The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jan 23, 2013

Under 200, Part 3

You should be proud of me, you should. My plan to read the sub-200 page books on my local library's fiction shelves has been progressing apace. The last time we spoke, I was somewhat inundated by sex. Now I can report I've reached the letter 'F'. Sex continues to be a theme - it must be correlated to the size of the book. But there's also angst, memory, filial ties, and Scotland.

First, however, I have to confess that it's proving singularly difficult to read certain books. Djuna Barnes's Nightwood defeated me after scarcely twenty pages, and while I managed to finish one of Willa Cather's short stories in her collection The Bohemian Girl, the thought of attempting the rest depressed me. I'm struggling a bit with Truman Capote's first novel Summer Crossing at the moment. I've picked it up a few times, read a few pages, yawned prodigiously, and gone on my gormless way. This chap beats Alistair Maclean hollow in his use of colons. There was one page on which there must have been a dozen colons, a few of them in one convoluted sentence. I might admire the concatenation of his thoughts - mine tend to meander as well, except that I use hyphens - but I prefer hyphens and I spit me on colons.

But what jewels there have been cast in front of the porker. George Mackay Brown's lyrical story set in the Orkneys as seen through a poetic boy's immense historic imagination, Beside the Ocean of Time, had me enraptured and moved. Brown himself was one of Scotland's finest poets - check out his Hamnavoe (I blogged about it here) - and the wonderful care with which he constructs his sentences and his paragraphs and his wondrous mythology for his native islands made reading his book a grand treat.

In my varied reading of historical fiction, I have seen one particular theme that is almost stereotypical for the genre. There are two stories running in parallel, one in the past and the other in the present, with some dark deed in the former obsessing a character (usually the narrator) in the latter. Sometimes the parallel strands are set sufficiently far apart that the effects are transmitted indirectly (A. S. Byatt's Obsession, mayhaps?) or by some clandestine agency with domination in mind (Arturo Perez Reverte's The Club Dumas or The Flanders Panel). On a rare occasion, the past and the present collide when the protagonists meet the objects of their dreams, and all sorts of mayhem ensues, resulting in a sexual explosion that radically changes their political thinking. Or, perhaps, it's the other way around. At any rate, Patricia Duncker's Hallucinating Foucault is one such novel. On the one hand, it is thick with literary theory and the idea that every writer has a reader in mind who is the sole focus of all their books - it's slow-burning stuff. On the other, as soon as conspiracy, a vaguely Asperger's-like character, madness and sex enter the mix, it becomes almost laughably trite. The book received some excellent press, so what do I know?

Duncker led me to Janet Davey's First Aid. Why? you ask. Well, lads and ladies, it's because Duncker blurbed on Davey's book: "Beautifully written and perfectly judged with some unforgettable moments - it's like a depth charge - very understated, very subtle." Impressive, you agree? The book describes a few days in the life of Jo, a somewhat scatterbrained mother of three who retreats to her grandparents' house in London after she is suddenly attacked by her lover, with whom she until then appears to have had a  happy relationship. The eldest of her children, a sixteen year-old girl, runs off; we follow her point of view for a bit. Meanwhile, Jo is suffocating at her grandparents' and worried about her two younger children, the youngest a toddler. We follow her point of view for a bit - it is so gauzy, so ephemeral, it's as though her mind is scarcely present. Jo - as far as I can make out - has stopped thinking; her reactions to daily events appear as reflexes from an independent limbic system, while her consciousness has veers between panic and futile intention. Why did the lover lash out? Why is the love of one's family so claustrophobic? Why are the relations between mothers and daughters so fraught, so taut and yet so brittle?


Space Bar said...

Definitely not under 200, bt have you read any Dorothy Dunnett?

Feanor said...

what ho, what ho. yup, i read the first in her lymond chronicles. it was terribly popular at one time, i think. fairly convoluted plotting; i think dennett herself said that when you read a later book in the series, you can get back to earlier ones and re-read them to get a better understanding of certain motivations, allusions and so on. imagine that! much as like george r.r. martin's song of ice and fire, the thought of re-reading any of the tomes exhausts me considerably. and dennett's not quite as readable, i thought...

Space Bar said...

yeah, takes time to get into it, i found but mid-way through i was hooked. *sigh* so many doorstoppers in the year ahead. My horoscope did not warn me. I should have taken an under-200 vow.

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