Ottessa Moshfegh – My Year of Rest and Relaxation

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Ottessa Moshfegh – My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Looking at her from the outside, she has everything one could wish for: she is blond, pretty, thin, a Columbia graduate, stylish without effort and she has a job at a gallery. Due to her inheritance, she can afford an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But that’s just one side of the medal, her relationship with Trevor has been all but healthy, her parents never showed any affection and thus losing them both when she was in college was a minor affair. What she is lacking is an aim in life, something that gives her a reason for being alive. She feels exhausted and just wants to sleep until everything is over. She slowly extends her time in bed, she even falls asleep at work and then, finally, she decides to hibernate. A crazy therapist provides her with medication that allows more and more hours of sleep at a time. She hopes that after a year of rest, she will awake as somebody new.

Ottessa Moshfegh is a US-American writer who earned a degree in Creative Writing from Brown University and whose short stories were received with positive reviews. After her novella “McGLue”, her first novel “Eileen” was published in 2015 and made it on the shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Having chosen a mostly unsympathetic protagonist for her former novel, I found it much easier so sympathise with her narrator in “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”.

The young woman who is portrayed is quite typical in a certain way. She is the modern New Yorker who takes part in the glittery art circus, is a part of a subculture of believes itself to be highly reflective and innovative. At a certain point, the superficiality becomes exhausting and the aimless tittle-tattle and prattle don’t provide any deeper insight.

“The art at Ducat was supposed to be subversive irreverent, shocking, but was all just canned counterculture crap, “punk, but with money”.

Also her relationship does not go beyond superficial sex and one-night-stands that lead to nothing. Added to this is the easy availability of all kinds of drugs, of therapists who themselves are too crazy to detect any serious illness in their clients and therefore just fill in any prescription they are asked for. Even though the plot starts in 2000, the characters are quite typical for the 1990s and they need a major event to wake them up and bring them back to real life.

The narrator tries to flee the world and takes more and more pills mixed with each other, as a result she is sleepwalking, even gets a new haircuts and orders masses of lingerie without knowing. Her radius is limited to her blog, her only human contacts are the Egyptians at the bodega at the corner where she buys coffee, the doorman of her apartment house and Reva, her best friend who still cares about her. Even though she is bothered by the things she does when she is not awake, she has become that addicted that she cannot let go anymore.

Even though the protagonist is highly depressive and seeing how badly she copes with her life is hard to endure in a way, the novel is also hilarious. I especially liked her meetings with her therapist since Dr. Tuttle is riotous in her eccentric ways and their dialogues are highly comical – despite the earnestness of their actual topics. Ottessa Moshfegh most certainly earns a place among to most relevant authors of today.

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Laura van den Berg – The Third Hotel

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Laura van den Berg – The Third Hotel

Clara travels to Havana, Cuba, to attend a film festival. She is there on professional terms she tells the people, but actually, she works as a sales representative for ThyssenKrupp. She watches a horror movie, Revolución Zombi, due to its renowned director and she is looking for Richard – her lately deceased husband who was actually working on film. During her endless search, memories come up, the last days together with Richard before he was killed in an accident, their wedding day, her childhood when her parents owned a hotel in Florida that she roamed like a ghost.

Just as Clare wanders the streets of Havana, so do her thoughts and the reader accompanies her in her search which will lead to nothing – quite the contrary, the longer she roams, the more she herself seems to get lost. At times, she is self-conscious, understands exactly what is going on, that her mind is in exceptional circumstances due to the loss she has just experienced, but then again, she is talking to Richard as if he stood right next to her.

“The Third Hotel” – the name Clara gives her accommodation in Havana since twice before the taxi driver had taken her to the wrong one – is a psychological study in what can happen to a person whose life is turned upside down. Even the simplest things become obstacles hard to overcome:

“What was she doing in Havana? A simple question and yet she could not find a simple answer.”

