Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘American Fiction’

Louise Erdrich–LaRose

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 25, 2016 at 6:42 am

In 1999 while trying to shoot a deer, Landreaux, a North Dakotan husband, father and home care worker, accidentally kills his neighbours’ five-year-old son. The two families immediately go to pieces. Landreaux and his wife Emmaline, both of Native American descent, retreat to a sweat lodge where they make a remarkable, if somewhat excessive, decision: they will offer their own five-year-old son LaRose to their neighbours, as a replacement.

How this altruistic step helps, and doesn’t help, plays out over the next three years. Nola, LaRose’s new compulsive-cleaning ‘mother’, already prone to ‘screaming, shouting, …rage, sorrow, misery, fury, whimper-weeping, fear, frothing, foaming, singing, praying, and then the ordinary harrowing peace’, now becomes suicidal.

But she takes to LaRose. She likes to read him Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are again and again. LaRose, a good kid, possibly saintly, puts up with it. Meanwhile his own mother, having agreed in principle to the sacrifice of her son, gradually learns to love her husband Landreaux less, resenting him for their painful predicament.

So far, so Jodi Picoult: the examination of a social worker’s dream of a conundrum, followed by the inevitable American slog towards some form of redemption. At first the situation seems hopeless and unfair. Poor little LaRose is forced to live with near-strangers, all to make up for his father’s momentary lapse. He longs to be home. When allowed a brief visit, he runs into the house, ‘clutching his stuffed creature, shouting for his mom’, and his teeny-bopper sisters ‘competition-weep’ for joy.

Rather anticlimactically, the families soon start sharing the boy, and LaRose obediently moves to and fro between the households. In both he is loved aplenty though he has to tread carefully, the grief is too fresh. But in his new family, he’s also on suicide watch – over Nola. And so, the problems of the parents eat unjustly away at the children in the traditional manner.

Among a large supporting cast, an old admirer of Emmaline’s and now the ominous local badass stands out. Drunk, druggy and disordered, Romeo lives in condemned tribal housing, ‘built unfortunately over toxic landfill that leaked green gas’ (that ‘unfortunately’ is pungent). He hangs out at a bar called Dead Custer and, like a maltreated dog, ducks whenever anyone makes any sudden movement.

A louse, but an entertaining one, Romeo attends a relative’s funeral purely to siphon off gas for his car and steal the deceased’s prescription medications. The nightly News, all about 9/11 and Iraq, feeds Romeo’s sadistic appetites: ‘Bush reminded him of all the things he hated worst about himself: weasel eyes, greed, self-pity, fake machismo. In this nation of self-haters, Bush could win.’

The story unfolds at a steady pace except for odd jerks in time and some vivid flashbacks to the purchase and rape of one of LaRose’s ancestors in 1839, an eleven-year-old Ojibwe girl. She sees her abuser, a white trader, as an ‘old stinking chimookoman’. Ancestral memory or, as Erdrich puts it, ‘intergenerational trauma’, seems to link this girl’s unhappy story to the contemporary vortex of loss, via inherited female anger: ‘the bitch gene’.

Spirits visit too, and not just during vision quests. Vengeful severed heads chase people over considerable distances. That’s fine, a touch of the supernatural, and highly relevant to Native American lore. But does Erdrich really believe in all these spirits watching over everybody, or is she just loyally positing it?

The trouble is, the after-life has become such a well-worn plot device in obnoxious mainstream efforts like The Lovely Bones, or If I Stay. Out-of-body experiences seem a dime a dozen in America. So we’re pretty blasé when Erdrich’s ghosts turn up at an Anne Tylerish picnic to eat barbecue meat, coleslaw, potato salad, and sheet cake swathed in combat camouflage icing. Imagine, coming back from the dead to chow down on American grub. Yuck-o!

Though there are at least forty droopy references to the ‘heart’ here, these may be more folkloric than sentimental. Erdrich’s generally not soppy, but she’s at her very best when she gets mad. A chronicler of the continuing destruction of Native American communities, she writes beautifully about what Indian children used to learn from their parents: ‘how to find guardian spirits…how to heal people with songs, with plants, what lichens to eat in an extremity of hunger, how to set snares, jig fish, tie nets, net fish, create fire out of sticks and curls of birchbark.

