The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

What did it win?

Samuel Johnson Prize 2008

What’s it all about?

A London detective is called in to investigate a murder at an English country house. He suspects the killer, but she proves to be too many for him. Years later she confesses.

Was it really any good?

It’s kind of hard to go wrong with material this good. Mystery and narrative go hand-in-hand, and the appearance of such an archetypal plot in the wild, “the original country-house murder mystery,” makes for an irresistible read. William Roughead recognized the Road Hill House murder as a classic crime eighty years ago, and his lushly ironic opening is hard to forget:

In the palmy days of the sixties, the memory of which is preserved for us in the evergreen pages of Punch; when skirts were wide, minds were narrow, and whiskers did prodigiously abound; when ladies veiled their graces in chignons and crinolines, and gentlemen, inexpressibly peg-topped, fortified their manly bosoms with barricades of beard; when the cultured delighted in wooden woodcuts of gilt-edged table books, and the vulgar worshipped albums of painfully realistic family photographs; when the outside of cup and platter received much attention, and due regard was had to the whitening of sepulchres, and whatever was “respectable” was right; enfin, about that sincere and engaging period, there resided – to employ the appropriate contemporary term – at Road Hill House, near Trowbridge, in Wiltshire, one Mr. Samuel Kent, gentleman.

Oh for the palmy days of style – when even non-fiction sounded like this! Today we just want the facts. Economy, economy! Here is how Kate Summerscale begins the story:

In the early hours of Friday, 29 June 1860 Samuel and Mary Kent were asleep on the first floor of their detached three-storey Georgian house above the village of Road, five miles from Trowbridge. They lay in a four-poster bed carved from Spanish mahogany in a bedroom decked out with crimson damask. He was fifty-nine; she was forty, and eight months pregnant. Their eldest daughter, the five-year-old Mary Amelia, shared their room. Through the door to the nursery, a few feet away, were Elizabeth Gough, twenty-two, the nursemaid, in a painted French bed, and her two youngest charges, Saville (three) and Eveline (one), in cane cots.

Oh well. Such is crime writing in the Information Age.

What made the murder into such an excellent mystery was the genius of its author, then sixteen-year-old Constance Kent. In the real world, most criminals are stupid. And they commit stupid crimes. Constance was the exception. Not only did she manage to pull off a daring and complicated murder (of “Saville (three)”), she quite ingeniously manipulated evidence after the fact (destroying a bloody nightdress, then recovering a clean one from the laundry to later claim it had gone missing), and successfully stonewalled the police throughout their investigation. Mr. Whicher may have had his suspicions, but they didn’t hold up in court.

Like everyone else, he appears to have underestimated the girl. After the fact he was prepared to concede “Miss Constance possesses an extraordinary mind.” Extraordinary for its control and discipline, as well as its concealment behind what was, as pictures and contemporary testimony both indicate, a remarkably dull exterior. Here she is appearing at her second trial:

Her face, judged the Daily Telegraph reporter, was ‘broad, full, uninteresting’, with an ‘expression of stupid dulness’. . . . The News of the World described her as ‘dull and heavy, her forehead low, her eyes small and her figure tending to plumpness, and there being an entire absence of anything like vivacity in her air or countenance’.

Those black eyes deeply recessed into a plain, meaty face never gave anything away, and they didn’t miss anything either.

When no more than three years old I began to observe that my mother held quite a secondary place both as a wife and as a mistress of the house. She [Constance’s governess and future step-mother] it was who really ruled. Many conversations on the subject, which I was considered too young to understand, I heard and remembered in after years. . . .

Sadly, we don’t know very much about Constance’s long life after her sensational trial. What it amounted to was prison, followed by residence in Australia with her brother. Even this much was a mystery until her pseudonymous identity was revealed in the 1970s (Roughead says merely that “history knows nothing further of her fate” after her release from prison). From the beginning she seems to have “had a gift for invisibility.” This doesn’t leave Summerscale much to talk about in the final section of the book, which is rather disappointing. The career of William Saville-Kent, marine biologist, seems irrelevant to everything that has gone before, despite Summerscale’s best efforts to rope it in through strained analogies between biology and detective work (“William Kent had a furious curiosity about little things, a conviction that they held the big secrets”). And why the publisher felt the need to include colour plates of William’s illustrations of coral life is perhaps the greatest mystery of all.

While I can understand The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher being the most popular book on a non-fiction shortlist, I suspect most of that has to do with the subject matter, the given. I think I would have been more impressed by an author taking a less handy topic and making something of it. While Summerscale does wrap the story in an interesting social and cultural history of detectives and detective fiction, there isn’t a whole lot here that’s new. The most eye-opening moments for me came when using the “note on money” to translate the wages into today’s dollars. Apparently sub-inspectors of factories and marine biologists were very well paid in Victorian England. Oh for the palmy days of such government largesse!


Vernon God Little

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre

What did it win?

Man Booker Prize 2003

What’s it all about?

A fifteen-year-old Texan boy is suspected of being involved in a mass killing. He runs away to Mexico, but is captured and brought back to face trial.

Was it really any good?

