Against The Day

By Thomas Pynchon

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

When I was little and had just started reading books for grown-ups, I asked my father if he had ever encountered a book so difficult that he had not been able to finish it. There was one, he answered, a book called ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘, which was so long and hard that he had given up part-way through.

I asked him what was so hard about it, and he told me that he didn’t know how to describe it because it didn’t make any sense to him. It was just impossible to get through. I asked why he had tried to read it in the first place (he never was a great one for novels) and he told me that it was considered one of the great novels of the 20th century. I told him I bet that I would be able to get through it, and he bet me I would not. He bet me $50 dollars (a huge amount of money to me at that age, when my allowance was $8 per week) that I would not be able to read ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘ all the way through.

I won that $50, some years later, with the help of a companion gloss, but it was reading by brute force. My father was exactly right: it didn’t make any sense, and, to this day, I don’t really know what ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ was about. But I was left with an impression of greatness which I am still unable to justify: I didn’t understand it, at all, but I liked it.

And so, over the years, I have come back again and again to Pynchon, reading a number of his books. In his defense, none have had quite the zany incoherence of ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘, though they are all clearly products of the same mind. Nor have any had the length.

Until now: ‘Against the Day‘, which was published in 2006, clocks in at almost 1100 pages. It is a historical epic, following dozens of named characters from the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 to the global eruption of World War I. The gravitational center of the novel is the three sons of the anarchist bomber Webb Traverse. Traverse is tortured and killed by two assassins in the hire of anti-union interests; his death will torment and mutilate his offspring, will pursue them in their flight over the surface of the planet.

As so often with Pynchon, there is no plot, per se, uniting these characters and episodes; rather, they are united by a moral and stylistic point of view. ‘Against the Day‘ is a long fever dream laboring under a cloud of foreboding: World War I, the death of innocence, the blood and machines which will devour and destroy mankind’s ability to believe in its own civility, is coming, bearing down on Pynchon’s mind and clouding his world with unnameable, or maybe just unnamed, fear. ‘Against the Day’ is a novel about a civilization, a whole world, gone mad, and the creeping evils, capitalism, greed, technological progress, which drove it there.

In my years of making attempts on his novels, I have learned that one doesn’t read Pynchon’s books so much as one experiences them. There is a trick to this, a sort of mental relaxation which is counter-intuitive to all one’s instincts as a responsible reader. You have to relinquish your need to understand what’s happening, to remember details and to track events, and just let the novel happen to you. I believe, and I may be wrong about this, that the point of Pynchon’s novels happens in a sort of gestalt-absorption of the prose-tone, which I recognize doesn’t make any sense, but, then again, neither does he.

If you can let go of the idea that prose is supposed to make sense, you begin to understand that Pynchon’s writing is totally fucking sublime, I mean really, really good. And it’s not incoherent in the Joycean way of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, not gibberish – that would make me furious – it’s world-class writing, but it’s not being deployed to communicate a story to you. And so reading him is not like taking in a story at all – it is like taking in a busy scene: chaotic, overwhelming at first, but punctuated by moments in which your eye comes to rest on something beautiful, small points of lovely focus:

“Fire and blood were about to roll like fate upon the complacent multitudes. Just at the peak of the evening rush-hour, electric power failed everywhere throughout the city, and as the gas mains began to ignite and the thousand local winds, distinct at every street-corner, to confound prediction, cobblestones erupted skyward, to descend blocks away in seldom observed yet beautiful patterns. All attempts to counter-attack or even avoid the Figure would be defeated. Later, fire alarms would go unanswered, and the firemen on the front lines would find themselves too soon without reinforcement, or the hope of any. The noise would be horrific and unrelenting, as it grew clear even to the willfully careless that there was no refuge…

There was debate in the aftermath about what had happened to the Mayor. Fled, dead, not right in the head, the theories proliferated in his absence. His face appeared on bills posted all over the wood fences around vacant lots, the rear ends of streetcars, its all-too-familiar bone structure shining with the unforgiving simplicity of a skull. “Remain indoors,” warned bulletins posted on the carbonized walls over his signature. “This night you will not be welcome in my streets, whether there be too many of you or too few.” (p. 152).

Thomas Pynchon

This is breathtakingly good writing, but understand: it is an aside. The Figure wreaking havoc on this town is never explained, and not mentioned again. It is a small piece of madness in a swirling world, important the way everything is important, meaningless the way everything is meaningless.

Pynchon isn’t incoherent because he’s garbled, he’s incoherent because he never pauses for breathe, doesn’t resolve loose ends, doesn’t resolve anything. Because his worlds are magical and he never explains them, because he doesn’t give context or backstory or rationale. He makes no sacrifices for you, makes no gestures at you, doesn’t even seem to realize that you exist.

Oh, and he’s funny. Funny, and rude, and crude. ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘ launched him into the pantheon of the unread Greats, the Postmodern Masters, but because no one can read him and everyone knows that he is Important, no one supposes that Thomas Pynchon is fucking hysterical, that he’s obsessed with sex, and gutter-minded, and slapstick.

I suppose that maybe that I love Pynchon, but not as an author. I love him as writer, if that makes any sense. I don’t love his books, but I love the lucid moments in his incredible prose, the those moments of blinding skill. I love the lens through which he looks out upon the world, the mischief, the chaos, the evil and the love and the humor which provide respite from it. The great human forces which pull us all along, and how strange and unreasonable it all looks to him. How alien and small we are all, and how lovingly he draws us. I don’t understand him at all, but I’ll read him, I think, forever.

A Unified Theory of Novels

So, I’d like to do something a little different this week, and instead of talking about one book which I finished in the past seven days, I’d like to talk about novels in general.

I said something a little while ago: “It doesn’t, for example, make any sense to complain that there weren’t enough battles between zombies and werewolves in ‘The Notebook’ – ‘The Notebook’ isn’t that kind of story.” But when I thought more about it, I felt that I had, as usual, been glib. And not merely because I have never read ‘The Notebook’, but because while I believe that this is a true and self-evident statement, why is it true?

It’s true because there are different kinds of novels.

I don’t mean Good versus Bad novels – I mean that there are different categories of novels. Partly, yes, this is what we’re talking about when we talk about genre: romance versus horror, but even within that great non-genre, Literature, there are different categories of literary novel. And I know that this is obvious to everyone, but it bears a little reiteration, because it has implications which we rarely examine with any care.

Let me put it this way:

Which is the better novel: ‘Ulysses‘ or ‘Jurassic Park‘?

There are a lot of ways to answer this question.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because it is a technical accomplishment of such complexity and beauty that it transformed the very idea of the novel.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because that’s the book that people are more impressed when I say I’ve read it.

You might say: ‘Jurassic Park’, because more people like it.

You might say: ‘Ulysses’, because more informed people like it.

You might say: ‘Jurassic Park’, because, unlike ‘Ulysses’, it’s actually fun to read.

