Thursday, September 30, 2010

Chloe Aridjis's Book of Clouds

I don't remember how I came to put Chloe Aridjis's Book of Clouds (2009) into the Stack, probably on the strength of a glowing notice somewhere. It is her first book, a fictional memoir of a woman in her twenties who spends five rather desolate years in Berlin from 2002 to 2007. It is full of observations of the city and of Germans, but the real topic is the ennui of an intelligent young woman who is solitary, who appreciates melancholy, who is content to drift but not so content as to have no self-doubts. She works for an elderly historian who does Walter Benjamin-like explorations of the city's forgotten spaces, and she has a brief relationship with a meteorologist who speaks eloquently about clouds. She is chronically disengaged, however, and her experiences are taken in as observations even when they are personally challenging (getting lost in the dark underground, making love).

This detachment is expressed in a cool, elegant, matter-of-fact prose. This is a book written "in the zone," the author maintains an atmosphere, channeling style from the emotional portrait of the low-affect narrator. It is a good, fast read even as it evokes a slow pace of life. Aridjis and her narrator both grew up in Mexico City and there is a Latin sense of the surreal that is nicely understated; she tends to think people are in disguise. I hope that her critical success with this book inspires her to write something more substantial because she does write very well.

Synge Travels in Ireland

I enjoyed the Irish Revival playwright J. M. Synge's The Aran Islands, the subject of an earlier post, enough to follow-up with Serif Press's very nice 2005 edition of In Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara, originally published in 1911. The book includes engravings done by Jack Yeats, son of the painter J. B. Yeats and brother of W. B. Yeats, to accompany the original.

A good playwright must have the very finest ear for dialogue and it is this talent that makes Synge's Irish travel writings so good. In the first part of the book he is traveling in the Wicklow Mountains northwest of Dublin and paying particular attention to the local patois. Synge was accused of troweling things on a bit, for example with this alleged quote from a Wicklow village woman: "Glory be to His Holy Name, not a one of the childer was ever a day ill, except one boy was hurted off a cart, and he never overed it. It's small right we have to complain at all." The author of The Playboy of the Western World, which caused riots at its premier for its searing caricature of marginalized Irish, is a legitimate object of suspicion, but I doubt he is distilling his material in a misleading way. In any event the flavor of the speech is clearly authentic and very charming to read.

The members of the Irish Revival were upper class people in a poor country, and most, like Synge, were Anglo-Irish. They were taken seriously as the gentry tend to be and the last section on Connemara was originally published as dispatches in the Manchester Guardian. Here we meet Synge the social reformer, getting in to quite detailed work on suggestions for the economic development of the "congested districts," meaning areas (mostly western, Irish-speaking areas) where there was not enough employment for the population. Synge is impressively perceptive and criticizes the governments' attempts to introduce new industries while ignoring some traditional ones (such as gathering kelp), showing how the Dublin bureaucrats had simply failed to think of the local industries as possibly worthwhile. He also criticizes the exploitation of poor workers and urges more economic justice as a necessary part of economic development. A worthy document that stands the test of time.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Colum McCann's Great World Spins

Let the Great World Spin (2009)is the third novel by Colum McCann, an Irishman who teaches at Hunter College and is a long-time New York City resident. He has the great idea to write a novel about various NYC denizens, their lives intertwining, on or about August 7th 1974, the day that Philippe Petit walked between the still-unfinished twin towers of the World Trade Center, two days before the resignation of Richard Nixon and eight months before the fall of Saigon. McCann has written a novel of social realism in the grand style, focused on a mother-daughter team of prostitutes in the Bronx, an Irishman who befriends them as part of his mission as a socially-active monk, his brother, and a group of women who have lost sons in the war in Vietnam. It is a novel of straightforward depiction; there is no mystery, no murder, no farcical or ingenious plot tying the novel together. 9/11 is left alone to resonate by itself, which it surely does.

This is a very ambitious book, and it reads well. I didn't leave it alone much until I was through with it. There is a ferocious focus on race mostly through the development of the stories of Tillie and Jazzlyn, multiple generations of the chronic underclass. The toll of the war, fought by conscripted soldiers, on families apolitical and otherwise is also a major theme. The novel belies the fashionable idea that modern novelists are lost in postmodernist, meta-narrative games; here we have nothing but earnest engagement.

Having said all that, I have my hesitations with this novel. The prose is good enough and one would not want to overwrite with this kind of material but the canvas is so large and ambitious that at times McCann can be heard grinding the damn thing out, executing the concept. Also the book is not quite the "novel of the city" that it purports to be: McCann is interested in human actions and responses and the reader looking for lyrical cityscapes will be disappointed. NYC is not quite one of the characters, seldom rising to more than stage and background. Nonetheless I do recommend this novel as an excellent example of latter-day social realism.