Incest by Christine Angot

Paperback
Expected publication: November 7th 2017 by Archipelago Books (first published November 18th 1999)

A daring novel that made Christine Angot one of the most controversial figures in contemporary France recounts the narrator’s incestuous relationship with her father. Tess Lewis’s forceful translation brings into English this audacious novel of taboo.

The narrator is falling out from a torrential relationship with another woman. Delirious with love and yearning, her thoughts grow increasingly cyclical and wild, until exposing the trauma lying behind her pain. With the intimacy offered by a confession, the narrator embarks on a psychoanalysis of herself, giving the reader entry into her tangled experiences with homosexuality, paranoia, and, at the core of it all, incest. In a masterful translation from the French by Tess Lewis, Christine Angot’s Incest audaciously confronts its readers with one of our greatest taboos.

JEEZ – W.T.F. did I just read???

The novel closes powerfully–I will say that. Over and over again, the narrator compares herself to a dog. She feels so ashamed of her actions–that she may have even thought she liked her actions at the time, and even now in retrospect–that she compares herself to a dog as someone she loves leaves her:

“It wasn’t his brains I was sucking, do you realize, I could have had very handsome men, I could have loved Nadine’s movies, I could have spent Christmas Eve with you. Either had very handsome men or been with you. But no, you see, Marie Christine. You’re leaving tonight, we canceled the tickets to Rome. You’re going to be with your family, I’m weeping like the dog I am, you don’t celebrate Christmas with your dog. Dogs are stupid, you can get them to suck on a plastic bone, and they’re stupid, dogs believe you. They don’t even notice what they’re sucking on. It’s horrible being a dog.”

There were moments when I thought, “Whew! Might not make it through this one! This stream of consciousness makes me want to slap her and tell her, ‘Sit down and be quiet!'”

This novel was characterized not only by the graphic nature of the relationships described here (incestuous fallacio inside of a church confessional anyone??) but by the chaotic stream of consciousness Angot used to give us her story. Honestly, I both expect and respect that this stream of consciousness is probably what it REALLY sounds like in our heads when we are distressed like this–so unnerved that we feel we’re really bursting out of our heads, seams popping us undone like a shoe two sizes too small. So, Christine Angot shows IMMENSE talent in being able to convey that so effectively. I will give her that. I decided to push through a bit longer and there were moments of gleaming, shining narration that took my breath away–whether for good or bad reasons you can be the judge, but I’d argue that the ability to do so at all can only be all good, no matter the road we took to get there.

“Drinking, to get control, I had to call her two hundred times in those anxious days. It’s normal. And at night. You stop, that’s it. It happened yesterday. I stopped it all. I don’t call anymore, I don’t love her anymore…But the last forty-eight hours, I spent them crying, telephoning, running around, delivering letters, running to get a taxi, the taxi wasn’t going fast enough. I stopped, but not on my own: she said stop. She couldn’t take it anymore either. I begged her for one last weekend. To do the thing I never do, to lick, I can say it, I hoped to be revolted by it for good.”

For me, it wasn’t that the subject matter here bothered me–I have a strong stomach for the taboo and love reads that push all of my limits. It was the author’s method a stream of consciousness that at times maddened me (fitting, perhaps) and at times impressed me. I want to experience the inner thoughts of a manic, yes–show me that!–but I do not want to live inside of those thoughts at that high a frequency of mental vibration for an entire 200 pages. Ultimately, I was too compelled to skim through the read because of this manic narrator’s voice, and for that I give the 2*, though there were definitely some shining moments to be found within these pages.

I could say, “Full review to come” but I think that’s probably enough for now, don’t you? Not even sure how to rate this one, but I’m leaning toward 2* at the moment. Will get my bearings and then possibly reconsider… 🙂

The cover art, though is absolutely exquisite. So simple and yet so beautiful, so telling.