None of these answers is quite satisfying, is it? Yes, ‘Jurassic Park’ is more entertaining, but ‘Ulysses’ was more complex. How can you adjudicate ‘better’ in a case like this?

The problem, of course, is that the question is nonsensical. Neither novel is strictly ‘better’, because they are different kinds of novels, and so have different novelistic goals.

Over the years, I’ve come to think about three broad categories of novels (in my head, I call them Tiers). Within each Tier, a novel can be either successful or not successful, which means that there is such a thing as a Very Good Tier 1 novel, which is, for my money, ‘better’ than a Very Bad Tier 3 novel, in so far as goodness can be read into execution of intention.

These are my Tiers:

Tier 1 Novels: Plot

Tier 1 novels are novels where the primary purpose of the novel is plot. ‘Plot’, in this case, is distinct from ‘story’ – most, if not all novels, have a story of some sort, but not all novels are plot-driven.

Plot-driven novels are characterized by action. Action moves the novel forward, and action is the necessary resolution of the plot. ‘Action’ does not necessarily, of course, mean a sword fight – action can also be the discovery of a murderer, or the culmination of a magical quest, or an exorcism.

Because, of course, most of what are traditionally called ‘genre novels’ are contained in this tier: fantasy, murder mysteries, techno-thrillers.

My favorite Tier 1 novelist is Michael Crichton (as is probably clear from my obsession with ‘Jurassic Park’). I’ve read everything he’s written, even that pirate one. I could wrote a whole essay on my deep love of a Crichton premise. Stephen King is another beloved Tier 1 novelist for me; so was George R. R. Martin, before he ghosted us all.

Tier 2 Novels: People

Tier 2 novels are novels in which the story isn’t, necessarily, plot-driven: these novels might be novels of character development, emotional crisis, personal tragedy or triumph.

Tier 2 novels are not characterized by subject matter – they are characterized by their limitation. Tier 2 novels are only about what they are about. They do not, by design or failure, transcend their own story. If they are a story of a young man’s descent into madness, then they are only about that particular young man and his particular madness – they are not a metaphor for anything larger.

This is not necessarily a comment on the value of these novels; on the contrary, Tier 2 includes some of the most absorbing novels I have ever read. They are often powerful, moving stories, stories you may perhaps relate strongly to, but they are stories from which you do not learn anything about the greater problems of humanity.

Jonathan Franzen is the exemplar Tier 2 novelist: his novels are beautifully imagined, richly, even elaborately, detailed, intricate and specific. But his protagonists, his beautifully-imagined protagonists, are what his stories are about. They aren’t about you or me, us, the great mass of humanity – they are about the people that appear in their pages, and no one else.

Sometimes, a Tier 2 novels transcends category: it is a story only about the specific people and specific incidents described, but it is so beautiful and perfect, so finely and humanely drawn, that it feels as though it touches on something universal, and so becomes about the common human experience without ever becoming a metaphor. Elena Ferrante’s novels are, in my opinion, the best of example of this kind of category-straddle: indisputably, to me, Tier 2 novels, the depiction of the two women at the heart of those books is so deft and true that it becomes about us all, in the ways that we are all alike.

Tier 3 Novels: Metaphor

Tier 3 novels are novels which transcend the specifics of their story. They are novels which use their specific stories to tell a bigger story, a more universal story. Their characters are metaphors, archetypes, allegories, from which we might learn something about ourselves. They can be bad or good, successful or unsuccessful, but their characters or stories mean something more than the specific circumstances that afflict them.

Tier 3 novels are the novels we are all used to thinking of as “great” novels. Most of the canonically “great” novels are Tier 3 novels, but this is, I think, a limitation of the canon.

Of course, many of my own most-loved novels are Tier 3 novels: ‘East of Eden‘, ‘Infinite Jest‘, anything by Graham Greene, ‘The Age of Innocence‘, ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘, by George Saunders – all Tier 3. Most of the really excellent or seminal science fiction, Tier 3: Wells, Orwell, Huxley, Asimov, Dick, Herbert, Gibson, Le Guin, you name it: all Tier 3.

And, of course, some of the most bloated, irritating ‘classics’, the books with which we are all flogged in high school, are also Tier 3: ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, ‘The Sound and the Fury’, ‘The Golden Bowl’, ‘Sons and Lovers’, ‘The Alexandria Quartet’ by Lawrence Durrell – all Tier 3, lord help us.

But some great classics, books beloved and admired, are Tier 2’s: most of Jane Austen’s novels, ‘Brideshead Revisited‘ by Evelyn Waugh, anything by E. M. Forster.

I don’t argue for the perfection of this system. Some of my favorite novels defy categorization according to my system:

I Love Dick‘, by Chris Kraus, ‘World War Z‘ by Max Brooks (no, I’m not kidding), ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler‘, by Italo Calvino – what are they?. Or how about something like ‘Bleak House‘, by Dickens? You feel as though it ought to be Tier 3, it is Dickens after all, but is it? Only in the most insipid sense: a fable about how goodness will be rewarded and wickedness punished, but on that level the book is garbage anyway – ‘Bleak House’ lives in its specific characters and prose, so maybe it would be happier in Tier 2.

Or how about ‘The Screwtape Letters‘: it’s clearly a Tier 3, but it isn’t a metaphor, it’s a fantasy, and so in some ways feels more like a Tier 1 novel than anything else. It’s a fable, an exposition, it’s barely a novel, more a series of lectures in a funny framing.

But, for better or worse, this is how I think about novels, and my tiers have given me a way to love and exalt ‘Jurassic Park‘ as much as I love and exalt ‘Infinite Jest‘, a way to express what I feel: that these are books of equal quality, in which I might take equal joy, because they are trying to do different things. There are a lot of ways to be good, and ‘literature’ is just too broad a category.

Ivanhoe

By Sir Walter Scott

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I think we sometimes assume that old stories are boring stories.

Ivanhoe‘ is an old story. I found my copy in my favorite used bookstore, ‘Second Story Books‘ in Washington D.C. It’s a Heritage Press Edition, and I’ll confess to a weakness for this kind of hardback reprint. They are wildly inconvenient and hard to read (too heavy, difficult to hold), but they really make you feel as though you are reading a proper book. And I’m a sucker for proper books.

But I bought my ‘Ivanhoe‘ years ago and, clearly, I haven’t been in a rush to read it. Honestly, as beautiful as my edition is, I suspected that it was going to be boring. I took a run at it a year or so ago: it opens with a brief exposition of the continuing effects of the Norman Conquest, and then cuts to a scene in the middle of an old-growth English forest, where two good-hearted Saxon yeomen are complaining about anti-poaching laws. So, yeah, it seemed like it was going to be really, really boring – I put that thing down like it was on fire and didn’t pick it up again until last week.

Old stories aren’t just boring-seeming because they’re, well, old, and because we think we’ve heard them already (although that is part of it) – it’s because we think that old stories are simple.

