London Fields by Martin Amis

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Martin Amis feels like the Michel Houellebecq for one-time literary majors like me who don’t necessarily like to take everything seriously. Amis writes about the same topics as Houellebecq (the world is coming to an end; the era of emotions and „normal” human relationships is past; the only possible connection between two humans is sex; nothing makes sense any more; and so on) in the same postmodern way, and if I were inclined to take him seriously, he would make me want to cut my wrist like Houellebecq does. As opposed to Houellebecq, however, Amis does have a sense of humor, and he gives me the chance to not take him seriously. And this is a chance I gladly take – partly because I don’t think that life is terribly bad, and partly because – if life were really such terribly bad, I would only be able to stand it with lots of humor.

But now on to the novel. London Fields is the story of a carefully planned murder (or suicide), and symbolically the story of the whole world’s suicide. As regards the particular personal suicide and the characters in the novel: the protagonist is Nicola Six, a mind-blowingly seductive, manipulative sex goddess, and mistress of all kinds of erotic games – a woman who’s always been able to give men anything they wanted, except for love, a woman who’s always been able to get everything she wanted from men – except for love. It’s not at all certain that love would have changed anything in her life (Nicola Six is not exactly a sentimental woman), so her lovelessness in life is not the only reason why she decides to commit suicide – but it’s part of the picture.

Nicola, however, doesn’t want to go through the suicide-business alone – she needs someone who does her the favor of killing her. At the beginning of the story, she finds two possible candidates for this role. One of them is Keith Talent, a violent, not particularly winsome con man whose life consists of sex, booze, and darts, and who generally acts like a man perfectly capable of and willing to kill a woman, should the circumstances arise. The other candidate is Guy Clinch, a soft, gentle, exceedingly naive aristocrat, who doesn’t at all look capable of killing anyone – but Nicola Six is just the person to induce murderous rage in the most peaceful man on earth. And then there’s a third man here (and a fourth, hidden in the background) – these latter two are ironic alter-egos for Martin Amis: one of them is the person who knows the most about Nicola’s plans and is writing a supposedly true-life novel about Nicola’s way to self-obliteration, and the other one is also a writer, and he’s the person Nicola has been the most attached to all her life (or not).

Is this already sufficiently tangled, annoyingly over-complicated, and postmodern? I guess so. But I also guess that this is Martin Amis’ method. I haven’t read all his novels, far from it, but from what I’ve read, it seems that he likes to build his stories around a single joke. This is what happens in Money, this is what happens here, and this is what probably happens in some of his other works I either haven’t read or don’t remember anymore. Another typical Amis feature is that he likes to exaggerate (a lot), thereby making everything hardly-real, hardly-credible. Case in point: his characters’ name, and their habits and behavior: Guy Clinch with his out-of-this-world naivety; Keith Talent with his unsustainable habits of drinking, smoking, and womanizing; and Nicola Six with her one-of-a-kind sexual prowess.

And I’m glad Amis writes like this – this way I can pretend while reading that none of it is true. Sure, if I try to glance behind the exaggerations, the irony, and the unreliable narration, then I see how hideous and horrible all this is – but I don’t necessarily want to see all of this. And I appreciate it that Amis lets me decide when and how much I take him seriously. And I like it, too, that it’s also my decision how much I take this novel to be the suicide story of not just Nicola Six but of the whole world. Right now – not too much. Amis can be awesome when he deals with someone’s personal apocalypse but he hardly ever manages to make me believe in his large-scale apocalypses. In fact, I feel as if he himself hasn’t yet figured out – hmm – why exactly he thinks the world is ending, and what’s this world-scale apocalypse anyway. Which is just as well for me.

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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Saying that Shirley Jackson’s classic horror story is eerie and deeply terrifying doesn’t even come close to describing the real effect of this novel. This novel is so numbing that its chill goes right to the depth of the heart – even if The Haunting of Hill House is not a traditional haunted house-story: it’s more about examining what’s inside the mind and what’s outside, in the so-called reality, and about the way the inside of the mind influences the way the outside world is experienced, and vice versa.

