Wednesday, July 25, 2007

More summer reading: The Keep

I had never read Jennifer Egan before. The reviews of The Keep were so good that I put it on my list about a year ago. It was very enjoyable; I kept thinking that it really was a perfect vacation read--neither too light or too ponderous. It was a satisfying mix of the contemporary and the old-fashioned gothic thriller, complete with a castle, ghosts, murders, dream sequences, dungeons...the whole nine yards (to mix in a sports metaphor). There's text and there's metatext, and maybe a little meta-meta-text. Fun! It reminded me of both Stewart O'Nan's The Speed Queen and Peter Cameron's Andorra (two old favorites) with a side of Horace Walpole!

I'm nearly finished with Zadie Smith's On Beauty. To be such a youngun' she certainly seems worldly and wise. Also, the other W -- witty. It's a campus novel, an homage to E.M. Forster (so she states upfront, and I definitely see the link with Howard's End), a clash of ideologies, and an almost bedroom farce...almost. She's rather relentless in not letting any characters off the hook. I like this description from Time magazine: "Cultures don't clash in Zadie Smith's books. They arm wrestle, get in one another's faces and climb into one another's beds." That's hitting the nail on the head for White Teeth as well.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Michael Ondaatje is the master of the loosely connected narrative. Seemingly unconnected people and events in his novels wind around to brush up against one another. Where the characters end up overlapping is often the way their stories are illuminated, even as they spin away again into their separate worlds. Divisadero traces the paths of two sisters, Anna and Claire, and the boy, Coop, who they grow up with on a California farm. Their lives are suddenly altered in the aftermath of a disastrous love affair, and they move out into the world apart, but still living intimately with the memories of their former existence. Anna's voice moves in and out of the narration, as she researches the life of a French writer, Lucien Segura, in a remote village in France. There, she takes a lover, Rafael -- the son of gypsies whose caravan lies at the periphery of Segura's farmhouse where she works.

The story then becomes as much about Segura as Anna, Claire, and Coop. The sections set in France, both in the near present and in the early-1900s of Segura's life are very beautiful. There are many parallels between these lives, decades apart. Segura's war was the devastating conflict of the Great War; in the present, the Gulf Wars hovers in the background of Coop's life as an accomplished gambler in the casinos and dives of Las Vegas and Tahoe.

This is one of those novels that bears a second reading, just for the pleasures of its prose, but also to discover all the tenuous filaments that tie its characters together. I've admired all of Ondaatje's novels that I've read: The English Patient, In the Skin of a Lion, and Anil's Ghost -- but I think this and Anil are the ones that I found to be the most moving.