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American Follies (The American Novels) (2020)

by Norman Lock

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1712987,103 (3.29)2

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If you demand that your novel follow a straight line from beginning to end, this is not a book for you. No. Start again. American Follies, the latest entry in Norman Lock's American Novels series, pretty much starts at a beginning and moves on to an ending. However, the reader grows more and more uncertain of what is actually going on. Is this some weird magical realism? Is the narrator unreliable for reasons of her own? Is she dreaming? Mad? A final chapter makes much clear, and the following author's note is more than helpful for getting hold of Lock's vision of the mad reality of life in late 19th century America for both women and black people. (That this explanation is necessary is my greatest objection to the book.)
Ellen Finch, a secondary character in Lock's earlier Feast Day of the Cannibals, has taken a job as secretary to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. She is pregnant and must support herself while her husband is trying to establish himself in San Francisco. Ellen's story is increasingly bizarre. Henry James visits and asks her to explain her wandering womb. ECS and SBA disguise themselves in blackface and participate in a minstrel show to avoid being lynched by the KKK, and this makes sense in the context. P.T. Barnum acts as deus ex machina as Ellen and the suffragists travel to Tennessee to rescue her baby (born black although Ellen and her husband are Caucasian, we think) from the Klan. The fate of the women and the people of color whom they meet is intertwined.
Lock's vision of America is dark. He is always quotable, and I'll give him his last word as Barnum agrees with Ellen that America is "The Greatest Show on Earth":
"We steamed past Castle Garden, where emigrants [sic] waited with their trunks to be admitted to a much greater and graver circus than any hippodrome, one that will require them to jump through hoops of fire, snatch a living with their teeth, and walk a tightrope high above the most desperate straits."
My thanks to Bellevue Literary Press for the advanced reading copy in return for an honest review. ( )
1 vote LizzieD | Aug 16, 2020 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
American Follies seeks to reveal our follies: the racism, sexism, and disenfranchisement endemic in America today, as it was in the nineteenth century. Through a circus, a minstrel show, a psychiatric hospital, etc., the social issues that plague the human race surface again and again. While occasionally humorous (although, if I had to read another Elizabeth Cady Stanton fat joke again, I was going to lose my mind), Locke seems to often lose the thread of his tale through wanderings and happenstance meetings with other nineteenth century figures of American history. While clearly satire, I sometimes wish it took itself a little more seriously. ( )
1 vote strongstuff | Aug 4, 2020 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
*I received this book through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.*

At one point this story, the narrator swoons "from the absurdity of it all," which captures my thoughts on this book perfectly: it's absurd. Worse, it's absurd and lighthearted about things one might not want to be funny about: sexism, racism, murdering babies, etc. To be fair, it's revealed to be a fevered fantasy by the end, but I still want to know who would have thought up a novel (if it can be called that) that so lightly handles weighty topics and which presents a story that is so loose and fantastical that it's hard for the reader to follow the tale? Is the whole thing a joke I'm just not in on? ( )
1 vote wagner.sarah35 | Jul 6, 2020 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Maybe the oddest historical fiction book I've ever read. It's farcical and intelligently written. Maybe a bit too intelligent, meandering in passages that, no matter how well-written, at points would start to bore me. Might check out the other books in this series. ( )
  alliepascal | Jul 4, 2020 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Seen from the point of view of their personal secretary Ellen, the suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, along with P.T. Barnum, a little person (Margaret), and assorted literary giants could make for both an enjoyable and insightful peek into the era.

Unfortunately, no. It didn’t. I wanted so much to enjoy this book. I’d been eagerly waiting for it hoping it would help me pass the time while hunkering down during the current pandemic.

The suffragists were portrayed as pontificating battle-axes who couldn’t hold a single conversation without yelling, or insulting, or just generally being rude and obnoxious. P.T. Barnum was boring. There was no life, no joy, no color.

The story was told in such a way that I had no idea if Ellen was consciously thinking or if it was all a fevered dream. As the story progressed it became almost unintelligible to the point where I would think that I’d accidentally turned two pages instead of one so I would go back to find out what I’d missed. But no, I hadn’t skipped anything. It had become a stream of consciousness and an inner monologue that made no sense.

What a disappointment.

I received this book in exchange for an honest review ( )
1 vote jonnijones | Jun 25, 2020 |
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