The underbelly of industrialism

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up Maggie: A Girl of the Streets largely because of Paul Auster, who was doing the rounds singing the virtues of Stephen Crane when Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane was published. I’d read The Red Badge of Courage many years ago and enjoyed it. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets was Crane’s first novel (or novella), published in 1893. It’s about the poor working class in the Bowery in New York City.

You know that Maggie has little chance from the start. If that’s not clear from the title, it is from Crane’s sardonic tone about the hopeless situation Maggie has been born into, in an impoverished neighborhood with violent parents who have serious alcohol problems. No one seems to care for Maggie or help her in any way as her hopes for a better life fall apart.

At the time it was published, this book’s focus on the underbelly of industrialism must have been shocking. However, reading it from a modern perspective, what stands out as a narrative is what’s missing: Maggie. The title character amounts to little more than a receptacle for the cruelty and negligence of others. Much of the drama in her life isn’t depicted in any detail or even at all, only spoken about, including what ultimately happens to Maggie. This could be partly because of the times; publishing a book that depicted Maggie’s sordid slide from her perspective would have been very difficult, if not impossible. The resulting narrative style is innovative, circling around Maggie and her misfortunes to focus your attention on the callousness of all those who judge Maggie but repeatedly fail to help her. Their attitude reflects the general approach of a society high on progress, unconcerned with the suffering of those who were being harmed by the massive social upheavals going on.

That said, it’s not a particularly rewarding book to read from a modern perspective. It’s hard to feel much for Maggie, since you don’t really know and understand her, as Crane keeps mostly out of her thoughts beyond those meant to make you pity her. The following century of American literature brought plenty of biting social realism that surpasses this book in both insight and emotion. But someone had to do it first, and you can certainly admire Crane’s courage in centering a story around such a character when most of society at the time just wanted to forget about people like Maggie.

The dead and the living

The Dead and the Living by Sharon Olds

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sharon Olds‘s The Dead and the Living is an excellent collection of poems. After a brief section called “Public,” which deals with outside events, its focus turns to the personal, from traumas inflicted during upbringing to often unsettling musings about her children. Olds’s style is direct and accessible, but these free verse poems are thoughtful and beautifully crafted, dealing with the complicated emotions that can arise from abuse, neglect, and just plain living. The consistency in quality is remarkable. Standouts for me included “My Father Snoring,” which manages to be both threatening and empathetic, the wistful “35/10” about youth and aging, and the wonderful homage “The Elder Sister,” which opens:

When I look at my elder sister now
I think how she had to go first, down through the
birth canal, to force her way
head-first through the tiny channel,
the pressure of Mother’s muscles on her brain,
the tight walls scraping her skin.
Her face is still narrow from it…

Making sense of a strange world

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Piranesi is the kind of book I usually love. The main character lives in a world that makes no sense, a world of endless halls and statues, with tides coming in from different directions and the only reference to a broader world in the artwork itself. The best way to describe the book would be as a cross between Flowers for Algernon and The Woman in the Dunes.

Clearly, something is very off here. The mystery of what this world is keeps you reading and, without giving any spoilers, the explanation is a fascinating and clever idea. But while Susanna Clarke has crafted an original fictional world, I was disappointed with the frankly silly action and resolution. It causes this thoughtful book to feel more like a straightforward genre work, which it’s really not. Maybe if this hadn’t fallen into some genre conventions, it wouldn’t have found the audience it has, so I can’t fault them for making what might have been a wise practical choice. Still, I would have enjoyed the book a lot more had the action resolved in a way that was more consistent with the tone that Clarke had established. It also felt a bit bloated overall, as if an excellent novella had been given some extra padding.

That said, the ending was quite sweet. This was one of those novels that can get you looking at the world in a new way, and I expect many, particularly young adult readers, would absolutely love it.

I’m thinking of what the heck just happened

Cover of I'm thinking of ending things

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is one of those books that plays with your perception of reality and keeps you unsettled throughout, and Iain Reid does a brilliant job. In one sense, it’s a meditation on the themes of memory, perception, and our sense of reality, as well as on loneliness and our need for others. But the setup is so brilliant, and Reid’s writing so crisp and efficient, it reads like a taut thriller.

The book starts with the the title, the thought of an unnamed narrator who admits to herself as she’s traveling with her boyfriend, Jake, to meet his parents for the first time that their relationship isn’t going to last. The brief first chapter ends with the thought, “Maybe I should have known how it was going to end for us. Maybe the end was written right from the beginning.” Like much of the long conversation in the car on the way to his family’s remote farmhouse, this is a hint to what’s actually going on in the book.

There’s a conversation later on that, to me, seems key to understanding what Reid is trying to do. Jake is talking about why examples are used in philosophy, “how most understanding and truth combines certainty and rational deduction, but also abstraction.” He explains, “We don’t just understand or recognize significance and validity through experience. We accept, reject, and discern through symbols. These are as important to our understanding of life, our understanding of existence and what has value, what’s worthwhile, as math and science.” This is both an argument for the importance of fiction and a description of his approach as a novelist.

