literary fiction · review

Pretend I’m Dead, by Jen Beagin

Trigger warnings for drug abuse and incest.

Mona has a strange life. Not only does she have a gift for finding odd people, she also has a past that makes it hard for her to even see why she should try for some unknown “better.” When people ask her what she does for a living, she notices that they never like the blunt answer. Mona is a cleaning lady. She’s not cleaning houses while also putting herself through college or working on her art. She sees nothing wrong with being “just” a house cleaner. In Pretend I’m Dead, by Jen Beagin, we start to see what makes Mona tick and all of the things that have happened to her (and her clients and friends) to take them off the expected path.

We meet Mona while she is still in Massachusetts. She’s been cleaning houses with her cousin for some time, while also working at a needle exchange in Lowell. But things are about to change for Mona. First, her cousin sells her cleaning business to a woman who eventually fires Mona. Second, and more devastating for Mona, the boyfriend she met at the needle exchange loses his sobriety and commits suicide. With nothing left to hold her in Massachusetts, Mona follows her boyfriend’s advice to go to New Mexico.

In New Mexico, Mona meets a series of people who (for once, it seems) want to help her. But where her cousin encouraged Mona to go to therapy and take prescription medication, Mona’s new acquaintances recommend everything from macrobiotic diets to psychic-guided meditation. Between the advice and reaching out to her alcoholic (and, we discover, monstrous) father, Mona starts to recover memories of terrible things she suppressed from years ago that have been subconsciously and physically haunting her ever since.

Put like this, Pretend I’m Dead sounds very grim and not very appealing. A plain plot summary doesn’t capture how funny and quirky this book can be. It definitely doesn’t capture the amazingly drawn characters. Not only is Mona brilliantly realized, I loved how Beagin was able to create characters like Betty the Psychic or “Yoko and Yoko,” Mona’s cult-of-two neighbors. The characters in Pretend I’m Dead are people one might brush past on our way to somewhere else. But because Mona doesn’t fit into mainstream life, her world is full of people who also either reject or fall out of the mainstream. It might be harder for them to make money and they mostly don’t have health insurance, they have all found the freedom for complete self-expression. As I watched these characters rally around Mona (without her asking), I started to realize that the mainstream doesn’t have what Mona needs to find peace.

The only issue I had with Pretend I’m Dead is that it ends on a not-quite-cliffhanger. I haven’t read the sequel, but I’ve bought a copy so that I can find out what happens to Mona next. Other readers may want to have the second book, Vacuum in the Dark, on deck for when they finish Pretend I’m Dead.

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historical fiction · literary fiction · review

The Life of an Unknown Man, by Andreï Makine

While there are no right answers to the question: what are stories for? There are some answers that are more correct than others. In Andreï Makine’s The Life of an Unknown Man (smoothly translated by Geoffrey Strachan), exiled dissident, author Shutov has an existential crisis about what stories and literatures should be. Are they supposed to be beautiful? Are they supposed to ironically point out the foibles of society? Should they cater to the tastes of the reading public? Are they supposed to document the human condition? What should an author write in the middle of all of these competing questions?

At the beginning of The Life of an Unknown Man, Shutov has very firm ideas about what stories and literature should be. His girlfriend, Léa, who has just dumped him (rightly, I think) for being a pretentious ass about his opinions and loathing of everything modern, has very different ideas about what makes for good literature. Shutov, raised on the Russian classics (especially Anton Chekhov), wants to write beautiful, moving scenes that can wring tears from his readers. Unfortunately, he was born about 150 years too late and now lives in an age of irony, of cleverness, and of pervasive capitalism that just wants to sell, sell, sell. After Léa leaves Shutov and he wallows a bit in his feelings, he impulsively returns to St. Petersburg. He lived there when it was still Leningrad and he had to flee.

The Russia Shutov finds is very different from the Soviet Union he left. The city is celebrating its 300th anniversary, with a dizzying array of historical/carnivalesque events that reminded me of Russian Ark on overdrive. His old friend, Yana, has no time for him as she is working on building a hotel empire and her son is condescending. Shutov is left to his own devices until the son asks him to keep an eye on an old man who, due to bureaucracy, is living in Yana’s apartment while awaiting transfer to a nursing home. Shutov isn’t given a chance to say no, but the chore turns out to be anything but. The old man, who Shutov was told was mute, possesses a story that encompasses some of the most harrowing years of Soviet history: the Siege of Leningrad and the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Volsky’s story is not just a story of survival; it is also a love story of two people who history seems to want to keep apart but who still manage find each other.

By the end of the old man’s story—and the end of The Life of an Unknown Man—both the reader and Shutov come to a realization. Shutov finds a new mission for his writing. He wants to write the stories of people whose names have been lost to time, to restore them to life, for the sake of their stories. Everyone has a story, he realizes. For my part, I decided that the ultimate purpose of a story, of literature, is to say something true. It doesn’t matter if it’s beautiful or tragic or ugly or funny or arch or popular. What matters is whether or not a story can tell us something true.