‘How to sew, how to boil food with hot stones, how to weave reed mats and make birchbark pots…how to make arrows, a bow, shoot a rifle, how to use the wind when hunting, make a digging stick, dig certain roots, carve a flute, play it, bead a bandolier bag…how to return from a dream, change the dream, or stay in the dream.’

Whereas, in the government’s forced-assimilation boarding schools (to which many Indian children were sent, well into the Twentieth Century), a girl was taught ‘how to survive on bread and water…how to do menial labor… How to imagine her own mouth sewn shut. For speaking Anishinaabe. …how to endure being beaten by a board’.

These lawfully abducted children, torn from their families and cultures, faced indifference, discrimination, enslavement and loneliness on an undignified diet high in cabbage: ‘The crying up and down the rows of beds at night kept her awake, but soon she cried and farted herself to sleep with everyone else.’ How do destroyed people carry on? That’s what this book is about.




This review appeared in the Herald on May 21, 2016

Joyce Carol Oates — The Lost Landscape

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on September 21, 2015 at 1:35 pm

Dorothy Parker said she’d rather cut her own throat with a blunt knife than write a memoir. This seems good advice to all. Joyce Carol Oates has written oodles of books, including memoirs. No Pulitzer has yet accrued, but the Guinness Book of Records must be hammering on the door. Oates is the willing recipient of banquets, bursaries, honorary doctorates, TV crews and film adaptations of her work. Her writing – abundant, humourless, sentimental and enragingly circular – has a crass way of exploiting violence and murder as highly marketable subject matter. But, as H. L. Mencken noted, ‘Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public’.

Then there’s her habit of repetition. In The Lost Landscape this foible is beyond belief. Even if Oates herself didn’t want to bother turning the numerous, previously published autobiographical articles here into a coherent book, her editor(s) could have helped her. To paraphrase:

I was born and brought up in Millersport, New York State. I lived on a farm on Transit Road, the rural stretch of Transit Road, with my maternal grandparents, who were Hungarian, and my parents, who loved me. My father Fred Oates was a sign-painter when he wasn’t working at the Harrison Radiator factory in Lockport, seven miles from Millersport. I always call him Fred Oates.

My Hungarian grandmother was heavyset and Hungarian and spoke little English; she made noodles instead. Hungarian noodles. My paternal grandmother Blanche Morgenstern lived seven miles away in Lockport. My grandmother Blanche Morgenstern helped me get a library card and piano lessons, and gave me books and a Remington typewriter. My grandmother Blanche Morgenstern gave me a Remington typewriter for my fourteenth birthday.

On the farm were red chickens who pecked each other and rolled in the dirt to get rid of mites. One red chicken was called Happy Chicken. [Happy Chicken wrote a whole excruciating chapter of this book – Ed.] I loved Happy Chicken. I told Happy Chicken I loved him. Often. I would hold him and say, I love you, Happy Chicken. Again and again. And again! Happy Chicken pecked at the other chickens and rolled in the dirt on our farm on a rural stretch of Transit Road in Millersport, where I lived with my parents and my Hungarian grandfather and my heavyset Hungarian grandmother who spoke mostly Hungarian and made noodles. She put them in the chicken soup. She put Happy Chicken in there too. I think. I will never know.

Everyone in the family was very attractive, and I closely resembled them. I went to a one-room schoolhouse in Millersport. It was a one-room schoolhouse. I got good grades there and at all the educational establishments I attended. I was destined to be a writer, because I wrote books as a child, like the Brontës. I wrote many books as a child. (And many more as an adult.) I also drew a lot of pictures of cats and chickens. Fred Oates worked at the Harrison Radiator factory in Lockport seven miles away, and painted signs. For many years Fred Oates’s signs lined Transit Road all the way to Lockport, seven miles away. Fred Oates painted them at our farm on the rural stretch of Transit Road. In Millersport. Where I drew chickens.

