Remainder by Tom McCarthy

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The characters in the novels of the postwar moment are characterized by a determined, almost defensive normalcy. Characters that break the mold of the defined “normal” flaunt their otherness in the face of the conventional, challenging the ordinary. While these characters delight readers with their unapologetic oddness, they also confront society’s vision of normality causing the normal characters to react to this challenging of their values. In Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, the nameless protagonist has suffered a mysterious accident, causing him to have to relearn basic physical behaviors. While he reviews how to perform physical tasks, his cognitive and emotional capacity has clearly been affected. He no longer feels natural in the world he inhabits, rather he feels as though he hardly exists. After winning eight and a half million dollars in a settlement, the protagonist is able to pursue his bizarre fantasy of acting out mundane scenarios over and over; these re-enactments make him feel real, even though the events are entirely staged. Fascinatingly, the supposed “normal” characters are roped into his concept, accepting his orders in return for money. By the end of the novel, the protagonist has managed to involve an enormous number of people in his fantasy, people who seem to do his bidding without questioning his motives. The protagonist in the Remainder spreads his “otherness”, expanding London’s perception of the “normal” through his re-enactments. However, his disregard for human life surpasses the sphere of the natural and enters into the realm of the deviant and inhuman.

The protagonist’s greatest desire is to feel natural and real in a world of which he no longer feels a part. He believes there is too much thought associated with his actions, which frustrates him immensely: “That’s the way I had to do things after the accident: understand them first, then do them.” (McCarthy, 14) He watches a movie starring Robert De Niro, admiring the naturalness of his motions, his realness: “He flows into his movements, even the most basic ones. Opening fridge doors, lighting cigarettes. He doesn’t have to think about them because he and they are one. Perfect. Real. My movements are all fake. Second-hand.” (McCarthy, 24) Initially the protagonist sees himself as abnormal and De Niro as normal, the unnaturalness of his movements a sign of unusualness. His friend, Greg convinces him, however, that unnaturalness is actually more ordinary than naturalness. “You’re not unusual. You know what you are?…You’re just more usual than everyone else.” (McCarthy, 24) In this scene, our protagonist is deemed extra-ordinary, which begins his foray into extraordinary behavior. Thus, it is in a desire for normalcy, that the protagonist delves into the distinctly abnormal.

The protagonist’s plans start relatively small. He initially wants to create a house for himself that mimics a scene that may or may not have happened. When in the bathroom at a party, he has a moment of intense déjà vu when looking at a crack in a wall. This moment of memory or imagination makes the protagonist feel real for the first time since his accident. He thus decides he will spend his money on re-enacting this scene perfectly: “I wanted to reconstruct that space and enter it so that I could feel real again. I wanted to; I had to; I would.” (McCarthy, 67) Thus, begins his concept of re-enactments. He hires a logistical “executor”, Naz, to help him realize his vision. (McCarthy, 77) Naz doesn’t treat the protagonist’s requests as odd, rather he responds as though the desires are perfectly natural. Naz’s enthusiasm for tackling logistical challenges quells any unvoiced doubts he may have about the sanity of the project. The protagonist recognizes in order to construct his fantasy world he will have to, “buy a whole building, and fill it with people who’d behave just as [he] told them to.” (McCarthy, 69) Naz responds to the protagonist’s bizarre requests succinctly and unquestioningly. When the protagonist describes a certain woman he would like to be a part of his re-enactment, “There’ll be an old woman downstairs, immediately below me…her main duty will be to cook liver. Constantly…She’ll also be required to deposit a bin bag outside her door as I descend the staircase, and to exchange certain words with me which I’ll work out and assign to her,” Naz simply replies, “Understood…who next?” (McCarthy, 87) Naz’s affinity for logistics causes him to lose sight of the normal and be sucked into the protagonist’s otherness. Neither the protagonist nor Naz considers the lives of these re-enactors; they do not acknowledge that a continuous and physically exhausting job, dependent upon the whims of the protagonist could be unethical. While the protagonist has suffered a trauma, Naz has not, evidencing that the protagonist’s zeal and otherness is spreading to Naz who was previously “normal”.

