Tag Archives: identity

The Illuminations: Beautiful doesn’t always mean you like it.

dishesI’ve recently started a book club. It’s given me an occasion to talk to my mum, J., about the book club she’s been a part of for the past 30+ years (how long?). She was giving me advice (solicited, this time) on how her book club operates. They each rate the book, but with the rule (enforced?) that the rating cannot take into account the balance of “well, I found the book beautiful, *but* it just didn’t resonate with me.” That is to say, the rating has to be on your overall impression of the book in ways that don’t allow for separating out the well-crafted sentence from the one that moves you.

This blog sometimes feels to me like this kind of exercise in declaring my overall impression of a book. And in the case of Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations I find it difficult to do so. I didn’t like the book – I’ll come right out with that – but not for any reason I can find to pin down. It’s beautifully written. It addresses complex and nuanced questions about nationalism, identity, memory, gender and maternity. It focuses on provocative settings: the 2001- war in Afghanistan (how do Western soldiers understand their involvement – as a game? a proxy? What counts as “real” violence?), a retirement home (what are the limits of independence and community? what do we owe our parents and what do they owe us?) and the remembered – or misremembered – scenes of an aging woman with dementia (what can she know about her own life? how is her identity reconstituted by those who know her now – and then?).

I wonder if my own over-attachment to character is what gets in the way the novel resonating with me. I say that because the novel shares the focus on the characters (the soldier, the grandmother, the children, the neighbours). And so while complex, human and empathetic, I found myself at a loss to work out who I was best meant to identify and attach to, who I was meant to care about their conflict and change. I suppose a different reader (a better reader?) might be able to see this richness in character as an opportunity – all the more to engage with! – rather than a drawback.

But according to the rules of book club, at least J’s book club, I have to say that I didn’t like the book.

One final note to end on: I love reading the acknowledgement sections of any novel. I like imagining how the novel I’ve just read was built and shared by a community of people. On occasion I recognize names in the sort of recognize a who’s-who. So when I read in the plot of the novel a reference to the university I attended, I imagined while reading who I might know who had come into contact with the characters (or author). Delight then, in reading in the acknowledgements that one of my favourite, certainly most influential, professors M. was in the acknowledgements. I suppose I should be surprised – the feminist elements, focus on photography, interest in the every day should have given me the clues as I was reading. But there you go. So hooray to M. for her involvement in this beautiful book. That I just happened to not like very much.


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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Prize Winner

Look at Me: Conceptually rich; Practically dull

We’re fat, we’re image obsessed and we hate ourselves. The irony at the heart of Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me is that we’re all so busy looking at ourselves and imagining other people looking at us that no one is properly seeing anyone. Obsessions with image and identity collapse under the surfaces, glosses, mirrors and refractions that reveal nothing but continued obfuscation. Impermeable even to – or especially to – themselves, the characters in Egan’s novel complete Odyessian searches (complete with siren calls and tortured transformations) for a core sense of self that might anchor their choices and relationships. 

Central to the plot is the New York fashion model Charlotte’s experience of radical physical transformation: after a car accident, her face is reconstructed to such a degree she goes unrecognized by her friends, coworkers, lovers and family. In this way Charlotte enacts the fantasy of beginning again, the chance to re-form an identity without the cumbersome logistics of fleeing to a far off island or buying a fancy car. What she discovers – as do the supporting characters who experience their own sorts of attempts at beginning again and reforming past selves (both in the sense of forming anew and correcting for poor behaviour) – is that without exteriority, the recognition of others, the self-itself collapses: to be unrecognized is to cease to be. In place of “I think therefore I am,” Look at Me posits: “I’m seen, therefore I am.”

While there’s a conceptually rich idea here the pace of the novel and the complexity of the characters and their interaction fall under the weight of the premise. Too busy insisting that the reader “get” this message, the novel misses opportunities to look at many possible layers of spectacle. There are passing nods to the way gender and class shape the way we are viewed, and a fuller exploration of racial politics in the character of Z. Z, we learn, is a would-be terrorist on a mission to destroy the image-obsessed America and who carries out his mission by trying on identities as one tries on bathing suits: not effortlessly or enjoyably, but with a sense of purpose (note the book was written pre-9/11). Yet these treatments feel – perhaps appropriately – cursory and surface, throw-away lines rather than meaningful dialogue. 

