Nora Chassler is a writer who I first read in the 2010 short story collection The Year of Open Doors, a literary compendium which introduced a new generation of writers, alongside more established names, to eager readers champing at the bit for writing which was fresh and exciting. Other Open Doors’ alumni include Anneliese Mackintosh, Allan Wilson, Kirstin Innes, Doug Johnstone and Ryan Van Winkle who have all gone on to great things, and it remains a must read for anyone with an interest in Scottish writing.
2010 was also the year that Chassler saw her debut novel, the New York based Miss Thing, published and it confirmed her confidence, style and wit as a writer, drawing comparisons with fellow American Bret Easton Ellis; an interesting and not entirely accurate name to evoke, the reasons for which I’ll return to later. What was clear was that this was a writer who would bring something new to Scottish writing. It’s been a while, but her second novel, the memorably named Grandmother Divided By Monkey Equals Outer Space, is now here and is another slice of New York life populated by people struggling to make sense of their existence, on a personal and collective level. Imagine Woody Allen characters in a Larry Clark film and you’ll have an idea of their downbeat and dirty world where humour not only allows moments of light relief, it is used as a defence mechanism.
You may believe, going by what is written on these pages, that I read nothing but Scottish books and writers, but in my teens and early twenties I was obsessed by the USA and the music, books and films which chronicled it through the 20th century. With arresting imagery and a lyrical, rhythmic, use of language, Chassler writes in an American tradition which is especially beholden to the Beats. Reading Grandmother Divided By Monkey Equals Outer Space I was put in mind of the rhythm of Kerouac’s less showy writing (or typing, as Truman Capote would have it) or the gritty surrealism of Burroughs. Chassler introduces a parade of misfits and scoundrels married to a quirkiness which is reminiscent of John Irving, and it is his work which Chassler’s style recalls rather than that of Easton Ellis.
Where Bret could learn from Chassler is that less is often more, especially when it comes to name-dropping and cultural references. I understand the point that a lot of his fiction is to critique the consumer culture on which much of modern America is built, but it often reads like his shopping wish-list and after a while it takes away from the rest of the writing rather than enhancing it. Chassler beautifully evokes time and place by using spot on cultural references which immediately transport you from the here and now to the there and then. There’s the saga of trying to see Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, women who look like Irene Cara, men who smell of “cigarettes and Dr Pepper”, Ricky Schroder, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon on the turntable; all of these are specific yet subtle enough not to slap you around the face or speak down to the reader. There is a confidence in the culture which is reflected in the writing, and which reeks of New York.
Events unfold at the sort of speed that perfectly matches life on the streets of the city, and you have to concentrate hard to make sure you take in all the sights and sounds on offer, but that’s no bad thing. The language is a delight as you quickly adjust to the beat (the be-at) of Chassler’s prose. I have never heard Nora Chassler speak, but her voice is on every page, and it is consistent throughout. I’ll admit that may say more about me and how I imagine these characters due to years of cultural conditioning, but whether it is hippy-mom Viv, her toy-boy Arnie, 11-year-old Carrie, or any of the other disparate individuals the overall narrative tone never loses focus.
The next Scots Whay Hae! review will be of Mark Millar and Frank Quietly’s graphic novel, Jupiter’s Legacy, which also comments on the state of the US nation, and once again is a reminder of the hold American culture has over Scotland, (and much of the rest of the world), in that these sons of Lanarkshire feel confident and informed enough to do so. What Grandmother Divided By Monkey Equals Outer Space (and, yes; that title does make sense when you read the book) makes clear is the difference between commentating on a culture and society from afar, and the understanding that comes from being part of it, from being raised in it. Nora Chassler understands her New York in a similar manner as James Kelman understands his Glasgow, or Irvine Welsh his Edinburgh. The lives on the page are lived, not just observed, and that lends a truth to events. It will be interesting to see if Chassler’s next novel stays on familiar territory, or if she turns her acerbic eye to her adopted home. Either way, it will be worth reading.