Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlasannotation by Diane Sherlock
book by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is a brilliantly written book, full of intelligence, but without emotional impact. David Mitchell has a structure like a stepladder of chapters from 1 to 6 and back down to 1. He makes reference to matryoshka dolls or Russian nesting dolls and that also is a structural model for the book with the stories fitting inside one another and referencing each other. There are a number of themes that link the chapters together such as betrayal, stereotyping whether racial, genomic or tribal, main characters who struggle with the use of violence as the end of their options, and definitions of society and civilization. The notion of an actual cloud atlas also inhabits the stories. Hawaii appears in most, but not all, of the stories.

Mitchell includes in his book a journal, a series of letters, an interview, a third-person narration, two first-person narrations, one oral and one written. Characters are writers, narrators, readers and audiences for each others stories. He begins with “The Pacific Journal of Patrick Ewing” from the 1800s, which is not unlike Melville. The journal ends abruptly mid-sentence and we jump to 1931 and a very English style of prose, the era of Graham Green and Evelyn Waugh, though the style is breezier. Frobisher, the author of the letters contained in “Letters from Zedelghem” comments on Ewing’s journal, “Something shifty about the journal’s authenticity – seems too structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t right quite true- but who would bother forging such a journal, and why?” The letters are addressed to Rufus Sixsmith who is featured in the next story, “Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” which is the most accessible of this stylistic feast. “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” follows about the trials of a vanity publisher. I did not research it, but it would not surprise me if elements of “An Orison of Somni-451” mimic the structure of the Korean language, such is Mitchell’s command of language and linguistics. Here Mitchell has explored the evolution of words where films are disneys and coffee is a cup of starbuck. Orison is a synonym for prayer but in Somni’s story, set in future Korea, it is a recording device. 451 hearkens back to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian vision. The oral first person narration in “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,”is the most demanding chapter, written in post-apocalyptic Hawaiian patois. It is also the only story told without interruption. The word meronym is a linguistic term that means part of a whole; here, it is a character, one of the last of a technologically advanced remnant. Somni has transformed from an ascendant clone the goatherd’s deity: “Valleysmen only had one god an’ her name it was Sonmi.”

Many of the characters are also linked with a comet marking on their skin. Comets pass over us often at regular intervals, like Halley’s, and that was my interpretation of this device. We all go through similar emotions and have difficulties although at different points in history, “souls cross the skies o’ time.” The stories have unusual words that link them such as “She slooshes her mouth out” in the Luisa Rey Mystery and the “Sloosha” in the title of the middle story. Mitchell uses this to illustrate that even over time, we are all connected by language, by habits, by biology.

Mitchell uses aphorism, ”Faith, the least exclusive club on earth, has the craftiest doorman,” metaphor “black cobras o’ smoke” and just about every other literary tool imaginable with facility. It’s obvious that David Mitchell can do just about anything with words. It would be hard to give Cloud Atlas a serious read and not come away dazzled by his skill with words and structure. Mitchell could make the most dedicated of writers feel lazy and inadequate, with a handful of exceptions (Norman Rush comes to mind). His command of craft is breathtaking. However, the novel left me impressed but unmoved by the end. The patois in the middle chapter was a hard long slog. It was clever, and the author had clearly thought about what happens to language over time and in isolation, but I’m not sure it was much more than that.

My primary takeaway from the novel was the joy in the use of language, that words are amazing and often elastic containers. Mitchell raises the bar and makes me want to be a better writer. I think at some point I might want to try a similar experiment with structure to see if more emotional resonance could be achieved using centuries of time. Mitchell has opened up new areas to ponder in terms of what can be done in a novel, how words have or might change over time, and subtle and not-so-subtle ways of linking characters, chapters, stories, and other elements together to create new effects and resonance within text. If nothing else, Mitchell is an advertisement for authorial imagination.

