Review: “If We Were Villains” by M.L. Rio

If We Were Villains

If it isn’t glaringly obvious by now, I should tell you guys that I used to read a lot of books when I was a kid. It was mostly fairy tales, Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter, L.M. Montgomery and the Great Illustrated Classics series. That is until I reached the 3rd grade and was introduced to the literary genius of William Shakespeare. Over the years, as I moved from lapping up the Charles Lamb kiddie version to the unabridged works of the Bard of Avon himself, I realized why this man is considered one of the greatest ever.

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Debut author and a self-described “word nerd”, M.L. Rio, holder of a Master’s degree in Shakespeare Studies, uses her background to write a stunning mystery revolving around a cast of self-absorbed young actors that the Bard himself would be proud of.

The book opens with the protagonist, Oliver Marks, about to be released from prison after serving ten years for murder. The man who put him there is still not convinced that he did it. Oliver agrees to tell him the truth on one condition: that there be no repercussions for the real culprit.

Cut to ten years ago, when Oliver is a theater major in his final year at the elite Dellecher Classical Conservatory. His circle consists of his fellow thespians and housemates, all so deeply entrenched in the Shakespeare-only syllabus of their school that they often have entire conversations in quotes and poetry. Over the course of their last year, as the group performs works as varied as Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet among others, we come to know their insecurities and their motivations. The story comes to a head when an unexpected death exposes the fault lines in an ostensibly tight-knit group and the line between reality and play-acting is truly blurred.

The story is told from the perspective of Oliver Marks, but we get to know his six peers very intimately. Each one is distinctive and memorable, and I honestly can’t decide who my favorite is. I really enjoyed the friendship between the students, individually and as a whole. Each relationship in this book – whether romantic or platonic – is complex and realistic and interesting.

I found the book to be exceedingly clever. Ms Rio does a tremendous job of piecing together the events of ten years ago with the reality of the present. Despite the heavy influences of Shakespeare, the book has a distinct narrative voice. Oliver, James, Wren, Filippa, Richard, Meredith, and Alexander are fully fleshed out and vivid characters, both on and offstage. These characters speak Shakespeare like a language in its own right, with double meanings layered into every sentence. 

If We Were Villains is a love letter to Shakespeare and the theater. Ms Rio’s characters often blur with the characters they play and are affected by the plots they recreate. Shakespeare isn’t just mentioned in this book a lot, his writing is almost a character in an of itself, and it is brilliant! I will say, that Ms Rio definitely has an exhaustive knowledge of Shakespeare (obviously), and someone who isn’t very familiar with his writing may not quite understand some of the subtleties of this book.

That being said, I would recommend this book to all fans of the Bard and anyone who loved The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

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Review: “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain

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The story of The Paris Wife is familiar to anyone who knows A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of “how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy“. Feast was written some 30 years after Hemingway left Hadley for her friend Pauline Pfeiffer, who would become the second of his four wives. McLain retells Feast from Hadley’s perspective, in the tradition of novels such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, giving voice to a pivotal and yet comparatively silent woman from a classic book. The difference between the two is that the action here is largely seen through Hadley’s eyes; the domestic takes precedence and there are more emotions and exposition than Papa would permit.

Hadley Richardson is 28 when she first meets the glamorous young war hero at a party. Wholesome, a little old-fashioned, she’s resigned to a spinsterish existence, living unmarried and unemployed in the upper floor of her sister’s house. Despite the cobwebs she is, as Ernest quickly spots, “a good clear sort“, and so he marries her and whisks her from St Louis to the whirlwind of 1920s Paris, in part because it was comparatively cheap for expatriates just after the First World War. The young Hemingways were soon befriended by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear, James Joyce, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Modernism was taking flight: in February 1922 Sylvia Beach would publish Joyce’s Ulysses, and in December 1922 T.S. Eliot and Pound published The Waste Land. Hemingway absorbed it all.

