Room, Emma Donoghue

Cover illustration of Room by Emma DonoghueEmma Donoghue’s Room¬†is longest 300 pages of mostly-dialog I’ve ever read. I think it literally took me six weeks, from my birthday in mid April to now, at the end of May, to work my way through this one. I actually considered putting it away without finishing, something I almost never do.

Not because it isn’t good. It’s actually pretty amazing–creative, insightful, revelatory in this incredibly sneaky, deceptively simplistic way, an incredible piece of craftsmanship. It’s good the way Schindler’s List is good; well done, but mostly not enjoyable.

The story is narrated in the first person by five-year-old Jack, a child raised entirely in Room, an 11×11 foot backyard shed where he and his mother are held prisoner by a man Jack knows only as Old Nick. At the beginning of the story, Jack feels safe and comfortable in Room–his daily routine includes meals and exercise, reading and chores, play time and no more than two television shows. But the realities of his situation are beginning to show through the safe world his Ma has created for him. At night, after Jack has gone to sleep in Wardrobe, Old Nick comes. Some days Ma is “switched off”–she stays in bed all day, and Jack is allowed to watch all the T.V. he wants. When Old Nick begins experiencing financial difficulties and providing fewer supplies, their situation becomes even more desperate.

In constructing Jack’s voice, the author gives herself some latitude, but her characterization is true to the narrator’s age overall. Like most five-year-olds Jack argues with his mother and has occasional tantrums. He experiences and expresses curiosity, anxiety and fear in authentic and believable ways. His constant one-on-one time with his mother has given him an advanced vocabulary as well as reading and math skills several years ahead of his real age. His emotional development, however, is complicated by the fact that he’s only really ever known one other person. This makes for an interesting juxtaposition and leaves plenty of room for growth later in the novel. My only complaint is that Jack always seems to know why he does things. In my experience, this is not the case with most children–or many adults for that matter. His capacity for self-consciousness and analysis is probably pretty unrealistic.

This is a well written, thoughtfully constructed book well worth reading. It’s harrowing and difficult, but it does end on a hopeful note.

Slammerkin, Emma Donoghue

Cover illustration for Slammerkin by Emma DonoghueOh, yeah, I have a blog. It’s funny how I forget that until there’s something pressing I should be doing elsewhere. I finished Slammerkin over three weeks ago and never wrote a word, but now that I’m trying to avoid writing a mere hundred words on effective virtual communication for my library management course message board, I will happily write as much as I can here instead.

Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin is a gorgeous, stark, startling book, and possibly the most convincing piece of historical fiction I have ever read. Donoghue loosely bases her novel on the surviving scraps of the life of Mary Saunders, a true story (turned morality tale chap book) of a servant driven to murder by her lust for “fine clothes.” Donoghue’s story is rich and complex, though several of the plot points do in fact turn on Mary’s passion for the finer things, its really a story about class and ambition, ownership and control.

Donoghue has clearly researched the period exhaustively, but her work is free of the long, boring explanatory paragraphs that plague so much historical fiction. Much is implied through context; the rest we learn along with Mary as she is inducted first into the world of London’s prostitutes, then into the seamstress’ trade.

The early sections of the novel are somewhat rushed and not quite so compelling as the rest of the work. The story begins in 1861, with Mary, poised on the edge of her teen years and eminently dissatisfied–her home with her mother, stepfather and half brother is squalid, school is prescriptive and dull, and she’s both curious about and envious of the brighter, easier, more glamorous lives of the St. Giles whores she sees all around. Her fall from grace is abrupt and somewhat predictable; she agrees to trade a peddler a kiss for a single beautiful red ribbon, and ends up trading her virginity as well. In the course of a few pages, Mary is pregnant and cast out of her mother’s house to fend for herself on the streets on London, where she’s repeatedly raped and beaten, and, finally, rescued by prostitute Doll Higgins.

And this is where is starts to get good.

