The morning sun of the office desk. No more shall be said. Curruthers Building, St Johns Park, New Town. March 2011.
Another day, another too books! This week, the theme is depressing, albeit for quite different reasons.
Book one is Caryl Phillips’ A Distant Shore. I’ve read a few of his books, and although he’s not the most refined of writers, one thing that Caryl Phillips can do is tell a story. This story is one of two people, both lonely and exist largely outside the mainstream of society. One is a retired teacher and the other an African refugee.
Stylistically, the book's sections jump between the perspectives of the two main characters, and the story is relayed in a non-linear, broken fashion, so the reader is often caught on the back foot in terms of the narrative. This isn’t too frustrating, although the emerging fact that one of the central characters – who increasingly narrates in the first person – is unreliable, throws in a bit of a twist.
Most novels of this kind would construct their story around the relationships between the two characters. This one is a little different, as it is largely built around the lack of a relationship between the two main characters. Much of the interest – and indeed the novel’s central theme – is around the concept of isolation, and the fact that two – ‘Soloman’ and Dorothy – are desperately isolated, yet convention and manners compel them to maintain the formality of distance between each other, despite their interest and intentions.
In Solomon, Phillips has constructed a character that has shut down much of his emotional repertoire after his experience of civil war and hardship. For very different reasons, Dorothy’s life has led her down a path of emotional disengagement, isolation and mental illness.
Part of the real craft of this book is how the most brutal aspect of the novel is actually loneliness. Despite the terrible things that he has seen, loneliness that was the thing that Solomon notices most in England:
It is strange, but nobody is looking at anybody else, and it would appear that not only are these people all strangers to one another, but they seem determined to make sure that this situation will remain unchanged.
Moreover, any one way that we might know someone is bound to be erroneous; in the sense that identities are interlaced assemblages of experiences, often traumatic, that defy a single, settled view; especially when survival often requires leaving them behind.
I think that I enjoyed – which is the wrong word entirely, but I can’t think of a better one – this novel so much because of the way that it breaks down the distinction between the ‘placed’ and the ‘displaced’. It explores (without seeming trite or forced), our sense of security and – if you’re lucky enough to have had one – about safely ‘belonging’.
Phillips seems to say, whether we know it or not, that ‘we are all adrift’. What is more, this aimlessness is not a product of ‘race’, ‘nationality’ or ‘geography’, but of the human condition itself. Please, do not read this book if you're looking for a light, upbeat little pick-me-up. However, if you’re up for an emotional wrench and a thoughtful mediation on alienation in modern society, this is the book for you!
Second on the agenda this week is Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. I’ve heard a lot over theyears about what a great novel this was, and I finally got around to reading it.
I get that is this an example of groundbreaking postmodern fiction, but I also get that a lot of groundbreaking postmodern fiction is rubbish. Consider this a good exhibit. I’m sure that at some point in the 1960s Pynchon’s style seemed defiant and exciting, but it just strikes me as dull and silly. The tale itself is interesting enough, but honestly, with such comic touch as a central character named ‘Oedipa’, drawn into the town of ‘San Narciso’ with a therapist called Dr. Hilarius, and a host of other such gems (i.e. ‘Genghis Cohen’, ‘Manny DiPresso’ and ‘Mike Fallopian’) it’s a bit hard to be anything but contemptuous.
Look, I appreciate Pynchon’s point about human beings' need for certainty, and the tendency to construct elaborate conspiracy theories to fill the vacuum in places where there is no certainty; and he did manage to draw together the story for an interesting-enough ending, but I found it cringe-inducing.
Maybe you won’t, but if you do read it, don’t blame me.