September 15, 2014

A Collection of Collections

It happens that in the past few weeks, I read three collections of short pieces, one nonfiction and two fiction:

→ Earlier this year, Roxane Gay published her astounding first novel, and just a few months later, she released a book of essays, BAD FEMINIST. I'm not usually interested in essay collections, but I've been following Gay's online writing, both fiction and nonfiction, so I was eager to read this book. BAD FEMINIST is an excellent, thought-provoking set of essays that combine personal, political, and pop cultural topics.

Gay writes with authority and nuance about issues of gender, race, and sexual violence, and she analyzes the roles these play in the world, in entertainment, and in her own life. She acknowledges the complicated nature of these subjects and the conflicted feelings that lead to her calling herself a bad feminist. Her casual style makes these essays approachable, though some of the subject matter makes me want to shy away. There are essays in here about injustices that left me angry at the world or wanting to cry. Other pieces take a smart look at recent pop culture phenomena. Sometimes these topics are combined in the same essay. (Links are to online versions of essays that appear in the book, often in somewhat different forms.)

Gay's talent is in examining a piece of entertainment or news and using it to discuss a broader issue. In the course of the collection, she looks at television, movies, and comedy, but I especially appreciated her focus on literature. She covers the debate over unlikable characters and the categorization of women's fiction. She considers the absurd and disturbing aspects of the Fifty Shades series and reveals her obsession with Sweet Valley High. And one book review is a powerful, wrenching essay on body image that starts "I went to fat camp once."

While you can find much of the book online as separate pieces, if you like what you see in these linked essays, I recommend reading the collection as a whole. Though there's a bit of repetition, the selection and arrangement of essays works well as a book, and reading it in the entirety offers insight into Gay as a person and not simply a cultural critic. Plus, there's a great essay about her participation in the world of competitive Scrabble that you don't want to miss.

After you read this collection, you might enjoy listening to the Slate Audio Book Club discussion, particularly if you want to hear Hanna Rosin react to the essay in which Gay criticizes Rosin's book.

→ For years, my mom has been encouraging me to read the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, particularly the collection INTERPRETER OF MALADIES. I finally listened to my mother, and of course she was right. These stories are outstanding.

In the space of twenty or thirty pages, characters come alive, plots unfold and resolve, and the reader is admitted into fascinating micro-worlds. And this isn't true of just a few stories in the collection -- every one is absorbing and complete. I'm not sure what makes these stories so successful, but I'm going to be studying them carefully to try and understand what Lahiri has accomplished and figure out how to develop some of this skill in my own writing.

A number of the stories involve characters encountering cultural differences. In the title story, a tour guide in India drives around an Indian-American family, and the mutual reactions flow from distaste to fascination and back as they learn more about each other. The narrator of "The Third and Final Continent", a young man from Calcutta, adjusts to life in the U.S., and then to the arrival of the wife he barely knows. In "Mrs. Sen's", an eleven-year-old boy is looked after by a woman who is new to America and not adjusting well. All of these situations are conveyed with observant and touching detail.

"When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" stands out for the way it captures a kid's perspective on momentous world events that even adults find unimaginable. The emotions are strong and real for all the characters in that story, and throughout the collection. The story that opens the book, "A Temporary Matter", is the most heartbreaking: A power outage forces a brief period of togetherness onto a couple who have been avoiding each other for months after a terrible loss.

As if these stories weren't good enough already, many of them also take place in the Boston area, and since that's where I grew up, the familiar setting was an additional bonus. But I hope readers from everywhere will pick up this collection!

→ I'd never read anything by Haruki Murakami, but I see his many books mentioned often and have long been curious about his work. Since the English translation of his latest book was released this summer, I was reminded of him again, and because one of the squares on my summer reading bingo card was "Translation", I decided it was finally time to give Murakami a try. I chose the short story collection AFTER THE QUAKE because it sounded relevant to my interests. I didn't end up being that excited by most of the stories, but now I feel inspired to move on to Murakami's novels to see if those appeal to me more.

The six stories in this collection are set shortly after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, but they all take place in unaffected areas, and it's a peripheral event in most of the stories, and in some cases almost irrelevant. I guess the quake acts as a sort of motif that reinforces the more prominent theme of characters who are empty or damaged inside. A number of the stories are fairly bleak, though usually with moments of humor, but many end with a sense of hope.

For the most part, these stories started out promising but then fell flat by not giving me enough to be interested in or ending in a sudden or bewildering manner. This is a problem I often have with short fiction. Two of the stories worked better for me: I liked the main character of "Thailand", the problems she's facing, and the connections she makes, and I was more on board with what was explained and left unexplained in this story than in some of the others. "Honey Pie", about a love triangle between three old friends, is a fairly touching and satisfying read.

At the level of the writing, I enjoyed what I was reading, so I'm definitely going to see if I can get more into a Murakami novel. I've had a couple of recommendations for HARD-BOILED WONDERLAND AND THE END OF THE WORLD, so I plan to read that next. I'm interested in other Murakami recommendations or thoughts.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Hazlitt, Tobias Carroll considers novels set in the art world: "It's the same challenge faced by any writer creating a fictional work of art: if your counterfeit poem or pop song or magnum opus reads as unbelievable, even in a make-believe universe, you’ve lost the reader--but asking a writer to convincingly create work in a discipline other than his or her own is its own challenge."


Henri Picciotto said...

I loved Gay's essay on likability.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Henri, I was so pleased to see she'd taken on that topic, since it's come up a lot lately.

Post a Comment