Today we’d like to talk about goals.
What are your goals?
Some people have a goal to, say, see a game at every Major League baseball stadium in their lifetime. Others, say, wish to um, visit every country in the former USSR. Really cool people, meanwhile, aspire to read every Man Booker Prize winner in the last twenty-years.
What? What’s the Man Booker Prize, you ask? Why, it’s s a literary prize awarded each year for the best original full-length novel, written in the English language, by a citizen of the British Commonwealth, Ireland, or Zimbabwe.
I kinda have beef with this prize. For starters, David Mitchell’s third novel, Cloud Atlas, was short-listed for it, but didn’t win. A terrible crime. The novel, which weaved together six startlingly different narratives, spanning genres and timeframes, was the most inventive thing I’ve ever read. I still can’t believe it! Recommended highly.
Meanwhile, Kerry Hulme’s Bone People won it in 1985. It’s a book we carry and was recommended to me by a co-worker. Here’s the synopsis, which I cut and pasted:
In a tower on the New Zealand sea lives Kerewin Homes, part Maori, part European, an artist estranged from her art, woman in exile from her family. One night her solitude is disrupted by a visitor – a speechless, mercurial boy named Simon, who tries to steal from her and then repays her with his most precious possession. As Kerewin succumbs to Simon’s feral charms, she also falls under the spell of his Maori foster father Joe, who rescued the boy from a shipwreck and now treats him with an unsettling mixture of tenderness and brutality.
Having had time to reflect, I’d proceed with caution regarding this one. Whenever approaching a novel, we’ve been conditioned to expect certain things: one, being a narrative arc; two, action-packed awesomeness; and three, the accululation of empathy for said characters. “The Bone People” generally fails to deliever on all three of these things.
Which isn’t of course, a bad thing in theory. It’s the execution that’s critical. Books without plots – a certain piece of obscene filth comes to mind – can easily inspire and become part of the modern canon. Don’t get me wrong, the Bone People has a narrative, but it’s glacial – and the book is really, really long. If anything, Hulme’s sheer explosiveness and poetic mysticism as a writer makes one embrace the lack of narrative as well as the second point above, the lack of Hollywood-like action.
The best part of the book is the middle section, where the three main players take a one-week holiday on the coast. Aside from a brief violent incident, nothing much happens. And it’s great. The reader becomes completely immersed in Hulme’s world, in the occasional micro-details; the pace is languid, serene, and mildly unsettling, not unlike lazily gazing at a river that may or may not threaten to breach the levee.
I guess the main mellow-harsher is the fact that I failed to empathize with the two adults in the book. One, Joe, is a brutal monster. Much of his aggression occurs off-screen, and when juxtaposed with his beautiful on-screen tenderness, it’s hard to make the Jekyll and Hyde-thing really mesh. How can someone so cool be so sinister? Still can’t figure it out. Anyway, I didn’t feel for the guy.
Ditto Kerewin, the estranged loner. She was a bit too much of the sad sack for me, and the lack of a deep backstory into her isolation from her family made it hard to feel for her when she’d get drunk and surly. Buck up, Kerewin! I found myself saying.
In fact, the only character in the novel who invoked my sympathy was the who got the living daylights beaten out of him – the adopted son Simon.
All in all, my beef needn’t be a deterrent. Again, the writing is stellar, and life sometimes does not present us with neatly-twined Hollywood endings (not that I was expecting one. Ironically enough, the ending is somewhat positive.) All that said, as a staffer at the Henry Miller Library – one of the preeminent artistic meccas in the universe – our collective opinions, by nature of our esteemed positions, should influence your behavior. That’s why we get paid the big bucks: to be taste-makers.
But read Cloud Atlas first.