The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

I have a strange attitude towards bestsellers. I read a lot of praise about them, hear some bits and pieces of the story, and finally come across a sentence or a shred of someone’s review which manages to break through the wall of my snobbishness and disinterestedness, and suddenly I become eager to read the book in question. In connection with The Time Traveler’s Wife, this moment came some time last spring, but I do not remember what exactly kindled my interest. Then a few months later one of my good acquaintances mentioned Niffenegger’s name and the word “postmodern” in the same sentence and from that point on I wanted to read the novel as soon as possible.

Judging from the reviews and blog posts I had previously read about the novel, I presumed that The Time Traveler would be a somewhat mystical, somewhat hard to follow, wonderful but not slimy love story in which the characters use a lot of bad language. However, the book turned out to be rather different: it was not mystical, it was not somewhat but sometimes extremely hard to follow, it was not slimy but it was not wonderful either, and the characters did not use too much bad language for my taste.

One of the great advantages of reading bestsellers is that by the time I read them and post about them, several highly interesting reviews and posts are already all around the internet, so I do not have to bother with writing a story outline. So this time, I will only write about what I found good in the novel, and what I found bad.

Niffenegger’s novel made an unexpectedly good impression on me in the beginning. The preface of the novel in which first Clare then Henry provide the reader with a short insight into their lives spent with continuous waiting, time traveling and aching with desire was simply perfect. The first couple of pages manage to convey a sense of all the suffering, difficulty, joy, helplessness, hope and bitterness which describe the relationship of Henry and Clare, and the combination of all these was sufficiently interesting for me to develop an active interest in the characters and their story.

However, after the promising start I quickly lost my grip on the story. Henry’s time travels, his disappearances, his meetings with his younger and older selves, and the fact that Henrys from different parts of the future kept appearing in Clare’s childhood – these were too much for my logical abilities to tackle. Or perhaps these elements puzzled me because I like to analyze and explain everything, and this is clearly impossible in this novel.

After reading some more I began to feel that possibly the whole storyline of time traveling and combining past and future has a symbolic meaning that does not necessarily have to be meant rationally, and from this point on I started to enjoy the book yet again. I think if we put aside the science fiction layer of the story, we can get an insight into the lives of two rather interesting characters and their truly unusual relationship. Despite its unusual and destined quality, this is an honest, real, subversive, self-destructive and ruthless relationship, and the time travels of Henry and the defenselessness and insecurity they entail signify both Clare’s desire to be alone and Henry’s attempts to escape from their relationship.

As it can be inferred from the title of the novel, the protagonist of the novel is not Henry and Clare, but Clare only. It is really tricky from the author that even though it seems as if Clare was the suffering party in the relationship whose life is basically spent with sitting around waiting for his involuntarily treacherous Henry, in reality everything happens according to Clare’s plans: as a child she decides that she will secure the man of her dreams for herself and she does secure him; when she wants a child, albeit with much difficulty, she manages to give birth to one; and when she wants to be alone, she only has to wait a little and one of Henry’s time travels will provide her with the chance to indulge herself. This is more or less explicitly written out in a short chapter titled Secret, in which Clare tells the reader what she does when Henry is away and how much she enjoys occasionally being alone. I have never read in any romantic love story such a description of the way how the parties in a relationship (or one party at least) sometimes wish to be alone, even if it means that the other person will quite probably have a very bad time during the period spent apart – just as Henry has quite unpleasant and sometimes even life-threatening experiences during his time travels. This is simply something a love-story usually does not dwell upon, so I had to conclude that The Time Traveler’s Wife is not a simple romantic story.

True, there are several romantic and erotic scenes in the novel, but despite these, and despite the whole time traveling mystique, I judge this novel to be fairly realistic, where the everyday struggles of life (such as how to share the housework) are just as emphatically present as the way Henry and Clare make romantic love to each other.