At the beginning of story, we meet Dr. Montague, a determined and naive man, who is fascinated by haunted houses, and wants to spend time exploring them scientifically. Dr. Montague finds the ideal candidate for his explorations in Hill House. Hill House is not exactly an inviting house, the neighbors all talk and think about it with feelings of unease, and it’s been mostly uninhabited in the 80 years that’s passed since its construction because everyone who moved there soon moved out again, feeling that Hill House is just not a place to live in. Naturally, the house has a bit of a dark past, too – but it’s clear from the very first page that Hill House isn’t evil or haunted – contrary to an average haunted house – because people died or dark deeds were done there. No – Hill House was born evil, and it brought misfortune to everyone who had anything to do with its construction or later history.

But Dr. Montague isn’t put off by the bad reputation of the house, he recruits a couple of people and moves in to Hill House with them, with the intention to observe and document anything that might happen. The members of his group: Theodora, a shallow, cute, manipulative young girl; Luke, a relative of the owner of Hill House, a suave, unscrupulous man; and Eleanor, a single woman in her thirties, who spent her youth taking care of her ailing mother, and now, being freed from her decade-long duty, she has no idea how to interact with people because she’s never known anyone and she’s never been wanted by anyone anywhere.

These four people move in to Hill House, and from that moment on they are all exposed to the subversive, mind-corrupting atmosphere of the house, and they start to experience uncanny phenomena, too: doors and windows left wide open close on their own; there’s a spot near the door of the children’s room where the air is strangely cold; and the view from the windows is not the view that should be visible according to the laws of physics.

And this is terrifying enough, but it’s not the main point – the main question is what goes on inside the minds of characters, and what kind of relationships and power/mind games develop among them: how Eleanor, lonely and awkward, tries to win the affection of the others; how Theodora, easy-going and careless, plays with everyone’s emotions; how Dr. Montague tries to create and maintain order and sanity among his guests; and how Luke, ever the womanizer, tries to seduce both women at the same time.

The ominous events scattered here and there among all the psychological battles of the characters are not central and especially: not surprising – because everyone already takes it for granted that something will happen in Hill House. And indeed: the atmosphere of Hill House is extremely oppressive and menacing, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Hill House provided a home to a score of ghosts – but a couple of questions do arise: do the mysterious, inexplicable events happen because the guests are attuned to them? Or do they happen because Hill House is truly evil? Does anything supernatural happen at all? Is it perhaps all just collective paranoia? Or is it that one of the four characters is just playing a cruel game or joke on the others? And if so – who is the master of the game, who is the joker?

I don’t wish to take away the – dark and helluva cold – pleasure of answering these questions during reading, so I won’t go into more details – that’s for sure that Shirley Jackson provides the reader with plenty to think about, while subtly and precisely describing what a – supposedly – haunted house does (can do) to the human mind. And in the end this is much more than a simple-scary horror – this is an impressive, well thought-out and well (what’s more: beautifully) written ghost/insanity story, one which leaves you wondering whether the things that do happen are brought about by a real ghost, or by the lunacy of the characters.

First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan

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The first time I read these short stories – some six years ago – I was stunned, but since then I’ve read several other works by McEwan (far from everything, though), and I realized now upon re-reading this collection that this is indeed a first book, with all the usual weaknesses, stylistic imbalances and the occasional awkwardness of first books. (Still, I’d be happy to write such a weak first book as this.)

McEwan’s usual themes are already present here: he writes about the unknown in us and in the others, about the impossibility of growing up, about unexpected violence, and about the dark side of love, sex, and intimacy – but he writes about all this with a lot more subtlety and eloquence in his later books. Here I sometimes feel that his writing is too direct, too coarse – even spoon-feeding.

For example: the main character in one of the stories was pampered by his mother to an unhealthy degree throughout his childhood, and it seems that this character half-consciously wishes to return to the womb. Then one day he gets locked inside a dark and warm place, where he has quite a pleasant time, and from that moment on, his desire to get back to the womb gets even more pronounced. Oh well – this is certainly not the most subtly symbolic piece of writing I’ve ever encountered.

What is already subtle and amazing here though is the way McEwan builds the layers of words, moods and feelings on one another. What I mean is that even though the stories all stand on their own, if you read them one after the other, their individual effects slowly add up, due to the fact that certain themes and motives come up again and again.

