Books

Exhibit 1.8.5

As You Can See

 

There was a tie in my hypothetical Tim Daly memoir title contest. Tie in the sense that nobody wins, certainly not Tim Daly, certainly not me.

 

Option One

 

Daily Tim Daly

 

 

Option Two

 

In Search of Lost Tim Daly

 

I guess it really depends on how Tim Daly feels which, if I had to guess, is pretty awesome.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Tims, Wings

Exhibit 1.7.4

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

 

So I re-read Watchmen for a class I’m teaching, but when I went to write about it for this, I remembered I’d covered this ground a couple of years ago when I first read it. Here‘s me on the movie. Here‘s me comparing it to Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I’d add a couple of things:

1) I was either smarter then or had a lot more time.

2) I still think the movie is better than the book (or, at least better than it’s still thought of).

3) I still don’t think the movie is very good because–gasp–I still don’t think the book is very good.

4) Well, “very good” in the literary sense. It’s still highly entertaining. Nothing wrong with that.

5) That’s kind of a copout. I find plenty to talk about in class (mostly the Black Freighter/extra-textual stuff).

6) We should all never forget that every word here is being written by someone who was once obsessed with Mary Worth.

7) God, what’s Mary Worth up to right now do you think?

8) Someone is reading Poe as they die in bed. Of course.

9) Even in just these two panels, I think I can guess the entire plot: A mother is dying but doesn’t want to finally tell her daughter who her father is because he was a deadbeat who has only recently been trying to get back in their lives. That’ll do, Mary Worth. That’ll do.

10) God I miss having an office job.

Comment / Posted in 2013, Books, Graphic Novels

Exhibit 1.7.3

Falconer by John Cheever

 

 

I decided I’m going to do my best to write a sentence or two about the books I read. We’ll see how long this lasts.

So, here we go. Cheever’s Falconer probably read as far more edgy when it was published in 1977 though the heart of the story has very little to do with the casual homosexual relationships in Falconer prison and a great deal to do with the violence any relationship–to women, men, drugs, the past–enacts on a man. To be sure, the prison is a larger metaphor for any life’s denial and suffering, but in the book’s most loving relationship, Falconer comes to seem like a kind of safe space (as our narrator can love a man there but not, he knows, outside the walls). This is perhaps the greatest toll time has taken on the book: Cheever writes heartbreakingly about what it means to be in a prison he can’t imagine leaving.

Comment / Posted in 2013, Books, Fiction

Exhibit 1.7.1

AWP Book Haul

So I didn’t grab as much as I would have liked as I’m still reading for exams, but I managed, I think, to get some great stuff.

 

 

* Rachel B. Glaser’s Moods from Factory Hollow

* Sam Amadon’s The Hartford Book from Cleveland State

* Rebecca Hazelton’s Vow from same

* Mathias Svalina’s The Explosions from Subito

* Glenn Shaheen’s Unchecked Savagery from Ricochet Editions

*Michael Flatt’s Absent Receiver from SpringGun

* Aby Kaupang’s Little “g” God Grows Tired of Me from same

* James Belflower’s The Posture of Conture from same

* Matt Salesses’s The Last Repatriate (Nouvella) & I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying (CCM)

* Russel Swensen’s Santa Ana from Black Lawrence

 

Comment / Posted in Books, Conferences, Matthews

Exhibit 1.6.4

Instead of Posting My Entire Exam Essays

I’m posting the book I’m reading next. Because clearly putting this on Facebook wasn’t enough.

I can’t tell if I’m getting better at using Paint or worse as a person.

Let’s say both.

Comment / Posted in Adoption, Books, Cats

Exhibit 1.4.8

Textbook

So there’s a textbook required for the Composition One class I teach, and while normally I just ignore it if not openly disparage it, there are a few lessons I use from its opening chapters since they’re relevant to what the students will do in Comp Two. I don’t want my students to be the ones who don’t know what ethos is.

(Nobody knows what ethos is.)

Part of this involves a lesson on what the book calls angle of vision which is mostly about how writers control their messages using their perspective, etc. etc. Basic stuff. In the past, the book had a cartoon that made the point that people with different priorities could see the same issue in a variety of ways. This issue was stem cells. Fair enough, that’s an issue on which reasonable people can disagree (even if some of them are clearly much, much more reasonable).

So I open this year’s textbook expecting to find that same cartoon and instead, there’s this:


!!!!

The textbook people, apparently too burned by the controversy over stem cells (in a lesson designed to prepare students to argue effectively no less), decided that this year’s issue on which reasonable people could disagree was sweatshops. And somehow they couldn’t even come up with a 50/50 split of opinions. 4 out of 6 people in their little scenario are seemingly in favor of sweatshops and only some greasy hippie objects on moral grounds.

Even the explicitly Asian sweatshop worker kid is in favor of sweatshops! Come on, Liang, you couldn’t have at least said, “I have mixed feelings on working 14 hour days for pennies.”

I really don’t know what else to say about it. None of it makes any sense to me. It might be a brilliant but cynical take down of consumer culture and modern capitalism or it might be that someone thinks sweatshops are an issue with sides.

Thank god they didn’t ask these people:


Yes, I drew those. Yes, it took more than 10 minutes. No, I will not be drawing again.

3 Comments / Posted in Bad Ideas, Books, Sweatshop

Exhibit 1.3.19

The Authentic Animal


Dave Madden’s The Authentic Animal is available today, and you should pick it up even if he did refuse to name the chapter about pet taxidermy “Stay” (or did I want “Play Dead”? I can’t even remember). In any case, it’s one of many delightful ruminations on animals, death, and our relationship with both to be found underneath that beautiful cover. I’ve been lucky enough to watch this manuscript grow up and the time, effort, and viscera-witnessing that went into it makes it well worth the wait. You want this book. Buy it today and make Dave’s book the number one rated Zoology book on Amazon. Together, we can do this.

(The current number one is a book about animals being friends with each other. Come on, America.)

It’s not, of course, a Zoology book, not really. The chapters here are smart and often personal explorations of why we choose to preserve dead animals (but not–or at least not typically–dead humans) and how, beyond that, we’ve turned it into an art. The best thing about the book is how it isn’t for the taxidermy enthusiast or even taxidermy-inclined but for the curious, the sort of reader who wants to understand. Dave’s book seems to begin there, with a question over who we are and why we do what we do, and over the next 90,000 words moves toward explaining what compels us. It’s not a book stupid enough to turn taxidermy into a metaphor for everything, but it is a book smart enough to acknowledge that even the tiniest subcultures, even taxidermists, are simply one more attempt to know and control our world.

And, on a more personal note, Dave’s been my writing best friend, Cupboard co-editor, and title decliner for almost as long as he’s been working on this book. He’s a brilliant writer, and I’m thrilled to see this book get the publication and attention it deserves. I would consider you helping him out by purchasing it, reading it, loving it, and spreading the word a favor.

Do it.

4 Comments / Posted in Animals, Books, Davids

Exhibit 1.3.6

Foul Weather


The Weather Stations by Ryan Call from Caketrain

Despite all the tornadoes and hurricanes and tsunamis of the last few years, Call’s book is a shocking reminder that even more terrible things might be coming. Wind that kills, lightning that maims, sky that crumbles–the stories here aren’t post-apocalyptic, they’re simply apocalyptic. Worse, they’re powerfully personal. So often in lesser work a story’s heart shrinks as the disaster increases, but here the tragedies are always human ones. The weather here produces not destruction but terror, and it’s not on insubstantial difference. You don’t feel like the author is a child kicking over an anthill–he’s the ant.

I was able to read this entire book on the plane yesterday which I both recommend and warn you against. Recommend because it’s a great read that keeps the clouds moving quickly. Warn because this book tells you those clouds are trying to kill you and it’s impossible not to believe it. Those. Clouds. Are. Trying. To. Kill. You. I honestly didn’t think we were ever going to land and when we did, just a minute after I finished the last story, I was shocked when we all didn’t burst into applause out of wonder for our pilot. You know it’s a great book when it can re-mystify the commonplace.

And that’s what impressed me most as I turned the pages and the plane rocked slightly in the air. I didn’t want to land because I didn’t want to leave the book’s world. At that moment, we could have just floated away.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Weather

Exhibit 1.2.10

Wieland

(Yep, another post on books. If you don’t care, you’ll probably enjoy this hyper-literal video of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson’s “Luckenbach, Texas.” I know I did.


)

Charles Brockden Brown’s novel makes two things clear: 1) the gothic is integral to American literature and 2) we should have seen M. Night Shyamalan coming. O, fine, a third thing: voice throwing is the world’s deadliest talent.

Why America couldn’t have produced compelling social novels is unclear to me, but her earliest books all seem to be obsessed with darkness and horror and the unsettling nature of life on the new continent. Without definitive social classes, nobody seems to know who to trust and so everyone is a rake or a murderer or some deviant ventriloquist. Wieland came out less than 15 years before Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, but they don’t feel like they exist in the same world. And, I suppose, they don’t.

Austen has her balls and parlors while Brockden Brown’s America feels like a free for all. There is still a moral order, just not one that anybody feels comfortable asserting except when it’s too late. At first the book even seems progressive. The titular Wieland is obsessed with reason and rationality rather than his father’s odd, Puritanical religion. His sister lives alone without comment and serves as the book’s narrator. Everyone, basically, feels like a free citizen in a land ruled by liberty rather than class or superstition.

O, then weird things start happening and then it all goes to hell. The brother no longer trusts his wife. The sister, too, is spurned by her suitor for being a hussy. One character believes God is telling him to kill everyone. It’s only after these things start happening does the claustrophobia of the early pages seem suffocating. America, in a word, was a little boring.

The Shyamalan twist is that some and possibly all of this turmoil was caused by a passing “biloquist” who helpfully explains how through a series of very reasonable coincidences, he was forced to throw his voice, a power he laments and had sworn not to use (it being too powerful. Something _________ must have realized a long time ago [___________ being where I would put the name of a famous ventriloquist if there were any {O,shit, Jeff Dunham. Well, I’m still not giving him the satisfaction}]). In any case, this wizard stops short of confessing to causing Wieland to murder his family, but it doesn’t really matter. The sister flees back to Europe where there’s still evil but it’s easier to recognize.

So what was wrong with America that this is where our imaginations immediately went? It’s tough to say, though there seems to be some reaction not only to the wilderness surrounding the colonies but to the breakdown of social order caused by democracy. This breakdown, which was hardly as severe as it must have seemed, is a little ridiculous to a modern reader–as is the one moment of spontaneous combustion–but the young country seems to have experienced a lot of terror in the space between reason and freewill. O, we might be able to reason our way into explanation (it’s usually ventriloquism) but that doesn’t mean some of us won’t fall back on superstition and violence and how will we know who those people are until they’re approaching us with axes?

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Texas

Exhibit 1.2.6

I Read This

I Should Get This

Well, okay, probably not a gold medal from the 2006 Winter Olympics, but I feel like I deserve something. I know reading the book is its own reward, but mostly I’m talking about having hauled it to and around Washington D.C. It’s heavy, in other words. And I don’t mean emotionally, I mean it weighs almost as much as my laptop. No, that’s not exactly as memorable as winning the luge, but it’s not so far off either. I’d settle for a bronze from Lillehammer.

As for the book, what can I say that hasn’t been said. It’s great. I prefer the small perfection of Jane Austen–whose work the book greatly resembles through the first two sections–but if you have ever wished she occasionally left the sitting room and wrote epic novels about a bunch of Russians, here’s your book. After those early sections, it’s as much social commentary as it a social novel but only occasionally does it feel didactic (sadly, one of those places is the ending but if you’ve made it that far, I imagine you’ve already given yourself over to it). Tolstoy obviously believes something about peasants and Christianity and hypocrisy and honor, but it’s shocking how beside the point all of that is to understanding the novel. Mostly, it’s hard not to read these portions of the novel without being all too aware of the wave that’s coming through history to take all of these people out. Every time Levin started going on about not educating workers, I screamed, “Look out, they’re coming to kill your children!” at the book.

(By the way, this completely ruined how smart and sensitive I was supposed to look while performatively reading it at coffee shops).

Around all that philosophy though is a really remarkable portrayal of humanity. There’s no overstating it: I can’t think of another book that has so accurately portrayed the human soul. All the contradictions and self-betrayals and doubt and relief–it’s what allows a book like this to transcend its philosophy and its timeliness and give reason to the epic social novel. Yeah, it’s never going to be my favorite kind of novel, but I can certainly understand the appeal of trying to signpost a moment with a monument big enough to be seen through history.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Medals

Exhibit 1.2.1

Best Movie Quotes to Pretend Are in The Great Gatsby

* “Here’s looking at you, kid.” — Tom Buchanan to Myrtle

* “Forget it, James, it’s North Dakota.” — Dad Gatsby

* “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” — Daisy

* “It was beauty killed the beast.” — Owl Eyes

* “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” — Dan Cody

* “I’m walking here! I’m walking here!” — Myrtle

* “You had me at hello.” — Nick

* “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” — Jordan

* “I’ll have what she’s having.” — Wolfsheim

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Movies

Exhibit 1.1.26

House (Boat) Party

I’m a bit in trouble on this book because I read it a couple of weeks back, couldn’t think of a take on it at the time, and now feel like I should say something. Um, it won the Booker? That’s worth something isn’t it?

[Goes and checks to see if David Mitchell has won one, sees that he hasn’t, decides it’s worth nothing]

So, yep, people living in boats along the Thames, somewhat focused around a young Canadian mother and her two daughters, one a moody pre-teen, one adopted from St. Julian’s School for Precocious Tots. In fact, I’m not entirely sure this entire book wasn’t written in anticipation of movie version to launch the career of a not-yet-conceived Dakota Fanning. She’s smart like an adult but whimsical like a child! Her idiosyncrasies are adorable! Just imagine a six-year old jumping rope in a dress and rain boots making intelligent observations about humanity and you’ve got a pretty good idea.

Anyway, there’s something great about the carefree wandering of the omniscient narration and the characters aren’t completely without interest. And I suppose living on a boat in the 60s must have been more scandalous than I’m giving it credit for, but I can’t help but compare this book to Drabble’s which had a lot more to say about the age, class, and country.

Maybe this is the way to put it: a lot of the novels I’ve read recently have been short but this is the only one that felt slight.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Rivers

Exhibit 1.1.25

The Western


A fun book that didn’t take me much longer to read than the new movie took to watch, and it’s easy to see why so many people love it. I certainly did.

(Quick movie comparison: almost identical with a great deal of the dialogue coming directly from the book, one short and unimportant addition, and, oddly, a few minor plot points changed, which both solves some tiny oddities and creates a few new ones).

