Four Magical Realist Novels: Ginger Bread by Helen Oyeyemi

Oyeyemi’s novel once again has me asking: but is this really Magical Realism? Among other objections, Oyeyemi creates a fictitious country that is, through and through, an alternate reality—Druhástrana. Is it borderline Magical Realism? I guess I should define what I consider magical realism—and that’s when a story takes place firmly in our own world and in which “magical” events are perceived as normal and not the defining reality (as in fantasy). The Movie Big Fish is, to me, a beautiful example of Magical Realism. Ideally, the magic that occurs is the subtle kind that a reader is never quite sure about—was that really magic or was it not? And if it’s more than that, the magic is like the weather. It’s there but doesn’t define the narrative. I think life is like that. I’ve certainly experienced moments in my own life that others would construe as Magical Realism. I suspect many of us have. That’s how I’m writing my own novels—like Big Fish.

Oyeyemi’s Ginger Bread is easily the most fun to write about because it’s the book that has earned nearly gushing praise from professional critics and a mixed reception from the general reader. The diverging opinions remind me of the various movies on Rotten Tomatoes in which critics and viewers radically differ. The plot of Ginger Bread is commonly described as that of an immigrant family’s experience making a new home in their adopted country (England)—all while confronting the usual prejudices and conflict, but that’s like defining a T-Rex by its bones. Oyeyemi’s story is also said to riff on Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale and the Grimms’ Hansel and Gretel but, despite my familiarity with both, I couldn’t see that she borrowed much more than the names (and in a way that’s better). In the last decade there have been a deluge of fairy tale adaptations. The whole genre has gotten stale as month old bread.

But anyway, saying the novel is about immigrants doesn’t begin to describe it.

The thing is this: This isn’t Oyeyemi’s first book. She’s a proven author of five novels with recognized talent, a winner of the PEN Open Book Award (among others) and was named Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. So what to do with a manifestly unsuccessful novel that is, dare I say it, poorly written? One can’t chalk it up to inexperience. One has to conclude that the narrative style of the book was a deliberate choice; and (William Logan excluded) critics are almost always confused by that. It goes like this: Critic: You’re a hack. Writer: Why? Critic: You’re writing is a convoluted mess. Writer: I meant it to be a convoluted mess. Critic: You’re a genius.

And so we get reviews like this one from NPR’s Michael Schaub:

~ Trying to summarize the plot of Gingerbread is like trying to describe a strange dream you had — it’s nearly impossible to put something so odd and compelling into words that will actually convey the experience.

And right after tossing up his hands he throws it all on the reader’s lap, saying: “She has a gift for getting readers to not only suspend their disbelief, but to throw it out the window entirely.” Unfortunately for Schaub, readers aren’t buying what he’s selling. Oyeyemi earned the fewest reviews of the four books (500 compared to Clarke’s 10,000) and only netted three and half stars. There are as many 1 star reviews as 5 star. And those rating the book highly often offer qualified praise along the lines of Schaub’s—you’ll love it as long as you don’t try to make sense of it.

As for myself, my opinion was divided. Oyeyemi threw conventional story-telling out with the bathwater. I admire her for that. It’s cool that she took the risk (I doubt many authors would have gotten a book published like that) but, if we’re being honest, the effort isn’t a success. There are too many poorly-defined characters and Oyeyemi spends way too much time narrating in a manner that I’d describe as “voice-over-narration“, squandering what adds up to pages and pages with ultimately irrelevant diversions and anecdotes that do nothing to move the story forward. Imagine a two hour long movie whose frames are frozen every two to three minutes for a fifteen minute voice-over nattering on about what happened in the room next door, who said what to who years before, what A was thinking when C was on the phone with X while in the two story building next to the garden that character A never liked but C did when she was thinking about Y during the afternoon but not in the morning when Q was visiting for tea to discuss R’s relationship with S. This is what reading Ginger Bread is like. This is why Schaub compared the narration to a “strange dream”. You get passages like this:

~ They’d met the summer before Kensilea graduated from medical school; Ambrose was her friend’s piano teacher. Kenzilea, usually late for everything, somehow managed to be wondrously punctual when it came to meeting her friend for lunch on piano-lesson days, often arriving before the lesson ended and complimenting Ambrose on the ethereal music she’d heard drifting out of the window. Occasionally what Kinzilea had heard was a composition of Ambrose Kercheval’s, performed by Ambrose himself, but most of the time it was a recording of a better pianist that Ambrose wanted his student to hear. Etc.

It’s tedious and boring. And this is the start of a paragraph that goes on unbroken for a whole page. The central story of the novel, such as it is, is put on hold while Oyeyemi (through the character of Harriet), drones on about Kercheval after Kercheval with well-enunciated and monotone prose. In fact the whole novel is like this. If there’s a duller way to tell a story I can’t imagine it; but I was determined to read it from beginning to end, and did; even when Oyeyemi asks on the two hundredth and eighteenth page of voice-over-narration: “HMMM… STILL HERE?” To be “fair”, part of the problem, if it can be called “a problem”, is that the entirety of the book is Harriet, the mother, telling Perdita, her daughter (who is recovering from a brush with death) the story of their family. But this was Oyeyemi’s choice. She didn’t have to write it this way. And what this means is that everything that happens is filtered through Harriet’s narration, (the reason for the novel-length “voice over”).