And they sometimes are, but we mostly think that old stories are simple because old stories are foundational – they are the stories upon which later stories have elaborated. They aren’t simple, but they are archetypal, which makes them predictable.

They also aren’t modern, which is obvious but important. They aren’t written in our vernacular, and their vernacular often seems cheesy to us: lacks the rawness, or subtlety, or emotional complexity, of our own.

All of which gives these stories a sort of hokey, old-timey feel which can strike some people as quaint and some people as lame.

Ivanhoe‘ lands right in the sweet-spot of this quaint/lame zone. This is a long-ass novel of Ye Olde England, and it’s filled with all the cliches of that genre. Robin Hood is here, Friar Tuck is here, Richard the Lion-Heart is here (his wicked brother John is here); there is an archery contest, there is chivalry and maidens and Sherwood Forest and wicked Norman knights and valiant Saxon knights and tournaments of honor.

But it’s a classic, and my beautiful copy kept calling to me, so I took another stab at it.

Pretty quickly, though, after I pushed through the two soul-crushingly boring yeoman, I realized two things:

  1. Ivanhoe‘ is a weirdly complicated story. Its plot is complicated; its characters are complicated; its morals are complicated.
  2. I actually have heard this story before.

As it turns out, big parts of Disney’s ‘Robin Hood‘ (you know, the amazing cartoon from when we were all kids, where Robin Hood is a fox and Little John is a bear?) is ‘Ivanhoe’-adjacent. There is no Maid Marion in the novel, but the whole scene with Robin Hood at the tournament taunting Prince John and winning the archery contest in disguise? That’s ‘Ivanhoe‘.

But Disney’s ‘Robin Hood’ is a simple story of good and evil – ‘Ivanhoe‘ isn’t. Or, it is, but with a lot of shades in between.

The story is almost unnecessarily complicated, and several attempts to summarize the plot have convinced me that it isn’t a worthwhile exercise. Part of the problem is that ‘Ivanhoe‘ is actually many stories woven together: two love stories, one tragic, one classic; a tale of chivalric honor over villainy; several tales of knightly valor; three tales about the honor of thieves; one tale of a sibling rivalry between two princes; a tale of a prodigal son; a tale about the loyalty of servants, and the wisdom of fools; a tale of a wicked usurper and a virtuous king; a story of the Jewish diaspora, and the terrible wickedness of Christians to Jews; and a tale of palace intrigue, all set against the backdrop of the tale of a conquered people trying regain their dignity. With some comic relief thrown in.

It’s a lot, and that really doesn’t even begin to describe it all. Before everything is through, there will be a tournament, a siege, Robin Hood will end up fighting alongside Richard the Lion-Heart, a castle will burn down with people in it, maidenly virtue will be rewarded, maidenly lack of virtue will be mocked and punished, a beautiful woman will be tried for witchcraft, a man will die of a broken heart, someone will come back from the dead, and lots and lots of horrible things will be said about Jews.

A Maiden

And I know that this sounds like a bunch of tropes all strung together into some sort of batshit Merry Old England mad-lib, and it kind of is! But if you’re expecting something simple, something quaint, ‘Ivanhoe’ isn’t it.

And if you are expecting easy moral takeaways, ‘Ivanhoe‘ won’t give them to you. There is one pure villain and maybe two pure heroes – everyone else is complicated. People are strong and weak, they succeed and fail, they are subject to imperfections but may overcome them, with work. They love truly, but with private reservations. They have virtues and failings, and sometimes they die and it’s unfair, and sometimes they are forgiven and it’s even less fair. It’s all very…modern.

Well, not all of it. The equivocation is modern – the Jew-hating chivalry is not.

Sir Walter Scott apparently used to be hot shit in Britain. He was a poet and author in the early/mid 19th century, but he was equally or more famous for his novels. ‘Ivanhoe‘ is the one for which he is best remembered now, but at the time he was also known for the Waverly novels, and ‘The Bride of Lammermoor’.

And one gets the sense, reading ‘Ivanhoe‘, that he was also pretty progressive for his time. A major theme of ‘Ivanhoe’ is that Jews are People, Too, pleaded with the sort of earnest heavy-handedness that indicates to me that the message was not uncontroversial.

Sir Walter Scott

And it’s a good message, but it’s delivery is decidedly pre-modern: Scott is going way out of his way to show you that, despite all the usury and their maniacal love of riches, Jews are also capable of love and goodness, even, in some rare cases, true human virtue. At one point, Robin Hood must admonish Isaac of York not to spare any expense in saving his daughter’s life:

“Yet, ere Isaac departed, the outlaw chief bestowed on him this parting advice: ‘Be liberal of thine offers, Isaac, and spare not thy purse for thy daughter’s safety. Credit me, that the gold thou shalt spare in her cause will hereafter give thee as much agony as if it were poured molten down thy throat.'” (p. 327)

And though Isaac acquiesces, because he loves his daughter (because, remember: Jews are People, Too!), the loss of fortune hurts him. Though the depictions of Isaac and Rebecca are meant to sympathetic, they are in fact anti-semitic and vile, and they represent, for me, an immovable obstacle to loving this book truly.

We’re allowed to be ambivalent about classics. It’s hard to remember that, sometimes, when we’re confronted by a handsome old hardback. But we are: we don’t have to love them. We can hate them, or like some parts of them and hate other parts. We can marvel at the complexity of the story and recoil at the endless, patronizing anti-semitism and laugh at the old-timey language and roll our eyes at the values.

I wonder sometimes whether classics are not our best-loved novels, but the ones which evoke the strongest ambivalence from us. The ones that elicit the strongest positive and negative emotions from us, at once. ‘Ivanhoe‘ was a ripping read, I tore through it, and I was held genuinely in suspense. That’s not to say that I loved it, but I’ll remember it.

The Stone Sky

The Broken Earth: Book Three

By N. K. Jemisin

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Normal warnings aside, I am really, really going to spoil this trilogy in here, so if you don’t want to know exactly how ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ ends, don’t read this.

Um, I’m also going to spoil several movies.

You know that theory (we’ve talked about it before) that there are only, like, seven plots in all of literature? They, supposedly, are:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

And they’re pretty self-explanatory. The theory goes that all the works of literature are just attempts on these seven basic plots: retellings, new perspectives, embellishments, interpretations. That these are the only stories there are.

OK, well, that may or not be true*, but I do know that, when you read a lot of stories, you notice that there aren’t so many different things to say as there are books. It’s not just plots – characters, premises, dilemmas, it all comes around again and again.

*I’ve never really been satisfied that any of those plots describes ‘Jurassic Park’. Maybe this is just me getting hung up on dinosaurs again, but ‘Jurassic Park’ doesn’t really fit any of those, does it? Which could it be? The Quest [to get out of Jurassic Park]? Overcoming the Monster [actually many little monsters and no one really overcomes them, just runs away]? I’m not buying it. I propose a new list: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, Rebirth, Jurassic Park.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter whether there are seven plots or seventy, or whether the above list is exhaustive. The fact is, when you read a lot, the landscape of fiction does becomes familiar to you.