Like a lot of the books I’ve read recently, it’s heavily voice driven. That’s probably not an accident given that they’re all for classes taught by the same person, but True Grit stands out for the oddity of its retrospective narration through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl on a manhunt for her father’s killer. That conceit alone could and does take this book a long way, but its the absolute appropriateness of her position that makes it compelling. Mattie is by far the smartest and most honorable character and in the running for the toughest. Her competition is all larger-than-life western characters, and so she is both straightman to the genre conventions around her and the wide-eyed gaze that creates them.

It seems a shame to even talk about the book this way. It’s just good. Exciting and funny and unsentimental right up until the stoicism of the genre breaks to show the character Mattie has never learned to hide.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Grit

Exhibit 1.1.24

A Perfectly Lovely Book


I don’t have much more to say about it though I guess some comment should be made about just how odd Margaret Drabble’s book’s plotting is. There’s a lot here that could be conflict but isn’t, just as the primary conceit of the book (a not particularly young but pretty and highly educated woman gets pregnant her first time having sex) could be treated as some kind of “ironical” misfortune but isn’t. In fact, early on two characters discuss their pregnancies in terms of Thomas Hardy’s Life’s Little Ironies and their differing conclusions inform the book only slightly less than the fact that, in both cases, everything worked out perfectly. …and everything worked out perfectly is a strange concept to build a plot around, but there it is.

Well, okay, “perfectly,” is maybe overstating it, but as well as could be expected if not slightly better. In some ways the book reminded me of a sitcom. Joey is not going to unexpectedly die in a mugging on the way home from Central Perk. We know things will work out fine and we watch to see our reassurances played out.

Who knows if Ms. Drabble had the will to do something awful to her characters, but she certainly didn’t have the desire. Yet somehow the book works on the strength of its sensitive, smart, and funny narrator. There’s real charm in how everything that should be a negative she somehow twists into a positive. Having an illegitimate child in the 1960s? No problem, because now the narrator can love. Being a single mother? She can enter into a mutually beneficial arrangement with a friend. Telling the parents? Someone else can do it.

The book is quite aware of its positivity and a great percentage of the words are spent inside the narrator’s mind pondering her situation and how, though it might clash with both the staid conventions of an older generation and the freer beliefs of her own, it is nevertheless a good one. The point seems to be that she can have a child on her own terms and still be happy and successful and free. As a political point, it’s now an old one (if not a little silly given we’re talking about a profoundly privileged character), but a great deal of the book seems intended to present a different side of the more familiar depictions of Swinging London. The narrator is clearly of an age and social standing where she should, like her friends, use the era’s hedonism to liberate herself yet instead chooses to do it by redefining domesticity and motherhood and love. I feel, I think, reassured.

Comment / Posted in Books, Cases For Perfection, Fiction

Exhibit 1.1.22

Dude’s Lyrical like Bernie Taupin

I think we’re all sick of language-driven novels published by obscure presses winning Pulitzers. Okay, so that never happens. Bully for the Pulitzer people and for Mr. Harding whose book is as remarkable as Marilynne Robinson says on the cover which is both a good thing and a bad thing.

And what’s remarkable about it is the writing. You really can’t talk about the book without talking about its lyricism which is, on some level, a detriment. I mean, I love lyrical, and there’s certainly something wondrous–though always in a strictly realistic way–to justify it here. Of course, there’s also just a lot of characters sitting and thinking and talking which all gets the same sparkly brush. Here, I’ll flip to a random page and grab the first sentence:

My goodness, I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow; peel back my scalp and you will see my cranium covered in the scrimshaw carved by an ancient sailor who never suspected that he was whittling at my skull–no my blood is a Roman plow, my bones are being etched by men with names that mean sea and wrestler and ocean rider and the pictures they are making are pictures of northern stars at different seasons, and the man keeping my blood straight as it splits the soil is named Lucian and he will plant wheat, and I cannot concentrate on this apple, this apple, and the only thing common to all of this is that I feel sorrow so deep, it must be love, and they are upset because while they are carving and plowing they are troubled by visions of trying to pick apples from barrels.

Ha! I swear that was random. Honestly, I was delighted when I saw the page. Anyway, I couldn’t have picked a better example of what makes this book awesome and, I hate to say it, admirably overwrought. It’s pretty much that all the way through and at times it’s beautiful and awesome–describing the electricity of a seizure, the imagination of a child–and at others it’s forced with the unworthy task of the book’s plot.

This maybe is part of my problem: the past is not, in itself, magical. I’m going to stop before I go off on some rant about nostalgia except to say that no one would write about their office job the way Harding writes about being a traveling salesman. It’s maddening to see such language applied not to the truly magical but to simply the past, as if beautiful things only existed between 1840 and 1962. And during those years, everything was equally beautiful–a sugar-glazed ham is identically as sublime as pulling a tooth with a pair of pliers.

It’s a minor complaint that one that kept me from really loving the book. I’m not even sure I’d say I liked it though I admired it a great deal (I’m obviously hedging. Am I the only one comfortable for having a category for art that I can like without, you know, liking?). So, in the end, an absolutely beautiful, marvelously written book and certainly one deserving of its accolades. But, at least to me, the book reaches for something more than just beauty and falls short. There’s a story about fathers and sons here, one about running away from a legacy, one about the painful gains and losses over a lifetime, but it’s all too slippery with rosewater.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Language

Exhibit 1.1.21

Huh


When McEwan’s book reaches its sudden conclusion–as spoiler-free as possible: a creepy family achieves maximum creepiness, somewhere V.C. Andrews blushes–it’s difficult to see past the shock of it all to any greater point. And that, I suppose, is the point, even if it’s not a very good one. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a plenty interesting and insightful book–language, imagery, etc. all top-notch–but the final act it builds toward is achingly inevitable from the first pages and so it’s a matter of simply waiting it out. Of course, there’s a shocking act at the beginning too and even the first sentence–something from the narrator about not having killed his own father–seems needlessly incendiary as when that moment comes, there’s nothing to suggest the character did kill his father nor that anyone thought he did. It’s the literary equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater then, after everyone’s maimed on the floor, putting on a pornographic movie just to be a dick.

(Or is it like that? Is anything like that?)

So much shock, so little of interest behind it all. Maybe this book once said something about the depravity of British society (or at least the children) or maybe–likely–I’m missing something, but I set this book down feeling sad that someone so talented had wasted so much time aiming so low. Shock ages poorly, is the problem, and so absolutely it’s ghastly that this book involves incest but, you know what, so do about half the episodes of Law and Order: SVU. And yep, the events proceeding it are wonderfully described by a sensitive and complex character in the 1st person, but that blackhole of a moment is so strong that nobody else gets to be anything other than a scandalization-bot. Seemingly no other character has a choice, and those who have very good reasons to be disinterested or disturbed by it find themselves involved because this book is about a creepy family and if they’re ever going to be the creepiest family then everyone’s got to be on-board. Why they’d want to be isn’t important. What is important is that every reader closes the book feeling ashamed because we’re all implicated in it by how lovely the writing is. Well, I don’t care. This isn’t Lolita and dirty is not an emotion.

McEwan is better than this book, thank god. Apparently someone reminded him that–despite what a lot of immature writers seem to think–being shocking doesn’t mean being more honest and usually it means the opposite.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Gardens

Exhibit 1.1.19

Why Not


So, yes, more book posts. I’m sorry. I’m reading a lot, what can I say. It’s either that or contemplate why the tornado siren is going off. My theories: either it’s a test or God intends to finish what he started in Arkansas.

If it helps, I thought this book was fantastic. It’s smart and original and funny and, basically, everything the last book wasn’t (well, fine, the last book was smart. Maybe I should have gone with clever). This is the first Mary Robison I’ve read which I find slightly strange as it’s a name that feels really familiar to me, just one of those names you hear a lot if you deal in literary fiction. I might have read a story or two some where but none are coming to mind and so I suppose she’s nothing but a name and the vague impression that she’s Amy Hempel-y which is a good thing to be.

Why Did I Ever is told in 536 chapters (Well, “sections” anyway. If I have a gripe with the book it’s that these mostly numbered but occasionally titled sections are further broken up into chapters, as if without this the reader might be fooled into thinking these were short stories, as if any book needs two levels of numbering). Anyway, some representative ones:

141

That fat man driving around with his little pooch? Now why don’t I know him or someone like him? That man, I bet, could make me very happy.

365

Hollis is perched on one of the seats in the breakfast nook as we come in. He’s eating a pecan roll and reading the Book of Revelation. “Whoomp!” he says. “Did you ever know about this? ‘There will be no more night.'”

There are longer chapters though none more than a page or so and some as short as a single word. Despite the fragmentation, the book does work around a cohesive plot and an established set of characters. The narrator is a middle-aged woman working as a screenwriter for a film studio with two children only slightly more troubled than she is herself. It’s never sentimental and, despite the darkness, shockingly funny in little, real ways that always seem impossible to me. These kind of life-on-the-brink stories are done to death but rarely do they feel this fraught which is a credit to the form. These short chapters aren’t a gimmick, they’re a telling representation of the scattered thoughts of a woman in just enough control to get them in the right order but to see her own narrative.

As a teacher–not a reader–it’s strange to read a book like this that seems so clearly suited to imparting one lesson. I mean, there’s great dialogue and description and characterization and whatever else we’re all supposed to be doing. And it’s formally interesting and well-written in its own stark way. Plenty to say about that. Really though, it’s a book about voice and though the narrator reaches no great conclusion, it’s terribly sad to leave her.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Money

Exhibit 1.1.18

So Long


I’ve got this theory with exactly no evidence to support it but it goes something like this: everything we thought of as an MFA story was really a William Maxwell story because a William Maxwell story was a New Yorker story. These things–an MFA story, a New Yorker story–have all shifted, of course, but the influence lingers in older journal editors and writing professors who have theories on what’s good and bad, what’s possible and what isn’t.

For 40 years–notably coinciding with the rise of the MFA and therefore the rise of the short story–William Maxwell served as the fiction editor of the New Yorker publishing Cheever and Updike and O’Connor and all the rest. If we can assume his considerable influence in the literary world trickled down–and continues to still–Maxwell’s personal tastes were the bar which young writers had to clear. It’s not very useful to even attempt to define these things, but since people still bemoan the MFA story, Maxwell seems as likely a culprit as anyone. Unless you like these stories, in which case he’s a sort of hero standing up for the well-crafted sentence and the understated emotion.

Whatever. I don’t really care either way except that when reading So Long, See You Tomorrow it was hard not to see the type of overly polished and nostalgic navelgazing I used to hate when reading through the middle years of short story anthologies from the last century. And it’s not that I still hate this work–nor that I like it any better either–just that I’m past the point where I know what to say when confronted by it. I’ve never developed a vocabulary for intelligently describing how something can be well-wrought yet lifeless, interesting yet treated blandly. Nor do I know why sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t (though a sense of humor usually helps).

And so I don’t really know what to say about Maxwell’s book. It’s not that it’s bad, it isn’t, just that its careful portrait of three shifting families during the 1920s somehow fails to feel like anything more than the author’s working out some old and remarkably tiny guilt (in fact, Maxwell admits as much in a Paris Review interview here). To the book’s credit, it is not without an awareness of how inessential the narrator–the unnecessarily guilty feeling boy on the periphery of a love triangle and murder–is to the actual plot of the book, but it’s still like listening in to a particularly well-spoken person’s therapy session. What does it mean that this event meant something to the narrator? Why does he still think of it all these years later? What can he now realize with the benefit of experience?

Naturally, because this is that kind of story, these questions don’t really get answered and nor do they need to be. They’re not interesting questions. The event matters because we’re reading a book about it. He thinks about it because it was a love-triangle that ended in murder. Experience teaches him nothing that any one of the other characters couldn’t have told us at the time. It’s frustrating because a book that should be about the impossibility of love at a time when marriage meant something else and divorce was nigh impossible is instead about elderly malaise which drips through every sentence, every character, every workshop story, until the only thing any one can write about is how sort of maybe sometimes perhaps without knowing why we might kind of feel things.

Okay, not really. We can also write about people with crazy jobs. What if there was a blood factory!

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Tomorrow

Exhibit 1.1.16

Things

* (mostly of the promotional variety)

* Sorry.

* Look, I took a new picture of Borgstrom’s Explanations:


* Doesn’t it look nice? Don’t you want one? Don’t you think my parents’ carpet looks properly vacuumed?

* Speaking of Explanations, it made Sherrie Flick’s list of the year’s best books in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Very proud of Andrew and very grateful to Miss Flick.

* In other Cupboard good news, the fine folks at FlashFiction.Net reviewed Joshua Cohen’s volume here and had nice things to say about it and the other pamphlets. Grateful to them as well.

* And, while I’m at it, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Cohen’s Witz is on a number of year’s best lists itself. Pick it up from Dalkey.

* O, well, now I can’t stop. Lots of similar attention for Chris Higgs’s The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney which you can and should get from SATOR here.

* Two quick things from me. One, American Short Fiction‘s blog is doing a really cool Atlas project for all of their web stories. You should check them all out and mine for “In Space, Smiling” is right here. It’s such a good idea that I wish I’d thought of it. If only The Cupboard had a blog. Alas.

* Two, We Who Are About to Die asked stamp stories contributors to review their own story. Mine is here. I became pretty worried when I read the other reviews (like Dave’s) and felt like I completely missed the point. Still, there it is. Enjoy.

* To make up for all of that, please enjoy this clip from The Critic:

3 Comments / Posted in Books, Penguins, The Cupboard

Exhibit 1.1.9

Waiting for the Barbarians


Okay, so I’m going to start posting about books I’ve read (or at least books I liked). I’ve said I was going to start doing this at least a half dozen times, but now I feel compelled, both by my desire to have some record of what I’m reading and my desire to stop looking at that creepy picture from the last post.

So, Waiting for the Barbarians. I’ll say this: it’s the first Coetzee I’ve read, and I’d read more. Coetzee previously belonged tangentially to a group of writers that, for reasons I’ve never been quite clear on, I steered clear of. Mostly these are novelists who came to prominence (at least on my timeline) in the 1980s and I–correctly or incorrectly–associate with a sort of smug misanthropy of upperclass white dudes of that era. In fact, if these writers formed a basketball team in 1987, it would look like this:

PG: Martin Amis
SG: Bret Easton Ellis
SF: Jay McInerney
PF: Tom Wolfe
C: John Updike

Coach: Christopher Hitchens

It would be a very terrible basketball team.

