Tag Archives: Emily St. John Mandel

in the context of the surrounding world

Electric Literature: What did you look for in the winning reviews that you picked?

Emily St. John Mandel: In a word, engagement. Too often I read reviews that are concerned with nothing but the book in question, and there’s a hermetically sealed quality to such reviews, a narrowness of scope. I’ve come to believe that good reviewing requires engaging with the world outside of the individual book. At the very least, the book should be placed in the context of other books, but ideally—and I recognize that this is an entirely subjective opinion—I prefer reviews that go beyond talking about literature, so that the book under review is considered in the context of the surrounding world.

Emily St. John Mandel at Electric Literature

I’ve written before about how I typically prefer to read reviews after I’ve read the book, not before—and I think this is part of the reason why (the other is spoilers, of course). A review that is just about the book requires reading the book first to really engage with it. But occasionally I’ll find myself reading a review all the way through without having read the book. In that case, the review has transcended its genre to become just a good piece of writing. About the book, but also about something more than the book.

Advertisements

23: The Singer’s Gun

The Singer's GunThe Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bought at The Book Warehouse.

Read in September 2013.

View all my reviews

I discovered Emily St. John Mandel via The Millions, where she’s a staff writer. Like me, she grew up in BC with an American parent. Unlike me, she was eligible for American citizenship via that parent and now lives in Brooklyn. The Singer’s Gun is her second novel. Her background—she originally thought she was immigrating illegally to the US—informs the story.

The main character of The Singer’s Gun is Anton Waker. Anton’s parents sell stolen goods (such as architectural bits pilfered from buildings being renovated or torn down) for a living. Anton’s cousin Aria, who is six months older, moves in with them after her mother gets deported and her father goes after her. After high school Aria and Anton start selling fake social security cards and passports. Aria is the leader; Anton is the follower.

BooksEventually, Anton decides he wants out. After seeing an Anton Waker who just graduated from Harvard quoted in a newspaper, he requests a copy of “his” diploma, and with it begins living his dream life as an office drone. That’s not sarcasm—it actually was his dream to work in an office—he just didn’t want to bother taking the normal steps it would take to get there.

He becomes engaged to Sophie, a cellist who has no idea about his past. She does, however, seem to have cold feet about their wedding. For his part, Anton seems to care more about his one-eyed rescue cat than he does Sophie. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that ;)) If the wedding ever takes place, Anton and Sophie are scheduled to go to Ischia, Italy on their honeymoon. Meanwhile, Aria hasn’t gotten over the fact that Anton abandoned their business and Anton’s employer has obtained a big contract that requires it to do background checks on all its employees. Uh-oh.

Anton’s the center of the book, but there’s a secondary protagonist, Anton’s secretary, Elena James. Elena grew up in Inuvik (a place so far north it makes Oslo look sunny and toasty by comparison), and came to New York after high school on a full scholarship to Columbia University. Unfortunately, she dropped out after one semester, putting her in an awkward position immigration-wise. She doesn’t want to return to Canada, especially not to Inuvik. At one point, she tries to explain why to another character:

“There’s nothing up there.”

“You’re talking about a lack of employment?”

“No, I’m talking about a lack of everything. A loss of potential. It’s hard to explain. There’s just… it’s a narrowing of possibilities,” she said. “Even the smartest people end up doing nothing much with their lives, because there’s nothing to do. It’s not just Inuvik, it’s everywhere in the world that’s small and remote. Fewer things are possible in places like that.” (230)

That may be the best explanation I’ve come across of the feeling I had growing up in very small towns, why I couldn’t wait to escape, why I always raise my eyebrows at stories where the protagonist realizes the life they’ve built in The City is empty! and the only place where their life will be complete! is the Quirky Hometown they never should have left. 🙄 I was in a simmering panic for years, first worrying that I wouldn’t get out, and then when I did, worrying that it wouldn’t last, that eventually I’d end up forced back to some small, narrow place. Which maybe seems crazy, but I guess it’s a bit like leaving a cult. You have to reprogram yourself to believe that it’s ok to do things like (gasp) live in a city.

Of course, there’s a bit of irony to Elena’s remark in that some of the key characters do end up in a smallish, remote-ish place. Not nearly as small and remote as Inuvik, though.

With its themes of identity, (im)migration, and dislocation, this was one of my favorites so far this year. I’ll definitely be reading Mandel’s other novels.

The Internet has changed us

The point, it seems to me, isn’t whether the Internet is “good” or “bad” for our brains. The Internet has changed us, just as the printed book and the typewriter did. The Internet sharpens us and makes us faster thinkers, more adept at shifting between tasks, even as it erodes our ability to focus on a single topic, a single work, for long periods of time. The point is that whether you think the Internet is “good for your mind”, or exactly the opposite, depends on your values.

it seems to me that [Nicholas Carr has] approached this problem primarily as a writer—in other words, as someone whose profession requires the ability to close oneself in a room and remain utterly focused on the business of researching and completing a manuscript for hours at a time. For a writer, an inability to focus for long periods on the work at hand is at best an impediment, at worst a disaster.

Emily St. John Mandel

Thoroughly Flawed

What is naïve and blinkered is the insistence that fictional characters be held to the same moral and behavioral standards we expect of our friends. It seems to me that part of the point of literature is to enlighten and expand, and there are few pleasures in fiction that expand our consciousness further than getting to observe the world from the perspective of characters so different from us, so thoroughly flawed, that if we were to encounter them in real life we wouldn’t like them very much.

Emily St. John Mandel