“Le Bateau” by Nam Le – Daring to fail

This is my review of Le Bateau (Litterature & Documents) by N Le.

Originality is the common theme in this collection of seven stories, varied in length, which range widely over different countries, cultures and themes, boldly shifting viewpoints by gender and age as if to “try them all out”.

The the last and most powerful story is “Le Bateau” which gives its name to the entire book Although the author Nam Le was only a baby when he made the perilous journey to Australia as one of the Vietnamese “boat people”, tales of this harrowing experience must have fed his vivid account of a young woman’s attempt to survive life on board as the ship is lashed by a storm and the stores of food and fresh water run out. She is befriended by a capricious woman, whose son, although disturbed by the effects of war, and possibly autistic, fascinates her and arouses in her a maternal love which the mother seems at times to lack.

This and the first story struck me as the most authentic and well-structured, perhaps because they are connected to the family culture and history with which Nam Le identifies, despite his absorption into life in Australia and the US. With its indigestibly long title “Love, honour, pity, pride, compassion, sacrifice, the opening story has aspects of autobiography in describing a young writer struggling to meet deadlines, ambivalent as to whether he should focus on “ethnic literature” to earn money. His dilemma is increased by the ethical question of whether he should use as a theme his father’s experience of a massacre at the hands of brutalised American GIs. Even if the older man is prepared to recall it in detail to iron out the “errors” in his son’s story, does that mean he is prepared to see it sold and read by westerners who will soon forget it? Although the ambiguous ending feels like a let-down at first, on reflection it is interesting to debate the various interpretations one can make.

Nam Le’s upbringing in Australia may have given a particular genuine and moving quality to the almost novella-length “Halfhead Bay”, in which teenage Jamie steels himself to face up to the school bully Dory after daring to make a play for his girlfriend. Should he be protected from Dory’s fists so that he can once again strike a winning goal for the school team, or for the sake of his dying mother? The subtle and complex “coming of age” drama takes place in the context of a family’s inability to face up to the reality of a crisis.

Despite the varied themes, the essential style remains the same. Each story develops gradually, so that the reader has to work out what it going on, and it is impossible to predict the outcome. Heavy use is made of flashbacks, which sometimes disrupt the narrative flow, although they could also be said to reflect the way the mind works, drifting back to past events triggered by experiences of the present, or perhaps as an escape from it. Nam Le creates some fascinating dilemmas, as when a young gangster is ordered to kill a friend to save his own life. He knows how to create page-turning tension, but the endings are often disappointing, an abrupt anti-climax. “Tehran calling” was so nebulous as to leave me completely unengaged.

Overall, Nam Le is a gifted writer, with a plain, clear style which draws one in. It is an effective vehicle for conveying subtle nuances in people’s relationships with each other, and descriptions filled with vividly striking images.

I agree with reviewers who feel that he is better at writing prose than structuring a short story. Each one is mined from a rich enough seam to fuel a full-length novel. He reminds me somewhat of Alice Munro’s short stories with their deceptively simple prose and sometimes meandering, unpredictable storyline.

I read these short stories in the French translation, which I would not recommend since the original English seems more suited to Nam Le’s style.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Still retains a surprising power to grip, at least in the original French!

This is my review of Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight) (Penguin Classics) by Émile Zola.

I gave this five stars in the original French. This English version is quite good and includes an interesting introduction to be read afterwards in the interest of avoiding spoiliers.

Since I associate Zola with grim, unrelenting tales of exploited coal miners, the theme of a Paris department store dedicated to delighting women seemed at first uncharacteristically tame and frothy. In fact, behind its plate glass and eye-catching displays, “Au Bonheur des Dames” proves to be as dominating and exploitative as any industrial factory, its shop assistants, clerks, packers and delivery men mere cogs in the machinery, as controlled as any industrial worker, on the mass production line of retailing.

