The word feminist has been ladened with a load of negative baggage: you hate men, you burn bras, you hate your own tradition, you think women are better than men, you don’t wear make-up, you don’t shave, you’re always angry, you don’t have a sense of humour, you don’t use deodorant, etc. In her 2012 TEDx talk and later on, in her essay titled We Should All Be Feminists, award-winning writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie seeks to rectify the injustice done to the definition of feminism and show how necessary and significant it is today.
Most people swoon at the very mention of Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian novelist who rose to prominence in the late 1980s with The Alchemist, regarding his every word as a droplet from some source of pristine knowledge and positive energy, leaving me (and most probably a handful of other skeptics) feeling like an utter villain for daring to cast even the palest shadow of doubt and critique upon any of his works. I read The Alchemist for the first time in high-school because a bunch of my amulets-wearing, guitar-in-the-park-playing, on-the-floor-sitting friends were drooling all over it, and then I read it again quite recently, and even though more than a decade ago I pretended to ‘totally get it’ and called it ‘deep’, now I realised that, essentially, my feelings have not changed – it is still a bunch of metaphysical mumbo jumbo, a pop-philosophical self-help book neatly wrapped in fiction. I tried giving Coelho some more chances after the initial debacle, but I never seemed to manage to get over the humdrum spirituality and constant attempts by the writer to give me plenty of unsolicited advice about love and life, and love. Then, a couple of weeks ago a friend came all moon-eyed and shoved a copy of Coelho’s newest, The Spy, into my chest saying that I had to read it because it was ‘great’ and ‘totally different than anything he wrote so far.’
Neil Gaiman’s mild horror novella Coraline (2002) is a book I keep returning to whenever I find myself missing my own mother, and that is definitely the case today, during the Mother’s Day weekend. The story of Coraline is one where numerous contemporary parents and children could recognize themselves: the desperately bored little girl looking for adventure and companionship, loads of time on her hands, the constantly busy, mildly disinterested parents, the geriatric part-senile neighbours, the appeal of the unknown. The straightforward third-person-narrative limited to Coraline’s perspective and matter-of-fact retelling of the events and conclusions drawn by the child-protagonist provides for a riveting story with a powerful message. As a masterful stylist that he is, Gaiman effortlessly pulls his readers into the story transporting them among the reality, the dream, and the dreamlike reality of Coraline’s world while leaving enough of murky space in-between to allow them to either embrace the button-eyed fantasy or hold tightly onto the clear-cut reality.
Each novel by Zadie Smith seems to be an independent stylistic experiment, from her initial omniscient narrators in the White Teeth (2000) and On Beauty (2005), to her polyphonic experiment in NW (2012), to her latest work Swing Time (2016), where she relies heavily on a loosely autobiographical, quite biased first-person narrator. The story is set in 2008, when the unnamed narrator is in her 30s and has been recently fired, for reasons to be disclosed afterwards, from her position as the longtime personal assistant to an immensely famous pop star named Aimee, the Madonna of Smith’s fictional universe. The masterful weave of the novel is what makes it a truly wonderful read, from grits to glamour and then back again, the narrator pulls herself out of the estates and into Aimee’s luxurious life only to be sent to an African village and then, in the end, back to her mother’s apartment. Swing Time is a female bildungsroman that tackles love, career, friendship, and motherhood, and in the end, after it makes its arabesque-like full circle, it gives the narrator another chance to make things right and to find a place where she truly belongs.
Since Jonathan Swift’s political satire Gulliver’s Travels, fantasy has often been used a means to an end, an imaginary stage with an unlikely cast of characters relied upon to obliquely transmit a very real and powerful contemporary message. Kazuo Ishiguro’s post-Arthurian epic The Buried Giant (2015) employs fantasy tropes in order to muse on the subjects of love and memory. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice embark on a long and treacherous journey to visit their lost son, while struggling to overcome the fog of collective amnesia that has been inflicted on the land as a curse. Ishiguro, who himself is trying to find a way to cope with old age and gradual slowing down of intellectual faculties, emphasizes the value of memories. As Beatrice says: ‘If that’s how you’ve remembered it, Axl, let it be the way it was. With this mist upon us, any memory’s a precious thing and we’d best hold tight to it.’ At the end of the day, it is the memories that make us who we are.
Dark nooks and crannies inhabited by ghouls, trolls, and hags, the monsters under the bed, the suspicious stranger in the street, the thing that creeps outside the window as soon as the night falls – do any of these ring a bell? Numerous highly individualised and vivid fears worm their way into the mind of a child. The fact that the adults do not have the time to listen to your theories and even take into consideration that they might be true does not make things any better. You are left to your own devices, and finding ways to cope with your fears and keep the monsters at bay is definitely one of the challenging phases of growing up. You can consider yourself lucky if you have a friend who will lend you an understanding ear, otherwise you are in a very vulnerable and precarious position. The children’s vulnerability, the ability to see through the adults surrounding them, and the invisible supernatural ties palpable only to the child’s fingers are used in Neil Gaiman’s works to convey a deep message that does not divulge itself easily to an adult eye.
In The Ocean at the End of the Lane the narrator returns to his hometown for a funeral and finds himself randomly revisitingsome key places from his childhood. The perception changes significantly upon one’s transition to adulthood and everything that had once seemed large and significant now assumes a somewhat shrunken and drab appearance. Thus the narrator comes to the ‘ocean’ at the end of his lane and finds that it is but a duck pond. However, the ocean at the end of the lane has a much larger significance as a trigger for all the memories from long ago to start flooding back. The childhood reminiscences and perceptions are seen through the prism of both the narrator’s and the reader’s adult perception and an excerpt from the narrator’s family story is revealed in a somewhat different light.
