What to read: July fiction

Novels of love and evil, from lesbian Victoriana to deft, Vonnegut-style humor and gritty Indian realism.

By Salon's critics
July 24, 2000 12:35PM (UTC)
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Every month, we assemble a team of Salon critics to sift through the piles of new novels and short story collections we receive and look for that rare gem -- a book we would eagerly recommend to a friend. Here's our list of July fiction, a mixture that includes high-spirited lesbian Victoriana, a haunted boarding school, lovelorn teenagers, a very bad civil servant, a heartbroken professor and, for good measure, a Cuban Pynchon. (We also like Aimee Bender's "An Invisible Sign of My Own," reviewed earlier this month. And you'll find a list of the new books that didn't impress us at the very end.)

By Sarah Waters
Riverhead Books, 352 pages


Sarah Waters' terrifically entertaining "Affinity" is plumb in love with female swooniness. Its Victorian heroine, Margaret, is forever feeling lightheaded and jumpy, or fighting off the effects of the "draughts" her mother presses on her while she tries to write in her journal. She's not a weakling or a fool, though. She's battling both institutional cruelty, in the form of the women's prison where she pays visits to the inmates, and the strictures society imposes on women, in the form of the domineering mother intent on making her daughter behave as a proper young lady.

Waters -- whose first novel was last year's "Tipping the Velvet" -- writes lesbian Victoriana in which her heroines struggle to realize a place where they can live out their desires. Margaret's desire is embodied by Selina Dawes, a young medium jailed for a disastrous siance that left a woman dead, whom she meets during her prison rounds. The vogue for historical novels makes now an especially good time for a writer like Waters. Her writing is atmospheric and supple enough to glide right past the artificiality of pastiche and immerse us in the period. Occasionally she allows her "point" to come to the fore ("Why do gentlemen's voices carry so clearly, when women's are so easily stifled?"), but primarily she's a storyteller and a spellbinder.

In the past year some of the most pleasurable novels have come from authors who are writing literary versions of women's romance fiction -- Sebastian Faulks' "Charlotte Gray," Valerie Martin's "Italian Fever" (which is indebted to E.M. Forster as well). Waters unashamedly plunges into Gothic melodrama, and what she comes up with is a rarity: a literate page turner. "Affinity" is a nifty example of the pleasure that a serious writer can still bring to a familiar gaslit form.


-- Charles Taylor

The River King
By Alice Hoffman
Putnam, 324 pages

Alice Hoffman has a way of sneaking up on you. She expresses herself so simply, and with such unabashed willingness to skirt the edges of "once upon a time," that a reader can be lulled into thinking that hers is a tamer world than it really is. "The River King," Hoffman's 14th novel, is populated with swans and roses, the detritus of fairy tales. But it's also vividly marked by the fallout of class resentments and the cruelties of love gone wrong and youth gone wild.


The sleepy town of Haddan, Mass., is home to an elite boarding school where the ruling class of tomorrow vents its scorn on the townies of today. Into this sharply divided arena wanders an odd collection of social straddlers: Betsy Chase, the school's unhappily engaged photography teacher; Abe Grey, the cop with a dark family past; August Pierce, an amateur prestidigitator who loathes his smug classmates; and Carlin Leander, a beautiful outsider on an athletic scholarship. Their lives begin to collide first in ordinary and then in extraordinary ways in the haunted halls of the Haddan School, and "The River King" boldly takes the reader with them over this strange terrain.

Hoffman glides with ease through potentially hokey matters -- she has a lovely gift for writing about ghosts and karmic retribution as if they were the most natural things in the world. But her work doesn't hang upon spectral photographs or floral-scented phantoms. What Hoffman does masterfully is crawl inside the heads of regular people as they fall in love, grieve and sink into the bitterest loneliness, as they find a place in the world, as they die. She doesn't flinch from the despair of unrequited emotion or the horror of sadistic revenge, nor does she shy away from the giddy glory of love at first sight. In many ways, she's like her own leading man, August, undeniably deft at simple tricks but blessed with a quietly breathtaking gift of true magic as well.


-- Mary Elizabeth Williams

The Name of the World
By Denis Johnson
HarperCollins, 129 pages

Four years after the death of his wife and daughter in an automobile accident, Mike Reed is like a creature suspended in amber. The Midwestern university where he teaches history and attends a string of dinners that end in hot buttered rum sipped before the fire in an atmosphere like that "of a very expensive gift shop" has come to seem oppressive. He can't muster the energy to hold onto his job or to land a new one at a place called the "Forum for Interpretive Scholarship" (the exquisite meaninglessness of that name testifies to Denis Johnson's gift for low-key, sidewise satire): "Is there any limit, I thought, to how boring this place can be?"


