Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang

“Languages aren’t just made of words. They’re modes of looking at the world. They’re the keys to civilization. And that’s knowledge worth killing for.”

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is an fierce indictment against colonialism. Within this superbly written slow-burner of a bildungsroman, R.F. Kuang presents her readers with an extensive critique of eurocentrism, scientific racism, white supremacy, elitist institutions and the hoarding of knowledge, and British imperialism that is by turns didactic and impassioned. If you are a reader who isn’t particularly into nonfiction but you are keen on familiarizing yourself with discourses on colonialism, decolonization, and postcolonialism, or are interested in linguistics (translation, interpretation, language contact), or learning more about the circumstances that led to the First Opium War, you should definitely consider picking Babel up.

Babel is a rare example of how—in the right hands—telling can be just as effective a storytelling method as ‘showing’. Kuang’s storytelling is quite frankly superb. And not only is the narration immersive and encompassing, but it is also informative and thought-provoking. Undoubtedly readers will feel angry by what they will read, and the unrelenting racism, discrimination, physical and emotional violence experienced by the story’s protagonist, Robin. This is a decidedly heavy-going story. And yet, thanks to Kuang’s bravura display of storytelling, readers will find themselves persevering, despite the foreshadowing that presages worse is to come…

The majority of the novel takes place in an alternate 1830s Oxford where Babel, the University’s Royal Institute of Translation, is the ‘pioneering’ centre of translation and ‘silver-working’, an act that catches what is lost in translation and manifests it into being. After cholera decimated his family, Robin, a boy from Canton, is whisked away from China to London by the imperious Professor Lovell, who happens to be a renowned professor at Babel. Robin has no choice but to follow and obey Professor Lovell’s strict study regimens. Not only does Professor Lovell impose a punitive lifestyle on Robin, forcing him to dedicate his every waking moment to the study and learning of languages, but he devests him of his ‘former’ name and makes him relinquish any remembrances of his former life. Additionally, Professor Lovell subjects Robin to many forms of abuse: from spewing ethnocentric and white supremacist speeches, to physically ‘punishing’ Robin. Growing up in this environment Robin grows to resent his ‘mentor’, and yet, even so he is desperate to belong. Besides his tutors and Professor Lovell, Robin only really interacts with his mentor’s housekeeper, who, despite being the only person to show him any tenderness, is nevertheless complicit in Professor Lovell’s continued abuse of him. Robin’s childhood is not a happy one, in fact, it is not really a childhood at all. The setting combined with the misery of it all brought to mind the work of Charles Dickens. Unlike Dickens’ heroes, Robin is not only disadvantaged by his being an orphan but by not being white, something that ultimately makes him a very un-Dickensian character. Professor Lovell’s oppressive ‘rule’ instils in Robin a sense of fear: while he does have a lot of questions (how did the professor find him? why him? why is he ‘bestowing’ on him such an education? what will await him at babel?) he is weary about disobeying him. Moving to Oxford opens Robin up to a world that is both awe-inspiring and terrible. At Babel he can master languages in even more depth, he can be surrounded by hundreds of years of knowledge, and by (supposedly) like-minded individuals.

“They’d been chosen for privileges they couldn’t have ever imagined, funded by powerful and wealthy men whose motives they did not fully understand, and they were acutely aware these could be lost at any moment. That precariousness made them simultaneously bold and terrified. They had the keys to the kingdom; they did not want to give them”

But even Babel has its own set of hierarchies, which prioritize whiteness and European cultures and languages. While Babel, unlike other colleges at Oxford, admits a more diverse student body, compared to his white peers, Robin is treated with a mixture of fascination and disdain. The older students seem unwilling to mingle with first-years so inevitably Robin becomes close to his cohort: Ramy, Victoire, and Letty.
Robin and Ramy become particularly close, and their bond is one of the novel’s strengths. It isn’t a particularly straightforward relationship but their similar experiences and circumstances intensify their kinship. There is a chapter relatively early in the novel that focuses on their early days getting to know each other which was immeasurably bittersweet.

“[This] circle of people he loved so fiercely his chest hurt when he thought about them. A family. He felt a crush of guilt then for loving them, and Oxford, as much as he did. He adored it here; he really did. For all the daily slights he suffered, walking through campus delighted him.”

You feel such relief for Robin to have found someone who just gets what it means to be seen as ‘other’, to be treated as ‘inferior’, ‘un-English’, and to have been deracinated from their homelands and to feel such contrasting emotions at being at Oxford, an institution that upholds racist ideologies. In this ‘alternate’ setting this contrition is even more felt given the role that Babel plays in silver-working and of how silver bars are enabling the British empire to amass even more power and wealth and to further ‘expand’. Robin believes that by staying at Babel, he is surviving. Ramy however is more openly critical of Britain. The duo is later joined by Letty and Victoire, who, being girls are also subjected to discrimination. Like the boys, Victoire, who is Black and was born in Haiti, has an extremely fraught relationship with Babel. Letty, who is white and was born and raised in Britain in a relatively well off family, is in some ways the odd one out. Yet, she seems intent on portraying herself as a victim, in any circumstance really, often referring to her own experience with misogyny to negate Robin, Ramy, and Victoire’s experiences with racism and colonialism. Additionally, her brother died, which Lety, we are both told and shown this, uses to earn her ‘friends’ sympathy. We are meant to hate her, and hate her I did. Imagine the most annoying aspects of Hermione Granger’s character and you have Letty (stubborn, sanctimonious, a stickler for rules). She is a colonialist apologist who, despite being ‘exposed’ to the perspectives/realities of people who have been colonized or have experienced violence at the hands of the British empire, remains firm in her stance (we learn this quite early on so i don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler). I recently came across this quote by Oksana Zabuzhko, a Ukrainian writer, that very much applies to people like Letty: “This is what power really is: the privilege of ignoring anything you might find distasteful.’ Certainly, we can see why at first Robin, Victoire, and Ramy would not oppose Letty’s presence in their group. These opinions have been instilled in her by her upbringing. But, when the months and years go by and Letty’s belief in the British empire remains unwavering…well…her presence in the group didn’t make much sense. I couldn’t fathom why the others would keep her around. I get that she existed to make a point, and sadly I know people like her (who resort to self-victimization whenever confronted with anything resembling criticism, who believe themselves to be ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ but only have empathy for themselves) but I just found her beyond irritating and obnoxious. She has no redeeming qualities. And it annoyed me that she took the center stage in many of the group interactions and took away page-time from characters like Ramy and Victoire. I wish she could have been pushed to the sidelines more, and maybe for her then to take more of a role when sh*t starts going down. But I digress.

