Review: The Withdrawal Method

The Withdrawal Method was one of those books that I had seen all over the place. A good word about it here, a positive review there and it was on the Scotiabank Giller Prize Longlist in 2008. Besides, while the title was somewhat off-putting, the cover grabbed my attention. So when I saw it sitting on the shelf in the library, I took the opportunity to check it out.

Now I admit, I don’t generally turn to short stories as my first choice in reading material, so perhaps my knowledge of the structure of the short story is lacking. But I do know what I like, and what I find works, and this collection just didn’t work for me.

The stories are not in any way linked. Indeed, they vary wildly in length, setting and tone. Generally, they involve unlikeable characters making questionable choices. I found the first two stories, The Slough and Big City Girls so repulsive that I nearly quit reading. In the first story, The Slough, the main character, Pasha (a device that I personally despise – naming a character after yourself. It’s a wee bit meta when really there’s no need) dreams of his girlfriend shedding her skin, as if she were a snake. In reality, she is in the hospital dying of skin cancer, and their relationship, prior to her diagnosis, was all but over. Needless to say, his behaviour is reprehensible. In the second story, Big City Girls, Ginny and Alex are school-aged siblings who have a snow day off of school and are stuck in their rural house, unsupervised as their mother watches television in her room. Ginny has invited over three friends from school, and before long the girls have engaged Ginny’s younger brother Alex in a imaginary sex game that quickly goes very wrong. It’s a terribly uncomfortable story to read, and I came away wondering precisely what the point of it was, apart from reminding us, the reader, that children take in more than we remember sometimes, and wield that knowledge dangerously at times.

After that inauspicious beginning, I very nearly left the book unfinished, but quickly came to the two best stories in the book. In the story Pushing Oceans In and Pulling Oceans Out we see the inside dialogue of an unnamed nine-year old girl who is coping with the death of her mother, a grieving father and a developmentally-delayed brother, and is forced to grow up far too quickly. In the story Long Short Short Long we meet Bogdan, a young immigrant boy who has been bullied by the class princess Trish. After Bogdan mistakenly thinks that his music teacher, Miss, is sending him Morse Code messages, Bogdan finally stands up for himself, with stunning consequences. Both of these stories rested heavily on the interior dialogue of the main character(s), and I found that in both of them (particularly Pushing Oceans In and Pulling Oceans Out) Malla believably and convincingly writes a child narrator, not always an easy task.

Unfortunately, many of these stories, while brief enough, seemed to meander pointlessly. At the end of several stories I came away wondering precisely what the point was. And while I believe that not ever story must have a point that is explicitly stated, I feel that I should be able to come away from any book or story that I read with a basic understanding of the author’s intention (or, that I could discern the intention on a re-read). I didn’t get that impression at the end of this book. I suppose it could be said that the prevailing theme of these stories are individuals who have withdrawn – from their relationship, from society, from family. But if that were so, should there not be some redeeming quality in the characters actions or behaviour, or is the point that those who withdraw are doomed? Because of the lack of this redemptive quality, I found the majority of this book terribly depressing, and came to resent picking it up. I think that is why I found the two stories, Pushing Oceans In and Pulling Oceans Out and Long Short Short Long to be the two best stories, as there is a sense of closure and even hope in those two stories that is missing from the majority of the other stories. My grade is based on the strength of these two stories.

Rating: C-

Details:
The Withdrawal Method by Pasha Malla
House of Anansi Press, 2008
Paperback, 321 pages
Review from library copy

Review: The Disappeared

The Disappeared was one of the inaugural works published under Penguin Canada’s new imprint, Hamish Hamilton Canada. As such, you would expect it to be a choice intended to to be somewhat high profile, with the potential for award nominations. A title to set the bar high for quality of titles under the new imprint. The Disappeared certainly was attention-getting – as of the publication date (2009) it had been eight years since the publication of Dagmar’s Daughter, Echlin’s second novel, and her first novel, Elephant Winter, was nominated for the 1997 Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award. The Disappeared went on to be short-listed for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Unfortunately, I found The Disappeared to be, at best, a mediocre novel that in no way lives up to the potential of the subject matter (nor, for that matter, the quality that a Giller Award nomination implies.)

The book starts in the 1970s when 16-year old Anne Greves meets and falls passionately in love with 21-year old Serey, a Cambodian student in exile during the dictatorship of Pol Pot. Serey returns to Cambodia shortly thereafter when the borders are re-opened, and Anne does not hear from him again until she thinks she sees him in news footage of a demonstration. She then travels to Cambodia to find him and re-establish their relationship.

The single biggest problem with this book had everything to do with its length. At 235 pages Echlin tries to cram in both the story of Cambodia and a love story. Consequently, both are done a disservice by the brevity of the book. Ultimately, I felt that this was a story that could have perhaps been placed anywhere in which events are insurmountable or conspire to keep lovers apart. The story of Cambodia deserves better than to simply be used as a backdrop for two lovers – particularly two lovers such as Serey and Anne, where the love story itself is somewhat unfathomable.

