The Assorted Sorrows of an Australian

April 30, 2009 at 4:17 am (Uncategorized)

So I finished Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American a couple of books back, but we only just had the book club meeting on it last night, so it’s back in the forefront of my mind. I now wish I’d chosen What I Loved, which is the one I became aware of thanks to blogging friends. I ended up with Sorrows by default; it was all they had in the store, and I wanted to get cracking (Changeling tries to urge patience, but I always want an Oompa Loompa now).  I think what I found ultimately dissatisfying about the novel is so interesting to me because it exposes the hazards of a meandering narrative arc. There’s very little in the way of denouement in the book. Sure, there’s some, but if you’re waiting for a pay off, it ain’t comin’. And life’s like that, which is something I originally attempted to convey in my own manuscript. I wanted to remove those narrative structures. I wanted it to be life-like in its suspension of resolution. I’ve spoken about the effect of this before: it made the book read like non-fiction (which it isn’t, and I can’t make a non-fiction claim for it save that there are certain elements inspired by my own experience). It didn’t succeed as a novel. Sorrows is a much less extreme example, there’s plenty of narratological scaffolding in place, but I think it still suffers from a lack of imperative. What is it all about? Why am I reading this to the end? As a fiction reader, I was able to see quite clearly what I need and expect from a fiction writer, and where I had failed in fulfilling that pact in earlier drafts of my own work. I don’t say I’ve got the problem licked, but I am aware of it, and I have taken pretty extreme action to address it. 

Anyway, one of the things that felt a bit disingenuous in the book is the referencing of 9/11. I would be deeply interested to know what American readers think of Hustvedt’s handling of this; I found it forced and uncomfortable. It made me wonder if this is to be  the terrible fate of contemporary East Coast writers, to be forever locked in a room with an endlessly spooling rerun of that day’s dreadful, unthinkable events. How do they gain release from something so all-consuming? After 9/11, can any New York writer truly get past that blue-sky day? Will it recede in time and relinquish its grip on the collective writerly imagination (and worse, memory)? How? And what will take its place? It’s in Hustvedt’s husband Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jay McInerney’s The Good Life… It’s not surprising that the city’s writers are compelled to write about this event – on the contrary, I think we need them to – but there was a self-consciousness to its presence in Sorrows that I found curious and almost cold. In fact, emotionally I would say it’s a pretty cold book overall, and I don’t think it’s just because of the sections set in the wintry mid-west. 

After that I read Charlotte Wood’s second novel, The Submerged Cathedral. So different to her third – The Children –  TSC is an Australian love story of fairly epic endurance by the time we see our two lovers reunited. It was looking pretty dicey there for a while, let me tell you. Charlotte has an incredible gift for evoking Australian flora and fauna; I read on her blog that her novels haven’t been published overseas because they’re deemed “too Australian,” but I find that astonishing. Surely there must be readers overseas who are interested in our vast and sunburnt land? Who find it bewitching that we have a word like “girt” in our national anthem?!! Charlotte’s ability to bring the land alive is something you’d think would appeal as part of the frontier tradition so established now in America (and isn’t that ironic?), but hey, what would I know? I was totally perplexed by the characters at times, though. So many of the obstacles keeping the two lovers apart and unhappy were entirely self-inflicted and might have been criminally easy to resolve… so I confess I did get awfully cross with them both for their various paralyses. Sometimes you just want to give characters a good hard shake. But gee, as I said to Charlotte, as a notorious black thumb (keep me out of your gardens and away from your plants), TSC definitely made me wish that gardening were a gift or even inclination of mine. As it is I’ll have to content myself with the garden she brought to life in my mind.

Last but not least, I’ve knocked over the book Darkling JB sent me, David Malouf’s new novel, Ransom, a retelling of Homer’s Iliad. Now, I did a year of Ancient History in my first year of university, and I read the Iliad, even surviving the dread tedium of the catalogue of ships (just kill me now, Zeus, for the love of…oh, hang on…), and I think it’s fair to say I promptly fell madly in love with the complicated mythology of the Trojan War, and it’s an ardour that remains undimmed. Malouf – is he about to be pilloried as an Aussie writer for tampering with this ancient tale? I wonder – has done a clever thing in building his story around one key event in a battle that raged for years, being Priam’s recovery of his son Hector’s body from the Greek camp following its 11 days of desecration at the hands of Achilles (who’s still pretty demented with grief over Patroclus’s death). You with me? Okay. 