Which is not to say it’s an arduous slog. Egan writes genius sentences of arresting beauty (I suppose there’s another irony to be found in the lushness of writing that demands the reader stop and re-read (look again) at the marvel of its beauty) and there is enough interest in how the wayward characters will all meet in climactic wonder. Interest, too, in the prescience of Egan who seemed to anticipate both 9/11 and Facebook in one masterful rendering.

All the same it was decidedly not the perfection of A Visit From the Goon Squad, but it is certainly a great book to teach about performativity and metaphor. And the advantageous of a good moisturizing regime. And the perils of binge drinking. And strangers. Except for Egan, we’re all strangers: most particularly to ourselves.

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Filed under American literature, Book Club, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, National Book Award, Prize Winner

Medicine Walk: Time Out of Time

medicine walk

What makes for a great storyteller? What makes us listen? What can stories reveal about ourselves and others that allow connection and understanding? Richard Wagamese’s novel Medicine Walk explores these questions through the quasi-quest, quasi-bildungsroman narrative of Franklin Starlight. As Franklin accepts the task of helping his estranged father, Eldon, to his death, he also accepts the role of listener. Just as readers assume this position each time they open a new book, Franklin is unsure what to expect, but committed to the hearing.

This metafictional thread is softly woven, but bears consideration: what do we, as readers, assume (both in the sense of ‘to take on’ and ‘suppose to be the case’) when we begin reading? Genre, narrative point of view, diction and phrasing, author biography and context give us the rudimentary tools in the early pages of a story to position ourselves, to ease into a work and find where we sit vis a vis the story we’re hearing (nevermind that our particular readerly moment is one where books come laden with existing expectations – and reviews like these). Whether a story adheres to or troubles these expectations, and whether our expectations predetermine and limit what we’ll read/hear gets played out as Franklin grapples with reframing his feelings about his father and whether and how much he will accept the stories as true or sufficient recompense. These questions get echoed in Franklin’s confrontation with his own expectations of his father and of his own and Eldon’s separate and twinned identities and histories.

It’s an unusual (narrative) relationship. Eldon, an alcoholic and absentee parent, brings his story to Franklin with the ostensible purpose of telling Franklin about his birth, name, and family, but with the attendant – and mutually recognized – hope of earning, through the telling, Franklin’s forgiveness and some kind of reconciliation. The novel, in its exploration of this relationship, brings forward questions of what can be forgiven, what forgiveness entails, what we owe ourselves and our broadly understood family. Whether knowing the cause of an unforgiveable act, whether recognizing the cause as societal or historic or simply not our fault, can lessen the violence of the unforgiveable.

It also exposes the deeply moving selflessness of love, while still worrying about the difference between selflessness and selfishness. It explores the contours of this division in the character of Bucky in one of the more surprising and rich representations of humility and grace I’ve read in recent memory. He is a complex, if oddly unexamined, character in the book. Complex I suppose in that he performs key plot functions and occupies a layered character position; unexamined in these sense that his thoughts and reactions are obscured to us, accessed only in brief dialogue. Still, a poignant character.

One element of the novel that bothered me – at least for the first half – was that I couldn’t seem to place it in time or place. There were references to wars – World War II and Korea – that let me loosely place it but in an ahistorical (or perhaps extra-historical) way; and (stunning and beautiful) descriptions of place that left no doubt of a fully realized setting – just no setting with a corresponding place in reality that I could quickly identify. But as I latched on to the themes of storytelling I recognized that my desire to pin this narrative down in time and place was to try and evacuate it of its catholic impulse. This story of guilt, mortality, paternity, loyalty and love should, and does, move us regardless of place or time.

Which is not to say it isn’t also particular. It is a story of domestic violence, of poverty and of colonialism while also being a story of one boy making sense of who his father is, his (a)filial responsibilities and his capacity for forgiveness. I’d suggest it is also a book for readers of all stories to think about the responsibilities of listening and our capacity to be moved and changed by what we hear. It is certainly a book you ought to read; a story you ought to attend to.


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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction