In my last post, I mentioned that I had spent the summer reading novels by people who live in the Boston area. First, I’d read Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford, to try and keep up with the book seminar at Crooked Timber. Then, in June, I had picked up Son of a Witch, the first sequel to Wicked. Then I borrowed Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God and Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector. Both of these had been on my to-read list for a while.
I knew Goodman has lived in Cambridge for many years, but I noticed from the book jacket that Gregory Maguire also lives near Boston. So does Goldstein, who now teaches at Harvard. So the idea occurred to me of reading more books by writers who are in the area. I figured I could move on to novels by Dennis Lehane, Gish Jen, and Stephen King. I could finish On Beauty, which Zadie Smith set outside of Boston and wrote during or after her stay here. There were the first novels of Richard Powers and Jonathan Franzen, which they wrote when they lived in Boston. In a pinch I might finally read Rabbit, Run, or re-read The Witches of Eastwick. Or I could read Norumbega Park, which was set in Massachusetts the Boston suburbs but not written here written in the western part of the state, and which I’d successfully recommended to my husband as vacation reading, picking it off my list, but which I haven’t yet read myself.
I took out World and Town, Gish Jen’s most recent book, after The Cookbook Collector, but decided they were too much alike to read right in a row, and I downloaded The Magician King and The Leftovers instead. After I’d started the first of these, I remembered that Lev Grossman doesn’t live in Massachusetts anymore. However, part of the book is set here (in the fictional town of Chesterton, which is either Lexington or Chelmsford, or both, though it hardly matters—the town is a typical New England town, beloved of tourists, and scorned by the right-thinking young man who knows that to swan about old architecture is unseemly). So whatever; I kept reading it.
Finally, I read a few pages of The Leftovers, but I’ve put it aside until I can finish some blog posts I’ve already started writing.
Quick thoughts on these novels:
Red Plenty: Somehow this got plugged as a science fiction novel. It isn’t. It also isn’t primarily about the technical issues involved in developing linear algebra as a method for industrial planning, or about scientists confronted with those issues. One character is such a scientist: Leonid Kantorovich, who’s credited with priority in developing linear algebra in this way. Other characters include Nikita Krushchev, the Soviet premier; a woman scientist and single mother in Akademgorodok, the new “science city” that was built in Siberia, and a couple of young, up-and-coming Commnist Party bureacrats. It’s structured like a series of linked short stories, in partial chronological order. The plot is a sympathetic account of the attempt, pursued in different ways by each of the characters, and finally a failure, to develop the Soviet Union so as to equal and then surpass the material comfort enjoyed in the West (the U.S. particularly). It’s very well written—Spufford has found some clever ways of circumventing the limitations on novel writing that make writing historical fiction and fiction about ideas so difficult to do well—and it’s a good story, with engaging characters. Of course, if you find it impossible to think of Krushchev sympathetically, you’ll have a difficult time enjoying it.
Son of a Witch isn’t quite as enjoyable or as tightly written as Wicked was. It’s focused more narrowly, on Liir, who is probably Elphaba’s (the Wicked Witch of the West’s) son, and his quest to find out what happened to Nor, who is probably his half-sister. It’s a kind of picaresque novel, as Liir encounters various people and groups—the convent where he was most likely born, the two peoples at war in the convent’s environs, Glenda and various bureaucrats within Oz’s government, the inhabitants of an underground prison from which few if any escape, the Army and the peoples of the empire it keeps down, his old Nanny and his mother’s flying monkey companions—who help him to figure out who and what he really is. And what magic really is, too. Son of a Witch, though, isn’t as invested in world-building as Wicked was; we’re to take the reality of Oz for granted, perhaps, and see Liir through the lenses it offers, in the humanity he shares with those of us who aren’t from Oz and aren’t Munchkins. As the kind of thing Wicked is, this book was a little too much Young Adult personal journey for me; and as a Young Adult novel, it was a little too long.