As a whole, it is a marvelous innovation, but there is no emotional or moral equivalent to, say, Joyce’s Ulysses contained within it. What the reader is left with is something of the literary equivalent of a Faberge egg, dazzling workmanship on the outside, but essentially hollow. It will be interesting to see if other authors take up Mitchell’s inventiveness and achieve more emotional depth and moral reverberation.

Then We Came To The End

Then We Came to the Endbook by Joshua Ferris

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Then We Came To The End, titled from DeLillo’s Americana, begins in first person plural, a technique that holds up for about a hundred pages and is intermittently successful after that. Fortunately, the author punctuates the narrative with other points of view. First person plural is an effective choice to convey office life at a large advertising firm in Chicago, “How we hated our coffee mugs! our mouse pads, our desk clocks, our daily calendars, the contents of our desk drawers. Even the photos of our loved ones taped to our computer monitors for uplift and support turned into cloying reminders of time served. But when we got a new office, a bigger office, and we brought everything with us into the new office, how we loved everything all over again, and though hard about where to place things, and looked with satisfaction at the end of the day at how well our old things looked in this new, improved, important space.”

The author uses this point of view to great effect for many aspects of office life. The two omissions noted were arguments around food which he covers by glossing over a break room without a refrigerator and the territorial skirmishes common in large offices, but the book succeeds without them.

The first person plural point of view is broken up by dropping into conversations around the office and occasionally into someone’s first person point of view. The tone falters at page 95 for about twenty pages. The author rather than the narrator emerges to center stage only to slip back behind the scenes and recover the original tone. Amid the gossip and petty concerns in the office, there are glimpses into a couple of ad campaigns, most notably one for breast cancer that runs through the narrative. This parallels the experience of one of the creative vice presidents who is rumored to have breast cancer and a canceled operation.

There is a prologue exclusively in first person plural, “You Don’t Know What’s in My Heart,” followed by the first half of the book titled, “Enter a New Century.” On page 196, a new section, sort of an interlude, “The Thing to Do and the Place to Be” varies between simple past and third person present tense about the female creative vice president gossiped about in the first section. “Returns and Departures” is the final section and mirrors “Enter a New Century” in its structure, including chapters with all of the subheadings stacked at the beginning: “ON NOT GETTING IT – BENNY SPOTS CARL – HOSING THE ALLEYWAY” but the distance created by the structure and layout enhance the feel of a corporate office environment.

The interlude with Lynn Mason, the creative vice president, begins on the night before her cancer surgery and builds into a touching portrait of a woman who has put all of her energy into work and is alone facing the loss of her breast and possibly her life. She is introduced early on, “Lynn Mason was intimidating, mercurial, unapproachable, fashionable, and consummately professional…. She dressed like a Bloomingdale’s model and ate like a Buddhist monk.” As her team works on a pro bono ad ordered to elicit laughs from breast cancer patients, a task they regard as impossible, she comes to terms with her overwhelming fear, especially of the hospital. The author explores her waning relationship with an attorney who devises a way to circumvent her fear with a blindfold, “‘Like you’re a pirate’s captive,’ he said, ‘and you’ve just been told to walk the plank.’” This close up on Lynn provides the heart of a novel that otherwise would be an interesting exercise in first person plural.

The last major section delves into the lives of the key characters set up before the interlude, resolving several, but not all, by the end. Because these are tied together and repeated – the breast cancer, the steady firings due to downsizing, the individual dramas -the narrative builds emotional intensity. The first person plural allows the reader to feel part of the office and there is enough close observation on the politics, in-jokes, and minutiae of general office life to provide amusement and authenticity. There is also a minor character who returns in the coda at the end with a book written and published after his layoff, excerpted from the earlier interlude with Lynn.

Within the first person plural, individual characters are peeled away as they are let go, “At first we called it what you would expect – getting laid off, being let go…. Lately a new phrase had appeared and really taken off. “Walking Spanish down the hall.” Somebody had picked it up from an old Tom Waits song, but it was an old, old expression as we learned from our Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins.” All the way through the book, various employees ‘walk Spanish’ until the book takes a serious turn and the language changes first to “They let go of Marcia Dwyer.” to “When next they came for Amber, a few weeks after that, we said she was tossed into the streetlamp outside the building without any concern for her unborn baby.”