Although Reed drifts through most of this slim, piercing novel -- losing his job, taking up with a gambling partner who winds up punching him out in a bar, stumbling into a crush on an uninhibited student who keeps turning up to do wild things in the oddest places -- his inertia hides the fact that he is on the verge of a transformation. It begins when he realizes that even his own grief has lost its initial integrity; he haunts a gallery where he stares at a drawing that "consisted of a tiny single perfect square at the center of the canvas, surrounded by concentric freehand outlines ... at the outermost edges the shapes were no longer squares, but vast, chaotic wanderings."

Concerned with sorrow and the task of continuing in a world riven with loss, where perfection always decays, "The Name of the World" is still often shrewd and funny. Here's how Johnson describes academic leftists: "What they'd mistaken for a political philosophy had always amounted, they were seeing now, to an aesthetic, and the divorce it was undergoing from its previous claim to relevance could only serve to purify it. They were no-nonsense about being all nonsense." He says in two sentences what it takes the average academic satirist a whole book to say.

Then there's the prose. Johnson is the kind of writer who's so good you don't notice how good he is. There's no effort to reading this novel -- it just sort of slips in, less like reading than breathing in the cool dry air of winter. When you exhale, perhaps with a sigh as melancholy as one of Mike Reed's, the warmth will surprise you.


-- Laura Miller

Watch Your Mouth
By Daniel Handler
St. Martin's Press, 272 pages

I was saddened that day a few years ago when Kurt Vonnegut announced he had written his last novel. But after reading "Watch Your Mouth," I am comforted knowing that Daniel Handler is a writer who is more than ready to pick up the torch and write the kind of deftly funny absurdist story that both horrifies with its subject matter and hooks you with its humor.

"Watch Your Mouth" presents us with the Glass family -- Dr. Ben, Mimi and their children, Cynthia and Stephen -- and they're about as far from Salinger's Glasses as can be. Into their well-to-do Pittsburgh home one summer comes Joseph, Cyn's college boyfriend, who expects a season of easy work at a local day camp and bountiful sex in the bedroom he and Cyn will share. That last hope is quickly dashed, replaced by the awful realization that the Glasses seem caught in a weird circle of incest. And, as if things weren't strange enough, Mimi is spending a lot of time down in the basement, building what may be a fully functioning golem, a vengeful monster from Jewish folktales who can rise up and clean house, so to speak, in gruesome, brutal fashion.


Much of "Watch Your Mouth" is presented as an "opera in book form," a device that could be too cute in the wrong hands; here it works for a house full of events, as Joseph describes them, "that were melodramatic, heart-wrenching, and absurdly -- truly -- tragic." Joseph himself is the only character who seems afflicted by passivity, an inaction balanced by his funny, on-target narration (where, for instance, a woman wading topless into the surf is described as resembling "a Venus somebody was trying to throw back"). You don't have to believe in golems to give yourself over to this novel. But it helps if, like Handler, you believe Tolstoy was wrong, and that each family is different, whether happy or not.

-- Edward Neuert

An Obedient Father
By Akhil Sharma
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 292 pages

In the first two lines of his much-anticipated debut novel, "An Obedient Father," Akhil Sharma makes it clear that he will seek no sympathy and make no apologies for the New Delhi characters he depicts: "I needed to force money from Father Joseph, and it made me nervous. He had bribed me once before, for a building permit, soon after he became principal of Rosary School." Sharma's gritty, shocking honesty and spare prose left me spellbound but struggling, trying to understand his elaborately tormented characters, who seem hellbent toward an unimaginable fate. Will these desperate people find redemption in this degenerate capsule of India, and if so, are they worthy of it?


The narrator of the novel, a fat, loathsome and indolent widower named Ram Karan, introduces the reader to a world where relationships are built on mutual bribery and where to be "angry without power is to be ridiculous." Ram, a bribe taker for the Delhi Physical Education Department and reigning Congress Party, constantly wrestles with his own guilt and self-abhorrence -- the inescapable consequence of a life of excessive desire. His darkly comic and insatiable gluttony permeates the narrative, whether he's salivating over expensive food, leering at a naked woman nursing her baby or extorting money from schools.

