The Testaments – Why, Margaret, Why?

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments begs many questions.

Such as how did it become the joint winner of the 2019 Man Booker Prize? Did the committee hate Bernardine Evaristo so much that they simply couldn’t stand making her book (Girl, Woman, Other) the sole winner?

Did the committee actually read The Testaments, or were they simply relying on Margaret Atwood’s reputation?

How mad were Colson Whitehead (The Nickel Boys), Susan Choi (Trust Exercise), and Ian McEwan (Machines Like Me) when the prize was announced?

Were James Patterson, E.L. James, and my Uncle Bill on the committee that year?

Did Margaret Atwood really write The Testaments? Or was it written by a Russian hacker who stole her identity but forgot to also take her brilliance?

Did this book need to be written? Isn’t any sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (regardless of whether it is written by the real Margaret Atwood or not) bound to disappoint?

Why are the characters one dimensional and without nuance? Why is the plot predictable? Why are all the twists straight lines?

Did she write the book because the creators of The Handmaid’s Tale TV show needed more material – so they paid her a ton of money to do it?

Just because you own a cash cow, do you have to milk it?

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans.

Klara and the Sun – Lifted AF

Kazuo Ishiguro is a talented creator of worlds that seem gentle and quaint: manor homes in a countryside of lush greenery, fancy boarding schools surrounded by gardens, or gentile houses overlooking bucolic meadows. The reader gets acclimated to the pleasant surroundings. Starts to enjoy the scenery. Notices how the birds chirp with fine English accents. Then it dawns on the reader that the main character has devoted his life to serving an obnoxious Nazi sympathizer (The Remains of the Day). Or the primary characters are clones whose organs will soon be harvested – a fate they passively accept (Never Let Me Go). Or parents subject their children to genetic editing, even though the process may be deadly, so the children can get into elite colleges – unless, of course, they die first (Klara and the Sun). The horror creeps up quietly. Then, suddenly, the monster is in the reader’s lap, licking the reader’s ear, demanding that its messy diaper be changed. And the reader wonders, how did I get here? Even though the clues were there all along.

Klara and the Sun takes place in an alternate reality of the United States, but the reader will find much that is familiar, except (importantly) for the extremely-advanced artificial intelligence. Klara is an artificial friend (think highly-sophisticated robot), and she narrates the story. Artificial friends (AFs) are sold in stores and frequently are purchased to keep teenagers (in well-off families) company. Each AF has a unique set of skills, and Klara’s is her ability to observe and learn. She can empathize.

Klara is selected by Josie, who is 14 years old. However, Josie’s mother has different plans. Klara will be groomed to become much more than an AF – a future that is hinted at when they are still in the store and Josie’s mother directs Klara to mimic Josie’s awkward way of walking. Josie has been “lifted” – a clever euphemism (rhymes with gifted) that sounds so much better than “subjected to genetic editing without having any say about it.” But the process has left her weak and sickly, all of which is manifested by her overly-cautious way of walking.

Not all children are lifted. Some parents can’t afford it. Other parents find it too risky. Though the story takes place in an alternate reality, the reader can take great comfort knowing that disingenuous platitudes still exist – as does the desperate need to pretend that social inequities don’t exist. Parents in this alternative United States still tell themselves and each other that not all children need to be lifted – that “there are all kinds of ways to lead a successful life.” No doubt this is as true as it has ever been, but we can’t help thinking all these parents spouting platitudes had their children lifted.

But why are we talking about children? The book is not called Klara and Josie – a hip new indie duo. It is Klara and the Sun for a reason – just, maybe, not a very good one – though the reader could argue (based upon the ending) that Klara’s relationship with the Sun is the key relationship in the story. First, the Sun is essential to everyone – duh. But it is especially important to Klara, because she runs on solar power. In a book where no humans express any religious belief, Klara determines that the Sun is a god. She prays to her Sun god to heal Josie. Like any human religious zealot, she commits acts of vandalism to appease her god. And depending on the reader’s point of view, Klara is either rewarded for her faith or deceived by it. But the true dilemma has little to do with religion, so ultimately Klara’s relationship with the Sun is a bit distracting.

