Tag Archives: novels


Just finished and very much enjoyed Yu Hua’s Brothers, China’s all-time best-selling novel.  If you’re going to read one long translated work of fiction in the social-magical-realism mode this year, make Hua’s book the one.  Especially if you like lots of bathroom jokes swirled into your multigenerational sagas of love and capital.  The translation, by Eileen Chow and Carlos Rojas, feels very natural without reading like colloquial English; I can’t speak to its faithfulness, of course.

The book is in some ways a standard melodrama; people get rich, people get poor, people get politically oppressed and beaten, two people want to marry the same person, people disappear on long journeys only to reappear at just the right time, people get artificial breasts and hymens surgically attached (OK, that last part is somewhat less standard, but by the end of the 600+ pages of Brothers it’s started to seem standard.)  I think my social prejudices would work against my buying an American novel that functioned like Brothers. Or America’s all-time best-selling novel, whatever it is.   But when a book is in translation all snobbery falls away.  Maybe because it is “improving” to read foreign books.  (Those scare quotes are meant to distract you from the fact that I actually kind of believe this to be the case.)

One sentence from a direction I decided not to pursue in this post:  “The brothers in Brothers are the driven and insatiable Baldy Li and his meeker, gentler brother Song Gang; the inexorable rise to wealth, prominence, and sexual irresistibility of the former, and the corresponding decline into government dependence, ill-health, and gynecomastia of the latter, is the kind of story Ayn Rand would have told if a) she were funny, and b) she thought that the successful brother was horrible and doomed, but recognized that the alternative to this kind of success was even worse.”

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One paragraph of Oscar and Lucinda

Most of the way through this fine Peter Carey novel; about the book in general I don’t have much to say but that it superbly realizes the traditional novelistic virtues.  I wanted to highlight this passage, though, a bit of thought from a provincial bishop:

Dancer could not, of course he could not, have clergy who were notorious around the track, who lost their horses or their carriages because they heard a horse was “going to try.”  Sydney — a venal city — was too puritanical to allow such a thing.  But had you informed Dancer of this story after dinner, he would have found it funny.  He could find nothing in his heart against the races and he left that sort of raging to the Baptists or Methodists.  The true Church of England, he would have felt (but never said) was the Church of gentlemen.  Sometimes gentlemen incur debts.

Notes:  “of course he could not” in place of the standard “of course” is splendid.  Not sure why the doubled “horse” in the first sentence, or why “or” instead of “and” between Baptists and Methodists.  What I really like here is the closing.  If I’d written this paragraph I would have gone with the easier rhythm of “Gentlemen sometimes have debts.”  But Carey’s version — which is kind of hard to say, which can only be said aloud in the deliberate word-by-word manner Carey’s trying to suggest, and which does all the work of characterizing this bit player in the book — is massively better.

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Reading bad novels

When I was in graduate school I experimented with reading a lot of novels I chose at random off the shelf of the public library, novels by people I’d never heard of and which, as far as I knew, had never enjoyed any particular acclaim. I thought maybe there were things I could learn about the construction of novels that I couldn’t get from really successful examples. Maybe you can better see the device that joins the pieces when they’re not joined exactly square, so to speak. So I read these books in order to figure out what was wrong with them.

Anyway, what I learned was that most randomly chosen novels aren’t very good. What’s worse, the typical not-very-good novel doesn’t really have anything wrong with it. Its problem is an absence of things that are interesting — interesting sentences, interesting sounds, interesting ideas, interesting people. And “Don’t be uninteresting” is not a very helpful piece of advice. So I guess I’m just recording the fact that this experiment was a failure. In case you were thinking of trying this, I recommend reading good novels instead.

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