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.

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10:04 by Ben Lerner

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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.

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

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I once read the claim – which is most probably impossible to back up with statistical data – that at least 99% of our thoughts isn’t suitable for public consumption – not necessarily because of their content (though I guess that can be a serious reason, too, for not publicizing them) but rather because of their form (or lack thereof).

Sure, stream of consciousness, we all know what that is – wandering among free associations, memories and random thoughts in no way related to anything else – but this novel takes this to the next level and illustrates that what goes on in our mind isn’t always expressible through language.

So how does it work as a novel (which, after all, usually consists of language)? McBride’s method of choice is that she expresses the narrator-protagonist’s thoughts using a language that ignores everything we know about typical word order, sentence structure and sentence boundaries. Here’s a sample:

For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.

Exhausting, right?

It most definitely is; in the last couple of years I picked up this book a couple of times but I always gave up reading after three lines or so.

But now the time has come to finally read it, and I found I could get used to this style – after about 30 pages it seems quite plausible that it’s possible to write like this and it’s also possible to understand the writing. What’s more: it’s possible to be immersed in this style and forget about everything else – the novel’s unsettled and unsettling, feverish and intimate style – which expresses the narrator’s most chaotic, most ambiguous, most tender and most cruel thoughts simultaneously – is often beautiful and possesses a musical, poetic rhythm which completely envelops me. And even though it’s a deeply unpleasant experience to be this close to someone’s mind, be this deep inside someone’s mind – I couldn’t stand it for long stretches and reading this slim novel took me 4 days – the writing is strong and powerful, no doubt.

So much for the style – but what is the novel about?

It is set somewhere in a corner of Ireland, and includes several themes often found in Irish literature: Catholicism and rebellion against it; desolation; neglect; violence, unhealthy family and sexual relationships; and so on.

The story is centered around the relationship between the narrator and her older brother. Due to a childhood brain tumor, the boy is slightly disabled, has poor eyesight and below-average mental abilities, and the girl spends her whole life in the shadow of her brother. As a child, she tries to shield her brother from the cruelties of the world, and when she grows up, she runs away from home and tries to build herself a personality that’s separate from her brother, using very drastic methods which only help for a while.

And even though the girl has excellent mental faculties, that doesn’t diminish the chaos in her mind and doesn’t allow her to cope with the difficulties of her life any better (and she has much to cope with). The story itself is brutal, and told in this style it’s even more so. Reading this novel is about as uncomfortable as reading Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy or Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School. (There are also thematic similarities between these works.)

Recommended for emotionally extremely well-balanced periods – otherwise it might just be too hard to bear.

The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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I adore Graeme Macrae Burnet’s work, and I’ll continue to eagerly devour everything he does, but the fierce love I first started to feel last year, after reading His Bloody Project, which only grew stronger when I read The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau earlier this year now diminished a little.

This novel is certainly not a major disappointment – Macrae Burnet’s style is as enjoyable as ever, and he’s as smart and funny as ever – the only reason I’m slightly disappointed is that I like even my favorite authors to change (or at least: to do the same thing differently). Adèle Bedeau and His Bloody Project, despite dealing with similar topics, are two very distinct novels, while The Accident does the same thing Adèle Bedeau did in the same way, and I find this slightly boring.

Once again, the story takes place in the small and boring French border town, Saint-Louis, where nothing interesting ever happens and which isn’t exactly a crime-infested place, either. Even if there’s a crime, in the end we usually learn that it wasn’t a crime at all, that perhaps someone only imagined there was a crime, or we simply don’t learn anything at all. Of course, this is ironic, postmodern, and so on, and I enjoy watching how Macrae Burnet gently mocks the traditions of detective novels and seems to conclude that life is incomprehensible anyway, and we never learn anything about anything.

Here, for instance, we meet Monsieur Barthelme, a reserved and well-respected member of the local community, who swerves off the A35 on his way home on an average Tuesday night, hits a tree and dies. It looks like an accident, no questions, but Gorski, the less-than-super-sleuth we already met in Adèle Bedeau starts to investigate the circumstance based on the request of M. Barthelme’s widow, and sure enough, he quickly comes across some suspicious details. For instance, turns out that M. Barthelme lied to his wife as to his whereabouts on Tuesday nights, and some signs seem to indicate that perhaps he wasn’t such an upstanding citizen after all.

While Gorski investigates rather awkwardly and without much success (of course we all know from detective novels that all detectives are alcoholics, but this Gorski – who’s not a genius inspector to begin with – really drinks so much that if affects his work, and since he’s constantly drunk it’s no wonder that his progress in the investigation is hardly spectacular), Barthelme’s son, Raymond also starts out on a private investigation of his own after finding a slip of paper in his late father’s desk drawer, with an address written on it.

What follows is a parade of everyone spying on and following everyone else, or else constantly wondering what others would think about their actions and reactions if they were spying on or following them. It’s so complicated, and everyone is so paranoid that the original case (which wasn’t a case to begin with, was it – it was only an accident) fades into the background after a while.

Which is fine because the psychological aspect of the story is again extremely interesting – it’s especially remarkable that Macrae Burnet seems to know a lot about how the minds of losers and eternally awkward people work – and the small-town atmosphere and the small-town figures he conjures up are depicted vividly and with gentle irony. It’s just – I’d seen exactly this already, in Adèle Bedeau.

And now I’m curious where Macrae Burnet goes next. Judging from the fictitious foreword revealing the fictitious origins of this novel, there’s possibly going to be one more novel set in Saint-Louis, presumably another detective story featuring Gorski. If so, I’ll read it for sure but I’m secretly hoping that later on Macrae Burnet moves on and writes stories outside of this universe – it’d be a pity if he used all his considerable talent writing about small-town small-time paranoia – there’s so many other kinds of paranoia out there waiting to be examined by such keen observers as he is.

The Willow King by Meelis Friedenthal

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Witchcraft! Superstition! Casting the evil eye!
Magic potions! Strange illnesses! Moisture and stench everywhere!
Black bile overflowing! DIY blood-letting!

So much excitement, right?

Not really – or not in the way you’d expect.

I’ve always wanted to read a novel without any plot or story whatsoever, but I realize that even the most experimental novelists tend to fall victim to the necessity of action, so in the end there usually is a story of some kind even in the most experimental fiction.

Friedenthal does admirably well here – there’s almost no story in The Willow King. Sure, there’s a young scholar, Laurentius, who is forced to leave the university of Leiden due to unspecified theoretical complications, and he travels to Tartu to be out of harm’s way. During his first week at the Tartu university, he’s constantly ill and feverish, so his main goal is to get well again (in this he fails). His other main goal is to keep a low profile and avoid drawing attention to himself (in this he fails even more spectacularly).

Basically this is it – but it’s still hugely exciting because even though there’s no story, there’s plenty of atmosphere and a re-creation of an earlier world. A 17th century, pre-Enlightenment atmosphere pervades the novel, and the world Friedenthal describes is a dark, muddy, chaotic one, a world where superstition and science are still deeply connected; where illnesses are cured either by magic potions or by some good old-fashioned blood-letting or enema; where it’s difficult to distinguish witches from people who are capable of recognizing witches (this latter ability is also suspicious, of course), and the thought that perhaps witches don’t exist hasn’t yet taken root.

And by the time I get to the end I’m not sure whether they exist or not, either – I assume the fever Laurentius suffers from also takes its toll on my brain.

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

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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

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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.)

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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.