This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

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Tropper’s novel started out entertainingly enough (it even made me laugh out loud, twice) but I soon became annoyed and towards the end I kept thinking this novel was just too loud, too action-packed, too forced, too cheap. Just a whole lot of quick and supposedly witty talk, just a whole lot of cruising on the surface without ever getting deep into anything.

As for the story: the patriarch of the Foxman family passes away, so the family get together to sit shiva, the 7-day Jewish mourning period. The family members are none too enthusiastic, and not just because of the death in the family, but because their relations are the best when they are all far away from one another. Anyway, they must honor the last will of the dead father, so the widow and the four grown-up children, together with all the spouses, significant others, grandchildren, and so on resign themselves to the fact that they’ll have to spend a week together and mourn.

This period, naturally, brings all the hurts, fears and desires of the past to the surface, and because the family members possess no self-control whatsoever, their erupting emotions lead to extremely dramatic and spectacular situations. So much so that I got the impression that the book was written explicitly so that it could be turned into a film, even if, supposedly, that wasn’t the case.

Anyway, we soon learn – because Tropper hammers the point home on every fifth page or so – that the Foxman family is famous for being completely dysfunctional, and that it’s a family made up of utterly tactless people who are unable to express their emotions in any way that could be considered halfway normal. This is a very comfortable solution as it provides an excuse (to the writer, I think) why the characters constantly get into fistfights (because the poor little souls have no other methods of communication), and it also provides an excuse for the general shallowness of the novel – after all, if the characters are emotionally illiterate morons, then it cannot be expected that the author characterize them properly.

Wait, actually, it can be expected. But Tropper doesn’t care about characterization and depth, and most of the characters are exaggerated caricatures with approximately one defining feature – there’s the vulgar, bitchy old mother (something like Bridget Jones’ mom); there’s the belligerent sister-in-law whose only desire is to finally get pregnant; there’s the prodigal son who can get into the pants of any woman in about 3 seconds; and so on. After a while it starts to be a pain in the ass to read about such one-dimensional characters (but at least it goes fast).

The only exception is the main character, Judd, who’s in the middle of a messy divorce and in the process of disintegration, and who’s a bit like Rob from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, in a slightly less melancholic edition. His constant flow of emotional whining is good, darkly funny, and real – perhaps simply because he at least has some kind of depth, and in his case, we don’t only see that he’s messed up because Tropper says he’s messed up.

Fortunately, Judd is the most important main character, so we can read a whole lot of his whining, and that’s enjoyable, but the novel is still far from being remarkable.

Beyond All Love by Martin Walser

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Walser’s antihero, Franz Horn used to be a successful businessman at a denture manufacturing company, but in the present day of the novel, things don’t look so bright for him anymore: he keeps screwing up business deals, he misses out on opportunities, he reacts badly to everything, he never feels at home in anything, and in general he feels that life, success, love, and happiness had passed him by long-long ago.

Franz Horn’s world is a bleak one – a world all about the surface, full of superficial politeness, and sophisticated business and family games. There’s no „real” life in this world, and joy, meaning, and personality all disintegrate in this terrifying simulacrum of reality.

Speaking of simulacra and fake lives: it’s probably not an accident that Horn works in the denture industry – phony polite smiles, teeth clenched in anger and frustration, forced laughs all play a big part in this novel – you’ll need new dentures after all this. And of course there’s the contradiction and ambiguity inherent in dentures: it’s clear even when you look at the most perfect set that you’re looking at fake teeth – and perhaps one revealing sign is that a set of dentures is always perfect. But could a company manufacture natural-looking, perhaps crooked, perhaps nicotine-stained dentures? Of course not, so once you get to the point that you need dentures (and in the great 20th century welfare state Walser talks about so cynically, we’ll all need them sooner or later), you’ll just have to accept a perfect set of teeth. A fake, unnatural set with which you cannot smile one honest smile.

In the present day of the novel – which is the story of only a couple of days – we’re well into the era of fake smiles. In the story Horn goes on a business trip to England where – as is now his custom – he screws things up badly, and then he returns to Germany. (Where something else happens, but he screws that one up, too.)

