32. Archipelago by Monique Roffey

Published in 2012 by Simon & Schuster.

One day, Gavin Weald uproots himself from the staid, reassuringly placid existence he’s meted out for himself and his six year old daughter, Océan, and quite literally takes to the sea. Companioned by their loyal hound, Suzy, and enough furtively-acquired supplies to see them well out of Port of Spain waters, they set sail on Gavin’s old Danish boat, Romany, to visit the Venezuelan Los Roques archipelago. Gavin once frolicked there in his heyday, before the advent of his family, before the coming of the great brown flood waters that devastated his home and its now distressed, fragile occupants. Other Weald family members will not be making the trip with them. Each precarious marker of the voyage out is signalled by Gavin’s fear, his nauseous uncertainty over where the right path might lie. As he shepherds this most unlikely of crews across the startlingly blue seas for which his daughter is named, he is reminded that there is a shape to his oldest of dreams that he scarcely registers, one that the sea will send surging to the fore.

Overweight, beset by painful psoriasis and more than his fair share of daily nightmares, Gavin Weald resembles no archetypal moulds for an adventurer-hero. Before he sneaks Romany out of the TTSA harbour, the burden of his aging body weighs heavily on him, so disparate from the younger, fitter, carousing image of his youth. Soon after he and Océan slip the bonds of Trinidadian waters, though, Gavin feels that settled knowing of the sea stir in his bones.

“The sea makes him feel lonely and yet so very much himself; she makes him gather himself up, a self which has vanished some time ago into the element of air. Overnight, the fluid in his veins is catching up with the fluid and the rhythms of the sea; he feels like the sea appears, placid, powerful.”

For all of our protagonist’s uncertainty, his prevarications on both dry land and shifting water, the quiet splendour of Roffey’s characterization means that we want no other guide for our travels. Gavin is less overtly reassuring than he is persistently earnest, a sentiment that earns him further unwarranted harshness from life, yes, but also visits upon him moments of sublime grace, such as the raw pleasure of seeing Océan snorkel for the first time. Everyone, the author subtly reminds us with each sea-swell and map-charting, can face bold and complicated terrain. Peregrinations of discovery are not merely for the flat-chested or unflinching.

Islands are everywhere in this stunningly rendered novel, reminding or teaching us anew about our individual selves against their history-mired backdrops. The long arm of human injustice, greed and excess runs on no shorter a leash here, as Gavin, Océan and Suzy dock in multiple ports to discover. Beach-combing through the sea’s washed up treasures on one of the Los Roques islands, Gavin muses on the disturbing assortment of plastic debris and shattered coral, thinking, too, of how oil swallows up life around them, oil destroying nature. Father, daughter and dog confront the garish spectacle of cruise liners; the beguilingly pink slave huts at Bonaire; the uneasy history that built the Panama Canal, with equal parts wonderment, dread and curiosity. Nothing seems clear about human progress: it all glimmers, like the Sea Empress tourist ship, “grotesque and a spectacle in its own right.”

We’re taught in some of our earliest creative writing classes that one of the great bankable conflicts worth exploring in both fiction and non- is Man’s relationship, and struggle, with the environment. The novel mines this persistently (and not necessarily in the ways you’d expect, either), but it also reveals in both frustrating and gleeful detail what we learn about ourselves in the process. The sea cradles the real possibility of a different life for Gavin and his daughter, bound up in which is the re-scripting of their damaged intimacy. Water of one sort has the potential to heal, if not completely, then life-sustainingly, the rupture caused by water of another chaotic provenance.

“It feels like he and Océan have blended. They have softened in themselves and with each other; the sea has dissolved them, and they are suppler in their skin. They have been disappeared for weeks now, and they are sun-henna brown […] He didn’t expect to feel so lost in his own escape; a new space has opened up, an ocean.”

This wilful act of disappearance reminds or encourages the reader of what solace and redemption there might be in unmooring. If no-one is sympathetic to your plight, the sea will have you, but one cannot bargain with her for support or guidance. Gavin marks every leg of his journey with unlooked-for allegiances of varying intensity, with keen observations of the shifting natural landscapes around him. Reflecting on South America’s bloody history of invasion, torture and revolt, he muses that “Recovery takes time; it is the story of the still emerging Caribbean.” The land aches for the erasure of trauma, much as the individual does: Roffey stresses here that neither on regional nor personal fronts can rooted suffering be brushed away, not without investigation and the watchful calendar’s cycle.

Archipelago’s trajectory reminds the reader in both subtle and unapologetic flourishes that through our best-laid plans for Nature, Nature herself persists. The novel is replete with achingly beautiful descriptions of the world that frames these seafarers. Even in the midst of tantalizing doubt, of crippling loneliness, Gavin cannot but soak it in, the “skies… reflecting sea reflecting sky reflecting sea; this world is so electric in its shades of blue…”. Storm weather holds its own relentless magic, at once spellbinding and cautionary:

“That evening the sky pinks over. Grey and indigo clouds stay still in the sky like towering puffs of cream, like staircases made of foam. Forks of lightning appear miles away, silent delicate veins of gold, fizzing down from the clouds.”