It was certainly a divisive choice. Not for the Man Booker jury – its selection was nearly unanimous and immediate – but in the critical response to the award. People were angry at this book, and even angrier that it won such a prestigious prize. Why?

Because it’s a lousy book? No. There have been any number of lousy books that have won the Booker to no great objection. And while Vernon God Little is not a great book, or even very remarkable as a first novel, it isn’t that bad.

Instead, I have a theory that what really fueled the anti-VGL backlash was politics.

In the first place, the Man Booker Prize has been in the news a lot the last couple of years because of all the debate over whether it should take books by American authors into consideration (for my thoughts at the time, see here). So far it hasn’t happened. And now here’s DBC Pierre, a variously transplanted Australian, winning the big prize for writing a satire on America in a Texan voice!

The critics do have a point: V. G. Little doesn’t sound remotely Texan. He doesn’t even sound like a fifteen-year old. He sounds like an adult British Commonwealth writer trying to sound like a Texan boy. His “fucken” obscenities sprinkle the text like they’ve been thrown in by some kind of random writing program. As Twain, a master of the vernacular, understood, bad language is music first, feeling second. It’s part of the sing-song of the natural spoken word. It’s main function is rhythmical. Vernon’s voice is simply too literate, and not just in the obvious ways. Even Caliban, after all, is a poet. I mean in simple little sentences like “The door stands ajar.” Think about it.

So a poor approximation of Texas speech is made worse by the fact that this is an appropriation of voice! And the Booker still isn’t open to the real thing. Where’s the reciprocity? Sharpen the blades.

As if that weren’t enough, this is a book that is anti-American. Writing in Canada’s Globe and Mail, reviewer Ron Charach “wondered if the [Man Booker] judges had fallen for an orgy of anti-Americanism.” American reviewers expressed concern that Europeans – even their strategic allies! – saw the United States as a nation of gun-toting, ignorant rednecks addicted to junk food, Internet porn, and home shopping. Satire is one thing, but you don’t expect to see this kind of stuff winning literary prizes in the New World Order of Bush and Blair.

Again, the critics have a point. Pierre’s satire is over-the-top, cartoonish, and not even terribly original. But I think the political angle gave the response to VGL a lot of its edge. VGL is no more anti-American than, say, Eric Bogosian’s Mall. But “anti-American” is a label now.

(As a final note on the response to Vernon God Little I should say something about the slack reading skills shown by some of today’s professional book reviewers. While Laura Miller’s review in Salon made a number of excellent observations, I had to wonder who “the vacuous blonde Vernon yearns for” was. Taylor Figueroa is blonde? Then there was Michael Lind calling Pierre out on the Texan hayride: “My family has lived in the state since the mid-19th century, and I’ve never heard of a hayride in Texas. The hayride – a ride through the countryside, often by city folk or tourists, in a hay-filled wagon in autumn or winter – is a custom of New England and the upper midwest that is unknown in the south and southwest.” Good point. But Pierre makes it himself when he has Vernon say this a little later: “A hayride, gimme a break. We don’t even have fucken hay around here, they probably had to buy it on the web or something.” Let’s pay closer attention to the text folks.)

But while politics may have given the critical knives some edge, the truth is that this is only a decent first novel. And it is very much a first novel. It took me a while before I realized that the subtitle – “A 21st Century Comedy in the Presence of Death” – really was a subtitle and not just a blurb. Who would give a novel a subtitle like that?

At times the writing is downright clumsy. When Pierre wants to introduce a philosophical problem from Immanuel Kant into the text (and just wanting to bring Kant directly into the text is bad enough), he does it like this:

“Man, remember the Great Thinker we heard about in class last week?” he asks.
“The one that sounded like ‘Manual Cunt’?”
“Yeah, who said nothing really happens unless you see it happen.”

So subtle you hardly notice it at all.

At its best, and the book is not without its moments, Vernon God Little is a book about needs. When he stop to show some sympathy for his characters is when they become most real.

Fate puts Vaine Gurie in the Pizza Hut opposite my bank. She sits by the window, hunched over a wedge of pizza. Sitting by the window ain’t a sharp idea for a diet fugitive, but you can see the place is overflowing with strangers. I stop and fumble in my pack, watching her through the corner of my eye. Strangely, I get a wave of sadness watching her. Fat ole Vaine, stuffing emptiness into her void. Her eating strategy is to take six big bites, until her mouth’s crammed to bursting, then top up the gaps with little bites. Panic eating. Here’s me yearning for Mexico, there’s Vaine hogging herself slim, just another fragile fucken booger-sac of a life. I stare down at my New Jacks. Then back at Vaine; detached, sad, and furtive. I mean, what kind of fucken life is this?

Stuffing emptiness into the void. Aren’t we all? “Learn their needs” is finally revealed as the secret of life, a “learning” Vernon has already received before he enters prison. There are the needs of his mother for love, of Jesus Navarro for understanding, the needs of the novel’s many perverts for sex, and the needs of its other villains for fame. Like Vaine stuffing down her pizza, everyone in the novel is hungry, yearning for something to fill the void.