For example, several stories feature rivers, channels, and boats of some kind, and it feels to me as if the abandoned boat that starts its slow journey towards the corrupt and violent London at the end of one of the stories were the same as the boat that’s mentioned by another character in another story when he invites an innocent girl for a walk by the channel. In the end it doesn’t matter that the two boats are different – the connection between the two riversides is made, and this way a connection is made between the characters of the two stories, too. Between characters who are innocent, corrupt, lonely, curious, perverted to different degrees – but it’s not as if there was a strict line between innocence and corruption, curiosity and perversion in these stories. It seems as if everything were already present inside everyone, only waiting for a chance to spring to the surface.

Besides riversides and boats, another recurring motif here is role-playing and being forced into unwanted roles, in all kinds of ages and situations: children play adult roles; adults want to force children around them into either the role of the eternal child, or into the role of the miniature adult. And then there’s role-playing onstage (where it’s perverted to do something for real when you’re only supposed to act – to pretend doing it), and at home (where the overly theatrical gestures get oppressive after a while, as they blur the line between acting and reality). This is a rich and intriguing theme, and McEwan examines it from so many aspects in these eight stories that after a while I’m almost scared to do anything for fear that it would turn out to be only acting, turn out to be something that leads to horrible consequences.

So yes – this is a good, eerie, frightening collection – the only thing that bothers me is really only the occasional coarseness.

The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch

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Long ago a teacher of mine at university said that this is a text that eradicates itself – each paragraph cancels the meaning of the previous one, and no matter how hard you pay attention, in the end you’ll have no idea what’s just happened. And I couldn’t agree more.

I’ve read this novel altogether four times now, and each time I made a solemn resolution that I will pay attention extremely hard, and I’ll remember everything. It doesn’t work like that, though – not with this book. As soon as I reach the end, my memories are erased. In fact, I don’t even have to get to the very end – the last time I read it, I tried to jot down a couple of ideas about the story when I still had around 30 pages to go, and I couldn’t.

I felt like one of the characters, who gets lost one night in the bog, starts sinking slowly, and after a while he ponders the possibility that this is the time and place where he’ll die. And as his sense of self, life, and reality recedes, he experiences a great spiritual enlightenment, and realizes what is God, what is goodness, and what is love. Later on, after making it out alive from his near-death experience, he tries to describe his feelings and new knowledge to others but this turns out to be impossible: the experience doesn’t let itself be contained and shared with others.

This is what this novel is like. While reading, I’m aware of the presence of a great, frightfully beautiful, moral and spiritual something (and feel as if that something were happening to me as well), but the moment I finish reading, I’m unable to formulate the experience. The story closes itself off, and while it’s already rather curious and elusive while I’m in it, it gets utterly unfathomable once I’m out of it, and after a short while I start to wonder: did it really happen? Did I really read this?

This ultimate inscrutability probably has something to do with the main motif of the novel: looking (observing) – which is not coupled with understanding. There’s hardly any synonym of the word „look” which you wouldn’t find in this novel, starting right with the name of the castle where most of the story takes place: Gaze. And the people living in and around the castle hardly do anything else in the story than watch the others, look at each other, steal glances at each other, peer into each other’s eyes, stare at the other, and study and observe each other from all possible angles, standpoints, from near and far, openly and secretly, with desire, with fear, with silent prayer, with suspicion.

All this looking is for a reason – the characters want to understand what happens and why; they want to learn the others’ secrets; and they want to piece together a meaningful story out of all the tragic-melodramatic events going on in the gothic-fantastic Gaze castle, all centered around the evanescent Hannah – an almost mythical, perhaps saintly, perhaps mad, remorseful, self-torturing figure. After all, all looks are directed at her, and she builds and destroys herself and others by feeding on the power of all those gazes – but she only lets others look at her until it suits her needs, and all the while she remains unknowable, unrememberable, forever elusive.