As with all his books, Mr. Ishiguro excels at human interactions, and he asks crucial questions in Klara and the Sun. Such as, why are we talking about humans at all, when the story is narrated by a super-cool empathy machine? Are humans all that special when machines can be groomed to replicate them so perfectly? As Josie’s father puts it, “[s]cience has now proved beyond doubt there’s nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing there our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer.” That’s depressing. Fortunately, Klara has a rebuttal. “Mr. Capaldi (an engineer/scientist) believed there was nothing special inside Josie that couldn’t be continued. He told the Mother he’d searched and found nothing like that. But I believe now he was searching in the wrong place. There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.”

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

My Dark Vanessa – Not Your Father’s Lolita

It is impossible to hear or read about a middle-aged man statutorily raping a teenage girl without thinking of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic, Lolita. If you need proof – even Sting, who will readily admit to being the greatest songwriter since King David, mentioned Nabokov in Don’t Stand So Close to Me. He tried to use Lolita’s name first, but nothing rhymes with Lolita.

In My Dark Vanessa Kate Elizabeth Russell takes Lolita and shifts the perspective to that of the abused girl. However, the pedophile here is not an unintentionally-funny, delusional, and ultimately pathetic Humbert Humbert. Quite the opposite, Jacob Strane (think of Strange), the 15 years old Vanessa’s English teacher, is an experienced and masterful manipulator, and he cynically preys upon Vanessa’s loneliness and desperation to be thought of as special. Early on he tells her that she has “something these dime-a-dozen overachievers (her fellow classmates) can only dream of.” Proving he is a master of the back-handed compliment as well.

Nabokov and Lolita feature prominently in this brilliant and creepy book. The title comes from Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which Strane is pleased to inform Vanessa has a passage where my dark Vanessa is rhapsodized as an admirable butterfly to be worshiped and caressed. Strane’s “grooming” of Vanessa also includes giving her his copy of Lolita, with his hand-written notes in the margins. Yeah, Strane is a disgusting creep, but Vanessa craves this attention, so she is incapable of seeing it. Or (just as concerning) she won’t acknowledge seeing it.

The story jumps between two periods in Vanessa’s life: her high school and college years (between 2000 and 2007) and 2017 at the height of the Me Too movement when she is 32 years old. Much like Humbert Humbert, Vanessa is an unreliable narrator who ends up deceiving no one but herself (again like Humbert Humbert, but without the ridiculous name). Initially, she refuses to accept that she has even been abused, as she insists the relationship (despite the obvious imbalance of power) was consensual. And she continues to grapple with the effects of the abuse well into adulthood. “I always seem to end up going out with . . . men who claim to be turned on by strength but can only handle women who act like girls.” Having the two timelines is effective. The reader sees how the sexual abuse of children was ignored even into the early 2000s, and then how it is everything but ignored at the height of the Me Too movement – where victims are pressured into telling their stories whether they want to or not. The reader experiences how the adult Vanessa begins to come to terms with the years of abuse. It isn’t pretty or romantic, but in a way it is heroic.

Regardless of its title, Lolita’s story was not told in Lolita. In My Dark Vanessa, it is. And the change of perspective (especially in light of the Me Too movement) is devastating. Because they have earned it, Vanessa and Lolita shall have the final words here. “What could we have done? We were just girls. . . . [It’s] not that we were helpless by choice, but that the world forced us to be. Who would have believed us, who would have cared?”

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

American Pastoral: Who are You?

Philip Roth was a very important American writer, and no one knew that better than Philip Roth. If you have read only one sentence of Mr. Roth’s, then you know he was born in Newark, New Jersey, where he appears to have spent much of his life wandering the streets making prescient observations about humanity. He wrote many books, but American Pastoral is the only one that has a legend attached to its creation.

