Novel or Novelty Gimmick?

It was sheer coincidence, reading three novels with unconventional structures in quick succession. So uncoventional that one might question if they are even novels. They certainly felt more like essays or biographies or memoirs, but with fictional narrators and characters. You could say it’s a trend, but while two of the novels are recent, one was published in the 1970s. In fact, it might be safe to say that such novels have existed since the beginning of time: 1001 Nights, Tales of Genji, Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote all mess up with our love of clear chronology and neat linear narratives. So why do I feel that perhaps there is more of an appetite for it now, and that some authors and publishers are deliberately jumping on the bandwagon? Is it indeed that, as our attention spans have shortened, as we get inundated with scraps of half-digested and unproven information, we find it difficult to believe in the authoritative author’s voice and unified narrative?

The three books that got me thinking about all this and more are: Olga Tokarczuk’s¬†Flights,¬†Joanna Walsh’s¬†Break.up and John Berger’s¬†G.¬†However, other recent publications also come to mind, such as Jenny Offill’s¬†Dept of Speculation,¬†Heidi Julavits’¬†The Folding Clock,¬†Rachel Cusk’s recent trilogy (I’ve yet to read Kudos), Lisa Owens’¬†Not Working¬† and Maggie Nelson’s¬†Bluets.¬†I’ve loved some of these and not liked the others all that much, so I don’t think it’s a lack of willingness to engage with experimentation. (On the contrary, how often have you heard me complain that the author has an original concept but simply does not go far enough?) When done successfully, you can feel there is an underlying pattern and intent there, even if you are not sure that you understand it. At times, however, the lack of structure or ‘d√©montage’ of structure feels more like a lazy mess than deliberate experimentation.

The authors of these novels (not all of them describe their work as novels) justify what they do by saying they are ‘lassoing moments that were about to be lost’ (Julavitz) or they are emulating Heraclitus’ river (no matter where you step into the book, it is never the same book – Maggie Nelson). Tokarczuk speaks of the constellation novel, where each person detects their own pattern, based on their past experiences and present sensibilities. Cusk presents the flat, bland heroine who seems to reflect back the thoughts, desires and words of all the people she meets – what I would call the would-be objective anthropological narrator (although we all know that there is no such thing as complete objectivity). Joanna Walsh describes her work as ‘hybrid’, and her ‘novel’ is about the end of an affair (which seems to have existed largely in the narrator’s own mind), a travelogue and lots of internal monologue or attempted dialogue with the absent lover. John Berger’s retelling of the adventures of Giacomo Casanova during a troubled period of history is anything but a conventional biography, going off on substantial tangents and interspersed with secondary characters’ thoughts and back stories. Meanwhile, Jenny Offill argues that the broken structure of her novel reflects the narrator’s broken state of mind, with thoughts randomly coming into her head without too much context. Lisa Owens’s heroine is full of acerbic asides and amusing observations – a fragmented, post-modern Bridget Jones maybe.

I fall for the theoretical explanations of purpose every time, but I have to admit that not all the books are equally adept in the execution. I still think it is far harder to have an overarching theme that plays out through a perfect balance of characters and plot. The danger of fragmentation of course is that the novel becomes a kind of pick’n’mix. Readers will like certain parts and hate (or skip others). Perhaps it is not that different to how I read War and Peace,¬†skipping over most of the battle scenes, unless they featured Napoleon or Prince Andrei? Or does it help if I think of them as poetry, like in the case of¬†Bluets?

Perhaps that is why I enjoy the Spanish or Latin American novels way of storytelling? There are many, many tangential stories in those novels that seem to bear no relationship to the main story and yet you feel that you are progressing, that there is a purpose to the story. Of the books I mention above, I felt that same sense of ‘the author knows where she is going’ with¬†Flights¬†and¬†Bluets,¬†and they are the ones that stayed with me most. And a final point which puzzles me: why are most of these novels written by women in the English-speaking world (which is most certainly not the case in the Spanish-speaking one)?

 

 

 

Henley Literary Festival: Amanda Jennings, Lisa Owens, Cesca Major

henleylitfestivalHenley Literary Festival is virtually on my doorstep, and it was the first literary event I attended, back in 2009. I met the dynamic and very accessible, friendly duo Nicci Gerrard and Sean French (better known as Nicci French) there, we discussed the Moomins and the Martin Beck series, and the rest is history. In other words, my passion for reading and writing was rekindled.

It has grown considerably since, in ways which are not always to my liking, although I do understand the motivation behind it.¬†For instance, it relies heavily on sponsors, who are advertised EVERYWHERE. The eclectic mix of writers and TV celebrities has shifted perhaps a bit too much in favour of the latter. The timing of events has become a bit stricter, so there is less opportunity to chat with your favourite writers. But it is still an informal, friendly affair, with good ticket availability, and with many interesting panels introducing debut authors or authors I’ve not heard of previously.

