American Pastoral, Philip Roth

American Pastoral is the story of a decent man who built a wonderful life, where everything is great until his teenage daughter goes off the rails in the late 1960s and blows up the local post office.

It’s the story of Seymour ‘The Swede’ Levov, a Jewish-American high school sports star who married Miss New Jersey before bringing his his family’s glove manufacturing business to new heights of success.

Levov is a decent, liberal-minded and fair employer, who tries to be loyal to the people and city of Newark, even as high costs and social unrest make it almost impossible to thrive in the city.

The most powerful part of the novel takes place after his teenage daughter becomes a fugitive. The Swede plays events over in his head, trying to figure out where and where and how he might have gone wrong. Eventually, in his over-wrought state, he starts seeing Marian apparitions of Angela Davis in his kitchen, apparitions to whom he prays for divine intercession.

His dilemma was very real for a generation of post-WWII American parents, FDR democrats who were confused and horrified by the Vietnam War, racial violence, the collapse of inner cities and the scandal of Watergate. These historical events are referred to tangentially; it is the turmoil of The Swede and the Levov family that stays front and centre.

The question is constantly posed – what could he have done differently? Which lifestyle choices, personal choices, educational choices, religious choices and commercial choices could have made a difference? Each iteration of his tortuous rumination develops the plot a little further, while teasing out the way that the American dream can, in an instant, be transformed into an American nightmare.

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The Secret History of the Kelly Gang

The True History of the Kelly Gang is a fictional account of the life and career of Ned Kelly, an Irish-Australian bushranger who came to embody the spirit of Australian egalitarianism and resistance to tyranny.

The author Peter Carey – who recently spoke in Dublin about his latest book, A Long Way from Home – based Kelly’s voice on the Jerilderie Letter, which was written by Kelly in 1879 as a defence of his actions as a bushranger; as a manifesto against British rule in Australia; and against corruption among the government and elite of the colony of Victoria.

Kelly’s first-hand account evokes a time when ordinary people wrote and spoke in a more florid and lyrical terms that they do today. The vernacular poetry of Kelly’s language is a delight; I have decided to start calling all of my friends “adjectival mongrels” as a form of tribute.

What surprised me about Carey’s depiction of the time was the extent to which magistrates, privileged squatters, police and bushrangers mingled, as though there was an acceptable level of criminality to match an acceptable level of corruption. Perhaps it was a more rural time and place and you had to try to get along with everybody.

The book – which won the Booker Prize in 2001 – is often assumed to be extensively non-fiction, while Carey states that it is mostly fiction. It is a tribute to his creative ability as a writer that he can depict unknowable domestic scenes – such as Kelly’s close relationship to his mother – in a way that seems to come straight from Kelly’s mouth.

We’ve Haven’t Tried Anarchism for a While, Have We?

twocheersforanarchismJames C Scott, the author of Two Cheers for Anarchism, is a political scientist who has spent his career studying nominally powerless people who resist the power of the state. These people – citizens and employees in industrialised economies; farmers and peasants in pre-industrial economies; and protesters and socially marginal people in every society – mostly do this by simply avoiding the attentions of the state.

Scott is not an anarchist as such, yet he examines the ideas of anarchism and sees how they – rather than being threatening to social order – actually conform more closely to the nature of the human animal in its natural habitat. Anarchism provides natural tools and weapons which allow people to fight back against corporate and government power that is becoming restrictive and pervasive.

He explores these ideas in the context of the environment and food production; education; architecture and urban planning; and politics.

One of his most powerful points is that left to their own devices, people will engage in voluntary co-operation, without any requirement for hierarchical control. He supports his ideas with illustrations, such as the trend towards removing traffic lights, which – counter intuitively – slow down traffic and increase the likelihood of accidents.

 

 

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

never let me goI’d read a couple of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, but the news that he had won the Nobel Prize was sufficient motivation to dig out Never Let Me Go. Like the other Ishiguro books I’d read – The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans –  it was narrated by a protagonist who is trying to make sense of an imperfectly remembered past.

Kathy, the narrator, comes across as a person whose life experience peaked during her time at a  boarding school called Hailsham. She comes across as decent and pleasant, yet dull and obsessive.

As the story progresses you learn with a growing sense of horror that this is not an ordinary boarding school and that the children in school are being groomed for a hopeless and inhumane future. Even though they are aware of their future fates, they seem curiously resigned to it. Because of this, the adventures of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy seem less a coming-of-age story for slightly-privileged middle-Englanders and more of a war novel. They are like Bäumer, Katczinsky and Kropp in All Quiet on the Western Front, persistently and determinedly trying to live small, decent and comfortable lives in a context of catastrophe.