The legend is this. One day, while Mr. Roth was roaming Newark, a vagrant challenged him. “I bet you could never write a short and sweet tale about this town.” So Mr. Roth wrote American Pastoral, and the vagrant won the bet. But be forewarned, despite what the title may suggest, the book has little to do with farming (the small amount of farming that does happen takes place in northern New Jersey – putting this book firmly in the Fantasy genre).

In American Pastoral Mr. Roth argues that we know very little about people beyond the superficial exterior they present of themselves – even the people we have known our entire lives. Now, you may be thinking this is patently false. Has Mr. Roth heard of the internet? Why, I can go to the internet or turn on talk radio or cable news and immediately learn how worthless and evil anyone is. If the person is noteworthy for anything (or nothing at all), there will be thousands of people (if not more) prepared to tell me how awful the person is, even if they have never met. And if the person is a nobody, there will still be a dozen people prepared to blithely inform me of the nobody’s moral and ethical failings. To which Mr. Roth would reply, “I have heard of the internet, you idiot. And everything you have said is entirely correct. And all of it proves my point. Now leave me alone, I am dead.”

Mr. Roth uses a lot of words in American Pastoral, and some of them he uses quite well. But a single paragraph will often trudge across several pages as he tracks and bludgeons his theme. This leaves the reader somewhat impressed but mostly exhausted. However, all those words culminate in a second curious thought. Perhaps the fact that we do not really know other people is not all that surprising considering how we actually know very little about ourselves beyond the superficial exterior we present to others.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

Mexico Goes Gothic

The internet says a gothic novel must have (i) a spooky castle or mansion in a remote location; (ii) a thicc atmosphere of dread and suspense; (iii) ancient legends, mysteries, and/or curses relating to the strange family residing in the creepy castle; (iv) ghosts or supernatural events; (v) thicc sexual innuendo or (even better) explicit sex, which leaves the reader feeling dirty and delighted; (vi) women in distress; and (vii) tyrannical men who enjoy distressing women.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia has clearly consulted the internet, because her novel, Mexican Gothic, checks all the must-have boxes. However, despite observing all the conventions, the story never feels conventional, because her protagonist, Noemi, never wilts despite the peril she is in. And the house is spectacularly malignant. It is an organism intent on making evil.

The book opens with Noemi’s father receiving a strange letter from Catalina, his niece. Catalina has recently married Virgil Doyle and left Mexico City to live with Virgil’s family in their ancestral home. In the confusing and rambling letter, Catalina hints that she is now a prisoner of the Doyle family. Having grown up together, Catalina and Noemi are close, so Noemi is tasked with traveling to this barren corner of Mexico to find out what is going on.

Originally from Britain, the Doyle family has lived in Mexico for generations. But they remain anglophiles. As if that is not bad enough, the gruesome patriarch, Howard, has a disturbing interest in eugenics. Major Theme Alert: eugenics is bad. If you think eugenics is cool, do not read this book. It will only disappoint you. Also, what the hell is wrong with you?

If you think eugenics is problematic or (better yet) horrific, you will enjoy reading Mexican Gothic. The bad people are truly evil. Noemi is a strong, likeable protagonist. And though she becomes a prisoner of the house along with Catalina, Noemi is no damsel in distress. Quite the contrary. As Ms. Moreno-Garcia tells us, Noemi learned rebellion as a young girl in Catholic school while muttering the rosary. Her strength serves her well. But there is one frustrating problem with the book. The reader discerns what Catalina and Noemi must do to escape well before they do. And when Noemi finally figures it out, it is too late.

Or is it?