To save you the trouble of reading this book, here are the salient facts: Joyce Carol Oates had a harsh upbringing on that farm. An only child until she was five and a half, she spent much of her time hiding and, later, reading. The farm was not a success. Those chickens kept getting run over on Transit Road. Fred Oates tried raising pigs, but the meat was inedible. The pear orchard was a pain in the neck. Why did her grandfather buy a farm with a pear orchard, Oates moans. Pears ripen and rot too suddenly. Apples would have been the thing.

And other regrets – from friends who let her down by going nuts or committing suicide, to the fact that in their eighties her parents died. Her first husband Ray Smith, whose name (she continually reminds us) was Ray Smith, died too after forty years of marriage. Oates suffers from insomnia and tachycardia. But her most notable sorrow – and here the writing does wake up a little, there’s so much anger under the surface – is that her sister was severely autistic. Her parents knocked themselves out caring for her until she became too violent to have at home. Oates successfully conveys both her parents’s anguish and her own ambivalence.

There are vivid regions of this unmappable book. Oates’s list of terrible American foods has charm, as does a recollection of the dangerous outdoor activities of country kids. There’s a poignant passage on the many ways she attempted to make money as a child: she sold farm produce, hawked jars of Noxzema or The Reader’s Digest door-to-door, constructed costume jewelry, crêpe paper tulips and daffodils, and plaster of Paris bowls, she jigsawed lawn ornaments, singed quaint decorations onto wood, and grew jumbo strawberries.

The book is made up of short chapters, many of them readable, but there’s not one whole piece that is consistently good. Oates has a habit of inertia, restraining the action so that nothing ever happens. She disses Edgar Allan Poe for being ‘belabored…formal, tortuous, turgid if not opaque’, but this is a pretty good description of her own prose. The writing’s so flat, wandery , contentless and uninformative, you wonder just what it is she’s trying to hide. [Come back, Happy Chicken! All is forgiven. – Ed.]

It takes twenty chapters just to get some idea how she, and her syntax, tick. Her lavish punctuation gives, the, writing (a) halting; quality. She has a dispiriting love of parentheses (all of life is a parenthesis for her). And how about this for sentence structure: ‘these immigrants were desperately poor people of the class of those about whom Upton Sinclair wrote…’? Old Upton couldn’t have put it better himself. Her declared allegiance to James Joyce is unfathomable – what can a prolix waffler possibly get out of Modernism’s meticulous, succinct, witty, humane, artistic genius?

Though her overall stance is arrogant, her vocabulary is low-brow – apart from the typos (Joyce might have liked her accidental word, ‘ ominoua ’). Without warning she’ll abruptly break free from a tangle of awkward sentence fragments to intone in a lofty patrician vein about Catholicism, race riots or psychology; or issue platitudes like, ‘We had all been prepared for her death and yet–you are never prepared.’ For many years a professor at Princeton, she makes every effort to educate us: ‘The root of the word memoir is memory.’‘Harvesttime is the time of reaping what you have sown.’ And, most peculiarly, ‘A house is a structural arrangement of space, geometrically laid out to provide what are called rooms.’

Don’t get her started on her own writing! ‘In much of my fiction there is a simulacrum of the “confessional” but to interpret it in these terms is misleading. Not literal transcription but emotional transcription is the way of the writer.’ The writer. She’s always talking about herself in the Third Person. It’s weird. Back to the wood-burning kit with you, Oates.


(This review first appeared in The Herald, September 19, 2015)

Buckley and Mailer–Kevin M Schultz

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 17, 2015 at 11:44 am

Do you remember Norman Mailer? He had big ears and used to bully people, especially women, at parties and on TV. You might have mistaken him for an elephant seal. He wrote novels in which bigmouthed guys bullied people, especially women. Having begun as the sort of writer who gets your attention by throwing up in your lap and then running away, his career ended badly, with novels like Ancient Evenings, in which we got to hear what sex was like 6000 years ago. His insecurities were astonishing; he wanted to be reincarnated as ‘a black athlete.’ Maybe the Egyptology helped with that?

