The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

November 18, 2013

TheMagicToyshopI used to have this fallacy that I like Angela Carter only with my brain – I used to think that she was a writer whose works provided the perfect pretext for any enthusiastic English major student to talk about symbols, metaphors, intertextuality and all kinds of gender-stuff. I really liked both of her books I read so far (this one, which I first read during my university years as compulsory reading, and The Bloody Chamber, which I read a couple of years later, just because I wanted to read it), but I liked both of them only in and with my mind – I didn’t love them because I thought they were much too cold. Anyway, I re-read The Magic Toyshop this year, and I no longer have this fallacy – now I love Angela Carter with all my being.

I guess I mentioned a couple of times already that I absolutely love coming-of-age novels, and without the least bit of planning, I always happen to read a coming-of-age novel every two or three months, because I like (and need) to re-learn (or re-experience) what it’s like to grow up. And The Magic Toyshop can also be classified as a coming-of-age novel (of sorts), but it’s completely different from any other teenager-novel I know. The coming-of-age novels I know usually concentrate on the changes that happen to a young person’s mind when he’s growing up (even if these novels also deal with first dates and first kisses). But The Magic Toyshop is such an incredibly bodily novel that I find it breathtaking and scary even as a grown-up.

The novel’s protagonist is Melanie, who, during the 15th summer of her life, slowly realizes that she’s no longer a girl – she’s an almost-woman now. Melanie spends the last innocent-idyllic summer of her life with discovering herself and her body, and with day-dreaming about a perfect man – a phantom bridegroom who will step out of a fairy tale (or a glossy magazine) one day and to whom she will lose her virginity (or better to say: she won’t lose her virginity to him – she will give it to him, gently, in between fluffy-white pillows and cool sheets). Melanie’s daydreams and her games of make-believe are weightless, and they are without consequences, but everything changes when – because of the sudden death of her parents – Melanie and her younger siblings are forced to move to one of their late mother’s relatives, Uncle Philip. Philip is a toy-maker, and he’s the owner of the titular magic toyshop. However, he isn’t your typical benevolent, jovial uncle – instead, he’s a ruthless tyrant who terrorizes his family in every imaginable way. And his toyshop isn’t your typical Disneyland-like, merrily-magical place – instead, it’s a place where magic is dark and destructive; where the toys are so lifelike and perfect that it’s just too uncanny; and where human beings are forced to act as if they were lifeless toys.

And it is here, in Uncle Philip’s magic toyshop that Melanie – who grew up as a spoiled child, and whose days so far have been filled with the dreams and concerns of a child – starts to learn about the nature of the „real” reality – she’s forced to learn about this. Partly because Philip doesn’t let her stay in her childhood world any longer, and he uses Melanie to act out his dark and violent fantasies on/with her (not literally, but metaphorically – but in his world, metaphors and symbolic deeds carry way more weight and meaning than any real act). And partly because Melanie gets to know Philip’s family: being accepted into the family circle of Philip’s wife, Margaret, and Margaret’s younger brothers, she observes and experiences such intense, passionate, undisguised, both enticing and repulsive feelings and relations that all her childish ideas about life, emotions and – most importantly – about physical attractions and repulsions are shattered for good.

In just a couple of months, Melanie learns that sexuality isn’t always like the way she imagined – it’s not necessarily pure-beautiful-nice. In the course of her coming-of-age, Melanie has to realize that it may easily happen that the other is filthy, or less-than-gentle, and she has to realize that the (possible) future/consequence of having to raise a herd of unruly kids in a dingy, murky flat, as the wife of a grumpy man is always already present – even when she and Margaret’s brother, Finn have kissed only once.

Finn, by the way, isn’t the oh-so-strong man of a romantic novel; he’s not a man who can make a woman swoon by simply looking at her. Oh no – Finn’s presence and his clumsy-yet-knowing advances aren’t so deeply unsettling and uncomfortable for Melanie because he’s – say – frighteningly masculine – but simply because he’s real, and he’s unlike any phantom bridegroom out of a magazine Melanie used to dream about. (Actually, Finn repeatedly scorns Melanie for speaking as if she were quoting from a women’s magazine, for instance, when Melanie tells him something like this: „I’d love to be in love with you, but I don’t know how to do it.”)

