Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas
HMH • $19.95 • September 1, 2010
I have been eager to read Scarlett Thomas' latest since I first heard about it back in March. As predicted, it's another book full of big ideas. This time Thomas' main focus is narrative—its limitations, restrictions and role in our lives—which she explores through the story of Meg, a would-be literary author who works as one of many ghostwriters for the Zeb Ross series of adventure novels.
Then again, perhaps it's wrong to call this a story, exactly. One of the many notions batted around in this philosophical novel is the idea of the "storyless story," a tale that refuses to follow the traditional narrative structure, and Our Tragic Universe can definitely be read as such. It's difficult to pull an excerpt from a book with so many threads—but in the one below, Meg is thinking about the ways in which tragedy is different from genre fiction.
Oedipus is an almost perfect example of the deterministic, cause-and-effect-based plot, where Y can only happen because I has happened first. . . . But every time I re-read it I marvelled at how a narrative could do so much more than just tell a satisfying story with a beginning, middle and an end, which was basically what I was always teaching the people on the retreat to do, and what I'd always done myself. Somehow, Oedipus seemed to dramatise a fundamental puzzle of human existence. Anna Karenina did this as well. So did Hamlet. . . . I could see that most narrative was an equation that balance, a zero-sum game, and that tragedy was special because you got more out of the equation that you put in, but I had no idea how to write like that. The mechanics of Oedipus were simple enough to grasp, but where did one get all that feeling from?
I'd once speculated about what would have happened if Zeb Ross had written Hamlet. There'd be no ghost, for a start. Or at least, the ghost would be reduced to a troubled teenager's hallucination, and Hamlet, with the help of his plucky love interest, Ophelia, would come to realise that his new stepfather didn't really do something as improbably and stupid as pour poison in his father's ear, and had in fact tried to save his life! Hamlet would start seeing a counsellor—perhaps Polonius, who dabbles in the self-help industry himself, would recommend someone—and come to terms with his bereavement and realise that it's OK for his mother to have sex with her new husband (although there'd be no 'rank sweat of an enseamed bed' or anything icky like that) and he'd go back to university happy, having now accepted the change in his family circumstances, with Ophelia in tow. Then I realised that if I'd written Hamlet it probably would have been like that too.
Room by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown • $24.99 • September 13, 2010
As a longtime fan of Emma Donoghue, I was eager to read Room the moment I heard about it. I took a copy home over the weekend, but didn't have a chance to pick it up until Sunday night. My plan was to read "just a few pages" before bed. An hour and a half later I had to force myself to put it down. Not since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time have I been so compelled by a child narrator: just-turned-five Jack's account of his life as a captive in an 11 x 11-foot room with his mother is especially powerful because for him, it is not a nightmare. Thanks to his imaginative and loving mother, he is as close to normal as a child raised without other contact can be.
"Can they come here sometime for real?"
"I wish they could," she says. "I pray for it so hard, every night."
"I don't hear you."
"Just in my head," says Ma.
I didn't know she prays things in her head where I can't hear.
"They're wishing it too," she says, "but they don't know where I am."
"You're in Room with me."
"But they don't know where it is, and they don't know about you at all."
That's weird. "They could look on Dora's Map, and when they come I could pop out at them for a surprise."
Ma nearly laughs but not quite. "Room's not on any map."
"We could tell them on a telephone, Bob the Builder has one."
"But we don't."
"We could ask for one for Sundaytreat." I remember. "If Old Nick stops being mad."
"Jack. He'd never give us a phone, or a window." Ma takes my thumbs and squeezes them. "We're like people in a book, and he won't let anybody else read it."
Day for Night by Frederick Reiken
Reagan Arthur Books, April 26, 2010
It is often said that successful novels need at least two out of three things: good writing, good characters or a good story. That may be true. But in the best novels, like Frederick Reiken's Day for Night, you get all three.
Just a handful of pages later, we leave Beverly to fly to Utah with Tim and the lead singer in his band, Dee. A few pages after that, we're reading a deposition from a federal agent who's been tracking a suspected terrorist for the last 20 years. All of these threads, and more, come together in surprising, compelling ways. Poetic and moving, Day for Night is a novel to remember.
This excerpt is from the second section, told from Tim's perspective.