**I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Archipelago Books, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Christine AngotFrench novelist and playwright, she is perhaps best known for her 1999 novel L’Inceste (Incest) which recounts an incestuous relationship with her father. It is a subject which appears in several of her previous books, but it is unclear whether these works are autofiction and the events described true. Angot herself describes her work – a metafiction on society’s fundamental prohibition of incest and her own writings on the subject – as a performative (cf Quitter la ville). Angot is also literary director for French publishers Stock.

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The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

Hardcover, 400 pages
Expected publication: September 5th 2017 by Random House

When powerful real-estate tycoon Nero Golden immigrates to the States under mysterious circumstances, he and his three adult children assume new identities, taking ‘Roman’ names, and move into a grand mansion in downtown Manhattan. Arriving shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama, he and his sons, each extraordinary in his own right, quickly establish themselves at the apex of New York society.

The story of the powerful Golden family is told from the point of view of their Manhattanite neighbour and confidant, René, an aspiring filmmaker who finds in the Goldens the perfect subject. René chronicles the undoing of the house of Golden: the high life of money, of art and fashion, a sibling quarrel, an unexpected metamorphosis, the arrival of a beautiful woman, betrayal and murder, and far away, in their abandoned homeland, some decent intelligence work.

Invoking literature, pop culture, and the cinema, Rushdie spins the story of the American zeitgeist over the last eight years, hitting every beat: the rise of the birther movement, the Tea Party, Gamergate and identity politics; the backlash against political correctness; the ascendency of the superhero movie, and, of course, the insurgence of a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain wearing make-up and with coloured hair.

In a new world order of alternative truths, Salman Rushdie has written the ultimate novel about identity, truth, terror and lies. A brilliant, heartbreaking realist novel that is not only uncannily prescient but shows one of the world’s greatest storytellers working at the height of his powers.

Salman Rushdie’s 13th novel, The Golden House, plays out as a Shakespearean drama re-imagined in the eyes of a postmodernist and set in the Obama era of ultra-riche Manhattan. (There, how’s that for an elevator pitch?) This novel is full of nostalgic references, ornate erudite descriptions and high-brow prose, as you would expect from the man who brought us Midnight’s Children and holds an esteemed Booker Prize. I was first introduced to Salman Rushdie by Hanif Kureishi, who wrote one of my favorite college reads, The Black Album, in response to the fatwah issued by Islamic fundamentalists intent on killing Salman Rushdie for writing his 4th novel, The Satanic Verses. So, you can imagine the anticipation I felt to finally meet this great novelist and essayist up close and in person for myself—or as up close and in person as one’s words on a page will allow us to get to the true author themselves.

And here you have it. Sit back and imagine this:

The Golden House trots along the Obama era years, from his inauguration on January 20, 2009, through the election that gave us our 45th president. This political period is the mirror against which these characters see their lives unfolding, crumbling and transforming. Nero Golden and his household of three sons, of which he is the god-like patriarch, are expatriates of an unnamed country (which is eventually named) after a terrorist tragedy takes the life of their matriarch and shady financial deals finish them off in their homeland, sending the family to New York to rebuild their lives with the help of their obscene and conspicuous wealth by way of the American Dream. They move into a mega-mansion in an affluent neighborhood in Manhattan, where all 22 homes of the community back into a luxurious garden oasis that the families all communally enjoy. It is in this near-utopian communal setting where lives begin to cross and our narrator, René, meets the leading family. We follow him on his journey to infiltrate, observe and ultimately document the Golden lives in a film he’s been longing to make but isn’t really sure of how to go about doing. Along the way, characters come and go. As the modern-day “Julio-Claudian” drama unfolds, death occurs. Birth occurs. Marriage occurs. The saga of their lives unfolds, shatters, melts down and repairs—never in that order.

