Review: The Gathering

I’d like to state up front and unequivocally: Anne Enright is a brilliant writer. The Green Road is excellent (more on March 12), but The Gathering is overwrought and pretentious. It’s a hybrid of Gilead and Written on the Body with a curious fixation on genitalia. The book jacket makes it sound more intriguing, however:

The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan are gathering in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother, Liam, drowned in the sea. His sister, Veronica, collects the body and keeps the dead man company, guarding the secret she shares with him—something that happened in their grandmother’s house in the winter of 1968. As Enright traces the line of betrayal and redemption through three generations, she shows how memories warp and secrets fester. As in all Enright’s work, her distinctive intelligence twists the world a fraction, and gives it back to us in a new unforgettable light.

I wrote, when reviewing The Narrow Road to the Deep North, that bad sex scenes remind me of my days helping fellow students polish their papers. Students do a funny thing when writing about sex: They want to include it in their stories, but they don’t want it to sound Penthouse-letter-y. The easiest way to avoid this is to make it gross or mundane, throw in a mention of death, and add some non-sequiturs. They try so hard to be inventive and literary that the final result is unintentionally funny. Lit sex has always made me giggle and in The Gathering, where so much anatomy is described at random intervals, it was a distraction.

Though Enright’s voice is beautiful, it’s hard enough to stay focused throughout jumps across time and subject matter without the lit-sex intrusions. Any time I started to sink into the story, BAM! I’m only including a highlight reel below, because if I filled this post with penile descriptions, it might get censored. 😛

But before we get to the lit sex, there’s lit grief:

I am a trembling mess from hip to knee. There is a terrible heat, a looseness in my innards that makes me want to dig my fists between my thighs. It is a confusing feeling—somewhere between diarrhoea and sex—this grief that is almost genital. (7)

This is a unique way to describe that weak-kneed feeling, but you know Enright threw in the diarrhoea because if she only compared grief to sex, we’d all be saying: What?? or Such brave writing to risk a misunderstanding like that! or How daring! and these reactions would be even more distracting. As is, it only elicits a WTF followed by an I don’t get it.

On the subject of childbirth, which she likens to “shitting,” Enright throws in some extra oddity to her description of a short gap between siblings:

There were eleven months between me and Liam. We came out of her on each other’s tails; one after the other, as fast as a gang-bang, as fast as an infidelity. Sometimes I think we overlapped in there, he just left early, to wait outside.

Well, that’s a new one. And the award for the strangest paragraph I have ever read goes to…

Drumroll, please!

His sister. Younger than him. She died. The room they grew up in was full of the wet rattle of her chest; the horrible gurgle of phlegm and the shocking bright blood. Nugent can not forget the nightly rosary, said at a terrible, safe distance from her bed; her white knuckles fumbling on the coverlet for the dropped beads, or the dark light in her eyes as she looked at him, like she saw right through to his bones. His own puberty going unnoticed—almost to himself—as her little breasts swelled under the nightdress. She moved towards death and womanhood at the same pace, the nipples like a spreading bruise, the breasts growing, and failing to grow, over lungs hard with disease. And so, she died.
Is that enough for him to think about, while he is on his knees?
That when he holds his penis in the night-time, it feels like her thin skin; always damp, never sweating. Because, in those days, people used to be mixed up together in the most disgusting ways.. (35)

I read this, and said: Is that lit speak for incest? Also, is that two-period thing a rare, non-OED sighting of a two-dot ellipsis or just a typo? Because an ellipsis makes this passage even stranger. But no matter, this paragraph cuts to another reason I struggled with this book: It’s damn depressing. And the wishy-washy writing makes it all the more depressing because you’re left to guess at the gaps between characters, always assuming the worst. The faults of memory are convincingly written, but the endless revisions are a chore to read.

Wait, I spoke too soon. What about this unusual paragraph:

The figures that pass are scribbled with the graffiti of his gaze: everything they have spills over, or droops. An overweight child with breasts—a boy, it seems. An old man with a scab under his nose. A woman with a widening tattoo. A parade of lax flies and stained trousers and bra straps showing under other, shoestring straps. The living, with all their smells and holes. Liam was always a great man for people’s holes, and who stuck what into which hole. (76)

Is that metaphorical? Am I being a pervert if I assume holes is an anatomical reference here? Given the random penises emerging on trains, the anatomical reference seems likely. However, what an odd way to describe a brother—by saying he’s a hole expert. Just for the record, I’m not a prude. I’ve given the “sex talk” to dozens of my peers and once ran a reproductive health site with many mentions of holes. Sex stuff doesn’t bother me—what I’m rolling my eyes about here is how forced and artificial it sounds for the sake of being arty and highbrow.

I don’t typically review books I don’t finish, but I had this on my queue for the month and felt obligated to not let this date pass without some remark on The Gathering. As I would like to read all the Man Booker Prize winners (this was the 2007 recipient), I plan to keep it on my shelf for a few years. Maybe it will sit better with me in a decade.

