Monthly Archives: July 2022

An apology imagined

Book cover for The Apology by Eve Ensler with the back of an envelope in the background

The Apology by Eve Ensler

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

In The Apology, Eve Ensler imagines the apology that never came from her father for all the physical and psychological abuse he subjected her to. He recounts how he began to sexually abuse her when she was five, and from there proceeded to beat her, humiliate her, and whittle away at her confidence in every way he could think of.

Ensler’s inventive approach is to imagine her father, after 31 years floating and spinning in an empty void, a kind of purgatory, reviewing what he did to her to her and trying to explain it. This approach enables Ensler to work intellectually through what he did and to fantasize that he comes to regret it. It’s a brave book, but it’s a difficult, brutal read, and I’m not sure what a third party gets out of this other than to really, really hate this guy.

As a reading experience, The Apology leaves you with more anger than insight. While Ensler hints at how she built herself back up to become successful, the conceit of the narrative doesn’t allow her to depict it with any detail. I’m not sure that we get any true insights into why her father did what he did. All she can do is guess at what he might have thought and said had he been forced to face his actions. Unexplored is what in the world the mother was thinking and doing through all this. Surely she recognized what her husband was doing. And her older brothers: how did they process all this? The father’s actions did not happen in a void. These family complexities would have been fascinating, albeit probably even more disturbing, to explore more fully.

As is stands, the book is raw and unsettling, and makes for harrowing reading. But as cathartic and necessary this apology must have been for Ensler to write, in the end it is her own reckoning with his abuse, not his. This extremely personal book is surely essential reading for fans of Ensler, but it’s a very tough read.

On knowing and not knowing

Cover of The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel showing a large hotel reflected in water

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I try to avoid reading about the plot of a novel in advance, as I like to encounter books on their terms. Admittedly, if I had known how central a Ponzi scheme modeled on Bernie Madoff’s was to The Glass Hotel, I might never have started it. But as in Station Eleven, another excellent book by Emily St. John Mandel, the plot here isn’t so much the point as the means to gain insight into what makes people tick. And as in that earlier novel. Mandel does a marvelous job.

Using an omniscient point of view, Mandel hops masterfully between characters with a sureness that calls to mind Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit from the Goon Squad but with less self-conscious showiness. Mandel uses broad brush strokes to skillfully paint characters and scenes and keep the plot moving steadily. Like a Charles Dickens novel, vividly-drawn characters come in and out of the story, reappearing in unexpected ways. But Mandel’s understanding of people and empathy for her characters is more akin to Dickens’ contemporary, the great Elizabeth Gaskell.

The fairly short length and breezy writing style of The Glass Hotel mask a challenging complexity. Mandel doesn’t hit you over the head with a straightforward, central message. Rather, she lays out the thoughts and behaviors of her characters, depicting the consequences without being judgmental. Many of the characters are unable to come to terms with either their own actions or what is happening to them. At one point, in explaining what he did, one says “It’s possible to both know and not know something.” The statement makes no sense to others, yet seems to be the overarching theme of the novel.

This isn’t to say that it’s not clear what’s right or wrong. The question is, how can people who essentially see themselves as good people nevertheless do such bad things? And how do they live with themselves afterwards? This seems a particularly cogent question for our times.

If there’s one fault I would cite with this book, it’s that, without giving too much away, the guilt that people feel for their actions are repeatedly manifested with a mechanism that I thought came across as too facile for this rich and thoughtful a novel. There are many other themes at play here, though: our trust and dependence on others, the corruptive force of money and, much as in Station Eleven, finding meaning in life.

Without revealing any spoilers, I’m still digesting some things about the book, particularly why it’s structured like it is and the meaning of the scenes that brackets the novel. Likewise, the glass hotel on a remote Canadian peninsula, which is central to many of the characters’ stories, isn’t a neat metaphor as you might expect. It represents different things to different characters: a temporary escape, an investment opportunity, a safe place from a hostile world. I’m still thinking about all this, which is what a great novel is supposed to do.

Sometimes gorgeous

Book cover for On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is written as a letter from Little Dog to his mother. The author, Ocean Vuong, is a celebrated poet, and his first novel is a fragmentary narrative that centers around Little Dog, now in his late twenties, coming to terms with who he is and how he was raised. The story hops around in time and space, sampling artfully from Little Dog’s memories as well as the lore passed down to him through his mother and grandmother.

The broader story underlying this narrative is an essential one. It’s about the human costs of inequity, about human hardship, trauma, and survival. Vuong looks unflinchingly at American society, including its racism, bullying, and widespread drug addiction. That said, despite much excellent writing, it somehow didn’t quite work for me as a novel. The disjointed nature of the narrative comes naturally in the context of someone writing a long letter about his memories. But Vuong announces both the novel’s aggressive rawness and forcefully digressive style early on as it diverts into a fairly detailed sequence about men eating a live monkey’s brain. The scene struck me as unnecessarily graphic at first. I came to understand that this vividness is part of the point. However, I felt that the novel missed out on a human element in its relentless pursuit of the ugly in order to make an almost academic conclusion about finding beauty in life’s experiences.

Vuong often dances around thoughts and characters rather than delving into them. There are many philosophical-sounding statements, but I thought a good number of them more vague than insightful. Just flipping through the pages for one right now, I find, “They say nothing lasts forever but they’re just scared it will last longer than they can love it.” I wish Vuong had given us a better sense of the characters so that we could understand more through them and not have things summed up for us in these forced statements. I never really did get a sense, for example, of who Little Dog’s love interest was as a person; he seemed more of a movie type. That may have been intentional, to make him come across as a standoffish, remote person despite their intimacy, but I felt there was just a gap there.

At the end of part two, about two-thirds of the way through the book, Vuong breaks the prose apart and spools together many of the scenes and ideas at work into a powerful 8-page sequence in poetic form. While you might argue that this reflects his storytelling style in the novel as a whole, it made me wish that the rest of the novel had been told in a similar manner. By trying to wedge these instincts into the structure of a novel, however disjointed it is, Vuong missed out on conveying some of the life that I think he was trying to represent. The pacing and character development were slightly labored, and I kept feeling the book was stalling. I think it would have worked beautifully if it was more even experimental. Given the platform Vuong has from his poetry, perhaps he could have gotten away with this.

All in all, although I couldn’t really recommend this novel, I’d certainly be interested in future prose by Vuong–and I definitely intend to read more of his poetry.