After reading Hernan Diazs Trust last month, I was curious about Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. (These two novels were the joint winners of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for fiction).
Demon Copperhead is a poverty tourism story – disadvantaged characters overcome toxic relationships, blighted surroundings, a lack of educational achievement, low expectations and limited opportunities. Conversely, to make it readable, the experience of poverty is ‘beautifully observed’, presented to the reader as a character building journey. This follows on from Romantic notions about the authentic experience of suffering and hardship.
Barbara Kingsolver wrote Demon Copperhead as a portrait of the American ‘left behind’. It’s a snapshot of the rust belt, a political docudrama masquerading as a fictional ‘misery memoir’. The novel is narrated by a fictional character, a disadvantaged young male. And yet, the story was written by a wealthy, middle class, middle-aged woman. The novel’s ‘authenticity’ is a literary trick. This is fiction after all, the only criteria of authenticity here is if we believe that the protagonist seems real enough. He does, although some of his observations have literary embellishments that feel incongruous with him, and more to do with the author.
Hernan Diaz’s Trust (the other winner of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for fiction) deals with notions of authenticity by presenting the reader with multiple documents. The trust lies somewhere in-between them. It provokes questions about the authenticity of the ‘recorded’ word. Demon Copperhead uses stylistically slick language to create a convincing first person account. It lives within the illusion of a constructed character as if it’s a documentary story. Trust reminded me of a deconstructed The Great Gatsby, while Demon Copperhead has vibes of Moonlight (2016).
The Glass Pearls
Emeric Pressburger’s The Glass Pearls was originally published in 1966, and it’s recently been reissued. In the story, the central character, Karl Braun, is a Nazi war criminal on the run. Braun reminded me of ‘Humbert Humbert’ in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita (1955) especially when he seduces Helen, a younger and somewhat naive divorcee.
The reader is forced to live inside the protagonist’s head (in third person viewpoint). This close perspective makes for an uncomfortable reading experience. The novel’s experimental qualities are subversive and risk alienating the reader.
The Glass Pearls is a portrait of a lie (echoing national socialism itself) with the character viewpoint a necessary part of the setup (because it makes the tragic reveal at the end possible). In The Day of the Jackal we’re inside the head of the baddie, a slick and callous assassin. The Glass Pearls takes this to a creepy and disturbing extreme by placing us in the head of Karl Braun. Inside his head we experience the banality of evil. Throughout the novel we’re starkly conscious that Braun never expresses any remorse for his victims.
The storytelling is nuanced and operates at a sophisticated level, but the language is more reminiscent of genre fiction. The viewpoint must have been problematic for a 1960s audience (when popular war films like Where Eagles Dare were focused on comic book action entertainment rather than subtle character studies). While the prose of The Glass Pearls is straightforward, Pressburger’s story concept is experimental. The result is a novel that occupies a space somewhere in-between Ian Fleming and Vladimir Nabokov.
- Audrey Magee’s The Colony takes place on an Irish island in the late 1970s, when the island is visited by an English painter and a French sociologist. The novel deals with the friction created by the outsiders, and the nuances of cultural colonisation. It’s a skilfully written novel, and a thought provoking read.
- The Boys from Brazil (1976) is a novel by Ira Levin, which I re-read after reading The Glass Pearls. The Boys from Brazil is a high concept, conspiracy story meets Nazi hunt story. Where The Glass Pearls is ‘serious fiction’, The Boys from Brazil is very much a 1970s genre conspiracy thriller. The Boys from Brazil begins with a creepy and menacing tone, but it gets bogged down in high concept ideas, overlong scenes, and a disappointing climactic action sequence (the result of having an aged protagonist and antagonist). The predictable ‘shock ending’ is nowhere near as effective as the one in Rosemary’s Baby.
- Doomsday Watch with Arthur Snell – The Ukraine War (New World Disorder) – reminds us that for every political crisis and global instability there are people out there who view these things as an opportunity, a way to increase their power and status.
- This episode of the Leading podcast features an interview with Kate Raworth on Doughnut Economics. It explores the challenge of delivering real environmental sustainability. How can liberal democracies achieve change when no one votes to become poorer?