Archives for category: fiction

friday-the-infautations-mainSomething has happened that hasn’t happened to me in a long time. I didn’t finish a book. I’m normally persistent to a fault. I just lost momentum with The Infatuations. And then there was nothing compelling me to pick it up again. Perhaps I’ll try again later, when I’m in a more existential mood.

Here’s what happened:

When I read a novel I like things to happen. When I first heard about The Infatuations I wasn’t sure it would be right for me. Yes, it’s about a murder and the mystery surrounding that murder, which seemed promising. But it’s philosophical, a cerebral meditation on death and love. All which means, to my mind, The Infatuations would be absolutely brilliant or very dull.

At almost a hundred pages in not much has happened – Miguel has been murdered, Maria has met his widow, Luisa, and that’s about it. However, that summary doesn’t really do justice to Marías’ wonderful command of language, tone and mood. I feel the electric crackle of potential in the air but I’m getting a little bored.

His characters have unusual, extremely erudite conversations. They give too much of themselves without actually knowing someone.

(Goes off, reads some more.)

A character has just quoted from and recounted the plot of a Balzac novel (a novelist who also has the ability to be wonderfully boring). I’m officially done.

the-tilted-worldTom Franklin’s latest book came out well timed to help me in my bid to read books by authors that I’ve read before and enjoyed. A while ago I read his 2011 Dagger Award winning novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. His new novel, The Tilted World, is co-written with Beth Ann Fennelly, a poet and Tom Franklin’s wife. Co-written novels are an interesting proposition, I always view writing novels as such a solitary, private process. That extreme level of collaboration must require an intimate relationship so I guess a husband and wife team makes sense. Or they could just end up killing each other in the process.

It’s April 1927 and the inhabitants of the fictional town of Hobnob, Mississippi are fighting to stop the levee of their bend in the Mississippi River from breaking. After months of almost nonstop rain the Mississippi is dangerously high and threatens to flood. Fennelly and Franklin based their novel on the real events of the Mississippi flood on Good Friday, 1927. The flood was one of the worst natural disasters America has experienced, flattening almost a million homes and drowning twenty-seven thousand square miles.

Against this backdrop, Dixie Clay brews moonshine for her bootlegger husband, the handsome Jesse Holliver. Once captivated by his charm, Dixie Clay now sees him for the dangerous, conniving man he really is. As Prohibition nears its death, revenue agents and World War I veterans Ham and Ingersoll travel to Hobnob to find out what happened to their missing predecessors. Meanwhile, saboteurs from New Orleans are trying to collapse Hobnob’s levee in order to ease pressure on their own segment of the river. And an orphaned baby forces Ingersoll and Dixie Clay’s lives to intertwine.

The Tilted World is beautifully written. It has Franklin’s eye for small domestic details seen in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, but with added beauty and tenderness – ‘its Victrolas cupping their ears to the glass to listen for a pause in the monotonous song of the rain’, a fox paddling through flood waters, its ‘tail rising from the water like a question mark.’

I don’t think it’s really giving anything away to talk about the central romance. Dixie Clay and Ingersoll know each other for two weeks, a tumultuous, life-altering two weeks, but a short time nonetheless. The cynic in me finds the sudden romance a tad clichéd and convenient but really they’re both in love with the baby. They were each in desperate need of family, so I suppose it all makes sense in the end.

On the topic of both the love story and the writing, you can tell the sex scene was co-written by a poet. Normally that kind of grandiose rendering of a basic human act would make me want to vomit a little but I didn’t hate it.

They were rocking together, a rescue boat, and then words and ideas of words fell away and they were thrust into the golden light that bodies can climb to. They were there and there and there. Stillness at the height.

It’s kind of beautiful. But maybe a bit too much for me.

The characters are all well-drawn and filled in – you feel for them when they bleed, when they cry, but sometimes they felt like the obvious choices. Dixie Clay is a wonderful character. Her first meeting with Jesse is excellent – selling the furs she caught, skinned and stretched herself, a girl trying to best a grown man at bargaining. But she’s still a feisty tomboy who falls for a charming man with big ambitions, when she really belongs with the caring, solid, somewhat less attractive guy. Although, I think the character choice says more about the plot direction – a universality of story made whole with precise, intimate details.