Which can be kind of nice. Familiar landmarks help you orient yourself. They signal to you what kind of story you’re reading, what kind of lessons you’re meant to learn, what sort of characters you should expect to meet and what might happen to them. Often, they tell you how the story wants to be evaluated: it doesn’t, for example, make any sense to complain that there weren’t enough battles between zombies and werewolves in ‘The Notebook’ – ‘The Notebook’ isn’t that kind of story. How do you know that it wasn’t that kind of story? It didn’t have any landmarks of the kind of story where zombies and werewolves battle – no weird contagions which make people sort of bitey, no bodies of eviscerated sheep showing up around the village after the full moon, stuff like that.

But surprises are also nice – think how great it would have been if there had been even one zombie in ‘The Notebook’. Surprises make you realize that life isn’t over yet, that the world is still turning, that it’s worth trying new things, or reading new books. That, even if people have exhausted all the basic plots, they haven’t stopped thinking up new things to decorate them with.

And they don’t need to be big surprises, either; they can be small adjustments to old things, as long as you’ve never seen them before.

Which, I think, in the end, is the thing I ended up liking the most about ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘. Yes, the story was quite strong, and it was never badly written (which is about as good as it gets for genre fiction), and it didn’t get soggy at the end, but what I really ended up loving was that it surprised me.

And it surprised me in the most unlikely way: the villain surprised me!

Villains are never really surprising – even “surprise” villains aren’t really surprising, because you know that, according to the Laws of Fiction, you have to have been introduced to them already. And since, in any given story the number of named characters is relatively small, and since you must be prepared, according to the Laws of Fiction, for any character to turn out to be a surprise villain, even if you are surprised by who the villain turns out to be, you aren’t really surprised surprised, because you knew it had to be someone.

Which is why the last time I was really surprised by a villain was when, in the first ‘Saw’ movie, the villain turned out to be the dead body on the floor in the background! Because that dead body wasn’t a character, really – he was scenery. And scenery doesn’t usually turn out to be the villain*.

*Although, now that I think about it, why, then, wasn’t ‘The Happening’, by M. Knight Shamaylan, a movie in which the villain also turned out to be scenery (trees), more surprising? Maybe because, by the reveal, you were too irritated to be surprised.

This same mechanism is at work in ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘, but not in a cheap, one-shot reveal sort of way. The villain in ‘The Broken Earth’ is also scenery, but in the most fundamental way that there is: the villain is…the Earth.

I know that this sounds cheesy, but it kind of isn’t. I thought it was going to be cheesy, too: when I started picking up on the hints that the Earth was somehow malevolently set on destroying humankind, I thought for sure I was in for some irritatingly-heavy-handed climate change metaphor, where the Earth wasn’t really alive, but had become so destabilized by hubristic human overreach that it was functionally hostile to human life, yadda yadda yadda, we must all honor Mother Earth, so on and so forth, and I was like, anticipatorily bored.

No, that’s not what happens. In ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘, the Earth is alive. Alive and conscious, and angry. It is a living, thinking, speaking core of molten rock and hot gas in the center of the planet, and it hates us.

It’s..pretty weird, actually. It’s a great surprise, because it’s both functionally impossible to imagine ahead of time and totally easy to imagine afterwards: it’s hard to think of dirt as part of any living thing, but the Earth’s molten core lends itself right away to personification. It’s scary and angry already! All of which makes the premise (that we have failed to notice that the earth was alive this whole time) kind of plausible.

The Earth itself is the slow-reveal antagonist of the entire trilogy, but I didn’t begin to really grok that that until the end of ‘The Obelisk Gate‘. Which meant that ‘The Stone Sky‘ was a fun journey of dawning implication for me, especially as I began to figure out that the pseudo-villains of the first two books, the Guardians, are really just under the control of the Earth, via pieces of the Earth’s core which have been lodged in their brains.

N.K. Jemisin (Picture taken from newyorker.com)

Which, again, sounds super cheesy when I say it like that, but it doesn’t play out that way! It’s actually pretty elegant, the way Jemisin rolls everything out, and lets the five or six separate mysteries she has created inform each other until, piece by piece, you realize that they are all the same mystery.

And it takes a while to knit the whole picture together, a satisfying, leisurely length of time, which wouldn’t happen if ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘ weren’t surprising. The only way that mysteries can afford to be leisurely (and ‘The Broken Earth’ is a mystery, at the end of the day) is if they are very, very sure you aren’t going to solve everything before the end and get bored waiting for the text to catch up.

And it worked! I didn’t figure it all out because I didn’t expect the, like, ground beneath everyone’s feet to be the bad guy. Who expects that?!?

As I said at the beginning, there is a lot going right in these books. And there is more to say, I’m sure, about the moral of this story, and about the humane character of the books, about what they mean and about how fun they are. There is a lot to be said for how strongly they are executed, how tight the writing is and how well-paced and well-structured the story is – this is really, really strong world-building.

But I’m mostly just so happy to have been surprised. I’m always grateful for a good story, surprising or not, but a story that shows me something new under the sun? Rarer and rarer, and the more precious for it.

Purity

By Jonathan Franzen

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We were going to have to talk about Jonathan Franzen eventually.

Whether you like him or not, Franzen has earned (by skill or notoriety) consideration as one of the preeminent living American novelists. He keeps churning out novels that keep being taken very seriously by the critical establishment, and, like, Barack Obama.

I have a complicated emotional relationship with Franzen. On the one hand, I suspect Franzen is probably kind of an asshole, and I don’t think he’s the sort of generation-defining novelist he clearly believes that he is. On the other hand, I find his novels bizarrely absorbing. They are almost astonishingly vividly imagined – you get the sense that if you asked him where the aunt of the ex-boyfriend of the main character’s best friend went to college, he would know that.

I’ve read ‘The Corrections‘ and ‘Freedom‘, which are about the normal existential angst of normal people as they normally age (sort of, but essentially). I was therefore surprised to hear that he had written a novel about a young woman who, while, yes, having existential angst, rather non-normally joins a group of anarcho-hackers in Bolivia who are led by a charismatic Julian Assange-like figure. It sounded like of a departure, and I enjoyed his other books enough anyway, so I decided to read it.

Purity‘ turns out to actually be several stories. It is the story of the eponymous Purity “Pip” Tyler, a 23 year old woman who has been raised in Northern California by her lunatic mother Penelope, who will not tell her who her father is or even her own family name.

Pip decides to accept an internship with the Sunshine Project, a possible-cult which collects incriminating documents about governments and corporations from leaks and hacks and then publishes them. The Sunshine Project is lead by Andreas Wolf, who is handsome and charismatic and German and psychotic.

