The Fiction Faction - Archive - August-December 2009
Elizabeth Baines

August 2009
Changes of Address by Lee Langley

Ann suggested this 1987 novel which she'd enjoyed years ago, narrated by the adult Maggie who is looking back on a late-thirties and early-forties childhood in which she was dragged around India by a scandalous mother exiled and self-exiled from the British colonial community into which Maggie had been born.

Having read it again for the group, Ann said that she was interested in the different things one can take from a novel at different times in our lives. If I'm remembering correctly, she said that the first time she read it, when she was very young, she liked it for the vivid way that the community was depicted, and the echoes it provided of her own expatriate childhood. This time she appreciated that and the portrayal of the mother as she declines into poverty and squalor, but what really struck her was the fact that the novel was about memory, and how far we can trust our memory, as narrator Maggie wonders whether certain memories are her own or have been imposed by her mother. Ann was particularly struck by the narratorial technique of alternating between the first-person past-tense retrospective narration in which these doubts are raised and a historic-present mode of narration grounded in the sensual experience of Maggie the child yet paradoxically cast in the alienating third person illustrating, Ann thought, the mother's alienation from what she calls 'The Child'. Ann also very much appreciated the exploration of the notion of home for expatriates - the idea that there is never just one 'home' and yet nowhere is really 'home' - as did Clare who also spent her childhood abroad, and I who spent my childhood moving around Britain.

I too very much appreciated the theme of the dubiousness of memory - not least because it's the theme of an (as yet unpublished novel) I've written. I was also struck by the double-narration technique, but wasn't quite sure that it worked, or that its purpose was clear. I couldn't help thinking that the third-person narration indicated a certain alienation of the narrator from herself, or at least from her childhood self, either conscious or unconscious on the part of the author, and I wasn't sure what to make of this. Sometimes the narrative slips from one mode to another in mid-section or even -paragraph, and I felt that this indicated a certain lack of authorial clarity of purpose. Indeed, I found that sometimes at such moments and others there was an uncertainty of rhythm and tone. This links perhaps to my main doubt about the book, which was that it read as a memoir rather than as a novel, lacking the kind of shaping that a novel requires. The whole narrative is incredibly linear in the most fundamental way: events occur and characters appear in sequence, each in turn presented vividly, sometimes portentously so that you take them as symbolic or prefiguring future developments, yet then they drop away to be forgotten and overtaken by new, similarly vivid yet transient characters and events, and (while everyone agreed that the book was a very easy read) the narrative has a particularly static feel.

John strongly thought the same, and others agreed. The one dissenter was Trevor, who said that that static quality was what characterized the life the girl was being forced to lead (a life on the move but repetitive, motored only by the selfish mother's repetitive series of sexual liaisons: there's a consequent sense of arrest, exacerbated by the mother's public and sometimes even private underestimation of Maggie's age in order to minimize her own - a factor which makes the adult Maggie uncertain of her own age at various moments when she looks back). In any case, Trevor said, children don't shape their experience: it is to them a linear series of events, none more significant than others.

I'm not sure I agree with that last, but didn't say so because even granting it I didn't agree that that meant that the novel needed to lack shape. John thought that too: he said that a great novelist would find some way of replicating that childhood experience, yet also manage to select and point up for significance. For instance, he said, there was the moment that the child Maggie walks into a mirror. That seemed so symbolic at the time of reading it, yet it is never really used symbolically and indeed the novel appears to replicate the child Maggie's lack of awareness of its symbolic potential. Trevor stuck to his guns that that was acceptable as a replication of her experience, but I said actually it wasn't, precisely because the author provides herself with a narratorial shaping device, ie the retrospective consciousness of Maggie as an adult narrator.

