Welcome to the Rooster Summer Reading Challenge, brought to you by The Morning News Tournament of Books and our presenting sponsor, Field Notes. All summer long, we’re reading two novels a month and reconvening on Wednesdays to discuss the books. Joining our chats is a monthly guest judge, who at month’s end decides which title heads to our summer championship on Aug. 30—when you choose which book gets an automatic berth in the 2018 Tournament of Books.
For June 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.
- Catch up on previous discussions: Week one
- See the summer reading books and schedule
- Jump into this week’s discussion in the comments
Rosecrans: We both finished the book, and we hope you did, too, because spoiler alert: Christopher dies, murdered, unfound by the narrator and with his murder unsolved, and our narrator ends the book returned to her previous existence, slightly richer for an inheritance.
Victor, what remains for you now, a couple days later? What lingers? What bugs you? I’m going to be really interested in the crowd’s reaction, too, because I have a feeling this will be a divisive book.
Victor: I don’t know about you, but I was left pretty rattled—or affected—by the exchange between the narrator and Isabelle, Christopher’s mother. Particularly the one where she wants to know/assert that Christopher died loved. I don’t know why I found that particular exchange so creepy, but still effective.
It makes total sense that his mother would want to know such a thing, would need to hear it, but still Kitamura doesn’t make it sound like a connection between the two women. It’s not a way for the two of them to become closer, which is what I’d expect to happen when the son/husband dies. Maybe it’s foolish for me to assume that would happen at all. The women weren’t close beforehand so why would the murder make them more so? I found this kind of thing particularly wonderful throughout the novel. Why did I expect, or demand, the reactions I did from these characters? It left me with some interesting things to consider. How about you?
Rosecrans: I know what you mean. For the mother, I found her behavior honest to her character—I didn’t doubt her, I felt like I was interacting with an interesting person, I settled firmly on the terra firma of plausible.
Victor: Did you feel put off by the fact that our narrator never really opens up? We never get to see the “why” of why she seems to share less, or even feel less, about the situations she encounters? If anything I wondered if we needed the last little bit of the book. The “here’s life now” stuff. I could’ve been satisfied with ending right as she and the parents leave Greece. Although I’d hate to lose that story about the cruise ship and mysterious phone call. That was wonderfully creepy, too.
Rosecrans: I had the same feeling about the ending, once the drama between the narrator and Christopher’s mother faded away. I’d already worked through my own scenarios around Christopher’s death, and I didn’t find the narrator’s theorizing all that convincing, beyond idle thoughts. And then the money appears.
As much as I appreciate characters talking about money—you mentioned this the last time, that it’s nice to see authors giving us checkbook issues (“I’m interested in...what they did for a living, how they made their money, who did the dishes, who took care of an ailing relative.”), when too many novelists just let slide what’s a massive preoccupation for most of us—I found the sudden fortune unsettling because it confirmed what, in the end, I liked least in the book: the sense nothing really mattered, and our narrator’s life would roll on fine, now even more comfortably.
So to circle around to one of our first questions, my take on the narrator is a bit stuck on that point. I didn’t have trouble finding her convincing—I had a hard time finding her interesting. I loved the style of this book’s sentences, I enjoyed my troubled time in Greece, I thought some good observations were made about marriage and communication and messy humans. But the narrator, weirdly, made me care less about the novel she lives inside, if only because the novel seemed to matter so little to her.
Let me try a different track: What was a favorite moment or two that stands out when you look back? For me, it’s the moment when our narrator finds the ad in the London Review of Books—I laughed out loud, if only because I’ve turned to the back of the LRB so many times before and thought, What kind of fucked-up alternate world is this? It’s all about escape, literary and literally. Ads for services to help arrange your infidelities. Tuscan retreats for rent. Ph.D.-equipped sex slaves writing out cryptic classifieds.
Of course, such a world fits A Separation perfectly, with our narrator living in her imagination, the unknown, her fantasies, her analysis, her mind. Sometimes I thought she existed more in the emotions of others than her own—and the book did convince me that this is a genuine way of going through the world, living and loving, even if it’s not my way.
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Victor: I’m glad you pointed out the LRB ad! One thing I haven’t said yet is just how funny I found this book to be. That instance really stuck out as damn near slapstick. It definitely made me laugh. I enjoyed the ways the narrator dissect her husband’s vanity, his poses. The ways that his charm is full of calculation, and that she can now see the calculation and thus the charm no longer worked on her. This might also just be called being in a long-term relationship. Anyway, I found that kind of stuff pretty charming, all the way through. How did you think Christopher came out of this whole tale in the end? Did you believe her assessments of him? I must admit, I mostly did. But maybe that’s just because I got suckered into her imagination.
Rosecrans: I believed her assessments. I don’t think I ever really doubted her opinions; I’m a total sucker for a well-written point of view. But regarding Christopher, I think I got to know a lot about how our narrator thought about him, but I didn’t really get to know him. Yvan, on the other hand, I now know quite well.
Final question: When you finish reading a novel, what’s the process for Victor LaValle to move on to another one? Quickly or slowly? Do you always switch genres? Go shopping? Grab the latest galley that arrived?
Victor: I don’t know about you but there’s usually a book or two waiting for a blurb I’ve promised—in between a novel that’s recently been published, I pick up a novel, or stories, that are soon to be published.
The real way I break up the prose habit is that I read comics. My son is just old enough that he can page through comics on his own, too. I give him mine when I’m done with them. Though I do withhold a few of them. My six-year-old doesn’t need to read Sex Criminals just yet. Almost.
Rosecrans: I like to catch up on issues of Thrasher, one of America’s finest, most idiosyncratic magazines. So I guess we’re similar dudes of man-child tastes (with all respect to skating and comics).
Readers, how did you find A Separation by the end? And what’s your ritual for moving on from one book to the next? Let us know in the comments, and catch us here next week when we talk about the first half of The Night Ocean (through page 190).