Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Things Left Unsaid - A post about The Forrests by Emily Perkins

The Forrests
On Monday the NZ Listener posted a book club’s discussion of Emily Perkins’ new novel The Forrests. To the surprise of many, a number of negative responses to the book were expressed, running counter to the hype and the lion’s share of reviewers to date.

What follows is a rather long post about the book and responses to it, including my own.

1. She said / she said

The only vaguely negative review I’d read before Monday’s post* was Nicky Pellegrino’s lukewarm response in the Herald on Sunday, which came ten days after Paula Green gave the novel a glowing review in the NZ Herald. (NB: Credit to Mark Broatch for pointing out my error in originally saying these came in the same paper - it all carries the Herald's masthead online, hence my confusion.)

It’s interesting to read these reviews side by side as they seem to talk about similar things, but the reviewer's differing tastes lead to quite different verdicts. 

Both reviews invoked the ghost of Virginia Woolf:
Green: “Emily Perkins' sumptuous new book, The Forrests, is a novel to savour slowly: line by line, character by character, revelation by revelation. Within a few pages I felt I was in the company of a contemporary Katherine Mansfield or Virginia Woolf.”
Pellegrino: “…I found this a curiously old-fashioned book in some ways, very strongly reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and, while strikingly well written, sometimes quite frustrating to read.”
Both also found the structure interesting:
Green: “The structure is daring. It is like a photograph album made up of miniature scenes. Each luminous section exists in its own right (like a short-story tasting), but each adds to the next and the one before. You could almost dip into the novel like a photo album, but the pleasure in reading from start to end gives you the moving contours of life.”
Pellegrino: “While effective in some ways, the gaps in the story left me experiencing Dorothy as series of vignettes rather than a whole person. Meeting her as the agoraphobic mother of young children I didn’t recognise the spirited teenager I’d got to know a few chapters earlier. And I never went beyond feeling like an observer of her life rather than involved or affected by it.
Perkins is undoubtedly one of the most talented contemporary New Zealand writers but, in its structure and style, The Forrests often felt to me like a writing exercise - albeit one that she has executed brilliantly.”
Framing the two Herald reviews in this way is a bit misleading. Pellegrino’s is more of a ‘Is this book really worth the Booker hype?’ response (why you would fan the ludicrous pre-longlist speculation by mentioning it again is beyond me). 

And as mentioned, it’s not as if critics have been split 50/50 on the book; all the other coverage, both in NZ and the UK, that I’ve seen has been of the ‘bow down before a writer at the height of her powers’ variety (notwithstanding the odd quibble).

Until the book club got their hands on The Forrests, of course.

2. The Reviewer’s Credo

Lev Grossman, book reviewer for TIME, recently wrote:
The critics I love these days do something slightly different from what they used to: they don’t just judge, they open up that weird, intense, private dyad that forms between book and reader and let other people inside. They tell the story, the meta-story, of what happened when they opened the book and began to read the story.  
Having recently finished The Forrests myself, I hadn't found any reviews which challenged me to think differently about the book. They all seemed to tow the party- publisher’s line, or at least riff on the suggested themes.

Here’s the jacket copy:
Emily Perkins (photo credit: Deborah Smith)
Dorothy Forrest is immersed in the sensory world around her; she lives in the flickering moment. From the age of seven, when her odd, disenfranchised family moves from New York City to the wide skies of Auckland, to the very end of her life, this is her great gift and possible misfortune. Through the wilderness of a commune, to falling in love, to early marriage and motherhood, from the glorious anguish of parenting to the loss of everything worked for and the unexpected return of love, Dorothy is swept along by time. Her family looms and recedes; revelations come to light; death changes everything, but somehow life remains as potent as it ever was, and the joy in just being won't let her go. In a narrative that shifts and moves, growing as wild as the characters, The Forrests is an extraordinary literary achievement. A novel that sings with colour and memory, it speaks of family and time, dysfunction, ageing and loneliness, about heat, youth, and how life can change if 'you're lucky enough to be around for it'.
So, if you only read the back of the book, you might believe The Forrests is Dorothy’s story, that it’s closely observed, setting is important, it ranges over decades and stages of life, and the structure is a little different.

Now read any of the reviews to date and tell me it doesn’t focus on these same things.

The problem I had when I dove into The Forrests, which I will discuss in more detail shortly, was that the book didn’t fit so neatly into its packaging.

