Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Yacoubian Building

I bought this book a while back for reasons I can’t remember now, but it’s the most recent choice for the Slaves of Golconda book group and so high time I read it. The novel tells the stories of multiple characters, none of whom could really be called the protagonist, since the narrative spends similar amounts of time with each story. It’s the Yacoubian building that holds all the stories and the novel itself together. The Yacoubian building contains apartments that house people of many different backgrounds and classes, so through their stories we get a glimpse into various parts of Egyptian culture and experience.

There’s more than the building that holds the novel together; there is also a simmering frustration with Egyptian society and government that plays a part in many if not all of the stories. Taha, for example, finds himself unable to fulfill his dream of entering the Police Academy because of favoritism and corruption and soon joins a militant Islamic group. Busayna discovers that the only way she can support herself and her family is by allowing male employers to take sexual advantage of her. Zaki falls victim to his conniving sister who evicts him from his own apartment by getting the police on her side. Money, family, and connections are everything, and without them, there is little one can do to change one’s fate. It helps very much not to be a woman as well.

I admired the range of stories (not that there are all that many main narrative threads, maybe a handful) and subject matter they explore, from political corruption to workplace exploitation, religious devotion, family dynamics, sexuality, con men, drug dealing, torture, and falling in love. It’s a lot to cover in 250 pages, and Al Aswany does it admirably, giving us a feel for life in Cairo. I was grateful for the list of characters and their descriptions included right before the novel’s opening because the frequent switching from story to story got distracting at times, and the guidance was helpful.

I was never fully immersed in the novel, another function, I’m sure, of the jumps from character to character. But there were rewards to compensate for this, especially the overview of Egyptian society the multiple stories offered and the economy with which Al Aswany captures a rich sense of his characters’ lives. The narrator seems to withhold judgment, portraying the characters’ virtues and failings with equanimity. He seems interested more in understanding why people are the way they are rather than in judging them for what they do. It’s possible to find this narrative style flat and affectless, but I felt an undercurrent of compassion that at times is powerful.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Recent Reading

Let’s see — what have I been reading recently? I finished Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence. I liked it, but didn’t love it. I kept thinking the whole time I was reading how much her subject matter is like Anita Brookner’s, but I like Brookner better. Pym has a lighter tone and is more satirical, whereas Brookner strikes me as working in a darker mode, and maybe that darkness appeals to me more. I did like the characters’ interactions in the Pym, especially the workplace dynamics she describes, and I liked the contrast between city and small town life. But I never felt fully absorbed in the story or in the novel’s ideas.

I also finished Ali Smith’s new novel, There But For The, which was also a little disappointing. I really liked The Accidental, and this one wasn’t as good. The two books have a similar structure: they are divided into four parts, each from a different point of view, each part adding a different perspective on the story. But in the new novel, the four parts don’t hold together very well, and they aren’t equally interesting. The last part was my favorite, told in the voice of a young girl who is brilliant and funny. I also liked the part describing the dinner party — the novel is about a dinner party guest who goes upstairs, locks himself in a bedroom, and refuses to come out — because it was wickedly satirical and funny. But it just never came together into a coherent whole. The four different perspectives in The Accidental were much more tightly focused on one story, so the reader can compare how the different characters made sense of it. There isn’t the same pleasure to be had in the new book.

Hmmm … it’s good that I’m happily in the middle of Tana French’s In the Woods, or this post would be almost entirely negative, since I discontentedly set aside Ben Marcus’s new novel The Flame Alphabet after about 90 pages. I liked his novel Notable American Women, but struggled with the new one, partly because it was too similar in tone, style, and theme to the earlier one. His books are strange and powerful, and need to be read in small doses, I guess. I think I can handle darkness and ugliness in my fiction, but somehow there needs to be something appealing about it, in some way, no matter how unexpected or perverse, and I wasn’t finding that here. Also, I had a hard time grasping the world he was creating because it seemed arbitrary and I didn’t really believe it — it’s a world like ours but where children’s language has suddenly become toxic, so adults are being stricken by horrible illnesses merely by living with their offspring. I would be okay not believing in the world of the novel if the ideas it is exploring are engaging, but Marcus’s interest in language as dangerous doesn’t resonate with me.

