Why I read novels

Monday’s meeting is our last book club meeting of 2022.  There’s only four of us in total, but we’ve met over a number of years, first off face-to-face and since March 2020 via Zoom. In our last meeting someone asked why we read novels.  It’s a good question, that I’ve been thinking about.  Then today I was helped in this by reading a piece by George Saunders in which he was musing on one of the assumptions that writers of fiction make:  “that it [the fiction] is a representation of the world as we’ve found it, basically to scale (reasonable, realistic), the point of which is to somehow show what we believe or know: to represent a position that we are sure of before we began, or to put forth some theme, or stake out some position.”

He then offers the idea “But what if, instead, the idea was to make, well…something, in prose, but we don’t know what it is.  Something whose purpose is to compel and surprise and delight the reader and ourselves in the process, that may, in fact, say something about life and our feelings about life – but almost incidentally; something that, until we’d written the piece, we didn’t know, something that is not easily reducible?”

That’s when I recognised that part of what makes a novel work for me are the following:

  • It compels, surprises, or delights me.
  • It says something about life and challenges my feelings about life (as Saunders says, ‘almost incidentally’)
  • The fiction is exploratory not expositional
  • The prose is memorable, Saunders suggests it should be ‘a jarring, persuasive, original surface.  Revealing a new voice.’
  • The voice should also be interesting, taking the reader from the commonplace to the ‘strangeness of the world’ – challenging and extending perspectives.

During 2022 I’ve been keeping a list of the novels I’ve read. They are 24, up to 18 December.  I may fit a final one in before 31 December.   The first 8 on the list are the book club choices.

Book titleAuthor
PandoraSusan Stokes-Chapman
A Short History of Tractors in UkrainianMarina Lewycka
The Island of Missing TreesElif Shafuk
The Morning GiftEva Ibbotson
The Beekeeper of AleppoChristy Leferti
DelphiClare Pollard
WidowlandC J Carey
A Net for Small FishesLucy Jago
SourdoughRobin Sloan
A Single ThreadTracy Chevalier
Machines Like MeIan McEwan
The Course of LoveAlain de Botton
Transient DesiresDonna Leon
Journey to the River SeaEva Ibbotson
The DiddakoiRumer Godden
The EveryDave Eggers
NutshellIan McEwan
Fake AccountsLauren Oyler
How Not to DieMichael Greger
The SongbirdsChristy Leferti
The RulesTracy Darnton
Unsettled GroundClare Fuller
SightJesse Greengrass
Unnatural CausesP D James

I wondered how many of them matched what I’ve now discovered make a good novel for me.  Five of the 24 stand out as ‘working’ for me: 

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was utterly delightful.  It made me laugh out loud in parts, and sigh with empathy as the eccentricities of the elderly father, very similar to my eccentric father, were detailed.  The writing is vivid – the descriptions of the veg garden, the pantry and the voluptuous Valentina – are as colourful as Keith Haring’s paintings.  Yet it has undertones of sadness and reality – being an immigrant into the UK, having one’s country invaded – that forced my thinking.  There are historical trails in the book that I started to find out more about.  They prompted my curiosity.   The book is a clever blend of humour and sadness, as an interviewer says, ‘The defining feature of Lewycka’s writing is to treat serious themes – age, family conflict, the back story of war and grief and separation – in a comic way. Life’s a nightmare, but a hellishly funny one.’

Sight is memorable in a very different way.  It’s not humorous at all.  It is tightly and densely written in a beautiful ruminative style.   The story is woven in a way that allows the inclusion of historical figures – Wilhelm Rontgen, Sigmund Freud, and John Hunter, among others – to develop the narrative around the central character who is “a nameless young woman who, pregnant with her second child, meditates on her mother’s death and its aftermath, her relationship with her psychoanalyst grandmother, and how difficult it was to decide to have her first baby.” (Lauren Elkin).  It’s one of a very few books I would happily read again.

Three of the books on the list are different slants on tech.  Unlike my grandchildren, I didn’t grow up in a digital world and am many decades from being born a digital native.   I’m intrigued by the possibilities for good and ill that it brings. 

The Every, is the one I have recommended to several people and one I instantly sent to my tech savvy (software engineer) brother.  It satirises everything you suspect about major tech companies and the way “toxic technologies become normalized” (Evan Selinger).  The book is over 600 pages long (with an explanation of why that length) and thoroughly worth reading every word.  It’s a horrifying, but humorously toned, forecast of world we are already perhaps immersed in, if only we could see it.

It’s the world of “iterative strategies for normalizing disturbing technologies …. “[that] set people up, step by step, to accept situations that earlier versions of themselves would have rejected, whether it’s informing someone about the death of a close family member over an emoji-infused text message or embracing AI-infused devices that monitor our conversations at home for signs of hostility and notify the police if we use the wrong words or speak in the wrong tones. In other words, Eggers reveals something most of us can’t perceive in real time when we start using a new gadget promoted by a Big Tech company: the big picture and the likely endgame.” (Evan Selinger). 

I don’t have any social media accounts and go along with Jaron Lanier’s reasons why.  The question is – will I be able to put the case against the persuasive and pervasive technologies to my grand-children and have them be interested in it?  And will they be able to differentiate toxic technologies from enabling technologies?  

 ‘The Island of Missing Trees’ tells a powerful story of Cyprus and of persecution, displacement, secrets and belonging with the brilliant, tragic, and almost central figure of the fig tree as narrator.     In a similar vein, The Beekeeper of Aleppo tells of flight from the Syrian war, devastating journeys to hostile ‘safety’.

Both novels are haunting in their telling and deeply careful in showing the wounds – physical and emotional – that people making these migration journeys suffer. For some, the wounds can be healed, leaving scars that bear witness but can be lived with. For others the wounds go too deep and and living is no longer the chosen path.

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