This is why I found it refreshing to read the Listener’s book clubbers talking openly and bluntly about the book, and mentioning things which hadn't been said elsewhere.

Permit me to cherry pick their criticisms now, but do read the whole article:
Alicia: “Generally, the characters weren’t developed very well, if at all, so I didn’t really connect with any of them because of that. If I had to describe Dorothy, I’d describe her as bland, depressed, detached and unfulfilled. There were too many children/siblings.”
Cathy: “I agree with you both [Catherine and Alicia, about the book have no emotional impact]. I just did not feel at all involved with the protagonists in this book. None of the characters seemed sufficiently interesting or sympathetic to have any empathy with. I felt rather depressed and disappointed with the book, which was how I felt the characters all felt about life.”
Catherine: “I was interested in the media response to this novel (potential Man Booker winner, etc) so much that I thought maybe I had misjudged it.
Alicia: “I found the minute attention to detail and the physical world around the characters intensely boring, mundane and irritating. If the style of writing had been interesting or innovative or at least vaguely literary or poetical, then perhaps wading through endless description would not have been so bad, but it was none of these things.
Alison: “That’s so harsh...” [Of the six participants, Alison was the book’s lone defender.]
Cathy: “I don’t think Alicia was being harsh. I would have preferred less description of trivia and more character and plot development. I just don’t get what all the hype is about.”
Gabrielle (asked if there were any particular passages of writing that stood out for her): Yes – the annoying first chapter: too many words. I wanted to like the book – to support a New Zealand author – but basically it’s not my cup of tea. It was difficult book for me to like, enjoy or finish. I’m a practical kind of gal and it was too esoteric for my liking.”
Mary: “I haven’t finished the book [either]. I’m not enraptured by it. In my view, it’s overly verbose, clever but emotionally disconnected.”
Perhaps, given the smallness of the NZ book world, it is no surprise that the harshest criticism has come from book club members who, presumably have no vested interest in keeping on E-Perk’s good side.

Almost as soon as the Book Club’s views were posted online the Twitterverse responded with its usual mix of dismay and snark:
Jolisa Gracewood@nzdodoNext up, the @nzlbookclub does To The Lighthouse. "Depressing... too esoteric... too many words... not enough about the actual lighthouse."
Fergus Barrowman@FergusVUP"my worst criticism is that this story is depressing" Now THAT is depressing.
While it’s nice to see reviewers, publishers and writers uniting to support a book, it’s a shame when they waste their energies ganging up on readers.

Well, I’m going to stick up for the book clubbers here. Not because I agree wholesale with their negative pronouncements, but I think a fuller discussion of any decent book should be encouraged rather than dismissed with snark.

3. You’re not in Kansas any more Dorothy

*spoiler alert* From here on in I will discuss elements of plot with scant regard for those who haven’t read the book, still intend to, and do not wish to know what happens (though I’m not sure this is the kind of book one reads to find out what happens next). *spoiler alert*

After the jacket copy, the interviews with the author that I’ve read/heard, and several reviews, I had the impression The Forrests would take place entirely inside Dorothy Forrest’s head.

But as Alison from the book club, says:
“I did find myself questioning at times whose story it was, partly because the one-sentence book review that has been in the papers is, ‘This is the story of one woman’s life from age seven to the end’. But, of course, it’s much more than that – and there are places where the story feels it’s much more like Eve’s: visiting their father in chapter three, being with Daniel in Canada in chapter five, being a housewife and looking for work in chapter eight…”
I also struggled early on to reconcile the expectation that this was Dorothy’s story with the fact that several chapters in the first third of the novel feature extended sections from the perspective of Eve (Dorothy’s sister) and Daniel (a friend of Michael, Dot’s brother, who is informally adopted by the Forrests due to problems at home).

Most troubling for me was the section set in a commune in the 1970s, where we also inhabit Michael’s perspective, the only time this happens in the novel. The reason why we see things through Michael’s eyes here is clear: we need to know the back story between him and Rena to explain why she reappears back in his life decades later; it also speaks in some way to him going off the rails as a teen.

But elsewhere the novel does not operate in this way.

As mentioned above, the novel is structured in a series of vignettes, but rather than showing the signal moments in Dorothy’s (or Eve’s or Daniel’s) life, it prefers to focus on a period before or after a conflagration. Chapter 10 begins after Eve has been in an accident (we only learn what happened in dribs and drabs through the chapter). Chapter 11 begins with Dorothy as a shut-in an unspecified time after Eve's death.

