If you scanned any of the literary websites for Best of 2018, you will have come across Ottess Moshfegh’s name for her latest book, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”. There’s quite a buzz about her writing, so I went back to her second book, “Eileen”. Her first book, “McGlue”, just came back into print.
The narrator of “Eileen” is the main character of the book several decades after the most pivotal weeks of her life and it is this story she retells: the days that led up to her abandoning her life in 1964, her drunk father, her dead mother, and her job in a prison for teenage boys. As the narrator tells it in the opening paragraph:
I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I looked like nothing special.
Moshfegh’s “Eileen” is not a blow-by-blow of the events leading up to her flying of her leaving X-ville, rather it’s a mediation on the narrator’s lost youth. This is nothing like a crime novel even though a heinous crime is committed.
Many books pretend to enter the psyche of its characters, but with Moshfegh’s “Eileen” we are swimming in the narrator’s weirdness and basic inability to function in society. Yes, the reader feels like a horrible fly on the wall as we witness some throughly disturbing psychological episodes, but knowing that the narrator has some how made it through to the other side of life allows you to keep reading on. Moshfegh is as good as everyone says she is and if given a chance, I’m sure you’ll dig this book too.
Periodically, I head to the majors to read an author that everyone is talking about. This time I picked up Tana French’s debut novel, In The Woods, the first of her Dublin Murder Squad books published by Penguin. First off, there is no doubt that French can write. Her sentences flow as easily as a creek on a summer day. There is also a smartness to French’s words, she is not dumbing down anything for her readers. In the first chapter, the narrator who is a detective introduces himself:
What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass.
French doesn’t write “What I want you to remember” instead she writes “What I warn you to remember”, this slight word choice makes the reader stumble a bit, but an intentional stumble as the writer grabs our full attention to every word rather than allowing us to blissfully read unaware of the words going by. The narrator declares truth as “the most desirable woman in the world” and then tells us that as detectives they “betray her routinely, spending hours and days stupor-deep in lies”. This introduction ends with this bit:
This is my job, and you don’t go into it—or, if you do, you don’t last—without some natural affinity for its priorities and demands. What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this—two things: I crave truth. And I lie.
Oh great, the unreliable narrator appears. Not. A. Fan. The unreliable narrator is nothing more than a cheap parlor trick and, to paraphrase Samuel Johson, it is the last refuge of scoundrels. But at least French forewarned me.
The narrator, Rob Ryan, and his partner Cassie Maddox are sent to sent to a Dublin suburb to investigate the death of a 12-year-old girl. Now the woods that the girl was found in is the same woods that Ryan and two of his friends disappeared in years ago. Ryan was the only one who survived. By deftly changing his name and taking on a posh accent, Maddox is the only one who knows Ryan’s secret. The narrator tells us two things. The first is that he has dealt successfully with his early disappearance and the second is that he and Maddox are just partners, there is nothing sexual between the two. Given that Ryan has already declared himself as a liar, we know where this book is going.
What bothered me most with all of this is not that French would have Ryan delve into his past and somehow connect his childhood disappearance with their new murder case or that Ryan and Maddox end up sleeping with each other, rather it is Ryan’s unbelievable response to their liaison. After sleeping with his best friend, Ryan’s thoughts were these:
This is our usual weekend routine when I stay over, a big Irish breakfast and a long walk on the beach, but I couldn’t face either the excruciating thought of talking about anything that had happened the previous night or the heavy-handed complicity of avoiding it. The flat felt suddenly tiny and claustrophobic.
I knew, you see, that I had just made at least one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I had slept with the wrong people before, but I had never done anything at quite this level of monumental stupidity. The standard response after something like this happens is either to begin an official “relationship” or to cut off all communication—I had attempted both in the past, with varying degrees of success—but I could hardly stop speaking to my partner, and as for entering into a romantic relationship…
This goes on for pages and pages, chapters and chapters. I’ve just past half-way through a 612-page novel and French has brought me from compassion for to despising her main character for the rest of the book. It was difficult to make it through the rest of the book as Ryan made one idiotic decision after another. I enjoy books where characters make bad decisions, but when these decisions are made out of character, I find it frustrating and more than that unbelievable.
