Welcome to the Rooster Summer Reading Challenge, brought to you by the organizers of The Morning News Tournament of Books and our presenting sponsor, Field Notes, makers of fine notebooks and other memory-recording paraphernalia.
This summer, as previously covered, we’re leisurely reading two books a month in the company of one of our favorite working novelists. Each Wednesday we meet to chat about our progress. At the end of the month, our visiting writer will offer a Tournament of Books-style verdict, choosing one book over the other, based on their own criteria. But at the end of the summer, it’s your vote that will determine which of the remaining three books in contention gets an automatic berth in next year’s Tournament of Books.
This month we’re reading A Separation by Katie Kitamura (selected by the ToB Committee) and The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge (chosen by Amelia Gray, who will be joining us in July), with novelist Victor LaValle.
Andrew Womack: Welcome, everybody! This is going to be fun. Our visiting novelist for June is Victor LaValle, whose latest novel, The Changeling, will be published next Tuesday, June 13. Very exciting. Big thanks to Victor for joining us!
You can check out more of Victor’s work—and we’re betting after spending the remainder of the month with him, you’ll want to—in his short-story collection Slapboxing With Jesus and his novels (The Ecstatic, Big Machine, and The Devil in Silver) and novellas (Lucretia and the Kroons and The Ballad of Black Tom).
As you know, Victor is reading the books at the same time as the rest of us. And picking his brain all month long about the novels in play will be our very own Rosecrans Baldwin, who’s also having a very busy month with the publication yesterday of his latest novel, The Last Kid Left.
Thanks again to Victor and Rosecrans for taking time away from writing and publishing novels in order to lead the discussion for our June matchup: A Separation versus The Night Ocean. For today’s chat, we’ll cover the first half of A Separation, up to page 118. Over to you, Rosecrans.
Rosecrans Baldwin: Thanks Andrew! OK, Victor, let’s get started. First off, what was your impression once you were 10 or so pages into A Separation? Where did you read it? With or without coffee, pale ale, music, children underfoot?
Victor LaValle: I read this one right before bed each night. The kids had been put to sleep a couple hours earlier, and my wife is out of town at an artist’s residency, so with only one light on next to the bed the reading experience felt a bit like floating in space, or maybe, even more, deep undersea. This felt right, particularly for this novel, because there’s a sense of the almost unreal to the pages.
Rosecrans: Can you clarify?
Victor: Maybe I mean that all the actions and reactions I’d expect to read in these opening pages were regularly refused. This made me pay even more attention to each page, each chapter, because I felt I was coming into contact with a human being who was genuinely new to me and my expectations.
Rosecrans: That’s such an exciting discovery. I love that sort of experience, it’s one of the reasons I enjoyed Tom McCarthy’s Remainder when I first discovered it, or more recently with A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven. Are there other times that’s happened before that stand out?
Victor: A few other times when I felt truly immersed in minds/perspectives so different from my own (in a beguiling way) were probably Teju Cole’s Open City and as far back as when I first read A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe. In both cases the narrators read as profoundly distant from their own lived experience. Detached. In Cole's case there's a "reason" for it that reveals itself right at the end. (Or at least suggests a reason.) In Oe's case the narrator's wife has just given birth to their first child, a boy who has been born with a severe abnormality on the back of his head. The surprise of this outcome causes the narrator, Bird, to go into a tailspin and fall apart. It also causes him to examine and interrogate nearly every interaction he has after receiving the news. This kind of dispassionate/detached narrator is pretty far from how I've ever felt about my own life. If anything I usually feel like I'm drowning in my own feelings and concerns. That's why I value book like theirs and Kitamura's, it's like riding around inside an alien being.
Rosecrans: Before we get too deep into the story, let me ask, when you start a book, how long does it take before you know if a book’s for you or not? What will make or break it? How many pages do you give a book that’s not for you? For me, I’ll go 50 pages, then I’m on to the next one. Life’s too short.
Victor: I remember, when I was younger, my best friend, the writer Mat Johnson, and I would call it the first page test. We’d go to a bookstore, pluck a new book off the shelf, and read the first page. If there wasn’t something interesting on the first page we’d give up.
If I’m honest, I’ve become even more ruthless now. It might be only a paragraph. I don’t mean that the paragraph has to be expertly written, only that I feel surprised, interested, in something the author is doing. I’m not big on the idea of a book warming up 50 or 100 pages in. Sometimes it might even be something as simple as an interesting way of arranging the typeface. Of course, this means I end up missing out on some good books as well. Luckily, if I hear from someone I trust that a book is good, I will get over myself and try again.
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Rosecrans: For those who haven’t read the book, here’s the basic premise: Our narrator, a young woman in London, has split up with her faithless husband, Christopher. Then Christopher goes missing in Greece, and our narrator goes off to find him. But her motivations are murky, her desires not quite clear, and Christopher is nowhere to be found. But he’s left behind him a string of people who remember him, for good and for bad. Victor, this far into A Separation, what’s most compelling? What do you find less persuasive?
