Day three! Once again, the competitions are tight, the books wonderful, and the decisions are arbitrary.
A little more about what we do at The Voyage Out: the idea is to read novels from specific locales in three-month cycles. Examples would be a three-month cycle where we read Kenzaburo Oe, Yasunari Kawabata, and Haruki Murakami. This Japanese region would not, of course, be a way to completely understand Japanese culture, or even Japanese Literature. The goal is more in line with what we gain when we travel to unfamiliar places. We gain some knowledge, respect, understanding, empathy, and hopefully have a great time, too. We’ll be choosing a new region this month on the 28th, so come by BookPeople at 5pm, discuss Pat Barker’s wonderful novel, Life Class, and help us pick our next excursion.
1. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee Vs. 8. The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier
We love to claim people here in Austin, Texas. We claim Ameila Gray, Townes Van Zandt, and Daniel Johnston even though they only lived here for a short time. Coetzee drank a glass of water at UT once, and now we claim him as our very own Nobel Prize winner. Works for me, so Coetzee not only has the Nobel push, the popular support, the heir of controversy, and the mystery of reclusiveness, he also has the home court advantage.
People tell you not to talk about politics and religion, and they are right. These are tough subjects to broach. But, you know what subject is really tough to talk about: rape. I don’t mean to be glib, or attempt to make a joke. Rape is impossible to talk about with a group of new and old friends. You can’t talk about Disgrace without talking about a rape scene. It’s uncomfortable because it has to be. For this meeting, it was also meaningful to all who participated. Coetzee’s book is exactly like this conversation, uncomfortable but meaningful.
Alejo Carpentier might not jump to mind when you think about great South American writers, but maybe he should. His perplexing novel, The Lost Steps is a journey into the jungle in a similar fashion to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The book problematizes the idea of a ‘first language’ or of finding a glimpse into a lost world. It satirizes the anthropologists of the day who went in search of authenticity, but only found people.
Both of these books are great, not easy, and better in discussion than in private. Home court advantage is important, and Austin’s native son, J.M. Coetzee wins!
2. Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion Vs. 7. NW by Zadie Smith
Joan Didion is an American treasure, Zadie Smith is just a treasure. Both can write, both can think, and both have, at times, struggled with the fact that the book world spends a lot of time talking about their pretty faces instead of their unbridled talent. Oh well, we all have our burdens.
Didion’s Play It As It Lays is unmistakably Californian. You can feel the ocean breeze, freedom, and apathy coming off every page. What happens when someone as true as Didion talks about those plastic American toys that are Hollywood and Las Vegas? You get an oddity and an energy that crushes worlds, and would crush all but the most technical writers. Didion is that technition.
Zadie Smith could have been the British Jonathan Franzen. She could have written funny novels about life in London. Moms and daughters struggling to find some common ground, or a school-girl sad from torment. These could have been best sellers and made quite a life for our good friend Zadie. Instead we get NW. The book is not great, but it is brave. She messes with genre, time, font, poetry, and narrative, and she does all of this while being very funny.
I would love to have picked Smith’s bold book in this round, but Didion is just too strong. Didion wins!
3. The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras Vs. 6. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
This is an odd match-up. Duras and Calvino are most likely two authors who have been on your list, but never got the privilege of being read by you. Right? Maybe it’s just me. These are also two of the odder books we ever read.
If you’ve been to a group, you may have heard about my affection for tables of contents. I love to see how authors have structured books and the choices they made for the structure of the book as a whole. Calvino’s table of contents for Invisible Cities is genius. The entirety of the novel’s math problem can’t be figured out by looking at the TOC, but I couldn’t come to any conclusions about the text without studying the TOC first. A supreme reading exercise.
Lol Stein is about angles. It’s a book about a story being told by a man who is writing about a woman who is troubled and lost… maybe. My advise, pay attention to who is telling the story, and why they are telling the story. Another reading lesson from a true genius. Thanks Margie.
By the thinnest of margins Calvino’s table of contents wins!
4. Holy Terrors by Jean Cocteau Vs. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
Tolstoy wrote that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I’m not sure if that’s true. As evidence I offer the families from Cocteau’s quirky little picture book and Turgenev’s diatribe on generations.
Both books show that families seem to have the unique ability to know you best and with the least ability to understand. Forrest through the trees type of thing? Maybe. But one thing that is certain to me is that these novels are funny in the same way, but unhappy on their own. Turgenev demonstrates that when generations are thrown together, drama will ensue. Cocteau shows that life lived without an older generation can’t be full.
In this tight match-up, the kids win. But only by one of Jean’s very beautiful line drawings.
That ends day three. We are going to pick up the pace this week, and move towards the coveted prize.
(There is no prize)
(Maybe Lindsey will give you a hug or something, unless you’re dead)
Day Four Match-Ups:
1. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami Vs. 8. Ask the Dust by John Fante
2. The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty Vs. 7. Rabbit, Run by John Updike
3. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor Vs. 6. A History of Love by Nicole Krauss
4. S. : A Novel About the Balkans Vs. American Rust by Philipp Meyer