Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Recent reading: Coupland, Faber, Richards

Generation A by Douglas Coupland (novel, audiobook)

I’ve written elsewhere about my Douglas Coupland appreciation phase as a younger reader (here, for example), and the scales falling from my eyes later on.

However, I still find his books worth the time you invest in them, though not for the same reasons I find most novels worthwhile.

Toby Litt sums it up in his review for the Guardian:
Most readers know pretty much what to expect from Douglas Coupland. Sentence by sentence, he'll be a joy to read. He'll be great on food and technology (and especially great on food technology), good on language, bad on character and abysmal on plot.
Generation A(Note how the UK paperback version plucks "a joy to read" for a cover blurb...)

Compare this with Stephen Abell’s review in the Telegraph which completely misses the point: 
It would be wrong to reveal more [of the plot], because to do so would remove any purpose from Generation A. It is a novel based solely on its clever packaging of plot; it is gadget or gimmick fiction.
I think this is the difference between a reviewer who has read the author’s previous works and a reviewer reading an author’s later (read: less-inspired, prone to re-tread techniques and sentiments) book cold.

Yes, Generation A’s plot is daft, uneven, unsatisfying. Yes, the characters are thin and tend to talk in a similar voice (the plot, as if sensing this, goes some way to explaining their hive mind). But it was still quite fun.

Coupland's 'Monument to the War of 1812'
When I read Douglas Coupland’s books as a teenager I felt like he was talking to me, or at least about a world I knew or would shortly enter. Okay, so I didn’t fear a nuclear holocaust (or the later, smaller apocalypses: high school shootings, the extinction of bees), but here was a writer who didn’t turn his nose up at the everyday: microwave meals and advertising jingles. I realise now it was a kind of camp, something that’s easier to pick in Coupland’s visual art (giant toy soldiers, lots of plastic).

Generation A was my first time encountering Coupland as an audiobook. Each of the five main narrators is voiced by a different actor. The Kiwi character’s sections are read by a genuine Kiwi (the Sri Lankan and French characters are performed by talented actors, but it’s clear they’re putting an accent on), which was a real plus for me. Samantha even comes from my hometown of Palmerston North, but this proved to distance me rather than draw me in as DC gets a lot of things wrong:
  • Palmerston North is not in “Wanganui Province” it’s in Manawatu  (even the term Province sounds too Canadian).
  • There are a bunch of roadside plants/flowers mentioned which I’ve never heard of
  • There’s a reference to Route 56, but we don’t say route, we say State Highway
  • A plane from the states bound for Auckland is diverted to Palmerston North – there’s no way the runway is long enough for such a plane to land in Palmy. Also, lots of people on board are actually bound for Palmy!
The extent of Coupland’s research seems to have been Wikipedia and GoogleMaps. This annoys the writer in me as much as the Palmerstonian.

But I wonder how I would have felt about the great Douglas Coupland writing about Palmerston North when I was sixteen?

And then there’s the fact the Sri Lankan character, Harj, refers to a certain kind of privileged American tourists (and, when he goes to the states, the Abercrombie and Fitch clones) as Craigs and Craiginas. At one point he says, “Oh, to be a Craig.”

There is, of course, the perfect Couplandian cocktail of satire and actual reverence here. Yes, these Craigs are douches, but Harj can’t help wanting to live their lives. When an audiobook has this many “Craig”s in it, it’s hard for me not to feel it’s talking to me.

The first half of the book is classic Coupland finger-on-the-pulse goodness. The second half is classic Coupland collection of melted-Baby-Alive-dolls badness.

C’est la vie.

Under the skin by Michel Faber (novel)

I bought this book because David Mitchell said it was good. He even wrote the introduction for the edition I bought. And I can see how DM might like such a book, but I was less impressed.

I tried really hard to like it. Not coz David Mitchell liked it, but because my darling wife read it before me and STRONGLY DISLIKED it (I almost wrote “hated”, but she finished it, so I settled for dislike and CAPS LOCK). She said it didn’t feel like it went anywhere and the ending was stupid.
Under the Skin (The Canons)
After reading forty or so pages, I told her it seemed quite compelling and was really well written. I wasn’t even lying (though I have been known to stoop to such things to antagonise my spouse).