Victor: I’m a sucker for the question of how other people make life work. In this book’s case I’m interested in the question of how this marriage did or didn’t work. Not just the personalities of the people involved but what they did for a living, how they made their money, who did the dishes, who took care of an ailing relative. I don’t know that I was so interested in this kind of thing when I was younger—right out of grad school I just wanted well-crafted sentences, and I still enjoy those—but I also want to understand just how the hell people put one foot in front of the other, day by day. How a human being survives. At least that’s what I’m reading this book to understand. And from the opening paragraph I felt hooked by this concern. The unnamed narrator simply can’t tell her mother-in-law the truth and can’t refuse the expectation that she be of service. Why? What produced this sense of duty and passivity (as the narrator muses on later in the book)? This stuff has been keeping me humming through the first 100 or so pages of the book. And happily Kitamura is such a pro that she knows something has to change in this exercise soon. Then, in chapter seven, it does in a really satisfying way. I’m not done yet, but I know I will finish this book. And not just because we’re doing this reading group thing!
Rosecrans: In terms of understanding another person’s psychology, how they get through the day, does this narrator strike you as credible? If not, does that matter?
To my mind, I totally buy her. No matter that she’s cold, she knows how to avoid things (everything), she’s intently passive. But I do find myself wondering how she got this way. I really hope Yvan, her distant lover, doesn’t show up on horseback in some fashion.
Victor: I was reminded of a moment in an old Michael Caine movie called Get Carter. It’s a gangster film from 1971. There’s a scene, right at the start, when Carter is called back home to his hometown of Newcastle to arrange the funeral of his brother who has recently been killed. The movie will eventually become a big shoot ’em up, but right at the beginning there’s a scene where Carter is getting ready for the funeral, putting on his suit, and you see he’s doing it in the same room as the casket. His face is unreadable, you might almost say he seems to have no reaction at all. It’s jarring, in part, because we expect there should be some reaction considering the recent death and proximity to the dead brother right there in the room.
I later saw a video where Caine talked about why he played that scene the way he did. He said that he found people had a real storehouse of expectations about how people should react in the midst of trying circumstances, but that in his own life he found he almost never felt, or acted, in the way that common culture, in all its forms, had taught him to be. This made him curious about how or why we create narratives about what’s expected of people in these moments. Why do we expect people to break down at a funeral (depending on your culture, I guess).
As I’ve been reading I have the feeling that Kitamura is purposefully refusing all that we as readers might expect of the narrator and perhaps force us to inspect why we expect the reactions or revelations that we do. Obviously, I can’t see into her head when she was writing, but the regular refusal of the narrator to be the weeping divorcee, the bereft wife—all of that seems as purposeful as Teju’s unreadable narrator in Open City and some of what W.G. Sebald does, too. I wonder if we’ll ever get to an idea of how or why she is the way she is. Or if we’ll be prodded to examine why we expect her to be any way at all. I find it pretty intriguing, again, especially because it’s all so unlike me. But I do believe it’s like her.
Rosecrans: I’m struck by the similarities between the atmosphere and the narrator. I don’t know how things will end yet, but I don’t think happy days are in store. It’s moody yet airy, tense but vacant, beguiling but also flat. Do you know what I mean? In both the setup and our narrator’s mind—sort of like the atmosphere in the room when you realize your travel agent also might be a serial killer. One of the book’s blurbs mentions Patricia Highsmith, and there is a Tom Ripley vibe—we’re in the sunny Mediterranean, on vacation in a pleasant place, and still I keep expecting the next character to get waxed by an oyster knife. Do you trust the narrator? As a reader, how are you with unreliable accounts?
Victor: One of the aspects I enjoy most is how often I’m convinced the narrator is correct in her assumptions and only a few pages later do I realize there was absolutely no evidence given for the conclusion she reached.
Rosecrans: That’s a great way to put it.
Victor: I don’t find her unreliable, exactly, so much as unable to simply ask questions that would serve the story (but maybe not herself) best. But this feels set up, again, right from that opening paragraph. There are any number of times when another kind of person would walk right up to Maria, the woman on staff, and ask the important damn question! But our narrator can’t. Just as she couldn’t tell her mother-in-law the truth. She’s an observer rather than one who acts. But that doesn’t mean she’s inactive. Her imagination works overtime, all the time. I’ve given up on asking the question of whether she’s right. Instead, I’ve settled into the reality that this is what she thinks. It almost makes it feel like she’s living in a parallel universe, slightly separated from everyone else by the screen of her own imagination. Which is, overall, like quite a lot of us.
Rosecrans: That’s it for us this week, now it’s your turn. Join us in the comments below and let us know what you think of the book so far. For next Wednesday, June 14, we’ll be completing A Separation. The week after that we’ll start The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge, through page 190.