Most of the big things — Dorothy, and later Eve, hooking up with Daniel, the marriages, divorces, the birth of children — are omitted. In their place we get closely observed moments: Evelyn visiting her father who seems to have separated from their mother; a visit from Dot's younger sister Ruth and a man who may or may not be her midlife crisis boyfriend.

The Forrests tells its story by giving us the gaps between the events that might have made up a more conventional novel. The book is like the stencil formed when you cut out a string of paper dolls. Both the dolls and their outlines are doing roughly the same thing, they seek to evoke the human form, but they are constructed differently and they require you to use a different part of your brain; to look differently.

It’s no wonder, then, that some readers might respond negatively, or apathetically, to the book because it does not pull at your emotions in the same way as a traditional boom-bash novel (not that there needs to be explosions; I might soon post a comparison with Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, which I'm reading now). A lot of shit actually goes down in the course of Dorothy’s life, but the book is mostly foreboding or post-mortems. It’s a muddle because, the novel argues, Dorothy’s life is a muddle, because all lives are experienced as muddles. Or in the words of Kierkegaard: "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."
The Marriage Plot
So, to round back to the point about Michael and Rena at the commune: We see Rena’s first attempt at seducing the much younger Michael, and we also get to see him being led off to her room. The novel does not show us the subsequent sex scene, or tell us how long the liaison lasted, but I think the use of Michael's perspective just this once is unnecessary and confusing: enough information could have been supplied to the reader in other ways.

With the Michael-Rena relationship, the reader has knowledge Dorothy does not have when Rena reappears, looking for Michael because she has received a terminal diagnosis and wants to give him her house at the commune.  In contrast, Dorothy only learns about her father’s homosexuality toward the end of the book. There are a few clues, but the reader, like Dorothy has been oblivious to the true nature of her parents' marriage until this point.

So it was difficult for me to ever feel this was Dorothy’s story, or to empathise fully with her, because, yes, I was asked to spread my attention among a number of characters early on, but more crucially I was privileged with more information than her for a large portion of the novel. I think this might be why some of the book clubbers failed to “connect” with the characters.

I will say that, though I felt off-balance a lot of the time, I actually found the first third of the book the richest and most enjoyable, in part because of the variety of characters. And it seems true that life up until the age of about twenty is crammed with other people, especially parents and siblings, who are eventually sloughed off to reappear at birthdays, funerals and weddings – something The Forrests, through its narrowing focus, does a good job of mirroring.

4. Hot-noticing / Not-noticing

The second aspect of the party-line I think needs closer inspection is the quality of the writing and level of observed detail. In a couple of places (eg at the AucklandWriters Fest last week) Emily Perkins has used the term “hot noticing” to describe how the focus of a scene keys in on Dorothy, her primary sensations and emotions.

As the reviewer in the Sunday Times (UK) put it: “Where other novels approximate, Perkins renders her action with pin-sharp accuracy.”

But this is not the preciseness of, say, Nicholson Baker, who will turn an object over in his hands for page upon page. These are the fleeting observations of a person up from their arm chair and going about their business, however domestic it might be.

Some examples:
“... Dot placed egges one by one in the recycled ice-cream contained, minute pore-like squirkles in the beige shells, some of them streaked with droppings or dried gunge.” (301)
“Dot dug her thumbnail into a mandarin, the bubble-like pores popping, limonene spritzing invisibly over her hand.” (155)
This second example comes from Chapter 11 - ‘Loose’, when Dorothy is going through a bout of agoraphobia. The chapter is the apotheosis of hot noticing. It would work perfectly as a stand alone short story. But even here the keen, minute observations are only sprinkled one or two to a page. The book is never bogged down in figurative language in the way that one might imagine from a 'modern Virginia Woolf'.

More interesting for me was the voice of the narrator, especially when honed in on Dot’s perspective. The register often expands from the default contemporary-lit loose-formality to include more informal words or constructions:
“Flat pods of melted chewing gum blemished the footpath. Sunlight badoinged off storefronts’ plated glass.” (p293) [I think this is actually the second time light ‘badoings’ in the book]
“Dot lay listening to the shower in the bathroom down the hall, wishing the shimmery sound of the failing water would go on forever.” (248)
“The edges of the silence filled with a tinselly buzz of cicadas.” (266)
“The spiky irises had gone; daphne smelled thickly, spriggily sweet.” (336)
“The evening fuzzed, as though molecules of air had thickened to hold the last of the light over to the west, laky streaks lined the sky, and the hills in the distance were the colour of morello cherries.” (319)
You will have noted the preponderance of adjectives ending in ‘–y’ above. Elsewhere in The Forrests grass is “slushy”, smells are “smoky”, flowers are “lemony white”... 

