the neapolitan novels (a.k.a. thank god for feminism)

ferrante-books

Over the last month, I have been reading just one thing, pretty much: the Neapolitan quartet, by the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante. While these books are so huge I’m sure most of you already know what they are about, for those who have somehow missed the buzz, they chronicle the parallel lives of two women, friends and rivals, as they grow up in an impoverished neighbourhood in Naples in the 50s – then 60s, 70s, and present day as the series progresses. I read the first novel in the series, My Brilliant Friend, at the end of last year, and the next two novels (The Story of a New NameThose Who Leave and Those Who Stay) one after the other this month. Today, I am about to embark on the fourth and final novel, The Story of the Lost Child.

My year in reading, so far, has been … puzzling. The Neapolitan novels are just one more example of the ambivalent, confusing relationship I am having with the books I’m reading in 2016. It’s commonly referred to with a simple-yet-expressive tag: love-hate. I felt it for Maurice, for The Outsider, even for the near-universally beloved The Goldfinch. Yet with Ferrante, unlike the others, I feel I can grasp the why of it, put into words this state of literary bewilderment I find myself in.

One one hand, Ferrante’s writing is spare to the point of being unbearably blunt, dry, and emotionless. The subject matter is depressing, violent, bleak. When I began reading My Brilliant Friend I didn’t care a thing about the narrator, Lenu/Elena, or understand her affection for her best friend, Lila/Lina. I didn’t understand what motivated Lenu’s enormous inferiority complex – why she always, always saw herself as lesser than Lila, why she would always interpret compliments given to her in such a twisted way that she saw them as affirming Lila’s greatness and degrading to her; why she made life-changing decisions out of a desire to prove herself worthy of Lila, when that feeling was not demonstrably mutual. In short, I just didn’t understand from where Lila’s charismatic influence – over Lenu and the other neighbourhood characters – supposedly derived. The novels state it, repeatedly, but I did not feel it.

And yet – somehow – I find myself cracking the spine on the fourth book, invested in these characters, invested in finding out what happens next in their lives. I have lived with them from childhood through elementary and high school, through becoming teenage brides and university students, through unhappy marriages and affairs; read of how Lenu became (almost by accident) a best-selling novelist and how Lila became one of the early women in the then-burgeoning field of computing programming. Somehow, at some point, I began to care what happened next. I began to feel angry when bad things happened to the women, betrayed by Lila’s indifferent, often cruel treatment of Lenu, stifled by the atmosphere of an Italy before feminism.

(Oh my, thank god for feminism. Seriously. My recommendation of the Neapolitan novels comes with an enormous invisible trigger warning, if you are into that sort of thing. The women in these novels are beaten, raped, degraded; dismissed, devalued and under-appreciated in every aspect of their lives. It is the kind of text that you look at and just go: “Thank goodness I was not born any earlier.” People who want to go back in time are nostalgia-addled morons.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the most explicitly feminist of the the three I have read so far. By this point, both women have married and both have wanted out of the institution, felt their power stripped from them and their dreams thwarted by the expectation that they have children and then not want anything else again, ever. Lenu begins a tentative exploration of feminism in this novel, reading feminist pamphlets and attending women’s separatist meetings. When you read it, you get the impression that Ferrante has lived through everything that Lenu lives through, and more.)

I think part of Ferrante’s literary charm is to be found in the same things that I found off-putting and odd at the beginning: her bluntness, her dryness, her lack of emotion. I hate to compare one of the most feminist writers I’ve read in recent years with one of the most misogynist, but I have only my own experiences to go off here – but the last time I experienced something similar was when I read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Different books, different subjects, different prose, and very different people behind the work; but that same bluntness that somehow created the same experience of strong emotion.

How do they do it, these writers? How do they create so much with so little? I’m more than a little envious.

 

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visiting gilead

Gilead

Marilynne Robinson is one of those authors who has been around for decades but whom I have only just “discovered.” Said discovery was not so much organic as it was the result of a friend of mine insisting that she was one of the most amazing writers she had ever had the pleasure of reading, coupled with the un-recommendation of my entire bookclub. Too depressing, they said. Nothing happens, they said. Everyone dies, they said. What was the title again? I said.

I read Housekeeping in the middle of November last year. The weather outside my window was a mixture of seemingly-endless pouring rain and asphalt-meltingly hot days, neither of which went with the frozen, foggy, water-logged world described in the novel. I loved everything about Housekeeping, from the bitterness of the landscape to the inscrutability of the characters; I loved that it was narrated by a woman looking back on her childhood but that you somehow got the sense that the narrator was a child, living through the events of the novel as you read them: it was nostalgic and immediate all at once.

So I picked up Gilead for my first read of the year with high expectations, looking forward to falling in love and having my heart broken all over again. The experience was not quite the same as Housekeeping – there is, after all, 23 years between the publication of it and Gilead – and although I was thrown by this slightly at first, the longer I read the more delighted I was; that two novels from a single author could produce such different reading experiences is in a way astounding. Nevertheless, there’s a common thread: nostalgia. The pull-and-push relationship the narrators have with their hometowns. The strange relationship between place and feeling, between history and the present. Gilead confronts these odd connections more directly than Housekeeping, something that I think is a result of its narrative voice: the novel is told in one long breath, part diary, part confessional, part therapy-session, and part farewell letter. The narrator, John Ames, a third-generation preacher who has lived his whole life in the dusty town of Gilead, is dying, and so he undertakes to write a work for his young son that is part family history, part fatherly-advice/time capsule: it is his hopes for the future, as much as it is about his life and his father’s life and his grandfather’s life.

