BOOK REVIEWS

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

“I had always understood, of course, that the task of rooting out evil in its most devious forms, often just when it is about to go unchecked, is a crucial and solemn undertaking.”

As much as it pains me to admit this…I didn’t particularly care for this novel. While it is written in Kazuo Ishiguro’s trademark prose, which is both eloquent and introspective, the more I read and the less invested I felt in the story and in particular in Christopher Banks, our narrator and protagonist. It saddens me not to have enjoyed When We Were Orphans as I consider Ishiguro to be an excellent writer and certainly a favourite of mine. Then again, Ishiguro himself said that “It’s not my best book”. Still, while I wasn’t expecting When We Were Orphans to be as poignant as
The Remains of Day or Never Let Me Go, I hoped that I would at least find it to be an engaging read.
At first I was intrigued by the narrative. Although Christopher is a famous detective his investigations are only alluded to. This itself is very unusual and it subverts the reader’s expectations. Usually, when a book revolves around a detective chances are that whatever case(s) they are working on will be a central part of the story. Here instead Christopher’s job is treated like any other job. It is Christopher himself who is a mystery. Ishiguro introduces us to certain aspects of his life, for example at first we read many scenes in which he is socialising at glitzy parties or events. The story begins in the 1930s England and Christopher is slowly making a name for himself. We learn that he is an orphan and that he grew up in the International Settlement of Shanghai. As with other novels by Ishiguro our narrator finds himself recollecting a certain period of his life, in this case is childhood. He reconsiders figures and scenes from his past, scrutinizing and questioning his own memories, re-experiencing specific episodes both through the uncomprehending eyes of a child and through his newly acquired adult perspective.
Scenes from his past are interspersed throughout Christopher’s narrative. In the present he meets Sarah, a young woman who also happens to be an orphan. Sarah seems intent on upward social mobility or so we can assume given that she expresses a wish to marry someone of importance. We also learn more of Christopher’s circumstances.
Throughout his careful examination of his past Christopher remains a somewhat remote and cautious narrator. Usually I find cold or detached narrators to be right up my street (such as with Brontë and Kincaid’s Lucys) but Christopher’s opaqueness seemed a bit contrived at times. He remains a half-formed thing for much of his narrative. For instance, when he is thinking of childhood it is Akira who steals ‘the sh0w’. Child-Christopher remains an amorphous figure, who possesses no discernible traits.
Still, I appreciated the way he considers the limitations of memory, how certain events are coloured by later ones, how some incidents will always remain unclear.
What seems to drive his remembrance is the loss of his parents (the exact nature of which we learn quite late in the narrative). The second half of the novel sees Christopher back in Shanghai and here things take on a hazy quality. While in the first half there are many time skips, I never felt that I was missing out on any vital scene. Once Christopher is Shanghai however I started to feel mildly annoyed by how many things happened off page. Nothing is explained to us, we are simply made to go along with Christopher and his outlandish plans. He finds himself in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War and kind of loses his marbles. He makes foolish decisions and behaves in an abhorrent fashion. I could not for the life of me believe that he felt any particular strong feelings for Sarah. During his earlier reminiscence I did not feel his grief or anguish when he considered his parents. And yet, all of a sudden, it seems imperative for him to uncover the truth. The more ill-behaved he became the more antipathy I felt for him and the book as a whole. This character change was abrupt and doubtful. While Christopher never struck me as a particularly likeable or kind person he seemed a level-headed and sensible person. And then he just becomes this increasingly tyrannical, inconsiderate, and impudent man.
The mystery was anti-climatic and the story lacked a cohesive structure or at least a rewarding storyline. Christopher remains undeveloped and uninteresting, while the secondary character seemed mere devices. Take Akira for example…his role in the story is disappointing. At the end especially he just ‘puffs’, vanishes, disappears. Christopher doesn’t think of him or their last encounter.
Nevertheless Ishiguro’s prose is certainly refined and, to begin with, thoughtful. His dialogues always ring true, from the words they use to express themselves to the vernaculars they use, even when the motivations of his characters don’t. He certainly succeeds in evoking the society in which Christopher moves, as well as the cultural differences between England and China. While I didn’t particularly enjoy this novel I still consider Ishiguro to be one of the best writers ‘out there’.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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A Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo

On paper A Lover’s Discourse is the type of book that I generally like: we have an unmanned who recounts her relationship to her unmanned ‘lover’—a man she addresses as ‘you’. Our narrator met ‘you’ after moving from China to Britain in 2016. Recently orphaned and feeling somewhat alienated by her new environment the protagonist of A Lover’s Discourse enters into a relationship with a German-Australian man. They begin living together in a houseboat, but while ‘you’ finds freedom in this kind of ‘unmoored’ lifestyle, our narrator would much rather live in an actual house or apartment. While ‘you’ earns money as a landscaper, our protagonist works on her PhD.

The structure of this novel is what initially caught my attention. The narrative is comprised of a series of dialogues in which the protagonist and her partner discuss an array of subjects: British-related issues, love, sex, nationality, identity, landscaping, architecture…sadly their conversations aren’t particularly deep or compelling. Maybe I write this because I found both characters to be different shades of obnoxious: our mc isn’t particularly passionate or interested in anything. While I should have found her efforts to understand British customs and culture, as well as trying to master the English language, to be relatable, given that I am in a similar position, I disliked profoundly the way she was portrayed. She was acerbic nag. She makes generalisation after generalisation about other countries, her own country, and about men. Not only does she repeatedly use the word ‘peasants’ to refer to the residents of her hometown, but her tone, when using this word, left a lot to be desired. She comes out with obsolete comments that make me question why she would ever want to be in a relationship, especially with man, given that she considers sex to be a violent and invasive act that she doesn’t enjoy. Her navel-gazing was far from thought-provoking. She laments her boyfriend having to work, seeming to forget that he is their sole provider as she’s busy completing this PhD she doesn’t even particularly care for (she kind of forgets about her studies once she starts her relationship with ‘you’). Her PhD actually sounded quite interesting, and I wish that it had played more of a role in the narrative.
‘You’ is a condescending man who is kind of dull. He ‘explains’ things to our narrator, and he does so in an exceedingly donnish way.
Attempts are made to connect their ‘discourse’ to Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse and I wonder…why? These two characters didn’t strike me as the types who would care about Barthes’s writings.
Bland, uninspired, and repetitive, A Lover’s Discourse was a deeply disappointing read. Thankfully it was a relatively slim book.