The further Gavin, Océan and Suzy plot their course, the more they allow themselves to drift into the arbitrary shelter that Nature provides, learning in increments that the best harbours can turn hollow, learning, also, that there is refuge in unexpected places. This hard-won reassurance beats at the maritime heart of Archipelago: that the perilous journey, no matter how hurricane-beset, finds its own natural way of leading you back to yourself.

A marginally shorter version of this review first appeared in the Trinidad Guardian’s inaugural Sunday Arts Section on August 5th, 2012. You can view it here.

To read my impressions of Roffey’s novel prior to its launch, you can check out my Bocas 2012 coverage of her discussion with Rivka Galchen and Anita Sethi, here.

31. The Repenters by K. Jared Hosein

Published in 2011 by K. Jared Hosein.

“And then he walk up to me with a fake smile. I know the smile was fake. I am the man to know bout fake smiles. And I am the last to be offended by them.”

Joshua Sant is busy doing God’s work. This is what he’s been led to believe by the eerily charismatic Judah Weir, a foreigner to Trinidad with seemingly fathomless resources and a singular purpose: salvation. Weir is in the business of making sinners repent, no matter how bloodstained or brutal the path that leads towards a plea for forgiveness. He seeks out those with no necessary talents other than the eager capacity for violence, and the dogged mettle requisite for enforcing it. This is where Joshua comes in, finding the pattern of his previously nihilistic yet unremarkable life changed forever by Judah’s imperative. If this new, financially viable lifestyle is a conduit through which Joshua can keep close to Mouse – a woman who proved to be the saving grace of the former’s upbringing – then it is a path he will take without a flicker of hesitation. Even a semblance of intimacy with his cherished Mouse, Joshua decides, is worth far greater crimes than the ones he commits in Judah’s quarantined hilltop facility.

This novel is not for the faint of heart. Hosein acquaints us early on to what happens when we dredge closeted sins from the basement and make them play in the bright daylight. Is there nowhere we won’t go, I wondered, mid-reading, in this vivisection of the human psyche? You will think you have encountered some of the bleakest mappings-out of individual behaviour, (keep an unblinking eye out for the story of Emil Syrový) and then a previously-unseen corridor will shift into focus, holding enough contemplations to shake you out of your complacency. What keeps this from registering as hyperbolic or overwrought is that the lens through which we observe most of this depravity is Joshua himself. A creature of merciless, arbitrary circumstances, Joshua is so inured to violence that he’s able to calmly mull sentiments like, “Fire is really just another kinda knife” without missing a beat.

Joshua Sant is drawn with a meticulous hand, as are all of the writer’s characters. We understand that they have lived before we meet them in print here, that some will continue to live after the story has been concluded, while others will brush up against far more dubious fates. Whether we’re spending time with Joshua and his Blue Bayou CD, Mouse and her suitcase of books, Sister Kitty and her insatiable penchant for people-pleasing, Hosein turns them all to the light of our scrutiny. Major and minor players alike are primed for our illumination, horror and bleak humour. We believe their best intentions as much as we doubt their worst.

Perhaps you get a headache when your straight highway through fiction takes an unexpected detour. If so, you should probably skip The Repenters, which is a stream of consciousness ramble/rant/pleasure-pain-cruise through one man’s patchwork interpretation of his past, present and days yet to come. Joshua’s coherency is often in dispute, and it is in fact his jagged internalizations that share the most of himself. Witness, for instance, how he unfurls, after visiting some stake-related remodelling on an snarling predator:

“… a bowl of grapes appear before me i take one and eat it. i eat the grapes then the grapes eat me. the grapes feed away on my insides and what a lovely symbiosis it is turning out to be

i think bout waking up

i think bout people waking up and praying to god and kneel before their ten dollar calendars with dead jesus on it or putting the milk or flowers or whatever on the lingums outside. scrubbing up leftovers of ash and feelin so grateful for the day

always secretly wished i could wake up and know what it like to be grateful to wake up

and know how grateful i should be feelin for even bein able to feel grateful for wakin up

i have to be drunk yes”

If you think this is spectacularly weird, then truly you’ve seen nothing. I began the novel with a confident blueprint for continuity and procedure, yet I found myself repinning time-space markers, backtracking to check events and the minutiae that defined them. Eventually, I let go, and let the experience happen to me, which I found to be eminently more satisfying, because of the non-linearity. Hosein neither breaks nor bends any rules of storytelling lightly. Indeed, his attitudes towards storytelling define something I vastly enjoyed in the narrative’s premise.

Books have the power to change your life. It hardly seems like a lesson I’d need to stress, but stories don’t always lend themselves to examining this in voluble and plot-related ways, so it’s a treasure to find it reinforced here. The way that Mouse describes the active art of reading to Joshua, during their first meeting, stands out as rather tender testimony in a work where so much is characterized by moral bankruptcy, greed and savagery. She assures him that, yes, books can take you everywhere, and against the proof of a cloistered, grey existence, the boy believes her. The result is a protagonist who contemplates Exupéry’s The Little Prince as a metaphor for ultimate escape, who regards Judah Weir as a live-action Man-Man from Naipaul’s Miguel Street. There may not be immediate solace to be derived in a life informed by literature, not if Joshua’s daily rigours are to be trusted. Still, reading offers the only consolation we can cling to, sometimes — the assurance that other beings in other places have suffered as much, or worse, than we; that all pain and all joy is relative on a vast, written sliding scale.

