Book Review: Things We Nearly Knew (Jim Powell)

That we do not, or cannot, know everything of those we suppose we know, or that we might be variations of ourselves when around different people, are the essential building blocks of Jim Powell’s Things We Nearly Knew (Picador, 2018). Set in an unnamed small American town, Powell’s similarly unnamed narrator owns a bar out at the very periphery of the place: the back-drop hub to a whole plethora of gossip and amateur sleuthing on the comings and goings, by the locals, of their fellow denizens. Powell explores his themes via a handful of these characters, of various shades of depth or passings-by. His writing, as befitting the vocation of his main narrator character, is conversational in tone, easy to read, dotted with bar psychology, though nothing too profound threatens to endanger the flow of the read.

That said, Powell does manage to touch on small moments such as is the everydayness of most bar-goers’ lives: a little on politics, small diversions into loss, excursions into the meanings of things. If this is a conscious effort to relate the life of the bar to the style of the writing, then Powell has achieved this well. Not having yet read any of his other works, this reflection shall need to be returned to in due course. There is a limit to how many characters an author can reasonably expect to maintain within any given piece, and so necessarily this author only details a few (there are nods to how the bar has its flow of other trade, but mostly we see the bar as sparsely populated).

The catalyst for the narrator’s reflections and the locals’ changing lives takes place one winter when Arlene, a late thirties-something mystery woman, enters the bar. She’s looking for a man called Jack, though, as we’re told, there are plenty of those around, potentially. Arlene has no surname to go on and very little other information. No-one knows why she wants to find him because she won’t tell, and neither does she say anything to the locals about herself. They are curious to find out about her. Arlene becomes a sporadic regular and sets the narrative in motion.

Along the way, we meet other locals: Davy, who we’re told is more intelligent than his chosen work positions suggest he is, who has some anger issues, who has his secrets, and who very soon starts a relationship with Arlene; Nelson, a failed politician, a corporate crook who likes the sound of his own voice; Mike, a quiet and unassuming man who Powell does not choose to colour in in any great detail. The bar owner-narrator’s wife, Marcie, is a rational, level-headed woman, depicted as someone who encapsulates the comfortable knowledge of a thirty year marriage, who supports and is supported, but who also has her secrets. To this mix, Powell adds Franky Albertino: Franky is the Fonz character, come back to town after thirty years away, still playing the slippery wide-boy, still not totally trusted, but still exerting the same gravitational pull that he always did. In Powell’s writing here, practically everyone has their history, their skeletons in the closet, and as Arlene suggests early on (whilst she, Davy, the bar owner and his wife go on a short break to the bleak scenes of Coney Island out of season), everyone presents a different version of themselves according to who they’re with.

Before long we’re embroiled in the gossip of the handful of locals and bar owners who variously ask one another (or the reader asks of the writer) who Arlene is, where she’s from, why she’s looking for someone called Jack and who he is, why Franky’s back in town and what he wants, why Franky wants to take over the abandoned mansion next to the bar, who the reclusive Mr Hammond who purportedly lives or lived there is, what might be happening in the slow-spiralling relationship between Davy and Arlene, who the money was stolen by, what happened to Marcie thirty years ago, what the cause of sadness for Marcie and her husband is, and so on. In writing a review, it’s difficult not to accidentally create spoilers but, suffice is to say, progeny and identity and versions of presentations of characters are strongly alluded to. What was particularly pleasing to read in Powell’s writing was that he does not always go the whole way in his explanations: he leaves the reader to piece things together, giving enough clues so that the risk of too much ambiguity is reduced.

It isn’t clear where the bar owner-narrator’s town is in America, but it takes him, Marcie, Davy and Arlene the best part of a day to drive from there to Coney Island on the coast. In some respects it doesn’t matter that the author has chosen not to specify a location: this could be an everyday story of any group of locals anywhere. Powell has just chosen to set his story in Anyplace, America. He mostly succeeds in this, referencing American phraseology and cultural practices. However, the pedantic reviewer will often root out the odd slip-up. Towards the end of the book, Franky sends the narrator a cheque: Powell writes it this way (‘cheque’; in British English, rather than the American ‘check’). It is a small detail but something that causes the moment of a temporary stepping out of the fictive flow. It is a small criticism, but one that this reader feels is worth expressing.

How does an author end any given novel? That is, at what point does the wind-down begin? In some ways, endings could be seen to be even more important than beginnings. It isn’t clear at what stage Powell starts to wind down towards the final pages, and this is testament to his writing, but there is a feel in this reader’s perception that some final scenes are not given such due attention as earlier ones. In the narrator’s discussions with another bartender, in a town some fifty miles away, there is the feel of a stilted wrapping up taking place: the other bartender is depicted as distracted or uncaring (the anti-bartender, as it were, in the previously written thinking that there is a certain pastoral duty to undertake in the role), and the narrator quizzes him, receiving an unlikely staccato flow of responses. The suspicion is that such an exchange is disingenuous to the reality of people who have only just met like this, irrespective of their shared vocation.

These small criticisms aside, Powell offers a novel that flows easily with sub-plots and a little subtlety. Some characters are a little thin in the fleshing out, but other relationships depicted are graceful, caring, curious or open to debate: an interwoven gossiping, though without the negative connotation of the word. Ultimately, what we can come away with is that Things We Nearly Knew gently questions us on the various versions of ourselves.
 
 

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Book Review: The Children (Carolina Sanín)

Quite what the Colombian writer Carolina Sanín’s message is in The Children (MacLehose Press, English translation, from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, 2017; originally published as Los Niños, 2014) is entirely unclear. What we are presented with is, initially, the mystery of why a six year old boy has suddenly turned up at her main character’s door, apparently without family or history. What transpires is a slow descent into a muddle of potential main character neurosis, possible allegory, and an attempted blur of realities and fantasies.

The ideas in Sanín’s work might well have proved worthy of consideration had they not been so confused by such deliberate obfuscation, such convoluted execution and, frankly, such poor technique in the writing. She briefly touches on thinking such as ‘ghosts within ghosts’ and the construct of mentally ‘keeping’ those who have been met in the past on a distant imaginary island, neither dead or alive, but overall her writing is amateurish at best: she describes her main character’s appearance as if she were writing as her secondary character himself (the six year old Elvis, who the main character Laura Romero prefers to refer to as Fidel); on the first page she writes that: ‘Laura used to leave the Renault in the car park outside the Olímpica, which was the name of the supermarket.’ The sleeve notes inform us that Sanín obtained a PhD in Hispanic Literature. This, unfortunately, does not correlate with the style of her fiction writing, as presented in The Children.

Laura Romero is a somewhat needy woman of indeterminate age, fortunate enough to receive an income from a family salt industry, but who undertakes a cleaning job three times per week nonetheless. This position changes when, after a meeting with one of the beggars who operate a protection racket at the supermarket, watching out for cars in exchange for money, Laura attributes something said to her as meaning that she is being offered a child. A child duly arrives outside her apartment, looking dishevelled and in need of care. There follows a slow descent into the possibility of magic realist terrain, Sanín being in good local company such as Márquez, for example, as she is. The frustrating, baffling and sometimes potentially bizarre but apparently ordinary machinations of bureaucratic procedures manifest in Laura’s attempts at finding the boy again after she has done the right thing in reporting the case of the unknown child to the authorities and then losing him in the system. What is more at odds though is the apparent ease with which Laura has taken to the child in the first place and the equally strange idea that the boy could be so easily given away to any fostering or adopting suitor.

