Friday, November 28, 2008

Book 23 - The Icarus Girl

By Helen Oyeyemi

When I heard that Oyeyemi was a hot young British writer whose debut novel, about a little girl wrestling with the supernatural, was garnering critical attention, I had to check it out.

Jessamy Wuraola Harrison is a quiet, precocious 8-year-old girl living in a London suburb. Half Nigerian and half British, she’s caught between two worlds in more ways than one. Somewhat introverted and strange, Jess prefers spending time alone talking to herself in a closet, or personally annotating published books, rather than playing with friends. The turning point is when her parents bring Jess along to visit her mother’s family in Nigeria. In the abandoned servants quarters on her grandfather’s property, Jess meets a mysterious young girl named Titiola. Since Jess has trouble pronouncing it, she calls her TillyTilly, and the two girls become fast friends. Not only does TillyTilly like Jess just the way she is, she has a knack for sneaking into places that are locked or forbidden, like Jess’ grandfather’s library or an abandoned playground. One day, Tilly asks Jess:

‘Would you like to be like me? Like, be able to do the things I do, I mean?’
Jess nodded so hard she felt as if her brains were bouncing about inside her head. Tilly nodded too, and Jess briefly got that odd feeling again that her actions were being mirrored…
‘Don’t worry about it,’ she said. ‘You’ll see me again.’

Eventually Jess has to return to London and says a tearful goodbye to TillyTilly, thinking she’ll never see her again. But a few weeks later, her faraway friend magically shows up at her doorstep. Sure enough, this TillyTilly isn't quite who she appears to be, being more than just an ordinary ‘imaginary’ friend. The mixed heritage coming-of-age portrait of a girl gradually morphs into a ghost story, but since this is supposed to be a modern Penguin novel, the narrative gets quite creepy, but never really downright scary. But still, having a supernatural friend eventually takes a psychological toll, and Jess soon becomes a problem child. She always had difficulty making friends, but now she’s getting into fights and having screaming tantrums at school. As TillyTilly gradually insinuates herself into Jess’ life, Jess slowly realizes how little control she has over her so-called friend, and most importantly, her own life.

She had just realized with stunning clarity that she was the only person who saw TillyTilly. She put a hand to her mouth as she tried to sort this out in her mind. She didn’t know why it hadn’t occurred to her before. TillyTilly had not met anyone in her family, no one had met her, and she refused to meet anyone. And even when Jess was with TillyTilly, never mind that people couldn’t see Jess; the most noticeable thing was that they couldn’t see TillyTilly. She suddenly felt very small and a little bit scared. Is TillyTilly… real?

Finally TillyTilly confesses to Jess who she really is… sort of. It has to do with a long buried family secret, and when Jess reveals to her mother what she knows, yet shouldn't know, she freaks out big time:

Sarah began rambling, her voice trembling: ‘Three worlds! Jess lives in three worlds. She lives in this world, and she lives in the spirit world, and she lives in the Bush. She’s abiku, she always would have known! The spirits tell her things, Fern tells her things. We should’ve… oh, oh… Mama! Mummy-mi, help me…’

Not realizing that Tilly is trying to set her against her mother, Jess realizes too late what TillyTilly is really after…. This is where the story gets creepy. Like when Jess starts hiding in bed because a strange creature with very long arms keeps visiting her at night. Or when TillyTilly tells Jess she’s going to ‘get’ anybody that tries to get in 'their' way, or how she coyly suggests to Jess that they swap places: ‘you’ll be me for a little bit, Jessy, and I’m going to be you!’. Or when Jess convinces her only human friend Siobhan to ‘meet’ TillyTilly: ‘from the moment that Tilly had come into the room, Shivs had felt a … badness. It was the only way to describe it; it was like being sick and hearing rattling in her head as well, slowly building in pressure.’

Though the novel was very good and had many captivating and disturbing moments, at times it did come across as if it was written by a young writer (I believe Oyeyemi was only 20 when the book was published). The world of young girlhood is realistically portrayed, but the precociously gifted child, mature and articulate beyond her years, is such an over-abused theme, and there were several moments where I questioned the credibility of Jess’ thoughts and dialogue. The second trip to Nigeria felt very rushed, and there wasn’t enough time spent with the Nigerian family stepping in to deal with the restless spirit of TillyTilly. The ending also lacked a satisfying resolution, like a much-needed symbolic exorcism, and seemed to cop out with a deliberately ambiguous ending. This could have been a truly exciting story of possession if it didn't have such lofty ambitions of being a 'serious' novel. This is still quite an accomplished story for a young writer, and overall is worth checking out.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Book 22 - Everyone’s Pretty

By Lydia Millet

I heard Millet was a funny writer to watch out for, so I picked up a used copy for a read n’ see. It was amusing for sure, but it mostly felt like the novel was trying to be a quirky indie film (perhaps directed by David O. Russell) about a bunch of disparate oddballs n' freaks in L.A. who humorously intersect in one way or another. The main character, Dean Decetes, a porn flick reviewer (as well as chronic masturbator and loser), reminded me too much of Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces, with his unkempt appearance, penchant for lofty language and delusional god complex.

