Wednesday 12 May 2021

Jonathan Franzen, Julian Barnes, Lucia Berlin, and Siddhartha Mukherjee.

 I'm finally getting some reading done again!

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, Fourth Estate (2002).

This is another book from the Guardian's best-dressed list and I enjoyed it very much.  It was a rather anxious read - no one in it seemed particularly happy - but since I was getting ready to move house at the time and feeling rather stressed, it fitted well with my mood.

It’s a book based around a family, Albert and Enid Lambert – an elderly couple – and their children who have grown up and moved away.  Albert is developing Parkinson’s disease and dementia, and his worsening health is the sort of loose, central thread of the book.  Of their children, Gary, the oldest, is ambitious and financially successful, with a dysfunctional but apparently fairly stable marriage, and three kids.  Chip is the younger, academic, left-leaning son who messes his life up, and eventually – at the bottom of his spiral – flies out to Lithuania to help patriotic Lithuanian mobsters defraud westerners of their money.  The daughter, Denise, gets into a pattern of sleeping with older, married men, becomes a successful chef and then is fired for sleeping with her boss’s wife.  Right at the end of the book, they all return to their parents’ home for Christmas, and find their father’s health is deteriorating much faster than anyone thought.

The book drew me in from the first page with its blissful description of an autumn day in St Jude – it reminded me of one of Katherine Mansfield’s stories.  Then there was the humour, also from the first page, which also made me feel very much at home.  The book has a very insistent, sometimes ugly, truthfulness to it, and finds humour in the obvious, the visceral, and the ridiculous.  There’s a scene right at the start for example, where the postman knocks on the door.  Enid answers it, but Alfred doesn’t hear her do so, and she can hear him shouting for her all over the house, but he can’t hear her calling back to him.  ‘Alfred had emerged from the basement, bellowing like a piece of earth-moving equipment, “There’s somebody at the door!” and she’d fairly screamed, “The mailman!  The mailman!” and he’d shaken his head at the complexity of it all.’ (p.5) Then there’s Chip and his red chaise longue for making love on; he cleans off the worst stains when his parents visit.  When he and his friends are chased by ski-masked police in Lithuania, driven off the road, and made to strip at gunpoint in the snow, he has to physically hold his buttocks together to stop his bowels releasing.  It sounds terribly crass, but it was funny in context.

Then there was Denise walking in on her father giving himself an enema (‘Whoops!  Sorry!’) – funny but not funny – and when the pompous Gary first arrives to see his mother at Christmas, he washes his hands and then – standing in front of her – sniffs the towel before drying.  That made me laugh out loud too; I don’t think I’d forgive anyone who did that to me.

Strangely, given the subject matter, I didn’t find it a sad book – bitter at times, but not sad.  Partly, this might be down to the fact that Alfred’s problems are not clearly visible until the end.  Much of the book follows his children, who live far away and don’t really know what’s going on.  Partly, the lack of sadness may be down to who he is – a retired engineer, who seems to apply his problem-solving brain to each new challenge relatively calmly, even when the challenges are basic, day-to-day things.  He’s also quite a self-contained character: there wasn’t the enormous sense of injustice and regret that one might expect.  Denise does have regrets by the end of the book – relating to something she finds out about the way her own youthful conduct affected her father – but I’m not sure it had a great deal of impact on the way I viewed Alfred.

There wasn’t much comfort in the book either, for people with dementia in their lives.  I don’t know whether you’d call Franzen’s portrayal pessimistic or realistic, but it was very noticeable to me that, when he ties up all the loose ends in the final pages, everyone seems to get some kind of happy ending except Alfred.  More than that in fact, Alfred gets a sort of final kick in the teeth, because in his incapacitated state, his wife is able to berate him without any rebuttal and treat him as she has always wished  to do.  That is her happy ending; but it sounds terrible for him.