The way that that past intrudes upon the present is an unavoidable part of John Ames’ character, though, part of what keeps him up at night and part of what motivates him to write to his son. He worries about the church he has preached in all these years being torn down, about bits and pieces of it being destroyed because people do not understand or remember the significance of the painting in the hall or the roster on the spire. He worries about his friend, Boughton, and his son: Ames’ godson and namesake. He worries about what will become of his much younger wife and about the things he cannot control: that his family might need him in the future, but that he will not be there to help them.

Gilead is a sweet, sad novel with an arrestingly good narrator. He writes in his diary the way I write in my diary: to record things but also as a tool with which to marshall one’s thoughts. The supporting characters are all introduced quite naturally, without any forced descriptions or awkward moments of exposition: Ames assumes his son will know certain key people, and as a reader you put together their significance from context and as the novel progresses. It’s a deceptively simple writing style, the kind of thing that might seem easy to emulate from the outside. I am definitely envious of Marilynne Robinson. It also seems like a simple book, as though it is going to be a collection of family history stories mixed with the narrator’s present-day thoughts, but it ends up being something much more thought-provoking and insightful. With Ames being a preacher, a lot of the subject matter is religious, but even non-religious readers will find something to think about in Gilead. 

a note on criticism & a book review: joe meno’s office girl

[From the day I started Typewritten Tales, I knew I wanted to write book reviews. And film reviews, and TV show reviews, and restaurant reviews, and reviews of my day and mood and life. I wanted to think about and engage critically with the world. This is something that I want to do in my fiction as well: to think about the world that I live in and notice it, really notice it, to experience it in a fuller way. I am excited to bring you my first book review, because it means I am starting to do what I set out to do when I took up blogging.

I would like to add a disclaimer though: I am not a fan of negative book reviews. This does not mean that I only want to publish positive, meaninglessly supportive faux-criticism. If everything is awesome, nothing is. But I see no point in ripping into something for the sake of a punchline, either. HOWEVER, you have the following review. You’ll see what I mean in a minute, but I promise you I did not write what I wrote because I enjoy tearing people down, especially when I know how much hard work a novel is. I know it’s hard work, and I haven’t even finished mine.

It is because I am working on my own attempt at a novel that I think criticism is so important. If I don’t like something, the first thing I ask myself is why. There is always a reason. There is always something to be learned from every novel, good, bad, or in between. I want to learn. I want to dissect every piece of writing that I come across so that I know what I want to do with my own writing and can recognise when it is going astray.

On that qualifying note, I present to you my less-than-complimentary thoughts on Joe Meno’s Office Girl.]

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Joe Meno’s second novel, Office Girl (Akashic Books, 2012) is set in the year 1999. Its characters worry about the Y2K bug and talk about how the world is about to end. They listen to the Velvet Underground with disavowed enthusiasm. They ride bicycles through the streets of snowy Chicago and are described by what primary colours they have chosen to adorn themselves with.

Odile, the titular “office girl,” is lost. Spiritually speaking. She’s had a series of uninspiring telemarketing roles and flings with her coworkers. She’s possibly in love with a married man, but it’s hard to tell. She gives handjobs in the supply room and feels bad about herself afterwards. An art school drop out, she doodles and daydreams and expresses a desire to start her own Anti-Art Art Movement. She’s thinking about leaving Chicago for New York.

Jack is 26 and is already getting divorced. He, too, has had a string of dull day (or, more accurately, night) jobs, but he has the soul of an artist. He rides his shiny blue bicycle around the snow-covered city, recording its sounds on a little silver dictaphone. The sound of a balloon, apparently, is something you can capture on a tape recorder. Ditto, the sound of snow falling.

It’s all very poetic, but only in a way that a rather pretentious high schooler would appreciate. Odile and Jack are rather uninspiring, flat characters: their actions seem like deliberately symbolic movements performed for the reader, rather than the actions of believable characters. Odile, especially, is a frustratingly two-dimensional, marginalised-within-her-own-narrative character: a prime specimen of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl order if I ever read one. An early chapter, entitled ‘MEN WHO HAVE ACCUMULATED AROUND HER’ is the first indication that we’re entering MPDG territory; then, Odile thinks ‘Why doesn’t anyone make anything weird like this anymore?’ while moodily reading a zine and wearing a t-shirt for a band called Suicide and hating her art-world conforming performance artist roommate (who seems to exist only so a photo of a topless girl wearing a stormtrooper helmet could be included in the book). Icing on the cake, after 55 short pages, Meno abandons Odile’s point of view entirely to tell the remainder of the story from Jack’s perspective instead.

Jack, who is (of course!) falling in love with the endearing so-called weirdness that is Odile. Despite the fact that she consistently tells him that she’s not interested in a relationship. You can smell the ending, in which Odile will stop being such a handjob-giving slut and fulfil her role as fixer of Jack’s puppy-dog neuroses, before disappearing mysteriously after having altered Jack’s like in some ineffable/unutterable fashion, preferably after he has gotten to fuck her, from the first page.

The novel is wrapped in a bubblegum-pink cover, dotted with adorably lo-fi illustrations, and even has the occasional line where you think, ‘Hey, this writing is not so bad…?’ Ultimately, though, it’s not enough to save Office Girl from the clutches of cliché.

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