Folio Season #8: Abbott, Owuor, Oyeyemi, Ellroy, Davis, Barry, Iyer

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’m now posting weekly updates on the titles I’ve been zooming through in the past seven days…

I’m on holiday, which is why I’m getting through so many books currently.

Fever, TheThe Fever – Megan Abbott (Penguin US)
A mysterious illness is rampant among a group of high school girls. The girls’ heads snap backwards or jerk fearsomely side to side; they go into spasm, they are hospitalised. Is it something to do with the HPV virus their school insists they’re inoculated against before they reach puberty? Is it something they pick up from the disgustingly algae-clogged lake they dare one another to swim in? Or is it something even weirder? The ‘Hey girl’-ing and boycraziness of the teenage protagonists (and their ways of talking to one another) feel a million miles away, but this is a mostly engaging story whose brisk forward momentum makes up for the silliness of its plot. Not one but two explanations are eventually given for the girls’ seemingly inexplicable symptoms; neither is very feasible, and a revenge-story plot creaks very badly, relying on a case of mistaken identity for which all involved would have to be near blind. The reactions of parents and teachers of the girls, stricken by these changes in girls who no longer seem to be themselves, is far more believable.

Dust – Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Penguin US)
Dust
Odidi is dead, gunned down in Nairobi as he races home to his sister, Ajany. Meantime, an Englishman, Isaiah, is on his way to meet Odidi to try and learn the fate of his father Hugh, whose family history is intertwined with that of Odidi and Ajany. A debut novel written in the toughest of prose and telling the story of the invention of modern Kenya alongside the fates of its protagonists and their forebears, this is a very striking, memorable novel, if not one that ever quite caught light for me. It’s most extraordinary when it’s most upsetting, both in terms of the events Owuor describes and the reactions she gives her characters: death hangs over this book, and massacres and murders pepper it. ‘This is how we lose the country,’ reflects one character, witness to a murder, ‘one child at a time.’ In the aftermath of the 1969 political assassination of Tom Mboya, who led negotiations for Kenya’s independence from Britain, ‘everything that could die in Kenya did, even schoolchildren standing in front of the hospital that the Leader of the Nation had come to open.’ Against this backdrop of almost unimaginable horror, which Owuor does make (horribly) imaginable and real, the prose sometimes feels like it has to strive to make itself noticed: a sex scene in which the man and woman ‘will grope secrets, share unanswered questions and infinite presences [and] dance between tombs of demoniacs’ seems just that bit too rich and poetic.

Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead US)
Boy, Snow, Bird
A gorgeous novel, set in New York in the 1950s, that tells the story of the almost albino girl named Boy, the stepdaughter she adopts and then abandons, named Snow, and her biological daughter, the equally distinctively named Bird. When Bird is born, she is incontestably black, and her father has to confess a family history of ‘passing’ – that phenomenon whereby black people with a light enough skin colour can pass as white. The names, and this real-life slippage between one form of identity and another, mark this as a kind of retold fairy story, and embedded in Boy, Snow, Bird are all manner of allusions to fables (a wicked stepmother, faces that don’t show up in mirrors) and stories about stories – yet it is never twee, only insightful (she was ‘one of those women who are corpselike until a man walks into the room, after which point they become irresistibly vivacious’), beautifully written, uncompromising (Boy becomes progressively less sympathetic after Bird is born) and transporting. I loved this book – I knew in the week the Folio shortlist was announced I’d be bound to read at least one novel that should’ve been on it; this one is it.

Perfidia – James Ellroy (Knopf)
Perfidia
I’ve never read anything by James Ellroy before, though unless I’m misremembering, his White Jazz was one of the books a forward-thinking Eng Lit lecturer suggested we might read as a modern classic that transcended its nominal crime genre. Perfidia is, unless I’ve missed something, the only crime novel that appears on the Folio list; it’s a big, brutal (and brutish) book, compelling and repulsive in equal measure. We’re in LA in December 1941, where the LAPD’s investigation into the apparent ritual killing of a Japanese family is suddenly overshadowed by the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Racial tension, the inevitable corporate-government conspiracy, and the weird glamour of Hollywood all play into the book: Bette Davis’s turn in a subplot about her relationship with one of the senior police investigators seems to me a rare instance where using a well-known real-life person as a fictive character strengthens, rather than weakens, the book. But it’s a grimy, grubby, unsettling sort of book, even if the various crimes do generally get solved; having been immersed in foul language (every other word’s an expletive, a racial slur, etc), extraordinary violence and a general ambience of damaged and awful characters doing awful damaging things to one another, it’s a relief to come up for air. Vastly impressive, if not hugely likeable.

