A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Posts Tagged ‘New York

Rivka Galchen: Atmospheric Disturbances

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One of the great things about writing a blog like this is that you get recommendations of things to read. At first they come from friends, but pretty soon people you’ve never met all over the world are chiming in and bringing things to your attention that you would never have found on your own.

So when Andra Watkins joined the debate about magic realism that blew up in the comments to my post on The Tiger’s Wife, and suggested that I give a book about a man who ‘becomes convinced his wife is a doppelgänger and sets off for Argentina to find the “real” one’, I was intrigued.

As it turned out, reading this book in response to a suggestion from someone I didn’t know  over the internet was very fitting. Narrated by, in his own words, ‘a fifty-one-year-old male psychiatrist with no previous hospitalisations and no relevant past medical, social or family history,’ the novel charts the unravelling of reality as Leo gets sucked into the delusions of one of his patients. Increasingly convinced that the woman living with him is a simulacrum of his wife and that he is being recruited by the Royal Academy of Meteorology to help wage a war that involves controlling weather systems in parallel worlds, the New Yorker travels to South America, picking up coded messages, emails and signs from the mysterious professor Tzvi Gal-Chen (haven’t we seen that name somewhere before?).

Books like this live or die on the strength of the narrator’s voice and this novel thrives. Obsessive, quirky and clinical, Leo is constantly surprising. At times, particularly when constructing justifications for some of his more outlandish decisions, he recalls Nabokov’s  Humbert Humbert or John Nash in the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, enabling the reader to inhabit the rogue selectiveness of the paranoid psychotic and the cruel, strange way that mental illness weaves itself through the personality so that it’s impossible to tell where the condition stops and the person begins.

There are some arresting insights into the more general business of living too. From the nonsense phrases that play at the back of the brain and the paranoid connections made between things by internet search results, to the way that a stain disintegrates into power when you pick at it with your thumb, Galchen is a past master at picking out the little details we are each usually alone with as we move through the world, whether sane or not.

Yet she is not about to let us get comfortable with the notion that what we are reading is purely the addled account of someone experiencing a mental breakdown. Throwing in just enough external coincidences to make Leo’s reading of events conceivable, she teases us with the possibility that his is in fact a reality where there are weather wars, doppelgänger wives and parallel worlds.

The conundrum of what is really going on in the book (and what ‘really’ really means) is something we can never be 100 per cent certain we have solved. Whether we try to explain the strange happenings as elements of magical realism, products of psychosis, or a conscious attempt to mislead, or whether we buy into them wholesale, there is no solid ground on which to base our interpretation. Without an independent, or at least second, perspective from which to calibrate our reading (as Tzvi Gal-Chen discusses in one of his papers on radar technology and the doppler effect), we are dependent on our own partial soundings to try and pinpoint truth.

Leo ponders the dilemma himself:

If a story seems too random, or perhaps too brilliant, for a ‘madman’ to have conceived of it himself, then consider that the ‘author’ might be reality and the ‘madman’ just reader. After all, only reality can escape the limits of our imagination.

But it doesn’t stop there. Qualified psychiatrist Galchen (the author, not the meteorologist) has left the door open for us to wander outside the bounds of the novel and question her storytelling too: her father, in ‘real’ life, is none other than Tzvi Gal-Chen, a professor of meteorology. And the family photograph of the Gal-Chens that Leo keeps on his fridge door is her own.

We buy into her story, suspend our disbelief and allow the narrative to sweep us along.  But what is really behind the words? What hybrid of experience, truth and fantasy constitutes her art?

Maybe the only distinction between madness and sanity is the extent to which you are able to make others believe your story could be true.

Picture by kristiewells

Written by Ann Morgan

September 8, 2011 at 7:28 am

Cynthia Ozick: Foreign Bodies

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There are few things nicer than discovering a great writer with an extensive back catalogue to explore. It’s like meeting an exciting new friend — someone you click with instantly and know will be the source of lots of sparky conversations and raucous fun.

So when I read an interview with Cynthia Ozick in the Guardian books section’s ‘A life in writing’ series, I had high hopes that she might be an addition to my virtual circle. The standfirst quote about writing was enough to reel me in on its own: ‘You have to be a fanatic, you have to be a crank to keep going, but what else would you do with the rest of your life? You gotta do something’.

Here was an author I could get on board with, I thought. So I downloaded Ozick’s latest, Foreign Bodies, and settled down ready to be enthralled.