If you’re looking for a single word to describe this novel, a good starting place would be dense though I cannot argue that it is unnecessarily so, and the read certainly wouldn’t have been the same without this aspect. Literary allusions—call me Ishmael— abound on every page here and, quite honestly, you might want to have a digital encyclopedia on hand for quick reference through some of these passages— Chinese hexagrams of divination, for example? But I loved that, reveled in it for the most part, in fact, because this enlightened display of narrative talent played with so many forms of storytelling, from conventional narrative formatting to scenes written as screenplays, from the use of quotation marks to the use of not-a-one, and back again. It was a journey, but at least it was a ride too, crossing the lines of contemporary fiction, post-modernism and metafiction.

Here you’ll find wry social commentary that crackles and pops with dry irony, heaped on in healthy doses so that no culture—past or present, Eastern or Western—is safe from the scrutinizing eye—though, with the backdrop of this novel being set specifically against the Obama era, much of the commentary hits hard on American culture, smashing up against it forcefully and knocking down our perception of it, knocking down the barriers around talking about it, from Black Lives Matter to the collapse of the housing market to transgender transformation and everywhere in between:

“Once upon a time…if a boy liked pink and dolls his parents would be afraid he was homosexual and try to interest him in boy stuff…they might have doubts about his orientation but it wouldn’t occur to them to question his gender. Now it seems you go to the other extreme. Instead of saying the kid’s a pansy you start trying to persuade him he’s a girl.”

“What is American culture?” This novel dares to seriously ask—often pokes fun at—and ultimately explores—no, turns inside out—this beloved cliché we and the world over cling to called the American Dream, from the viewpoint of the transplant, from the viewpoint of those ultimately in search of themselves in the whirlwind that is our lives in our culture today.

“…I could feel it, the anger of the unjustly dead, the young men shot for walking in a stairwell while black, the young child shot for playing with a plastic gun in a playground while black, all the daily black death of America, screaming out that they deserved to live, and I could feel, too, the fury of white America at having to put up with a black man in a white house, and the frothing hatred of the homophobes…the blue-collar anger of everyone who had been Fannie Mae’d and Freddie Mac’d by the housing calamity, all the discontent of a furiously divided country, everyone believing they were right…”

Rushdie’s insightful narrative is at times chilling it its acute accuracy about our cultural climate and our 45th president—“…the Joker shrieked…in that bubble…gun murderers were exercising their constitutional rights but the parents of murdered children were un-American…mass deportations would be a good thing; and women reporters would be seen to be unreliable because they had blood coming out of their whatevers…”— and made The Golden House a complete package, which managed to be both entertaining and at times mildly surreal, with the help of a wink toward a more avant-garde formatting technique and a nod toward the “magically real.”

I navigated this novel with the sense of one at their grandfather’s knee, he with brandy and cigar in hand, hearing a tale that was often fascinating in its baroqueness. The Golden House is chocked full of so many things we love in reads—solid plotting, whimsy and intellectual stimuli—which made the ornate density of this novel worth persevering through in the end—and that both stirred and excited my reader soul, like a hearty helping of literary gumbo you have to close your eyes and smile to enjoy, adding depth to the layers of the pages, of these words. And, that was easily enough for 4.5 stars. ****

**I received a copy of this novel from the publisher, Random House, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Salman RushdieSir Ahmed Salman Rushdie is a novelist and essayist. Much of his early fiction is set at least partly on the Indian subcontinent. His style is often classified as magical realism, while a dominant theme of his work is the story of the many connections, disruptions and migrations between the Eastern and Western world.

His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, led to protests from Muslims in several countries, some of which were violent. Faced with death threats and a fatwa (religious edict) issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran, which called for him to be killed, he spent nearly a decade largely underground, appearing in public only sporadically. In June 2007, he was appointed a Knight Bachelor for “services to literature”, which “thrilled and humbled” him. In 2007, he began a five-year term as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory University.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Hardcover, 328 pages
Published August 1st 2017 by Atlantic Monthly Press (first published March 28th 2017)
In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done is a novel that has the advantage of having a truly titillating premise and a built-in fan base of readers who already know of Miss Lizzie Borden’s infamy:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one. 