Can we ever stop paying for what, and whom, we’ve done wrong? Who gets to mitigate our sins, and who decides how our ethical compasses are calibrated? Is there redemption in repentance? The Repenters asks some of the hardest questions that fiction can put to us, and returns a bloodied basket of answers for us to pick from — and yes, the answers make sense in one light, but they cut at your palms in another. This is the work of the grittiest and most uncompromising storytelling, it seems: not merely to hold the mirror up to what we are, but to peer down the rabbit hole of all we might become, given provocation, misery, and a limitless credit card. By turns both chilling and comedic, Hosein’s novel presses us to take heed of whom we ask for forgiveness. They may or may not be listening.

You can download The Repenters for free, with the author’s permission, here. You can access a frequently updated list of Hosein’s other projects, and contact information, here.

K. Jared Hosein (1986 -…) has been working on his prose and poetry since his early teenage years. In 2009, he penned a poem entitled “The Wait is So, So Long” that would go on to be adapted as a short film that would be featured and win a Gold Key Award at the NY-based Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. He frequently writes to the local newspapers but those pieces are only of political and sociological nature. Although he is currently employed as a Biology and Physics secondary school teacher, he writes fiction frequently to have a significant body of work, to build discipline and to create his own voice and style in the world of West Indian literature.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by K. Jared Hosein for review. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by his generous gift of gratuitous literature.

Author portrait by Portia Subran.

30. Missing Angel Juan by Francesca Lia Block

Published in 1995 by HarperTeen.

Deemed a Best Book/Best Pick by the American Library AssociationSchool Library Journal and The New York Public Library, among others.

“… I put the flower in a teacup and look at myself in the mirror I found on the street. I can hardly stand to see my face. Pinchy and hungry-looking. I don’t need a hummingbird around my neck for people to see I am searching for love.”

Witch Baby, snarly-haired drummer girl loner, doesn’t feel like she fits, not really… apart from the times when she’s making music or love or everyday magic with her big-dreaming boyfriend, Angel Juan. Angel keeps the confused, restlessly aching parts of Witch Baby from scattering into the abyss of the latter’s personal demons. He brings her as much tender solace as he does ungovernable fire, so when he announces that he must journey from Los Angeles, where the couple live merrily, to New York, as part of his own vision quest, the bottom falls out from Witch Baby’s world. She must find him, she swears to herself, because life without her anchor Juan is unbearable. With the blessing of her almost-mom Weetzie Bat, and armed with a camera for clear sight, Witch Baby follows her love to New York, where the quotidian glitter beckons differently. Companioned by her ghostly grandfather, Charlie, the pair scour the city, encountering a whirlwind of delight and disaster in not-so-equal measure, keeping the faith that Angel Juan will cross their path before it’s entirely too late.

Here is something to love best about Francesca Lia Block’s writing for young adults: it doesn’t condescend to young adults, which is ironically rare fare in a genre that ought to be highlighted for its compassionate understanding. Block trusts that hearts not straddling the full saddle of adulthood can still articulate, in startling relief, all that they hold, as witnessed in this early letter from Witch Baby to her distant inamorato.

“Dear Angel Juan,

You used to guard my sleep like a panther biting back my pain with the edge of your teeth. You carried me into the dark dream jungle, loping past the hungry vines, crossing the shiny fish-scale river. We left my tears behind in a churning silver pool. We left my sorrow in the muddy hollows. When I woke up you were next to me, damp and matted, your eyes hazy, trying to remember the way I clung to you, how far down we went.

Was the journey too far, Angel Juan? Did we go too far?”

This isn’t parochial writing for young people, either — we’re gifted access to a panorama of intricacies that knit relationships together, or else wrench them apart:  two people loving each other is incomprehensible work, Block seems to be advocating, even with the full current of adoration coursing betwixt their hearts.

A cursory skimming of the novel’s plot might suggest that Witch Baby is 1995’s answer to the dependent Donna — a  comely young woman concerned principally with the acquisition and maintenance of a male partner. Witch Baby isn’t Bella Swan with a more bohemian title, however. Quite the contrary: the former’s observant rollerbladings through New York, and the ways in which she interfaces with the clues lined up for her personal edification, are engineered most tenderly to prompt an alternative ending for young people: that partner-prompted identification is no way to declare your definitive personage.

Block’s writing is luminescently unapologetic, not just in message but also in delivery: it is suffused and star-studded with multiple sonnets to beauty stuffed in each paragraph. Yes, to the angular reader, this lyricism will weigh heavily. The accusation that she writes from behind a gauzy, magically realist smokescreen has hounded the Weetzie Bat books, and in truth, the glitz and the diction-decoration is no less evident in this fourth installment. For some, this will represent too-muchness, and the reading will represent pulling factual teeth. For others, there will be revelry, merry traipsing through a heavily-imaged carnival. The language and the life it inhabits on the page are technicolour, certainly, but I’d posit that the aforementioned smokescreen doesn’t exist. If there is a barrier between the sober world of absolutes, and the way in which Block uses words, consider it instead to be a perfumed veil, a safety net for the suspension of your disbelief.