And I – as a reader – am also only an onlooker. And it seems I must forget everything the moment I no longer have anyone or anything to look at on these pages.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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This is such a fantastically enticing novel that halfway through I started to worry that I might just finish it too soon if I’m not careful, so instead of continuing, I decided to pursue a whole array of (half-)substitute activities – I went to the movies, finished two other books, went rollerskating, and so on – just so that the moment when I reach the end might come as late as possible. (If I want to perfectly honest, I first started to worry somewhere around page 10, but the danger didn’t seem that imminent then, given that I still had 760 pages to go.)

But after a while I couldn’t put off finishing it any longer, and the self-denial of the previous days took its vengeance: I read the remaining half in two endless reading sessions. This is not the most perfect way to put it, though – it implies effort and suffering, when reading this novel is, in fact, the exact opposite of that. Pure joy and bliss. And what I didn’t experience when I read Tartt’s The Secret History a couple of years back – the most welcome feeling of forgetting myself – now I got this, too.

This complete relinquishing of the self for the time of reading, this most basic, most urgent curiosity (and then what happened? And what happened after that?), this feeling that I want to learn and know everything: all the streets of New York where the protagonist walks; all the pieces of furniture he touches; the deserts of Las Vegas he inhabits; the feverish cold he lives through; that certain magical bench in Central Park; love’s red hair and thousand-colored scarves; the feeling of walking through icy puddles in soaked-through shoes in Amsterdam around Christmas; the self-destructive, murderous anger, doubt, and remorse of the protagonist. Everything.

I think such strong desire to know absolutely everything is only possible while reading fiction – and what luck that in this novel, we get to know almost everything.

Because this is a slow story, one in which there’s time for events to unfold, for the characters to grow up, and also for them to just fool around sometimes and not move the story forward at all – and when there was a couple of weeks’ or years’ worth of jump ahead in the story, I was almost disappointed because I would have preferred to know even those things that happened in the periods not covered.

So what’s this novel about? As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t really matter, because it’s written so beautifully and precisely, with such perception and strength that it could be about anything, and I would enjoy it.

But anyway: it’s about Theo Decker, a screwed-up, drug-addicted young man suffering both from PTSD and from a hopeless love towards a miraculous, elusive girl. From the (very long) back-story we learn that Theo loses his mother in tragic circumstances when he’s still a child, and in connection with his mother’s death, he acquires a world-famous painting (this is the Goldfinch), which in turn becomes the most important object in his life.

That piece of art, beauty, reality, purity and bliss to which he can always return. That object he can think about in times of distress because even the thought of its existence is enough to fill his life with something other than pure terror and anxiety.

One of the chapters opens with a quote from Nietzsche: „We have art in order not to die from the truth.” And if I wanted to simplify it, I could say that this whole novel is a beautiful and heart-wrenching illustration of this sentence.

Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller

scandalI saw the movie version of this novel a couple of years ago but all I remembered was that I liked it, but couldn’t really recall the story. But when I started reading the book, the images of the film and the details of the plot suddenly resurfaced in my mind, so I almost felt as if I was reading the novel for the second time. And I was glad I remembered a lot of details because this way I knew what was going to happen and I could focus my attention elsewhere: mainly on the mindset of Barbara, the story’s frightful and obsessively clinging narrator. (The post contains minor spoilers.)

Barbara, a strict, lonely, 60-something woman teaches at a London high-school. At the beginning of the new term, a new teacher arrives: Sheba, a beautiful, inexperienced, idealistic woman in her forties. Barbara immediately aims her attention at Sheba and starts to daydream that one day they two will surely make friends. Sheba, however, first becomes friends with another colleague, and then she strikes up a seemingly crazy kind of relationship with one of her students, so she ignores Barbara for a long time. They do become friends later, though, and the day comes when Sheba chooses to confide in Barbara and tell her the details of her affair with her student. Of course, she has no idea how dependent and defenceless this revelation makes her – and she never dreams that Barbara might choose to abuse her trust.

The scandal mentioned in the title, of course, refers to Sheba’s love affair with a minor, but the novel isn’t only about the illicit relationship blooming between the 40-something teacher and her 15-year-old student. In fact, we get hardly any (reliable) information about the exact details of this scandal, due to the fact that the story is narrated by Barbara, who tells the story on the basis of her countless conversations with Sheba. But Barbara is a less-than-reliable narrator, and her priorities are presumably totally different from those of Sheba – so it’s pretty obvious that she modifies both the facts and the emotional side of the affair to suit her interests better.

