Book Reviews

I mostly review books here, but you may find some short stories along the way.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

New Yorker: The Empties by Jess Row – Genre Metafiction

Published in the October 27, 2014 issue of  The New Yorker, “The Empties” by Jess Row is a postapocalyptic (or is it dystopian?) short story set in the Northeast. What grabbed me about this story was in the fourth paragraph, where Row’s characters step back and view their own narrative. What story are we in? What’s happening?

Anyway, Quentin’s saying, I was down at the Grange listening to these guys arguing about the difference between dystopia and apocalypse. Can you believe that? One of them was saying that we were living in a dystopian novel, and the other guy, big bearded dude, from the West Rats Collective, said, No, dystopia means an imaginary place where everything is exactly wrong, and what we’re living in is a postapocalyptic, prelapsarian kind of thing, you know, a return to nature after the collapse of society as we knew it.

And I must have been three or four shots in—we were drinking Wayne Peters’s sweet-potato vodka—because I said, Look, kiddos, the truth is neither, because we have no idea what might happen, the infrastructure is still basically in place, especially if people from certain collectives hadn’t stripped out the copper over in White River—

—but my point is really that dystopian and postapocalyptic narratives are narratives, that is, stories: things that are inherently invented or collated ex post facto. Narratives are static. Real life is, is—


The point is, we need to just let all that shit go, because, call it End Times or whatever you want, things are different now. None of the old endings played out, did they? So we have to imagine new endings. Hence the possibility for hope.

So, immediately, Row let’s us know he’s familiar with this genre and willing to pull away from the standard script, but does he follow through? With further references to Cormac McCarthy, he’s aiming his sights high; but ultimately, the story doesn’t deliver. What starts out strong ends up as another post-apocalyptic, disaster story that aims for some literary quality (literary meaning complex sentences and characters who seem like people), but that’s been done by Cormac McCarthy in The Road, Margaret Atwood in the MaddAdam Trilogy, and to an extent in comic books like Y: The Last Man and The Walking Dead, which may not have the literary angle, but do have an original storyline. In “The Empties” the power is out. That’s what leads to this collapse. It’s more benign than Ebola, Zombies, or a nuclear attack. But it’s like the first pitch of a baseball game, all that follows is the same. People are trying to survive after the collapse of civilization as we know it. Where’s the originality that Ross hints at on page one? These next two sentences point toward originality, or at least, create vivid, interesting images.

There was a girl, she remembers, who went up on the grassy hillside behind the Montessori school with a basket of scraps and a pair of scissors and began re-creating her Pinterest page, squares of bright cloth for each jpeg, strips of blue sheet for the tool bar and browser frame.

I love this image of a person coping and going through some technological withdraw in a such a delusional manner.

This isn’t science fiction, Quentin says, because if it were we’d have the answers, we’d know what happened.

And, while this second sentence states there will be no answers, it doesn’t set itself apart from The Road, which also had no answers, but plopped the reader down in a terrible present.

Perhaps, though, the originality is in the form of a disguised death. There’s a dreamy quality to the narration and one can easily imagine lucidity slipping away for the main character. The conversations are like the light from stars. By the time they reach the reader, we don’t realize they happened in the past. How much time has passed? Who said what? It isn’t until the end that we realize the character with whom she’d been talking to is dead. Quentin flows into Nathan and the reader readily confuses the two. There are no transitions or explanations; these are remembrances. Part of the narrator’s writing process. I enjoyed that aspect of the story, but then the true ending seemed to scale back. Outsiders approach the town. Are they good or bad? Is the world that black and white? We don’t know. We’re left with Quentin’s hope and the assault rifle slung across the narrator’s knees.

What were your thoughts on this story? What aspects of the story worked well and, or where did you think the story could be improved?

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Bell

This isn’t really a review, because I couldn’t get into the book. The format, initially, is interview transcripts. While the idea for the novel sounded interesting, the writing just didn’t pull me in. One contributing factor is my new role. I don’t have the time to invest in books that take work. Silence Once Begun took work and I borrowed it through interlibrary loan. Off it goes back to Tulane University.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

goldfinch-tarttDonna Tartt’s The Goldfinch left me conflicted. As I grew to dislike the main character, Theo Decker, I wanted to dislike the novel. Theo’s father is a gambler and it seems like an apt metaphor, did Tartt overplay her hand at the end of the novel? Does she manage to bring the reader to a point where they’re satisfied or is there a sense she’s walking away from the table after losing? One issue with the novel is the pacing and length. Sections that move the plot forward go on far too long and seem poised to counterbalance the length of time spent on Theo’s adulthood.

