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Folio Season #10: Robinson, Lethem, Waldman, Osborne and more

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…

ViequesA bumper edition this week (now the holiday [above] is over): reviews below of Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman, The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne, Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut, Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn, Kinder than Solitude by Yiyun Li, Nora Webster by Colm Toibin and and On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee. Whew!

Lila – Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux US)
LilaLila isn’t her name; she doesn’t have a name of her own, only ‘a likeness of a name’. Lila is a name given to her; her surname, Dahl, a corruption of the name of Doll, the woman who rescues – or steals – Lila as a baby from a household where she’s neglected and abused. Over the course of her life, Lila is a scavenger, a wild girl, a prostitute and, finally, a wife and mother. The undertow of her life on the run with Doll and a ragtag bunch of travellers still calls to her; even when happily married and with a daughter of her own, she still feels that one day she might have to leave her adopted home and run again. It’s a while since I read Home and Gilead, the two novels to which Lila is successor and part sequel, and so I have lost track a little of the Ames and Boughtons of those books, and the various quiet struggles and betrayals of their backstory; here, Lila marries the elderly reverend, John Ames, at the very end of his life; I suspect that to re-read those other two books (as I intend to) with this foreknowledge will cast an interesting new perspective on this quiet saga, in which marriage is undertaken for deceptively simple reasons: ‘“I’m going to keep you safe. And you’re going to keep me honest.”’ Taken on its own merits, though, this is a subtle, beautiful, tremendously moving novel, one of the best on this list.

Dissident Gardens – Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday US)
Dissident GardensIt took me quite a while to get into this book, which wouldn’t normally be a problem, but as I’m reading against time, as it were, was irritating. Partly I was put off by what seems its opening’s flagrant… um, homage, shall we say, to Philip Roth. “Quit fucking black cops or get booted from the Communist Party. There stood the ultimatum, the absurd sum total of the message conveyed to Rose Zimmer by the cabal gathered in her Sunnyside Gardens kitchen that evening. Late fall, 1955.” That’s the first line of Lethem’s book; compare the opening of Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater: “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over. / This was the ultimatum, the maddeningly improbable, wholly unforeseen ultimatum, that the mistress of fifty-two delivered to in tears to her lover of sixty four […]” Let’s say that Lethem’s a fan. A scene shortly afterward in which Rose remonstrates, hysterical and half-naked, with her daughter Miriam (for going on a date), seems like what might happen if you fed every Roth novel into a kind of condensing machine and produced a five-page summary: the most Rothian of rants. The book’s concerns – political activism, the generation gap, protest songs, Jewishness, Communism (the “twentieth-century Americanism”) and What It Means To Be An American (for one character, it’s “to be presented with an unrecognisable image of yourself which you must not fail to claim as yourself”) – aren’t unRothian either. It must be deliberate, surely? Set yourself up against the master at your peril, I say: Lethem’s book has the density of prose of late high Roth, as well as some of the concerns about the intersection and overlapping of the personal and the political (see I Married a Communist, American Pastoral), but little of his elegance nor the killer plotting. Dissident Gardens has some memorable setpieces – often involving games, oddly, whether chess or TV quiz shows – but I struggled my way through it, wishing for a bit less hero-worship and a bit more clarity of purpose, as well as of prose. A clunker.

Love and Treasure – Ayelet Waldman (Knopf US)
Love and TreasureLike All the Light We Cannot See last week, this is one of those generations-spanning, world-tramping novels that takes real events in World War II as its starting point. Jack, stationed in Salzburg at the very end of the war, is charged with guarding a train filled with the valuables of Hungarian Jews sent to concentration camps: their jewellery, silverware, artworks. A century later, his granddaughter travels to Budapest to try to reunite a particular piece of jewellery – a bejewelled peacock, purloined by Jack – to its rightful owner, or as near to such a person as possible. And in 1913, at the dawn of the fight for women’s rights, a psychoanalyst is called in to help a young Hungarian proto-suffragette whose story will become entwined with the peacock ornament’s. I liked the leapfrogging structure of this book, which moves through three distinct time periods, united by works of art; it’s uneven, however, since compared to the engaging WWII narrative and the psychoanalyst’s notes on his young charge, the central present-day narrative, which should be terrific (it’s a kind of who-owns-it, rather than whodunit, based around stolen and lost artworks, and has a nicely hubristic ending) is just a series of rather dry deductions in which coincidence – which plays too big a part throughout the book – figures heavily. I also rather resisted the very programmatic links between Waldman’s title and her text: a series of love affairs, a number of priceless treasures – it’s all a bit ‘Do you see?!’ Likewise, the analyst’s account is a little too tinged with hindsight: we enlightened readers know that Nina is ‘right’ to insist on equal rights for women, her father a baddie for sending her for treatment for dementia praecox, and well-meaning Dr Zobel ‘ignorant’ for obstructing her, so this section, while convincingly written, seems somewhat an exercise in knowing historical reinforcement: look how unenlightened people were a hundred years ago! When it hits its stride, it’s very readable, but that only comes in fits and starts; the opening, in which Jack and his granddaughter are reunited a day before his death, is particularly stilted.