But the book is really just premise, premise, premise. It’s handled well to begin with: rather than blowing its load, info seeps out. But somewhere in the second third you've got all the answers you're likely to get, and it draaaaags.  And the ending. It was bad. The kind of ending that makes everything you've invested feel rather pointless .

A novel which manages to be both provoking and a drag. [Insert pun about getting under my skin here... no? okay, probably better this way]. 

And now...

Love and Hydrogen: New and Selected StoriesI try to write something about every book I read or audiobook I listen to, but some inevitably fall through the gaps. One of which was You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard, which I read a few months ago and mentioned in my interview with Lawrence Patchett last week but never blogged about.

I’m reading another Shepard collection now (Love and Hydrogen) on Lawrence’s recommendation, and will write about both when I’m done.

My current audiobook is Life by Keith Richards (memoir). And wow, what a great first chapter. It starts in media res, with a drug bust in the Southern US, and it felt like the kind of rock 'n roll novel real writers seem unable to pull off.

The first five hours or so are read by Johnny Depp, though thankfully he leaves his Captain Jack Sparrow impression at home and deadpans Keith's words in his bored American voice. It's strangely effective, except when he says to-may-toes when you know Keith would say to-mah-toes...

LifeBut then, suddenly, the narrator changes. Joe Hurley is suddenly 'playing' Keith. He's English, so the accent isn't that much of a stretch, but the deeper tone and slower, druggy drawl he gives Keith is a real contrast to Depp's reading. I guess Johnny was too big of a cat to read the whole book aloud.

After another chapter, I settled in to Hurley's Keith and I'm now about halfway through.

Unfortunately, after the great first chapter, the story went back to Keith's birth and things have flowed chronologically. The childhood chapters are still incredibly vivid: co-writer / ghost writer James Fox deserves a lot of credit here. But things are beginning to drag a bit now that the Stones are big and the drugs and women are plentiful.  There just aren't enough scenes (like the opening drug bust) for a reader to become absorbed in.

Still, it's worth perservering with, I reckon. Plenty of off-the-cuff (read: told to the ghost writer off-the-cuff and inserted into the book at a canny moment) about guitar playing and, um, life.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Il brutto / drunk teenagers / mein Beir

Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo

Yesterday I played host to a small group of fellow writers and got them to talk candidly about THE NOVEL (or at least the 70,000 words I gave them to read a couple of weeks ago).

The Good: They pointed out a lot of ways the book can be improved, none of which came as a complete surprise to me.

The Bad: They pointed out a lot of ways the book can be improved, none of which came as a complete surprise to me.

The Ugly: I’ve got a bit more to write to finish the “first draft” (quotation marks because I tend to revise as I go, so when I finish the first draft, it’ll be more like a third or fourth draft… I hope), and a lot of fiddly auto-electrical, and ambitious structural-engineering work to do to enact the changes I know the story needs to be the right mix of: bold and engaging, odd and believable, plot driven and character rich.

Filmy aside

I watched the first half of Sergio Leone’s The Good the bad and the ugly the other day. Spent most of the time wondering why some bits were dubbed (or synced poorly) and others times the actors seemed to be speaking English in time with their lips. In the end I started Googling and lost interest. In bed by 8.30pm

Y’know, the usualUnder the Skin (The Canons).

Cloud Atlas when it comes out in October, coz it was a cool book and could either be a cool movie or a train wreck: either way it’s bound to be an engrossing 2 hours and change.

Also, there’s an adaptation of Michel Faber's Under The Skin, which I just finished reading (and will post about tomorrow). Scarlett Johansen as Isserley?  I'd probably pay money to see that.

Another loosely themed playlist

(slightly ashamed about #6 but I've been earworming it like crazy... let this be its exorcism)

Das ist nicht mein Bier

There was a lot of media coverage last week of the Prime Minister’s keenness for school league tables. Not so much coverage of the release of the NZ Writers League Table.

I kid, I kid.

Actually, there was a bit of chatter, but mostly around the fact one German journo went to one press conference and saw a lot of scenery and heard a lot of talk about food and wine, but not enough about books (or enough Te Reo Maori).

Congrats to those writers in the Premier League (and the Championship, and League One). It's great to see a couple of young buds (Hamish Clayton and Tina Makereti) get to rep Aotearoa along with the fully blossomed... I almost made a joke about 'deadheading', but I don't actually believe that.