Henley on Thames, from thamesriviera.com
Henley on Thames, from thamesriviera.com

So I missed it during the past 5 years that I was abroad and was keen to reconnect this year! I would normally choose to spend a whole day in the coquettish riverside town of Henley and attend a number of events, but I had work commitments and came down with flu this week. So the only event I did manage to attend was Book Club Friday at the Town Hall, where Cesca Major interviewed two writers I knew: Amanda Jennings and Lisa Owen. The three women were witty, charming, intelligent and very candid about their writing quirks and paths to publication.

[Sadly, I forgot my mobile phone and camera at home, so was unable to take any pictures, so I am relying on official author photos.]

Lisa Owens, author photo from Picador.
Lisa Owens, author photo from Picador.

Lisa Owens, author of the millenials’ manual for procrastination and disorientation called Not Working , did not expect to write the novel she did. She had left her job in publishing to do a Creative Writing MA and used odd fragments which she had scribbled down as the basis of her dissertation. She realised that there was a clear voice emerging from these fragments and was planning to turn it into a more conventional type of narrative, but, luckily for us, it’s those pithy observations and vulnerability mixed with cynicism which raise this book above any Bridget Jones comparison.

Amanda Jennings, courtesy of Shotsmag magazine.
Amanda Jennings, courtesy of Shotsmag magazine.

Amanda Jennings, meanwhile, admitted that In Her Wake, which is her most successful novel to date, was the one which initially caused her the most heartbreak. It was the second novel that she wrote and she dedicated so much time and effort to it, felt that she had neglected her family to give it her all, that she was devastated when it just didn’t sell. Her agent advised her to embark upon another novel (which did sell, The Judas Scar), and it was only a few years later (after 11-12 rewrites) that she finally found a home for it with Orenda Books.

Meanwhile, Cesca Major enjoyed writing romcoms but decided to put her knowledge of history and love of research to use to write a more serious and dramatic story set in war-time France The Silent Hours. Now she alternates between the two, as it provides her with much-needed light relief.

Cesca Major, from her author website cescamajor.com
Cesca Major, from her author website cescamajor.com

Other topics these authors addressed (often to much laughter from the audience)¬†were: reactions to bad reviews, treating writing as a 9-5¬†job, leaving notes to self in CAPITAL LETTERS in the first draft and how you think you will write one type of book (Irish rural drama in Lisa Owen’s case, romance or bonkbusters in Amanda Jenning’s case) but you end up writing something very different, more in keeping with your voice. They also revealed what they read during the writing process. Lisa is the only one who¬†doesn’t mind reading¬†writers achieving the effects she is after, and reads a few pages of Lorrie Moore or Lydia Davis for inspiration. Cesca and Amanda understandably say they try to avoid those writing works that are too similar to their own, as it can discourage you as a writer (‘They’ve already said it so much better than me’). So they comfort read: recipes books for Amanda, Enid Blyton and Jilly Cooper for Cesca.

The Friday Book Club format works very well: it felt at times like we were eavesdropping on a conversation amongst writerly friends. And it certainly made me eager to read Cesca’s works now as well. Wishing all three writers every success in the future and many more such events!

 

Coming of Age: Then and Now, in Many Countries

I was amused and charmed by the somewhat meandering vignettes of the millenial generation in Lisa Owen’s recent release¬†Not Working.¬†As luck would have it, I had just recently read some other books about growing up and youthful malaise,¬†although all of them took place in other countries and other decades, so I decided to have some fun comparing all of these.

notworkingLisa Owens: Not Working

I expected this to be a bit aimless and self-pitying – the comparison with Bridget Jones did it no favours in my eyes. But I found it sharply observed, funny and perfectly encapsulating the vacancy and emptiness of much of what we take for ‘desirable, sensible goals’ in contemporary life. It is a great portrait of a generation who has (had to?) become cynical before its time.

Claire is in her mid 20s and has quit her meaningless office job to find her ‘true passion’ in life. The problem is, she is not quite sure what that might be, and fears that she may not be cut out for ‘great passions’ at all. Content to amble around, stay in a reasonably comfortable relationship, not embark on anything too adventurous, procrastinate for hours – Claire is our own worst self, someone we can all relate to (if we are being completely honest). She is also much brighter and more self-aware than the hapless being she appears to be, which makes her self-mockery endearing rather than infuriating.

The book has no plot to speak of (although there is some character development, as Claire realises just how important her family is to her and makes up her own mind about the buddleia in her garden), but it really is fun to read, full of acerbic observations, great wit and accurate observations, such as:

Economics
What actually becomes of all this terrible art for sale in cafes, costing the earth?

Job description
Words like ‘maestro’ and ‘superstar’, twinned with ‘administrator’ and ‘volunteer’.

I spend the morning planning an elaborate meal for Luke, composed of recipes from five different websites.
‘So, what have you been up to today?’ Luke asks through a mouthful of Slow-cooked Pulled Pork and Super Zingy Slaw, breaking off a chunk of the Best Jalapeno Cornbread to mop up what’s left of the sauce from the Mac ‘n’ Cheese With All the Bells ‘n’ Whistles.