If you’ve ever sung that “nursery rhyme” to yourself, you’re already at least a step ahead. See What I Have Done has its roots in the factual 1892 trial of Lizzie Borden–the characters are even based on and named for the real people who were in and out of the house on the fateful day of the murders. With those common facts out of the way, Schmidt rolls up her sleeves and dives into the task of reconstructing that fateful day and retelling the notorious story of Miss Lizzie Borden.

Let me start by first of all saying that the cover art and title of this novel are both phenomenal. In a bookstore setting (whether in person or online) I’d definitely reach for this book, even if just to see what it’s about!

With that out of the way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also add that Schmidt has a true talent for finding her readers’ pressure points and picking at them consistently, a skill that sets a suspenseful novel apart from a predictable one. I can see this author’s method working for so many readers, pulling them in and making them feel immersed in these characters’ very thoughts. But, it didn’t work for me. In fact, there were times when this novel was an uphill struggle for me.

The one thing that will always stick out to me about this novel is Lizzie’s temperament. Throughout the novel it was eerily strange despite her obviously childlike temperament, menacing just below the surface in a way that was clearly deliberate on the author’s part. Whether she was not in her right mind in a vaguely sociopathic way or in a childlike way hinting at mental retardation I could not fully tell (though I’m leaning toward the latter), but it certainly functioned to add a little unpredictability and upheaval in the otherwise monotonous 19th century lives these characters seemed to lead.

However, there was something about the execution of this novel that really turned me off—possibly intentionally—but I definitely didn’t take to it the way I would have wanted to. Lizzie’s personality was like an itch under my skin, one I wanted to scratch until she was gone completely and long forgotten about. Instead of building suspense or anxiety, her twitchiness and oddities really just annoyed me to the point that I could no longer stand her. I wanted to be out of her head—away from her altogether at times—at any cost. Only, her chapters were by far the most interesting, as the others seemed to melt into the background for me as a reader. The characters’ voices didn’t pull me in; their actions didn’t interest me. So, that left me with Lizzie, and you can imagine the conundrum that left me in as a reader! 🙂 There was just too much of it. A titillating hint here and there is intriguing; 5 hints toward her psychological oddities per page, every page is annoying. That’s what created that itching sensation under my skin, the tap dancing on my reader Spidey senses.

The thing is, Sarah Schmidt’s ability to affect her reader in that way is a true gift, a skill that’s difficult to hone and display. So, just because it didn’t work for me personally doesn’t mean that I don’t see the cleverness and mental dexterity it took to execute that aspect of this novel, and for that I tip my hat off to her. I’d recommend this novel to lovers of The Village (2004) or of historical mysteries in general. There’s absolutely a fan base out here for Sarah Schmidt and See What I Have Done, and I look forward to giving her another shot the next time she hits the shelves. 3 stars ***

**I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Grove Atlantic, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.**

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Sarah  SchmidtSarah Schmidt is a Melbourne based writer who happens to work at a public library. See What I Have Done is her first novel.

The Dumb House by John Burnside

Paperback, 198 pages
Published June 4th 1998 by Vintage (first published 1997)

“…the very act of breaking the skin, of entering another human body, intrigued and excited me. I could see why people might kill for that sensation…Such people would be the victims of an exquisite curiosity…”

To accurately assess this novel, I would first have to say that I have honestly never before encountered such an exquisitely void soul in fiction before. It was almost like staring into nothingness, a sensation I have not felt in reading in a long while, if ever.

John Burnside’s The Dumb House is a disturbing and unsettling narrative that crawls inside of the reader’s psyche and pushes the boundaries of what is socially, morally and, dare I say it, scientifically, acceptable. This work of short literary fiction burrows in and takes hold; before you know it, you’re on a deliberate and methodical exodus from the everyday, headed toward a climax that is as gripping as it is literarily brilliant and macabre.

