The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 3: Flesh and Blood (Michael Cunningham,1995)

Flesh and Blood - Michael Cunningham

Flesh and Blood – Michael Cunningham

Books read: 3/26. Weeks remaining: 48

 

Her name was Magda, like one of the Gabor sisters. Constantine lost himself in her the way a coin gets lost through a storm drain. With Magda he felt himself falling and then shining up from the darkness, a prize, hidden and hard to reach.   

 

 

 

 

Michael Cunningham is the crazy-gifted author of The Hours, which the 2002 movie was based on, and Specimen Days, the altogether more peculiar but stunning novel that I read at university, no doubt for a postmodern literature unit.

At the risk of devolving into boring uni-speak, I would call this thoroughly modernist and thus very different from The Hours and Specimen Days, though I picked it up based on how good these were.

And possibly because I have a fetish for these worn orange Penguin spines.

And possibly because I have a fetish for these worn orange Penguin spines.

This is closer in style to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, though it came out six years earlier… a fat, glorious American family saga to curl up with, spanning the multiple generations that live between 1935 and 2035.

Constantine, a Greek migrant, works to achieve the American dream for his wife, Mary, and three children; but one by one, they reject everything he has tried to give.

What had happened? Someone like Billy, a man so well provided for, should be devouring the world. He should be striding through his life, able as a horse, smart as a wolf, squeezing the rich meek blood out of women’s hearts. When Mary’d given birth to a son, Constantine had imagined himself taking handfuls of the future and stuffing them in his mouth. Daughters, even the best of them, disappeared into the lives of men. But a son carried you. His pleasures included you; you lived in your skin and you lived in his as well.

Constantine and Mary do not understand their children or the pathways they choose. Susan, Billy and Zoe struggle to leave their never-quite-happy family home behind, but cannot altogether succeed. They and their own children carry its burdens everywhere they go.

She looked at the man in the wig, who stood like a crazy goddess of propriety and delusion, his sharp face jutting out from between the silver curtains of his wig and piles of colored bracelets winking on his arms. Zoe thought of Alice on the far side of the looking glass, an innocent and sensible girl. What Alice brought to Wonderland was her calm good sense, her Englishness. She saved herself by being correct, by listening seriously to talking animals and crazy people.

The 100-year structure gives a steady, driving force that anchors the dreamy delicacy of Cunningham’s prose, the sense of meanings breathing beneath ordinary things. He articulates the consciousness of all human beings, lonely inside their own skins and experiencing the world in ways they cannot describe to others:

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Cunningham’s is the kind of writing I love most, the kind that must send would-be novelists into fits of despair and self-doubt. This is both a compulsive read and an exhilarating one: it’s soul-food.

It will take some self-control to move on to D, without just picking up the next Cunningham book on my shelf (A Home at the End of the World, in case you were wondering). But… what’s this? My friend Sturdy has just dropped off Robert Galbraith’s Silkworm! Perhaps an interlude is in order…

Keep it or let it go? Going to keep this one, and try to foist it upon loved ones one by one.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac here.

 

The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen, 2001)

The Corrections

The Corrections

 

The Corrections has sat on my bookshelf for five or six years now, and even five years ago it was a while since it had been the New Great American Novel.

 

 

 

The prospect of a trip to Mauritius in not-quite-swimming weather made me determined to read one of the fattest, most promising novels on my shelf, one I’d been Intending to Get To  for a Long Time, and The Corrections fit the bill nicely.

For those, like me, who have been living under a rock (until I actually got to the land of sea and sun I hadn’t so much as read the blurb on the back cover, having picked this up on reputation alone) this is the story of Enid and her family.

Enid and Alfred’s kids are grown up and far-flung from their Midwest family home. The family’s decidedly not close-knit, but as Parkinson’s disintegrates the man who was once Alfred, Enid embarks on a mission to bring everyone together for One Last Family Christmas.

