Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Books

Just read my first Flannery O'Connor - A Good Man is Hard to Find. I remember reading the title story somewhere else and it was just as good the second time. She is terrific at conjuring up a sense of mounting dread. Her characters feel real mostly because they act out of motives that are obscure even to themselves. That sense of mystery gestures to the beyond, the religious, the damned and the salvific. There is a dogged persistence to her most memorable characters, like Mr. Head and his grandson Nelson in the otherwise slight story "The Artificial Nigger." The religious symbolism is laid on a bit too thickly for my taste, but hey, I'm not of the South. The masterpieces are here: "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," "Good Country People," and "The Displaced Person." The slighter ones too: "A Stroke of Good Fortune," "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," "A Circle in the Fire," "A Late Encounter with the Enemy."

When I told NJ that I was writing a series of poems in the voice of a Jamaican transplant to America, she recommended Ishion Hutchinson's House of Lords and Commons, and Safiya Sinclair's Cannibal. The Hutchinson is marvelous, a lyricism that is always surprising, precise, and intelligent. I had to read it twice to understand what he is saying, but I wanted to read it a second time, and probably a third, because it was so musical. There is so little apology in it. I'm ambivalent about Cannibal. Sinclair has passages of gorgeous beauty, but the associative metaphorical leaps often leaves me holding on to nothing. I had the impression of listening to a virtuoso but had no idea what I was listening to, besides the generalities of family, home, and feminism. I did not think the allusions to The Tempest added to my understanding of the play or of the poetry. It's very probable that I'm just not the right reader for it.

Ponti by Sharlene Teo. My expectations might have been set too high because of all the hype (Simon and Schuster! Glowing blurb from Ian McEwan!) but I was seriously disappointed by this debut novel by Singaporean writer Sharlene Teo. What is real and deeply felt (synonyms in my aesthetics) is the difficult relationship between mothers and daughters, and between close (girl)friends, but the novel does not succeed in translating what is deeply felt into a persuasive plot or convincing characters.

The plot feels secondhand: cinema ticket girl is picked out by an auteur wannabe to become a film star; girl student bullied by schoolmates because she is different; young girl brings food to fugitive Malayan Communists in the manner of Pip to Magwitch. The character arcs are mundanely depressing. Where are the monsters? Where is the bloodsucking Pontianak? A mother who does not like her own daughter? So many mothers are like that. A friend who abandons her friend in need? If that's monstrous, we have too many of them and so they are no longer monstrous. There is a lack of focus in the novel's key image. Ghosts are not quite the same thing as monsters.

And the style. For all its self-conscious wryness regarding cliches, filmic and literary, the writing does not escape whoppers of its own. Near the beginning of the novel, we have this description of the medium "sister" of the Ponti:

"Depending on the time of day and the angle, Aunt Yunxi looks anything between fifty and a hundred years old. She is as fit as a fiddle. In all the time that I have known her I have never heard her sneeze even once. She appeared on our doorstep nine years ago: 1995, the year my father walked out. My mother is the last person to ask for help to admit that she is struggling. She is too proud. But Yunxi simply knew. Call it sibling intuition. She swept into our lives after having traveled half the world...."

I counted nine cliches. No, you can't justify them by saying that this passage is in the voice of a teenager and teenagers speak in cliches. If I want teenage cliches, I go and hang out with teenagers, not stay at home on a bright and sunny June day to read a book. 

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