Beneath his charm and apparent empathy with women and their love of fashion, inspired entrepreneur Octave Mouret is in fact a cynical manipulator: he is not only a casual seducer, but views his female customers as an inexhaustible captive market to be dazzled by his marketing ploys and all too readily induced to fritter away their husbands’ money on the material goods he displays with such alluring skill. His sponsor Baron Hartmann warns him that one day women will “get their revenge” but Mouret is knocked off course where he least expects it by the sweet, unsophisticated but stoical country girl Denise Baudu, who is quick to grasp that the department store is a part of inexorable progress, but steadfastly sticks to her personal principles.

In vivid if wordy descriptions, Zola describes how the magnificent store looms over the surrounding gloomy alleys, further cutting them out from the sun. These are the haunts of the resentful traditional shopkeepers who persist in their stubborn and ultimately fruitless struggle to survive, when they cannot realistically hope to compete with Mouret’s drastic discounts and huge variety of goods. The scale and brightness of his store, with the light pouring in through glazed roofs, and the Lowry-style bustle on the metal staircases and galleries, as far as the eye can see, creates the idea of a self-contained community, which Zola sometimes calls a “phalanstery” after the C19 ideas of Charles Fourier for a utopian community.

Yet, although the workers are housed and fed in a paternalistic way, the shop is far from utopian: staff are not allowed to have visitors in their rooms, women have to leave when they become pregnant, and in the summer months of slack demand, assistants are dismissed for the slightest imagined misdemeanour. Not surprisingly, they often resort to scams to swindle the store, and the smallest rumour or incident is exaggerated and spread on the gossip grapevine. Although the customers look down on the assistants who must be ladylike without being accepted as ladies, they often behave badly, not merely overspending on luxuries and abusing the “returns” policy, but even resorting to shop-lifting.

Just as the store seems very topical in these times of zero hours contracts, class divides and the ravages of competition, Zola’s characters are real in their flaws and complexity. There are also some moments of comedy amongst the exhausting materialism of the store contrasting with the suffering of the impoverished small shopkeepers.

The novel is best read in French, although the exhaustive lists of specialised fabrics and some of the dated procedures forced me to resort to English translations. These vary a good deal in quality, so it is advisable to check them out before purchase.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Swallow whole

This is my review of A boy with potential: A choirboy’s sinister discovery (Crime shorts Book 1) by Rosalind Minett.

This well-written and expertly constructed tale sustains a sense of sinister tension to the end, but with underlying poignancy over the extent to which "oyster boy" – who ironically has misinterpreted the one piece of kind attention he receives – is a victim of other people's casual abuse. Although I agree that there is the material here for a novel, it makes a particular impact in its current concise format.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Crueler than their circumstance

This is my review of Redeployment by Phil Klay.

A dozen often bleak and brutal stories carry an authentic ring based on the author’s first-hand experience as a marine in Iraq. Although it is deliberate in the case of “OIF”, some are too cluttered with military acronyms, either meaningless or distracting if you pause to work them out or look them up. Others which focus on the fighting have nowhere to go after ramming home the way young soldiers are trained as unquestioning killing machines, kept in this state by psychopathic officers, then swear, take drugs and get drunk to blunt their fear, guilt and confusion.

What held me more were the issues raised by the “redeployment” of the title : how these men might deal with the return to “normal” life and communicate with non-combatants.

The brilliant opening story, “Redeployment”, describes with great clarity and insight a young man’s sensations on returning home from a seven month stint in Iraq. Having been trained to function at an “orange” level of alert all the time, he cannot adjust at first to a world of people “who’ve spent their whole lives on white”. He cannot cope with walking down the high street alone, rather than in a line of men, each detailed to scan ahead at a different level: tops of buildings, lower windows or at street level. “You startle ten times checking” for the gun that is no longer there. By the end of the trip, the man is too “amped up” to drive. “I would have gone at a hundred miles an hour.”

In “War Stories”, a young man whose face has been hideously scarred agrees to be interviewed by a chilly young actress “with a splinter of ice in her heart” who wants to use his experiences for a play. She is only interested in the drama of his injury, so never discovers his pragmatic decision, being unlikely to “pull” a girl like her, to give his undamaged sperm to a bank, so that his genes can be passed on in a new life. “I’ll have some baby out there. Some little Jenks. Won’t be called Jenks, but I can't have everything, can I?”