At Babel Robin finally learns more about silver bars and dio mio, it isn’t good. He learns just how powerful language can be and has to reconcile himself with the knowledge that he is contributing to the enrichment of the British empire. Robin is approached by a member of a secret organization, Hermes Society, whose aim is to sabotage the silver-working that goes on at Babel and disrupt the status quo. Robin feels at a crossroad, damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. While he does still experience racism and discrimination at Babel, it is there that he can access knowledge that would otherwise not be accessible to him. And, of course, it is there that he was able to meet Ramy and Victoire (i should really include letty because robin does care for her but i cannot bring myself to). Babel also has shielded him away from Professor Lovell, who he now sees only on rare occasions, and given him the kind an opportunity that many others will never have…but that doesn’t make him unaware of how, beneath its ‘enlightened’ veneer, Babel is rotten. Can he help Hermes Society if their acts of sabotage include or result in violence? Is violence inevitable in a revolution? And by choosing not to act does he become a cog that keeps the British empire running?

“He hated this place. He loved it. He resented how it treated him. He still wanted to be a part of it – because it felt so good to be a part of it, to speak to its professors as an intellectual equal, to be in on the great game.”

Robin is torn between his hatred for the British empire and the safety he believes he can only experience at Babel. Kuang renders his inner conflict with painful accuracy and extreme empathy. While other characters may be critical of Robin’s unwillingness to ‘choose’, readers won’t be as ready, and in fact, they will find themselves unable to judge him. He tries to help but inevitably his indecision leads the Hermes Society to decide for him. It is only when Robin is forced to confront the consequences of the opium trade—on China, on the Chinese population, and on the Indian farmers who harvested it—that he finds himself ready to act. But, things do not exactly pan out as the story takes us on a The Secret History kind of detour that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of whydunnits and dark academia. While the atmosphere prior to this event was by no means light-hearted after this happens Kuang ups the tension all the way up. The shifting dynamics within and outside of Robin’s group also change, and not necessarily for the better. And the stakes are just sky-high.

Like the summary says, Babel ‘grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire’. We witness the many forms that power takes, and one of them is in fact language. Language can be in fact a tool of oppression. Kuang’s interrogation of the act of translation is utterly compelling. My mum is a translator and I am bilingual (yet have a foreign accent in both italian & english insert tiny violin here) and have recently started studying two other languages. Suffice to say, whenever I see a book exploring linguistics, I am interested (be it sci-fi like Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series, literary fiction such as Batuman’s The Idiot, or nonfiction like Lahiri’s In Other Words). And Kuang really presents us with so many interesting facts and insights into translation and untranslatability. Kuang pays incredible attention to words and their various meanings, which truly enriches Robin’s story and his experiences at Babel. Kuang discusses contact-induced change (which sometimes results in language death) and reading about it even feel guilty about having neglected my ‘mother-tongue’ (on a side note: i have noticed that here in england people seem less interested in learning languages as they rely on english being the most widely spoken language worldwide…). While Kuang does acknowledge Morse code, braille and sign language and other nonverbal forms of communication do not really get a mention which is a pity. Nevertheless, Kuang presents us with such nuanced discussions around language and translation, I loved the attention she pays to the etymology of words, double meanings, doublespeak, and the ambiguity of language and interpretation…

“In Classical Chinese, the characters 二心 referred to disloyal or traitorous intentions; literally, they translated as ‘two hearts’. And Robin found himself in the impossible position of loving that which he betrayed, twice.”

Like I said early on, the writing sometimes shifts into a telling mode, so we have swaths of time which are summarized into a few lines, or certain events or arguments are related to us indirectly. But, Kuang storytelling is such that what we are being told feels incredibly vivid and—for the better and worse—immersive. Some of the lectures Robin attends may occasionally seem a bit too long or pedantic, and I wasn’t always keen on the footnotes (more on that later), but I was never bored. Robin is such a compelling narrator and my heart went out to him. This povero ragazzo really can’t catch a break. And when he finds some solace, with Ramy and Victoire, we have Letty to stir things up or spoil the group’s rare moments of contentment. He hates Professor Lowell who is just so f*cking despicable and full of vitriol but also ‘perversely’ wants to earn his approval. He is also burdened by the realization that as the years go by he struggles to recall his mother and his early years in China. Once in England and under Professor Lowell’s ‘tutelage’ Robin feels caught in a constant state of alterity: while the story mentions that there are occasions where he can ‘pass’, he experiences overt racism, disenfranchisement, and microaggressions on the daily. And he isn’t given the tools or words to express this profound sense of injustice and alienation. Ramy and Victoire become his lifelines as he is finally given the chance to try to name the difficult thoughts and feelings he experiences living in a country that sees him and those like him as ‘barbarians’. Speaking of barbarians, I really appreciated how Kuang highlights the irony and hypocrisy of those British people who will claim that the people they are colonizing or waging war against are ‘violent’, ‘savages’, and ‘uncivilized’ and therefore deserving of being colonized, oppressed, and killed.

‘How strange,’ said Ramy. ‘To love the stuff and the language, but to hate the country.’
‘Not as odd as you’d think,’ said Victoire. ‘There are people, after all, and then there are things.’