But why did I pick up the book initially?

You’ll frequently run into one particular paragraph quoted again and again in multiple reviews. This is it:

~ “It’s like noshing on the actual and anatomical heart of somebody who scarred your beloved and thought they’d got away with it,” the gingerbread addict said, “That heart, ground to ash and shot through with darts of heat, salt, and sulfurous syrup, as if honey was measured out, set ablaze, and trickled through the dough along with the liquefied spoon.” p. 2

This is beautiful writing. This is writing to savor. It’s what I like to call, writing through the metaphor (the flour as the “heart ground to ash”), and it’s a rare commodity. I read this on page 2 and immediately bought the book. Little did I know that this was the first and last example in the entirety of the book. I know that other critics and even readers have gushed over Oyeyemi’s writing, but I found nothing beyond this paragraph on page 2 that I couldn’t find among any number of writers. As a stylistic matter, her writing was generically good but nothing extraordinary. For example:

~ She watched as shadows swept along grassy slopes and swirled down the stream…

That’s fairly generic. If there’s anything that’s going to go down stream, then it will often swirl or be “swept along”. I’ve mentioned Anthony Doerr in my previous reviews so here, by way of comparison, is a brief passage from his short stories:

~ She stands in the wet yard. Exhales. The galaxy wheels above the pines. The bonfire is in a grove near the point. The wind is clean, the grass drowned with dew. Clouds slide in ranks below the stars. Her sneakers are soaked. Forest mulch clings to her cardigan. She crouches in pine needles outside the circle of firelight, sees dark figures shifting, their warped shadows thrown up into the pines. p. 81 The Shell Collector

The wind is clean. How often does the galaxy wheel above pines? When was the last time grass was drowned with dew or the clouds slid in ranks? And then there are the warped shadows. With Doerr we’re in the presence of a prose stylist. Where Oyeyemi’s description defaults to the generic, Doerr’s tweaks are unexpected and fresh, and that’s all it takes. Ultimately, Oyeyemi does the bare minimum as far as scene setting goes, being much more interested in convoluted interpersonal gossip. As other readers have remarked, Oyeyemi does little to nothing to bring the reader into the world of her novel. Instead, you get studiously awful writing like this:

~ “Later you started to like it?” Harriet wasn’t sure what Gabriel was saying; obviously he was saying what he was saying and she didn’t think he meant anything bad by it, but this recollection of his reinforced a feeling she had (a feeling that she’d always had?) that this is the impression she made, that of being a person who can be saved up for later. p. 223

The awfulness feels deliberate, the kind only a good writer can write, as if she’s daring the reader to object. HMMM… she asks. STILL THERE? WELL GET A LOAD OF THIS! And on she goes, page after page, one loopy and vacuous passage after another. It’s like she wanted to see what she could get away with—a sort of loose and dissociative automatic writing. The general reader was not impressed, but apparently the professional critics, with few exceptions, fell in line and decided the emperor’s clothes never looked better.

Good for Oyeyemi for doing something different. The book was original and unlike any that I’ve read, but generally not in a good way. If she writes another book like Ginger Bread, I may read some James Joyce instead.

up in Vermont | August 28th 2022

Four Magical Realist Novels: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Spoiler Alert: Don’t read if you’re worried about spoilers.

Susanna Clarke’s novel, Piranesi, is another that I wouldn’t call “Magical Realism”. I would place it somewhere in the fantasy genre. Clarke’s novel is easily the best written of the four novels. It doesn’t seem as though it was started as one kind of story, only to finish as another. I doesn’t read like passages were retained and uncomfortably shoehorned into a rewrite. It’s of a piece and feels like the work of an experienced author.

That said, the novel can be read in different ways. If it’s read as a straight up ‘Fantasy Novel’—capitalized—then it eventually boils down to the usual protagonist/antagonist, good versus evil, dynamic that compares to Alix Harrow. Even without knowing the background to her story, one gets the sense that Clarke was thoroughly taken by the dream-like, Borgesian surreality she envisioned, then decided to use that as a setting for a novel. Unfortunately, the story, for me, wasn’t really as captivating as its setting. Clarke’s descriptions of her alternate reality were and are bewitching. Unlike some readers, I found the earlier portion of the novel, the discovery phase, more interesting than the latter half. The further one reads, the more conventional the novel becomes in terms of its narrative ark. There is a villain and in the end the villain must be killed.

~ Set of Stairs decorated by Magnificent Architecture by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

But that convention seems to suffice for most readers, nearly ten thousand of whom give the book almost five stars. And of the positive reviews, very few mention the philosophical underpinnings of Clarke’s novel and so that suggests the novel largely works as a fantasy novel despite my finding the ending a bit too conventional.

But if one reads the novel as an allegory, riffing on philosophical ideas encompassing knowledge and existence then it becomes an interesting experiment. I’m not well-read on Art, Architecture or Philosophy and so I won’t claim credit for knowing that Clarke’s character Piranesi is undoubtedly a reference to Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Nor did I clue into the fact that the nature of Clarke’s alternate reality is based on Owen Barfield’s ideas concerning language and knowledge. (My thanks to other reviewers.) If you follow this last link, you will find a link to an interview with Clarke where she discusses Owen Barfield’s ideas and how she used them. Those comments start at about the 20 minutes mark.

