Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides

freshComplaintI once wrote about one of Eugenides’ novels that he’s so good that I’d happily read even his shopping lists. It’s possible I’ll still feel this way about his novels (but there’ll probably be a ten-year gap between two novels again, so I’m not holding my breath), but based on just these short stories, I’m quite content without having access to Eugenides’ shopping list.

These stories are not bad, far from it.

They’re just…

First of all: Fresh Complaint?

When I first noticed, sometime last year, that this book was coming out, my first thought was: “Great! New short stories!” Well – they’re not new. There’s a couple of new(ish) stories here but most of them come from earlier stages of Eugenides’ career and it seems that most (or perhaps all) of them had already been published earlier. Sure, I don’t mind that they’re collected here, after all, I don’t have a subscription and access to 20 years’ worth of back issues of the New Yorker and other magazines, so for me it’s much simpler to read them in this collection, but still – they’re not new.

Also, these stories provide insight into the development of Eugenides’ themes throughout the years, and it’s interesting to see how certain characters and themes that were later developed into full-fledged novels originally started out in short story form. For example, the protagonist of one story is the very same Mitchell who’ll one day become one of the main characters in The Marriage Plot. And there’s another story that features a sexologist researching transgender issues – for a feature-length take on this theme, see Middlesex.

Yes, all this is interesting. Really. In a way. But I always get suspicious when I have to keep convincing myself that something is interesting, so let’s move on to my second concern with these stories.

Which is that I think Eugenides is a novelist, not a short story writer. I’m not saying that the longer the better, I happen to like his shortest novel the best, but Eugenides is definitely not a master of spare, succinct, bare-boned storytelling – he’s not one to create a whole world in ten pages. I feel that in his case, it’s much better when he wanders through decades and continents, and goes deep into everything, and to me it doesn’t even matter whether he’s going deep into the habits and aspirations of an idealist arts student; or into the mind of a young man who suffers from bipolar disorder; or into an inexplicably melancholy atmosphere through 250 pages – the result is always much better, more beautiful, more intimate than what he achieves in a 15-page story, where there’s only enough space to lay down the facts but no time to get into the feelings.

Reading these stories, I often felt that Eugenides didn’t go close enough, deep enough. These stories are not heartless, shabbily put together, worthless or dull – but there’s a great distance-keeping and impersonal quality to them. They’re like the echoes of stories I had heard before – distant, quiet, lacking real power. And unlike his novels, I don’t think I’ll remember his stories for long.

Advertisements

10:04 by Ben Lerner

1004

Ben Lerner’s novel is on the boundary between amazingly smart and irritatingly smart-ass, and it’s sometimes both at the same time.

This fits this meta-novel admirably because – as the narrator also claims – 10:04 plays with the boundaries of reality and fiction not in the usual postmodern way – rather, it shimmers between reality and fiction, and sometimes it feels as if it were simultaneously both. (And of course, it’s impossible to tell what’s real and what’s fictitious. But it doesn’t matter – while reading this novel, it really does not.)

The motto of the novel – which also comes up multiple times in the text – is that there might exist a future or a parallel reality that is exactly like the current one, except that it’s completely different. A reality or future where nothing has changed visibly but nothing is the same, either. The narrator-protagonist of the novel (Ben Lerner, in a more or less fictitious – and it’s irrelevant how fictitious – version) explores these alternative realities.

The story takes place roughly at the time when Lerner’s writing this very novel (the novel also includes the story of its own inception), and it’s set in an almost-real reality where a possibly approaching apocalypse seems to loom over everything. At the beginning of the story, Lerner learns that he suffers from a possibly fatal heart condition (this is, again, something invisible from the outside but life-changing from the inside). At the same time, his best female friend decides that she wants a child and approaches Lerner with the idea that he should provide his sperm for this purpose (what will that parallel reality be like where Lerner’s a father? will he really become a father or will he just be a sperm donor? how much does he want the be a father, anyway?). While all this is going on, Lerner leads his usual life as a writer (yes, he writes, this novel, for example, meets people, and also goes to museums and cultural events – and everything affects him and his writing). And of course, it’s not clear whether these things happen to the real Lerner or to his narrator.

Besides all this, the novel is full of philosophical wanderings and short essays about a whole array of topics (how the experience we derive from a work of art is influenced by the circumstances in which we consume an art work; why Lerner wanted to become a poet; how individuals and societies come to terms with dramatic and traumatic events, be they either personal or national tragedies; how we can lead an ethical life; who decides what art is; and so on) and it also contains lots of sometimes morbid, sometimes life-changing episodes, told in an offhand manner, which show how even in real life we’re constantly fluctuating between reality and fiction, and how most things we build our lives on are based solely on an agreement on what to believe – and how, because of this, all of our most basic premises about our life are ultimately fragile and vulnerable.