 

 

Lincoln in the Bardo

lincolnbardo.jpgIt took me a while to realise that Lincoln in the Bardo had been written by George Saunders. I had previously read his story story My Flamboyant Grandson, a moving story about a grandfather’s dedication to his grandson’s happiness, even as it ran counter to his own sense of normality. As well as being a moving story of familial love, it was also comically absurd, set in a modern dystopia, where computers only show you the things that you like and where people trade their freedoms for free stuff on the internet.

My Flamboyant Grandson struck me as the kind of story that Kurt Vonnegut would write, because of the characters’ stoic yet comic acceptance of the indignities and absurdities of war and technology. However, Saunders transcends Vonnegut, because the characters in his stories possess a wisdom that seems beyond the capacity of many of Vonnegut’s characters.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a ghost story, set in the graveyard where Abraham Lincoln has just buried his ten-year-old son Willie, who died of typhus. The protagonists in the story are all, well, dead. Over the course of the novel, the ghosts explain why they have remained behind on earth and the arrival of Willie Lincoln is a catalyst for the resolution of many of their long-suspended stories.

The characters speak in the florid and formal manner of Nineteenth Century people, in a style that – given that it’s a fundamentally bleak ghost story – reminds me of Edgar Allen Poe. Saunders cannot resist making it funny and the antics of the ghosts keep the story moving in a bumptious manner.

Saunders once remarked in an interview that he had little success in his writing career until he gave up being serious and embraced the gallows humour of his youth. While the narrative never loses sight of the pain of bereavement, humour works as an effective coping mechanism, in a story where the brightest possible outcome is a resolute acceptance of death.

Stay Down Ed, Stay Down

Battle for Classroom 314A friend and colleague, who worked on the film Michael Collins, told me that the studio’s market strategy team pressured the director to “make it a happy ending.” It would be better for sales, they argued, which is an acceptable thing for them to say, because their job is to sell the movie. The director resisted – that was his job – because there was no happy ending. Michael Collins was assassinated, he was dead, there would and could be no Michael Collins 2.

Ed Boland strikes me as a writer who stood up to the marketing people. Boland was educated in the Catholic parochial school system in Rochester, New York, where life was brutal, but you earned a decent diploma to match your physical and emotional scars. After twenty years of working in the education sector in various roles, he decided to teach in the New York public school system. We are trained by Hollywood to expect a tale of sweat, blood, tears, pathos, a breakthrough and then victory. However, there are almost no happy endings in his stories, just unlucky kids and helpless parents in an educational system for the damned.

The book is really well-written, beautifully structured, moving forwards and backwards through Boland’s life, while remaining rooted in the classroom.

One of the most unsettling but compelling aspects of the book is that it brings me straight back to my days in a Catholic boys school. It’s the mixture of horror and exhilaration that you got watching a plucky, principled yet completely over-matched kid get hammered in a schoolyard fight. Every time he picked himself up from the ground, part of you says “good for you, well done!” The rest of you tries to catch his eye, to say “Stay down Ed, stay down and it will all be over sooner.”

 

The Fatal Faultlines of a Structured World

weshallnotallsleepStep Nagy creates a carefully structured world in an orderly era, before introducing the fault-lines which lead to that world being sundered.

A successful novelist creates a believable universe for his characters to inhabit, so that the reader can step into that imaginary place  and relate to the triumphs and travails of the people who live there.

Seven – the island summer home of a wealthy American family – is the world Nagy creates in his debut novel. It’s a place where everybody – rich and poor, young and old, male and female – is explicitly aware of their role in society. The Hilsingers exist at the apex of society; nevertheless, life is sufficiently pleasant to ensure the co-operation and co-option of every islander.

This summer idyll exists out of the reach of telephones, providing the inhabitants with a refuge from the world outside. However, the outside world has a way of catching up with you and the author carefully exposes a multi-stranded story of flawed people caught up in power-struggles and betrayals, before being tested by the weight of social and political expectation.

Finding Yourself in Costa Rica

paradiseimperfectParadise Imperfect is a shockingly honest, searching and funny account of an American family – members of the coping classes – who decamp to Costa Rica for a year to reconnect with each another. The narrator is Margot, a hyper-articulate wife to Anthony and mom-of-three who presents herself as being bossy and autocratic. However, as the story evolves, any controlling instincts she may have are foiled by her wicked sense of humour; her relentless self-awareness; her pervasive middle-class-white-person guilt; combined with an extra layer of mom guilt. I feel that the danger with a book like this is that Costa Rica could become a glamourous but one-dimensional backdrop for self-obsessed naval-gazing. This book does not fall into that trap. The author brings you on a journey of the wonderful aspects of Costa Rica, painting a picture of a beautiful and dramatic country, with a population that has its priorities straight. The life that Margot’s family has in Seattle sounds pretty cool, but the book leaves you with a sense that Costa Rica was an alternative, a real and attractive alternative, to the (admittedly) rather wonderful two-income frenetic lifestyle that they enjoyed in Seattle. PS – By the end of the book you will be both in love with, and terrified of, their housekeeper Magda.