I formed this opinion without having read any of their books–or having seen them play basketball–and in the books I’ve read since, I was sometimes right and I was sometimes wrong. Certainly these writers are better than I probably want them to be and certainly there are strains of whatever lazy mysogony, pompousness, and reactionary fear I suspected to be in their work in books that I actually do like from around that time. But anyway, Coetzee somehow got lumped in with these folks in my mind, and I’m not even sure why. Actually, I probably know exactly why. The first book of his I heard of, Disgrace, which everyone seems to love, reads in summary like a book I would hate. Weary professor seduces student and doesn’t understand why this gets him fired? O fuck right off.

Still, I guess that’s not what the book is really about (or at least he learns his lesson or something when his daughter is raped which, sigh, whatever). And while I can’t speak for that book, I can now understand it’s probably not the book I think it is. Waiting for the Barbarians could also be summarized in ways that make it sound like that sort of book, but to do so would be to miss the point which is that it knows it’s that sort of book. Or at least that the protagonist is that sort of character, eventually realizes it, and spends most of the book trying to figure out why and to what end. Briefly, the Magistrate runs a town on the frontier of an unnamed Empire slowly building to a war against the nomadic barbarians who have been pushed to the mountains. Once the war, or something like it, starts, the Magistrate falls in with a barbarian girl who has been in his jail, and the rest of the book charts the causes and consequences of his infatuation.

That he doesn’t understand his infatuation is really the point in a book that is basically one big fable about colonialism. All the other aspects of it are somewhere in the representation of the Empire, but the Magistrate himself–a learned and liberal character–enacts the most subtle and damaging form of oppression in his treatment of the girl. He’s disgusted by torture but doesn’t understand that his ritualized and asexual washing of the girl’s broken body is perhaps even more dehumanizing than what broke it (as at least that makes sense in the context of a war). So, yes, it’s objectifying but intentionally so as he spends the latter pages of the book trying to understand what happened between the two of them while his body, like the Empire itself, begins to crumble.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the book is how enthusiastically it’s written. Honestly, I expected to find out it was his first novel, but I guess it’s his 3rd. At times it’s almost boyish in its obvious pleasure in describing the harsh landscape or in the Magistrate’s long self-reflective passages. Those were my favorite moments, but the book works on the whole, too. Maybe it’s allegory (we’re all the Empire!) is a little simplistic, but the exploration of colonial guilt is powerful and complex. On my basketball team of writers I liked more than I thought I would, Coetzee can play small forward.

3 Comments / Posted in Books, Fiction, Waiting

Exhibit 27.26

Things That Entertained Me While My Internet Was Down

Apparently my Netflix queue is making its way through last year’s big movies. Please forgive me when I try to engage you in a conversation about Inception in March 2013.


The White Ribbon
Maybe not quite as good as its reputation–or as good as Caché–but still really fantastic. It is not, despite what the trailers suggest, Children of the Corn: Wilhelmine Edition. Well, not exactly anyway. A strangely constructed movie and, like Caché, one purposefully demanding a conversation about what exactly happened.

Brief aside: Is it okay in film to have a narrator then show scenes that narrator could not have possibly witnessed nor known about? I don’t care, really, I’m just curious since this is the sort of thing that gets railed about in fiction workshops. I guess the opening where the narrator admits he’s not sure he remembers everything correctly is supposed to address this occasional omniscience, but it’s still a little weird when other things–like, you know, answers–are only speculated about.


The Secret in Their Eyes
Sort of an Argentine Memories of a Murder. Definitely more conventional than The White Ribbon, but at its best it’s smart and stylish and not nearly as crappy as the trailer suggests. At its worst, it’s sort of a really good episode of Law and Order and exactly what its trailer suggests.

Took me awhile but I finally remembered where I’d see the lead actor. He’s in Nine Queens, which is a nice Mamet-y con drama from a few years back. Wikipedia tells me he’s one of the biggest stars in Latin America. Makes sense. He’s sort of Tom Hanks-y.


Flight to Canada
I think I said this on Twitter, but I’m pretty sure I like this better than Mumbo Jumbo, and I love Mumbo Jumbo. Since today I can apparently only compare, I might as well say it reminded me quite a bit of Robert Coover’s The Public Burning in its conflation/exaggeration/reinvention of American history. It was written about the same time, too. Something in the air after Watergate? In any case, you should read it.

Comment / Posted in Books, Movies, Things

Exhibit 25.12

Netherland


I wrote about this Zadie Smith essay some time back wherein I acknowledged an ambivalence in seeking out well-wrought, realist fiction when my interests as a writer lie elsewhere. I’ve never known what to add to that conversation when so many books–over such a long period of time–can reasonably be said to have approached becoming the apotheosis. Smith had similar issues, writing, “to read [Netherland] is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done—in a sense that’s the problem.”

My thinking has changed somewhat since I first read Smith’s essay, not about writing what Smith calls “lyric Realism,” but about reading it. For a variety of reasons, I’ve encountered more of it in the last year, and while a lot of it still reads like skilled writers practicing a style they’ve learned by rote–that is to say lifeless and terrible with an abundance of characters named Pa and an underlying, unacknowledged conservatism that would scandalized its authors–occasionally something like Netherland comes along which manages to extract a lot of power out of the contradiction of using old ways to understand and describe a modern world. As a reader, I think it’s a great book. As a writer, I think it’s a great book, too, a reminder that whatever construction of fiction I might prefer cannot ignore books like this if it wants to claim openness as a value.

Smith, though obviously fond of the book, reads a little emptiness in Netherland‘s performance and while I agreed with her intuitively before reading it, afterward I’m not so sure. Or at least I’m not so sure her charge is best directed at this book. Can grand literary language and metaphor serve to turn our world, our persons into the ridiculously sublime at the expense of real tension, real danger, real real? Of course, and it’s this as much as anything that’s always pushed my tastes away from so much realism of this school. Everything is always so damned beautiful without being beautiful or damned, and the only thing real about any of it is that nothing impossible happens. For me, this wasn’t a book that fell into the trap of the unnecessarily exalted if only because it showed an awareness that such a trap exists (and that it really is a trap). Netherland is a book about how we can control how we see ourselves and the world and how we might, even if only in moments, even if there are consequences, choose to see grandly. That felt real to me.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Smiths

Exhibit 24.17

Reading List Review

Writers on Literature
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum – Ms. Hempel Chronicles
Jean Thompson – Who Do You Love
Edward Jones – Lost in the City
Christopher McIlroy – All My Relations
Elizabeth Strout – Olive Kitteridge
Alice Munro – Selected Stories

In case it’s not clear, this is a class on American short fiction. Well, there’s Munro, but I think American means North American. Or maybe it doesn’t and Canada can deal with it. I don’t care as long as I can link to my favorite Wikipedia entry for something that isn’t a real thing.

I have to admit, I’m a bit torn. On the one hand, these are all great books written by obviously talented writers. Our instructor’s genuine affection and belief in these books makes them impossible to ignore. On the other, they’re books I’d likely never read on my own (and nothing about reading them changed my mind). That situation is, I suppose, the great thing about taking such a class, but it’s also left me feeling confused about American short fiction and what it should do. Despite all the talent on display here, there’s little that grabs me about these texts, at least as books (all had at least one story I could stick up for more strongly).

Take Olive Kitteridge, likely the best of the books (aside from Munro) and more than deserving of its Pulitzer. It’s really quite phenomenal from story to story and is possibly the first “novel in stories” I’ve read that wears that label as more than marketing. It’s the ideal book for a graduate school fiction class, rich in description and character, full of the supposedly genuine. It’s also mostly uninspiring, at least to this writer. Each story seems to me a perfect example of what one is told to write in graduate school, the sort of stories I ignorantly associate with Iowa or whatever else I want to insult at the moment. It’s heartfelt and reflective and graceful and boring. It’s exactly the book I’m going to give my grandmother for Christmas (which is a compliment).

None of this is to say I didn’t enjoy it or learn from it–or any of the work here–just that I don’t feel it’s a conversation I’m presently capable of adding to. I can’t out character Thompson, or out setting Jones, etc. Each of these books does the things we are told are important and they do those things remarkably well. Those just aren’t the things that brought me to fiction. Though now that I think of it, I doubt very much it was short fiction that brought me to fiction either.

And so it’s good to read this stuff rather than only chasing the new. Munro is obviously a different case. I hadn’t read much of her that wasn’t in recent magazines. Certainly not my writing hero, I wouldn’t argue with anyone who claimed her as such. “Our Chekov” as the blurb says sounds about right. I’m just more of a Dostoyevsky guy.

Overall verdict: Eyes Opened/Shut

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, School

Exhibit 24.2

Books You Need

Like a Sea by Samuel Amadon

The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney by Christopher Higgs

I’m fortunate enough to know both of these guys, and while I don’t have the books yet, they’re both writers I trust. I’ve ordered them. Your turn.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Poetry

Exhibit 23.6

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Among far greater accomplishments, Shirley Jackson is indirectly responsible for one of my favorite Simpsons‘ jokes. Being chased by a crazed dog, Bart yells, “Eat my short stories” and throws his copy of America’s 2nd Best Short Stories at the animal. The dog destroys the book and a piece of torn paper flutters by which says something like, “All in all, it had been a weird, weird lottery.”

That’s funny though only funny if you’ve read “The Lottery” which, you won’t be shocked to learn, does not actually end with that sentence. Instead it ends, “‘It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,’ Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.”

The shocking violence of it is why it’s in every short story anthology ever printed and why, perhaps more than any other American short story, it’s become part of our consciousness (The Simpsons have made at least one other joke about it). Honestly, the only story that might even be close is “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” which takes a similar twist at the end but one too mysterious in its implications to have found the same foothold in popular culture (“A Good Man…” was published five years after “The Lottery” and is, despite its obvious debt, better).

“The Lottery’s” implications are not so subtle–there’s violence beneath the surface of the bucolic town–and so is an impossible story to forget. Whatever cruelty she saw in her smiling neighbors manifests itself in We Have Always Lived in the Castle as well. The story of Constance and Mary Katherine Blackwood, two sisters living with their disabled uncle six years after the rest of their family was murdered, it’s a novel that’s fascinating for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that it brings the pointless hatred of the town from “The Lottery” to the surface yet still manages to make its release shocking.

The townsfolk–correctly–believe one or both sisters committed the murders yet somehow it is their reaction to this crime rather than the crime itself which seems unpardonable. It’s clear they would treat the girls badly whether or not they were guilty. So, in a neat turn, the townsfolk become the inhuman ones (Mary Katherine calls the worst of them “demons” or “ghosts”). It’s a profoundly unsettling side the book forces the reader to take by having the funny, strange Mary Katherine do the narrating, and it’s deadly effective. Though unbalanced, the sisters’ lives are genuine lives. Every other character in the book is either needlessly cruel, grotesquely greedy, or, at best, motivated by something other than genuine kindness.

After the townsfolk release their anger on the Blackwood girls, they at least get the chance to feel regret (as opposed to the sudden ending of “The Lottery”). Still, it says more about their sense of embarrassment than their sense of decency. For Jackson, small towns mean small minds plotting against the vulnerable. It makes the girls’ isolation, if not their crimes, perfectly understandable. They are not innocent but they are not the demons.

Comment / Posted in 2nd Best, Books, Fiction

Exhibit 22.17

What This Book Should Be About

Lance West is dirty cop who gets one last shot at redemption when the serial killer who murdered his young bride fifteen years ago reappears with a bloody murder in Lance’s own precinct. As the body count rises and superiors deny any connection, Lance risks everything to find the man who killed his Julia and made him the hard drinking, do anything for a conviction cop he’s become. Fifteen years ago he was a good cop looking to do right in an ugly world but since then he’s sunk into the ugly himself. Now with the cold but beautiful Internal Affairs agent Thora Bounty investigating him as he investigates his wife’s killer, Lance finds himself caught between doing what he has to do to avenge his wife and doing what’s right. While Thora gets closer to uncovering a shameful secret in Lance’s past, Lance gets closer to the Coat Room Killer, putting both Lance and Thora at risk…of dying…of falling in love.

What This Book Is About

I don’t know, two dudes walking around Dublin not talking to each other most of the time.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Good Ideas

Exhibit 22.6

Titles, Mostly Pun-Based, One Might Use for a Paper on Ulysses

1. Oxen of the Fun – Joyce and the playful metanarrative

2. Blaze a Trail – Boylan’s battle through Dublin as Iliad to Bloom’s Odyssey

3. What is a house without potted (m/s/t/n/p/b/f/h)eat? – Joycean advertising and the linguistic subversion of consumption

4. Youlysses? Melysses. – James Joyce and the Compulsorily Subjective

5. Hello, Molly! – The collapse of operatic structure and the invention of the modern musical

6. Bloom-ing Onion – Outback Steakhouse’s signature appetizer as high-modernist death adventure

7. Wondering Tocks – The broken chronograph as anti-modernist signifier and the violence of temporality

8. Dub(ious)lin- Irish nationalism, the death of Parnell, and the dissolution of colonial consensus

9. Wilde Girls – Gerty MacDowell and Millie Bloom as vanguards of a feminization of Wildean conceptions of sexuality

10. I said yes I will No – Affirmations of resistance and the turn toward the post-sexual

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Ulysses

Exhibit 20.20

Sewanee Book Wrap-Up

First things first, I should just say that I can’t recommend the Sewanee Writers’ Conference enough. I’d been hearing about how great it was for a year from Dave and Ryan, not to mention sharing a dinner table with several of the people who were there with them. It was odd, I thought, watching them come together and hug and scream. As I put it to someone at the conference, it was like watching the reunion of people who’d been involved in something either truly horrible or truly amazing. Smiles that genuine can only be brought about when you re-meet someone you survived a mountaintop plane crash with (and didn’t have to eat) or, apparently, someone you’ve been to a fishing hole with (and didn’t have to eat).

The bar was set so high that I began sending sarcastic text messages to Dave from the Nashville airport. Then 10 minutes later it got fun and I stopped. The conference is remarkably well run and beneficial and, as important in a way, just a good time. Last year, applications were accepted beginning January 15th and presumably it will be similar this year. So, yes, apply. I can’t wait until next year’s AWP when I get to see all of these people and we’ll smile and scream like something truly horrible/amazing happened to us and then we’ll look guiltily at the spot where Phyllis would have stood/go get a drink.

Part of what makes it so fantastic is that in addition to a great deal of writers, there are a great deal of books. Since I’m moving and just couldn’t face the prospect of buying these books and then having to move them across the country, I had to watch with jealousy as they were all snapped up by people who I suddenly wanted to eat at one of the fishing holes. I’m not sure how I made it–or how cannibalism became a running joke here–but I did and now I want to make sure I pick up everything I need once I get where I’m going.

