Tag Archives: The New Yorker

The Great Catch-Up! Week 3: James Salter

A Sport and a Pastime

James Salter is the kind of writer whose name you hear every once in a while, like say Richard Ford, or George Saunders before he became a legit literary phenomenon this year, or Doris Lessing, for that matter, before she passed away. What people refer to weakly as a “writer’s writer,” which is a polite way of saying: “an excellent writer who’s a bit of an open secret, who gets amazing reviews and a lot of recognition and often gets named on lists of inspirations, but doesn’t sell nearly as much as she should, and might even have a hard time getting published.” Hilary Mantel was in that category until she won the Booker for Wolf Hall and her career got catapulted into the stratosphere.

So I’d seen James Salter mentioned here and there, and knew about his seminal work, the 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime. But the first time I got to read anything of his was in that collection of stories that The Paris Review published last year: Object Lessons. Dave Eggers chose Salter’s story Bangkok (which you can read in full here), a short, brilliant story about two lovers who meet again years after their separation—the woman is a real bitch and the story crackles deliciously with awkward humour, incorrectness, and a kind of sizzling sexual tension. It’s an excellent story, and Salter has written many more (like “Last Night,” which you can read online on the New Yorker’s website.) Salter was also in the news last summer because he published a new book, All That Is, which was quite a feat considering he’s nearly 90 years old. 

So I finally picked up Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, which was Salter’s third novel. I’ll put it simply, as Salter would in his spare writer’s voice: this book is a masterpiece. It’s written in a dazzling, carefully crafted prose, and creates one of the deepest and most enthralling textures I’ve ever felt in a novel—all with an extreme level of subtlety. Plus, it’s also certainly one of the sexiest books I’ve ever read; it tackles the subject head on (still pretty edgy in 1967) and offers some of the most romantic, complicated, poignant, and well-written sex scenes I’ve ever seen. Plus, there are loads of them, so this novel is really a masterclass in sex writing. 

But what I liked the most about A Sport and a Pastime was the originality of its narrator. Although the novel, which is clearly situated in the tradition of American literature set in France, tells the story of the (mostly sexual) love affair between a young American and a beautiful but innocent young French girl, the story is told by another American young man, a kind of voyeur who stands at the edge of the main action, in a big lonely house he’s rented in the country. The novel’s singular beauty and melancholy rests on this shadowy point of view; the key to the novel is that most, or perhaps all of the descriptions of the scenes between Anne-Marie and Philip Dean are pure fantasy, created in the aroused mind of our narrator. And so the book is a beautiful elegy of life and love, but also solitude and old Europe. It’s a wonderful read: an absolute must. 

james salter

REVIEW: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

I received ZZ Packer’s story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere as a gift in January, and therefore felt pretty much obliged to read it. Which is fine, because I was looking forward to find out what the hype about Ms. Packer was all about. I remembered her as one of the famed New Yorker’s 20 under 40 (among other up and coming literary superstars like Gary Shteyngart, Karen Russell, and Jonathan Safran Foer). What I hadn’t realized was how much of Packer’s reputation preceded her: she received such awards as the Best American Short Stories and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and has been the writer in residence in a number of prestigious creative programs in the US. And all of this, I discovered, for this single, slim book of stories.

Well, perhaps not surprisingly, I was a little underwhelmed. Certainly Packer knows how to write: her voice is strong (although perhaps, at times, not as sonorous as would befit her stories), her characters deep, her situations interesting. Her main theme, the reality of African American girls and women in the US, is vastly rich. There is nothing, therefore, profoundly wrong with anything she is doing. And yet there is something missing.

Mostly, I think what I was disappointed by is how she lets her stories unravel for too long. The wonderful thing about short fiction is how compact it is, how, even in longer stories, the prose never loses focus of the emotional core that is being explored, always looping back on themes or images that help it move along productively. Except in a few cases, this is not so in Packer’s book, where the stories tend to ramble on, unfurling in a repetitive fashion as they are driven forward not  by theme or image of feeling but by stagnant plots.