We feel these needs in the novel’s quietest moments. More than once I found myself wondering why Pierre even bothered with the Columbine plot. The book would have been better if it had only been the story of a boy and his mom. Most of the slapstick is comic buckshot, only hitting a fraction of its target, and the stereotypes are narrative lead.

For such a colorful character, DBC Pierre (a pseudonym for Peter Finlay) has the briefest bio-line I’ve seen in quite a while: “DBC Pierre is in the process of writing his second novel.” On the strength of Vernon God Little, I’ll probably read it. But I hope he’ll take some learnings from the first.

The Gathering

The Gathering by Anne Enright

What did it win?

Man Booker Prize 2007

What’s it all about?

Her brother’s suicide leads an Irish woman to reflect upon her life.

Was it really any good?

Well-written, but in the end rather weightless. One thinks of Enright’s own description of the book as “the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepy.” Essentially it tells the tale of an upper middle-class woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Liam’s death is the trigger, but Veronica’s memories of him are as vague and indistinct as his ghostly apparitions. One suspects that what’s really getting her down is the fact that she’s getting old. The kids are growing up, sex with her terribly-decent-but-boring husband isn’t happening, and even shopping no longer provides a thrill (when she goes to the mall she just starts to cry). Booze helps, but mostly what she needs is to get in a car and drive, get in a plane and fly – find some time alone. Though solitude itself can become a drug.

One of the consequences of getting older is that we become more aware of our bodies. And it is an unpleasant awareness. Veronica’s distaste for the body (her body, any body) is reflected in her choice of language, which emphasizes gross physicality. Typical is the description of her mother – one of a generation of parents who “bred as naturally as they might shit” – as a “piece of benign human meat, sitting in a room.” Now in her seventies, her hands are “a tangle of strings and knobs and bones, like ship’s rigging.” But at least dear mammy’s breeding days are over, which inoculates her from the worst of Veronica’s imaginings. These tend to be fixated on a spot just below the waistline, occupied by threatening erections (the so-unlikely spawn of “a purple thing on the verge of decay”) and Arcimboldish vulvae (“her pubis like the breast of an underfed chicken,” “the meaty flower of my cunt”).

Yes, I think it’s fair to say, this is a woman with body issues. Ones that even infect her sense of loss:

I am a trembling mess from hip to knee. There is a terrible heat, a looseness in my innards that makes me want to dig my fists between my thighs. It is a confusing feeling – somewhere between diarrhoea and sex – this grief that is almost genital.

I like this for its disorienting effect, though I have to admit I’m not sure I fully get it. That may be a function of my male perspective. On the other hand, I pulled a total blank on Nugent’s feeling something “stir in the deep root of his penis.” What, or where, is that? His prostate?

The book’s structure has its work cut out trying to overcome the terrible “I have a secret” opening sentence: “I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen.” You can be damn sure from this that you won’t be finding out what might have happened in her grandmother’s house anytime soon (the revelation, for those of you wanting to skip ahead, starts on page 142 of the paperback). And while such an opening alerts us to the fact that this will be an unreliable narrative, the reasons for this are, in my opinion, a bit dodgy. Apparently what happened in grandmother’s house has become a repressed memory, revolving around some experience of child sexual abuse – “probably” of Liam, possibly of Veronica herself. Which would explain her attitude toward erections.

The key to it all is Veronica’s belief that “History is only biological . . . What is written for the future is written in the body, the rest is only spoor.” As I read it, this does not mean that we are all genetically determined. Instead, we somehow create our own biological past and future destiny through a process of selective memory: “We pick and choose the facts about ourselves – where we came from and what it means.” Which means that perhaps the threatening penis is something from a later period in her life (she tells the story of one ambulatory erection chasing her into a church) that she has projected into her past.

Then again, maybe she means something else entirely.

What I found most disappointing about the book was Enright’s inability to create any memorable or even interesting characters around Veronica. Liam is left a blank. The siblings all blur together. Husband Tom is a boring professional type and daughters Rebecca and Emily a pair of names. Even Ada failed to stick in my head.

At least one reason for this is the lack of dialogue. The entire third chapter is built around the notion of nothing being said. Action is interior, conversation something felt and understood. This is a shame, since Enright can fashion realistic dialogue. Realistic, however, doesn’t always mean gripping. The things we say rarely are. Like a fight over cleaning the dishes:

“What are you doing?” says Bea to her.
“Clearing up,” says Kitty.
“Oh. No, please do. Please do clear up.”
“Fuck off.”
“No, there’s always a first time.”
“Oh, fuck off.”
“Well, scrape them first, would you? Scrape it, would you? Scrape it, and stack it over there.”

This is the background music of the gathering. Which may be why, for melancholy, withdrawn Veronica, it remains a gathering of one.


Eunoia by Christian Bök

What did it win?

Griffin Poetry Prize 2002

What’s it all about?

A poem in five chapters, with each chapter making use of only one vowel.

Was it really any good?

For what it is . . .

