Sunday, January 27, 2013

NW, by Zadie Smith

Oh, how I love a good London novel! Sure, we can and should include Dickens and Thackeray in the mix, but what I'm really talking about here are the novels that have introduced me to the London I've encountered myself. I think the first one was a mystery novel by P.D. James called Innocent Blood . I don't actually remember the book all that well--what I remember is the heroine's determination to get herself a flat in this very expensive city. Presumptuous and unheard of to a California girl's ears. More recently, An Equal Music by Vikram Seth, or Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd--not by all accounts, his best work, but a wonderfully vivid imagining of what it would be like to live rough in one of the greatest of cities. There are plenty more--you can probably name a few favorites yourself. Into this mix comes NW, the gifted Zadie's latest. I think sometimes these things are really a matter of timing--I had wanted to read it, and when there finally came time that I could read it, I had that readerly receptivity that only comes when you've been thwarted in getting to something for awhile. At any rate, I fell in step with it immediately and wanted to read little else.

The story begins with one of a pair of friends, a woman named Leah, who opens the door to someone from her neighborhood who is in distress. The woman is not of her class or her race and this non-meeting of minds has a tentative, ever shifting quality, where we don't really know who's on top even by the end of the meeting. As in E.M. Forster, who we know from On Beauty is one of Smith's lodestars, the inequality of status between the two people predicts a certain kind of outcome, and one which everyone else in the book subsequently forces upon Leah as the only probable one, but in the encounter itself, there lies the shimmering possibility of more than one interpretation.

NW, in case you don't know yet, is the designation for a certain northwestern section of London. This would have been a good book to have bound with some maps as endpapers, because unless you know London well, much better than I do, you may miss out on some of the magnificent joy of walking London's streets through the novel's eyes. Like it or hate it, or love it as I do, London is indisputably one of the world's greatest cities. I was thrilled, then, to have the characters, native Londoners, even with their overtones of Jamaican ancestry in some cases, come across the unknown in this, their native city. I suppose it's because I want some place in the world to be inexhaustible--or maybe all places in the world to be inexhaustible. In any event, Leah and her longtime friend Natalie eventually happen upon an ancient church in the middle of a roundabout, a place they had never noticed before. Many things are happening in the minds of these friends and between them as they wander this hallowed site, but for me, the fact that it happens in an English country church tucked away in the midst of the booming metropolis is quite wonderful.

Though we will hear the tale through both Leah's and Natalie's perspective, and in fact, in the third section will hear the entire story of that friendship from its beginning, there are a couple of other stories wandering through this tale. One of them is that of Felix, a Jamaican descended Englishman who wanders the city in his own segment. Some people have criticized this particular story for it's disconnectedness from the main narrative, but for me, there was an echo of Forster's secondary characters, who, try as they will, do not quite fit into the successful script of the main ones, as well as the Septimus Smith character of Mrs. Dalloway. In any good London novel, after all, there are the tracks and traces of other people living lives of purposes quite different than those of the protagonists, and yet in some way bound to theirs through the great metropolis all the same.

But then of course there are echoes of many other novels in this one, because Smith knows them well. She can't help including them in her frame of reference as a British novelist of the 21st century. They are part of her inheritance, they come with the territory. Joyce Carol Oates claims James Joyce for her, although I didn't think of him, but I'm sure there was some thought of him in writing about daily life in a metropolis--how could there not be? And her with her Irish husband...

In thinking about the book again, I listened to Smith read from the book, an experience you can replicate here. I was reminded again of the marvelous scene at the playground. The difference in speech between the parties that end up quarreling over an innocuous event on the children's roundabout comes through in the novel itself, but hearing her read it shows her mastery of the different speech patterns of a multitude of Londoners. I was surprised, in fact, to discover that her speaking voice retains so much of the Jamaican accents that I sometimes hear when I watch Eastenders. It is obvious from her reading that this is something of a conscious choice.

I am obviously not telling you much about the actual plot of the novel, because I want you to discover it for yourself. I will say that I read an interview Smith did once with the novelist Ian McEwan. (She was interviewing him.) She admitted that she hadn't quite figured out how to do endings, and complimented him on his success at that.

With NW, I'd say she figured that one out.  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Wild Bill, by Dana King

When Gianni Bevilacqua dies a premature death from eating too many cannoli, an internecine war breaks out over who will succeed him as mob boss of the Outfit. Will it be his son, Gianni Junior, who takes a blood lineage succession for granted, or will it be old hand and former consiglieri Frank Ferraro's years of savvy and experience that will win the day?