The intricacy and immensity of the protagonist’s vision causes Naz to hire a huge number of staff members:

We hired an architect. We hired an interior designer. We hired a landscape gardener for the courtyard. We hired contractors, who hired builders, electricians and plumbers. There were site managers and sub-site managers, delivery coordinators, and coordination supervisors. We took on performers, props and wardrobe people, hair and make-up artists. We hired security guards. We fired the interior designer and hired another one. We hired people to liaise between Naz and the builders and managers and supervisors, and people to run errands for the liaisers so that they could liaise better. (McCarthy, 111)

As the staff grows, the protagonist’s sphere of influence grows larger, causing a large number of “normal” people to become involved in his abnormality. As the protagonist is the narrator, readers have little insight into the minds of his staff; however, their participation in his project suggests complicity. None of the people the protagonist hires to participate in his re-enactments question why he is doing these re-enactments. The only questions they ask are logistical. When explaining the pianist’s role in his re-enactment, the protagonist says, “You make mistakes…then you go over the passage you got wrong again, slowing right down into the bit where you messed up. You play it again and again and again—and then when you’ve got down how to do it without messing up, play it some more times, coming back to normal speed…you with me?” The pianist’s only response is, “I make the mistakes deliberately?” (McCarthy, 119) The obedient and unthinking behavior of the protagonist’s staff is nearly as odd as the protagonist’s vision itself. The protagonist spreads his peculiarity with the simple incentive of money. The compensation for their actions cause the staff not to question the idiosyncratic vision the protagonist is attempting to realize.

While the protagonist shows a blatant lack of concern for the convenience of his employees, even employing children at all hours to satisfy his desires, his re-enactment of a shooting reveals his lack of reverence for human life. He procures the part of the street where the shooting took place, not imagining that this re-enactment could be upsetting for the family of the dead man. He is only concerned with the “realness” of the event and must re-enact it. “Forensic procedure is an art form, nothing less. No, I’ll go further: it’s higher, more refined, than any art form. Why? Because it is real. Take just one aspect of it—say the diagrams: with all their outlines, arrows and shaded blocks they look like abstract paintings…but they’re not abstract at all. They’re records of atrocities.” (McCarthy, 185) While the protagonist may not show reverence for the dead man’s life, he does actually honor him in his own way. “This man had become a symbol of perfection. It may have been clumsy to fall from his bike, but in dying beside the bollards on the tarmac he’d done what I wanted to do: merged with the space around him, sunk and flowed into it until there was no distance between it and him—and merged, too, with his actions, merged to the extend of having no more consciousness of them.” (McCarthy, 198) The supposed “normal” people are not having the same semi-reverent experience with the dead man; none of them have undergone a trauma like the protagonist. Their concept of humanity should not be affected, yet, they participate in a re-enactment that, in their view, should be considered unethical. These people should be held to a higher moral standard, yet the prospect of money causes them to forget their qualms about impersonating a recent death. The protagonist has extended the morally acceptable with and money.

As the novel progresses, Naz becomes increasingly affected and obsessed with exacting the protagonist’s vision. It isn’t the re-enactments themselves that excite him, rather the opportunity to put all of his logistical genius to work. The narrator notes a change in the behavior and demeanor of Naz, “He’d always been dedicated to my projects…but back then his dedication had been purely professional. Now, though, his inbuilt genius for logistics was mixed with something else: a kind of measured zeal, a quiet passion. He defended my work with a fierceness that was muted but unshakable.” (McCarthy, 233) Naz is grateful to the narrator for allowing him into his fantasy, providing him the opportunity to exert his logistical abilities. He says to the narrator, “‘Thank you…for the…just for the…I’ve never managed so much information before…’ His eyes were sparking now.” (McCarthy, 235) The narrator’s suspicions are confirmed, “Yes. Naz was a zealot—but his zealotry wasn’t religious: it was bureaucratic. And he was drunk: infected, driven onwards, on towards a kind of ecstasy just by the possibilities of information management my projects were opening up for him, each one more complex, more extreme.” (McCarthy, 235) The narrator’s abnormal desires allow Naz a professional opportunity that is inconceivable in the normal world. He pushes the boundaries of conventionality, which then allows Naz to also pursue his passion. However, Naz’s zealotry for his work soon competes with his humanity.