And just what is that? The short answer is Oulipo, a school of writing named after “the avant-garde coterie renowned for its literary experimentation with extreme formalistic constraints” (Bök’s note). What’s more, Eunoia is great Oulipo. Overcoming your initial surprise at what Bök is doing (“Look! A dancing dog!”), you are impressed with just how well he is doing it. Judged on its own idiosyncratic terms (Bök is making up his own rules, after all) it’s an almost total triumph. It has a charging, headlong beat (the absence of articles in the i, o, and u chapters contributes to the feeling of abruptness), a wisp of narrative structure (the chapters often track the movements of a single character through life passages such as eating, sex, sickness, and death), and a lot of self-conscious verbal wit. And it’s also one of the funniest books of poetry to be published in a long time. You have to smile at such rhythmic, nuanced nonsense as “Hassan has a dacha at Kazakhstan, and at a small shack Hassan can hatch a dark plan”, or ribaldry like “Blond trollops who don go-go boots flop pompoms nonstop to do promos for floorshows.” Yes: “Wow!”

As a critic, there are two ways of approaching a book like this. In the first place you can look at how well Bök manages to colour within the lines. At times he does appear to struggle with his own strictures (and even cheats a bit, as with his spelling of “blonde” in the passage quoted above). Examples include his various fall-back techniques for getting himself out of a jam or burning through his word-list. The parenthetical language dump is one device that often comes in handy. It couldn’t have taken seven years to come up with stuff like this. Seven minutes with a good dictionary would do the trick:

. . . the sleek green eels feed themselves the excrement (the expelled feces, the excreted dregs) . . .


Hassan can scan an atlas that maps Madagascar and all lands afar: Java, Malta and Japan, Chad, Ghana, and Qatar, Canada and Lapland, Rwanda and Malabar. Hassan can scan an almanac that charts facts and stats at Dallas, Savannah and Atlanta (Kansas, Arkansas and Alabama).


Midspring brings with it singing birds, six kinds (finch, siskin, ibis, tit, pipit, swift) . . .


Zoos known to stock zoomorphs (crocs or komodos, coons or bonobos) . . .

Another tic is his habit of falling back on sound effects in the more difficult final chapters, ending sections with stuff like “swoosh, swoosh,” “hoo, hoo,” and “pow, pow – boom.” A lot of this just seems tacked on. And given the context – a poem where nothing has any logical necessity – seeming tacked on is quite a negative accomplishment.

The other way of coming at Eunoia is to question its guiding premise. This is to open a debate not only over Oulipo but the whole question of “experimental” literature. And this is because Eunoia doesn’t have any kind of purpose or point to it except as an experiment. Its prime directive is the only thing it has to say.

Let’s start with asking an obvious question: Why experiment at all? Two explanations come to mind. The first is reactionary and backward looking: Traditional literary forms have all been exhausted. Nothing new can be said within the existing conventions. We are bored with the old and hungry for something – anything – that is new. Only a radically different, experimental kind of writing will release us from the current prison-house of language and allow us to express our world in a way that is contemporary and genuine. Of course the New Writing and its new rules (or total lack of rules) will seem ridiculous at first, but that’s partly because it’s making fun of the old way of doing things. After we get over the shock of the new we might even come to accept it as something natural, inevitable, even commonplace.

Or the literary experiment may be a kind of scientific quest. If the author does this, what will happen? Throw the pages of a novel unbound in a box, mix them up, then read them in whatever order they present themselves and what have you got? Force yourself to use only a certain number of letters or words and what’s the result? There’s no telling in advance. If there was, it wouldn’t be an experiment.

The reason I’m going on about this is because, as I said a few paragraphs back, Eunoia is pretty much a pure experiment. It doesn’t have any kind of meaning or point except as an experiment. You can respect the energy and labour that went into its production (indeed, its purpose is to make a “spectacle of its labour”, so you’d better appreciate it), but you’re always left with the big tease of its conception: Why did Christian Bök choose to write a book like this?

In his own words: “to show that, even under such improbable conditions of duress, language can still express an uncanny, if not sublime, thought.” This aesthetic of duress, the idea that “writing is inhibiting” and that somehow language might fire in little implosions of accidental grace the more it is crippled and constrained, is not so different from the extension of consciousness and lack of restraint that characterizes free verse. I say this because the poem is the experiment, the experiment is the form, and the form is wholly personal and whimsical. The rules are not something external to the poem or to poetry or to language. They are his rules. By using them does he still manage to throw off something uncanny? Sublime? And is the point then that these qualities are merely random and arbitrary? That literary grace is, at least on some level, inherently accidental? If a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters, each missing a “y” and four other vowel keys, got to work on it, would they produce Eunoia?

This sort of speculation is the kind of thing that makes Eunoia interesting. Otherwise it really is a bunch of enjoyable nonsense, the product, I think, of the kind of frustration and burn-out I talked about earlier. After all, the book is dedicated “for the new ennui in you”, and the epigraph tells us that “The tedium is the message.” But as a manifesto-in-action it is peerless. For what it tells us about the relationship between form and content, inspiration and its raw materials, the spirit and the word, and for the energy of its expression, exploding piston-like in every paragraph, it is surely one of the most remarkable poems this country has produced.

But all the same, I wouldn’t want another.

The Corrections

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

What did it win?

National Book Award 2002

What’s it all about?

A disintegrating mid-West family drags itself together for one last Christmas.

Was it really any good?

Some of it.

