Friday, May 11, 2007

Non-MNW Books by Macmillan New Writers: Part 2 of 2

It would have been hard to talk about The Gentle Axe without mentioning Crime and Punishment.

In contrast, it would be quite easy to talk about Aliya Whiteley’s novella Mean Mode Median without mentioning Frank Herbert’s Dune, and you can certainly read her book with immense enjoyment even if you haven’t the slightest interest in the Kwisatz Haderach (you barbarian). Her characters are iconic yet immediately believable, and the short reference to Dune is a mere footnote to her story (though it's a footnote that provides a perfect key).

Some critics claim the novella is the pinnacle of fictional forms, and I’m inclined to agree (even though I couldn't write one to save my life): it can have the intensity and perfection of a short story, but with some of the breathing space and breadth of a novel. What is most surprising about Mean Mode Median is that, like Aliya’s Three Things About Me, it employs multiple POVs—common enough in a novel, but risky in the more compressed form of the novella; there is a danger the narrative will lose focus or that the reader will feel jerked from one viewpoint to another without getting enough of any POV. Yet Aliya pulls it off with aplomb. In 181 pages, we are carried through six different POVs (I count five third-person, one first-person), revisiting most of them a few times, but the jumps from one character to another are invariably enjoyable rather than off-putting. Add to all this the fact that the story is presented in a ‘frame’ (using a present-tense prologue and epilogue around a past-tense core) and you have an amazing amount of technical architecture for something that must run not much more than 50,000 words.

The book tells the story of Anna and Edward St Clare, charismatic, complex brother and sister, and their impact on everyone around them. The St Clare family may not be the most dysfunctional family in literature, but it certainly deserves a nomination for that prize. Dune is an excellent key to the mental structure of the siblings, but the mother is believable while being inexplicable (I kept expecting a reference ala Dune to Mrs Rochester. Perhaps I overlooked it.) The father at first seems to be an unsympathetic character, but by the end of the story he is well on his way to sainthood. The other characters, John and Millie, are more pedestrian types, who are in way over their heads in dealing with the St Clares. (John gives Aliya a chance to demonstrate her native talent--also featured in Three Things About Me--for sympathetic portrayals of decent, but futless, men.)

I won’t give away even a single detail of the plot, as watching its unexpected pattern unfold is one of the joys of the book. Aliya has a talent for making you care about her characters—you can sense her own affection for them—but be forewarned: she is also, in a way that recalls Evelyn Waugh, brutal and ruthless while she is being funny. At moments, reading Mean Mode Median is akin to being tickled and choked at the same time, but the author is deft enough to get away with this manuever. As some of you have probably noticed by now, I’m a blabbermouth who seldom limits his pronouncements to a single syllable, but in this case I read the book straight through, laid it down, and simply said, “Wow.”
Ali(y)a definitely has The Voice.


May said...

I wasn't really going to read the whole post but when I read "Mean mode median" my eyes shone with excitement. That's a beautiful topic! I doubt that the novella you mention is about those location measures, though.

David Isaak said...

Well, surprisingly enough, the issue of "average" is in fact a quiet theme creeping along beneath the suface of the book--and sounds the very final chord in the epilogue.

On the other hand, I'd hesitate to recommend it for its statistical content...

May said...

Hmm, you make me want to read it or, to be more precise, to buy it and keep it on the shelf until the next holidays when I'll have time to read - assuming that the book can be found in this part of Europe.

David Isaak said...

I had to order it from Amazon UK.

If fear that the Great Statistical Novel is yet to be written, though. It's more of a glancing metaphor in Aliya's book.

From glancing through your blog, it looks as though you might be the one to write it. I'll even propose a title--how about "Skewness" ?

(Okay, maybe it's not the greatest title ever. But it's bound to outsell "Heteroscedasticity".)

may said...

How do you know those terms, the second one in particular?
Also Homoscedasticity could have a market...

I am quite proud of my courses texts and wish to write no more unless perhaps when I retire and have plenty of free time.

I am afraid I won't be able to read the MMM book because, like our ancestors, I do not intend to buy stuff on the internet.

David Isaak said...

Uh-oh, busted. Okay, I'll confess. Undergraduate degree in physics, including Stat Mech and Group Theory.

PhD in Resource Systems (an odd little subdivision of geography). My tech training in the latter was mostly optimization modeling, but I got a fair dose of econometrics. With the help of antibiotics the econometrics cleared up (or do I mean regressed?), but heteroscedasticity isn't the sort of word one forgets--especially if you like words.

May said...

Oh, well, I am quite impressed. I like you even more than before (before was: you are of the Pisces like my father)

Me, undergraduate degree in Statistics and Economics. PhD in Mathematical Statistics.

Let's keep this between us.

David Isaak said...

Mathematical Stats. Whoa, that's hardcore.

I won't tell anybody if you don't.