Franklin and Fennelly paint a slight yet perfect little picture of life on the Mississippi, while echoes of the wider world reverberate – the early twentieth century jazz scene, Prohibition, the 1927 flood, Hoover’s bid to become the next president, and a hint of World War I. The Tilted World is a wonderful miniature etching of a far grander landscape.

The+Heart+Broke+InMy early thoughts on The Heart Broke In were positive. It seemed absorbing, has a big, bold cast of characters, and James Meek is a great storyteller. It is part moral thriller, part classy, sleek soap opera – there’s blackmail, infidelity, scorned lovers, death, questions of paternity and tabloid exposés. Then things went sour. I really wanted to like this but The Heart Broke In never remotely lived up to its early potential.

Val Oatman, tabloid newspaper owner, gets his kicks from exposing the dirty secrets of beloved celebrities. He uses his newspaper to put them on a pedestal, only to send them crashing to the ground. Val sets up the Moral Foundation, an agency devoted to blackmailing celebrities with secrets to hide into giving up the secrets of friends and family. Ritchie Shepherd finds himself in Val’s sightline after Ritchie’s sister Bec breaks Val’s heart. Ritchie, a middle-aged ex-rock star and reality makeover show producer, has just ended his latest extra-marital affair, this time with a fifteen year old girl.

Bec is a scientist doing research on a malaria vaccine. She soon starts dating Ritchie’s old friend Alex, a fellow scientist doing cancer research. Bec and Alex reach celebrity couple status due to their cutting edge discoveries. Alex is desperate for a child but has had trouble conceiving with his previous girlfriend, and now with Bec. These elements, along with a dozen others, come together to give Ritchie the ammunition he needs to escape the clutches of the Moral Foundation.

Meek has a finicky writing style – ‘folding a leaf of crispy chicken skin onto the tines of his fork’. It’s not often that I see references to a fork’s tines, and then there are whole pages dedicated to intricate description of Alex riding his bike through London. As an isolated incident Meek’s prose wouldn’t have bothered me, but the infractions kept adding up.

The Heart Broke In is full of nasty characters, which isn’t a problem in itself but either something about them has to be particularly interesting or the plot has to keep you going. Unsavoury characters have the potential to be flat; their nastiness can become all that defines them. Meek struggles to keep his characters three-dimensional; he fights to show they have ‘feelings’, that they are ‘conflicted’. He even tried to make me believe that Ritchie is capable of feeling guilt. As I read The Heart Broke In I felt certain that Ritchie must be a sociopath. Even if that’s what Meek was aiming for I’m not convinced sociopaths make for interesting fiction characters. Ritchie has a strange urge to be known for his generosity but he only cares for others to the extent that they offer him something – they make him look like a good father, or they give others something to envy. When, at first, Ritchie decides to sacrifice himself for the good of his sister he phrases his reasoning to do so in such as way that, despite doing the right thing, he comes across as unbelievably selfish, petulant and disgusting.

Val Oatman’s actions only make sense if he is mentally ill, which is a cop-out, and Bec Shepherd uses incredibly twisted logic to justify using Alex’s brother for her own gain (I felt it was out of character given the rest of the novel). Meek obviously wanted to explore shades of morality, the characters needed to do certain things in order to say what he needed to say, resulting in plot dictating character. That just so happens to be a pet hate of mine, so other readers will likely be more forgiving.

So if the characters are hard to fathom, then there’s always plot to keep your interest. Not here. After a great start there’s a huge lull. The plot reaches a stalemate about half way through, to the point that I considered not bothering reading any more but I don’t think it’s fair to dislike a book you haven’t read until the bitter end. I’m persistent. Bec’s malaria research, Alex’s cancer research, and the progression of their relationship were well done but not nearly enough to make up for how boring it got when the blackmail plot petered out.

Eventually the blackmail scheme that was set up at the very start becomes relevant again. But too late. The Heart Broke In was unrealistic, overly long and, especially for all it promised, fairly dull. It would have automatically been much better if it had just been shorter or, I suppose, if Meek had just had something more to say. The start was great though.