And now some words about the things I did not like or that disappointed me: first of all, for me the narrative was a bit hard to follow. The story is told by Clare and Henry in turns and at the beginning of every chapter the narrator is named. However, I got confused quite often as to who is doing the speaking and I had to turn back to the beginning of the chapter to find it out. It was not easy to tell Henry and Clare apart as neither of them had a unique voice which would have made it possible for me to know at once who the current narrator is.

Another thing which irritated me a bit was that I often felt that the novel promised more than it managed to deliver. This is especially so in the stories of the minor characters. There is a whole bunch of potentially highly interesting characters in the novel, but finally none of them is explored in any depth. For instance, I would have liked to read more about the anarchist Gomez, Clare’s psychotic mother, Henry’s ex-girlfriend Ingrid or Henry’s father but all of them were dwarfed by Henry and Clare. Of course one of the reasons for this might be that the novel is already quite long as it is. However, if Niffenegger had wanted to concentrate on her protagonists only, then perhaps she should not have introduced so many other characters.

Apart from all these, I liked this novel on the whole, and it also made me realize that it is not necessary for a bestseller to be as crappy as The Shadow of the Wind which I read not long ago and hated immensely. I can quite easily imagine that I will read Niffenegger’s other books as well to see what else she can offer.

Advertisements

A Heart So White by Javier Marías

Once I read some praise for this novel, and I also liked its title very much, so I’m sure I would have read it sooner or later. Then a couple of months ago I came across another blog post about this novel in which the blogger mentioned that A Heart So White is full of eight-line sentences and highly irritating parenthetical interjections. Well, you may or may not have noticed, but I am prone to write eight-line long sentences and parenthetical interjections myself, so I thought that these irritating features might in fact prove quite enjoyable to me. Therefore I asked my sister to borrow this book for me from the library, as I felt a great urge to find out about Marías’s long sentences as soon as possible.

The protagonist and narrator of the novel is Juan, a recently married thirtyish translator, and A Heart So White is basically a long series of his musings, his reflections on the past and his attempts to explain the world to himself. The center of the virtually non-existent story is that after his own wedding, Juan becomes interested in the story of his father’s three marriages, and even though he is not sure he really wants to know what kind of secrets are concealed in his father’s past, his curiosity gets the better of him and he cannot hide from the unpleasant and perhaps even dangerous truth.

As it usually happens in this kind of soul-searching, past-revealing novels, by the end of the story we learn the long-concealed secret of Juan’s father. But as it is, the secret itself is not that very important, and what mattered forty years ago doesn’t really matter now. The secret only serves as a convenient referential point which makes it possible for the narrator to muse (under the pretext that he is working hard to reveal the big secret) about as diverse topics as the changes that occur in the relationship of a couple after they get married; the need to understand everything and the impossibility of not understanding and not knowing; the way hearing and knowing something relates to guilt and innocence; the recurring events and the chance coincidences which abound in everyone’s life; the role language plays in our understanding and deception of the other person; or the way something becomes a secret.

These topics are simply wonderful by themselves, and the way Marías covers them in the novel makes them even more so. I was both fascinated and entertained by the constant digressions of the narrator (everything reminds Juan of something else, so it can easily happen that one character asks a question, and we only get the answer after a two-page long interjection or a description of something that’s just come to the narrator’s mind upon hearing the question), and I admired his efforts to understand and explain everything perfectly (it’s easy to see that he writes so many complicated sentences and parenthetical interjections because every explanation can be refined further, and this constant refinement is exactly what the narrator is after).

The narrator can talk interestingly about anything, but still, I enjoyed his ruminations about the nature of language, understanding and deception the most. This also happens to be one of the most important topics for the narrator, which may come as no surprise, given that he works as an interpreter, therefore it is his job to pay attention to language, voices, choices of words, shades of meaning – no matter whom he is talking or listening to. On the one hand, his job makes his life more difficult, as he is accustomed to listening to and interpreting everything so he cannot let go even in his free time, and if he hears anyone speaking in a language he understands he cannot help but listen and interpret. So Juan sometimes suffers from his need to understand everything, on the other hand, however, he is well aware of the power his ability to understand and translate words endows him with – and he doesn’t hesitate to use this power either.