So, a not entirely complete list of books I plan on buying and maybe you should too:

Fiction
What Happened to Anna K. by Irina Reyn – great to have in workshop
The New Valley by Josh Weil – ditto. Plus, novellas!
The Southern Cross by Skip Horack – loved his reading
Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch – ditto. I thought I was going to cry
The Summer of Naked Swim Parties by Jessica Anya Blau – ditto (-crying +laughing)
Red Weather by Pauls Toutonghi – ditto
The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard by Erin McGraw – ditto

Poetry
City of Regret by Andrew Kozma – person/book=awesome
Blue Colonial by David Roderick – ditto. Loved his reading, too
Now You’re the Enemy by James Allen Hall – ditto. Funny, heartbreaking
Begin Anywhere by Frank Giampietro – ditto. ditto.
Midnight Voices by Deborah Ager – ditto.

That might not be a complete list (I actually did make a list which is currently lost somewhere among approximately 18,000 manuscript pages). Those are mostly from fellows and there were some more books by the faculty and staff on there, I know, but I’ll at least mention Alice McDermott’s incredible That Night and Tony Earley’s Here We Are in Paradise both which I own and you should too.

Also be sure to look for books coming out this fall from Caitlin Horrocks and Laura van den Berg which should both be incredible.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ll say more about all of these when I get them. Then you’ll get them. Then we’ll talk about them. Then we’ll look guiltily at that spot where Phyllis would have stood.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Good Ideas, Incomplete

Exhibit 20.4

Conversation of Elderly Rowmates Overheard on Plane Concerning Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper

Man: What’s that book about?
Woman: Oh, there’s this husband and wife who have a daughter with cancer and they decide to have another daughter just so she can donate things to the first one.
Man: Does that work?
Woman: Well they choose a sperm and an egg that will make things match.
Man (looking suspicious): Hmm.
Woman: Then the second daughter hires a lawyer.
Man (opening up paper, looking bored): She hires a lawyer, huh?
Woman: Yes, a lawyer. She doesn’t want to donate a kidney so she sues her own parents. In the end you find out…
Man (suddenly animated): Don’t ruin it for me, Betty!

(Minutes later)
Betty: Oh, and they have a son, too. I didn’t mention that.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Planes, Travel

Exhibit 19.12

Out Stealing Horses

This book, in both best and worst senses, is exactly what I expected when I joined the company book club: a well-reviewed, inoffensive novel about some elderly Scandinavian (I was very specific about what I expected). I think I’ve written before about the politics of how books get picked in clubs like these–and I use club loosely here as it’s really down to myself and at most two other people–and the priority isn’t to come up with something thought provoking, it’s to come up with something that everyone can finish. That way we can get together, have lunch, and shrug our shoulders when it’s time to talk about the book. With rare exceptions, no one seems to love or hate anything so the conversations on the book never quite seem to go longer than six or seven minutes before everyone has moved on to discussing the quality of the restaurant’s fries.

It’s fun.

And so Out Stealing Horses counts as a success in that we all finished and the restaurant’s fries were pretty good.

To be honest, it was a bit of a struggle to finish to the point where I put it off so long I had to wake up early to read the last thirty pages of the book the morning before the book club lunch. It’s not a bad book and, for me, it’s not a particularly good book either, just a slow story of a senescent Norwegian widower who takes to a remote cabin near the Swedish border in order to more or less relive the life he had with his father as a boy in 1948. I’m trying to think of an American equivalent, and the closest I can get is a leaner, more past-focused Richard Ford, a deeply intimate story that values it’s realism to a point near inaction. Or maybe it’s just that first-person, present tense narration which usually sets off warning signs for me. It’s not that there aren’t books written that way which I enjoy, it’s just that there are so many memorable ones I didn’t.

There’s also the run-on sentences. My god, the run-on sentences. I certainly don’t care typically, but they’re not put to any particular poetry here. The following isn’t the most egregious example, just one I found on a page I flipped to:

‘We’ll soon see to that,’ he says, pulling out the choke on his saw, which is a Husqvarna and not a Jonsered, and that too is a relief in a comic sort of way, as if we were doing something we are not in fact allowed to do, but which is certainly really fun, and he pulls the cord once or twice and slams the choke back in and then gripping the cord firmly he lets the saw sink as he pulls and it starts up with a fine growl, and in a trice the branch is off and cut into four parts.

But Petterson–I might suggest dropping that extra ‘T,’ Per. It’s going to make it much harder for you to find souvenir shotglasses with your last name on them and we all know ‘Per’ is a lost cause, too–does accomplish something really great here, and it’s all about his efficiency and structure. He moves seamlessly between the present and memory and he parallels just enough to make his storytelling efficient but rarely gimmicky. A lot of ground gets covered in these 230 pages, and it’s hard to think of any other contemporary American books that get us so inside a character in such little time. Not to mention the setting, some of the ancillary characters, hell, even the occasional Nazi. Somehow he managed a book that is both a slog to read and remarkably tight in its construction. I really don’t know how he did it.

And so maybe it’s not so much like Richard Ford’s work at all but just the Norwegian equivalent of Zadie Smith’s lyrical Realism (which I wrote about here). Certainly there’s a pretense to beauty here, if not in the composition than in the imagery which is lush and wild no matter the time period. In any case, it’s the kind of simple beauty that begs you to ponder it, deep rivers and cloudy skies and the like. Perfectly acceptable, maybe even meaningful, if you want to give it the time.

But reading this morning–flipping pages like it was a history textbook the morning before a test–it all felt a perfunctory, just another man thinking about how what was once promising grew so quickly old.

Comment / Posted in Books, Clubs, Fiction

Exhibit 19.2

Damn, someone has already taken the title I was planning on using for my novel.

I’d even mocked up a cover.

From the sounds of it, his book isn’t about using a greyhound strapped with TNT to kill the president so I should still be okay there.

The president is a dog racing fan, you see, and he naturally wants to pet the winner, a dog trained since birth to do two things: run fast and kill the president. Well, three things if you count sitting.

You know what, it would probably be easier if you just read it. I don’t like to explain what I’m trying to say with my work. You can figure out for yourself that it’s about my estranged father.

5 Comments / Posted in Books, Brett, Fiction

Exhibit 18.24

The Master and Margarita

With the exception of The Good Soldier, no book seems to get mentioned quite as often as Bulgakov’s masterwork when writers of a certain sort–my sort–talk about their favorite novels. The particulars are all on its side: banned and untranslated for decades, published posthumously with sections censored, several translations competing to handle all of the puns and allusions. In other words, even if it weren’t such a funny, strange read, there would still be plenty to talk about.

The story of the devil causing chaos in Stalinist Moscow, the novel initially seems to present itself as a rebuke to Soviet atheism as the head of a state-backed literary organization argues that Jesus never existed. A strange foreigner proves that he exists by telling him the story of Pontius Pilate–one of several times and several guises that Pilate’s story takes over the novel–which he knows because he was there. It’s odd seeing the devil stick up for the existence of Christ, but subverting our conceptions of good and evil is what the novel does best. Most notably, the devil is the hero here, at least a kind of hero. He argues convincingly that the world needs shadows as much as it needs light and that, to do away with darkness, you’d have to level everything and live with flat and boring.

But it’s hard to see Bulgakov as being much interested in the actual theistic considerations here. Rather, his is a satire of those who claim absolute truth without cause or curiosity. It’s a form of cowardice–which Pilate calls the greatest vice–to stake a claim without allowing objections. Its an argument Bulgakov makes personal in the character of The Master, a writer relegated to an asylum after his novel–about Pilate, naturally–is not only rejected but condemned by writers and publishers in league with the corrupt literary union. Even with what little I know of Bulgakov’s life, it’s easy to read the author’s plight into the story of The Master, an artist persecuted and ignored for daring to make art that challenges (or, in other words, actual art). Soviet bureaucracy gets hit hard here, but the bulk of the damage done by the devil is directed at the elite writers and critics who are more interested in food and comfortable apartments than in writing.

Pontius Pilate serves as the novel’s centerpiece and for good reason. Even in the Bible he’s a fascinating and complex character–Nietzsche seemed to think he was the only one worth listening to in the New Testament–and given his own narrative here his story seems even more complicated. He’s certainly not a good man, but he’s not a bad man either. Ultimately, for all his faults of personality, what he’s mostly guilty of is the cowardice he rails against, realizing too late that being brave doesn’t always come with a sword. As the character most uniquely situated in between good and evil–he’s a sinner yet acutely aware of his sin and repentant–he’s also the most human. In the end, he’s saved, but only when The Master’s novel redeems his humanity in the eyes of both the devil and the lord. Man’s art, in Bulgakov’s world, has insight that even Christ lacks.

(Which is why it seems certain that Bulgakov cares little about organized religion and a whole lot about art).

Just like The Good Soldier, it’s a fantastic book that deserves its reputation among writers. I’m really at a loss to say much else. A passionate, rational defense of the bravery and necessity of doubt and insurgency and art? A hilarious, sympathetic portrayal of the devil befuddling communists? A book some critics have called the Red Dawn of the literary world? Okay, so no critics have said that last one, but you count me as a fan in any case.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Religion

Exhibit 18.7

South of the Border, West of the Sun

Before I talk about the book–and I don’t know if I’ll have much to say–let me get this out of the way regarding yesterday’s post: yes, everyone knows what nugs are except me. How I’ve been able to watch 90% of the Method Man/Redman vehicle How High in approximately 108 different background viewings during college yet still not glean this information is beyond me. In penance, I’ll be listening to Phish all day.

Actually, no, no I won’t.

But know that I care. I don’t care enough to listen to Phish, but that only proves there might be a chance for me yet.

South of the Border, West of the Sun came out in 1992 but wasn’t given an English translation until 2000 when it followed The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami’s most ambitious (and best) novel. I’d avoided South… since the plot description and the quotes on the back of my paperback make it clear the book is Murakami at his most mundane. A boy falls in love with a girl at the age of 12 and, years later when he’s already married and comfortable, meets her again and has to choose between love and Love. No ethereal hotels. No sitting at the bottom of a well. No darkness coming in from the seams like in his best work. Even to a person who thinks the worst Murakami is better than just about anything, it sounded a little boring.

I finally broke down when I realized Murakami wrote South… around the same time as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It made me curious how he could have written his best and his worst novel at the same time. The answer: he didn’t.

Despite its faults, South… isn’t his worst novel, just his most somber. It reminded me quite a bit of “Tony Takitani,” a short story of his that was actually made into an (appropriately somber) film a few years ago. As in the story, Murakami’s narrator here reaches a comfortable middle age without knowing anything about himself or what he’s capable of. It’s a common enough conceit in Murakami’s work but while it generally sends the narrator so far inside of himself that he ends up outside of reality (or something like that–I don’t know), in both “Tony…” and South… what happens is tragic but banal, life altering but familiar enough you’d find a similar story on every city block.

I’m a biased reader, but somehow it works, I think. It doesn’t ever reach any great heights, but South… does just enough to make upper-class ennui seem a compelling, at times vital, subject. The redeeming quality seems to be that Murakami’s love triangle is sharper than most and, in the end, not really a triangle at all. The narrator loves his childhood friend more than his wife, that’s without question, and so the choice shifts from the all too familiar “Should I throw my career, family, comfort away for another woman?” to something about survival. Only after the other woman disappears does he realize what she’s known all along: their love isn’t about having a life together, it’s about dying together.

So for all of the simplicity of the book’s plot description, there is something new here, a glimpse of love frozen during those early moments where it seems like the best thing in the world would be to die in each other’s arms.

I don’t know what’s with me and the Youtube videos recently, but this one seems relevant.

Stay tuned as I continue to reinvent literary criticism with my Morrissey-based revelations.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Murakamis

Exhibit 18.2

Black Swan Green

I finally picked this up after I mentioned Cloud Atlas the other day and remembered that one of my favorite writers has a book out that I hadn’t read. Like Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell’s two previous novels–Ghostwritten and number9dream–aren’t bound to the conventional yet are highly readable, mostly because for all of the oddity in narration and plot, they’re intensely structured and beautifully written. Now there’s Black Swan Green which seems to be a conscious attempt to do the opposite. In that sense, sadly, it’s a success.

Part of the attraction of Mitchell’s books has always been how easily he moves not only between narrator but worlds. It’s difficult to imagine two books that travel quite as far as Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten do in their 300 or so pages, but Black Swan Green only twice leaves its titular English village and even then it’s only for a brief vacation to the coast. While Mitchell still shows some willingness to play around with the narrative, it’s clear that the anything fanciful here is strictly in the imagination of the 13-year-old narrator. It’s brave in a way to do such a conventional coming-of-age story for a writer like Mitchell, but that’s all external to the book itself which, despite a lot of good qualities, is fairly dull.

(I don’t know for certain about these things, but based on the quotes on my paperback, this seems to be Mitchell’s most acclaimed book. That’s disappointing but understandable. It’s well-written and readily accessible, offering Chuck Taylor’s full of nostalgia to anyone who came of age in the early 1980s which I imagine includes a fair number of book critics).

We’ve all read this story before. Only the music references and current events change. A boy lives an upper-middle-class life somewhere away from the city. His parents might or might not be happy but he doesn’t really understand their relationship (hint: they aren’t happy), he thinks his older sister hates him (she doesn’t, of course), girls don’t like him and he might not like them (somewhat surprisingly, he does like them), he’s obsessed with his own social status at school (the rising and falling of his popularity passes for tension here), and he has one flaw which he believes to be fatal (a fairly mild stutter). Even if this isn’t your life, it’s the life of hundreds of sensitive male narrators throughout time. There’s even an entire genre of music aimed at this particular demographic (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can come over and we’ll listen to my copy of Pinkerton).

Mitchell handles it which loads more style and a touch more magic than most, but it doesn’t make the stakes any higher. As in most bildingsroman–or I suppose this is really a künstlerroman, whatever–we know that for all the tortures of youth, the protagonist will emerge on the other side as an adult with different and presumably more important problems. The thing that itches most about books like this is seeing our moody narrator bemoaning his own small problems (he broke his grandfather’s watch!) while interacting with a host of actually interesting characters who are supposed to be our antagonists. I’d much rather see what the hated bully is up to with his abusive father than wait for our narrator to discover his father’s very obvious affair. Here’s the difference: the narrator’s problems can be definitively answered by saying, “You’ll be fine.” But I haven’t kissed a girl! “You’ll be fine.” But I worry about nuclear war! “You’ll be fine.” The bully, on the other hand, doesn’t have easy answers. He’ll probably come to a bad end, he’ll probably do nothing of note, but what he won’t do is look back at when he was 13 and think about all the great music he used to listen to around the time his dad nearly killed his mom.