The narrator decides that he would like to re-enact a bank heist. He procures a warehouse and meticulously plans out the event. The narrator soon realizes that his re-enactment would be more genuine if it were a real bank heist. He decides to plan a re-enactment without obtaining permission of the bank or telling the re-enactors that the heist is real. The re-enactment becomes a real robbery. “In law we’d be robbing a bank. There were no two ways about it. In the eyes of the staff, the customers and bystanders and police it wouldn’t be a performance, a simulation, a re-staging: it would be a heist—pure and simple, straight up.” (McCarthy, 263) The narrator and Naz plan the heist, but soon realize that there is great potential for information leakage about their plan. Naz comes up with the plan to kill all of the re-enactors in planes. “One way to guarantee there’ll be no information leakage…is to eliminate the channels it could leak through.” (McCarthy, 274) When the protagonist asks Naz what he means by ‘eliminate’, Naz replies: “‘Eliminate…’ his voice was shaking so much it reminded me of spoons in egg-and-spoon races, the way they shake and rattle—as though the task of carrying what it had to say were too much…‘Remove, take out, vaporize.’” (McCarthy, 274) The narrator is unperturbed about the deaths of hundreds of people. His reply to Naz’s suggestion is, “Wow!…That’s beautiful.” (McCarthy, 276) At this point of the novel, the complete inhumanity and extreme otherness of the protagonist becomes clear; “I lay there for the rest of the night, picturing planes bursting, flowers dehiscing. I felt happy—happy to have seen such a beautiful image…My pyramid was like a Pharaoh’s pyramid. I was like the Pharaoh. There were my loyal servants…my reward to them was to allow them to accompany me on the first segment of my final voyage.” (McCarthy, 276) His lack of compassion for human beings and concern for human life turn his oddness and peculiarity into deviance.

The bank heist goes horribly wrong. One of the protagonist’s hired re-enactors is shot and killed during the re-enactment. “The only thing that moved was a deep red flow coming from Four’s chest. It emerged from his chest and advanced onto the carpet…‘Beautiful!’ I whispered.” (McCarthy, 291) It is not only the protagonist’s lack of concern about his employee’s death that point to his complete ambivalence toward human life. The fact that he does not know any of his employees’ names and refers to them as numbers further emphasizes his unnaturalness and inhumanity. When the other re-enactors try to call off the re-enactment, they realize that they have been duped, that the re-enactment was a real heist.  Naz’s reaction to the failure of the re-enactment and the messiness of the mistakes cause him to break down. “It wasn’t dramatic or hysterical: it was more like a computer crashing—the way the screen, rather than explode or send its figures dancing higgledy-piggledy around, simply freezes.” (McCarthy, 297-298)

Though the protagonist is responsible for the death of Four, it is still possible to consider his death an accident. However, that is not the case with the death of Two. The protagonist blatantly and needlessly shoots Two, simply because he feels like it. “Two was as far from me as Four had been when he, Two had shot him, Four, in the back…I shot him. It was half instinctive, a reflex, as I’d first suspected: to tug against the last solid thing there was, which was the trigger…but I’d be lying if I said it was only that that made me pull the trigger and shoot Two. I did it because I wanted to.” (McCarthy, 299)The protagonist feels no guilt or shame when Naz sees Two’s body. The protagonist cheerfully says, “Isn’t it beautiful?” (McCarthy, 300) At this point the normal and the deviant separate. While the protagonist is untroubled by the murder he just committed, Naz is unable to cope with the reality of death, particularly one that is messy and disorganized. “Naz didn’t answer. He just stood there, looked up, closed down, vacant.” (McCarthy, 300) While Naz is able to plan the conceptual murders of hundreds of people in planes, when faced with the reality of death he shuts down. Perhaps normal isn’t the right word for Naz, however he is more certainly more so that the protagonist who cheerfully considers the death of two of his nameless employees as “beautiful”. It is the protagonist who infects Naz with the his vision, the prospect of exercising his logistical genius with an intricate project. However, Naz is not entirely soulless. He is horrified at the prospect of a dead man in front of him, while the protagonist’s reaction to the death is happiness.

The narrator, in his effort to feel real and normal becomes abnormal and deviant. Though his actions allow for the gainful employment of hundreds of people, and provide professional opportunities for people like Naz, his expansion of the realm of the normal snaps with his decision to kill all of his employees. His enormous amount of wealth allows him to challenge the status quo without being challenged by dubious staff. His oddness is initially acceptable, despite some of his unethical practices, like making people, adults and children work extreme hours and failing to learn his employees’ names. However once humans are harmed in the execution of his fantasy, he enters the realm of positive evil. While a character like Naz is certainly changed and affected by his association with the narrator, his humanity is not entirely lost like the protagonist’s. He still regards murder with shock and horror, rather than an unconcerned euphoria. While the protagonist expands London’s concept of normal, he eventually crosses the line. His otherness becomes blaring and unacceptable in the face of normality.

Street by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

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He fell in love with the butcher’s daughter

When he saw her passing by in her white trousers

Dangling a knife on a ring at her belt.

He stared at the dark shining drops on the paving-stones.

 

One day he followed her

Down the slanting lane at the back of the shambles.

