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Feb 19

Week 7: The Gaping Hole in an otherwise fine list of nominees, Empowerment and Marilyn’s Teeth

Books Read

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli

All The Birds In The Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Currently Reading

Afrosf: Science Fiction by African Writers edited by Ivor W. Hartmann

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The Aurealis Award nominees were announced this week – a full list of the nominees can be found here.  A hearty congratulations to everyone who was nominated, which includes a number of close friends who also happen to be wonderful writers.

However, as I commented on Facebook, the non-nomination of Lisa Hannett’s Lament for the Afterlife is, as far as I’m concerned, a gaping hole in the published list of finalists. I absolutely loved the novel, the gorgeous prose, it’s commentary on the senseless, nonsensical nature of war, the way the narrative moved seamlessly between genres. Yes, it’s a challenging book – for one it doesn’t tell a single story and for two the novel is deliberately ambiguous when it comes to the setting and the War – but the strength of the prose, the way Hannett beautifully constructs moments of horror and drama and wonder, make up for any unresolved questions the reader might have.

I wasn’t intending to write a mini-review of Lament for the Afterlife, but I wanted to make clear (a) how highly I rated the novel and (b) how disappointed I was to see that it hadn’t been nominated. It’s possible that those judging the Fantasy and SF categories found the book’s ambiguity to be off putting, or thought it wasn’t pure enough to be classed as fantasy or science fiction. Obviously I think they’re wrong. I think it’s the one of the best novels of 2015. But that’s subjectivity for you.

[It’s also possible that Lament won the award for Best Horror Novel. Unfortunately this year a shortlist wasn’t published, but judging coordinator Tehani Wessely confirmed a winner will be announced. Next month we will know for sure.]

In the meantime, genuine pats on the back and big hugs to those who did end up on the list.  Whatever my reservations there are some fine books and short fiction featured here, an excellent representation of Australian genre fiction in the 21st Century.

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While I wasn’t keen on Ottessa Moshfegh’s novella McGlue – nominated for a Believer Award last year – I went into Eileen with a reasonably open mind.  The tone and subject matter of McGlue overall left me cold, and yet there were moments of brilliance – about addiction and hate – that clearly marked Moshfegh as a writer to keep an eye on (which I know sounds a bit stalkerish, but you get my gist). With Eileen she delivers the intense, layered interior life of a lonely young woman – and it’s a truly fantastic novel.

It’s the 1960s and Eileen, in her mid 20s, works at a correctional institution for young boys outside of Boston. When not performing menial tasks at work or fantasising about one of the guards, she spends her free time dealing with and looking after her father, a retired cop who has taken to the bottle. The novel covers a 6-day period leading up to Christmas Eve and a major turning point in Eileen’s life.

The novel is essentially told as an extended flashback as the Eileen who relates the story is in her mid 70s. As a result, we know early on that whatever transpired over this 6-day period was horrible enough for Eileen to leave town. The constant foreshadowing of events – the reference to a gun that will undoubtedly play a role in the story’s climax, and the mention of someone named Rebecca who will have a profound effect on Eileen – amps up the tension. But what makes this such an unsettling reading experience is that Eileen is never anything less than clear about how she’s treated by her co-workers and especially her father. His constant criticism of her actions, her looks, the way she holds herself only confirms her own negative views about her body, her small breasts, the fact no man has ever found her desirable. However, as the novel progresses, and especially with the introduction of Rebecca, there’s a subtle but noticeable shift in how Eileen deals with her circumstances. More than the actual climax of the plot – which is surprisingly low key – it’s Eileen’s growth, her unwillingness to be a passive victim, that provides the book with a satisfying conclusion.

Eileen is an uncomfortable and edgy short novel. But what elevates it beyond 80,000 words of misery porn is Eileen’s growing sense of empowerment.  The Eileen who speaks to us isn’t just a world weary survivor, still scarred by her past – though there is an element of that – she is also a woman who has made her own choices.

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[Gross generalisation alert]: One of the main differences between genre and literary fiction – at least in terms of what’s nominated and in what categories – is that for literature word counts are irrelevant. Whether a book is 150,000 words or 15,000 words, all that’s required for it to be considered a novel is that the work is substantial.  Of course, how that’s defined is the province of award judges and publicists, but still I like how size doesn’t really matter when it comes to literature.

Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, clocking in at 35,000 words – so less than the 40,000 words suggested by Wikipedia as the minimum length for a novel – is most definitely a work of substance. Through the dental history and auctioneer skills of its main character Gustavo Sanchez Sanchez (AKA Highway) the short novel is a surreal, shaggy dog tale of European, Mexican and South American art and culture. It begins with Sanchez using his own teeth as auction items – for his local church looking to raise funds – describing them as the once possessions of “notorious infamous” writers, poets and thinkers like Augustine, Virginia Woolf and Charles Lamb. Each tooth, or auction item, is introduced by a little vignette, a story that describes how the shape and colour and quality of the tooth reflects the owner. And that’s just the beginning. The novel then goes all David Lynch as “Highway” out of regret and guilt sells his own teeth to his estranged son who also happens to be at the auction. His son then promptly removes his father’s teeth – as you do – then bundles Highway into a room with the representation of a clown on each wall. Clowns ARE creepy and all the moreso in this claustrophobic scene. The surreal nature of the novel is just the cream – or icing – ontop. The real strength is how Luiselli’s sense of humor and clear adoration of art and culture shine through Highway’s hyper-real adventures.

It’s only when I finished the book and read Luiselli’s afterword that I discovered the inspiration for The Story of My Teeth. Luiselli was commissioned to write the chapters that make up the novel for a catalog that would form part of an exhibition held in a gallery “located in the marginalized, wasteland-like neighborhood of Ecatepec outside Mexico City.” Because the gallery was funded by Grupo Jumex – a juice factory – Luiselli was asked to reflect upon the bridge between two distinct worlds – the gallery and the factory. In a sense I wish I hadn’t read the afterword because knowing that the book was essentially part of an installation that explored issues of culture and class distorted my happy thoughts about the novel.  I’m certain when taken as a whole, and not outside the context it was intended, The Story of My Teeth works as a commentary on art, culture and the working class. On it’s own, not so much. That class element seemed missing to me.

This shouldn’t stop you from reading The Story of My Teeth which is a funny, touching, weird and at times heartbreaking novel about a man with big dreams and mouthful of teeth belonging to Marilyn Monroe. Wait… did I not mention that before?

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And finally I read Charlie Jane Anders’ second novel All The Birds In The Sky. I have plenty to say about this book, but I think I’ll leave it all for a forthcoming episode of a certain podcast.

3 comments

  1. Lindsay Taylor

    Are you and Kristin going to do All the Birds in the Sky on the Writer and the Critic? Or are you talking about it on a Coode Street Roundtable?

    1. Mondyboy

      It will be on Coode Street. All going well the episode should be out on the weekend.

      1. Lindsay Taylor

        Excellent. Looking forward to it. I thought the book was enjoyable, but basically a short story/novella idea bulked out for length.

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