Authors Elif Batuman, Miriam Toews and Jill Dawson

Thinkers, writers and storytellers

Narrative, voice and good novels — not always at the same time

This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“I loved it and could have read a thousand more pages of it,” said novelist Emma Cline of Elif Batuman’s debut novel The Idiot (2017). Well, Emma, will 350 pages do instead? My tone is aslant but my aim is true: Batuman’s new novel is a straight sequel to The Idiot, and your response to it will largely be predetermined by that fact.

Either/Or, Elif Batuman (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

First, a recap. Batuman made her name with The Possessed (2010), one of those memoir-y non-fiction-y essayistic books that are even more all the rage now than they were then. A recollection of her study of Russian literature, blended with accounts of her Turkish family and its history, The Possessed shone brightest when Batuman took up the cudgel against the creative writing teaching industry and the way it seemed to her to euthanise all genuine individuality in prose fiction in favour of the pseudo-individuality of quirkiness.

This approach, she said, led to much modern fiction comprising “a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns — like entries in a contest to identify as many concrete entities as possible, in the fewest possible words. […] The premium on conciseness and concreteness made proper names a great value — so they came flying at you as if out of a tennis ball machine.”

“The result,” she went on, “seemed false, contrived — unlike Tolstoy’s double Alexeis, and unlike Chekhov’s characters, many of whom don’t have names at all. In ‘Lady with Lapdog’, Gurov’s wife, Anna’s husband, Gurov’s crony at the club, even the lapdog, are all nameless. No contemporary American short story writer would have had the stamina not to name that lapdog.”

Of course, a critic needn’t be able to do any better herself (Samuel Johnson: “You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make tables. It is not your trade to make tables”), but it was interesting to note that when Batuman came to write a novel of her own, she struggled until she remembered that she had already drafted a novel about her 1990s college days, and dusted it down and rewrote it. That was The Idiot.

And so her new novel Either/Or (she has moved on, in titular inspiration, from Dostoevsky) continues the experiment. We are back in the company of Batuman’s alter ego Selim, now in her second year at university in 1996. Selim discovers Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, and immediately identifies with the “Seducer’s Diary” section, believing herself to be the victim of such a seduction by her romantic obsession Ivan, who at the start of this book is playing hard-to-contact. (This was the mid-90s, when you had to go to the student centre to check email: everyone was hard to contact.)

Some of Batuman’s pomposity-pricking seems timely

As readers of The Idiot will know, those who come looking for a plot will leave empty-handed; so what does Either/Or have to offer? Well, it’s full of nice riffs and lines. “I just really think you should be seeing someone,” says Selim’s friend Svetlana. Selim reflects on the ups and downs of having a boyfriend. No, clarifies Svetlana, “I mean a therapist.” Or Selim’s observation that the Mercator projection makes “everything in the Arctic Circle hugely magnified, like someone’s giant grotesque forehead”. Batuman has a good eye.

And some of her pomposity-pricking seems timely. “It turned out that Ukrainians, just like Turkish people, and Russians, and many people in Hungary, considered their culture to be ‘uniquely torn between East and West’. How many cultures didn’t think that? I had once heard a Japanese person say it about Japan.”

So this is by no means a bad book. Yet there’s something about the unvarying pace of it — it goes on, and then it goes on some more — that makes it feel like a composition built of fine pages but boring chapters. It’s not so much a talky book as a thinky one, and while many of the thinks are entertaining — and while structuring a novel around the author’s second year at university is all very well — you can’t have art without artifice, and something more is needed.

Either/Or reads like a memoir rather than a novel, and carries the characteristics of that more forgiving format. At one point Selim writes about reading Kazuo Ishiguro, and how he leaves nothing of himself on the page. “What discipline — what lack of pride! All I was ever trying to do when I wrote, I realised, was to show how much I saw and understood.” Just so. 