Even stripped to the core, the story possesses a classically tragic arc, and it’s not hard to see its appeal to a novelist bent on re-fleshing bare bones. Ernest and Hadley – Tatie, as they call each other – begin their expat life in a flush of love. He writes, she cooks, and they drink away the evenings “until we were beautifully blurred and happy to be there together“. The first ripple of disharmony comes when Hadley decides to bring all Ernest’s manuscripts – three years of work, copies included – with her in a valise to a rendezvous in Switzerland. Of course, the case is lost, and the disaster exposes a fault line between the pair that’s only further strained when Hadley discovers she’s pregnant.

McLain atmospherically evokes the garret apartments in which they lived; the notorious trip to Lausanne during which Hadley lost all of Hemingway’s drafts; the outings to the Paris races, skiing in Austria and bullfighting in Pamplona – the trips that would inspire The Sun Also Rises. It was an era of “open” marriages, although the openness was often one-sided, as McLain pointedly shows male artists such as Pound, Ford and, eventually, Hemingway, trying (often successfully) to install their mistresses in the same home as their wives. McLain resists the facile idea that such ménages were a jolly party in the first era of free love: as Hadley gradually becomes aware that Hemingway might be unfaithful, first with Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for Brett Ashley, and later, much more seriously, with her friend Pauline, she must decide how “modern” she’s prepared to be.

Hadley is a deeply touching character, dignified even as she loses almost everything she’s loved, and making her goodness both convincing and interesting is an impressive feat. McLain captures Hemingway’s legendary charisma and his fatal tendencies toward bullying and boastfulness. She also manages to evoke his hypnotic, infectious cadences in her own prose without straying into parody: Hadley remembers “The wine and the sunshine and the warm stones under our feet. He wanted everything there was to have, and more than that.” Some might wish McLain had given Hadley a voice more distinct from the highly stylised prose of Feast – but for anyone steeped in that book its idiom is an undeniably effective way of making the story feel good and simple and true.

McLain writes with vivid, memorable touches: the pregnant Hadley, game to the last, sewing baby blankets between bullfights; Hemingway declaring that Pound can’t be “the devil”, because “I’ve met the devil . . . and he doesn’t give a damn about art“. Fitzgerald assures Hadley the first time they meet that he’ll write something new if she will “promise to admire every word extravagantly“; McLain has a similarly good ear for Zelda’s famously imagistic language, having her describe a flapper as “decorative and unfathomable and all made of silver“. The Paris Wife sings with such pitch-perfect renderings of famous voices, grounded in a tale made all the more poignant for our knowledge of how sad all the young men and women will turn out to be, how the bright young things will tarnish and disintegrate. In drafts cut from the first edition of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway explains: “This is about the first part of Paris . . . That Paris you could never put into a single book.” Maybe not – but Paula McLain has come impressively close.

Review: “A Window Opens” by Elisabeth Egan

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There was this article in The New York Times a couple of years ago about Amazon, which sparked a larger debate about work culture at tech companies, that kept flashing in my head as I read Elisabeth Egan’s A Window Opens. Although the debut novelist sends her protagonist to work at a company called Scroll, the similarities between the two retail giants are fairly obvious. Both start off selling books and quickly expand to include anything a customer might want. Both make use of computer-generated data for a laser-like focus on commercial success. And both, apparently–if the Times report is to be believed–expect nothing less than complete, servile allegiance from their employees.

As A Window Opens begins, Alice is a part-time books columnist and a full-time mother of three. A New Jersey suburbanite, she enjoys spending time with her best friend, who owns an independent bookstore, her lawyer husband, and their extended family. The only disruption in her merry life is her father’s cancer, which has robbed him of his voice but appears to be in remission. All that changes when her husband’s career goes off the rails, and Alice is forced to seek a full-time job.

At first, the position at Scroll sounds ideal. Although Alice doesn’t understand much of the jargon of her new workplace, she is thrilled to be “Content Manager-slash-Industry Liaison,” or, as she is told by her chummy supervisor Genevieve, “an arbiter of impeccable taste,” collecting titles to sell in upscale Scroll “lounges.” She learns to call printed books “carbon based” and to mouth tenets like “we don’t sell merchandise, we sell the future.”

