Let’s see — what have I been reading recently? I finished Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence. I liked it, but didn’t love it. I kept thinking the whole time I was reading how much her subject matter is like Anita Brookner’s, but I like Brookner better. Pym has a lighter tone and is more satirical, whereas Brookner strikes me as working in a darker mode, and maybe that darkness appeals to me more. I did like the characters’ interactions in the Pym, especially the workplace dynamics she describes, and I liked the contrast between city and small town life. But I never felt fully absorbed in the story or in the novel’s ideas.
I also finished Ali Smith’s new novel, There But For The, which was also a little disappointing. I really liked The Accidental, and this one wasn’t as good. The two books have a similar structure: they are divided into four parts, each from a different point of view, each part adding a different perspective on the story. But in the new novel, the four parts don’t hold together very well, and they aren’t equally interesting. The last part was my favorite, told in the voice of a young girl who is brilliant and funny. I also liked the part describing the dinner party — the novel is about a dinner party guest who goes upstairs, locks himself in a bedroom, and refuses to come out — because it was wickedly satirical and funny. But it just never came together into a coherent whole. The four different perspectives in The Accidental were much more tightly focused on one story, so the reader can compare how the different characters made sense of it. There isn’t the same pleasure to be had in the new book.
Hmmm … it’s good that I’m happily in the middle of Tana French’s In the Woods, or this post would be almost entirely negative, since I discontentedly set aside Ben Marcus’s new novel The Flame Alphabet after about 90 pages. I liked his novel Notable American Women, but struggled with the new one, partly because it was too similar in tone, style, and theme to the earlier one. His books are strange and powerful, and need to be read in small doses, I guess. I think I can handle darkness and ugliness in my fiction, but somehow there needs to be something appealing about it, in some way, no matter how unexpected or perverse, and I wasn’t finding that here. Also, I had a hard time grasping the world he was creating because it seemed arbitrary and I didn’t really believe it — it’s a world like ours but where children’s language has suddenly become toxic, so adults are being stricken by horrible illnesses merely by living with their offspring. I would be okay not believing in the world of the novel if the ideas it is exploring are engaging, but Marcus’s interest in language as dangerous doesn’t resonate with me.
So, after reading a bunch of experimental fiction (or “experimental” or whatever — not counting the Pym, of course), some of which I liked — The Last Samurai — and some of which I didn’t, I figured it was time for something more traditional, hence In the Woods. It’s an absorbing story, which is exactly what I wanted.