So, after reading a bunch of experimental fiction (or “experimental” or whatever — not counting the Pym, of course), some of which I liked — The Last Samurai — and some of which I didn’t, I figured it was time for something more traditional, hence In the Woods. It’s an absorbing story, which is exactly what I wanted.


Filed under Books


I’m currently reading Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan, and oh my god, what a good book it is! I’ve read six of the 14 essays so far, and while they aren’t all at the same level of fabulousness, they are all pretty close. I just finished an essay on Michael Jackson, which sent me off to watch this video and appreciate him in a way I never have before. The first essay is on a Christian Rock festival, which he captures perfectly in all its weirdness, and there are also essays on Hurricane Katrina (with a haunting ending), his brother’s near-death experience, and the TV show The Real World. This last essay is written in a funny, hyped-up, super-informal tone befitting the subject:

I’d suspected there were puppeteers involved in The Real World, invisibly instigating “drama,” but to think that the network had gone for it like that and hired a shrink? One who, as the kids went on to assure me, was involved not only in manipulating the cast during shooting but also in the casting process itself? And she’s worked on other shows? This explained so much, about The Real World, about all of it. When I wrote that business earlier about how the casting people have made the shows crazier and crazier, I didn’t know I was right about any of that! This person is an unacknowledged legislator of the real world. Turns out Dr. Laura is a psychologist, not a psychiatrist, which is better, when you think about it, because psychologists don’t have to take the Hippocratic oath, and she’s definitely, definitely done some harm. No chance I was going to call her.

Or there’s this somewhat more serious passage from the same essay (don’t miss the last line):

People hate these shows, but their hatred smacks of denial. It’s all there, all the old American grotesques, the test-tube babies of Whitman and Poe, and great gauntlet of doubtless eyes, big mouths spewing fantastic catchphrase fountains of impenetrable self-justification, muttering dark prayers, calling on God to strike down those who would fuck with their money, their cash, and always knowing, always preaching. Using weird phrases that nobody uses, except everybody uses them now. Constantly talking about “goals.” Throwing carbonic acid on our castmates because they used our special cup and then calling our mom to say, in a baby voice, “People don’t get me here.” Walking around half-naked, with a butcher knife behind our backs. Telling it like it is y’all (what-what). And never passive-aggressive, no. Saying it straight to your face. But crying … My God, there have been more tears shed on reality TV than by all the war widows of the world. Are we so raw? It must be so. There are simply too many of them — too many shows and too many people on the shows — for them not to be revealing something endemic. This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.

Those are good passages, but not even the best I’ve found, just the ones I read recently. Sullivan’s voice is amazing. I love discovering a new great essayist.


Filed under Books, Essays

In the Freud Archives

I recently finished another book by one of my favorite nonfiction authors, Janet Malcolm; I’d already read The Silent Woman, about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and Two Lives, about Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, and now I have finished In the Freud Archives, a book about psychoanalysis and Freud scholars. The Silent Woman is my favorite so far, and will probably stay my favorite, but In the Freud Archives is a close second, and possibly is second only because psychoanalysis isn’t all that interesting to me, whereas Plath and Hughes are. With Malcolm, though, it doesn’t matter much whether the topic at hand is inherently interesting or not, because she makes it interesting. All these books follow a similar format: Malcolm takes an academic, literary, or cultural controversy and digs deep into the story, interviewing the major players and charting out the various sides of the conflict. She herself is a part of the narrative; although she is good at keeping the focus on the story at hand, she does give her personal impressions of the major characters and offers her particular slant on the story.

In the Freud book, as in the others, Malcolm is writing on a number of different levels. In the Freud Archives (published in 1984) is a book about controversies among Freud scholars, specifically about who will control the archives with many letters that scholars have not had a chance to study. It’s a story about Dr. Eissler, a distinguished Freud scholar and analyst, and Jeffrey Masson, a younger man who started his career as a Sanskrit scholar and found his way into the world of psychoanalysis. Eissler becomes a mentor to Masson, grooming him to take control of the archives. But Masson is a controversial figure among analysts; he is too pushy and too overtly ambitious, he seemed to come out of nowhere and made his way to the top of the field all too easily, and his views on Freud are increasingly unorthodox. The “plot” of the book is about the relationship between Eissler and Masson and about Masson’s status in the psychoanalytic world.