In the beginning there was the hype. That was a story in itself, but it would be unfair to judge the book by its media. On the back of my paperback edition I find a blurb from Elle saying “hype be damned” (and which then goes on to add to the hype). I couldn’t agree more. Let all the controversy over the Oprah (dis)invitation and the huge advance rest. Let’s get down to brass tacks.

And let’s start by taking another look at the blurbs on the back cover. Here is the Vancouver Sun: “You’ll want to start reading all over again, just to feel the energy of a genius at work.” And here is the Toronto Star: “I cannot recall the last time I reached the end of a book thinking I would like to go back to page one and start reading all over again.”

I begin with these quotes because they are both so opposed to what was the strongest impression I had while reading The Corrections: That it was a very easy book to put down. It took me over two months to get through. While reading it I think I completed six other books. At one point (it was during the Denise section) I left it unattended for over a week. And when finished I had no desire to read it “all over again.”

I think this is because Franzen, whatever his strengths (and I hope to say something about them in just a bit), is a lousy storyteller. The novel proceeds in narrative chunks focusing on individual family members which are themselves built out of set-piece episodes that don’t go anywhere. Things that seem as though they might be important are simply dropped. Initially I was surprised to find the thread of Chip’s relationship with Melissa abandoned without explanation part way through his section. Then I noticed the pattern. The impending execution of a murderer named Khellye Withers pops up a few times, but like one of those mechanical gophers at the amusement park it soon ducks back out of site, leaving no indication of why it was mentioned in the first place. What dramatic purpose is served by sending Chip to Lithuania? Aslan comes and goes. Much is made of the Correcktall treatment, but it ends up playing no dramatic role in the novel. Even Alfred Lambert’s dealings with the Axon Corporation are discarded. There may be a thematic point in all of this, that life is without plot or structure and that nothing ever connects or is resolved, but it seems as though Franzen is just constantly coming up with new ideas and then losing interest. And the effect is contagious.

In terms of style Franzen is a self-professed disciple of Don DeLillo, and the influence has not been all good. Right from the prologue we are introduced to a slick imitation of DeLilloese: a discontinuous ironic montage of brand names hurried into long run-on sentence fragments. This is DeLillo as the author of ConsumerLand, but Franzen’s prose simply doesn’t have the same depth or intelligence. His style is ad style. The introduction of the Correcktall process reads like a prospectus, and the fact that it’s a parody prospectus did nothing to allay my fears that this sort of thing is Franzen’s real métier. In the many descriptive riffs he indulges in, especially when describing food or making food analogies, one senses more than a breath of ad-copy. Here is Alfred inspecting a rotting rail-line:

Alfred saw crossties better suited to mulching than to gripping spikes. Rail anchors that had lost their heads to rust, bodies wasting inside a crust of corrosion like shrimps in a shell of deep-fry. Ballast so badly washed out that ties were hanging from the rail rather than supporting it. Girders peeling and corrupted like German chocolate cake, the dark shavings, the miscellaneous crumble.

Ask yourself this after reading such a passage: Do you see the railway or the German chocolate cake? Playing with food is an easy author’s trick and Franzen indulges it far too often. That son Chip becomes a professional ad-writer while daughter Denise becomes a professional chef is, given the bent of Franzen’s style, inevitable. (The same superficiality even infects the sex, leading to such self-indulgent cutesy stuff as “the jismic grunting butt-oink. The jiggling frantic nut-swing.”)

Along with this glossy insert prose goes some pretty unconvincing dialogue. In particular, Franzen’s penchant for building a scene out of cross-purposed, overlapping chatter is quite ineffective. The voices Gary overhears in the elevator or the conversation around the dinner table on board the Gunnar Myrdal (to take only a couple of examples) simply don’t work. They are hard to follow and never develop any kind of rhythm through counterpoint. One has the sense Franzen is trying to do Robert Altman, with what should have been predictable results.

But the main reason the dialogue fails to convince is the fact that so much of it is spoken by cartoon figures. While the individual members of the Lambert family are fully realized stereotypes – and I don’t mean that as a contradiction – they inhabit a fantasy world. Chip’s awareness that if he wants to be a writer he has to “make it ridiculous” only goes so far in practice. Lithuania is all a comic book adventure, ending with those cartoon co-eds Cheryl and Tiffany and their “like”s, “oh my god”s and “duh”s. Denise’s visit to Cindy von Kippel and her arrogant boor of a husband in Vienna is more of the same. And the list goes on.

To summarize: I think that Franzen’s incompetence at narrative, superficial style and clumsy handling of drama and dialogue distinguish The Corrections as the work of a conspicuously second-rate author. Technically, he is a bad writer, and in terms of the book’s intellectual content a downright backward one. That the world of quick fixes, the world of the pitch and the ad, is a lie is no revelation. When Franzen tries to go deep and discursive he comes up with such empty nets as Alfred’s nighttime thoughts at sea: “There was another world below, this was the problem. Another world below that had volume but no form.” Is this meant to signal a discovery of the unconscious? When you compare DeLillo’s concept of the Underworld with Alfred’s simple sexual repression we can hardly see an advance.

And yet . . . I like this book.