And since it’s impossible to learn the truth (or, more accurately: Sheba’s version of the truth), and since Barbara is prone to twisting the facts, I chose to concentrate on Barbara now, instead of Sheba. Barbara is a frightening and ominous character, comparable to the main characters of Stephen King’s Misery or Jenn Ashworth’s A Kind of Intimacy: she seems innocent and harmless at first, but then it turns that there’s something sick and dangerous in her mind, and that her loneliness may make her behavior unpredictable and truly nasty.

Barbara is so unbearably, hellishly lonely that she reacts to the first sign which seems to indicate that someone may help her break out of her personal hell, and then it becomes impossible for her to stop bothering that person. Instead, she concentrates all her efforts to form a two-person alliance against the whole world, an alliance which is stronger than the strongest of marriages or friendships. Besides this, Barbara is deceitful, manipulative and inscrutable, and once she finds her victim, there’s no way for that person to escape from her tyrannic love and caring.

What I find the most scary in Barbara’s character is that it’s impossible to know what exactly she does. Barbara is an expert in selecting and withholding information, and she only talks about what she considers proper and acceptable, so for a long time we can only guess from a couple of strange but not immediately striking details that all is not well with her: for instance, a former friend of Barbara is mentioned once in passing who abruptly put an end to her friendship with Barbara for no apparent reason. And then it also makes you think for a moment when Barbara mentions one of her former workplaces which she left because she didn’t get on well with the colleagues. Somewhat strange, but okay. But as you are getting near the end of the story, it doesn’t seem strange anymore that people are driven away from Barbara and try to avoid her company if possible.

The story is, by the way, characterized by a frightfully suffocating sexual tension: this tension is present both in the relationship of Sheba and her student, which is, perhaps naturally, based almost entirely on sex, and in Barbara’s and Sheba’s relationship as well. For instance, there’s az episode in the novel where Barbara tries to calm Sheba down: she asks Sheba to close her eyes and then she starts to stroke and caress the inner side of Sheba’s arm. Barbara claims that there’s nothing sexual in this – but I don’t believe her, and Sheba doesn’t believe her, either.

Besides the creepy narrator and the all-permeating tension, there’s a lot more in the novel: family dramas; conflicts between characters coming from different social backgrounds; a frightful and saddening depiction of loneliness and manic behavior; and a whole lot of highly critical comments on the morals of present-day society which claims that it’s a question of instincts if a 40-something man engages in an affair with a woman more than 20 years his junior and doesn’t make too big a fuss about it, but considers it a filthy aberration if a 40-something woman does the same with a boy – but I won’t go into all these topics. Instead, I just recommend the novel to you.

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

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I grew up watching American movies and reading American novels, so it’s no wonder that my imagination was at least partly shaped by American images. The most notable of these is the image of New York. I’ve never been there, but it always seemed a mysterious, unique but strangely transparent city to me. The sheer size and chaos of New York is in contrast to the fact that (in my imagination at least) it is a city where everything seems to be expertly organized. We can rest assured that leaving 69th street, we will find 70th – so it seems impossible to ever get lost in New York. However, Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy proved me wrong.

I was around fifteen years old when I first borrowed this book from the local library. I simply came across the novel when I was roaming among the shelves, and I knew nothing about the book or its writer. I recall that the copy I found was an overused one: it was obvious that it had already fallen to pieces at least once, and it was rebound in something like red leatherette. Consequently, the cover contained no information whatsoever about the book, even the blurb was missing, so my only clue to the novel was its title. Which I loved immensely from the start.

Now, after several years and several re-readings of Auster’s novel, I’m glad that I knew nothing about the book when I first read it, as (among a lot of other things) this novel is about the uncanny feeling (certainty?) that sometimes even what we know to be true is entirely coincidental – so it seems fit that I first read the novel without any truths attached to it in my mind. As you may guess, the novel immediately became one of my favorites, and has held this position in my heart and mind for more than 13 years now – and I don’t think it will ever fade.

