The Circle (Eggers)

Though I was no fan of his first effort – which I affectionately call a Backbreaking Work of Staggering Self-Indulgence – I’ve grown increasingly impressed with Eggers’ work. What is the What is outstanding. Zeitoun is a masterpiece. (Any so-called curricular decision to stop teaching the book because of the protagonist’s subsequent behavior are ludicrous. Are we only to teach books about completely good people? Who gets to decide that standard? And the book itself is like a time capsule. Whatever came later, it captures a moment in time so perfectly that it should endure. But I digress.) I also like Eggers’ work with McSweeney’s (http://www.mcsweeneys.net/)  and his 826 centers (http://826national.org/). When I read the excerpt of The Circle in the New Yorker, I was disappointed to find he’d join the ranks of the dystopian writers (Chang-Rae Lee’s decision was equally disappointing). Nevertheless, I read the excerpt and thought, okay, I’ve got this. There was, I thought, no need to read any more.

But I allowed myself to be persuaded by a friend who spoke of it with such enthusiasm. And I wish I hadn’t. Normally, when we say a performance seems effortless, it’s a  compliment. An actor, for example, so inhabits a role that we forget s/he’s working. At first, I thought The Circle was effort-less. Then I realized I was wrong; it’s just lazy.

Eggers, in taking shots at Zuckerberg et al (could there be an easier target?), forgot he was writing a novel. We get no real before picture of the protagonist, so her transformation is uninteresting. She becomes one-dimensional but who cares? She’s always been one-dimensional. Every single character, every single moment is superficial. Eggers was so intent on satire that he forgot, in almost 500 pages, that he was writing a story.  He does not even bother to try to make us care. Mae’s parents? Cardboard. Her former artist friend? Obvious. (And an artist as a rebel? Really, Dave?) Even the sex scenes are moments of Symbolism 101. There are, maybe, 3 sentences that I admired. Eggers does not just foreshadow, he advertises in neon, and he takes too damn long to do it. Where have all of the editors gone?

And the ending, which I won’t spoil (not that it’ll surprise you a bit if you manage to make it that far), aims for shocking, but lands with a resounding thud. You can’t be surprised by or even care about decisions made by characters who have the substance of balsa wood. Eggers even has to resort to the over-expository dialogue now even mocked in superhero movies to try to redeem this mess.

Eggers so clearly wants everyone to draw connections between his novel and the headlines in order to spook us into some kind of recognition, a recognition that only the blind and stupid haven’t already seen. (If you don’t know the name Edward Snowden, for example, then go ahead, read this book.)

Arthur Miller wrote: “Attention must be paid.” And he’s right. Not to this book, though. It raises nothing new, and is so heavy-handed that I came away feeling not inspired, but insulted. Oh boy, privacy is under attack. And sometimes we’re willing participants in its destruction. This is news?

 

 

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Ferrante)

Lina and Elena are older now, and choices have consequences both in personal and political situations. They are growing up, and though they both find their ways to try to escape – Naples, relationships, family, etc. – both are repeatedly drawn back in. There is no leaving.

Ferrante’s surgical prose (thanks to Ann Goldstein’s exquisite translation) remains compelling here as Lina finds her way into the political turmoil of her time, and Elena finds herself stuck in several unanticipated ways. And searching in other ways. Her exploration of the political world of women is energizing. I want to read the book she finishes in this book.

And the web of their original neighborhood ensnares them both. Ferrante’s ability to create such a wide range of dynamic characters – even the children are richly developed – is remarkable. In terms of plot, the major events in the world surrounding Ferrante’s characters are always present, but never consuming. The events intersect with and influence Ferrante’s cast, but they never take center stage.

I have, well, watched these people grow up and older. There is one more book to go. I am eager to get to it, but will force myself to wait. After all, it’s the last.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (Alexievich, translated by Gessen)

When the announcement was made that Svetlana Alexievich had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for her journalism, I had two questions. Who is Svetlana Alexievich? And what exactly is the definition of literature?

When I saw several of her books for sale at the outstanding Loganberry Books, I chose this one because I remember where I was when I heard about the disaster (Alexievich wants no part of the word ‘accident’) and I remember – I am ashamed to say – my adolescent annoyance that such a tragedy could happen anywhere near my birthday.

I have since read more about Alexievich. Though I am no clearer on a definition of literature, I will say she manages to get people to talk and to talk quite eloquently. Someone reporting on seeing a contaminated woman breastfeed her baby calls her The Chernobyl Madonna. It takes your breath away. So where is the creativity here? In the ambition? In the design? In the editing? In the great section titles (‘Monologue about how We Can’t Live Without Chekhov and Tolstoy’)? All of those?

Two parts of that sample are title are telling. ‘We’ – there is much commentary, some triumphant, some mocking about the collective character of the Russians, then, before then, and now.

The other is ‘Monologue.’ Perhaps it’s because I read that Alexievich likes theatrical adaptations of her work that I found many of these monologues very easy to envision on stage. (I even have a thought or two about trying my hand at it.)

This is a stunning book. A behind-the-scenes look at what happened then and the people it happened to and, in this age of minimal historical memory, what’s still happening now. Chernobyl hasn’t gone away. Alexievich concludes her epilogue by saying that she “felt like [she] was writing for the future.” She was; I’m grateful.

Paradise (Morrison)

I am certain that I have little new to say about Morrison’s writing. When it’s good, it’s very good. When it’s not very good, it’s breathtakingly brilliant. The story, framed by an act of so many kinds of violence, is compelling, if familiar. An all-black town. A seeming utopia. (No one dies.) One generation becomes the next and the oven and its much debated inscription evolve. Things, quite simply, change. And when things change, someone / something must be to blame.

Morrison establishes her usual array of dichotomies. The founders and the followers. The dark-skinned blacks and the light-skinned ones. The town and its outskirts. Paradise and reality. Heaven and earth. And she has the majesty to pull this all off with a book that begins, “They shoot the white girl first” and only gets better.

To be fair, I probably couldn’t pass a test on this novel right now. With Morrison, I always find I am entering into a story in the middle, and that there are bits and pieces I’m expected to know. But I’m okay with that. The book, both in its broad strokes and its finer details, will resonate with me for a long time.

Senegal Taxi (Herrera)

Since I had never heard of Herrera when he was name US Poet Laureate, I was curious to pick up the first collection I found. This one, for the most part, eluded me. It is an attempt (I think) to use many voices (focusing on the voices of children)  to explore the violence in the  world’s newest country – South Sudan. Some poems are obscure. The television interview sequence is clumsy. Others pieces have moments that sour. I came away most interested in the art of mud drawings.

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/juan-felipe-herrera