Sunday, August 23, 2009

confessions of a chimp

One of the joys of the Booker Prize list is when I’m introduced to a novel I would not otherwise choose to read - and Me Cheeta certainly fits that bill. And a good job I took a chance on it because I was hooked after a just a few pages.

I know a fair bit about primates and next to nothing about the Golden Age of Hollywood but neither were a barrier to enjoying this book. Whilst specific names and films and incidents meant little to me the overall tone kept me engaged throughout. Cheeta’s story bears much relevance to our current celebrity obsessed culture, where hopefuls fling themselves at fame, and even minor celebrities update their autobiography every other year. At times I had to pinch myself to remember that this was fiction (sort of).

Cheeta, the ultimate unreliable narrator, played varied appealing roles within his life story, and I’m left with many memorable moments. There were scenes of innocence and experience - eating his first banana, seeing stuffed heads of walls and commenting on the animal loving nature of the home-owner. A master of faux naivety, the reader rapidly realises that Cheeta knows far more than he is letting on, such as when he calls a plane an ‘iron bird’ when knowing full well both it’s make and model.

There were moments of existential wisdom -

‘A human trying to act a chimpanzee is somehow pathetic, whereas a chimpanzee trying to act a human is funny because… well, why is that? Something to do with aspiration. You think we’re pure and want to be us. We know you’re not pure, but we still aspire to be you.’

and heartbreaking poetry -

‘I still felt scattered, like the golden light rippling on the underside of a bridge.’

Me Cheeta does what many of the best of the old films does, it makes you laugh, it makes you cry, and it sucks you in despite any reservations you may hold. Earlier copies of the novel name Cheeta as the author, and online articles talk of James Lever merely ghost-writing the autobiography, so it’s hard to know who to credit with the achievement. But it’s fun and unexpected and great to see such a banana skin slipped in amongst the more serious Booker longlisters.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

land of confusion

The Wilderness is the first novel I’ve read that features a central character with Alzheimer’s. It’s a disease that offers plenty of potential for literature, but has inherent pitfalls, which I fear that Harvey fell into at times.

The way Harvey charts the progression of Jake’s illness is memorable and moving. Incidents such as the first time a loved one notices that something isn’t quite right, losing common words, and finally total bewilderment at everyone and everything.

‘He sees a mouth moving, hears words cluster together like a series of shapes that promise tessellation, but which do not, no matter how one turns them.’

I also liked the structure that Harvey used, with the main story interspersed with titled chapters reflecting past events. This made the novel feel a little like a collection of stories, perhaps showing up that there is less organisation to life that we sometimes like to believe, a pretension that Alzheimer’s is keen to strip away.

In the same way as Toibin with Brooklyn I feel Harvey probably achieved her aim, but in reality I found The Wilderness quite a confusing read. Some people have simple lives - if they then develop Alzheimer’s it becomes more confusing. However, when someone has a complex life (as Jake does to my mind) and then Alzheimer’s comes into play the story descends into chaos. To my mind Harvey tried to do too much, and didn’t quite pull it off. Jake’s story without the Alzheimer’s might have worked, the Alzheimer’s story without quite so many other threads might have worked, but the two together clashed.

‘Gradually he is being scattered and lost - hundreds of unread messages floating out across the sea.’

I came to care for the increasingly unreliable narrator Jake, his pockets stuffed full of letters, head stuffed full of grand plans for glass houses, his heart pulled in many directions at once, but at too many times during the novel I felt like I was the one losing the plot.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

there and back again

Irish novels often feel like familiar territory. In almost every one a character heads off to America in hope of a better life. So Brooklyn, with its central story of just that journey, seems like a good place to start my voyage into Booker waters.

This is a novel about a couple of years in the life of Eilis Lacey. And that is both its strength and its weakness - because a novel that has such modest aims relies heavily on the ability of that character to engage the reader. And there Eilis struggled for me.

Eilis is supremely passive. Life happens to her. Major decisions are made for her, and she goes along with them. She assumes there are no other options, but she doesn’t even look for them. I felt little connection with her, perhaps because there was so little substance to connect with. In fact the only glimmer of life came when grief visited. As if until then she was a blank slate waiting for pain to write its message on.

‘Somehow, she thought, if she could look at him, take him in clearly when he was not trying to amuse her or impress her, something would come to her, some knowledge, or some ability to make a decision.’

It seems clear that Colm Toibin intended Eilis to be this way, and he succeeded in maintaining that throughout, but in creating such a passive character inevitably the novel itself took on a lot of her character. At times I felt I was drifting through it, floating from scene to scene, with my attention only partly engaged.

Thankfully my partial engagement took notice of some of the background details which gave my reading greater satisfaction. Many of the minor characters were lively and entertaining. I was particularly fond of the wily Mrs Kehoe. The dialogue of minor characters often brought scenes to life and offered genuine humour in places -

‘No one likes flies,’ Miss Kelly said, ‘especially on a Sunday.’

I also loved the significant role of letters throughout the novel. It is letters that firstly arrange her passage to Brooklyn, and once there Eilis comes to experience her Brooklyn largely through what she chooses to share or omit from her letters home. A times letters hold offer both good and bad news, and in the end they remain unopened and unreplied to signalling Eilis further decent into passivity.

Brooklyn is an example of good old-fashioned linear storytelling. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a calm voyage with Toibin at the helm, although at times I felt like we were barely moving. Admittedly we got to our destination but I can’t help thinking I would have enjoyed a few more choppy patches.