This novel essentially starts with a bedtime story: Of all of the cold elaborate tales that Luke’s mother spun for him as a child growing up, the experiment of the Gang Mahal, or Dumb House, left its mark the deepest. This experiment, set in the ancient world of India, centered around one simple question that would haunt and motivate Luke for the rest of the novel: “whether a child is born with the innate, God-given ability to speak” or if it is a learned behavior. The Gang Mahalwas erected to find the answer to this question, tasking a court of mutes to care for newborn babies who were never to be exposed to human speech. Inside its walls there was only silence; the children never learned to speak. But the experiment, to Luke, feels incomplete. The nature of communication and its possible correspondence to the soul obsesses him. Did it correspond to the soul, and, if so, how could one see it? Could you touch it, see it, cut into it…

It is the tone of this novel that does a lot of the work. The tone of the protagonist, the tone of setting. Together, they build an intense fusion of the former’s analytical voyeurism and the latter’s airy and wraith-like qualities. It is like watching a madman inside a dream, complete with a Sleepy Hollow-like sort of haze that covers everything and turns the everyday interaction—a chance meeting at a library, an innocent letter sent through the post—into catalysts for sexual deviance and callous violence. The characters felt almost ethereal and had a dream-like quality, as if they, and likewise, their entire world, were constantly shrouded in a sepia haze. That almost-surreal quality reminded me of The Vegetarian, House of Leaves and even 1Q84.

Yet, for so many of us readers, it is the protagonist that we most care about. We want to feel what it is like to slip into their shoes; we want to crawl into their minds and understand the mechanisms of it. But, readers, beware. For in The Dumb House, Burnside managed to create a character who is as cold in his natural eloquence as he is almost detached in emotion in narration. The narrator is like a slick block of ice, rounded at the edges so as not to be overtly or obviously menacing and dangerous to the outside word, to the everyday onlooker. For some, the inner workings of his mind will utterly intrigue. Others will find him utterly deplorable. For there were two things about Luke that I slowly began to grasp as the narrative went on: he suffers from “Rich and Entitled Syndrome” as much as he does from severe ego maniacal delusions. He believes himself to be always laboring under the guise of curiosity and exploration of what it means to be human, even as he slowly destroys the humanity around him in search of this purpose. And this delusional quality is what made the narration so piercing, because it was consistently eloquent and disturbingly calculating in the coldest of manners simultaneously.

“…how easy it would be to find a young runaway on her first or second night: someone inexperienced, someone vulnerable. I’d read about men who wandered around the stations and backstreets at night, hunting down such girls. If they could do it, I could…Even if she wasn’t a willing partner, even if she didn’t understand what was happening, or what her true purpose was, she would be comfortable and well looked after, for a time at least. Most importantly, she would be engaged in something worthwhile…”

This would likely be a good time to mention that if you’re squeamish, intolerant of the sexually perverse and/or uncomfortable reading about harm inflicted on women, children and animals, you should go ahead and turn back now. This one is full of that.

There is no mistaking that the prose is both elegant and intellectual throughout, no matter your feelings about the protagonist. This novel was unmistakably Gothic, with all of the subtle touches and fine-hair-raising moments requisite to earn such a title. From crop circles to human dissections, you can find an alternate world within these pages, one that will stretch the breadth of what you’re comfortable with and is altogether unlike anything else you’ve ever read. The Dumb House earned itself a solid 4 stars ****

Loner: A Novel by Teddy Wayne

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hardcover, 224 pages
Expected publication: September 13th 2016 by Simon & Schuster

Loner: A Novel turned out to be an unexpected gift, a surprise wolf wrapped in sheep’s clothing. This, of course, is always the best kind of surprise because—let’s face it—who wants to read through shocking revelations that never shock and humdrum plot lines that fail to thrill?

