Trauma, vegetarianism, and poetry: the best new novels
Lee Rourke on fiction by Catherine Lacey, Han Kang, and Ben Lerner.
Three extraordinary works of fiction have captivated me recently and it’s no surprise they all (more or less) share the same UK publisher: Granta/Portobello Books, who are renowned for their far-reaching, idiosyncratic taste. The first, Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey, is a powerful debut so good I had to read it again straight after finishing it. It’s a novel about traumas that have already come to pass, and the decisions made in their wake.
Elyria (or Elly as her friends like to call her), a script-writer in New York named after a city in Ohio neither she nor her mother have ever visited, is a woman determined to rid herself of the detritus of everyday living, so much so that she seeks a divorce not only from her husband but from her own life as she knows it, fleeing to New Zealand. What greets her is an expanse of space and the loneliness it contains, which is conveyed breathtakingly by Lacey, relayed back to us via her hitchhiking protagonist, each line dripping with a cool, studied distance that most works of fiction aim for but never quite reach: “The woman started laughing and laughing and laughing so much I felt like I had to laugh, too, so I did and then realised we were laughing at how her husband was dead.”
Despite the detachment, we still learn a lot about Elyria, even if she seems slower than us in coming to terms with the hidden demons of her own existence. What we are left with is a wonderfully fresh take on the classic existential novel, which in lesser hands would have caved in under the weight of its own pretensions, but in Lacey’s manages to pick at old wounds in a way that seems new, sharp and exciting.
The Vegetarian, by Korean author Han Kang (translated into English for the first time by Deborah Smith), is a novel so strange and vivid it left me breathless upon finishing it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel as mouth-wateringly poetic, or as drenched in hypnotic oddities, taboos and scandal. It seems to have been plucked out of the ether, ready-made to take us all by surprise.
One day Yeong-Hye decides to become a vegetarian: “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” Seen by many, especially her husband, as an act of defiant subversion, Yeong-Hye’s fall from grace is allowed to spiral out of control.
This leads to in an erotic scandal with her sister’s husband, a video artist, which ends in disaster. The narration is cut through with sharp, funny observations and conveyed in a prose style that is both modern and unnervingly aloof. It is what all translated fiction should be: exciting and compelling. We have Deborah Smith to thank for delivering this astonishing work of fiction with such aplomb to the English-speaking world.
“The city had converted an elevated length of abandoned railway spur into an aerial greenway and the agent and I were walking south along it in the unreasonable warmth after an outrageously expensive celebratory meal in Chelsea that included baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to death...” So begins Ben Lerner’s 10:04, his second novel, in the way only he can begin a novel. A lot has been said of Lerner’s work and like most people I can’t think of a bad word to say about this latest. His first novel Leaving The Atocha Station was received well, gleaning the kind of widespread critical acclaim that overshadows most novelists’ second attempts. Not so in Lerner’s case. As usual there’s no plot to discuss here, just a writer, called Ben, who has received “unexpected literary success” and has been asked by his best friend to help her conceive a child. The fun is in what follows: an exploration of the self in a world that only seems to offer obfuscation, dread, unrest and fear.
Much like a Wallace Stevens poem (Lerner, a poet himself, has cited Stevens as a hero), the novel plays with the ideas of fiction and reality. Lerner has fun merging the two, leaving things up to us to work out: is this novel really about Ben Lerner? Or an imagined version of Ben Lerner?
It doesn’t really matter. His vainglorious conceits are a delight and, unlike a Wallace Stevens poem, most of his work is laugh-out-loud funny, which has helped to cement him as one of the most exciting literary voices to appear in a long time. 10:04 is further evidence of his talent.
Nobody is Ever Missing and 10:04 are published by Granta; The Vegetarian is published by Portobello