So, about Piranesi. The character’s namesake was Giovanni Battista Piranesi who was famous for “his etchings of Rome and of fictitious and atmospheric “prisons” (Le Carceri d’Invenzione)”. And that may be all you need to know about that. The image above, for instance, captures the endless world of architecture that typifies Clarke’s alternate reality (and that was also, in a sense, a prison). And the image below, another by Piranesi, shows what may have inspired the endless statues in Clarke’s labyrinthine “world”.

Clarke seems to have used Piranesi’s etchings as the basis for the novel’s alternate reality—a dreamlike world of endless vestibules, stairs and halls lined by thousands of statues (presumably infinite). Birds come and go, nesting among the statues, as do tides, filling the lower halls with seaweed, seashells and enough fish to feed Piranesi. Some reviewers have drawn parallels between Giovanni Piranesi’s non-existent architecture of the mind and Clarke’s alternate reality which, arguably, is a also a creation of human consciousness (within the context of the novel’s world). That gets somewhat into the College English 101 level of analysis but it’s there.

It was Owen Barfield who formally posited that human beings originally existed in a state of consciousness wherein the world was a part of and expression of their own consciousness and communicated with them through natural signs—a bird’s flight, a tree’s fall, the pattern of wind in the grasses—but he hardly needed to look so far into the past. One frequently reads about this way of perceiving the world when reading about Native American mystics. Which is to say, this idea didn’t originate with Owen Barfield but had already been expressed as a living tradition among American Indians. I know nothing about Barfield but I wouldn’t be surprised if his ideas were directly or indirectly inspired by them.

At any rate, this way of perceiving the world is what characterizes Piranesi’s way of perceiving the labyrinthine world in which he is trapped (though he doesn’t consider himself trapped, his mind and memories having been erased by his time spent in Clarke’s labyrinth). Clarke (in the interview linked above) states that this consciousness is what she was trying to capture and explore. In other words, the story is just a vehicle for her to riff on the paradigm of universal consciousness. By way of contrast, the “villain” (called “the Other” by the now gullible Piranesi) is characterized by his modern mindset and desire to exploit this “consciousness in things”, thinking that he can ultimately control others in our own reality. I’m not sure Clarke was all that successful in that respect. Ketterley is ultimately a distant figure who, in the end, is little more than a symbol for modernity. Ketterley and Piranesi never truly interact. They’re never forced to confront each other’s beliefs. And it’s in that sense that for some, including me, the novel ended in a whimper.

One gets the sense that Clarke (and not just because she states as much in her interview) was more interested in the alternate reality (and Piranesi’s experience of it) than the arc of the story; and that makes the somewhat conventional story arc feel secondary and expedient. More typically, authors will dream up the story first, then create the world and characters that inhabit it. Readers who were unwilling to suspend belief as regards some of the inconsistencies between the setting and the “story” were inclined to dismiss the novel; and that’s fair if one prefers the self-consistent constraints of fantasy world-creation over an allegorical riffing on Owen Barfield’s mystical consciousness.

The other aspect of any book is the author’s stylistic abilities. I haven’t read Clarke’s other books, but in Piranesi there was nothing about her writing that particularly struck me—that made me want to savor an image or turn of phrase. Her talents don’t seem to bend that way. She’s a good writer in that I can’t recall a moment that distracted from the narrative, as with Harrow, or that seemed clumsy and amateurish, as with Hogan. I recall another reviewer referring to her writing style as generic. I might write efficient or serviceable. You will get a description like the following:

~ Once—it was evening in the Autumn—I came to the Doorway of the Twelfth South-Eastern Hall intending to pass through the Seventeenth Vestibule . I found that I was unable to enter it; the Vestibule was full of birds and the birds were all aflight. They circled and spiraled, creating a whirling dance. They filled the Vestibule like a column of smoke, which grew darker and denser in places and the next moment lighter and airier. p. 39

There is nothing particularly poetic in this description. Describing the birds’ flight as a “whirling dance” is utterly conventional, but efficient. The further description of them as a column of smoke growing darker and lighter is equally generic. One could probably find hundreds of examples that describe flocking birds as smoke. What she nevertheless does well is in including not just sight but sound, smell and touch in her descriptions. Though she’s no prose stylist (her writing doesn’t compare to a Gregory Maquire or an Athony Doerr) she does well communicating to the reader a sense of place—a skill that shouldn’t be underestimated.

up in Vermont | August 27th 2022

Four Magical Realist Novels: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

Alix E. Harrow’s book was the second that I read and is another book that gets very high marks from readers, four and half stars with nine thousand reviews, but which disappointed me. The book is considered Magical Realism but I personally would label it more of a Fantasy novel. There are alternate universes that are accessed by doorways or passageways that can magically appear or can be found among ruins. The novel’s premise reminded me straightaway of the movie Time Bandits, a favorite movie of mine, where alternate universes are accessed by doorways or passageways that can magically appear or can be found among ruins.

