Literary Fiction in Late Spring

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Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise is one of those books I’d heard a great deal about before I picked it up, and I was so intrigued that I put it on my ideal longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (to be honest, even though I didn’t like it, I still wish that it had been longlisted, as it would have shaken things up a bit). The first half of the novel immerses us in heated teen drama at a performing arts school in Houston, focusing on an on/off relationship between students Sarah and David, but also suggesting that a number of the staff are unable to maintain professional boundaries. Afterwards, it does the kind of structural flip that novels like Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry pull off so beautifully – but here, I don’t think it works. I felt completely disengaged from both halves of the novel, and while I can see that Choi is posing questions about who gets to control the narrative, I just didn’t find them very interesting. If anything, after the perspective switches, the side we should take is too obvious and there isn’t enough left for the reader to wrestle with. In one sense, I felt this was an ultra-literary take on a problem that genre writers have been engaging with for decades: who engages the reader’s sympathies and how can writers play with that? It’s also a #MeToo novel, once again written before #MeToo (this interview with Choi is really worth reading, though it has significant spoilers for Trust Exercise) but published at a time when I’m starting to feel that a straightforward take on these themes is becoming too familiar. I loved the idea of a novel called Trust Exercise that demands time and patience from its readers, but I didn’t feel I was repaid.

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I’m not having a lot of luck with experimental literary fiction recently, because Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel didn’t work for me either, although I admired her A Girl Is A Half-Formed ThingLike McBride’s debut, Strange Hotel excels at tracing the precise shifts in a woman’s thought processes; however, her protagonist here is not the chaotic young narrator of Girl but a relatively older woman, in her mid-thirties, who is travelling from hotel room to hotel room in a number of different cities. Her own relationship with herself is much more detached and ironic, and the prose reflects this: ‘She drinks [the wine] down with some considerable relief at outmanoeuvring her travel fatigue… That’s it right now, agitating her veins. Coursing through until the arches of her feet unclench – the most secret pleasure of drinking, she thinks, and unquantifiably nice.’ McBride knows how we become different people when alone in unfamiliar hotel rooms, and the first quarter of the book could be a brilliant short story. There are hints of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation in how this woman secludes herself from the world and seeks the optimum state of intoxication. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it any further, because I couldn’t face spending any more time with the protagonist’s convoluted and depressing voice. I’ll be checking out McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, instead.

Although I found these two novels disappointing, I’ve not had a bad time with all literary fiction this month – I’m completely immersed in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Lightwhich I think is the best of the Cromwell trilogy, and am now almost halfway through! Review to come once I finish, but I’m deliberately taking my time.

Have you read any good literary novels recently?

22 thoughts on “Literary Fiction in Late Spring

  1. Thanks for sharing this! The first book looks interesting to me. 🙂 Recently, I just finished my first classic, Little Women. I know it’s a super old tale but the lessons are timeless!

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  2. I tend to find experimental works very hit or miss, so I’m curious to see how I’ll get on with Strange Hotel. It’s one I probably wouldn’t be drawn to normally, but I was really impressed by A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.

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  3. Hm, paging back through my notebook, I think the last literary fiction I read was Cather’s “My Antonia” although the Paul Magrs novels defy genre and are experimental in form and subject so might count! I really wouldn’t fancy either of these so it’s good to be saved from them!

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  4. Bummer about Strange Hotel – I still haven’t read it but I love McBride. I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts on The Lesser Bohemians, definitely another downer of a book but I found bits of it very compelling, even if it didn’t work as well for me as A Girl… on the whole.

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    • I’ve read a few reviews of Strange Hotel that suggest it’s very different from Girl and The Lesser Bohemians and that those two books have more in common with each other. So good news for me, but possibly not for you!

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  5. I don’t know if there’s even a name for the type of work I’ve been reading just recently, but I’ve read two in a row that use local dialect/vernacular, kind of like a post-Milkman or was it A Brief History of Seven Killings that opened the way. Maybe it’s experimental? Anyway I read Michelle Gallen’s Big Girl, Small Town (with its Northern Irish vernacular) which was interesting and confronting and humorous and now reading Aue by Becky Manawatu a New Zealand title that just won their annual book award, a tripartite narrative that is at times a tough read.

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      • Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, is another, perhaps the first, now something of a modern classic.
        You see it now too in newsroom round table discussions, that shift away from “the BBC accent” and one way of presenting the English language to the population as being correct or superior. Other voices being expressed publicly.

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        • We recently read Their Eyes Were Watching God for book group. It didn’t work for me as a novel, but I was really interested in her use of language and how you can see that developing later in the work of Toni Morrison etc.

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  6. Ooh, I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying The Mirror and the Light at least, I still have that one on the horizon! Sorry to see the other two were disappointing for you though- I had high hopes for Strange Hotel after loving A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, but will be lowering my expectations.
    I did love Trust Exercise though! The structural twist halfway through really worked for me; I have to admit though that I was more impressed with how Choi was laying the story out than the characterization after that point, so I can see what you mean about having less to grapple with and thus finding the story less exciting.

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    • I think for the twist to work for me I’d have to have been deeply invested in the characters already, and I wasn’t at all – I found Choi’s prose weird and distancing. It probably didn’t help that I knew there was going to be a ‘big twist’ and so was expecting something more dramatic!

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  7. I tried reading Trust Exercises last year and DNFd it 30 pages in cause i was so put off by the writing – a lot of the reviews of it talked about that structural flip, but the writing style was such a deal breaker for me that i couldnt really go on 🤷‍♀️

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