In the light of such apparent authorial uncertainties, the narrator's uncertainties about what she remembers come to be seen as potentially rather those of the author, and the more we discussed the book the more sure we felt that the material was intensely autobiographical and incompletely processed. There is one thing that Maggie is certain about, and that is that her mother treated her inexcusably badly (and as a teenager at the end of the remembered story she cuts herself off from her mother, never to meet her again). This is indeed the one-dimensional way that the novel presents the mother, and I said I found it somewhat odd that, having been a mother herself (something which she makes much of, having vowed to be a different kind of mother), the middle-aged Maggie hasn't come to any understanding of her own mother's position at the time. Only at the very end, prompted by the memory of a remark by the man her mother finally settles down with, does it occur to the narrator Maggie to wonder if maybe her mother wasn't quite the baddie she's always thought her, but a more complex character. I said that the way this felt to me was that this was a thought which had occurred newly to the author, that it was the process of writing the story that had brought her to this conclusion, and that what she really needed to have done then was to go back and redraft the novel taking the notion into account: this may have resolved many of the uncertainties and provided a far more complex character in the mother and a consequently richer story.

Ann said, Well maybe she couldn't, and everyone felt that that must be the truth: that that very cutting off from the mother (if, as it seems, the novel is autobiographical) would make emotional resolution very difficult. John noted that there was a certain avoidance of exploration of emotion in the novel, and while this could be regarded as representing the mores of the time, we felt it ran deeper: for instance, in the scene where for the first time Maggie fights back when her mother tries to beat her, there's a retreat in perspective and tone: To anyone watching, it might look funny: this slow, silent combat, a tableau-vivant - 'The Gladiators' - as the child hangs like a mongoose on the throat of a threshing snake, slowly dragging the woman's head backwards (that coyly jovial tableau-vivant - 'The Gladiators') which indicates an authorial holding back.

Trevor insisted (repeatedly) that no one could ever come to terms with having had such a mother and I think he was saying that this justified the novel. Also, in spite of his previous comments, he insisted now that it was simply not possible ever to replicate the psychology of a child in writing, because one always comes to it with an adult consciousness (which I don't agree with either), so I'm not quite sure I've got the gist of what he was saying overall.

It was also noted that the India around the characters and the tense political situation of the time were only vaguely indicated in the novel, and while again this could be said to be a function of the self-obsession and isolation of the British characters, there is an unutilized opportunity to deal with them via the adult narrator. There is in fact some perfunctory retrospective comment by the narrator, a kind of wondering realization that momentous things were happening around them of which as a child she had been unaware, but this disjunction is not woven into the fabric of the remembered story in any satisfactory novelistic way.

There was some general talk about the difficulty of writing about experiences close to you, and an acknowledgement of the fact that if you change details like setting etc you can distance your own experience and make it easier to process in writing. That, I said, is what's so cathartic about writing, and we all then agreed that there was something painful about this novel and it didn't feel like catharsis at all.

Then Doug said it was 'a bit girly' - only partly ironically, which made us all hoot with laughter, and then some people went home but some of us stayed and Clare got some more drink, pink fizz, out of the fridge and I am afraid to say I got quite drunk.

September 2009
Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

I hadn't managed to read this book by this meeting (and still haven't) so couldn't relate to much of the discussion and therefore don't have great recollection of it. As far as I remember (at the time of writing: July 2010) views of this surreal and picaresque novel about Feathers, a woman with wings who can fly, were divergent. John had found it unreadable, whereas Clare, whose suggestion it was, admired it very much, although she agreed with Doug and others that there were unsatisfying aspects. Jenny was perhaps the most critical aprt from John, and as a writer the thing I remember most vividly was that she talked about her reading preferences, and said that when it came to the actual reading, she preferred books that were easy to read, unlike this book (which was why she hadn't much liked it), but that it was the more difficult books, like this one, that stayed with her afterwards.

October 2009
Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

The smallest gathering we've ever had - just four of us - to discuss this novel in which Dutchman Hans van den Broek is left behind in post 9/11 New York by his English wife and their child and, with the city around him traumatized and his marriage disintegrating, turns to playing cricket on Staten Island, the only white man amongst other immigrants chiefly from India and the West Indies, and becomes involved with dreamer and fixer Chuck Ramkissoon.

