Krys Lee’s Drifting House, and Lars Iyer’s Dogma.
Picador, February 2012. 213 pp.
Some books are strong on plot, some on characters, others on setting or voice. Very few hit all targets equally well. In Five Bells, Gail Jones creates four characters that may never leave your consciousness, so indelibly does she draw them. Each of these four has their own interior music; their lives follow natural patterns. With her first few brushstrokes, Jones sets these lives in motion, towards each other, until a moment in time when they are, for a few brief seconds, within several feet of each other on Circular Quay in Sydney, Australia. It is as if the shape of the quay, the shape (or shapes) of the Sydney Opera House, the shapes of their lives align in those brief seconds.
Ellie is propelled in circles. She has a “trampoline heart.” When she arrives on the quay and has her first view of the Opera House her “heart opened like that form unfolding into the blue; she was filled with corny delight and ordinary elation.” She will meet James, her first love, who she has not seen in many decades. James is disintegrating in the wake of a tragic event. Jones gradually gives us the information we need to understand his proclivity for disintegration — his childhood, his very depressed mother, and other components of the soil in which he has grown to a man. When he first arrives at the quay he is “obstinately unjoyful.” He crushes a pyramid of salt on the table.
Pei Xing’s life has unfolded in the shape of a fan. A child in the Cultural Revolution, her traumas are myriad. In her new life in Australia, for example, she is forced into a chance meeting with the prison guard in China who beat and humiliated her so many years ago.
In the wilderness of leaving Shanghai, these selves had blended and folded; now, in meditation, she was able to fan them apart. This was her habit, these days, to see herself in this way, the concertina of a life in which she saw her own folds and crevices. I have lived many lives.Catherine also has a tragedy in her past. Her interior music is played by Bono and Dylan. Her life is fluttering out of control, out of her grasp. “Bridge, water, harbour, ferry: all were ablaze, all illuminate. This part of the world collected light as if funneled double-strength from the sun.”
Jones weaves these characters together; but more importantly, dare one say it, she weaves their auras together, the wake around them, the lives they have lived, the tragedies they have lived through.
Viking, February 2012. 207 pp.
The characters in Krys Lee’s stories are resourceful, determined, fragile, intimate, and lonely all at once. Most have been forced to piece together a life between Korea and America. In these patchwork lives, words like intimacy, proximity, identity, mother, father, child, family all have new meanings. A reader must learn this new vocabulary quickly lest all of Lee’s stories melt into pity. The effect on the children of families forced to send one member to America is profound: their growth, creativity, success in relationships are all affected. But what rises to the top — the cream of the stories — is the sheer will, the determination required to do whatever is necessary to create new opportunities for the next generation. The “goose fathers” send money to their families in America. The mothers who have given up their children live in pain, broken. Instability caused by famine, finance, and separated families makes this a book of floating stories, drifting houses, vertiginous survival. A reader feels, quite literally, dizzy; as if she were looking down from the bridge into the swirling black water, thinking, Surely, this would be easier than that.
Melville House, February 2012. 223 pp.
Our heroes: unlikely philosophers, whining their way through the American South and their hometowns of Plymouth and Newcastle in England. W. and Lars have Monty Python and Kierkegaard locked in a death grip in their DNA. W. is continually surprised and disgusted by Lars: his slackness, his torpor, his inability to learn anything. Lars (Eeyore to W.’s Winnie ille Pooh) is right to wonder who is the orderly and who is the lunatic on their lunatic’s outings into the world. “One day they’ll decrypt me,” W. says to Lars in one of many rants. “One day, the Rosetta Stone of my stupidity will yield up its secrets. — ‘You see!’, W. will say. ‘I told you so!’, he’ll say, when they solve my riddle.”
Together, they form Dogma, their religion. They make presentations to ever-dwindling groups in both countries, each time more drunken than the last. Eventually disgusted with America — “The United States of Thought-Robbery,” W. calls it — they head home to spread the word. W. is strongly against art: “We ought to fine artists rather than subsidise them, he says. They ought to be subject to systematic purges. He’s never doubted we need some kind of Cultural Revolution.” Dogma is chock-full of this and other modest proposals. Just when my hilarity over the first book of their misadventures, Spurious, had faded to a low chuckle, Dogma comes along. Between the two books, there’s almost no point in breathing, much less coming to any strong conclusions about life, the universe, and everything.
Susan Salter Reynolds is a book critic and writer who lives in Los Angeles and Vermont. She has three children: Sam, Ellie, and Mia.
Image: Strata © Stanford Kay (http://bit.ly/roWPSf)