Purity‘ is also the story of Andreas Wolf, and of the one man he ever considered a friend, Tom Aberant, who is now the editor of the Denver Independent. Tom is one of the two people who know Andreas’ darkest secret, that he once killed a man, and so he will send Pip to work at the Denver Independent, to spy on Tom and threaten him.

And it’s also the story of Leila Helou, Tom’s partner, who is married to someone else and who is trying to help Tom get over his catastrophic first marriage to a woman named Anabel Laird. Anabel was a mentally unstable heiress and performance artist who destroyed his life.

Purity‘ is complicated. And, in this way, it’s a departure from Franzen’s novels (at least from the ones I’ve read). His other novels are intricate, but they are realistic. ‘Purity’ is not realistic. It is about absurd people, celebrities, and unlikely, impossible, coincidences. It’s about messianic hacktivists, and secret billionaires, and surprise children.

If this plot sounds furry and outlandish, it is, but in a good way. It’s like Franzen has loosened up, and decided to write about things that actually entertain him (murder), rather than things he thinks are going to earn him awards (midlife crises). And the new, loose look really works on him: ‘Purity‘ is really fun to read. Much funner than ‘The Corrections‘, that’s for sure. It’s got that usual Jonathan Franzen pull, but with way more plot than his other novels.

But there’s a problem, and I’m not quite sure how to express it.

Ok, how about this:

My father once said something about Phillip Roth that really stuck with me.

I’m sure you know this, but many people think quite highly of Phillip Roth. One of those people is my mother, who has all of his books and thinks that he is one of the greatest American novelists.

My family was arguing about Roth one day – someone (I don’t remember who) had ventured the possibility that he is overrated (it was me) – and my mother was outraged. My father listened patiently to her arguments and then, at the end, simply said, “I don’t know. I want to like him, but it makes me feel weird that, in every single one of his novels, the “narrator” has to blow a load on a woman’s face. I don’t want to know that much about Philip Roth.”

My dad was exactly right: sometimes, an author reveals himself a little too intimately for the comfort of the reader. Something about their fiction feels too real, they seem a little too fixated on something, or something is described a little too lovingly, or in a little too much detail. And you know that you have, unwillingly, gotten a little peak into their mind. That they have shown you their own predilections, without your consent.

Jonathan Franzen

That you can never know for sure only makes this feeling creepier. Maybe you’re wrong – maybe Philip Roth doesn’t get off on degrading women, not even a little, not even the slightest tiny bit, and it’s a coincidence that it happens in basically every single one of his novels – and you’ve falsely convicted some innocent author, in your mind, of a preference they do not have. It’s a suspicion you can never prove. But what distinguishes this feeling is a certainty that you have learned something about the author, and not about the book.

What I”m trying to say is, I’m a little creeped out by the emphasis on cunnilingus in ‘Purity‘. Normally, I’m very pro, but I’m getting hung up on how much time Franzen spends talking about how much his adult male characters enjoy going down on young women. Very young women.

Maybe it’s just super necessary for the plot that several middle aged guys get an enormous amount of sexual enjoyment from going down on barely-legal women in their care. Oh, yes, in their care, or employ. So, I suppose I should have said: middle aged guys get an enormous amount of sexual enjoyment from going down on barely-legal women over whom they have power.

It’s a whole skeevy thing, and it’s really tainting my impression of a book that I otherwise enjoyed a lot more than I thought it would. I was glued to ‘Purity’, but I kept being yanked out of my single-minded absorption by the awful feeling that I was spying on some private fantasy of Jonathan Franzen’s. Not a fun, sexy one. A yucky one.

Purity‘ is a fun read, it truly is. It made me want to like Franzen more, it made him seem less pretentious. ‘Purity’ doesn’t read like a novel written by a man desperate to prove he’s serious; it reads like a novel written by someone who loves to write novels, and it’s so much more enjoyable.

If it weren’t for the Humbert Humbert thing, this would be a mild rave review, a sort of rave-by-comparison. But the truth is, I remember a lot more about the cunnilingus than I do about the rest of the plot. And not in a good way. And it’s left me with an uneasy feeling. I want to like Jonathan Franzen, but I didn’t want to know that much about him.

Women Talking

By Miriam Toews

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I think it’s time to have a granular conversation about what it means to ‘like a book’.

The problem is, when someone says that they like a book, they might mean any number of things, alone or in combination.

They might mean that they think that the book represents a technical achievement, that it demonstrates skill or creativity. They might mean that it moved them, that they resonated with something being expressed, or that something of the events being portrayed in the book felt particularly real to them. Or they might have meant that it was super fun, or funny, or exciting, or whatever.

This is why you can “like” Stephen King’s ‘The Stand‘ and “like” Solzhenitsyn’s ‘The Gulag Archipelago‘; those are both true statements that mean totally different things.

And it’s also why we give a sort of extra credit to books that achieve multiple of these ends, books that are fun and humane, or skillful and entertaining. We recognize that we like them in multiple ways, that they have landed points in multiple categories.

But if you can like a book in more than one way at once, it means that it is also possible to like a book in one way and really not like it at the same time, in a totally different way. To like it along one of these axes, and to dislike it, potentially strongly, along another.

Which is how I feel about ‘Women Talking‘.

A little backstory is relevant here.

There is a substantial Mennonite population in Bolivia. In the late aughts, women in the Manitoba Mennonite colony started waking up in the mornings in pain, covered in blood and semen, with rope burns around their wrists. They were told they were imagining it, that they were dreaming, that they were consorting with the devil in their sleep.

Eventually, it was discovered that a group of men in the colony had aerosolized a horse anesthetic and had been spraying it into houses while families were asleep. They were then breaking into the houses and raping the women. Over several years, it is estimated that they raped hundreds of women – eventually, 130 victims were identified, ranging from ages 3 to 60. The men were turned over to the Bolivian authorities, tried, and have been convicted of multiple counts of rape and assault.

This is a true story – these things really happened.

Women Talking‘ is the novelization of one very specific part of this story: the experience of the women.

The men of the Molotschna (a fictional Manitoba) have left the colony to post bail for the rapists. They have done this so that the guilty men can come back to the colony and be forgiven by their victims. Without this forgiveness, neither the men, nor the women they raped, will be able to get into heaven.

Two families of women, three generations each, have gathered in a loft while their men are away in order to discuss what to do. Half of them want to leave, to take their children and flee, run to safety.

The other half want to stay and fight.

Because the women of Molotschna cannot write, they ask August Epp, a former apostate who has returned to teach the children, to write down what they say. August is not a man, not by the standards of the colony, since he has no wife and no children and cannot farm. But he is not a woman, no matter how much he may sympathize with, or love, them. He can only listen, and record, and try to help.

Women Talking‘ is a tough read. It’s kind of a brutal read, actually.

Not in the way you’d expect, or, at least, not in the way I expected. I was prepared to grapple with the horror of what was done to the women (in real life, never forgetting that), but that’s not what ‘Women Talking‘ is about. Not exclusively.

