? Why didn't they just get her sectioned? Clare and I said, but the point is that people get locked into these emotional patterns in which rationality has no play, as exemplified by the almost final words of the novel shouted with tragic triumph by the infant Thomas: 'Do nothing!'

All this time Doug had been quiet, and John who knew that Doug had liked the book unreservedly asked him to say why. He said that he just LOVED it - its observations, its wit, which had made him laugh out loud, and he had no problem whatever with the seemingly unrealistic precociousness of the children, as he hadn't read it as naturalistic. To strong agreement from John, he said that any novel which begins with a description of birth from the baby's point of view has to be taken on a non-realistic level, and once you do this the whole novel takes off and you lose all those rational objections.

However, Trevor went on complaining, and when it emerged that St Aubyn's series of novels about this family was autobiographical, he cried in triumph: 'I knew it! That author is just having a self-centred moan!' As we walked down the road afterwards he continued his theme. We got to the corner where we had to part. 'Well, I do know the house is only a symbol of his mother not loving him,' he said, conciliatory. 'But then when you think of all the problems in the world today: people homeless, refugees wearing rags. I still hate that bloody book!'

May 2007
A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Everyone round to ours to discuss this book translated from the Japanese.

None of us had read Murakami before, and during the week beforehand John and I had bumped into Doug and Ann separately, and each had told us that they were having difficulty getting going with the book. They would read a few pages, fail to get gripped and put it down, and then when they picked it up again find they couldn't remember it and had to start all over again. John and I told them that we were having precisely the same experience.

Ann said, 'I don't know where it's going', and I said, 'I don't know where it's coming from.' We felt we couldn't grasp the tenor of the opening chapters in which an unnamed thirty-year-old narrator attends the funeral of an ex-girlfriend and reminisces about their meeting and relationship before going back to his flat to find his ex-wife briefly returned to collect her things. While the stunning prose made all of this seem significant, there was also a sense of structural inconsequentiality about it, and indeed the story seems only to get going the next morning after the ex-wife has left and the vacationing narrator is called to his office to discover that he has been summoned by a mysterious stranger to engage on a 'wild sheep chase'.

Before this point, however, a surreal and absurdist element had entered the narration, which should have warned us that the conventional expectations with which we were reading this book were inappropriate: the narrator, it turns out, has a new girlfriend with ears so exquisite (and which during one conversation she sits carefully cleaning) that when they are on view and 'unblocked' in terms of channelling their power, they promote super-sensational sex. She is also possessed of a special sixth sense, which means she guesses that the phone call will come summoning the narrator, and knows it will be all about a sheep.

Hans, who had chosen the book, said he had found it very interesting but strange. He had indeed become involved at this point, and wanted to know what was going to happen, but the more that was revealed to him the less he could take it, a tale about a sheep which may or may not exist, with the power to possess a human and thereby dominate the world. However, Doug and I had experienced an opposite effect. Doug said that once he understood he needed to accept the book as absurdist, he began to really enjoy its off-the-wall turns, its humour and, like me, its memorable evocation of the spirit of situations and things, landscape and the weather. By the end of our journey with this chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking narrator prone to bouts of philosophising which end with banalities ( 'I came to the realisation ... that I am not a whale') or are abandoned for a drink or a fag, whose Sherlock-Holmes-type reliance on clues turns out to be beside the point, we had come to understand the reason for the strangely inconsequential yet seemingly significant beginning.

The book is indeed about inconsequentiality, and the strange paradox that the seemingly inconsequential things, or the episodes which on the rational level are no longer relevant, are nevertheless evocative and important on the level of emotional experience, while the importance of those things which seem significant in the grand, Western-hero quest tradition, is unstable. Thus the girlfriend with the ears, who seemed so central to the endeavour, turns out to be not so important to the plot after all. Evidence too the absurd way, which had made everyone laugh, that the narrator gets the sinister figure who sends him on his quest to look after his ailing, farting cat while he is gone. The narrator has never named this cat, and during his narration never names any of the other characters: as Clare said, names fix things artificially and thus deny the truth that importance is relative, and reality fluid.

Several people, even Doug, thought that the ending, which I won't give away, was disappointing, but to me it endorsed this view of the book and was therefore fitting.

Then people got interested in the different covers of the book in the different editions we had. A general conversation started up about covers, and I asked everyone to help me think about ideas I might suggest for the cover of my own forthcoming book.