The three stories which comprise the trilogy (City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room) are in fact the same story told in three different ways. At first glance, it seems that Auster is writing detective stories, as each story centers around a private detective (who is not even a detective but a writer in the first and third stories) who observes, follows and tries to uncover others in hiding. It quickly becomes obvious, however, that the „detective catching the (supposed) offender” plot is not the gist of the stories: observation itself, and the relation between the observer and the observed are the real themes. During fieldwork, the detective, instead of simply observing the other, slowly becomes the one who is observed, in the sense that he recognizes himself in the other person and it seems as if he were observing himself, not a stranger. During this process, his identity slowly merges into that of the other, their lives intertwine, and after a while it seems doubtful that he will ever be able to exist without the other.

The parts of the trilogy are highly bizarre and uncanny, and in each story we find several identity-switches, identity-duplications, stories within stories, unique narrative techniques and elements which are markedly real within an obviously fictional setting. However, Auster does not make do with this, and the three separate stories enter into intricate and intriguing relations with one another: the same characters, names, objects, themes and even sentences come up again and again in the stories, and with each recurrence, they mean something else. For instance, the Peter Stillman of City of Glass reappears in The Locked Room as the double of Fanshawe, who, by the way, bears an uncanny resemblance to the unnamed narrator-writer-detective – who just happens to be searching for Fanshawe.

Though it may seem from the above that the way the stories interweave is difficult to follow, everything becomes wonderfully clear when you start reading. Of course you will feel lost in the stories, but still, within the borders of Auster’s imaginary New York, it only seems natural that the characters should continuously become someone else, and that their inner and outer realities should effortlessly merge with the fiction they read or write.

I feel that I’m incapable of putting into words the genius of Paul Auster or the effect his writing has on me. Still, I want to try, so I will pick some elements from the novel and analyze them in the hope that this will give you a sense of the marvelously multi-layered quality of the Trilogy, and will also explain why I adore this novel so much.

As regards the way inner and outer realities mingle, the representation of New York is crucially important. It mostly holds true for City of Glass that the city itself seems to be a living character with whom the other characters interact in several different ways. For instance, the protagonist of the story, the writer-detective Quinn considers the city to be an endless labyrinth where, if he is careful enough, he can really lose himself. The city hails an endless torrent of images and experiences on him, and these make it possible for him to forget himself and his inner reality, and fill the resulting inner emptiness with what is coming from the outside. The man Quinn is observing, the old Stillman, on the other hand, sees New York as the manifestation of his ideas about the new Tower of Babel and the possible common language of humankind, and he uses the city to prove his theories.

And speaking about language: apart from the questions of identity, language (and communication) is the other highly important and wonderfully depicted theme of the novel. As the story is set in perhaps the most iconic city of the world, it is no wonder that the loneliness of the city-dweller, the impossibility of communication and the theme of alienation are dealt with in the novel. However, Auster goes further. The protagonist of each of the three stories is a writer – that is, someone whose job is to paint as good a picture of reality as possible with the help of words. But at some point in their stories, they realize that the meaning of words has become blurred, and language is no longer capable of grasping the essence of reality. And if reality cannot be transformed into transparent words, then the work, identity and even the life of the writer is questioned. (Even though the protagonist of Ghosts is a detective by profession, he regularly has to prepare reports for his employer, and finding the right, most descriptive words is crucial for him, therefore I also consider him to be a writer.)

The last couple of pages of The Locked Room beautifully illustrate the point how words become devoid of meaning. The narrator is reading the densely written pages of Fanshawe’s red notebook, and it seems to him that each paragraph cancels the previous one out, each sentence contradicts the following one, and in the end, no meaning whatsoever can be deciphered from his text.

Auster adds a further touch to the idea of the impossibility of communication in City of Glass. This story also features a red notebook in which Quinn jots down his thoughts about the Stillman case. As the story unfolds, and meanings and identities lose their clear boundaries, this notebook becomes the single point of reference in Quinn’s life, and it actually seems that he can continue with his life only as longs as he has empty pages in the notebook where he can write. Perhaps this idea is not that surprising if we consider the fact that Quinn is a writer, and according to the narrator of City of Glass, writers can only live through the characters they create and the words they write.

