Lucy – 4/5 Stars
I’ve read a handful of Jamaica Kincaid books, and her nonfiction book A Small Place stands out as a kind of collective memoir, nonfiction history from the perspective of someone who grew up in Antigua. This book acts similarly (as well as a similarly to her short stories in At the Bottom of the River) as a way of fleshing out the sparse lived experiences embedded in the more transitory pieces. What this novel most feels like to me is a first person narrative that embodies a lot of the same events, implications, moments, relationships, and understandings contained in her short story “Girl”. So this novel is relatively short, but moves the story into the mind (as opposed to the receiving memory of consciousness in the story). We meet Lucy, a girl in her teens initially in a small community, presumably on Antigua. I don’t think she names her country, but does reference the name as a kind of throwaway nominative given by a passing exploring (Columbus) who owed various benefactors, saints, and whims as he passed the various islands that already had names. There’s a kind of resentment in this moment, but there’s also a kind of resigned indifference, as to emphasize or illustrate how little impact something like that name has on her experience. The bulk of the novel though are the various interactions, desires, relationships, friendships, events, conquests, conflicts, and other small moments we find in a life narrated by the person at the center of the consciousness exploring them.
So Much Longing in So Little Space – 4/5
This is ostensibly a critical analysis of the work of Edvard Munch by Karl Ove Knausgard. I say ostensibly because through various digressions, we also end up looking at discussions of Norway in general, art in Norway, literature in Norway, art, and various other related topics. What the questions seem to be as we look at Munch’s work: is he a serious artist? Is he a good artist? What is his art beyond “The Scream”, which is both his most famous and infamous piece.
So we get a history of the art of Munch, beginning with his connections to late 19th century Norway. We see his ties to Knut Hamsun, who is his contemporary both in age and place, both working on their early masterpieces in the 1890s. And like Hamsun, we find Munch being contrasted with more reified and established geniuses like Monet and Van Gogh.
What we find at the center of this project is Karl Ove Knausgard, temporary art student as a youth, trying to find out if he is capable of selecting Munch paintings for a retrospective using his role as literary giant in the country and amateur art critic, and he finds out that maybe he’s not entirely the best choice. But Karl Ove Knausgard is like Munch, where is artistic talent is inextricably tied to his national identity both inside and outside that identity. For Norwegians it might be asked: in the history of Norwegian writing (or painting for Munch) how does he rank? But for outsiders the question is more like: is he good? Or is he good, for a Norwegian?
Bluets – 3/5 Stars
Maggie Nelson was about my current age when she wrote this book, a thing that’s not especially important, but comes into play when I think through the sexuality and sensuality of this book in comparison to my own thoughts and feelings on those issues. I generally have a weird response — when it’s treated with irony, depravity, or “hotness” it works for me, and when it’s taken as ecstatic, serious, or transformative, it feels silly. So those parts of this book, as they do in some of her other writing don’t exactly work for me. I am also not convinced of her dismissal of William Gass’s book on blueness either, as it feels like because he got here first, he had to be dispatched to move on.
Regardless, I do find the book to be thoughtful and more serious than I was expecting, given the topic. I also think the connection to the title (it’s apparently a flower, and a flower she also didn’t know the name of when she started) works better knowing it’s an already existing word.
So the book feels like it was written on notecards whenever a stray or researched note on blueness (interpreted in multiple different ways throughout) could be recorded and ordered for publication. It’s a step beyond found poetry in this way, and almost reads like an annotated bibliography. Unlike The Argonauts, which uses critical theory in what I find to be kind of disastrous ways, this book is mostly referencing primary artistic sources and aesthetic sources, and is successful as a consequence.
McGlue – 2/5
This book is pretty unpleasant, and given that all Ottessa Mosfegh books are kind of unpleasant, this one stands out. Partly is the very very very constant use of the “F**” word, which has its place in the narrative but is jarring every time. We meet McGlue awakening from a drunken stupor, unsure of his whereabouts, knife in hand, and somewhat concerned that he has killed a man. That’s the basic premise and it stays central to the book as we jump around in time and place (around the world’s oceans and ports) but centered on Nantucket where the trial and other land events take place. So we find ourselves in Massachusetts in 1851, which you can recognize as time and date of the publication of Moby Dick, an event (that was certainly not heralded in that context) not specifically referenced in this novella, but is implied by its proximity.
So the novella then is easily comparable to those contemporary novels in terms of setting and circumstance (and given that there’s a Billy Budd-ness to this work as well). The difference here is the move to interiority of the characters. It reminds in this way of the new film The Lighthouse, where the close consciousness of the lead character closely controls the ways in which we see the actions around him. And boats and stuff too.
Eagle of the Ninth – 4/5
I think I saw this movie, and the story is really fascinating, but the novel is itself is pretty dreary and tedious. So the story here is that a Roman Legion has gone missing in Britain about 1500 or so years ago and they lost their Eagle (the company insignia that marks the connection and identity of the legion). Now a decade or so later, the son of the commander, now a commander, sets out to find out what happened. So in part the novel is a military history, in part a mystery, and in part a “behind enemy lines” kind of story as we find out what has happened to the legion.
And while I realize that what motivates these characters in terms of their duty, identity, and other factors….maybe it’s just me getting older but unironic and unquestioned looks at the motivations of nationalism and militarism just no longer interest me as a person. Whatever ways in which I would have been interested in those died in the early 2000s, and while character motivations are key to understanding any work, I just didn’t find myself caring a lot here.
So the other thing that strikes me here is this weird thing about older children’s fiction….it’s like they don’t know what kinds of language kids could read. I don’t know — there’s talk now about how “kids used to be tougher” and had to read more complicated works — but that’s almost always by exceptionally smart writers, who of course would have had no trouble reading those more complicated texts.