The same, single article ‘How to Find Your Dream Job’ advises me to: burn all my plans, tear up the rulebook, shop around, try on different hats, county my blessings (and gifts), be kind to myself (yet realistic), listen to my dreams, follow my heart (ditto the path less travelled), move the goalposts, change gears, consider my options, watch out for signs, test the water with a toe before diving in headfirst, take the economic pulse, listen to my elders, ignore all advice.

Credit Photo: Paul Winch-Furness / www.paulwf.co.uk
Credit Photo: Paul Winch-Furness / http://www.paulwf.co.uk

Jean-Michel Guenassia: Le Club des Incorrigibles Optimistes

It’s 1959 and young Michel is discovering rock’n’roll, the first tremors of love and the war in Algeria. In the back room of a Paris bistro, he gives in to his passion for table-football and meets anti-Communist refugees from behind the Iron Curtain, as well as left-leaning philosophers such as Sartre. They loosely form a club, and they might be called optimists because, despite all the terrible news which engulfs them (deaths and desertion in Algeria, poverty and loss of trust and family in Russia and Hungary, broken dreams and love stories), they still hope in a better future.

Although we do hear details of Michel’s family and school life, his preparation for the baccalaureate, losing and making new friends, this is not so much the story of an individual coming of age. Instead, it seeks to paint a fresco of the times (late 1950s to early 1960s) and is framed by the story of the narrator meeting one of the former club members in the present day for the funeral of Sartre. Many poignant and sad personal stories are contained in its pages, but I have to admit this took me longer to read than normally. Not just because it is quite a chunky book, but it didn’t have me rushing back to it every time I put it down (although I did enjoy being transported into that world whenever I picked it up).

diaryeliadeMircea Eliade: Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent

By way of contrast, there is very little to place Eliade’s teenage narrator within a specific historical context, although the sense of place – a more leisurely-paced Bucharest – is beautifully conveyed. Surely post WW1 Romania was a hotbed of political and cultural turmoil, but the author does not choose to explore that at all. The narrator shows all the geekiness, neediness and self-absorption typical of adolescents everywhere, and anyone who has been young will recognise many of the problems he describes with school, approaching girls, grandiose plans for becoming famous, procrastination when it comes to revision, and beating one’s self up for all sorts of failures. So far, so similar to¬†Not Working, except that the protagonist here is 15, studies insects and discusses philosophy and French romantic poets.

The spice of the story comes from the contrast between the¬†erudite and polyglot Mircea Eliade, philosopher and professor of comparative religion at the University of Chicago, and the awkward, geeky adolescent he portrays in this lightly disguised memoir of his high-school years. Although Eliade himself never considered the book worthy of publication (only a fragment was published during his lifetime), it is fun and remains surprisingly fresh after all these years (although the English translation tends to reinforce the ‘period feel’ rather than the timeless nature of the story). A full review of this will appear in May on the Necessary Fiction website, but this is the nearest in spirit (and self-mockery) to Lisa Owen’s book.

storynewnameElena Ferrante: The Story of a New Name

It’s hard to remember that the girls populating this second volume in the Neapolitan series are only adolescents themselves as the novel opens. Just 16 and already married, Lila soon discovers her mistake. She has given up her education and ambitions for financial security and involvement in the family business. Meanwhile, the narrator Elena struggles to live up to her teacher’s expectations at school and escape from her working-class neighbourhood in Naples. So this too is very much a coming of age story, coupled with loss of innocence and expectations.

I was impressed with Elena Ferrante’s standalone novel¬†Days of Abandonment,¬†but resisted this tetralogy for quite some time. I was afraid that it would be the kind of ‘family saga’ of working-class girl made good type (Catherine Cookson, Barbara Taylor Bradford) which I enjoyed in my teens, but don’t read much now. After reading this book (without reading the first in the series, so perhaps I am coming to it ‘cold’), I am not quite as won over as all the hype of ‘Ferrante Fever’ would have us believe.

Not that it is bad – certainly not trashy, throwaway fiction. I loved the realistic descriptions of the ebb and flow of female friendships, the need to both escape one’s background and yet never quite fitting in anywhere else, women giving up on their dreams and yet persevering, the resilience and vulnerability of youth. What is perhaps startling and new to English readers is the passion and candour that comes across, as well as all the exotic detail of life in poor neighbourhoods of Naples in the 1950s/60s. For someone who has heard and seen first-hand the rural poverty that my mother was trying to escape from (very similar story to Elena but in Romania of the same time period), and who has listened to many similar stories of macho men and resilient women, this is all familiar ground. Furthermore, Romanian women writers of the 1930s whom I devoured in high school had already opened the way to exploration of feelings, sexuality, self-improvement and even feminism. Authors such as Cella Serghi, Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu, Martha Bibesco, or later ones such as Gabriela Adamesteanu, Dora Pavel, Doina Rusti or Nora Iuga have a similar ability to bring unbridled passion and unfettered feminine wit to a story. I’m not claiming that all these writers are better or even equal to Ferrante – merely that they are treading similar paths.