I continued trying harder this week to do better reading, choosing books that I hoped would bring more or different rewards than my recent rather desultory choices of mysteries and romances. I had mixed success in terms of immediate satisfaction–I didn’t have a lot of fun reading either of the novels I finished this week, but both were thoughtful books that led to thought-provoking experiences.
First up was finishing Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, which I had started a few weeks back and set aside when I realized I had to dig in on the Balkan Trilogy if I was going to write my TLS piece about it in anything other than a total panic. That I hadn’t really felt the pull of it in the meantime and chose, when I felt free to do more personal reading again, to read other things is symptomatic of my relationship with the novel. I was interested in it from the start, and once I went back to it I remained interested in it until the end, but even though I found the story of Gifty and Nana a sad and sometimes harrowing one, the novel never gripped me emotionally: I felt at a distance from its (and their) feelings. I think some of that might be the result of deliberate choices on Gyasi’s part: Gifty’s voice, for example, is often quite detached, and her interests, at least as she articulates them, are often intellectual or philosophical. She is processing trauma and grief in that way, by asking questions about what things mean and also by turning her family experience into something she can investigate – however imperfectly – through science. Her experiments are a way of managing what happened with her brother’s addiction and death, of trying to convert something that makes no sense to her into something wholly explicable.
The other crucial layer of the novel is her struggle to reconcile her religious upbringing with both Nana’s addiction and her own scientific predilections. This made perfect sense as part of Gifty’s personal journey, but there wasn’t much in it that interested me very much, partly because, as a life-long atheist, I can enter only theoretically or hypothetically into someone’s crisis of faith. If it’s going to feel important to me, I need to have a really strong sense of what makes it so difficult to let go of the religious side — or what makes it so important to hang on to it — not in terms of an argument about it, but in terms of the power it has for the character: what does it offer them, or has it meant to them, that a life without religion cannot? There are definitely literary texts that convey this urgency to me (the first writer who comes to mind is actually Hopkins, whose “terrible sonnets” I find extremely powerful–or Tennyson’s In Memoriam) or that tell a story about how faith matters in such a way that, although it is very much not my own world view, I find it compelling nonetheless. I just didn’t have that response to Transcendent Kingdom, which offered neither the intensity of a vicarious religious experience nor any novel insight into either belief or unbelief. Here’s a representative passage with Gifty reflecting on the relationship between faith and science:
This is something I would never say in a lecture or a presentation or, God forbid, a paper, but, at a certain point, science fails. Questions become guesses become philosophical ideas about how something should probably, maybe, be. I grew up around people who were distrustful of science, who thought of it as a cunning trick to rob them of their faith, and I have been educated around scientists and laypeople alike who talk about religion as though it were a comfort blanket for the dumb and the weak, a way to extol the virtues of a God more improbable than our own human existence. But this tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false. I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.
As a description of a character’s point of view, this is fine–good, even. As a commentary on the relationship between science and religion, though, it seems pretty perfunctory and not at all memorable. (I think the novel, or Gifty, also underestimates the capacity of godless people to find meaning and even wonder in the world: Gyasi relies too much on a reductive opposition that she then, unsurprisingly, can’t reconcile or overcome in any profound way.) Maybe it’s as simple as the difficulty of incorporating philosophy into fiction. A “novel of ideas” is one of the hardest things to write without being either didactic or obscure–and while also fully dramatizing the concepts behind it.
The other novel I read this week was Sally Rooney’s Normal People, after finishing the extraordinarily intimate and touching series. I have thought a lot about how watching the adaptation first (something I rarely do) affected my reading of the novel. The most important thing is that it inspired me to read the novel at all: after giving up part way through Conversations with Friends because I was “bored stiff with the process of reading Rooney’s prose,” I had assumed Normal People was also not for me. I’m still not sure what I think about it qua novel, because the whole time I was reading it, I could hear the lines in my head as delivered by the actors (the script is extraordinarily close to the novel–a sign, in some ways, of exactly what I don’t like about Rooney’s style–shouldn’t there be more sense of something lost in the translation to a different medium, the way no 19th-century novel is ever as good in the adaptation because, among other things, you inevitably lose the narrator?).
That said, Normal People is not quite as minimal as Conversations with Friends: there actually are some conspicuously written moments: flashes of gorgeous metaphors (“Cherries hang on the dark-green trees like earrings,” for example–not the narrator’s own words, but Connell’s, rare evidence of the gifted writer he is supposed to be), or observations, contexts, or or internal reflections that at most we can only infer from the many long silences in the adaptation. Still, the sentences overall have the same flat affect and monotonous tone that alienated me from her earlier novel–except when I “listened” to their soft Irish lilt. Could it be that the accent makes all the difference? Not for everyone, obviously, as Rooney has been widely acclaimed. Why did I need the text on the page translated into talking before I could feel it? Because I definitely did feel Normal People. In fact, I felt so sad when I finished it I could hardly get back to my to-do list for the day. I did not find the adaptation so devastating, even though it covers so precisely the same ground. There was just so much tenderness in it: the way they looked at each other, which is described in the novel too but so sparingly you have to take the intimacy on trust, while on screen, you can see it, even when (especially when) they aren’t touching or talking. (They both give such good performances.)
Did the series bring something to the novel that isn’t actually there? Or did it bring out something I might have missed if I’d read before watching, because the novel isn’t written in a style I like? Whatever it was, I found that I was willing to believe in depths behind the boringly minimal prose of Normal People that I couldn’t feel or believe in when I tried Conversations with Friends.
Next up, I think, is Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, which was one of my Christmas gifts, and then probably Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster, which I couldn’t resist when I saw it in the selection of March sale books at the King’s Bookstore. Plus I’m also, always, reading for class as well: in the ‘Woman Question’ seminar, we are doing a poetry cluster in the upcoming module, after wrapping up The Mill on the Floss this week, so that will be a change of pace; and in Mystery and Detective Fiction we are starting Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only. Because I’ve assigned (as recommended for online courses) quite a bit less reading in both classes than I usually do, I am a bit wistful about what we aren’t covering, but all indications are that this kind of paring back is the right move–and I guess all things considered, I’m not really sorry given how laborious other aspects of online teaching continue to be.
I absolutely loved Transcendent Kingdom, but I think a lot of it has to do with being able to relate to some of Gifty’s spiritual journey and her struggle to figure out a way of understanding the world that makes sense of the suffering she saw around her. I also just really like Gyaasi’s way of telling a story. Homegoing was also a favorite.
Normal People is a book that I thought was perfectly fine but couldn’t quite love. (Maybe like your reaction to Transcendent Kingdom?) I had no real problem with it, but it didn’t touch me at all. I wonder if watching the series would help me appreciate it more.
You were one of the people whose enthusiasm for YG pointed me towards Transcendent Kingdom. I’m certainly not sorry I read it. I’ll probably keep thinking about it for a while, a sign of its strengths.