The most valuable parts of the book for my writing were the point of view and the use of language with repeated phrases and narrative threads to tie it together in a different way. There’s a linear element to the narrative, but it’s not a story traditionally told. It helped me consider new ways to convey story and build emotion that may not directly apply to my current novel, but which I may consider for future work. The book is occasionally uneven, but largely successful, with an ending that nicely sums up the layoffs and pays off the initial point of view.

White Teeth

White Teethbook by Zadie Smith

annotation by Diane Sherlock

The best thing about Zadie Smith’s first novel is the gusto with which she relates it. That enthusiasm was the most important element gleaned for my own development as a writer because it is key to involving the reader in the narrative. The influences of E.M. Forster and Salman Rushdie are loud and clear, which is not a criticism since Smith has her own voice apart from them.

I was going to say I did not have compassion for the characters, but that is not accurate. I did, but it dissipated over the course of the book. I think this is because the author begins the book with Archie’s failed suicide attempt, but he is one of the least interesting characters and is nearly abandoned by the middle of the book. Irie seems the closest to the author as well as the heart of the novel. Focusing the book more tightly on her character would probably have provided a more cohesive and satisfying structure. The so-called big reveal, that Archie never killed Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret, is not at all surprising. There is only one gun shot in the first scene and Archie emerges from the woods with a thigh injury. It did not strike me as believable that Iqbal thought that Archie would have killed ‘Dr. Sick’, so his shock that their fifty year friendship is allegedly built on a lie rings false and hollow.

The mosaic Smith creates with over thirty characters and numerous locations from North London to Jamaica is well done and impressive, particularly given the author’s youth. Even though she is not always successful, White Teeth serves as a reminder to have the literary courage to tackle a lot, more than can be comfortably handled in order to stretch as a writer and have a chance at creating something more interesting for the reader.

I chose to examine the book because of its comic elements and this is one of the areas that Smith handles well. She sets the tone on the first page with her word choice and what amounts to stage directions of Archie’s suicide. “…scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medal (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him.” Archie is then saved by Mo Hussein-Ishmael, a local butcher, who declares, “’We’re not licensed for suicides around here. This place halal. Kosher, understand. If you’re going to die round here, my friend, I’m afraid you’ve got to be thoroughly bled first.’” This conveys the information to the reader quickly and the effect is comic. The biggest joke is in chapter sixteen, where Magid shows himself “a first-class, 100 percent, bona fide, total and utter pain in the arse” interrupting Irie’s work with his shrink-to-fit “emergency” that Joyce discovers completely out of context, “They need help. I just walked past the bathroom and Magid is sitting in the bath with his jeans on….. I should know a traumatized child when I see one.” Smith is not afraid to set up a big screwball visual joke that also illustrates the key foible of Joyce Chalfen.

Smith regularly fractures the text with signs, letters, tables, and the reproduction of a name, Iqbal, scratched in a bench, something that I have been experimenting in with my short stories and the current novel I am working on. They all contribute to the story in White Teeth, encouraging me to continue to find opportunities in order to bring something a little different to the traditional form of the novel.

Overall, Smith has a strong voice that is engaging and amiable. One of the problems in the book was that many of her details regarding the Jehovah’s Witnesses are inaccurate as well as her geography of India and Bangladesh, with Dhaka sounding more like Delhi. Regarding the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Clara notices Ryan wearing a small cross, but Jehovah’s Witnesses do not wear or display crosses. It is unfortunate in a book that does include a fair amount of historical understanding. In addition, the last hundred pages as well some of the character inconsistencies (such as Alsana’s development and Irie’s abrupt sleeping with both brothers) would have benefited from the strong pen of an editor, but the novel was enjoyable and fun to read.