Just one example: there’s an episode about a woman who built her identity and sense of self around the cultural heritage of her father, who was of Arabic origin. After her father’s death, she learns that she’s in fact a child from her mother’s earlier relationship, and she’s a white American. Consequently, she loses the ground from beneath her feet and she’s not sure anymore who she is. Of course, she can continue to work on preserving her Arabic heritage but it won’t be the same anymore – and indeed, how could it be the same.

This novel is like this – a floating, vibrating, strange text, smart and smart-assy, unfinished and unfinishable, full of indecision and concerns, but it’s still slightly optimistic, which is something I especially like.

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

AlltheBright

This is another good young adult novel, so I’m happy. Except that I was mostly crying while I was reading it.

The main characters of the story are both outsiders, struggling with all kinds of traumas and difficulties. Violet, despite being popular in high school, turns completely inward after a family tragedy, and she stops caring about being a cheerleader, having a relationship with the coolest kid in the school, or keeping up her old friendships with the girls with whom – now it seems – she never had anything common in the first place.

Then there’s Theodore Finch, an unpredictable goth-like guy, who’s considered to be a total weirdo, and who’s constantly thinking about death even though he loves being alive.

Violet and Theodore meet accidentally, fall in love with, and – as it’s supposed to be in real love – they both show the other how the world can be different, or that even if it cannot be different, you can at least look at it in a different way.

Luckily, Jennifer Niven is a realist, so she doesn’t pretend that love has a magic power. For instance, love is not enough to cure mental illnesses, and love is not enough to make one forget about their tragic losses, and even though it’s awesome to have someone to love, being neglected at home or bullied in school will still hurt.

And yes – I like young adult novels that can be taken seriously, that deal not only with sunny topics, and that don’t promise easy solutions.
And perhaps I’ll look up Niven’s adult books one day, too. I was surprised to learn that this was her first foray into the young adult genre.

Youth in Revolt by C. D. Payne

youthRevolt

I have a theory explaining why extremely intelligent, precocious teenagers in possession of an intimidatingly rich vocabulary are so over-represented in coming-of-age novels. The reason, perhaps, is that the authors of such novels – in most cases not teenagers themselves – probably have no idea how teenagers talk in real life. However, by claiming that their characters are extremely intelligent (and so on), they provide an explanation for the strange phenomenon that the supposedly teenage characters use such complicated sentence structures and employ such exotic vocabulary that would put high-ranking members of the English aristocracy to shame.

And perhaps just as importantly: this can be a rich source of humor – using extremely sophisticated language is rather comic when the teenagers in question only ever discuss and describe a single, very mundane topic: sex.

Nick Twisp here doesn’t care about anything else, either – his main goal is to get to fourth base with the fantastic teenage goddess, Sheeni, but it would be a mistake to think that reading 500 pages about how a pimply, sex-crazed 14-year-old wants to finally lose his virginity is a boring ride. It’s anything but – C. D. Payne is a writer with incredible comic talents, and he takes all the possible miseries of a teenager’s life (the overactive hormones, mostly, but also the problems of a completely screwed up family, school difficulties, and so on) and goes on to write about them in a wonderfully absurd, morbid, insanely funny way.

Youth in Revolt is definitely not a melancholic coming-of-age novel, tackling the hard questions and doubts around human existence. And of course, why would anyone ever need to feel sad or hopeless? According to Nick, there’s certainly no reason to feel that way, ever. As he puts it: “Consider, if you will, the morning boner. What a metaphor of hope and renewal! How can anyone give way to despair when one’s groin greets each new day with such a gala spectacle of physiological optimism?”

By the way, if I stopped to think about all the horrors presented in this novel (various cases of sexual abuse and harassment; parents completely devoid of parenting abilities; deviant behavior patterns; leaving a horde of teens to their own devices; and so on), I’d probably consider slitting my wrists. Fortunately, this is not a novel where you have to seriously think about all this, or where you have to lament over the possible fate of hopeless and deviant modern youth. The youth depicted here manages just fine, and I’m having an awful lot of fun.

(The quote on the cover claims that this is the funniest book you’ll read this year. It’s certainly the funniest I’ve read so far, and I can’t imagine that anything will surpass it in the remaining few weeks of the year.)

The Best American Short Stories 2017 by Meg Wolitzer (ed.)

bestam2017

I could easily cut and paste this text from the posts I wrote about the anthologies of the previous years but I’m too lazy to go back to my earlier posts. Still, this is probably going to be very similar to those because – as I came to realize since 2011, when I first started to read this series – this anthology is basically the same every single year.