The first thing that the women of Molotschna have to settle among themselves is whether they are people, the way the men are, or whether they are animals, the way the men treat them. It’s a matter of some debate between them, whether they are animals or not. It is not obvious.

This is where the brutality of ‘Women Talking‘ really lies: in the fact that what has happened to the women is the inevitable result of their living in a system which teaches them, and the men around them, that they are not people. That when women are literal objects, the men around them will treat them like objects.

Miriam Toews

It’s hard, as a woman, to read a novel about women trying to see their way to their own personhood. Trying to decide whether it is better to stay in a place where they are raped in their homes at night, where their young daughters will be raped in their beds, or to leave their homes, their husbands, their sons, and set out into a world they don’t understand, where they don’t speak the language. It’s hard, as a woman, to imagine having to make that choice yourself.

It’s a desperate choice, and desperate choices are hard to read about.

It’s also…a little boring to read about.

I know I’m not supposed to say that about a novel about rape. And I know that I’m really not supposed to say that about anything called ‘Women Talking’. And I would like to assure everyone that I feel the appropriate amount of respect and feminist appreciation for ‘Women Talking‘, which is stark and singular and effective and, at moments, really deft and lovely and humane.

But, because of the way that ‘Women Talking’ is written, it’s also sort of…arduous. Let me give you an example:

“Ona speaks: If it has been decided by the elders and the bishop of Molotschna that we women don’t require counseling following these attacks because we weren’t conscious when they happened, then what are we obliged, or even able, to forgive? Something that didn’t happen? Something that we are unable to understand? And what does that mean more broadly? If we don’t know “the world,” we won’t be corrupted by it? If we don’t know that we are imprisoned then we are free?

…Greta Loewan sighs heavily. She says that although we may not be animals we have been treated worse than animals, and that in fact Molotschna animals are safer than Molotschna women, and better cared for.

Agata Friesen reminds Greta that, due to issues of time, we have agreed to abandon the question of whether the women are animals are not.” (p. 39)

It doesn’t exactly zip along, does it?

Look, it’s not supposed to, that’s clear. ‘Women Talking‘ isn’t trying to be the snappy, feel-good book of the year, and I wasn’t expecting it to be. But it did often seem as though ‘Women Talking’ was trying to be deliberately plodding.

Which, OK, I can think of reasons why an author might try to make their book deliberately plodding: she might be trying to show how overwhelmed the women are, disoriented and building a world-view from scratch, for example. To show that, when you must remake your whole self, your progress is slow, is plodding, when you start from nothing. That is a worthy project.

But a project may be worthy and still excruciating to read. And because ‘Women Talking‘ was slightly excruciating to read, I had trouble actually caring about any of the women in it. And it feels as though connecting with what happened to these women (again, can’t say it enough: in real life) was maybe the point? Or at least would have been good?

Women Talking‘ is clearly the work of a capable author, and I’m sure that Toew’s stylistic choices are choices. I appreciated ‘Women Talking’, but I didn’t like it.

Or, rather, I liked it the way you like things which are hard and important, but which you secretly dread having to consume. I liked it in the way of worthy things, not in the way of joyful things. In the way of sheer, awful truths, and not beauty.

But it is true, and for that reason alone, it should be read. A novel needn’t be beautiful, if it’s true.

Gold Bug Variations

By Richard Powers

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So, if you’ve been in a bookstore any time in the past six months, you’ve probably walked past Richard Powers’ ‘The Overstory‘ featured prominently on the Best Sellers rack, or the Notable New Fiction table, or the Staff Recommendations shelf. It’s a Big Deal Book at the moment: it won the 2019 Pulitzer for Fiction, and it’s a novel about people whose lives are touched by…trees. Or something like that, I haven’t read it, but the back cover assures me that it’s a powerful story about the destruction of the natural world.

Which, is it just me, or does that not sound super smug? It sounds like a novel that exists to make NPR listeners feel good about themselves. Like a novel specifically designed to end up on the Staff Recommendations tables in liberal enclaves.

In the interests of full disclosure: I’m not super interested in reading ‘The Overstory‘ – I’m perhaps willing to give it a shot, but before I read a smug-sounding five hundred page novel about trees, I’d like to know whether or not I even like the author.

Richard Powers has written eleven other novels, the most famous of which is ‘Gold Bug Variations‘, which is described on its own back cover this way:

“‘The Goldbug Variations’ is a double love story of two young couples separated by a distance of twenty-five years. Stuart Ressler, a brilliant young molecular biologist, sets out in 1975 to crack the genetic code. His efforts are sidetracked by other, more intractable codes – social, moral, musical, spiritual – and he falls in love with a member of his research team. Years later, another young man and woman team up to investigate a different scientific mystery – why did the eminently promising Ressler suddenly disappear from the world of science? Strand by strand, these two love stories twist about each other in a double helix of desire.”

So I decided to read that first. The subject matter appealed to me (not all the love and desire stuff – I don’t so much go in for that), but all the biology. I am here for biology – it’s what I do for a living. I’m not generally wild about love stories, but I’m super down to read a six hundred page novel about the scientific elucidation of the genetic code. I’m a big nerd and I’m excited.

At least in theory.

In practice, I pretty much hated ‘Gold Bug Variations‘. I really hated it, actually. I hated it the way you hate books that you really, really hate: where every increment you read, every chapter, every paragraph, you hate it more, in a curve which grows exponentially, so that by the time you finish it, you hate it miles, miles more than you thought it was possible to hate, more than is reasonable.

Gold Bug Variations‘ was well-reviewed, but I have a sneaking suspicion that critics, some critics at least, don’t know the difference between a good book and a verbose book. Between a book that has something to say and a book that has a lot to say.

Gold Bug Variations‘ has a lot to say, or, rather, it says what it has to say at length. Partly, it accomplishes this by saying the same things over and over and over and over. Powers is…exhausting. His prose is bloated and repetitive and smug. He doesn’t say anything once if he can say 10,000 times. He gets carried away with enthusiasm, yes, for his subject matter but also for his own prose gymnastics, his own powers of prose description.

I feel slightly guilty about faulting Powers for this because a) I am also verbose and b) it clearly stems from a deep love of subject matter. I share his love of this subject matter, and I sympathize, but the love isn’t the problem – the problem is that Powers has an undisciplined need to communicate this love to the reader through what I can only describe as verbal force.

“I would tell Todd, spell it out in a five-thousand-volume letter. I would say how I have seen, close up, what Ressler wanted to crack through to. How I have felt it, sustained the chase in myself. How the urge to strip the noise from the cipher is always the desire to say what it means to be able to say anything, to read some part of what is written here, without resort to intermediaries. To get to the generating spark, to follow the score extracted from the split lark. I would tell him, at least, sparing nothing, just what in the impregnable sum of journal articles sent Ressler quietly away, appalled, stunted with wonder.

