intense sensations

Why I’m ready to throw in the towel

Posted on: August 2, 2014

Telex from CubaTelex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was going to start this review by saying that this novel gives the lie to anyone who says you can’t teach people to write.

Of course you can teach people to write. You can teach people to drive, which is a lot harder than writing. You can teach them to build bridges across impossible spaces, put up those massive, bristling skyscrapers in New York and Shanghai, get oil from the desert, make rockets and missiles and sell them to countries worse off than you so they can almost but not quite destroy each other. You can teach people to enslave entire populations and justify it with plausible rhetoric that makes it look like you are a philanthropist and benefactor.

So of course you can teach people to write.

It’s just sentences. One after another.

We can’t all write beautifully, I’ll admit. Even after a lot of lessons at top schools like Berkeley and Columbia, where Rachel K learned to write, it takes a lot of patience and practice to write something like this:

The rain let up, and wind was vacuuming out the last low, ragged clouds as La Maziere continued along the Malecon, looking back periodically to be sure no one was following him. The moon appeared, glowing like a quartered orange section that had been ever so lightly sucked, its flat edge thinned and translucent.

He turned and headed up La Rampa, in the direction of the Tokio. He assumed she was still there, still in her zazou getup, her legs painted in prison chain-link, as smearable as when he’d last left his handprints on her soft and unathletic thighs, six months earlier.

The references to the rain and the moon are fairly standard. You’ll find paragraphs starting that way in every half-decent detective, romance or horror story. Rachel gives them a bit more intensity than many writers. There is some close observation there. Maybe the description of the moon is even a bit laboured.

But I admire enormously the second paragraph. I admire it and it gives me great pleasure. I can read it again and again.

She could have said something like “He assumed she was still there, still in her zazou getup, still exactly as her remembered her from six months earlier.”

But no, instead we get a vividly visual and tactile memory of what exactly it is that La Maziere remembers, her painted-on fishnet stockings, rendered with that wonderfully evocative word “smearable”, her soft thighs, susceptible to his “handprints”. What an image!

There are many paragraphs like this in the novel, which give it a compelling forward momentum. I not only go back and saunter but I also race onward, eager for the next delicious frisson, which is at once sensual, intellectual and literary.

The narrative sections depicting La Maziere are probably my favourite ones in the novel. I love the way Rachel is so cool and wise in showing us his brutish, predatory and often childish responses to women. As a narrator, she is aloof. But the insights she gives us into the way people think are astonishingly intimate. She does this without irony, or an irony so faint and empathic that it is ambivalent if it is there at all.

La Maziere doubted going to Japan would convince him that femininity was the art of walking in stilettos, that it had much to do with poise or surfaces, makeup and neck ribbons. Whatever female essence was, he had caught it only fleetingly, a thing women reflected when they were least aware. He couldn’t name this quality but suspected it had something to do with invisibility, a remainder whose very definition was predicated on his inability to see it.

These insights lingered long in my imagination. Reading this novel was like being plunged into lots of different lives and experiencing strange situations with the freshness and immediacy of a child. It was revelatory and inspiring. It was healing. It made me happy.

I was going to start this review this way but then I read through the comments on Goodreads and I thought, “Oh no, I’m wrong! Rachel can’t write, after all. She has failed to please so many readers, many of whom struggled to finish the book.”

I learned of a new literary genre: “LOB – left on board”.

Catastrophe!

Perhaps you can’t teach writing, then. Those world-leading writing schools have failed us and failed Rachel K.

What to do? Bin my review? Re-think my literary touchstones? Doubt my judgement? Throw in the towel?

I don’t know. Writing is hard. Writing is really hard. Teaching people to write must be even harder. All right, then. It’s impossible.

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4 Responses to "Why I’m ready to throw in the towel"

I think you’ve just convinced me I’d like to read this, Vanessa. Thank you. 🙂 xx

Hi Sheryl, I really loved this book but I always get nervous when someone says they will read a book on my recommendation. 🙂

Art is ultimately subjective. So don’t let others dictate your joys. We’re all moved by different stuff for different reasons. By the way, is that a monogrammed towel? I’d hang on to it.

“I learned of a new literary genre: “LOB – left on board”.”

Vanessa,

I must, I’m afraid disabuse you of this being a fresh genre.

During my time in The Wicked Police, LOB was used to refer to the genre of lies, deceptions and filthy inventions that the guilty swine we arrested belched up in a vain attempt to evade justice.

Of course: the Honourable, Dedicated and Thorough (though Wicked) servants of Her Majesty discovered their foul dissimulation and placed them, one by one in the barrel known as, LOB. (Load Of Bolleaux.)

Lock up-throw away key-dust off hands, dahn the pub-job dun!

I do hope that helps.

Ma’am, Your servant,

Ch Supt (Ret) Knacker of the Yard.

brendan

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