26 July 2013

Narrators without Names: not-so-good, better, awesome!

I've had three books underway, all at once, and this week I finished all three.  

All three books are in the first person, and in all three, the narrator goes unnamed.

First up: Matt Bell's In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (aka I'm Unnaturally Fond of Prepositional Phrases).
Bell teaches writing at Northern Michigan University and several of his short stories have been anthologized.  This is his first novel, and I think it would have been MUCH better cut back to a short story, maybe a novella at most.
 This book is trying really hard to be a contemporary myth.  I appreciate the effort, and Bell started strong.  I liked the concreteness of the relationship, the wife who sings things into existence, the couple's grief at miscarriage.  This is all really relatable.   But then the narrator/husband/squid (yeah, you read that right) has a long and REALLY uncomfortable, um, "relationship" with a fetus (you know how Zeus' father ate his children?  Yeah, that.)  The narrator beat the crap out of the bear.  The bear starts talking.  The narrator carries around his dead, decomposing son, who has turned into a bear cub.  The narrator turns into a squid.  It goes on for 300 pages.  The language is actually a little hypnotic, to the point that MANY times I had read a page or so, and then had to re-read it because my mind had wandered off (according to another reader on GoodReads, I'm not alone in this experience).  It was also pretty gross.  Really violent and quite a few icky taboos.  I got about 80 pages from the end, and I simply couldn't take any more.  I didn't like anyone or anything in the book.  And no names.  The "fingerling" (what?), the foundling, the bear, the wife, the squid.... TOO MUCH! Even the title is so long I could never remember it.  One star.

Next: Kristopher Jansma's Unchangeable Spots of Leopards.  This was quite good, but a little
bit full of itself.  Lots and lots of references to other literature: Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway, many, many more.  Jansma is expecting his reader to be a very literate person, otherwise the reader will miss a lot of the jokes, irony, whatever.  I caught some, but surely not all.

The narrator himself is a chameleon who takes on a new identity in nearly every chapter.  We never learn his real name.  I didn't find him especially likeable, and his friend Julian McGann/Jeffrey Oakes, the main supporting character, the psychologically tortured, alcoholic novelist, is a pretty unpleasant, high-maintenance fellow.  The love interest, gorgeous stage actress Evelyn Lynn Madison Demont, is best-remembered (at least by me) for the bored look in her eyes.  They have a series of adventures, some with one another, quite a few separately (although we know mostly about the narrator's globe-trotting).  Each of the tales/chapters is a pretty interesting self-contained short story, but I just found the characters fairly insufferable.  (The one I liked the best was Tina, the girl the narrator dumps in Ghana.)  Three stars.  

I'm not generous with my five-star ratings, but Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane gets it, hands-down, from me.

 "Nobody came to my seventh birthday party..... I was sad that nobody had come to my party, but happy that... there was a birthday present waiting to be read, a boxed set of the Narnia books, which I took upstairs.  I lay on the bed and lost myself in the stories.  I liked that.  Books were safer than other people anyway."  (p. 9)

Never have I read a book that describes the feeling of being a bookish, different, slightly-lonely child so much as this novel. And it's the rare book that captures the magic and fear of classic children's literature like Alice in Wonderland, the Oz series, or Narnia.

A demon disguised as a nanny. Mystical shadow ravens that eat the very fabric of reality.  And three women, the Hempworths, who possess deep, ancient powers of the universe.  The kind of family that every seven-year old boy in need of an adventure ought to have living just down the lane.

Oddly enough, in spite of the fact that, yet again, the narrator goes unnamed, it was so subtle I didn't notice until much later; not until I was skimming the book to write this post!  The other characters are so vivid, either warm and wonderful and safe, or cold and cruel and scary, and they all have names.  

It is a fantastical tale, of a boy that loves fantastical tales.  After reading about the Egyptian gods Hathor and Ra, he remarks, "I liked myths.  They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories.  They were better than that.  They just were.  Adult stories never made sense, and they were so slow to start.  They made me feel like there were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood.  Why didn't adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?"  (p. 51)  Why indeed?  The fact is, many do.  I'm one of them.  And I'm very glad to have found this book.  FIVE ENTHUSIASTIC STARS!

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