Tuesday, September 17, 2019

September 2019 in Books: What We'll Be Reading Next

It would be a grim and exacting reader who would not be excited about the new books that are appearing this month and the next.


Notably, 34 years after Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood has revisited her fictional land of Gilead (the dystopic society in which women are treated as chattel) and written a sequel: The Testaments.

It has been published with great fanfare — for example a Booker Prize nomination.

Here is one of the reviews: "The Testaments by Margaret Atwood review – hints of a happy ending" [Guardian/Observer], by Julie Myerson (September 15, 2019)


Salman Rushdie has released a new novel, Quichotte, that parodies the state of the United States with the tale of Don Quixote as a parallel.


From Penguin RandomHouse
Ta-Nehisi Coates has written Water Dancer, a magical-realist novel about slavery, which will come out on September 24th. I've already read an excerpt, based on which I think it struggles to come out of the shadow of Toni Morrison or George Saunders (at least, Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo), and that imagination is needed to trust that the prose is like anyone's internal monologue, either in the 1800s or now:
I yanked at the reins but it was too late. We barreled right through and what happened next shook forever my sense of a cosmic order.
It's a degree of abstraction that most people could not spare brainpower or time for in the first-person narrator's situation. Except if they have taken so many creative writing courses that it is now encoded in their DNA.  (Also, I doubt that many 19th-century people would have used the phrase 'cosmic order,' although after searching Google Books I did find it used in a scholarly article from 1882.)

Imagine that you're 1. dropping through a bridge in a 19th-century carriage after seeing the ghost of a parent, 2. dropping into the river and half-drowning, 3. wondering why your dissolute brother is asking for help when you can't swim either, 4. wondering what happened to the 'lady of light repute' whom the brother brought along on this carriage outing, and 5. being irritated that the brother didn't learn to swim when the chance was offered, and 6. blaming this on the racist, slave-owning social order.

Rather than ruminating about experiential memories and spiritual perceptions as well as the messages of the boring, ordinary, tactile 'five senses,' perhaps you would grapple with the idea of imminent death.

Instead, Coates's narrator recalls the near-drowning in terms like these:
But knowing now the awesome power of memory, how it can open a blue door from one world to another, how it can move us from mountains to meadows, from green woods to fields caked in snow, knowing now that memory can fold the land like cloth, and knowing, too, how I had pushed my memory of her into the "down there" of my mind, how I forgot, but did not forget, I know now that this story, this Conduction, had to begin there on that fantastic bridge between the land of the living and the land of the lost. (Taken from the Penguin RandomHouse website)
I looked up the Adventures of Tom Sawyer to have an idea of how a 19th-century novelist might have written this type of desperate situation, since I have accused Ta-Nehisi Coates of going too far but I should be fair.

I expected tight and spare prose. Yet this is how Mark Twain writes the death by thirst of a villainous character:
In one place near at hand, a stalagmite had been slowly growing up from the ground for ages, builded by the water-drip from a stalactite overhead. The captive had broken off the stalagmite, and upon the stump had placed a stone, wherein he had scooped a shallow hollow to catch the precious drop that fell once in every three minutes with the dreary regularity of a clock-tick—a dessert spoonful once in four and twenty hours. That drop was falling when the Pyramids were new; when Troy fell; when the foundations of Rome were laid; when Christ was crucified; when Columbus sailed; when the massacre at Lexington was "news." (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer at Archive.org, p. 254)

It reminds me of the 18th-century British poet William Cowper's narrator in his poem "The Castaway," too. The narrator states that the feelings of a sailor who is drowning are not as profound as his own mental turmoil. That displays — in my view — a lack of down-to-earth good sense.
No voice divine the storm allay'd,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatch'd from all effectual aid,
We perish'd, each alone;
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulphs than he.
(Excerpt from "The Castaway" (1799) in "William Cowper" [Wikipedia])
(Yet in Cowper's case I think the quotation reflects a vein of classist thinking, that 'ordinary men' are stupider and less sensitive than intellectuals, which Coates hasn't revealed in any of the essays I've read by him.)


In any case, even if Coates zooms off on tremendous tangents at moments when the plot takes a dramatic turn, and buries practical logic in abstractions, he is in eminent company.

In the end I guess Water Dancer doesn't need to be a strict historical portrait or psychological naturalism. It is a novel that seems to be about digging deep and personally coming to grips with American history, it has surrealist elements, and magic drives events so that the book consequences of any situation are always going to be different than real-life consequences. So I think that Water Dancer may well be enjoyable despite my nitpicking about the excerpt.


Anyway, to end the list of books by famous authors: Next month, John Le Carré will publish a new spy novel.


All of these book releases are so well publicized that — except for the long discussion of Water Dancer, because it's the book I'm likeliest to want to read — I will add nothing more.

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