I have to add, though, that there’s hardly any actual physical intercourse in the novel, but every single detail (the objects, the settings, the food, the toys) carries a whole lot of erotic potential – to the extent that it’s frightening even for an adult, let alone for a 15 year-old girl, who’s a virgin. (I don’t know if all of Angela Carter’s novels are this physical-sensual. All I know is that The Bloody Chamber is also like this.)

But despite all its darkness, this is an extremely vivid, exuberant, vibrant novel. And above all: it’s beautiful. And now I don’t see it as the work of a cold-headed genius – but simply as the work of a genius.

Daisy Miller by Henry James

November 4, 2013

daisymillerThe protagonist of Henry James’s novella is Daisy Miller, a pretty, fun-lovin’, silly American girl who’s traveling through Europe with her mother and her brother. Daisy is a rich and elegant socialite, but she doesn’t belong to the elite class per se – she’s much too indiscreet and rebellious for that. For instance, she doesn’t hesitate to talk to people she hasn’t been formally introduced to, and she’s also happy to go for solitary walks with a man who is neither a member of her family, nor her fiancé. At the beginning of the story, she gets acquainted with Winterbourne, an American man who’s been living in Europe for a long time – and who is therefore no longer up-to-date as to the proper American manners. Winterbourne is immediately enchanted by Daisy’s beauty and her easy-going, open personality, but he doesn’t fully abandon himself to his budding passion – instead, he starts to over-analyze everything and he starts to wonder whether Daisy is indeed as innocent and nice as she seems.

Winterbourne keeps wondering about this question throughout the story, and even though he accidentally falls in love (?) with Daisy, he cannot come to terms with the basic impoliteness of Daisy’s conduct. (Of course, he only frowns upon her behavior when she’s being impolite in someone else’s company – when they first meet, he’s more than happy to accompany the girl on a trip to a castle nearby, after half an hour into their relationship.) So anyway, when they meet again in Rome some time later, Winterbourne merely watches with a condescending smile on his face how Daisy runs to her ruin, and he doesn’t even try to understand her behavior.

When I read about supposedly unruly, I-have-it-my-own-way characters like Daisy Miller, I often wonder if their behavior can really be considered rebellious and shocking, just because they live the way they want to live, say what they want to say, and ask what they want to ask – even if this is not acceptable in their social circles. And I wonder whether being rebellious and shocking is something they consciously do. In the blurb of my copy this question is asked downright: is Daisy Miller deliberately going against the norms of the society she lives in, or is she merely unaware of the norms she’s supposed to adhere to?

Well, I think neither of the above is true. Daisy Miller knows the rules she should adhere to (and sometimes it seems that she’s troubled by the fact that she’s shunned by society because of her lack of adherence), but it’s not due to some youthful folly or defiance that she keeps breaking the rules – it’s simply because for her, it’s truly and utterly incomprehensible why she shouldn’t spend her time with someone whose company she enjoys.

Sure, the morals and rules of the end of the 19th century were somewhat different from the rules we have now, and when I read novels dealing with similar themes in the past (I mean the theme of the clash between the American aristocracy and an independent woman – see Edith Wharton’s novels), sometimes I used to think how good it is to be alive here and now, in a world much less suffocating. But now I read this novel in a different way – I didn’t keep thinking about how lucky I am to live in a part of the world where presumably no-one is shunned and/or destroyed for the exact same crimes Daisy commits – because I figure that the Daisy Millers of the present also shock the others, only with different crimes. And I find this idea almost unbearably sad because a Daisy Miller never goes out of her way just so that she can shock people – she simply wants to live, innocently, harming no-one, and she does live, as long as “they” let her. And even though, like I said, the male protagonist’s greatest dilemma is whether Daisy is innocent or not (not necessarily in the sexual sense), I felt that she is.

By the way, Henry James – contrary to me – doesn’t get overly moralizing, and I don’t think he tries to teach me any kind of lesson or great truth. And because of this, I prefer him to, e.g. Theodore Dreiser, even though their styles and world-views seem to be somewhat similar.