Although the job quickly becomes more than full-time and Alice misses “the kindergarten ice cream social, the first day of school, a PTA meeting,” she is content. Only just as Alice is almost accustomed to both the new grind and the loss of family time, her father’s health takes a turn for the worse. And then her bosses begin to ask for more, pushing Alice into a new position that targets her sensitivities both as a longtime bibliophile and as a mother.

That’s where Ms Egan, currently the books editor at Glamour magazine after a brief stint at Amazon Publishing, falters. Although the “pivot,” to use a Scroll word, isn’t that far-fetched, it is one step too far. It’s all a little too perfectly horrid, just as Genevieve is a little too duplicitous, bonding with Alice over House Hunters before firing off denigrating emails to Alice’s work account.

Likewise, her colleagues–all younger and apparently childless–are a little too clueless. Not one seems to have any understanding of how cancer affects a family, as if illness were only confined to the over-35 crowd, and when, on a visit to corporate headquarters, Alice overhears the line “What can I say? She’s a mom,” she recognizes it as an insult.

 With its sharp, perceptive humour, this novel plays like The Devil Wears Prada for the online giant, poking fun at the kind of ridiculous situations that anyone who has worked with a start-up will recognize. But A Window Opens lacks The Devil Wears Prada‘s moment of realization–that is, any revelation about the awful boss’s humanity. While we do get to see the toll of the stress on Genevieve–“her nails were dull, bitten to the quick. There was a greenish cast to her skin“–we never learn what motivated her. Without more understanding of how she became the “befriend then berate” leader who so disappointed Alice, Genevieve remains one-dimensional, as do too many of the supporting characters in this book.

Ms Egan obviously tapped into the zeitgeist with her debut, capturing not only the craziness of an Amazon-like company but also the debate over the “Lean In” philosophy that would have women, even mothers of three, commit to their jobs at any cost. She does so with wit, weaving the family stories into the workplace saga. But at almost-400 pages, A Window Opens is a little too long for what is simply a humourous, topical novel. The Scroll jargon must have been great fun to write, but replacing some of that with more fully realized characters would have made this book better.

Review: “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” (Harry Potter #8) by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

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What should you, the Muggle book-buyer, make of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? To begin with, if you were expecting the eighth Harry Potter novel, you might be surprised to hold instead the script of the two-part play now running on London’s West End. You might then be alarmed to notice that Cursed Child‘s author is not, in fact, J.K. Rowling, but the playwright Jack Thorne, working on a story by Thorne, the director John Tiffany, and Rowling.

Such is the pent-up affection for these characters, though, that I imagine most adult fans will grit their teeth and read their first stage directions since high school. (Could some enterprising business reporter figure out if, upon the instant of its release, Cursed Child became the best-selling playscript in publishing history? Maybe it still trails, like, Hamlet.)  As happy as I am to see people digging into a play, I’m not sure that this is the one to reintroduce readers to the wonders of the published script. As a delivery device for extremely informed Potter fan fiction, it’s adequate. As a reading experience, it’s terribly undramatic. If Cursed Child is, as I suspect, the first play an entire generation of children will read, theater might be in for a rough couple of decades.

I’ll do my best not to spoil the book’s plot in this post. But it’s not a spoiler to say that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child begins precisely where the seventh novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, left off—two decades after the primary action of the series. Harry and Ginny are on platform 9¾, bidding their son Albus goodbye as he heads off for his first year at Hogwarts. Harry’s scar has not hurt him for years. At that moment, Rowling told us then, “All was well.”

Many readers rolled their eyes at that pat ending, and Cursed Child reveals that needless to say, all is not well—and though Harry does feel that scar prickle again, the real conflict is between Harry and his troubled son. Rowling and her collaborators have made the surprising and interesting choice to explore not only the future of the wizarding world, but also the ramifications of Harry Potter turning into an awkward and flawed middle-age dad. Once the golden boy of Hogwarts, now Harry is a parent struggling to understand a very different kind of son—a Slytherin, to start with.