I found Robin to be such an endearing character. Kuang captures the disorientation of living somewhere where you are and will always be perceived as a perpetual foreigner. His longing for a place to belong to is truly heart-wrenching. He is not flawless but I genuinely believe that he always tries his hardest to do good by others. Sometimes self-preservation kicks in and he finds himself at a standstill. He feels a moral obligation to help the Hermes Society but is not quite ready to be responsible for the destruction of Babel. Yet, when he realizes that he is becoming complicit in the injustices perpetrated by Babel..well, he has to question whether his loyalties can even align with those responsible for maintaining unjust systems of power.

“Yet didn’t he have a right to be happy? He had never felt such warmth in his chest until now, had never looked forward to getting up in the morning as he did now. Babel, his friends, and Oxford – they had unlocked a part of him, a place of sunshine and belonging, that he never thought he’d feel again. The world felt less dark now. He was a child starved of affection, which he now had in abundance – and was it so wrong for him to cling to what he had? He was not ready to commit fully to Hermes. But by God, he would have killed for any of his cohort.”

Ramy, who is more impassioned and outspoken, balances Robin perfectly. Their shared moments together do have certain undercurrents but these remain largely unspoken. And in some ways, it is this elision that made it all the more obvious.
Letty…I have said enough about her. She, similarly to Professor Lovell, remains unchanged throughout the course of the narrative. We know the kind of people they are from the very first and I am afraid that in some ways Letty is worse than Professor Lovell. Her acts of self-dramatization and victim playing drove me up the walls.
Victoire was sadly underused. Her characterization sometimes relied too much on opposing Letty’s one (we will have letty responding in a sh*tty way to something and then we will get a different response from victoire who usually acts as a pacifier). I just would have liked less page-time spent on Letty—who, however believable she is, is neither an interesting nor compelling character—and more on Victoire. In the latter half of the novel, Victoire is given more room to breathe but due to the pace of the plot, the storyline can’t really focus on her.
I liked how many secondary characters come into play in the latter half of the novel and I was surprised by the role some of them play in the story.
Reading about Britain’s ‘past exploits’ is by no means fun. Yet, somehow, Kuang is able to make Robin’s story wholly captivating and hard to put down. The anxiety I felt for him, and later on Ramy and Victoire, made me go through this nearly 500+ pages tome of a book at a relatively fast speed.

There is much to be admired in Babel. There were a few minor things that kept me from giving this a 5 star. At times Kuang could be a bit heavy-handed when elucidating certain points, and part of me wishes she could have trusted her readers more to reach certain conclusions without having our hands held all the way there. Letty, well, she stole too much time away from Robin, Ramy, and Victoire. I would also have loved to see some confirmed queer characters…but alas. While I appreciated that Kuang does take into consideration the experiences of working-class people, without condemning or condoning their behaviour towards our group, there was this one scene where a mob of mill workers are shouting at Babel students and their northern accent is described as ‘rough and incomprehensible’…which…wasn’t great. We already know that they are ‘snarling’ so these descriptors seemed unnecessary and play into existing negative stereotypes about regional accents. Kuang was spot on about British food though…
The tragic denouement also left me feeling rather bereft.

This was intentional no doubt but still despite the inevitability of it all I felt betrayed having become so invested in the story and its characters. But these things are very minor and kind of inconsequential given the scope and the depth of the narrative. Additionally, I really liked the intersectional and dialectical approach Kuang takes in her condemnation and deconstruction of eurocentric and white historical narratives.

“History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.’”

​​The realization that the author is my age makes me feel a mixture of befuddlement and intimidation. I mean, despite a few minor criticisms, this novel is a literary Achievement with a capital A.

‘But what is the opposite of fidelity?’ asked Professor Playfair. He was approaching the end of this dialectic; now he needed only to draw it to a close with a punch. ‘Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?’

When I approached this I did so under the impression that it would be something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal Series, and, like I said earlier on, Charles Dickens. And while there were brief instances within Babel where those comparisons rang true, for various reasons and to different degrees I was also reminded of Cornelia Funke, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer and books by Natasha Pulley (letty is for sure a very pulley-like female character). And yes, superficially Babel also carries echoes of a certain series by you-know-who. Babel is also in clear conversation with postcolonial discourses such as ones written by Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth.
However, make no mistake, Babel is an ultimately unique and imaginative work like no other. Maybe if you expect this to be heavy on the fantasy, like Cho and Clarke’s books are, well, you may find the magical element in Babel to be rather subdued. Despite its fantastical nature the narrative grounds silver-working in realism, and I thought it really fitted the solemn tone of the story. Whereas Cho and Clarke’s proses are bombastic and playful, Babel is more sombre and precise. It is also moving and clever, and Kuang’s commentary is razor-sharp and brilliant.
Both thematically and genre-wise Babel packs a lot. We have a bildungsroman set in an ‘alternate’ 1830s Oxford with the addition of a fantasy element. Through Robin’s story Kuang carries out an unflinching and urgent interrogation of colonialism and colonial resistance, knowledge and power, language and translation, privilege, racial science and systemic racism, xenophobia, ‘otherness’ and alienation, industrialization, gender and class-based discrimination, history and historical revisionism, and much more. Friendship, loyalty, hatred, betrayal, morality, longing and belonging, all of these also come into play in Robin’s gripping story. I would go more into detail about certain plot points or character dynamics but I don’t want to spoil anything…suffice to say there are a lot interesting and fraught character dynamics that add a layer of tension to Robin’s story. Like I said, the boy had my heart, and so did Ramy. I can’t wait to re-read this as I’m sure I was so engrossed by the story and worried about Robin’s wellbeing that I’m sure certain things went over my head.