As a case in point, the story “Speaking in Tongues” goes on for fifty pages; it’s practically a novella. The story follows the adventures of Tia, teenage girl who runs away from her aunt to find her long-lost mother in Atlanta. It’s a picaresque journey that puts her in contact with different shady characters: a man who buys her food at McDonald’s, a pimp who takes her to his house, and a prostitute called Marie. Where the story could be lively, interesting, and hook the reader into rooting for Tia and fearing for her life and innocence at every turn, instead I found myself a little bored as the story seemed to stall and repeat itself. The interjection at the end of the story, meant to loop the story back to its beginning, feels more like a device from the author to assure her that all of this material had its purpose. 

The best story in this collection is definitely the one that gives the book its title, which is about a young black girl who ends up studying at Yale. Here, we have Packer finally letting loose the strength of a truly compelling voice, and utilizing her skills for both humour and tragedy. The narrator’s bitterness and anger is as compelling as it is sad, and her complex relationship with Heidi, her Canadian friend and sometimes lover, allows the story to reach true depth. Packer’s exploration of class, education, race, and solitude reaches an illuminated pinnace. Among the eight stories in the book, this is the only one I can honestly see myself revisiting multiple times in the future. 

Reading Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, I was reminded at times of Junot Diàz—not so much in Packer’s style but in her thematic exploration. And its perhaps here that I made a mistake, because of course Diàz’s voice is so enthralling, and his mastery of the short story as a form is so bold, that it’s very easy to compare anyone to him and see their shortcomings. Packer, like all writers, must be approached on her own terms; but even then, I find that she didn’t quite live up to all the hype. Many of her stories tend to start with a powerful bang, and then unroll in a tattered way—one that does not like energy, but somehow uses that energy to move in circles that never really seem to get the subject into any clearer focus.

So, all in all, I found that, while Packer demonstrates a lot of potential in her one book, it didn’t quite add up to this image of a fresh, brilliant new writer bursting onto the literary scene. I think she still has something to prove (and maybe she will with her upcoming novel about Buffalo soldiers, several years in the making).

Finally, I wanted to end on a completely different note concerning this book. The image I put at the top is the cover of the original hardcover edition of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, and it is one of the most unfortunate covers I have ever seen on a book published by a mainstream publishing house. I mean, seriously? It looks like it was made on “Paint” by a 12-year-old.

P.S. I know I’ve been blogging about a lot of short story collections recently, but this is the last one for a while, I promise.

Thoughts on Alice Munro’s Latest

ImageI spent most of December (and even a few days in January) taking my sweet time through Alice Munro’s latest collection of short stories, Dear Life. It’s a very rich book and, as always with short story collections of this quality, I look forward to revising its stories in the future. Short fiction, like poetry, demands rereading. In the meantime, I can still offer a few thoughts about what may very well turn out to be Munro’s last collection. 

In fact, I was already familiar with two of the stories in Dear Life before I read the book. I try to get a copy of the New Yorker to read when I’m traveling, and I was lucky enough to fall upon Munro’s “Corrie” when I took the train in England in the fall of 2010 and then “Amundsen” when I first flew over to Vancouver last August. While both these stories are very different in tone, they are representative of Dear Life because of their focus on relationships and solitude. Charles May has offered a very thorough analysis of “Amundsen” on his blog, in which he suggests that the story illustrates the cultural and societal divides between the world of men and the world of women. “Corrie,” on the other hand, is the sparsely told story of a woman who’s life is made hollow by the man she loves. 

Old age is a crushing presence in many of these stories. “Pride” explores companionship in old age and the things a person must leave as the surrounding world changes. “In Sight of the Lake” is a dizzying, closely narrated story about memory and confusion. While these two stories should resonate very strongly with the author’s own reality, they are in fact the least successful in the book because of their structure; their endings seem a little forced and artificial, which is unusual for Munro. But then, “Dolly,” about an ageing couple who get into an odd argument when they come in contact with the poet husband’s old lover, is a perfectly balanced piece of fiction, at once tragic and funny.

As usual, Munro excels at characters. A few light details or lines of dialogue are all we require from her as readers to recognize exactly what kind of people she is writing about. For instance, in “Train,” the collection’s longest story, Munro manages to stitch together several periods in a man’s life with a considerable number of coincidences by the sheer force of the fascinating, quirky, very real character she is exploring, while withholding the basic information that any other writer would give away immediately. Honestly, I wish I knew how she does it. 

All in all, Dear Life didn’t quite move me as much as Munro’s 2009 collection Too Much Happiness. The stories here seem more varied in voice and content, which could be a good thing, except it makes the whole seem disparate—like a bunch of material was pulled together to make a final book. Like music albums, Munro’s other books tend to form coherent clusters of stories, even if these stories aren’t necessarily linked. Charles May has suggested that the first story in Dear Life, “To Reach Japan,” (which by the way is a brilliant piece of fiction as a stand-alone), might be an earlier story that Munro had never published. Another of the best stories in this collection, “Gravel,” with its revisiting of a childhood death through the lens of memory, seems to have been pulled right out of Too Much Happiness, in which death and violence feature prominently.

One of the most interesting features of Dear Life is that the four last stories are grouped together under the header “Finale.” Munro tells us that these stories, only one of which had been published before, in the New Yorker, are autobiographical in feeling more than in fact. Independently, these pieces are snapshots, moments in Munro’s childhood, half understood at the time and mostly focused around her mother. Read together, however, the pieces create an intriguing yet quiet effect; they circle the same facts and feelings, the same reality, in order to produce what is essentially the inception of everything Alice Munro has ever written. If Dear Life is indeed Munro’s last book, then we as readers couldn’t have asked for a more fitting ending.

At Home, Abroad

How does one make a home out of a foreign place?

That is, essentially, the question that Tim Parks asks in his 1992 (sort of) memoir, Italian Neighbours. The author is a journalist, novelist, translator, and teacher. He moved to Italy to work, and, of course, live. Italian Neighbours recounts his arrival in a small town in the Veneto called Montechio, where he discovered Northern Italian culture and traditions through the lens of his neighbours and fellow villagers, whom he found to be characters of infinite peculiarity.

I initially discovered Tim Parks through his excellent blog posts and articles on the New York Review of Books. His recurring theme—you could call it a kind of obsession—is the influence of global (and specifically, American) literatures on smaller, national literatures. He thinks that all national literatures are getting more and more similar; they include less culture-specific details, so that they can be more easily translated and sold in other countries. Conversely, American literature of the Jonathan Franzen type is becoming increasingly popular abroad because it provides a compendium of things that belong to the coveted, American lifestyle. While Tim Parks may not be entirely right, his arguments are certainly interesting.

Italian Neighbours shows off the author’s interest in culture and cultural differences. It is, in fact, a book length exploration of the dilemma we face everyday: things we love are always accompanied by things we love less. So, Tim Parks loves Italy: he loves the subtleties of its language, the luscious generosity of its food and wine, the ritualization of village life… But all the time, he despises the religiosity, the hypocrisy, the bad taste in home decorating, the corruption. It is in this incredible dilemma that the book takes on all its meaning, and its humour, as it alternates between scenes of rapturous appreciation and others of frustrating ridiculousness. Parks’ sharp sense of observation and efficient yet colourful prose style serves him well in shedding light on all the rich details of daily Italian life.

I bought Italian Neighbours last year in England, at the London Review Bookshop, where I spotted another book of his in the window. At the time, I knew Tim Parks as a critic, but I had no idea he wrote books (he’s actual quite prolific, both in fiction and non-fiction). I searched the shelves for his other books and found many, like his booker-shortlited 1997 novel Europa, and then discovered Italian Neighbours, which caught my eye because of its beautiful cover, in the travel-writing section. I brought it back home to Montreal with me but never picked it up again until last week, in preparation for my great move to the West Coast for grad school. Indeed, in the last two days, I’ve exchanged a suburban family home in Montreal for a shared flat in a lively Vancouver neighbourhood. It seemed logical to read about being a stranger in a city, and making that city your home.