What I enjoyed about The Goldfinch was Tartt’s use of a first-person narrator. Theo Decker goes through massive trauma. It’s his story and, for the most part, he seems reliable. Yet, Theo isn’t introspective. He tells us of events. Describes things that have happened. Yet, never looks at himself too hard. It’s only when events rise to a confrontation that we see Theo in the way that other people see him. He doesn’t cover his drug habit as well as he thinks. He’s far seedier than he believes. The lies he tells are not as well-developed as he believes. Is it his trauma and constant drug use that cause his overconfidence or lack of awareness? I read it as a side effect of his addiction. He believes in this persona and is surprised to learn people have seen past it.

Tartt sets up The Goldfinch by creating massive amounts of sympathy for Theo. His mother is killed in an explosion, a terrorist attack on an art museum. Theo survives. His deadbeat father left and his parents divorced a year earlier. No one can track the father down. His grandparents don’t want Theo. Theo is all alone except for a rich family that takes him in temporarily. Can it get worse? In fact, it does. In the first two-hundred pages, Tartt elicits a mountain of sympathy from the reader. Poor Theo, we think. If the novel followed an arc we’re accustomed to, Theo would turn things around. The novel would follow a pattern like that of Great Expectations or David Copperfield. Tragedy would meet with triumph. However, Tartt tacks in the other direction. Tragedy compounds tragedy. Years skip ahead and we see Theo as a young adult taking advantage of people, lying to his friends and addicted to painkillers. There is no beacon of light.

At the end of the novel, Theo almost redeems himself. He’s made a decision, but events stop him at the last instant. While Theo seems to be making up for his misdeeds, he gets away with so much more. It’s his friendship with Hobie that stays intact, while everything else crumbles unsaid. Theo is not happy. But, Theo is rarely happy. He continues to view life through depression and loss. And it’s unclear what keeps him going. All of the sympathy the reader lost for him isn’t regained. If I ask myself, so what? Who cares about Theo Decker? Why am I invested in him? The answer I receive, is that I’m not invested in him. I don’t care about Theo. For some readers, Tartt may have gained them back at the end; however, the narration and editorializing felt like an over-correction. Tartt is trying hard at the end, but it may not work. Theo’s voice feels less like his and more like someone else’s. Is Theo like the next moment after a still life’s been painted? The ripeness gone rotten? That’s how I read it. There was a moment, after his father left and when his mother was still alive, that Theo was happy. He was safe. He was cared for and loved. After the explosion that moment was lost. Theo is not heroic. He’s a sad kid who grows up to be a drug addict. But in thinking of sympathetic drug addicts (Jesse from Breaking Bad or Dan from Half Nelson), Theo does not fit into that mold. It’s unclear if he wants to change. He isn’t hopeful. Life doesn’t hold promise for Theo. So, what are we left with?

What we’re left with is an entertaining novel that takes us somewhere unexpected. Along the way, we learn to appreciate well-made furniture, antiques and fine art. Love and warmth are displayed through the compassionate character, Hobie, who becomes a surrogate parent of sorts. Reckless loyalty is found in Theo’s friend, Boris, kind of a Han Solo-esque character. And perhaps, it’s enough to just get by. Theo endures and maybe, for him, that’s a victory of sorts.

Galatea 2.2, Richard Powers

Galatea 2.2Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2 is part science-fiction and part metafictional memoir. Unfortunately, in the twenty years since its publication, computer technology and neuropsychology have advanced to the point where Powers’ novel feels dated and quaint.

However, the more interesting parts of the novel are the main character’s, also named Richard Powers, memories of his failed relationship with a woman known only to the reader as C. The artificial intelligence that Powers and Dr. Lentz work to build serves as a repository for Powers’ reflections and spurs him toward further thoughts of C. We see the arc of a relationship as Powers and C meet in university. We see how writing played an important role in their relationship, with Powers creating a world specifically for C. When that world is published as a novel, what was once intimate becomes open to the masses.

The audience for Powers’ novels was always C. What does it mean when that audience then becomes everyone? In this way, something enters their relationship. It’s not another woman, but it’s something that breaks their bond.

There were times when I loved reading this novel and there were sections I struggled to get through. Ultimately, it’s a smart novel about love and memory, but it feels bogged down by its obsolete technology.