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 ORPHAN MASTER’S SON by Adam Johnson (First published by Random House, 2012)
This is the story of a survivor who has nothing to live for.
Pak Jun Do is a North Korean John Doe and by all accounts a model citizen of a shitty nation.
Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel illustrates that when living within ideological systems it is too easy to get stuck between a rock and a hard place. Hegemony functions to make any way of life appear to be ‘normal’ and/or beyond reproach.
Johnson asks plenty of loaded questions such as to whether it is nobler to be devoted to the ‘dear leader’ (Kim Jon II) of North Korea than to cling to an often elusive American dream. No middle way is offered. Continue reading
ALL THE LIGHT YOU CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr (Fourth Estate, 2014)
"Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever"
This engrossing novel follows the parallel lives of a young German boy (Werner Pffnig) and a young French girl (Marie Laure) caught up in the mayhem and confusion of the second world war.
The novel’s year zero is 1944 and the complex yet brilliant plotted story shifts back and forward in time.
Short chapters give the urgency of a thriller yet patiently piece together the threads that briefly and movingly bring these two blighted lives together.
Doerr unsentimentally shows us how ordinary lives are corrupted by the horror of war.
One of the real strengths of the novel is that our sympathies lie with both of the main characters even though conventionally speaking they are mortal enemies and Werner is alined with the morally depraved Hitler youth. Continue reading
THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown, 2013)
After her two previous bestsellers, Donna Tartt is in the enviable position of being able to call all the shots with any publisher.
She is like an esteemed movie director who knows her work is never going to be subjected to unwanted cuts.
Moreover, she has established herself a writer who works slowly and meticulously, preferring quality to quantity.
A book every decade is her current rate of production and she expresses no desire to change this. She says she’ll be content if her life work consists of five big novels.
Constant rewriting and self editing are among the reasons why she is not more prolific. In a recent BBC interview, Tartt describes how she decided to scrub 8 months work after realising she had taken the plot down a wrong track.
You can well imagine why, after labouring for so long, she would resist any further editing suggestions. However, I can’t help feeling that this degree of total control is a double-edged sword. The Goldfinch is a novel that cries out for some bold editing and in my view it is at least 200 pages too long. Continue reading