“The origins of the word anger were tied closely to physical suffering. Anger was first an ‘affliction’, as meant by the Old Icelandic angr, and then a ‘painful, cruel, narrow’state, as meant by the Old English enge, which in turn came from the Latin angor, which meant ‘strangling, anguish, distress’. Anger was a chokehold. Anger did not empower you. It sat on your chest; it squeezed your ribs until you felt trapped, suffocated, out of options. Anger simmered, then exploded. Anger was constriction, and the consequent rage a desperate attempt to breathe. And rage, of course, came from madness.”

TANGENT BELOW:
If you aren’t keen on books that are very much making a point and include several scenes & characters that are there to drive said point home maybe Babel will not hold a lot of appeal to you. But, even so, I would urge you to nevertheless give this one a shot as usually, I am that type of reader, someone who prefers ambiguous storylines & characters and doesn’t like narratives that leave very little room for interpretation…but here it just fits? Yeah, on the one hand, I get that some of these ‘omniscient’ footnotes—which usually clarify misinformation or challenge white historical narratives—may feel a bit patronizing (colonialism & british empire = bad, slavery didn’t magically end overnight with the 1833 abolition act), but, on the other, I realize that scenes and dialogues that seem self-explanatory to some won’t be to other readers.
Kuang’s commentary on colonialism and racism feel necessary and sadly relevant. While she doesn’t label any specific country or community as good or bad she also doesn’t shy away from confronting the many atrocities and injustices perpetuated by the British empire. That Kuang is able to balance such a piercing critique with a compulsive and deeply affecting coming of age tale is awe inspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

“To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole.”

The Goldfinch is an emotional rollercoaster spanning 700+ pages and proof that literary lightning can indeed strike twice. Fully deserving of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Goldfinch is a triumph of a novel, one that I will have a hard time reviewing (so bear with me & my ramblings).
Donna Tartt seamlessly weaves together a Dickensian bildungsroman with a suspenseful and thrilling descent into the criminal underbelly of the art world (forgeries & thefts ahoy!) that boasts the same exquisite prose as her debut novel.
This Odyssean coming-of-age is narrated by Theo Decker. At 13 Theo lives alone with his mother after his father, a temperamental alcoholic, decided to take up and leave New York. After Theo gets in trouble at his school he and his mother are required to attend a ‘conference’. On the way there, the two end up in a museum, for what should have been a quick gander. When a bomb explodes in the museum many die, including Theo’s mother. Once Theo awakes from the explosion he comes across a dying old man who urges him to take Carel Fabritius’s ‘The Goldfinch’. Theo, probably suffering from a head concussion & shock, does as he’s bid, takes the painting.

“The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up.”

When Theo is informed of his mother’s death he’s devastated. He has no idea where his deadbeat father is and his grandparents have made it clear that they aren’t keen on having him stay with them. Theo is temporarily placed in the custody of his childhood friend’s family, the Barbours, a hideously wealthy family. Later on, his father re-emerges and whisks away from New York to Las Vegas. Here Theo is left very much to his own devices, his father—who is clearly involved in some dodgy stuff—and his girlfriend do not seem particularly fond or interested in him and his upbringing. Theo becomes friends with Boris who, like him, does not have a stable home life. Together the two experiment with alcohol and drugs and commit petty crimes.
We follow Theo until his late-teens and then we encounter him again as a young(ish) adult who becomes entangled in some dangerous business that force him to fully confront the kind of person that he has become.

What to say? My heart went out to Theo. Yes, later in life he’s a bit of an asshole. That doesn’t cancel out all of his other qualities and complexities. Those sections recounting his boyhood are truly heartbreaking. The despair he feels at his mother’s death, the guilt, grief, longing, self-hatred, and loneliness that seem to punctuate his days are captured with exacting precision. His meditations on life, art, the people around him are striking, and I appreciated how nuanced a person he was. His relationship with Boris was one of the highlights of his narrative. It is incredible just how good Tartt is at making you care for people who are just not that nice. The dynamic between Theo and Boris is intense and messy (possibly more than a friendship?) and despite their different temperaments their similar circumstances and self-destructive tendencies fortify their bond (they are definitely good at enabling each other).

His mother’s death haunts Theo throughout his life, and we see just how his survivor’s guilt affects and influences him. To Theo, the painting of ‘The Goldfinch’ is irrevocably connected to her death, which is why he’s unable to part ways with it. He’s also hopelessly enamoured with Pippa, who he first glimpsed in the museum on that fateful day. She’s one of the few people who understands the guilt that plagues him so. Alas, he comes to idealise in a not so healthy way.
His story is filled with stops-and-starts, addiction and suicidal ideation & tendencies punctuate his life, and as an adult, he seems already to have taken a dubious path.

I loved this novel. Tartt’s writing is divine. Her prose is simultaneously elegant and exhilarating, her characterization, dialogues, descriptions, are all truly exemplary. She brings to life the people, places, and situations she writes of in a way that is almost too real, so that when forces outside of my control (the end of my lunch break or commute.) put an end to my reading time, well, it felt like a rude awakening.

As I said, this novel is long. A brick some would say (the hardback edition could seriously injure someone). Yet, I breezed through this. Not because it was easy reading, quite the contrary. Tartt’s erudite references and elaborate storytelling deserve attention and consideration, one cannot just rush their way through her books. And yet, I had a hard time putting this book down. Theo’s voice won me over so that I too found myself mirroring whatever he was feeling (usually sadness and or anxiety, yay). I didn’t want to let go of him, and I was actually sad once I reached the novel’s conclusion.
While Tartt doesn’t go light on her characters, I could tell just how much she cares for them. The people inhabiting her novels may not necessarily be good or kind but by the end, I always end up loving them (despite or because of their many many flaws). Even characters I want to hate with the whole of my being are not wholly unredeemable.