(Contemporary books of this sort really do have soundtracks as if they were movies. Especially now that Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson have almost created a language out of pop songs, it’s really the easiest [laziest? whitest?] way to define a time period, mood, and character all in one reference).

That we get the middlebrow story isn’t unusual–it’s really the point–but Mitchell’s never been one to settle for the expected before. At times even he seems bored as he peppers in dreams, imagined ghosts, and, most tellingly, references and characters from Cloud Atlas, as if names alone can add a layer to the very simple reality he’s limited himself to. But the most daring thing he does is free himself from structure just as he limits his scope. At the beginning we meet the narrator’s speech therapist and she’s set up to be a major character but we never see her again and only get one late reference to her near the end. Until then, it’s unclear if he’s even still in therapy or if he’s quit. There are a lot of loose ends like this and together they’re my favorite part of the Black Swan Green. It makes the book broad and untidy but it’s also the most realistic part of a novel that sometimes seems forced into unrealistic realism (I’m not giving anything away if I tell you the climax is an overdue divorce).

To be honest, I think I’d decided to feel this way about the book before I read it so you shouldn’t let my bitterness over not getting to read another Cloud Atlas stop you from picking it up. Mitchell’s writing is as good as ever, even in the service of a precocious 13-year-old who might hit a little too close to home.

4 Comments / Posted in Books, Davids, Fiction

Exhibit 17.17

The Way Through Doors

I’m not going to even try to review this since I’m in no way an impartial reader of the book. Jesse Ball’s fantastic Samedi the Deafness is why we asked him to write the first volume of The Cupboard, and he not only agreed to let two guys he didn’t know publish his work, he gave us something really great. So even if he wasn’t such a great writer, I’d pretend he was because he’s such a nice guy.

But he is a great writer and a nice guy and he’s written the book you wish you were reading right now.

Here’s how good this book is. Brett ate the cover:


She hasn’t done this since she was a puppy, and that was cookbook so you can imagine what magic these pages must contain.

But this isn’t about my untrained dog slowly enacting her own form of entropy on the world, this is about you buying Jesse Ball’s nesting doll of a novel. If you need a context, think At Swim-Two-Birds, Cloud Atlas, and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller – three books that I love and that, as far as I can tell, everyone who reads them loves.

Doors is similarly a book one falls into and easily the fourth leg of that table. But I can’t review it, I can only tell you to pick it up and be happy.

Now.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Brett, The Cupboard

Exhibit 17.7

I hate to do another movie post, but Alex Carnevale’s great review of Watchmen here got me thinking about the movie and the book and why I felt so nonplussed by the entire thing.

(Quick follow up on yesterday’s post: While I was feeling embarrassed and lamenting my quasi-homonym error in my comment and grammatical error in my header, Dave was going all Seymour Hersh and learned the following things: 1) You can stream the movie in question on Netflix. I suggest you do this exactly as vehemently as I suggest you don’t do this; and 2) the Crazygirls are an actual show at the Riviera. Basically this means we watched a two-hour infomercial, but it was an infomercial with a guy called The Bombmaker. I’m okay with this. The Shamwow could learn something).

Simply put, I think I get nailed not only as a viewer of Watchmen but a reader, too, when Alex writes about the movie, “For all the critics who bash Watchmen, they’re missing the point. To them Alan Moore is just another superhero creator, with the same old origin stories colliding into a happy-ish ending. But for those of us whose brainflow was reversed by the complexity of Watchmen, this translation is our version of the good old days.”

As a person without a wake of predictable and stagnant comics to look back upon, I read Watchmen as an entertaining but not particularly interesting graphic novel with at least as many cliches as complexities. I realize that at least some, if not most, of this is due to the book being internalized by the culture at large, its newness worn away and co-opted long before I picked it up more than 20 years after its publication. This certainly isn’t the book’s fault, I’m just one of many bad readers for it. In a lot of ways, my thoughts on Watchmen were similar to my thoughts on Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim: entertaining, dated, not a revelation for me like it might have been for others but a book I wouldn’t argue against.

But in my conversations about the comic and the upcoming movie, I found the niceness of my initial response–done, strangely, at the same time as Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping–fading and replaced with something closer to contempt. When I heard someone mention that the ending was changed, I thought, You mean the inter-dimensional squid thing? Thank god. When I’d read an article about how the director wanted to make the film as true to the material as possible, I could already imagine myself sitting in the theater squirming during another scene of Dr. Manhattan showing us how disconnected he is in the most obvious way possible while I wished the theater hadn’t switched to Pepsi and wondering if I should run and get some Junior Mints anyway.

This wasn’t my experience, not exactly, but it also wasn’t so far off. Mostly, I felt more certain than ever that Watchmen is not the book graphic novel fans should be exalting (and surely many aren’t). I’m the worst possible person to make this judgment, but there it is anyway. The movie–a solid B on the whole–suffered all of the same momentary concerns and preoccupations as the book and, in a world so greatly changed from the Cold War, just didn’t seem to have much to offer other than slightly turned super hero antics. That’s something, too, but it’s not much of a legacy.

This (finally) is why I loved Alex’s review as his explanation of why Watchmen is relevant is almost exactly at odds with my own viewing. I’m sure he’s right–can I mention again how poor a judge of Watchmen‘s value I am?–and it got me thinking about the novel I would hold up as the most similar, non-graphical example of this view of history: The Public Burning. I don’t know, maybe it’s just the shared Nixon, the Uncle Sam/Dr. Manhattan parallels, or the mostly off-screen but always prevalent public rage, but I think Coover’s novel is similarly concerned with the violence and control we’ll feel pressured to exert in order to maintain our country. Now, they’re still very different books and I just happen to prefer one to the other (and this is in no way to suggest Alex [who I don’t know] prefers one to the other or that anyone should prefer one to the other), but I at least feel like I get why Watchmen should be part of the conversation a little more now than I did while cringing through the “Hallelujah” scene.

Mercifully, I’ll end with this caveat/confession: Despite not really being taken in by Watchmen and its giant psychic squid monster thing, I have no doubt that there are comics that represent the best of anything published in a year, decade, century, whatever. That I don’t know these books is my failing first, the literary establishment’s (if there is such a thing) a distant second, and, well, no one else’s. I have no idea why I love so much other innovative and cross-genre work yet sort of hate graphic novels (even though I pretend I don’t), but I’m going to try to educate myself. Thankfully, I think I’m in year five of having a borrowed copy of Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer.

This does not mean that I don’t hate [other forms of literature that I hate]. I still do. A lot.

4 Comments / Posted in Books, Comics, Fiction

Exhibit 17.3

Persuasion

Jane Austen’s last novel is the perfect length to read on a plane, something I imagine Miss Austen did not have planned. I appreciated it just the same (even if the book might be her worst, or at least the worst that I’ve read).

Worst is relative, of course, and the book traffics in the same delicate circles and concerns as her other novels with all of the satire and insight one would expect (not to mention an aristocratic family in financial peril, sisters, men with ulterior motives who seem good, men with pure motives who seem cold, etc.) It’s actually a little like the plots of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice thrown together, accelerated, and made good without as much complication. A woman, Anne, had her engagement broken over a suitor’s lack of title or money and is now on the brink of becoming a spinster while her younger sisters have either married for money or plan on it because their pompous baronet of a father has lost most of his fortune. So they let the property and move to Bath where, in some order, the old suitor reappears as a wealthy Navy officer, the baronet’s estranged heir makes amends with the family, and the messy business of figuring out who marries whom is undertaken.

There is no doubt that someone will marry the bachelors, and it’s clear from the beginning that the impediments are not so great to keep the just from getting what they want. As opposed to P&P where we’re to believe the characters fundamental manners are at odds, everyone here seems perfectly suited to be together and even the secondary concerns like money and class (which, I suppose, are really the primary concerns of the era for everyone but Austen’s heroines) have been overcome by the time the book begins. Austen clearly favors the nouveau riche class of Navy officers to the old aristocracy and makes a joke of how quickly the vain (but poor) baronet goes from objecting to any weathered and ugly officers renting his property to pleased to have them in his company. It’s a nice, droll little turn, but it’s also symptomatic of the book’s drive toward a happy ending.

Austen clearly wants Anne to end well and so complication is often replaced with simplicity here without much in the way of justification. From the beginning we know that the baronet will object to any marriage beneath his daughter’s stature, that Anne has lost her youth, that no one listens to her, that her old suitor holds her in disdain for the ending of their last engagement. These facts hold true only as long as convenient. Suddenly the baronet seems happy to see almost any engagement. Suddenly Anne is beautiful again and becomes the most eligible sister, the one people can’t stop talking about, the one the old suitor still loves.

There is an awareness on the author’s part that she’s not exactly earning these developments, and so toward the end the book turns to more general talk about class and honor and the difference between men and women in love. The plot is clearly a rack for Austen’s thoughts on what bothered her the last few years of her life, and it’s somewhat rewarding that she’s so hopeful. The old are young, the spinsters wives, the undeserving poor, the well-mannered but untitled exalted. So maybe it’s a bit of a wish fulfilled, but it’s a fair, particularly human wish.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Plane Babies

Exhibit 16.25

The Hundred Brothers

This is the first Donald Antrim novel I’ve ever read which is problematic as it isn’t really a novel. Or, at the least, it’s not what we often think of as a novel which is why it’s such a good novel.

(Look, that’s just the way this post is going to go).

This is a book that the worst kind of reviews–like the one you’re reading, for instance–would call a highwire act. 99 characters, one room, one night, no chapters, 200 pages. It might not sound that difficult, but when I realized the restraints Antrim was working with, I started to worry. Up to that point the book had been names and physical comedy and enough buttoned-up aristocratic absurdity to keep things moving. It was at page 20 I realized the entire book was to be names and physical comedy and enough buttoned-up, aristocratic absurdity to keep things moving. Mercifully, the buttons eventually come off, but Antrim is masterful at holding it off until just the right moment. We know something is horribly wrong with the world inside the room, but we don’t know quite what until the end and, even then, maybe not.

99 brothers (one is missing) come to the library of their father’s house to find Dad’s ashes and give the old man a proper burial. They congregate in the mansion’s massive red library where they do just about everything but read (unless it’s Victorian-era pornography) or look for their father’s ashes (no one can remember what the urn looks like). Despite the premise, the sheer volume of brothers keeps us from knowing all but a few as characters. Mostly they are names with horrible flaws, an entomologist who puts his beetles on the dinner table, an anthropologist taking a drug he found in South America. The rest are simply names used to describe the chaos they are enacting in the decrepit library. A football game is played. A massive fire is started. Most of the brothers end up injured in one calamity or another.

The reader only really knows the narrator, Doug–the family genealogist and what we believe to be the most normal brother–and even then he surprises us when he throws himself at the feet of Hiram, who at 90+ is the eldest brother, and refuses to let go. From that point forward it’s simply a matter of waiting for the other shoe–or, in this case, the library ceiling–to drop. As Doug becomes less and less reliable and the gathering of brother spends out of control, it’s clear there’s no safety net for Antrim, that his book is not the result of some Oulipo rulemaking but is instead exactly the book he wanted to write. Chapters would ruin this book. Plot would ruin this book. Not because the premise is fantastical or absurd–plenty of books with those characteristics have such things–or because it aims for language games–the prose here is good, spare–but because rather than exalting the author’s cleverness, it’s a book meant to be read as if there were no author. It’s a novel of fever.

We’re so close to Doug that by the time we realize his flaws we’re already sympathetic to his plight. The library is an excruciating place to be both for him and the reader. It’s hard to overstate the impact of reading petty nihilisms and not being able to do anything about it. We might gleefully read about a nuclear bomb destroying Brussels, never batting an eye, but Antrim’s book picks at our most human wounds. It’s the kind of book a reader wants to shake because no one is putting down coasters. And it’s not because we care about fictional water stains–though someone probably does–but because it’s clear that these petty niceties are there to protect us from ourselves. Once they begin to slip away in the library, we know it’s only a matter of time before someone really gets hurt.

This is why the book works. You can’t end a chapter with a brother breaking a footstool and expect anyone to hold their breath until they turn the page. Chapter breaks would give us exactly what we most want–the ability to yell STOP–which is of course exactly what we least need. It’s a amazing how much losing any white space does to change the way a book gets read. Suddenly it’s a sprint, and Antrim is right there with us to make sure we keep going faster until suddenly we can’t keep up. It takes a stunning amount of control yet, when done well as it is here, we never get to see who’s pulling the strings. Like the dead father who has caused the brothers so much anguish, the author is leaving the people in the library to their work. It’s refreshing to read a book that feels so damn modern while eschewing any sort of textual or meta games that draw attention to the works own creation. Of course, this book is now over a decade old so maybe it’s more of its time than I know.

In any case, it makes for a book that’s surprising even though we know the twists. We might be able to guess how it ends, but we can’t guess what it means until we get there. It’s at those moments where the book works best, taking entropy and making it tragic, unstoppable, damning. We know the consequences, but we still want to see ourselves in ruins.

2 Comments / Posted in Books, Donalds, Fiction

Exhibit 15.14

The Confessions of Max Tivoli

So I had to read one more novel in order to keep up with my company’s book club which, by the way, has dwindled to myself and two other people making it more of a book triumvirate which could be held in the backseat of a Civic. I look forward to the day when someone else quits halfway through whatever Elie Wiesel memoir we’re reading and it becomes a Book Partnership/Beach Volleyball Team.

The novel in question is Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli, an absolutely gigantic selling book from 2004 due to a glowing review from John Updike in the New Yorker and Mitch Albom picking it for the Today Show‘s book club. I won’t hold either of those things against the book, but O how I want to. I also probably shouldn’t say it was a best seller ‘due’ to those things, but I’m sure they didn’t hurt, neither did all of the other blurbs which are suffocating my paperback. Not knowing much about it other than its premise, I was a little unprepared for not just how big the sales for the book were but how, if you believed the praise, you might expect the response to have been even bigger.

Here’s a sample:

“Enchanting”–John Updike, The New Yorker “Devastating, heartbreaking…an astonishment.”–Esquire “****”–People “Quietly dazzling…keenly affecting.”–The New York Times Book Review “This year’s break-out novel.”–Entertainment Weekly “A devastating new writer”-Michael Cunningham “A fable of surpassing gravity and beauty.”–San Francisco Chronicle “One of the most talented writers around.”–Michael Chabon

That’s an impressive cross-section of both mainstream and literary voices coming out in favor of the book, and, I admit, the book deserves everything it got. Mitch Albom excepted. Nobody deserves that.