Laura Romero is portrayed as a woman with a possible painful past as regards a child, of an early age, who was lost. Sanín is not specific and, presumably, this deliberate obfuscation is intended as just one of the blurrings of the piece as a whole. Blurring, as a device, is entirely acceptable; however, whatever device is in operation, a basic plausibility must also thread through the whole. Sanín’s writing suffers from just this deficit: a boy appears in the street and Laura alters her life around him, the authorities act with distant greyness but with surprising benevolence towards her claims on the child, and the boy himself does not act in the manner we might expect (by the time she traces him again) of a seven year old. There are other characters who stake claims on the child, and he duly goes along with their visits. Elvis (or Fidel, we never find out why Sanín chooses to have Laura prefer this name she has invented) is a strange child, but potentially in the construct of the story and also in the reading perception, he’s not akin to a real child. Perhaps this is a point Sanín has tried to explore; perhaps this is an entirely misconstrued interpretation.

Laura’s mental health is an undertow within the narrative, though this is never so explicit. Whether in a magic realist manner or otherwise, Sanín has her wondering if Elvis wasn’t conceived, as such, on a bus journey she takes in her home city of Bogotá, when she is also accosted by a pressuring bread selling beggar. The allusion is towards the unknown nature and appearance of the child but the execution of the ideas is clumsily overlaid. The motif of a whale recurs throughout the pages, linking to the occasional note that Laura is reading Moby Dick. What the purpose of this is, is unclear. Elvis becomes attached to Laura’s dog, Brus, equally without such explicit purpose, with the confusion at one point that Elvis is Brus.

In the final stages, Laura visits a fortune teller, with whom she has had dealings some years before and who had revealed to her that she would have a child. The pages of this short book are running out at this point and it is, with some hope and expectation, that Sanín might now present the purpose of her fictional thesis. However, after some quantity of fortune telling nonsensical rambling, Laura Romero is depicted back in her apartment again and the boy effectively vandalises his room, and the book ends. It is an entirely unsatisfactory conclusion.

In the final reckoning, a work of ideas, a story of something, should have its plausibility, even if the fantastical elements are an important strand (that is, after all, the art and the skill that should be inherent in the technique of the writer); the writing should have its internal structure, even if that structure is amorphous, and it should have an elegance that it can call its own. Sanín’s writing here, unfortunately, has little of any of these and this is a great shame because, with better application of the written word, the story of how and why Laura Romero and Elvis/Fidel came to cross life paths might well have become something more than just a few garnered snapshots of unfulfilled ideas such as ghosts within ghosts, possible children and lost lives.
 
 

Book Review: Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness (Simon Kinch)

Simon Kinch’s Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness (Salt Publishing, 2017) is described in its blurb as being a ‘daring, experimental novel’: in a sense, perhaps every novel can be described as experimental because a writer cannot hope to know exactly every eventuality of every page before they’ve sat down to write. Kinch’s writing here is, presumably, described thus because of its playing with two parallel time lines in the main character’s life. It’s an intriguing device, for sure; it’s experimental, yes maybe, but daring, no: unless this attribute of the work can be bestowed upon the author’s ability to invest little to no passion or zest, at all, into the main character.

It is difficult to know the author’s intentions in this respect. What we’re able to work with, as readers, is that his main character is given the name of Granville: a dull and dreary, old-fashioned name, not becoming of the twenty-three year old summer traveller who reaches a point of decision making following a text message from his girlfriend, Alyson — return home to Madison, Wisconsin, or ignore his European visa expiration and travel back south from the French-Spanish border, via Barcelona, and on to Sevilla. Granville throws the phone into the sea and chooses the latter. En route south he has his bag stolen (though fortuitously the author has had the foresight to ensure that Granville tucks his credit card into his shirt pocket beforehand). Small details matter, and herein lies an issue with the set up of Kinch’s novel: Granville has his bag stolen and all that it holds, including his passport. Kinch writes as much early on: ‘No satchel, no wallet, no laptop, no passport.’ (p.11). Yet, the set up of the novel relies on one version of Granville travelling back north, after this, via Paris and London to the U.S. (presumably needing his stolen passport) and the other version of him staying on in Sevilla. Small details matter, and this reader was distracted by the author’s oversight for a good portion of the rest of the book.