But, powerful as Harry’s and Albus’ filial battles are, that’s about the only fresh twist in a book whose plot feels disappointingly beholden to familiar events, twists, and villains. Through dreams, flashbacks, and other machinations, we spend much of Cursed Child revisiting the past, re-encountering characters both beloved (Snape!) and shrugworthy (Ludo Bagman?!). Albus and his best friend, Scorpius Malfoy, are fourth-years at Hogwarts for most of the play’s action, but they—and the story—are mostly concerned with the events of Harry’s fourth year as chronicled in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The book’s plot, meanwhile, is a mix of Prisoner of Azkaban and Back to the Future II.

That’s not to say the book doesn’t have momentum; Rowling is as good as ever at setting a plot ticking, and the fact that Cursed Child is a play means most readers can knock it out in a couple of hours. But reading a Harry Potter story in script form turns out to be a disappointing experience, one that helps clarify what was so pleasurable about Rowling’s novels. Gone, yes, are the limitless adverbs, the filler sentences of people going up stairs or packing away their books or telling the Fat Lady the new password to the Gryffindor common room. But gone, too, are Rowling’s inventive descriptive passages, the ones that gave the wizarding world magical life, the ones that fueled the imagination. Here, Thorne’s stage directions are resolutely unspecific, hinting at moments that are surely astonishing onstage (the West End production is, by all accounts, a dazzling achievement) but are fuzzy and uninspiring on the page.“This scene is all about magic,” we read early in the book; later, as two characters face off, we’re tipped to the scene’s import with an italicized anvil: “There’s real emotion in this room.” Oh, real emotion? Terrific.

We’re left with dialogue. In Rowling’s novels, characters deliver a mix of clever repartee and thudding exposition. Here Thorne, writing dialogue meant to urge forward a complex plot in a production more dependent on technical wizardry than character development, defaults to the latter. The result is a play that fails to utilize the most elementary of playwright’s tools: subtext. Characters say exactly what they feel, explain exactly what is happening, and warn about what they’re going to do before they do it. “I got his nose, his hair, and his name,” Scorpius says about his father, Harry’s nemesis Draco Malfoy. “Not that that’s a great thing. I mean, father-son issues—I have them.” Leave aside that an 11-year-old is theoretically saying these words—no character in a play should talk like that. And it’s a shame because Scorpius and Albus, best friends and troubled sons, are well-considered creations, potentially interesting characters who lose our interest the more they talk about their feelings.

So is Cursed Child a waste? No, not for a determined Potterphile on the hunt for small, gratifying details. For example, we learn that Hermione, in the position of power devoted fans have always yearned for her to hold, also kept her name. And Rowling seems to have seized the opportunity to correct several inconsistencies or film-related alterations to the rules of her magical universe, ones that have long irritated die-hards: In Cursed Child, Polyjuice Potion definitively does change your voice, and magical duels do not consist of wizards shooting colorful bolts of light at each other. In one electrifying sequence late in the book, Rowling and her collaborators paint a chilling portrait of Hogwarts under the influence of evil and deliver an inspiring scene of familiar characters given surprising new depths battling that evil. To say more would be to spoil it, of course, but the moment makes this flawed play quite worth the time, even if, in the end, it’s less a book than an advertisement for a magical night at the theater—a night most of us Muggles won’t be able to experience for a long, long while.

P.S. I know I repeatedly said I would not be reviewing this book. So, I dedicate this post to the person who changed my mind. Don’t you dare gloat.

Review: “Eligible” by Curtis Sittenfeld

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Jane Austen hasn’t written a new book in 200 years, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying to resurrect, recast and reimagine her old ones. Pride and Prejudice, in particular, has enjoyed a full and occasionally wacko afterlife. It’s been a Bollywood extravaganza (Bride & Pre­judice), an undead-themed novelty novel (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), a frothy homage (Bridget Jones’s Diary) and, best of all, a BBC mini-series that established the universal truth that a billowy poet’s blouse is one hot garment on a man, if the blouse is wet and the man is Colin Firth.

Now comes Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, which moves the story to that roiling hotbed of societal intrigue, the Cincinnati suburbs, with a scene that will feel charmingly familiar to anyone who knows Pride and Prejudice. There’s Mrs Bennet calculating the availability of Mr Bingley, who has recently arrived in town looking for a wife. There’s Mr Bennet barely suppressing his irritation. And Lizzy is still the bright second daughter — although now almost twice as old as her Austen original — wittily observing all these personalities while navigating the cross-currents of her own heart.

