Mortifyingly, I haven’t actually read the current edition of Granta. I have a copy of it in my living room; I’ve thumbed through it a little bit: checked out some of the portraits; noted that Stephen Hall’s contribution seems to involve an interesting layout. But still: haven’t gotten to it yet. But that didn’t stop me from reading novels by three of the writers featured in said issue.
Two of the writers whose work I read this week, I’d encountered before: I read Sarah Hall’s collection The Beautiful Indifference a few months ago, and Helen Oyeyemi’s novel The Icarus Girl when it was first out in hardcover, in….2004, maybe? I’m newer to Ned Beauman’s work — though admittedly, he has less of it out. (Dude was also born in 1985, which does not exactly make me feel young. Obligatory “get off my lawn” comment to come.) I liked Hall’s collection considerably; I was more lukewarm on Oyeyemi’s novel, though I also recognize that this is not a widely held opinion.
And, based on Mr. Fox — which came highly recommended — I’m going to want to read a lot more of Ms. Oyeyemi’s work, because this one was impressive indeed. The setup: a writer named Mr. Fox is visited by his muse, Mary Foxe, who has seemingly come to life in order to criticize his penchant for killing his female characters. What ensues is a duel of narratives within narratives, sometimes oblique and sometimes very literal. (Mr. Fox’s wife Daphne shows up as well, and turns out to have her own literary gifts.) The three main characters are all fascinating, and the narratives range from folktales to epistolary narratives. It’s Calvino-style metafiction bound up in feminist literary critique; smart and compelling all the way through.
Ned Beauman’s Boxer, Beetle is a more realistic narrative, juxtaposing a contemporary plotline with one set in the mid-1930s. But there are narrative games played here as well, including a nod to the slightly metafictional elements of Martin Amis’s Money. Amis in his bleak-comic mode is probably as good a reference point as any: Beauman’s novel features dueling groups of British fascists, a hard-living; nine-toed boxer; and a geneticist professing some appalling theories of race and society. There’s also a collector of Nazi memorabilia who suffers from trimethylaminuria; his discovery of a letter to the geneticist from Hitler kicks off a generally demented take on the private-detective narrative. Throughout, Beauman dodges narrative expectations, all the while supplying a heady dose of grim humor.
Compared with these two works, Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North — a novel of a near-future England where climate change and a series of ongoing wars have prompted a coldly oppressive regime to take power — look traditional, narratively speaking. And yet even here, the structure, in which the novel is presented as a series of transcripts, some intact and some not, is more stylized that one would expect. Our narrator, known only as Sister, abandons her life in a city to seek out a utopian community. What she discovers there — and what that means for her society as a whole — forms the core of this novel. And that fractured narrative approach that gradually reveals itself makes more sense as the book goes on, and the role of testimonials begins to become more clear. Smart, inspiring, and chilling all at once, this is not an easy novel to forget.