Tartt’s incisive reflections on human nature, life, grief, love, fate, art, death, struck me for their poignancy and thoughtfulness. The rich cast of characters is just as deserving of attention as Theo himself. Regardless of the part, they play in Theo’s life, whether they are a friend, acquaintance, or a complete stranger, they are depicted in such vivid detail that they do not feel like fictional characters but real people.
And Theo, ragazzo mio! On the one hand, many of his feelings, states of mind, motivations, fears & desires are rendered with clarity, on the other, well, the boy is not only traumatised but incredibly repressed and prone to self-deception. So, there are many moments when we cannot trust entirely his narration. His alcohol consumption and drug use also add a murky quality to certain events or portions of his story. Theo’s intentional and unintentional untrustworthiness, in many ways, added an element of ambiguity to his narration and has us relying, more often than not, on other characters in order to discern the truth about certain people/events.
I was captivated by Theo’s story, the many lows and few highs of his adolescence and adulthood, and by the motifs dotting his narrative. The novel is also full of juxtaposition: the classic vs modern references, the bustling streets of New York, always buzzing with activity, vs the desolate landscapes of Las Vegas, the Barbours’ apartment with Theo’s father house. Like TSH, one of the novel’s main concerns is beauty (the power that beautiful things have on us, the way we feel about that which is beautiful to us, the things we are willing to do for beauty or to have what we think beautiful).

Beautiful, moving, wonderfully chaotic, a work of art. The Goldfinch is all of these things and so much more.

ps: curiously enough the first time I read it I only gave it 3 stars…and I can’t really explain why this time around I loved it so much that even days later I find myself thinking about Theo & Boris.

my rating: ★★★★★

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Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor

Taylor has gone and done it again. My poor heart can’t take this.

“[S]adness drenched them. Sadness at leaving. Sadness at going back to their lives. The sadness of knowing it would never again be this perfect, this easy.”

This may not sound like a compliment but I believe that Brandon Taylor has a real knack for making his readers feel uncomfortable and complicit by the violence—both physical & emotional—and cruelty that punctuate his narratives. It just so happens that I have a strange, ahem masochistic, fondness for these types of anxiety-inducing stories. Taylor excels at writing about things, people, and situations that are bound to make you feel uneasy, exposed even. Throughout this stunning collection of short stories, Taylor demonstrates time and again just how inexorably intertwined our fears and desires are. Taylor reveals the double-edged nature of desire, showing just how often we want that which we are (or should be) afraid of. Within these stories, Taylor explores and challenges the relationship between violence and intimacy, cruelty and compassion, happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain. Taylor’s characters are painstakingly human, from their murky and unspoken desires/fears to their seemingly perennial indecisiveness. More often than not Taylor’s characters are not ‘nice people’, but, then again, who wants to read exclusively about ‘nice people’? The characters populating Taylor’s stories are messy, confused about what/who they want, unsure of themselves and others. They can be ugly, to themselves, to one another. But, their ability to hurt other people doesn’t make them any less human, if anything, I found that it made them all the more real.

“There were a million tiny ways to make someone feel bad about something that didn’t involve saying anything directly.”

Taylor navigates self-loathing, loneliness, and longing against ordinary backdrops. Yet, while the environments and scenarios that we encounter in these stories are firmly grounded in realism, the ‘mundane’ trappings of Midwestern life that seem to characterise these narratives belie just how complex, emotionally wrought, and exacting these stories truly are.

“He had come up against the thing that felt most frustrating about this—the inability to articulate simply what he felt or what he wanted.”

Taylor’s style is deceptively functional, clinical even. He’s brutally concise when it comes to detailing his characters’ surroundings, appearances, and emotions. Yet, it is because his prose is habitually so unsparing that makes those brief lapses into tranquillity feel all the more precious. However rare, those brief glimpses of hope that we do get are truly touching.

As with Real Life, many of these stories are set in or around the academic world and once again Taylor articulates just how insular it can be. College is no safe haven however and the pressure to succeed often feels like a burden. There are many instances in which characters try to outdo one another, be it through personal or academic achievements, and we witness just how petty and competitive academia is. Most of these stories focus on Black queer characters and Taylor once again examines the intersection between sexuality and race. His characters often struggle to reconcile themselves with their identities and are often caught between opposing urges and desires. They seek to form meaningful connections but they are mostly unsuccessful. The relationships within these stories are hindered by unresolved tensions, veiled insults, hurtful barbs, real and perceived slights. Many of these relationships are unhealthy, seeming to bring more pain and suffering than not. Yet, we see that sometimes that is why certain characters decide to pursue certain people as Taylor repeatedly blurs the line between love and hate, passion and violence.

“There, he thought, was a truly horrifying possibility: that he was nothing more than another bit of local weather for the two of them, and that what felt to Lionel like the edge of some great change, a sign of his reacclimation to people, to the world, to the easiness of friendship, was nothing but another thing to them, one more thing that happened and was now over.”

‘Potluck’, ‘Flesh’, ‘Proctoring’, ‘Apartment’, and ‘Meat’ are interlinked stories revolving around Lionel, a Black grad student who in recent times attempted suicide, and two white dancers, Charles and Sophie, who are in an open relationship. At a party, Lionel and Charles seem to form a connection of sorts. Lionel is clearly ill at ease, especially given that the host of the party seems intent on making a move on him. With painful clarity, Taylor delineates Lionel’s anxieties and insecurities, and we understand why he would find Charles’ attention to be tempting. Lionel finds himself entangled in Charles and Sophie’s fraught relationship, and it is not always clear who is playing who or who wants whom. My heart really went out to Lionel and it was incredibly saddening to read of how this couple is trying to involve him in their ongoing drama.

In one story we read of a babysitter who is exhausted at her young charge, in another a young man’s old wounds are reopened, and in yet another, we witness a boys’ night out that quickly spirals into violence. A running motif, quite fitting given the collection’s title, is that of characters being compared or feeling like ‘beasts’ and ‘animals’. Many seem to struggle with their ‘wilder’ impulses, at times they even attempt to tamp their own desires down. But, as we see over and over again, they are often unsuccessful. Hence the violence and cruelty.

