True statement: the longer the title, the better the post.
But really, I’m excited to have this space to discuss what was in my view the best book of 2015, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. Even in the year of Purity, this one shines above for its gorgeous writing and fascinating characters. (And Lauren Groff is super nice, too!)
If you told me that my favorite book of the year would involve one character named Lancelot (Lotto) who is, for better or worse, a white, attractive, privileged male who becomes hugely successful as a playwright, and a tall, model-like pixie wife named Mathilde, I would have told you, simply, no. But somehow Lotto as a character becomes interesting and enlivened on the page not in spite of his predispositions, but because of them, and Mathilde is full of secrets and thoughts and personal revelations that endear me to her. I tore through this nearly 400-page book in a week and a half, and it will now become one of those books I read again and again (joining the likes of Zadie Smith’s NW, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Freedom, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming through Slaughter, and Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her).
The story is split into two books, one told from the point of view of Lotto (“Fates”), the latter of Mathilde (“Furies”). Groff admitted that over the course of five years while writing the book, her original intent was to publish two books, one to come out six months after the other. She always saw them as two separate stories. Her publisher nixed the idea (given the state of book publishing, one can understand why), and instead, Groff went back to the stories and wove them together, finding the moments of interconnectedness that would create the story we now read. This, thankfully, does not feel forced. Instead, Groff is able to create an elegant portrait of two married individuals who love and care for one another, but never quite know everything about each other. It breaks down the many nuances of a relationship to this one central idea: we are still separate individuals, with separate thoughts, ideas, and experiences. No matter how much we love our partners, this will always be true. The novel then moves along with this idea, treats it like a given, to create a story that explores the nature of living, the multitude of highs and lows one culminates in a lifetime.
One review from New York Times stood out to me as a particularly important read of this book, “The deepest satisfaction gained by reading ‘Furies’ after ‘Fates’ lies less in admiring how tidily the puzzle pieces snap together – though they do – than in experiencing one’s own kaleidoscope shift of emotions and concerns.” I found the strength of the story came not from the many reveals that gave us a deeper understanding of the characters’ relationship, but the many untidy, sometimes out-of-character story lines that created a sense of chaos, an assurance that life is not ever neat, that we as sentient, complicated beings still do things that don’t always make sense.
Never did this feel more apparent than when spending a long time in a pseudo-depressive state with Lotto while he tries to write an opera at an artist’s residency. There are plot points in this particular section that support other things in the story, but not everything in this section leads to something else. While in that space of the book, I wanted to be out of it. It was miserable, dark, uncomfortable. (It felt similar to the artist residency present in Ben Lerner’s 10:04 – the confusing space of creativity and loneliness that comes from being alone with only your work.) Personally, the payoff doesn’t totally make sense or feel necessary for the events that happen in the rest of the book. And still, it turned out to be one of the scenes that stuck with me the most, for its sloppiness (not on behalf of Groff’s writing, but of human life), its tendency toward self-pity, its accurate representation of the frustration of the human species: we can be perfectly successful in so many areas of our lives, and still constantly fighting the feeling that we’re sinking quickly into a black hole.
A note on the writing: Groff began her writing career intent on being a poet. This comes through in the language, which (especially in “Fates”) is something that a reader needs to work through. It begins with sets of descriptive fragments: A thick drizzle from the sky, like a curtain’s sudden sweeping. The seabirds stopped their turning, the ocean went mute. Houselights over the water dimmed to gray. For those who had difficulty getting into the rhythm (I had members of my book club express that the style of writing prevented them from engaging with the character, which is a shame), the second half, “Furies,” thankfully adjusts and helps fill in any gaps that we missed in the first half. This was a deliberate shift in tone to match the voices of each character: Lotto, choppy and quick-paced, Mathilde, longer sentences, deliberate language.
There are also odd things: occasional point-of-view shifts and narrative insertions that some may find difficult – for a moment we see things from the angle of a gray cat, once from a stranger walking on the street, and the insertions never reveal anyone’s but the author’s thoughts. But I won’t fault Groff for either of them. For me they made the story strange, interesting, and beautiful.
I won’t say anymore because there are too many things that can be revealed, but just know that if you pick up this book, expect to be taken through an emotionally-charged journey of marriage, loneliness, expectations, and ultimately how all of these things are just fragments of so many events and emotions that make up a lifetime. It’s not an easy, tidy plot, and that’s okay, because neither are we.
Read it. Read it again. Wait for the last lines to tear your heart out. Breathe through it.
For a long time, she held him. She felt the heat of him leave. She stood only when she could no longer recognize his body, like a word repeated until it has lost all meaning.
[Mathilde’s prayer: Let me be the wave. And if I cannot be the wave, let me be the rupture at the bottom. Let me be that terrible first rift in the dark.]
Finally, as the title of this post promised, there are a few books I’m really looking forward to diving into in 2016. First, Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist and won the Man Booker Prize, is a sprawling story that begins with an assassination attempt of Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976, follows to New York City in 1980s, and back to the changed Jamaica of the 1990s.
Next, Clare Vaye Watkins’ debut Gold Fame Citrus, which begins in a California desiccated by climate change and follows the relationship of Ray and Luz, two twenty-somethings holding out in this barren wasteland.
For poetry, I can’t wait to finally sit down with Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric. Rankine won the National Book Award for this one, which comes ten years after the amazing Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. In 150 gorgeous pages, Rankine infuses poetry with prose and visual art to explore how racism pervades American daily life.
I also can’t wait for Patti Smith’s M Train, a meditation that infuses culture and art, a book that is sure to be a beautiful follow-up to 2010’s Just Kids.
I have so many other books I meant to get to this year and haven’t, and many old books I still want to read, including the short story collections Drown by Junot Diaz and Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, and the novels Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Coehen, and A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore. Let the new year of reading [and writing] begin!