Have you heard of William F. Buckley, Jr? Maybe. He was an arch conservative and a television wunderkind. He had a show, ‘Firing Line’, on which he debated the great and the good of the Sixties, Henry Kissinger and Hugh Hefner and Gore Vidal (who was Buckley’s real nemesis, not Mailer, and who, weirdly, gets barely a mention here).  Buckley was the pet of impressionists, especially David Frye, who used to roll his eyes up into his head and flash his tongue in and out like a lizard, hissing out pretentious Yalie phrases out like ‘ex officio’. Schultz is a bit better on Buckley than Mailer (who comes across as almost indescribable): “Buckley … seemed like a breath of fresh air for America’s conservatives. Finally someone was fighting the good fight – and doing it without looking like a hate-filled kook.” Different times.

Buckley and Mailer are both long dead and, on the strength of this history, not very interesting. Surprisingly, Buckley is the one whose ‘legacy’, to use a word beloved of ex-presidents and ex-prime ministers, is the one that may be actually be a legacy. Meaning that he left some thought around. Mailer was a novelist, admittedly a prize winner and, with the lack of anyone else around, ‘the most important writer in America’, according to Schultz and himself, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone reads him today. The ‘lyrical’ passages we’re treated to are more than enough – what a goofball.

What develops pretty rapidly is that the two did not have a ‘friendship’. It was more of a nodding acquaintance punctuated by infrequent public debates. By the time you read the very small amount of correspondence between them that Schultz deigns to quote, which consists of deep thoughts like ‘Hope to see you’ and ‘Glad to have you back’, you will be wondering how the author can claim it was a friendship at all, let alone how it could ‘shape’ something. The Sixties weren’t shaped by anything.

There is some entertainment value, at least as regards Mailer (Buckley was sort of a wit, though he wasn’t funny.) It’s amusing to read about Norman’s miniature city, which he built in his flat out of Lego bricks. This began when he decided to run for mayor of New York City. Mailer seems actually to have believed that he was studying architecture and urban planning in doing this: “Each Lego brick represents an apartment. There’d be something like twelve thousand apartments. The philosophers would live at the top. The call girls would live in the white bricks, and the corporate executives would live in the black.” Nice vision of society. So maybe it’s good that he didn’t get elected.

Schultz fails to provide any quotations which justify the two men’s reputations for rhetoric. It’s strange, but the only passages in this book that seem useful or memorable are the words of others. As regards the general pickle that Sixties America was in, here is Paul Potter, the president of Students for a Democratic Society: “What kind of system is it that disenfranchises people in the South, leaves millions upon millions of people throughout the country impoverished and excluded from the mainstream and promise of American society, that creates faceless and terrible bureaucracies and makes those the place where people spend their lives and do their work, that consistently puts material values before human values – and still persists in calling itself free and still persists in finding itself fit to police the world?” Neither Buckley nor Mailer ever said anything remotely this accurate, stirring and demanding, or, if they did, it is not quoted here.

Buckley and Mailer does remind us that there used to be a being known as the ‘public intellectual’. These folk no longer exist. Their brief existences were subsumed and then snuffed out by celebrity culture, the loss of any serious broadcasting, and, by now, the internet. Schultz does a good job in demonstrating how this happened, and how fragile and misunderstood was their notoriety. People began to be horrified by Mailer, who, incredibly, conceived a kind of lurching respect for Richard Nixon; Buckley ultimately demonstrated that he was a very unenlightened kind o​f conservative (constantly insisting that whites were indeed a more developed race), though he didn’t have the chops for what became today’s ultra-right brainless rodomontade.

One gets the feeling that the strongest connection between Buckley and Mailer was that they both roomed in the same hotel in Chicago during the notorious, violent Democratic Party convention in 1968, and watched the riots unfold mostly from the safety of their windows. For all their talk about ‘morals’, these two never really had any, as is demonstrated by this over-long book. The heck with ’em.


(This review was first published in the Herald on July 11, 2015.)

