Folio Season #9: Black, Cusk, Doerr, Hoffman, Carey, Jacobson

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…

Still on holiday.

Life Drawing – Robin Black (Picador UK)
Life DrawingIt’s hard to write well about art – I gave it a shot in my novel about art, artists and failure – and one of the things I liked most about Robin Black’s first novel is the precision with which she writes about that craft. Her narrator, Augusta (known, like the female artist in Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, by a masculine nickname, Gus) is working on a series of paintings about young men killed at war; at home, meantime, her author husband Owen is going through a prolonged writer’s block. They live in an isolated house with only one cottage nearby, and when a woman named Alison rents the cottage for the summer, the interdependent life Gus and Owen have built for themselves is broken apart in ever more destructive ways. This is a short, compact, sensitive novel, let down somewhat I felt by an overly dramatic final act; I was much happier reading about the to-and-fro of damage and solace between the couple, the push and pull of forgiving but not forgetting, and about the neighbour who’s first a confidante to Gus, then a kind of invidious presence whose arrival in their lives will change them irrevocably. Largely, a very good novel.

Outline – Rachel Cusk (Faber UK)
OutlineA strange, oblique book, shortlisted for the Folio Prize. Faye, a teacher of creative writing, travels to Athens for a few days’ teaching. She is fleeing the breakup of her marriage and of her family life, “something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion”, and everyone she meets tells her stories: either because they sense something in her that lets them talk, or because she’s specifically requested they tell her things (her creative writing students). This is a book about absence, and about transference: on the plane to Athens, Faye gets talking to (is talked at by) her neighbour, once a very rich man who’s gone through two difficult divorces and is now of much reduced means (he has a speedboat now, rather than a yacht). They meet up several times in Athens, and on one occasion he makes a move on her. Occasionally in fiction, one wonders why the protagonist finds anything likeable in the person he or she falls for – I’m thinking specifically of Michelle de Kretser’s wonderful The Lost Dog, in which men fall willy-nilly for a female character who seemed to me irritating beyond belief – but I think in Outline we have that almost unheard-of situation where we know so little of the narrator that it seems extraordinary anyone should fall for her. The neighbour is projecting; into her almost uncanny ability to listen and absorb what he says, he reads that he is fascinating. (Unlike the infuriatingly passive central character of Academy Street, battered hither and thither by misfortune, however, Faye you feel is in a kind of chrysalis, clear-eyedly detailing everything around her, learning from it, storing it up as energy, getting ready to change her life.) Little happens, per se, in Outline; the students come and tell stories, various characters wander in and out, narrating their experiences, and Faye reports back to the reader, as it were, fairly bloodlessly, what she’s heard. I rather like books in which not much happens, but happens beautifully; if there’s a sense of something missing in Outline, that’s surely deliberate, as Faye absents herself as much as possible from her own story.

All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr (Fourth Estate UK)
All the Light We Cannot SeeJonathan Franzen, the Oscar the Grouch of American letters, was back in the news last week, opining that a lot of popular literary fiction is essentially Young Adult fiction without that banner printed on it. That seemed to me entirely true of this well-received and vastly popular new novel from Anthony Doerr.
As occupying forces close in on wartime Paris, a blind little girl and her locksmith father flee for the safety of St Malo where they can hide out in the house of her agoraphobic great uncle. Elsewhere, a bright young German orphan, Werner, is spared certain death working in mines when his ability to work with radios is noticed. And in the museum where the locksmith once worked, a German officer hears of a priceless blue diamond known as the Sea of Flames, with which the locksmith may have absconded.
For a book of 530+ pages, this is a swift and breezy read, sweeping in its scope but very personal in its concentration on only a handful of characters. It’s told in brief chapters, generallty alternating between Werner’s plot and Marie-Laure’s; occasionally the diamond hunter (boo!) or a St Malo-based informer (boo! hiss!) get a chapter. I was reminded irresistibly of the film Titanic, in which human tragedy plays second fiddle to a plot about a lost necklace: Doerr builds in his adventure story about the priceless diamond perhaps as a nod to readers for whom the depredations of a world war offer insufficient drama. The more I read of it, the more I was reminded of Franzen’s gripe; the writing is that clean, stately prose that only rarely (describing weather, usually) draws attention to itself; and there is very little in the way of moral complexity here – ‘Is it right to do something just because everyone else is doing it?’ is about as deep as it gets – and in the depiction of the blind poppet and the goodnatured German boy, it’s all a bit gooey and softcentred. That the moment when the two characters’ stories finally intersect should be so brief and inconsequential is itself a cliché of this kind of parallel-plot book, a sort of programmatic reinforcement that even in as kindly a universe as Doerr’s, coincidence still has its place. It’s an easy read that will sell squillions of copies and be made into a film like Titanic, or maybe Chocolat: a reassuring confection in which good intentions and niceness win out in the end against all that nasty Nazi warmongering.