And as regards the author’s style – it’s often mentioned about James that deciphering the meaning of his sentences, and understanding his subtle references is a feat in itself. Well, it’s quite probable that I overlooked a whole lot of the hidden references and other subtleties, but I was surprised by the fact that after the first couple of pages I had no trouble at all following his lovely, meandering, endless sentences. Translating his work must be a nightmare, but reading him in English was much less difficult than I expected.

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

October 28, 2013

brightEvery time I re-read this novel, I love it better. I used to like it mainly because of the second-person narrative, but I’ve read several second-person novels and stories since the last time I re-read Bright Lights, and now I don’t automatically swoon if I see something written in this narrative mode. The book has to be good in itself, as well. And fortunately this is a good book.

The novel’s unnamed protagonist (oh, no, he’s not unnamed – he’s you) is a young man in his twenties, and actually his life is (could be/could have been) quite good: a nice apartment in Manhattan; a prestigious job; parties every night; a beautiful wife; and everything you need to fulfill the American Dream, 1980s edition. But the novel opens when everything is already falling apart: his wife left; the prestigious job doesn’t seem to be secure anymore; and it seems that the „nursing a hangover during the day – going out to party during the night” routine the protagonist has been pursuing is not a way of life you can keep up forever.

While following the desperate, grieving, nameless hero (or nameless ourselves) among the sharply shining skyscrapers of Manhattan, through the elite clubs and bright-or-dodgy streets, you learn what you can of course learn from a whole lot of other novels, but for me, this theme is inexhaustible: you learn how very easy it is to screw things up; and also that there are periods when you can’t see anything clearly because your dreams – which will never come true, or not the way you want them to, or not at the right time – simply blind your vision; and also that being in your twenties can be an awfully melancholy, angry, clueless life period – even if you pretend that you’re having a helluva lot of fun.

And this is not a good novel because the second person narrative somehow brings all this close to me. This is good anyway – sad and beautiful (I just realized now that McInerney can often write with the poignancy and tenderness of F. Scott Fitzgerald); clever and funny; and oh-so-true. It speaks to me more than ever before.

True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole by Sue Townsend

October 21, 2013

trueconfessI have no idea how and why this messy and less-than-funny installment of the Adrian Mole series came to see the light of day (a wild guess: someone somewhere probably thought that it would be a good idea to publish a random something in between two “regular” books), but I’m not going to search the web to find it out, because I don’t think there’s any conspiracy in the background – something the importance of which I might have missed. I’m pretty sure that an average Adrian Mole novel is not as mind-boggling as, say, a novel by Thomas Pynchon, and a Mole novel can usually be understood without perusing a Townsend-wiki. I mean – I assume I understand this book. And since I understand it, I cannot but wonder: what the hell is this incoherent, cheap stuff?

The novel consists of three markedly different sections that aren’t especially good or coherent on their own to begin with, but when it comes to answering the question of how they are connected, I’m really at a loss. If I’m in a benevolent mood, I can say: very accidentally. And if I’m in more of a grumpy-critical mood, I can say: not at all.

The first part of the book mainly consists of excerpts from Adrian Mole’s diary, describing different eras of the protagonist’s life. A couple of these are more or less funny, but they never make me laugh out loud, which is strange, because I’ve been known to laugh a lot while reading the first two Adrian Mole books.

Then comes the second part: it’s mainly made up of the travel notes of Sue Townsend (or her fictional alter-ego): how she spent her time in Mallorca, how she went with a bunch of other writers to Russia, or how she experienced a totally random this-or-that. To be honest, Townsend isn’t particularly funny here – or perhaps she developed a sense of humor which I don’t find funny at all. Sure, I’m not into every kind of humor in the world, but as I said, I distinctly remember that I used to find her kind of humor very funny in the first two Adrian Mole books, not very long ago, and I don’t think my sense of humor changed that much in the meantime.