June 2007
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

'Oh god, no!' said Jenny when John suggested for our reading group A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers' first-person account of bringing up his younger brother after the death of his parents. Then: 'Oh, you mean that's the title!?' and everyone laughed.

In an extended cod-Acknowledgements section at the start of the book, the author addresses this very question of the effect of the title on potential readers - The author wishes to acknowledge your problems with the title. He too has reservations - and there follows a tongue-in-cheek history of the title choice and a deconstruction of all of its possible connotations and implications about the book, the author and readers' expectations.

Even earlier, right from the verso page of the book we are alerted to the fact that this is a book which calls into question the whole nature and status of authors and books:
First published by Simon and Schuster, New York, a division of a larger and more powerful company called Viacom Inc, which is wealthier and more populous than eighteen of the fifty states of America, and all of the former Soviet Republics combined and tripled.
'So what is it, this book?' John asked the group when we met for the discussion. 'Is it a novel, or is it a memoir?' Once again, in the Acknowledgements and a preceding Preface, the author anticipates the question, and while insisting the book is a memoir stresses the fictive techniques he has used - the dialogue has been almost entirely reconstructed - and throws into the air the notion of distinguishing between memoir and fiction with this suggestion: if you send in your copy of this book ... [the author] will send you, in exchange, a 3.5" floppy disk, on which will be a complete digital manuscript of this work, albeit with names and locations changed, in such a way that the only people who will know who is who are those whose lives have been included, though thinly disguised. Voila! Fiction!

As a writer I was very taken by this and by the way that the book itself addresses this issue throughout as well as the moral implications of writing openly about one's own life. I also found the book brilliantly written: witty, energetic, yet utterly moving, the author masterfully in control of his material.

Not everyone agreed. Most did agree that the prose was brilliant and from her counsellor's viewpoint Clare found the narrator Eggers' emotional dilemmas accurately as well as movingly depicted. However she and most others were irritated by the Preface and Acknowledgements and skipped them altogether (I had to admit that I had felt the same before reading the rest of the book, but had gone back and read them with relish afterwards). Madeleine (who wasn't present but rang up beforehand) said that she had no problem with someone writing about himself, but she was pretty irritated by him writing about writing about himself. Most people got bored in the section I really loved, in which the narrator undergoes a clearly non-naturalistic and self-ironic interview for a Big-Brother-type reality TV programme, which is the starkest comment on the theme of personal exposure v fiction:

[TV producer/casting person:] But what about privacy?
[Narrator Eggers:] Cheap, overabundant, easily gotten, lost, regained, bought, sold...
[TV producer/casting person:]... what about ...exhibitionism? [Narrator Eggers:] ...Someone wants to celebrate their existence and you call it exhibitionism. It's niggardly.

However, while I saw this as Eggers successfully deflating potential criticisms, and Ann said she saw the whole book as a piss-take, others still thought the book self-indulgent and Eggers as thus less in control of his material than John, Doug, Ann and I thought. Hans said with irritation that in any case he didn't see all this self-referential stuff as excusing Eggers at all, it simply made matters worse.

Even those of us in most favour of the book, however, had to agree that it suffered structurally from the memoir mode: a longeur recounting the running of Eggers' alternative-lifestyle magazine, Might, created a slackening of narrative tension which spoilt the arc of the true story, that of Eggers' grief at the loss of his parents, and we didn't feel that on this occasion Eggers managed to dispel such criticism with his pre-emptive Acknowledgements warning that this section of the book should be skipped by anyone not interested in the doings of twenty-somethings.

Most people in the group seemed to share the feeling which Eggers challenges or at least explores in the book, that writing a memoir is a more self-indulgent activity than writing a novel. I said that, as Eggers indicates, while memoirs inevitably fictionalise, many novels are hardly any less autobiographical, and it can be thus the case that writing a novel, in which the names and locations are changed, is a safer, and therefore less brave thing to do.

What about the problem of protecting others, though? said Clare. I agreed that that was an important issue: once, I had written a very autobiographical story and had fully intended to sell it as fiction, but then a chance came up to publish it as memoir, which I did instead. As a result, like Eggers I had then had to consult with the people I'd written about in the story, and had had to make changes they'd asked for - which created the paradox that, since the changes did not match with my memory, the 'memoir' was to me less autobiographical than the 'fiction' had been!

That's one of the great things about fiction, we decided: however autobiographical a story really is, as long as it is presented as fiction, then the author can always deny it with impunity.


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