Monday, June 18, 2012

All that lofty stuff: a chat with Lawrence Patchett

I Got His Blood on Me: Frontier StoriesLawrence Patchett’s debut short story collection, I Got His Blood on Me, was launched earlier this month. I first came across Lawrence’s writing when he won the ‘over 10,000 words’ category of The Long and the Short of It competition in 2011. His winning story, ‘The Road to Tokomairiro’, is in this collection, along with eleven other stories that feature ghosts, shipwrecks, big game fishing and kicking a ball around at the park. Laurence Fearnley sums it up pretty well on the back cover when she calls it, “a rugged and haunting collection”.

Over the past few days I’ve been firing questions to Lawrence via email and he has graciously responded.

The following conversation is the sixth in my occasional series of chats with newish Kiwi short story writers (see also: Tina MakeretiPip AdamSue OrrAnna Taylor and Breton Dukes).


CC: A lot of your stories begin – on the page at least – with plot. In the title story, which opens the collection, the narrator finds an injured man on the side of the road with a musket and other items that suggest he might be from another time. In the following story, ‘The Pathway’, we learn in the first paragraph that a missionary has drowned while trying to cross a river on horseback. When you start a new story, do you start with these events in mind, or is the starting point somewhere else?

LP: I like your distinction between the story on the page, and the real beginning of the project, way back at draft zero. There’s a big distance between those two points! At the real beginning, when I’m first working on a story, it always starts with character, someone who’s been suggested to me by a real person in a historical book or photograph or whatever, or someone completely invented. Often it’s a mixture of the two. That character lives with me for a bit before I can find an incident—a bloody crisis, most likely!—that will push them into some pretty extreme stress.

When it comes to putting the story on the page, I like to get straight into it, without any throat-clearing. I want to grip the reader right from the start, so often I go straight to that crisis or central conflict—not all the time, but often it seems to work out that way.

I admire other writers who can do it all sorts of different ways, like opening with that more subtle and symphonic sort of sound, but still hooking the reader in. You know what I mean? Maybe that’s what Alice Munro does. Or like some of those Owen Marshall stories in The Divided World, or the start of a Richard Ford novel, maybe. I’d love to be able to do that at the start of a story, without losing the reader. Maybe with a bit more practice, eh?

CC: Tell me about it. The path to a finished story is littered with the scrunched balls of failed symphonic openings.

That’s not to say your openings are plain. There are some great, loaded first sentences: “The man bled on the motorway.” “We carried no guns.” “Hazel ran into the bunkhouse with her gun drawn.” Were you conscious of the need to hook your readers in because of the longer-than-normal length of many of these stories? What are some of the differences between a 3,000 word story and a 10,000 word one?

LP: Thanks—yeah, I was definitely aware of that. You have to hook them immediately into a big story, something that will be a good reward for the bigger chunk of reading time and attention. Around this time I remember reading some bedtime stories to my nephew, and I noticed how the best stories took you right into the story’s central problem in the first sentence—and actively, as well. No messing.

One of the big differences with a longer story is that you can push your character so much further—and, in fact, you’re obligated to. There’s no hiding. This means that in a longer story you can’t opt for that reticence you can sometimes get away with in shorter stories—you know, where the character begins to see the massive problem in their lives or themselves, and just backs away from it. That’s what my stories used to do, anyway. In a long story you’ve got to force them to confront it and articulate it and own it, and all that difficult stuff.

The LarnachsCC: It seems as if the New Zealand novel has become obsessed with the past in recent years. As The Earth Turns Silver, The Larnachs, Wulf, Rangatira, The Open World, The Parihaka Woman — they’ve all had their own successes. In terms of historical short stories, however, it’s been slimmer pickings. Apart from a cluster of stories in Fiona Kidman’s The Trouble With Fire, I can’t think of any other recent collections that tackle New Zealand history. What are some of the joys and frustrations of writing historical short stories?

