I was Such. A. Shit. in high school. Not really. Like not throwing chairs through windows or skipping class or smoking. I was still me, aka: super keen and over-achieving. I just mean that is it’s own kind of shit. Because I must have been *so irritating with my relentless opinions and ideas and dispositional contrarian-ness.
To whit: Grade 11 or 12 English, we read The Great Gatsby. I didn’t like it. Rather than keep this view to myself, I wrote a missive to my teacher explaining that subjective truth meant that because I didn’t like it, the book couldn’t be a good book. And she was like ‘you’re ridiculous. this is an objectively a great book’ and I got more and more combative and more invested in proving my brilliance and proving that I was right and the book was terrible. And on I went until she was like “fine!”
And then, blush. Twenty odd years later, book club picks it as part of our ‘classics’ series and *spoiler* 16-year-old Erin was an idiot. This book is objectively great.
[Aside. A. just came in and he’s teaching the book to high school students right now, and I shared how irritating I was in high school, and then a random stranger burst in to tell us How Great the movie version is, and I was instinctively like ‘The movie is terrible because movie adaptations are always terrible. So… I’ve learned nothing.]
There’s nothing worth summarizing here about the novel that hasn’t been written about a hundred different ways, so I’ll just say that this time when reading it I couldn’t better/differently appreciate the nostalgia and longing in Gatsby for the past he can’t have again, the striving he feels to prove to himself and others his worthiness (and oh man, if we could just get high schoolers to see what a futile process this is it could spare them twenty years of therapy and sadness), the impossibility of self-determination when Plot (car accidents) and Character (Tom) will always intervene in our best laid plans. And the narration through Nick that lets us keep one remove so we can say ‘that isn’t me’ while all the while realizing that yearning and sadness is in all of us… just… ‘great’, indeed.
So, old sport, heart-felt apologies to the past. If Gatsby’s taught me anything, I can’t go back there anyway, so best not to feel too much guilt and regret. Forward. Ever onward.
So remember when kale was like a Big Deal and it was in your cereal and your smoothies and your muffins and you were like ‘stop talking about kale! I don’t like it!’ (Or if you’re my mum, you were like ‘Kale?! I don’t even eat lettuce!’)? That’s how I felt about Pachinko. I was like, stop recommending this book to me, world. I get that it’s ‘good’ and ‘great’ and ‘life changing’ but it just looks dull and maybe over-hyped and probably there’s no way it can be anything other than a little chewy.
This is where the analogy falls apart. Because kale really is over-hyped and (as M. would observe) doesn’t need to be in anything because it’s really not that good. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, on the other hand, is worth every single page of its 400+ brilliance (when did page count start to matter? In a meeting recently debating how many pages young people are willing/able to read (and our book club has the same talk) and I wanted to have a stomp and yell, because a novel should be exactly as long as it needs to be, and if it’s too long it’s too long because it didn’t need to be that long. I probably felt differently reading Infinite Jest but I DIGRESS).
Right, so Pachinko has the feel of a book that you’re going to read because it’s ‘important’ and ‘recommended’ (aka: full of brain vitamins) but then… it’s just… great. Like as a story you want to read and not put down. While also – and incidentally! that part is important! – being good for your literary life because it’s so well crafted. And in my case good for my political/historical life because I didn’t know *anything* about the history of Koreans in Japan, which… is what the book is about.
Reluctant to tell you the broad strokes of the plot because you’re likely to be like…
Kale. Boring. And it’s not! Anyway, it’s about a few generations of this Korean family living in/being Japanese, but not being Japanese because of bananas rules about Koreans-in-Japan and citizenship. Opening just before WWII we follow threads of gender, class, citizenship and nationality, along with all sorts of ideas of identity/belonging/passing and family. All layered around romance. Oh and religion! It really does have it all (haven’t you heard? Kale also makes your farts smell good).
So yeah. Be a better person and read Pachinko. And I promise this won’t be like interval training or CBD or coconut water [insert other ridiculous fad]. This one be the real deal.
What. A. Delight. Not in recent memory has a novel so tickled my enjoyment synapses (I’m not interested in knowing if such synapses actually exist. Spare me.). From page one, Patrick de Witt’s French Exit offers up the sardonic, the cheeky, the down right funny, and hits the reader with a full force of fun and playful, while also (probably) (definitely) exploring themes of …
Wait. What is this book actually about? If not about the fun and funny? It follows the fallen fortunes of Frances and Malcolm, tumbled from great wealth and esteem to a sort of poverty (I say sort of because they still manage to be in a fancy French apartment while faced with penury). Frances is a character in all the sense of the word, a sort of force of unflappable brilliance, and in watching her reconcile her vision of herself and her life with her newly arrived circumstances, I suppose we are meant to think through questions or morality and what makes for a good life. Maybe, too, whether it is the connections and relationships we foster that make any of it worthwhile. The founding of her friendship with Joan is one of the more delightful moments in an already incredibly charming book.
I’ll admit that where the book falls down is in its point, but on that I’m not particularly bothered. Like, I don’t mind that it skirts around big questions and instead lets Morality be morality, and Mortality, be mortality. Which is a way of saying there are ‘themes’ and ‘questions’ but the point of the book seems more to let the reader just. enjoy. reading. Through the whimsy and playfulness and fun of what Frances and Malcolm do, we’re allowed to appreciate with them the absurd and fanciful without always being bogged down with weighty questions. Ah. Perhaps there’s the rub. That as Frances and Malcolm too, have spent a lifetime avoiding anything Serious or Committed, we are given the luxury – not necessarily the wealth required for this particular luxury – of not thinking about very much, until we must think about it all.
Terrific writing – really: surprising, specific, not-showy-but-still-smart – and such. fun. Don’t come bickering with me later that it wasn’t about very much. I don’t care if you’ve forgotten how to just read because it feels good.
Lady spies! Double agents! Domestic espionage! Kate Atkinson’s Transcription is a little burst of historical fiction delight. Principally set in the opening months of the Second World War (with some delightful temporal jumps to the 1950s and 1980s to add layers of complexity and trickiness), it follows Juliette Armstrong as she enters MI5 as a secretary-turned-undercover-agent and then follows her journey through the early years of the war and her first (only? no spoilers) mission for M15.
The novel refuses the reader’s desire for espionage to be all-glamorous or all-action, and instead gives refinement to the role of the spy by spending time with the slow details of waiting, watching, listening, and the necessarily ‘domestic’ tasks of caring relationships among and between members of the service. In this space Atkinson does particularly well, as the writing of each character is rich and full, as well as peppered with humour and sensitivity. Readers expecting explosions or middle-of-the-night hostage-taking would best look elsewhere though, as the plot unfolds here at a much gentler pace, and the ‘climactic’ moment in Juliette’s mission is somewhat… anti-climactic.
What it does especially well is revel in the genre of historical fiction. Freely inventing, while staying true to the spirit of the historical moment. There’s much to be admired in the way Atkinson balances what we do know about Armstrong’s particular mission (or ones like it) and what is likely to be true, as well as what makes sense for exploring the complexities of gender and sexuality in that moment (as in ours).
I was a big fan of Atkinson’s other major WWII novel, Life After Life, and like that one, Transcription takes a bit of time to feel fully committed. That said, if you’re partial to the slower burn, the witty, and the brilliantly historical, then off you go. Read!