The first third of The Life of an Unknown Man was a little hard for me to get through. Shutov is an almost stereotypical mansplainer who is so convinced of the rightness of his opinions that he takes his anger out on anyone who expresses their own ideas. It’s no wonder that Léa glazes over when he starts to pontificate. But once Shutov returned to Russia and started listening to other people for a change, the entire tenor of the novel changed for me. Even if Volsky’s stories hadn’t been about a period of history I am macabrely fascinated with, I would have been hooked by the their honesty and sharp observations. At the end, I had hope that Shutov would uncover true stories to share.

bookish links

This week on the bookish internet

  • It really is true that all our favorites are problematic. This time, word is getting out from black literary scholars that Walt Whitman held racist ideas. (The Daily JSTOR)
  • Alison Flood reports on the removal from Barcelona schools of books deemed to be sexist. (The Guardian)
  • Allison M. Charette shares her experience traveling to Madagascar to meet the author she was in the process of translating and learn more about the world of Malagasy letters. (LitHub)
  • A fresh update on the legal tangle surrounding Kafka’s literary legacy. (The Guardian)
  • Marc Cooper shares Paco Taibo’s efforts to create “una república de lectores“—a republic of readers—in Mexico. (The Nation)
  • Saw Nang and Mike Ives discuss efforts by the Myanmarese government to crack down on thangyat, a traditional annual performance of satirical poetry. (The New York Times)
  • Emily Dickinson is really hard to translate. (The Paris Review)
  • B.D. McClay writes in praise of the thesaurus. (The Outline)
historical fantasy · mystery · review

Himself, by Jess Kidd

The prologue to Jess Kidd’s horribly magical novel, Himself, is brutal. It was almost enough to put me off the book entirely as I read about a woman I later learned was called Orla Sweeney being beaten to death by an unknown man, as her infant son unwittingly watched. At the end of the prologue, the forest itself conceals a boy who grows up to become the protagonist of the rest of the novel from his would-be murderer and I was immediately hooked. Himself ended up being a blend of horror, mystery, supernatural doings, and quirkiness that I found completely fascinating. I’ve never read anything like Himself and, given how much I enjoyed Mr. Flood’s Last Resort (also titled The Hoarder), I am now a committed fan of Jess Kidd.

Mahony turns up in the town of Mulderrig, Count Mayo like a stranger in a western—at least until word gets out who’s son he is. He’s treated well (mostly) by the people of the town. He gets a bit of stick for his hair and trousers because, even though it’s 1976, rural Ireland is still in the 1950s (or earlier). It also doesn’t help him that he draws the eyes of the town’s female half and makes friends with the eccentric Mrs. Cauley. The town’s priest, Father Quinn, and his ally, Annie (who uses religion to disapprove of people) are wary of Mahony. Once he starts his investigation into his mother’s disappearance and probable murder, Quinn, Annie, and the mysterious murderer spring into action to get Mahony to drop it and leave. Flashbacks to Orla’s life before her murder let us know that Mahony is absolutely right to be suspicious of this seemingly-normal town. There are a lot of skeletons (literal and metaphorical) in the closets of Mulderrig.

Nothing in Himself happens as expected. Mrs. Cauley leaps on Mahony’s investigation with a will and comes up with a plan based on Miss Marple mysteries and her own theatrical talents. The plan shouldn’t work, but it does. The supernatural elements—such as Mahony’s ability to see and talk with ghosts—keep everything delightfully off-kilter. While Mahony, Mrs. Cauley, and their allies go to work, Father Quinn is tormented by what seems to be local spirits with a wicked sense of humor. Mrs. Cauley’s antics and whatever is messing with Father Quinn keep this book from being totally grim, giving Himself some much needed levity after the really dark parts.

My only complaint about Himself is that it was over too soon. The end was a bit of a rush, so fast that I didn’t really get a chance to decompress from the tension that Kidd had built up over the course of the book. Also, even though Mulderrig has some terrifying inhabitants, I wanted more of it. I wanted more of the ghosts and the sassy holy spring and the possibly sentient forest. But on the other hand, maybe if I had more answers about what was going on on the supernatural side of things, Himself might have lost some of the weird charm it held for me. I would definitely recommend this novel to readers who like mysteries that have a touch of the uncanny (especially if the uncanny elements do not include vampires and werewolves) and know when to crack a joke when things get too bleak.

I listened to the audio version of Himself, narrated by Aiden Kelly’s gentle Irish voice. I was glad of the narration because I would never have figured out how to pronounce some of the characters’ names correctly.

historical fiction · review

Prairie Fever, by Michael Parker

There are plenty of stories about the American west in which white settlers go a little crazy—plenty of nonfiction stories, too. But I think that Prairie Fever, by Michael Parker, is the first time I’ve met a manic pixie dream girl in the barely colonized American west. This novel centers on two sisters, Elise and Lorena, who are temperamentally opposites but who complete each other. Lorena is the practical older sister with a penchant for correcting other’s grammar. Elise is….a very odd girl who never thinks about the consequences of her whimsy. Her actions lead to a terrible loss and a long estrangement. I have to say, I was not nearly as charmed by Elise as many of the characters in this novel are; I am firmly on Team Lorena.