The Trouble With FireLP: I think I can answer this question by saying that I don’t really think of them as historical short stories, because that’s a direct route to a whole lot of frustrations! I try to think of them more as stories that interact with the past, or ask questions about it, or something. Otherwise I get all tangled up in the historical stuff—what are my rights here, what would this real person think about their portrayal, etc. I try to break those reader expectations about the ‘historical’ element right away. That’s why there are all those ghosts and out-of-time experiences and holograms and stuff—they’re partly about disrupting that idea of a transparent window on to the past. Sorry to get all stuffy about a categorisation thing, but I think it’s a way of answering the question, because if you set out to write a historical short story I reckon you’re going to run into trouble, whereas if you just try to write a story to explore something that interests you, it will go better. That’s the way it works for me anyway!

Apart from that, I think the joys and frustrations are the same—i.e., it’s bloody hard until you get to about Draft No. 9, and then it gets clearer and easier! Short stories are so cool because you can do all sorts of structures and voices, from a one-page vignette type thing up to a really long adventure yarn, so it can accommodate the rich, big world you sometimes need for historical settings, or a really spare and minimal number. But I do love that idea of pushing a huge story or problem through a small narrative frame, and somehow stories drawn from history lend themselves to that well.

That was one of the joys of it, for me, trying out those different structures and techniques and noises. I remember you saying one time that you like it when short story writers go for diversity and variety, and I’m starting to see what you mean now. I hope I’m not misquoting you there. Certainly that’s one of the things I was struck by in A Man Melting—that versatility and variety.

CC: That certainly sounds like something I would say. I reckon you tick the diversity and variety boxes in your collection. There’s the internal variety — different voices, different times — but I also felt like it was a different kind of New Zealand book. It seems you are interested in a different slice of New Zealand history than the novelists mentioned above. A woman in a flowing dress — the cover image du jour — just wouldn’t work on the front of I Got His Blood on Me. Did you select the particular historical moments or characters in your stories because they weren’t being written about?

LP: Ha! Yes, it’s hard to imagine that on the cover of this book. In terms of the subject matter, I think I just went to what interested me. I was really keen on adventure stories and frontier stories when I was young, so I was trying to capture some of the feel of that gripping adventure yarn, but making it go a bit deeper in terms of character. I’ve always been right into New Zealand history, and around the time of the stories I was thinking about the way we use it—and misuse it!—and I think that comes through in the book. But all your preoccupations get in there, eh—what I mean is, all these characters have to think about my ideas on sport, and heroism, and families, as well as all that lofty stuff.

WulfWhat you said earlier about the growth in historical fiction is really interesting. I’ve read two of the novels you mention, Wulf and Rangatira, and I absolutely loved them. Obviously the techniques and scope are different, but I think that in one way those books are doing something similar. Wulf especially seemed to raise heaps of questions about our fascination with the stories and people of the past, and how we make them up and reshape them and use them. Great books.

CC: I want to ask you now about your story ‘My Brother’s Blood’, which is about a religious order that, among other things, tries to thwart the activities of sealers. I’d never heard of such an order, but it feels utterly convincing within the confines of the story. Is the order your own invention? How different was the approach you took to writing ‘My Brother’s Blood’ to, say, ‘The Man Who Would Be King’, which features future Prime Minister Richard Seddon among the gold miners on the West Coast?

LP: Awesome! I love hearing about people’s reactions to that story. Yes, the Order was entirely invented and in fact that story incorporates several big and deliberate anachronisms, setting a religious group that never existed in a town that wasn’t established yet (Bluff). I was trying to see if I could write against the established historical story that we all know of that time—you know, the sealers arrived early and finished off the seals really quickly—and persuade readers that instead a better reality might have existed. It was fun!

In that sense ‘My Brother’s Blood’ was considerably different from the Seddon story, which looked at the early life of Dick Seddon as I imagined someone like him might have been. But in a funny way it was the same approach in both stories, because in both cases you have to just use the authority of story-telling to convince people of the plausibility of those characters and events.

CC: There’s a lot of the present in this collection, of course, though it often rubs shoulders with the past. We have a council clerk confronted by the ghost of Maud Pember Reeves, a retrenched civil servant dealing with a time traveller, and a ‘family historian’ confronting a possible relation. All of these characters seem to lionise the past, to look upon it as a time of greater dignity or higher adventure. An easy sentiment for any desk-bound employee to share. But there’s an interesting scene towards the end of one of the purely historical set-totally-in-the-past stories, ‘A Hesitant Man’, where the narrator, a man who has survived the 1909 wreck of the Penguin talks with one of the men from Terawhiti Station who helped in the rescue efforts. The narrator says he’s an under-clerk in a large office. ‘I thought it would be obvious, out there at the rescue.’ ‘No,’ the other man replies, ‘nothing like that’. I wonder if you could talk a bit about this story and how it relates to the other desk-bound men in your collection?