During the course of these days Horn’s mind wanders all around in a stream-of-consciousness or randomly associative style, and in his thoughts he relives the most painful, most irritating, most embarrassing events of the last few years in his job and in his now defunct marriage. Often these are tiny little things: for example, how Dr. Liszt, the new wunderkind at the company, a calculating and devious asshole, always manages to be so fucking infuriatingly polite, and how because of his politeness no-one can find fault with him. Or how irritating it is that all Horn’s fights with his wife end with the recurrent line: we have to move to a bigger place because we can’t fit into this apartment.

So yeah – these are just the usual everyday oppression and power games. They are meaningless, they don’t lead anywhere, and any attempt at fighting against or resisting them is bound to be meaningless, too. Horn tries to rebel against his lot – for example, in his lonely home, he sneeringly toasts his perfect-muscular-healthy boss with his sixth beer of the evening, exactly because the boss hates how Horn’s beer smell and beer belly gets more and more noticeable as the days go by. Naturally, the boss doesn’t see Horn’s childish rebellion – and even if he did, he’d just smile his impenetrable, indulgent, lightly condescending smile and would ask Horn in a friendly-manipulative manner to please be more considerate about this or that.

There’s no escape, and there’s no hope or chance for something (more) real. Sure, Horn at least keeps trying – at least he still sees the emptiness and meaninglessness around him, while others are content living fake lives. But I’m not at all sure who has it better in the end.

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

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Lionel Shriver’s novel is an intriguing, smart and witty thought experiment about the question of what if.

The topic: romantic relationships. Of course, romantic relationships, because – as Shriver says in the afterword – it’s time to admit that everyone spends much more time thinking about romantic love and all the things it entails and involves than thinking about, say, global warming. (Perhaps not everyone – but I, for one, do.)

The protagonist is Irina, a woman in her forties, who’s spent the past decade or so with her reliable, loyal, smart partner, in a relationship that seems nice and peaceful and quiet. One day, however, at the end of a birthday dinner with an extremely hot and attractive acquaintance, Irina feels an irresistible desire to kiss her dinner partner. From this moment on, the story continues on two parallel story-lines. Irina One kisses her dinner partner, and – after a bit of agonizing and soul-searching – dives head first into the new, the exciting, the unknown. Irina Two resists the temptation because it’s important for her to save the old relationship that’s been functioning apparently well for ten years.

Which road is better and more satisfying, and which one leads to happiness? Fortunately, Shriver doesn’t really take sides (perhaps she does, just a little), and I like it that instead of providing answers, she prefers thinking and asking questions that don’t have a single good answer.

As usual with Lionel Shriver, reading this novel can be a rough and demanding experience – I’d guess it shakes up a whole lot of memories in everyone, memories centered around the topics of why did I (not) stay with my partner, why did I (not) listen to my heart/my reason, what I could have done differently, and so on. So yeah, this novel provides ample material for thinking, and it can be a great conversation-starter with our past, present, and future partners about questions surrounding the expectations in a relationship, intimacy, sharing a life, giving up ourselves, succumbing to routines, setting priorities, and so on.

Writing about it in detail, though – that would bound to be way too personal.

The Information by Martin Amis

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In my younger and more smart-assy years I used to like Martin Amis a lot, and as far as I remember, I enjoyed this novel very much ten years ago. I thought I’d enjoy it this time, too – the first sentences in any case were so good that I didn’t even continue reading that night because I was just swooning with pleasure.

„Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It’s nothing. Just sad dreams.”

This here is perfection, enough to keep me happy for a night.

But despite the amazing first sentences, in the end I found this novel dead boring and irritating – perhaps because I’m not young and I’m not a smartass anymore. Oh, wait – I still am, so perhaps the real reason is that I now find this particular type of smartassery boring and irritating: this oh-so-sophistaced, forced-ironic, over-stylized type of smartassery makes me cringe now. (Except, of course, when I myself am doing it.)