The two become close. Mary and Doll lead a wild, reckless, exuberant life. As whores, they roam the whole city with a liberty and abandon not open to “decent” women. They take pleasure in drinking and partying, in their gaudy clothes, in being together. The work is grim, but the girls are practical.

But when Mary develops a lingering, dangerous cough, she goes to the Magdalen Charity Hospital to recover–maybe even to straighten out and leave whoring behind. There, she becomes a skilled seamstress. However, the oppressive religious and moral demands of the place soon send her back out into the city where she stumbles into a fight and ends of fleeing for her life. With all other options exhausted, Mary heads for the village of Monmouth, her mother’s hometown, and talks her way into a job as a servant to her mother’s old friend, seamstress Jane Jones.

This is where it gets really good.

With Jane Jones, Mary finds the kind of companionship and mentorship that she clearly craves; the two become friends, almost family. Yet Mary is still ambitious and driven, she still longs to be more than a servant, still aspires to wealth, ownership, a life of ease, control over her own destiny–and she’s still willing to sell herself to get them.

The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff

Cover illustration for The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren GroffI found The Monsters of Templeton on the free table in the 5th floor lunchroom at my old job, left over, probably, from somebody’s book club. I loved the cover, so I picked it up.

Lauren Groff’s debut is a complex and humorous family saga tracing the lineage of one prominent small town family back through seven generations. Stanford PhD candidate Willie Upton returns to her upstate New York roots after a devastating affair with her older married professor. On the day she arrives back in Templeton (a stand-in for the author’s own hometown, Cooperstown), the corpse of a prehistoric monster surfaces in Lake Glimmerglass. That might seem like the jumping off point for a whimsical adventurous story about, you know, monsters. But in fact, the dinosaur serves as more of a metaphor–the actual “monsters” are still to come.

The story really begins when Willie’s eccentric mother, Vi, tells her a secret–Willie’s father is not, as she has always been told, one of several San Francisco hippies from her mother’s commune days, but someone from their own community. Vi refuses to tell Willie exactly who her real dad is, but after some nagging she does offer up a clue: Vi herself is related to town founder Marmaduke Temple on both her mother and her father’s sides through two different lines of decent, but Willie is descended from him through three lines. Apparently, Willie’s father is related to Marmaduke too, through “some sort of liaison at some point in the past.”

Armed with this information, Willie sets out to research the family history, locate the missing branch on the family tree, and identify her father. The novel follows Willie’s experiences with her mother, her best friend back in San Francisco, and her former high school classmates during her 2-3 week stay in her ancestral home, but the real focus of the work is her research into her family’s secretive past. Through letters, diaries, and a few unexplained monologues, we become acquainted with the Temple clan one generation at a time. We meet Marmaduke’s slave mistress, Hetty; Sy Upton, who married into the family and brought the baseball museum to town; Jacob Franklin Temple the famous novelist (a cipher for James Fenimore Cooper); his youngest daughter Charlotte, an uptight old maid raising her “nephew”; and many others.

The result is strong, but uneven. Each anecdote is engaging and enjoyable in itself, but the stakes aren’t very high for the reader, and it can be a little difficult to keep track of the various characters, how they are related to one another, and which ones are having affairs (there are a lot of affairs in this book).

In a sort of random fling at post-modernism lite, Groff also includes contemporary alternative narrators, including the Running Buds, a group of cheerful middle aged men who jog together everyday and narrate in the first person plural (we), and the monster itself. There isn’t a lot of plot to be gleaned from these sections of the novel, and they do add to the overall impression of confusion, but I enjoyed them quite a bit as isolated pieces of writing.

Overall, the novel is a good one, a promising start for a young writer–someone with a lot of creativity, a lot of ideas, a great capacity for detail, but issues around mechanics, pacing and structure still to work out. And, hey, she’s already a bestseller.