LP: Wow, that’s a great insight into those characters. I was waffling on earlier about heroism, and this is one of the stories that obsesses over that question of how we can be heroic. It was the anniversary of the Wahine disaster and I was trying to imagine that experience, and how you would react appropriately. I mean, how could you react appropriately? It’s impossible. I wanted a really ordinary, humble guy to have to confront that experience and those questions, and argue them out with himself and someone else.

In terms of the other desk-bound men, I think you put your finger right on it—it’s looking again at how we devour the stories and people of the past and get all possessive about them, and make them mean what we want them to, according to the demands of our lives now. I was just trying to play around with that a bit, and with other ideas of appropriation, plus I wanted to think about the recession and the nastiness that enabled to happen in people’s lives. Of course, redundancy is another kind of a crisis that characters have to react and adapt to, and that brings in the aspect of heroism and endurance again, I guess, or maybe just rage and confusion—I don’t know!

You Think That's Bad: StoriesCC: At your book launch, Fergus Barrowman claimed the credit for introducing you to the American short story writer Jim Shepard. I’ve only read his 2011 collection, You Think That’s Bad, (which you’ve written about on your blog), but I can see some connections. Even in a story like ‘Minotaur’, which is about a man who works on top secret military technologies — so it’s very contemporary, a long way from muskets and six-shooters — there are those elements of masculinity, danger and murkiness (his friend has gone even deeper underground and can’t be reached). Do you have a favourite Shepard collection? Any other writers that you reckon people interested in short stories should read?

Love and Hydrogen: New and Selected StoriesLP: Yeah, I owe Fergus for that one! I think I’d go for Love and Hydrogen, for the sheer variety and chutzpah, with Like You’d Understand Anyway a close second. Shepard is so great because he can write a deeply entertaining story about anything at all: Cuban baseball, mountaineering, female gun maniacs, and (especially) male despair. Plus he’s got a great moustache.

Everything Ravaged, Everything BurnedOtherwise, my reading veers all over the place at the moment, from kids’ adventure stories right through to speculative stuff, but around this time I do remember that I was reading Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower and Girl With Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace. Both writers were recommended to me by Pip Adam, who has the best reading tips. And they range all over the place, too, in terms of their subject matter, with Viking raids and LBJ and crazy rural types. It’s like someone has said to those guys ‘I bet you couldn’t write a story about XYZ’ and they’ve gone ‘Screw you—watch this!’ I love that.

CC: What can readers expect from you next?

LP: Well, for quite a while I’ve been working on this post-apocalyptic sort of short story about aliens and feral cats and a journey. It’s not finished yet but obviously when it’s done it’ll be a sweeping epic that will capture all of human experience and endeavour, etc etc, and will put an end to all my other stories, etc, etc. So, as you can see, that story’s broken and can’t be fixed, and it will probably end up as compost.

Apart from that, I’d love to work on something bigger but I don’t want to rush it, you know? I think it will be better to wait for the right story to come along.

CC: Well, whatever happens, I hope I get to read your aliens + feral cats + journey story some day. Thanks for taking to time to chat.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A YouTube playlist for THE NOVEL

I’m not gonna give anything away plot-wise, just post YouTube clips about some things that feature in my novel-set-in-the-past (publication date: some time in 2013).


I think we can agree mannequins can be scary. There are a lot of images of scary mannequins on the internet. I prefer to stand on the other side of the uncanny valley and consider what happens when mannequins achieve their aim of being alluring and seductive, rather than when they fall short.

But there’re interesting in other ways too. Like this robotic mannequin from Estonia.

(I also love/hate the way the Aussie anchorperson says the ‘qu’ in mannequin, and says Fits Me, with which is how Australians say TradeMe).


Plenty of David Attenborough-y clips to chose from, but why go past Monty Python?

(Besides, you've probably seen my albatross photos already.)