Clare experiences as she calls it a “dislocation from reality”. There are phone calls when the phone never rings, there are people at the other end of the line that could be herself – she is lost in a parallel world that collides with other peoples’ reality but then again, there are walls that clearly separate those two spaces. Towards the end, a short dialogue perfectly sums up how Clare feels:

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, Clare said, with bitterness.

What doesn’t kill you leaves you alive, Richard countered. (…)

What doesn’t kill you only leaves you feeling broken and insane.”

She is not herself anymore, just like her father who also suffered metal degeneration, she at times cannot differentiate between what’s real and what’s imagined anymore.

The strongest parts of the novel are the descriptions, Laura van den Berg has an eye for the detail and particularly for the sensory aspects. Her protagonist might be gone mad, but her feelings are real. Apart from this, I liked the travel metaphors a lot. The characters are constantly moving in the novel, everybody is travelling, alone in a group, going here and there, on trains, buses, airplanes – yet, does anybody every arrive? Figuratively, aren’t we all relentlessly roaming and searching for our self, not knowing if we ever arrive?

Daisy Johnson – Everything Under

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Daisy Johnson – Everything Under

Gretel does not grow up like other kids do. Her mother is different, they live on a boat, stop here and there and they even invent their own language. After the mother’s sudden disappearance, Gretel is left on her own devices and has to find a place in the world. The early fascination for words quite naturally makes her a lexicographer, a very lonesome job in which she updates dictionary entries. Even though she hadn’t been in contact with her mother for more than sixteen years, she hasn’t forgotten her and always feared that she might be the person behind a newspaper article about a fatal accident. When they are re-united, also the long lost memories of their former time together come back.

Daisy Johnson’s debut novel is nominated on the Man Booker Prize 2018 longlist, itself already an honour, but even more so for an author at the age of only 28. It only takes a few pages into the novel to see why it easily could persuade the judges: it is wonderfully written, poetic and shows a masterly use of language:

 

“I’d always felt that our lives could have gone in multiple directions, that the choices you made forced them into turning out the way they did. But maybe there were no choices; maybe there were no other outcomes.”

Gretel’s has never been easily and having found her mother, seriously marked by her illness, doesn’t make it easier since she will never get answers but has to live with how her life turned out.

What I found most striking was how Daisy Johnson easily transgresses boundaries in her novel: being female or male – does it actually matter? If you call a person Marcus or Margot, it’s just the same, you immediately recognize the person behind the label. Sarah and Gretel live on the water and on land, they blend in nature and don’t see a line between man and animal or plants, it’s just all there. The language itself also doesn’t know any limits; if need be, create new words to express what you want to say. And there is this creature, a fantastic being that can also exist either in Sarah’s mind or in this novel where so much is possible.

Just like Gretel and her brother Hansel who were left in the woods but managed to find a way out, Gretel follows the crumbs to her mother, retraces the journey they did when she was young and with the help of the people she meets, tries to make sense of her own and especially her mother’s life.

The structure is demanding since it springs backwards and forwards which I found difficult to follow at times. But the language’s smoothness and virtuosity compensate for this exceedingly.

Bina Shah – Before She Sleeps

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Bina Shah – Before She Sleeps

A virus has seriously affected human population. Even though men and women get infected equally, it is only deadly for the later with the consequence that the number of female citizens has drastically been diminished. Thus, in Green City, women are assigned several husbands and closely monitored to keep the number of children born as high as possible. This is the single task for them and there is no alternative to functioning as a kind of human breeder. But some women just don’t want to comply with the assigned role and a kind of secret underground community has been formed known as the Panah. To keep their group alive, the women offer a service which is not provided by the wives anymore: non-sexual companionship. Sabine is one of the women living underground, but when she collapses on the street after visiting a client, the whole community is threatened to be revealed.

Bina Shah, a Pakistani writer, columnist and blogger who has published several novels and short story collections has created quite an interesting feminist dystopian novel with “Before She Sleeps”. Since Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been talked about a lot in the last couple of months, it is quite natural to compare the two pieces of work since they belong to the same genre. In my opinion, Shah does not have to hide from the great Mrs Atwood.