Can’t and Won’t – Lydia Davis (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Can't & Won't Back when I used to work in a bookshop – no names, but it was an international chain which went out of business about seven years ago – we used to enjoy unpacking the books from the new pallets, which were bulked out not with Styrofoam pellets but with some form of maize-based biodegradable packing material not dissimilar to Cheetos, and in fact rather tasty, if insubstantial. Which leads me neatly to Lydia Davis’s book of… what? Poems, stories, aphorisms, short translations from Flaubert, jokes, observations, boredoms, and occasionally a story, which one falls upon much as one would on finding an interesting big book among all the packing peanuts in those pallets of books – and all of it divided into five sections for no very obvious reason. While the gags and things are often enjoyable (‘I’m Pretty Comfortable, But I Could Be a Little More Comfortable’ could be the basis of a very entertaining stand-up comedy gig, and the renderings of stories from Flaubert are almost always gorgeous), the distilled emotional heft of a story like ‘The Seals’ makes the rest seem like all so much static. On the other hand, the long ‘The Cows’ pretty much proves my belief that boredom is a weapon that can be deployed against a reader. Elsewhere there are various short pieces footnoted ‘dream’, which are, it transpires, based on, well, dreams that either Davis or her nearest and dearest have had; what you come away thinking about is ‘Could anyone be a writer? Is it worthwhile to note down the weird illogic of our dreams? Is it worthwhile to read someone else’s?’ I concluded it was not.

The Temporary Gentleman – Sebastian Barry (Penguin Viking US)
Temporary Gentleman
I came back reluctantly to Sebastian Barry, having not been won over by his The Secret Scripture, which posited itself as a kind of family mystery with the most obviously signposted revelation I can remember in years – a bit like a murder mystery with only one suspect. The Temporary Gentleman is (mostly) great, though: starting with its narrator McNulty surviving the wartime torpedoing of a ship he’s travelling on, the book looks forward into McNulty’s new life in Accra as a UN employee, and back to the circumstances which led him to Ghana. Unusually, I found both narrative strands equally compelling: his courting of and marriage to the enigmatic Mai in Dublin, and his shaky attempts to stay out of trouble in Accra. In both strands, contentment is depthcharged by alcohol, and the material about alcoholism, drunkenness and its awful consequences is sharp and scarifying. Only a slightly bolted-on ending lets this book down in the end, coming after a strange and memorable scene in which McNulty’s Ghanaian ‘fixer’, Tom, appears to die and come back to life, a recurrent theme in this book.

Wittgenstein Jr – Lars Iyer (Melville House)
Wittgenstein Jr
He’s not really Wittgenstein; he doesn’t even really look like him – but ‘Wittgenstein’ is what his students decide to call their Cambridge philosophy tutor, whose unsettling questions and long pauses don’t, to them, seem to constitute any kind of ‘model for learning’. Yet his very enigma becomes compelling to most of his students, especially to the narrator, Peters, for all he denies it. I laughed a lot at this book, which is less about philosophy and more about its end, or perhaps about something that gets called philosophy but is really something else: in the many discussions of what will follow ‘the end of philosophy’, you feel you could substitute ‘history’ or ‘religion’ and the gnomic pronouncements Wittgenstein makes remain no less gnomic. It’s not all comedy set-pieces (though there are lots of these, and they’re very good): the account of Wittgenstein’s brother’s suicide is unexpectedly moving. Only after finishing this book did I remember sitting in my first-year philosophy class (not at Cambridge) in agonies of silence before a young nervous tutor who might, it turns out, have been a Wittgenstein-like genius consumed in his own agonising thoughts.

47 books down, 33 to go, and 38 days until the prize is announced… 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 #8: Abbott, Owuor, Oyeyemi, Ellroy, Davis, Barry, Iyer

  1. Pingback: Folio Season #12: Swift, Flanagan, Faber, Harvey, Self, Barker | The Salt House

  2. Pingback: Folio Season #12: Swift, Flanagan, Faber, Harvey, Self | The Salt House

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