According to the mysterious, unnamed and reclusive narrator of City of Glass, the story is based entirely on facts and on the contents of the red notebook. In this sense, we might think that written communication is successful, as we do learn Quinn’s story. However, in City of Glass, nothing is fixed, and we do not get any answers to the questions which arise from the ungraspable identities of the characters and from the uncanny coincidences, duplications and mirrorings which play a crucial part in the story. Therefore it seems to me that the contents of the red notebook mask reality, rather than disclose it – so communication, again, fails. (Let me just add in brackets that throughout the story, Quinn writes with a pen he bought from a deaf-mute, so ironically, his means of communication is provided by a person who can hardly communicate. And as it turns out, Quinn’s attempts at communication do not turn out much better than those of the deaf-mute.)

Another element in the novel which fills me with constant surprise is the way Auster mixes fiction and reality. The fictionality of the stories is emphasized by the realistic setting and the appearance of hyperrealistic historical persons. And I do not only mean that the stories are set in a real city, but rather that Auster provides the reader with minute details about the streets Quinn walks on, he tells the reader which famous writer used to frequent the same park Quinn visits regularly, and we also learn the strange (but real) events that occurred during the construction of Brooklyn Bridge.

Yet another remarkable and intriguing element in the novel is that Auster’s characters read a lot, and talk even more about real or fictional books. Among several others, they mention Don Quixote and Walden, however, The Locked Room features the fictional oeuvre of Fanshawe as well, and the narrator refers to Fanshawe’s books in a way which indicates that they are now common knowledge, so there’s no need for him to elaborate on them. (And I simply adore it when a writer pretends that there is another reality inside his fiction which in turn has its own fiction – and I can hardly wait for the writer to write those fictional books as well.)

I hope that in the previous paragraphs I could give you a fairly good idea about the richness and inexhaustability of The New York Trilogy. I don’t know how many times I read this novel so far, but I’m sure I will read it again and again in the future, as reading this book is such an enjoyable intellectual pleasure which I do not encounter often – and anyway, I still feel that the Trilogy is full of unexplored possibilities.

Blueeyedboy by Joanne Harris

I happen to be a sucker for stories dealing with questions of real and virtual identities and the connections between reality and fiction, so when I read that Blueeyedboy is about a man who posts morbid entries on his blog and the story revolves around the fact that it’s not possible to determine whether his blog entries are fictional or not, I immediately wanted to lay my hands on this book.

The protagonist of the novel is man called BB who works as a cleaner in a hospital, still lives with his oppressive mother at the age of forty-two, and still tries to deal with the neglect and pain he suffered as a child because his brothers were both better loved by their mother. In real life, BB is a reserved and unobtrusive man, but in a social network site called badboysrock he builds himself another identity – that of a cynical, strong-willed and cruel man – and he publishes supposedly fictitious stories on his blog under the assumed name Blueeyedboy, in which the hero (probably his alter ego) cunningly takes revenge on everybody who had previously wronged him. In the meantime, Blueeyedboy also watches and manipulates the other members of the social site. The other narrator of the novel is Albertine who also writes a blog – from her entries, we learn the other side of Blueeyedboy’s stories. However, just like in the case of Blueeyedboy, it’s not possible to determine whether Albertine’s entries are about real or fictitious events, either.

Blueeyedboy and Albertine know each other in real life as well, and they share a couple of old secrets which are slowly revealed during the course of the novel – but, again, it’s not at all certain that what is revealed is the reality – it may as well be yet another fictive story.

All this might sound a bit complicated but this complexity lends a lot of charm to the novel, and I deeply admire Joanne Harris for the way she keeps both the meandering story and her two troubled protagonists in hand. Besides, she manages to convey how the real and virtual identities of her main characters interact and overlap with each other, and she cleverly negotiates her way between the real and fictitious stories written by her admittedly unreliable narrators.

