Folio Season #5: Atwood, Amis, Eggers, Barbash

Introduction I’ve set myself the challenge of reading all 80 books nominated for the 2015 Folio Prize. Several I’d already read before the list was announced – which was what gave me the perhaps inaccurate idea that it would be possible, or a good idea, to read all of the remainder. Each week, I’ll update with the books I’ve been reading ‘new’, as it were, plus, while I catch up, some of those I read beforehand.

I’m in New York for the next while, researching my next novel (this is the current one, should you be interested), and so these books are largely being brought to you courtesy of the dizzyingly wonderful New York Public Library (and that’s why the publisher details below have become US, rather than UK, imprints).

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? – Dave Eggers (Knopf)
Your Fathers...
An astronaut wakes up, tied to a post in a building within an abandoned military camp. His captor – also his kidnapper – insists that they know one another, and questions Kev the astronaut about his feelings on being told he’s not going to go in the space shuttle as he’d expected. Kev’s answers don’t quite satisfy his captor – so he goes away, drugs and kidnaps someone else, and starts questioning them in the next building along. And then someone else. And then someone else… Told entirely in dialogue, Dave Eggers’s novel gradually proves (slightly disappointingly) not to be about astronauts or the diminished aims of the US space programme after all, but about an incident in which a mentally unstable young man is shot to death by a squad of armed police officers because they believe him to be dangerous. The incident, pieced together in responses to these sets of inquisitions, is gradually elucidated; the inquisitor’s state of mind likewise, although this book occupies an uneasy space. Seemingly about the America of today – timely, or even prescient, given the spate of shootings of (likely) unarmed young men by police at the end of 2014, it also has the quality of a fable: with ease, our deluded kidnapper drugs half a dozen or more victims and assembles them at the disused camp; when helicopters arrives to capture or kill him, it’s as if they know they’re in a novel and have waited until its story is told. It also has the air of a formal exercise, the story told entirely in speech, which made me rather wish I’d seen it performed rather than read it. Enjoyable but dispensable.

Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese)
Stone Mattress I blow hot and cold with Margaret Atwood’s work – I’m maybe the only person who doesn’t like The Handmaid’s Tale – but the last book of hers I read was a collection of stories, Moral Disorder, which I enjoyed thoroughly. Stone Mattress is a book of nine ‘tales’, rather than stories, a distinction Atwood explores in an afterword; some have fairytale elements of bodily transformations; in several others, premeditated murder is commonplace as a kind of easy solution to all kinds of problems. Elderly characters populate these stories: dying, they think of their history and their legacy; but when they do die, their survivors don’t always respect their wishes, and they aren’t remembered as they might wish. Sometimes they don’t even need to die for indignity to be visited on there: in the terrific final story, ‘Torching the Dusties’, the residents of an old people’s home are threatened by Our Turn, an Occupy-ish movement which sees the elderly as a growing drain on resources rightfully theirs, and has taken to burning down old-folks’ homes to rid the country of their plague: a wicked ‘what if’ taken to a logical conclusion. Old age, as they say, is not for the weak. Revenge, for indignities real or perceived, powers these stories; in some, its corollary, a kind of charged, contingent forgiveness, forms the conclusion. Their experiences have made these characters – Verna, Constance, Wilma and other tremendous names – snarky and disagreeable, but, like the disembodied hand that can’t bring itself to strangle its ultimate victim, under it all they’re sentimental creatures. Calling these ‘tales’ lets Atwood give some of her characters happily-ever-after resolutions without the stories themselves turning soft. As with several collections of stories, two or three are powerfully memorable, the largest number blur together rather, and only one here, a sequel to Atwood’s novel The Robber Bride, concerning a dog that may be the reincarnation of three friends’ dead compatriot, left me totally cold; this is in the manner of watching the deleted scenes on a DVD before you know anything about the main feature. With reference to the Folio Prize, while it is refreshing to see collections of stories nominated alongside novels, it seems like the spottiness of such collections can work against them. You’d almost rather a single story like ‘Torching the Dusties’ be put forward as a standalone; it’s better than certain of the full novels on this longlist.