Finally, I couldn’t help marveling (and raising an eyebrow sometimes) over the range of characters Franzen takes on in the book.  It’s not that it’s particularly densely populated, but he goes into all five of his main characters in quite some depth.  If we were talking about an actor taking on roles, those taken on here would be quite astonishing; I’m not sure it’s all that much different with an author.   That’s not to say I didn’t query the way he wrote some of them – Denise, for example.  She wasn’t unrealistic, but it’s strange reading a middle-class white man putting words into women’s mouths – particularly words about men, and about sex.

Anyway, I did very much enjoy reading this.

Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape (2013).

It's certainly a great cover design.  However, I’m not sure I was really able to give this book the appreciation it deserves.  It doesn’t feel right even to be just lukewarm about a book which is about someone’s grief, but I suppose I didn’t really understand the structure.  

The book is divided into three parts.  The first is about three early hot air balloonists – it’s interesting and funny and lovely to read.  The second part is an apparently fictional love  story between two of these balloonists.  One of the reviews I read online – in The Lancet – called this an ‘enjoyably sensuous encounter’, which I thought was a strange way to put it.  To me it was rather wooden and uncomfortable, and ruthlessly capped off when Sarah Bernardt demonstrates her refusal Fred Burnaby’s offer of marriage (quite needlessly I thought) by inviting him to come to her dressing room to watch her leave with someone else.  It was all a bit Venus in Furs

In the third part, Barnes writes about the period that followed the death of his wife.  He talks about the responses he hated from people, that they supposed to be comforting; he talks about suicide; about telling a Christian friend that his prayers hadn’t had much effect (p.94); and taking to opera, as an art form in which sudden, wild emotional responses are perfectly normal (p.92).  He is refreshingly bad-tempered, although off-base, I thought, when complaining about the phrase ‘lost his wife to cancer’, comparing it to ‘we lost our dog to gypsies’ or ‘he lost his wife to a commercial traveller’. (p.83) Who on earth would use those last two phrases!

I am assuming that Barnes is trying to draw attention to a parallel between hot air ballooning and grief, or perhaps love.  Blake Morrison, writing about this book in The Guardian, said ‘the themes that preoccupy Barnes – love and ballooning (and grief and photography) – take a little longer to line up but discovering how they do is half the pleasure. We've work to do’.  Although there were substantial bits of the book I enjoyed reading, I did struggle to see the connections Barnes seemed to be trying to make.

Morrison has a few suggestions: just as every love story is a potential grief story, every balloon ascent is a potential disaster.  But the book is not about ballooning disasters - it has little to say about them at all.  I felt Barnes focused more on the eccentricities of the balloonists.  This – and the fact that one of his recurring phrases is ‘you put two together two people who have not been put together before; and sometimes the world is changed’ (e.g. p.31) – made me wonder if he saw himself and his wife as a particularly unusual pairing; their meeting as particularly unlikely, fortuitous.

On the other hand, as Morrison indicates, Barnes is very close-lipped about his wife in the book; we learn more about her from the little publisher’s blurb at the back, than from the text itself.  He could certainly have been clearer if he were making a specific point about her character.  

Perhaps the phrase about ‘putting two people together’ is more generic; maybe this is just how people feel when they find exactly the right person for them – ‘what are the chances?’

The Lancet review mentioned earlier seems to see the hot air ballooning as a sort of sidelong, indirect way of approaching the difficult topic of the grief.  Perhaps this is true.  Maybe Barnes is not trying to suggest any particular connection but, in an abstract way, one topic reminds him of another.  Maybe Sarah Bernardt reminds him of his wife.

It is difficult, and not entirely appropriate, to speculate on the subject of someone’s grief.  Perhaps I am just unequal to the work Morrison refers to, but I do wish the point had been made more manifest.  

A Manual For Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin, Picador (2015).

I absolutely loved this book.  It was a book about tough lives (or a tough life) – something like Last Exit to Brooklyn – but smarter, broader, and female. 

When I started it, I did find it difficult to identify with the narrator.  I warmed to her very quickly though – her intelligence and her interest in other people – and the lack of common ground ceased to matter.  I found her very unexclusionary, and very easy to like.

She also has that thing – like Joan Didion (and the lady who wrote The Sixth Extinction) – of being quite unselfconscious.  It always surprises me about women writers, how they can not be physically self-aware – fail to mention things like weight, appearance, clothes – all the things women are expected to care about.  But it’s refreshing, almost masculine, to read someone so little concerned about her own person, beyond details of work, family, addiction, whatever.  Could you say there are two types of writers – those that look inwards (or both in and out), and those who only look outwards, like Berlin?

The book has quite a unique structure.  Initially, I had thought it was a collection of short stories, and it does seem like there are fictional parts, but actually the same people and circumstances come up repeatedly so the impression I got was that many of them are stories from Berlin’s life.  The line between fiction and memoir is very blurred.  It's an interesting idea that one could write about one's own life in a series of short strories.

There is a fabulous picture of Berlin inside the back cover, looking very glamorous and 1960s-ish, with dark eyeshadow and bouffant hair.  She comes across in the book – quite exotically to me – as young and Midwestern; having known what it’s like to have money at some point in her life, but also being very familiar with poverty; a single mother who has to work to feed her kids; a woman who struggles with alcohol addiction; a survivor.  She is also someone who stands out for the fact that, despite her pursuit of love and alcohol, she clearly values education and has worked some interesting jobs as well as the unskilled, low wage variety.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, Scribner (2011).

This is a book on the history of the scientific study of cancer, tracing how doctors have understood and treated it (or attempted to treat it) over the years.  It is far from being just a list of progressive discoveries though – that would be boring.  The path of progression is shown to have been messy, jagged and often obstructed.  Cancer medicine had its titans – in terms of both clinicians and theories – who/which exerted such a powerful influence that no contradiction could be countenanced, and progress ground to a halt.  So too, it has struggled – at first to exert its own importance, and then to overcome powerful adversaries (such as the tobacco industry), and to acquire the necessary funding.  Even those apparently wholly on the side of the cancer doctors, enthusiastic devotees of ‘the war on cancer’ were not always helpful in the pursuit of a fuller (and inevitably therefore, slower) understanding of the disease.

In some ways, it is a case study in the creation of scientific knowledge.  I was taken aback by how near it sometimes seemed to being unethical.  The nineteenth-century paradigm of radical surgery, for example, which insisted that surgery should remove as much material as possible around the site of the tumour to lessen the possibility of regrowth, and led to women with breast cancer having large sections of their chest walls removed, clavicles, pectoral muscles, lymph nodes, the lot.  The post-surgery deformities must have been horrendous.  Can you call something unethical though, if it involves a genuine attempt to save someone’s life?  This no-holds-barred approach to medicine is perhaps what gives the book a slightly eye-watering quality at times.

For the most part, I very much enjoyed the book.  It took me quite a long time to finish it, but I didn’t have any trouble picking it up and going back to it each time.  I was surprised I understood what he was talking about at all; I think Mukherjee for the most part does really well at making the science accessible.  It was only at the end, where he discusses the current state of knowledge, that the jargon began to get too thick for me.  Perhaps I was just suffering some kind of science exhaustion by that point.  

His conclusions were very interesting though.  Mukherjee characterizes cancer, first of all, as something struggling for survival in much the same way as the human species has done – adapting and evolving to meet the challenges (and the drugs) it faces.  Secondly, he points out that whilst cancer can arise as a result of damage by carcinogens, it can also be just an accidental effect of human growth: ‘seemingly random errors in copying genes when cells divide’ (p.462).  So perhaps cancer is a sort of intrinsic part of being human – something built into the human genome; what Mukherjee calls ‘the leaden counterweight to our aspirations for immortality (p.466).  Perhaps we wouldn't be human without it.  Looking at it this way, the search for a complete cure appears like a useless exercise.  Mukherjee suggests that we should be revising our expectations of cancer treatment: instead of aiming to eradicate cancer, we should be looking, more modestly, merely to prevent cancer deaths before old age.

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