Wednesday, December 3, 2008

kristeva again, and Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News

So it turns out that when you spend a night helping a new baby be born and then spends several hour a day for the next few days helping that little one's parents get some sleep, those extra hours do not magically get replaced by the universe. This is my rather good excuse for not having written here for a while.

Still, I did manage to attend our ongoing colloquium on Kristeva's Powers of Horror last Friday -- the other grandma was going to be visiting the new family, and I thought I'd stay out of the way and give her and baby a chance to get to know one another. Reading for last week was chapters four and five -- in which Kristeva talks about taboo, abomination, and the Old Testament -- the notion of sinful externals -- and then sets out the way that the New Testament establishes sin as coming from within, an internalization of the abject. Especially in her discussion of the Old Testament, she emphasizes the patriarchal impulse to abject anything pointing to the mother's power long acknowledged within pre-existing religions. So you might imagine that this reading was masterfully illuminated for me by the birth I witnessed. In awe of my daughter, truly goddess during that birth, and indeed of the whole process in all its corporeal messiness, I find so little space to speak of my experience -- indeed, I see here the relationship between the sublime and the abject that Kristeva argues as both escaping language. Not until our visiting speaker played a recording by French bassist Joelle Leandre did I recall, in Leandre's improvisation, the sounds B made breathing through her contractions -- some part of me had already consigned these to what doesn't belong.

The discussion we had around that Friday afternoon table, the different window on the text offered by the visiting speaker, and, perhaps especially, the lively conversation we had at the pub after brought back the excitement of grad school (except, as one of my colleagues said Monday morning, that we all broke off to go home after two hours rather than carrying on to any drunken debauchery!). Carving out the time to read this difficult text and then committing to a Friday afternoon once a month has been well rewarded for me. (In fact, I've already proposed a paper which has evolved from the colloquium, and I have another one in mind to write once exams and essays are marked.)

First-year essays are my main reading material right now. Overall, I'm really pleased about what I got across this term for my 115 class (Writing for University), and there are a number of papers that really show students understanding how to make what Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein call "the moves that matter in academic writing." But oh dear, there are so many that are painful to read. If you have friends or family who do this kind of work, be extra sympathetic to them these few weeks -- I know it may sometimes seem we have a cushy job (although I don't see it that way myself -- when you think we have weeks off, we're usually doing prep work or research) but this is when we really work for our living . . .

But last week, besides Kristeva, I carted around Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News as I went back and forth on the ferry. I've been a fan of Atkinson since Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but I see that I've missed some of her offerings. I haven't, for example, read Human Croquet, which apparently, like Behind the Scenes, takes readers through a complex family history -- the family in the former was certainly quirky enough that I should recommend the book to one of my daughters who's fascinated by accounts of families-who-don't-really-work-but-do-anyway. Most interesting, though, is the way Atkinson mucks up any expectations of the family saga genre; she plays with time and novel structure, yet not so much that the experiment gets in the way of character development or story.

When Will There be Good News, though, is a third crime novel featuring ex-police Jackson Brodie, the same detective who featured in Atkinson's Case Histories. I loved Case Histories when I read it a few years ago-- a fascinating layering of events that the reader can begin to see coalescing into meaning. It was like being in the middle of a puzzle and hearing the clicks as it came together -- again, though, without craft being irritatingly obvious. In fact, I thought at the time that it might be a good book for a 1st-year class because it's immediately engaging and yet there's so much they could think and write about both in terms of its content and of its structure -- especially about the relation between time and memory.

I think much of what Atkinson does that keeps the reader from getting frustrated with her structural play is that she develops rich, likeable characters very, very quickly-- and she really has an ability to get inside a child's perspective convincingly. There's a teenage girl in Good News that I want to meet; I love this girl, really! She's on the verge of being too good to be true in her smart, smart feistiness, her ability to love despite a series of very hard knocks, her determination to keep going when giving up seems a very reasonable alternative -- yet she seems absolutely credible in Atkinson's hands. There are some equally-credible unlikeable characters and some comically tiresome ones (the newly-evangelical teacher who tutors our young "hero"), and, of course, Brodie himself, the detective whose personal life is not inspiring, who seems to have trouble sustaining personal relationships, but who we like nonetheless in his humanity. A very satisfying plot as well, with a very large arc, geographically and historically, and some unlikely coincidences that nonetheless seem quite fitting, given the palette Atkinson's working with.

I'm surprised that I missed One Good Turn, a Jackson Brodie novel that apparently preceded this one -- it should be in paperback, whereas I paid for hardcover for this latest (a splurge I rarely justify for crime novels, but well worth it in this case). If you're looking for some satisfying reading that's not quite as challenging as Kristeva (there'd be quite a bit that qualifies, I admit!), consider searching out any of Atkinson's work. Enjoy!


  1. Hi Mater! I did manage to read this one, inspite of not being a mystery person, just before the holidays. I think it was a Salon review that tipped me off.

    I've never been a mystery person before. But now I see the advantage in a yarn completely unconnected to your own life, that you don't care about enough to stay up too late reading!

    After my grandfather died, my grandmother started reading mysteries again. She would always turn to the last page about a chapter in, which at the time, horrified me. Grandma, I said, you're spoiling the narrative! She explained that she liked working the puzzle this way. And it helped save her from the dreaded 2 a.m. bedtime. She wanted just that much element of suspense removed from the reading.

    Amazing how literature adapts -- or is it we who adapt -- to different life stages.

    Now I'm reading Paul Krugman's Return of Depression Economics, revised edition. This is something I never thought one bit about until the last year or so!!! I think I love his clear conversational writing as much as I am fascinated by the mysterious workings of economics and monetary policy.

    I wish I had more time to browse here. But I must run!

  2. Your grandma's technique is a clever one -- I do like to build the tension, but her method would allow you to put the book down at a reasonable hour like 11, rather than reading foolishly 'til 1 and then paying the price the next day.

    There are so many well-written mysteries that offer some of the same satisfaction as any "literary novel" -- altho' they're often dismissed as formula or genre fiction, they offer satisfying character development, often explore social issues, and in the best hands, provide many structural and stylistic delights as well (I love Reginald Hill's wordplay, for example -- the man's a dictionary!)
    If I score another lifetime, I'd like to spend some time getting to know something about economics -- the book you're reading sounds very timely!

  3. I find the science fiction I like has more of the qualities of fiction (plot, character, narrative) than of the "science." GIve me quality, and I'm happy to play with almost any genre. Everything else is just window dressing!

    Isn't Reggie amazing in Good News? I thought the dreariness of the former teacher/born again was a nice foil for her. The chinese puzzle box aspect of the plot was very much fun. And the tension between Brodie and Louise was really well done. Reggie provided some wonderful comic relief to their interactions, and also was the real plot driver/detective! Atkinson really highlighted age and gender discrimination in her treatment of Reggie, I thought. I wasn't too convinced by the Johanna Hunt character, but then, how many people have a history like that?

    I was happy that the Reggie/Johanna relationship got stronger, or was consummated ( so to speak), even if the Louise/Jackson one didn't. But I suppose a serial writer has to leave something hanging!

    There, my own five-minute essay.

  4. Dana, that's a satisfying little sketch you've drawn there -- and yes, I loved Reggie -- I'd love to see her show up again in other KA work.
    I used to read quite a bit of SF, borrowing books Pater recommended -- I agree with you that genre's not so much the point; it's the quality that matters. But I've drifted away from SF simply because of time, I think -- my other lists are just too long and I'm never going to get caught up!