Nobody’s Fool

Nobody's Foolbook by Richard Russo

annotation by Diane Sherlock

It was disconcerting to read a novel that came very close to describing someone I grew up with, but Richard Russo does just that in Nobody’s Fool. The title refers to the main character, Sully, Donald Sullivan, a perennially down and out construction worker. Having walked out on his family, he lives in the small town of Bath in New York, upstairs in Miss Beryl’s house. He works off the books for Carl, a contractor, while flirting with Carl’s wife. “Sully – people still remarked – was nobody’s fool, a phrase that Sully no doubt appreciated without ever sensing its literal application – that at sixty, he was divorced from his own wife, carrying on halfheartedly with another man’s, estranged from his son, devoid of self-knowledge, badly crippled and virtually unemployable – all of which he stubbornly confused with independence.” Russo paints a vivid picture of small town life and juggles a number of characters.  At 549 pages, a case could be made for editing down some of the tangential stories, but they are all vivid and well written.  Sully doesn’t have a substantial character arc and an alarming trend of misleading cover blurbs continues here, leading the reader to look for Sully’s son to follow in his father’s footsteps, which is not really part of the story.  The book is divided into three parts, with Part One divided into chapters of one day each: Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday; Part Two contains the following Tuesday and Wednesday; Part Three is one long chapter on Thursday.  With the span of only a about a week’s time, Sully is pretty much the same from start to finish.  The book begins and ends at Miss Beryl’s house where Sully is a border with little details like a Queen Anne’s chair that is rickety at the beginning, breaks about two thirds of the way through, and is repaired in the final pages, creaking again when Sully sits in it at the end.

Russo has taught me to find significant details for each character. Carl Roebuck is lucky and sleeps with any woman with a pulse. Miss Beryl is a retired schoolteacher: “Her being known in North Bath as “Miss” Beryl derived from the fact that the militantly unteachable eighth-grade schoolchildren she’d instructed for forty years considered he far too odd looking and misshapen to have a husband.” Rub Squeers is painfully stupid and smelly, “Rub still considered attentiveness hateful and exhausting and perverse.  And since he knew no one in Bath more alert than Miss Beryl , there was no one he disliked more.” They help the reader hang on to characters when they are absent from the story for awhile and to distinguish characters from each other.

This is a comic novel and mostly succeeds. There are funny and unexpected moments such as when Sully’s estranged son returns to his life while Sully is hitchhiking: “When he got alongside the car, he saw there were three children crowded into the cramped backseat among pillows and stuffed animals, slightly older versions of children he knew from somewhere. The young woman got out and pulled one of the bucket seats forward so Sully could crawl in back, and as he leaned forward and caught a glimpse of the driver it dawned on him who the hell these people were.  ‘Shove over, you runts,’ he said, making a face at the children. ‘Make room for Grandpa.’”

The primary reservation I had about the novel was that the language of the narrative is largely cultured and is more in line with the minor character of Sully’s son, Peter, a college professor. Most of the characters are not college educated, so there is a definite disconnect between the tone of the narrative and its subjects.  This is only a problem when he employs some but not the entire vernacular – it sounds stilted along the troublesome and erratic use of the n-word. That word seemed more like a political commentary on people who live in small towns, a social put-down perhaps, than an integral part of the story.  I think the reason it stuck out is because not a lot of the other dialogue is coarse, even from people who might speak coarsely on a regular basis, so it seemed to come out of nowhere. If it were taken out, the book certainly would not suffer.  Quite likely the opposite.

A few days after I finished the book, I learned it had been adapted into a film with Paul Newman (Jessica Tandy’s last). They came perilously close to ruining it, but settled for not capturing the book although Paul Newman makes an interesting and mostly convincing Sully. Most of the screenplay was taken directly out of the book, however Russo has done a great job of creating an entire world that isn’t easily transferred into another medium. His writing is richly textured with a strong sense of place that takes you beyond reading into the feeling that you’ve not only visited the town, but moved in. Like David Lodge, Russo understands that work is a large part of life and explores many facets, from the retired, to the barely working, to the bartenders, cooks, and waitresses, to the professor denied tenure. He gets the details of their lives right, along with their concerns and in that, also delivers a sense of history to the town of Bath. Sully is haunted by the specter of his dead violent alcoholic father, not unlike the father(s) of Pat Conroy’s books without Conroy’s self consciousness.