Last but not least, Taylor’s dialogues. They are startlingly realistic. From the tentative quality of certain exchanges to the stop-and-start rhythm animating many of the characters’ conversations.

“That’s so funny,” Lionel said. “People say that, We talked. But I don’t remember a single thing we said to each other.”

Fans of Real Life should definitely get their hands on Filthy Animals as this proved to be just as brilliant. From Taylor’s quietly cinematic style to his nuanced portrayal of human frailty, Filthy Animals is a terrific collection. If I was pressed to choose a favourite, I would probably go with ‘Anne of Cleves’.

As I touched upon earlier on, these stories are far from happy, yet, I was nevertheless enthralled by Taylor’s ability to capture with such authenticity and depth such a wide spectrum of emotions.

my rating: ★★★★¼

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These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

Heavenly Creatures by way of Patricia Highsmith, plus a sprinkle of Like Minds, and with the kind of teenage morbidity one could find in Hangsaman or Stoker.

Adroit and gripping, These Violent Delights is a superlative debut novel. Being the self-proclaimed connoisseur of academia fiction that I am, I was drawn by the comparisons to The Secret History and I was amazed to discover that unlike other releases (not naming any names) These Violent Delights definitely had some TSH vibes. But whereas most academia books focus on a ‘clique’, Micah Nemerever’s novel is very much centred on the obsessive relationship between two seventeen-year-olds.
If you’ve read or watched anything that revolves around a toxic relationship, you know what to expect from These Violent Delights. The prologue itself reveals to us that all will not be well for these two boys and that at some point will embark on a path of no return.

“He couldn’t remember ever being the person he’d decided to become.”

The narrative takes us back to their first meeting. Paul, our protagonist, is a university freshman in Pittsburgh during the early 1970s. His father has recently committed suicide and his mother has yet to recover. Paul suffers from an almost debilitating insecurity and shows a propensity for virulent self-recriminations. His inward-looking nature brings him no joy, as his mind is often consumed by his many ‘shortcomings’, and those of others. He feels misunderstood by his working-class family, and without his father, his grandfather, a man whose good-natured attempts to connect with Paul inevitably miss the mark, has become his closest male figure. His family fails to accept that Paul isn’t the type to ‘loosen’ up with his peers or have ‘fun’ with some girl.
When a discussion on experimental ethics in class gets Paul hot under the collar, Julian Fromme comes to his defence. On the surface Julian is the antithesis of Paul: he comes from wealth, he’s self-assured, easy-going, and charismatic. Yet, Paul is enthralled by him, especially when he realises that Julian carries within him a darkness not unlike his own. Their mutual understanding and their interest in one another result in an instantaneous connection. They can have erudite talks, challenging each other’s stance on subjects related to ethics and morals, and revel in the superiority they feel towards their classmates. Within hours of their meeting, their bond has solidified, becoming something impenetrable to outsiders. It soon becomes apparent that neither of them is in control in their relationship, and things are further complicated when their platonic friendship gives way to a more sexual one.
Their symbiotic bond is of concern to others (to be queer—in both senses—is no walk in the park, especially in the 70s), and attempts are made to separate the two. But Paul and Julian are determined to stay together, and more than once they tell each other that the idea of life without the other would be unbearable.

“[H]e wasn’t afraid anymore. After a lifetime of yearning and trying not to yearn, he imagined the relief of surrendering.”

Even if we suspect that Paul and Julian’s intoxicating liaison will have internecine consequences, we are desperate for a moment of reprieve. But Nemerever’s narrative does not let up, not once. Readers will read with increasing anxiety as Paul and Julian embark on an ‘irreversible’ path, alienating those around them. Dread and anguish became my constant companions while I was reading this novel and I’m glad that I choose to read this when I was off work (I devoured this novel in less than 24h) since These Violent Delights is a riveting edge-of-your-seat kind of read.
A sense of unease pervades this story as even the early stages of Paul and Julian’s relationship are fraught. Julian is almost secretive when it comes to his family, and disapproves of the contempt Paul harbours towards his own mother. Their love for each other often veers into dislike, if not hatred, and they are quite capable of being extremely cruel to each other. Even so, we can see why they have become so entangled together, and why they oppose anyone who threatens to separate them. But as they enable one other, their teenage angst morphs into a more perturbing sort of behaviour. Time and again we are left wondering who, if anyone, is in control.

“All they were—all they had ever been—was a pair of sunflowers who each believed the other was the sun.”

My summary of this novel won’t do it justice as I fear I’m making it sound like any other ‘dark’ tale of obsessive friendships (in this case a romantic one but still). It is Nemerever’s writing that elevates his story from ‘interesting’ to exhilarating (and downright distressing). He evokes the claustrophobic and oppressive nature of Paul and Julian’s bond, making us feel as if we too are caught in their all-consuming relationship. Nemerever also acutely renders Paul’s discomforts, the intensity of his love for Julian, his self-loathing, and of his conflicting desires (to be known, to be unknowable). He wants his family to understand him, but in those instances when they prove that they may understand him more than he thinks, he does not hear them out.

“All I want to do is make you happy, and you’re the unhappiest person I’ve ever met.”

Similarly to The Secret History, the narrative is very much examining the way we can fail to truly see the people closest to us. Paul’s low self-esteem makes him constantly doubt everyone around, Julian included. He perceives slights where there are none and even seems to find a sort of twisted pleasure (or as Lacan would have it, jouissance) in second-guessing Julian’s feelings towards him or in assuming the worst of others. He projects a preconceived image of Julian onto him (someone who is cruel and deceitful, someone who, unlike Paul himself, can easily adapt or pretend to be normal), and this prevents him from seeing him as he truly is.
The love Paul feels for Julian is almost fanatical, doomed to be destructive. This is the type of relationship that would not be out of place in the work of Magda Szabó (The Door), Joyce Carol Oates (Solstice) or a Barbara Vine novel (The House of Stairs, No Night is Too Long, A Fatal Inversion) or as the subject of a song by Placebo (I’m thinking of ‘Without You I’m Nothing’).

