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Literary awards are rarely sufficient motivation for me to choose one title over another — the enjoyment of literature being notoriously subjective — but since Less was already on my wishlist, its recent Pulitzer Prize win firmed up my decision to purchase.
What immediately struck me was the unusual narrative structure… predominantly first-person present tense (identity undisclosed) yet omnipresent.
From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.
Look at him: seated primly on the hotel lobby’s plush sofa, blue suit and white shirt, legs knee-crossed so that one polished loafer hangs free of its heel. The pose of a young man.
But on occasion more like third-person. It is both confounding and intriguing. Continue reading >>
Washington Black is an imaginative novel that crosses boundaries, boundaries that exist in the story and boundaries that tend to hem in literature. It is a novel that is not easily classifiable, because it is very literary, but it also shows traits of fantasy and adventure. It is historical in setting, but does not allow this to confine its reach. A story of self discovery, Washington Black explores the topics of suffering and rebirth. It sounds like a fantastic novel, and the opening chapters prove this. What a perfect beginning! At 35 pages in, I knew I'd found the best novel of the year, an easy five-star rating. So what happened?
The fact is, Washington Black does little to sustain the wonder created in the opening chapters. The first several chapters are perfect. They're brutal, intelligent, and imaginative. I truly couldn't ask for more. The story opens with an amazingly drawn cast of characters, slaves and plantation owners on an estate in Barbados. We see the plight of the other slaves, as well as the conflicting natures of the plantation owner with his abolitionist-minded brother, through the eyes of young Washington Black—called Wash. The brutality of this particular plantation and the wonders set in motion by the brother, Titch, a scientist, create such a wonderful contrast. It's easy to imagine where this story might be going when Titch takes Wash under his wing, but it's a place that you, as the reader, want the story to go. It's magical, heartwarming, and full of imagery so palpable you can't deny its existence: a Vernes-esque journey around the world with a kindhearted scientist and his assistant, a child freed from slavery.
Unfortunately, this novel just can't maintain the forward movement it needs to claim its potential. The characters, while starting off great, did little to keep me invested in their stories. Sure, their adventure is wonderful, but their actions are wooden and their decisions based on inexplicable coincidences. They failed to carry me along on their adventure. The longer the story went on, the less I believed the magic the story was built on, the less I cared about the narrative.
In the end, I was left with too many questions, but not enough desire to find answers. What was really going on here? In a novel largely based on realism, it is easy to pick out the fantastical elements and analyze them. What was with the allusions to the spiritual personas of our characters: others that roam free of their selves? The existence of these “others” makes me wonder. Who was Washington Black? Was he a spirit of the self that existed in the opening chapters, a spirit making his way back to Dahomey? Was he reborn in the child Titch finds in Morocco? At the conclusion of Washington Black, I don't have any answers, only speculations. These questions display the intelligence of this novel and its author, but highlight the problem that it doesn't go far enough to provide answers or the will to learn the truth.
Washington Black is a powerful and imaginative story with so many great pieces. The writing is exceptionally powerful at times. It just doesn't keep it going, however, and the result is a firework that fizzles out long before the end. I recommend this novel to others, but with the caveat not to build your expectations too high in the beginning. Perhaps if I'd not done so, I would've walked away with warmer feelings regarding this story.
Thanks to the publisher, Knopf Publishing Group, for providing me early access to this title through NetGalley.
At the time Rachel Kushner's second novel, The Flamethrowers, was released, I was very much interested in the story. Before it had even hit shelves, I was enticed by the cover and the promise of a thrilling tale within. Well, curse the infinite to-read list. While I've held the best intentions of reading Kushner's work all this time, it took a Man Booker Prize nomination to finally make the commitment, a commitment to read her following novel, The Mars Room.
The Mars Room is the story of Romy Hall and her fellow prisoners at Stanville Women's Correctional Facility. Though I have nothing more than a reader's perspective of what prison might be like, Kushner's story carries significant believability. This is a prison novel that seems wrapped in precision and one might assume, with the flood of details from both inside and outside of the prison walls, that the author has done her research. An article published in The New Yorker points to this attention to detail (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20...). According to the article, this precision is indicative of her work. In each of her three novels, Kushner has immersed herself in the details of the story. For The Mars Room, Kushner began visiting prisons in 2014 and has utilized the help of consultants who've given her information that only an insider could possess, stories that are rendered in the novel with little alteration.