But In the Freud Archives is about Freud, too; we learn about what kind of a thinker and analyst Freud really was and about the development of his thought in his early years, the focus of Masson’s research. We learn about the history of the discipline and of scholarship on Freud. The way Malcolm describes it, psychoanalysis and Freud studies seem to be at a crisis point in the 1980s — or at least at a vulnerable moment — with a comfortable scholarly establishment too willing to overlook flaws in their theories and in their founder, an environment ripe for someone like Masson to come in and shake things up.

The book is also about Malcolm as well; she describes the settings in which she conducted her interviews and her impressions of all the major players. It’s also about her in a sense she couldn’t have predicted when she first wrote the book. My edition, from NYRB, contains an afterward written by Malcolm that describes the book’s aftermath: Masson sued her for libel and she spent 10 years fighting him in the courts. She was ultimately successful, but the episode shows the dangers of writing this kind of nonfiction. It’s impossible to know how one’s subjects will react to having their lives and careers dissected in print.

I kept thinking as I read the book that it would be interesting to have some one pull a “Janet Malcolm” on Malcolm herself — to write about the making of this book, the book’s reception, and the ensuing lawsuit and to follow up on what has happened in psychoanalysis and Freud studies in the years between then and now. In the Freud Archives is an absorbing read and an intriguing look into one corner of the scholarly world, but I have the feeling that there’s more of this story to be told.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

The Last Samurai

I’m not entirely sure where I learned about Helen DeWitt — from blogs of course, but I can’t remember which ones — but she’s been on my mind lately because of her good showing in this year’s Tournament of Books. I thought The Last Samurai might be a better place to start than the most recent Lightning Rods, though. What a fun book it turned out to be! It’s over 500 pages, but a fast read and very absorbing. It tells the story of a mother and son living in London, both of whom are brilliant, but the son, Ludo, is particularly so, and the mother, Sibylla, doesn’t quite know how to handle him. He has a desperate hunger to know things, and is studying Greek and other languages at the age most children are barely ready for Sesame Street. At the novel’s beginning, he wants Sibylla to teach him Japanese, inspired by her obsessive rewatching of Kurosawa’s film The Last Samurai. For her part, she is struggling, both because money is very tight, and because she needs time to do the typing that brings in what money she has. It’s hard to find time, though, when Ludo constantly asks questions and begs to be taught more — and more and more.

What I liked particularly about the book is the style: DeWitt captures the craziness of Sibylla’s and Ludo’s experiences by throwing it all out on the page. There are pages where the sentences go back and forth at a dizzying pace between Sibylla’s thoughts and Ludo’s questions, or between a description of The Last Samurai and Ludo’s questions, or between comments they get from strangers as they ride the Circle Line all day to keep warm and Sibylla’s thoughts and Ludo’s questions. There is also a lot of Greek and Japanese and other languages in the pages, as well as numbers and math formulas. The novel has so much energy that it threatens to overrun its boundaries at times, both because it’s frequently breaking out into other languages and different fonts and because it’s constantly veering off into different stories. As Ludo grows older, he becomes more and more curious about his father and asks Sibylla more and more insistently to tell him who he is. Sibylla refuses, so Ludo goes on a quest to find him, or to find someone worthy of being him. Part of this quest is discovering stories of brilliant, adventurous, potential father-figures, and these stories become part of the novel.

It’s here that the novel faltered the only time; in the second half of the book, the narration settled down into a pattern that threatened to get dull. But only threatened — the energy and humor of the writing saved it, as did the relationship between Sibylla and Ludo and the fondness I had for Ludo throughout the whole book.

I think the thing I like best about the book is the great sense of openness it has. Even though Sibylla frequently feels harried and trapped by her situation, she’s able to offer Ludo so much intellectual possibility and so much freedom that it’s satisfying to watch him figure out the world and begin to make his way in it. He struggles with boredom, frustration, and uncertainty, but he also has great resourcefulness to match his intelligence. It’s a pleasure to watch him take on the world.


Filed under Books, Fiction