NOTE: I ramble at length about my reading life earlier this year, before trying to grapple with The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton and Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi—two of the books crucial to the return of my more usual reading ambitions. Do feel free to jump beyond my prattle and whining.
Real life from of February to August was overwhelmingly about work and its myriad demands—not to mention dealing with the consequent upheavals in other parts of my life because of those demands—my reading life was desperate at best, and lackluster at worst.
Consulting my long-neglected reading log, I see that all was still well when I read Rebecca (I even remember the live-tweeting: from the crush at the first glimpse of Max de Winter, to the increasing horror and indignation at the second Mrs. de Winter). Nothing untoward, really, when I read Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Princes Trilogy—all of which I read in the teeny screen of my smartphone—except, perhaps, that this reading-on-the-sly (I read the books from that teeny screen in a stairwell at work, while on break) was a hint of things to come. My reading life ambled on, slowing once in a while, then stuttered—and it never quite picked up its liveliness for a long time.
Oh, there were high points here and there. I finally finished reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which established my fascination for that lovably erudite-and-grumpy old coot. I reunited with Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth—I read nothing but that during a five-day weekend last April, that blessed respite. I even squeaked through a read of its not-as-engrossing sequel, World Without End months later. There is, of course, David Mazzuchelli’s Asterios Polyp, a book I’ve grown madly in love with.
The months of February, May, June, and July, however, remains marked by that desperation and lacklusterness. There was simply no time, and so I stole what I could. And because I grew increasingly weary and inevitably wrecked, I picked books that demanded nothing from me but good feelings—giddiness, even—resting on the fantasies of idealism and petticoats and shadowed balconies and rustic country houses. I read romance because it soothed me, I read romance because I could literally carry the books in my pocket [that is: I could pretend I was consulting my phone, when in fact I was swooning over one of Anne Mallory’s heroes]. What angst I encountered was of my own choosing. I was all about feelings in those months—and a desperate need for escapism—and my romances served me well.
But although my love for the genre remains strong—as I write this, I have just spent the better part of the day gobbling up two of its novels—I recognize that I’ve felt crippled and burned out. Not because the genre was what I mostly read in those months, but because I had no energy to read anything else. I was quite unambitious, and even acknowledging that in those days wasn’t a comfort. I, again, simply wanted more.
My resolve was helped along at the start of August, when I read Jesse Bering’s collected columns on evolutionary biology. I felt my mind screeching out of its atrophy, my emotions recalibrating and long-untapped ones coming to the fore. The challenge, I thought then, was a novel. A novel that I could get lost in—through the story perhaps, through its language, preferably. I wanted a novel that challenged, basically.
* * *
Enter The Rehearsal, closely followed by Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox. Both books are characterized by unconventional storytelling, even a marked fascination with storytelling itself. In many ways, both books re-launched me into the world of fiction, helped me trudge on to where I am now, babbling to you, Dear Ether.
Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal is a revelation, a wonderful discovery. Stylistically inventive, even defiant—revolving around the normally trite scandal of a teacher who sleeps with one of his high school students. Families are up in arms, the campus is abuzz—envy abounds, and malice and longing. The storytelling, however, consciously elevates it to high drama—to, dare I say, high art. The entire novel is a risk that pays off, much to my relief. I loathe experimental fiction when its sole reason for existence is to show off.
Note that there is a lot of showing off in The Rehearsal, yes. Thank goodness it worked, thank goodness Catton was adept, thank goodness she brought something new to the table. She goads you into making your mind work, this one. Lawdy, thank you.
At its heart is theater, how the characters present themselves to you, how they voice their inner lives. There’s an enigmatic—almost farcically so—saxophone teacher who confronts both reader and her fellow characters in a manner that is so decisively unrealistic. See the second page of the novel, where she—and she is always just “the saxophone teacher”—speaking to the mother of one of her students:
“I require of all my students… that they are downy and pubescent, pimpled with sullen mistrust, and boiling away with private fury and ardor and uncertainty and gloom. I require that they wait in the corridor for ten minutes at least before each lesson, tenderly nursing their injustices, picking miserably at their own unworthiness as one might finger a scab or caress a scar. If I am to teach your daughter, you darling hopeless and inadequate mother, she must be moody and bewildered and awkward and dissatisfied and wrong. When she realizes that he body is a secret, a dark and yawning secret of which she becomes more and more ashamed, come back to me. You must understand me on this point. I cannot teach children.”