Although I found the end somewhat simple and disappointing, I enjoyed this book immensely. Interspersed throughout the narrative is a conversation between two unnamed people about something horrible that has happened. Without revealing spoilers, what actually happened isn’t absolutely clear by the end. In fact, what the very narrative you’ve been reading is isn’t certain either. There’s a pat explanation provided, but it’s not fully satisfying. On the other hand, that’s all in keeping with Reid’s musings on thoughts, memories, and reality.

All in all, this was a fun and very thought-provoking read. Note that Charlie Kaufman made a movie version of the novel. The first two-thirds of it is wonderful, brilliantly capturing the tension and ideas of the book. Unfortunately, the approach Kaufman takes in the third act is farcical, and it completely falls apart. To be fair, the last act is probably unfilmable, and he did take a creative approach, but it’s pretty terrible–one of the worst endings spoiling a great movie that I’ve ever seen.

A life without choice

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Seven Years Concealed is the first book I’ve read about slavery that was written by someone who actually was a slave. While fiction like Kindred definitely packs a wallop, I found it particularly unsettling to read a firsthand account of slavery that I knew was true. Harriet Jacobs, who wrote as Linda Brent to protect herself and others, tells her story in a direct, matter-of-fact manner that’s disarming. It’s as if you’re sitting in the room with her and listening to her harrowing recollections.

Harriet was never beaten, but her horrific stories belie the outrageous myth of the well-treated slave that some people still bring up. While she may have been physically better off than the plantation slaves, once she falls into the hands of a doctor who lusts for her, the psychological pressure on this poor, powerless young woman becomes stifling. Although she is his property, Harriet will do anything to elude the doctor’s lechery and the revenge of his jealous wife, including seven years in a cramped, oppressive hiding place that leaves her permanently impaired.

After she escaped, Harriet Jacobs became involved in the abolitionist movement, and in her narrative she deftly uses her experiences and observations to highlight political and societal issues beyond the experience of slavery, including the hypocrisy of many Northerners and the evils of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northern states to capture and return escaped slaves. Hers is a perspective into U.S. history that everyone should read.

Half a farce

Cover of Our Country Friend by Gary Shteyngart showing a car driving on a country road toward a giant wine glass

Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

I’d been looking forward to reading Our Country Friends for a while. I’d heard a fascinating interview with Gary Shteyngart and read all the great reviews about this, one of the first novels about the pandemic. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to my expectations.

Alexander Senderovsky, a writer originally from Russia, has established a “colony” in the Hudson Valley, with a main house and a series of bungalows, although he can barely afford to maintain them. As the pandemic begins, he invites friends and colleagues to come out to the estate to ride out what they assume will be a short wave before returning to life in New York City. This novel could have gone two ways from here: It could have been a serious novel addressing the societal ills that led us, despite being the best prepared country in the world to deal with a pandemic, to respond so poorly that we lost more people per capita to the virus than almost any other developed country. Or it could have been a satire, a country farce about wealthy, out of touch elites on the order of a P.G. Wodehouse novel. It tries to be both, but neither is fully successful.

On the serious side, most of the characters in the novel are either immigrants and/or minorities, and the novel touches on their difficult experiences fitting into American society. The anger and hatred of many Americans toward people they see as different is a constant threat in the novel. Money, fame, and the effects of our media environment are also touched upon. But none of these things are addressed in a particularly thoughtful or satisfying way. The fact that the novel was set up as a farce tends to undercut any serious intent. Characters are there to make sure that certain points are to be made and that the mechanisms of the plot are served, moved around like pieces on a board and not particularly believable as people. Although we get glimpses into their backgrounds, these serve more as superficial markers for what kind of people we’re supposed to see them as than aspects of fleshed-out characters that seem real. One of the characters is even named Dee Cameron (get it? as in The Decameron).

Some of the plot mechanisms also seemed more suited for a farce. For example, two characters test out an app created by another that makes people fall in love when they take a photo together. That absurd event powers much of the action. People hook up and change partners, and spend much of their time consuming costly food and drink and expounding on things with more authority than knowledge. They do absolutely horrible things to each other with little consequence. But despite some wicked authorial comments about people’s foibles, none of it came across as really funny to me.

The biggest problem I had reading this, though, was an extended sequence in which one character moved around in their memories, drastically bogging down the last act for pages. It read very clumsily, like a TV show trying to fill some time with a cheesy dream sequence.

All that said, the book does move along fairly quickly, and you want to know what happens at the end even if you don’t particularly care about any of the characters all that much. Shteyngart also throws out so many ideas about the current state of our society, it does get you thinking about them. But in the end, the biggest thing I thought about was how this could have been a much better book if it wasn’t such a confused fusion of forms.

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.