My favorite example for this is the story of Juan’s first meeting with his wife, Luisa. Luisa works as an interpreter as well, and once she is present as an observer at a meeting of a Spanish and an English politician where Juan interprets. Seized by a sudden impulse (and risking his job), Juan decides that he spices up the boring meeting, so he deliberately mistranslates some sentences in order to steer the conversation to a more personal and exciting direction. And even though it would be Luisa’s task to interrupt Juan at this point, she decides to overlook Juan’s deliberate mistakes. This way the two of them become accomplices in the deception and decide to use their linguistic abilities to influence and deceive others, and in a way change the world according to their whims.

This was only a single example, and the novel abounds in such beautiful episodes. But as I already implied, A Heart So White is just as fascinating when nothing happens, thanks to the structure and language Marías uses: sentences and even whole paragraphs keep recurring in the novel, and all the repetitions (not only of words, but symbols, metaphors, and human interactions and relations) have quite a hypnotic and bewitching effect in the end.

Of course you don’t necessarily have to agree with the narrator’s philosophy – but it’s for sure that you will find it hard to ignore the sheer beauty and pervasive force of his trains of thought.

Priority by Iselin C. Hermann

Priority is an epistolary novel. The story is really simple: Delphine, a young Danish woman sees a painting in a gallery in Paris, and she is so impressed with it that she sends a sincere, slightly frivolous thank-you note to the painter. The middle-aged painter, Jean Luc answers her card, and then they engage in an increasingly exalted, erotic and hysterical correspondence. From the initial playful, rather innocent and flirtatious stage they quickly go on to the phase when they both become obsessed with each other’s body and soul – as they imagine these based on their letters to each other. Naturally, the idea of a real-life rendezvous is raised pretty soon, but the meeting, when it is finally arranged, has disastrous consequences.

Several bloggers who read this novel mentioned that the story ends with an appalling and very dramatic twist which leaves the reader absolutely dumbfounded. However, I was not at all surprised by the outcome of the story. This is not because I’m so clever (virtually every writer can double-cross me, and I’ve never been able to guess who the murderer is in any detective story), but because the ending is foreshadowed by several details in the novel: the comment under the title of the novel („The letters are published by X. Y.”), the style and the rhapsodical quality of the whole correspondence, and several hints dropped by one pen-friend and deliberately or perhaps naively ignored by the other – all these details strongly suggest what kind of outcome is to be expected. And in fact this is one of the reasons why I esteem this novel so highly: the author didn’t use the cheap trick of shocking the reader with some inexplicable but spectacular twist. She simply went ahead and wrote the ending which was the inevitable consequence of the preceding events.

Of course, the novel is still shocking, but it doesn’t shock me because of the ending, but because the whole correspondence is frightfully believable. The way Delphine’s and Jean Luc’s relationship develops, their increasing intimacy with each other, the gaps and silences which sometimes occur in the course of their correspondence, which are then broken by obsessively honest letters about their past and about their erotic fantasies about the other, or by self-lacerating, self-ironic or exigent epistles – all this is stunningly real.

Priority, by the way, reminded me of Joanne Harris’s novel, blueeyedboy, even though here communication is via letters and not via blog comments and emails. Both of these novels deal with the themes of role-playing, the blurring of reality and desire, and the incomprehensibility of someone’s real identity – and in this respect it doesn’t matter at all whether someone falls in love with a perfect stranger based on his or her letters, blog comments or instant messages. In these kinds of relationships, which are based on desires and fantasies, lying (or at least hiding certain facts), painting a nice picture of ourselves and at the same time mindlessly adoring the Other are even more emphatically present than in any „normal” relationship. And this is certainly the case in Priority, too. Delphine and Jean Luc develop a passionate, seemingly honest relationship which is in fact based on role-playing and is therefore exceedingly vulnerable to the attack of reality. And even though both of them are basically the figments of the other’s imagination, the image they create in their heads about the other is so real for them that reality itself becomes unimaginable and unbelievable.

While reading the novel, I first tended to think that in this relationship, Delphine is the one who really suffers, because she is the one who truly exposes herself, she is the one whose desire is stronger, and she is the one who adores the other more honestly. But finally the question of who suffers and who loses more became totally irrelevant, because, as a matter of fact, there are only losers in this relationship.

Hotel World by Ali Smith

I read about this book on one of my favourite blogs and I immediately felt that this was a novel I must read. After a couple of months I did get around to reading it, and Hotel World turned out to be exactly as wonderful and heartbreaking as I expected.

The events and characters of the novel are centered around the Globe Hotel, and even though the characters, with the exception of two sisters, don’t know one another, for one night they get close to one another. In the first part of the novel we learn that 19-year-old Sara Wilby had a fatal accident in the hotel earlier that year, but her ghost is still haunting the premises, although not for long, as she happens to be spending her last night on earth. During this night, the other characters of the novel (Sara’s grieving sister, the receptionist of the hotel, a journalist spending the night in the hotel, and the homeless woman who can usually be seen begging near the hotel entrance) all strike up a fleeting acquaintance with the others, but the events of the night will mean something different for all of them. For someone it will mean the end of their life and past; for someone it will signify the beginning of the future; and for someone it will start as any other night on the road, spent with work, then something interesting will happen, but finally everything will revert back to normal. What is common in the experiences of the different characters is that during the night, each of them will have to face death, grief, the passage of time and the all-permeating sense of their alienation from the whole world.

The story itself is hardly worth mentioning, though, as the basic plot functions mostly as a starting point for a long series of memories and dreams. Ali Smith shows only a little of everything, and leaves the rest to our imagination. As regards the setting of the novel, for example, we learn that the story takes place in an unspecified, relatively small town somewhere in the North, and we see some typical streets as well, but finally it remains impossible to pin down the exact location.

And Smith proceeds in the same way with the characters: we learn a couple of crucial details about everyone’s life (for instance, we can read some of the traumatic details of the past of the homeless woman, Elsa; and we get a glimpse of the budding love affair of Sara which could never be fulfilled) which is enough for us to start to care for them, but then, as we don’t get any further details about their lives, we are forced to rely on our imagination and fill in the gaps in their stories on our own. And I think it’s very good that we get only a little of everything in this novel, as that little is already dark and sorrowful enough.

As regards the structure of the novel, each part is narrated by a different narrator, and each narrator has a unique language usage, each puts the emphasis on different events, or views the same events from a strikingly new perspective. Yes, these are exactly the kind of typical postmodern games I love and can enthuse about for hours, and indeed, some elements of the novel can be labeled postmodern: its non-linear structure, the way the chapters and the characters are interconnected, and the creative language use and punctuation which characterizes certain chapters are postmodern traits.

But now it was not simply the clever use of such techniques which truly fascinated me, but the way Ali Smith uses these to express very dramatic, very human experiences, and the way she captures pain, grief and the passage of time by the gradual loss of power over words. For instance, it’s a recurring problem for Sara’s ghost that more and more words slip her mind as time passes, and the more words she loses, the more she feels separated from her old, earthly life. For Else, a similar loss of words occurs: during the period of her physical and mental deterioration she has already forgotten some words, and she is prone to omitting the vowels when she speaks. And Sara’s sister, Clare has a similar problem as well – she is unable to control her pain and the flow of her words, and in the chapter she narrates there’s no punctuation other than an occasional ampersand

All this may sound a bit strained, but believe me, it’s not. The unique language sounds natural from all the characters, and it expresses deep and painful emotions and memories in a highly poetic, beautiful, yet absolutely authentic and un-melodramatic way. However, the final effect of the novel is not like that of a mellow, sad elegy. This novel is more like a sly poison slowly taking effect in your bloodstream, and it’s only towards the end that you realize that everything is hurting and your heart is breaking for every character.

A kind of lyrical punch in the stomach.

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

I read The Wasp Factory for the second time last year. I first read it when it was published in Hungarian three or four years ago, but then early last year I came across several reviews of and rather heated discussions regarding this book, so I thought I might refresh my memories.

The Wasp Factory tells the story of sixteen-year-old, rather strange Frank, who happens to be the murderer of three innocent children. Frank was a victim of a curious and unfortunate incident as a child: a dog bit off his genitals, therefore the boy suffers from inferiority complex and feels like an eternal outsider. Of course his sense of not being able to fit in is further enhanced by the fact that he lives alone with his father in a small island off the coast of a small Scottish village, he does not go to school, and what’s even more, officially he doesn’t even exist, as his father, for some mysterious reason, failed to register his birth with the authorities.

Frank also has a brother, Eric, who could have become an excellent physician had it not been for a terrible scene he witnessed as a university student. On account of this incident, he became somewhat deranged and then dropped out of university altogether. Then he took to harassing the kids and dogs in the neighborhood until he was finally locked away in a mental institution. At the beginning of the novel, Frank and his father learn the news that Eric has run away from the institution and is now probably on his way home. Eric’s journey serves as the frame for the novel.

While Eric is on his way home, we get to know the previous history of their family, and we also get a detailed account of Frank’s three murders, the Wasp Factory and the mythology surrounding it. The novel ends with a surprising twist, and the new information we learn at the end of the novel sheds quite a different light on Frank’s childhood accident. As a consequence, his life turns into a new direction, and the end of the story is in fact the beginning of Frank’s real life.

Reading the novel for the second time was a strange experience. As I went along, the details I thought I’d already forgotten came back vividly, so the oft-mentioned brutal, sadistic, stomach-churning and sickly details of the novel came as no surprise to me. True, it’s not easy for any book to shock me, and I don’t recall ever laying a book aside because it contained a couple of disgusting or horrifying scenes. Therefore the morbid scenes were not the ones that most engaged my attention when I read the novel – not even when I read it for the first time, and even less so now.

What I most enjoyed about the novel now was its humor, its style and the references I quite probably overlooked when I read the novel for the first time as I had no idea they could be important. But now I was aware of the outcome, therefore I also knew which references I needed to pay most attention to. I was surprised to find how often Banks refers to Frank’s gender, which may be considered the key to the novel. For instance, right at the very first page we find a seemingly casual note to the effect that Frank is absent-mindedly scratching his groin.

As regards the humour of The Wasp Factory, I consider the phone conversations of Frank and Eric, and the description of some of Frank’s adventures exceedingly funny. For instance, the way Frank exaggerates in the account of his fight with the intrepid giant rabbit is a case in point. By the way, I don’t know if the similarity is intentional, but Frank’s sadistic personality, his rituals and his self-critical, ironic way of storytelling reminded me of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and particularly to Holden Caulfield to a great extent.

Even though my favourite novel by Banks (though not by Iain, but by Iain M.) still remains (and I guess will always remain) The Player of Games, I don’t have any objections against The Wasp Factory either. It’s an interesting and well-written novel, about which I only regret two things.

One is that I consider the ending a bit hasty: I find it strange that Frank’s father reveals his long-guarded secrets so easily, and that Frank himself accepts that a new life will start for him, without making any fuss whatsoever. He even manages to explain in a few sentences how his past actions and murders directly stemmed from his perturbed identity. I might just accept that this is explanation enough, but I certainly would have liked to dwell somewhat more on these details.

And the other thing I regret about this novel is that the sickly details and its scandalous reputation might frighten several readers away, when – despite all its flaws – it certainly deserves to be read. (And in fact I’m not at all sorry about having read it twice, either.)

