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.

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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.)

It by Stephen King

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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.

The Gates by Jennifer Johnston

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I’ve read Jennifer Johnston’s The Gingerbread Woman multiple times, and I was thinking if she can write such a masterpiece as that, then I want to seek out her other work, too. I was biased, a lot, but I had to admit to myself: this novel, for me, is nothing special. It’s like a novel young and talented authors write, authors who would later go on to write much better books (if we assume that this is a linear process, and things become better and talents get more talented in time).

The Gates is about a family who’s seen better days. The alcoholic uncle and the trusty old housekeeper, Ivy spend their days on the family farm, which has also seen better days, and things are slowly rotting away, until one day the niece, Minnie comes home from her London school, and starts to disrupt the old rules and habits with all the enthusiasm and insolence of a 16-year-old girl. Minnie, for instance, makes friends with the oldest son of the poverty-stricken Kelly family, and they decide to do something about the derelict farm.

Jennifer Johnston is, fortunately, not a Hollywood writer, so it’s not like a movie where the amazing Minnie would cure her uncle’s alcoholism, save the Kelly children from the brutality of their father, and make everything and everyone thrive. The Gates is much more realistic than that, and I’m glad it is, but being realistic isn’t enough to blow my mind.

Perhaps my problem with this novel is that it’s too short, and I feel that all the subplots (lessons in Irish history; flashbacks about the family’s past; dramatic events of the here and now) just don’t fit into this mere 160 pages. All these themes would need more words. And my other problem is that I feel that Johnston here is a much less sophisticated writer than she became later (of course, the main basis of this comparison is The Gingerbread Woman, which is a wonderful and delicate and heartbreaking novel), and this novel is just a little too obvious and not completely devoid of clichés.

Bodega Dreams by Ernesto Quiñonez

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Bodega Dreams is set in Spanish Harlem, and it’s about Willie Bodega, an eternal dreamer and criminal and businessman and generous humanitarian, who spends his life, well, dreaming and engaging in criminal activities, but also with trying to make his neighborhood a better place, and it’s narrated by a cool and intelligent narrator, more or less an outsider.

Before I started reading, I investigated this novel and its author a bit, and I was surprised to see how one article compared Bodega Dreams to The Great Gatsby.

I have no idea whether I would have noticed the similarities on my own (I do hope so, The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels and I’d be ashamed not to notice if something is similar to it), but anyway, now that I already had this idea, it was easy (and entertaining) to see the similarities, of which there’s a lot: the relationship of the narrator and the main character is just like in The Great Gatsby; Willie Bodega’s dreams, flashy lifestyle, utter tastelessness, the desperate love he feels for a woman, and his extravagantly benevolent gifts all remind me of Gatsby; and of course, just like Gatsby, the inscrutable guardian angel of the Spanish Harlem also does everything for the sake of a woman – a woman who had to marry a rich man a long time ago, even though she was wildly in love with the then penniless Willie. Moreover, several famous episode or dialogs from The Great Gatsby are repeated here almost verbatim, in a slightly different context, sometimes with slightly different consequences, and observing all this is very intriguing.

All the more so because in The Great Gatsby, there’s a lot of talk about white supremacy: some Fitzgerald characters think very highly of their own white richness and lifestyle, and are shocked to see if non-white persons lead similar lives. So here we can see how it is when non-whites play at being Gatsby and try to realize the American Dream, which – as they are all first or second generation immigrants – is still new to them.

And the novel is good, even if we don’t look at the Gatsby parallels – Quiñonez is excellent at creating the atmosphere of places and events, and his Spanish Harlem is a wonderfully vivid, colorful, noisy, dangerous, and exciting place – it’s great to see it, it’s great to be inside it – it’s good to be in the middle of all this messy and wonderful life.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

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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.)