Besides the fact that the main story is even more tricky than that of Harris’s other tricky novel, Gentlemen and Players, Blueeyedboy can be a thought-provoking read for everyone who has any kind of online life. The main character, for instance, sees the possibilities arising from the overlapping of the real and the virtual world very clearly, and he knows that his virtual identity is on the one hand a fictive (and untrue) one – but on the other hand, the virtual Blueeyedboy is perhaps exactly the person he always wanted to become, so in a sense it’s more truthful and more real than reality. However, BB is not someone who is content with simply creating an ideal online persona for himself: he also enjoys manipulating and unsettling others and he loves leaving everyone in doubt as to what’s true and what’s untrue.

The cynicism and self-irony of BB is remarkable, and even though he is well aware of the fact that his puny little self – constantly forced to remain in the background in real life – needs all the support and feedback he can get from his virtual friends, he doesn’t hesitate for a second to use and abuse these friends or simply drop his acquaintance with them if the need arises. His thoughts on the subject of virtual friendships are noteworthy. For instance, he writes about the games constantly going around in his circle of friends on the badboysrock site, the games where people have to answer questions about the last time they cried or their favorite flowers. BB always lies in these questionnaires, but knows that probably all the others tell the truth, so this way he learns a lot of useful information about everyone else’s real life. I think BB sees the way these quizzes work very clearly, and he understands (and uses to his own purposes) the relation which exists between a lot of people’s real and virtual identity: even though many people would like to hide behind their avatars, at the same time they have a craving to reveal their real personality, and they hope that by divulging such trivia as their favorite beverage or the clothes they prefer to wear in bed, they manage to reveal their personality to such an extent that they remain safely hidden but that become infinitely charming and intriguing to everyone else at the same time. (Parallel to their obsessive self-revelation, these people of course have an equally obsessive desire to find out about and analyze other people’s real personalities. And I think BB is right in this question as well: it’s a stupid and highly presumptuous idea to believe that anyone’s personality can be assessed based on a couple of funny quizzes or any number of – seemingly brutally honest – blog post.)

Besides the fact that BB is aware of other people’s obsessive self-expression, he also knows how to make others love and pity him. His virtual affair with a fat woman, Chryssie is a case in point. The girl clings to BB’s (or rather: Blueeyedboy’s) every word, she would like to meet him in real life as well, and she keeps sending her virtual hugs and kisses without restraint whenever she feels that someone has hurt her poor little Blueeyedboy.

I’ve had some kind of online life for about fourteen years now. During this time, there were periods when I talked to a lot of people on chat, periods when I was heavily involved in online gaming, periods when I was mainly hanging back and only reading other people’s stuff, and now I write a blog, I’m a relatively active member of a social site for book-lovers, and now and then I also participate in a couple of games which go around in the blogger community. Now, based on these experiences, I think that Joanne Harris depicts one facet of online life remarkably well: the way a personality can appear in a virtual space and the fact that sometimes the borderline between reality and fiction, and a person’s real and virtual, assumed persona gets blurred.

Besides the exceedingly interesting and very cleverly managed main theme of the novel, Blueeyedboy features several other exciting elements as well. One of these is that the book features the same public school for boys, St Oswald’s which also appears in Gentlemen and Players. This was only my second novel by Harris, so I don’t know whether she often uses self-references, but anyway, I like games like this very much – I very much like writers who create a kind of private world in their oeuvre, and I like to revisit their private worlds in different novels and learn something new about it, perhaps from a slightly different angle. By the way, Gentlemen and Players and Blueeyedboy are also similar in the sense that they both feature highly unbalanced and mentally unstable protagonists, and that they both manage to fool the reader in a very delightful manner. At least Harris managed to fool me fine again, and even though I knew something was up, I couldn’t figure it out and I felt dumbfounded quite a few times while reading this novel.

The musical references in the novel are also worth mentioning. Blueeyedboy’s blog posts always feature a song – which either underscores the atmosphere of the entry, refers to its content, or comments on the story in an ironic fashion. And even though I wasn’t reading this novel with YouTube open in front of me all the time, after finishing the book, I checked out quite a few of the songs, and they indeed added something to effect of the novel.

The only weakness of the novel for me was the translation, but you probably won’t be reading this novel in Hungarian, so I won’t go into details here. I’m pretty sure this novel must be an even more delightful read in English.