Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson, Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector, and The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

I’ve had some wonderful cases of book serendipity this year. That is, when books you’re reading simultaneously, or consecutively, have a common thread, a coincidental similarity of theme, or detail, or maybe an uncommon word usage. Bookish Beck keeps track of these in Twitter threads. I kicked of this 20 Books of Summer challenge with just such a case of eerie paralells, between Jonathan Franzen’s How To Be Alone and Paul Auster’s Winter Journal.

This (another mini review cop out) is the opposite of that. Books 12, 13, and 14 of my list of 20 could not be more different. Objectively, they are of very different lengths, subjects, genres, and tones. Subjectively, they ranged from unexpectedly delightful to completely incomprehensible.

These books do serve to illustrate a point, though. In the Literary Fiction Book Tag, I defined “literary fiction” as fiction that leaves “plenty of room for interpretation.” I still believe this to be true, but in examining my reaction to these books, I find that what I need is a middle ground. Don’t spoon feed me, but don’t leave me completely on my own. Here’s how I fared with interpreting each of these books.

The Snow Child: Too much

I was uncertain about this book, a fairytale retelling, because I was afraid it would be too twee. It veered that way from time to time, but overall the tone was pretty balanced between darkness and levity. There were several other issues, not the least of which is the invocation of a white, blonde, blue-eyed girl as a metaphor for the Alaskan wilderness, but the most egregious was the author’s need to tell me how I should read the book.

The story of Mabel and Jack’s strained marriage could have been interesting, had Ivey not told us, at every turn, exactly who was misunderstanding who, and about what. The chapters alternate between their perspectives, while the child herself remains an enigma – sort of. The book was most successful for me when there was real tension between Mabel’s unwavering belief in the “snow child” of her beloved Russian fairytales, and Jack’s belief that there must be a logical explanation for an eight year old girl who survives on her own in -25 degree conditions. The tension is broken when Mabel comes around to Jack’s view, unceremoniously and suddenly.

But most of all, I abhor passages like this, that might as well be titled “MESSAGE!”

“Dear, sweet Mabel,” she said. “We never know what is going to happen, do we? Life is always throwing us this way and that. That’s where the adventure is. Not knowing where you’ll end up or how you’ll fare. It’s all a mystery, and when we say any different, we’re just lying to ourselves.”

I think I could have figured this out on my own, after reading about Mabel’s attempt to control her environment and protect herself from further grief. Or I could have taken something else from the story, had this and other “messages” not been shoved down my throat.

Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector: Not enough

On the other end of the spectrum is Clarice Lispector’s first novel, published to great acclaim when she was 23 years old. Maybe it reads differently in Portuguese, because I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

I could just barely detect the story’s outline: Joana is “running wild, so thin and precocious” as a child, then, orphaned, is sent to live with her aunt, who deems her a “viper” and is unsympathetic to her grief. Joana is sent to boarding school and marries young. Her husband impregnates his former fiance, and Joana takes a lover. The…end?

I quickly realized I would get nowhere with this book reading it casually. I started taking notes, but the notes were pretty much all just question marks. This is not same as my confusion about Love in the New Millenium, where the sentences made sense but the sequence of events seemed random. The sentences themselves are incomprehensible. A few choice quotes:

She remembered [her former classmates] and knew that they would have found Otávio ugly at that moment. Because she accepted him so much that she would desire him worse to prove her love without a fight even more.

Is that last thing even a sentence?

With me the following either happens or threatens to happen: from one moment to the next, with a certain movement, I can make myself into a line. That’s it! into a line of light, such that the person beside me ends up alone, unable to catch me and my deficiency.

I hate it when that either happens or threatens to happen…

Otávio’s voice was harsh and quick when he answered:
“You’ve always left me on my own.”
“No…” she said startled. “It’s just that everything I have can’t be given. Or taken. I myself could die of thirst in my presence. Solitude is mixed up with my essence…”
“No,” he repeated, obstinately, bleary-eyed. “You’ve always left me on my own because you wanted to, because you wanted to.”
“It’s not my fault,” cried Joana, “believe me… It is engraved in me that solitude comes from the fact that each body irremediably has its own end, it is engraved in me that love ceases in death… My presence has always been this mark…”

My note in the margin is: “yes, this is a normal conversation”.