What I found the strongest in the novel was the picture of the society highly affected by a drastically decreased number of women. On the one hand, they are worshipped since they are the only ones who can cater for an increase in population, on the other, they easily become the victims of rape and male outrage due to the non-fulfilled sexual needs. They are regarded not as equal human beings but in terms of their functionality and thus severely reduced in their significance as humans. Both, men and women, have no say when it comes to the choice of a partner. From a political point of view, this makes sense, but it is obvious that it doesn’t actually support social rest and satisfaction or content. What the new society lacks most seems to be compassion and emotion, this is only visible in the women living underground.

I also liked the protagonist Sabine. Her motivation for fleeing for her duty as a woman is well motivated and her family story comprehensibly portrayed. Also her state of mind and how she is betrayed by a man whom she trusted to a certain extent and the effect the abuse has on her psychologically seemed to me quite authentic and believable.

All in all, an important contribution to the ongoing discussion about women’s rights and the way they are treated by men.

Chico Buarque – My German Brother

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Chico Buarque – My German Brother

It is by coincidence that the Brazilian musician and author learns that his dad fathered a boy when he lived in Germany. Their house has always been full of books, his father a passionate historian and writer, horded them and, at times, forgot letters and other things in them. It is such a letter that Chico finds which indicates that his father had an affair with a certain Anne Ernst when he lived in Berlin as a journalist around 1930. Later, when the Nazi regime took over, he tried to bring his son to Brazil. Since father and son hardly talk to each other, it is not an option for Chico to ask him about the unknown half-brother, thus, Chico starts his research on his own.

Even though the book is classified as fiction, it is based on Chico Buarque’s life and the facts he reports about his father and German brother are actually true. Sérgio Buarque de Holanda spent some time in Berlin where Sergio Günther was born who later became a well-known artist in the German Democratic Republic. Unfortunately, the brothers never had the chance to meet.

I really appreciate Buarque’s tone of narration, especially at the beginning, the light-heartedness with which the young men move around town is well transferred into the language the author uses. Interesting to observe are the family structures. Even though the father’s main occupation is closely linked to language in all shapes and forms, the family members hardly find a way to communicate with each other and the most important things remain unsaid. A third aspect which struck me was the part in the novel which gives insight in the time of the military regime. Hardly do I know anything about the country’s history, therefore those glimpses are most fascinating.

Sometimes life itself invents the best stories. Even though some of it is fictional, I found Chico Buarque’s story about his mysterious brother most intriguing and a perfect example of how complicated families and our lives can be.

Andrew Sean Greer – Less

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Andrew Sean Greer – Less

Arthur and Freddy have spent so many years together, but now, Freddy is going to marry somebody else. This already would be enough, but Arthur’s situation is even worse: he is about to turn fifty, thus, officially old. How to avoid the dreadful wedding and his birthday? The solution is close at hand: he accepts several invitations bringing him first to New York, then Mexico, afterwards across the ocean to Italy, Germany and Morocco before returning home via India and Japan. However, leaving behind your everyday life does not mean that your worries also stay at home. They follow Less around the word as constant companions at his side.

Andrew Sean Greer had been quite successful with his short stories before he started writing novels. His sixth, “Less”, was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer prize for Fiction, after he had already received the California Book Award and the O. Henry Award among others for his works.

It is hard to find words to adequately describe the novel. I simply adored it every minute. First of all, there is this extraordinary protagonist Arthur Less who is, in his own view, so plain, ordinary, normal and uninteresting and yet seems to fascinate everybody he meets, makes them fall in love with him instantly and puts a kind of spell on them they cannot escape. The reader also falls for him at once – albeit I cannot explain why this is exactly the case. It is surely not because he is outstandingly good-looking or especially witty, he seems to have some kind of charisma that attracts people.

Second, the narrator. He seems to be acquainted with Less, even though he merely hints at when and how they met and what their relationship is like. Often he recedes and just tells the story, but now and again, he talks to the reader, comments and readjusts the reader’s perspective. Even though a lot of disasters happen to Less on his journey and despite the fact that the two major loves of his life are lost, his life isn’t too bad.