“A conspicuous love of vegetarian food runs through the book like a peaceful hippie emblem,” I wrote in the margins of my journal while reading. It’s true: Witch Baby’s family lives off their cornucopia of love and non-meat products, feasting on “vegetarian lasagna, edible flower salad and fruit-juice-sweetened apple pie” the night that Angel Juan breaks his terrain-altering news. The Jamaican cab driver who transports Witch Baby to her first destination in New York tells her that she won’t find many angels in that meat-packing district, with its implied dream-crushing, carnivorous redolence. Indeed, the consumption of a deliciously meaty hamburger is pivotal in Witch Baby’s squaring off against a soul crushing nemesis. At first, I was inclined to think of this as a little… precious. This waned, though, upon the consideration that the author’s prerogative, maybe particularly with young adult writing, is to shape the sort of world that best inspires our ardent commitment to living. If this means a world of nutty Guru Chews, armloads of fresh produce and honey-flavoured tea, one could arguably do worse.

What makes Witch Baby better than Bella Swan? Maybe it’s the fact that the sounds of drumming makes her come alive, even when she’s crushed beneath the weight of missing her beloved. It might have something to do with her ruminations on a pair of Egyptian mummies, her wondering

“if that king and queen ever screamed at each other and cried in the night with pain and desire or if they always looked so sleek and lazy-lotus-eyed.”

Perhaps it’s linked to the ways in which she can find inspiration winking behind and before the lens of her camera, the way she thinks about time and space, the fact that she curates bulletin boards of universal suffering. Missing Angel Juan can’t be said to show Witch Baby at her best, since it plummets her into the messy business of personal landscaping. Instead, it offers a portrait of a girl in the full-throated glow of her electric, sexy drumbeat of self-discovery. This could be said to be the writer’s most nimbly-articulated message, the one she hopes you will carry close to your chest, stitched into the folds of your skirts: that Witch Baby is beautiful, that so are you.

29. The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Published in 2008. This Edition: Vintage Books, 2011.

Matt King’s life, all things considered, could do with a major overhaul. His wife, Joanie, has been in a coma for twenty-three days, courtesy of a boat-racing accident. Matt finds himself flounderingly out of depth in the management of his two daughters: rebellious, drug-recovering Alex, and exuberant, highly peer-pressurized Scottie. Lurking in the background of this familial implosion is the weight of a decision Matt must make: as principal trustee to a collective of Hawaii’s wealthy, royalty-descended landowners, he must say to which highest bidder huge tracts of heritage land should be sold. As time ticks by, and Joanie’s future prospects look increasingly grim, Alex stuns Matt with the revelation that Joanie has been unfaithful to him for some time. Bundling up his daughters, Matt takes them on an unexpected trip to locate the man Joanie possibly loves more than him, so he, too, can pronounce final farewells at her bedside.

It isn’t hard to fathom the reasons why this novel inspired a touching, thoughtful film adaptation. (As you can see, the book’s cover features a haunted George Clooney gazing into the distance, perched on Hawaiian littoral, flanked by sandcastles.) This is one of those books that reads as though there’s a script already imbedded in the prose, waiting to be lifted, licensed and imaged for the screen. Almost every good point I can make about the visual imagery of the descriptions tie in to how stunningly well they salute the mind’s eye. Witness, for instance, this picture of Scottie, who, having gone on an impromptu mini-adventure with her father to Alex’s boarding school, arrives decidedly the worse for wear.

“Scottie looks thrilled by the situation. Her red sores are bright in the hall’s fluorescent light. Her T-shirt says VOTE FOR PEDRO, whatever that means, and her hair is sticking up in places and matted down in others. In one section near her ear, the hair is held together by some unknown substance. She had fruit punch on the plane, and her lips and chin are stained the colour of raw meat.”

The images Hemmings conjures are consistently entertaining, moulded and primed for dark, honest humour, as well as aching sadness. The most notable include impressions of Matt’s difficult, likeable daughters, but also of Matt himself, and the way he perceives everyone and everything around him — tourists; his daughters’ cohorts; hospital staff; the ways in which other people perceive him; his fellow landowning descendants; the shifting structures of Hawaiian landscapes. Matt is a faithful archivist of the place he’s from, the place he loves, and his daily photobooks of observation afford rich, deeply funny insights into a place typically thought of in terms of multicoloured leis and roasted pig cookouts on pristine beachfront.

We think of the impossible caverns of love and grief as thorny terrain to demystify, and perhaps some of the best fiction shies away from putting such things into quantifiable, qualifiable terms. The opposite approach is explored in these pages, with Matt the compass for one man’s perambulations through the messy business of re-evaluating one’s love while simultaneously preparing for the worst. This isn’t to suggest that our protagonist is the only person in the novel whose experiences aren’t linear. Conversely, Matt’s interactions with his daughters, with his in-laws, with Alex’s sort-of-but-not-really boyfriend, Sid, all work like character references in a stuffed docket for emotional complexity. No one loves in singular colours; no one tolerates loss on a full palate of either beatitudes or vices. In one of my favourite passages of the novel, Matt reflects on a rare, treasured memory: his perpetually self-sufficient wife seeking comfort in his arms, immediately following a harrowing trauma.