While I don’t think I liked it as much as anyone quoted above, there’s no reason to be a snob about something so well written. Mr. Updike is right to call it “enchanting” because there is very much a magic to the prose. Greer writes incredibly well, with a Chabonesque delicacy and ornateness which might veer toward cloying but never quite lets the reader catch his or her breath long enough to ask questions. The confessor is, like Mr. Greer’s reviewers, in a state of near constant rapture and no feeling or detail–especially if that feeling be love and that detail be old-timey–is above getting a few long, melodic sentences.

It’s a self-consciously anachronistic style which works nicely with the turn-of-the 20th century setting and the slightly Gothic plot. Like Benjamin Button before him, our Max Tivoli is born an old man and ages backward, along the way loving the same woman three different times (once each as an old man, a middle-aged man, and then as a young boy). So it is a love story, and a rather small one at that, something that costs the book a fair amount of gravitas since the plot seems to call for something epic (Fitzgerald’s story seems to have the same problem, the new Button movie seems to go to far in this direction from what I’ve read). It’s not that love stories are bad, but that the book’s lessons on loves are summed up with its first line, “We are each the love of someone’s life.”

While this is a perfectly acceptable first line, it is also a perfectly dumb thing to say about love. This is a book where love experienced as a teenager is permanent not just for one character but for all characters across genders, sexual orientation, and lifecycles. Greer is good enough that it doesn’t ever come across as damningly sentimental but it also isn’t a particularly complicated way to look at the world. The are other failings, too, mostly in how reluctant the book is to ever be away from its key relationship, as if taking more than two pages to explain the years Max is trying to die in a war will break the spell start asking questions.

Because there are questions (She really wouldn’t recognize him/notice he’s growing younger/believe him when he tells her?), but, in the end, they are all questions answered by the book’s premise. To buy into Max’s birth you have to buy into his life, and Greer makes it easy with a tight structure that forgoes most of the interim years to focus on Max at 5/65, 35/35, and 12/58. It’s such a well-plotted book that I wish Greer would have left behind the revelations he gives at the end of each section since they are neither surprising nor necessary. What drama there is here has been figured out long before Greer gets around to pulling the rug out from under us (especially with a certain character’s “coming out” which is an unnecessary move as Chabonesque in its shoehorning as the novel is in its prose).

In the end, the book works because of its style, simple structure, and even simpler take on its narrator’s predicament. And it does work, problems and all. It’s exactly the sort of a book I was expecting to read in a club like this only with prose to match what I might otherwise choose myself. The book may not last long–it’s not one for the ages–but it’s a good novel, a very good novel even, and so maybe Greer made the right choice to keep a big idea small. So what if the world is larger than this, because it’s rarely as lovely. That’s something, too.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Updikes

Exhibit 15.11

I recently read or re-read these two books, and while I don’t feel like I have the critical faculty to say anything particularly illuminating about them, I thought I should mention them so you too can experience the goodness.

Novel Pictorial Noise – Which only has one bizarrely inconsequential customer review on Amazon.com (speaking of which, if you’re looking for the best customer review ever, it’s definitely here. My mouth is permanently agape after that. Be warned: that review will cost you your wonderment).

As in Every Deafness – So, so good. I think I bought the last of Amazon’s copies when I gave it away as a gift, but you get it from Flood Editions. If you hide a prison shank in it, it will change someone’s life.

If you’re curious, and lord knows you shouldn’t be, I’ve been avoiding novels and watching movies/reading poetry while I’m doing this thing I’m doing. That’s why this blog has been so movie heavy the last few weeks. I felt like I was getting a little John Irving-y while reading Garp so now I’m only enjoying work that has creative syntax or car chases or, preferably, both.

As for this thing I’m doing, it’s building model airplanes, of course.

Comment / Posted in Books, Johns, Poetry

Exhibit 15.5

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Murakami’s memoir about, well, running isn’t a book that leaves the reader with much beyond a desire to lace up some Mizunos and hit the trail. There’s a lot of talk about how to train for a marathon and some insights into runners and running, but the glimpses into Murakami’s writing are minimal, mostly confined to an essay that was published last year. Not that it isn’t an interesting book–it is–but it’s hardly the exploration of Murakami’s life and writing that his readers, including this one, would like to see from him someday.

There are a few things to be gleaned from it about the man himself, though there are still more questions produced than answers. Murakami writes that he is not very competitive while simultaneously showing again and again how much he struggles to best his own performances and the performances of others. Similarly, Murakami claims to be somewhat unsociable while agonizing over how to be funny and likable at a reading he is to give at M.I.T. These aren’t contradictions, exactly, but they do, I think, say as much about Murakami’s drive as his triathlons and ultra-marathons. The man is clearly a hard worker–maybe the hardest worker–and doesn’t seem to make distinctions in his approaches to writing a novel, running a marathon, or making friends.

Still, the best sections of the book are about nothing other than running, and it’s hard to read without wanting to take up the sport yourself. Murakami clearly believes that running has given him discipline and endurance, but it’s just as clear that he has always had more than enough of those two qualities. Ultimately, whether a runner or a novelist, one can only end the book by wondering if he or she has those qualities too.

Heather has a better take, a runner’s take, here.

Comment / Posted in Books, Memoirs, Murakamis

Exhibit 14.20

The World According to Garp

What an odd thing to write a book about a simmering war between the sexes and have most of its retribution and bitterness directed at women while the male protagonist, hardly a saint, is able to stand above and judge and have his comeuppance redirected to others. It’s certainly of its time, as in the 30 years since the book’s publication the long-anticipated gender war has failed to appear and Irving’s intention to use sex–both gender and the physical act–as a weapon seems fairly silly, like he’s brought a hand grenade to a schoolyard fight.

With the benefit of having a much looser morality without having to fret about it, Irving’s novel seems naked in its male-panic over women…and sex with women…and sex with women who were once men…and possibly sex with men (though this never comes up in the book which is actually quite interesting. There are plenty of men who turn into women and a great deal of worry about lesbians, but no actual gays that I can recall. The reasons for this conspicuous omission in a book otherwise wrapped up in its own “perversity” are probably worth looking into. There is a paper to be written there, Dave Madden). The heightened absurdity of so many of the accidents which befall the characters (which are, of course, not accidents to their author) might have once shielded the book from interpretation of its gender politics with humor, but I found very little funny about the book and a whole lot objectionable about the ways it’s written to protect its deified hero.

Garp is clearly an Irving stand-in or, at the very least, shares more than a few biographical details with his author (prep school, wrestling, his novels, etc.). Now, I don’t care one way or the other, and I agree with Irving that checking a book against a biography is a profoundly stupid way to read, but Irving says this–through Garp–constantly. Garp hates it when people think his books are autobiographical yet he also worries he’s lost his imagination and can only write autobiographically. For this reader, anything that might have been interesting about that meta-narrative is lost when it feels like the author is more interested in hedging his bets and protecting himself than in actually, you know, exploring that contrast.

So, too, Irving cuts off any charges of sexism by having them levelled preemptively at Garp who has ample time to defend himself. That it’s not a sexist book or at least isn’t a simple one, hardly matters when the author is openly daring you to call it one in the text itself. As a person unwilling to make this charge or to feel any anger when others unfairly make it, I thought Irving’s attempts to shoehorn it into every interaction cost the book a fair amount of its seriousness. At every turn Irving makes it so clear how he would like you to read his book that it is less The World According to Garp and more The World According to Garp According to John Irving (I totally wanted to say something pointless and mean like that since around page 300. Also, it would be very easy to wrap that whole argument up in a grand wrestling metaphor about defending oneself but I feel like Irving was daring the reader to do that, too).

Naturally, Irving isn’t giving up control of the book yet. In both the 20th anniversary essay in my paperback copy and in this BBC radio interview with him from this past summer’s 30th anniversary, Irving claims the novel is really about a father’s anxiety for his children’s safety. This is as much lie as truth, however, as the book is really about male anxiety for everything (which includes a fatherly concern for the safety of his children). Dropping the insane-feminists-versus-flawed-but-honorable-man’s-man angle is smart and reflects an awareness on Irving’s part on how the book has aged, but in the end we’re left with the book he wrote which is about nothing more than it’s about sex.

I liked it more than I’m letting on, though mostly I admired Irving’s skill with language and structure. At its best, it’s a haunting and charged book that’s comprehensive in a way that rarely feels heavy. It is also a book very much alive. So nobody here is saying the man can’t write–he’s very, very good–but there is one argument about the book that I don’t think Irving guarded himself against: it’s a cowardly novel.

From protecting the author by pre-articulating his defense to punishing the undeserving in order to provide catharsis for a different tragedy to–SPOILER ALERT THOUGH YOU WILL PROBABLY KNOW IT’S COMING DUE TO THE BOOK’S STRUCTURE–Garp’s martyrdom at the very Christ-like age of 33, it’s a book that thinks it’s taking chances without realizing the game is rigged. It’s not tragic, it’s self-flagellation that never leaves the writer’s control in order to become actually dangerous.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Johns

Exhibit 14.11

Dusty writes about Atwood’s The Blind Assassin here. This is a book I read and even think I enjoyed quite a bit, but when I was reading his much-spoiler-protected review, it occurred to me that I remember absolutely nothing about it.

Honestly, I’d forgotten there were actual assassins (even blind ones). For some reason I’d come to believe that was a metaphor for something (Love? Canadians? Hockey? The CN Tower? Labatt Blue? Neil Young? More Love?).

If you were to have asked me yesterday what The Blind Assassin was about I would have said, “There are sisters and it’s like, in the 1800s or something. Then there’s a fire and somebody’s husband is burned. No, wait, that’s Wuthering Heights. I was reading that at the same time. Okay, but there are sisters. Sisters and, um, money. Yeah, they’re rich sisters. I think one is pretty and one is plain. I think the pretty one dies. Oh, and there are different parts. It’s like Dune that way. Really? Well, I’ve never read Dune but that was my impression of its structure. Anyway, there’s other stuff, too. Mostly about Canada. I enjoyed it quite a bit, I think.”

So I need to do better. Also, from this point forward, I’m accepting all implied titular characters as being present in the book unless I hear differently. This will lead to many great conversations wherein you listen to me pontificate on just how damn lonely those hunters really were.

“And to think,” I’ll end with, “the heart they were hunting was inside each of them all along.”

And then it will begin to rain and a passing child will say, “Look, Oprah’s crying.”

(While I don’t know why I represent myself like this on the blog, I do know this is hilarious. I can’t wait to answer the question, “So, what’s your writing like?” with, “Well, you are of course familiar with the Southern Ontario Gothic tradition. I’m like that only much more Southern, much more Ontarian, way less Gothic, and a little bit more Country.”

And then it will begin to rain and a passing child will say, “Look, Oprah’s crying.”

etc.)

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Canadians, Sorry: Margaret Atwood

Exhibit 14.7

So Zadie Smith wrote about the future of the novel in The New York Review of Books and one of the novels she sees as being along one of two diverging “paths” for the novel is Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (which I wrote about here). The other novel is Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a book I feel like I have read a million glowing reviews of without once feeling even the slightest inkling to actually pick up. Smith helpfully explains why I might be such a case by setting up Netherland as the evolution of “lyrical Realism” whereas Remainder (a book I ordered the moment I first heard of it) is its antithesis, a book Smith associates with the avant garde (though I don’t think she ever gives this path a proper, oddly capitalized label). As a reader, like Smith seems to be, whose sympathies lie somewhere on the avant garde side of center (which really means I side with what’s innovative above all), it’s not shocking that O’Neill’s book doesn’t interest me while McCarthy’s I found immediately gripping.

(Although I have to say I’ve been a little taken aback by just how big Remainder seems to be getting recently. Not that it’s undeserving. Not at all, in fact. I just wouldn’t have pegged it as a book to capture the imagination of so many writers who seem to universally see it as a Very Important Book. Smith’s essay gives her reasons but I remain a little incredulous).

The entire essay is quite the read in exactly the exhaustive way you’d expect from The New York Review of Books (in other words, I no longer need to read O’Neill’s book or possibly any book ever again), but it’s worth it. I mostly agree with J. Robert Lennon’s take here which is that the Smith’s piece fundamental flaw is positioning the two books as opposites and absolutes. She does this in her opening and then spends most of the essay purposefully disproving (or accidentally ignoring) this premise.

At one point she writes:

When it comes to literary careers, it’s true: the pitch is queered. The literary economy sets up its stall on the road that leads to Netherland, alongwhich one might wave to Jane Austen, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Yates, Saul Bellow. Rarely has it been less aware (or less interested) in seeing what’s new on the route to Remainder, that skewed side road where we greet Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchot, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard. Friction, fear, and outright hatred spring up often between these two traditions—yet they have revealing points of connection. At their crossroads we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov. For though manifestos feed on rupture, artworks themselves bear the trace of their own continuity.

How then these ideas of the novel are in competition in an artistic sense (as opposed to a commercial sense) is a little unclear though I suppose it hearkens back to Smith’s opening which suggests that while in healthy times literature gets multiple paths but in the unhealthy present we get but the one blocked by the Balzac-like realism of Netherland. I don’t know what to say about this other than I don’t think it’s true or even nearly true. If anything, it’s only becoming less true as traditional publishers struggle and small presses, the Internet, and other alternative venues pick up the slack.

That said, it really is a remarkable essay and I don’t mean to suggest that Smith doesn’t do well by her own premise. It’s an interesting autopsy of two very different books, but it does assume an either/or that I don’t necessarily buy into no matter how well written the argument (or how much smarter the argument’s author is than me).

Smith also sees the end of postmodernism in her most bomb-throwing of paragraphs:

Yet despite these theoretical assaults, the American metafiction that stood inopposition to Realism has been relegated to a safe corner of literary history,to be studied in postmodernity modules, and dismissed, by our most famous publiccritics, as a fascinating failure, intellectual brinkmanship that lacked heart. Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, David Foster Wallace—all misguided ideologists, the novelist equivalents of the socialists in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. In this version of our literary history, the last man standing is the Balzac-Flaubert model, on the evidence of its extraordinary persistence. But the critiques persist, too. Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?

This, I think, is more true and a much more compelling argument. That said, I don’t think what Smith calls postmodernism is dead or necessarily even close to it (especially since I, for one, have a hard time seeing how Remainder is any less postmodern than the average DeLillo book). I like Lennon’s idea of acknowledging that what we call postmodernism is something simply inherent to narratives or our understanding of them and so a book like Remainder (or, say, The Raw Shark Texts) can be both referentially postmodern without being measured for its coffin.