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

The Remains of the Day and The Dignity of Dedicated Service

In 2017 Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This reminded us of how much we loved his book, The Remains of the Day, which we read many years ago. So we intended (back in 2017) to write a tribute to Mr. Ishiguro celebrating his achievement, but we forgot. Regardless, it is never too late to celebrate great literature, and now is as good a time as any to revisit this work. As an aside, we did not read the book again (why would anyone ever read a book twice?), so everything that follows is based upon our memory. Fortunately, our memory is perfect.

Much has been written about The Remains of the Day. In fact, the book is so well-respected we made it mandatory reading in our 20th Century Bloviated Literature course. Because it is nearly impossible to say anything new about this book, we have decided not to try.

The major theme is the dignity of service or work, as personified by the main character, Jeeves, who served as a butler to a noble Englishman, Lord Nazi Lover. [Note to reader: this was in the 1930s before it was cool to be a Nazi sympathizer]. After the English lord dies, the American hero, Clark Kent, flies in and buys the English manor. Based upon a peculiarity of English law, the butler conveys with the house, and Jeeves now works for Mr. Kent. [Note to reader: it is unclear whether current English law still allows you to buy a manor home with the butler included, but it probably does].

Mr. Kent discovers that Jeeves has not had a vacation since he was 6 years old, so he allows Jeeves to borrow his Rolls Royce (see how nice Americans are) and take a drive in the countryside, which is described sumptuously by Mr. Ishiguro. High jinks then ensue, including Jeeves’ visit with Mrs. Plushbottom, a woman who once worked at the manor house. As the story progresses, we learn that Jeeves may have been in love with Mrs. Plushbottom, but his dignity and his dedication to Lord Nazi Lover prevented him from disclosing this. Then, Jeeves drives back to Mr. Kent and resumes his service.

Mr. Ishiguro does a stellar job of skewering the English elite. And rightfully so. They are pompous, prejudiced, prudish, privileged, and perpendicular. Which then begs the question. Were Jeeves’ many years of dignified service dedicated to a despicable person worth the sacrifice of love and potential happiness? Mr. Ishiguro telegraphs the answer by making that employer a Nazi sympathizer. So the answer, of course, is yes. Nothing in England is more important than sacrificing your personal happiness to devotedly serve a Nazi sympathizer. At least, that’s how we remember the book.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans.

A Children’s Bible That’s Not for Children

In A Children’s Bible, Lydia Millet draws from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Revelation to tell a modern story about a world devastated by climate change. Appropriately enough, the narrator is Eve, whose affluent parents decide to spend the summer with several college friends. These families rent an isolated mansion, which brings Eve and her brother, Jack, together with 10 other children. The parents spend their time drinking alcohol and taking drugs. The children are left alone. So it is a pretty sweet vacation.

During one brief moment of sobriety, a parent gives Jack a children’s bible, which becomes his fifth favorite book to read while sitting on the toilet – just as any book by Bill O’Reilly is our fifth favorite bathroom book. Soon, a hurricane hits the area and there is massive flooding. The parents are catatonic and unhelpful. However, a small man, Burl, literally washes up on the premises and leads the children to relative safety on a nearby farm, where he provides the children with clean drinking water and a decent supply of food – think manna from heaven. It appears that Burl has saved the children, but then the men with guns show up.

It does not take a brilliant adjunct professor from Pungent Sound Technical College of Technology to point out all the biblical references, but we will do it anyway. There is flooding that even Noah, who is played here by Jack, would have difficulty handling. The parents worship false idols (drugs, money, and alcohol). Burl is a Moses-like character leading the 12 children (or 12 tribes of Israel) through a dismal landscape. There is even one section where a remote God-like character sends via Burl rules, which sound a lot like the Ten Commandments (however, the one about honoring your mother and father is conspicuously missing). Eve is Eve (duh). And there are angels, who appear as aging hippies, so they smell bad and sing corny songs. They also always seem on the verge of performing Godspell, which is obviously one of the signs of the Apocalypse.