The Ballad of a Small Player – Lawrence Osborne (Hogarth US)
Ballad of a Small PlayerThis is partly why I set out on this Folio Season business: here’s a writer I’ve not only never read before but hadn’t even heard of, though Osborne is the author of several other books. The Ballad of a Small Player is a short, claustrophobic novel set on the gambling island of Macau, where time and daylight disappear and our narrator, known as Lord Doyle, can escape his criminal background, adopt a new name, and win and lose all day long. Like any gambler, he has runs of luck, but his latest is his most bizarre: playing baccarat, where the best cards are a four and a five, he is dealt exactly this hand over and over, winning and winning and winning. Statistically it’s not impossible, but it is deeply improbable. Still Doyle keeps testing the run, wondering when his luck will run out – or if it ever will. Has he been blessed? Cursed? I liked this novel a lot, even when its strangeness crossed over from the statistical to something like a ghost story. There’s a telling central metaphor about Chinese versions of Hell and of ‘hungry ghosts’: ‘Continually suffering from hunger or thirst, they cannot sate or slake either craving.’ A late-stage twist is, if not exactly predictable, satisfyingly apt for the story Osborne is telling. I’ll certainly be seeking out more of his books.

Arctic Summer – Damon Galgut (Europa Editions US)
Arctic SummeGalgut’s novel follows E.M. Forster as he travels to India for the first time, exploring the reasons for his visit (romantic, sort of) and the consequences (a novel widely accepted as Forster’s masterpiece). It’s slightly puzzling to me why books like this exist. A good biography – though I’ve not found any of the books on Forster I’ve read to be especially good – would cover much of this material; what a factual account might eschew, Galgut does very well, however, extrapolating from what’s known of Forster to generate fictive scenes of thwarted passion, for instance, which have the ring of truth about them even if they’re largely invented. I’m a bit torn about this book: novels about novelists are one thing, novels about real novelists another, and novels which seek to dramatise poetic inspiration can be reductive. On the other hand, the shorthand view that suggests writing is a kind of quasi-mystical business (present in the word ‘inspiration’, as though the writer or artist has been ‘breathed into’ by some unknowable higher power) can be irritating – so this book has a fine line to walk. I’m not convinced that it’s more than the sum of its parts, though the writing is good and the subject matter interesting. I suppose it comes down to whether it’s more interesting to the reader to witness process or outcome; this book suggests that the two are very close — this fictive Forster synthesises various experiences and real characters for A Passage to India, but much of what he witnesses ends up in his novel unmediated, as it were, which seems to slightly do a disservice to his work.

Lost for Words – Edward St Aubyn (Farrar, Straus & Giroux US)
Lost for WordsIt takes some chutzpah, you might say, for an award-winning author to write a comic novel that suggests (some) literary prizes are administered by idiots and hypocrites, riven with infighting, prey to conflicts of interests, and awarded almost inevitably to the least deserving, lowest-common-denominator finalist. It may reflect some humour on the part of literary prize boards that Lost for Words should have been listed for this prize. For me, this is a slight confection, rife with the sort of farce and comedy that perhaps works better on screen or in the theatre than on the page. The targets are either easy – the establishment of the Folio Prize in response to an especially anaemic Booker Prize year is a more fitting response than St Aubyn’s book – or bizarre (a maniacal publisher with bad hair implants is named, at once pointedly and pointlessly, John Elton), and the climactic awarding of the Elysian Prize to a cookbook mistaken by some judges for a novel is a cop-out, skewering neither the literary pretension some real-life prizes are castigated over, nor the focus on ‘readability’ for which some others are criticised. Excerpts from the shortlisted books are troublesome too: it beggars belief that a (very) sub-Irvine Welsh book, wot u lookin at, might be considered for the prize; it’s worse that Lost for Words then points out its sub-Welsh-ness. And in a book where characters decry clichés in the books they read, a single paragraph that contains the phrases ‘Penny was lost for words’ and ‘she really didn’t appreciate having her head bitten off’ might want to set its own house in order. I did, however, like the idea of Ghost, a writer’s software which suggests not just synonyms but clichés expanding from a particular word or phrase, and which allows the user to bump up the wordcount of her novel-in-progress ‘in leaps and bounds’. But there’s that unabashed deployment of cliché again!