Sad to report, things didn’t go quite according to plan. For one thing, I found Ozick’s plot threadbare, centring as it does around an ageing literature teacher, Bea, who lives in a New York appartement hemmed in by her ex-husband’s grand piano, until one day she receives a letter from her estranged brother instructing her to go to post-war Paris to winkle his graduate son out of an extended period of drifting. Thereafter, she receives a series of letters and instructions from various members of the family. These she obeys (at least in part), until she is finally thrown into the path of her ex-husband, who turns out to be less successful than his reputation suggests.

Perhaps I suffered from not knowing Henry James’s The Ambassadors, which Ozick claims to have inverted to construct her book, but I’ve always been a believer that works of art should stand on their own without supplementary reading. Extra research can add lots of valuable layers, but truly great books are believable and engrossing to anyone who picks them up.

In this case, I found it hard to buy into Bea’s grudging obedience to her relatives’ demands. ‘Why are you bothering?’ I found myself asking the the Kindle screen as it presented me with page after page of Bea’s complaints about having to rearrange her classes and the fact that her brother Marvin has always been far too used to getting his way.

This wasn’t the only problem. Because of the book’s heavy reliance on letters, there’s a strangely performative feel to a lot of the correspondence. Characters are obliged to rehearse information that would be obvious to both parties for the sake of the reader, giving some of the exchanges an oddly wooden feel. There is also the difficulty of certain hidden information being peeled back from several perspectives, forcing the narrative to retread the same ground several times.

Where secrets are revealed well, however, they’re corkers. Bea’s discovery of the true medium of Marvin’s wife Margaret’s ‘art’, for example, is masterfully managed. So is the moment when Lili reveals the true reasons for the distress that seems bound up with her dismissal.

Such writerly sleights of hand, combined with striking flashes such as the astonishing description of Bea’s waking up to a snowy morning in New York, make me feel that I would like to get to know Ozick better. Perhaps it’s time to do some digging into her biography and weed out her best work. As far as naming her my new literary best friend is concerned though, we’ve got some way to go yet.

Picture by asterix611

Written by Ann Morgan

August 2, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth

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Rubbish pickers in Kolkata, India

Airport bookshops are strange places. Something about the transience of the terminal experience rubs off on the shelves of slasher stories and chick-littery, putting browsers in a holiday humour, and making reckless purchases and bold choices seem somehow less of a stretch. And so it was that on my way to India this spring I found myself at the check out in Gatwick’s South Terminal clutching… a copy of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.

Alright, I’ll admit it, my stock of adventurousness was all used up on the contemplation of the trip ahead. I’d never been to India before and despite having visited parts of Africa and South-east Asia, I had a feeling nothing could prepare me for the madness of Kolkata. I was looking for something comforting, familiar and safe: a tried and trusted formula that I could retreat into when one of the world’s most extreme, desperate, colourful and crowded cities got too much for me.

But Edith Wharton had other ideas. Feisty to a fault, this grande dame of early twentieth century American literature grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and thrust me into a world every bit as unforgiving and shocking as the place I was headed.

‘Jane Austen with teeth’ was the first description that sprang to my mind as I began to read my way through the unravelling of Lily Bart, the beautiful and penniless New York socialite, whose flawless facade of serenity is both the secret and the nemesis of her success. But that would be unfair, both to Austen, who has a much sharper set of gnashers than she’s often given credit for, and to Wharton, who sees no point in biting her prey when she might as well tear the subjects of her scrutiny limb from limb.

No-one escapes. Not the bright creatures of high society sniping at one another from behind their opera glasses; not the conservative family members so bound up with ideas of duty and correctness that they fail to distinguish between petulance and desperation; not the charwoman who schemes for her own ends and not  beautiful, spoiled, hopeless Lily herself.

The Penguin Classics blurb-writer describes Lily as ‘the embodiment of woman as a passive creature, as the ultimate “consumer item”‘. Close, but no cigar. For while Lily allows herself to be carried on the currents of other people’s whims and schemes, she has a core sense of self-respect that won’t allow her to go along with the final strokes of deviousness and heartlessness that would assure her future.

It is what redeems her in the eyes of the reader, but also what brings her low. If she were a little more passive — more the superficial, carefree creature she pretends — then she would accept the repugnant offers of marriage, mistresship and mindless monetary gain that come her way and drift along the bright surface of the world she thinks she aspires to, and there would be no story.

What makes Lily’s fall so compelling and her final undoing so very, very sad is the kernel of humanity Wharton conjures at her core, reminding readers that the creature dwindling before their eyes is every bit as complex, conflicted and scared as they are.

In a city where naked children squat in the gutters as limousines glide past, the resonance of Wharton’s words was strong.

Picture by FriskoDude