Not surprisingly, Ram must protect himself and his family from political vengeance, but it is his home life that poses the biggest threat to his own survival. Twenty years ago, Ram repeatedly raped his daughter Anita and barely fought the temptation to molest Anita's daughter, Asha, his own granddaughter. When Anita discovers them together, she liberates her repressed rage, subjecting Ram to a peculiar punishment and a series of bribed confessions, the only retribution available to a poor, powerless woman in a country dominated by men.

Already, Sharma's novel has ignited some controversy; after the New Yorker published an excerpt of "An Obedient Father," outraged readers questioned Sharma's graphic passages describing incestuous rape. Many of Ram's rationalizations are monstrous; in the novel, he asks whether there is "much difference between what I did and a father who makes his children sing before guests at a party." This extraordinary book, however, unveils a world in which punishment is taken for granted while moral judgment is difficult if not impossible to come by. As Kusum, Ram's other daughter, who fled India for the United States, explains to her flippant American husband: "What's a joke there, in your world -- that's the only reality in this world."

-- Suzy Hansen


The Color of Summer
By Reinaldo Arenas
Translated by Andrew Hurley
Viking, 417 pages

The foreword to Reinaldo Arenas' rollicking Rabelaisian tour de force, "The Color of Summer," comes more than halfway through the novel, when the Cuban-born author announces that what we've been reading constitutes "a grotesque and satirical (and therefore realistic) portrait of an aging tyranny and the tyrant himself ... This novel presents a vision of an underground homosexual world that will surely never appear in any newspaper or journal in the world, much less in Cuba." Arenas' misplaced "preface" is but one example of the postmodern playfulness he displays throughout. But it's playfulness with a purpose: "The Color of Summer" represents not only a hilarious and linguistically rich achievement but also a scathing critique of "the Island" (Cuba, of course) and its power-hungry, fatigues-wearing, been-there-practically-forever dictator, Fifo (guess who).

Part autobiography, part ribald re-creation of "the secret history of Cuba," the novel is the fourth installment in Arenas' five-volume pentagonia. We're not talking the dreamy magic realism of Garcma Marquez or the labyrinthine worlds of Borges. Although he deals with themes common to Latin American literature (oppression, exile, the individual vs. society), Arenas creates a fictional universe totally unique, totally his own -- a cross between "La Cage aux Folles," Albert Camus and Thomas Pynchon. Through it all, Arenas places himself amid the action -- or rather inaction, as the novel is essentially plotless and nonlinear -- as three different personas: Gabriel, the dutiful son; Reinaldo, the tragic writer; and Skunk in a Funk, the "screaming queen."

At times it's too much to absorb, and "The Color of Summer" is too loose and baggy for its own good; but when Arenas, who committed suicide in 1990 while suffering from AIDS and who was repeatedly imprisoned by the Cuban authorities, is on (and that's for the majority of the novel's short 115 chapters), his writing soars with brilliance, with humor and with brimming rage.

-- Andrew Roe

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Don't bother: What our critics said about the rest

"A Man of Character" by Paolo Capriolo: "A somewhat diverting, but ultimately airless, novel of ideas."

"Brigham's Gate" by John Gates: "A great idea -- a down-and-out lawyer taking on an insular Mormon town -- ruined by the author's cheesy vanity regarding the main character."

"Grange House" by Sarah Blake: "The attempt to imitate Victorian narrative is unevenly applied and too precious."

"La Grande Terese" by Hilary Spurling: "Too thin, a skeletal story with not enough social history of France during the period in question."

"How to Be a Chicana Role Model" by Michelle Serros: "Funny and sweet but strictly for the very young."

"Pure" by Rebecca Ray: "I'm getting sick of stories about young girls finding their sexuality, and as a teenager myself, I didn't even find this believable."

"All We Know of Love" by Katie Schneiderman: "Bleached-out realism set on an American farm alternates with Italian passages that don't make a successful sensual contrast. Glum."

"Birds of Passage" by Robert Sole: "Trying to write 'The Leopard,' the author aims at sensory overload, but the result is very by the numbers."

"Daniel Plainway" by Van Reid: "Overly sweet."

"Stacking in Rivertown" by Barbara Bell: "An S/M thriller about the secret life of a bestselling novelist and suburban wife who gets mixed up with the mob. Improbable overkill."

"Blackberry Wine" by Joanne Harris: "The superficial tale of a British writer with a younger woman and a cellar full of magic wine. Unengaging."

"A Far Better Rest" by Susanne Alleyn: "An alternate telling of 'A Tale of Two Cities' in which the artificial Victorian style is painfully awful -- like a bodice ripper."

"Conditions of Faith" by Alex Miller: "Like Michael Ondaatje, but without the craft. Elliptical, with too much omniscient narration."

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