Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth: a review and some realizations

IMG_1484-0

Here’s the thing about Animals, which I liked far more than you might assume and exactly as much as I expected: it showed me what my life might be like right now, if I’d made different (worse?) decisions just out of University. Had I not moved back to America and started a job I enjoyed in a bookstore I love, would I have ended up in a cramped, chaotic apartment in Manchester? Would I be crawling from my best friend’s more comfortable bed, wracked with hangover, reaching for a bottle of wine while she — glamorous creature — lounged in the back garden with sunglasses and poetry? Would we rail against our impending 30s, our upcoming nuptials, our successful siblings by partying like we did when we were 21? Steal drugs not out of addiction, but just because the scary dealer-lady accidentally left one of us alone in the room? Struggle between dizzying, joyful, reckless friendship and jealousy that aches like bruises do: painful but sometimes out-of-mind?

Probably not in Manchester, probably not the drugs, and definitely none of the questionable sexual decisions. But I can see an alternative reality in which I live with my room-mate and best friend from my Uni years well through our late 20s. (In Animals, Laura and Tyler actually meet after University; Tyler quotes Chaucer in a cafe and Laura likes her immediately. Who wouldn’t? But the intensity of their friendship is very much like ours.) I can see myself, like Laura, getting too tipsy at a daytime literary presentation in a library. I can picture it because it’s happened. I can imagine a group of us getting in over our heads at an underground Spanish bar, accidentally making enemies, knowing we need to get out, not knowing how. I remember what it’s like to spend the week’s last remaining 20 pounds in the pub just for somewhere comfortable and lively to while away the hours. The only reason we never disobeyed the rules and broke into events at the Edinburgh Fringe was that we never attended. We would most certainly behave badly at a family-friendly christening, but make friends with the vicar while we’re at it. No question.

Laura and Tyler’s specific antics don’t necessarily feature in this prediction of what might have been. Nor do the more serious problems they must face: Laura’s fraying relationship with her sweet fiancee who can only handle so much immaturity, Tyler’s bruises and black eyes when her wit and charm can’t get her through a fraught situation. The plot of Animals could only happen to Laura and Tyler themselves, who are as messy and real and memorable as any friends I’ve had. Emma Jane Unsworth has created something entirely believable in her novel, just with snappier dialogue and better timing than my life or (probably) yours. The situations, the characters themselves, are entirely hers.

I saw flashes and reflections of myself and my closest college friend in the emotional terms of their relationship, and honestly these moments were what kept me hooked (even when my Victorian eyes had to be averted from time to time). Their happy moments shine with the same hysterical glow as our happiest moments.

“I’d arrived at the pub to find Tyler resplendent on a picnic bench with a bottle of wine in an ice bucket on the table in front of her.
‘GREETINGS’ she shouted across the beer garden.
Oh god, I thought, she’s doing Christian Slater in Heathers. We’re already there, are we?” (p 42)

This was us. This is still us. This is how we used to be, when we were together, every day.

But then there are moments in Animals that reminded me how friendships this close – in proximity as well as devotion – can get shaken by growing up. Real life insists upon intruding and asking, “Do you really want to stay like this for the rest of your adult existence?” I wonder what have happened to us if we’d shrugged and grinned and answered yes. Would it be similar? Would the desires for safety and romance and stability pull one of us ever so slightly away from the other? Would I end up, like Laura, feeling adrift and alone, testing out too late how to be by myself, my own person, by the end of our story? (Would our story be published in an attractive package by Europa?) Would feelings get hurt?

Laura explains her reasons for wanting to get married:

” ‘So I want to be part of a new team against the world.’ I quailed at my own schmaltziness but I knew it was true – the idea, at any rate.
‘Teams are awful. Families are awful. People are awful. Why perpetuate the awfulness?’
‘So why don’t you live alone? Why have me around?’
Neither of us said it because it was there, unspoken. It flashed through her eyes at the same time it went through my head but I was afraid of saying it and I knew she was too. We used to be a team.” (p 93)

Lucky for me – and happy am I – this isn’t going to be a problem for us. We didn’t stick around with jobs we hated in a crumbling flat, spicing up the day with bottles and chemicals, trying to remember what we loved about our lives. We had fun as young people, together, and now we have slightly less fun as slightly less young people, apart. But whenever she and I find ourselves in the same room, it’s as though we’re back in our old flat in Scotland, above the grocery store on Market Street. Back in the cold living room where all the furniture was so short, you had to sit on the floor to eat from the table. The door handles were down by our knees. Now we drink cocktails flavored with herbs and laugh and tell secrets that maybe we once knew but have sense forgotten. We get into trouble sometimes, still. We can live without each other, even though we’d rather not. We are best friends without ever having to prove it. I hope that Laura and Tyler, if they were real, would have developed this sort of bond after Animals ended.

It was wonderful, almost addictive, to read about their misadventures as they backpedaled from adulthood at all costs, but I’m relieved to have taken a slightly different path after all. I gave Animals to my friend when she came to visit this past weekend — easily the greatest two days of 2016 so far. Maybe now we’ll both know what we’re missing by pretending to be grown-ups, and maybe just reading about it will be enough.

Book Review: Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement

click for img source

Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: ****  (4 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: *** (3 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

(I read an ARC of Widow Basquiat so a few details may have changed since publication.)

Widow Basquiat gives a very personal and poetic account of Basquiat’s journey through the beginnings of fame and all the way to his death, seen through the eyes of Suzanne Mallouk. In the introduction, Michael Holman calls Suzanne Jean-Michel’s “first great love.” She is not technically his widow: Rene Ricard gave her that nickname before Basquiat died.

Mallouk and Basquiat met very early in his career. They lived together on and off for the remainder of his life, and she was a frequent presence in the events which shaped his artistic development. The book is actually written by Suzanne’s close friend Jennifer, whose succinct style gives us little windows into various scenes of Mallouk’s life, with and without Basquiat. Very short chapters of only a page or two often contain two different voices: Clement’s spartan, lyrical prose and then Mallouk’s own memories written in italics. Suzanne’s first interjection appears after Clement has described her leaving her home in Canada, where her father could get violent and her mother claimed to be a witch. The scenes from Suzanne’s childhood are sometimes brutal, sometimes surreal like the paint fumes they breathe. In contrast to Clement’s somewhat dramatic portraits of the Mallouk parents, their daughter remembers them as more mundane, understandable people.

The balance between Clement’s storytelling and Mallouk’s frank memoirs reminded me that these wild people and dizzy experiences were very real. Taken alone, Clement’s narrative could read like a drug-painted (and then drug-sick) vision of artistic life: a short, experimental movie you can’t tear your eyes away from even though it leaves you feeling miserable. Mallouk’s memoirs, on their own, wouldn’t be so compelling either. Her writing is fine but not stunning, and the impressions of what went on around her need a narrative structure to keep from falling into a pile of paint and heroine. The collaborative style in Widow Basquiat creates a biography-memoir-story that instantly engages even readers who don’t know much at all about the art scene in which it takes place.

I read this little book only a few days after a friend showed me some of Basquiat’s paintings. I don’t know very much about the art world, and even less about the 80’s. The only real encounter I’d ever had with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings was in conjunction with Maya Angelou’s wonderful poem “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” in this picture book.

click for source

After reading about Basquiat’s inspirations; his obsessions; his view of the world, I’ve had his paintings pulled up on my computer non-stop. Widow Basquiat reveals some of his motives for including certain words or phrases in his paintings, and it’s obvious from Clement’s and Mallouk’s memories of Jean-Michel Basquiat that he had a real knack for seeing how language and art intersect.

“On one painting he writes, ‘Jimmy Best on his back to the sucker punch of his childhood files,’ because he hears a hobo say this on television.” (quoted from ARC)

I still don’t know what that painting is about, exactly. But now I like it even more. These passages re-create the moments in which words caught Basquait’s attention – moments of watching silent films with Suzanne or after frustrating encounters with white art collectors in Obnoxious Liberals. They show that there was inspiration even in the mundane and unpleasant hours that measured their otherwise wild lives. Clements writes well about art, never getting overly critical, or snobby, or overwrought. Whenever she describes paintings or music, it is to conjure up the people more deeply. Jennifer herself is introduced more than halfway through the book. She remains an interesting side character in a portrait of her two subjects, with the only real physical descriptions of the blonde and Spanish-speaking woman coming from Suzanne’s own writing.

Aside from providing unreserved social context for the artist’s work, and a delirious parade of characters, Widow Basquiat recalls some of the appalling racism that Jean-Michel and his friends had to face in the art world (and of course the real world). In the chapter entitled “No Black Men In Museums,” Basquiat sprinkles water around the MoMA as a “voodoo trick,” explaining to Suzanne that there was no painting on the walls done by someone who looked like him. This was one of my favorite anecdotes, because while his actions might seem absurd at first, the point is completely undeniable.

“…his crazy behavior had nothing to do with being an enfant terrible. Everything he did was an attack on racism and I loved him for this.” (quoted from ARC)

The most affecting story, to me, is about Suzanne’s young boyfriend Michael Stewart. A quiet young man from a caring parent, Michael Stewart was a calming presence in Suzanne’s life while fights with Jean-Michel were on a repeating cycle. “I loved him as if he were my kid brother,” she writes. Michael gets murdered by six cops for allegedly writing graffiti. Enraged by the violent unfairness, Suzanne starts questioning the detectives, photographing Michael’s wounds, raising awareness and money for lawyers. This chapter in her life is all her. I like Suzanne best when she throws herself into her own cause, tapping into her own artistic energies to try and right a dreadful wrong. Of course, the police officers get off free for their crime. The Stewart family wins a civil suit, but the cops get to go on with their horrendous daily business. Suzanne stops working on the Michael Stewart case after she feels threatened at a radical meeting, but her work still raises awareness and points necessary fingers. These events, in which Basquiat features only marginally, broke the book’s narrative momentarily free from the artists’ lifestyles. It was an important edition to the book, and a good reminder that police brutality and a racist justice system have been raging, largely unchecked, for ages.

It was after Michael Stewart’s death that Jean-Michel Basquait painted “Defacement.” He may have acted jealously about Suzanne’s involvement with the case, but it obviously touched him deeply, as it should continue to do for anyone who hears the story or sees the art.

click for source

At around the halfway point, the odd incidents of Jean-Michel bossing Suzanne around and their bad drug days are so frequent, the reading experience contracts an unhealthy pallor. I’ll admit to feeling uncomfortable with all the weird demands he made of his girlfriends, and the outbursts of anger that occasionally shook their relationship. The writing remains strong throughout, but it’s hard to read how everyone hurts. They split up, try to face the world, and end up together again in an unhappy and uncomfortable cycle. And because this is a true story about real people, they don’t all make it through the troubled times. Some of Suzanne’s friends manage to haul themselves together and put their dangerous vices away whenever they threaten to take over entirely. Some of them get devoured. We meet those who survive in the postscript; a show in 2010 when Basquiat would have been fifty years old. In staying true to Suzanne Mallouk’s memories, the miserable pieces of her story fit neatly with the colorful ones, and you must read about both to get a clear picture of what life was like for these people.

There’s this wonderful moment, in the postscript, when Mallouk sees the fridge she once shared with him on display. She sold it in the 80’s, when it was just one of the many scribbled-upon objects in their apartment. Now, it is marked, “DO NOT TOUCH.” So many of the memories dredged up in this book feel like that; flashes of shared experiences which seem like part of the daily roller coaster of routine, until time forces the riders to step back and see what other people have deemed irreplaceable.

This book’s title makes its subject matter clear. Basiquat’s name is the obvious one, he’s the figure we all recognize. But this particular tale belongs to his “widow” – his confidante and support system – told by her friend. There are almost certainly more complete biographies out there about Basquiat’s life, and more comprehensive studies of his art. After finishing Widow Basquiat in a few hours, it’s only clearer to me that I don’t understand art or money, and I likely never will. This book offers a transfixing glimpse of what it was like to live with Jean-Michel Basquiat throughout his influential but difficult artistic career. He’s almost always the center of attention, but Suzanne Mallouk channels that attention and turns it into something we can follow. Her memories and Clement’s prose turn the past into an additively readable trip through inspired visions and collapses. It’s the stuff of brooding novels and loopy films. Widow Basquiat is a short book; it packs a powerful punch and has left me curious to learn more about that churning cocktail of art/drugs/collaborations that produced so many enduring icons from that time.

Book Review: The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner

Star Ratings:

Characters: *****  (5 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 16+ (language, violence including sexual violence)

I’m mostly on vacation right now, but I couldn’t wait to review this book. (I say “mostly” because I drove back from Acadia National Park to work at the bookshop for two days, but I’m headed right back to the crashing waves and pine forests tonight.)  I actually bought The Lobster Kings at Sherman’ bookshop, intending to read it on some windswept rock.  That would have been terribly atmospheric and very fitting to the novel’s remote island setting.  But Zentner’s writing was just too good, and the setting was too wonderful, so I failed to put the book on hold when I came home.  I read The Lobster Kings in two days, mentally transported to Loosewood Island the entire time.  Even if I’d been reading on a crowded subway car, I would have felt the salt spray and heard thunderstorms somewhere in the distance.

The Lobster Kings is set somewhere between Maine and Nova Scotia, on an island which falls through the cracks of jurisdiction and remains very much its own world.  Cordelia Kings is a lobster boat captain, like her daddy, and all the Kings back to Brumfitt Kings.  Brumfitt was a painter who turned the island into a home way back in the 18th century, and the inspiration behind his mythical works can be seen near every nook and cranny of Loosewood Island.  His stories and images haunt Cordelia’s family, too.  The Kings’ pasts and futures seem bound up in the legends he created: they are blessed with the sea’s bounty, but that blessing comes with a curse as well.  Or so Cordelia’s Daddy says.  Given her family’s history on the island — their immense successes and devastating tragedies — it’s not hard to see why she might believe the stories herself, sometimes.

You might be able to tell from the narrator’s first name that The Lobster Kings is inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. (Sort of in a similar way to Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, but I liked The Lobster Kings a whole lot more.)  It’s not a complete re-telling of the play, but the parallels are obvious, giving the story some sense of inevitability and poetic justice; even irony when some twists take an unexpected course.  At one point Cordelia does read the play in high school, and she realizes that her namesake doesn’t have a very happy ending.  Aside from the big themes: three very different sisters; the powerful father; the contested borders; and the howling storms, little allusions to the play create a nice treasure-hunt for Shakespeare fans.  (The meth-dealing jerk Eddie Gloucester, for example, isn’t nearly so eloquent as his wicked Elizabethan counterpart.  There’s also a line about eyes and jelly which winked at the reader…no ocular pun intended.)  

It’s not necessary to have read or seen King Lear, though, and when a parallel is extremely important the characters are good enough to discuss it plainly.  The tragedy and exhilaration in this book springs from more personal wells than royal legacy and misspent loyalty, though both of those subjects come up again and again.  This book focuses on family pride, on one woman’s intense desire to prove herself worthy of a name that has kept a whole community thriving for centuries.  Cordelia is an excellent lobsterman and a strong main character.  She loves her father and her sisters, and wants to do right by them as the eldest Kings child.  If that means pushing herself on dangerous waters, or stating the hard truths no one else wants to acknowledge, then she’s prepared to do the work. 

I liked reading the story from Cordelia’s point of view, and thought that Alexi Zentner did a marvelous job of getting into a 30-something woman’s head and heart. She’s got a forceful will, but isn’t nearly so hardened a captain as she’d like Loosewood’s tight-knit community to believe.  Between persistent romantic feelings for her married sternman Kenny, a strained sense of competition with her sisters, and the added tensions when hostile boats start encroaching on their territory from James Harbor on the mainland, Cordelia’s having trouble weathering all the storms inside of her.  She’s an unapologetic narrator but has moments of uncertainty, especially when it comes to her father.  He’s a loving parent and an inspiring figure on the island, but won’t back down or shed his pride, even against his daughters’ caution.  He’s a Kings. He’s the father of Kings, and even the darkly ominous fates Brumfitt painted — fates which can seem like a warning to later generations — won’t keep him from giving every ounce of energy to Loosewood Island and and to his family.  The family tension and the dramas within Loosewood’s community all affect Cordelia and keep her mind churning, until her own struggles start to resemble the tumultuous sea where she feels so at home.

While I don’t know too much about the lobstering life, Zentner’s descriptions of it were so detailed, and functioned so effortlessly, that I’m sure he captured the essence of that livelihood pretty well.  Each boat and crew had such a distinct personality that I felt as though I’d been hanging around those docks my whole life.  The anger whenever men from James Harbor would cut a Loosewood Island buoy became my anger.  The warm camaraderie between Cordelia’s fisherman friends made me see how such a hard life could be full of rewards.  And then the bouts of misery on board — the freezing mornings, fatal accidents, and grisly injuries — reminded me that I’m not nearly brave or devoted enough for such a line of work, no matter how much I like salt air on my face and the sight of weather on the horizon.  I would have been one of the tourists who come to Loosewood Island every year to see the scenes that Brumfitt painted, but I would want to be made of sterner stuff like Cordelia and her friends. (Oh drat. Sterner stuff. Forgive the unintentional fisherman puns.)

The Lobster Kings is a unique new novel with a wonderful descriptive voice.  The Kings family, at the heart of the tale, seems truly real despite the Shakespearean bent to their lives and relationships.  Loosewood Island could be a character in its own right, especially when we see it through the artistic viewpoint of Brumfitt Kings’ fictional legacy.  I don’t know much about art or fishing, but Zentner writes with such vivid detail that I fell completely in love with each subject by the end. 

The mythical properties of the unforgiving sea, which makes up a huge part of the Kings family history, was mesmerizing to me.  It may, however, get old too soon for readers who aren’t so keen on selkie stories and elemental curses.  I don’t think those moments of unearthly imagery ever overshadowed the very human pulse which kept this story alive, though. The sense of place never faltered, shining through the atmosphere and characters of The Lobster Kings on every page. 

Read it if you’re ever homesick for the sea, if you like stories about art and hard work, or if you love novels about close towns and complicated families.  Don’t wait until it comes out in paperback, either. (And please buy from an independent store if you can!!)  This book is too good to miss, and it’s hard to leave Loosewood Island once the story ends.