The other difficulties I had with the novel are more ones of style, and could perhaps be considered personal preference. Generally speaking, I prefer clean writing. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy detailed or descriptive writing, but I do not enjoy writing that is all words and no substance. Reading The Disappeared had a strange quality, somewhat like looking at those stereographic pictures that were popular during the 1990s. Occasionally, if you are content to let the words – indeed, entire passages – just wash over you, you can perhaps glean a faint image of the intent of her writing. But, like the stereographic picture, if you try to focus on the image, to “unblur your eyes” you find a mess of words that cannot be assembled into a picture.

The light in May’s eyes was a pinprick through black paper. He assessed and calculated. … The light of his eyes twisted into mine. When I told him what I was doing, the pinprick opened and closed over a fleeting compassion.

The Disappeared, page 3

Incidentally, another one of my big irritations is when an author lights upon some metaphor or turn of phrase and then proceeds to use it repeatedly throughout the book. The idea of a “pinprick of light” in one’s eyes is one that Echlin abuses to no end throughout the book.

However, there are moments of beautiful writing where Echlin refrains from the overly studied, overt attempts at “evocative” writing, and crafts a sentence that is graceful in its simplicity. Her best writing comes later in the novel in a few short chapters where she uses a clipped, staccato rhythm to briefly relay someone’s history or personal story under Pol Pot. She proves here that in two pages and a handful of sentences she can make the reader feel the fear and horror of the events she describes. It is what makes her reliance on overly stylized, deliberately obscure writing that much more frustrating.

Sokha was only trying to survive, you said. Your eyes were dark and dry.

They opened up the man’s chest and the older man plunged his hands in, said, One man’s liver is another’s food.

The Disappeared, page 128

Perhaps my greatest frustration with this book, though, came from the research. Whenever a book is set within a historical framework, the author has decisions to make regarding the depth of detail and the balance between actual documented events and fictionalized events. Generally speaking, The Disappeared has a fairly light hand when it comes to historically documented events, in favor of the relationship aspect of the book. I am not sure if Echlin received a grant to visit Cambodia, or the depth of her research, but even when an author chooses to refrain from excessive historical detail I do not expect to find the few historical references to be available on the first page of wikipedia. A quote about the infamous prison and torture facility, Tuol Sleng:

Each picture refuses anonymity. Boy number 17. He has no shirt and they have safety-pinned his number into his skin. A small woman with the number 17-5-78 pinned on her black shirt stares into the camera and at the bottom of the photo a child’s small hand clings to her right sleeve.

The Disappeared, page 109

Visit the wikipedia page. Half-way down the page on right hand side is the photo of victim 17-5-78, and below it is a mosaic of other victims with boy number 17 on the second row. This is particularly egregious considering that on page 224 Echlin has Anne Greves mention watching a film of all 5,000 victims of Tuol Sleng. Then why choose two photos off the first page of wikipedia?

Then there was this:

But she nodded to the bamboo walls and answered in a soft voice, Ears everywhere. Eyes as many as the eyes of a pineapple.

The Disappeared, page 93

Now, perhaps this is a famous saying, although my own Google search did not reflect it as such. Where I did come across this quote, although in not quite the same wording, was in the New York Times obituary of Dith Pran, the famous photojournalist who escaped from Cambodia and whose story the film The Killing Fields was based on. It turns out that this was one of his most famous quotes regarding his theory photojournalism, in which he stated “You have to be a pineapple. You have to have a hundred eyes.”

It may have been coincidence in both of these cases, but I found it particularly jarring. I came away from the book feeling as though perhaps it had been researched exclusively via Google.

I hate when my hopes for a book are so high – it makes the disappointment that much more acute. Unfortunately, I was tremendously disappointed by this book.

Rating: C

Details
The Disappeared by Kim Echlin
Hamish Hamilton Canada (an imprint of Penguin Canada), 2009
Hardcover, 239 pages
Review from library copy

Reviews: The End of East and The Outcast

(Not so) recently I had the opportunity to attend an author reception for Sadie Jones, a first time author, with a fellow blogger. While I was there, I mentioned to another attendee that I had planned on reviewing the guest of honour’s book, The Outcast, together with the book The End of East, written by first-time novelist Jen Sookfong Lee, which I had also recently read. I commented that I found the two novels similar in many ways, apart from the fact that they were both first books from new female authors, but that I felt that The Outcast, to be the far superior first effort. She seemed surprised that I found them similar novels and commented that that they were quite different, but in typical fashion for me I immediately found myself flustered, lost my train of thought and floundered as I tried desperately to gather my thoughts and not sound like a complete idiot. Of course, mere minutes later I could coherently organize my arguments for my position, but the moment had passed, and I never did find the opportunity to defend my position.

Lee’s novel is, loosely, the story of an Chinese immigrant family living inVancouver’s Chinatown. At a mere 243 pages, this is not a dense family epic, but rather several snapshots of the three generations of the Wong family as seen through the eyes of the not-so-dutiful daughter, Sammy Chan, who has returned home from her life in Montreal to take care of her aging mother. The story begins with the immigration of Sammy’s grandfather, Seid Quan, to Vancouver’s Chinatown, and his immense loneliness. It then follows the family as Seid Quan’s son, Pon Man, eventually joins his father in Canada and marries, and the lives of his wife and children.