And then there’s the third part which features excerpts from the childhood diary of Margaret Thatcher, written in the trademark Adrian Mole style. Of course, Margaret Thatcher’s childhood abounds in different kinds of joys and moral difficulties than the childhood of Townsend’s immortal Adrian Mole. For instance, we learn that one of little Margaret’s favorite pastime activities is reading books about chemistry; or that she goes through a major crisis if she steals a single raisin from a bag of raisins; or that she condemns her mother because she works a mere 16 hours per day; or that on Mondays she says: “finally, it’s a school-day again!” Oh, yes, and we also learn that she already hates working-class people, and that she firmly believes that everyone who’s poor has only himself to blame. You get the point – she’s portrayed as an abominable workaholic/perfectionist/moral champion, and everybody in their right mind makes sure to steer clear of her. Well, okay. I admit that some of her diary entries are mildly (very mildly) comic, but in the end I don’t like this at all. It’s too cheap, too direct, and not at all witty. Townsend did a much better job criticizing Margaret Thatcher in the first two books of this series.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

October 14, 2013

winternightBefore getting down to any details about this novel, I just want to say quickly that this a magnificent and enchanting work of fiction. Or metafiction – as you wish. And indeed you can make your choice, because as it happens, you are the protagonist of the book.

As you might have noticed if you had read a couple of my reviews that I have no problem with metafiction or any kind of meta-stuff in general; I even like that sort of meta-literature which excludes the reader from itself, and which is mostly about the writer who would like to experiment with forms, points of views, narrative techniques or anything else, without thinking about the consequences. I love to read other people’s experiments, and I love to see how someone fools around and plays with ideas or styles just for the hell of it.

But Italo Calvino is way more polite (or way more cunning) than this. He doesn’t exclude me from his fiction – on the contrary, he makes me the protagonist: an adventurer, an explorer, a detective, and a young lover, and he tells me: “this is you”. And because I happen to be a sucker for books which tell me that they are about “me”, I immediately fall for this novel. (Even when I’m re-reading it for the third time. And I’m pretty sure I will fall for it again the next time I re-read it.)

It would be good to know what’s so very-very appealing and tempting about a novel which starts by saying that I’m just starting to read it, and then offers me some advice about the best position in which I might read it, and tells me that I should take care of my bodily needs before really getting involved in it, and then goes on to elaborate on the feelings I experience while I’m reading the first couple of pages.

Really – what’s so stunning about this? Perhaps I really love to read about myself, and I really like to be the main character. (On the other hand – who doesn’t?) Or perhaps the novel amazes me because it implies that someone’s paying attention to me and knows me inside out. Or maybe it’s fascinating because it gives me the illusion I used to know well when I was a more naive reader, but I don’t experience too often nowadays (even though I’m always looking for it): the illusion that I’m within the story; that “I” am “you”, and “I” am “me” at the same time; that I’m inside and outside at the same moment – I’m paying attention to the story, and I’m observing myself as I’m paying attention to the story. Or maybe it’s so enticing because it promises that it will tell me why and how I read, and what’s so good about reading.

I said in the beginning that Calvino is a polite writer, and that his metafiction is not in love with itself but always makes sure to include me. But in fact, this is not politeness – this is trickiness of the highest order. I know he will fool me, yet, I let myself be fooled. And I know he knows that I know that I’m being fooled. And I know that I’m alone while reading, but I let him persuade me that in fact I’m not alone.

So, yes, I know he’s not only playing with his text. He’s playing with me as well. But I don’t mind – I just hugely enjoy it. And anyway, if we “must” be postmodern-smart-playful, then I think the best, most entertaining and most uplifting way to do it is to do it together – the writer and the reader.

Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link

October 7, 2013

StrangeWillIt took me about six or seven weeks to get to the end of this book, but this is of course not Kelly Link’s fault. The thing is, I’ve been in a transitional period this last two months and I was usually unable to pay proper attention to any book for more than 3 seconds, so most of the time I didn’t even try to read anything. I don’t like to stretch out a reading experience over such a long period of time, but I think in this case it was useful because it made me think about the longer-term effects of these stories.

I clearly remember that I liked every single story while I was reading it, but when I sat down to write about the book I suddenly realized that I can’t even recall the most basic details about the stories I read a month and a half ago – I only remember a couple of hazy details – details which are sometimes deeply unsettling, sometimes truly amazing, and sometimes heartbreaking. My memories about these stories are like the ones you have in the morning after a very strange or particularly vivid dream, and even though some details may stick with you for a long time, it’s usually impossible to summarize the whole “story” of the dream after a couple of hours.

