Tag Archives: realism

The Green Road: What we mean when we say ‘a good book’

Countryside-scene-in-repu-008Imagine you’ve just finished reading a good book. You put it down and you think to yourself, ‘gosh, that was a really good book’ (okay, you probably don’t say ‘gosh’). You try to put your finger on what made it good. If someone asks you about it, you don’t hesitate to tell them to read it, but you probably don’t go out of your way to recommend it. You think about the characters again for a few days, but then the specificity of their story seeps into a wider feeling you have about the book: it was good.

I’ve just finished Anne Enright’s The Green Road and I can safely report it’s a good book. The writing is at once grand in its capacity and small in its attention on detailed, particular moments. With a compelling use of a shifting third person limited narration, the plot traces the Madigan family over decades. Each long chapter follows one of the four children in a specific moment in time, richly evoking place and character. Each successive chapter moves chronological leaps forward, always toward something. That something is the eventual family reunion when all children are gathered at their childhood home for Christmas.

It wouldn’t be an outrageous argument to claim these chapters are linked short stories, such is the telescopic focus on the one child, the particular time and place. For instance, the (best) chapter following Dan through the gay community in the 1980s, AIDS ravaged New York, is a tight story unto itself. Even while the development of Dan’s character comes to have resonance in the eventual reunion chapter such that this earlier chapter is necessary for the latter, the chapter could be self-contained for its own sake.

To this point on the function of the character-focused chapters: Perhaps because the mother in the story, Rosaleen, does not get a chapter onto herself (in this way the form mirrors the message that she has devoted her sense of self entirely to serving her children), the climactic moments that focus on her feel less pressing than they might had we had time to connect with her first-hand. That said, the children’s reaction to these climactic scenes give the reader a firm sense of the importance and reverberations of the moments.

It’s a good book for exploring questions of familial loyalty, of how and when identity becomes fixed, of who we want to be versus who we might actually be, and of what we owe our family (read ‘owe’ as broadly as you can: what debts we aim to repay, what we have because of them, what obligations are due). These questions get worked out in individual chapters and across the whole with each successive chapter adding layer and echo as the reader comes to piece together both chronology and family hierarchies.

A good book, then, is one that is well written, with strong character development and thematically rich. It’s not a great book because it doesn’t quite leave you shaken, not changed by the beauty of the work or by the questions it explores. This one then is good, and given the profile of Anne Enright, will probably be described as great. You be the judge.

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

Stoner: Overlooked Gem

Published in 1965 John William’s *Stoner* reads like something written forty years earlier. I’m not sure how I’d never heard of the book before, though a quick search of the internet suggests no one else has either (thanks mum for point it out to me). It was reissued in 2006 by New York Review of Books with an accompanying set of quotes from famous people (Tom Hanks endorses it!) pointing out its relative obscurity. So! If you’re looking for that hipster book that will set you apart as a reader who knows what’s what… No really, this book well deserves much more attention (something beyond a Wikipedia *stub* for instance).

Except it’s sort of a thematically appropriate obsolescence and obscurity. The novel takes a realist and measured approach to the question of what makes our lives meaningful – recognition? reputation? family? career? – and ultimately concludes that most of us – including our titular character and protagonist – will die unremarkable and unremembered (just like the book!). Against the idea that this obscurity is to be bemoaned or fought, the novel suggest that by embracing the small, idiosyncratic “purposes” that enliven our individual lives we can find, if not notoriety, then contentment. This message is one well worth considering in an era of ubiquitous fame and instant-celebrity. Instead of imagining that life fulfilment will come from celebrity, or even posthumous remembrance, the novel suggests that it is the quotidian and the insignificant that afford life its purpose and satisfaction.

In a similar vein the novel poses that the disasters that befall us (our protagonist is an English professor at a small American college who cannot communicate his desires, married to an unhappy and angry woman, father to an unhappy and angry daughter) as smaller – even to ourselves – than we might imagine. Disasters of workplace tension are nothing compared to the personal horror of making the wrong choice in a partner or abandoning our parents’ dreams for us to pursue our own. 

A humble book about a humble man that is, in this humility, simply extraordinary.    

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Filed under American literature, Fiction, Prize Winner

The Bridge of Sighs: *Sigh*

              

I read Richard Russo’s novel while on vacation, and I have to say, as a vacation novel it wasn’t the worse choice: straightforward in thematic content (are we different from our parents? can we create our “self”?), resolutely optimistic about the future of the American family, and a serious six hundred pages.

Had I not been on vacation and pleased to have saved space in my bag by only packing one book, I might have harsher criticisms, for instance: the repetition of plot/character from earlier works (does changing the restaurant in Empire Falls to a grocery store, and the names of the cities, and the factory owners in charge of the class divide really constitute creative development?), the ponderous explorations of childhood memories (sure certain events – the locked box – require detail, but certainly not every bicycle trip taken between ages 6 and 10), and the staunch attachment to a grade six plot arc.

But as it is, I enjoyed the book for the simple pleasure of a predictable protagonist, who even in the long awaited climax behaved consistently, and a plot that never excited me so much as to care: exactly the right read for a beach where one can fall asleep and pick up a random sentence on the same page and feel as though nothing has been lost.

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Filed under American literature, Fiction