From this question springs the whole of Wild Bill's wild ride, involving not just the two sides of the Chicago Outfit, but cops and Feds as well. This is a very accomplished debut novel, which keeps many plates adeptly spinning, and reminded me in this sense of novels by John McFetridge and Declan Burke, and from there inevitably hearkens back to the crime fiction of Elmore Leonard. There is quite a lot of understated humor in this book as well. I probably should have taken a few notes so that I could quote you a few lines, but maybe it's just as well, as you will run across them yourselves.

As I'm not normally a huge fan of the Goodfella kind of mentality, it's probably understandable that I would be a tad more interested in the Feds and cops, though you couldn't by any stretch of the imagination make this a black and white sort of issue. But I would have liked to see more of fed protagonist Will Hickox's sidekick Ray Fa'alepo, and definitely more of Madeline "Mad" Klimak, a strong female protagonist who shows that King has a range beyond the macho trope. Maybe they'll appear in a sequel?

View all my reviews

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Expendable Man, by Dorothy B. Hughes

More than most books, this novel is one you should just jump into without preamble. So don't read the back cover, don't read any reviews that reveal plot, and so on. What I thought I would do here is write around all that, and so encourage you to pick it up without specifically telling you the story.

I first discovered Hughes many years ago, probably the mid to late eighties, when she was already having a revival of sorts. It was a time when major publishing houses still quite frequently brought older, half forgotten works to the reading public's attention again and it was through these auspices that I discovered the likes of Josephine Tey, Mary Roberts Reinhart, Edmund Crispin, Margery Allingham and many more. I believe there were about four Hughes novels reissued together, the ones I remember best, because of the arresting titles, being The So Blue Marble and Ride a Pink Horse. I read these two and I may have read others; in fact, there were times as I read this one, that I thought I may have read it back then as well. I don't think so--I think it's because Hughes' protagonists share some similarities. For one reason or another, they are isolated people, forced into increasingly desperate circumstances.

Some writers would seem to be able to turn their hand to anything, and Hughes' writing life was more varied than most. Before she was a novelist, she was a journalist, but before that, she was a poet dazzling enough to have hard her first book, a poetry collection, published in the Yale Series of Younger Poets.

Her poetic gifts come through in this novel as well. This is a book of fairly terse prose, but in her descriptions of place and particularly of the Southwestern desert where much of this takes place, she reveals her poet's eye.

The time of the book is somewhere around 1963, when it was published. It is a very particular moment in American history, and Hughes gets this moment exactly right. It stood out to me because after watching so many episodes of the much vaunted Mad Men, it's very clear that there is a big difference between throwing in period detail, and chronicling the period in which you live. I am not sure that even Hughes herself could hope to get this particular story right, but the sense of what people believed and feared and felt possible is much truer to my own childhood memory of the era than our 21st century simulations of this.

It's funny that I thought at first that this novel was perhaps a bit derivative. It reminded me a bit of Red Lights, an American novel by the great Belgian writer, Simenon, which, like this edition, is another  reissue of the wonderful New York Review of Books imprint,  and which I wrote a brief review of HERE . And it also recalled the movie Kiss Me Deadly, a 1955 film that I only saw within the last few years. What all three share are a road trip and the hazards of the road.

Trust me, though. This one is different. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happy New Year and Happy Reading

I'm a couple of days late and more than a few dollars short, but I thought I'd give this blog a bit of a kick in the pants and talk about reading and reading projects for a bit. I'm in the middle of several things and not near the end of any of them, but for some reason the beginning of the year always makes me feel incredibly optimistic about my reading goals. It's probably the combination of the end of the holiday madness and the still short days that makes me feel like I'll now have a lot more time for the printed word. Somewhat delusional, but it's a nice delusion, and you never know.

I'm currently reading Dana King's Wild Bill, his contemporary Mafia story set in Chicago. Reminds me a bit of John McFetridge's Toronto crime fiction in it's ability to keep many plates spinning. I've also started Zadie Smith's NW, the new novel by a famous author that I perhaps most wanted to read. The reviews have been mixed, but I'm really enjoying it and I think it's one of those books that caught me at just the right time. I'm also well and truly absorbed in Expendable Man  by Dorothy Hughes. I'd read several of her novels of pyshological suspense before, but apparently missed this one, put out freshly under the New York Review of Books imprint. And I'm soon to start The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman's wildly popular book about the healing philosophies of the Hmong culture, or so I gather. Have yet to open it, but as it's a book group selection, open it I shall.

I have very ambitious plans about reading more books for the Europa Book Challenge, 2013, but probably the less said about that the better, until I actually have time to start one...

Good luck to us all.