I would tell him everything I have found. I would lay my notebooks open to him. How the helix is not a description at all, but just the infolded germ of a scaffolding organism whose function is to promote and preserve the art treasure that erects it. How the four-base language is both more and less than plan. How it comprises secret writing in the fullest sense, possessing all the infinite, extendable, constricting possibilities lying hidden in the parts of speech. How there is always a go-between, a sign between signature and nature.” (p. 515)

This is garbage. It’s purple, overlong, self-indulgent, and it borders on incoherent. It’s also what most of the book is like. I bet I have at least as much love and respect for the workings of heredity as as Richard Powers, and I can tell you that wading through hundreds of pages of this drivel was excruciating.

Richard Powers

I’m sure I’m over-reacting. Maybe it isn’t fair to have such a strong aversion to someone’s writing style that you can’t even make a reasonable evaluation of their story, or their characters. But this writing is arduous. And it’s hard not to resent it for being so arduous when it feels as though the only problem is that Richard Powers, who is clearly a very imaginative and articulate person, just didn’t have the self-discipline to stop repeating himself.

And it makes it impossible to care about the plot, or about the characters, about the love stories or emotional journeys of anyone involved. By page 100, I was just holding on until the end – this was an endurance trial. This is one of those books that I only finished because I have a rule about finishing books that I start.

In my opinion, this is the greatest sin a writer can commit: letting his own pleasure in his verbiage overwhelm what’s best for the story, or the reader. It is unforgivable, letting your own pride come before the needs of the writing. I cannot forgive this in a writer, and I honestly cannot remember another writer who is this badly afflicted.

It is worth remembering that Powers was a youngish-writer when he wrote ‘Gold Bug Variations‘, and I will never hang a writer on one work. Maybe he’s gotten better, calmer, sparer. Maybe he’s employed an editor since 1991. I’m not damning the man – I’m damning the novel.

But I can tell you this: I will need a lot of convincing before read this man’s damn tree novel.

Rusty Brown

By Chris Ware

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I’ve never read a graphic novel before.

This isn’t a principled stance I’ve taken – I know the whole spiel about how graphic novels are novels, and they are High Art now, and they are very sophisticated and deal with adult themes. I’m not disputing any of this – how could I? I’ve never read one.

Art evolves, and I’m completely fine with that. I know that sounds defensive, but that’s only because it’s in print, on the internet: I really am fine with that. I have watched completely open-mindedly as the graphic novel has become mainstream and achieved artistic legitimacy. I think it’s a good thing – I think more inclusive artistic definitions almost always benefit the form, and the culture, over time. They accelerate growth.

But I have never read a graphic novel, again, not because I have a problem with them – not at all! – but because…I don’t like them.

I don’t like reading them, and ‘reading’ is the operative word there. I think they’re often beautiful, visually sumptuous and mesmerizing to look at. But I have been reading for a long time, and I am used to the flow of words on a page. On a page that doesn’t have a ton else on it, a page where, if there are pictures (which there almost never are), the words arrange themselves tidily around the pictures and don’t scatter themselves through it.

I find graphic novels a little difficult to read. That may be the point, right? It might be that the difficulty of finding and ordering the words, visually, is designed to make you slow down and look at the pictures. It may be that this actually makes you take in the words more deliberately, makes you pay more attention.

But I do not, viscerally, enjoy the drag on my mind. I am used to ease when reading, total mental comfort. The ability to immerse myself, mentally, effortlessly, in a text, is one of the things I love about reading. It’s almost meditative. It feels like swimming. So I have found the new proliferation of graphic novels amazingly easy to resist.

But my mother gave me ‘Rusty Brown‘ for Christmas this past year, explaining (sort of apologetically) that it got really good reviews*. And it is gorgeous, with amazing, complex layouts and lush, arresting pictures. So, the other day, when I was totally fried from work and wanted to try something a little different, I sat down and read it.

*My mother was completely correct, by the way: the reviews for ‘Rusty Brown‘ are ecstatic.

And now I have a question: how am I supposed to feel about this book?

I’m not asking what I’m supposed to feel: happy, sad, existentially frantic. I’m asking how I’m supposed to feel: am I supposed to feel the way I feel about books? The way I feel about visual art? The way I feel about movies?

Rusty Brown‘ is a story, it’s a narrative; it has characters and a plot (sort of), a lot of which are communicated through the written word. In this way, ‘Rusty Brown’ is a book. But it’s so visual – the story, plot points and character elements, as well as overall mood, are all communicated visually. In this way, it is like a movie.

And some panels are so stunning that you stop, and stare, and react to them just as pictures. They are moving, desolating, some of them. They almost all involve snow.

I can see why ‘Rusty Brown‘ received such incredible reviews. The pictures are incredible, moving back and forth between schema and detail seamless, laid out so inventively that they are almost mobile. They communicate shock, grief, the grinding passage of time, profound alienation, vast, existential bleakness.

Chris Ware

In fact, most of the emotional content of ‘Rusty Brown‘ is bleak. It is the story of several lives which meet around a middle school in Omaha, Nebraska. This is what I mean when I say it has a plot, sort of: it actually has several plots, or rather, several lives. It’s about an intersection – it doesn’t have a climax. It’s about the rich, complicated human context that lies underneath even the most ordinary moment, in the most ordinary place. It asks you to consider how long the journey has been that has gotten you here, has gotten everyone here, how much everyday time, everyday suffering, has accumulated underneath each and every one of us.

So it doesn’t really have a plot – it has a tone. To quote the New York Times, “Though there are a couple of perverts (and possibly a criminal), his characters aren’t people of wealth, power or energy; they’re self-conscious, often inarticulate, trying to break free of the mundane or anesthetize themselves to it. The characters weave in and out of the 113-page opening sequence, which dissects a single day at a Midwestern school in the 1970s, with its smell of “spilled teacher’s lounge coffee, old milk, formaldehyde and lip gloss and hot lunch.”

Each of the characters is lost, alienated, lonely. The children are awkward, afraid they won’t fit in. The adults are aging, fading, their youthful dreams lost, their bodies unrecognizable. Everyone is miserable. Or, to quote The Guardian, “The remaining narratives display a shared concern with regret and ageing, anxiety and ennui (there’s a lot of repetition and masturbation), the sense of lives being missed for a combination of factors, from parental neglect to racial intolerance. The book poses essential questions about the formation and hardening of character: what limits our chances of happiness or fulfilment? How do behavioural patterns form? And why are they so hard to break?”

It’s kind of a lot: a big book about the grinding alienation of life, hard to read, emotionally bleak. It’s a masterpiece, but, like many masterpieces, it’s impressive rather than fun. I am impressed; I am also really, really glad that the book is over.

It’s a rough thing to think about how hard, how much quiet suffering the people around you are carrying around. Beautiful, bleak pictures make it both easier and harded to connect with material like this, at least for me. Pictures are vivid, yes, but they are less vivid than my imagination, and the pictures relieve me of the need to imagine.