And these stories are exactly like this – they are impossible to summarize or even clearly recall. This may be due to the fact that they are usually not very story-like: they are the unique combinations of elements you might recognize from the works of other fantasy authors, of bits and pieces coming from well-known fairy tales, and of random associations thrown upon one another – and the result is something which resists “rational” interpretations; something you can’t easily talk about.

In their resistance to being talked about, these stories remind me of Iris Murdoch’s novel, The Unicorn, of which a teacher of mine once said that it’s written in such a way that each sentence erases the preceding one, and each paragraph cancels out the meaning of the preceding paragraph, and even though you think you more or less understand what’s going on while you’re reading the novel, in the end you realize you don’t know/remember anything, and you have no idea what you’ve been through. And indeed – I read The Unicorn at least three times so far, and I know I consider it a great novel, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you why I think it’s great, or what’s so great about it. And this is no digression – Kelly Link’s short story collection is exactly like this.

And also, I can’t talk about these stories because of the author’s “style”. As I already mentioned, these stories often contain elements from other works of fiction I’m familiar with, or even if I don’t know the particular element itself, I recognize the way it was created/made up, and I can relate to it. Because even though the strange dreams, irrational trains of thoughts and random associations of Kelly Link’s characters are not like mine, in them I recognize the way my imagination works, even if mine comes up with different stories and different dreams. The difference between the author and me is that Kelly Link can describe these dreams/stories, while I can’t (or won’t). And the fact that she is able to capture the way human imagination works makes these stories strangely personal and intimate – I think every single reader will come up with hugely different interpretations, every reader will be affected by different aspects or details of these stories.

Sure, you can basically say this about every single book (disclaimer: I’m a secret fan of the reader response theory), but still – it’s usually possible to say something general or “universal” about a book, without having to revert to saying: “well, if you want to know what it’s like, then read it for yourself”. But this book is different, and this is really all I can say about it. Of course I could enumerate the details which affected me greatly, or I could explain (or try to) why I find a particular something especially heart-wrenching or bewildering or enchanting – but all these explanations would be about my inner workings, and not about the book. So really – read it for yourself if you want to know what this book is like.

Emerald City by Jennifer Egan

September 30, 2013

emeraldBefore Jennifer Egan started writing amazing, mind-blowing and hauntingly beautiful postmodern (or post-postmodern) novels, she also wrote books such as this short story collection, which isn’t postmodern at all – but it’s just as beautiful and heartbreaking as, for example, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Egan published 5 books so far; Emerald City was the third I read, and I start to think that she simply cannot write badly.

Emerald City was Jennifer Egan’s first published book, and it contains 11 short stories. They are all about great emotional upheavals or traumas, about a disappointment, or a major change (or the possibility of a major change), and through the course of events, the protagonists all realize a couple of major truths about their lives, and thanks to these revelations, they will probably be able to live differently after the story ends – or maybe they won’t. The stories are about a unique moment in the protagonists’ life when time stops for a minute, and the characters are free to decide whether they will travel the untrodden path from now on, or simply stay in the lukewarm comfort (or discomfort) of their current life. To be a little more specific, I give you a couple of examples.

One of the stories, Sacred Heart is about a teenage girl who falls madly in love with another girl in her class – a girl with dangerous, self-destructive habits and a dysfunctional family. The protagonist admires her classmate, turns her into a romantic idol in her imagination, and for months, she’s greatly unsettled and unhappy because she feels that the average, safe, boring reality she inhabits is nothing compared to the – apparently – wild, intense, real reality of her classmate – until one day she finds out that the tragic-romantic heroine of her imagination is just another average teenager. Sure, this is a huge disappointment – but at the same time this is a break-away from a destructive, dangerous spell, and after the spell is broken, the protagonist will be able to carry on with her life again.