I also recommend “Prayer in a Furnace” where a sensitive and well-intentioned chaplain’s faith is unequal to dealing with the horror which a cynical young soldier confesses to him, and “Psychological Operations” which explores the complex emotions of an American of Coptic Egyptian origins who, because of his assumed knowledge of Arabic, is sent to deliver propaganda which involves insulting Iraqi extremists to goad them into coming out to die under fire.

Less harrowing than the other stories, but chilling beneath its humour is, “Money as a weapons system” in which an idealistic man sent out on a “Provincial Reconstruction Team” learns painful lessons over the extent of corruption, tribal division and American ignorance which bedevil any serious attempt to rebuild the country.

I don’t know how cathartic is was for Phil Klay to write this, but it would be a mistake to “write these stories off” as the scripts for yet another violent war film – into which they could well be twisted. Most of them provide salutary lessons on the folly of ill-prepared engagement in Iraq.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Stranger things have happened

This is my review of Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken.

My four stars are for the best stories in what struck me as a "mixed bag" much as I wanted to admire the quality of the writing and risk-taking originality.

McCracken reminds me of Alice Munro: the unusual take on situations, the continual drift to unpredictable outcomes, the concern with observation rather than plot, the sharp, self-possessed prose stripped of emotion even in the most moving situations, the flashes of humour to alleviate the pain or even horror. However, I find her writing a little more contrived and less empathetic than Munro's.

The stories seem very variable in their effectiveness. I was hooked by the opening "Something Amazing" in which teenage Gerry comes home to find that his grief-deranged mother, unable to get over the death of her small daughter, has kidnapped a neighbour's child. "He wonders how to sneak him back home. He wonders how to keep him forever".

The plight of a couple trying to deal with an accident which has befallen their wayward adolescent daughter in the title story "Thunderstruck" comes closer to moving than most of the rest. Sustained by false optimism, the father "looked at his wife, whom he loved, and whom he looked forward to convincing, and felt as though he were diving headfirst into happiness. It was a circus act, a perilous one. Happiness was a narrow tank. You had to make sure you cleared the lip".

"Peter Elroy; A Documentary by Ian Casey" is very original, showing how a longstanding friendship has been destroyed by film-maker Ian's early masterpiece in which he interviewed Peter, but only recorded his responses, thereby both deceiving him and showing him in a dreadful light.

McCracken is good at portraying earnest young children, and some of her quirky descriptions have a childlike quality: "A lawnmower skulks up to its alligatorish eyebrows in the yard". A family anxious to comfort a daughter "bundled" her up "in their eight bare arms, the devoted family octopus". I also enjoyed her revealing but oblique Pinteresque dialogues.

Although some stories improved on a second reading, perhaps I was getting used to her style, about half like "Property","The Lost and Found Department of Greater Boston", "Juliet" or "Some Terpsichore" failed to engage me. Although the technical quality is high, and she is often original and very imaginative in both her descriptions and ideas, many of her characters seem unconvincing. At times, situations slip into unrelieved black farce which tends to distance the reader: you may be intrigued and fascinated by the writing, but you do not care enough about the characters and need to take a break at the end of each piece to escape the bleakness.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Funny on the outside but tragic on the inside

This is my review of Subtly Worded (Pushkin Collection) by Teffi.

The Russian writer Teffi's satirical short stories, "funny on the outside but tragic" within, remind me of Saki's, but without his cruel streak. Her opening lines often contain an intriguing hook: "The Christmas party was fun…. There was even one boy who had been flogged that day-"

To some extent tracing her own life from inquisitive child, through vivacious girl to philosophical old woman, her themes are varied, but tales from before the Russian Revolution tend to focus on people's characters and situations: the way those who have been badly treated take it out on the next person in the pecking order, ending with the child who kicks the cat which can only "pour out her grief and bewilderment to the dustbin"; the young woman who goes out in a burst of confidence, believing that her new blue hat will make her attractive. Teffi was good at portraying children: the little girl so struck by a toy ram's "quite human… meek face and eyes" that she "sticks his face into a jug of real milk", until an empathetic grown up explains, "Live milk for the living. Pretend milk for the unliving".