Two other valuable techniques Russo has mastered are his use of props (Chekov’s gun: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired”) and how he begins and ends his scenes.  He has an almost theatrical feel for when to get in and out.  To end the funeral scene for one of the minor characters, he ends with Sully as one of the pallbearers, talking to the man next to him:  “’Hey, buck up,’ Sully said, putting his arm around Otis’s shoulder and giving him a comforting pat.  Only Jocko seemed to notice through his thick glasses that when Sully took his arm away he slipped the rubber alligator he’d bought at Harold’s Automotive World into Otis’s overcoat pocket.  ‘You’re such a bad man, Sully,’ Jocko said as they took their positions alongside Hattie’s casket. ‘Okay, everybody,’ Carl Roebuck said as they grabbed hold of the silver handles. ‘On three.’” The paragraph illustrates both the author’s use of props, which is often hilarious, and how he ends a section.

Russo slowly builds, over five hundred pages worth, how many people count on Sully, who appears to be the last person anyone could ever count on. By the end of the novel, numerous interactions with the townspeople, some trivial, some comic, some heartfelt and some very moving, have shown Sully along with the reader, his own worth and with him, the worth of people in general. Russo conveys heartbreaking loss along with comic relief and a sense of hope, providing a rich literary experience.


Middlesexbook by Jeffrey Eugenides

annotation by Diane Sherlock

The most surprising thing about Middlesex is not the titillating subject matter, but the reportorial voice, that, despite strained Homeric outbursts, is often flat. The narration is too often a series of platitudes strung together in an entertaining narrative lacking depth or insight. The author stays on the surface of his subject, offering only conventional, even stereotypical, observations about sex and gender.

There is little sense of understanding of many of these characters. One of the great oversights of the book is that the author apparently has never changed a diaper or cared for a baby. He accounts for the doctor overlooking genital abnormality, but not for any of the (most likely) women who would have changed Callie’s diaper. In an extended family as described, the chances are very good that several of the women would have helped out with the baby at a time when cloth diapers made the changing process longer than with modern paper diapers and wipes. It strains credibility that no family member would have noticed something unusual in the baby’s anatomy in hundreds of times wiping and bathing. Also, the significance of Desdemona’s sobbing promise to her mother at her mother’s death to take care of her brother and find him a wife, “I promise, I promise!” does not seem to trouble her as the affair with her brother and its attendant rationalizations unfold. Though technically she does fulfill her promise, the apparent ease with which she overcomes her reservations seems counter to the traditional Greek society that the author has constructed.

The voices of the characters are captured well, as are details such as Lefty’s singing in English without understanding the words. “It spoke to Lefty of jazz-age frivolity, gin cocktails, cigarette girls; it made him slick his hair with panache…” The burning of Smyrna is vivid: “The heat precedes the fire” as are the details of life in Grosse Pointe, “The trees were what I noticed first.” Grosse Pointe appears to be where the author is most comfortable and one of the strongest sections of the book deals with Callie’s relationship with the Object as s/he sorts out feelings and urges.

In addition to the facile cleverness, there is the problem of the structure of the book. It starts off in a promising way and the story of Cal’s life is laid out in the second paragraph. There will not be a lot of surprises; the main tension of the book arises from how Cal will make the jump from female to male and what the consequences might be. Unfortunately, this means the tank in San Francisco then becomes the overriding metaphor for the book. The focus is too much on the revelation of unusual anatomy and its freak show overtones instead of a powerful exploration of what it means to be a man or a woman and the territory between the two. Sexuality is likely fluid for most of us early on (and remains so for many), but the author does not take the opportunity to explore this in any depth.

Overall, the book feels unbalanced. For example, from the very beginning, Desdemona is a vital character and even though she fades away after her husband/brother’s death, it seems like it would have been a stronger choice to end the book with her death rather than Milton’s. Since the main character never fulfills Tiresias’ prophetic role, it would have been natural to either give Desdemona a stronger prophetic voice besides the spoon and occasional jeremiad or the voice of a Greek chorus from her sickbed.

We do not know much more about who the main character is by the end of the book.  Details about his growth as a person rather than anatomical details could have added poignancy to his budding affair with Julie. Instead, it is just another curiosity, not unlike his performance in the tank in San Francisco. There is little besides wardrobe that changes from the moment Cal lives as a man and some twenty years later when he has made his fortune, evidenced by expensive clothes with his “handmade cordovans by Edward Green”  that go for about a thousand dollars a pair (is Cal on the take to make that kind of coin?). He is defined primarily by what he is not: “And I happen not to be a political person. I don’t like groups. Though I am a member of the Intersex Society of America, I have never taken part in its demonstrations.” The author never gives us enough of who Cal is, as a State Department employee, as a man, or as a hermaphrodite in his thirties and early forties. The result is a novel that is entertaining in its uneven way, but not moving.

Jesus’ Son

Jesus Sonbook by Denis Johnson

annotation by Diane Sherlock

First, issue your disclaimer. Mine is that I’m not a big fan of short stories. Denis Johnson changed my mind with this, now one of my all-time favorite books, and showed how to braid narrative and use the lyric register (poetic language). Jesus’ Son is a mosaic of short stories that could be also considered an episodic novel (ha!). Titled from Lou Reed’s song, Heroin, these linked stories chronicle the progress of the addiction and tentative recovery of its narrator. One of the first locations mentioned in the first story is Bethany, Missouri. Bethany was best known as the place where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Here, the man from Bethany is not just killed, but “killed forever” in a head-on collision, containing the dark humor with a subtle biblical reference that suffuses most of the stories. The stories contain a through line to the redemption of the narrator in eleven chapters, one short of the twelve steps of recovery, as well as the biblical significance of the twelve apostles, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve Stations of the Cross, and so on, indicating that the final chapter of this man’s life is yet unwritten.

An accident begins the series of stories. The narrator lets us know that he takes just about any drug offered to him: amphetamines, alcohol, hash and that he will end up in detox “some years later.” Moving back and forth through time, the author creates not only tension, but the shock of the accident, the sense of disorientation during and after the impact. He combines the fluidity of time with slightly ominous similes, “Midwestern clouds like great grey brains” and hyperbole “we’d torn open our chests and shown our cowardly hearts” with straight reporting, “The house looked abandoned, no curtains, no rugs” to create the sense of the narrator’s world which is at once funny, disturbing, and a little off.

One of the best things about Johnson’s writing are sentences like, “The jolt of fear burned all the red out of my blood.” The reader is left to imagine the residue of cowardice, of antithesis of red-bloodedness. He also builds tension in one story, such as Two Men with the narrator holding a gun to a woman’s head then dispels it with the title of the next, Out On Bail, even though the story does not directly take up where the previous story left off. By the time the reader gets to Out On Bail, the narrator makes it clear that he is fully into heroin, the same drug that costs Jack Hotel his life via overdose.

The religious subtext surfaces dramatically on the last page of Dundun in a particularly rich paragraph as the author continues to consider cruelty. He again plays with time, “It felt like the moment before the Savior comes. And the Savior did come, but we had to wait a long time.” The next paragraph moves to the subject of Dundun’s brutality torturing Jack Hotel, which leads into the conclusion containing a reference to Matthew 6:3 “His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing.” The narrator prefaces the reference with a direct address to the reader, “Will you believe me when I tell you he had kindness in his heart?” He then takes the biblical reference from Matthew normally taught as an admonition to humility, kindness, and generosity, and turns it on its head followed by an explanation for the inexplicable: “…certain important connections had been burned through” with an invitation toward understanding, “If I opened up your head and ran a hot smoldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.”

My favorite of the stories was Emergency, which plays with the theme of blindness. There is the literal blindness of Terrence Weber cured when Georgie simply removes the knife from his eye as the doctors are trying to figure out how to accomplish the same, the narrator’s blindness to self, having ingested as many drugs as “a very famous guru of the love generation,” Georgie’s blindness from the sudden change in light “’I’m starting to get my eyes back,’ Georgie said in another minute,” and the blinding light caused by the environment, “The day was cloudless, blinding.” This is something I want to keep in mind for my writing – to use the theme in a number of ways and on several levels.

The progression of stories after blindness move from his relationship to Michelle, then to finishing the story of the two men, the narrator’s drinking, until the last two stories which concern his recovery and redemption through service, a basic tenet of the twelve steps. Of course, after tracking him through desperate, violent, and drug-induced events, it’s not surprising that his redemption, too, is unusual, peeping on a Mennonite couple which builds the tension of the last story. His fascination with the Mennonites ends with watching the foot washing and its inherent symbolism of servitude, echoing Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

By the end, the narrator is improving each day, learning to live sober. The narrative of the book is the narrative of the addiction experience. The construction of the last paragraph initially indicates that the narrator sees his girlfriend and the residents of Beverly Home as ‘other’ until the very last sentence, “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.” The narrator has not reached the Twelfth Step of AA (Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs) and yet he has, by relaying these stories. The assortment of scenes from his life carries the reader with the narrator from peripheral drugged up hitchhiker to member of a community.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard

book by Amos Tutuola

annotation by Diane Sherlock

The Palm-Wine Drinkard is a novella of connected stories based on Yoruba folktales written by Amos Tutuola, a Christian Yoruba. It is not surprising that the reader can ‘hear’ the stories while reading them as the Nigerian Tutuola came out of a strong oral tradition and was first generation literate. We follow the Palm-Wine Drinkard, eldest son of the “richest man in town” who “had no other work than to drink palm-wine.” The novella resonated with me for several personal reasons: my great-grandmother was from West Africa and an uncle, Sir Philip Sherlock, wrote several books of Anansi folktales for a Caribbean audience. Anansi stories, centering on a trickster spider, originated with the Asante tribe of West Africa, primarily in Nigeria’s neighbor, Ghana. The Yoruba folktales that Tutuola uses are similar.

The narrator begins his journey when the tapster his father secured for him dies on a Sunday, the day of rest underscoring the narrator’s unwarranted burden on his tapster.Within this overarching narrative are two main story lines, the first concerning the attainment of the magic egg; the second, its use and abuse. Traditional African themes of fertility, reciprocity, and destruction, specifically as a direct result of greed are all on display here without the harshness of a work like Peter Brooks’ Ik and without the sermonizing of some of Tutuola’s Christian colleagues. Tutuola manages to integrate his Christian beliefs into his Yoruba heritage and work through problems of ethical reciprocity. For example, in WE AND THE WISE KING IN THE WRONG TOWN WITH THE PRINCE KILLER, there are clear echoes of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem before the sacrifice of the crucifixion. “Then we mounted the horse. After that they were following us about the town, they were beating drums, dancing, and singing…” Yet the story is also purely African, set firmly in the bush.

There are many mirror elements in the narrative such as the tohosu baby following the marriage of the narrator and another that follows the recalibrating of that marriage.Since the Yoruba believe that life is preserved through children, a monstrous child that turns the natural order upside down is a striking and dramatic element. The tohosu baby born from a thumb rather than womb is voracious, “stronger than the whole town” and a threat to the existence of everyone the tohosu meets. This is one of the strongest ways that greed leading to destruction is illustrated and is retold in a different form near the end when the townspeople become demanding, voracious for the food produced by the magic egg. The magic egg’s production is placed after the husband and wife are in the hungry creature’s stomach, not unlike Jonah and the whale. Hunger, satiation, famine, then greed and destruction are revisited in each of the stories to varying degrees until by the end of the book, the narrator produces whips from the egg to disperse the greedy crowd who make incessant demands on him for food.