Ringing beforehand to apologize for her absence, Clare said she thought it was a great book, but the four of us gathered were more equivocal. Doug, whose suggestion it had been, said that on the whole he enjoyed the book, but that, as with the 9/11 novel Falling Man by Don DeLillo which we had previously discussed, and the Updike 9/11 novel he'd read, he was left distinctly underwhelmed. In particular he felt that he never got to grips with Hans's character, mainly, he felt, because the first-person narrative voice didn't seem consistent. At times it would be stark, fitting Hans's financial analyst's character and role, but then it would veer off into high-flown meditation and florid description. But then, said Doug, people are inconsistent, though clearly he had found the inconsistency he perceived in this novel troubling. Ann had had similar problems, and John said that he had found that none of the characters came alive. I said that I found the novel, like Falling Man, somehow dazing and distancing, that reading it was somehow like feeling my way through a fog. I just didn't know where I was with it, or indeed what it was meant to be about. I didn't feel that it was in fact about 9/11, or, in spite of the endless descriptions of it, cricket, but I wasn't quite sure what the real focus of the book was - or rather, that there was any. An instance, I said, of the sense of unreality is the description of Hans's life in the Chelsea Hotel (where he lives after his wife and son have departed). It gives the impression of so hermetic an existence and psychology on the part of Hans that it was a surprise to be reminded that every other weekend Hans travels to England to see his wife and child, or even that during the days he goes to work, and once you are reminded of these things, the description of the emotional quality of his life in the hotel then seems fake. Doug suggested that perhaps this sense of disassociation, suspension and 'fog' is precisely what is intended by these post 9/11 novels, as an accurate description of the post 9/11 experience for New Yorkers. John and Ann said however that that was all very well, but it didn't make for good novels.

Ann said she didn't like Hans's wife, and everyone agreed, but then I said that her character was something else that seemed inconsistent - she seems like a very different and more likeable character once she and Hans are reunited in London. John put in here that the reasons for their split-up in the first place, and the reasons they get back together are not made understandable or convincing on a psychological and emotional level. Doug also said that the novel was filled with stereotypes: the freakshow of the Chelsea Hotel inhabitants and Chuck Ramkissoon, who while being the most vivid - and therefore least ghostly - of the characters was perhaps the greatest stereotype, that of the noble (though ultimately ignoble) savage with the ability to make simpler and clearer responses to the world than the introspective Hans. People also wanted to talk about the fact that we knew the story right from the beginning: we knew that Hans would get back with his wife, we knew that Chuck's body would eventually be pulled from the river with its hands tied. So the novel wasn't concerned with story, then, it was clear. But then what was it trying to do?

I then mentioned Zadie Smith's excellent essay on this book for the New York Review of Books, which I had read some time ago. Smith posits that Netherland is not so much about the unease of 9/11 as informed by the authorial unease of a novelist aware that one can no longer, in all conscience, write a naively realist book, yet nevertheless emotionally and narratorially tied to realism, as we all are. As Ann said, looking at it like this explains a lot of the inconsistencies: the postmodern refusal of plot and psychological character development and the disruptive questioning of Hans's extistential meditations, in particular on the problem of how to 'see' things, alongside the realist symbolism in the baroque descriptions and the fact that Hans's meditations nevertheless lead him to realist conclusions, such an ultimate faith in, above all else, the perceptions of the individual 'soul'. As Smith says, O'Neill wants to have his cake and eat it. I think she feels he is more successful at doing so than we did. The realist elements led us to be dissatisfied with the postmodern elements (to want to understand better the characters' motivations, for instance, and to feel the lack of their portrayal as a loss), while the postmodern impulses in the novel made realist elements such as the descriptions seem on occasion arrogant. It is interesting that we all found the ending sentimental with its reunion on the London Eye, realist symbol of a realist confident authorial stance. In fact this final passage is a wonderful exercise in postmodern questioning of this realist symbolism: The higher we go, the less recognisable the city becomes, narrates Hans, and then, just before the very end, the whole scene is intercut by two memories, one of seeing the twin towers from the Staten Island Ferry, and in both of which there is a questioning of what was actually being seen. However, the fact that we had found the ending sentimental perhaps indicates that a realist reading of the novel had won out for us.


November 2009
The Road by Cormac McCarthy

It's so long since this meeting and I've been so preoccupied with the promotion of Too Many Magpies that I'm not sure I can remember the discussion very well.