“She sank down to the rocks, pulling me down with her, and then she lunged into my chest and wept. We were in the most awkward position on those rocks, but I remember not being able to move, as though the slightest movement might upset either her or the moment. Even though she was sobbing in my arms, it was a nice moment for me, to be stronger than her, to be needed by her, and to see her so fragile.”

The torment truly sinks in when Matt contemplates, right on the heels of this, the excruciating possibility that Joanie has dismantled her armour thusly for the man of her affair, too… and, most damning of all, there’s no reliable way of confronting either of them. Matt, like so many people stricken with the dead weight of an infidelity involving two silent sources, is saddled with a lifetime’s worth of maddening, perhaps debilitating hypotheticals.

Immersing yourself in Matt’s bleak and blackly comic inner monologues is as thrilling as it is because it grants you the relief of uncensored permission: to feel fully all those ideas that aren’t politically correct, to hate your children and love them; to hate your wife and love her; to want to be the best person and the worst all bound up in one festering, grinning knot of humanness.

Reading The Descendants is a shotgun ride in the author’s dodgy pickup truck, skirting some emotional landmines, rattling full-on into others. This, really, is what I love best about the novel: it confronts the non-poetic shit storm that reality quite often resembles, without any fumblings towards a sense of… literary rightness. There aren’t any perfect similes for pain, or, if there are, Hemmings doesn’t concern herself with trying to unearth them for our benefit. Truly, cosmically horrific things are as likely to happen to you as they are to the person alongside you in the bus.

How you feel about this book will depend largely, I think, on whether or not you require, or secretly long for, a primer on how to navigate life successfully, with minor bruising. If you find it hard to fathom that there can be one good way to be a worthy father, lover, landowner, descendant, or decent human being, then you’ll be hard-pressed to read something more organically attuned to the general state of loving, grieving and every curious, maddening human state from here to there.

I pledged to give away all the books I bought myself in 2012. I’m giving this book to my exuberant and all-round excellent friend and fellow writer, Leshanta, whose work I’ll be featuring at Novel Niche in a future coming to you shortly. 

28. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Published in 2010 by Dutton Books.

When I first saw Will Grayson, Will Grayson, winking at me from the hardcover bookshelves, I don’t know why I thought it would be science fiction. Perhaps it was the prismatic, kaleidoscopic-reminiscent imagery on the front cover that made me imagine interstellar journeys. Even when I read the front jacket cover’s blurb, the description of fate, delivering both Will Graysons to the same surprising crossroads, led me to conjure up non-terrestrial possibilities. As I read on, I realized that the novel was decidedly non-speculative… but not an iota less fantastic.

Will Grayson, probably best known to his fellow high schoolers as loyal friend to the irrepressible, unabashedly gay Tiny Cooper, has curated a couple simple rules for getting through life relatively unscathed. They are: “1. Don’t care too much. 2. Shut up.” Both devoted to his friend and increasingly bemused by him, Will finds himself struggling to make sense of his role in the shadows that Tiny’s larger than life influence casts. His uncertainty only seems to mount as he wrestles with inconvenient feelings for a girl he maybe likes, maybe doesn’t: she of the quiet cleverness, the parallel music-crush on Neutral Milk Hotel, and the ultra-awesome smile, Jane. In another school, another Chicago town, will grayson, anti-capital letter user, anti-everything-ist, makes it through the tedium of his days by way of furtive online conversations with isaac, a guy he’s never met in person, a guy who gets will on every seeming level of importance. will keeps isaac a solemn secret, even from his more-or-less best friend, maura, a goth girl whose dependence on will runs deeper than he can initially suspect. Will Grayson and will grayson are seeking out entirely different things when their paths converge in the unlikeliest, potentially most scandalous of places, and their lives take on unimagined dimensions, expanding to include new allegiances, bewildering affections, heart-singing revelations… and the most bejewelled, glitteringly decked out high school musical of All Time.

This is a laudable book for many reasons, principal among them the ways in which it de-exoticizes the story of the gay high school student. I expect that there’ll be some opposition to this notion. “Who could be a more outlandish character than Tiny Cooper?” one might ask. It’s true; they don’t get much more delightfully camp, more technicoloured-in with non-heteronormative pride than Tiny does. He revels in his romantic and lifestyle choices, and makes no apologies for them… but this, the authors seem to be saying, isn’t even strictly the point. The point resides in the suggestion that Tiny needn’t be an anomaly, that writing about the lives and loves of any number of Tinys should really be par for the course in capturing the richness and diversity of the young adult’s life, gay, straight, bisexual or otherwise inclined. Tiny himself, in a candid conversation with will grayson, puts it best:

“tiny: you know what? i’m totally at peace with being big-boned. and i was gay before i knew what sex was. it’s just who i am, and that’s great. i don’t want to be thin or conventionally beautiful or straight or brilliant. no, what i really want – is to be appreciated.”

It isn’t just Tiny who struggles with the desire to be embraced for who he is, for what he brings to the table – every character of note, including but not limited to the Wills – feels this instinct deeply. In fact, they feel all their feelings deeply, and the authors never shy away from documenting those feelings with grace, humour and irrepressible honesty. Here’s an example of that unflinching candour from will grayson, as he contemplates Tiny’s declaration of a necessary “mental health day”.

