by Daniel AlarcónBuy at Powell’s »
Jami Attenberg: Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is a funny tearjerker that reads fast. Whoosh, it’s done, and you’re sad it’s over. I read it in a day, passionately, carrying it with me wherever I went all over the house I’m staying in for the winter, bumping my head three times on the same hanging lamp, the one I never see coming because it’s not familiar to me yet, and also because I am the kind of person who bumps her head on lamps.
It’s about a big, beautiful, eccentric girl in Omaha in the mid-1980s and the pretty, bright, biracial, emerging punk-rock boy who loves her and also is interested in wearing eyeliner. Eleanor lives in an abusive, overcrowded, poverty-stricken household. Park’s family, while complicated, is ultimately supportive and astonishingly soulful. Eleanor & Park is about love, and taking care of the people you love.
In particular I was charmed by Park’s relationship with his mother, who operates a hair salon in their garage. Here she bonds with him over her understanding of Eleanor’s home situation.
“I come from big family,” his mom said. “Three little sisters. Three little brothers.” She held out her hand, as if she were patting six heads.
She’d had a wine cooler with dinner, and you could tell. She almost never talked about Korea.
“What were their names? Park asked.
His mom’s hands settled softly in her lap.
“In big family,” she said, “everything…everybody spread so thin. Thin like paper, you know?” She made a tearing gesture. “You know?”
Maybe two wine coolers.
“I’m not sure,” Park said.
“Nobody gets enough,” she said. “Nobody gets what they need. When you always hungry, you get hungry in your head.” She tapped her forehead. “You know?”
The book alternates between Eleanor and Park’s perspectives, sometimes in very short paragraphs. This strategy hooked me immediately. Also the characters are so fresh and present and Rowell’s dialogue so witty, that even when they’re being whiny punk adolescent jerks you know you’re going to get something interesting from them in the end, so it just kept me reading. I cried a bunch while reading this book. A bunch! I would recommend it to practically anyone, except for people who describe themselves as book snobs, because there’s just no saving them from themselves.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is a slow-moving, thoughtful tale that begins in 1960s Calcutta and concludes in modern-day America. I had to bribe myself to read it with the promise of long afternoon baths two days in a row. Eventually, though, I began to miss the book when I was not reading it, for somehow it had clawed its way under my skin, and I wanted to know how it ended.
It is the tale of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, one who leaves to study in America, and one who stays behind to become involved in the volatile Naxalite political movement. Udayan marries a woman, then dies (early in the novel, so no spoilers here!), and Subhash steps in to save his sister-in-law from an oppressive existence. This book is ambitious and politically minded. It, too, is about love, but more so about obligation.
The Lowland is beautifully described throughout. Lahiri’s gaze lingers so lovingly it makes my heart swell.
The gingko leaves, yellow a few days ago, glow apricot now. They are the only source of brightness this morning. Rain from the night before has caused a fresh batch of leaves to fall onto the bluestone slabs that pave the sidewalk. The slabs are uneven, forced up here and there by the roots of the trees. The treetops aren’t visible through the windows of Bela’s room, two steps ground level. Only when she emerges from the stoop, pushing open a wrought-iron gate, to step out into the day.
This is Brooklyn she’s talking about, by the way, not some sensuous rainforest. But Lahiri can make anything sound at its most magical and gorgeous.
If only she could handle the plotting and structure the same way. The research that Lahiri has done for this book is tremendous and I certainly appreciated being educated about an unfamiliar world, but too much historical/political information bogs down the first third of the book. Lahiri doesn’t truly let us get to know many of the characters until much later in the book (I did cry once), but I like to feel characters close to me all along. When Udayan died I felt so little, and I am pretty sure I should feel something—either positively or negatively—when a main character dies.
I am a big fan of Lahiri’s short stories and prefer them to her novels. I think she finds her rhythm better in more confined spaces. I will also admit I was prepared to be dismissive of yet another tale of an Indian academic in New England, but it’s her terrain, it’s what she knows, and that’s like telling Alice Munro she can’t write about small-town Canadian life or Murakami to stop writing about people magically disappearing and women’s earlobes. It’s what they do and you either get on board or miss the ride completely.
And Lahiri’s prose is really something worth witnessing. It’s certainly more accomplished and complex than Rowell’s. Reading her is like watching a champion skier race down a mountain. You’re standing and staring and your mouth is open and if you’re lucky you can hear a swish here and there, and you know you’ll never be able to do it but you’re glad someone else can.
Rowell’s prose is simple, nothing fancy, nothing extra, yet is still pretty special as-is. It’s like running a cross-country race with someone, and you can hear their breathing, and their footsteps, and you’re with them, you’re side by side with them every step of the way, breathing that same breath. It’s all very human and connected.
Oh, look, I have used sports metaphors and somehow we have all survived.
Anyway, the winner is Eleanor & Park because I enjoyed reading it much, much more than The Lowland. I felt closer to the characters and I cared urgently about what happened to them. That’s my kind of book.
Kevin: You and I are about the same age, John. Do you remember what a big deal batteries were when we were in high school? Batteries for your Walkman. Batteries for your boombox. You could let somebody else bring their boombox, on the cross-country bus or whatever, but then you’d have to listen to their music, Scorpions or .38 Special or some shit, which sucked. Those D batteries were the worst, too. They cost a fortune, a decent boombox took eight (!) of them, and at bus volume they only lasted a couple of hours, barely enough to get to the meet in Herkimer and back, which meant that somewhere around Richfield Springs you had to surrender tunes control to a sophomore with four fresh blister packs and a hard-on for anyone with a post-Eagles solo career. From seventh grade on I always had a job, and whatever money I didn’t spend on vinyl and blank tapes (TDK SA-90 Chrome Dioxide), I probably spent on batteries.
John: I got the boombox first, Christmas 1981. I was super into Genesis at the time and I listened to Abacab over and over, and then Three Sides Live when it came out the next year. I remember cannibalizing every flashlight in the house for those D batteries. I still had that thing when I went to college seven years later. My first Walkman was the plastic yellow model which claimed to be shockproof and water resistant. The biggest revelation was similar to what Park experiences in the novel, that in a confined space with others, you can instead choose to commune with your own music. My dad, when he was in charge of the car stereo, actually had pretty good taste, leaning toward classic R&B of the Motown variety. But sometimes you just want your prog rock, and in go the headphones. I spent many hours staring out from the back seat at the bleak midwestern landscape as Phil Collins sang incomprehensible lyrics about flightless birds.
Kevin: I had forgotten all about the batteries until I read Eleanor & Park.
What a joy it is when a little detail in a book brings down an avalanche of lost memories. We’ve established in past seasons that I am a crier. Like Judge Attenberg, I cried several times while reading Eleanor & Park, but the first time I cried it was because of batteries. Just the act of remembering something that banal and long-forgotten triggered an emotional response so overwhelming that I totally teared up.
Park’s dad would call me a pussy.
John: The whole time I was reading Eleanor & Park, I was actually wondering why and how it had become so popular among the YA set because much of it is actually an exercise in Gen X nostalgia. References to The Smiths and The Cure, and yes...batteries, must seem a little bit like gibberish to younger readers.
But the subject—young, first love—is timeless and powerful, even to a couple of middle-aged softies like us. One of the most refreshing things about contemporary YA is that it takes these emotions seriously, even if we, as adults, now have different perspectives on what love is and how it works. I believed every word of how earth shattering it was for Eleanor and Park to touch hands for the first time.
Kevin: Of course, the thing that makes the book powerful for adults (and Rainbow Rowell clearly understands this) is that gap between what you understood love to be when you were 16 and what you understand it to be when you are 40. That ironic distance between the reader and the characters creates so much goodwill toward the kids it almost hurts you.
As you point out, Eleanor & Park isn’t really a book about actual grown-up emotions, and I suppose that could be a knock on it as literature. It is on one level a fantasy novel: While they are wonderfully drawn characters, both kids are sort of Platonic ideals of teenagers. With perhaps the exception of one scene late in the novel, Park is about 1/30th as horny as an actual 16-year-old boy. I would encourage anyone whose daughter is reading this book to subtly let her know that if you take every reference in the Park chapters to Eleanor’s smile, clothes, hair, skin, eyes, hands, knees, shoulders, and backpack, and substitute “breasts” instead, you will only begin to approximate the the tunnel-like focus of a 16-year-old male brain. This is not to suggest it would be a better book if Park’s inner monologue were portrayed with greater vérité—that would be horrifying. Rowell does a lovely job of capturing the intensity of first love while keeping the romance from descending into hormonal chaos. The real world is dark and confusing, especially to a 16-year-old, and fiction can give us the gift of clarity. As a father of boys who I wish would listen more to Elvis Costello and The Smiths, I’m looking forward to a day, in not too many years, when they can read it.
John: I’m like Judge Attenberg. I galloped through the book, desperately hoping things were going to turn out OK for Park and Eleanor. I also am, apparently, a pussy.
Or maybe it’s actually OK to feel one’s feelings. Between last year’s The Fault in Our Stars and this year’s Eleanor & Park, we have two novels that just felt very cathartic. I don’t know that this is the sensation I want every time I read a novel, but it’s not bad at all.
It seems a little strange that we’ve been going on so long and haven’t mentioned a highly anticipated novel by a former Pulitzer Prize-winning author, but maybe it’s telling. The Lowland is a very fine piece of work, but for all the emotion of the events, the book is a little chilly. Maybe it’s the near perfection of Lahiri’s sentences, or the fact that much of the conflict revolves around characters sublimating emotion. It’s a very fine piece of work, but it’s a tough novel to wholly embrace. Fifty, 60 years from now I could see James WoodBot at the Neural Yorker writing a career retrospective that shows a greater appreciation for the achievement in hindsight. I imagine our commentariat will have much to say on its behalf.
But there’s no hindsight allowed in the Tournament of Books.
Kevin: So The Lowland will have to wait for the Zombie results to see if it is still in the running. Although I’m not at all shocked that Judge Attenberg found Eleanor & Park appealing, this verdict is something of a surprise. Lahiri is a beloved author and a masterful prose stylist, yet in her two appearances in the Tournament of Books (she was also entered in 2009 for Unaccustomed Earth) she has never made it out of the opening round.
Tomorrow we have another cross-borders match-up as Philipp Meyer’s multi-generational western The Son takes on Daniel Alarcón’s tale of a traveling South American theater troupe, At Night We Walk in Circles.