Weekend reads: Life in lockdown
Tom Rachman on writing his Covid-era novel - and what he's been reading since
Today, we check in with Vancouver author Tom Rachman, who is based in London, England. Tom is a former journalist for the Associated Press in New York and Rome, a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail — and the author of a very funny recent essay on the perils of book promotion in the Internet age. “Promoting a book can derange you,” he writes in the piece. “After years of quiet toil and noisy typing, you clutch a published book, and step forth to meet the public, eight billion humans who, mystifyingly, seem not to know that your new novel just came out.”
Weaving together multiple narrative threads, The Imposters centres on Dora Frenhofer, an aging and largely unsympathetic Dutch novelist trying to eke out one last book during London’s lockdowns, despite creeping dementia. Having “had a spell of luck and mistook it for a career,” she’s churned out “a succession of small novels about small men in small crises.” But in April of 2020, her writing is often “stranded in mid-sentence.” Dora’s final project sketches out storylines for a cast of characters from her own life, including a missing brother, an estranged daughter, and — the pandemic being the pandemic — a deliveryman. The expertly-crafted outing is moody and atmospheric, steeped in the profound dislocation of life in lockdown, with its endless Zoom calls and flashing devices and shattered focus.
“Covid may be the only time in history where the exact same thing was happening to everybody on the planet at the exact same time,” Tom tells me. “And yet it was experienced very differently depending on how it intersected with your circumstances. So, of course, if you were in a tiny apartment with nobody but yourself, that was a totally different experience than if you were in a country house with kids and dogs. And then there was every iteration of it. I think that’s partly why there was this sense, initially, of unity under a common threat that frayed quite quickly — because the experiences ended up narrowing down on the particularities and difficulties of each specific life.”
“In retrospect, I think one of the strange parts is that [the pandemic] feels very important yet undefined,” he continues. “I think that that’s probably true of most major political or historical events that happen in the course of your life. You know that it’s a big thing at the time, but it’s often years later that you come to understand what it amounted to.”
Here, Tom shares some of the titles he’s been reading since life returned to normal.
This is one of my all-time great books; I really love this novel. It’s about this very gentle Russian emigre professor, who finds himself in America in the post-war period. He’s this transplant from intellectual Europe who has been tossed about by the history of the mid-20th Century and lands in an America that doesn’t suit him at all. Pnin is told in a series of stories. There’s a narrator recalling this character Pnin, and talking about his oddities and his struggles in America. It’s just a beautiful character study — a tale of this schmozzle, trying to manage there.
I was thinking about it before speaking to you, and there’s something in it that reminds me a little bit of the movie Broadway Danny Rose. It begins with some people sitting around a table remembering this character, Danny Rose, who is a hopeless person. In this book as well, you’ve got all these different takes on the same person, living this slightly blunted life, because of these missed connections. It’s just beautifully written. Very touching. It’s also a book that is composed of separate stories that bring together a whole character — which is something that I’ve done repeatedly in my writing, including in the latest book.
This is a book that I’m reading right now, but I actually haven’t finished. I’m just a few pages from the end, so I’m incapable of giving a spoiler because I don’t know what happens. It’s not actually a book that I love, but a book that I found really quite intriguing. Han Kang is a South Korean novelist. The book won the International Booker Prize, the one for non-English language books.
The whole story is set in motion by this main character’s decision to become a vegetarian, which shocks and disturbs the entire family and ends up bringing into relief all sorts of problems within the relations of different family members. It’s a book about social conformity. Sexual obsession, as well, comes into it — and also mental illness. It’s a very sinister, quite disturbing read that is, again, not necessarily my favourite book that I’ve read. But there’s something quite intriguing about it.
This is a book that I actually have completed, which I loved. It’s a portrait of a young English man who is exceptionally good at soccer and is trying to make a career in it, but his career path is going fast downwards. What’s striking about this book is that number one, it’s beautifully written. But also, it’s a rare, rare case of a literary book about sports. I don’t think you would at all need to care about sports or soccer to find this really compelling. Because even — maybe especially — if you’re not interested in sports, there’s the question of why anybody cares about this.