Watching Less stumble through his journey, his anxiety about ageing – his is 49, not 50! – his being mainly known for having spent years at the side of a successful writer while his own work did only find small recognition – all his little flaws make him even more likeable. His modesty, his shyness – he is not less, but much more. A wonderfully written novel, full of love and compassion.

Sarah Henstra – The Red Word

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Sarah Henstra – The Red Word

For a conference, Karen returns to the town she attended college many years before. It is not a pleasant return since the place is connected to sad memories. Going back there brings it all again to her mind. Her roommates, nice girls at first, whose plan got completely wrong. Her then boy-friend and his fraternity GBC who always treated her nicely but also had another, darker side. The teacher they all admired in their gender studies classes. And the scandal that shock the whole town.

Sarah Henstra’s novel tells different tales with only one story. First of all, we have the strong protagonist Karen who as a Canadian always stands a bit outside her fellow students’ circles. She doesn’t have the same background; neither does she have the rich parents who provide her with all she needs not does she come with the intellectual package that most of the others seem to possess. The need to earn money to support herself keeps her from leading the same life as they do. This also brings her into the special situation between the groups who soon find themselves at war.

The central topic, however, is how college students deal with sex. On the one hand, we have the partying during which much alcohol and all kinds of drugs are consumed which makes the young people reckless and careless. On the other hand, we have the planned drugging of young women with Rohypnol to abused them. There is a third perspective, represented by the academic intelligentsia: the classic image of the woman as victim, portrayed in history and literature throughout the centuries and which did not change in more than two thousand years.

“The Red Word” could hardly be more relevant and up-to-date in the discussions we have seen all over the word about male dominance and indiscriminate abuse of their stronger position. Sarah Henstra does not just foreshadow what happens at the student houses, she openly talks about the rape that happens there. And she does provide a credible picture of what happens afterwards, of how women are accused of having contributed or even asked for it, of lame excuses for the male behaviour and of the psychological effect these experiences have on the students – both, male and female. It is not just black and white, there are many shadows and motives behind their actions, Henstra integrates them convincingly.

A felicitous novel with a very important story to tell.

Tamara Colchester – The Heart is a Burial Ground

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Tamara Colchester – The Heart is a Burial Ground

What can a daughter learn from her mother? Four generations of women of one family suffer from their respective mother’s way of life, the choices they made and the future they planned for their kids. The first generation is embodied by Caresse Crosby, Harry Crosby’s wife, a young American who freed herself from Puritan Bostonian convictions and was looking for freedom and a life for the arts in Europe. Her daughter Diana grows up in Paris between all the famous people of the so called “Lost Generation” and never had to chance to just be a girl, too much was projected in her. Diana’s daughters Elena and Leonie found ways of opposing their mother by opting for very traditional models of love and life. Elena’s young children, one even unborn, are now the fourth generation who grows up with a heavy legacy.

The novel oscillates between times and places. We meet the Parisian It-crowd of the twenties when Caresse and Harry have their big time and Diana is just a girl. Then we jump to Caresse’s last days in Italy, decades after she has lost her husband and when her grand-daughters are already grown-up women. Another 20 years on, Diana’s life is coming to an end. Yet, no matter what point in time in general or in the characters’ life, the core question is always the same: what do you expect from life and how much love do you need?

Alternating the setting surely makes the novel lively, on the other hand, the development of the characters suffers from this non-linear or non-chronological arrangement. Even though you can make out especially Diana’s development, her daughters, for example, remained a bit a mystery for me. What I found intriguing, however, was the highly complex mother-daughter relationship which becomes very clear in every constellation: on the one hand, unconditional love and the hope that the daughter can break away from conventions and find love and happiness in life, on the other hand, the fact that they cannot live up to their own ideals and that wishes are not fulfilled makes them also reproachful and mean in their later life.

It is quite interesting to see that the author Tamara Colchester herself is a descendant of this family. This raises the question of how much fiction and how much reality you can find in the text. No matter the answer, it’s a novel about strong women and the choices we make in our lives.

