Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Will Self, Nicholson Baker and Javier Marias.

There was an undeniably modernist edge to many of the books covered in the past week's reviews. Not least Javier Marias's A Heart So White, which, the New Statesman's Jonathan Coe asserts, is doing nothing less than "trying to rebuild the novel form." "After the modernist revolution, most novelists blithely carried on as before but a handful of writers have since applied themselves to the task of rebuilding things" and Marias's book, first published in 1992 and reissued this year by Penguin, is a "deadly-serious attempt to keep the novel, as a form alive and evolving." From the very first line "any promise of a conventionally linear narrative is immediately shattered". "For, "like Laurence Sterne, Marias is prey to profound scepticism about the novel's capacity to render the complexity of subjective human experience in anything other than the crudest, most approximate way." Though his "lithe, unreliable sentences" make it "a more opaque, demanding work than its predecessor", All Souls, Coe is adamant that A Heart So White is "a novel to treasure."

Boyd Tonkin must have been in similar mind when he exclaimed in the Independent that “sentence by glorious sentence, is there a better novelist alive in Europe now than Javier Marias?” “Translated by Margaret Jull Costa, this novel starts from a suicide to explore the secrets of two marriages with all the hypnotic, even sinister, beauty of his style.” GQ calls it a “haunting portrayal of two generations, two marriages, the relentless power of the past and the terrible price of knowledge.”

Carrying on the modernist baton is Will Self's latest and Man Booker long-listed novel, Umbrella, the radical structure of which Self claims to have modelled on its titular object. Thus the three main narrative "spokes" configure around Audrey, a pacifist arms factory worker in 1918, Zack, a 1970s psychiatrist, who is trying to cure Audrey, who has been trapped in a catatonic state for decades by Encephalitis lethargica, and Zack as a retired divorcee in 2010.

Following the controversy of last year’s Man Booker, Mark Lawson notes in the Guardian that Umbrella “is widely seen as a deliberate correction to the controversial plea from last year's judges for "readability", and some may conclude that Self's book represents the opposite quality.” “The book is, in effect, a single paragraph of 397 pages and around 120,000 words”. Its challenging structure is vindicated by being “clearly encouraged by the subject-matter: Encephalitis lethargica represents a paradox of consciousness, in which the patient, though in medico-legal terms still here, is predominantly somewhere else.” And “though hard work is certainly demanded from the reader, it is always rewarded.”

This, no doubt, is one prong of Self’s modernist desideratum. Matt Thorne, writing for the Independent, is interested in the claim in the blurb that “not only suggests 'he is taking up the challenge of Modernism', but states that only Modernism alone 'can unravel new and unsettling truths about our world'. It's a bold claim, but Self has never lacked ambition.” Yet he believes that Self does “something different than the Modernist writer: not so much following Ezra Pound's instruction to 'make it new', but instead making the old new.” “The style may be new (for Self, at least), but the content remains familiar: a Swiftian disgust with the body; a fastidious querulousness about human sexuality; a forcing of attention on human frailty.” Self’s trademark luxuriating in language is also present: “here he has great fun snuffling out forgotten words, which increases the verisimilitude of his period writing and gives the prose a dense texture absent from much historical fiction.” Thorne echoes Lawson when he admits that, though this abets Umbrella’s nature as “a somewhat remorseless read”, “its challenges seem, for the most part, worthwhile.”

Yet it’s unsurprising that Self's experimental style repels some reviewers. Metro’s Anthony Cummins assaults it alliteratively as “a bamboozling breezeblock of a book” with “little by way of an anchor for those who feel adrift in what isn’t so much a stream of consciousness as a tidal wave.” He concedes that if you “stick with it . . . the novel’s politics begin to bite in a surprisingly moving story of common people crushed by the state,” yet he fears that “if Umbrella bags the Booker, it may be a novel more bought than read.”

(To read the New Statesman's take on Umbrella, pick up the next issue, out on Thursday.)

Similarly, the inventive, yet sometimes intractable, prose of Nicholson Baker’s The Way the World Works seems to both beguile reviewers and make them despair, sometimes all at once. “There is a lulling quality to Nicholson Baker’s writing,” George Pendle writes in the Financial Times, “a tweedy sincerity and good humour that makes it easy to forget what a fundamentally radical author he is.” “Simply sitting down in a chair is for Baker what casting off from shore was for Melville . . . This is a world of tiny sensation enlarged into giant stepping stones of experience.” Little wonder then that the “intensity of detail can seem almost hallucinogenic” or “induce vertigo in his descriptions of the fathomless depths that our most mundane surrounds hold within them.” “His obsessive curiosity is “a way of ordering and indeed paring down the wildness of the world. But if anything, this curiosity takes us to places that are much wilder and more disorientating.”

The New York Times’s reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, is left with a less favourable after taste. She calls it a “hodge-podgy collection”, though titled The Way the World Works, she argues "it’s anything but a wide-angled take on the human condition". It is, rather, "just another random anthology”, the component pieces of which “vary greatly in quality. Some showcase his eye for detail and his ability to nail down those details in velvety, Updikean prose. Some read like parodies of self-absorption” and even the “more substantive essays also fluctuate wildly in their persuasiveness.” However, Kakutani does soften these criticisms by acknowledging that Baker is “adept at coming up with evocative analogies” and is a “remarkably observant witness” in the essays on technology.

David L Ulin, writing in the Los Angeles Times disagrees: “[T]his is a random collection, Baker is telling us, that turns out not to be so random, in much the same way as the world it seeks to explain.” “Here we see Baker's aesthetic in a nutshell: whimsical, self-reflective, always looking at the line between imagination and reality; it's an aesthetic of connection, of possibility.” He calls it a “literary cartography: Baker mapping his own mind”, that offers an insight into “how we think, our idiosyncratic dance with both experience and memory, defines who we are.” “Yet, despite the acuity of these connections, there is something about The Way the World Works that feels a little scattershot. This is in the nature of collections, but if Baker mitigates that to an extent, some of the pieces here feel repetitious, negligible.” “Baker is not out to cover new ground. Rather, he is looking back, trying to find the common territory of his obsessions, the landscape where it all connects.” Like many modernist works, “it is not, perhaps, a volume for the uninitiated. But it is a testament to indirection.”

Author Javier Marias (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era