To which the mother—whom the saxophone teacher describes [while in conversation with her!], “with your mouth a thin scarlet thread and your deflated bosom and your stale mustard blouse”—whines back, in full realism: “But she wants to learn the saxophone.”
Imagine my bewilderment at page two. Imagine my fear of being made more weary—to have to slog through this pretentiousness! But, oh god, I don’t quite understand why, but the bewilderment helps. And it is all too easy to fall in love with the language, how unrestrained and playful Catton got, how risky it all was.
The saxophone teacher retains her loftiness throughout the novel. Her charges—schoolmates of the “disgraced” student—are young women grounded in realism. They have their insipid preoccupations, the fatalistic hurts, their discoveries about the world around them—but framed by the sex scandal. It’s wonderfully encapsulated thusly:
It is a mark of the depth of their wounding that they are pretending they suspected it all along. Everything that they have seen and been told about love so far has been an inside perspective, and they are not prepared for the crashing weight of this exclusion. It dawns on them now how much they never saw and how little they were wanted, and with this dawning comes a painful re-imagining of the self as peripheral, uninvited, and utterly minor.
See how beautiful that authorial voice is. And, oh, her control over the narrative and its many voices. How, dammit, does she manage to pull off the ridiculousness of the saxophone teacher? How does she offer a glimpse into the minds of the music students, the high school girls, the young men and women in the theater school? And that theater school—another stage, so to speak, on which Catton entangles us in: Its students and teachers and their monologues, self-referential—and then, bam, about the sex scandal in the adjacent school. Real life and theater production intertwine, the saxophone teacher looks on albeit as a shadow in one corner, Greek choruses abound—and, oh, it was magnificent.
A warning: It is not always clear, though. I confess that half the time I didn’t know where I was—and even having finished the book, I find it difficult to delineate. Was it all just a theater production? Where is “real life” in all of this—to what do I anchor myself? The structure does not always make for neat reading. Therein, of course, lay the challenge. It helps that the prose is unrelentingly beautiful. [And, yes, I was so very afraid of the rhythms of the saxophone teacher just as I began this book. I wanted to give up on it, I’d despaired of it being stubbornly unreadable. But: Reasonable challenges, I coaxed myself then.] It helps that I was eager to see if Catton could maintain this convoluted tale, if she could manage to keep elevating that sex scandal and the trials of adolescence into something breathtaking. It helps that Catton fulfilled all her promises, it helps that this book risked so much.
So. A much shorter note on Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox, which I’d read when I was still drunk on the Catton. It’s a book I’d long ago encountered in the blogosphere, something I felt that I would like immensely. It’s been praised for its inventiveness and its spin on magical realism. And, perhaps, for its resistance to categorization.
What I got at its beginning was: Mary Foxe steps out from the mind of novelist John Fox, and confronts him about his writing, provokes him about her muse-hood. Both—I think—launch into an exercise of outwitting each other through story. Not unlike a distorted Scheherazade, Mary Foxe weaves her tales in order to taunt her creator and, maybe, take a little more life from him. And then, of course, she really does come to life—I think—tangibly confronting John Fox [who happens to be squeamishly in love with his creation] and his wife as well. They all even have dinner together, and gak my head hurt a lot.
I’m obviously not as impressed by Mr. Fox than I was with The Rehearsal. It was a book I enjoyed reading—it was as playful, as inventive, as skimming-the-otherworldly as Catton’s book. However, it was not as reckless. It told tales—it created myths via that competition between Mary Foxe and John Fox—and they were enjoyable, competent tales.
Ultimately, though, what makes Mr. Fox shine less for me was that it felt noncommittal. At the heels of The Rehearsal, it just wasn’t passionate at all, not as intense and so intent on creating its own world with its own standards. It didn’t reinvent anything, it didn’t shake things up. It helped pass the time, Mr. Fox did—but it did take me along on a daring adventure in prose and storytelling; it did not risk.
And risk—that blend of challenge—was precisely what I needed most then.
PSA: I bought The Rehearsal at National Bookstore (Cubao), for PhP599.