Smartassery fits the novel, though, because The Information is very literary – in the sense that it’s main topic is literature (which is, as everyone knows, dying). More precisely: the main topics are writers, writing, publishing, and the question of what you can write about.

For example, the writers in the novel (or maybe it’s not them, maybe it’s – the fictional self of – Martin Amis, because, as usual, he wrote himself into this novel, so that he can be witty and smart at the reader from inside the book) once talk about how throughout the history of literature, heroes progressively got smaller and more and more insignificant. In ancient times, the heroes were gods and demigods, later literature was all about kings, knights, and bishops, still later about the man of the street, and still later about the people from society’s underbelly. Consequently, all that remains now for literature is to talk about writers and literature, but this is no solution – you cannot write metafiction until the end of eternity. (Fortunately.)

Anyway, metafiction was still in full swing for Martin Amis in 1995, so this novel is about two writers. One of them reinvents literature, or rather, he returns to a weird kind of ancient simplicity that probably never existed in the first place. He writes a couple of dumb, childish utopias that lack any drama, feeling, or life, and for some reason he ends up wildly successful. The other writer, in the meanwhile, goes to the other extreme: he writes unreadable literature, the kind that causes physical pain, and his latest novel (titled Untitled) is famous for its ability to bring on acute migraine, nosebleed, or any other illness after three or four pages. No wonder he doesn’t become successful.

These writers, by the way, are old friends, the kind who actually hate each other, and they both try to humiliate and destroy the other. While they are engaged in their petty little literary wars, the world out there is getting smaller and smaller and getting closer and closer to its end, and we are constantly reminded that compared to the stars and galaxies, we are all totally insignificant, with all our literary or other ambitions and successes and failures.

This is partly entertaining because Amis isn’t only a smartass – he’s really smart, too, and his style is admirably sarcastic, still – it’s boring, partly because Amis himself already covered the same things in roughly the same manner in London Fields, and partly because literature – for me – is more interesting when it deals with something else besides itself.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

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It’s nice to read a novel like this from time to time.

A novel that’s – old-fashioned.
A novel that’s – slow.
A novel where the author deeply cares about the characters and where you will deeply care about the characters, too.

At least I feel I must – reading 800+ pages without getting emotionally involved is impossible for me, so it’s also good that this here is not a postmodern novel where the author demands that the reader keep a distance from the characters and the events.

So yes, this is an old-fashioned novel, with dozens of characters and a whole lot of subplots and story-lines, with good guys and bad guys – but not good and bad in a black-and-white sense. If anything, the characters here represent several shades of gray, as regards the diversity of human nature and the millions of possible motivations.

The main character is – relatively surprisingly – a woman. Dorothea Casaubon (née Brooke) is an intelligent, benevolent, headstrong, energetic young woman who is lucky enough to be able to follow her desires because… – there are several reasons.

Because she has an independent income.
Because her friends and family always stand by her in the end, even if they initially object to some of her plans and ideas.
Because she’s brave and strong enough to defy the way things should be according to everyone else – multiple times, without fail, without damaging compromises.

Dorothea is quite an intriguing character: an independent woman who prefers to manage her estate on her own instead of trusting it to the care of a strong man, and who at the same time screws things up multiple times because she cannot assess and admit to what she really wants and how she could be happy. Still, slowly – very slowly – she learns from her mistakes.

Besides Dorothea, there are many other remarkable characters and story-lines, too: starting from the young doctor new to town (whose innovative plans don’t quite turn out the way he expects) through the young gentleman itching for an active life full of excitement to the hot-headed young poet who is willing to fight for his desires as much as it takes. (Pro quiz: whose heart and hand will our young poet win in the end? Yes. Exactly! But this is how it should be and the fact that the end is foreseeable doesn’t make it any weaker. And anyway, Eliot doesn’t waste too many words on things that are bound to happen. This is not a romantic novel.)