MY RATING: 2 of 5 stars

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Dove mi trovo (Whereabouts) by Jhumpa Lahiri

Dove mi trovo, which will be published in English as Whereabouts next spring, is the first novel Jhumpa Lahiri’s has written in Italian. Having read, and deeply empathised with, Lahiri’s In Other Words—a nonfiction work in which she interrogates her love for and struggles with the Italian language—I was looking forward to Dove mi trovo. Although I bought this book more than a year ago, during my last trip to Italy, part of me wasn’t ready to read it just yet. A teensy-weensy part me feared that I would find her Italian to be stilted. As it turns out, I should have not second-guessed Lahiri.

This novel consists in a series of short chapters, between 2 to 6 pages long, in which we follow a nameless narrator as she occupies different spaces. The titles of these chapters in fact refer to the place—not always a ‘physical’ one such as in the case of the recurring ‘Tra sé e sé’ chapters (an expression that for the life of me I cannot translate in English)—she is in or thinking of. She’s on the street, in a bar, a restaurant, a museum, her apartment, by the seaside…you get the gist. The novel takes place during a single year, and our narrator will often remark on the current season. She’s a solitary woman, and although she’s deeply aware of her loneliness, she’s not burdened by it. It is perhaps because she’s alone that she can get lost in her surroundings or in her thoughts. Even in those occasions where she interacts with others—who also remain unmanned and are referred to as her former lover, her friend, a professor, etc—she remains a lonely person. By seeing the way she interacts or navigates certain spaces, we learn more about her. Ultimately, however, she retains an air of mystery.
One should not approach this novel hoping for a plot-driven novel. Dove mi trovo is very much about language. Lahiri’s Italian is crisp and deceptively simple. There are observations or conversations that are rendered with clarity, and there are passages that convey a sense of disquiet. While I can’t say whether Lahiri always articulated phrases like an Italian would, I didn’t notice any Englishism on her part. I loved the way Lahiri articulated her phrases and the correct if démodé terms she used.
While Lahiri’s ‘Italian voice’ differs from the one in her English works, Dove mi trovo is the kind of quietly reflective and deeply nostalgic novel that I would happily revisit time and again.


MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars


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My Education by Susan Choi

“Love bestows such a dangerous sense of entitlement.”

Sometimes books really deserve their average rating…and this is one of those cases. As I am writing this the majority of readers have given My Education three stars, and more reviewers have given it 2 stars than 5. I know that at the end of the day ‘ratings’ are insubstantial, not reliable gauges, yadda yadda but readers who are considering picking up My Education should bear its score in mind….it’s low for a reason.
I for one can’t say whether I disliked it or not. There were many elements I did not appreciate but I could also see what the novel was trying to do. For the most part, it was a rather funny novel and there were many passages and scenes that were almost endearingly offbeat.
Susan Cho’s satire—of academia, of ‘affairs’ between a younger & naive person and an older married one, and of all sorts of people—did occasionally hit the mark, and the narrator’s caustic commentary did amused me. But, and it’s a big but, Cho’s hyperbolic and bombastic language made for a dense and ultimately not very rewarding reading experience. She has a Joycean approach to syntax, with baffling backwards-sounding sentences that go on forever and are punctuated by highfalutin words that more often than not do not fit the context they are in. Also, I couldn’t help but to unfavourably compare this novel with two others I’ve read in 2020, Pizza Girl and Luster, both of which explore dynamics similar to the ones My Education . Whereas I found those books to be highly absorbing and I enjoyed their ‘effervescent’ prose, My Education is bogged down by its author’s circumlocutory and turgid style. At times it seemed that I had to find my way through a discombobulating and never-ending warren of florid sentences, with little success. I was perplexed by Cho’s writing, especially since it did ‘sound’ like the authentic ‘voice’ of her main character. Would Regina really make such ostentatious metaphors and penetrating if convoluted observations and assessments? At times her comments seemed to originate from a perspective outside of her own one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. While this is by no means a plot-driven narrative, it does have a storyline, however feeble, and it unfolds as follows: Regina, the type of protagonist who should have and could have remained unnamed, is a directionless graduate student who upon hearing about Professor Nicholas Brodeur’s ill repute decides to join his class and attract his attention. For reasons that are never truly disclosed to the readers Regina is attracted to Nicholas because of the allegations against him… her excitement at his sexual misconduct was certainly bewildering. Was she aroused by the idea of his illicit behaviour? Who knows! Her true feelings and motivations are lost in her pleonastic inner-monologue. Which, as I’ve mentioned above, just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of her persona. She’s naïve, childish, inward-looking (yet, her act of introspections added little to her characterisation), impulsive, and socially myopic. The author tries to emphasise her ‘youth’, and in the process she made her seem closer to a teenager than a twenty-one-year-old (time and again we are reminded of her ignorance, and lack of interest or understanding, of what being a mother entails…is she 12?). Anyway, Regina, for obscurely perverse reasons, ‘pursues’ Nicholas, who isn’t as alluring a man as she’d hoped. Cho, in fact, subverts the trope of the young ingénue student who begins an affair with an older charismatic professor as Regina’s liaison is not with Nicholas but his wife. She falls in love within a few pages, lusts after this wife, Martha, for reasons that aren’t that clear (which is the norm in this book). More perplexing still is that Martha reciprocates, to a certain degree at least, Regina’s infatuation. The sex between these two women is awfully over the top, and I don’t I’ve ever come across such bad sex scenes (this book was nominated, and should have won, for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award). Regina lusting for Martha makes for 40% of this novel. They either have petty squabbles or convoluted sex (“I would have liked a single rope to bind us together, with tightly stacked coils, so that we formed a sort of Siamese mummy”) . Readers will probably not root for them as they are unlikable or unsympathetic as each other. The male characters, however flawed and problematic, at least had discernible personalities and could even be quite amusing.

