party cat

(mostly just furies)

I borrowed the audiobook of Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff because I dimly remember it showing up on lists of last year's best books and figured I would give it a shot. A quarter of the way in I am nothing but embarrassed for the author, who has tried to paint an intricate portrait of a complicated marriage and instead wrote a drudging story of two hateful humans in a grating voice. Every few minutes I find something new to roll my eyes at, and I often find myself desperately hoping that the whole thing is a big joke, for Groff's own sake. Giving up on a book is just not in my nature, but I might just have to let this one go.
Fates and Furies is the story of Lotto (somehow the best nickname for Lancelot this book could come up with) and Mathilde, a beautiful couple who meet in college and get married two weeks later. Their impulsive marriage is actually one of the least convoluted elements in a story composed of one improbable scenario after another. Groff is clearly a romantic, taking cues from better writers who manage to smudge the boundaries between possible and impossible. Her way of going about this is to pile on the sensory details in an effort to evoke some feeling of lavish excess. But Lauren Groff is no Donna Tartt, and her prose comes across as overstuffed rather than lush. Everything seems to be amplified one notch too high, leaping over "fantastical" and instead landing on "trite, unbelievable and embarrassing." Her failure to incorporate a sense of blend fantastical elements into an obnoxious story about selfish and sex-obsessed hipsters. These characters seem to do nothing but languish about and sleep with each other And I'm not saying this as a prude -- I mention Tartt as an example of a writer who succeeds in writing young, wealthy, sensual and morally deplorable characters with aplomb. When Tartt writes about sex and desire it contributes to the story, when Groff does it it feels skeevy and unnecessary. She is especially cruel when describing women, subjecting them to both the ridicule and objectification I would expect from a particularly misogynistic frat boy.
I could complain on and on -- Lotto is a wretched person whose faults we are supposed to find charming, a lot of horribly sexist language goes uncriticized -- but probably the most succinct way of expressing my annoyance with this book is sharing one of the most pointlessly stupid things about this. Lotto and his sister call their mother "muvva," for no discernable reason. "Muvva." Blech.
party cat

I am more than a story

Foe by J. M. Coetzee is the twenty-third book I read this year. It is the first book I read this year without feeling better in some way for having read it.

It is not that I actively disliked Foe. There were phrases and aspects of it that I really did like. Coetzee is obviously a gifted writer and he is taking on a topic here that I care about deeply. The telling and retelling of stories is something that fascinates me like little else: who gets to tell a story? How many of us get to choose how our story gets told, how many of us author our own narrative? What does a story tell us, really?

At first I thought my ignorance of the source material (this novel is an alternate take on what some would call the first novel, Robinson Crusoe) was what was leaving me cold, but familiarity with the original is not what is important here. The key to understanding this book is a recognition of what Coetzee is trying to do, namely destabilize an entrenched narrative through a reframing of its subject. Susan Barton, the woman who controls the narrative of Foe shows us the striking relationship between language and power. As she negotiates a struggle to have a voice in the way her story is told, Friday appears as a representative of this relationship as a black man robbed of the power of speech. He is unable to control his own narrative because his voice holds no value -- the commentary here is the sharpest stuff in the novel, and where Coetzee really shone, for me.

The more I think about it, the more I realize there is to say about the meta-levels of storytelling folded in here. Some really interesting statements about the power of storytelling and who, systematically, holds that power are demonstrated through the way different narrators hone in on different parts of Susan's story. So why was I so unimpressed by the layers offered by this book? It's another layer of narrative complication, I think: Coetzee makes a noble effort, but his perspective is that of a white man, and reading the words of a white man who is walking the earth at the same time as me treat a black character so horrifically left a bad taste in my mouth. Yes, he is trying to point out the abuse that current discourse allows for, but he is using that abusive system to do so. I'm not here for that.

All said and done, I couldn't in good conscience recommend Foe to anyone else, because I simply didn't enjoy it. There are other transformative and subversive texts out there, and I intend to seek them out. Surely it's possible to reclaim a colonialist narrative without mimicking the horrid colonialist sentiment within.
party cat

tending to God

I've been reading a lot, lately. Getting acquainted with works I have been meaning to read for years. Today, under an overcast sky, I finished The Color Purple by Alice Walker. It is always so keenly satisfying to cross something off your list. It is even more satisfying when the book strikes a powerful cord within you, the way this one did with me.

I came to this book conditioned to love it. Informed with trusted opinions I knew I was opening a very important work and I best love it. And love it I did, but not out of coercion. It took me in with its atemporality. I came in hoping to be impressed and I came away loving the text in unexpected manners. I loved the significance of small things in this novel. I loved the way God was conjured out of the wondrous bits found in everyday existence -- in smiles, in sunshine, in the color purple. I loved how lives were built around these small things, how survival was possible even in the face of unimaginable cruelty. How a person can construct holiness within themselves out of the beauty they find all around them. How a communion of this godliness makes family into something sacred.
These minute miricles are the material Alice Walker chooses to drive her story forward. Not a strict timeline, not an adherence to the passing of seasons. No dates appear in this book because the passage of time is something harder to grasp than a simplistic chronology would imply. The way Celie and Shug and their congregation grow and change is a product of their own experiences and not a product of the passing years. Time is nothing compared to feeling.
God is present throughout this novel, in Celie's soul and in the songs surrounding her. God is never manifested more miraculously than in the final pages, where family unites. Finally, Nettie's God and Celie's God are able to congregate and be made whole. A purple palate smiles on the sisters' sacred reunion.

The Color Purple is the twenty-second book I have read this year. I can tell it will stay with me for a long time -- already, it may have its place in my own conception of God and Grace..