Lastly, because Enright does actually have talent, here’s a well-written passage for you:

Don’t tell Mammy. It was the mantra of our childhoods, or one of them. Don’t tell Mammy. This from Midge, especially, but also from any of the older ones. If something broke or was spilt, if Bea did not come home or Mossie went up to live in the attic, or Liam dropped acid, or Alice had sex, or Kitty bled buckets into her new school uniform, or any number of phone messages about delays, snarl-ups, problems with bus money and taxi money, and once, catastrophically, Liam’s night in the cells. None of the messages relayed: the whispered conferences in the hall, Don’t tell Mammy, because ‘Mammy’ would—what? Expire? ‘Mammy’ would worry. Which seemed fine to me. It was, after all, of her own making, this family. It had all come—singly and painfully—out of her. And my father said it more than anyone; level, gallant, There’s no need to tell your mother now, as if the reality of his bed was all the reality that this woman should be asked to bear. (9)

Book 3 of the Reading Ireland Month 2017 Challenge

Next Up: The Green Road by Anne Enright

Previously On:

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

 

Note: To All Those People Who Love Getting Organized…

Some time ago, I was cleaning out a side room at my old office and ran across a Rolodex. No one wanted it. My boss said I should throw it in the recycling bin, unless I wanted it…

So I brought it home, dusted it off, and daydreamed about using it as some kind of organizational tool for books or reviews or my TBR or… idk. Something book related, though.

The tabs are alphabetical, but I could flip them to write something on their backs. The cards are also easily customized—they’ve got plain lines. Anyone have suggestions for how to make best use of the Rolodex? I thought about using it as a card catalog of sorts, but I have more books than cards and I know my books quite well—I don’t need a list of them. I’ve never bought the same book twice by mistake, whew.

Just going to leave this here and it’s back to regularly scheduled programming tomorrow!

Cheers!

Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

picture of dorian gray_coverOscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of those classics that everyone knows even if they’ve never read it. If you’ve been pushing it down your queue because you think you know enough about it—stop pushing! Even when you know the premise—that Dorian Gray retains his youthful, innocent appearance while his portrait ages and withers in his stead—it’s compulsively readable. The writing is sharp and descriptive, riddled with the kinds of one-liners that have made Oscar Wilde so quotable.

Despite the importance of the portrait in the storyline, its creepy attributes don’t show up for a while. Much of the book is spent building Dorian’s character and his friendship with Lord Henry (Harry). Harry is full of the kind of observations that sound more clever than they really are and Dorian, young and inexperienced, is susceptible to his philosophies. Harry’s greatest hits include pleas for self-realization and the importance of beauty:

“The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly—that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays.” (13)

and:

“You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats. Each month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly….Ah! realize your youth while you have it. (17)

This latter speech has an immediate impact of Dorian who has something akin to a mid-life crisis when his portrait is unveiled. He says:

“I am jealous of everyting whose beauty does not die. I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me. Why should it keep what I must lose? Every moment that passes takes something from me and gives something to it. Oh, if it were only the other way! If the picture could change, and I could be always what I am now! Why did you paint it? It will mock me some day—mock me horribly!” The hot tears welled into his eyes; he tore his hand away and, flinging himself on the divan, he buried his face in the cushions, as though he was praying. (21)

Frankly, if you’re anywhere near a mid-life crisis, this may not be the best reading material. The descriptions, not just of age, but of Dorian’s horror and fear, are persuasive. Wilde continuously finds new ways to press this point again and again. It’s almost too much, but only Dorian’s extreme anxiety makes the story plausible. There are no explanations provided for the supernatural portrait beyond Dorian’s wish and desire—it just works. This is a simple story and too many explanations would complicate it and make it flimsy.

In addition to showing Dorian’s age, the portrait takes on a twisted, terrifying expression as Dorian becomes ever more corrupt and sinful. His situation is untenable; even a pretty face can’t go on forever as a terrible person with a corrosive secret.

If this was the whole story, the book would be solid. What takes it to the next level is the inclusion of witty descriptions and social commentary:

On people who prattle endlessly at dinner:
Like all people who try to exhaust a subject, he exhausted his listeners. (30)

An excellent character introduction:
She was a curious woman, whose dresses always looked as if they had been designed in a rage and put on in a tempest. She was usually in love with somebody, and, as her passion was never returned, she had kept all her illusions. She tried to look picturesque, but only succeeded in being untidy. Her name was Victoria, and she had a perfect mania for going to church. (35)

And astute social commentary:
“Faithfulness! I must analyse it some day. The passion for property is in it. There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid that others might pick them up.” (38)

I read The Importance of Being Earnest last year and laughed all the way through, but it’s built on a single joke without much shading. By adding smiles amongst the horror, the writing in Dorian Gray is more impressive.

My only quibble is that some characters pop up at the mid-point with only a few throwaway paragraphs to explain their history with Dorian. Why couldn’t this history have been given in real time or these characters been included sooner? When someone that Dorian appears to trust more than anyone else showed up, I did a search on my Kindle for the name, worried I’d missed something. I hadn’t missed anything, hurrah, but how could someone so important not have elicited an earlier mention in such a detailed book? Maybe some of the time spent with Harry’s diatribes could have gone towards peripheral characters…

Overall: 4.7 It’s funny, creepy, and hard to put down. Sometimes reading the a classic can feel like reading a cliché because the original doesn’t always feel “new” after seeing tributes and references everywhere, but even with the ending in mind, I really enjoyed this book.

Translation: Read it. Then read The Importance of Being Earnest as a chaser.

Book 2 of the Reading Ireland Month 2017 Challenge

Next Up: The Gathering by Anne Enright

Previously On:

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

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