I am most impressed by the tales from her exile in Paris, after the Russian Revolution. "Subtly worded", source of the collection's overall title, is particularly clever, revealing how expatriates have to dissemble in letters back home to "guarantee" that their correspondents will "not be arrested and shot" for having received them. Advice is on the lines of "You should have written as a woman. Otherwise your brother will arrested" for his relationship to a man "who has evaded military conscription. Second, you shouldn't mention having received a letter, since correspondence is forbidden. And then you shouldn't let on that you understand how awful things are here."

A thread of the supernatural and folk tradition runs through some tales: Moshka the carpenter, reputed to have been dragged off by the Devil and returned from the dead as one of "the kind that walk". The fact he is Jewish adds a sting to this tale of rural prejudice.

Stories from her final years when she was poor and ailing are poignant, yet still questioning: in "And time was no more" an old woman, modelled no doubt on Teffi herself, observes, "the beauty of flowers attracts the bees that will pollinate them but what purpose does the mournful beauty of sunset serve?" If the stars give a person in pain a sense of his own insignificance, why should he be expected "to find comfort" in this "complete and utter humiliation"? There is something refreshingly honest and enduring in these thoughts.

It is good that the reprinting of these stories goes a little way to restoring her former considerable fame.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Love and grudges growing underground

This is my review of The Progress Of Love by Alice Munro.

Alice Munro, whose short stories remind me of the work of the "groundbreaking" Katherine Mansfield, seems to break every "rule" of creative writing courses. On a rough estimate frequently up to around 13,000 words in length, stories digress and ramble from a central theme that has to be deduced, although it may remain unclear until the end. Plot is unimportant, although certain "key" events emerge in what sometimes proves to be a carefully planned order.

Tension may arise over shocking events – like a person drowning – with anticipation fed by the knowledge that the crisis may come in the middle of the tale, then may be allowed drift away to a bland, even incomplete-seeming ending, or the drama may itself be defused abruptly, or ebb away. Munro's attention flits between people's insights, often derived from the minor events of life, a strong sense of place, or scraps of conversation which have an authentic ring, as if based on comments overheard (say, young children talking) but embellished to fit the situation.

Munro explores the thoughts and relationships of ordinary people carrying out their daily tasks in smalltown Canada against the backdrop of lakes, forests, changing weather and shape-changing winter snow. She draws heavily on her own situation: father a farmer, mother a perhaps stern teacher, who fell ill when Monro was still young, possibly creating the dilemma of whether the latter should sacrifice herself to stay at home as a carer, like many of the women in her tales, or strike out to claim her freedom as Munro did. She writes of early marriages, motherhood, divorce and second partners, all part of her own life. The question of losing one's memory with age clearly interests her, together with the way we sometimes distort the truth, almost deliberately twisting memories to how we would have them be, or accepting the convenient assumptions of others and making them the truth.

I agree with the view that her stories, though clearly too short to be novellas, are packed with as much content in terms of events, relationships and insights as many novels. I was also relieved to read that Joyce Carol Oates's review did not baulk at finding some stories wanting. It is true that what seem like important aspects, like the course of a developing relationship, are glossed over, leaving the reader feeling unengaged with "central" characters. Also, some stories seem overcomplicated, appearing to cover too much as what seems to be the central theme emerges.

For me, the most successful stories are `The progress of love' about a woman's relationship with her mother whose life she has clearly made huge efforts not to imitate, `Fits' which explores people's prurient reaction to violent death and almost angry disappointment with a witness who declines to feed their ghoulish curiosity, and `White dump' about the collapse of a marriage in which a mother-in-law may have played an unwitting part, and its lifelong effects on the daughter of the union.

Readers will draw different meanings from each story, and vary in those they prefer, or believe they understand. This anthology will repay rereading in the future, when one's perceptions may have changed.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars