Marginalia: Brutish and Short
On "Shy" by Max Porter & "Brutes" by Dizz Tate.
Welcome to Marginalia, a selection of thoughts on things I’ve been reading and watching. This month, we have the latest typographical experiment from Max Porter, and a deliciously dark tale of girlhood.
Shy, Max Porter (2023)
It’s truly bittersweet when a writer sets the extraordinarily high bar against which their own later work doesn’t measure up. On the one hand, Max Porter gave us in Grief is the Thing With Feathers (2015) a book unlike any other, one that deftly balances high ideas and craft with visceral emotion. On the other hand, that first book looms so large over everything else he has written. As a reader, I cannot let go of knowing just what Porter is capable of and therefore feeling at times deflated by his latest book.
Shy unfolds over a single night in which our titular hero sneaks out of Last Chance, a home for wayward boys that is either too on-the-nose in its name or sardonically wry, depending on the reader’s tastes. He has filled his backpack with heavy stones and is making for a nearby pond. We know enough early on to understand what Shy’s plan is, and it’s a mark of how Porter always trusts his reader’s intelligence that it is never spelled out. As Shy travels through the night, the voices of those who have loved him and hurt him and whom he has loved and hurt in kind haunt his consciousness, their voices playing across the page in a variety of typefaces and typesettings.
Much of what is so successful in Grief is present here, from the polyphonic narrative to the quasi-poetic structure of his text to the depiction of adolescence. But these things are, of course, less surprising now and are a little expected of Porter. To be truly surprising, which would be to live up to the expectation he set with that first book by shattering expectations of what fiction can do, he would at least have to attempt a long book (his novels are all just pushing to qualify as novellas) or find something subversive in – or subvert from without – more traditional narrative forms.
But I don’t want to dwell on comparisons between Shy and Porter’s earlier work. Here, he has captured with precision and panache a literary trifecta of age – I was painfully fifteen again for an afternoon while reading Shy – class – he never romanticises nor condemns his working-class subject, whose background is searingly authentic – and period – the mid-nineties are brought fully back to life, and with none of the knowing winks of hindsight that lesser writers would litter throughout such a book.
Porter’s pitch-perfect rendering of working-class English diction often reminded me of David Mitchell, a writer who seems to breathe authenticity into every line of dialogue. And there are observations in Shy that made me want to grab the nearest person and say, “Listen to this!” Shy’s relationship to music, for instance, gets at something profound (without over-egging it) about how music can be a teenager’s only friend, and occasionally their lifeline. Here, we see Shy’s internal and then external commentaries on what his favourite music makes him feel:
“He can hear it, precisely, in his head, the way an Amen break washes like a wave, slots inside itself again and again, fits inside his heart, his favourite thing when it drops down to half speed, slouching, swagger, weapons close to its chest, and then it jumps up, exploding crisp and juicy, mathematical perfection, up, up and away, made by drum machines and samples but sounding like divine intervention. […] Obviously he never says any of this to Shaun, or Benny, he just says Hardcore. Nice. Fucking love this tune.”
Almost nothing is out of place in Shy, and it’s not a word too long. It might, however, be quite a few words too short. Although we are given scenes from Shy’s earlier years and witness the increasing deviancy that led him to Last Chance, the fact that the present takes place over a single night undermines any sense of true narrative progress. Can Shy really be as changed as he seems by the end of this short book, or is this “epiphany” merely a brief upswing in a general decline? Are we given in Shy the mere illusion of change or the real thing? And if not the real thing, what’s the point of the deception?
I wished for more time spent with Shy, and with the others populating Shy’s world. It is a mark of the book’s success that it made me want this, adhering to the time old maxim of performers to “leave ’em wanting more”, but perhaps, in the end, Shy left me wanting more just a little too much.
Brutes, Dizz Tate (2023)
“Where is she?”
This is the question that opens Brutes, and it carries us through the novel’s twisting, occasionally convoluted, story that is, on its surface, about the disappearance of teenaged Sammy, but is really about the nastiness young girls learn as part of growing up, the tribal loyalties and divisions that nurture and hurt them, the pain they suffer and so learn to inflict. It is also about how filthy Florida can feel, about Hollywood exploitation, and about a monster living in the local lake. Brutesis, at times, about too much.
I came to this book – a debut from the wonderfully named Dizz Tate – with the light and very manageable baggage of having heard a comparison made between Brutes and The Virgin Suicides. This comparison was compounded by the marketing for the book, which stressed similarities with Jeffrey Eugenides timeless novel about a lost era, childhood, innocence, and the beauty of mystery. This comparison ends up being one that might stand up if given a decent defence, but it’s not one I’d have come to naturally, and Brutes suffers for it – not because it’s necessarily a lesser book but because it is clearly and confidently it’s own thing. It deserves to be taken on its own terms.
With that mind, let’s deal first and briefly with the main component that has people comparing it to The Virgin Suicides: its use of the first-person plural. This is the weakest part of the book. Here, the “we” is undermined by a slavish adherence to using it even when it patently makes no sense, such as scenes in which the “we” can only be describing the subjective viewpoint of a single individual. No doubt an academic case can be made defending this, but for the non-academic reader it presents an unnecessary hurdle to overcome in the first few pages – trying to figure out who in the hell is narrating and what the point of all this “we” stuff is. Worse, there are some really interesting uses of the collective first-person later, some of them in dialogue, that lose some of their impact by following those confusing earlier sections.
That said – in spite of this criticism, and in spite of a cool and often abstracted narrative style that distanced me from the emotional lives of the characters, and in spite of an over-reliance on similes that verged at times on ridiculous in sheer quantity – I found myself blissfully swallowed up by the mood and atmosphere of Brutes. I realised somewhere in the final third of this novel that I was nostalgic for it even as I read it for the first time, a mark of a story that has worked a certain charm over me. This is a magic related to the feeling of not wanting a book to end, a spell cast to make me feel as though I have lived with these people for far longer than the two or three hours it took me to finish the book.
There are first-person chapters scattered throughout the novel, told from the point-of-view of each of our central girls, now grown into women. These chapters are often the best of the book, and I wonder if this is because of Tate’s experience as a short-story writer. Many of these chapters could stand alone, and each time I turned the last page on one of these sections I wished it didn’t have to end.
By the end of Brutes, I wasn’t precisely sure how I felt about it. I had enjoyed the experience of watching these girls contend with life, giving me an insight into the brutishness of girlhood I can honestly say I hadn’t read before; at the same time, there was much technically out of place. In addition to the criticisms above, I could add the showy Daedalian structure that made the story’s chronology unnecessarily muddy, and the “folk horror” elements that read to me like a lazy and unfulfilled form of magical-realism. So, on closing the covers of Brutes, I took to the critics and reviewers I trust (because one thing you can unequivocally praise Brutes for is that it makes you want to talk about it with everyone you know to find out what they think).
There is a dispute – amongst those who care enough to argue about such things – over whether criticism is an art, and if so, to what extent. But there is little denying that every so often a review transcends itself to distill, with no small amount of artistry, the essence of its subject in a line that itself glows as bright as anything in the literature under review. We hacks (or artisans, if you prefer) always hope to write such a sentence ourselves, but I hold my hands up here to admit: I can do no better than Niamh Donnelly in her review for the Irish Times:
“Full of intrigue and intensity, Brutes smoulders but doesn’t quite catch fire.”
Chef’s kiss. And exactly why I eagerly await Dizz Tate’s next book – because Brutes feels like an almost successful first try. I’m hoping her next novel will catch fire.
Marginalia, plur. noun: “In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin … for the facility it affords me of penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe