I’ve got three novels to talk about today (and many more in the queue). Today’s report will include one rave, one shrug and one argument.
Triangle by Katharine Weber
Just off the east edge of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, New York is a building that once housed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, where a terrible fire killed 146 people in 1911. Most of the victims were young immigrant women, and this famous disaster led to a criminal trial for the sweatshop owners, who were accused of criminal indifference to worker safety.
Triangle, a slim new novel by Katharine Weber, opens with the recollections of an elderly woman who survived the fire, though she lost both her sister and the man she loved when they jumped from the building to escape the flames.
When you begin this book, you expect it to head for familiar territory: outrage, recovery, resolution. But Triangle‘s title has multiple meanings, and this story takes at least three sudden sharp turns. The scene quickly changes and we’re with a wealthy married couple in post 9-11 New York. Rebecca, an acerbic medical researcher, is the survivor’s granddaughter. George, her husband, is a quirky but world-famous musical genius, a composer of highly unusual avant-garde classical works based on natural forms such as protein molecules or strands of DNA. These compositions, we are coolly informed by the book’s straight-faced invisible narrator, seem to have magical powers to heal or disturb people.
Next we meet an obnoxious professor named Ruth Zion who has written a book about the Triangle Fire and descends upon Rebecca and George with a rapacious appetite for information. She’s a hilarious character, but at this point I began to worry that the author was losing control of her story.
But the clear, smooth narrative tone and the knowing smile in Katharine Weber’s jacket photo reassured me. A disturbing and unexpected new angle begins to emerge towards the end of the book, and by the last chapter it is clear that this book is not about an industrial fire at all, but rather about personal hazards more common to everyday life.
I like this book a real lot. Two days after finishing it, I am still threading through the connections (and unthreading through the deceptions) in my head, and marvelling at the author’s perception and compassion. This book is something special, and I definitely recommend that you put it at the top of your next-to-read list.
Londonstani by Gautam Malkani
I wanted to love this book, and I managed to like it. I guess I’m predisposed to like a book that introduces a strong regional accent (a highly hip-hop influenced and pop-conscious Brit-speak, innit) and aims to make a big statement about the moral status of modern society. This book is about a gang of teenage desis (which can include Indian Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims) living with their parents in a bland suburb of London. They run a cell-phone laundering business, drive BMW’s and love to get into fights over the slightest racial insults.
It’s a rollicking enough story, and the author gets in a good occasional joke, but the plot takes way too long to get started and rarely keeps me gripped. Some have described this book as “disturbing” and compared it to Clockwork Orange, but I’m pretty sure there’s more Holden Caulfield than Alex the Droog in Londonstani. Malkani gives that away early on, in fact, with this bit:
Anyway, whatever the fuck we are, Ravi an the others are better at being it than I am. I swear I’ve watched as much MTV Base an Jiggy D videos as they have, but I still can’t attain the right level a rudeboy finesse. If I could, I wouldn’t be using poncey words like attain an finesse, innit. I’d be saying I couldn’t keep it real or someshit.
That ambiguity is what drives this book. It’s charming enough, but Londonstani feels like a first novel (which is exactly what it is). I’ll have to wait to see this author’s next book before I start clapping.
Stet by James Chapman
I’ve written about James Chapman’s Stet before. I can sometimes be overly dismissive when I review books (especially when my stack of incoming titles begins to oppress me), and I used Stet as an example of good writing stuck inside bad packaging. The book design fails to yield the slightest hint as to what the book contains, which leaves a reader unmotivated to enter inside.
This was probably too harsh a dismissal, and I was glad when the author contacted me to object. That led to this discussion, which then led to this discussion on The Reading Experience in which Dan Green found my conclusions “bewildering”. In the end, I agreed to give the book another chance.
Re-entering through the front page, I found once again a series of well-crafted enigmatic sentences that proved the author’s skill and intelligence, and I found once again that good sentences are not enough to propel a reader to finish a book.
I now realize I was using the book jacket design as a metaphor for a more general lack of magnetic power. A killer first paragraph could create the same anticipation as a well-chosen promo, but that is lacking here as well. At it’s best, I find Stet to be composed of aphorisms and suggestions with some of the spooky mystery you can find in Nietzsche or Camus (and certainly this is high praise). Here are some examples:
Today the Finn remains in his own land, eating canned sardines and weeping.
A poison mushroom can weep only tears of poison.
The earth is black, children, the black of burnt meat. Black birds walk on the chaff.
Poetic? Yes. But even as the echoes of Camus and Nietzsche kept me intrigued, I began to remember how hard I had to work to get through Thus Spake Zarathusra and The Plague. If I felt there were a good chance this book would offer the same intellectual rewards as either of those, I would have persevered, but lacking that I was unable to continue, and I shut the book yet again.
I continue to think James Chapman a very interesting writer, but I stand by my original conclusion: a book needs to generate some kind of forward momentum to keep me interested, and all the poetic sentences in the world aren’t enough to keep me reading if I can’t discern the outlines of a plot.