But in this reiteration, Chip Bingley isn’t just a handsome gentleman; he’s a handsome doctor, and a former contestant on the reality TV dating show Eligible. His proud friend Mr Darcy is a brain surgeon. Such updates continue down the cast of characters, from Lizzy, now a magazine writer, to Jasper Wick, just as dangerous as Mr Wickham, but with a new and more odious secret past.

The essential elements of Austen’s plot have been neatly rehabbed, too. Mr Bennet, you’ll recall, had no sons to inherit his estate, which threatens his family with the eventual loss of their home. Sittenfeld’s Mr Bennet faces crushing medical bills, which will just as surely leave his family homeless. Other translations to our modern times are as creative: Artificial insemination and sex reassignment surgery add complications inconceivable to a society once determined by primogeniture laws.

As a long game of literary Mad Libs, Eligible is undeniably delightful. Aeroplanes for horses! Texts for letters! Tedious Cousin William is now a tedious Web programmer. And Darcy’s notorious marriage proposal sounds hilariously rude in the sterile language of his medical mind: “It’s probably an illusion caused by the release of oxytocin during sex,” he tells Lizzy, “but I feel as if I’m in love with you.” Who could resist that?

Sittenfeld’s cleverest move may be working a reality-TV dating show into her story. What might seem like a bit of pandering to pop taste is really a feat of metafictional satire. After all, just as the Austen Project recasts Regency romance in the 21st century so “The Bachelor” recasts modern dating in terms of Regency courtship. In either direction, the mashup is just as awkward and hypnotically bizarre.

Unfortunately, though, Sittenfeld pulls back far too soon, and her novel grows sentimental when it should develop real bite. No matter how up-to-date Eligible might be, anachronisms lie around the story like lace doilies at McDonald’s. The Bennet sisters are thoroughly liberated women weirdly corseted by old-fashioned attitudes about marriage. And Sittenfeld’s dialogue, usually so contemporary, can suddenly grow arthritic with costume-drama formality, as when Mr Bingley says to Mrs Bennet, “I wouldn’t want to offend your sense of propriety.” That, madam, offends my sense of reality.

It helps tremendously that Eligible moves along so breezily, but changing the scenery and the props aren’t sufficient to modernise Pride and Prejudice, even if such a thing could (or should) be done. We crave a witty vision of our culture commensurate with Austen’s of hers. Too often Eligible delivers humour that’s merely glib or crude. In the middle of the novel, Liz interviews a Gloria Steinem-esque character, and their encounter promises a sharper feminist perspective, but once again the scene never delivers the social insight that could push this story beyond merely a diverting lark. And watching Liz straddle Darcy in bed for a rousing session of what they call “hate sex” won’t get us there either.

Modern-day Mrs Bennet is a snob, a homophobe, a racist and an anti-Semite, but she’s got the right idea when she says, “I’ve always far preferred a good book.”

We already have that book. We’ve had it for 200 years. And it’s worth rereading.

Review: ‘A Burnable Book’ by Bruce Holsinger

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London, 1385.

A book and a cloth prophesy regicide.

Two aspiring poets hide their dark secrets.

Two ambitious men plot revenge.

Two fallen women aspire for a better life.

In his debut novel, medieval scholar Bruce Holsinger creates an intricate plot set in 14th century England during the reign of Richard II, a king I knew existed only because Shakespeare had written a play about him. The story opens with Agnes, a maudlyn (prostitute) receiving a book from a girl she had just met outside the city walls. Minutes later, the girl is brutally murdered, leaving Agnes wondering what is so special about this book that someone was prepared to kill for it.

Our hero, John Gower, a prudish middle-aged poet and ‘trader in information’ (such a nice term for blackmailer), hears about this book from his close friend Geoffrey Chaucer, who asks John to find it for him but refuses to explain why. As John starts searching for the book, he finds out that he is not the only one looking for it and the prophecy in the book could implicate some of England’s most important noblemen in a plot to kill the king.