We meet Elise and Lorena as they are making their way to school on a frozen Oklahoma morning. It’s so cold that their mother pins them into a blanket so that they can ride in some comfort. They have to be unpinned at the other end by the teacher, Mr. Gus McQueen. Their first conversation in the book tells you everything you need to know about these two teenagers. Elise speaks in quotes from their local newspaper, focusing on the odd and mildly amusing. Lorena makes the occasional comment and correction. She indulges her sisters interests, but does at least the minimum to keep her sister grounded in reality. Their mother is still a bit lost in her grief for their two brothers, who died of “prairie fever” years before. Their father is only interested in the next get rich scheme. The sisters only have each other to keep each other safe—which basically means it’s up to Lorena to keep her sister safe.

Elise does something incredibly stupid near the beginning of the book. Her “accident” leads to frostbite for herself and the mercy killing of their faithful horse who was injured in the storm that took Elise’s toes and ring finger. I was willing to go along with Elise’s whimsy somewhat (even though I found it annoyingly twee), but I found that I could never forgive her for causing the death of her horse. Throughout the rest of the book, I saw Elise just compounding her error by refusing to take responsibility for any of her actions. I was more willing to forgive Elise for “stealing” Mr. McQueen from Lorena than I was for riding off on a horse in the middle of a blizzard. Love happens by genuine accident all the time. Doing something anyone with sense would consider nigh suicidal and then never acknowledging one’s culpability is another matter entirely.

What redeemed Prairie Fever for me was the loving descriptions of the harsh landscape. Being a westerner myself, I could empathize with all of the characters’ admiration for the sunsets, the big skies, and the way that life can grow in a place with extreme weather. I also softened on the book as Elise started to lose some of what I thought of as affectations and grow up a bit and as Lorena’s life followed a trajectory that ended up punishing her more than it did her family and Elise. That said, I’m not sure I can recommend this book to other readers unless they have a high tolerance for tweeness. Some readers love a manic pixie dream girl. I just find them exhausting.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

reading life

A Curious Side Effect; Or, Audiobook-Induced Accent Acquisition

William Oliver

I’ve taken up audiobooks again. I left off listening to them a while ago, and even canceled my subscription to Audible, because I was getting behind. Few things annoy me more than wasting my money on things I don’t use. But then, a lack of podcast backlist, a pair of great audiobooks on a long road trip, and a new hobby have sent me back into the digital shelves of my library looking for new books to cram into my ears. This time around I’ve noticed a curious effect. I listened to Faithful Place, by Tana French, and am currently listening to Himself, by Jess Kidd—both narrated by Irish voices. After listening to hours of their accents, I’m terribly afraid that I’m going to start pronouncing things with an Irish accent and calling people gobshites. I could swear that I’ve listened to readers with accents before, but I’ve never heard my inner monologue put on a brogue. Ah feck.

Any other audiobook fans have this happen to them? If so, how do you make it stop before you start sounding like an eejit?

literary fiction · review

People in the Room, by Norah Lange

Trigger warning for suicidal ideation.

Who hasn’t wondered about what’s happening on the other side of the window in other people’s houses? Briefly glimpsed neighbors’ attitudes, manners, clothes, or expressions can give us hints but, unless we screw up the courage to make their acquaintance, we will always wonder about what happens inside those other houses. The unnamed protagonist of Norah Lange’s brief, disturbing novella, People in the Room (ably translated by Charlotte Whittle), becomes obsessed with the three women she sees through a window across the street. The impulse to wonder is perfectly natural, but the protagonist takes her wonderings to extremes. And yet, she is so unreliable that it’s hard to say whether anything actually happens at all. This is definitely a book to put one on one’s toes.

It all starts on an ordinary day sometime during the World Wars in Buenos Aires, when our protagonist happens to look up from her book to see three women—sisters—in a drawing room across the street. The women are mysterious. They don’t speak. They just sit and smoke and sip at wine or tea. Our protagonist begins to imagine who they are and how they came to be in that room. She might have gone on wondering forever if she hadn’t intercepted the reply to a telegram they sent and thus wrangled an excuse to introduce herself. In spite of all her hinting and questioning after that, our protagonist never seems to learn much more about the three sisters. And then, one day while our protagonist is away on a holiday suggested by her slightly worried family, they disappear.

People in the Room will be frustrating to a lot of readers. It was certainly frustrating to me. The brief description of it I had read made me think that I was getting something in the vein of Rear Window, though without the murder plot. It was clearly almost immediately that this was not that kind of book, even though it had a very claustrophobic and sinister atmosphere. Instead, the forward by César Aira was much more helpful for understanding this book. People in the Room predates Rear Window by a couple of decades, putting in the later part of the modernist period. The book stays with the unnamed narrator’s off-kilter thoughts for the entirety. Aira also notes that Lange was an inspiration for Jorge Luis Borges, a wonderfully experimental writer who often wrote about possibilities that don’t quite play out in reality. Readers who like thinking about “what if?” and are okay with books in which nothing much actually happens, where the action is all in a character’s head, might enjoy this challenging novella.