Kinch writes his chapters in very short form: just a few pages each. By the time we quickly reach Chapter 7, Granville has an epiphany whilst sitting at a river jetty in the district of Triana in Sevilla: he feels the sun heat the hairs on his skin and this is the moment of small rupture. From the next chapters on we settle into the knowledge that alternating chapters are going to document the parallel lives of Granville: one version of him returns home to pick up a dull life of being an office temp, sorting invoices for an accountancy firm; the other version of him takes up a position working for a local property owner, Señora Rosales, organising her diary and liaising with foreign holiday-makers for her, as a native English speaker. Both versions of Granville are administrators. Both versions of his life begin to intersect: situations that occur in one version start to mirror themselves in his other life. The construct is fine enough, but the lack of character in Granville begins to aggravate.

Along both versions of his lives, he interacts with various women he meets (whilst resisting the thought of making contact again with his erstwhile girlfriend, Alyson). Granville meets Jess, a young woman from Newcastle, in Sevilla, and drinks with her. He meets Clara, who works at the local hostel, and he drinks with her. He eats and drinks with Señora Rosales at the apartment she’s lent him. In his other life, Granville develops a relationship of sorts with Laura, who also works at the accountancy office, and with whom he has lunch, and the occasional Friday evening drinks. In one life or the other, Granville drinks plenty of coffee or beers, he smokes, he drinks more coffee, he smokes more. (Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, without the colour, briefly crosses the mind). Granville wonders why Alyson had sent him a text message implying that they were breaking up (‘. . . we need to talk’): the matter is obvious to the reader — dishwater is less boring than Granville. He fails to act on Clara’s advances, leaves Jess to herself, and doesn’t get excited by his relations with Laura. The reader is left to wonder if Granville’s dullness is intentional, or if this is a fault of the author and his technique.

On a similar note, writing as an American, Kinch sprinkles in various Americanisations of word or phrase use or of cultural reference, yet the feel of the writing is that of a British English writer: the syntax plays into this hand and there are words that are spelt this way too (e.g. centre), which would imply that either there has been an editorial slip in this respect or that the author has mixed his versions of English. Small details matter.

There is an attempt at such small detailings throughout; however, many of these are lost on this reader. For example, whilst the idea of the ‘flâneur’ is explicitly introduced (Granville observes the almost theatrical aspects of street life taking place around, and almost for, him), Kinch attaches weighty importance to Granville’s brief eye contact with a man with a moustache at the guest house he stays at in Sevilla. Later, Granville sees this man again at a street bar. The man engages in a fraught conversation with a woman and Granville is intrigued, hooked in, but he doesn’t know why and he can only really try to grasp their body language, not being proficient in Spanish. The small detail of the importance of the man with the moustache is not apparent.

Towards this last portion of the book, Kinch’s narrative begins to unravel. A few chapters earlier, his tight construct of alternating lives breaks down, as does his use of present tense for the U.S. Granville version and the past tense for his Sevilla life. The final two chapters are (somewhat pretentiously) actually just one. The idea is to blur the time lines back together again, but Kinch has attached importance to various aspects of the story where no great significance can be perceived by this reader. It is, perhaps, a question of reader engagement.

The title of Kinch’s novel suggests a form of contentedness with the lots that have been dealt to Granville and his, albeit ‘disjointed’, happinesses. However, Granville lacks sufficient wit to perceive the relationships potentially forming around him, let alone understand the potential of relations he’s engaging in himself, so it is a stretch to believe that there is some form of contentedness, albeit flavoured with existential concern, at play. Ultimately, Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness is an artistic attempt at a simple construct, weighed with importances that only the author might well see, foregoing some simple, small but important, details in the process.