What I’ve been reading (October 2020)

Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child: Rather than reading, I’ve been listening to Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet of novels over the last several months, now finally breaking into this last part. 66 hours and 52 minutes total listening time! The plain, direct language – in the English translation anyway – is a great match for the audiobook format. Having the novels read out aloud to me brought out Ferrante’s mastery of storytelling, or something beyond that, her skill at mythmaking. Of the many layers of the series, I was most interested in the quasi-experimental setup: What path does life choose for two girls – conscientious, studious Lenu and impulsive, independent Lila – born into a Neapolitan slum of the 40s with the same unusual smarts but very different dispositions? I’m a Miranda with a bit of Samantha breaking through occasionally, and obviously I’m a Lenu. Would Lila sit through 66+ hours of audiobooks? No, in that time she would devise an innovative new podcast format which would quickly gather a large following, and then, maddeningly, she would abandon the project.

Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet: This is a fictional account of Shakespeare’s family life in Stratford and how the death of his son Hamnet at 11 years old may have led to the play Hamlet. O’Farrell tells the story in minute descriptions of the world through the eyes of several characters, mainly Shakespeare’s wife Agnes, his children and the bard himself. This mode seemed maybe too conventional to me, dipping into it between Neapolitan chapters. Ferrante’s writing features little in terms of descriptions. It’s driven by dialogue and the characters’ actions and relationships, yet evokes an uncanny sense of time and place, almost a social and political history of Italy in the second half of the 20th century. In contrast, Hamnet is so concerned with particulars of its historical setting that it seemed smaller, less epic than its premise might allow for. Shakespeare’s creative life is barely touched on until the very last furious scene of Agnes’ first ever visit to London – the strongest part of the book. I’m not sure why I had to endure such a slow build-up to it.

Charlie Kaufman, Antkind: In the screenwriter/director’s debut novel the subject and narrator is a Kaufmanesque antihero, B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, a failed film critic who prefers the gender neutral pronoun “thon” and who is not Jewish, as thon will preemptively correct you. Not that B. is embodying a non-binary identity in any real sense – he is a man, just a pretentious one with many such annoying affectations as obscure pronouns. At the outset the story is about B.’s efforts to reconstruct from memory a film that only he has seen, before he accidentally destroyed its only copy. Also, that film is 3 months (sic) long. Then multifarious obsessions distract B. from this project, and I struggle to summarize what really happens in the course of the book. It’s overstuffed with classic Kaufman devices – interior monologues, absurd predicaments, zingers, puns – and follows his signature dream logic where the action can take unpredictable and often hilarious turns. (E.g., B. falls into open manholes repeatedly – trust me, it’s very funny.) Whenever I thought I had found solid ground in the undulating plot, Kaufman dropped me through another metafictional trapdoor (or manhole). Broadly, I think, this is a meditation on comedy and that which we omit from stories in order to make them narratives and not, well, reality.