Lisa Halliday – Asymmetry

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Lisa Halliday – Asymmetry

When he first sees her, author Ezra Blazer falls for Alice, a young woman working at a publishing house. Their lives could not be more different, just as the age and the experiences they have. But nevertheless, their love develops slowly and again and again, Alice is astonished by Ezra’s generosity and affection. However, when it comes to his friends, Alice is not presented as his partner; she is just someone he works with, he even invents a new name for her. In Halliday’s second chapter, we meet Amar, a young American of Iraqi origin who is detained at Heathrow Airport and waiting to be released to spend a couple of hours with a friend before boarding anew and travel to his parents’ home country. In the very last chapter, we meet Ezra again, being interviewed and talking about his love for music and women.

Looking at the novel as a whole is simply impossible. The three parts differ so much that I simply cannot talk about them in general. I liked the first part about Alice’s and Ezra’s love most. The way it develops is quite classy, you get to know Ezra as an elderly artist who downright courting Alice, on the one hand, by offering small and large presents and introducing her to his world of art. On the other hand, however, he is not only older but also more powerful, he dictates the rules of their partnership; they are never equals, she is dependent on his kindness and willingness to see her. When he comes up with the ridiculous idea of giving her a new name and resenting her just as a woman he works with but not as a friend, she obviously feels offended, but nonetheless accepts his wish. There is a clear asymmetry in their relationship.

This asymmetry in power is also present in the second part where Amar is fully dependent on the British authorities who seem to act rather arbitrarily. He is kept waiting for hours, never knowing what is going to happen next, if he will ever be granted access to the country or what they accuse him of actually. If he started questioning their procedure, he’d only risk setting them against him and thus reducing his chances of leaving the airport. While waiting, Amar is left alone with his thoughts and memories, memories of long gone love stories, but also memories of Iraq and the war that has been raging there for years and the shifting powers depending on who is in charge.

In the last part, Ezra reappears, now in the role as interviewee. Again, he shows his charms in talking to the young female journalist with whom he flirts openly. Interestingly, she has a plan for the interview but has to give it up and to follow his rules. Another case of asymmetry.

Lisa Halliday really knows how to captivate the reader. Her story is exceptionally well constructed; the fine imbalances are never addressed openly but present throughout the narration. She easily enthralled me and kept me reading on.

Richard Lawson – All we can do is wait

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Richard Lawson – All we can do is wait

An awful accident brings a bunch of teenager together in the waiting area of a hospital: a Boston bridge collapsed during busy traffic and now they are waiting for news. Scott is afraid that his girlfriend Aimee might be amongst the dead. Skyler was on the telephone with her sister when Kate suddenly broke away. Jason and Alex fear the worst about their parents who were on the way to Alexa’s school. And Morgan already knows that her father is not alive anymore. While they are condemned to wait in the sterile area without any information, they all recall the last couple of months, what they went through with the loved ones, the good sides and the bad ones. But sharing this feeling of utmost anxiety also brings out things which were long buried and in the morning, they are not the same anymore.

“All we can do is wait” has the classic drama setting: all characters in one place, waiting for the moment when they are either relieved or their biggest fear is confirmed. There is nothing they can do to change the situation, they have to sit and wait for the verdict. No matter what they wish or pray for, their fate is already sealed but they do not know about it.

Richard Lawson makes his young protagonists alternate in the narration. Each chapter is dedicated to one of them and slowly their lives unfold. Thus, we are not constantly in the situation of extreme stress in the waiting room, but look back also on happy moments full of joy and love. But the sword of Damocles of looming over them all the time and inevitable we return to the hospital.

The story is full of emotion, positive and negative ones, and the author created authentic and lovable characters who are credible in their fears and hopes. They already show whom they are going to be in a couple of years and yet, they are still adolescents with great hopes and wishes. Apart from this, there is obviously a lot of suspense because you just want to know what happened to their friends, sister and parents. This just makes you read on and on and on. I really loved the novel even though it is a rather melancholy story that is told.