Notes from Home by Glenn Bertram
Friday, 9 October 2020
As a writer, I’m fascinated by the idea of home as a physical and conceptual space. I don’t labor under the impression that I, or my characters, fully comprehend that space; there’s a lot to parse, and true understanding is sometimes too much for a story to bear. To the contrary, I find that some of my best work tends to interrogate the gaps between the reality of that space—if it exists—and a character’s perception of it. The gaps, large and small, are often gray, and gray is the best color in fiction.
Lately, home has become a bit too familiar. As you might expect, the pandemic has confined me to my apartment. This pandemic—our lovely pandemic—has left my space pretty limited. I don’t get out much, aside from my daily dog walks and my weekly walks to workshop. I’m approaching the point at which a trip from the bedroom to the kitchen feels unbelievably exotic. Though I know this is a common experience, I find little comfort in the thought. What does a common experience even mean when physical separation is so necessary, so pervasive? It’s hard to wrap your arms around the idea of community when you haven’t hugged a friend in half a year.
With the walls closing in, I’ve found books to be a welcome distraction. As far as I can tell, there hasn’t been a unifying theme to my reading. I’ve been moved by all varieties of books, with little regard for genre. I can, however, find a unifying theme to the books I’ve valued the most: invention. While the list of books below doesn’t encapsulate all of my quarantine reading, it does represent an accounting of the most inventive books I’ve read over the past seven months. These books all offer unique takes on form and function. I suspect they’ll help occupy your time.
The Revisionaries by A.R. Moxon
I picked this one up at the beginning of quarantine, before the reality of COVID-19 had set in. How do I even begin to explain this book? It’ll barely sit still long enough for a proper portrait. How’s this: A mental hospital sets all of its patients loose at once, and a priest has to somehow make sense of the situation. No, no—that won’t do. Maybe: There’s an ancient evil in Pigeon Forge, and it’s running a circus. No, that doesn’t work either. Do you see where I’m going? This is a novel that’s constantly revising itself, as the title might suggest. It’s an object that provokes and is defined by struggle. Multiple characters fight for control of the narrative, and they wage their battles in multiple levels of reality. It’s a puzzle.
An inferior author might limit himself to these experiments in form, but Moxon isn’t content to leave aside content. The novel makes space to comment on an array of subjects, including (but not limited to) the carceral state, masculinity, literary theory, historiography, religion, and revelation. Oh, and the characters might just be cats, at least in one formulation. There’s a lot to take in, and that’s before you even get into the various disappearing typefaces and the little comic that pops up on page 415. The whole project shouldn’t succeed; it should collapse under its own weight. Somehow, though, it works. It’s a dizzying feat of staggering ambition, a celebration of the novel’s potential. Give it a read, and make sure you grab a friend with enough energy to discuss it.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith
Ali Smith is one of those writers who knows how to talk about writing. That’s a rarer gift than you might expect. If, like me, you’re inclined to spend two hours watching an eight-year-old YouTube video, here’s an excellent example of her skill from the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference. She speaks about language as fighting thing, a vital thing. To Smith, where a novel is concerned, language leads, and the rest follows suit.
How to Be Both is evidence of this ethic. It is both an experiment in playfulness and a meditation on intersection. The novel is split into two separate sections. One section is told in first-person, from the perspective of a gender-blurring Renaissance painter, Francescho del Cossa. With some metaphysical maneuvering, Smith places Francescho in contemporary Cambridge, England. There, the artist is able to reflect on his/her life, and observe the everyday wanderings of George, the teenage protagonist of the novel’s other section. George, whose tale is told in the close third-person, is reckoning with the fallout from the death of her mother, an subversive art historian and a prominent left-leaning economist. Francescho’s art serves as the stories’ meeting point.
How a reader might approach that intersection will depend on which version of the book that reader picks up; some versions begin with George’s section, whereas others begin with the tale of Francescho. Much like the lives of Francescho and George, the reader’s experience is a product of both chance and choice. And like The Revisionaries, How to Be Both offers style and substance in abundance. It’s a playful, slippery read, but it’s not all sleight of hand. There’s a beating heart at the center of the novel, as well as a fundamental appreciation of art. Smith wrestles with identity and ambiguity without ever losing sight of her narrative. Whenever the narrative hints at getting out of hand, she reels it back in with verve and cunning. The novel is a real accomplishment.
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
I’ve been on a Murakami kick this year. There’s something nice about being able to escape into one of his worlds. Perhaps I’m attracted to the recycled elements of his work. I admit that there’s a comforting familiarity to his output, with its persistent dream logic and its barrage of cats (Are cats becoming a theme for me? I’ve mentioned them twice now). Over the past few months, I’ve plowed through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood, The Elephant Vanishes, and the novel in question. If there’s a point of no return for Murakami, I’m long past it.
Despite all of my babbling about Murakami and his favorite tropes, Kafka on the Shore stands on its own merits, outside of any artificially imposed expectations. Like How to Be Both, Kafka comprises two intertwined narratives: that of Kafka Tamura, a fifteen-year-old boy, and that of Nakata, an old man with a talent for conversing with cats. The story is told in alternating chapters; the odd-numbered chapters detail Kafka’s struggle with an Oedipal curse, and the even-numbered chapters cover Nakata’s long, winding road away from home. As the narrative progresses, both characters are drawn into an increasingly strange world, in which abstract concepts appear as Colonel Sanders and mysterious dandies traipse around Tokyo killing cats. Murakami creates a surreal space where various genres and subgenres can live in harmony, including fabulism, noir, surrealism, and bildungsroman. There is an overarching sense of balance in the work, even as it darts in a thousand different directions. That’s a difficult trick to pull off, but Murakami makes it look easy. And he doesn’t sacrifice depth for trickery, either. Kafka is a moving meditation on memory, loss, and maturation. I’d recommend it to anyone.
The Dog of the South by Charles Portis
This one is a surprise, isn’t it? I suppose you were expecting more fabulism, or perhaps some more postmodern experimentation. Instead, I’m here to preach the gospel of The Dog of the South, Charles Portis’ comic road novel. Portis is a cult favorite, a beloved son of Arkansas, and this book is his masterpiece. It tells the story of Ray Midge, an overeducated wannabe teacher who’s obsessed with Civil War history. Ray’s life is thrown into disarray when his wife Norma takes off with his car, his credit cards, a shotgun, and Bud Dupree—a ne’er-do-well on the run from the law and an obnoxious bail bondsman. With the help of a trail of recovered receipts, Ray sets off to recover his wife, as well as his possessions.
Ray takes a circuitous route to his destination: he loops through Texas, down the length of Mexico, and into Belize, where Bud and Norma supposedly await him. Along the way, he comes into near-constant contact with the absurd. It’s entertaining to watch Portis play Ray, a dull everyman, against a cast of characters who have strained relationships with reality. Perhaps the best example of this dynamic can be found in Ray’s interactions with Dr. Reo Symes, a garrulous grifter. Ray’s failure to connect with Reo is amusing and inevitable—Ray will never sympathize with Reo’s schemes, and Reo will never see Ray as an equal with his own interior world. In another author’s hands, this inability to communicate might lean maudlin, but Portis employs it to great comic effect. That’s where Portis’ genius lies—in his ability to turn potential tragedy into revelatory comedy. In a tumultuous time, that kind of talent feels essential.
Glenn Bertram is an an MFA candidate in Fiction at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.