Folio Season #6: McFarlane, O’Neill, Thomas, Costello

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. I’ll be posting weekly updates between now and the date of the award, covering all the titles I’ve been zooming through in the past seven days…

When I’m not embarking on silly self-challenges, I tend to have a couple of ‘reading strategies’ on the go – a speedy, voracious reader has to, I think. Customarily I try to read authors I haven’t read before, whether they’re contemporary, or classics I never got round to in the past. I’m particularly fond of first books (as the author of one such myself, I like to keep tabs on what’s happening in other debuts), and was pleased to see so many on this list: almost a quarter, if I’ve counted correctly, are by first-time authors. You come to these writers with no preconceptions: they glow with the potential to overwhelm you or appal you. This week I read two debuts, plus the first novel by an award-nominated writer new to me, and the latest book from a writer both nominated for this prize and longlisted for last year’s Man Booker…

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane (FSG Faber)
Night Guest
Ruth, widowed and living alone with her cats in a ramshackle house on the Australian coast, wakes up one night convinced she’s heard a tiger moving around her home. Even the cats are startled. The next day, she receives a visitor: Frida, her new carer, sent to her as part of a free government programme to look after the elderly and infirm. Frida is by turns brisk, caring, hectoring, and overfamiliar – and as this terrific first novel progresses, it starts to become clear that we’re not getting either Frida’s full story, nor Ruth’s. Once the slightly overwritten prose of the first quarter of The Night Guest relaxes, what ensues is an increasingly claustrophobic, tense and moving book. It’s clear that Frida is up to no good, and the outline of her plan is perhaps predictable, but there’s a clever withholding of all the details that keeps the reader guessing until the end. Ruth is suffering from something like Alzheimer’s, and her decline, which is swift and merciless, is matched by an increasing avidity on Frida’s part; the reader, held in tension between them, can see how badly this is all going to go. It culminates in a chapter which involves the increasingly confused Ruth handing over a large sum of money to Frida, one of the tensest scenes I’ve read in a long time. You’re fully invested in Ruth by this stage of the book, able completely to understand what she’s doing and why, yet hoping that she’ll see sense and not let Frida have the money. What happens next is horribly inevitable, but there is still a twist to come. Only a final chapter, the only one not narrated from Ruth’s point of view, sacrifices the book’s wonderful, obliterating claustrophobia. The tiger, of course, is never quite identified as such; it comes in and out of the book, appears to cause havoc, and is fought off out of shot, as it were, by Frida. It may – just may – be a metaphor. This is a really excellent debut.

The Dog – Joseph O’Neill (Pantheon)
Dog, TheOne consequence of reading all these Folio-nominated books in quick succession is that a certain amount of repetition can occur. I spent much of the first half of The Dog trying to forget having already read Ben Lerner’s 10:04, with which it bears certain tonal similarities – until there came a scene set in a sperm donation clinic where the narrator flails around comically, a scene also found in Lerner’s book, with, albeit drastically different consequences. (Sidenote: in that particular setting, is anything except a farcical scene possible?)
O’Neill’s prolix unnamed narrator (his ‘horrifying’ name, undisclosed but beginning with the letter X., works as a sort of running gag throughout, and I say ‘sort of’ because it isn’t actually funny) is employed as the ‘family officer’ – dogsbody, really – to two immensely wealthy brothers engaged in high-level, mysterious (and, you’ll be unsurprised to learn, shady) business in Dubai. With nothing much to do but reply to incomprehensible emails and await further instructions, X. has time to riff on the pitfalls of the post-financial crisis capitalist world; his tone is alternately poetic and legalistic (and taking pleasure, one feels, in the anti-poetry of International Business English). Nothing much happens for much of The Dog: a skimpy plot about an expat who’s vanished amid stories of his being a twice-married bigamist – one wife in America, one in Dubai – neither engages nor, to be kind, detracts from the book’s principal enjoyment factors, fine writing and a kind of serious-minded observational comedy. It brings ‘news from elsewhere’, telling of everyday life in Dubai: vast expenditure on both the personal and the corporate scale, the grappling for ever more stratospheric heights for new buildings, the endless deployment of empty-signifier brand names to denote status and success, the complex and internecine regulations by which expats and locals have to live. X. is lonely, his friendships contingent and his relationship recently ended; he seems to find solace – through necessity more than anything – in his job, which is so wide-ranging and nebulous (he is childminder, legal representative, agent and more) it seems that almost anyone could do it. I didn’t quite believe wholly in the narrator, however; he seems basically unimaginative, yet O’Neill allows him long poetical musings and a dictionary’s worth of ten-dollar words, along with a kind of superiority complex the book itself endorses (‘The incandescence of the aquarium flooded the ruin which now was subsumed by the thalassic realm and, so it felt to me, teemed with silent pelagic beings. “This is so cool,” my companion said.’ (p.75)) – which sums up a certain density of prose deployed to capture some very superficial things. Responsibility – the accepting of it, the avoiding of it, or, in the end here, its being foisted on you whether you wish it or not – is the big theme of this book, chiming obliquely with its depiction of a place that feigns being unaffected by worldwide financial crisis, and certainly unwilling to change its ways in its aftermath. It’s a fascinating premise and setting; for me, The Dog doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts.