Perkins is asking language to achieve a lot here. Without resorting to simile, without even seeming to employ metaphor, Perkins is describing everyday things in surprising ways, often taking something related to one sense (eg touch and/or sight, “tinsel”) and using it to describe something related to a different sense (eg sound). Dropping the register also pulls the narrator closer to Dot’s own internal monologue. These strange collisions, these almost awkward phrases: this is how Dorothy sees the world.

I found this the most exciting part of the reading experience. However, I also felt my attention being pulled from the story to deconstruct many of these phrases and ask: Does this work? 

Again, it's this tension between the quality of the writing and the quality of the connection with the story/characters.

5. Silent Disco

My biggest gripe with The Forrests is that, for all the “hot-noticing”, there’s a lot of vagueness. Some of the vagueness can be warranted, especially when Dorothy’s in a fugue-like state after the death of Eve or batty in her old age. And I respect the attempt to depict the various time periods with a light touch (a reference to the new Sky Tower or “Newsnight” or tablet computers), but there’s a point where lightness becomes blankness.

Take the references to music in the novel. Music, the novel tells us, is dangerous because of its transportative powers. You are liable to forget yourself (like in the scene where Dorothy and Daniel are at a club early on, and which is referred back to in the last line of the novel) or be reminded of earlier times.

The closing sentence from the chapter in which Eve dies:
"The music from the stereo inside flared across the garden; one of the kids must have gotten hold of the remote control." (p150)
When Dorothy is at her high school reunion:
“The song came on and it made her heart beat faster. There was music that for years had been out of bounds because of its time-machine properties, its ability to land her in a place from before...” (p179)
And a bit later:
“He shut the door. At that moment the band started playing a song from when she was fifteen, a song her body heard before her brain did. The music was like lying on the runaway as a jumbo took off just above you, scraping the air.” (190)
But what sort of music? Kajagoogoo or Joy Division? Abba or Billy Idol? Beats me.

And later:
“... they waited in the Honda for the rain to ease up before making a dash for the indoor pools. Another song from years ago came on the radio. Dorothy turned it up and listened, the red digital minutes ticking closer to the swimming lesson’s start time. Through the aching shone a shaft of pleasure: Hannah was a quick learner; by the third chorus she was singing alone.”
Okay, so we know the colour of the clock’s display, but what about the song. All we know is it’s old…

Then this, from a scene where Dorothy is sitting in the car with her adult daughter, Amy:
“ Dorothy turned on the radio... [five lines of dialogue later:] ‘Jesus, Mum.’ Amy leaned forward and turned off the radio.” (p239)
Again, we never get told anything about the music: its genre, its volume, anything. We are told of its existence and that is seemingly enough. It's like saying: 'There was weather outside.' 

I’m starting to feel nostalgic about that jumbo jet simile.

And one more:
“...Dot drove the rental car around the corner, parked it outside a university building, held onto the steering wheel and sobbed for Hannah’s small room there at the hostel, a room that to her hers still looked empty without shelves of books, though there was a band poster she’d brought from home, the big plastic eyes on the stuffed toy puppy Hannah had had since she was a baby and her brave smile as she sat perched on the edge of the single bed, back straight and knees together as though good posture was the key to independence.” (274)
Compare the image you have of the cuddly toy to the one of the band poster. Now consider what either image tells you about the year this scene might occur in. I’m pretty sure this is from some time in the near future, so maybe it’s a bit difficult to cite a specific band. But I found the novel so devoid of specifics once it past the present day, the age of the iPhone, that time didn’t seem to pass, except to age Dorothy and Daniel.

All colour leeched out of the novel as it progressed. Perhaps this is deliberate. Perhaps it's coyness on the part of the writer. Either way, I can see how other's might feel disconnected from the novel and find it a struggle to finish.