A door stood half-open

And the stairs were brushed and clean,

Each tread marked with the red crescent

Her bare heels left, raiding to faintest at the top.

The Third Man by Graham Greene–The Bloody Fool: Rollo Martin’s Determined Belief in Harry Lime

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In Postwar Britain, the concept of “belief,” the trusting in the existence of something without tangible proof, was considered quaint and naïve. The “believers” in this period are viewed with the same sympathetic mirth as those who sleep with their doors unlocked only to have their mattress full of hundred dollar bills raided in the night. The viewers feel deep compassion for these people, combined with a peculiar envy for their innocence that is quickly combated by a “well, they had it coming” grimace. This compassionate vindictiveness is captured in the literature of the time. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a dystopic government eventually thwarts Winson Smith’s belief in the existence of a possible future without Big Brother. In Kazou Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Mr. Stevens’ belief in his employer’s goodness, and thus his value as a small influencer of the world’s improvement, is crushed with his acknowledgement of Mr. Darlington’s role as Hitler’s pawn. In both cases the “believers” are faced with overwhelming evidence that contradicts their belief, however, it is only with reluctance that the protagonist eventually accepts the truth. Similarly, Rollo Martins in Graham Greene’s The Third Man doggedly sticks to his belief that his best friend, Harry Lime, is a good person, despite the evidence to the contrary. Martin’s belief in the goodness of Harry Lime, despite its erroneousness is what sets him apart in a world without faith or optimism. There is virtue attached to a character that refuses to acknowledge the corrupt state of the world, retaining faith in the notions of friendship and loyalty. Thus, Rollo Martins, through his naive beliefs, points towards a better world.

When Major Calloway informs Rollo Martins that Harry Lime, “was about the worst racketeer who ever made a dirty living in this city,” (Greene, 25) Martins is entirely unwilling to accept this fact, even though it comes from a police officer, a person of authority. Martins immediately begins to size up the space between him and Calloway to see if he can reach him to hit him. At this moment Calloway thinks, “Martins, I began to realize, was dangerous.” Martins dangerousness, however, does not simply boil down to his propensity towards violence, rather it has more to do with his unwillingness to accept information, his questioning of authority, and his resolute belief that Harry Lime is a good man, a victim of police incompetency. Martins immediately places his suspicion onto the police and away from Harry Lime, “I’ve always hated policemen. They are always either crooked or stupid.” (Greene, 26) Martins goes as far to associate himself with Harry Lime’s work, so firm is his belief in Harry’s innocence, “Because if Harry was that kind of racketeer, I must be one too. We always worked together.” (Greene, 26)

Martin’s naïveté is highlighted when he recalls their early friendship, which provides the reader with a view of Lime to which Martins is entirely unaware, “But what things he did think up! He was a wonderful planner. I was far better at subjects like History and English than Harry, but I was a hopeless mug when it came to carrying out his plans…I was always the one who got caught.” (Greene, 24) While Martins remains blissfully oblivious of the implications of this statement, Calloway and the reader are immediately suspicious. Calloway replies, “That was convenient for Lime,” (Greene, 24) suggesting that Harry had manipulated Martins in the past, and perhaps is not the hero that Martins believes he is. Martins catches the insinuation in Calloway’s statement and replies angrily, “What the hell do you mean…That was my fault not his. He could have found someone cleverer if he’d chosen, but he liked me.” (Greene, 24) While Martins places the blame on himself for being caught after executing Harry’s plans, he similarly places the blame on the police for Harry’s alleged reputation as a racketeer. “I suppose there was some petty racket going on with petrol and you couldn’t pin it on anyone, so you picked a dead man. That’s just like a policeman.” (Greene, 24) Martins’ denial of the possibility of Harry’s culpability highlights his loyalty as well as his foolishness and naïveté.

When Calloway produces evidence of Harry’s wrongdoing with his dilution of penicillin, Martins cannot help but question his belief in his friend, however it takes Calloway several attempts to convey the reality of Harry’s crimes. “They begin to dilute the penicillin with coloured water, and, in the case of penicillin dust, with sand. I keep a small museum in one drawer in my desk, and I showed Martins examples. He wasn’t enjoying the talk, but he hadn’t yet grasped the point.” (Greene, 80) Martins’ faith in Harry Lime is so firm that he cannot initially understand the severity of Lime’s crimes. He replies, “I suppose that makes the stuff useless.” (Greene, 80) Calloway explains that the harm caused by the diluted drug is worse than simple ineffectiveness; indeed, the diluted penicillin caused infections, unnecessary amputations, and deaths. Then Calloway plays his trump card, bringing up the undisputable evil of poisoning innocent children. “But perhaps what horrified me most was visiting the children’s hospital here. They had bought some of this penicillin for use against meningitis. A number of children simply died, and a number went off their heads. You can see them now in the mental ward.” (Greene. 80-81)