‘Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years’ says the renowned Neil Gaiman about Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, however, one cannot help but wonder which books Mr Gaiman actually placed into the category of the ‘fantastic’ so that they ended up overtaken by Clarke’s gargantuan novel. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell definitely has its merits, particularly with regards to the style and the in-depth re-imagination of a magical English past, but one must not turn a blind eye to some of its definite shortcomings.
Bunty chops up the blood-glazed kidney, the idea of testicles never far from her mind. She hates cooking, it’s too much like being nice to people. Here she goes again – I spend my entire life cooking, I’m a slave to housework – chained to the cooker … all those meals, day after day, and what happens to them? They get eaten, that’s what, without a word of thanks! Sometimes when Bunty’s standing at the cooker her heart starts knocking inside her chest and she feels as if the top of her head is going to come off and a cyclone is going to rip out of her brain and tear up everything around her. (Just as well she didn’t go to Kansas.) She doesn’t understand why she feels like this (Go ask Alice – see Footnote (i) again) but it’s beginning to happen now, which is why when George wanders back into the kitchen, takes another fairy cake, and announces that he has to go out and ‘see a man about a dog’ (even tapping his nose as he does so – more and more I’m beginning to feel that we’re all trapped in some dire black-and-white film here), Bunty turns a contorted, murderous face on him and lifts the knife as if she’s considering stabbing him. Is a torch being put to the great city of Atlanta?
‘I have some business to do,’ George says hurriedly, and Bunty thinks the better of things and stabs the steak instead.
Kate Atkinson Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995)
What is Historiographic Metafiction?
The relationship between history and fiction, whereby history was assumed to report the facts about certain events and fiction was purported to deal with the imaginary and the unreal, was significantly redefined in the 20th century with the purpose of highlighting discursive principles common to both genres. The term ‘historiographic metafiction’ was coined by literary theorist Linda Hutcheon in her book The Poetics of Postmodernism and it refers to ‘those well-known and popular novels which are both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages’. Such novels examine the absolute knowability of the past, contest the assumptions of the ‘realist’ novel, and, simultaneously, scrutinise and specify the ideological implications of historical representation. In other words, works of historiographic metafiction problematise the very possibility of precise historical knowledge and seek to rewrite the past in order to liberate historical figures (often women and other commonly dismissed groups) from the constraints of the recorded history and into the relative freedom of fiction. Such works cast light onto some of the more marginalised experiences and provide different views of certain events and personages, thus making their readers respond to historical material with a double awareness of both its fictionality and its foundation in the real events. Some of the popular contemporary representatives of the genre most definitely include Kate Atkinson and Emma Donoghue, who employ history in their writing as a convenient backdrop as well as a space for subversion of social norms and conventions.
Evertree Crescent was a sickle moon of 1930s bungalows, which lay two minutes from Pagford’s main square. In number thirty-six, a house tenanted longer than any other in the street, Shirley Mollison sat, propped up against her pillows, sipping the tea that her husband had brought her. The reflection facing her in the mirrored doors of the built-in wardrobe had a misty quality, due partly to the fact that she was not wearing glasses, and partly to the soft glow cast over the room by her rose-patterned curtains. In this flattering, hazy light, the dimpled pink and white face beneath the short silver hair was cherubic.
The bedroom was just large enough to accommodate Shirley’s single bed and Howard’s double, crammed together, non-identical twins. Howard’s mattress, which still bore his prodigious imprint, was empty. The soft purr and hiss of the shower was audible from where Shirley and her rosy reflection sat facing each other, savouring the news that seemed still to effervesce in the atmosphere, like bubbling champagne.
Barry Fairbrother was dead. Snuffed out. Cut down. No event of national importance, no war, no stock-market collapse, no terrorist attack, could have sparked in Shirley the awe, the avid interest and feverish speculation that currently consumed her.
J.K. Rowling The Casual Vacancy (2012)
After a decade or so dealing primarily with the enchanted world of Harry Potter, JK Rowling has tried her hand at something closer to home, a state-of-England novel vaguely resemblant of Margaret Drabble’s works – incorporating crime and mystery and dealing with a group of people whose lives are supposed to epitomise the state of affairs in most English households. While Harry Potter series definitely is not a clichéd children’s book where the good always wins, but a story filled with violent, unpredictable, and unfair death and failure, The Casual Vacancy seems to be the cauldron in which Rowling has tried to pour all the gloomy deprivation of the real life as well as her almost palpable desire to target a primarily adult audience. The result, lamentably, is quite depressingly clichéd and quite banal.
As Malcolm Bradbury put it in the first line of The History Man: “Now it is autumn again; the people are all coming back,” yet the beginning of the school year simply doesn’t feel right without the murmur of the rain, wet boots and coats, warm sweaters, and red-gilded trees. It’s November already, and I still did not get the proper autumnal kick. I’ve been waiting for three years now and I’m starting to come to terms with the fact that autumn simply does not visit the country where I currently reside. Hence, I’ve decided to live vicariously and feed on the autumn feeling from some of my favourite campus novels.
To be a teacher of any kind, it seems, one needs to be blessed with a certain dose of humour. You need to have the ability to grasp the paradoxical nature of your surroundings, digest it, laugh it off, and let go. This particular tincture of irony, mild sarcasm, and situational comedy seems to permeate the campus novel genre faithfully represented by Kingsley Amis, David Lodge, and Zadie Smith.