Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, December 27, 2019

Anna Burns, _No Bones_

I THOUGHT SO highly of Milkman that it seemed a good bet to check out Burns's first novel, also set mainly in Belfast during the Troubles. Milkman is a stronger novel in a good many ways, but this is worthwhile--in fact, I adopted it for a course recently, and can attest that it was a hit with American undergraduates.

As a novel, No Bones is highly episodic, so much so that one wonders if it was conceived as a collection of short stories; the chapters are in many respects self-contained (hence eminently teachable), though they certainly gain from being read together. Almost all of the stories concern Amelia Lovett, one of many children in a large and turbulent family in Catholic Belfast. Amelia is of the same generation as and is temperamentally akin to the unnamed narrator of Milkman, but while the later novel is focused on a period of a few months or perhaps a year, here we see Amelia from childhood to her early thirties.

Horrors occur. Protestant rioters attack her family's home, relatives are murdered, brothers recruited into the Provisionals only to mysteriously disappear. No matter what happens, the same deadpan, darkly humorous, drily satirical tone prevails, much as in Milkman, and as in Milkman the reader begins to hear the resolutely unsentimental, unimpressed, no-bones-about-it tone as an attempt at self-protection, as armor, as disguise, as a way of keeping the trauma at arm's length.

Trauma is a wily wrestler, though. It has broken down better defenses than yours. Amelia escapes to England, but the trauma is still brewing away inside her, leading to breakdown and institutionalization; in the book's final chapter, peace is breaking out, but we can tell that no treaty can bring an end to the long-term effects of the constant fear Amelia and her friends have grown up with.

Excellent book.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Greg Jackson, _Prodigals_

FOURTH INSTALLMENT IN the "read more short story collections" campaign. This one is brilliant.   I was thinking I had not enjoyed a debut collection this much in quite a while when it struck me, what is going on with Wells Tower? Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned came out ten years ago, and so far as I know he has not published a volume of fiction since. Hmm.

I hope the wait for Jackson's second book is shorter. The characters in these eight stories are the sorts of folks we see often enough in short stories--quite well-off, still on the sunny side of forty, educated, in wobbly orbits around arts, culture, or academia, self-aware but capable of deluding themselves--somewhat younger versions of the folks who appear in Helen DeWitt's stories, we might say.

And like DeWitt, Jackson is willing to fool around with form, as in "Amy's Conversions," in which he migrates through first-, second-, and third-person narration, or the book's tour de force closer, "Metanarrative Breakdown," a story whose ambitions evoke D. F. Wallace's "Westward the Course of Empire Makes Its Way."

And again like DeWitt or Wallace, Jackson is ready, willing, and able to drop a trail of recondite crumbs: "I had the dual consciousness of a Voltaire in the court of Frederick the Great or the Marxists who brood through high-society parties in Wyndham Lewis novels," for instance. The Revenge for Love? Apes of God? Matters not--mention Wyndham Lewis and I am yours forever. Then, to clinch it, a character in a subsequent story is "dressed in the hip tatters off the set, trying to work Agamben and Deleuze into his small talk." Come stand over by me, Tanner. I'm dying for some small talk about Agamben.

What really had me, though, was just the sentences. Here are a couple from p. 16:

We hiked the Sagebrush Trail until boredom overtook us. It seemed not to go anyplace or end, and at the top of a ridge, where we finally stopped, a Hasid in black robes stared out across the Coachella Valley, past the lush plot of Palm Springs, which sat in the dun funnel of the mountains like a piece of sod on a field of dirt.

A Hasid on the Sagebrush Trail alone is enough to delight me, then we get "dun funnel," then we get that visually precise and uncannily eloquent words-of-one-syllable simile. Jackson gives us something like that on practically every page.

Why the title, though? In what sense are the characters in these stories prodigals? I may have to read it again. It will ease the wait.