I get up to here on the blurb before getting a sinking feeling, having fresh knowledge of how a family Christmas, once gone, won’t ever be the same again. I seem to have a positive talent for choosing books and movies that have barbs like this in the tail these days, catching me unawares and prompting spontaneous fits of eye leakage.

But I decided to soldier on and by golly, I’m glad I did.

This funny, irritating, absorbing book has a crack at dissecting all the human experiences closest to the bone – family, marriage, anger, ritual and the way our brains make sense of it all.

With a sprawling, segueing structure and suspended realities sewn into the narrative – including, but not limited to, Alfred’s flights of demented fancy – the story races towards the crucial Yuletide.

I didn’t quite finish it in Mauritius – it’s a fat one – but though progress slowed once I was back home, it was not because of a dull moment. This book doesn’t have any dull moments.

For a novel that is all about the ending it is constantly building towards, there is quite a bit riding on how things turn out.

Thankfully, this ending was not sentimental or simple or soft – it was everything its characters and readers warranted and deserved.

I felt unsettled but deeply satisfied by it, and had to sit for those long, reverberating moments you experience at the end of a really good read.

And I can pretty much guarantee that just about anyone with a skerrick of lit-love would too.

On this note, lit-lovers, pick up a copy of Franzen’s essays, How to be Alone – an exquisitely written collection of illuminating ideas. 

The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1926)

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I decided I must re-read this in preparation for the film.

The tatty paperback is covered in pen underlining from my first, compulsory high school reading, and I wondered how much of my love would remain when reading through older and – possibly – more critical eyes.

Nick Carraway moves to Long Island in the 1920s and is drawn into a glamorous, seedy world lit up by his neighbour, Jay Gatsby. No-one knows much about Gatsby and they delight in making up sinister stories; but it turns out Gatsby’s secrets are very close to home.

It’s my habit to take a photo of passages I like, to save writing them all down. I wasn’t halfway through this by the time I had a couple of dozen photographs. The pen marks from the first reading showed I’d felt similarly back then.

Fitzgerald’s writing makes every line seems enchanted. When Carraway finds something lovely, you feel his wonder, and when he describes the dreadful you feel his surges of disgust.

There was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life … No – Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and shortwinded elations of men.

There is plenty of Fitzgerald’s dignified and deft humour in this tale – shown to best effect in his renderings of Gatsby’s drunken party guests and hangers-on.

To the Ministry, shooting zombies a few feet away, it must have seemed as though I weren’t reading at all, but just sitting there, alternately giggling at and taking photos of a stationary object.

A small, flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril. After a moment I discovered his tiny eyes in the half-darkness.

I don’t doubt that the beauty and ugliness of it all, not to mention Gatsby’s tortured soul, will be rendered exquisitely on film, but I wonder how the fun poked at peripheral characters, his “pale, dangling individuals” will fare.

A pause. Then, taking a long breath and straightening his shoulders, he remarked in a determined voice:  ‘Wonder’ff tell me where there’s a gas’line station?

At least a dozen men, some of them a little better off than he was, explained to him that car and wheel were no longer joined by any physical bond.

‘Back out,’ he suggested after a moment. ‘Put her in reverse.’

‘But the wheel’s off!’

He hesitated.

‘No harm in trying,’ he said.

My mate Sturdy dislikes this book. She says there’s no-one to love here, and she’s right.

Oddly enough, soon after this conversation, another friend asked me whether she was supposed to find Daisy loveable, because she couldn’t. I replied that she’d hit the nail on the head: Daisy doesn’t “gleam like silver” and that’s the lightbulb moment.

Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything.

For those also interested in the “likeability” problem, I direct you to something showed to me recently: the take of writers including Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Franzen on the subject.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/05/would-you-want-to-be-friends-with-humbert-humbert-a-forum-on-likeability.html

Likeable or not, The Great Gatsby is spine-tingling. I hang on the words, they give me goosebumps. I am breaking my neck to get into that cinema.