I do like sports, but I also ask myself that question all the time. I feel like I — among many other people — invest vast amounts of time in something that seems like grown men kicking a ball around. It seems immensely silly. This book is a very humane attempt to expose some of the drives behind it, this human urge to prevail and the immediacy of failure that you have in these encounters. Also, the masculine displays of pride that go on in that world. It’s a very well-written book that I think, as I say, would be of great interest to people who have no interest in soccer.
This is another one that has stayed with me. It’s about this novelist who is travelling to Athens to give a writing workshop. Over the course of the book, she has all these encounters with different people and she just lets them talk. It’s a very peculiar book in a certain respect, because it works — and it shouldn’t work. If you think about the structure of it, and if you describe it, it feels like it has the potential to be very boring because it doesn’t really have a storyline that meaningfully goes anywhere. But I found it extremely stimulating. Because she manages, brilliantly, to convey this experience of the writer looking at other people and finding characters there, and also listening to other people and conversation and how people tell their stories. It’s somehow really a compelling book.
It’s part of a trilogy of books. Interestingly, in my view, the subsequent ones failed in a way that the first one should have failed. The first one is really gripping; the subsequent ones just felt a bit meandering and fruitless. I felt like she did it in the first one. It’s a book that has really remained with me, and that I think is powerful. It also evokes that feeling of travel, where you have these random encounters with people and you get a little peek at a life story — and how somebody is willing to present themselves to a total stranger. She does that brilliantly.
David Szalay, like Rachel Cusk and like me, is somebody who is both Canadian and from a different place as well. All That Man Is is one of these novels in stories that I also tend to write. It’s nine stories about men at different ages. So, the first one is 17 and the last one is 73. It’s different takes on this experience of being a man, again, in literary fiction — quite an interesting approach nowadays.
With the title, All That Man Is, you feel like it could have a question mark after it, because much of what is shown is a limited version of what men could be. There is an awful lot of lust, and status desire, and eating bad food, and having bad sexual encounters.
One hopes that being a man can be more than that. And is, in fact, more than that.
But they are beautiful portraits. He does something that I really enjoy in fiction, which is this idea of bringing together separate characters, separate stories, in a way that harmonizes into a whole. It feels like it has a parallel in music albums, as they used to be. When you would buy an album of a lot of different tracks and they were intentionally produced in order to mean something in concert, while they each had meaning separately as well. I love that. I have done that several times in my books, and he does that in this one. It is certainly not all that man is, but it’s a very interesting and stimulating take on elements of being a man.
On Writing and Failure is part the Field Notes series that Biblioasis puts out. I read this in one sitting. Not only because it’s short, but also because it feels like it really captures what it’s like to be a writer today.
I was leafing through it before speaking to you, and saw all the bits that I had underlined. Early on, there’s this line, “The public only sees writers in their victories, but their real lives are mostly in defeat.” That is the whole theme of this book. It really nails what it is to lead a writing life in 2023, in most cases. He makes an argument that you should actually embrace the failure that will mark your literary career much more than your successes. That it’s this failure that is proof, in a way, that you are doing it — that you are a writer. Because the whole nature of the work is attempting to say something, to be heard. And the reality is that you won’t be. But, as he puts it repeatedly in the book, the shouldering against the door all the time is the point of it.
I don’t know that I agree with that conclusion. I have spoken to him in person about this, when I was last in Toronto. But I do feel that he captures so much about the reality of what it is to try to write today. It conveys, I think, the frustrations of it in a way that much of writing and writer mythology obscures. I think it’s a great book.
For more on Stephen Marche, you can read my interview with him here.
Stay tuned to Lean Out. Next week, we will launch our fall season on the podcast with an interview with Freddie deBoer about his new book, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement. We’ll also conclude our series on the collapse of the Canadian media, with a podcast interview with Rudyard Griffiths from The Hub and the Munk Debates.
See you all next week!
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