Martins’ loyalty to Harry is so paramount, that even the use of innocent children doesn’t entirely convince him. He replies, “You haven’t showed me any evidence yet…” While Martins is determined to believe in his hero, Harry Lime, without any evidence to his goodness, he is unwilling to accept the horrors his hero is accused of without sufficient evidence. Once the proof is presented, however, Martins feels his world crashing around him. “If one watched a plane dive from its course, I don’t suppose one would chatter, and a world for Martins had certainly come to an end, a world of easy friendship, hero-worship, confidence that had begun twenty years ago in a school corridor.” (Greene, 82) While the reader watches the dissolution of Martins’ belief in Harry Lime, Martins still questions the charges leveled against his hero. “Are you certain that he was the real boss.” (Greene, 82) Martins’ faith stretches far enough to invent yet another conspiracy that could clear his friend, “Suppose…someone had got a line on him, forced him into this racket, as you forced Harbin to double-cross…And they murdered him in case he talked when he was arrested.” (Greene, 82-83) Even after Martins is presented with evidence against Lime, he is still determined to explore every avenue that could possibly clear him. He is unwilling to give up his belief until he is entirely certain of Harry’s culpability, until he is faced with Harry himself.

It is only when Martins is faced with Harry Lime’s lack of guilt at his victims’ deaths that Martins’ belief in Harry’s goodness is finally crushed. Martins says, “Have you ever visited the children’s hospital? Have you ever seen any of your victims?” (Greene, 104) Martins’ use of the word victims shows his acknowledgement of Harry’s guilt. Harry reinforces Martins’ condemnation with lack of empathy for his victims:

Victims?…Don’t be melodramatic, Rollo. Look down there…would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving—for ever. If I said you can have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money—without hesitation? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax. (Greene, 104)

Harry’s commoditization of human beings with his monetary language, this behavior is in direct contrast with Rollo Martins worshipping of Harry Lime. He sees Lime asbeing larger than life, while Harry sees humans as dispensable dots. His lack of concern for his girlfriend, Anna Schmidt further dehumanizes Harry when he admits to setting up her arrest. “The price of living in this zone, Rollo, is service. I have to give them a little information now and then.” (Greene, 105) When Rollo asks would have happened her he replies unconcernedly, “She’d have been sent back to Hungary. There’s nothing against her really. A year in a labour camp perhaps.” (Greene, 105) The success of Harry Lime is achieved by his use of the people who believe him, the people who love him. Thus belief, as much as it is innocent and noble, also makes one vulnerable to manipulation.

As Harry Lime dies, he whispers to Rollo Martins, “Bloody Fool.” (Greene, 117) Rollo explains to Calloway that he wasn’t sure who the words were referring to. “I don’t know whether he meant that for himself—some sort of act of contrition, however inadequate…—or was it for me—with my thousand a year taxed and my imaginary cattle rustlers who couldn’t even shoot a rabbit clean.” (Greene, 117-118) It’s also possible that Harry Lime is calling Martins a bloody fool for continuing to believe in him throughout their friendship. Indeed, Martin’s assertion that Harry could be capable of any sort of contrition shows that he is still a “bloody fool” when it comes to Harry Lime.

While readers view Rollo Martin’s belief in Harry Lime as virtuous, they also look at him in frustration. Martins’ refusal to accept Lime’s guilt when there is more evidence for it than his innocence may be glorified loyalty; it could also be called naïve and stupid. Rollo Martins’ idealism and optimism remind readers of the world they wished they lived in, while bringing awareness to the danger of reality. Belief without evidence puts one at risk for manipulation and deceit, and crushing disappointment. Postwar Britain was clearly in a cynical state, longing for the ability to believe, but struggling with the risks of doing so.

 

Death of an Irishwoman by Michael Hartnett

Ignorant in the sense

she ate monotonous food

and thought the world was flat,

and pagan, in the sense

she knew the things that moved

all night were neither dogs nor cats

put púcas and evil men

she nevertheless had fierce pride.

But sentenced in the end

to eat thin diminishing porridge

in a stone-cold kitchen

she clenched her brittle hands

around a world

she could not understand

I loved her from the day she died.

She was a summer dance at the crossroads.

She was a cardgame where a nose was broken.