I’ll end with a quick shout out to Guenet Abraham, the designer of this book–the novel is greatly enhanced by Beth White’s photos and illustrations of the various ancestors rendered in appropriate historical style, as well as by the several versions of the family tree annotated by Willie and updated periodically as additional information is uncovered. It’s a nice touch, quirky, fun and entirely appropriate, and it has the added benefit of helping the reader keep tabs on the various story lines. Rock on!

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

Cover illustration for A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer EganThis was a great one. Seriously. I enjoyed it more than anything I’ve read in recent months. A Visit from the Goon Squad is funny, sad, creative, endearing. The writing is spectacular–smart and apt, with an absorbing natural flow. The characters are fully fleshed, thoroughly flawed, and extremely winning.

Like most fiction with a claim to the “postmodern” label, A Visit from the Goon Squad is highly structured, with a somewhat nebulous plot. The novel is episodic, and Egan makes use of a variety of literary styles. Although a standard intimate third person past tense dominates, there are segments of present tense and first person, a mock-celebrity magazine article complete with footnotes (a well known staple of postmodern fiction), and even power point presentation. I’m frequently annoyed by these types of devices, but this came off beautifully. I have to agree with Ron Charles when he writes, “If Jennifer Egan is our reward for living through the self-conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap of postmodernism, then it was all worthwhile.”

A Visit from the Goon Squad follows a series of interconnected characters, all linked (occasionally though several degrees of separation) to record producer Bennie Salazar. The novel opens with Sasha, Bennie’s klepto assistant, in contemporary New York City. It flashes back to Bennie’s youth in the 1970s San Francisco punk rock scene; follows his producer-mentor on a family vacation to Africa; introduces his son, his (sometimes ex)wife, her journalist brother, and her boss, struggling publicist Dolly. We meet troubled actress Kitty Jackson, an assortment of Bennie’s high school friends, an unnamed dictator, and Sasha’s closest friend from college. Characters occasionally surface unexpectedly in the midst of other character’s narratives. The narrative slides smoothly through time and place without fanfare, a series of loosely connected anecdotes gradually building toward a climactic moment some ten or twenty years in the future.

Though the thematic core of the work centers on loss, on the slow chipping away over time, it’s surprisingly not nostalgic (except perhaps as concerns the music industry). Egan exhibits throughout an acute sense of humorous perversity, making the novel light and fast even in it’s more depressing moments.

Egan achieves a rare balance between the completely entertaining and the beautifully executed.

Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart

Cover illustration for Super Sad True Love Story by Gary ShteyngartI’ve finished it–the Super Sad True Love Story. And it only took me four months. I started this great (but grating) satire back in September. I waded through the first half over the course of about two weeks, and then abandoned it for, well, everything else I’ve written about here. I just picked it back up again. Luckily, according to the experts, “it’s the sort of riff-based novel that does particularly well in bite-size pieces.” While this probably isn’t exactly what Ron Charles had in mind, I finished it, and am writing about it, and that’s it.

Set in an only slightly futuristic New York city (like maybe ten years from now), Super Sad True Love Story follows the middle aged, middle income Lenny Abramov through a painfully sentimental romance with beautiful but troubled 24-year-old Eunice Park. The couple meets for one night only in Rome, where Lenny is coming to the end of a year long business trip, unsuccessfully hawking nanotechnology-based youth enhancement to HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals) and Eunice is indulging in a little post-college travel. Lenny falls instantly, deliriously, pathetically in love; Eunice is bored, but willing enough. The the two reunite in Manhattan through the combined pressure of Lenny’s eagerness to see Eunice again, and Eunice’s need for a rent-free place to stay.

The novel is epistolary in style, told through Lenny’s outmoded journal entries and Eunice’s slang-filled emails, chats and “teens” (facebook, in effect). It deals primarily with their relationship (which is sad, in more ways than one), but also with the social tensions that surround them: the impending visit of the Chinese central banker, the encampments of homeless protesters and returning veterans, the armed guards who monitor travel between the burrows, the private armies retained by corporations.