We Are Not Ourselves – Matthew Thomas (Simon & Schuster)
We Are Not OurselvesThis sweeping debut novel tells the story of Eleanor Leary, née Tumulty, an Irish-American in New York, and, through her, seeks to tell the story of the American century. The first part, which tells us of Eleanor’s immigrant parents’ lives and deaths, is one of those grand, almost fableistic bits of storytelling which tend to leave me feeling rather cold. Every so often I feel a bit of fiction fatigue creeping over me, and a book which only just shies away from phrases of the ‘And so it came to pass’ variety, describing in long-shot characters we don’t really get to see in close-up, is often the trigger. Every confident pronouncement – ‘In the Spring of 1952, Eleanor’s mother made the amazing announcement that she was pregnant’ – seems a reminder that all of this is made up, and that its attempts to make me care about fictional people are doomed to failure.
Fortunately, once we zero in on Eleanor’s own life, things become more engrossing. She marries Ed, a science teacher at a community college; they have one child, a son named Connell (after the author, we’re told, of Mr Bridge, one of those moments, rare in this book, when you sense the author too clearly through the text); a homemaker, Eleanor longs to move house, but Ed refuses to leave the family home, so Eleanor goes househunting by herself. (I loved the conversations in which Ed won’t even discuss the idea of moving house. They reminded me of a real-life couple I know, whose conversations on this topic must replicate these fictional ones verbatim.) Their son is moderately unhappy, and responds to bullying (there’s no very clear reason for this) by body-building and Being Unhappy. It is, you might say, the Middle-Class Westchester novel. Eventually Eleanor gets her way, and they move house, to a fixer-upper, but soon afterwards Ed is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Eleanor, who carries most of the story, and whose psyche and outlook, wishes and fears Thomas unsparing lays bare, is a comprehensively imagined creation, and yet I wasn’t really at any point that engaged by her dilemmas, nor bothered about what would befall her. While the family’s burgeoning wealth stands for the way the American middle class grew and grew throughout the 20th century, there’s so little reference to the outside world that it may as well take place in another century entirely, or aboard a moonbase.
It doesn’t help that the Alzheimer’s plot, while not as nakedly an attempt on your heartstrings as it might be in other hands (both Ed and Eleanor are sufficiently interestingly flawed for this not to be a straightforward weepie – Eleanor’s incipient racism is particularly striking) is introduced around the halfway mark, letting Thomas wring out another 200+ pages of angst and wistfulness. It’s at least an earned kind of sob-story, as we’ve come to know these characters pretty well by this point, but I didn’t find it especially emotive either.
On the back cover of my copy – the American edition – there’s a quote from fellow Folio nominee Joshua Ferris, praising this book for possessing ‘the epic sweep and small pleasures of the very best fiction’. Well, now: one of the best things about the very long list of nominees for this prize is that it doesn’t cleave to so narrow a definition of what the ‘best’ fiction is. I’d suggest that the word ‘saga’ is a more apt final word for that quote – there’s little pleasure to be derived from this kind of writing style, which works hard not to get in the way of story and character: I’d have sacrificed some of the comprehensive chronicling of these moderately disappointed lives (for the most part, Connell’s plotlines go nowhere and could easily have been cut) in favour of some more pyrotechnics in the actual writing. (Sidenote: There’s also a quote from Chad Harbach, who famously/notoriously jettisoned a more experimental draft of his big-news debut novel The Art of Fielding – a book which tried to be the Moby-Dick of baseball novels, but committed the fatal error of thinking Moby-Dick was about a whale – in favour of something as MOR and sweeping as this novel. Like Harbach’s book, various scenes here go on (and on) about baseball games, the cultural status of Babe Ruth, the totemic ball itself, batting averages, etc, etc. This is, of course, padding, and made this writer wonder: what is it about American writers and baseball? Is writing about the game a transparent bid to bridge the perceived gap between sports fans and book fans? I wish they’d stop. Everyone considering putting this material in their book should be forced to (re)read Philip Roth’s dullest book, baseball-fixated The Great American Novel, and think again.)
In the end, despite having concentrated so intensely on the unravelling of one main individual character, Thomas’s novel winds up feeling oddly generic. After 620 pages, I can honestly say that We Are Not Ourselves gave me the feeling of having lived alongside Eleanor her whole life. Just not in a good way.