Some may argue that The Mars Room isn't strictly a prison novel as much of the action happens outside of the prison gates, but I get the impression that Kushner is painting the outside as a sort of prison, as well. Outside, there are a set of rules that restrict one from pursuing true freedom. Many of these characters were set on a path, some at birth, some because of something completely outside of their control, that had only one outcome. It's possible to get a sense that Kushner was hoping to establish a connection between the American prison system and the “Great American Dream.”
Outside of the vivid detail, what's most impressive are the characters. It's clear that Kushner spent some time with them. She knows them well, giving each a very developed voice and perspective. These characters go beyond Romy and the other prisoners of Stanville. Kushner tells the story of prison's teacher, of a corrupt cop, of a trans woman in a men's prison. Each of these stories carries with it a whole other world, completely rendered and discerning.
And this is perhaps where The Mars Room turns a bit sour. While these extra characters certainly show Kushner's great ability to work inside the minds' of a myriad of possible characters, their connection to the larger story is in some cases weak or entirely nonexistent. Some of the novel's best scenes certainly come from these diversions, but they detract from what is an otherwise solid narrative. When it becomes clear toward the end that these many threads are not necessarily joined, The Mars Room loses something of its believability in its loss of continuity. While there is a complete novel in here, it is joined by stories that are merely connected by theme.
Certainly, it didn't help that in the end, the story moves in a direction that deviates some from the overarching sense of realism. The conclusion isn't absurd, by any means, but it did strike me as slightly inauthentic. In fact, I'd say this ending would've been sufficient in the work of many less skilled authors, but coming from the author who'd established 300 pages of piercing authenticity, it had a bit too much of the made-for-tv-movie effect.
I will not be surprised or offended to see The Mars Room make this year's shortlist. There are probably too many strikes against it to take home the prize—primarily, or so I believe, that an American author cannot win a third year in a row. In a year when the longlist has been particularly sub par, in my opinion, I think Kushner has a decent chance of being invited to London this October.
Everyone who follows the Man Booker seems to have an opinion regarding the inclusion of Sabrina on the longlist. The rules of the Man Booker Prize state that a work must be “unified and substantial” and “written originally in English.” By this definition, Nick Drnaso's Sabrina, a graphic novel, qualifies. Traditionally, the Prize does not make exceptions, so when it does, these extensions throw readers into the path of confusion. In my personal opinion, it should not have been included. I also think 2016's All That Man Isshould not have been a contender. Though it was billed as a novel, no one was tricked; it was a short story collection unified only by theme. Sabrina's inclusion is a bit more gray.
But I want to judge the work without the Man Booker in mind, though I will come back to the Prize in the end.
Sabrina starts with a slow build up. The groundwork is placed and a quietness is established. The problem in these opening pages is not with the story, but with the illustrations. They leave much to be desired. I had great difficulty in identifying the characters or their ages, as the artist portrays all people as stocky and plain faced. By appearance, this novel aligns more with the idea of “comics” than of what some of us have come to expect from “graphic novels.” (It irritates me a little that this will be the first graphic novel experience for many readers. For those interested in the form, I recommend Craig Thompson's Habibi for an amazing blend of story and art.)
The story picks up toward the middle as answers are unexpectedly provided. The following pages tell a riveting tale that very much asks questions of cultural relevance. That's where the story is. It's not in the mystery of a missing woman; it's in how American society handles tragedy. It's a story that could've been told in another form, possibly, but I'm not convinced it could've been done so well. And it doesn't matter, because it was Drnaso's story and this is his media. I wish the art had been better rendered, but the vision of how the story was meant to be lain out was perfect. Overall, I really enjoyed this story. It will stick with me for year's to come.
I do want to return to the Man Booker briefly and say that I'm a little hurt by Drnaso's response to being longlisted. This is a huge honor, but Drnaso's never heard of the Prize and seems irritated that it has interfered with his art and his day-to-day life (http://www.vulture.com/2018/07/nick-d...). Forget the Pulitzer, the Nobel, and even Employee of the Month—I want a Man Booker nomination. I really liked this work and hope that it finds some fans amongst a tough crowd, but given his irritation at the nomination, let's help Drnaso is not further inconvenienced by being shortlisted.