Shteyngart’s not-to-distant future is a corporate oligarchy driven by mass consumerism and credit, and populated by such financial monoliths as LandO’LakesGMFordCredit and AlliedWasteCVSCitigroupCredit. The American dollar is pegged to the Yuen and the “Governor of the People’s Bank of China-Worldwide” is “unofficially the world’s most powerful man.” American is run by the Bipartisan Party, and all government messages include an “apply and deny” clause: “By reading this message your are denying its existence and implying consent.” Service people are veterans, not of Iraq and Afghanistan, but of some equally ill-fated Venezuelan conflict. The entire populace carries iPhone-like mini computers called “apparats” which broadcast credit score and “fuckability” ratings, stream one-man-show-style reality-TV-esque video rants (which have apparently taken the place of both news and drama), and offer the opportunity to shop at such trendy stores as AssLuxury, JuicyPussy and Onionskin (where they sell translucent jeans). Books (irony of ironies, considering I paid $9.00 for the Kindle edition of this one) are valueless.

Critic Laura Miller argues that with Super Sad True Love Story Shteyngart offers readers a kinder, gentler satire. Indeed, the author seems to have great empathy for his characters, despite their flaws, and he’s put in the effort to make them real and well-rounded, not merely the cardboard cutouts that populate so many satires. Eunice is convincingly complex. Like many 20-something college grads, she’s drifting, caught between her desire to do something and her own crippling lack of confidence; her love for her Korean immigrant family, and the pain inflicted by her abusive father; her shallow shopping-based socialization and her impulse to help the homeless protesters in living in the park; her affection for Lenny, and her sense of his inadequacy and strangeness. Lenny, likewise, is a fully fleshed character, and, even more remarkably, one who is capable of change.

I began the book feeling that, while it might be easy to sympathize with and even pity Shteyngart’s characters, it would be impossible to actually like them. But, about 3/4 of the way through, I did find myself liking them. I was even anxious about what might happen to them. What started out as a slightly irritating slog had somehow sneaked into my good graces.

Super Sad True Love Story is a good book–a surprisingly good book–but, like the consumerist pop culture it mocks, it may drive you just a little nuts.

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Illustrations from Northanger AbbeyThough obviously distracted by the ongoing tax debate (which seems to have become inexplicably focused on the estate tax, rather than the >$250k break point, but whatever) I did manage to finish a novel this weekend: Northanger Abbey, the lost Austen.

Begun in 1798 and finished in 1803, Northanger was one if the first novels Austen completed, as well as her first sale, though it did not appear in print until after her death. She had already written Lady Susan and had started both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, however. It was a particularly unhappy and tumultuous period in the novelists’ life, encompassing her father’s retirement and the family’s subsequent move to Bath, a city she loathed, as well as her over night engagement to Harris Bigg-Wither.

The novel follows 17-year-old Ann Radcliffe enthusiast Catherine Morland on a visit to Bath. Under the guardianship of complacent childless family friends, Catherine visits the pump room and attends public balls, making new acquaintances. She quickly meets and befriends the lovely but manipulative Isabella Thorpe, and it emerges that the two girls older brothers also know each other at Oxford. When the young men pay a visit to Bath a dual brother-sister match seems eminent, or at last intended. Catherine, however, dislikes Mr Thorpe and remains blissfully unaware of his blundering attempts at courtship. She’s much too interested in Mr. Henry Tilney, a clever and handsome young clergyman. Just Catherine’s visit draws to close, she is invited by Henry’s sister to visit the Tilney family at their home, (you guessed it) Northanger Abbey.