“They were wild and delirious and invincible, and it was strange that no one else could see it.”

Nemerever’s writing style is exquisite and mature. I was struck by the confidence of his prose (it does not read like a debut novel). Not one word is wasted, every sentence demands your attention (which is difficult when the story has you flipping pages like no tomorrow). Nemerever brings to life every scene and character he writes of, capturing, for example, with painful precision the crushing disquiet Paul feels (24/7), his loneliness (exacerbated by his queerness and intelligence) and his deep-seated insecurity. Nemerever doesn’t always explicitly states what Paul is feeling, or thinking, and the ambiguity this creates reminded me very much of Shirley Jackson, in particular of Hangsaman (a scene towards the end was particularly reminiscent of that novel). Readers will have to fill the gaps or try to read the subtext of certain scenes or exchanges between P and J.

Not only did this book leave me with a huge book hangover but it also left me emotionally exhausted (when I tried picking up other books my mind kept going back to Paul and Julian). Paul is one of the most miserable characters I’ve ever read of. And while he is no angel, I found myself, alongside his family, wanting to help him. But I could also understand him as he strongly reminded me of my own teenage experiences, and of how ‘wretched’ and angsty and alone I felt (woe is me), as well as the fierce, and at times destructive, friendships I formed during those vulnerable years.
In spite of what Paul and Julian do, I cared deeply for them. I wanted to ‘shake’ them, but I also desperately wanted them to be happy.
I’m sure I could blather on some more, but I will try and stop myself here. Reading These Violent Delights is akin to watching a slow-motion video of a car accident or some other disaster. You know what will happen but you cannot tear your eyes away. Read this at your own peril!

re-read: yes, I am indeed a masochist. I knew that reading this again would hurt but even so, I am once again left devastated by this. The act of reading this book is not dissimilar to riding some diabolical, guts-twisting, puke-inducing rollercoaster where you are anticipating/dreading/exhilarated by the prospect of the encroaching and inevitable drop.
Paul and Julian are very damaged individuals and seeing how they hurt themselves, each other, and the people around them, well it was incredibly upsetting (even more so knowing that their behaviour will just get worse over the course of the narrative). Their relationship is simultaneously impenetrable to us and rendered in painful clarity. Time and again we are left wondering who needs who, who wants who, and the differences between these two desires. Rereading this also allowed me to pay attention to Nemerever’s skilful use of foreshadowing.
Anyway in the interim years since first reading this I have come across books/other media that has similar vibes. Nemerever’s ability to capture with unsparing and clear-cut precision Paul’s discomfort, self-hatred, and alienation brought to mind Brandon Taylor’s Real Life and Filthy Animals. The ambiguous nature of his characters and his razor-sharp examination of privilege reminded me of Susie Yang’s psychological thriller, White Ivy. The codependent relationship between Paul and Julian instead reminded me of manga like Let Dai (the angst in that series is wow) or j-dramas like Utsukushii Kare, or books such If We Were Villains, Summer Sons, Belladonna, The Wicker King or Apartment.
Will I ever be brave or foolish enough to read this novel a third time?
(spoilers: she was an idiot so…)

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon

“Tragedy is insignificant, banal. A falling boy goes largely unnoticed.”

Self-Portrait with Boy is an electrifying debut novel. Within its pages, Rachel Lyon’s paints an unsettling portrait, that of the artist as a young woman, one whose raw hunger for artistic recognition drives her to betray the trust of the person she loves. Self-Portrait with Boy presents us with a thought-provoking and razor-sharp interrogation of ambition, morality, love, and the fraught boundary between art and life.

“It was unexpected. It was raw. It was startling. It was awful. It was beautiful. It was factual. Heartbreaking. Cruel. Fresh. Real.”

Throughout the course of her narrative, Lyon explores the aftermath of a devastating loss, on both those who are directly and indirectly affected by this tragedy. With striking precision and realism, Lyon articulates the loneliness, despair, guilt, and longing experienced by her central character, Lu Rile. This is not a happy tale. Far from it. Some readers will find Lu’s actions to be unforgivable, abhorrent even. And those who find themselves feeling more sympathetic towards her will still read her story with great unease, dreading ‘that moment’. From the start, we know what Lu chooses to do, but even so, to actually witness the consequences of her actions..well, it isn’t easy. Many of the interactions that occur in this novel are underlined by a sense of disquiet, one that reminded me vaguely of the work of Ottessa Moshfegh. The imagery within this novel also brought to mind Moshfegh, in that some of Lyon’s scenes and descriptions verged on the grotesque.

“I never meant for any of it to happen. Or no. Part of me meant for part of it to happen. I was nothing but a kid then. Twenty-six, naive, and ambitious as hell. A skinny friendless woman in thick glasses with a mop of coarse black hair. There were so many people I had not yet become.”

Lyon evokes in vivid detail 1990s New York, the art circles Lu aspires to be in, the building she lives in, and the places she works at. In addition to a brilliant evocation of place and time and searing commentary on ambition and success, Self-Portrait with Boy boasts the kind of unrelenting pacing that usually characterises thrillers. Lu’s riveting storyline is further enhanced by Lyon’s crisp and lucid prose, which conveys with crystal clarity Lu’s everyday realities as well as her innermost desires and fears.

“I’ll tell you how it started. With a simple, tragic accident.”