Be Safe I Love You – Cara Hoffman (Simon & Schuster US)
Be Safe I Love You
I think this is the first novel I’ve read about the experiences of a female soldier coming home from one of our many modern-day wars. It’s a valuable story to tell, and Cara Hoffman’s second novel does it reasonably well. We follow the attempts of Lauren Clay, on terminal leave from tour of duty in Iraq, to return to her home town of Watertown, New York, and readjust to everyday life there. Her father, once a recluse, seems to have recovered his mojo in her absence; her younger brother has grown up, and her best friend has had a baby. Everything has moved on and yet everything is the same, and Lauren, who at first seems relieved to be back, grows steadily more disorientated and unhappy. Hoffman’s prose and dialogue aren’t always brilliant, but this is a really well structured novel, and there are a couple of enviably good twists late on; the unexpectedly redemptive ending seems appropriate and earned. A thread that runs through the book, and which generates one of the twists I didn’t see coming, concerns the career Lauren might have had if she’d not gone to war: she would have been a singer, and her appreciation for music and especially the chill, spare work of Arvo Pärt lends this book an extra dimension. Very slightly a missed opportunity, for me: better prose (especially dialogue, which is often soapy and pat) and the excision of a strange subplot in which a bar is burned down and lots of characters claim responsibility would have put this into the unmissable category.

Amnesia – Peter Carey (Knopf US)
I hadn’t intended to read the new Peter Carey until I took on this Folio Season project; his last couple of novels really haven’t been to my taste, and while I didn’t mind His Illegal Self, I don’t think I’ve really fallen for one of his novels since My Life as a Fake, a decade ago now. I’d assumed we’d quietly parted ways, yet here we are: my twelfth Carey book. In Amnesia, he tackles hacktivism, rogue programmers, and a kind of cyber-cold war that tangentially posits the US’s attempts to arrest Julian Assange as the outcome of a decades-long international relations tussle between America and Australia which started with the CIA being implicated in the toppling of the then Australian government back in 1975. For the first half of the book we’re in the company of disgraced journalist Felix Moore, who in an offer-you-can’t-refuse kind of way is invited to write a book about a young woman, Gaby Baillieux, accused of a cyber terrorism attack that’s unlocked jails across Australia and beyond. It’s a winning, timely setup, and while the book itself turns out something of a hotchpotch, crossing from first to third person and exploring the backstories of Moore, Gaby, and Gaby’s mother (whom Moore also encountered when he was a gauche young student), it’s a relief that great swathes of it remind you that, sentence on sentence, Carey writes the most terrific prose (his jettisoning of a comma in lists and direct addresses in dialogue is annoying, though: “Gaby Sando and Frederic were on a Melbourne tram” reads like the account of two, not three, people’s journey). Felix is a winningly hangdog narrator – sometimes hungover, sometimes being kidnapped and driven to a remote location where he’s only a typewriter and a batch of tape recordings of the Baillieuxs’ stories to work on – and it’s a shame when the text moves from his first person account into the spottier, less consistently engaging Baillieux stories. I’m a sucker, too, for stories set in Melbourne: if I were giving out star ratings, the happy thrills of reading about South Yarra and Carlton, all those familiar spiritual-home streets, would probably have netted Amnesia an extra half. As it is, this is a flawed and oddly shaped book with enough of the old genius in it that I maybe – maybe – won’t give up on Carey quite yet.

J – Howard Jacobson (Hogarth US)
JOr, more properly, J by Howard Jacobson: in this book, the letter seldom appears and when it does, in words like ‘joke’, ‘jest’ and ‘Jesus Christ’, it’s struck through twice. The strange notation comes from main character Kevern’s father, who won’t pronounce the letter aloud but places two fingers across his lips to signify the secret character – a tic Kevern has inherited. Other words have vanished or been altered, too: J take place in the wake of an apparent holocaust no-one seems quite prepared to talk about or even fully acknowledge (it’s known as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED; ‘Remember everything’, one character suggests, ‘and you have no future’), all citizens have been assigned quasi-Jewish names, all placenames have been changed, and no-one even mentions what you might call the real “J word”, because everyone Jewish has been exterminated — or so we think. This is a strange dystopia where dynamic music and jokes have been not banned but “encouraged to fall into desuetude, like the word desuetude”, the catastrophe that sparked it only partly sketched in – guards, heaped bodies, trains taking people away – but striking, and horribly familiar, if never perhaps plausible. Rather belatedly, it was only when Ailinn and Kevern visit the nation’s capital, known as the Necropolis, that I twigged that this was London and the setting the UK; even then, over London is superimposed a place like Egypt, or maybe Israel. The central plot about these two awkward lovers, riddled with tics and paranoias, is obscured somewhat by other plots about a series of murders in Port Reuben where they live (one victim is a cat, described as possessing eyelashes: someone get Jacobson a research cat, stat!), and an art lecturer turned Quisling. These offshoots of plot contribute to the unsettling atmosphere of this book: it possesses a constant thrum of wrongness, like some subsonic rumbling, and I loved it almost unreservedly.

53 books down, 27 to go, and 31 days until the prize is announced. Next week: Yiyun Li, Marilynne Robinson 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 –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

4 thoughts on “Folio Season #9: Black, Cusk, Doerr, Hoffman, Carey, Jacobson

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

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

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

  4. Pingback: Folio Season #13: Barker, Powers, Gee, Waters, Newman, Shamsie, Henderson | The Salt House

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