Northanger is perhaps the least sympathetic of all Jane Austen’s satires. Though frequently both critical and comedic, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, all have the benefit of a compelling heroine and at least one honest romance. Catherine, on the other hand, is in many ways a foil–a nice girl, honest and not too bright, but with a healthy imagination where melodrama is concerned. She is Harriet Smith, with a better family and a stronger character. Her romance with Henry Tilney also lacks the weight of the relationships in Austen’s other novels–it’s funny and frequently charming, but, like Catherine herself, not too deep.

The real pleasure of the book comes from Austen’s language, her frequent tangential diatribes on the nature and import of novels, and her many hilarious digs at Ann Radcliffe–who as far as Austen is concerned, seems to have been the Stephenie Meyer of her day (only pro-woman, a better writer, and a different kind of crazy). Indeed, though the older author clearly influenced Austen’s work, Radcliffe jokes were something she could never quite give up–witness the roll The Romance of the Forrest plays in the breech between Harriet and Robert Martin in Emma.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Cover illustration for Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo IshiguroWith the movie version of Never Let Me Go releasing last month, I was inspired to race through this book before the movie got nominated for something. Plus, never having read any of Ishiguro’s work (no, not even Remains of the Day), I felt it was a bit overdue. (As is this entry, given that I finished the book over a week ago.)

Never Let Me Go takes takes place in an alternate present (or an alternate late 1990s) with a dystopian bent. The novel is told in a conversational (and very, very English) first person voice from the point of view of Kathe H., a 31 year old about to retire from being a “carer” in order to become a “donor.” Kathe explains that, as she prepares for the next stage of her life, she feels the urge to recall her past with her two dearest friends, Tommy and Ruth, and more than that, to come to some understanding of what it has all meant. She begins her story at Hailsham, the boarding school where she and her friends grew up, on a beautiful but isolated country estate, and follows them through their late teens, living with a group of other students at a rural cottage, and into their adult lives as carers and donors.

The story, though phrased in a way that assumes a certain level of knowledge on the part of the reader, isn’t intended to be mystery. Like the students in the novel, readers know from the beginning that the characters are being carefully groomed to become multiple organ donors. As the children grow up, their knowledge of the specifics increases, and so does their understanding of where they come from, and the what donation will mean. Readers piece together the details of the donation system gradually from bits of information dropped throughout the text. The antiseptic language and Hailsham-specific slang scattered throughout infuses the book with a sense of creepy authenticity.

Throughout¬†Never Let Me Go, Kathy comes across as friendly, matter of fact and honest–but she is not strictly speaking, a trustworthy narrator. Her remarkable evenhanded forthrightness in relating the events of the story, even her own faults and her sex life, is oddly offset by her extreme reserve. As the work progresses, it becomes clear that her own emotions are tightly controlled and deeply suppressed, perhaps as a survival mechanism, perhaps simply as a function of the expectations with which she has been raised. She faces the deaths of her friends, if not with equanimity, than with acceptance. Still, there are aspects of the donor’s fate, particularly what may happen after they “complete” that she cannot face, can barely imply. The emotion and drama of the story, like the precise truth behind the characters lives, is left largely to the reader to uncover.

Never Let Me Go features an unusual narrative structure that is both striking and convincing, though occasionally a little wearing. The story is primarily a sort of continuous flashback, one narrator recalling a series of a events in chronological order. But within those recollections, the plot tends to swirl and eddy, doubling back on itself. Kathy H., like any of us, telling a story to a friend, might start out to relate a specific event, then become sidetracked by some peripheral detail–what a particular teacher was like, which areas at school were and were not considered “in bounds,” etc.–leading to a whole other anecdote. It might be 10 or 15 pages before the narrator brings us back around to the original tale. Ishiguro adds a further layer by including frequent references to subsequent discussions the characters had about the events in question. In this way, each incident is rendered using a rich depth of perspectives, all filtered through the narrator’s current self, creating something manifold and complex and at the same time entirely one-sided. It’s really a great device, although I’ll admit that by about halfway through the book, it had started to drive me a little crazy.