And Dean’s living and freeloading off of his devout spinster sister, Bucella, is a setup very similar to Ignatius’ relationship with his poor, Irene. Dean is always getting himself into trouble and/or embarrassing her with his drunken rampages, and Bucella is getting tired of looking after her younger brother. There’s only one little tender exchange between Dean and Bucella, where he tries to convince her to bail him out one more time by reminding her of how, when they were little, he used ro sneak food to her when their abusive father locked her in the bathroom for two weeks. That was one of few genuine emotional moments in the novel.

But overlooking the somewhat hackneyed setup and borrowed influences, Everyone’s Pretty is a light quick entertaining read with some genuinely funny moments. Dean Decetes may talk like Ignatius Reilly but the words that spew from his mouth are pretty clever. Take the scene where he’s arrested for drunk driving, and while sitting in the back of the police car, he attempts to converse with the rookie about value systems:

-Are you of the Pentecostal persuasion? he asked. –Your brother or father handle snakes? Snake-handling in the family? I handle one myself. Frequently.

Millet also loves to poke fun at religious ignoramuses, such as Philip Kreuz, Bucella’s coworker at Statistical Diagnostics. A misguided Christian Scientist who married a dim-wit for the purpose of converting her, Phil has some very laughable views about Catholics (notoriously flighty and given to weeping and gruesome depictions of the Crucifixion), the Three Tenors (he would not be surprised if the one with the beard soiled innocent children on a regular basis… too fruity even for the other Sodomites), and Murder She Wrote (a virtual Gomorrah of prime-time indecency in which females far past their prime rudely rejected appropriate modes of behavior and seldom if ever acknowledged their spiritual debt to the savior).

I read in an interview that it was Millet’s desire to make Dean Decetes sympathetic despite his outrageous defective character traits. The problem is that I failed to identify with any of the characters. All in all, it made for an amusing but ultimately forgettable read.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Book 21 – The Sun Also Rises

By Ernest Hemingway

“You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés.”

“It sounds like a swell life,” I said. “When do I work?”

A couple of years ago, a friend, downsizing his collection, gave this book to me when I was over for a visit. It became my “commute” book over the winter, but my metro rides were usually too short and/or too crowded to read more than a couple of pages at a time. Then winter was over and I was cycling, and this book got left under a pile of other books, forgotten. More than a year later, I picked it up again, but had to skim over the first third again since it’s been so long!

I haven’t done this book much service as a reader, but it’s actually quite a terrific book. I mean, it’s Hemingway, so quality writing and literary merit are a given. The only other Hemingway I’ve ever read was his memoir, A Movable Feast, which I don’t remember much except that it had great atmosphere, in that Paris-was-yesterday kinda way. The Sun Also Rises is very similar in that respect, except it’s a fictionalized story of a group of American expatriates who pilgrimage to the Spanish town of Pamplona for the annual fiesta and bull fights. The story is told from the POV of Jake Barnes, an American WWI veteran and now a writer living in Paris.

Although I knew that Jake was injured from the War, I didn’t realize until much later that he actually lost his manhood as a result! The reference to Jake’s unfortunate injury is quite subtle if you’re not paying attention, which was what happened to me. If I had figured this out earlier, I would’ve understood better why Jake and Lady Brett Ashley have such an interesting, but complicated friendship. Brett is beautiful, narcissistic, self-destructive and destined to a series of failed relationships, while Jake is doomed to a life of celibacy, and unconsummated love for Brett. Sure this may sound clichéd and stupid, even back in the day, but with Hemingway, it works. It helps that the main characters are sympathetic and so goddamned likable. Like Brett’s talent as a quick wit and social catalyst, or Jake’s high-powered observations about his friends’ strengths and foibles, and his willingness to overlook gibes if a good repartee is going.

There is still a very modern and sophisticated quality about The Sun Also Rises, while at the same time, the novel truly encapsulates its own zeitgeist. There are fine and funny moments in 1920’s Paris when the characters go out on the town, wandering from café to café, or meeting up for a nice meal...

We ate dinner at Madame Lecomte’s restaurant on the far side of the island. It was crowded with Americans and we had to stand up and wait for a place. Someone had put it in the American Women’s Club list as a quaint restaurant on the Paris quais as yet untouched by Americans, so we had to wait forty-five minutes for a table.

Most of the key characters have been directly, or indirectly, affected by the War, having lost their purpose in some way (hence the “Lost Generation”). Since the majority of these early day slackers are full-fledged adults in their late-twenties or early thirties, they may lack direction in life, but they still appreciate good company, lively conversation and drink. The dialogue among these colourful people is constantly amusing – they exchange pleasantries, they gossip, they rib on each other. But above all, they imbibe.

There is a lovely moment when Jake and his friend Bill take a side trip to a remote Spanish village and go trout fishing. They pack a picnic and a couple of bottles of wine and have a great time. They get along with the locals and they drink more bottles of wine. They meet a British fellow named Harris and they get along well with him too. They find a pub and he buys each of them a bottle of wine apiece. Harris confesses to Jake and Bill that he hasn’t had this much fun since the war.

There are definitely undercurrents of loss and emptiness, and lots of post-modern aimlessness, but for me, it’s this awareness combined with the many little moments of humanity that makes this novel a memorable and enjoyable read.

It was like certain dinners I remember from the war. There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people.