Besides the many individual stories, we also get a sense of the important events unsettling the English countryside in the 19th century. I admit this historical-political story-line didn’t really touch me – some 15 years I must have studied the history of the Whigs and Tories to some extent but that knowledge has safely been buried since, so the political fights and intricacies of the novel left me somewhat baffled. What I did get was that regular country people weren’t exactly keen on such novelties as the introduction of the railway.

But in the end, my ignorance didn’t stop my enjoyment because Eliot’s greatest strength is that through the fate of her characters she can say a whole lot about how it was, how it could have been to live in that era in the English countryside.

Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes

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It’s great that I had quite a lot of real and exciting things going on when I was reading Infinite Ground – if I had been reading it in one of my more depressed, more introverted periods, I would have gotten even more depressed by this novel, and who wants any of that.

The novel starts out relatively innocently but then turns into a very unsettling read. The story is set in an unnamed city of an unnamed South American country, where one day Carlos, a reliable and hard-working office worker ups and disappears from the restaurant where he’s having a big meal with his family. As the convention of detective stories dictates, the case is assigned to an experienced old investigator who starts to follow the obvious clues but things take a bizarre and unexpected turn around page 3 (even more bizarre and unexpected than the mystery of a man stepping out to the bathroom and never coming back) when the investigator notices that all the witnesses seem to play a role and seem to recite their statements as if they had learned them by heart, and we suddenly find ourselves in the midst of double (or nonexistent) identities, lives outsourced and lives lived instead of someone else, simulacra, copies and imitations (which are often better and more authentic than the real thing), in an alien and intimidating world where the self crumbles to atoms (and not just metaphorically, but in a biological and chemical sense) and where even the fact seems ridiculous that we claim to have names – after all, names are only temporary and utterly unnecessary words we attach to that bunch of atoms that make up a human for a short while.

Infinite Ground is a biological-existentialist novel, and I’ve never read anything like this before. And as I say, it’s a pretty alarming novel – here your average existential angst doesn’t suffice anymore – here we have to be anxious about what goes on deep down in our cells because, after all, every single change in our cells changes who we are, and then there’s entropy lurking everywhere, ready to level out and smooth over our existence – how the hell are we supposed to have any sense of continuity of self then, a self that could be anxious about the questions of finding or creating meaning, and how the hell are we supposed to think that we have any kind of will (let alone free will), personal choices, responsibility for our actions, or any effect on anything at all?

We have none of this, surely, in this novel. Perhaps as a consequence of this, the story gradually disintegrates as we move on. It’s possible that this disintegration is intentional (it definitely emphasizes the disintegration of the characters), but towards the end I got the feeling that MacInnes himself succumbed to his own brand of bio-existentialism and didn’t even attempt to find meaning anymore as the search was bound to be futile.

The novel suffers from such typical shortcomings of first novels, but even though it’s not a masterpiece executed with sure hands, I’d love to read whatever MacInnes writes in the future because his thoughts are exciting, and he approaches this whole array of questions – who we are, what we are, when do we stop being humans – from a unique perspective.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

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As far as I know her work, Shirley Jackson is always deeply terrifying. Not because of the haunted houses, demonic persons, and ominous-magical practices that often appear in her novels and stories, but because of the casual and inexplicable brutality that seems to be ever-present in her world.

This novel is no exception. It’s set in and around the house of the Blackwood family (two sisters and a disabled uncle), who live in half-voluntary seclusion. The Blackwoods are either shunned or actively hated by the people of the nearby village, and the few people who don’t shun and don’t hate them only gets in touch with them because they hope to learn some juicy details about that exciting and gruesome event when a couple of years earlier one of the sisters went ahead and murdered half of the family (but which sister? And did it really happen?)

Looking for (and finding) a scapegoat is a recurring theme in Jackson’s work, and it’s one of the main themes here, too. Of course, a crime was committed (the family massacre really happened – allegedly), but this is only an excuse for the villagers to freely stare at, despise and bully the remaining members of the Blackwood family, and the real reason why the Blackwoods became pariahs never becomes clear.