I like it mainly because its five main characters are so dislikable. They present the reader with a moral challenge. The Corrections is a book not of thought but of feeling, and its emotional tone skillfully balances the attraction and repulsion, love and resentment, sympathy and exasperation that are part of family life everywhere. Whatever his other faults, Franzen is not, and this is surprising given his apparent values, a sentimental writer. Sentiment, like sympathy, only rears its head in this novel for an ironic comeuppance. What makes the force of characters like Enid, Alfred, Gary, Chip and Denise all the more remarkable is the fact that they move through such a satiric, two-dimensional world and represent such crude stereotypes of repression. Despite their environment there is something of the magic of Dickens in the way they come to life, and stay in life after the book has ended. And for all its quality of just being too much (too much plot, too many words) there are also spots of time in the novel that arrest us with the force of poetry. There is DeLilloesque observation, but also Joycean epiphany in a moment like this:

Chip sat on a freezing guardrail and smoked and took comfort in the sturdy mediocrity of American commerce, the unpretending metal and plastic roadside hardware. The thunk of a gas-pump nozzle halting when a tank was filled, the humility and promptness of its service. And a 99¢ Big Gulp banner swelling with wind and sailing nowhere, its nylon ropes whipping and pinging on a galvanized standard. And the black sanserif numerals of gasoline prices, the company of so many 9s. And American sedans moving down the access road at nearly stationary speeds like thirty. And orange and yellow plastic pennants shivering overhead on guys.

No, I wouldn’t want to read The Corrections more than once. In both a good and a bad way, once was a lot.

Boswell’s Presumptuous Task

Boswell’s Presumptuous Task by Adam Sisman

What did it win?

National Book Critics Circle Award 2002

What’s it all about?

Boswell’s struggle to write the Life of Johnson.

Was it really any good?

It’s certainly an enjoyable trip down a well-traveled road. But it’s also hard to recommend to anyone already familiar with Boswell’s story – which I imagine is pretty much anyone with an interest in reading it. Sisman is obviously going after Simon Winchester’s audience, but Winchester’s light-reading pop histories have taken relatively obscure and neglected historical figures for their subject (James Murray and W. C. Minor in The Professor and the Madman, William Smith in The Map That Changed the World). Sisman can hardly say the same.

The story of Boswell’s presumptuous task is the stuff of literary legend, but not because it has grown in the telling. Johnson scholars (and Boswell, in this regard, ranks among the first) have always been a hard-headed bunch when it comes to getting the facts. To their awesome mountain of Johnsoniana Sisman has nothing new to add, and little insight to offer (his conclusion – that the Life of Johnson is a unique work, and that “never again will there be such a combination of subject, author and opportunity” – struck me as particularly weak). Instead, the most interesting material in the book is found on the margin. Sam and Bozzy are well-known characters, but for introducing us to as marvelous a villain as Boswell’s would-be patron James Lowther, Lord Lonsdale, Sisman deserves a special round of thanks.

Except for the final chapter, describing the critical fall-out over Boswell and his great book, the quick pace of the narrative never flags. But then a biography of James Boswell would have to try very hard to be dull. It is difficult to think of another major literary figure who has provoked so much exasperation. Perhaps some of this is due to the fact that he was so transparent. One wonders if his famous journals would have revealed anything that wasn’t already evident to those who knew him. But isn’t knowing too much, and feeling that it is too much, what makes him our contemporary? Wasn’t everything about him presumptuous?


Atonement by Ian McEwan

What did it win?

W. H. Smith Literary Award 2002

What’s it all about?

Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis falsely accuses a young man of rape. She spends the rest of her life imagining how she will atone.

Was it really any good?

Very good. The kind of novel that might almost have been written a hundred years ago – which isn’t a backhanded compliment (in this case), but a sad comment on the state of the art of fiction.

The major knock against it is the structure. The long middle section dealing with Robbie Turner on the retreat to Dunkirk seems particularly awkward. And yet the fact remains that this book has a total structure. Speaking of Harold Pinter, the British film critic Leslie Halliwell once characterized postmodern writing as intelligence without meaning and plot without structure. Whether the latter point was an academic outgrowth of chaos theory and “resistance to closure”, part and parcel of magic realism’s affinity for wandering, fabulous narratives, an artistic surrender to Eliot’s chaos of modern life, the product of too many memoir-style novels, or just plain laziness on the part of the author, I find myself agreeing with Halliwell more and more. Too many novels these days just . . . go . . . on. Are these authors only throwing clay at their editors and expecting them to give it a shape? Not McEwan.

That Atonement is such a deliberately crafted work is only part of its old-fashioned charm. This is a book that summarizes a whole century of fiction writing. At times it seems as though McEwan is trying to do for the twentieth-century novel what Joyce did with the English language in the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter of Ulysses, but in a way that takes the novel out of history (progress, evolution) and into that imaginative space where all great works of art maintain a present existence. Take the nature of the narrative. For any student of modern and postmodern fiction the questions will be familiar: Is McEwan really playing with different centres of consciousness? Just how conventional is that middle section? How are any of the parts meant to relate? Is Briony a “reliable” narrator? Are we reading Briony’s book?