In it’s style, characterization, relationships, and even in the simplicity of many of the events, this novel is compellingly realistic. It’s one of those rare books that inserts one fantastical detail into a world that is otherwise utterly true to life. As so many have pointed out, Ishiguro uses the novel as a venue to raise implicit questions about science and morality; what it means to be human, and what human beings are capable of.

Equally present in the work, but less discussed, is the apparent ease with which Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, and all the students accept their fate as donors. What is it that keeps these characters so grounded, so balanced, so willing? They aren’t restrained in any physical way–compulsion isn’t necessary. I would imagine that these students, released into the world as teenagers, would run as wild as Amish kids on Rumspringa, partying and shooting up and sleeping with outsiders. I’d expect runaways, or, if that were impossible, at least some self-destructive acting out–ODs, high speed car accidents, probably even a couple of deliberate suicides just before the donation processes begins. But none of that happens. In fact, the young people frequently make requests to begin their training early. There is only one context in which any kind of a reprieve is ever discussed, and even that is so modest: not a pardon, just a short stay of execution, a few extra years.

So why is that? I think Ishiguro intends it as a comment upon nature vs nurture, on the ways in which experiences and expectations can limit vision, can hold human beings in mental cages–and yet they still, as much as they are able, look for a way out. They crave the idea that a way out is even possible. It feeds back into the larger issue of amoral science: the author is saying, look, these children have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they submit willingly to their own systematized execution–but they still love one another, they will still fantasize about the future, they will still try. This acceptance makes sense in context, but I found it consistently troubling, the one aspect of the book I could never quite credit.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, Heidi Durrow

Cover illustration for The Girl Who Fell from the SkyThe Girl Who Fell from the Sky tells a story of a family tragedy and survival from the points of view of five interconnected characters. Though the story is in fact very simple, the nonlinear time line, limited narrators, and unconventional sentence structure, give The Girl Who Fell from the Sky an odd sense of unreality and mystery–an airy elusiveness that keeps readers guessing, working to put the pieces together.

Set in 1980s Portland, OR, the novel opens innocuously with 10-year-old Rachel moving in with her grandmother. It’s clear that the move is precipitated by some recent family tragedy, but the exact nature of what has happened remains at first obscure. Rachel’s first-person, child’s-eye-view narration is absorbing. Bright and perceptive, she eagerly relates the details that strike her as new and curious–her grandmother’s unfamiliar speech and special lavender lotion, her aunt Loretta’s smooth beauty and “potential lizard,” Drew. More reluctantly, she discusses her sense of cultural alienation as the daughter of an African American serviceman and a Danish woman, living in America (and experiencing American racial tensions) for almost the first time. Rachel feels divided from the white girls at school because of her darker skin, alienated from black girls because of her blue eyes, her over-achiever status, and her prematurely large breasts. She also desperately misses the hybrid Danish-American culture in which she was raised.

“At the AME Zion Church, when we sing holiday songs, beneath my breath I sing the Danish words. The Choir is so loud no one can tell that during “Silent Night” I sing stille and not “still,” hellige and not “holy.” I’m glad I remember these sounds. I have learned a lot of words since I came to Granda’s. Dis, conversate, Jheri curl. There are a lot more. And sometimes I feel those words taking up too much space. I can’t remember how to say cotton in Danish or even the word for loud. What if you can have only so many words in you at once? What happens to the other words?”

Like the best first-person narrators, Rachel tells readers more than she means to, occasionally even more than she herself understands. Gradually, it becomes clear that Rachel’s mother and younger siblings recently died in an “accident”–that the whole family fell from the top of a Chicago apartment building where they had been living for most of one summer, leaving Rachel the only survivor.

Interspersed with Rachel’s narration are third-person sections following Jamie, a young neighbor boy who witnesses the family’s fall, and Laronne, the supervisor at the community college library where Rachel’s mother, Nella, had worked during her short stay in Chicago. As the novel progresses, Laronne finds and reads Nella’s diaries, while Jamie meets and talks to Rachel’s father Roger, creating fourth and fifth narrative strains that also help to fill out the story.