As with Hogan, the Ten Thousand Doors is Harrow’s first book and it shows. It’s clear that Harrow is a gifted storyteller but she made a variety of decisions that left the novel feeling deeply flawed. First and foremost was the decision to have January, the main character, make all her discoveries through a “book” she finds hidden among her possessions. This entirely robs January of agency and robs the book, as a whole, of discovery. She becomes, in essence, a reader of her own story (rather than unfolding the novel’s world herself). The only mystery that January really has to discover (which, it turns out, is the central mystery of the novel) is the identity of the writer. The astute reader is likely to guess the writer’s identity long before January, which has the unfortunately effect of making January seem somewhat clueless.

Curiously, there’s a feeling to Harrow’s novel that’s similar to Hogan’s. One gets the sense that the novel she started is not the same as the novel she finished. For instance, when January first discovers the “Pocket Diary”, the tone of the writing is archly pedantic and formal (including footnotes)—as though it were the product of an archaic and doddering Oxford professor. As Harrow’s novel progresses, the tone of the writing changes. One gets the sense that Harrow changed her mind about the author’s identity and never bothered to bring the whole into conformity. A possible rationale she might use would be that the author’s style changed as a result of his age and experiences, but given the reasons for the author writing it (who he was writing it for), I find this a very hard sell. Further, while Harrow later rationalizes the author’s reasons for hiding his identity from January, here too his reasons are as thin as the Pocket Diary’s paper. The best that Harrow can come up with is that the author is a coward; and he states that he’s a coward repeatedly (as do several other men including January’s ‘boyfriend’).

And this raises another issue.

Harrow writes with an agenda—and that agenda is to make women not just the central protagonists of her stories, but the only protagonists. You would be forgiven for thinking that Alix E. Harrow, all by herself, is going to right the wrongs of three thousand years of patriarchal literature. If the men in Ten Thousand Doors aren’t all feckless cowards (and not busily declaring themselves to be feckless cowards) then they’re powerful villains in corrupt patriarchal organizations who (oh, by the way) are still cowards:

~ “Maybe all powerful men are cowards at heart, because in their hearts they know power is temporary.”

Writes Harrow.

So that just about covers it. All the men are cowards, even the powerful ones. Besides Harrow’s attitude being boorish, it makes for bad characters. Not only are the men cowards, but they’re incompetent, and the women, for the most part, are their victims. What this means for Harrow’s novel is that everything seems to more or less happen to characters who are too cowardly, incompetent or oppressed to be protagonists. You would think that Harrow would at least grant greater agency to January, but here too the author has a point to make. January must also be rendered a nearly powerless—verging on gullible—victim of the patriarchy. And so we end up with a main character more or less carried from one end of the novel to the other, like a rudderless boat, driven by the tide of Harrow’s central thesis; and a villain who is so flat and predictable as to be a trope.

But, fortunately for January, Harrow created the character of Jane—or, more precisely, a woman with a gun. She becomes a deus-ex-machina-like figure who, like the Gods in Greek and Roman drama, extricates January “from a difficult situation” that might otherwise have forced upon January unnecessary character development.

All this is to say, the novel feels plot and agenda driven.

Moving on to Harrow’s writing, and stylistically speaking, it can be fun and inventive (she clearly has a quick and deft mind) but her delight in her own ability occasionally verges on the insufferable. I haven’t read her later novel, The Once and Future Witches, but there are passages in Ten Thousand Doors where the author just can’t help breaking the fourth wall.

~ I escaped outdoors (see how that world slips into even the most mundane of stories? Sometimes I feel there are doors lurking in the creases of every sentence, with periods for knobs and verbs for hinges). p. 6

To be clear, I love the inventiveness, but I wasn’t convinced this is something the character would have said or written. Whenever this sort of writing occurs (and it occurs several times) the spell of the book is broken. Harrow, interrupting the story, manically writes about writing.

In every other respect, she’s an imaginative writer. I wouldn’t call her a prose stylist. I can’t think of a single image or turn of phrase that gave me pause. There’s little that’s poetic. Where she shines is in how effortlessly her imagination makes analogies and draws associations. That’s a true writer’s gift. She has a good sense of pacing, able to slow or quicken prose according to mood. (A gift Ruth Hogan, at least in The Keeper of Lost Things, conspicuously lacks.) Here for example, is a nice passage which (though Harrow more or less breaks the fourth wall again to write about what a gift to the world she is) is nevertheless beautifully written.

~ Doors, he told her, are change, and change is a dangerous necessity. Doors are revolutions and upheavals, uncertainties and mysteries, axis points around which entire worlds can be turned. They are the beginnings and endings of every true story, the passages between that lead to adventures and madness and—here he smiled—even love. Without doors the worlds would grow stagnant, calcified, storyless. p. 167

In case you missed it, she’s not really talking about doors. Doors, as she strongly intimates several times in the course of the novel (again in case you missed it) are just metaphors for stories. She’s really talking about stories and she’s talking about herself (in case you missed it) the author of said stories. Where would the world be without her stories? But it’s a handsomely written paragraph, the analogy is masterfully handled and I agree with her (being a poet and writer myself) that the world would be calcified and stagnant without—moi. It would be:

Storyless.

I expect Harrow will continue to write stories that feature women defying patriarchal conventions, and why not? But one hopes she does so without making it seem as though she’s sacrificed character and plot on the alter of misandry. And it will be interesting to see if she has any desire to move beyond “light reading”—stories with flat and predictable villains—to more complex stories and characters where good and evil aren’t so cartoonishly or easily delineated—where the solutions aren’t so easily fixed with magic. That said, she is a successful author, is widely read, and both her novels are very well-liked by readers. There’s most definitely a market for more novels like the two she’s already written.

up in Vermont | August 26th 2022

Four Magical Realist Novels: The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been reading novels considered to be in the Magical Realism genre. Since I’m reading them, I thought I might as well comment on them (and I’ve been somewhat disappointed by what’s on offer). The first of the four was The Keeper of Lost Things. Reading it brings me to the observation that there are writers and there are storytellers and sometimes one gets both, as with Anthony Doerr—a beautiful writer and a fantastic storyteller—but more often, as with Hogan, the storytelling exceeds an author’s writerly gifts. If one has to choose from extremes, by the way, then be a fantastic storyteller and a terrible writer. Readers are far more apt to forgive poor writing (if they even recognize it) than poor storytelling.

The Keeper of Lost Things is Ruth Hogan’s first novel and I had my troubles with it. The novel seems to begin as one story, then end as another. Despite the novel being entitled “The Keeper of Lost Things”, the novel is neither about the “Keeper”, who is primarily a subplot, and only tangentially the “Lost Things”. Hogan tells stories related to the lost items, but these stories are told by an omniscient narrator and not unearthed by the characters themselves. The stories related to the lost things are largely unrelated to the larger plot (though I suppose the industrious English major could cook something up). There’s no discovery or revelation. As for returning the lost items to their owners, Hogan knocks any magic or romance out of that project by having the characters dispatch the whole mess to an online database. I guess magical realism only gets one so far. They wash their hands of the lost things and get on with the real subject of the novel—two romances with all the usual will they, won’t they tropes, one in the past and one in the present.

The one character who does seem to know a little about a lost item’s provenance is the teen-aged Sunshine, and her knowledge is the magical sort. She just knows. No explanation. Likewise, one of the novel’s central puzzles, the reasons why a resident ghost is upset (who only appears half way through the novel because that’s probably when the idea occurred to Hogan), is less a matter of discovery than of characters essentially being hit over the head with the solution. Sunshine, by the way, apparently knows and has known the solution all along. And in keeping with that sort of trope, can’t be bothered to share what she knows.

~ “Enough with the mushy, stuff girls,” he said, rocking his chair backwards on two legs. “What’s the clue?”
Sunshine looked at him with dutiful amusement, which quickly withered into undisguised scorn when she realized that he wasn’t joking. p. 233

Muggles. You know?

It’s a pity Hogan doesn’t make more of the “Lost Things” because it’s a great premise, but it would have been a completely different novel. It’s also probably more than Hogan could take on. She might have realized that writing about hundreds of lost things was going to be a mammoth undertaking. She instead decided to reuse the bits and pieces of what she’d already written as an atmospheric backdrop and subplot for a romance novel. I could be utterly wrong, but that’s the way I read the novel—as if rather than toss out any number of false starts and rough drafts, she decided she just needed to finish the book and ineptly grafted everything together.

At this point, any fan of Hogan’s novel might point out that her novel is a best seller and I’m still looking for an agent. Good point. I do think Hogan is a promising storyteller and her decision to write a romance using magical realism as a backdrop (whether her original intent or not) was timely if not shrewd. She handles the usual Romantic tropes, all but clichéd by this point, with (as she would write) aplomb. She wrote a lightweight, feel-good easy-reader perfect for a summer’s evening and readers have rewarded her for it. Think of the book as a scoop of ice cream. There’s little to no character development and the flavors are haphazard, but she gets the cream and sugar about right—the romance—and that’s all readers really ask from ice cream.

The larger stumbling block with Hogan’s book, typical of me, concerned her writing.

First, it has to be said as that this is her first book. I haven’t read any other books by her and for all I know she could have improved considerably. As it is, Hogan often sounds like she’s spent way too much time reading the ad copy of a Seinfeld J Peterman catalog. And so you get a paragraph like the following, full of trite and clichéd phrases [italics mine]:

~ Sarah Trouvay was a first-class barrister with a stellar career, two healthy, rumbustious boys, and a rugged architect husband. She also had an unexpected talent for yodeling, which had earned her extravagant plaudits as Maria in the school production of The Sound of Music. She and Laura had met at school and remained close friends ever since. Not close in terms or geography and frequency; they rarely met or spoke more than two or three times a year. But the bond between them, formed at an early age and tempered over time by triumphs and tragedies, remained as durable as it was dependable.

Don’t you want to buy dungarees that are as durable as they are dependable? For your rugged architect husband? And who doesn’t love extravagant plaudits? Or earlier in the novel we get this:

~ The question came from a leggy blonde who appeared down the path at the side of the house in skintight jeans and pale pink suede loafers which boasted telltale Gucci horse bit trims and matched perfectly with her cashmere sweater.