Academy Street – Mary Costello (Canongate UK)
Academy Street
Somewhat complementarily, Academy Street – a debut novel from Mary Costello, previously author of a well-received collection of short stories – is also concerned with the life of an Irishwoman, Tess, who leaves rural Ireland for New York and whose fate we follow through the decades, from the 1940s (when her mother dies) through the 1960s (when she falls pregnant after a one-night stand with a caddish man) and into the first years of the 21st century (when her son dies, a 9/11 victim). Oh, and her sister dies too, though by this stage (“The phone rang. Claire had Lou Gehrig’s disease.”) I was starting to suspect that this short, relentlessly grim book was intended to be comic, a parody of those memoirs to which Waterstones dedicates a ‘Painful Lives’ section in which misfortune is larded on horrendous misfortune. It’s also a deeply conservative book: when Tess at last returns to Ireland (for a funeral, unsurprisingly) another character points out that ‘“All America ever brought this family was misfortune”’ – the implication being that you shouldn’t go off and try to live your life differently, because all that will come of this is disaster, a moral that the book, delivering unremitting blows to bovine Tess, seems to support. All this is told in lustreless prose, in which – as with We Are Not Ourselves – we are told of Tess’s reactions but remain unconvinced by her. Neither she nor her supporting characters lives or breathes on the page; the dialogue they speak in is trite; and the characterisation of Tess’s only friend in New York, a black woman named Willa, suggests that her nearest fictional cousin must be the disembodied voice and legs of the maid in Tom and Jerry: full of aw-gee-honey homespun wisdom, she’s as drippy as Tess, and as difficult to believe in. When subjected to racist barbs she meekly accepts them, because this is a book that celebrates passivity over any other logical response. (Tess, later, is mugged on a dangerous street: her assailants, of course, “teenage boys”, “all black”. You think: has Mary Costello ever left the house? Has she actually thought about the implications of any of what she’s written?) In a book this bereft of good sense, it’s inevitable that of all the places Tess’s son Theo should be on 11th September 2001, it’s in one of the World Trade Center towers: it’s good that fiction doesn’t shy away from real-world horrors, but to employ this disaster as a McGuffin simply to give Tess the ultimate in tough breaks is a charmless, tasteless piece of attempted emotional manipulation, the tears Tess sheds utterly unearned. Despite its contemporary setting, this book seems to have fallen through time from about the eighteenth century, its lacklustre, luckless heroine a dire anachronism in 2015. Maybe the idea is that the reader should empathise with Tess and feel deeply, alongside her, for every bit of bad news she’s battered down with, but as she’s inert rather than stoical, and so insipid right from the get-go, I ended up rooting instead for the powers of darkness. A bland, dull, bad novel.

Running total at 30th January: 35 read, 45 to read, 52 days until the winner is announced. Next week, I’ll be picking the books that, based on what I’ve read so far, I think should make it to the eight-title Folio Prize shortlist, due to be announced on 9th February.

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 –Matthew Thomas
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

2 thoughts on “Folio Season #6: McFarlane, O’Neill, Thomas, Costello

  1. Pingback: Folio Season #10: Robinson, Lethem, Waldman, Osborne and more | The Salt House

  2. Pingback: Folio Season #11: Phipps, Hunt, Young, Smiley, Mackie, Lawson | The Salt House

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