The narrative then takes us away from the 1990s and into the late 2000s where we witness how Regina’s life has come to look similar to Martha’s own one. I didn’t particularly like the message here: the three main women in this novel are all at one point or another mothers and wives. While the male characters had character arcs, Regina and Martha…I could not for the life of me understand what compelled them to act they way they did. Given that this novel popped up in ‘best campus/academia’ novels I was hoping that Regina’s studies would play more of a role in her story, but they don’t. Even when we see her as a ‘proper’ grown-up, her work and interests remain off page.
While I liked the idea of this novel, the execution was not my cup of tea. Cho’s lampooning style could be amusing, but then we would get things like: “It was deep winter now, the season when suicides rained down like apples from the limbs of the gorge-spanning bridges” or “something in her bearing, an extremely compressed capability, suggested to me that she might be a butcher, or a construction foreperson, as well as a lesbian”.
I just don’t know what to make of this book. It had the right ingredients for a funny yet cutting read but Cho’s overplays her already intentionally exaggerated style. Then we have two boring and undefined main characters, many failed attempts at subversiveness, and a repetitive and ultimately skin-deep story…and you kind of lost me. What pissed me off the most was a scene towards the end where Cho makes a character who was sexually abused have a cameo appearance where she discloses this to Regina for no real reason other than for some shock-value content. The tone in this scene was so off, it was almost gleeful…which, yikes. That’s fucked up.
When Regina tells us “Reader, I grew up”, I wanted to call out bullshit because Regina, darling, you did no such fucking thing. The ending really wants to paint her as being more mature and sensible, but it doesn’t work as we only glimpse these traits in the very last few pages. Why was Martha interested in Regina anyway? Why would anyone be in love with someone like Martha ? Search me!
Last, but not least, because of Cho’s extravagant and syntax-averse writing this 300-page novel read like a 600-page tome. Still, I did manage to finish it, and it was probably thanks to Nicholas, Dutra, and Laurence who kept me interested in the story. Also, to be fair, Cho’s commentary and her observations could be spot on…then again, more often than not, a good point would be lost in a sea of gaudy and seemingly never-ending asides.

MY RATING: 2 ½ out of 5 stars

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Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

Once I started reading Piranesi I understood why so many reviewers disclosed very little about its story. The driving force in this novel is the not knowing what the hell is going on. The summary for Piranesi hints at the narrative’s peculiarity: our narrator, Piranesi, lives in a house, which happens to be his entire world, with many many rooms and many many corridors, his only companions are the statues adorning this house and The Other, a man he meets twice a week to discuss A Great and Secret Knowledge.

“Piranesi lived among statues; silent presences that bought him comfort and enlightenment.”

Although the publisher recommends Piranesi to fans of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Madeline Miller’s Circe, I think it would appeal more to readers who enjoy metaphysical and absurd narratives, such as the one penned by the likes of Kafka or Samuel Beckett. Similarly to Beckett’s Endgame, Piranesi‘s disorientating qualities are heightened by the repetitiveness of certain words or phrases. Piranesi, like Beckett’s Clov and Hamm, offers no explanations for his peculiar environment or strange circumstances, leading readers to speculate whether the house truly is in another world.

Readers will probably be baffled by Piranesi’s casual attitude towards his surroundings, his incomprehensible reasonings, his perception of time and death, and his devotion to his labyrinthine house.
Unlike Beckett however Clarke does eventually answer the reader’s questions, but I was ultimately unconvinced by her novel’s denouement. Nevertheless I enjoyed Piranesi’s absurd narration as well the humour that livens his story. If you are the type of reader to find puzzling reads entertaining, this might the right book for you.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

“They could only stitch themselves back together if they did something irreversible.”

Heavenly Creatures by way of Patricia Highsmith, plus a sprinkle of Like Minds, and with the kind of teenage morbidity one could find in Hangsaman or Stoker.

Adroit and gripping, These Violent Delights is a superlative debut novel. Being the self-proclaimed connoisseur of academia fiction, I was drawn by the comparisons to The Secret History and I was amazed to discover that unlike other releases (not naming any names) These Violent Delights definitely had some TSH vibes. But whereas most academia books focus on a ‘clique’, Micah Nemerever’s novel is very much centred on the obsessive relationship between two seventeen-year olds.
If you’ve read or watched anything that revolves around a toxic relationship, you know what to expect from These Violent Delights. The prologue itself reveals to us that all will not be well for these two boys, and that at some point will embark on a path of no return.

“He couldn’t remember ever being the person he’d decided to become.”