She was a song that nobody sings.

She was a house ransacked by soldiers.

She was a language seldom spoken.

She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.

Love by Toni Morrison

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When I say I wasn’t a Toni Morrison fan, I mean I really wasn’t a Toni Morrison fan. I read Beloved for my Mother-Daughter-Book-Club and my mother and I were unimpressed, weirded out, scared off. I had no intention of reading another T-Mo book, except that my friend Olivia, one of my best friends since the second grade kept talking about her. “You should read some of her shorter stuff, she’s really good!” Olivia and I have similar tastes (though she loved Beloved) so i said I’d give her another shot.

I have this list of books I want to read. At the moment it is totaled at 819 books, so basically it’s like winning the lottery for the book that is chosen randomly. Lucky for my my mouse landed on Love.

I searched through the Waterstone’s in St. Andrews, 4 bookstores in London, but to no avail. I guess Toni is more popular in my good ol’ USA.  By the time I met up with Olivia in Paris I was desperate for a book. I had endured two plane rides with nothing but my Art History textbook for company.

When I told Olivia I was looking for Love she smiled at me smugly. We entered Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore, mere feet away from Notre Dame Cathedral.

Shakespeare and Company Bookstore is literally  my favorite place in the world. The walls are crawling in books, the aisles so thin that I had to squeeze through to get to the next room as the ghosts of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Alan Ginsberg floated around my head. There is a piano up the rickety stairs with a man playing flawlessly, artistic people sitting around reading on little cushions. “This is what heaven looks like,” Olivia breathed in my ear. We didn’t want to pop the dream that had become our reality, and speaking seemed like something that would do just that.

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Then something crazy happened. At the top of the M fiction bookshelf I saw not one, but two copies of Toni Morrison’s Love. I climbed my first bookshop ladder (a personal dream) and brought them both down. The paperback was expensive, but of course I was going to buy it. After all my searching I wasn’t about to let this go. I looked inside the hardcover, just in case, and saw the delicately penciled in first edition 14 euros. Now tell me you don’t believe in fate.

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I started Love that night, expecting to despise it, but I didn’t. In fact I have rarely been so attached to a book. The problem with Beloved  was it was completely unreliable. The daughter I beheaded to save from slavery hasn’t come back to haunt me in the form of a beautiful teenager. I don’t do fantastical realism. Love, grabbed onto my heart and squeezed it.

Love tells the story of a recently dead hotel owner, Bill Cosey through the perspective of several different women with differing relationships to him, his granddaughter, his employees, his wife, and his murderer. Though the story orbits around Bill Cosey, it really tells the story of a broken friendship between his granddaughter, Christine, and his wife, Heed.

Friendship is one of the most rewarding and painful institutions set up by humankind. They are plagued by envy, and overcome with adoration. Its ironic that Olivia, my best friend since I was eight years old, got me back on the Morrison track to read the most beautiful book on friendship I have ever encountered.

Because the book continually switches perspective, the reader is able to remain objective, while simultaneously having a close relationship with each character. The book is beautifully written and organized in such an enticing way. There is a constant element of mystery, Toni lets out the secrets one by one, developing the story effortlessly and masterfully.

I started Love loathing Toni Morrison.  I finished it wanting to be her.

Epigraph by Gordon Lish

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 I was in Strand with my boyfriend, I unwittingly picked up this book, Epigraph, not realizing that only a few days before I had been trashing the moral fiber of its author. I apparently hadn’t seen the author’s name, otherwise I would have put it right back on the shelf. I certainly wouldn’t have read it. 

I read an article in the New Yorker that showed a collection of letters between Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver (the author of Will You Please Be Quiet Please? and What We Talk About When we Talk about Love). Lish was Carver’s editor and had basically gotten Carver his “big break”. The subject of these letters was the edits that had been made on Carvers most recent story: “A Small Good Thing”. 

I say the subject of the letters was the “edits” made to “A Small Good Thing”, but it would probably be more accurate to call it the rewrite of the story. Gordon Lish had not only shortened the story by over 20 pages (leaving 8), he had also renamed characters and even changed the title of the story to “The Bath”. I read both stories, before and after butcher Lish had “trimmed the fat” and came to a few conclusions. 

1) “The Bath” and “A Small Good Thing” were entirely different stories. 
2) Raymond Carver was indeed too wordy, but not enough to cut 20 pages. 
3) Gordon Lish had crossed the line. 