I had mixed feelings about this book. As I read the book I couldn’t help but feel that Lee had taken a primer course on “powerful first novels” and “bright new voices” and had sought to put all of the elements of that type of novel into her book. Which is my verbose way of saying that the writing felt very forced at times, as though in Lee’s attempt, perhaps, to write “beautiful and compelling descriptions” she loses sign of what she was describing in the first place.

The way the drizzle stayed with her, soaked into her hair, her clothes, her sheets. It pushed itself onto her skin, huddled with her when she cried, remained cool even as she cooked at a blazing stove. Unshakeable. Like family.

The End of East, page viii

There were some parts of this book that were compelling, and the sense of loneliness and isolation shines through. I felt Lee really hit her stride when she describes Sammy’s mother’s (undiagnosed) postpartum depression. This passage was the portion of the book that struck me as the rawest, truest writing in the entire book:

It’s like a splinter, this feeling that she hates the baby so much that she would rather reach into its face and pull out its brains than take care of it for one more day. This hatred started days ago, and she thought she could hide it, control it by ignoring it and letting it fade on its own. But then it grew, attracting all the other evil feelings she has ever had about this house, this family, this country, even her own husband.

The End of East, page 141

That said, the tone of this novel is uneven at best, and the individual stories, snapshots if you will, are not connected well at all. Apart from some of the rather self-indulgent descriptions, I really felt that the single biggest failure of this novel though lies in the motivations (or lack thereof) of the daughter, Sammy. Her portions of the story are the weakest, with very little connection or explanation for her actions – actions I found inexplicable. As she is the primary narrator through which the story is told, this is a rather glaring weakness.

At first glance, Jones’ novel could not appear to be more different. It is the story of Lewis Aldridge, a young boy living in post-World War II England, and the devastating consequences for his entire family after a summer accident. It is a story of secrets and cruelty and hypocrisy and, ultimately love.

The story begins as a nineteen-year-old Lewis has just been released from jail, after spending a few years for an as-yet undisclosed crime. From there, the novel moves back in time to Lewis’ childhood, his father’s return from the war, and ultimately the accident that would take his mother’s life. We see Lewis’ life unravel as his father marries the young, flighty, and incredibly selfish Alicia.  and start the cascading chain of events that leads to the riveting climax.

Entwined with Lewis’ story is the story of the Aldridge’s neighbours (and Lewis’ father’s boss), the Carmichaels. Both families have secrets, and emphasis is placed on image and appearances and social niceties at all costs. None of the characters are likable, with the possible exception of the Carmichael’s daughter, Kit, on whom the novel ultimately hinges, but all are compulsively readable, as the novel rips through a cascading chain of events that leads to the riveting climax. (And that is not in any way reviewer-speak. It truly is a climax that lives up to the hype.)

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but the book truly moves at a breakneck pace. Prior to writing this novel, Jones was a screenwriter, and her background is evident as the novel reads very much like a movie. In fact, there was a video trailer that was made for this book (it can be viewed here: http://www.rhgdigital2.co.uk/minisites/bookvideoawards/outcast.asp). While I generally don’t like trailers for books, I watched this trailer after reading the book and found it bang on to the descriptions in the novel. It was as though the novel was written at the outset with an eye to the possibility of a movie adaptation.

While I loved the flow of this book, I also found the writing to be well-executed and far more evocative than that of Lee’s novel. For example, this passage, following a Christmas time chat between Lewis’ father Gilbert, and Dicky Carmichael, his boss and neighbour, is a perfect example of the depth of understanding that Jones shows for the discrepency between exterior appearances and actions and private thoughts of her characters.

He teased out the conversation some more and wouldn’t go into detail about money, and Gilbert didn’t like him or the way he spoke or the way he stood there, but he took it, and he told himself how pleased he was, and gradually became pleased as the meeting drew to a close. It was a good deal and he was happy about it. He didn’t want to have to look at Dicky’s face any more and he wanted to take Lizzie home where she belonged and love her there. She was too good for any of them. She had her own way of looking at things. She was his and she was clever and lovely and he didn’t know what she saw in him, but he was grateful.

The Outcast, page 36

As I said, I found that there were similarities between the two books. Both are first novels from younger female novelists. Both books are stories of lonely, damaged people trying to find their way in the world. Both feature characters that are not inherently likable, and their sometimes unexplicable actions. However, where Jones excels at moving the story along, in drawing together multiple characters’ points-of-view and forming connections between jumps in time and narrator, Lee’s novel is substantially weaker in this respect leading to a disconnected, vignette feel to the nvoel. Where you get to the end of Jones’ novel and feel that you have read a story, Lee’s novel just, well, ends. All told, Jones’ novel is the better debut, and I have high hopes for her sophomore effort. Perhaps Lee will fare better in later novels, when her tone evens out, and there is less pressure to put forth a “daring and audacious first effort.”

Grades:

The End of East, C+
The Outcast, A-