The ingredients include:

– 1 story written in the second person singular (whether or not the second person singular makes sense there)
– 2-3 somewhat historical, somewhat political stories
– 1-1 story written by a black, Asian American, Latin American or Native American writer or about black, Asian American, Latin American or Native American characters (in a single year, only two out of the four minorities must make an appearance, but sometimes as many as three are included)
– 2 lyrical, experimental short stories (in which sometimes no meaning whatsoever can be found)
– 3-4 stories by well-established, successful author (it’s a well-known fact that in the whole wide country of the United States, only about 20 persons can write decent short stories, so there’s obviously not a whole lot of possibilities to choose from)
– 1-2 stories by writers who never before had anything published
– 4-5 stories about family matters, turning points in relationships, and crises of self-realization (that is: normal, average human stuff; and I usually like these stories)

Of course, one story can possibly fit into more categories. It’s possible for an Asian American writer who never had anything published before to write something experimental, or a well-established author may write something historical in the second person singular. Therefore, the collection is not that boring and predictable, and the quality of the stories is usually very high – the writers featured here can indeed write stories that are really stories and not political, philosophical, existentialist or feminist treaties, even when the topic is political, philosophical and so on.

But it’s not that thrilling and surprising, either, after several years (and I wouldn’t call myself a jaded reader who cannot be pleased anymore), even though this year’s guest editor, Meg Wolitzer says in her introduction that she likes being surprised by a story (I like that, too), and that she thinks these here are surprising stories (I don’t think so).

As roughly 19 out of the 20 stories fall into one or more of the categories outlined above, there’s not much space left for the truly surprising, and I rarely cried out in my mind that “oh wow, this here’s so exquisite and precise and beautiful, and I’ve never seen it expressed like this before, and how is it even possible for someone to write in such an awesome way”. This year no single story made me feel like this on the whole. I felt it sometimes, coming across certain sentences or even paragraphs, and that pleased me, sure (and then I tried to examine why those sentences and paragraphs were so good, but fortunately this mostly resists scientific examinations), but this is not enough. I want the complete story to enchant me. Perhaps next year.

It by Stephen King

it

It’s a mystery how we ever manage to grow up (and I don’t know whether we actually do manage to). While reading this novel, I thought and remembered a lot of things about growing up (my own growing up, things I thought I’d forgotten, but now they came back, but I’ll forget them again), about being a loser, and about all the shit even the most average kid (who doesn’t live in a horror novel) goes through before becoming an adult – and I was truly amazed how we can ever live long enough to become adults.

I, for example, wasn’t a conspicuous loser and I wasn’t bullied, but I got a hunch that I was saved from this only because I had pretty developed instincts of self-preservation, so I carefully guarded my vulnerability, and didn’t make it public knowledge when, say, in my early teens I had a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio or on the cute guy from the other class. I had a classmate, though, who was naïve and honest enough not to hide her crush on one of the Backstreet Boys guys, and she got picked on by the cool kids quite badly. After a while she was bullied not only because of her Backstreet Boys weakness, but for everything and anything, and this still hurts her. Which is no wonder – being a loser isn’t particularly awesome, especially when you’re a loser on your own.

Not many writers can feel and describe this so well as Stephen King, who deals with losers in a disproportionate amount of his books, losers who must bravely face various horrors, not because they’re so adventurous – just because that’s how life is. The horror can be the simple terribleness of everyday life, and it can also be the crazy bloody gut-slicing gruesome stuff of horror movies, but the distinction doesn’t matter that much because the horror is always brought on and created by someone’s imagination – which, of course, doesn’t mean that it is not real.

There’s certainly a lot of gory stuff here, sure, but my imagination is probably not what it used to be, it’s the pragmatic imagination of an adult, so I can’t really get scared of Things living in the gutters and of cities where Evil lives. On the other hand, I can get extremely scared of the average horrors of average lives – of people not paying attention, withholding their love, not giving a shit, being deliberate assholes, being violent – and King is very good at depicting these kinds of horrors. (I’d say he’s better at it than depicting the gory kind.) And he’s also good at depicting and evoking emotions – this didn’t surprise me; I often feel deep distress and sadness when reading his books, but I think this was the first time he even made me cry. A lot.