A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth

I came across the title of this novel on a blog somewhere. Actually, it was only mentioned in passing, but I liked its title immensely so I checked what the novel was about, and then, convinced, I jotted down the author and the title on a slip of paper and put it away to a place where I was surely going to find it later. Of course I didn’t find it when I needed it, so I tried to track down the book again based on what I could remember about it. Unfortunately all I could remember was that it was written by an English author, it had a very enticing title, and its protagonist was an obese woman who had a crash on her neighbor. It’s hardly surprising then that I was unable to find the book based on so little information, and I was on the verge of panic when my precious slip of paper surfaced from a heap of similar slips of paper, and I could finally order the novel. After so much excitement and relentless research I certainly expected A Kind of Intimacy to be a good book, and it proved to be one.

The novel starts out with the clumsy, unbalanced protagonist, Annie moving to a lovely little street somewhere in suburbia with the intention of leaving behind a troubled past and starting a new life. Right on her first day in her new home, she meets Neil, a nice guy living next door, who offers to help Annie carry her belongings to her new house. Annie immediately takes a liking to Neil, and even though she is well into her twenties, she quickly proves that her imagination is that of an inexperienced teenage girl, and after a very short time she gets as far as seeing a sign in Neil’s every little gesture, and she even manages to convince herself that there’s a special bond between them, and that it’s only because of the cruelty of the outside world (more precisely: because of Neil’s girlfriend, Lucy) that they cannot fulfill their love.

Of course, Annie doesn’t spend all her time dreaming about Neil – she really attempts to start a new life. She tries to find her place in the local community; she organizes a housewarming party; and she joins the local neighborhood watch organization. But somehow everything turns out badly: the local community isn’t too eager to welcome her; virtually no-one attends her party; and as regards the neighborhood watch, Annie interprets this expression in a rather special way, and she watches her neighbors even when there’s clearly no need for it. After the bad start, things change for the worse, but I’d rather not go into any more details.

A Kind of Intimacy is en exceedingly scary book. The blurb of my copy (apart from revealing virtually every important detail of the plot) mentions that in the novel, we can see how Annie’s carefully constructed ego, maintained by self-help books, slowly decomposes, and the true Annie surfaces from behind her mask. Perhaps this is only meant to imply that the other characters in the novel are for some time deceived by Annie, because for the reader it is clear from the very beginning that all is not well with Annie. Right on the very first page we find an account of how Annie celebrates her moving to another house. She strips her clothes, then starts kicking her sofa she always hated with wild joy, because she’s so happy that she can finally leave the detested object behind. I guess this is not the typical way of celebration, but if we still have our doubts about the true meaning of Annie’s behavior, we will soon find other pieces of evidence proving that Annie is not in the best of mental health.

So, what makes the novel so scary? For instance, the fact that Annie tells her story in the first person, therefore we experience everything she experiences: from her recollections we learn how she lived through her teenage years, we see her early marriage, the birth of her unplanned and undesired daughter, and the period after moving to her new home when she tried to do everything in order to finally make herself accepted and find friends.

Of course we can laugh at Annie’s childish efforts to please everyone (and the first half of the novel is indeed quite entertaining), or we can be annoyed by the way she casually ignores a lot of rules which help keep a marriage or a local community together, but then all this ceases to be entertaining when we realize that in fact Annie isn’t a cynical but clumsy person nurturing all kinds of evil plans, and that some parts of her actions we might consider self-ironic are in fact done absolutely in earnest.

The world for Annie is just the way she sees it. And when she explains that she clings to the wall of her bathroom with her ear because she wants to cool her face with the cold tiles, and then casually adds that this way she can hear the conversation going on at the other side of the wall, in Neil’s and Lucy’s bathroom better, then it seems that she truly means that she only wants to cool off, and eavesdropping only comes as an extra. Or what’s worse: it happens that certain small things slip from Annie’s memories, and when she says she doesn’t remember holding anything in her hands when she poked another character in order to make her meaning come true more emphatically, then she’s not trying to come up with cheap excuses, she’s not being cunning, she simply doesn’t remember. And for me it’s an extremely strange and embarrassing experience to go this deep into such a disturbed and dangerous but in some ways totally innocent mind.

