Lost Empress is a long, sprawling novel that defies any conventional sense of structure. It's a novel of ideas, some of which intersect and some of which overlap, but for the most part it reads like several separate narrative strands and holding the many characters in your head can be a challenge.
The most memorable strands are Nina and Nuno.
Nina is the daughter of the recently deceased owner of the Dallas Cowboys. She is surprised not to inherit the Cowboys but instead to inherit the Paterson Pork, an Indoor Football League team from New Jersey. Life has dealt her lemons and she sets out to make lemonade. With her comically inept sidekick Dia, she sets out to transform the fortunes of the IFL and thumb her nose at her brother, the new owner of the Cowboys.
Nuno is a remand prisoner in Rikers Island, notorious for committing some high profile crime that is not revealed until near the end of this very long work. Nuno gives us a sideways look at the American legal and penal systems while plotting something quite devious. Nuno is - or thinks he is - smarter than the typical prisoner and takes pride in turning every situation to his own advantage. His future looks bleak - LWOP - but he still seems to have some spark of hope.
Then there are a heap of side stories and B-list characters - prison guards, desperate alcoholic former football players, friends and neighbours, the great Paterson unwashed.
Overall I would say this is a comic novel - a satire on justice and American Football, sport and commerce. There is a heap of philosophy and sermonising. There are found documents - a reproduction of the Rikers Island prison rules, court transcripts, transcripts of 911 calls. Some dialogue is presented in script format. There are graphics (some of which don't translate well to e-readers). The pacing is crazy, with sections of wildly different lengths running from 88 down to zero with a prologue, a logue and an epilogue. It is a whole box of tricks. But by the end, the story does come together and there is an exciting denouement and it feels more like a conventional novel.
It is quite a trick - but not completely dissimilar to Sergio de la Pava's previous novel, A Naked Singularity - also highly recommended.
Just one thing, though. I sometimes feel that all American novels feature either the President or a prison. This one does both.
McCourt, Frank. Teacher Man
Frank McCourt’s memoir on his teaching experience is divided into three Parts, the first and longest dealing with his experience of surviving eight years at McKee Vocational and Technical School, Staten Island. In Part Two he moves to New York Community College and in Part Three, after two years studying in Dublin for an aborted PhD at Trinity College, he returns to America to become a Creative Writing teacher at Stuyvesant High School. For most of the book Frank is in the classroom, facing non-academic pupils who yearn to be free of discipline and routine. He learns their tricks and indeed, much to the detriment of his reputation as a teacher, encourages their bid for freedom. If they want stories about his life of poverty in Ireland he’ll tell them, if they want outside activities, such as movie-going, he’ll take them and even pay for them from his meagre earnings. Frank is a very earnest and honest man, not afraid to admit ignorance, not afraid of losing dignity and devoted to the thankless task of what he believes in, something honorifically known as teaching.
In between trudging through mountains of illiterate scripts, Frank manages to tell the reader that he got married, had two children and got divorced; but the focus of the book is on that strange routine and for the most part useless activity of ‘teaching,’ in other words occupying and entertaining the disinterested and cheeky adolescents before him. He is the Pied Piper leading his charges to another world - a world of something called ‘culture,’ where words on the page are substituted for popcorn and candy. It’s a heroic journey, but one founded on the belief and enthusiasm of one man - Frank McCourt. Although frequently reminded of the importance of sticking to the syllabus, Frank goes his own way. Like the maverick schoolmaster AS Neill, Frank believes in Hearts not Heads in the School. The reader empathises with him and with his stand against snobs such as the academic Dahlberg, who asks Frank what he’s reading. Frank replies O’Casey, whose natural writing about growing up in Dublin even matched the work of the ancient masters. ‘If you admire so-called natural writing you can always scrutinize the walls of a public lavatory,’ was Dahlberg’s riposte. ‘My face was hot and I blurted, “O’Casey fought his way out of the slums of Dublin. He was half blind. He’s a … a … champion of the worker …. He’s as good as you anytime. The whole world knows Sean O’Casey. Who ever heard of you?” [speech marks added] To which Dahlberg invites him to leave the party.
Dr Paul C O'Rourke DDS is a New York dentist. He's brash, he's arrogant and he's got a view on pretty much everything. He has a failed relationship with his practice manager Connie and an unhealthy obsession with the Boston Red Sox.
In this comic novel, O'Rourke initially comes across as a 50 something dinosaur, taking pride in his technophobia, eschewing the internet and popular culture. As the narrative goes on, however, it seems that O'Rourke is more likely to be in his 30s and not quite as ruddy ruddy as he makes out. Nevertheless, it is a surprise to him when he finds his dental practice has developed a website that focuses as much on some obscure religious tracts as on the dentistry. What follows is a bizarre and comic take of finding out who is posting the material and why.
This all provides a great backdrop for analysing O'Rourke's own hollow, lonely existence and his failed relationships. Despite his atheism, O'Rourke seems to have flirted with Judaism in an effort to get closer to Connie and her family. Hence, he has a conflicted reaction to the religious content of his hacked website: on the one hand he is appalled, whilst on the other hand he is intrigued. There's quite a lot of philosophy, a lot of metaphysics, most of it spurious but interspersed with dental anecdotes and meetings with one of America's richest men. The dental anecdotes are hilarious and I especially loved the one about the disgruntled customer and the cave dwellers.
It's difficult to categorise Decent Hour. It's not so much about the story as about the voice. Whether you get on with it depends totally on whether or not you get on with O'Rourke's narration. In this sense, it's a bit like James Kelman. Fortunately I loved the voice, even though O'Rourke is a supercilious, snivelling wretch who would not be fit to polish my shoes, let alone polish my teeth.
The Blazing World is presented as a series of documents charting the life of Harriet (Harry) Burden, a lesser known New York artist. These documents, drawing heavily on a series of notebooks kept by Burden herself, have supposedly been collated by an art historian. The broad thrust of the piece is that Burden felt herself marginalised as a woman and therefore chose three men, each to present one of her installations as their own work. These three collections garnered favourable reviews.
As so often happens in these assorted document type novels (Michael Arditti’s Unity comes to mind), the initial pretext soon wears thin. The documents, interviews, letters and diaries all go into a level of personal detail and cod-philosophy when, in real life, they would focus far more on facts and public events. As also tends to happen in such works, the narrative voice is not sufficiently different from source to source. It all feels like it was drafted by a single pen, working towards a single goal. Harry’s notebooks, in particular, seem to be filled with a linear narrative, despite being dispersed over multiple volumes kept simultaneously, and offer verbiose personal justification for everything.
The writing is supposed to be over the top, pretentious. It’s a satire of modern art and one presumes the frequent digressions into philosophy (Kirkegaard seems to be a favourite) are presumably supposed to look hyperbolic when used to justify art installations that would otherwise not look out of place in a Blue Peter dollhouse.
The characters are similarly supposed to be grotesque: a stupid young boy called Anton Tish who seems to have escaped from Warhol’s Factory; a gay black dandy who had adopted the name of Phineas Q Eldridge; and a genuine artist called Rune who is busy trying to forget his austere Norwegian heritage. Then we have Bruno, Harry’s partner and wannabe poet; we have dippy hippy chicks; bisexual art dealers; art journos; wealthy collectors… Despite their tendency to speak with the same voice, this motley assortment of characters feels real and diverse enough to sustain the piece. This, harnessed with some tragi-comic storylines and some great set pieces, breathe life into what keeps threatening to be (but never becomes) a snore-a-thon.
This is not a life-changing novel and the plot is thin. The academic framing device comes to nothing – there are no conclusions and no thesis. But it is brimming with ideas and many of them are presented in a colourful, accessible fashion. Sometimes the ideas seem to trip over one another and the reader does have to wade through a lot of Tish to get to them, but overall it is worth it. ****0
The Ruby Slippers are, of course, the shoes worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard Of Oz. And, as everybody knows, if you click the heels three times and repeat “there’s no place like home”, then home is where you go.
In Keir Alexander’s novel, we meet an old bag lady, Rosa, and her dog Barrell as they buy provisions from the Sunrise delicatessen, run by Michael Marcinkus. Michael is, we discover, Rosa’s nephew. As it goes, Michael is one to harbour a grudge and he has a pretty big grudge against Rosa who, it seems had swanned off to Hollywood to live it up whilst Michael and his family were left behind to face first the Germans and then the Russians in wartime Latvia. However, Michael knows that Rosa has a pair of Judy Garland’s ruby slippers stashed away somewhere in her rubbish strewn apartment and when the opportunity arises…
The novel is one that follows a group of disparate characters and switches back and forth between storylines every page or two. We follow Michael; a gay man, James, visiting his dying partner in hospital; Siobhan, a teenage girl; Harrison, a delinquent black kid who hangs around across the road from Michael’s deli; Malachi McBride, a lonely man in a wheelchair; and various bit part characters. Then, there is a long letter from Rosa, giving us the background to her migration and early years in the United States.
The stories are well crafted and interlink just enough to create a coherent whole without relying on Dickensian coincidences.
The ruby slippers themselves keep a low profile for much of the book. They are the MacGuffin that brings the characters together, allows then to display their true colours. But little by little, they steal their way into the story, representing dreams, memories, hope and love. Those whose lives are touched by the slippers go on a metaphorical journey – some are great, others small – but each undergoes some form of positive transformation. Just like in the film, the transformation is generally in the form of valuing what you already have – a journey that leads you back to home.
The writing is superb. The details conjure up locations perfectly. The narrative has atmosphere. The reader feels the characters’ emotions. The pacing is perfect and the way the narrative keeps cutting away is well times, leaving little cliff-hangers all over the place. The ending seems well judged too; the strands do tie up and it is a broadly happy ending, though with a touch of melancholy just to stop things becoming saccharine. It’s a bit like the end of The Wizard Of Oz; Dorothy may be happy to be home, but home is still in Kansas. *****