The narrative takes us back to their first meeting. Paul, our protagonist, is a university freshman in Pittsburgh during the early 1970s. His father has recently committed suicide and his mother has yet to recover. Paul suffers from an almost debilitating insecurity, and shows a propensity for virulent self-recriminations. His inward-looking nature brings him no joy, as his mind is often consumed by his many ‘shortcomings’, and those of others. He feels misunderstood by his working-class family, and without his father, his grandfather, a man whose good-natured attempts to connect with Paul inevitably miss the mark, has become his closest male figure. His family fails to accept that Paul isn’t the type to ‘loosen’ up with his peers or have ‘fun’ with some girl.
When a discussion on experimental ethics in class gets Paul hot under the collar, Julian Fromme comes to his defence. On the surface Julian is the antithesis of Paul: he comes from wealth, he’s self-assured, easy-going, and charismatic. Yet, Paul is enthralled by him, especially when he realises that Julian carries within him a darkness not unlike his own. Their mutual understanding and their interest in one another results in instantaneous connection. They can have erudite talks, challenging each other’s stance on subjects related to ethics and morals, and revel in the superiority they feel towards their classmates. Within hours of their meeting their bond has solidified, becoming something impenetrable to outsiders. It soon becomes apparent that neither of them is in control in their relationship, and things are further complicated when their platonic friendship gives way to a more sexual one.
Their symbiotic bond is of concern to others (to be queer—in both senses—is no walk in the park, especially in the 70s), and attempts are made to separate the two. But Paul and Julian are determined to stay together, and more than once they tell each other that the idea of life without the other would be unbearable.

“[H]e wasn’t afraid anymore. After a lifetime of yearning and trying not to yearn, he imagined the relief of surrendering.”

Even if we suspect that Paul and Julian’s intoxicating liaison will have internecine consequences, we are desperate for a moment of reprieve. But Nemerever’s narrative does not let up, not once. Readers will read with increasing anxiety as Paul and Julian embark on an ‘irreversible’ path, alienating those around them. Dread and anguish became my constant companions while I was reading this novel and I’m glad that I choose to read this when I was off work (I devoured this novel in less than 24h) since These Violent Delights is a riveting edge-of-your-seat kind of read.
A sense of unease pervades this story as even the early stages of Paul and Julian’s relationship are fraught. Julian is almost secretive when it comes to his family, and disapproves of the contempt Paul harbours towards his own mother. Their love for each other often veers into dislike, if not hatred, and they are quite capable of being extremely cruel to each other. Even so we can see why they have become so entangled together, and why they oppose anyone who threatens to separate them. But as they enable one other, their teenage angst morphs into a more perturbing sort of behaviour. Time and again we are left wondering who, if anyone, is in control.

“All they were—all they had ever been—was a pair of sunflowers who each believed the other was the sun.”

My summary of this novel won’t do it justice as I fear I’m making it sound like any other ‘dark’ tale of obsessive friendships (in this case a romantic one but still). It is Nemerever’s writing that elevates his story from ‘interesting’ to exhilarating (and downright distressing). He evokes the claustrophobic and oppressive nature of Paul and Julian’s bond, making us feel as if we too are caught in their all-consuming relationship. Nemerever’s also acutely renders Paul’s discomforts, the intensity of his love for Julian, of his self-loathing, and of his conflicting desires (to be known, to be unknowable). He wants his family to understand him, but in those instances when they prove that they may understand him more than he thinks, he does not hear them out.

“All I want to do is make you happy, and you’re the unhappiest person I’ve ever met.”

Similarly to The Secret History, the narrative is very much examining the way we can fail to truly see the people closest to us. Paul’s low self-esteem makes him constantly doubt everyone around, Julian included. He perceives slights where there are none, and even seems to find a sort of twisted pleasure (or as Lacan would have it, jouissance) in second-guessing Julian’s feelings towards him or in assuming the worst of others. He projects a preconceived image of Julian onto him (someone who is cruel and deceitful, someone who, unlike Paul himself, can easily adapt or pretend to be normal), and this prevents him from seeing him as he truly is.
The love Paul feels for Julian is almost fanatical, doomed to be destructive. This is the type of relationship that would not be out of place in a Magda Szabó (The Door), Joyce Carol Oates (Solstice) or a Barbara Vine novel (The House of Stairs, No Night is Too Long, A Fatal Inversion) or as the subject of a song by Placebo (I’m thinking of ‘Without You I’m Nothing’).

“They were wild and delirious and invincible, and it was strange that no one else could see it.”

Nemerever’s writing style is exquisite and mature. I was struck by the confidence of his prose (it does read like a debut novel). Not one word is wasted, every sentence demands your attention (which is difficult when the story has you flipping pages like no tomorrow). Nemerever brings to life every scene and character he writes of, capturing, for example, with painful precision the crushing disquiet Paul feels (24/7), his loneliness (exacerbated by his queerness and intelligence) and his deep-seated insecurity. Nemerever doesn’t always explicitly states what Paul is feeling, or thinking, and the ambiguity this creates reminded me very much of Shirley Jackson, in particular of Hangsaman (a scene towards the end was particularly reminiscent of that novel). Readers will have to fill the gaps or try to read the subtext of certain scenes or exchanges between P and J.

Not only did this book leave me with a huge book-hangover but it also left me emotionally exhausted (when I tried picking up other books my mind kept going back to Paul and Julian). Paul is one of the most miserable characters I’ve ever read of. And while he is no angel, I found myself, alongside his family, wanting to help him. But I could also understand him as he strongly reminded of my own teenage experiences, and of how ‘wretched’ and alone I felt (woe is me), as well as the fierce, and at times detrimental, friendships I formed during those vulnerable years.
In spite of what Paul and Julian do, I cared deeply for them. I wanted to ‘shake’ them, but I also desperately wanted them to be happy.
I’m sure I could blather on some more, but I will try and stop myself here. Reading These Violent Delights is akin to watching a slow-motion video of a car accident or some other disaster. You know what will happen but you cannot tear your eyes away. Read this at your own peril!