David Alan Federman is entering his freshman year at Harvard in much the same way that he’s lived his pre-college life: introverted, awkward enough to make a habit of spelling large words and sentences backward in his head for kicks (his college entry essay was entitled “SDRAWKCAB”) and perpetually uncomfortable in social settings of pretty much any kind. The middle child of attorney parents who remind him to take his Lactaid before going down to the freshman ice cream party, he meets—rather, instantly becomes enamored with from quite afar—a fellow freshman who’s too-cool-for-school attitude and socially elite entourage easily draw his attention. But the social caste system of high school still exists, even on the prestigious campus of Harvard, and we all know how that goes. Hence this novel takes off at a trot and never really slows, as one occurrence builds upon the tension of the next. What you end up with is a delicious university-setting tautness and social hierarchies traversed with alarming repercussions.

One of the many things that this novel had going for it was setting. No, not just the fact that everyone knows Harvard, one of America’s darling Ivys, but that everything from the physical landscape of the campus to the “baroque” vocab used by its overachieving matriculates immersed the reader in the scene from the very start, both physically and socially. Immersion is a true key to a great read, as we all know, and Loner offered that in spades in a way that was so unique that it struck me as off-putting at first, offering SAT-vocab-laden narration and interior thoughts that practically oozed with a telling social awkwardness—the kind that could only be the result of years of practiced introversion and prolonged interior conversations with oneself. While at first it struck me as a tick, I soon realized that it was, contrarily, a brilliantly executed mood of the novel that all came together delightfully or maybe disturbingly in the end.

But it is with the unique POV shift that the reader first begins to realize something’s wrong.

The blurb for this one left out one key detail that would probably grab it even more readers: that this is a psychological ride as much as anything else. It pushed the boundaries of what we’re comfortable with. Because, you’ll first notice David’s obsession with Veronica the first time the switch to 2nd person happens. You may run across a passage like, “And then I saw you walk in…” in the middle of a 1st person narration, and you’ll know. Oh, you’ll know. It succeeds in creating a hazily unsettling atmosphere, like at any minute you might find that you’ve entered the mind of a young sociopath…

That kept me on my toes.

I’ll resist stepping up to the podium to deliver a monologue on the pros and cons of 2nd person writing and how it’s increased usage in contemporary writing effects the reader—gosh, sounds like a class I wouldn’t mind taking!—and instead side-step that well-beaten path to say that I genuinely enjoyed this work far more than I would have had that literary tactic not been employed, because it created a charged atmosphere of voyeurism.

What I most applaud the author for, however—and trust me, there’s plenty to applaud here—was the author’s clear use of restraint. Restraint, restraint, RESTRAINT! It’s easy to fill a novel with superfluous passages that go nowhere and superfluous characters who do nothing but it’s a skillful author indeed who can cut away the nonsense and tell a truly streamlined tale that still manages to leave no detail unexplored, without inflating the word count with unnecessary prose. That is what Teddy Wayne did here in Loner, hence the short page count and the knock-out punch ending that landed the hardest blow, unsoftened by uncut fat. This novel was a sure ride toward the dénouement with steadily escalating subtle cues that piqued my reader Spidey senses like a dog’s ears perking in the wind. Put your ear to the ground. Can you hear that? For something wicked this way comes…

**Minor spoiler alert** Following David’s descent into obsession** was thrilling, like the downward slope of a roller coaster that you expected—you saw it as you approached the top of the summit, but your heart still dropped to your stomach on the way down. But, then again, we all know that I’m partial to character pieces that peel back the layers, and this was definitely that.
Sharp and utterly disquieting, this novel is so much more than first meets the eye. Every word and action were deliberate. I loved seeing it all come together, seeing the author’s clever hand at work and realizing that those scattered nuances were all part of a larger, oh-so-deliberate whole. I’d gladly jump in bed with the Loner again, and I recommend you do too. 4.5 stars ****

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

 

Hardcover, 192 pages
Published February 2nd 2016 by Hogarth (first published October 2007)*

Though the ostensible reason for her not wanting Yeong-hye to be discharged, the reason that she gave the doctor, was this worry about a possible relapse, now she was able to admit to herself what had really been going on. She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there…”

 

Wow, what can I say about this one except “wow.”