Me looking for the meaning of this book

So yeah, I needed a little more to go on here. There are some through lines in the story, about the “symbol” and “the symbolized”, and marriage, and… stuff. I’ve been advised to try again with her short stories and indeed, I can tolerate this kind of thing better in a few pages and chalk it up to “a mood”. I need a bit more than that in a novel.

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson: Just right

It’s a good thing I don’t do much plot summarizing (I figure that if you can find your way here, you can find your way to Goodreads or Wikipedia or The Baroque Cycle Wiki, in this case – sadly, Neal seems to have forgotten to pay for the baroquecycle.com domain name listed on a book jacket), because we’d be here all day. There is a LOT going on here, from The Great Fire of London to colonial Boston to pirates and slaves and traitors and Puritans and alchemists and conspiracies in the French court. I’m leaving a lot out.

Unlike Ivey, Stephenson doesn’t waste time (…in his 916 page novel, first in a trilogy…) telling us what it’s all supposed to mean. Indeed, for the first several hundred pages, I was wondering *how* this was all going to come together and *why* we were spending so much time with failed scientist Daniel Waterhouse, who isn’t that interesting, until he is. Our other main characters, Jack Shaftoe and Eliza, are much better “hero” material, and they carry a lot of the action, but it’s Daniel who ties the whole thing together at the end.

I mean the very end, page 916, in a closing paragraph that calls back to long-past plot points and suggests (but doesn’t dictate!) several of the themes (science, mortality, alchemy, genius, friendship) in a scene that I wish I could quote but won’t. Trust me, you have to read the other 915 pages to get it.

There’s really no comparing this novel with Lispector’s, but let’s just say I really appreciate Stephenson’s knack for believable dialogue and vivid action scenes, after the relentless interiority of Near to the Wild Heart.

Somehow, Stephenson seems to pour everything we know about 17th century Europe into this huge beast of a novel, without telling us what we should make of it. The cool thing is, I’m sure someone out there will disagree with me, will think it is preachy or “saying something” or whatever. It invites that kind of conversation, in a way the other two books can’t.

Okay, technically #20BooksofSummer is over, but I’m going to keep on trucking! I’m currently in the middle of #15, My Brilliant Friend, and loving it. Stay tuned for my review.

6 comments

  1. Laura

    I felt exactly the same way about The Snow Child – it really frustrated me. I think this kind of mix of folktale and fiction is a very hard thing to get right, but Ivey didn’t come close. I must read some Neal Stephenson.

  2. Callum McLaughlin

    That’s interesting re: the Lispector. I read a few of her short stories and felt equally lost and bewildered. I was hoping I’d have better luck with one of her novels, but those excerpts are just as bizarre and alienating as I remember… I did see a couple of people claiming the quality of the translation was poor, so I wonder if the editions we read were translated by the same person and we just got unlucky?

  3. annelogan17

    Ugh the Clarice Lispector novel sounds horrid. Those kinds of books I want to throw across the room too. I think I’m a similar reader to you in that I like a middle ground between being spoon-fed and knowing what the hell is going on in a book. In fact, I’m definitely lazier than you-if I have to take notes to understand I book, I’m not going to enjoy it, period. I read books with the assumption that people read for pleasure, which probably isn’t correct all the time, but it’s just what I tend to go on…

  4. Naomi

    Okay, maybe I can finally cross The Snow Child off my list. So many people have recommended it to me, so I feel guilty that I haven’t read it yet.
    It actually sounds like there’s something *wrong* with your copy of the Lispector. Ha!
    Someday I might like to try that Neal Stephenson…

  5. Pingback: wrap up: September 2019 – pace, amore, libri

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