And when she quotes a critical analysis of Ishiguro — “Good writers abound — good novelists are very rare” — it’s unavoidable to say that Batuman is certainly the former, but not necessarily the latter. Still, with a further volume of Selim’s university adventures likely (I’m putting a fiver on the title of the next one coming from Nikolai Gogol), perhaps Emma Cline will get her wish after all.

Fight Night, Miriam Toews (Faber, £14.99)

On rare occasions you can tell from the first page whether a novel is for you. Fight Night, the eighth novel by Canadian writer Miriam Toews (it’s pronounced Taves, you philistine) is one. It’s all in the voice, which in this book is that of our narrator Swiv, a 9-year-old girl who opens disarmingly with a letter to her father: “Dear Dad, How are you? I was expelled.” Swiv is implausibly precocious for a nine-year-old, but isn’t that OK for fiction? (Real children of that age can of course be very funny, but it is, frankly, rarely sustained.) In any event, much of her exuberant language is filtering the words of her pregnant mother Elvira, and of her grandmother with her “petering-out heart”.

“When [Grandma] swallows her pills she pretends they’re tiny soldiers sent off to fight the pain and sometimes she holds them up and says to them, thank you for your service, lest we forget, and then she swallows them and says play ball!

But for those who know Toews’s fictional universe, the mother’s name Elvira is a giveaway. It is also the name of Toews’s own mother, and she has commented that all her books contain versions of her own family members. They also tend to circle, at varying distances, the suicides of her father and sister, and how, as Swiv puts it (channelling Elvira, channelling Toews, channelling the poet Cynthia Zarin), “what makes a tragedy bearable and unbearable is the same thing — which is that life goes on”.

The plot in the novel is almost secondary, though there are capers, pratfalls, physical journeys as well as emotional ones. The voice is intense enough to have flavour and sometimes be annoying, but hits an occasional point of stillness just in time. Grandma “likes stories to be fast and troublesome and funny, and life too”, Swiv tells us. And so say all of us.

The Bewitching, Jill Dawson (Sceptre, £14.99)

If it’s voice as a narrative tool that you’re after, there aren’t many better contemporary practitioners than Jill Dawson. Over nine previous novels, although distinct and varied in subject, certain preferences have emerged in several of them: an historical setting; a protagonist drawn from reality; and a distinctive narrative voice that flavours the story while relating it. Fred & Edie (2000) and Lucky Bunny (2011) are particular favourites of mine, while Dawson has also shown (in 2006’s Watch Me Disappear) that she can ignore all the above preferences and still produce something exceptional: in that case, a bold study of childhood sexuality.

Dawson’s new novel The Bewitching is her most historical yet, being set from 1589–91 in her usual stamping ground of Cambridgeshire. The subject matter is witchcraft and the suspicion of it, told to us by Martha, the deaf young maid of a household. She is one of Dawson’s more plain-spoken narrators, to be sure, but the language remains vivid (a bat is “like a bundle of knitted twigs in your hand”) and the characters full. 

The action and suspicion begins with a girl, Jane, suffering from fits, which Doctor Butler — an expert in “the ways in which women’s bodies and spirits affect their already weak chamber of wisdom” — assures them are not due to “frenzy of the womb”. 

Jane has an explanation of her own, but nobody is interested in that when there’s sorcery afoot, or at least someone local they can blame for it. That someone is Alice Samuel, a “low-bred, rude and loud” old woman who provides the perfect scapegoat. And the fingers may not be satisfied with pointing only at her.

The general trend of the plot may not surprise (three of the sections of the novel are titled The Accusation, The Confession and The Trial) but Dawson keeps things interesting. Of course, a story about false suspicions, conspiracy theories and trial by gossip is not so much timely as timeless, and what we end up with is a superior example of solid literary fiction, that oft-derided genre. Dawson’s ability to maintain an interesting voice and tell a story at the same time is a lesson to any novelist. She shows that, contrary to Batuman’s belief, it doesn’t have to be either/or.

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