“i think the idea of a ‘mental health day is something completely invented by people who have no clue what it’s like to have bad mental health. the idea that your mind can be aired out in twenty-four hours is kind of like saying heart disease can be cured if you eat the right breakfast cereal. mental health days only exist for people who have the luxury of saying ‘i don’t want to deal with things today’ and then can take the whole day off, while the rest of us are stuck fighting the fights we always fight, with no one really caring one way or another, unless we choose to bring a gun to school or ruin the morning announcements with a suicide.”

The truly beautiful thing? So much of the book is this refreshingly forthright, no matter which Will is narrating. I read Will Grayson, Will Grayson like a nostalgic primer on what it felt like to be marginalized, misunderstood, poorly-quoted, confused, sexually uncertain and bursting with a thousand intense ideas, in my teenage years. Green and Levithan don’t, to their credit, ever explicitly state that your life becomes better when you become an adult. They don’t even pretend that the things you cared about when you’re a teenager will evanesce in importance when you’re saddled with a full-time job and greying hairs. They concentrate on the absolute, inviolable sanctity of your God/dess and the Universe-given right to feel the feelings you’re feeling, no excuses, no regrets. There’s no need to sweep those passionate outbursts beneath the rug, no need to objectify your silences, be they awkward or serene: every bit of you, young person, is valid, has meaning, is worth something on this planet.

In a genre of literature stifled with romantic considerations, (many of them poorly worked out and dubiously contextualized) a book like this is a saving grace. There are concerns of the heart in these pages, to be sure – how the heart breaks, how the heart resists love while plummeting towards it, how the heart seeks like-beating hearts out… but the novel’s epicentre isn’t carnally-propelled, and this is a relief. It would be more accurate to say that the writers throw themselves into tides and currents of the whole heart, not just the chamber that pines for a boyfriend or girlfriend. These are affairs of the heart in their baffling, million moods per minute-ness, making this book required reading for young adults, and those who know that being boldly and beautifully sixteen is just a state of mind away.

27. Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So by Mark Vonnegut

Published in 2010 by Delacorte Press.

“I’m getting better again, taking medication, doing my very best to be a good patient, but then out of the blue, the chain-link fence that surrounds the hospital pulls me toward it, wraps around me, and is going to crush me. […] At some point in there I try to tell my father that I’m feeling better, and he says that he wouldn’t nominate me as Mr. Mental Health quite yet. I want to ask him if he is in the running or just one of the judges.”

I’m fully prepared to be wrong here, but I suspect that high on the lists of why people gravitate towards reading memoir is because they anticipate a certain unflinchingness in articulation. They expect, oft-erroneously, that if a person’s got the testicular/cervical fortitude to put themselves out in the limelight, then, by gad, they’re going to write with moxy, with aplomb, with some brass! I’m pleased to report that Mark Vonnegut’s got all three. Even though I’ve not yet read anything by his famous father, I was hesitant, approaching this title. You know full well how the children of illustrious creatives often balk from the wide circles of fame their parents cast. If they do venture into productive waters of their own, they typically embody one of the following traits:

1. They offer work that is painfully, ludicrously derivative—but this is forgiveable, and less egregious than—
2. the fact that they just as easily feign ignorance of their parents’ existence, shunning the specific styles of their mothers and fathers.

Shunning is all well and good, but shunning for reasons that are petulantly emotive rather than deliberately stylistic—well, that smacks of danger, to me… the danger of potentially good art being obscured by the long, long arm of familial resentment. It’s important to note that Vonnegut doesn’t write with cloying sycophancy or feigned apathy about Kurt, when he writes of him. In this way, I suppose people who turn to Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So to glean more of Vonnegut Senior’s inner workings would be most put out. I respectfully posit that they’re looking in entirely the wrong place. This is Mark’s story, after all. Readers like myself, who’ve not had the benefit of reading his previous book, The Eden Express, will likely be relieved to know that this second offering stands heartily on its own—though, doubtless, if you enjoyed this one, as I did, you’ll want to seek out the first.

A wideness and generosity of range drives the scope of the memoir; it feels like we’re touching base with Vonnegut at various points on his life, that he’s chosen this approach in attempt to round and flesh out the narrative: to show the polyvalency of the paths he’s trod. In addition to sharing the trajectory (if not the specifics, but more on that anon) of his four psychotic breakdowns, the writer presents his childhood days, his memories of Kurt the non-writer (his pre-fame father was, to quote Mark, “the world’s worst car salesman who couldn’t get a job teaching English at Cape Cod Community College.”) We’re also treated to reflections on Mark’s seemingly circuitous path to entering medical school at the age of twenty-eight, glimpses into his family’s mental health (or lack thereof) history, his decision to specialize in paediatrics, humorous anecdotes gleaned from his stint of relief work in Honduras. The overall impression created is less linear than good-humouredly scattered, with the chapters anchored by the author’s own paintings.

What’s particularly illuminating about Vonnegut’s situation is that, as both mental patient and physician, he’s able to speak candidly and forthrightly about either side of the institutional coin. His perspectives on the profession, patient-doctor relationships and medical insurance are wise, modulated by experience rather than any desire of his to sell you something. The insights he proffers on what one might term “behind the scenes” goings-on in the world of health care might not be novel, but it’s refreshing to have them uttered by someone in his specific white coat. Here, he speaks about the nature and classification history of his ailment:

“I was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia. […] What I had and have is more consistent with what is now called bipolar disorder, which used to be called manic depression. The name change was an effort to get away from the stigma around the diagnosis of manic depression. Good luck. Until we come up with an unequivocal blood test or the equivalent, we’re all blowing smoke and don’t know if what we call schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are one disorder or a dozen.”

It’s especially gratifying to read Vonnegut’s less than flattering opinion of the corporate concerns that undercut the quality and consistency of aid given. In remarking on the shifting behaviours that govern patient-doctor discussion, he reminisces with gratitude on the open, wide-ranged talks he was able to have with his own psychiatrist when his Thorazine dosage was being reduced. In speculating on what that procedure would entail in a present-day setting, his tone is resolutely bald.

“Today, if I was lucky, I’d see a case supervisor monthly and maybe a psychopharmacology nurse every three months. Clinical guidelines would mandate that I be on antipsychotics for at least five years. The medication I was on would be determined by who paid for lunch and what deal was cut between my health insurer and the pharmaceutical industry.”

I didn’t get the impression that the author was trying to earn a battery of enemies in the medical insurance field. He’s not calling out the insurers, the pharmaceutical manufacturers, the impersonal practitioners, because he’s trying to curry favour with readers for his audacity. One senses that Mark Vonnegut’s just speaking his mind, that having lived through his psychotic episodes (which he refers to as “breaks”) made him less susceptible to tolerating perceived injustices: in short, that those very breaks helped build him into a more genuine, candour-driven self.

An anticlimactic area centres on the issue that there is little visceral untangling of the four psychotic breaks themselves. The writer doesn’t shy away from bringing them up, but we’re never allowed a full and inexorable assessment of those specifics. The autobiography opens with the general delineation of Mark’s symptoms: his inability to eat or sleep; the voices that plagued him; his tendency toward self-harm; his heavy sedation. I kept waiting, with bated breath, to be led further down the rabbit hole of an insider’s vivid description of bipolar disorder… but it felt like Mark kept me solidly, perhaps even safely, at the fringes. Maybe this is as much enlightenment as can be reasonably expected, and maybe this is just the way Mark experienced those breaks, too. Still, it’s difficult not to feel stranded on the shore of apprehension, hoping an illuminating wave of prose will sweep us into the churning emotional seas of a world populated by voices in your head. It never happens. Perhaps I ought to be grateful for that, rather than critical.

What will win readers to this artful autobiographical meandering is, ultimately, its ease of voice. The narrative is laden with quotable illuminations on the role of art in assuaging despair, on the combined weight-inspiration of laying claim to a famous father, on the ways in which interludes of madness can wreak havoc on your life and simultaneously transform it to your best advantage. All of these are shared in the writer’s personable, gently self-deprecating style. Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More is a interior journey you can take with the signposts of a life that’s been, by turns, extraordinary and reassuringly simple. If you think of your autobiographical narrator as a companion and cohort in the reading experience, you’d be hard-pressed to find one more earnest and admirably principled than Mark Vonnegut.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by the Random House Publishing Group (Delacorte Press imprint) for review, through NetGalley. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by their generous gift of gratuitous literature.

26. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Published in 2011 by Vintage Books.

Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, 2011.

Ava Bigtree can’t help but feel like she’s floundering, rather than flourishing, in her deceased mother Hilola’s footsteps. Hilola was the feature attraction show-stopper at the Bigtree’s family-owned and operated alligator wrestling theme park, “Swamplandia!”, nestled on an island little more than an adventurer’s spit of a hundred acres, off the Floridian mainland. “Mainland” is a geographical state that the Bigtree children—Ava; her awkwardly academic brother Kiwi; her eerily disengaged sister Osceola—have come to both desire and decry. The swamp, the theatre of routine and spectacle, of sold-out crowds clamouring in the stands, the moods and movements of their alligator brood (each animal named Seth, to avoid ambiguity): this is the life to which they’ve been born. However, when Hilola Bigtree succumbs, mundanely and sadly, to cancer, “Swamplandia!” falls on hard times. First Kiwi, then the Chief (the children’s gruffly well-intentioned father) head to the mainland for reasons both disparate and bonded, leaving the girls, the alligators, and the island to each other.

Much has been made of Swamplandia! since it was published, and it’s easy to see why—the novel is a quirk-factory. The ingredients for a tall-taled yarn are stacked sky-high, lined up for our perusal without even a shred of self-effacement in the prose. Nothing seems tongue in cheek or inversely satirical about the host of Seths, the fantastic Bigtree establishment ensconced within the swamp, the undead visitations of Osceola’s supernatural gentleman callers. To swallow this narrative arc, you won’t need suspension of disbelief so much as an utter willingness to park your reliance of concrete allegories outside. This novel isn’t for the reader who dismisses weirdness; quite the contrary… if you’re not inclined to wade through the inlets that lead to the sound of surreality, then this isn’t the best way to kick off your year in reading. Adherents to the sweet, cerebral cult of oddities, however, will find the book gratifying, akin to a curious girl’s fictional compendium of island-within-island navigation, of gritty, unsentimental survivalism.

