Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Last of Her Kind

I have just read a most extraordinarily good novel, certainly one for my best-of-the-year list but really far more than that, a really exceptional book: The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez.

The book came into my possession during a purchasing frenzy this spring, but I didn't even open it then (it was book-buying substituting for book-reading, I had too much work to do and also had to read all those Cambridge library books before I moved back to New York). Then late last night I was moping around the apartment looking for something good to read, in that mood where nothing seems at all appealing (which given the extent to which my apartment is simply bursting with books is obviously ludicrous, I was probably just tired after a week of what was presumably pre-school-starting-jitters-induced insomnia), picked this up and entered the world of the novel with something approaching delight.

I've just finished it this evening--I realize I have been suffering serious novel-deprivation, reading one seemed suddenly more important than getting any work done although of course that might be self-deluding rationalization--and I am simply overwhelmed with its moral and stylistic excellence. Two girls meet as first-year roommates at Barnard College in 1968; one of them narrates the intervening years (including the incidents surrounding the other woman's trial and conviction for shooting a cop to death) in a first-person voice that's one of the best things I've seen in ages (I'm putting it conjecturally with Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go in the category of most-interesting recent first-person novels).

I really can't be bothered to describe to you what happens, it's grippingly readable in a way that a lot of literary fiction isn't but it's also serious about ideas and ethics and politics in a way that very few novels manage to be. I was reminded of some of my favorites: there's a bit of a Joyce Carol Oates feel, and the Rebecca West/James Baldwin thing that always gets to me; Susan Choi's also very good novel American Woman explored some of the same themes and material, and so have any number of other books I suppose, but this one really is special.

(Not to mention the narrator--enchanting in her prickliness and complicated honesty--writes a college essay, the only one she gets an A for, on why The Great Gatsby is not the great American novel--this book could and surely will be taught as a companion piece to Gatsby, an antidote/riposte to what is pretty much my least favorite of Fitzgerald's fictions--I still haven't recovered from that awful green light and the wretched thing of learning about symbolism in English class, I hate that stuff.)

Anyway, there is so much in this book that's wonderful that really everyone should just read it for themselves, but here is one passage that particularly struck me (this is a topic that's come up now and again here, obviously I have taken sides on the question and generally prefer not to write negative reviews myself, though lest I sound annoyingly high-minded and saintly I will say that you can expect at some point during the next week or so some scathing remarks from me about a major recent work of American fiction that I have just read and that struck me as one of the most gut-turningly offensive and overrated books I have read in, oh, my whole life).

But back to the matter at hand, here is Nunez's narrator speaking about her second husband, the editor of a literary journal:

Long before he'd published a word, he was poring over reviews (his desire one day to edit his own journal supposedly also went as far back as high school) and, with few exceptions, not liking what he saw. Most reviews were badly written, often by people who didn't seem to know or care much about their subject. A lot of critics were lazy; they wrote the same damn review over and over. They made stupid mistakes. They took far too many of their ideas from one another. They were overawed by Names. They opened wide for pablum and pap, but whatever was truly original and brave and strange set their teeth on edge. They swallowed the false and choked on the real. All this he told me the first time we met. He was on the rise then, a cultural critic at large, writing for a number of different publications. He wrote about books and movies and the theater, but also about painting or photography, and occasionally about restaurants or about some cultural trend or fad. The best of his essays would be collected and published, and then it was his turn to be reviewed, and though largely praised he was also faulted--for being too harsh.

"Because I care. These are matters of life and death to me": his justification when he was accused of brutality. (But then, when has it not been the justification? No one ever says,
Because I was feeling mean, because my wife had just dumped me, because my own book had just flopped, because I'm a misogynist, because I know the author he is a fucking prick I have always hated his arrogant guts. I couldn't stop myself.)

But--here we go again--I do not trust myself, writing about husbands. I fear I am making Val out to be too flat and cartooonish. Why did I not begin by saying that he was very good, since that is the truth? He
did care, he was serious, and he wrote very, very well. He wrote about things that mattered, and he wrote about them deeply, itneligently, and bravely. He always said exactly what he thought, regardless of what people would think of him--and wasn't that his job? And yet, and yet. Why were the majority of the reviews he wrote pans?

The narrator goes on to describe herself reading C. S. Lewis aloud to her daughter and finding herself thinking of her husband when they come to the passage about Edmund's addiction to the enchanted Turkish Delight: "It could not be good for the soul, I thought, to be constantly attacking other people, to be making fresh enemies daily..." (I seriously just the other day was saying how writing negative reviews isn't good for the soul! I love this character, and I love her voice as Nunez has made it work.)

Anyway, Here's Joy Press's review at the Voice--it's funny, I want you to go and read that review, it's a very thoughtful & well-written one and I completely agree with the first four paragraphs, but I dissent from what I take to be Press's conclusion that the novel loses its way in its latter sections and that the narrator Georgette is left in the shadows in contrast to her saint/martyr of a roommate Ann. It seems to me that this is a novel about transcendence, and that Georgette and Ann are equally transformed by the novel's conclusion. (And here's a roundup of all the major reviews.) I hope this book gets a lot of prizes and finds huge numbers of readers, I found it quite magical.


  1. I'm curious -- what's the Rebecca West/James Baldwin thing?

  2. Oh, sorry, just my lazy shorthand! "The Fountain Overflows" and "Just Above My Head" are the two books I had in mind, two that consistently hold spots on the sometimes changeable top-ten favorite novel list round here. They are both thoughtful and ethically rich and sophisticated novels written for adults that yet have some of the pleasures of the best young-adult fiction: I find these first-person narratives of growing up (David Copperfield is another, and another on my permanent list of favorites; and Richard Powers' "The Time of Our Singing" also is a wonderfully good one, I must read that again soon) basically incredibly compelling. They somehow seem more capacious in the way they fold in thoughts about people and life in general than a lot of novels that don't have teenage protagonists.

  3. Thank you! What you say about The Fountain Overflows seems absolutely true to me -- I'll have to check out the others.

  4. I can't help but look forward to your 'scathing remarks' :-) And thanks for introducing me to Lee Child, I've just finished my first one and am now reading a second Jack Reacher, and they are great.

  5. I'm so thrilled to hear that you liked it. I have been very much wanting to read it and haven't yet. It caught my eye in part because of my love for Susan Choi's "American Woman" and also my fascination with fellow Bryn Mawr alum and ex-Weather Underground member Kathy Boudin.