What about that cashmere sweater with the boasted Gucci bit trims? Hogan goes on and on like this. She tends toward vacuous and clichéd adjectives you would expect to find on a real-estate brochure [italics mine]:

~ The roses looked magnificent. Blooms of every shape, size, and hue combined to create a shimmering sea of scent and color. The lawn was a perfect square of lush green and the fruit trees and bushes at the bottom of the garden burgeoned with the promise of late summer bounty. p. 49

And then there are the mixed metaphors, clumsy and overstated:

~ Outside, the vapor trail of a plane was scrawled across the blue sky like the knobbled spine of a prehistoric animal. p. 168

Because, just in case you weren’t sure, the sky was blue. And the contrail wasn’t just like a spine, let’s not leave the metaphor there, but like a spine scrawled on a piece of paper. And then there’s this chestnut:

~ Anthony had told her so many things that she hadn’t known, and the knowledge had swept through her head like a wild wind through a field of barley, leaving it mussed and disarranged. p. 40

In any other context this would be nothing short of satire. The knowledge swept through her head? Would it have otherwise swept through her liver? And why barley? That’s oddly specific. And just in case the metaphor wasn’t already obvious, she adds the explanatory leaving it mussed and disarranged, as though the reader can’t be trusted to figure it all out. The sentence is an object lesson in how not to write.

The argument could be made that she was trying to adopt a sort of tongue and cheek, gossipy, narrative voice (let me tell you just the most delightful story). It seems to have worked for most readers, to judge by the four and half stars her book netted among readers, but I found it tiresome. She also stuffs her book with pop culture references (songs and artists) that, if you’re like me, are utterly meaningless. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with such references, but any author insisting on them is going to leave a sizable portion of their readership in the dark. The characters also regularly laugh uproariously at their own jokes. It’s always a bad sign when the author has to finger point at the “funny parts”.

All in all, the general tone was too smarmy and ingratiating for my tastes, and the writing too amateurish. That said, I’m happy for her and for the success of her novel. I hope she keeps writing and wish her further success.

up in Vermont | August 26th 2022

North of Autumn | Hymn # 17 The Garden Snake

I’m back in Vermont today. One thing I don’t miss about city life is the noise. Most of Berlin’s streets are off the main arteries and offer truly beautiful neighborhoods, villages within the city with streets shaded by trees, full of cafés and singing birds. The birds will almost perch on your plate if you let them. And these streets can be right around the corner from major thoroughfares like the Kudamm or Karl-Marx-Allee and you’d never guess it, but walking along any of the main arteries is real punishment for the ears—the tire noise of automobiles and the furious snarl of trucks. You would think that a car or truck’s exhaust system or engine would be the main producers of noise but they’re not—not remotely. The single most problematic noise is tire noise and the decibel level of that noise is dramatic even at lower speeds. Tires are largely what make city streets loud and it’s predominantly harmful to ones hearing.

Traveling on the trains, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn, isn’t any better.

The newest S-Bahn is a drastic improvement, quiet as a cathedral, but I only rode one of these. The rest of the above and below ground trains are god-awful. They have no air-conditioning and so Berliners open the windows and by the time the trains have screeched their way through curving tracks, metal grinding against metal, and traveling through the angry echo chambers of the tunnels, it will be a wonder if all Berliners aren’t deaf by their fifties. Between the busier streets and the public transportation the assault on hearing is non-stop. I’m particularly bothered by it having tinnitus. I remember stepping into the underground parking garage beneath the flat where we stayed and thinking I wanted to live there. There was no noise. It was pure silence. Most of Europe has really got to get it’s car-centric cities under control.

The field out back of my house, deep in Vermont, was blissful with the sound of crickets and tree frogs. The air was moist and August-sweet.

Anyway, I wrote this latest on the flight back, 37,000 feet on Aer Lingus.

  What has the snake to do with malice
    Who never once harmed me?
  She takes my garden for her palace
    And grants me tenancy.

  She wears a robe from tongue to tail
    That glitters in the sun—
  A turquoise rippling through the swale
    Surveying what I've done.

  I think that if she could she'd choose
    To demonstrate her wit.
  She'd have me read to her the news
    And let the weeding sit.

  But then again perhaps snakes know
    Where all our monsters dwell—
  The gardens where our foibles grow
    (She knows them all too well).

  But I don't mean to be untoward
    (We're both the other's guest).
  If nothing else then going forward,
    Let each by each be blessed.

  Hymn #17 The Garden
  by me
  August 17th 2022 

North of Autumn | Fables

Because I still sketch all my poetry by hand in sketchbooks. This was written while visiting the Botanical Garden. Written for the book but also a touch personal.

  Forgive me if I'm worse for wear.
There's nothing I've to show
For writing poetry here and there.
I should take care, I know—
The ant instructs us patiently—
The winter will be long—
But where would summer's evenings be
Without the cricket's song?

Aug 13, 2022
Botanischer Garten
by me

North of Autumn | Hymn #8 Butterflies

Just a reminder for anyone new to the blog. These poems are being written for a novel I’m writing (or at least will get back to once I’m back in Vermont) called North Of Autumn. (I’ll be back this coming Thursday). The poems are those of a deceased character who read and loved Emily Dickinson. The poem that follows is possibly the most “Dickinsonian” of them. I thought up this one while biking the Mauerweg, a bicycle path that follows where the Wall used to be. It’s mostly a paved and beautiful path. In just the roughly thirty years since the wall, towers, and mine fields were removed, a forest has grown up; but the most startling strangeness is the transition from former West Berlin to former East Germany.

The West Berliners developed right up to the Wall when it was still standing, while the East Germans deliberately left their side undeveloped, the farms and fields untouched. Now that the Wall is gone, the effect is surreal. Going south, the city just stops. It doesn’t gradually peter out. It just stops. There aren’t even roads. Just dirt footpaths. If you’re biking East, and if you look to your left, there will be houses and apartment buildings, roads, buses, playgrounds, etc. If you look to your right, there’s nothing but flat fields and trees as far as the eye can see. You would think you were somewhere deep in Germany’s farm lands. The fields would never last in the US. There would be stroads and strip malls in no time. I can’t help hoping this little piece of Berlin surreality remains unchanged.

  The seasons do not tabulate
    The yearly gross and net,
  And neither do they contemplate
    What quotas go unmet.

  The endless inefficiencies
    Give reason to be worried
  (There's no escaping winter's fees)
    Yet dreams will not be hurried.

  The dreary mind cannot affirm
    What nature testifies—
  The paltry labor of the worm
    Becoming butterflies.

  Written on the Mauerweg
  by Me
  August 12 2022

North of Autumn | Hymn #5 ‘Haute Couture’

This was largely written on the M10 Straßenbahn and the 200 bus going to the Zoologischer Garten; and was, believe it or not, inspired by a woman actually sitting next to me at a café who was discussing French fashion (though in German). The words in Italic are pronounced the way the French would pronounce them (read with the meter), otherwise the rhymes and meter are a mess.

  There sat a woman next to me
    Who praised Paris and Haute
  Couture! How fashionable—Mais oui!
    Their personages of note.

  I almost butted in to say
    We have our 'noted' too
  Sometimes they visit the café
    Doing what they do—

  The firefly's unmatched attire,
    Radiantly on trend,
  Ensembles few to none acquire
    (I tell you as a friend);

  Regard the swank and rakish crow,
    The black accoutrement
  The perfect compliment to snow
    Too timeless not to flaunt;

  As well I hardly need explain
    The glamor of September,
  The catwalk of an Autumn lane,
    The season's boho splendor—

  The chic sangfroid of Maple trees
    (Decidedly iconic).
  But rest assured, my dear (do please!),
    I drank my gin and tonic.

by Me
On the M10, Berlin, August 6, 2022
From the Kupferstichkabinett Museum Berlin.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I’ve been reading novels of Magical Realism. Since I’m writing my own in the genre, I thought I should see how other authors are managing it. My original post was entitled “Four Magical Realism Novels” but here I am, in Berlin, without any of the novels for reference. They’re all in Vermont. So I’ll have to write that post when I’m back in Vermont. I bought Ness’s novel from a little English Bookstore on Kastanienstraße. You might ask why, being in Germany, I’m not reading Magical Realism by German authors. I tried. Turns out, there aren’t any. For whatever reason, German authors haven’t taken up the genre. A number of Spanish and American authors have been translated into German, but that’s as far as it goes. Rather than wait until I’m home to include this bit of opinion in a larger post, I thought I’d go ahead and publish it on its own.

“A Monster Calls” by Patrick Ness may be the story that has struck the nicest balance between “magic” and realism (among those I’ve read)—meaning that the story didn’t create alternate universes but remained firmly in our own reality. The magic was the right measure of maybe real and maybe not. That is, one wasn’t quite sure if the “magic” was imagined even as it seemed to effect the “real world” in tangible ways. My personal opinion is that stories that veer toward outright magic as a manipulable force (along with alternate realities) veer more toward the fantasy genre than “magical realism”.

My main complaint as regards “A Monster Calls” is stylistic. Ness is capable of writing beautifully descriptive prose, as when he describes the Yew Tree’s transformation into a monster, but I all too often felt that he was “writing down” to his audience. He seems to adopt the kind of amateurish (and sometimes clichéd) overstatement and vernacular one would expect from the thirteen year old main character, not the author. It’s possible Ness wrote like this to ingratiate himself with a YA audience but I’m not sure. If it was deliberate, then pick one or the other. Don’t write like an experienced novelist one moment, then a thirteen year old at the next. Otherwise, one ends up with paragraphs like the following:

“Every time the monster moved, Conor could hear the creak of wood, groaning and yawning in the monster’s huge body. He could see, too, the power in the monster’s arms, great wiry ropes of branches constantly twisting and shifting together in what must have been tree muscle, connected a massive trunk of a chest, topped by a head and teeth that could chomp him down in one bite.” p. 49 [Italics mine.]

It’s those very last words that roll my eyes. The majority of the description finds us firmly in the hands of an experienced and evocative writer. Does he really need to wrench me into the vernacular of Conor, aged 13, by then observing that the monster sure could chomp him down in one bite! That sure is one heck of a monster there! Those words belong in Conor’s mouth, not the narrator’s.