John (who is not exactly easy to please when it comes to novels) had been so impressed and moved by this novel that he had tried at least twice to suggest it, but it had been passed over by the rest of us, some of us put off I think by the macho impression we had of McCarthy's novels in general, which in fact we hadn't read. On this occasion Hans, whose turn it was to suggest the next book, was absent, and, quite unprepared, I found the choice falling to me, and so, remembering John's persistence, I plumped for this.

I couldn't have been happier that I had done so. As I told the group, I was just stunned by this novel in which a man and his young son trail south on the road through an ash-filled post-apocalyptic world, their sole worldly goods piled in a rickety shopping trolley. I was so emotionally moved that I was reluctant to start deconstructing it with discussion: I just wanted to let it, and its emotional impact on me, be. I had noted, though, that it was quite simply written in a spare prose which was however deeply poetic. And one of the things that moved me so much was that that whole cowboy-Western ethic of the good guys and the bad guys with which we had associated McCarthy (and which others said definitely informed the film they'd now seen of McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men) was here used in the most movingly moral of ways: the man and the boy are striving to be the Good Guys, the keepers of the flame of morality, in the remnants of a world we can guess was destroyed by the lack of it and peopled by marauding cannibalistic gangs (and the moral question of the novel is whether it is possible for the man and the boy to succeed in this). And that, searing as the novel is, I had found the ending (which I won't give away here) redemptive, hopeful about the human spirit.

Doug immediately agreed with me wholeheartedly, and others nodded. Everyone loved the book and had been deeply affected by it, but perhaps Ann was the least deeply affected, as she had some quibbles, and saw some inconsistencies in the story, such as the fact that in travelling south the boy and the man crossed a range of mountains, which was hard to picture since most of the mountains in America run from north to south. This was a matter which frankly I wasn't much interested in discussing, as for me the novel had a mythic feel which made such practicalities irrelevant. There was then some (to me inappropriately realist) discussion about a related practicality: why they were travelling south: was it because they were hoping to find warmth as the winter came on? Or were they simply moving on because they had run out of food? Trevor said no, you wouldn't wait until you'd run out of food before moving on, that would be really stupid (because I was so little interested in this argument I can't remember his reasoning), and Ann, a textile conservator, said this made her think about insects: moths always stay with their source of food until it runs out but carpet beetles don't, they move on to fresh pastures before that happens.

John said, well, nothing is really explained: we never know why the world was destroyed, whether it was terrorism or ecological or what, and I stopped eating crisps out of boredom and frustration and said, Quite, that's the point, and that's what's so great about the book: in the post-apocalyptic world, cause and reason and politics are all beside the point, lost to the world. Existence is reduced to the physical experience of the effort to survive - and of course, for some, the human hope to keep the moral 'fire'. I said I loved the language of the book which reflects this: pared down and studded with ancient- and Anglo-Saxon-sounding words which were yet, I think, newly-coined, creating a sense of the unprecedentedly primitive. Everyone agreed that they really appreciated this last.

Then Ann said that she wasn't so sure that the book was redemptive, and there was a discussion about this which focussed on the end and which I thus can't report without spoiling the ending for those who haven't yet read the book.

One thing I will say is that one of the things that stunned me was the use of viewpoint, which earlier on in reading the novel I had decided McCarthy had mishandled: the narrative relentlesly takes the viewpoint of the man, except for a brief though puzzling and indeed memorable moment half-way through when it moves to the boy's. And then at the end, when the narrative shifts once more to the boy's I understood why (and indeed why that moment had been made so memorable) and I understood too that far from being unable to handle viewpoint, McCarthy is a master of it.

And again everyone nodded, and we all agreed that this book, a searing warning, was one of our stunners, one which would stand out among all those we have read and discussed.

(And I did remember the discussion after all - I think!)

December 2009
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

I didn't attend this meeting. As far as I know most people in the group liked it very much - apart from John, who found it dry and lacking in vividness. (I haven't read the book - at least, I think I haven't: I read two Conrad books for my university course of which I can remember very little apart from a kind of dry, macho ethos, and I don't think either of them was this one!)


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