Those of you who know me well will have now asked yourselves two questions of drastic importance: how many books did you bring with you? and what did you plan to read in the plane? The answer to the first question is that I tried to learn from past mistakes by not bringing too many books to Vancouver with me, because I know that I’ll end up buying a bunch here. I brought only two books along: Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, in a 2011 World Book Night edition that G. got when we were in England, and The Brothers Karamazov, a novel that I began and never finished during a backpacking trip in the Balkans in 2009. The Dostoevsky was my plane read, although I’m moving through it at snail pace, as usually occurs when you’re settling in and you have lots of others things to think about. Luckily, my travels coincided with the publication of a new short story by Alice Munro in the New Yorker, “Amundsen.” I bought the magazine at the airport and dived into the story with relish during the flight. It was beautiful, as always, and themes of  movement and displacement also made it directly relevant. 

By the way, I didn’t finish Italian Neighbours. And it’s not because I didn’t like it. I simply ran out of time before my departure. So I’ll pick it up again when I return in December, and finish it then. If you think that undermines everything I wrote about the book, think again: Tim Parks himself believes that even good books sometimes deserve to be dropped before the end—sometimes, you’ve just had enough. But that’s definitely a discussion for another time.


Photo credits: Randolph Quan.

If you’d asked me, a few years ago, who my favourite living writer was, I would’ve answered without hesitation: Ian McEwan. Circa 2007, McEwan was at the summit of his art and eminence as a novelist: Atonement, probably his best book, had just been turned into a brilliant movie (directed by Joe Wright, starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy), Saturday, his novel about post-9/11 Britain, had been published in 2003 and  confirmed his skill in dealing with contemporary state-of-the-nation feelings, and he had just published a beautiful novella, On Chesil Beach, which was shortlisted for the Booker. Moreover, McEwan had managed to bridge the tricky gap between literary and commercial fiction; his books were on university reading lists and bestseller lists alike.

I read McEwan for the first time that year after seeing the film version of Atonement around Christmas. The truth is, I was probably seeking for a film adaptation of book to fall in love with; the previous Spring I had read and thoroughly enjoyed Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, only to be severely disappointed by the film version, which I’d had so many hopes for. Then came Atonement: beautifully directed, it had important things to say about art, contained big themes like love and war, and its ending was heart wrenching without being melodramatic. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, recommended it to everyone around me, and read the book over Christmas. The novel provided me with a literary mirror for the film. I found it just as great; it had everything I looked for in a book: compelling story, complex characters, beautiful writing. Most importantly, it felt literary (I’d been careful to buy the original paperback with the indignantly bored little girl on the cover, not the movie tie-in edition), which was essential to me at a time when I as trying to define myself as a reader of real literature, but still liked my books to be compelling. I was hooked on McEwan.

When school finished that Spring I read through Saturday, a strange novel that follows its neuro-surgeon protagonist, Dr. Perone, through an ordinary weekend day that turns out to be extremely unordinary. Saturday is a tour-de-force in its ability to manipulate the reader: at the beginning, I thought the story advanced very slowly, with lots of flashbacks and filler material and very little going on, but halfway through the novel I realized how attached I’d become to Perone and his family. By the end, when this family is threatened, the novel turns into a page turner because the McEwan has successfully built an emotional attachment between the reader and his characters. Then, in the fall, I read On Chesil Beach in a couple of days, and the same trick operated: very little actually happens for pages, except you get so close to the characters that by the time the story reaches its climax—a conversation on the beach between two newly-weds who misunderstand each other on the deepest level—I was sitting on the edge of my chair, breathless, whispering words of encouragement and disappointment, depending on what was being said. Again, I was thrilled with the beauty and efficiency of the language, and at how much complexity and characterization McEwan could concentrate in so few pages.