Whatever the case, I think Smith’s right to say quite a good deal of literature (if not the best literature) comes from somewhere in between her two poles and, healthy world or no, I don’t see any reason why we have to choose.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Reviews

Exhibit 13.19

D.M.’s great letter to the editor has already been overshadowed by this beauty from reader/philosopher/literary scholar Richard Terrell:
  • Rand’s book brought to life
  • Fifty years ago, Ayn Rand wrote a scathing fictional exposure of the twisted psychology of compassion-mongers, do-gooders and their “looter” friends in governmental bureaucracies whose constant appeal is to people whose whole social vision amounts to whining about “fairness.” The novel is “Atlas Shrugged,” and today’s political scenarios are bringing to life Rand’s exposure of those who seek power in order to take from people who have created and earned something in order to give to those who haven’t.
  • The main villain in Rand’s story is a character named Wesley Mouch. Barack Obama is the real life incarnation of this character, who promises to punish successful small businesspeople by taking, through governmental force, the product of their labor to reward other people who he thinks should benefit from it.
  • In the novel, creative and intelligent people decide to withdraw from the system, in essence go on strike. Society, left to parasites, complainers and various “victims,” erodes into chaos.
  • Obama’s uncharacteristic candor in a recent discussion with an Ohio small businessman, in which he admitted that he would inhibit that man’s success in order to “help” others of his choosing, let Obama’s cat out of the bag. Already, small businesspeople across the United States are thinking seriously about shutting down their businesses, of deciding to no longer validate a system that would loot their creativity on behalf of undeserving, perhaps even corrupt people.
  • This is a novel that is much hated, especially by utopian totalitarians everywhere, for its power of exposure and clarification of the sick mentality that animates the likes of Obama and his hordes of followers.
  • Richard Terrell, Lincoln
Mr. Terrell and I need to get together so I can discuss with him my theories about how Fox’s new hit drama Fringe is perfectly analogous to an Obama presidency.

Capt. Daniels–>Obama (because of skin color/hot when shirtlessness)

Pacey–>Harry Reid (because of blandness)

Girl Cop–>Girl Speaker of the House (because of girl)

Science–>A Recalibration of the Progressive Income Tax (because of people saying you can’t do that and them saying oh yes we can watch wow)

Walter–>? (because not knowing is the scariest part of it all)

4 Comments / Posted in Books, Letters, Politics

Exhibit 13.12

Love in the Time of Cholera

As I mentioned previously, I bought this book a few years back (and since the receipt was in the book I actually know exactly when: June 13, 2003, one month after I moved to Lincoln. Apparently I graduated from college, moved to Lincoln, bought plates and silverware for the first time, and then decided I needed Love in the Time of Cholera to finish my transition from undergraduate to adult jerknozzle).

The two or three times I picked it up with the intention of reading it always ended with me giving up at about page 15 for more interesting books and, even after finishing it, even after enjoying it mostly, I don’t think I was wrong. It’s not at all bad, but I can’t help but read it as a bit of a victory lap after the incredible One Hundred Years of Solitude (and, probably more pertinent to Marquez himself, the Nobel Prize he’d already won). Every page seems to have been written with the intention of doing something epic, but despite the staggering depth of our knowledge of the two lovers, in the end it’s hard for me to see anything except the fairly shallow story of a love triangle only seen as such by one corner.

The plot–a boy decides to never stop loving his young crush yet doesn’t get a chance to win her heart until they are both elderly–is pretty genius and every one of Marquez’s sentences is packed to the nouns with remarkable insight and detail, but it’s all treated with the same seriousness and scope as his Macondo. It’s possible I’m just cynical, but it’s not clear anything Marquez has to say about love (it can be a sickness like cholera! it changes over time! it can corrupt and pervert!) needed to have been treated with such seriousness. It’s a book that, despite its clear merits, that ends up quite a bit less alive than his earlier work. The one twist, such as it is, seems to be that the dedicated lover Florentino isn’t really a figure we’re supposed to revere though Marquez does his best not to judge the character’s clear deficiencies (not least of which is his seduction of a 12-year-old girl he’s charged with looking after).

It’s also possible I’m just too naive to have really been sucked in by the lengthy section of the book between the silly passion of their youthful love and the amazing quiet of their geriatric love. The majority of the book deals with the vagaries of marriage and when I liked the book the least I imagined that I was experiencing a highbrow, literary version of a sitcom like, say, According to Jim called Marriage Is Weird or maybe What’s the Deal with Love? That’s not nearly fair, but there is a certain upperclass domesticity to everything that happens in the middle of the book which is where the lifelessness seems to be seeping in. During these pages the most interesting characters (e.g. the heroine’s criminal but upwardly mobile father, a black woman who guides Florentino’s career) disappear so that we can go into the details of each small fight inside of marriage and each affair conducted outside of it. Like I said, marriage is weird. Also, this love thing seems to have some kind of, I don’t know, deal.

The book as a whole is much greater than its most sentimental and middle-aged moments, and, in the end, from any other author it would probably be a defining work. Marquez just so happens to be capable of much greater magic in both prose and intention that it’s a bit of a tepid achievement for me. Still, it’s a great title and, if nothing else, we can all take pleasure in the fact that this year is the 20th anniversary of people who want to impress a date listing this as their favorite book in order to seem like soft-hearted romantics. The book’s take on love seems to contradict this usage, but who am I to argue with John Cusack?

On a completely unrelated note, my favorite television show is Love, What the Eff, Yo?

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Sick

Exhibit 12.27

So I’m reading my copy of Love in the Time of Cholera for the company book club, and it’s an old hardcover that I picked up for $2 at a used bookstore a while back. In all ways it seems not to have been read at all. Perfect spine. Perfect dust jacket. Unmarked pages…or so I thought. On page 154 there is one passage underlined in perfect pencil strokes done with the aid of a ruler or bookmark. Nothing before that. Nothing after that.

The passage:

“…he convinced her that one comes into the world with a predetermined allotment of lays, and whoever does not use them for whatever reason, one’s own or someone else’s, willingly or unwillingly, loses them forever.”

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I bought David Duchovny’s copy of Love in the Time of Cholera.

Topical!

Comment / Posted in Books, Davids, Fiction

Exhibit 12.15

Pale Fire

I’ve put off writing about this book since I liked it too much to have any objective take on it. I don’t know if it’s my favorite of Nabakov’s–I have a soft spot for The Real Life of Sebastian Knight–but like most of his work it is so thoroughly better than what everyone else is doing that it’s hard to maintain perspective.

Dave turned me on to the argument between Shadeans–those who believe Shade invented Kinbote and is the author of the entire text–and Kinboteans who believe the opposite, that Shade is the invention of Kinbote. Although I suppose I’d rather believe the latter–I felt very sorry for Kinbote and hated Shaded more than a little–it strikes me as being a typical academic gesture toward postulating exactly the opposite of the popular position in order to seem interesting.

(This move also works with movies, indie rock, and celebrity crushes. On a completely unrelated note, I loved the Speed Racer movie, I hate Radiohead, and I intend to talk about these shocking opinions at length when I’m married to Swoozie Kurtz).

Figuring out the “real story” is part of the fun of the book, but it’s ultimately futile. Nabakov himself seems to have had pretty definite ideas about the reality he intended (his position is that there is no Kinbote at all but only a mad Russian scholar who is a very minor character in the book). If that mystery is all the book had to offer, it would be an impossible burden to put on the reader, something akin to a movie where we realize that the evil mastermind was a guy the hero passed on the street (in other words, a move M. Night Shyamalan would make). Fortunately, there’s so much here that what’s true is unimportant. It’s a tragic, beautiful world and that so much of it seems to be someone’s delusion only makes it sadder.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Sebastians

Exhibit 12.13

The Moviegoer

It’s a strange feeling to read a novel after having read a host of books it clearly inspired in some way. There’s more than a little of Percy’s hero Jack (Binx) Bolling in a character like Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, more than a little of the nascent awareness of the convergence of reality, technology, and culture that finds itself all grown up in time for DeLillo, and more than a little of Bolling’s ill-defined spiritual “quest” in a great many boring books published since 1961 (and, occasionally, someone does something really interesting with these ennui-plagued journeys like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder which I wrote about here).

I guess part of my problem is that I tend to hate insipid, self-important characters like Bascombe, and while I had quite a bit more sympathy for Bolling–he at least had a war–there’s no getting around the fact that his existential crisis is fairly mundane. He’s a young-ish bond trader living in a suburb of New Orleans whose only pleasures are movies, seducing his plump secretaries, and visiting his aunt and clinically depressed cousin. It occurred to me more than once that the cousin’s story might have been a far more interesting one (certainly a more dramatic one), but the book gets the two characters together enough that Kate, the cousin, is able to give some life to both the plot and Binx himself. Of course, this is one of those books where the plot exists only as a coat rack to hang the characters’ jackets rather than a living thing itself. Binx simply doesn’t know what to do with himself. Everyone seems to agree that he’d be good in “research” (one of the few bits of humor in the book), but the concept is as ethereal as his own malaise (although he does imagine that as a physical thing hunting him down).

So he does what he’s always done until his life as a functioning-melancholic collides with one who is decidedly non-functioning. Does it make him realize how shallow his own sadness is? Does it alert him to a greater suffering in the world? Honestly, it doesn’t seem too, but Binx does reclaim a bit of the basic human sympathy he’s lost by the end of the book though Percy seems to make it deliberately unclear if Binx has truly awakened or if he’s only shifted his troubles onto the back of another. It will make me seem like I don’t like this book when I say: Thank God Percy avoided the temptation to explore this character further in later books. Yes, I’m looking at you, Updike.

Because in the end it’s a very thoughtful, sweet book. The language and characters are all very stunning and while its plot may be a pensive, existential one, Percy handles it perfectly. Maybe it’s just because I’m watching Mad Men (which is set in the same year) and the main characters share a few qualities, but this book seemed to really nail the strange period after the Korean War but before the Beatles. Everyone is making money and there’s a strong push back toward a normal pre-war domesticity, but a few, like Binx and Don Draper, have begun to realize how much, and how permanently, everything has changed. Draper deals with it by being at the forefront of the new world he doesn’t like and then feeling guilty while Binx deals with it by doing nothing and then feeling guilty. Updike’s loathsome Rabbit Angstrom (also a member of the class of ’60-’61) deals with it like a less intelligent and principled Draper, but he too feels the worry and the guilt.

Of these I probably prefer Percy’s work the most. Even if not perfect, it’s a compelling version of America’s despair–a pretty funny contrast to the European version, incidentally–and although it’s not actually in the text, I choose to insert my own corrections for the segregated, upper-classness of it all.

And it’s not that one needs to, exactly, but I’ll be the first to admit that Updike and Ford have ruined mundane soul searching for me. Perhaps I’ll go to the park later and think about this and the world’s even greater failures while children run past trying to get their kite to take life. Even on the dying autumn grass the kite is beautiful and not a disappointment because there will always be kites and wind and autumn days in the park. I will wish badly to tell them this, but, even though I will have thought differently a moment earlier, it is I who will start to tear up when the kite again falls limply to the earth. The children will only shrug as children do, having yet to learn to see each failure as connected to every other failure in their short lives.

Oh, Jesus, now I’m doing it.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Updikes

Exhibit 11.22

Housekeeping and Watchmen

Because they’re pretty much the same book. Here, it’s so obvious:

Ruth -> Nite Owl (II)
Sylvie -> Rorshach
The Lake -> Dr. Manhattan

Frankly, I don’t know how Alan Moore ever got away with such blatant plagiarism.

Actually, it’s just that I finished Housekeeping a while back but forgot to blog about it. I then got so caught up in Watchmen that I figured I’d just wait and do them both together. Even ignoring the distinction in form, they are remarkably dissimilar books. The former is a somber, poetic tale of family deconstructed by wilderness and the other is, um, about masked vigilantes in an alternative present, many of whom are driven mad by their singular focus on saving the world.

They do have their similarities, both thematically and practically. They are, in a way, both about the surprising impermanence of family (though Watchmen‘s family is really more a loosely organized club) and both have a very 1970s-1980s sense of decline (though Housekeeping‘s is more post-Carter nostalgia and Watchmen‘s more of a Reagan-era Cold War millenialism). More overtly, each one is a considered a modern classic and both have places on Time‘s list of the 100 Best English Language Novels (since 1923).

(Then again, so does The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe which renders the entire list completely stupid).

In almost every other way, however, they are polar opposites. Even its 15 degrees off center reality, Watchmen places itself very firmly in the culture whereas Housekeeping might as well take place on Mars for how little the outside world matters to the isolated, naturalistic characters. Incidentally, it most certainly doesn’t take place on Mars while part of Watchmen does.

I guess the other thing they have in common is that I really enjoyed both of them. I’ve been trying to figure out what this means in case of Watchmen since it’s the first comic book/graphic novel I’ve ever really read. I’m sure I picked up comic books when I was a kid, but I never really understood how to read them. At some point a few years back, Dave let me borrow another well regarded graphic novel and I couldn’t even make past the third page. Frankly, I don’t know if I would have even attempted to read Watchmen if I hadn’t started reading newspaper comics during the intervening years. Just one more thing I can thank Mary Worth for, I suppose.

That said, although I loved Watchmen and couldn’t wait to pick it back up, I don’t know if I know enough about graphic novels to feel like it belongs in the same sentence as Housekeeping as a modern classic of literature. I don’t doubt that it’s “the greatest graphic novel of all-time” as everyone says, but I suppose I’m still at the point where I possibly undervalue that title. As with the most recent Batman movie, I thought it was great, a real accomplishment that stoodout among all the other superhero entertainment of the last few years, but it didn’t exactly affect me in a profound way. If anything, I appreciate that movie too much due to some of its shitty predecessors (“ICE TO MEET YOU!”) that make it look like Kurosawa by comparison. But since I’ve never had to deal with the cliches and loopy continuity of comic books, I might not be giving Watchmen the same headstart.

Still, even in this zany era where a lot of writers who are now in their 40s want to proclaim the artistic value of comics as on par with novels, I don’t know if I buy the book as great literature. Thoroughly entertaining and satisfying literature? Sure, that’s an incredibly important and valuable thing, and this certainly fits the bill. But, in the end, there’s still enough rote and puerile elements here (mostly due to the requirements of this being a, albeit turned, superhero story) that it’s hard to see this as timeless. I now really want to go check out some of the non-superhero graphic novels to see if it’s just my poor, unenlightened biases holding me back from recognizing a graphic novel, even one I loved, from being worthy of a place in the canon.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Graphic Novels

Exhibit 11.8

Nebraska-related errors I was able to spot in the first 50 pages of Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant:

1. Alliance is not on the interstate

Okay, so that’s it. I know it’s a small thing, but how hard is it to open up Google Maps or visit the absolutely awesome Alliance Chamber of Commerce website?