In another story, Puerto Vallarta we witness the disintegration of a seemingly happy family. (A disintegration which, from another perspective, is not a disintegration at all, but rather the meticulous deconstruction of family ties which were based on lies, and then a new start on different grounds.) Naturally, the disintegration/deconstruction doesn’t come out of the blue, and before it comes, we learn about the (power) relations between the father, the mother and their teenage daughter, and we also get to know the secrets and emotions which tie or separate them. Then finally, during a family holiday in Puerto Vallarta there comes a moment when one of them has to choose between leaking a secret and by this, changing everything, or keeping silent and by this, choosing to go on with a make-believe life forever.

In most of the stories, the protagonists decide to act, to change everything – even though this is often a kind of „passive” change: finally giving up the fight, and accepting/acknowledging the fact that, for instance, they would never really fit into the group they would passionately like to belong to; or that their greatest dream will probably never come true, so it’s time to look for another, more plausible dream. These realizations, of course, make the protagonists sad because they must relinquish something they’ve been clinging to desperately – but after accepting the truth, it finally becomes possible to live an honest life, without self-delusion.

Besides the all-permeating melancholy of change (or the lack of change), Jennifer Egan’s outstanding ability to describe locale is the most remarkable feature which connects these stories. The stories are set in a variety of cities, countries and continents (Mexico, Spain, Bora Bora, Africa, New York City), and the characters usually come to these places from somewhere else – to live, to work, or to rest. Naturally, they often feel like a stranger in these strange lands – just the way they feel within the boundaries of their lives. And even though I’ve never been to any of these places, Jennifer Egan describes them so sensuously that I feel as if I intimately knew all the (inner and outer) spaces her characters inhabit.

So yes – these are enchanting, delicate, beautiful and elegantly written stories. They are full of emotions, but they never get sentimental. And they trust your imagination and empathy. I loved reading them.

The Pat Hobby Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald

September 23, 2013

PatHobbyBookThe protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s loosely connected short stories is Pat Hobby, a household name in the movie industry. More precisely, Pat Hobby is a 49-year-old alcoholic screenwriter who has seen better days: he hasn’t been writing for ages, and nowadays his major accomplishment in his profession is substituting the word „certainly” for „yes” in someone else’s script – after which he desperately fights for his right to have his name written on the front page of the screenplay, too. Most of the times, he fails to reach this goal – but it also happens that the screenwriter who did 99% of the job finds the movie made out of his script so abominable that he relinquishes all his rights to it, in which case all the – questionable – glory goes to Pat.

And what are these stories about? They are mostly about Pat Hobby’s tragicomic fumblings in the world of the movie industry, and about the way he tries to stay alive day after day in Hollywood, where he is no longer welcome. Although he used to be a star long ago, in the silent film era, and he used to have a lot of money, a house with a pool and several wives and lovers, he no longer has any of these. Now he lives hand to mouth, in a constant state of humiliation, defenseless against the whims of the big bosses of the studio – and he’s always only one step away from total bankruptcy.

Of course, if you’re cruel you might think that he deserves what he gets because no matter how big a genius Pat Hobby was as a young man, now he’s only a parasitic, useless, alcoholic trickster who steers clear from any decent means of earning a living. As I already hinted above, Pat Hobby doesn’t have a whole lot of moral scruples – he steals other people’s movie ideas without a second thought, hoping that he might write a script out of it; and he generally tries to arrange things in a way that he always has a little money without going to the trouble of working for it.

But it’s hard (or perhaps impossible) to be this cruel, because this book – just like all the works of Fitzgerald I know – is in fact very-very sad. True, if you take the stories one by one, you might find them darkly funny, but still, they always feature that special feeling of screwed-upness which characterizes Fitzgerald’s books. Granted, I haven’t read everything by him, so I don’t know if he always wrote about people going down the drain, and about things inevitably, irreversibly getting worse. Anyway, these stories are also about this. And it’s not too difficult for me to believe that things really have to get worse if I imagine how life turns out for Pat Hobby: the one thing he’s excellent at (I presume he must have been really good at writing silent films) is no longer wanted by anyone – consequently, he is no longer wanted by anyone, and the rest of his life, he’s doomed to haunt the places of his past success as a barely tolerated, oft-ridiculed phantom.


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