All of this also means that McEwan risks making Atonement too self-consciously literary. Whenever I come across a character in a novel who spends a lot of time reading I start to get the feeling that this is another novel about the writing of novels, and that maybe I should just go and watch TV. McEwan walks a fine line, but Briony is such a believable and engaging fantasist, and her predilection for creating fictions is such an integral part of the story, it all works. The book talk never seems heavy-handed. And, as passages like the discourse on “cunt” make clear, McEwan is obviously enjoying himself:

the word was at one with its meaning, and was almost onomatopoeic. The smooth-hollowed, partly enclosed forms of its first three letters were as clear as a set of anatomical drawings. Three figures huddling at the foot of the cross.

How wonderfully imagined! Then you think of the anatomical drawings in Robbie’s medical text which gave rise to his letter, and go on to consider the three figures as the three main female characters, Robbie as Christ, a foreshadowing of Briony’s atonement . . . Who cares if the “almost onomatopoeic” part doesn’t make a whole lot of sense?

The novel does have an uneven pace. Nothing quite measures up to the first section, leaving me to wonder if McEwan made a mistake in leaving his usual “to be read in one night” comfort zone. But in every other way Atonement is a triumph. Little aggravations in the writing – living so close to Toronto, I have to take special exception to the improbable description of German dive bombers circling “like Raptors” – are offset by the care taken in designing the whole.

Is there time for a word about Robbie and Cecilia in the library? Well, it’s some of the best sex I’ve ever read.

To Say Nothing of the Dog

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

What did it win?

Hugo Award 1999

What’s it all about?

A pair of 21st century time travelers are sent back to Victorian England to repair a fault in the space-time continuum.

Was it really any good?

Definitely. I think what I appreciate the most about Connie Willis is the care she takes as a writer. Her time travel stories are as well constructed as they are researched. Structure is not a strong suit for many writers of fiction these days, and among SF writers it is particularly weak. SF novels have a tendency to just collapse, reinforcing the conclusion that the genre is best represented in short story collections. As one way around this I’ve found that many SF novels are strengthened by an infusion of mystery blood. Mystery is a genre that requires coherence and integrity – in its beginning lies its end. Willis wisely adopts this cross-breeding approach here, acknowledging her debt to detective fiction in a series of winking references to writers like Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie.

Willis is also careful in her handling of the novel’s intricate plot. Of course stories involving time travel never make sense, but the events described here have a superficial plausibility that manages to side-step the inevitable objections over paradox. There is actually an interesting debate over the nature of history and the role of the individual in it, but nothing is ever resolved. Meanwhile, the novel’s historical matter is pure book stuff. The fascination with the Victorian era is something shared with a lot of contemporary SF (The Diamond Age, The Difference Engine), but Willis seems more at home with the period than most, perhaps because of a certain conventional-mindedness (not always a bad thing) and perhaps because she is less concerned with technology than she is with literary models (the title is from Jerome K. Jerome’s Victorian comedy Three Men in a Boat).

I could think of some minor complaints – the author’s technique is sometimes a little obvious as technique, the characters are props – but these are almost by the way. To Say Nothing of the Dog is a lark and only meant to be fun. And any book with a line like “Come here cat. You wouldn’t want to destroy the space-time continuum would you?” must be pretty confident in its power to charm.

No Great Mischief

No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod

What did it win?

Trillium Book Award 1999, International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 1999

What’s it all about?

An orthodontist meditates on his family’s history.

Was it really any good?

Certainly if you like MacLeod you’ll think so. I say this because it is very much the same sort of stuff we find in the short stories (which were in themselves ample evidence that MacLeod is a writer with only one string to his bow).

Fans of the short fiction, however, may still be disappointed. For starters, the novel lacks dramatic tension. MacLeod’s short stories all deal with the conflict felt by natives of Cape Breton who are either leaving home or returning in some way changed. In No Great Mischief this conflict is not in play, since it is taken for granted that Alexander MacDonald will be going off to become an orthodontist. No one ever reproaches him for making this decision, nor is he profoundly troubled by it.

The other big difference between No Great Mischief and the short fiction is that the sense of a vanishing way of life is not as developed. “Progress,” that inhuman, modernizing force that threatens all the good old Cape Breton virtues and traditions, is not as imminent an evil. Modernism is now just the “modernistic” house in Calgary where Alexander’s sister lives. The MacDonald family is a force of nature, and will endure. The death of Calum MacDonald is truly no great mischief since it’s obvious that the clann Chalum Ruaidh will just keep rolling along.

But even so, how can you not like this book? MacLeod’s great strength is his ability to write with a kind of decorous and old-fashioned honesty that shouts defiance at our hard-hearted and cynical age (not to mention our hard-hearted and cynical reviewers). It’s tough to think of another contemporary author doing this material without collapsing into parody. Those dogs that “care too much and try too hard,” and those Gaels always ready to burst into song at the drop of a hat are ludicrous creations, yet No Great Mischief is a novel entirely without irony. The great curse of Canadian writing is its sentimentality, but MacLeod’s sentimentality is so ingrained, so unapologetic, so obvious and so essential to his writing that you couldn’t imagine him without it:

Sometimes when he would tell me those stories his eyes would fill with tears. People used to say he was sentimental, but it was because he cared. He felt everything deeply.