Early in September I had what NPR used to call a “Driveway Moment”. Having picked up my wife from work, we were listening to Fresh Air as Terry Gross interviewed David Cornwell aka John le Carré. Cornwell was fascinating and Gross was on top of her game, but we had pulled into the driveway and I had work to do. The car was turned off and I went inside. In the age of internet the Driveway Moment is no more as I knew that I would be able to listen to the interview the next day at my own convenience. Gross asked Cornwell about his new book A Legacy of Spies and why he wrote: “about a spy forced to face his responsibility for two death decades ago?”
I think because, back then, we had a clear philosophy which we thought we were protecting. And it was a notion of the West. It was a notion of individual freedom, of inclusiveness, of tolerance – all of that we called anti-communism. That was really a broad brush because there were many decent people who lived in communist territories who weren’t as bad as one might suppose. But now, today, this present time in which these matters are being reconsidered in my novel, we seem to have no direction.
We seem to be joined by nothing very much except fear and bewilderment about what the future holds. We have no coherent ideology in the West, and we used to believe in the great American example. I think that’s recently been profoundly undermined for us. We’re alone. Two of my most important characters in the story, Peter Guillam, the narrator, and George Smiley, who is William’s master, if you like, both of them turn out to be semi-Europeans. I think my concern as I started writing the book in this extraordinary atmosphere in which we presently live was somehow implicitly to make a case for Europe, which has now become an endangered species.
I was taken in by Cornwell’s thoughts about the death of the American ideal and what our future might hold for us.
FRESH AIR: Terry Gross interviews John le Carré
The interview gets even better as Cornwell describes his childhood: the mother that abandoned her children and growing up with a con-artist father — this part could not be more fascinating. While listening to this incredible interview, I figured it was time to read some John le Carré, this guy does have a sterling reputation as a writer. I do have some vague recollection of reading a John le Carré novel, but with over a dozen films and TV shows made, I am still unsure. And my adventure into John le Carré’s world has begun with my reading of Call for the Dead.
The novel begins with George Smiley being summoned to the Circus. This simple sentence, without explanation of Smiley or the Circus, is understood by all. For over 50 years, John le Carré’s works have seeped into our collective consciousness. We find out that Smiley is the antithesis of James Bond, “short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.” Compared to a bullfrog, Smiley could be seen waddling “down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince.” Even Smiley’s wife Ann left him for a Cuban race car driver!
Call for the Dead is not a spy thriller in any sense, rather it is a murder mystery where the players all work in the espionage business. If the characters worked as cooks and waitstaff, it would still be a murder mystery and not a restaurant thriller.
Smiley is quickly dispatched to Surrey, south of London, to tie up the loose ends in a suicide; the victim, a Samuel Fennan, was interviewed days before by Smiley. The Circus, especially Smiley’s supervisor, would like this embarrassing situation to go away. It’s all very English. Smiley makes his way to Fennan’s house and quickly surmises that the suicide is a murder and so the story begins.
If you’ve never read John le Carré and have heard of his reputation of being a great writer, these rumors are true.
There had been a time when the mere business of driving a car was a relief to him; when he had found in the unreality of a long, solitary journey a palliative to his troubled brain, when the fatigue of several hours’ driving had allowed him to forget more sombre cares.
It was one of the subtler landmarks of middle age, perhaps, that he could no longer thus subdue his mind. It needed sterner measures now: he even tried on occasion to plan in his head a walk through a European city—to record the shops and buildings he would pass, for instance, in Berne on a walk from the Münster to the university. But despite such energetic mental exercise, the ghosts of time present would intrude and drive his dreams away. It was Ann who had robbed him of his peace, Ann who had once made the present so important and taught him the habit of reality, and when she went there was nothing.
There is nothing exceptional here in the excerpt above, it is just damn good prose. You’ll find such clear and beautiful writing throughout Call for the Dead and even the mystery is quite good. I am looking forward to reading the next John le Carré book, A Murder of Quality.