I sympathized with Raymond Carver (even though he is a bit wordy for my taste) especially after reading his increasingly desperate letters. He couldn’t bear to publish “The Bath.” It wasn’t the story he had intended to write. I hated Lish on the principle that he had significantly overstepped his role as editor. After readingEpigraph, however I am forced to conclude that although he may be an awful editor, he is a very entertaining writer. 

I admit that didn’t have much of a clue what was going on throughout the book. That really wasn’t a problem though. Lish’s writing speaks for itself. His use of words is incredibly satisfying and amusing. If a writer reaches a point, where the plot of his or her book is utterly insignificant to its entertainment value, I would have to call them a successful writer. 

Lish transcends the borders between storytelling and actual writing. He is a writer and one, against my own principles, I enjoy thoroughly. 

 
 
 
 
 

Love Works Like This by Lauren Slater

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After I read Lying I thought I was like Lauren Slater: attention seeking, addicted to lying, a lover of writing with a flair for the dramatic. This book completely dispelled my soul-sister relationship with Lauren, and though I still love her and especially her writing, I think I’ll stop writing my 10 page fan letter that suggests we meet up. 

Love Works like This tracks Slater through her first pregnancy, following her through her most challenging and selfish moments.  Lauren Slater suffers from severe chronic depression.  She had been on medication for most of her life and decided to continue taking them while pregnant.  This leads to feelings of fear and guilt throughout her pregnancy and after her daughter Eva’s birth. 

This is a good book. It really is.  Lauren Slater is excruciatingly honest especially about her feelings leading up to and after the pregnancy.  She admits those horrible things we think in our heads but never say for fear of judgment.  She writes in a beautiful, whimsical way, but also an extremely accessible one. That said, there are a couple things I disagreed with. 

1)    Being a mother does not take away your feminist identity.  Giving birth is one of the most amazing biological experiences in the world. A woman can house a fetus, and give birth to something human, something that will have a favorite color, and learn to talk.  Honestly as a feminist woman, the ability to give birth is one of the things I most prize about my gender.  I am woman, hear me roar and create a living being.

2)    I don’t understand Slater’s lack of love for her child until one year later.  It doesn’t make biological or emotional sense to me.  I could never give birth to a child and only “kind of like it.”

Though I’ve become a bit disenchanted with Ms. Slater, I still believe she is a brave woman and a wonderful writer. 

Ghosts by John Banville

When I embarked on my venture of UK living I thought I should culturally assimilate. In addition to watching Gavin and Stacey a popular British comedy, I also bought John Banville’s Ghosts. Banville is an Irish author who earned my respect by being profiled in the sacred pages of The New Yorker. He’s an interesting case because he also publishes under another name, Benjamin Black. While Banville is the winner of the Manbooker prize for his novel The Sea (he actually beat out Sebastian Barry’s book A Long, Long Way, which was the first year read this year) Black’s work can be found in the genre fiction section of Barnes and Noble, Crime Fiction to be exact.  Genre fiction has always gotten a bad rap. There is a stigma attached to fictions with a prefix.  There is a distinction that leaves these bastard children of fiction out of the literature section of bookstores (oftentimes rightly so).  I was so impressed by Banville’s writing in Ghosts that I couldn’t imagine him writing something second-class.  I will have to investigate further, possibly even wandering into the Crime Fiction section (disguised of course) and purchasing a book by Benjamin Black. 

Ghosts is not a book for those who like things wrapped up nicely. It is not for people who need all the answers.  Ghosts is a twisting tangled web of ambiguous details which hit the reader with an uncommon sharpness.  Featuring characters such as a paroled murderer, a professor who hides his sordid past, and an eerie harlequin-like pervert, Felix, this novel could have turned out like one of my LEAST favorite books, John Irving’s The World According to Garp. I won’t allow myself to truly go off on this depraved rag; all I will say is the comical diversity of characters is similar in both novels.  Banville manages to create his own literary world where even these oddball characters are commonplace.  The tone of the novel puts the reader on edge, while the characters remain painfully bored. The storyline isn’t really my taste, however Banville’s writing more than makes up for it. When the plot becomes less important, or rather irrelevant to the reader because he or she is so mesmerized by the writing, we know we are looking at a master at work.

The setting of Ghosts is incredibly like that of St. Andrews. The novel takes place on an island with jagged cliffs where it is nearly always gray.  Welcome to the East Fife Coast! Though the weather here is rather dismal, it has an undeniable beauty.  It was amazing reading a book whose setting mirrored my own.  The threatening coast and gloomy sky made everything more colorful. The same happened in the book.  With such a bleak setting, characters were able to stand out in vivid color. 

