Review: The Free

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The Free

Willy Vlautin

Faber & Faber

Leroy has returned, broken, from fighting in Iraq. In his early twenties and only six months into his deployment, a roadside bomb had destroyed the car he was in. The book opens with him waking in a residential group home back in America and being surprised by the lucidity of his own thoughts.

…for the first time since the explosion, he woke with clarity. Memories flooded into him.

Believing this is just another stage of his psychosis, that his mind is soon to be fogged up again, and possibly overwhelmed by the sudden remembrance of everything, he decides to kill himself. Leroy is panicked but there is no sensationalising of the violence. He steps his way through suicide, gathering what he needs (a picket-fence gate, a shirt sleeve for rope), to get the job done. Freddie works the night shift at the group home and is woken by the noise of Leroy throwing himself down the stairs onto the tethered gate and finds him bleeding out. Pauline is a nurse at the hospital Leroy is taken to. She is kind and good at her job.

The Free follows these three, loosely connected people, all three of them just getting by in their working class lives. We find Freddie is up to his eyeballs in debt. That one of his daughters has needed medical attention and although his wife has taken his children away from him to live with another man, Freddie is left paying off the bills. He works two jobs, a day shift at a paint store as well as the night shift at the home but it’s somehow still not enough. Unable to maintain payments on his home, he feels he has no choice but to store a nursery of marijuana plants in his basement for a friend. This is the first criminal thing he has done in his life and the paranoia eats away at him.  We see that outside of work Pauline has to take care of her father who suffers from mental illness. Pauline has no life of her own. It makes you wonder why she would go into nursing as a trade when that’s all she does outside of work. She also becomes attached to a homeless girl who has been brought into the hospital with abscesses, infected through heroin use. Pauline believes the girl is being abused by two homeless men who turn up at the hospital, stinking and eating the girl’s food. When the girl runs from the hospital, Pauline takes it upon herself to search for and help her. And to escape the pains of his fatal injuries Leroy retreats into his mind, creating and living within a story fashioned from the sci-fi his mother continues to read at his bedside,  where he is on the run from vigilantes senselessly hunting people with ‘the mark’, a green colouring on the skin. Along his escape he sees the horrific violence acted upon those with the mark, obvious reverberations from his own experiences in Iraq. While following his story, we are watching Leroy fight for his life.

All of the lead characters are genuinely good people and the unconditional tenderness that they feel and give to each other is touching. Mora, a waitress at a donut shop, shows her care for Freddie by dropping extra donut holes into his bag while asking how he is. The disregard Pauline has for her own safety when tracking down the homeless girl. Freddie’s reaction on finding Leroy:

Freddie wanted to say something to comfort him, but every time he tried to speak he began to cry.

He’d always liked Leroy. For a man who couldn’t speak, whose brain had been caved in by war, he had personality. He liked Cap’n Crunch and would watch the science fiction channel for days on end. He had never picked a fight or become violent towards the other residents…And there were times…when Leroy would wake him in the middle of the night. He would pull Freddie to the back door and knock on it. Freddie would find the key, unlock it, and they would go outside and look at the stars. Leroy would move around the small lawn like an old man, his head back, staring at the faraway galaxies.

All this recognised about a man who never spoke, by a man swamped in his own personal worries.

An ever-growing list of writers (Roddy Doyle, George Pelecanos, Sarah Hall, Ann Patchett, Mark Billingham, Jane Smiley) are lining up to praise Vlautin and it’s easy to see why. Vlautin is able to make real and evoke so much with simple sentences. The characters live their lives, making ends meet, repeating days that are like all the days that went before but Vlautin is brilliant at revealing the slight adjustments in their days, possibly the same differences in habit that the characters themselves focus on. The time given to each character is balanced perfectly; I never once tired of hearing one person’s story or wanted to race onto the next character’s life. The sci-fi element could have been stronger but in the context of the story, it might be asking too much for a man in dire pain to think up a more interestingly exciting storyline.

Review: Dept. of Speculation

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Dept. of Speculation

Jenny Offill

Granta

Sasha Weiss in the New Yorker Blog, Page-turner, recently wrote this:

When I wasn’t spying [on what other flight passengers were reading], I was devouring Jenny Offill’s exquisite, slim novel in aphoristic phrases, “Dept. of Speculation,” comforted by the idea that if the plane went down, my last glimpse of this world would be of a pleasing sentence.