McEwan is a realist. He said so himself at a recent lecture he gave at Harvard (unfortunately, I couldn’t attend—my invitation got lost in the mail), entitled “The Lever: Where Novelists Stand to Move the World.” He’s very careful in his descriptions of places and things and events in order to recreate the right setting for his novels, be it modern-day London or Dunkirk in 1940. Of course, the precepts of realism requires that you describe the real world as faithfully as you can, down to the right constellation, the right brand of cigarette. It’s true that McEwan does this; some passages in his work are almost frustrating in their attention to detail, their desire to describe everything in detail. But where he is truly remarkable is in his ability to stretch reality to its limits, by placing his characters at the edge of normality, in situations that throw them completely off-balance. Sometimes, as in Atonement, where a little girl’s lie threatens to destroy the lives of two lovers, the results are stunning. Other times, as with the two loony lawbreakers in Saturday, coincidences seem a little bit exaggerated and the plot, like dough stretched too tightly between two hands, becomes torn. Yet as Alice Munro once said of another author, the writer always wins in the end. This is especially true of McEwan: even when he carefully walks you through a plot that seems implausible, he usually catches you with the elegance, restraint, and creativity of his writing. Usually. 

There are still those who argue in favor of early McEwan (see the hilarious book trailer for Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story), but I have a feeling that, in some time, when McEwan will have passed away (although I wish him long life!) and critics look back on his work, the three novels of his I first discovered—Atonement, Saturday, On Chesil Beach—will be considered his best. Here’s a writer at the top of his form, perfectly in control of his art, but still discovering things about writing, experimenting with voice and form and plot. Previously, McEwan had written a lot of books—just under a dozen, by my count—including two collections of short stories. Among these were Enduring Love, which still ranks among some of his best work (I haven’t read it yet so I can’t say), The Innocent (a kind of emotional spy-novel, set in Berlin during the Cold War), and his booker-winning Amsterdam, which frankly is not great by any standard (the conclusion seems to be that 1998 was a very bad year for fiction in English). McEwan’s early work earned him the nickname “macabre,” because of his unrestrained descriptions of gore. In The Innocent, for example, the main character needs to get rid of the body of someone he’s accidentally killed; a very long description of how to cut up a corpse into pieces and carry these pieces out of an ensues (a scene, as it turns out, that he now regrets). McEwan became relatively well-known in the 90s, but this was nothing like the stellar reputation he would gain in the early 2000s with the three books I mentioned above.

Then he published a new novel, Solar, in 2010, which I looked forward to and took a break from school readings to enjoy. Except I was disappointed. McEwan knew what he was doing in this novel—which is a kind of satire about climate change, featuring a ruthless, obese, nobel-prize winning physicist—but he knew it too well. The writing is too polished and self-conscious, the plot seems stretched, and the humor falls flat. The novel is so neat it feels dead. McEwan will be publishing a new novel this summer, Sweeth Tooth, a return to the spy genre he’d flirted with in The Innocent. An excerpt, entitled “Hand on the Shoulder,” about a young woman’s recruitment into MI5 by professor and lover in Cambridge in the 1970s, was published this week in The New Yorker. It provides usual McEwan fare: light irony, play with memory, importance of authenticity, interesting descriptions of food and sex… But again, I felt a little short-changed when I read. In an effort to make everything seem logical, plausible, McEwan describes emotions in too much detail; plot points are sold paragraphs in advance, so all you’re left to wallow in as a reader are feelings. And feelings only go so far. Am I evolving as a reader? or is McEwan really regressing as a writer? If the answer to the latter question is yes, then McEwan’s writer’s career fits into what Rick Gekoski has recently described as a usual curve of ascent into maturity and descent until death. Most author’s, Gekoski argues, rarely publish their best work last. But there are exceptions—Philip Roth, Henry James—and perhaps McEwan will count among them. Only time will tell. 


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