Proto Cred: Charlotte Gorman

Already I have started adopting UK customs.  I tend to drink tea now (or chocomilk).  America is much more of a coffee place: mocha frappuccino, soy latte and the like.  My English roommate scoffs at me when I even mention coffee, as she ready’s the kettle.  Tea has a certain traditional aspect about it, and somehow the slightly musty leaves make me feel as though I am observing an ancient practice.  John Banville summed it up most accurately: “Tea tastes of other lives.” As I sip on tea, I can pretend I’m the Queen of England, J.K. Rowling, or Adele. 

There are certain aspects of Ghosts that certainly are visible on the other side of the pond.  The one I was most thrilled to discover was the writers of all nationalities enjoy lies:

“In my opinion the truth, so-called is a much overrated quantity. The trouble with it is that it is closed: when you tell the truth, that’s the end of it; lies on the other hand, ramify in all sorts of unexpected directions, complicating things, knotting them up in themselves, thickening the texture of life.  Lying makes a dull world more interesting. To lie is to create. Besides, fibs are much more fun, and liars, I am convinced, live longer.”

 All writers are generally prone to telling stories.  I know I certainly am.  I stretch the facts or sometimes even fabricate, all for the sake of a good story. 

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

I’m a good little Catholic girl. I went to church every Sunday, CCD once a week, and did bible study in high school, yet my Old Testament knowledge is spotty at best. I think Catholics sort of like to skip the whole cranky God part, and get right to the part where that same God comes down to save and redeem us sinful humans. There is also the fact that the Old Testament is so much longer than the new (plus the New Testament is basically four different versions of the same basic story). When I started The Red Tent with my mother-daughter book club, I figured that as the only Catholics in the group, we would be at a distinct advantage. In some ways we were, although I would still suggest that anyone reading The Red Tent and wishing to contextualize the characters should do a quick skim of the OT.

It is also possible to read The Red Tent as its own piece of historical fiction, ignoring the fact that the characters did previously exist in THE book. The only disadvantage to reading it this way is there ceases to be a central plot line. Without the framework of the bible, The Red Tent can take on a meandering and pointless gait. The thing that sets this book apart is its focus on early women and their traditions. The book is very well researched, and does create a feeling of sisterhood and solidarity with the gentler gender. If you are a man reading The Red Tent, you may not get such a taste of the warm-fuzzies. Though the men are not villainized, the historical truths of men’s treatment of women in this time period is not one of the happier chapters in the battle of the sexes. The Red Tent is a beautifully written book which gives voice to the silent women of the Old Testament.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell

My first experience with David Mitchell was in my entry level creative writing class.  The class was asked to read the first chapter of Black Swan Green.  I was impressed with the young narrator.  Mitchell walked the tightrope of utilizing a child narrator without sacrificing his prose.  He never wobbled. When I picked up The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, I was expecting a similar style novel, a first person account scattered with humor and irony.  Within the first chapter I realized that Mitchell was the chameleon of the modern novel.  He left no fingerprint with his words, no identifying tell by which I could recognize him.  His style was vastly different from that of Black Swan Green: third person narrator vs. first person child narrator, late eighteenth century vs. now, mysticism vs. realism.  Luckily for Mitchell, both of his personas are equally talented.

The novel brings the reader toDejima,Japanwhere the Dutch East India Company is negotiating trade.  A lowly clerk Jacob De Zoet is determined to keep his head down for the next four years so he can go back toHollandand marry his sweetheart Anna.  However, Jacob finds himself falling in love with a Japanese midwife, Orito who is disfigured by a burn on her face. Orito is captured by Enomoto and forced to become a nun in a shrine with dark secrets.  Jacob must attempt uphold his country’s position inJapan, and save his lost love.

The strength of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet rest in its characters: the pious, yet human clerk, Jacob, the selfless interpreter, Ogawa, the burned yet brilliant midwife, Orito, and the evil abbot, Enomoto.  While Jacob, Ogawa, and Orito summon empathy and understanding from the reader, Mitchells biggest success was Enomoto.  His countless spies and connections allow him to be one step ahead at all times, producing an anxiety in the reader that makes them wish to shout out to whoever he is dealing with “RUN!”

Mitchell also manages to write a bi-cultural or even tri-cultural novel which allows the reader to feel equal sympathy and understanding for each.  Though Jacob is the main character, and a likable one at that, equal compassion is felt for the Englishman firing cannonballs at him.  The Japanese, Dutch, and English cultures, though all are at odds in one was or another are shown equal favor by the author, an extraordinary feat.