As the story moves from London to Southwark to Oxford to Florence and back, the history of this ‘burnable’ book is slowly unraveled. It crosses a continent and a sea with a young woman who is both warrior and lady; is passed into the hands of a lowly maudlyn; stolen by a transgender prostitute; sold to a high-ranking lawyer; and passed off to an earl. In the meantime, John Gower is using up the last of his favour among friends. His estranged son turns up out of nowhere and appears to be connected to the whole mystery. Gower’s search takes him from the palaces of the nobility to the seedy back alleys teeming with prostitutes and butchers. Seemingly insignificant details reveal themselves as key clues to finding the answers John Gower seeks: What are the origins of this book? Where is it? And why does Chaucer want this treasonous work for himself? In A Burnable Book, nothing is as it seems–not friendships, not family relationships, not political alliances.

Holsinger presents a distant and disdainful John of Gaunt, a cold and calculating Katherine Swynford and a narcissistic Chaucer. John Gower himself is full of grief and deep regrets, like a grizzled detective doing a job he’s too good at but tired of. There is a huge roll of characters, with an index provided at the beginning of the book (GoT style). But my favourites were Edgar/Eleanor Rykener, “a man in body, but in soul a man and woman both“, based on an actual transgender prostitute from those times, and all his/her friends from Gropecunt Lane (yes, that’s where the hookers lived).

Holsinger’s London is gritty, dirty, violent, and hostile. Descriptions are vivid, not always palatable, but utterly convincing. It was a time when activities matched their street names, and Holsinger spares us no blushes. This is tremendous writing.  Most of these observations are delivered in the third person, as we are taken around with the cast of characters, whereas the protagonist, Gower, is delivered to us in the first person.  I am a fan of the first person narrative, but in A Burnable Book it jarred for me, as the narrative switched viewpoints between scenes in the book.

A Burnable Book is hugely plotted. There are a lot of twists and turns, and sub-plots seem to cascade throughout the story. It shows 14th-century England as a society deeply rooted in a class based hierarchy in which moving above one’s station requires luck, connections, and money. I had fun with this book, and was sad when the adventure ended. If you’re up for reading an intriguing and gritty historical thriller, read A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger.

Review: “10:04” by Ben Lerner

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Ben Lerner’s critically acclaimed new novel, 10:04, opens with the narrator walking along High Line Park in Manhattan with his literary agent after having shared a meal of baby octopus “massaged to death” in salt, and he experiences a “succession of images, sensations and memories” which don’t belong to him, but to the octopus: polarized light, a “conflation of taste and touch as salt was rubbed into the suction cups“. After this extremely empathic occurrence, the narrator clarifies: “I am kidding and I am not kidding.”

In retrospect, this line was like a warning shot. 10:04 is a novel which lies in the gray area between kidding and not kidding in the sense that it is not strictly a work of fiction or non-fiction, but a metafiction which is fixated with the mysterious transformation which makes life into art. Doubtless, it is a brilliant novel, but after I finished the book I couldn’t help thinking if I was the victim of a joke of some sort. So I ended up reading Lerner’s other book too and a whole lot of his essays.

Ben Lerner himself is a poet who grew up in Kansas, attended Brown University and travelled to Madrid on a Fulbright scholarship. His debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), is about a poet called Adam Gordon, who grew up in Kansas, attended Brown and is living in Madrid on a fellowship. Variety. I like it. Here, Gordon is supposed to be working on a research-intensive poem on the Spanish Civil War but instead, he roams around, visits museums and gets high. Gordon worries that he is a fraud–and maybe he is.  He makes things up to manipulate those around him and is somewhat in awe of seemingly authentic people who appear capable of unstudied and genuine feelings. Theme-wise, Leaving the Atocha Station is adolescent and Gordon reminded me a bit of Holden Caufield. (Refuse to explain. Read Catcher In The Rye) However, the way Lerner probed into Adam’s awkwardness, plus his complicated sentences, makes the story so much more than the Y.A.-fiction it might be mistaken for.

My point is that while Gordon bears a ‘passing’ resemblance to Lerner, you can still make out that he is a fictional character. The narrator of 10:04, Ben, totally seems like a stand-in for the author, partly because, unlike Gordon, who busies himself not writing, Ben does write: he writes 10:04.

