Microviews Vol. 1: Chaon, Claudel, Gaiman

on Tuesday, January 5, 2010
For a book blog, there hasn't been a great deal of talk about particular books on Baitforbookworms. While I love yapping on about issues in the lit world and adding my greatly insignificant two-cents' worth, I figure I ought, every now and then, to throw in some reviews for good measure. Rather than bog you down in deep exegesis (of which, I am the first to admit, I am hardly capable) I'll keep them bite sized. Hence my terrible new moniker "Microviews".

Four days into the new year and I have polished off three of my six listed reads for the month. A pretty good start, if I may say so myself. At this rate, I'll have plenty of time for random reading, including the new memoir by Jose Saramago that I picked up yesterday having not even known one was to be published. More on that another time. For now, however, behold my lame literary pontifications. Be warned, the opinions expressed in the following Microviews may not be the opinions of this author in a day's time.

Await Your Repy by Dan Chaon
There was sufficient buzz about this book in the latter part of last year to suck me into reading an author I had never before had the slightest inclination to broach. For the most part, I'm glad I went there, though I don't think it worth all the wanton salivating that has surrounded it. Await Your Reply is an interesting maze of a novel, complex both in ideas and execution. In rotating order, it tells three stories of people on the run, in search of something - often their own identity - that remains tantalisingly elusive. There is Ryan, who has run away with the man he always believed to be his uncle, but is in fact his father (or maybe not). Teenaged orphan Lucy is running away with her history teacher whose own history might be an elaborate lie. And then there is Miles, searching for his lost paranoid schizophrenic brother Hayden. The three seemingly unrelated narratives slowly weave together in a way that does not quite warrant the term 'ingenious' but is certainly satisfying, and the ending of which packs a sinister punch. Chaon is a little too prone to 'thriller' conventions to really tip this over the edge for me, although he ought to be commended for being one of very few people to tackle those pesky Nigerian e-mail scams in an intelligent, literary manner.

Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel
I first stumbled upon Claudel several years ago when the dreary cover of his fantastic novel Grey Souls appealed to the misanthrope in me, thus compelling me to pick it up. Claudel is massively underrated in the English speaking world. He is a crime writer in the loosest sense, in that his novels have crime as their set piece, but he uses that as his launching pad into deep philosophical explorations of heavy themes such as post war guilt and responsibility. Brodeck's Report is another magnificent addition in that vein. Of the several men in his small, isolated village that were sent to concentration camps, Brodeck is the only one to survive and return. As was too often the case, those who remained throughout the German occupation harbour the heavy burden of guilt and unspoken complicity, and while they are excited to welcome Brodeck back to their ranks it is on condition that the past remain buried. When the villagers set upon and kill a flamboyant stranger - the Anderer - who has recently arrived in the town, Brodeck is tasked with writing a report about the incident. Flitting between his own harrowing camp experiences, the degradation of which is brilliantly juxtaposed with the mirrored degradation of those who remained, Brodeck reconstructs the time leading up to the murder. Brodeck's Report is not a whodunnit but a whydunnit, and the revelation toward the end is truly astonishing in its artistry. Claudel proves, in a most painful way, that sometimes the receptacle of guilt must be destroyed to cleanse, or rather whitewash, the present.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
After the weight of the Claudel I needed to escape and Neil Gaiman seemed the perfect means. There is little to say about The Graveyard Book that hasn't already been said. Universal raves were well-deserved. This story of a boy raised by ghosts after the murder of his family by the evil man Jack is one of the best young adult novels I've read since I Am The Cheese (still my all-time favourite). Peppered with brilliant cultural references, including ones that even kids might get (take that Muppets!), Gaiman shows that he is unfettered by the bounds of genre or age. I did take minor exception to the neatness of the wrap-up. I just wasn't convinced by the "Jack-of-All-Trades" brotherhood as an explanation for why young Bod was being hunted.It just seemed rushed. However, that hardly diminished my enjoyment of the book, nor did it prevent a lump forming in my throat at the end. I am told there are parallels between this and The Jungle Book, but having read Kipling only as a child I can't really remember enough to see them. Nonetheless, The Graveyard Book shares its charming timelessness. Add my voice to the chorus of raves.


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