6. The Politics of Aging

The only sphere of life “in the future” I felt informed about was the political world. It’s a pessimistic vision, with powerful gangs, an addled government and an apathetic public. But more importantly, these political snippets are also comments upon Dorothy’s relationship with her family or her own life. Again, a small number of words are doing a lot of heavy lifting.

Some examples:
“‘So I hear there’s another nuke ship out there,’ he said, nodding in the direction of the invisible harbour. A bird purred from the bushes by the roadside.  ‘Yeah, apparently junk. It’s circling while they find a place to process it. Debt cancellation.’ She was repeating what stood in for news, what presented itself as news these days although nobody trusted the source...” (279)
“All [the double-length buses] did here was jam the traffic, but the council before the current council had ordered them and everyone was stuck with the decision, it would have been ‘bad management’ to reverse it, buy their way out, and this was all any ruling body seemed to do these days, live under sufferance with the choices of the previous administrations, or at least make it sound that way.” (309)

7. Washing up

So those are some of my thoughts on The Forrests after a single reading (and paying a little too much attention to what others are saying).

In the great wash up, I can see why five out of six book clubbers struggled to finish, or didn’t finish, the novel. I think their criticisms are valid, insofar as a lot of their objections are questions of taste, and there are some stylistic things (the switching perspectives early on, the combination of attention to minutiae and a lack of specificity) that could explain these reactions.

Of course, it's difficult to say this much in 140 characters. 

* I also remember reading something from Graeme Beattie on his blog to the effect that he found the novel well-written but too bleak / lacking in joy… but I can no longer find this comment. Either a) I’m doing a ‘boy look’ b) Bookman Beattie has removed this aside, for whatever reason or c) I hallucinated the whole thing.


Joanne said...

Great critique! I thoroughly enjoyed Emily’s book despite the criticisms. I liked working things out for myself, filling in the gaps, being surprised, even fearful of starting the next chapter. I especially enjoyed Emily’s writing style.

I wonder how she’s feeling with so much attention and the book club responses. I guess, in the end, it all comes down to taste. Some will like or love it, some will hurl it across the room.

I didn't find The Forrests a bleak story; and yes, I recall reading BB’s post that you mention. :)

Craig Cliff said...

Hi Joanne

Thanks for stopping by. Nice to know I didn't hallucinate BB's comment about the bleakness. *Refrains discussing conspiracy theories about its disappearance*


Anonymous said...

Looking forward to your review of 'The Marriage Plot'.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree about the vagueness. I didn't pick up that the last chapters were set in the future. The clues that help set the time period were not that specific and I assumed the nuclear ships thing and roller doors over the shops were contemporary. On page 289 she is nearly 65 but then the later the Rest Home scenes with her sister reading current news items (duct tape, topless women on bikes etc) disorientated me. And Daniel must be close to 70 with a 14 year old son? Unlikely.
It gave a rushed feeling to the end of the book, and my reaction was please don't do that to Dorothy just yet.
I like your paper dolls analogy. I enjoyed the book, it a was fresh and challenging read.


Anonymous said...

With every new post I have come to realise I was wrong about Cliff.

I think you're broadly right about Perkin's here, and in fact think this is the best thing I've read about Forrests, which I put down about 2 mins after picking up in Unity Books. You hone in on something here: the tendency to describe in detail with flowery language scenes of utter banality.

Somebody give Dorothy a razor blade.

Anonymous said...

Also, good on you for flagging the backslapping that goes on - you are right to suggest that there's no criticising a star as big as Perkins... to do so would undermine the reputation of the IML Official Writers League...

Craig Cliff said...

"With every new post I have come to realise I was wrong about Cliff."

I'm not sure what you mean, but thanks, I think.

Two things:

It's a bit unfair to compare a 4,000 word blogpost to most of the other coverage of the book, where reviewers are severely constrained by word limits (and the requirement to outline the plot and avoid spoilers). I trust you know about Nicholas Reid's blog ( which is about the only place in the NZ blogosphere that regularly throws a lot of words at books and while being consistently insightful and/or provocative.

And secondly: I find it weird you like the fact I flagged the "backslapping" (presumably because I risked some kind of backlash from the IML Official Writers League, possibly a one match suspension), but chose to remain anonymous yourself.


Anonymous said...

What, so you and the gang can hunt me down and kill me?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Craig, nice job.

One point - some might think they are converging in style and content, but (the first two reviews you cite in) the Herald and Herald on Sunday are different papers with different points of view.

Mark Broatch