Kinder than Solitude – Yiyun Li (Random House US)
Kinder Than SolitudeSubtle to the point of glacial, this novel starts with the death of Shaoai, who’s been in a coma for 21 years. As news of her death reaches the three people who knew her best in the late 1980s, their past starts to unfold in their reactions and memories. Shaoai’s coma was the result of her poisoning, possibly at the hands of one of this trio – but who? And why? And does it really make any difference? I was very taken with the story of Ruyu, adopted by Shaoai’s family and a kind of brutally passive character whom Shaoai taunts for her refusal to engage with the world. Her former peers, Boyang and Moran, are equally solitary creatures at odds with the world. The preoccupations of this book are there in the title (what do you sacrifice by being stoically solitary? Is it better to engage with others and, essentially, risk your life, as Shaoai does when she participates in a political protest?) but the frequent recurrences of ‘kind’, ‘kindness’, ‘solitude’, and all their variants, in the text drive the point home a little too hard. At times this really came to life for me; the central conceit – ‘the habit of being opaque allowed [Ruyu] to be a mystery in people’s eyes. To want to know any person better requires one to give up that position ad to become less inscrutable’ – I found intriguing and unusual, and the book explores its ramifications well. I liked, too, the way that an ostensible mystery (who did the poisoning?) is allowed to disappear for long stretches, its resolution not unclear and yet something of a shrug: now that you’ve read all about these characters, does it matter whether Shaoai killed herself or was poisoned? Something about this ambiguity is, paradoxically, not at all disappointing.

Nora Webster – Colm Toibin (Penguin Viking UK)
Nora WebsterMore subtlety. The eponymous main character of Toibin’s limpid, moving novel is a recent widow, bringing up two boys in the Ireland of the late 1960s. Over three years, her grief shifts, ebbs, waxes, changes: she starts to return to real life, and is both cossetted and hindered by the people of Enniscorthy, the small town near Dublin where she lives: this is a place where everyone knows everyone else, a support network that’s more of a trap to get tangled in. The disapproval that greets Nora’s dyeing her hair, or buying a brightly coloured dress, is palpable and tangible. This sort of suffocating atmosphere pervades this novel; weirdness thrums at a low level – something odd happens to Nora’s sons Conor and Donal, yet, trying not to be as fussy and busybody as her own parents, she doesn’t quite sufficiently investigate what has transpired. It’s a short book into which a vast amount of slow-burning, almost imperceptible action is packed; Nora is hindered and helped in her return to post-mourning life, but judgement – whether approving or not – is always being made, as she is judging others. In the background, too, the Troubles are starting: the other side of the country may as well be a half a world away, at least until locals start getting involved. You come away from this book feeling almost clammy: it’s a terrific achievement.

On Such a Full Sea – Chang-Rae Lee (Riverhead US)
On Such a Full SeaA dystopia set five minutes in the future, where the city of Baltimore – now known as B-Mor – is a kind of island fortress whose inhabitants live a balanced, peaceful, self-sufficient life. It’s a world of handscreens and vids, technological extrapolations only slightly removed from those of our own time, but also a world where every human being will die of ‘C’ (cancer)… or maybe not quite every one. Fan, a fishergirl who looks after the fish on which B-Mor depends, sets off on a quest beyond B-Mor to the rich Counties in search of her boyfriend Reg who, it’s rumoured, has never had ‘C’ and has perhaps been taken to the Counties for monitoring or experimentation.
There’s lots about this book that I liked: for one, the structure, which alternates between Fan’s story and a “we” voice that relates what happens in B-Mor in her absence, as the inhabitants grow dissatisfied with their seemingly idyllic life and anarchy starts to bloom. Those unnamed communal voice narrates Fan’s adventures elsewhere, too, and so there is a sort of double fable thing going on: the B-Mors’ acts are put in a kind of passive voice, as if everyone yet no-one is responsible for their graffiti and littering, and it’s by no means certain if what they describe Fan doing is a true account or a kind of myth. These adventures can be less or more involving – one in which Fan faces down cannibals is too familiar a horror, but one in which she’s inveigled into a cult of identically genetically altered girls with numbers for names and an obsession with making art is terrific – seem arbitrarily plotted, as if this could have been a much longer or much shorter book without suffering unduly. Fan herself, as befits a mythic figure, is somewhat sketchily characterised, but that doesn’t seem to matter too much. On Such a Full Sea is an uneven book, not always a satisfying one, but memorable all the same.

62 books down, 18 to go, and 24 days until the prize is announced. Next week: Constantine Phipps, Jane Smiley 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