MY RATING: 5 / 5 stars

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Vicious by V.E. Schwab

Schwab’s aesthetics dominate this novel. There is a focus on how words and phrases sound, which does pay off, in fact, Schwab’s prose is one of the most likeable things of this novel. At times certain turn of phrases or repetitions may come across as pretentious or flowery but I think that for the most part Schwab exerts great control over her words. She measures pauses and words as to instil a rhythm to her narration. So, in some ways, Vicious is more ‘style’ than anything else. What characters say, how they look, how Schwab words things, it all creates a certain ‘look’.
While I did find the story to be engaging (different timelines keep the momentum of the story) I wasn’t completely taken by the characters. They seemed very much ‘sketches’ of existing types: morally grey for the sole purpose of seeming ‘ambiguous’…hopefully the sequel will provide them to be slightly more complex then what they came across as…


MY RATING: 3 of 5 stars

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Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

Once again, I am in the minority as I did not find Red Pill to be a particularly artful or clever novel. To be clear, I do think that Hari Kunzru can write very well indeed, however, his narrative struck me as all flash and no substance.

I was amused by the first quarter of this novel. Kunzru’s writing didn’t ‘blow’ me away but I did find his narrator’s inner monologue to be mildly entertaining. The more I read however, the more my interest waned. My mounting frustration at the silliness and superficiality of the story soon morphed into an overwhelming feeling of exasperation. Maybe, this is my fault. The summary, cover, and general ‘hype’ surrounding this novel led me to believe that Red Pill would be something more than your average ‘well-educated yet exceedingly average straight man has midlife crisis in Europe’ story but I was wrong.
As per usual, if you enjoyed this novel, well, ben per te. And, at the risk of anticipating righteous Kunzru devotees: No, I did not in fact ‘get’ this novel. There you have it.

I’m all for historical and literary references or philosophical asides but boy, oh boy, Red Pill sure liked to flex. Maybe, one needs a master in Philosophy and Literature to understand the brilliance of the narrator’s endless ramblings on Kleist, the Enlightenment, western philosophers, postmodern theorists, Evil, self-determination, and violence.
This nameless narrator of ours (of course he remains unnamed) is experiencing some existential dread. This may be because the novel is set in 2016 and our protagonist lives in America. His conviction that ‘something’ bad is going to happen soon aren’t unfounded. Suffering writer’s block our narrator is given a ‘golden’ opportunity, a three-months residency at the Deuter Center (located in Wannsee, Berlin). Here he will supposedly be able to crack on his “The Lyric I”.
Our narrator was no however prepared for the Deuter Center’s many rules. The Center is in fact a “experimental community” that promotes, nay insists, on the “public labor of scholarship”. The narrator finds the idea of having to undertake his research in a ‘communal’ space to be abject. His feelings of discomfort and anxiety are exacerbated by a particularly unpleasant and hectoring resident, a man who relishes in making others miserable, using pseudo-intellectual jargon to ‘demolish’ their thesis and beliefs. Cowed, our narrator, who is fully aware of his own inability to speak against this bullying man, hides in his bedroom, watching episode after episode of Blue Lives an America show about cops gone ‘rogue’ and operate under a ‘violence begets violence’ mentality which sees them torturing and killing criminals.
As the narrator’s obsession for this show grows, he starts exhibiting paranoid behaviour. His thoughts too, which are very much convey this sense of ‘being watched’ or controlled (by the Center? The show? Who knows.).
The narrative then switches to the story of Monika, a cleaner who works at the Center. Monika decides for some reason to make our unremarkable, and increasingly unbalanced, narrator into her confidante. She recounts of her time in a punk girl band in East Germany, and of the way she was persecuted by the Stasi. The story exists solely as a poorly veiled allegory. This novel is not really interest in Monika, and why should it be? This is very much a narrative about an average man’s midlife crisis and of his ‘descent’ into madness.
Pure happenstance, our narrator meets Anton, the creator of Blue Lives, at a party in Berlin. Anton is a ‘bad’ guy, our narrator is sure of this. Anton does in fact act like a dick, and doesn’t bother to conceal his alt-right leanings. This encounter upsets our narrator so much that he looses grip of himself.
What follows is a sequence of fevered events in which our protagonist tries to expose Anton to the world, believing that the best way of doing so is to hurtle down the path of insanity. Paranoia and gas-lightening abound in this part of the novel. Much of what happens seems to exist merely to ridicule our narrator, to emphasise his inability to form cohesive counter-arguments to Anton’s Mad Max worldview. He now ‘sees’ the world in all its ugliest glory, he has indeed taken the ‘red pill’ mentioned in the title.