Eleven-year-old “Jamie who was really James,” known later in the story as Brick, is reading a fieldguide on birds in the apartment courtyard when Rachel’s brother plummets to the pavement, followed by her mother and infant sister, and last of all Rachel herself. Obsessed with the incident, Jamie hangs around the memorial erected in the courtyard meeting reporters and other visitors (including Laronne). Quizzed by a reporter, Jamie claims there was a man on the roof before the family fell, sparking questions about what exactly happened–did Nella throw her children off the roof and jump herself, or did some man push them? And who was the man on the roof: Nella’s red-headed boyfriend? Her estranged husband? Or only the crazy old Pigeon Man who raises birds on the roof? Jamie also visits Rachel’s hospital room, where he meets her father Roger and hears the story of Roger and Nella’s first son, killed in a fire before Rachel and her siblings were born. Soon after, afraid of the police and of the Pigeon Man, Jamie leaves the apartment building, living for a time with Laronne before heading West (somewhat inexplicably) to find Rachel and tell her Roger’s story. It takes six years before the two meet in Portland.

The novel is complicated, not only by the mode of storytelling, but by the themes which populate it–race and class, of course, but also alcoholism and addiction. The language of addiction and recovery is prevalent. In their youth, Nella and Roger are both alcoholics. The fire that kills their first son is started when Roger passes out drunk with a cigarette in hand. Nella meets the man she leaves her husband for at a meeting, and the fight that proceeds her death is brought on in part by his drinking and drug use. Roger drinks heavily at Rachel’s hospital bedside, and after the death of aunt Loretta, Rachel’s grandmother also becomes an alcoholic. Loretta’s fiance Drew runs the recovery program at the local Salvation Army. After leaving Chicago, Jamie/Brick becomes an alcoholic and addict as well. It’s through the Salvation Army and Drew that he and Rachel become reacquainted as teenagers. Creepily, young Rachel’s diary parallels that of her dead mother by numbering the entries “Day 1, Day 2, Day 3” AA style, rather than using conventional dates.

Finally, imagery of birds and flight and sky and maps permeates the text, flowing through nearly every section–ornithology, the bird-feeder, Pigeon-Man, the sky metaphors, pilots, bird-boy, the map maker, the maps on Rachel’s body, and of course, the family’s fate–it goes on and on. The effect is striking, artistic, holistic, but also unsubtle.

More importantly, the conclusion is seriously lacking. The climax of the story falls flat, failing to deliver the emotional impact that has been set up, and leaving behind a myriad of loose ends. It’s common in novels that aspire to “post modernism” that stories trail off, that life goes on, as it might in the real world, without the neat bows and morals of classical literature, but this is extreme. In the final chapters, it seems, all the characters but two disappear without explanation. It feels rushed, and it feels false. But it’s worth keeping in mind that Durrow is still a very young writer. Her prose is astounding, her characterization deep and astute, she just hasn’t mastered plot and pacing completely.

Valencia, Michelle Tea

Cover illustration for Valencia, by Michelle TeaMichelle Tea is one of San Francisco’s living literary heroes–if you go to readings in the city, you hear her name all the time as an example of San Francisco’s vital literary scene. I’ve even heard her read a few times over the years without really knowing who she was. Her name carries such weight that, at the recent Litquake Litcrawl event, I found myself explaining the RADAR Reading Series to a friend, saying: they do a lot of alternative-style narrative. And Michelle Tea is really involved in it.

So, I figured it was time to get with the program and actually read something she wrote. For my first foray, I chose Valencia, the second and best known of Tea’s three memoirs. She is also the author, co-author or editor of nine other books in a range of genres including poetry, fiction, collected essays, and one graphic novel, but this book stands out as her signature title–the one that always makes it in the author bio or the introductory speech. In other words, the perfect place to start.