Stay Up With Me – Tom Barbash (Ecco)
Stay Up WIth MeHaving said that about the bittiness of some short story collections, here’s one that bucks the trend: thirteen stories that, while not linked, are thematically congruent enough to make a striking collection without ever being repetitive. A trainee realtor can’t bring himself to be as unscrupulous as he senses he should be. The progress of a young tennis prodigy is reported in a series of letters from an over-familiar coach. A journalist exposing the undertones of bigotry and violence in a small town outside New York City is summoned to account for himself. Certain devices recur — car crashes, snowfalls — as do certain underlying emotional issues these narrators are going through: more than once, a partner seems to turn into a stand-in for an absent parent, or a child for a parent’s absent partner. This strengthens rather than weakens the collection, which reminds me of similarly striking collections from Adam Haslett and David Means — they share a certain limpidity of prose which, if I were being hyper-critical, one might term Creative Writing MFA-ese. (I wish, too, that those workshops had convinced Barbash not to give his characters so many Significant Dreams, a particular pet hate of mine, and one which appears in too many — ie any — of these stories.) Like those other two books, though, which came out over a decade ago, this collection seems likely to linger and haunt the reader. Something I was looking forward to when I set out on this Folio Season project was reading writers I’d never read, or in Barbash’s case even heard of, before; in this instance it’s paid dividends. This is a hugely enjoyable book.

The Zone of Interest – Martin Amis (Knopf)
Zone of Interest, The
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the nice synchronicities that link one book, selected more or less randomly, to another read in close proximity: one of the characters in Atwood’s book alludes to the witches’ spell scene in Macbeth (‘Eye of newt! Toe of frog!’), and Martin Amis opens his new novel with a page-long epigraph: the whole spell. No relevance, just a neat passing coincidence. Amis is in that presumably dispiriting position: that of the author of well-regarded novels who hasn’t died or stopped writing yet. Thus each new novel he brings out – there have been three in the last five years – is hailed by some reviews as (that horrid phrase) a return to form, or ‘His best since…’. (I haven’t bothered since the double whammy of Koba the Dread and Yellow Dog.) With The Zone of Interest, he returns to some of the concerns of one of his actual enduring works, Time’s Arrow, in which a former Nazi concentration-camp guard’s life goes backwards through the Holocaust. In Zone, we follow the stories of three overseers of one camp: the commandant Paul Doll, known as the ‘Old Boozer’; Thomsen, a junior with designs on Doll’s wife; and Szmul, a Sonderkommando: a prisoner-turned-guard called upon to do unspeakable things to his own people.
I’m a bit torn about this book: it seems a valuable task to literalise the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ as a way to reactivate that notion, to try and forestall its becoming a cliché itself. And this material seems to bring out Amis’s better prose, which is less self-consciously coruscating than in his lesser books. There’s a striking and pleasing stateliness to the writing – he still strives for the original coinage or the pithy phrase (Chapters are named ‘Dead and Alive’ or ‘Night Logic’), but not at the expense of the subject matter, as if he’s fearful of appearing disrespectful. The most flamboyant stylistic tic is Paul Doll’s thinking of numbers as numerals rather than words: ‘“When a ¼ of 1,000,000 men joyfully give up their lives […]”’)  — presumably this is to suggest the play of statistics on Doll’s mind, though the narrative seems to go out its way to include examples. So it’s a solemner, more sensitive Amis writing here – and maybe that’s the problem: the idea of an Amisian comedy among the death camps – the very fact of calling the camps and the book The Zone of Interest – suggests a certain frisson that the text seems consciously to be working against. Fireworks would be inappropriate. Instead, this is a book about people who, no matter how appalling their actions, remain people: they deploy middle-management language to discuss and describe not 21st century marketing jobs but transports full of doomed Jews; they flirt or are sexually disappointed; they complain about their workload… They’re as petty, in short, as any other people in any other context – and they’re caught up in a sort of oblique Catch-22 in which nothing ever progresses or, maybe, that nightmare where you can see what should happen next but can’t complete the task. In an inevitable yet memorable setpiece, Szmul has to murder the teenaged friend of his own sons, themselves long dead. It’s peculiar and unpleasant that this remains the most memorable scene in a novel that wants to avoid that mixture of the sentimental and the inhuman, at least until its final section, in which the sentimental is allowed to bloom. There’s even an afterword, in which Amis pays (fairly) humble homage to historical sources and non-fiction inspiration; my feelings about this chime precisely with those Michael Hofmann espoused in his merciless reading of this novel for the LRB.