I've liked several of Rebecca Goldstein’s novels over the years. She’s now primarily a philosophy professor, but she’s been writing fiction for over two decades now. My favorite among her books is Mazel, which moves back and forth in time over three generations of women, beginning in a small village in Europe and moving from Vilnius to New York to New Jersey. It’s the one of Goldstein’s books that’s most like an A.S. Byatt novel. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is one of her better ones, but I didn’t find it as engaging as Mazel. The characters were fascinating, and I’d like to have seen more of them, but the reader is rushed from one character to the next in order to get on with the plot, and to leave space for plentiful intellectualizing. Part of the plot seemed strangely to be a reworking of the more sentimental parts of Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel The Chosen, made even more sentimental than they seemed in Potok’s telling. It’s also, possibly against Goldstein’s intentions, a “women’s novel.” I’ll probably write more about this in a later post.
The Cookbook Collector is definitely a “women’s novel.” I haven’t read any of Goodman’s books before, although I’ve given at least one of her earliest books as a present. This was a very enjoyable multi-threaded novel about two sisters, one a corporate executive and the other a graduate student, and two software companies, one on the East Coast and the other on the West. The time is the last years of the twentieth century. The novel is filled with secondary (and tertiary) characters, love interests, ideas, subplots (including, coincidentally, an encounter with Hasidism that’s slightly reminiscent of the one in Goldstein’s novel), and just lots and lots of stuff. The software industry part is described very closely; I didn’t detect any false notes or condescension, and this is very unusual in a “mainstream” novel about engineers. It’s a fast-moving novel. While there are ideas and emotions and all that jazz, things move along. Compared with something like Wolf Hall, which has twice the pages and a small fraction of the characters, really, the brevity of The Cookbook Collector is actually quite striking. I think it could have been even better at twice the length, but it would have been a very different kind of novel. I’ll probably write more about this one later, too. And I’ll probably read some other books by Allegra Goodman eventually.
The Magician King is a sequel to The Magicians, Lev Grossman’s adult fantasy novel that’s set in a world where the fantasy milieus of C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling are real. The Magicians was mostly a college novel, or a novel of college and its aftermath, recalling the young literary lions of the 1980s like Donna Tartt and Jay McInerney. The Magician King follows Quentin, the main character of the earlier book, into his “real life” (King in the fantastic realm of Fillory), interleaving his story with that of his friend from the neighborhood, Julia, whose luck came short of sending her to magicians’ school. For me, these books are really fascinating. They’re not as perfectly accomplished as Spufford’s or Goodman’s, but there are things about these books that I really love, images that totally grab me. There are characters that are terrific (I’m inexplicably fond of Penny). On the other hand: I don’t like the main character, and I think I’m supposed to. And—though I’m probably overthinking it—I find it inexplicably annoying that I can’t get a handle on the allegory.
It’s interesting to compare the books by men on this list with the books by women. The men’s books are less accomplished, for the most part (this doesn’t include The Leftovers, which from what I’ve read so far is entirely “professional,” or other books I’ve discussed on this blog, such as The Marriage Plot). They seem narrower, less well written, and less thought through. In part, this is because the men’s books I’ve chosen are “genre” books, and the women’s books are “mainstream.” If I’d chosen books by Richard Ford or Anthony Giardina (Norumbega Park, mentioned above), my results would likely have been different. The Magician King is decidedly a genre book, and it’s an excellent example of one. There’s little here to annoy either a dedicated fantasy-series reader or a reader of “mainstream” fiction. But it has only some of the other little things that help to make a really good novel, things that can appeal to the usual readers of novels (stereotypically, women—especially women who read women’s novels—and other people who have a strong dislike for “genre”). Others of these things are missing.
True, to some extent, what science fiction and fantasy readers (and genre readers generally) find appealing is the lack of those elements, which “mainstream” readers have learned to expect. The need to find room for ideas, and to find a point of view that’s congenial to ideas, may push them out. But I don’t think the pattern is entirely limited to novels that can be termed “genre.” Even many “mainstream” or “literary” novels by men under fifty-five or so—though by no means are they “narrow”—can often share some of the traits that in these novels do seem to create a sense of narrowness, like a small cast of characters or a tight focus on the personal growth of a single character without much social context. It’s more unusual for a novel published by a woman to fit this description.
And the women writers in this list are writing about ideas, as much as the SF and fantasy writers are. For the most part, though, I think, when a woman writer writes a novel that deals with ideas, she begins by writing a fairly traditional novel first, and puts the ideas second. They’re doing it a different way. It could be argued that they’ve thought more than the men have about how to incorporate nontraditional elements, like ideas, into a work of mainstream fiction. It could also be argued that the men’s novels have something they’re missing. More on this too, eventually.