I have read few books within recent memory wherein the author so skilfully constructed her setting as integral to the work’s beating heart. In Swamplandia!, the swamp is far more than a mere cardboard backdrop against which a plastic alligator or two is positioned. The landscape is capable of eliciting fear, awe or grudging respect (or all three), depending on which season you confront it. Early on in the story, Ava’s description of persistent bad weather coincides with the theme park’s declining fortunes.

“Our swamp got blown to green bits and reassembled, daily, hourly. The wet season was a series of land-versus-water skirmishes: marl turned to chowder and shunted the baby-green cocoplums into the sea; tides maniacally revised the coastlines. Whole islands caught fire from lightning strikes, and you could sometimes watch deer and marsh rabbits leaping into the sea of saw grass on gasps of smoke.”

When the plot becomes dense with dreadful adventure, much later on, as Ava, in the company of the enigmatic, leather-jacketed Bird Man, embarks on a quest to rescue her sister from the dark maw of the underworld, the descriptions of the islands teeming around our tenacious narrator threaten to steal the show. The nearer Ava draws towards the Stygian wilderness in which she believes Osceola to be trapped with her paranormal beau, Louis Thanksgiving, the more dreadfully fascinating her surroundings become.

“I was seeing new geometries of petals and trees, white saplings that pushed through the peat like fantailing spires of coral, big oaky trunks that went wide-arming into the woods … A large egretlike bird with true fuschia eyes and cirrusy plumage went screeching through the canopy.”

If landscape in Swamplandia! can be considered a pliable, inventive entity, then the tridented, oft-unspoken concord among the Bigtree progeny often feels and reads like a ghost character who haunts the pages, howling with love and angst. Ava’s frankly inquisitive absorption of the secrets and foibles in both her brother and sister’s nature make her a talented voyeuse. The perils into which she dashes, seemingly uncaring of her personal welfare, are prompted by the fiercest of sibling devotions, and yet, very little that is voluminous or fulsome distinguishes the talks that Ava trades with Osceola and Kiwi. Their adoration is made to stretch thinly over mysterious swamp islands, into the cheerless concrete of mainland life. In depicting it, Russell reminds the reader of the craggy heartlands of human communication, of how, even (or especially) among those who love each other best, familial adoration is unerringly represented by a snarling, non-communicative beast, one who skulks in a cave, one whose feelings run too deep to fathom.

It is, however, in the narrative split between Ava and Kiwi that the structure of the novel falters, diminishing a sustained sense of reading pleasure by forcing unsolicited somersaults from one compelling character, to one decidedly less so. This shift is taken up when Kiwi heads to the mainland, his act of teenagerly defiance to his father’s pipe dreamed notions of salvaging the future of “Swamplandia!”. For what he’s worth, Kiwi is not an unsatisfying character. His self-imposed blend of awkwardness and haughtiness, his massive disconnect from mainland life meeting his puppyish desire to ingratiate himself into the best ideas of his full potential: these make for good reading, and hold the bulwark of levity for much of the novel’s narration. Anyone’s who’s felt the weight of being a smart outsider hang heavy on their shoulders will relate to what Kiwi goes through as he endures the undignified employ at the subterranean-themed rival amusement centre, The World of Darkness. Witness, for instance, as poor Kiwi’s inner sufferer-scholar flares up, following the unwarranted opprobrium of a superior.

“Kiwi could feel his intelligence leap like an anchored flame inside him. His whole body ached at the terrible gulf between what he knew himself to be capable of (neuroscience, complicated opthalmological surgeries, air-traffic control) and what he was actually doing.”

Indeed, reading the ‘World’ segments are grimly, wit-stingingly winning: the setting is described as so mock-garish, so ostentatiously macabre, so unaware of its own enormous kitsch, that it prompts comparisons with similar, comically absurd urban designs. A short story featuring Kiwi’s exploits and misadventures at the ‘World’ would go over spectacularly, but even for all his tragicomic fumblings towards manhood, Kiwi’s narration is eclipsed utterly by Ava’s.

Perhaps what I like best about Swamplandia! is its audacious ambition. There is always some distance, in varying increments, of how outstanding a thing wants to be, of how ardent its desire to overwhelm you, compared to the impact, the force of actual resonance it generates. Respectfully, there is more distance between ambition and impact in this kaleidoscopic swamp-romp than, say, the illumination of other, greater first novels. That said, (bearing in mind that even a poor work of art, which this is not, usually requires patience, effort and devotion), Russell’s work here is both charming and challenging, beautiful in a graphic, grounded light. It introduces us to a pragmatic heroine fighting for a happy story, or at least, a safe one, while a wilderness of reconditely-curved fates clutch at her ankles like vine creepers. If there were no other fine hallmark of writing prowess in Swamplandia!, Ava Bigtree on her own would be worth the price of the paperback/hardcover/Kindle copy. She’s the sort of little girl whom grown women ought aspire to de-age themselves towards.