Friday, January 4, 2019

Cora Siré's The Other Oscar (#CanBookChallenge)

Oscar of The Other Oscar is in Iquique, a town in northern Chile, to play the cello in a film. He's a Canadian, though he's been living in Buenos Aires for a few years, long enough to get married, have a daughter, and get divorced. Now unattached, not the primary caregiver for his daughter, and without a regular job, he's at loose ends.

The pianist is the main character of the film, an investigation into the relation between madness and art; it's a subject that matters to Oscar: his father was also a musician, subject to manic-depression, now lost to Alzheimer's. Oscar's only moment in the film is to play cello in Beethoven's Fifth Sonata for Cello and Piano, on a raft floating in the Pacific. The filming goes well, but when it's done a wave comes along, rocks the raft, and tips Oscar's chair into the ocean. He has to be rescued.

He's befriended by the main actor, falls in love with the chambermaid at the hotel, and sleeps with somebody at the cast party, he's not really sure who, though he hopes it was the chambermaid. It must have been a good party.

Two years later and the film comes out, an arthouse success, and Oscar is teaching music full-time at the university at Iquique, and searching for that chambermaid. Oscar's a good person, but only a bit more settled. Does he resolve the occasional fuddledness he sometimes mistakes for madness? Does he find love? Does he do good? Such are the questions.

The Other Oscar is a novella that came out in 2016 from Quattro Books. I liked it, though not quite as much as I liked Siré's Behold Things Beautiful which I read in the fall. (Siré also has a book of poetry, Signs of Subversive Innocents, which I haven't read.)

It ends well, I thought, with an ambiguous possibility of promise. (We learn who he slept with. Does he? Maybe.) It's good.

It brings to mind a question I've had about other authors as well, and to which I don't know the answer. Let's call The Other Oscar literary fiction. It's humanist, and it leads us to empathy with a character outside ourselves, and as a story, it's well-done. You believe in Oscar. The story leads to a small, suitably-sized epiphany that matches the nature of Oscar's problems, and his capabilities. All those things are turf of literary fiction, and Siré handles them well.

But it's also considered the turf of literary fiction to have prose that dazzles, and this doesn't. The prose is not bad, but it strikes me as no more than functional. Is that good enough? Dreiser's prose is considered poor, say, but we still read Sister Carrie or An American Tragedy, and mostly we think that's fine. Alternatively there's Updike (I'm talking about you, "penis with a thesaurus") whose prose does dazzle, or tries to, but whose stories, for me at least, mostly don't work.

Anywho, I don't have an answer, but The Other Oscar made me wonder once again about the question. I obviously structured my examples with my thumb on one side of the scale, but I'm still not sure. Any thoughts? Should it be story over style, even in literary fiction? To what extent do you think style should matter?

But story-wise, I think Siré is good, in The Other Oscar and even more in Behold Things Beautiful.

Read because I liked the other book of hers I read, but also for the Canadian Book Challenge:


  1. I'll be honest. I tend to stay away from Canadian fiction for that reason ..... I find the writing very sub-standard, however it seems no one seems to strive to be an Eliot or a Tolstoy or an Austen nowadays. To be fair, I think the publishers pigeon-hole authors, requiring a certain formula and structure. And to me, that can take the life out of a book. If it's not well-written, I don't particularly want to read it even if the plot is well thought out. But of course, that's my opinion only, a classics-enthusiast and there are tons of people out there reading modern fiction so someone must like it. I'll have to take a look at your Canadian challenge. I'm willing to have my mind changed but the Canadian books I've read so far have been very "meh". I'd love to find a good one! :-)

    1. The closest thing I've read to a major book for the Canadian literature challenge so far is The Handmaid's Tale, and even that I'm not 100% sure of. It may be limited by its topicality--it's a very 80s book. But I do think Alice Munro will be still read in 50 or 100 years (provided the planet exists). Something like Lives of Girls and Women is just great, and that's not even my usual thing. (Small town? Short stories?! What me?)

      In general I agree--I much prefer older books. But I'm sure there were bad books written in 1850, it's just that it's so much harder to stumble on them. Time is a great winnower out of things I ain't gonna wanna read...

      Anyway, I am bit curious about what's going on now in my adopted country, so I've been reading more contemporary Canadian fiction than I do of other countries. And small presses need them some lovin', so...