The Harder They Come — T.C. Boyle

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 6, 2015 at 6:41 pm

T.C. Boyle can’t quite believe the USA, and that makes him very useful. We’re on holiday with Sten and his wife Carolee. They’re on a cruise ship which promises they will ‘experience world-class indulgence’, something that becomes a grim joke later on. They leave the ship at Puerto Limón in Costa Rica to visit a nature reserve, where they and their group are robbed. Sten, an ex-Vietnam War marine, kills one of the thieves with his bare hands, thus saving the passports and fanny packs of their little band of retirees. The police and the cruise line brush this incident under the carpet, while Sten becomes a celebrity for a short time, both on board and once back home in ‘religiously quaint’ Mendocino in Northern California.

Boyle is so good at describing the improbable environments western man creates for himself, and I do mean man: a martini bar on the ship is actually made entirely of ice. And in Boyle there is always the fun of physical discomfort, his characters wrenched away from the restaurants and air-conditioning on which they depend for their very existences. Go on holiday to Central America and you have to watch ants carry your own dead skin out of your hotel room; stuff like that. But things get far more uncomfortable.

Sten and Carolee have a son, and he is a paranoid schizophrenic. Fueled by drink and drugs, Adam’s take on the world has become increasingly bizarre. His hallucinatory political radar is constantly picking up Chinese and ‘aliens’ – figures he calls ‘hostiles’. Lately he has taken to living in the woods where he’s growing opium poppies in the belief that this is self-sufficiency.

Adam is obsessed with the story of John Colter, often considered the first ‘mountain man’, famous for escaping naked from an angry party of Blackfoot Indians. He starts calling himself Colter. He acquires a girlfriend, Sara, a sort of sub-Tea Party intelligence. ‘Seatbelt laws,’ she thinks, ‘were just another contrivance of the U.S. Illegitimate Government of America the Corporate that had given up the gold standard back in 1933 and pledged its citizens as collateral so it could borrow and keep on borrowing.’ Kind of thing.

For Adam’s part, there’s a sinister ‘wheel’ always spinning in his head, and ‘He could see the smallest things, the fine leather creases at the corners of her eyes, a single translucent hair stabbing out beneath her left ear, and finer still, till he could see the microscopic mites living and f***ing and s***ting in her eyebrows, in everybody’s eyebrows, every minute of every day … Just sat there watching her mites wave their segmented legs even as he felt his own mites stirring in the valley between his eyes …’ Their lush paranoias begin to merge.

Pals of Sten’s form a vigilante group (they deny that it is one) that will attempt to get rid of the (largely Mexican) people increasingly farming marijuana in these enormous lumber company forests. In a perfect Boyle passage, the most important thing decided at the first meeting is the t-shirt logo. But then two of these silly middle-class busybodies get killed.

On some levels, perhaps too many, this is an adventure, a thriller, so it wouldn’t be fair to tell you the outcome. The final manhunt is rather dull, full of false suspense. But there’s a certain creepy point when you realize that Adam’s extremely ill view of the world is not so different from Sten’s. Adam has a wheel – Sten has a ‘switch’ in his mind which gets thrown when he can’t take it any more. Adam relies on drugs and ‘151’ rum to keep him in mountain man mode; Sten and Carolee exist on quite a large number of martinis. You begin to see that Sten is uncivilized, and that he is the source of the confusion and pain and meaninglessness in this story, and in Adam.

Adam’s parents, emotionally inept and under-educated, continually asked for help for their son. He never got any. It’s worth bearing in mind that this may be the increasing reality of mental illness in America: it comes with guns on both sides. Adam is an insane moron, and yet Boyle will convince you that there must be thousands or even hundreds of thousands of young men like him in America. Given the culture, how could there not be?

Boyle’s next novel ought to be an exploration of life at the top, among the corporatists and mad neo-con governmentarians addicted to power that the unbalanced characters in The Harder They Come paranoiacally rail against. He should write The Hillary Clinton Story. In doing so he will have sewn shut the entire rat bag that is the, or his, USA—ready to drop in the nearest giardia-infested river.