Lu, our narrator, now an established photographer, looks back to her ‘lucky break’, the photo that made her (in)famous in the art world. The remainder of the narrative takes place in the early 90s New York when Lu was 26, perennially short on money, and juggling her photography with her three minimum wage jobs. In addition to her photography & money-related anxieties, Lu is worried about her ageing father’s deteriorating eyesight. She lives in a converted warehouse in DUMBO, and rumour has it that developers have their sights set on her neighbourhood.

“And then, somewhere among all those larger, major memories, there was this minor but foul little one: the feeling of being in my twenties at a party and looking out at some horribly attractive crowd. The feeling of them glancing at me with barely registered pity: Oh, that thing in the corner. Isn’t that funny. It thinks it’s people.”

Lu is a lonely socially awkward person. She was raised by her father after her mother took off without a word when she was still little and has no actual friends. Despite her social anxiety and her many insecurities, Lu fully believes in her artistic capabilities. She can be ruthlessly single-minded in her pursuit of fame. She’s isn’t content ‘just’ making art, she wants to be successful. Over the last few years, Lu worked on a project that consists of her taking a self-portrait each day, but so far, she doesn’t seem particularly impressed with the results.

“There is nothing more pathetic than being the only person who believes in you.”

One day however her daily self-portrait (titled #400) reveals to have captured a boy falling to his own death. The boy in question was the son of the couple living in the apartment above her. As the people around her mourn his death, Lu is torn between using #400 to make a name for herself and her growing feelings towards the boy’s mother, Kate. The consequences of not only showcasing but making a profit out of this tragedy are not inconsequential.

“Her grief was so much bigger than one meager photograph. That was just art. This was death and life. I felt foolish and thickheaded—and so, so ugly.”

Yet, while Lu knows that she should seek the boy’s parents’ consent before circulating #400, she’s fearful of their reaction. Lu believes that #400 is her masterpiece and she’s determined to share it with the world. Once she befriends Kate Lu’s ambitions collide with her desires: she strives for her ‘shocking’ photo to be recognised but she also desperately yearns not to be alone anymore. And grieving, beautiful, Kate seems to care for her…doesn’t she?

“At the time she was my only friend. She was so dear to me.”

Lu’s story contains plenty of conflicts: art, morality, love, ambition, selfishness. Lu scrutinises her own actions, the moral dilemma in regards to the photo as well as the everyday little decisions that she makes along the way. There is also her father’s failing sight, her steadily worsening living conditions, her various jobs, her tentative relationships with her neighbours and, of course, her bond with Kate. All of this is set against a vibrantly depicted backdrop, one that buzzes with vitality: from the hubbub of the condominium meetings Lu attends to the bustling energy of the street she walks on.
Lyon doesn’t shy away from including the more disturbing aspect of Lu’s life. There is a particularly graphic scene including a rat nest…which was pretty intense (and possibly traumatising). So, be warned.

Nevertheless, I found myself unable to tear myself away. With startling realism, Lyon portrays Lu’s daily experiences, the conversations or arguments that she has with other people, as well as her inner monologue. Lyon’s narrator is a real tour de force: she is capable of being horrible, and of rationalising her own selfishness in the name of ‘art’. Yet, we see just how bloody lonely and alone Lu is. She longs for intimacy and connection but in those instances where she could try to get close to someone else, she retreats inwards, afraid or unwilling to expose herself to others. She has plenty of opportunities to talk to Kate about #400 but doesn’t. Her determination to succeed is simultaneously monstrous and so very human. We see just how dismissive other people within the art sphere are towards ‘no names’ like her. In spite of the uncertainties she has when it comes to forming meaningful relationships when it comes to her photographs, Lu knows her self-worth. Her observations reflect her artistic inclinations: she seems to view the world through a camera lens, she notices the lighting, pays attention to the objects populating her surroundings.

There is also a surprising almost supernatural element woven into Lu’s otherwise realistic story. It worked well since Lyon includes it without overemphasizing it. In fact, one could easily argue that the haunting that occurs within these pages is not a ‘true’ haunting…and maybe that makes it all the more eerie.

“The thing about remembering is that each time you retrieve an event from the past it alters the memory itself. If to tell a story is to repaint the past, to remember is to crumple; to fold, unfold, refold, and inevitably rip. If to tell a story is to renovate, to remember is to destroy.”

Self-Portrait with Boy paints a troubling portrait of a female artist struggling to make it in the art world. It is also a story of a young woman’s day to day life in 90s New York: there are plenty of odd, occasionally amusing, encounters, and on-point descriptions about her tedious jobs. Her anxiety about money, her father, her future, the photo, permeates her narration, resulting in a novel that is not exactly easy or enjoyable to read. There are also many uncomfortable scenes where you either really do feel on Lu’s behalf (most of the exchanges she has with older men, as they tend to be condescending and/or dismissive of her and her work) or you will find yourself frustrated by the choices she’s making or by how cold and selfish she can sometimes be. I found her exceedingly relatable, especially when it came to her often conflicting desires (to be known/to be unknown).

“I didn’t want to talk to them. I didn’t want anyone to talk to me. I hoped a familiar hope, a hope I’d developed years before, in high school: that when they looked back on it no one would remember that I’d been there at all..”

This is a challenging read, one that is bound to make you think of what you would do in Lu’s position. Lyon’s prose is effortlessly expressive and her clipped style gives Lu’s narrative a beautiful rhythm. If you have enjoyed other novels that focus on female artists, such as Jen Silverman’s We Play Ourselves, Elizabeth Hand’s Generation Loss, and Myla Goldberg’s Feast Your Eyes, well, I would definitely recommend you check this one out.

“It could transform me from the unknown photographer I was into the artist I wanted to be: serious, disciplined, honest, ruthless. I was dizzy with anticipation. I was hungry with ambition. Self-Portrait #400 could change my life.”

ps: this novel as no quotation marks, which is a ‘technique’ I tend to dislike and actively avoid reading books implement it. Here however Lyon makes it quite clear who is talking as well as what is dialogue and what is Lu’s narration.

my rating: ★★★★★

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