New in Books
The Mistress's Daughter
By A. M. Homes
In A. M. Homes's stories, suburban housewives have sex with each other on the kitchen floor, professional couples try crack, and big things catch fire. Homes's fiction is a fiery and lurid business, and it is in that same tone that she tells the story of her own adoption in her memoir The Mistress's Daughter. Homes has been wronged by the world in the same way as any adopted child, we are made to know in the first pages. But worse for her is the discovery that she's the secret product of shallow sex between two unsavory people. She picks up certain details about their lives after her real mother tracks her down through a lawyer, and she novelizes the rest, imagining what went on decades ago between a needy, deluded young woman and a selfish married man. Then, for pages on end, she details dry historical documents looking for clues about who these people really were and from whom they came. In the end, Homes doesn't really put together a coherent, sympathetic memoir or genealogical narrative. And then comes the birth of her daughter, which seems to be sufficiently distracting so as to end the book. JEN GRAVES
A Miracle of Catfish
By Larry Brown
(Shannon Ravenel Books) $24.95
Larry Brown—author of tough, tender, thoughtful novels that mapped the terrain of a new American South—died in 2004 at 53, leaving behind him this unfinished novel. The introductory note describes A Miracle of Catfish as Brown's "all-but-completed sixth novel" that he planned to finish a few weeks after giving the draft to his agent. Then, the day before Thanksgiving, Brown suffered a massive heart attack. Some time later, his widow, Mary Annie Brown, and her advisors—why do I imagine two spectral gentlemen in long, black coats?—approached Brown's longtime editor, Shannon Ravenel, and asked her to edit the book for publication.
Ravenel determined not to damage the text of A Miracle of Catfish. She decided that "making any changes—substantive or minor—to the plot, the structure, the characterizations, would be inappropriate." But the draft came in at 710 pages and Ravenel felt, as she had in editing some of Brown's earlier works, that there was some trimming to do. She decided to note any cuts she made with an ellipsis inside brackets. This simple solution succeeds in its all-important task. It reminds you that what you're reading is, in fact, incomplete.
An early, typical sentence reads: "'I'll just call back when Toby's there,' he said, and hung up abruptly, as he always did, with anybody. [...]" Ravenel affirms that she didn't cut anything essential. But what about the inessential? What we miss in the aftermath of that telephone conversation probably didn't have any impact at all on the narrative; however, some of fiction's power arises directly from the accretion of those seemingly inessential moments. Ravenel's ellipses are tantalizing and ultimately a bit frustrating.
Fans will find in A Miracle of Catfish the same vigorous prose, strong characterization, and deep empathy present in his earlier works. If you've never read Brown before, though, start with something else—the gritty collection of stories Big Bad Love, or the more recent Southern Book Award–winning Father and Son. CHRIS McCANN
Consolation: A Novel
By Michael Redhill
(Little, Brown) $24.99
Michael Redhill tricked me into caring about Toronto. Even worse, he tricked me into caring about some old pictures that may or may not exist buried beneath the mud in a Toronto landfill. His new novel, Consolation, is a lovely, lyrical musing about the role of history in the modern world.
The story unfolds in two time periods: 1890s Toronto, where a young British pharmacist is trying to find a place in the new colony, and present-day Toronto, where an eccentric historian with Lou Gehrig's disease commits suicide, leaving his family to pick up the pieces. The book jumps back and forth between the two time periods with relative ease, and I nearly missed my bus stop several times reading to find out what would be dug up in the mud in Toronto. I was surprised to find myself so enthralled with a topic so seemingly dull. Of course, in many ways it is the job of fiction to make you care about something that doesn't exist. Good writers will drag you into a world entirely of their own making. But Toronto? SAGE VAN WING
I Love Dollars and Other Stories of China
by Zhu Wen; translated by Julia Lovell
(Columbia University Press) $24.50
"They're so nonmaterialistic!" swoons my father's friend about China—a friend who clocks all possible time to the left of the Sino-American line, who adopted four young (hunky) Mandarin-language scholars, and who refers to his actual children as "biological accidents of marriage." Chinese writer Zhu Wen shows how wrong "nonmaterialistic" is, but manages artistry instead of polemic. As in the endless e-mail missives my father's friend sends from China, sex slyly undercuts idealism in Zhu's Beijing. Unlike said e-mails, sex and idealism here shift at least once a page like two wrestling metaphors slipping and sweating for the final pin down. Money, the great referee, weighs in with the count: "It corrupts us, it makes us arrogant, but it doesn't mean to; it abases only so that we're forced to strengthen ourselves; it erodes our self-restraint only to make us realize we never had any in the first place." Spoken (from the book's title novella) like a man loving dollars more than the sex he chases tragicomically over his city, father in tow. But our man in a rare glimmer of wisdom dubs his sex drive "a kind of madness." A biological incidence of carriage. Zhu walked away from fiction for film after completing these stories, and "Ah, Xiao Xie" seems cinematically poised, its unfinishable, unabandonable power plant analogous to Buñuel's Exterminating Angel banquet. Though even Buñuel didn't throw in sweaty, homoerotic dreams starring the boss. ANDREW HAMLIN