Ben is a poet from (guess where?) Kansas who published a successful first novel and receives a six-figure advance for a second novel on the strength of a story that he wrote for The New Yorker. He promises his agent that he will work on expanding thew story during an artist’s residency in Marfa, Texas. While in Marfa, he decides “to replace the book I’d proposed with the book you’re reading now, a work that…is neither fiction nor non-fiction, but a flickering between them.” This ‘flickering’ makes the novel feel structurally unstable, as Lerner jumps from one literary level to another.

"Escher's Relativity". Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Escher%27s_Relativity.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Escher%27s_Relativity.jpg

“Escher’s Relativity”. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

I divided the story into 3 levels. On Level 1, Ben has been diagnosed with a heart condition and consider’s impregnating his platonic best friend, Alex,”not in copula because fucking you would be bizarre but rather through intrauterine insemination“. In one of the funniest scenes in the novel, Ben compulsively rewashes his hands, scared of containing the sample, before masturbating into a plastic container. Meanwhile, his ailing mentor, Bernard, has named him his literary executor. In the midst of all this, Ben decides to write a story involving “a series of transpositions“. He’ll shift his medical problem to another part of his body and call Alex ‘Liza’. Instead of becoming a literary executor, he’ll be approached by a library about selling his papers. He’ll call himself “the author“.

Level 2 is the story, which was actually published by Lerner in The New Yorker and appears as the second chapter in 10:04. Level 3 is the novel that Ben from Level 1, after publishing the story in The New Yorker, begins writing but ultimately abandons: A novel in which an author–the one from Level 2–“tries to falsify his archive, tries to fabricate all these letters–mainly e-mails–from recently dead authors that he can sell to a fancy library.”

To complicate things further, Lerner scrambles the chronology. Ben describes his advance on the second page of the novel and then goes back in time to explain how he came to write the New Yorker story. He writes it, publishes it, again describes his advance and his celebratory octopus-consuming dinner with his agent, flies to Marfa, decides to write 10:04, and returns home to New York. This circularity doesn’t make the novel difficult to follow–though it is quite difficult to describe.

Even when the narrative moves in a linear fashion it does not feel linear since Lerner repeats himself–purposefully, of course. Toward the beginning of the novel, Ben and Alex prepare for Hurricane Irene. Toward the end they experience Hurricane Sandy, an echoing event. The Michael J. Fox movie, Back to the Future, is mentioned several times throughout the novel. In fact, 10:04 is the time when lightning strikes a clock tower, powering the car that takes Fox’s time-travelling character back to “the future”, his present: 1985.

BACK_TO_THE_FUTURE-5

Lerner doesn’t leave it to the readers to make the connections between his fictional and temporal experiments. In Marfa, Ben announces that he’ll write “the book you’re reading now,” he elaborates, ‘I resolved not to dilate my story not into a novel about literary fraudulence, about fabricating the past, but into an actual present alive with multiple futures.” It is very difficult to summarise what Lerner is trying to do. In my opinion, he means that the process of turning life into fiction is like going back in time. While writing fiction, the author feels, like Fox’s character in Back to the Future, that he could make different choices, making a subtly different present.

It is also not strictly accurate to say that “Lerner is driving at” something. Maybe Ben in the story is saying something and Ben Lerner, the author of the book, would argue something completely different, though it’s completely understandable if you conflate the two, and not just because the two share basic life-stories. Ben Lerner’s work in The New Yorker and other journals and magazines have been attributed to Ben, the protagonist in the novel.  It is looking at these insertions that made me think if the novel was a joke. That, like his protagonist, Lerner felt compelled for several reasons to write a second novel and decided to do this by joining already-published work with already expressed ideas, figuring he could justify this process by making it a part of the story. This is an old literary trick: masking laziness with ‘knowingness’.

The Marfa section, in which Ben describes his dull daily life there–eating, sleeping, writing–aggravates the feeling that Lerner does not have that much respect for his readers; that he’s a poet who condescends to write novels, and thinks too highly of his ability to convert whatever he happens to think or experience into narrative. For instance, he describes young Mexican men labouring on his roof and then he describes turning them into characters in his poem. And yes, in case you’re wondering, Lerner was indeed a writer-in-residence at Marfa.