(This review first appeared in The National, May 4, 2015)

Bark — Lorrie Moore

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on March 12, 2014 at 8:29 am

Lorrie Moore’s new collection of stories is concerned with many themes, some of them timeless, others quirkier, but recognizable: divorce, antidepressants, hair, the sudden need of alcohol in step-parenting. But one of its larger subjects is men: men who no longer know how to love, men who find themselves mere cogs in the detestable societal machines they’ve created, men who join up with women for sex and become mooches. Baffled American men – baffled men everywhere. And despite being set in what seems initially a hazily-defined American Midwest, there is a great variety of situations, characters, and levels of understanding in these short tales. Middle-aged men and women try and fail to connect. Displaced female professors mourn the loss of one of their number in what becomes, surprisingly, a ghost story. A woman has to insist on going on the final family holiday of her marriage; children become very ill. Mothers share loving moments with their daughters at pretty weddings in the ‘heartland’ of America, a heartland ruffled and troubled for reasons, or one specific reason, that Moore sets out as she goes along.

The centrepiece of the collection is a longer story, ‘Wings’, about a couple that had very brief success as pop musicians. Now, they have maxed out their credit cards and are living in a rented house in a nondescript area, far from fame and the hope of it, perhaps in a place that Paul Reiser called ‘one of those big rectangular states’. The woman had the misfortune to fall in love with a supremely untalented guitarist who auditioned for her band. Now she’s stuck with him, because she’s still in love. But she manages to transform her situation, thanks to the almost random intervention of a dying senior citizen. More importantly she shakes off the frozen, defeated mind set which seems to inhabit the landscape, and to stand for the current American mentality. This is what you might call quintessential Lorrie Moore land. It’s a little like Raymond Carver’s United States, and shares an occasional border with the surreal republic of George Saunders. (You find yourself wondering how much time Moore has spent in places she didn’t want to be, and feeling sorry about it.) But the bleakness Moore works in is tempered, unlike Carver’s, with a deeper wit, and empathy: life sucks, right now, but perhaps it didn’t always, and needn’t. There are moments that can be apprehended and lived in, while you’re taking your beating.

Moore is often devastating when at her breeziest. In ‘Foes’, a writer, joking around at an awards ceremony he doesn’t want to be at, gradually realizes something quite disturbing about his gorgeous, exotic table-mate. In a beautifully off-hand and wonderfully described piece called ‘Subject to Search’, what seems like a longed-for and satisfying love affair becomes, on the sunny Boulevard St-Michel, a fractured and frighteningly immediate prelude to the revelations about Abu Grahib. Tom, his lover knows, works in intelligence, and right here in the middle of their tryst he’s been summoned back to Washington. Very quietly he tells her, ‘I said to them, whatever you do, don’t flush Korans down the toilet. Whatever you do don’t have them be naked in front of a woman. Whatever you do don’t involve them in any sexual horseplay whatsoever. Do not pantomime fellatio—which is probably good advice for everyone.’ She’s so happy that she can barely listen, or barely hear, and when he tells her that this is going to be as earth-shaking as My Lai, she dismisses it. And this is what these stories are also about: war. The wars prosecuted by the United States over the last decade, and what this has done to the spirit of the nebulous heartland Moore so bravely concerns herself with. In some of the pieces, war is safely in the background, like static, which is the way our mutual governments like it. In others, it’s as plain as if you’ve stepped on a land mine.

An important pleasure in reading Moore is in reading a writer to whom language is just as important a subject as what happens: for example, poetry, of many kinds, is a thread running through Bark. So many writers act as though the use of language is their own domain, their business alone—they’d never dream of letting their characters play with words or remember a poem fondly. Her writing, too, is a hymn to the versatility and beauty of the third person and the past tense: something you wish many novelists who seek sloppy immediacy in the present tense could learn. These stories are packed with an amazing number of poetic, aphoristic and comic zingers, but they are much more than that. A woman who finds herself eating a lot of hard-boiled eggs at a party thinks, ‘Soon no doubt I would resemble a large vertical snake who had swallowed a rat. That rat Ben. Snakes would eat a sirloin steak only if it was disguised behind the head of a small rodent. There was a lesson in there somewhere and just a little more wine would reveal it.’ Once in a while, Moore’s deep and skilful way with a joke can obscure the dense and varied meaning she musters from life, but, ye gods, is that anything to complain about in this day and age?


(This review appeared in The Herald, 2 March 2104)