The cartoonish characters (the Center guy and Anton are pompous and blustering finger-wagging caricatures) and awkward interactions could be chalked down to Kunzru’s predilection for hysterical realism. This is satire. Okay. Fair enough. Still, what lies beneath his ‘satire’? An intelligent social commentary? A cautionary tale? Methinks not. The exaggerated characters and outlandish plot did not seem to have anything particularly to say. Beware ‘Antons’? Those who hold extremist views and use scholarly or high-register words to deflect their audience from the true meaning of what they are saying? Paranoia is a sane response to an ‘insane’ reality?
Kunzur’s arguments felt tired, especially in 2020, and serve a merely ornamental function. Take the role of the show Blue Lives in the story. Our narrator watches it with a mix of horror and fascination. He worries that no one has caught on the messages that Anton has peppered in his show, particularly a troubling quote by Joseph de Maistre. Our narrator tries to call out Anton, by criticising his show’s pessimistic worldview, in which the world is an “abattoir”. But that’s it. He doesn’t try to think why viewers of this show condone this kind of vigilante sort of justice. Kunzru has one quick scene in a kebab shop in which he attempts to unpack the psychology of people like Anton, but he does it in such a harried and obvious way (Anton telling our protagonist why his friends dislike immigrants and non-Western cultural influences), to which our inept narrator responds “fuck you”.
Kunzru also tries to show how good intentions can be misunderstood by having our supposedly progressive narrator attempt to help a refugee father and her daughter. Except that his attempt to help them is from the get go dodgy as he wants to prove Anton and his violent worldview wrong.
He’s also, surprise surprise, like Monika, made to seem complicit with Anton (so that he’s mistaken for a Fascist).
I get that we are not meant to like the narrator (he’s kind of a coward, kind of pathetic, kind of a creep when it comes to attractive women), but did the author really have to go out of his way to humiliate him? I already felt little for this man, and the more the story seemed intent on emphasising his many failings, the more I lost interest.
The author seemed more focused on making his narrative as nebulous as possible than of fleshing out or giving some nuance to his characters. Yet, the structure of the novel isn’t all that innovative. The plot too unfolds rather predictably. The narrator’s unreliability and his imminent breakdown are obvious, and I felt no apprehension about his decline or wellbeing. While the author’s prose was exceedingly well-articulated, I failed to grasp the meaning behind his words.
The narrator often recounted the conversations he had with others. Consequently, not only did the plot lack immediacy but the majority of the secondary characters were made to speak only through our narrator recalling the gist of their words (one could say that this is realistic as he is retroactively describing his time in Berlin but why do we get some dialogues then? Am I to believe then he has a sporadic exceptional memory?). The narrator’s inner-monologue is repetitive and appeared to be little other than navel-gazing. Many of his thoughts and feelings aren’t all that complex, and yet the author will dedicate entire paragraphs to them.
Also, while I understand that there times when you can get so flustered as to be unable to form a cohesive sentence or valid counter-argument (just think how many videos there in which ‘liberals/snowflakes/feminists are destroyed with FACTS and LOGIC’) it didn’t ring quite true when at the Center what’s-his-face is offensive towards every single other resident, and no one does anything about it. He wasn’t their boss or a threatening guy, yet, not one of these learned individuals was capable of calling him out. His behaviour, as far as I remember, doesn’t even get reported (which it should be given that he says inappropriate things, and actively works against the Center’s ideology). Speaking of the Center, that felt very much felt like ‘bait’. It seems that it will play some sort of role in the novel but it is totally sidelined in favour of our narrator spiralling out of control.
Another thing I couldn’t quite behind was Anton and his supposed powers of influence over our main character. While I can recognise that the narrator was in a susceptible, if not vulnerable, state I wasn’t convinced by the way Anton comes to dominate his every-thought. The guy may have been able to quote some obscure philosopher but that hardly makes him into almighty persuader.
The ‘writing about writing’ angle was but underwhelming and obnoxious. If anything, the narrator’s reflections on writing seemed to serve as excuses for the actual novel’s failings: “Plot is the artificial reduction of life’s complexity and randomness. It is a way to give aesthetic form to reality” (insert headache inducing eye-roll here). And of course, Chekhov’s gun gets a mention. How very self-aware.
While the protagonist did touch upon interesting subjects and ideas, often using researched vocabulary, he did so superficially, so that ultimately his narration seemed little other than bloviating.

In spite of the novel’s lampoon of the academic world, the narrative struck as being extremely elitist. Red Pill tells a meandering and ultimately inadequate story, attempting perhaps to shock or impress its own importance onto its readers. But I felt mostly annoyed by it all. Meaning and depth are lost in a prolix narrative that meanders maddeningly from one subject to the next without having anything substantial to say. Reading this was a huge waste of time, time I could have spent watching ContraPoints or Philosophy Tube. Did the world need another book dedicated to a self-proclaimed ‘average’ man who is having a ‘midlife’ crisis?

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

Version Control by Dexter Palmer

Version Control is going to be tough to review as I have never felt so conflicted about a book. There were some scenes in Part I that were pure genius. But once I delved into Part II I was forced to reevaluate my first impressions of this book.
Imagine walking into some art gallery and coming across a piece of art that just blows your mind. Later on, when you walk past it again, you actually stop and read the artist’s statement, which consists in the usual meaningless art-speak. And you look back to that work and think “this is so fucking pretentious”. That’s how I feel about Version Control which is all flash and no substance.
Once I finally slogged my way through this 500+ page book I felt cheated. It had so much potential and Dexter Palmer clearly had some great ideas…sadly these were lost in the midst of inconsistent world-building, poor characterisation (the female characters are atrocious), and a surprisingly uninspiring storyline (I mean, how could you manage to make travelling be boring?).
Palmer took every opportunity to satirise every single one of his characters, in what basically amounted to satire for the sake of satire, which, if you ask me, fell flat as it had nothing smart to say. I’m not sure at what point exactly I became aware of it but Palmer clearly loves taking the piss out of millennials. And he does it in a way that brought to mind those segments on Ellen where she makes fun of millennials because they don’t know how to use a typewriter or a rotary phone (quality humor, not).
At first the dialogue in this novel rang true to life. There were tense or awkward pauses, character misunderstanding someone else’s choice of words, conversations could lead to nothing or suddenly escalate into arguments. But then I couldn’t help but to notice how frequently characters would just have these very long monologues in which they ranted about everything and nothing. Which, yeah, some people do go on (I am doing so right now), or end up having longwinded and heated rants…but every-single character? And that’s when I realised that the characters in this novels were like the characters in a film by Woody Allen (they all speak like Woody Allen regardless of their age/gender/personality). And that kind of killed any enjoyment I had left for this book.
The rant-y to of my review reflects the many rants that are in this book.