Even more so because I often feel Annie very close to me, I often feel with her and can understand what she does and why she does it.

A Kind of Intimacy, by the way, reminds me of several other books and movies, but of course it’s not an imitation of any of them. For instance, on the book cover one critic mentions that Annie strongly resembles Annie in Stephen King’s Misery, and the resemblance is indeed striking (and it doesn’t end with both heroines bearing the same name). Apart from this, Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love and Anthony Burgess’s One Hand Clapping often came to my mind while reading this novel, and I was also reminded of a movie of the 1990s, Pacific Heights, which I saw some ten years ago, and don’t really remember anymore, but the atmosphere of Ashworth’s novel still evoked in me the terror and helplessness I felt when I watched that movie.

The Average American Male by Chad Kultgen

This book was passed around among book bloggers, not because it was that good, but because it was the kind of book not easy to get hold of here, and I thought I might as well read it when it came my way. The Average American Male isn’t the kind of book which is bound to stay with me for a long time, and I can’t imagine that I’ll ever want to re-read it, still, I don’t regret reading it as it was perfect to clench my rarely arising thirst for easy reads, and I even laughed a couple of times while I read it, which is more than I can say about the majority of allegedly entertaining books I know.

As you might guess from the title, this novel is about the Average American Male. The unnamed protagonist, the supposedly average American guy is about 25-27 years of age, does some indistinct work at a workplace where no-one minds if the lunch hours spans much more than an hour, and in his ample free time he has sex with his girlfriend, fantasizes about sex with other women, plays video games, watches porn or jerks off.

Of course this wouldn’t be enough to fill a novel, therefore there is some tension and conflict in the book: at the beginning of the story, the dumb girlfriend, Casey manages to maneuver our protagonist into an engagement which he doesn’t desire, which is not surprising since Casey’s bottom is way too big, she’s much too conservative in sex, and anyway, the protagonist meets the gorgeous Alyna and from their first meeting he tries hard to initiate some kind of (preferably sexual) relationship with her. I won’t go into more details, though. It’s not as if the novel contained any surprising twists and turns, but still, I don’t want to spoil your pleasure, no matter how small that pleasure might be.

Anyway, even though the plot is basically predictable there are a couple of surprises and interesting episodes in the novel, and I appreciated that Kultgen took quite good care of the details: for instance, the seemingly irrelevant and not particularly tasteful detail that Casey never flushes the toilet after peeing will suddenly become significant in one of the climactic moments of the novel when the protagonist exposes the girl’s lies.

For a moment, let me return to the title of the novel: even though the book itself is quite simple, the title is surprisingly ambiguous and suggestive. On the one hand, the protagonist can indeed be considered an average male, provided that we accept the idea so diligently suggested by virtually every single men’s and women’s magazine in the world, that is, the idea that every man in his twenties is driven by his penis. On the other hand, however, the protagonist is fighting against the role of the „more traditional” average male: he doesn’t want to get married just because he’s been going out with Casey for a year and a half; and he is dreadfully frightened by the idea that should he get married, in twenty years’ time he will be just like Casey’s father, who is, supposedly, pining away under the regime of his wife. But finally, despite all his resistance, he becomes a truly average male, and even accepts his fate as such.

Of course, I might easily be over-interpreting things, and I might see more into the book and the title than what is really there, but I still consider it an interesting process how the protagonist wants to be average and special at the same time, and finally ends up being average, but not in the way he planned it. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter whether Kultgen chose the title for its possible shocking quality, or he was just being deliberately ironic, the title was certainly a good choice.