Valencia is a fast-paced if slightly meandering narrative of 20-something Michelle Tea’s substance-fueled adventures in 90s San Francisco. The story follows Michelle through a series of friendships, jobs, drunken hook-ups, and, of course, girlfriends–especially her doomed relationship with socially conscious Southern girl, Iris. Tea’s language is elastic–by turns spartan and poetic–creating a mobile, richly textured narrative with a voice that sucks you in and propels you forward through the story. The author comes through as fearless and eager, blindingly enthusiastic, in love with love and with the city, by turns casual and obsessive, self-absorbed yet self-aware, and always unapologetic. She makes a compelling narrator, and not always a completely sympathetic one.

Tea doesn’t dwell on the inner lives of her characters or on the significance the events that befall them, and that can make Valencia seem shallow. (That, and lines like this: “I could never come up with a good reason not to have a beer, so I completely understood. Plus she looked good with a beer in her hand.” Or this: “But I wondered about being with someone who tried to stop me from drinking coffee.”) The truth is, unlike most memoirs, the trajectory of the author’s life and the emotional weight of events doesn’t seem to be the point of this story. Valencia is, more than anything else, a tribute: to youth, to the particular culture represented by the eclectic cast of characters, and most of all to the city of San Francisco. It’s a world Tea brings to life with clarity and honesty and a certain amount of wistfulness. “But back to when it was thick and glistening and alive. I mean life, never knowing what was going to happen.”

Publisher’s Weekly has described Tea as “a modern-day Beat,” an assignation I find somewhat mystifying. Yes, Michelle Tea, like the Beats, writes about doing drugs, quitting jobs, sleeping with strangers, and meeting people on the bus–but that’s where the similarity ends.

Tea’s core themes center on feminism, class, and sex (or sex work). There were no female Beats. Just women who let the Beats crash in their spare bedrooms or shoot apples off their heads. The Beats were for the most part,1The big exception, of course, is group muse Neil Cassady. disaffected members of the middle class: Alan Ginsberg, Lucien Carr and Jack Kerouac all met at Columbia. William S. Burroughs went to Harvard. They weren’t born into poverty and abuse. They didn’t work as whores (although they paid some).

More importantly, the spirit of the Tea’s work is so fundamentally different from that of the Beat poets. The Beats were in many ways modern-day transcendentalists. The intellectual precursors of the hippies, they believed in the inherent holiness of life’s simplest aspects, and the inherent goodness of humanity’s purest desires. They rejected the mainstream emphasis on material wealth that characterized the post-war years. They looked for beauty in small good things, but also in seedier side of society. More than that, they had confidence that all this mattered in some way larger then themselves.

Tea, like an up-beat Brett Easton Ellis, leaves her readers with the vague impression that none of what happens matters all that much. She has post-modernist, post-hippie, self-analytical sensibilities that prevent her from taking anything (even her own love and pain) too terribly seriously. “Even I was bored with trying to convince her that she was in love with me, or that she should be.” Tea writes, on breaking up with a girl friend. Describing late nights with a group of friends, she recalls, “…everyone’s political consciousness was very fresh and important and we loved to dress them up and trot them around the ring.”

Even during some of the more emotionally charged moments of the story, Tea retains her perspective. On tumbling into the ill-fated relationship that arguably forms the center of the story, she has this to say: “It was that gross. We would just stare at each other…It was very meaningful, we shivered with it… Once, when I was very high on pot, Iris raked her fingers up my back, and I had a vision of the world being born, dry land splitting into rivers. I was out of my mind.” All this grand, dramatic imagery, but also that self-regulating reality check (it was gross, I was out of my mind) that is the trademark of her generation.

So, ultimately, Valencia is a fast, fun read, artfully narrated and dotted with moments of surprising humor. It might not change your life, but it can definitely brighten your day.

 

References   [ + ]

1. The big exception, of course, is group muse Neil Cassady.