The Story
Even if the premise for Version Control reminded me of What If, a novel I didn’t particularly care for, I was intrigued by it. The story is set in the near-future (more on that later) and follows five main characters: we have Rebecca Wright, a recovering alcoholic who is now in her late thirties and works “part-time as a customer service representative for Lovability, the online dating service where, eleven years ago, she’d actually met the man who was now her husband”; Philip, said husband, who is a brilliant scientist devoted to his work on the ‘causality violation device’ (which, in a running gag, and much to the scientists’ annoyance, gets called ‘time machine’); there is Rebecca’s BFF from college, Kate, who is a superficial bimbo (more on that later); Carson, a scientist who works under Philip and is on-and-off again dating Kate; and Alicia, “the only female post-doc in Philip’s lab” who is Not Like Other Women. There are some minor recurring characters, most of whom we get to see only in certain environments (like the two security men working in the lab) so that we never really learn about them.
Rebecca and Philip have lost their son, but they don’t speak of him or how he died. Philip spends most of his time working or talking about the ‘causality violation device’ (CVD) while Rebecca mopes a lot around the house thinking of how much she wants to drink. I was expecting this to be a story that blurred the line between reality and fantasy, one that would make you question whether the ‘strange’ sensation felt by Rebecca was a sign of her spiraling mental health or something of a more fantastical nature. But this wasn’t that kind of novel. And, as I previously mentioned, at first I didn’t mind. The story was more intent on creating some realistically awkward or fraught encounters between the various characters. Rebecca’s marriage is in trouble and her relationship with Philip isn’t great. She doesn’t get particularly along with Alicia while Philip gets into a heated argument with Rebecca’s dad (who is a Unitarian minister). Kate’s derisive comments about ribs and watermelons force Carson, who is black, to question whether she’s racist. Carson is also getting pretty pissed off at one of the security guards, who keeps calling him Carlton (“acting white”). No one gets along with anyone, and the story is very much about that. Palmer seems to delight in putting his characters in the most uncomfortable situations possible. Philip’s work is repeatedly made fun by the media and one snooty potential investor, Rebecca’s knows very little about anything so is frequently made to appear dumb, Kate acts like the Basic White Chick, and Alicia is openly rude to others, especially other women (but it’s okay, cause she’s driven and Not Like Other Girls). Now and again Palmer remembers to mention that some people feel that there is something ‘wrong’ with their reality, but this is a minor thread in a story that is much more concerned with ridiculing its characters and with giving really detailed descriptions or explanations about minor aspects of this ‘near future’. The main ingredients of Palmer’s story are 1) useless millenials 2) women who don’t care or don’t have what it takes to have a career 3) unfunny caricatures.
He had a lot to say on a myriad of other topics, but this often came about when two characters were having a discussion or argument about this (sexism, racism, conflict between religion and science). He dedicates many passages to modern dating, seeming to lose himself in his own ‘hilarious’ vision of the future of dating (which isn’t as original as he seems to be suggesting: “the whole idea of meeting someone in a physical place, to talk to them in real time, was so twentieth century”) or in unnecessarily long digressions about automated ‘autonomous cars’ or of how in schools kids no longer need to interact with teachers but they get taught via tablet (and Palmer spends a chapter on the “Daily Pre-School-Day Diagnostic” kids have to complete each morning).
We are only given a flashback into Rebecac’s life, and rather than reading about her childhood or learning more of her relationship with her parents, we read of a period in her twenties which she aptly describes as ‘Blackout Season’. We never get why she chose to study English or what future she envisioned after her completing degree, what we get instead are scenes featuring Rebecca and her college ‘friends’, all of whom are jobless or doing temporary or part-time jobs they don’t care for, and they spend their time going to bars and clubs, getting drunk and loud, flirting and sleeping with guys that are ‘no good’. After a few years one of them meets the ‘right’ kind of man and soon the girls disband their friendship group (because if a woman is ‘seriously’ dating someone she can’t keep her friends, duh). Rebecca has a few mishaps on online dating sites, meets Philip, and the two get married even if they have nothing in common or no chemistry. Their son dies, and things start going a bit sour between the two of them. And of course, eventually, the CVD does play a role in the story.
As I said, or wrote, Palmer mostly writes scenes in which his characters have awkward encounters and exchanges with each other. And, while I initially liked this aspect of his narrative as I am a fan of hysterical realism, by the halfway mark I was no longer impressed by them, in fact, they struck me as forced and unfunny. Sometimes I like reading scenes that verge on the surreal (I’m very basic, I like Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers) but there were moments in Version Control that were just jarring and poorly written (I’m talking about that scene with Alicia and the magazine…it wasn’t funny, it didn’t make sense, it was out-of-character, the tone was just off).
The second half was very much a rehash of similar scenarios and exchanges, and the ‘wrongness’ felt by Rebecca never amounted to anything substantial. I was expecting a twist at some point or some reveal a la Black Mirror but nada. The story remains concerned with exploring boring and tired dynamics between characters that were little other than dull caricatures.
What was the point in the story? An excuse for Palmer to write about ‘what ifs’ or detail minor aspects of everyday life in a future America ? Did this story require 500+ pages?
Time travelling is picked up now again, but for all Philip’s & co talk about the CVD, they spent far too little time talking concretely about what would happen if their machine were to work. Instead they use a lot of scientific language that seemed more intent on confusing non-sciencey readers.
Maybe I could have overlooked plot-holes and never-ending diversions if Palmer’s narrative had offered us some character interiority, but this third pov remains never delves into character motivations. Giving us a glimpse into Rebecca’s mind would have made her into a far less one-dimensional and incomprehensible character (it was frustrating not knowing why she acted the way she did).
As stories about time travel go, Version Control offers nothing new.