Or an example of overstatement:

“It laughed louder and louder again, until the ground was shaking and it felt like the sky itself might tumble down.” p. 83

It sure did. It felt like the whole sky itself—not just the “sky” but the “sky itself” might tumble right down. And sometimes it wasn’t just the school but “it felt like the whole school was holding its breath, waiting to see what Conor would do” (179) And when the monster sat on top of Conor’s grandmother’s office it “placed its entire great weight on top”. Not just its weight, not just its great weight, but its entire great weight. The reader will find this sort of empty and mannered overstatement throughout the book, all in pursuit of something resembling “authenticity”. That is, Ness might think he’s writing like a 13 year old but none of my 13 years olds ever talked like this. Who did? Children in 1950s and 60s movies did. Too much of his writing sounds like the kind of nonsense put into the mouths of child actors by gin-sipping screen writers who went home to cigarettes and noir:

“The whole room was like a museum of how people lived in olden times. There wasn’t even a television.” (108)

Not just the room, but the “whole room”, and who doesn’t go to museums of how animals looked before the whole world was totally obliterated by a rock so big it was even bigger than the biggest mountain ever? And there weren’t even televisions! And who doesn’t go to museums of how people painted way back before you were even alive? And they didn’t even have printers! And “olden times”? Who talks like that? And the characters themselves, by the way, too often behave more like clichéd caricatures—as though Ness not only adopted the worst of Hollywood’s script writing but also their “Lord of the Flies” vision of education. There’s the predictable bully, the bully’s snickering sidekicks and the usual social dynamics that plague all Hollywood schools. Another trope that’s gone stale.

But maybe this is really the way Ness writes? All in all, as a stylistic matter, the best writing occurred when the monster appeared (though later in the book the descriptions flirt with repetitiveness) and during the close of the book when the subject matter’s emotional weight means, apparently, that Ness doesn’t have to try so hard. And while the writing then is at its best, simple and direct, even that is marred in the closing chapter by Ness’s all too earnest and explanatory moralizing. He can’t just let the story speak for itself but flirts with an almost Victorian fussiness.

My other criticism, which is more arbitrary, concerns the first story/fable told by the monster (who declares he will tell three stories, then demand a fourth from Conor). I noticed that readers on Amazon who disliked the story objected to its subject matter: sex and murder. They felt it didn’t belong in a YA novel. That’s not what bothered me. I did find the story silly and forced (even granting that it was deliberately absurd) but that’s not what bothered me. Oddly, it’s that he made the story about Kings, Queens and Princes. Aren’t we done with stories about the aristocracy? Hasn’t Disney done enough to drive that genre into the ground? And while I do get why he did it, I’d argue that Ness could have told the same story without recourse to a worn out trope.

All in all, I wanted to like the novelette more than I did. It possesses all the gothic elements I love. Just look at my poem “Into the Woods” (written, by the way, before I read Ness’s novel). But regardless of what I think, it’s an immensely popular book that’s been made into a movie with none other than Sigourney Weaver. And the reason for the book’s success is no doubt because Ness ultimately tells a good and meaningful story despite its flaws (the book is no masterpiece), interspersed with evocative imagery and an evocative monster. The book tells the story of a boy coming to terms with his mother’s battle with cancer. To anyone who wants to be a successful author the moral is simple: Writing well is optional. Writing a good story is a must.

by Me

Berlin, August 4th 2022

North of Autumn | Thursday’s Letter Hymn # 17

The U2 must like me. I wrote this poem in one sitting, getting on the U-Bahn at Schönhauser Allee and getting out at Sophie-Charlotte-Platz. That doesn’t happen very often, but I can see how Emily Dickinson wrote so many poems in so short a time. The ballad hymns almost write themselves. The short lines, 8s and 6s, don’t give much scope for over-thinking, especially if one rhymes. One goes where the rhymes lead. The trick is to make them seem wholly coincidental—as if the poet had no idea, none at all, that the poem was rhyming. And if the reader doesn’t notice, all the better.

  I otherwise would hardly write
    (These poems are hit or miss)
  But here I sit, alone tonight,
    Still thinking of your kiss.

  Just so you know, a storm came through;
    The garden is a mess.
  You ought to see the honeydew.
    They're floating more or less.

  The mellons drift from row to row,
    And peas are here and there.
  Don't bother asking if I know
    Which vegetables are where.

  But I can tell you either way
    The mellons are delicious,
  The flesh— so cool, so sweet. To say
    Much more would be seditious.

  I washed the dirt from some tomatoes;
    Diced and tossed them in
  With several waterlogged potatoes—
    (The soup's a little thin).

  The weather teaches us, I guess,
    What is and isn't ours—
  But have I mentioned, nonetheless,
    How beautiful the stars?

    Thursday's Letter
    Written on the U2 on August 31
    by Me

I’ve extended my stay in Berlin until the middle of August. The weather in the poem was inspired by weather, not in Berlin, but back home in Vermont. Something like a small tornado or wind sheer came through and dropped trees across roads, on top of cars and rooftops. That got me thinking about the garden and raspberries in our backyard.

Also, another picture from the city of my birth.