The novel is fast-paced and gripping – at times humorous and then deadly serious. Eve is an engaging narrator. She has an unblinking eye and a razor tongue. Like most teenagers, she is repulsed by her parents and adults in general. “They had double asses – asses that stuck out, then sagged and bulged again. Protruding veins. Back fat like stacks of donuts. Red noses cratered by pores, black hair escaping from nostrils.” She is merciless like an ancient prophet. She also tells a really good story.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans.

Gilead: Nothing is Small

Yesterday, we sat with friends on the expansive sun-filled patio at Big Lick Brewing Company (biglickbrewingco.com), which is not the worst craft brewery in Roanoke. Tuco’s (tucostaqueria.com), which is not the worst taco joint in Roanoke, is across the street, and we had ordered take-out; sat at one of the tables on the patio; and ate savory food and drank golden beer. It was a gorgeous autumn day, and the mountains ringing this small city were blue. This is Roanoke at its wondrous best.

In Gilead, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Marilynne Robinson explores the tempestuous beauty of life. And it is wondrous. Gilead is a fictional small town in Iowa. However, it is small in the same sense that Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County is small – in the same sense that the universe is small. Similarly, Faulkner’s admonishment about the past not being dead or even the the past is equally apt here. And like Faulkner, Robinson does not traffic in trivialities. She draws water from the well’s deepest depths.

The story is a letter from an elderly father, John Ames, to his young son. Ames rightly believes the letter is necessary because he will not live long enough for his son to really know him. Ames has lived his entire life in Gilead and has never desired to live anywhere else. He understands that nothing in life is small – regardless of where you live. Speaking of Gilead, Ames declares “[i]n eternity this world will be Troy . . . and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.” The people living in Gilead are ordinary, which Robinson understands to mean they are extraordinary. “There have been heroes here, and saints and martyrs.” There have also been villains and lost souls desperately seeking redemption. Relationships are rich and at times fraught. Thoughts are deep. Answers are complicated, if they exist at all.

While the novel’s conceit is a letter, it is really an extended meditation on religion and spirituality. Ames is the son and the grandson of preachers. His best friend is (yes, you guessed it) a preacher. But a life dictated by Christian norms and tenets has not made Ames a lazy thinker, so do not expect to find anything glib, easy, or trite here. Ames states “[i]n the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things.” The meaning of life cannot be known. However, regardless of its occasional pettiness and torment, life is miraculous. We can not match the spare beauty of Robinson’s prose on this (or any) topic, so we will give her the last word. We need to “acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

Richard Python and Gravity’s Rainbow

We recently read Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.  The book is considered one of the GREATEST AMERICAN NOVELS EVER WRITTEN SO HELP ME GOD (20th Century Category).  Thousands of people say they have read it; hundreds of people have actually read it; and 4 people have enjoyed it. 

No one has understood it – making it the quintessential modern (or is it post-modern – we get confused) novel.   The story (if you can call it that) is like gentrification in your major cities:  New York, LA, Roanoke, New Shoreham.  It’s sprawling but it’s also dense.  It is literary and sophomoric and occasionally pornographic – just like Block Island.

Assuming he is still alive, Mr. Pynchon is a remarkable person.  We say “assuming” because he is a recluse, and no one actually knows if he is still alive.  There are very few pictures of him, and even slimy celebrity “journalists” have been unable to hack into his computer and steal all the naked selfies he has undoubtedly taken.  That alone is remarkable.   

The most interesting thing about the book (and Pynchon) is this.  In 1974 Gravity’s Rainbow won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.  Actually, it shared that honor with another book no one reads.  Instead of attending the ceremony, Mr. Pynchon authorized a comedian to go in his place.  The comedian accepted the award on behalf of Richard Python and then gave a bizarre and funny acceptance speech.  In this era of attention seeking, I cannot imagine anyone (other than perhaps Bob Dylan) doing that. 

As for my comments on Gravity’s Rainbow, we didn’t actually read it.  We only said we read it.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans