A rejection (of my novel) but filtered through my agent, Emily is always so much easier to take because she balanced it with the suggestion of a competition to try. Onwards and upwards…
And my gloom was lifted by MsLexia accepting a short “confession” I submitted recently. But you’ll have to wait till December to discover my immoral past! Which softened the blow of not getting anywhere in their novel competition. And desperately googling myself, I was surprised to discover my name on the shortlist for another novel competition, which I remember entering but assumed had not even been on a long list since the winner was announced in July this year! A rollercoaster as far as publication is concerned… Just keep writing!
Reading: “The Sea Inside” by Philip Hoare
Writing: about rain and moss
by Jennifer Egan
published by Corsair, 2017
My rating * * * *
After her Pulitzer Prize winning, experimental novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan has turned to the historic novel. In Manhattan Beach she delves (both metaphorically and literally) into the murky worlds of New York gangsters of the 30s and 40s and deep sea diving. Think Jimmy Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces, or any mobster movie set after the end of Prohibition then the upheaval of the Second World War. Into this unpredictable world throw Anna Kerrigan, a young Irish girl who, from an early age has the ‘logic of mechanical parts in her fingertips’ and wants to be a military diver, fixing battleships for the war effort.
Dexter Styles is the corrupt nightclub owner – charismatic and charming but conflicted. We first see him through Anna’s child eyes, inviting her father to his beach house. But it’s not a relationship of equals: her father is only the delivery man (or sometimes receiver) of ‘an envelope, sometimes a package’ – protection money. Dexter is comfortably married into an established New York family, sick of the mobster life and all the danger it entails. But he isn’t the Big Cheese: he’s compromised by his past. There’s no way out. Well, only one and he doesn’t want to take it. When Kerrigan (Anna’s father) disappears, she and her mother have to look after her crippled sister and Anna turns to Dexter. Now there are two hooks pulling us through the novel: What’s happened to Kerrigan and Will Anna tell Dexter she knows what he’s up to?
Egan has clearly researched the novel’s background minutely (see the acknowledgements) but it shows. Too much detail about cars, clothes and the process of diving slow the novel down and distract us from the story. Which is a shame because the world she creates is believable and vivid, the characters engaging and their stories moving. Then about two thirds of the way through something goes badly wrong. We’ve had a privileged and nuanced view of Anna and Dexter’s inner lives via a very close third person, but now we see everything from a great distance. It’s all ‘tell’ with not much ‘showing’ and loses momentum, while piling on the detail and incidents. Even a shark attack and the horrors of surviving for weeks in an open lifeboat hardly register.
Jennifer Egan is a gifted writer but Manhattan Beach is ultimately a disappointing follow-up. Yet, in spite of its flaws it’s a wonderful and intriguing novel and I’d still recommend you read it. I just wish Egan had an editor who could suggest cutting the word count and some of the unnecessary detail.
Two poetry events this week: Monday at the Troubadour to celebrate 21 years of Coffee house poetry run by the indefatigable Anne-Marie Fyfe. A wonderful evening of new poets, and four poets who read in the first year. Including my wonderful tutor Mimi Khalvati, as charming as ever. Great to hear her reading her own work. And Maura Dooley- exquisite, lyrical poems.
Wednesday at Kings Place for a reading and discussion about the American poets Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore: mental health and eccentricity. And constant revision. Suzy Orbach gave her take on this ‘revisioning’ as related to the process of psychotherapy. Fascinating.
As for my own writing: lots of free-writing around swimming and floods. And going swimming myself – exercise as well as research! All very rambly but some kind of story is rising up from the depths…
Reading: ‘Manhattan Beach’ by Jennifer Egan; ‘The Silvering’ by Maura Dooley
Googling: New York
“Always be reading something…Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.”
From Ali Smith’s Autumn
In the novel Daniel gives this advice to his young friend, Elisabeth as an important way of understanding the world. It seems to me essential advice for anyone who sees themselves as a writer. You have to use all your senses, be on the look out and ready. Without being obsessive (well not completely). Read and think about what you’re reading. Don’t switch off your critical sense. Analyse what the writer is doing. How she achieves the effect on the reader. Listen to the chat on the bus, or the one-sided phone conversation. Examine how you really feel when you’re: with family, on your own, in a thunderstorm, crossing a bridge, standing in a queue.
I remember my friend who worked for the Inland Revenue being asked what he would do if he overheard a conversation in the pub about tax avoidance. His answer: ‘I work for the Queen.’ Just what you need to do as a writer: keep making sense of the world. Or how can you write with any authenticity?
Now that my novel is in the hands of my agent, there’s been a strange hiatus (I think this happened last time too). A sense of energy fizzing around with nowhere to go. A lack of purpose. And, all the time there’s something telling me to ‘Get on with it!’ So that’s what I’m doing. After a decent month of submitting a few poems and short stories, and generally sorting out my house, I’ve started researching the next novel…
Of course (if you’re a writer) you’ll know that’s not strictly true. Ideas have been surfacing for nearly a year. But research is now what I’m doing: making notes, googling, taking books out of the library and mostly following my nose. A messy amorphous stage which is so much like playing it feels self indulgent, on a critical day. Or, on a good day, like being a student again. That sense of both opening up, of being what the French writer Gide (tell me if I’m wrong) called ‘disponible’, but at the same time intensely focused.
Reading :‘A night to remember’, about the Titanic.
Googling: the height of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Making notes on: possible main characters.
This will all change!
**** A prodigiously talented writer who became a best seller with her first novel White Teeth in 2000 at the age of 25, Zadie Smith has gone from strength to strength.
Swing Time examines female friendship, class and race and the way none of can ever really know ourselves, yet alone another person. The novel moves from council estates in north-west London where the narrator and her best friend, Tracey attend the same dance class, to success (or what is viewed as success) in dance or politics or music, and back again via a Madonna-like international pop star and her bid to create a school for girls in West Africa and to adopt a baby.
An ambitious novel, long-listed for the Booker this year, the novel is over-long but still a great read. Truthful, perceptive and, in spite of its exuberance, ultimately very sad.
by Sebastian Barry, 2016
A story of endurance and love set against the American Civil War. Thomas McNulty, in old age, is looking back at his early life as a young Irish immigrant. When he meets John Cole they become best friends. ‘We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are,’ so they do anything to survive: join the army against the Sioux Indians, dress as women, and go back to the army in the Civil War to fight on the side of the north to end slavery. ‘We worked back and forth through the milling bodies and tried to kill everything that moved in the murk.’ They are so young that ‘time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever.’ Despite everything they endure, there is a sense of optimism.
The language is amazingly fresh and inventive, with imagery always taken from the world Thomas and John Cole inhabit. Buffalo are ‘a big boil of black molasses in a skillet, surging up.’ The weather is described as ‘endless yards of rain as thick as cloth.’ Or – ‘there’s a great jamboree of lightning and noise that makes the far hills stand out black as burnt bread.’
What makes this novel stand out, is an openness to wonder at the beauty of the world, and the possibility of love in the darkest times – love between men, across races and parental love.
A harrowing, beautifully described story with a unique voice by a writer at the top of his game.