By the way, according to the opinions quoted on the book cover, Kultgen succeeded in planting the idea / doubt / hope that every man is just like his sex-obsessed „average male” in several of his readers’ mind, while he also managed to shock several readers with his explicit sex scenes and the not too delicate language usage of his protagonist. Fortunately I’m not that easily shocked and I’ve never put a book aside just because its vulgarity, so reading Kultgen’s novel presented me with no problems at all, because, as it is, this novel is not shocking, not outrageous, not brilliant, and certainly not unputdownable. It’s a simple book, meant for a single reading.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood has been one of my favourite books for a long time. It happens every two or three years that it suddenly pops into my mind what an exquisite book it is, and then I get a craving to re-read it immediately. This is what I did now, and my opinion did not alter a bit: I still consider this to be an excellent book.

As In Cold Blood is supposed to be based entirely on facts, and the identity of the criminals who committed the murders described in the novel is already revealed in the blurb, I don’t think it will spoil anyone’s pleasure if I say a few words about the story. In Cold Blood tells the history and the aftermath of a murder which was committed on November 15, 1959, in Holcomb, Kansas. Four members of the popular and respected Clutter family were killed that night. The murder created a storm of indignation and kindled huge media interest, and the best detectives of the state set about solving the case. After several weeks of intense detective work, they managed to capture the murderers, who were then tried and finally sentenced to capital punishment based on Kansas laws.

The events described in the novel are no doubt sordid and tragic on their own, however, I wouldn’t consider In Cold Blood too interesting as literature if Capote hadn’t filled the story (which could appear as a news item in any newspaper) and the characters with life. Even though Capote maintained that the book is factually accurate and every single word in the novel is reported as it was actually spoken, it turned out that this is not the case actually. As it so often happens in cases of true-to-life stories, a couple of accusations surfaced regarding the factual accuracy and truthfulness of In Cold Blood as well. But even if we don’t investigate every detail of the book thoroughly, it quickly becomes evident that In Cold Blood can be considered an artfully structured work of literature rather than a logically ordered list of carefully researched and reconstructed, verifiable facts.

Capote goes much further than a simple factual account right in the first part of the novel, which is an account of the last day of the victims. He depicts the Clutter family so lovingly, poetically and humanly (not to say: tear-jerkingly) that it’s impossible not to feel pity for them. The Clutters are not at all perfect and they have some serious problems in the family, however, from Capote’s account it seems that they live beautiful and honest lives, and even though they are still alive and well, we can’t help pitying them in advance for the dreadful fate they would meet.

Of course, murder is dreadful as it is, but it is quite a different experience to read a cool account in a newspaper to the effect that „rich farmer and family murdered”, or to learn the details of the same murder after reading 60 pages of beautiful prose about the victims and learning what kind of life they had and what kind of people they were.

By the way, Capote deals in the same way with the murderers: he shows the reader their human side, their past, personality and difficulties, and describes them in such a sensitive manner that it’s impossible not to feel for them – just as it’s impossible not to feel for their victims.

And I didn’t even mention the way Capote depicts the setting and the minor characters of the novel. True, Holcomb and its residents are real(istic), but Capote organizes all these realistic materials in a way that they become parts of a traditional American fiction. This is the fiction of the Mid-Western small town where everyone knows everyone else, everyone is religious without bigotry, and in the background, as if symbolizing the hard work of the townspeople, the lovely, golden fields of corn waiting to be reaped are constantly visible. Capote’s style of describing Holcomb is far from being factual, on the contrary, it is immensely poetic, and sometimes it even borders on being kitschy.

By the way, I don’t mean any of the above negatively, as I think that it is exactly this kind of humaneness and fictionality that makes In Cold Blood a good book. I may be cruel but I don’t think I’d get anything out of this novel if it really consisted of 400 pages of facts and nothing else. For me, In Cold Blood is terrifying and fascinating because it’s so human and poetic, and it contains not only the facts but their interpretations as well.

What is more, the novel suggests a lot of highly intriguing questions as well. Where does reality end and fiction start? Does reality become fiction if we write it down as accurately as possible? Can real life be turned into fiction? If so, what’s the use of „fictional” fiction? What’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction? In Cold Blood, naturally, does not provide the reader with the answers, and I don’t even think it was meant to. But in any case, it’s an excellent book.