Is the entire genre the same emotional gray of ‘Rusty Brown‘? In my imagination, all graphic novels are beautiful and dismal, and I’m sure that’s not right. I feel contaminated by this novel more than I understand it, laid low and blue. It was really, really good, there’s no way to miss that, but it’s hard, and strange. It’s grand, and sad, and lovely, and cold. It’s pretty magnificent, but in a way that leaves you more lost than when you started.

Ultimately, it’s hard for me to mentally file ‘Rusty Brown‘ as a ‘book’ in my mind. The experience is more like a movie – the parts of it which are the most moving are the visual parts, not the words. It doesn’t elicit book-feelings – it elicits movie-feelings, photograph-feelings.

So, I think I want to read another graphic novel.

Maybe this sounds weird, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I won’t be able to figure out how I feel about this form until I read some more. Different kinds of graphic novels, not just this sad, magnificent one. I’d like to read a funny one, a sweet one, and a violent one. And probably about eight sexy ones.

The Witch Elm

By Tana French

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Things have been going well at work lately.

I had a particularly good week – good stuff with the team, good experimental results. It was a great week, actually, which is why I was surprised when I found myself having what felt like a minor panic attack yesterday.

It was puzzling – I am not prone to them, and I have nothing to be anxious about (or, at least, nothing to be acutely anxious about this week – the world is burning, but it has been for a while, I’ve acclimated). But even though everything was going well, I walked around all week with an uncomfortable tightness between my lungs, as though a balloon had been inflated inside my chest cavity and was pressing against my heart.

Catharsis was achieved on a red line train home from work. I was reading ‘The Witch Elm‘, and Toby, the main character, was starting to really unravel, his perspective, his sanity, was becoming less and less trustworthy. Meanwhile the danger around him was increasing, and I really needed to him to stay calm, keep a cool head, because he being framed for murder for fuck’s sake, and he just needed to open his eyes and figure it out and fucking handle it, and I noticed that I was freaking out on the train. Not about work, or something my mom said, or whether I had forgotten my anniversary again – I wasn’t freaking about my own life at all. I was freaking out about Toby. ‘The Witch Elm’ was so unsettling that it had anxiety-bombed my entire week.

The Witch Elm‘ is Tana French’s latest novel. It is also her first novel which is not a Dublin Murder Squad novel, and so even those of us who love her (which is all of us, right?) viewed it with some slight trepidation. I’ve been very clear about how much I love Tana French. But until ‘The Witch Elm’, it would, technically, have been impossible to say whether it was Tana French I loved, or just the Dublin Murder Squad.

Don’t worry – ‘The Witch Elm‘ is a murder mystery. But it’s an unusual mystery, because it takes as its protagonist not a detective (or a coroner, or a reporter), not a victim, not even a murderer. It takes as its protagonist…a bystander?

There is a reason that most murder mysteries feature detectives – they are the participants in criminal dramas who most closely approximate an omniscient narrator. They are the ones who will eventually know everything, and that’s what we expect in exchange for reading a murder mystery: to eventually know everything, too.

That’s why, despite the fact that every murder mystery detective has crippling demons, they are also brilliant and intuitive and unerring. Despite being tortured, often in the grips of strong PTSD flashbacks, and always, always alcoholic, they approach omniscience. We need to trust them, in order to get what we came for: a solution.

Everyone else involved in a murder mystery is a flawed narrator. The job of a detective is, after all, to assemble complete knowledge. Everyone else has incomplete knowledge, a skewed perspective, their own motives. None of them are trustworthy, and one of them will turn out to be the murderer.

In ‘The Witch Elm‘, French leans into this untrustworthness, hard. Toby Hennessy is, well, a complete tool. He’s a handsome, happy-go-lucky Irishman, a thoughtless optimist who has always gotten his way. He has a good job in PR, good friends, a close family, and a great girlfriend to whom he is thinking about proposing when he surprises some burglars one night robbing his apartment. They beat him nearly to death and leave him with lasting brain damage.

A few weeks after being released from the hospital, Toby learns that his beloved uncle Hugo has been diagnosed with brain cancer, and that his case is terminal. Crippled, fractured, traumatized and spiraling into addiction and depression, Toby moves back to Ivy House.

Ivy House is the Hennessy family home. Purchased by his grandparents, it has been Hugo’s residence since their death. It is a beautiful, secluded old mansion with a long, walled garden. When they were children, Toby and his two cousins, Leon and Susannah, spent their weekends and summers there; it was in this private, lovely estate that they became like siblings.

Toby and his girlfriend move back to Ivy House to care for Hugo in his last days, and to let Toby heal. And so they are there when, one afternoon, Toby’s young nephew finds a skull in the Ivy House garden.

The Witch Elm‘ asks: Are you capable of murder? What if you had recently sustained a serious neurological injury? If your memory was damaged, if you could no longer focus, if you were having sudden, dramatic mood swings? Would you be capable then? And if you might be capable, and there were holes in your memory, would you ever be sure that you hadn’t killed someone?

Really, ‘The Witch Elm‘ is a novel about sanity and home. Specifically, about family homes, about how much the places where we happy as child matter to us, about we much we need them even as they haunt and hold us back. It’s about what we lose when we lose our past, and whether we can ever change unless we leave it.

This is a theme with Tana French: houses, houses that we love, homes (this is basically whatThe Likeness‘ was about). She has a good, visceral understanding of the way in which a beautiful place can became a physical embodiment of love itself, that losing a sense of the sacredness of a beautiful place is heartbreaking, like losing a person.

The Witch Elm‘ is really good. It’s good in all the ways that Tana French is normally good: it’s moody, atmospheric, richly detailed and absorbing. She’s a lovely writer; her prose is miles better than almost any other murder mystery prose (Benjamin Black is the only exception I can think of).

But it’s unsettling in a different way. Toby knows that he is in terrible danger, but he cannot discern whether the danger is from within, or from without. Unable to tell whether his family is trying to frame him, or whether he is, in fact, a murderer, he is excruciatingly vulnerable. This vulnerability will communicate itself to sensitive readers in the form of low-level anxiety and panic attacks on the red line.

For me, this is what sets Tana French apart from other mystery writers. Other authors are strong on plot mechanics, or on atmospherics, or on quiet menace; very few are strong on all of them. Tana French’s novels are so richly detailed that it becomes disturbingly easy to lose yourself in them.

It also makes her difficult to write about. I can’t communicate the anxious dread ‘The Witch Elm‘ made me feel. I felt like I was smothering when I was reading it, like I was in danger. This isn’t merely suspense – this is deep, subconscious identification, and it’s difficult to achieve when you read as much as I do. Tana French is special, and, at this point, I’ll read anything she writes – if she puts out a cookbook, I’ll read that cover to cover.

And, at this rate, it’ll probably scare the shit out of me.