In any case, the Blackwood sisters – Constance, who is forever pottering around in the kitchen and never ventures farther from the house than the edge of the garden, and Merricat, who lives in an invulnerable, childlike state of eternal superstition and magic but who’s also extremely pragmatic and practical, and takes a pilgrimage to the village twice a week – live in a world that’s impenetrable to outsiders. Their private world is full of simple, eternal routine, innocence and magic; this is a world without moral categories; this is a world that must be protected from the attacks of the outside world, no matter what it takes.

It seems to me that the world the Blackwood girls (and the disabled, consequently non-threatening uncle) inhabit is some kind of a female world – I was often reminded of Péter Esterházy’s novel, The Transporters, because something similar happens here: the masculine brutality of the outside world wants to invade the idyllic-neurotic world of the sisters, and it almost succeeds.

Still, what remains in the end is again a kind of innocence. An ever narrower, even more feminine, even more restricted world that’s forbidding and unapproachable to everyone else. A ruined, yet warm and homely castle where Constance and Merricat have always lived and will always live.

The Trick Is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

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Isn’t it fun and interesting to witness other people’s depression?*

Just kidding. The depression of others is usually not the least bit interesting and/or extremely – hm, depressing, depending on how I am doing at that moment. If I’m feeling down, then the depression of others isn’t interesting at all, because my own depression is surely more interesting, more painful and more unique, and who gives a shit anyway. And if I’m feeling wonderful, then I surely don’t need the depression of others – life is wonderful, let’s go rollerblading into the sunshine.

Lucky that there are writers like Janice Galloway, who can make the depression of a person extremely interesting, unsettling, relevant and painful – regardless of how I am doing at the moment.

I’ve been planning to read this novel for ages, purely because I thought the title’s great – all throughout these years I’ve never actually bothered to find out what it’s about. The title, however, has always fascinated me – I thought this must be a darkly ironic self-help title, you know, as if you asked someone in deep existential despair how you’re supposed to live, and the person answered: Oh, it’s easy – the trick is to keep breathing.

Turns out I haven’t been far from the truth. The grieving, neurotic, depressed heroine of the novel, not-exactly-happy Joy spends the story trying very hard to figure out (again) how to live (and why) after a couple of tragedies destroyed her life as she knew it (of course, she’s depressed – so you can imagine how enthusiastic and upbeat her attempts are).

Joy employs different methods and strategies: she takes depression pills and sleeping pills; she drinks a lot; she engages in casual relationships with men; she bakes pastries and biscuits with therapeutic intensity every Sunday; she develops bulimia because sometimes the only thing you can hope for is that you’ll have control over at least one single area of your life; she seeks supposedly professional psychiatric help; and she reads glossy magazines that helpfully advise her to embrace chaos and disorder because that will surely help.

Do I spoil the story if I say that all these tricks are useless?

And does it sound too much like Cosmopolitan if I say that the Solution (if there is one) Lies Within You Only? Oh well. Galloway does a wonderful job alternating between the different phases of Joy’s depression and her attempts to escape from it, and all this is heartbreaking and disturbing – but also funny like hell. I’ve noticed (in literature mostly, where else) that people who are sufficiently (or perhaps too) smart are able to view their own depression from the outside and even while they’re up to their necks in their misery they can still relate to it with scary, clever and also liberating black humor. And Joy’s like this, too – she’s an achingly smart, self-pitying and self-destructing, imperfect, sarcastic, helpless woman with a terrific sense of humor as her only weapon – still, she is aware even while she’s hitting rock bottom that there will be change, there must be change. Only not this week yet. Not tonight. Not yet.

And I think it would be futile to hope for more than this, to trust that things will turns out more spectacularly than this. If there’s an optimistic ending here (but what’s an optimistic ending, anyway? When I read about characters like Joy I can imagine neither that they’ll just put an end to it [they are far too curious for that] nor that they’ll ride their unicorn away into the rainbow-colored future in the end [they are way too smart to believe in rainbows and unicorns]) then it’s really only this: There will be change. Just not today.

* Obviously, I know these two are not interchangeable, but in this text I’m referring to clinical depression and the experience of feeling low somewhat interchangeably – for purely stylistic reasons.