Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee Vs. Galore by Michael Crummey
The championship game! Due to the nature of this exercise, we have now talked about these two finalists numerous times. The repetition may be too much for some readers. I think I’ve found a solution. Like Bird from Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter, the title match will not be decided by figuring out which book is the right one, but the winner will be decided by remembering who we are, and what we are doing here.
We are the Voyage Out Book Group. We meet the last Sunday of every month at BookPeople in Austin, TX. We’ve been doing so for over four years. We pick challenging books in the hopes that a group can read better than an individual. The group has proven to be smarter than the individual time after time.
The winner cannot be the ‘best’ book we’ve read. That’s not something that exists. The winner can, however, be the book that best fits our mission. Below is an evaluation of each book based upon what we are trying to do at The Voyage Out Book Group.
J.M. Coetzee is controversial. He has been kicked out of countries (kinda). He goes to the hot places in the world: South Africa, Australia, and Austin. He’s also won the Nobel Prize. Over the years we’ve read a few Nobel Prize winners: Yasunari Kawabata, Kenzaburo Oe, Nadine Gordimer, Orhan Pamuk, and we will soon read Mario Vargas Llosa. Turns out these people can write!
We read Disgrace, and the debate was always on the edge of going too far. When you talk about violence towards women, it is, and probably should be that way. It’s uncomfortable, and art should be, but that discomfort is the reason why you read this book as a group. These are things we don’t want to talk about, but we should. The Voyage Out is also a public group, which means we discussed these things with people we’d never met before. Also good. We need to learn how to acknowledge, debate, and work through the unlikeable things in the world, and doing so publically and with strangers is always a learning experience. Disgrace allows us this experience.
Coetzee’s writing is sparse. He apologizes for nothing.
We’ve made a point of reading books from smaller publishers and lesser-known authors. We’ve been rewarded for our efforts. We’ve read a few books from New Directions and a number of our titles came from University Press’s. We’ve introduced ourselves to Alejo Carpentier, Joseph Boyden, and Randall Kenan. These authors and Press’s have helped us see that the book world is big and varied, and that we better ourselves by diversifying our reading by region, gender, style, Press, …etc.
‘Lesser-known’ and ‘smaller’ are relative terms, and Michael Crummey has always had supporters. Galore is published in this country by Other Press, an Independent publisher with a pristine reputation for bringing the world’s best fiction to the US. I trust Other Press’s editorial choices, and I will often buy them solely based on their endorsement by publication. If you pay attention to who is publishing these books, you will find that, just like readers, publishers have sensibilities. If you can find a Press that shares your sensibilities, then you should consider yourself lucky. If you are reading this blog right now, you most likely share a sensibility with Other Press.
To simplify: Other Press is awesome, and you should read their books.
Now to the book: we read on different levels, and with different strengths. One reader may focus on structure, another on character, another on style, and another on plot. All of these things matter, and none of them matter more than the other. In fact, they don’t exist without each other. The thing that I love about Galore is that it challenges you on all of these focuses. Crummey’s small town epic winds through time and characters and squid and whales and love and deception, it does all of this with a style so tangible that you can smell the salt water coming off of every page.
Here’s my favorite part of the book: when the story opens in a small Newfoundland fishing village called Paradise Deep, the town has discovered a beached whale. This whale represents a bounty for this sparse locale. As the townspeople begin to collect their bounty, they find something inside, a man. To their surprise, the man is alive, completely white, naked, and he stinks. They combine Judas and Jonah to name the young man Judah. Wow. That’s how you open a novel.
What happens next is even more amazing. Although Judah is always a major character, he isn’t the sole focus of the novel. The book grows, expands, becomes huge. If I could invent, just once in my life, a character as interesting as Judah, I would try to spend the next 300 pages trying to tell his story. Crummey doesn’t, and that’s what makes this book so much fun. It doesn’t take shortcuts, and it delivers to you a work of art bursting at the edges.
I would love it if your book group read both of these titles. You can’t go wrong with either, but for our book group the book that most fits what we are trying to do is Galore by Michael Crummey.