I admire that.

Mercy Among the Children

Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards

What did it win?

Giller Prize 2000 (co-winner)

What’s it all about?

The miserable life of a Miramichi man puts his childhood vow to never harm another human being to the test. His son has different ideas.

Was it really any good?

It is, and I was happy to see it win an award. It was certainly a much better read than its Giller co-winner, Anil’s Ghost (which I couldn’t finish). Just in passing, however, I think it should be pointed out – and I don’t recall anyone mentioning this at the time – that one of the judges on the Giller panel in 2000 was Alistair MacLeod. Now MacLeod is certainly an eminent Canadian writer, and I’m sure an all-around great guy, but Richards’s last novel, The Bay of Love and Sorrows, was dedicated to him. Aren’t you supposed to recuse yourself when this happens?

As far as the book itself is concerned, it might best be classified as popular romance. By popular romance I do not mean the same thing as literary pulp romance, those upscale nurse novels like The English Patient and Cold Mountain. Richards’s version of the popular romance is more akin to the regional folktale (think Hardy, Faulkner, or the Brontës). The narrative in such novels is often, as here, imagined as an oral performance, and is closer to myth than realistic fiction.

To say that Mercy Among the Children is not primarily a realistic work may strike some as strange. This is because Richards’s work is so identified with a real place (the Miramichi), and so powerfully evokes the lives of the local inhabitants, and in particular those of the poor. Poverty is something physical in Richards’s prose, its “colour” and “smell” brought to life in the bad haircuts, wiry muscles, rotten clothes, loud music, and rough language of his characters.

But while realism is notoriously difficult to define, since everyone’s reality is different, Mercy Among the Children is obviously less a social documentary than a spiritual inquiry. Like any moral work, it is organized to illustrate a point, which lends it some of the qualities of a fable or fairy-tale. Once we recognize the sort of world we are in, the contrived elements of the plot seem less out of place.

While I am on this subject, I should add that it is a common mistake among reviewers to fail to recognize what kind of a book they are talking about before passing judgment. Not every novel can be expected to adhere to conventions of verisimilitude, yet many reviewers automatically ask whether characters and plot are “believable,” even in books where this clearly isn’t an issue. Sydney Henderson is a saint, his wife Elly an angelic vision, yet in this book they are hardly out of place. In addition, the story features a number of elements taken straight out of romance, like the revelation of the secret illegitimate children of Leo McVicer, the local Prince. And the ending, with Sydney and Elly’s two surviving children transformed into an internationally recognized author and a multimillionaire scholar gypsy, is entirely outside a realistic presentation of the lives of those who inhabit the “soil of the damned . . . the wide empire of the poor.”

Then there is the morality. My sense is that Richards is a strictly moral writer whose judgment is tempered somewhat by an uneasy naturalism. Naturalism, in the literary sense, is an approach to fiction that explains human behaviour in quasi-scientific terms as the product of genetic forces or the social environment. Mercy Among the Children is quite typical of naturalism in its focus on crime and lives destroyed by poverty, as well as its awareness of how the behaviour of people like the Pits can be determined by their upbringing and environment. Since no one is strictly responsible for their actions, a wide sympathy and tolerance can be extended for events that are accidental, preordained, or unwilled. Take, for example, the following description of Cynthia Pit plotting to trap Rudy Bellanger with her pregnancy:

Now that Rudy was vulnerable and in too deep to find an avenue to escape she allowed him none. None of this was done with conscious malice. It simply happened, suddenly – like her pregnancy. She would see an opening and dive in. There always came a moment when she thought it better not to continue, but then her eyes would burn like brilliant dark stars, her beauty would turn suddenly vulgar and wanton, and she would tell people to dare her.

There is plenty here to quibble with – like how something can simply happen unconsciously and yet also be the result of seeing an opening and diving in – but we understand where Richards is coming from. We mustn’t be too quick to judge Cynthia; it’s in her nature.

Fair enough. Sympathy and tolerance are usually considered to be cardinal virtues for a novelist. But what I think Richards really wants to write are passages like this:

When a child he had prayed to be safe, to be happy, to be loved. And now too late he realized that he had been given what he prayed for. By the time he was twenty-one he had been safe and happy and loved. But it wasn’t enough for him. And did he give anything in return? No. He had not been kind to Elly because of conceit and lust. He had not been good to Gladys because of greed. And he had not loved because of fear.

Now that is the real Richards talking: A preacher who doesn’t at all mind judging the thoughts and actions of others. No shilly-shally about pregnancies that “simply happen” – we’re talking about lust and greed and fear.

There are real faults with the book. The sentimentality is as pronounced as it is in MacLeod, and sinks perilously close to bathos with the death of Percy Henderson. (I realize the scene’s function, but did we really need the image of his “blond hair wisped in the wind,” his eyes “filled with tears,” and the old dog licking his face?) But as with MacLeod, the intensity of feeling and vision more than compensate. There is a fullness in the work of both these writers, some heartfelt mine of life, that makes the work of most other contemporary novelists seem lightweight in comparison.

We could use more of their kind.