My favorite part, by the way, is when one of the characters, Bill, who later becomes a writer, goes off on a rant during one of his university literature classes about why the hell it’s necessary for a story to be deliberately politically, culturally and socially relevant, since a story, if it’s a good one, will be full of political, cultural and social relevance anyway, automatically, and there’s no need to force all that stuff into it. I don’t know if King follows his (character’s) philosophy deliberately, but his books are like this. There’s so much in them, especially in such a long one as this, that I won’t even start discussing it here, but I guess I learned more about contemporary American ways and reality from King than from all my university courses on the subject. So yeah, his books are full of relevance. And still – his books are stories. And I read for stories.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

somethingwicked

The carnival:

I have a hard time imagining how carnivals and circuses can continue to function; I know no-one who likes them. Of course, I probably haven’t yet spoken with enough people about carnivals and circuses, but those I’ve spoken with all hate and/or fear them. Me too.

Friendships, especially the big, eternal ones:

The sense that no, they won’t last forever seems to have been coded into them from the very first moment. This is how it is here, too. Right from the opening scene where Will, the eternal American good boy politely replies to the questions of the lightning-rod salesman, while his best friend, Jim, the eternal American trouble-maker and trouble-seeker, a boy instinctively drawn to everything weird, unsettling and dark, keeps quiet.

One of the basic elements of novels about young boys growing up is that there’s a moment, somewhere around the age of 14, when the innocent boy-life is first invaded by adult life, and sure, you can go on pretending for a couple more years that nothing’s happened but the fruit stolen from the neighborhood trees on warm summer nights won’t taste quiet as sweet anymore. Bradbury captures the terrible melancholy of this perfectly.

Death:

I don’t know when the right time to learn about death comes – but whenever the knowledge comes, it always feels way too early. I’m not thinking about a particular death, rather about the realization or acceptance of the fact that death exists. After this moment, it seems we must keep asking ourselves: would I ride the magic carnival ride that can take me back or forward in time? And if I would, in which direction would I ride it?

Still – I was expecting this novel to be darker and more horrible. But Bradbury can always surprise me with his eternal optimism, his ability to see the good everywhere, and his ability to honestly believe that death doesn’t exist. (Why he writes about all this in such an extremely flowery, overcrowded language is a mystery, though.)

Look at Me by Jennifer Egan

lookatme

Now I got to the point that I’ve read every one of Jennifer Egan’s book (I deliberately took my time because she just doesn’t have that many), and this is the first and only one I don’t absolutely adore and admire.

Of course, it’s still great, at least it passes my very scientific test, namely, that a book is good when it’s powerful enough to force its way into my dreams. And it’s also good because it has everything I love in Egan’s work (for details about what I love in them, check my earlier, enthusiastic posts; now, for once, I don’t want to repeat myself).

But I was not swooning with delight reading Look at Me, and there were things that bothered me.

For example, it bothered me that there’s just too many characters in this novel, and that it’s about way too many themes. In this respect, it foreshadows A Visit from the Goon Squad, with its multitude of characters, points of view, styles, and topics ranging over decades and continents, but in Goon Squad, Egan handles and juggles everything with a masterly hand, and her writing doesn’t get overwhelming. Here, though, I was sometimes asking: Just why is there so much stuff here? Do you really have to try telling everything in one novel? Can all this fit into a single book?

What’s all this? Roughly (and without attempting to be comprehensive): public and private identities, the connections between the two, and whether they are mutually exclusive; the connections between reality and non-reality (virtual reality, projection, reproduction – you name it); the cultural monopoly of the US that burdens every other culture in the world; the peculiar feeling of being lost that permeates our teenage years and that’s still full of hope and that secret thought that there will still be a whole life for everything; the eternal longing for being someplace else, sometime else. And these topics are all exciting or heartbreaking, it’s just that – all this, here, feels too much for me.

Another thing: to me, it felt that Jennifer Egan was sometimes repeating herself here. True, I read her books in random order, not chronologically, so perhaps it confuses me that I remember them both forward and backward. Still – I’ve read in at least two of her novels so far how she describes that weirdly specific feeling, using basically the same words, when a character (usually very young and naïve, and wishing for perfection) who’s deeply immersed in a situation and in an emotion, suddenly finds herself in the future in her thoughts, and realizes the temporariness of her current situation – and suddenly understands how the thing that hurts now won’t hurt anymore 20 years later, and how what’s real now will only be a memory then.

And yes, it’s fantastic how Egan can capture the essence of this feeling (of any feeling for that matter), and it made me shiver just as it made me shiver when I read about this feeling in her other novels, but still: it bothered me that I’ve already seen this – the same thing described in the same way. I want to see things I haven’t seen before. Or: I want to see things I know in ways I haven’t before. Here, it didn’t happen for me.

(And now I’m just looking forward to Manhattan Beach, Egan’s new novel out in October.)