It’s beautifully done. A great way to ignite a modern audience’s interest in a very old story  (not that my interest needs to be reignited. I think they’re all pretty cool customers, those Trojans and Myrmidons). I might even be able to persuade Llew to read this one… but if you’re expecting the grand sweep of (apocryphal) history to drum through each and every page, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s a much quieter, much more modest project than that, and much more simply to do with the company of men.

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5 Comments

  1. Grad said,

    Well, speaking as a Yank (as opposed to a “Yankee,” which is not something to which I often call attention, living as I do in Dixie) I would be very interested in reading about Australia. And I do find it bewitching. When I lived in Hawaii, my best friend was an Aussie and I remember trying to talk like her, like, “Right on ya, mate,” and stuff like that. She and her husband were friendly, and funny, and great drinkers – making them always the life of every party. Also, every time they had friends come over from Australia, they were always blond, blue eyed, tan and gorgeous. Our little group of friends all agreed that Australians were probably the world’s best looking people…and the most fun.

  2. charlotteotter said,

    You need to get hold of What I Loved. It is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Have tissues nearby.

    When I read Sorrows and she referenced 9/11, I thought “Oh not again”, having read all the books you list. However, I didn’t find her handling of it that cold; I found it interesting, especially since as far as I remember, she talks about it from the niece’s perspective which for me was quite fresh. I think however, that writers who do choose to reference 9/11 will need to work pretty hard to make it work – in the era of instant news, we all saw it happen and have our own memories of that day. I imagine that as a New Yorker, Hustvedt has it pretty much seared into her consciousness and had to exorcise it somehow. Perhaps she’ll spare us next time around.

  3. Lilian Nattel said,

    Interesting questions! As a Canadian, I don’t feel qualified to say much about NY writers. Except that I do wonder if after a while it isn’t a bit about a guaranteed punch. It reminds me of all the holocaust novels (and I can say this as a kid of holocaust survivors). By the umpteenth one it has the ring of of “shoah” business. (Shoah means holocaust). I’d also be interested in Australian books. One of the great things about reading is living other lives, being in other places. How can that be too anything?

  4. doctordi said,

    Oh stop, Grad, stop! You’re making me blush! Well, I must confess, I’m neither blonde nor blue-eyed (although practically everyone else in Man Town is both) but Llew and I have dedicated many years to trying to make the elusive ‘Life of the Party’ list… I don’t know if we’ve succeeded, but we’ve sure given it a crack. I must tell you that I am and have always been utterly bewitched by your great nation. Its literature in particular has a strong pull for me and always has done.

    Charlotte, that is quite an endorsement! Really? That good, huh? Okay. I will. I will hunt it down immediately. Yes, it was the niece, and yes, that was different, and engagingly so, (point conceded!), it just seemed a bit… mechanical. Yes.

    Yes, Lilian, I suspect you’re right. I was actually going to say something about ‘Holocaust literature’ by way of comparison, but then thought it was going to get dicey because I’m not really qualified to speak about either. On the otherness question, I absolutely agree. I don’t get it. I read books from all over the world and one of the things propelling that effort is curiosity about lives and cities so unlike my own.

  5. Litlove said,

    Ooh interesting reviews. I picked up that Siri Hustvedt in the supermarket the other day (yup, cheap available copy and thus instantly makes it home) and will be interested to read it as I have neard very mixed reviews. David Malouf is someone I’ve been meaning to read for a while but haven’t got close to in any way – perhaps that’s the book to get my attention. My son had an audio book of the Iliad and we listened to it together, me trying not to cry while Hector is dishonored, him flicking through his Beano comics with an air of marvellous insouciance.

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