The ‘Future’
Palmer’s near future is really unconvincing. He refers to things that in ten and twenty years will be outdated, he sticks to this running gag of the president interrupting people’s TV viewing or phone calls but we don’t know when he was elected, what kind of president he is, what America’s political landscape looks like. And Palmer seems wholly disinterred in anything remotely non-America (as in we have more or less no clue on what is going on in the rest of the world).
The story takes place in ten or possibly even twenty years and yet his future feels very ‘2010’. Yes, he imagines what shopping for clothes will be like, but what he envisions has already kind of been predicted (having one’s body scanned and being given an item of clothing that will fit you without needing to step in a fitting room). But what about other things? Rebecca is an alcoholic, will the future be able to provide more effective and long-term treatments ? What about cancer? Climate change? Wait, how come Palmer totally skims over climate change?
Palmer’s future offers nothing new. Futurama was far more innovative that this. And I couldn’t help but to notice that in this future one of the security guards who works at the lab was worried that he had to teach his daughter what same-sex love was….which, how likely is that? Unsurprisingly Palmer’s future struck me as very straight and gender normative.
Although Palmer has no qualms about using scientific language at length, I think he glosses over his CVD machine (which is funny considering how often this machine gets mentioned) as he’s more worried with detailing all the ways in which advancements in technology will strip erode any remaining notions of privacy (but millennials being dumb aren’t concerned by that).

The Characters
It’s kind of ironic that although Palmer writes about sexism (by having Alicia point out how hard it is to be treated like her other male colleagues rather than an ‘oddity’) his portrayal of female characters is kind of questionable (and in poor taste).
Rebecca: she’s our main character and is defined by three things. 1) she’s Philip’s wife 2) she was mother 3) she’s an alcoholic. While Philip is allowed to have a personality (not a nice one but still) and goals, Rebecca is made into this pathetic cliché of a woman, who isn’t intelligent or empathetic, she’s isn’t a great mother nor a great daughter not even a great wife or friend. She has 0 drive and 0 interests outside of alcohol and Philip. She doesn’t confront Katy when she notices that she’s being racist, even when Katy later on asks her whether she thought that she’d said anything offensive, she’s jealous of Alicia because women can’t like other women, she doesn’t care for her job (cause married women don’t really want to work and would rather be housewives who spend their time shopping, drinking wine, and trying to stay a size S. Which..yep, Palmer has given us some great representation here.
I didn’t care for Rebecca. We never know why she does the shit she does, she has no concrete history other than her ‘Blackout Season’ and her feelings for Philip just were largely MIA from the page.
Katy: she’s awful. She’s dumb and superficial, is a crappy friend and person, spouts racist shit and is obsessed by the fact that she’s dating a black guy. Why waste any time on her? I really got the feeling that Palmer wanted to show how insincere female friendships were (especially if one of these friends has blonde hair). Katy is just as passionless as Rebecca. She has no interest outside of men, gossip, and alcohol.
Alicia: she’s the kind of character that some (I said some not all) male authors believe to be ’empowering’. She loves what she does, she’s smart, straight-talking, tough. She takes no shit from anyone and most men in this novel are attracter to her. Women, on the other hand, hate her because they are clearly ‘intimidated’ by her. Rather than making Alicia into a likeable or sympathetic character Palmer decides to make her into a truly awful bitch who behaves appallingly and doesn’t understand why other women are not like her. She’s also reduced to who she sleeps with, rather than being allowed to be a character in her own right.
Philip and Carson: these two were stereotypes of the scientific guy who doesn’t understand social etiquette. Philip spoke in this really donnish way that just never rang true (and I happen to know quite a few pedantic men). But the things Philip talks about where just…really? And why did he have to be so socially inept ? Just because you are a scientistic doesn’t mean that you could never speak of something without using scientific jargon.
Other characters: caricatures. They had a static role, perhaps played a part in a running joke or something.

Maybe it’s my fault for expecting a story with more speculative elements but dio mio! The whole dynamic between Rebecca and her genius scientist husband was so cliched and boring. And Palmer’s future would have been passable if it had been rendered in more detail or if it hadn’t been so intent on making fun of millennials. And 500 pages of this? I get it women who are not like Alicia (who of course posses traditionally ‘male’ personality traits) are bimbos who are incapable of forming meaningful relationships or saying meaningful things or having interests outside of men, diets, and gossip. Ah ah. So funny.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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BOOK REVIEWS

The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai

In The Setting Sun Osamu Dazai captures a nation in transition. Set during the early postwar years Japan this novella is centred on an aristocratic family fallen on hard times. Kazuko, our narrator, and her fragile mother who are forced to move to the countryside and give up their family home. Gentile Kazuko has no options left but work in the fields. She slowly begins to fear that this menial labour will make her spiritually and physically ‘coarse’. Kazuko laments what she perceives as a decline in moral standards, which she attributes to the rapid industrialisation and Westernisation of her country.
Kazuko’s brother return to Japan causes further distress. Naoji is now addicted to opiodis and his presence in the household upsets Kazuko. His cynicism and cruelty do little to assuage their mother.
As the narrative progresses we are introduced to Mr. Uehara, a writer and an acquaintance of Naoji.
While I was interested in Dazai’s mediations on class, nobility, and the right to die, as well as his navigating the dichotomy between tradition and modernity, I was ultimately underwhelmed by The Setting Sun. Perhaps this is because Kazuko and Naoji’s voices at times were almost interchangeable, or maybe I was never convinced by the character of Kazuko (especially when it came to the man she loves). At times Dazai seemed more interested in rendering the aesthetics of existentialism than of truly delving beneath his character’s surface.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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