She was right. Jenny Offill is concerned with writing at the atomic level. This thin book is a gathering together of vignettes, memories and thoughts, separated by white space on the page, clean, stand-alone paragraphs, all charging together to form a life. And a life is just what the book is about; a woman, very much like the author, in that she has written a first novel to great acclaim and all anyone expects from her is the follow up. It has been ­­­ years since the publication of her debut (15 in real life) but the everyday (work, marriage, children) has got in the way of producing that allusive second book.

The subject matter makes the book sound not particularly novel or even interesting – but that depends on which side of the tired argument about women writers and the domestic that you sit on and which I don’t want to get into here – but it is the format, style, wit and language used that brings this book close to perfect. Take this for instance:

I had this idea in the middle of the night that maybe I could stop working for the almost astronaut and get a job writing fortune cookies instead. I could try to write really American ones. Already I jotted down a few of them.

Objects create happiness.

The animals are pleased to be of use.

Your cities will shine forever.

Death will not touch you.

Or this paragraph:

The weather is theater here. They watch it through the window from their bed.

Dept. of Speculation is simple but it is also packed full. It reads like someone stumbling, dazed, through her life. Not knowing how to feel or the right way to experience life or even why these experiences are happening to her. She tries to find answers through friends and family, from philosophy, in books, and yoga. Quotes and trivia are dropped in between her life. My favourite nugget of information comes when she is observing a neighbour whose husband has left her.

The wife watched her neighbor get fat over the next year. The Germans have a word for that. Kummerspeck. Literally, grief bacon.

Just past the halfway point a secret is uncovered that shocks her into change and suddenly the narration is foisted out of first person and thrown into third, as if the narrator can’t deal with the trauma and has stepped outside of herself. We still know that it is the same character telling us the story but not only does she drop the ‘I’, she becomes ‘the wife’, in the same way that she has been labelling everyone else: the philosopher, the sister, K. And then you start to see that it has not so much been snapshots coming together to form a life, it is a life broken apart into manageable bits, a life fragmenting because she doesn’t know how to cope with it all together.

Review: Annihilaiton

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Annihilation

Jeff VanderMeer

4th Estate

Books tend to come in threes now, certainly genre fiction. Annihilation is the first in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach series but two facts point to why this should be a trilogy: all three parts are mercifully being released this year, taking away any waiting time, and Annihilation needs more. My reading rule is the more compact the better, but I can honestly say that this is the first book I’ve read where I’ve wanted the writer to dig deeper and bring up more.

We follow a research group of four entering the mysterious Area X: a biologist, a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor. None of them are known by their names, they know next to nothing about their teammates’ backgrounds. This is a rule given by the Southern Reach, the overseeing, possibly governmental, secret agency, in the effort to shed all attachments and emotional responses to what might happen. In fact, it leads the characters to trust their group members very little. A fifth member, a linguist, falls out at the last minute. We are told that eleven groups have gone before them. The group are hypnotised in order to cross the border into Area X; when they reach their base camp, they remember nothing of how they got there. So far so sinister. But only a few pages and one day into the expedition and the first team member goes missing. They all have to keep a journal of their findings and experiences, and this is what we have been given, the biologist’s account. In holding the book, we are holding the biologist’s journal. The relative anonymity within the group suits the biologist well. She writes down some of her memories from outside, from before the expedition, and in it we learn she has never been good at connecting with other people.

Inexplicable things happen. A tunnel, that the biologist thinks of as a tower even though it goes underground, seems to be pulsing when everyone else sees stone walls. And one continuous sentence follows this wall down into the depths of the tower, written in what appears to be glowing, living organisms. The hypnotism used on them to cross into Area X is discovered to go deeper too. It becomes apparent that Southern Reach knows more about Area X than they have let on. But just how much more? As the discoveries get more shocking and weird, the biologist opens up and writes down her own true reasons for being in Area X.

The writing has a rhythm and style that lulls you into the story and you’re knee deep in the strangenesses before you realise. I liked that, as things fall apart, the narrator became more emotional, making me invest more the further into the book I went. This may be a shallow claim to make but I believe it makes all the difference; the UK hardback cover design of white spores on shiny charcoal looks very effective. The main acclaim to the book comes in VanderMeer’s ability to bring Area X to life, with its features both identifiable in the real world and yet sinisterly something other. The way the ‘miniature forest,’ of the writing on the wall, ‘swayed, almost imperceptibly, like sea grass in a gentle ocean current’, made me want Hayao Miyazaki to come early out of retirement to translate this into film.