So far this year I have read two prize-winning ‘novels’ – The Sell Out by Paul Beatty (Man Booker) and The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Pulitzer).
Both have been widely praised for their craft and cleverness. Both left me wondering what happened to good old-fashioned storytelling. These are driven by themes rather than plots, each with an unnamed narrator respectively reflecting upon racism in America and perceptions of the Vietnam war.
The weightiness and worthiness of the topics is beyond doubt but masked by a knowing irony; neither author has any interest in a conventional narrative with a start-middle & end.
Far be it from me to knock the post-modernist slant of these works. As a worshipper of David Foster Wallace, I am fully aware that modern truths cannot always be told in a linear style but at the same time I find myself increasingly missing characters and plots.
I have come to realize just how many classics of English literature I know but have never read; for example Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe. While re-reading Infinite Jest I now intend to plug these gaps. Pre-modernism here I come.
THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Corsair, 2015)
Vietnam was a war that was technically won by the Viet Cong but which American are reluctant to concede to having lost. The unnamed Vietnamese Army Captain narrating this tale has sympathies with both sides but this only serves to place him between a rock and a hard place.
As a reluctant revolutionary he pleads guilty to the charge of being westernized, admitting: “If longing for riches made me a Occidentalist, I confess to it”. As a uncomitted communist he sees no attraction in the authentic “rustic realities” of village life in Saigon.
While not being blind to the faults of the US, he recognizes that there is more freedom of speech than in his homeland. This, together with air conditioning, an efficient traffic system and the modernist novel are among the other things that he admires. On the down side, he reviles the American knack for putting a positive spin on defeat and for hyping up the benefits of individualism. Continue reading
THE GREENLANDERS by Jane Smiley (Anchor Books, 2005)
Is life too short for big books?
When it comes to novels like Infinite Jest or Middlemarch, I’d say not.
David Foster Wallace was so overflowing with ideas that he needed the space to expand his thoughts while George Eliot used a larger palette to create a world with a world.
Yet, there seems to be a trend (or requirement) for writing 500 or more pages as a demonstration of a writer’s prowess.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s sprawling ‘Here I Am’ is one recent example of a novel that would have greatly benefited from trimming by at least 200 pages.
Jane Smiley’s epic Norse saga is another. Continue reading
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS directed by Tom Ford (USA, 2016)
“All the animals come out at night” – Travis Bickle – Taxi Driver (1976)
“Now it’s dark” – Frank Booth – Blue Velvet (1986)
Inspiring comparisons with the finest works of Martin Scorsese and David Lynch is a sign of how impressed I am by this magnificent movie.
Tom Ford’s equally fine debut A Single Man from 2009 can no longer be dismissed as a one-off.
Well-established as a hugely successful fashion designer, Ford does not need further acclaim or money. Wealth does not guarantee creative inspiration but it does buy a certain freedom. Perhaps this is how he has been able to be so uncompromising and daring in his adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan. Continue reading