Running total at 23rd January: 31 read, 49 to read, 59 days – or just under two months – until the winner is announced. Next week: Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog, Fiona Mcfarlane’s The Night Visitor and more.

The eighty nominated titles — with the ones I’ve read struck through (and links to reviews, where applicable) — are:

10:04 – Ben Lerner
A God in Every Stone – Kamila Shamsie
Academy Street – Mary Costello
After Me Comes The Flood – Sarah Perry
All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews
All Our Names – Dinaw Mengitsu
All The Days And Nights – Niven Goviden
All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
All The Rage – A.L. Kennedy
Amnesia – Peter Carey
Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer
Arctic Summer – Damon Galgut
Bald New World – Peter Tieryas Liu
Bark – Lorrie Moore
Be Safe I Love You – Cara Hoffman
Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi
Can’t & Won’t – Lydia Davis
Dear Thief – Samantha Harvey
Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill
Dissident Gardens – Jonathan Lethem
Dust – Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
Em and the Big Hoom – Jerry Pinto
England and Other Stories – Graham Swift
Euphoria – Lily King
Everland – Rebecca Hunt
Eyrie – Tim Winton
Family Life – Akhil Sharma
Fourth of July Creek – Smith Henderson
How to be both – Ali Smith
In Search of Silence – Emily Mackie
In the Approaches – Nicola Barker
In the Light of What We Know – Zia Haider Rahman
J – Howard Jacobson
Kinder Than Solitude – Yiyun Li
Lila – Marilynne Robinson
Life Drawing – Robin Black
Lost For Words – Edward St Aubyn
Love and Treasure – Ayelet Waldman
Nora Webster – Colm Tóibín
On Such a Full Sea – Chang-Rae Lee
Orfeo – Richard Powers
Outline – Rachel Cusk
Perfidia – James Ellroy
Road Ends, Mary Lawson
Shark – Will Self
Some Luck – Jane Smiley
Stay Up With Me – Tom Barbash
Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood
The Ballad of a Small Player – Lawrence Osborne
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
The Book Of Gold Leaves – Mirza Waheed
The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber
The Country Of Icecream Star – Sandra Newman
The Dog – Joseph O’Neill
The Emerald Light in the Air – Donald Antrim
The Emperor Waltz – Philip Hensher
The Fever – Megan Abbott
The Heroes’ Welcome – Louisa Young
The Incarnations – Susan Barker
The Lie – Helen Dunmore
The Lives Of Others – Neel Mukherjee
The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan
The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane
The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters
The Tell-Tale Heart – Jill Dawson
The Temporary Gentleman – Sebastian Barry
The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth
The Zone Of Interest – Martin Amis
Their Lips Talk of Mischief – Alan Warner
Thunderstruck – Elizabeth McCracken
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris
Travelling Sprinkler – Nicholson Baker
Upstairs at the Party – Linda Grant
Viper Wine – Hermione Eyre
Virginia Woolf in Manhattan – Maggie Gee
We Are Not Ourselves – Thomas Matthew
What You Want – Constantine Phipps
Wittgenstein Jr – Lars Iyer
Young Skins – Colin Barrett
Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? – Dave Eggers

5 thoughts on “Folio Season #5: Atwood, Amis, Eggers, Barbash

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