The Vegetarian by Han Kang was everything that we love about Korean and Japanese literature and art—and that’s exactly what this work was: art. Here you will find what we have come to know, to love and to expect from authors in this genre who write in this vein: the vibrancy, the subtle magical realism, the commanding usage of words and the elusive, sinister nature that is unique to these works—all embedded within an established culture of history and mores that has survived and developed for millennia longer than most others.

        The Vegetarian read with a delicious ominousness that was as subtle as a shadow, like a breath at your neck. It was that subtly that made the read so taunt and disquieting, and there was a strange, magical realism to it that almost read like Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (no shock there, as they both seem to have been influenced by Kafka). As a work of short literary form (it’s under 200 pages), it was unusual, among other reasons, in that it was told from three different perspectives with almost no perspective from the novel’s subject, Yeong-hye. We see how her vegetarianism, which later leads into a kind of manic catatonia, affects first her callous and at times sexually abusive husband, then her brother-in-law who becomes completely enthralled with her sexually because of her Mongolian mark, and her sister who is the last one standing when Yeong-hye’s psyche begins to peel away.

In addition to the serious topics that The Vegetarian brushed up against: the effect of cultural mores on women, body image, conformism, familial ties and abuse, and, of course, mental illness that ultimately culminated in a way that I could never reveal without spoiling it for you—this was also a tale of family dysfunction. It was a tale of familial ties that were severed painfully, of violent confrontations and realizations, of physical and emotional starvation, and a parable about the woman, the vegetarian, at the center of it all.

          The Vegetarian was sensual, and it meandered toward its climax in a way that was both unsettling and prophetic. It was allegory elevated to the highest level of art, raised to the level of surrealism. The change in tenses and POVs worked well. And even this technique, this simple process of sentence-writing that we learn in grade school, was elevated: the tenses of sentences shifted noticeably, particularly the closer that it came to dénouement, a jolting but brilliant allusion to this descent into mental illness and personal violence, which added to the mystical element of this novel.

Han Kang produced a work, his first to be seen here in the U.S., that was so unhinged, so mystifying, that at times it would slither from your grasp. I had to sit and reflect on several of the passages for a few minutes—not because they were ill-written, but because they were both profound and often just outside of my immediate mental grasp, and that was a wonderful thing. It was an effect that I look for in modern-day writing—that disquietingly ungraspable moment.

“Yeong-hye’s voice, which came to her while she was suspended in that halfway state between sleep and wakefulness, was low and warm at first, then innocent like that of a young child, but the last part was mangled, a distorted animal sound. Her eyes snapped open in fright, and she was stung by a waking hatred the likes of which she’d never felt before, before being thrown back into sleep. This time she was standing in from of the bathroom mirror. In the reflection, blood was trickling from her left eye. She quickly reached up to wipe the blood away, but somehow her reflection in the mirror didn’t move an inch, only stood there, blood running from a staring eye.”

The Vegetarian was unconventional. It broke away from the molds that we find ourselves encumbered in with typical fiction. Here you will not find the typical “rising action, climax, falling action” formula that we’ve become so accustomed to, that we’ve grown to expect and to lean into, though we know how it’ll all end in the end. Honestly, this read left me a little speechless, so you’ll have to excuse the less-than-customary word count here. Definitely, take that as a compliment in the highest sense. 5 stars. *****

 

*The cover used here is not the cover that was released in the U.S., but it is one of the most BEAUTIFUL examples of cover art that I have ever seen, AND it more accurately portrays some of the themes in this novel (much better than the U.S.-released cover art).