I’m not going leftfield this time. Here’s Eugen Sandow, the dude who figured out how build a commercial empire from a decent set of pecs and, some say, invented body-building in the process.

Here he is in an 1894 Souvenir Strip for the Edison Kinetoscope (he was pals with Thomas Edison – don’t hate him for it).

Clipper ships and figurehead carvers

This clip wasn’t around when I first started researching, but it shows a lot of different figureheads which were housed inside the Cutty Sark, the most famous tea clipper, prior to the fire in 2007. The Cutty Sark re-opened after extensive renonvations on 25 April this year. Anyone been? Would love to take a keek nice time I’m in that hemisphere.

NB: You’re liable to be lulled to sleep by the music (and I’m guessing your less-than-obsessive interest in figureheads.

... and the inevitable shipwreck

Because no playlist would be complete without the Tragically Hip, here’s them performing ‘Nautical Disaster’ on Saturday Night Live in 1995:

(Bonus points for the young Gord Downie looking a lot like Sheldon Cooper, if he stood up from the keyboard and sang CanRock)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Bloody good / Holy morality Batman / Despondency

There will be blood

I Got His Blood on Me: Frontier Stories

Tonight is the launch of Lawrence Patchett's short story collection, I got his blood on me. (6pm at Unity Books, Wellington, if you wanted to pop along.)

I've just finished the book: it's bloody, ballsy, smart, experimental, reassured. I will post an interview with Lawrence (like these ones: Tina MakeretiPip AdamSue OrrAnna TaylorBreton Dukes) in due course.

Until then, here's a listening suggestion for when you read the book:

Morality Play

I don't like to use flash photography on wildlife. I don't know if there's any evidence that it does them any harm (probably depends on the creature), but it seems wrong.

Sometimes, however, I have my camera on the wrong setting and I'll flash an unsuspecting bird. This happened the other day at Karori sanctuary. My camera was set to 'macro' (which is next to 'action', my default bird-snapping setting since they move so frequently and so swiftly) and it flashed, though I didn't notice the first time, so I took another.

When I looked at the second photo, I noticed how great the colours were and how crisp the robin looked, then I twigged.

Sadly the non-flash photos didn't turn out at all. To further muddy my moral waters, the robin didn't seem blinded, offended or put-off by the flashes, even coming closer to me. I know it was just after the grubs my footsteps were rustling up, but it seemed more than willing to put up with the paparazzi treatment to get a feed.

I like taking photos of birds because a) I like being in the bush (even when it's a gated sanctuary) a) I like observing birds c) I like the challenge of capturing birds on film jpeg, which is a mostly down to good luck rather than technique. But I don't want the drive to take better photos to crowd out the birds and the bush.

Even if the bird doesn't care about the flash, I do. I think.

Out there / Oh dear

My coterie of trusted readers currently have 70,000 words of THE NOVEL to gnash, pooh-pooh and dismantle as they please. All comments and criticism will be received with open ears on 24 June.

I still have several chapters to write to finish the beast off. (As you might surmise, I'm a bit distracted today, blogging about nothing-much and all). But it's getting there, despite this latest wade through the slough of despond. Sample thoughts: It just feels like a pile of words. People will think it's for children. I can't write for tuppence. Why is Part Three so fricken loooong? Two years for this? Etc.

But, as we sang at end of year assemblies in high school: Nihil bone sine labore.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Some thoughts on The Marriage Plot

Billboard via Village Voice
Plots Familiar

The Marriage PlotI recently consumed the audiobook version of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. I found myself popping my iPod on while doing the dishes or watering the garden, not just during my workday commute, which is always a good sign for my level of engagement with a book.

For the first time in a while, the American Contemporary Social Realist Novel felt like a genre, and I don’t mean that disparagingly: it felt snug and comforting. Here was the entire spectrum of middle class white college kids in the early eighties (so not much of a spectrum, really) talking about Victorian novelists and literary theory and religion (at other times, the narrator quotes long passages from books on these topics).

The Marriage Plot is also a campus novel and, funnily enough, a marriage plot novel – but despite all the familiarity, it is compelling and absorbing and somehow fresh.

Will this be the Eugenides book  people will be talking about in twenty-five years? Hmm, probably not. Unless Sofia Coppola turns into a film (I don’t think it’d work to well in that medium, so even that mightn't work).