We have a song, which Dee wrote—she's written all of our songs—called "Close You Are," and unlike "Down in the Sea of Me," it isn't cryptic and it isn't about Dee's history of childhood trauma. What it's about is the idea that we're much closer than we think to the random people we see on any given day, that everyone in this world carves out a little groove and that although you may think your world is large you rarely venture far outside that groove. That there are other people in these grooves with you, that grooving, at least in this song, means to be dancing with the people in your groove. The chorus of the song—Close you are, grooving!—might sound dumb just to say (especially since people hear it as "groovy" and not "grooving"), but it sounds good when you hear Dee sing it. She jumps around a lot when she sings this song and it's fun to watch her. It's like she's two different people singing, one who sings Close you are and another who chimes in grooving! She seems so happy and clear, unlike in "Down in the Sea of Me." When she sings that song, you get scared because it's like she's turned into this big black hole and you're sucked right in. Her face turns mean and you would think a person with a face like that could kill you. A face like that you will keep on seeing in your mind and you'll feel relief when you drive home and know that face is just a memory. The problem is that when you're far enough away you'll want to see it again, this face that is cruel and luscious and arousing. You think you really might be willing to go down into that sea.
Between Friends by Kristy Kiernan
Berkley, April 2010
Kristy Kiernan's third novel follows a contemporary family through some major turmoil. Sixteen years ago, Cora donated an egg to help Ali and Benny conceive a daughter, Letty. Now Ali wants to have a second child—but Benny isn't so sure. And neither is Cora, who has a secret she's not sharing with her very best friend. Kiernan is an insightful writer with a gift for dialogue—especially teen dialogue—that lifts Between Friends above the rest of the crowded women's fiction field.
"I'm not going to discuss having another baby when we can't control the one we already have!"
"She's not a baby!" I yelled back, matching his volume, tired of being on the receiving end. "They grow up, Benny, they grow up and they lie and they test you and they do things that make you crazy. That's what they do. That's not a reason to turn into a dictator, and it's not a reason not to have another one."
"Well, I think it is." He clenched his hands, looking for something to do with them, his face red and mottled.
I should have been terrified for him. He looked like someone about to have a heart attack, or a stroke. But instead, I was terrified of him.
"I'm not going to stay here when you're this angry, and I'm not going to expose Letty to it, either." I said, my voice trembling.
"If you walk out that door, Ali, don't be so sure that it's going to be open when you come back."
I shook all the way to Cora's.
(In the interest of full disclosure: Kristy Kiernan is among the authors who have occasionally written reviews for BookPage.)
Faithful Place by Tana French
Viking, July 13, 2010
"Howyis," I said, in the doorway.
A ripple of mugs going down, heads turning. My ma's snappy black eyes and five bright-blue pairs exactly like mine, all staring at me.
"Hide the heroin," Shay said. He was leaning against the window with his hands in his pockets; he'd watched me coming down the road. "It's the pigs." . . .
"Francis," Ma said. She eased back into the sofa, folded her arms where her waist would have been and eyed me up and down. "Could you not be bothered putting on a decent shirt, even?"
I said, "Howya, Ma."
"Mammy, not Ma. The state of you. The neighbors'll think I raised a homeless."
Somewhere along the way I'd swapped the army parka for a brown leather jacket, but apart from that I still have much the same fashion sense I left home with. If I'd worn a suit, she would have given me hassle for having notions of myself. With my ma you don't expect to win.
So Much for That by Lionel Shriver
Harper, March 2010
Shep could feel it, that for Zach suddenly the whole happy-family playacting was too much. The boy didn't know that until a week ago his father was about to abscond to the east coast of Africa, and he didn't know that his mother had just been diagnosed with a rare and deadly cancer, much less did he know that as far as his mother was concered the disease was his father's fault. But these highly incidental unsaids emitted the equivalent of the high-frequency sound waves that convenience stores now broadcast outside their shops to keep loitering gangs from the door. What dulled adult ears could no longer detect was unbearable to adolescents, and the same might be said of emotional fraud. Zach popped his pizza pocket early from the taoster and took his half-frozen dinner in a paper towel upstairs without even bothering with "See ya."
Roast chicken, boiled potatoes and steamed green beans. Glynis commended his preparation, but only picked. "I feel fat," she admitted.
"You're underweight. It's only fluid. You have to stop thinking like that."
"Suddenly I'm supposed to become a different person?"
"You can be the same person who eats more."
"Your chicken," she said, "is probably not what I feel so little appetite for." This was surely true. Given the purpose of food, an appetite at meals implied an appetite for the future.