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Hardcover, 720 pages
Published March 10th 2015 by Doubleday

First of all, let me say that A Little Life was exactly what I’ve been looking for. This novel was so rich in raw, uninhibited emotion, in the true unveiling of life’s effervescence, horrors and humanity, that I didn’t feel that I was trudging through a thick read—though, believe me, it’s thick!—I felt that I was on a 40-year Hajj with these characters, a journey that, like real life, takes you over lofty and decadent highs then drags you through trough-like lows. It was the lows in A Little Life that made me literally cringe and turn away, re-read at times and stop reading at others just long enough to question what really is humanity?

The theme of lifelong friendship is obviously central to the novel, and I loved that the four focal characters were all male. To get the male perspective on contemporary brotherhood and solidarity was a breath of fresh air; I hardly ever get to experience a literary piece from the viewpoint of modern-day (non-white) men, so if that appeals to you, then this read will be a real treat. Likewise, on that note, I was greatly impressed with the way that Yanagihara handled race in this work, because she flipped the stereotype completely on its head. I remember a feeling of unanticipated surprise, of true and pure admiration of the author’s hand and voice for flipping the script on the typical literary formula.

A Little Life was brilliant in the way that it portrayed the capriciousness and uncertainty of college life through middle-age: the discovery and exploration of their sexuality, life goals, insecurities and the precariousness of their own self-images and the pursuit—often slow and unsure—of their own personal ambitions and aspirations. It all rang so true, so genuine.

     “These were days of self-fullment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble…surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.”

Yanagihara’s exploration of religion (Ambition and atheism…only here did you have to apologize for having faith in something other than yourself) and race (Race has always been a challenge for Malcolm, but their sophomore year, he hit upon what he considered a brilliant cop-out: he wasn’t black’ he was post-black…unfortunately, no one was convinced by this explanation, least of all JB, whom Malcom had begun to think of as not so much black but pre-black, as if blackness, like nirvana, was an idealized state that he was constantly striving to erupt into) was modern, realistic and enlightened. This work was full of eloquent, thoughtful and introspective narrative prose, but at the same time, Yanagihara did not hesitate to push the reader beyond their comfort level. Her descriptions of abuse and cruelty, suffering, addiction, fear, and the toll these all take on the human psyche—the way that they impact the human experience—were so vivid, so intensely thought-provoking and emotive.

However, I must admit that I did take a few issues with this one. For one, I was disappointed to not see a single chapter from Malcolm’s sole perspective in the entire piece. With this massive word count, there was certainly ample opportunity to do so. He started off being just as interesting a character as the others, questioning his future and his sexuality, feeling inferior to his sister and entitled while simultaneously, perhaps, feeling a bit embarrassed by his upbringing and entitlement. The groundwork was set for a rich character portrayal of him that could have easily rivaled JB’s and Willem’s, but in all 700+ pages we never heard a peep from his own voice. I also wished that Yanagihara had explored JB more. The chapter that was 100% from his perspective honestly resonates with me louder than any of the other chapters, even those rather disturbing chapters on Jude that are the talk of literary chats everywhere at the moment. I was truly gripped by his sense of terror and self-loathing, his sincere lack of control and, finally, that heart-wrenching scene towards the end of his chapter.

Honestly, I felt that Jude had too many chapters, that the entire novel revolved around him—and I get why it would—but there were several opportunities lost that could have been capitalized on better by the author. Also—gulp, I’m sorry to say—A Little Life could have stood up to a bit of a haircut too. Not a big chop, mind you, but a trim of at least 50 pages would’ve made the novel a less cumbersome read, particularly towards the end, the last few chapters. Chopping some of those arguably useless narrative passages away would have allowed for a feeling of truly running towards something, towards a climax deserving of these wonderful characters. Instead, the novel felt more like it sputtered out (no less heart-breakingly) quietly. In a way, I feel the Fabulous Four deserved better.

Even with all of this, I am truly changed having read this one and thankful that I took the time to sit down and really enjoy it. A Little Life has raised the bar so high for me, I can only hope that my next reads will stand up to the shadow that this tall order may cast over them. Yanagihara has gained herself a lifelong reader and an easy 5 stars. *****