The Possibility That Dare Not Speaks Its Name

Via Guardian, photo: Mel Evans/AP
At the end of the audiobook there’s a brief interview with Eugenides, which I think is a great idea and should happen more often. The interviewer asks Eugenides if he could ever see himself returning to these characters as Updike did with his Rabbit books.

Until this point (I’d only just finished the novel, so it’s not like I’d had much time to mull it over) I hadn’t considered the fact the ending was a good set up for a sequel (however icky sequels might be). The ending felt complete and satisfying in its way (partly because it wasn’t satisfying in a predicable, romantic sense – without wanting to give too much away) but it could totally be the first book in a series.

Thankfully, The Marriage Plot doesn’t feel like the start of a franchise – it’s too myopic, too whole, to entertain such thoughts. But, yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if Eugenides returns to these characters in thirty years (at which point the story would be set in 2012, so the characters will probably spend all their time reading blogs and tweeting…)

The Arbitrary Reader

Because I was listening to The Marriage Plot over the same stretch of days that I was reading Emily Perkins’ The Forrests (as a paper book), it’s only natural that I began to draw comparisons between the two books. Add to this the fact that Perkins and Eugenides appeared together at the Auckland Writers Festival for a session on ‘The Future of the Novel’, and it seems irresistible to compare and contrast.

The ForrestsIn a few key ways, you’d be hard pressed to find two more different takes on the contemporary novel. The Forrests covers the Dorothy Forrest’s life from childhood to very old age, ranging from the 1970s to some time in the near future. The Marriage Plot mostly takes place in 1982, moving back and forward a little to tell the main characters' back stories, but it’s range is hyper-limited compared to Perkins’ novel. Also, while time marches relentlessly on in The Forrests, single events are returned to in different The Marriage Plot's chapters to show things from a different character’s perspective. This might be less like how we experience our own lives, but it's something we're used to in books and can't help but make a reader feel a tad empowered.

Romance and depression (specifically manic depression) are brought to the fore in Eugenides’ novel, not just through the action presented and the characters’ dialogue, but also via excerpts from other works. The Forrests features more marriages and just as many unrequited loves as The Marriage Plot, but that all takes place off stage, just as the depression that characters descend in and out of is hinted at through their actions rather than a discussion of their brain chemistry.

And while reviewers have harkened back to Virginia Woolf with reference to The Forrests, The Marriage Plot is just as retro, though its forebears are, unsurprisingly, the marriage novels of Austen, Tolstoy and Henry James. It is no surprise, then, that the novels are so different, and why the question of THE FUTURE OF THE NOVEL is a kinda strange thing for these writers to talk about.

But which did you prefer?

Okay, pushy interlocutor, I’ll bite. I liked The Marriage Plot more, though I think it is the less ambitious book. This is very strange for me, as I tend to be very forgiving of ambitious books. (In my lighter moods I forgive my own terrible prose and cardboard characters because of the ambition that led me down that particular rabbit hole.)

I think it comes down to a couple of basic things: structure and voice.

The Marriage Plot deploys the classic love triange plot and matches it with a tertiary structure where each character gets serious page-time as the perspective character. It’s not perfect structurally. There are a few slips in perspective, when we are not looking over the shoulder of any of our three protagonists, eg the phone call between Leonard and Madeleine’s mothers. And the triangle construction fails to achieve true balance: there’s a lot of Maddy and Leonard in the same scene (from either M or L’s perspective, and some events from both), while Mitchell spends a lot of time alone, and therefore gets less screen time, even if he gets the same amount of pages from his perspective… (actually, we probably get more from his than from Leonard’s).

And then there’s voice. Eugenides’ narrator was just more engaging that Perkins’. He (I think of the narrator as a he, probably because a dude wrote the book and a dude read the audiobook) has done the hard work of figuring out what's important and is there to drag you along through the maze. Perkins' narrator is much more hands off. You have to figure why things are important, where we are, sometimes who we're even following at the time -- clearly this is a more ambitious decision, and it has it's own rewards. But for pure reading pleasure, gimme the Eugenides.

(I was pretty convinced about my position before I tried to put it into words. Now, I suspect my views will get blurrier with time. I might even disown what I've said above. So be it.)