These historical figures do not come to life on the page. They are little more than ideas and the roles they must play to advance McCann’s novelistic scheme. We never enter their marrow because they are little more than dots awaiting connection. Fortunately, McCann returns to form in the second half of the novel — the female half — telling the stories of several generations of women, some of whom were introduced as minor characters in the first half. Now we’re inside a Civil War hospital, we’re learning how ice was harvested in the 19th century and what the streets of St. Louis looked and sounded like. Our guides through these worlds are the remarkable women who descended from Lily Duggan, a maid in the house where Douglass stayed during his Irish sojourn, a woman who made her own trans-Atlantic crossing to America in 1846 to escape the coming famine.
I saw (on Twitter) an assertion by no less a person than Joyce Carol Oates that reviews should include a minimum of opinion. I am not sure what all of this means for my ethics or my prospects as a book reviewer. But I’ll say it: It is my opinion that this novel is awful, and I am aesthetically or philosophically opposed to it.
Frankenstein’s creation of life was not simply an act of scientific hubris, but an exposé of patriarchy. By arrogating the creation of life solely to himself, Frankenstein’s deed of giving birth results in the death of everyone he loved, culminating in his own mortal struggle with his creation in the sterile frigidity of the Arctic.
Read alone, the less outrageous stories to be found in this facetiously titled “guide” could be said to contain nothing otherworldly at all. The young couple in “The Ages” measure their own life trajectories against those of the elders in their neatly ordered neighborhood, and the boy in ‘Welcome to Your Life and Congratulations’ deals with death for the first time after his cat is hit by a car. These stories are not out of place, though; indeed, their inclusion is what makes the collection as a whole so alluring, so uncomfortable.
There may be readers who will — on discovering that A Questionable Shape combines a quest, a romance, humor, and an epidemic of zombies, with philosophy, footnotes, history, science, the arts, half of Daniel Webster, cascades of lyricism and truckloads of realism — refuse to so much as open the back cover. I wish they would rethink their decision.
“I first encountered A. Igoni Barrett here at The Millions, with his autobiographical essay, ‘I Want To Be A Book.’…Betrayals drive many of Barrett’s stories, but he takes pains to illuminate the love beneath them. For this insight alone, Barrett is worth reading.”
As I lost myself in Maazel’s gorgeous, dryly comic prose, it made me wonder about all the great love songs of the past: do we not write songs about the ones that come easy? Or do we hope that in capturing loneliness, as Maazel does so very well, we can better understand it, face it, and appreciate its possibilities?