That Lerner sometimes lets the reader in on his meta-fictional jokes does not lessen the feeling that he is trying to get away with something. At the celebratory dinner, Ben’s agent offers him advice on how to write a commercially viable book which will be his “opportunity to reach a much wider audience“. However, Ben does none of that and I think Lerner certainly expects readers to notice this omission as a wink and maybe, in noticing, to excuse any other flaws as intentional elements of a novel meant for a select, rather than “wide”, audience.

If these criticisms sound like whatever the opposite of a backhanded compliment is, then my goal here has been achieved. Lerner has written a rich, sophisticated novel, and maybe he’s not wrong to assume that he can write just about anything on the page and succeed, or that maybe the readers will forgive his repackaging of his own poetry, stories and ideas–especially since it works. However, I don’t believe it will gain him many new fans.

This is not a book that I would recommend to readers in general. But if you have read Leaving the Atocha Station and liked it, you will find 10:04 to be a quite satisfying second effort.

The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry BY Gabrielle Zevin

Do you haunt bookstores? Find yourself looking for one of those quirky, small independent shops even on vacation? Have you ever fantasized about owning such a place, shelves stacked with books of all sorts, located in a quaint little town? Yes? (Guys, call me. Girls, please click follow :p) Well then, this is just the book for you.

OR, if you can afford it, THIS.

The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry is the story of a middle-aged man who owns a failing bookstore on Alice Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. Depressed for the past two years, following the death of his wife, Fikry is lonesome, angry and a total literary snob. He doesn’t stock just any old book in Island books where “No Man Is An Island; Every Book Is A World”. Only those titles that satisfy his old-fashioned beliefs are allowed in:

“I do not like postmodernism, post-apocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be–basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful–nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mash-ups a la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary. and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and–I imagine this goes without saying–vampires. I rarely stock debuts, chick lit, poetry translations. I would prefer not to stock series, but the demands of my pocketbook require me to. For your part, you needn’t tell me about the ‘next big series’ until it is ensconced on the New York Times Best Sellers List.

Wow. Talk about being high maintenance.

Not surprisingly, he doesn’t get a lot of customers and has a few friends, and in the space of the first few chapters, his most valuable possession, a first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane, is stolen. Into the slough of despond he tumbles, until something–or someone–unexpectedly shows up in the sparsely stocked children’s section. A little bundle of joy and redemption changes his life forever. He quickly figures out that books and reading can bind lives as surely as any shared love.

The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry zips by, paced by a few unexpected turns and complications, and any potholes in the plot are quickly smoothed over. Everything is explained, and all the loose ends are tied up with a bow. A few genuinely grim moments (People die frequently and suddenly in this story) are leavened by the animating spirit behind the whole, a light tone marked by earnestness, a straight forward approach to love and joy, and a felicitous charm.

What distinguishes this romance is its setting. Zevin puts her insider knowledge of the bookselling business to paint a colourful picture of overly optimistic sales reps, the neighbourhood book clubs and the desperate spirit of the bricks-and-mortar store filled with bound books in the digital age. There is also a very funny set piece with an out-of-town author on hand for a reading who gets rip-roaring drunk, and there’s a poignant story about the fate of good but overlooked writing.

Despite Fikry’s disdain for gimmicks, at the beginning of each chapter are what appear to be shelf-talkers: brief notes recommending a classic short story or collection of short stories. But these are more than just anonymous notes to passing customers. They’re small expressions of a parent’s love, passing along a passion for writing and reading and good stories.

More than anything else, though, The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry is about books. Not only about the selling of them, or the reading of them, but how books and stories become part of our lives, how we find ourselves within what we read, how we carry books with us–literally or figuratively–as talismans, as reminders. It is a powerful novel about the power of novels, but there is nothing outsize or meta-textual about it, no cloying literary in-jokes or philosophical digressions: The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry is a book for people who love books, who recognize a story well-told for what it is, and for the power it contains.