The centerpiece of the book is the trip to Deads’ Town and is preceded by a story of sacrifice and retribution (PRINCE KILLER). Deads’ Town is drawn as distinct with its own methods, rhythms and customs apart from the living. Some of Tutuola’s work is reminiscent of the psychedelic lyrics from the sixties (“I know what it’s like to be dead” from the Beatles, for example). It is as if Tutuola uses Yoruba legends to open doors in the mind that Western artists opened with drugs.

From Tutuola, I learned not to be afraid to repeat story elements to create a spiral effect in narrative, returning, in both cases, to the theme of greed. He repeatedly shows instances of greed such as the wife returning to retrieve her “gold trinket,” which results in the return of the tohosu in the form of the half-bodied baby. He does he shy away from the grotesque and fantastic, not only through the tohosu but also the ‘complete gentleman’ who discards body parts and finally flesh to become a skull.

Though he predates it, he follows Vonnegut’s sixth rule for writing: Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of. This is something I’ve struggled with, but it gets easier when I see how it makes for a better tale. Most of this comes in the form of the tohosu,but also in the narrator’s struggles with Death. Tutuola’s point does not seem to be to test the mettle of the narrator, who is not exactly sweet nor innocent, but to weave an entertaining story, which he does. At the same time, the author repeatedly makes the point vital to survival of the Yoruba, Africa in general, and finally to the world audience, about the dangers of greed.

The Corrections

Correctionsbook by Jonathan Franzen

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Just as women writers in Los Angeles should not read Janet Fitch until they have found their own voice, Franzen makes the case for staving off the long shadows of Pynchon and possibly Gaddis, the author apparently hat-tipped in the title. The Corrections is nihilistic satire filled with repugnant characters related by a totalitarian narrator who leaves no breathing room for his readers to form their own opinions. Other writers have handled repellent characters and still engaged me in the text so there is something else going on here and that is most likely the mean-spiritedness that infuses the text. Though the author has a good eye for detail, it does not seem that he has done basic research. For example, the manifestations of Parkinson’s are unconvincing. For four years, I helped care for a Parkinson’s patient until we could finally get her into a convalescent hospital; there was nothing familiar in the description of Alfred Lambert.

The main problem is that the author has undertaken the task of mocking everything, especially his garish characters, without deep understanding much less sympathy, save the failed professor. I found myself several times wishing that Franzen had confined the book to the university because that was where he had the most success with his observations, where he seemed the most comfortable, and where his brand of skewering was most effective. He could have had a more sharply realized book in that setting, perhaps a better arena to evaluate his intellectual control, and (one hopes) could have provided a more satisfying ending than the one here.

A writer like Austen intended her novels for the very people she was satirizing, but it’s hard to imagine that is the case here. He does have the underlying didactic intention necessary for his subject matter, probably too much of it.

To be fair, Franzen is a good example of shifting points of view, particularly the three siblings, and helped me establish my own narrative structure. He moves among all five family members, mostly with success. He has a strong sense of character, well, male character, and of place. His women have some problems. His characterization of Denise reads more like a male fantasy of a lesbian than a conflicted young woman. There is not enough reader identification with Enid to either sustain reader interest in her or for her desire for a family Christmas to drive the narrative.

Alfred’s falling off the cruise ship and rescue did not ring true and seemed out of place with the rest of the book. There have been enough people who disappear without a trace off cruise ships and after so much detail in overly long sequences like the Lithuanian cash plot, his fall and how he might have been noticed, found and rescued is glanced over. Franzen strays into self-parody with his narrative, then wraps up the characters into mostly happy ever afters. Chip even gets his father’s doctor and the father has a long slow decline “lasting longer than anyone expected,” which is again glossed over in a few sentences. It seems that the author could have used the one character who exhibits a moral core and self sacrifice to more effect at the end of his life. The Corrections is an overly long novel that fails to amuse and leaves a bad aftertaste.