(By the way, compare that to the North Platte Chamber of Commerce website. That town. Jesus. It’s over twice as big as Alliance yet its website looks like it was designed by Adam Peterson circa 1997. Apparently the designer was too busy solving the mystery of the missing pot to finish that MS FrontPage night class he signed up for. At least it’s not a Geocities page, I guess.

Even poor Dr. Boettcher, whose dental service ad bizarrely aims for “sexy,” gets screwed over because his link doesn’t work. My two experiences with Dr. Boettcher:

1. He was once my AYSO soccer coach
2. I once, years later, played shuffleboard at his house

Thus ends this completely arbitrary parenthetical.)

Anyway, The Magician’s Assistant was our book club pick this month and no one seemed too into it, myself included. It’s hard when someone is writing about your state when it’s clear that they’ve never actually been to it. I didn’t actually get far enough to see what happens when the protagonist actually goes to Nebraska, but I was assured by others that it wasn’t pretty. Apparently the message is that everyone in Alliance rides their horses down the interstate to the barn dance and then they all eat apple pie while the women birth their babies and the men watch stoically in tight Wranglers before mending fence until dawn. Or something.

I’m very glad that I was able to put off reading this book long enough to not actually have to finish it. My book club pick is next, and barring unforeseen library shortages, I’ve settled on Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.

You should read along.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Nebraska, North Platte

Exhibit 11.7

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

The best thing I can say about the book is that the author’s talent and intelligence is so apparent on every page that even though I didn’t particularly like it–and at times loathed it intensely–I would not at all hesitate to pick up Pessl’s next book. Some first novels read as culminations of every story, love, and simile an author has available to them, removing any need to read the next and the next and the next increasingly disappointing book. Others, like this one, seem to be the tortured beginning of something greater.

I don’t really want to get into the specifics of what I found problematic about the book, mostly because doing so would necessarily contain spoilers. I will say that it’s the sort of novel where 400 pages into a 500 page book the story becomes something completely different, rendering the somewhat tedious previous explorations of an ultimately unimportant social scene useless. The sort of book where every character is unlikeable yet unchanging. The sort of book where a character literally makes one phone call and the person who answers gladly sends her the solution to the mystery. The sort of book that ends with a character taking a heartbreaking action which they would never take if for no other reason than that it solves none of their problems. The sort of book where anyone paying attention can immediately identify at least 8 reasons why the plot makes no sense (#4: Knowing all the connections, why did they move to the town at all?). The sort of book with an awesome title made silly because it is completely arbitrary.

(I mean, there’s not even a little Calamity Physics here. What the hell? I came for the Calamity Physics).

Despite these failings, it does become completely gripping in its jarring, incohesive second half. Between the exaggerated take on prep school that dominates the beginning and the murder mystery that drives the conclusion, there were probably two good books to choose from here but forced together each half renders the other inert. Compared to The Secret History–which this book owes a large debt to–none of the characters here use the tragedy to expose their true selves or cast accusations or make tough choices. Instead they complain or run away but that’s okay because–and this is what got me–none of them are suspects or, outside of the narrator, in any way driven to find the truth. By the time the book gets around to ending, we’ve got new problems.

Mostly it’s disappointing because there’s so much good and new about the style of the book and it seems like that could have been put to a greater end. Or maybe I’m wrong. Know that a great number of people a lot smarter than me–including the person who recommended it–loved it. I can see why it would be an easy book to forgive.

Comment / Posted in Books, Cases Against Perfection, Fiction

Exhibit 10.19

The Raw Shark Texts

Sometimes I’m easy. If you write a novel that quotes Murakami and Calvino, features an ethereal “conceptual shark” as an antagonist, and includes an underground world of people who explore unspace, well, I’m probably going to enjoy your book. If the last quarter of the book is more or less a retelling of Jaws, all the better. Steven Hall’s debut novel has all of these things and quite a bit more in a quick 450 pages. I might try to review it at length soon so I’ll keep my thoughts here brief.

I loved it.

Okay, less brief:

The plot – it probably won’t do any good to describe it to you. Not that it’s difficult to follow, exactly, just that its delightful oddity might seem over-the-top out of context. Here goes: Eric Sanderson wakes up in his house without any memories. The prior Eric Sanderson has foreseen this occurrence and arranged for a series of notes, letters, and mementos to arrive. These are less than helpful since the prior Eric Sanderson doesn’t seem to remember much more than our Eric Sanderson because a conceptual shark–called a Ludovician–has been eating his memories. And it’s coming back.

You know, that old story.

It’s hard to express just how well the conceptual elements are handled. The shark isn’t a shark…but it’s totally a shark, peaking its fin above the floor of his consciousness and hunting Eric Sanderson down until it has eaten everything except his pointless human shell. Part of the beauty of the book–both as an object and as a concept–is that it visualizes its language-based terrors as pictures crafted out of words. It’s pretty incredible to see a novel–a thriller no less–so singularly focused on thought and language and culture that it’s impossible to describe the book without touching on how those elements form us as people.

As you might have noticed, it’s a highly original book. Still, it’s not always perfect. The language seems to erode as the pages go on, possible because the author (like this reader) might have preferred to spend the entire book in his dark, theoretical underworld rather than pushing the plot toward the Jaws reenactment. Also, the ending seems to want us to question the reliability of the narrator, but of course every reader is already doing that given his condition. The thing is, most if not all readers will decide that they don’t care if he’s crazy as we’re people looking for a good story not detectives trying to find what’s real in a world of impossibility. It’s more fun to believe in the shark than it is to doubt it, and risking our faith for a wink seems pointless if not disrespectful.

Besides, we know which side the author falls on. The world here is too remarkable to dismiss so easily.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Grave Conditions

Exhibit 10.16

Speaking of the book club, it’s almost my time to pick a book. It’s been agreed that it can’t be anything that one of us has already read, so I’m looking for suggestions.

Unfortunately, it has to be something that the local library has at least three copies of which pretty much means it needs to be something relatively new (past 2-3 years) and popular (like a book club pick), preferably already in paperback for those of us buying the book. Also, I don’t think they’d go for a short story collection and I don’t think I’d go for a memoir.

Books I’m considering:

The Confessions of Max Tivoli
Pros: Might be good or at least not suck
Cons: Don’t know if I can handle another narrator with an alternative lifecycle

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Pros: Probably good, I actually want to read it
Cons: Not yet in paperback, not enough at library

Okay, I now realize those are the only two I’m really considering and one isn’t even really possible. There are plenty of others, but none really meet the library requirement. You can check here. If there are less than three copies available, it’s probably not going to work. It’s amazing, even some of the biggest books of the last two years only have one or two copies in the entire system.

I would actually really like to read a classic, but none that I haven’t read and are readily available really come to mind. Sigh.

So start suggesting already.

6 Comments / Posted in Books, Fiction, Oskars

Exhibit 10.15

Forever

This is the first book that has made me really regret being in the company’s book club. And it’s not that it’s awful, exactly, just that it’s the sort of consensus book that any group of readers will inevitably gravitate toward. It’s a bestseller. It’s high-concept without literary pretense. It’s got sex and violence and spooky. It’s vaguely timely.

It’s also pretty much bullocks. Our hero–a label I often use as a synonym for protagonist but here I literally mean hero– is a young Irishman in the mid-1700s who finds out he’s not Catholic or Protestant but some kind of ill-defined tribal/Gaelic thing. Oh, and Jewish. There’s probably an offensive joke to be made given these surprising developments, but there’s very little humor to be had in these pages as our hero is too busy being wronged and then avenging wrongs. After his father is murdered, our hero follows his killer to colonial Manhattan but not before befriending a mysterious slave. How to describe the slave…hmm…did you see The Green Mile? The Legend of Bagger Vance? No? Well, let’s just say he’s magical. And a negro. So, yeah, some kind of magical negro basically.

After avenging his father’s death–for the moment, at least, we’re told that his tribe requires him to kill any and all male heirs as well. This is remarkably nonsensical for revenge purposes but great for tying a plot together!–our wounded hero is saved by Bagger Vance who, without even asking, grants him eternal life on the condition that he never leaves Manhattan. Um, thanks, Bagger.

It should be mentioned that this is nearly half way through the book and the American revolution hasn’t happened yet. This lallygagging through the beginning and ending of the story forces the novel to move quickly through the intervening centuries but not first without the obligatory cameos from George Washington and Boss Tweed. Mostly our hero, like The Dude, abides until the day Bagger returns to set him free. Eventually the book settles into post-millennial New York where our man has established a comfortable, anonymous existence as a sometime reporter, sometime playboy who mostly just seems miserable with still having to be alive. As the reader surely feels the same way, it would be nice if everyone just got put out of their misery a little sooner, but that can’t happen until a scion of his enemy appears in New York, he meets a long prophesied woman, and something happens during the second week of September 2001.

It’s that event, used here as a shameless attempt to insert drama into the languid final pages, that looms largest in the last section. The character literally can’t take two steps without pausing to look at the majestic towers. I’m reminded of this Onion article. When not looking at the towers, the author fulfills his contractual obligation to J&R Music World by repeatedly mentioning the store. I’m not joking, he mentions the full name of the store at least 10 times, as if everyone in Manhattan runs around navigating by using J&R Music World as a point of reference.

“Well, just go eight blocks past J&R Music World and then take a right. Walk another four blocks to the north of J&R Music World, then take a right, walk eight blocks in the direction of J&R Music World, and then walk four blocks south and you’ll have reached the J&R Music World. Seriously, they’ve got great deals on Sony Walkmans.”

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t a direct quote.

The worst part–maybe, there’s a lot of competition–is that our immortal hero who has lived through 300 years finds himself nostalgic for Charlie Parker and Willie Mays. He laments that “the kids” don’t know these bastions of American history. Apparently not even the immortal are free from white, middle-class, boomer nostalgia. I try not to swear on this blog, but seriously, fuck you, guy who wrote this.

On top of it all, the book ends poorly on a note of ambiguity. Basically we’ve spent 600 pages waiting to know if this guy is going to kill off the family of the man who murdered his father and if he’s ever going to die and the book tells us…maybe. Well, maybe I think that’s an absurd copout for a book that could have allowed itself at least one risky move. Apparently that part of the book was cut out to allow more space for condescension toward Africans and the Irish. I’d actually like to imagine that this is how the entire book was edited down from a 2,000 page manuscript to a scant 600 pages.

Should I include the scene where the character does something unexpected, the guy who wrote this asks himself. No, I should instead include the scene where the character draws prostitute vaginas.

I’m not joking. Sadly, neither was the guy who wrote this.

1 Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Unbelievable

Exhibit 10.6

Voodoo Heart

I don’t even remember how I found out about Scott Snyder’s debut collection of stories, but I’m glad I picked it up. There are quite a few really great stories here and even at its lowest points it’s always interesting and well-written. Quite a success, all and all.

At the heart of most of the stories here is the central protagonist’s self-doubt which has driven them from their loved ones and stifled their advancement in life until they end up in places they hadn’t heard of until they found themselves there alone and discontent. A good number of the stories feature some kind of encounter with the grotesque (a brain-damaged country singer, a famous actress disfigured in a wreck, etc.) which work as a nice counterpoint to make the protagonist’s ennui-based melancholy seem all the more shallow.

The first story had me worried, bogged down as it was in the brand of desperately cute quirkiness that few contemporary writers are immune from (this one included). Our hero, fresh from his job of lassoing barrels filled with people who intend to go over Niagara Falls, chases after a blimp carrying his former girlfriend who, I should mention, previously worked as a fake wax figure in a wax museum. Yeah, it was a bit much, the kind of overreaching that can be palatable in a single story but deathly mawkish in a full-length collection. Characters with quirky jobs who fall in love with character with quirky jobs…I mean, jesus, I feel like there are at least two stories doing that in every journal I read (sometimes written, poorly, by me). Oh well. I guess I’ve already covered my thoughts on this type of work here, but mostly I wish it were a little bit less per(vasive/suasive).

See what I did there.

Anyway, more to the point, Snyder does it better than most, but he’s even better when he lets something else drive his fiction. The best stories here, including the title story, my favorite, manage to be original without veering into the emotional vacuum of pure oddity. The compelling strangeness of these stories comes from the way they explore the fringes of American geography and history with characters realistically shaped by their backwoods environment. It makes for a cohesive collection of work even though individual stories are separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Heart

Exhibit 9.24

Then We Came to the End

Joshua Ferris’s debut novel is good. Very good. So good, in fact, that I’m really having a hard time coming up with anything to say about it other than repeated assertions of its quality. Which is not to say it’s a shallow book, but rather it’s just a satisfying one, the rare novel that I find myself unwilling to look into too deeply out of the fear that I’ll find an excuse to enjoy it less than I did.

The story of an advertising agency struggling through the post-dotcom malaise, Ferris’s novel lays out a smartly satirical version of the modern American office. Despite contemporary attempts to make it something else through coffee bars and Aeron chairs, the office in Then We… is still a work place, its inhabitants still workers. That they love work as much as they loathe it is something they are constantly aware of even if they are not quite capable of admitting it to themselves. Their desperate struggle to keep their jobs through the economic downturn seems to have made them subconsciously aware of the fact that despite their varied, half-hearted interests (writing, pranks, adultery, etc.) their jobs are all they really have.

The collection of workers, age 25-35, a “generation that hasn’t seen war,” speaks in the first person plural, a very clever narrative device that allows the book both the intimacy and anonymity of an office. The reader knows just enough about the characters to tell them apart but is unable to follow them home or really know them beyond the fuzzy truth of office gossip. It works remarkably well, but also very differently than, say, The Virgin Suicides, another book in the first person plural. Whereas that book was about the collective gaze’s ability to destroy, this book’s collective is one of shared consciousness. By looking inward rather than outward, the mass narrator of Then We… uses the limits of its construction to mimic the limits of individualism (and individual knowledge) in a deceptively impersonal work environment. It’s just as effective as The Virgin Suicides, but in exactly the opposite way.

What both books share is the lack of accountability the ‘we’ allows. Decisions are made but no one makes them. Betrayals and friendships are formed but the reasons can only be guessed (and then gossiped). The emotions are equally shared, making every moment of sadness or pleasure small and universal. Not surprisingly, the most successful character is one who intentionally keeps himself out of the group and finds himself climbing up the corporate ladder (his reasons for doing so are spelled out painfully in a long conversation, perhaps the book’s biggest misstep).

The narration is not without its drawbacks, however, but Ferris proves himself to be a remarkably instinctual writer who shifts the novel just when the voice begins to wane. It really is an impressive feat to keep all of the balls in the air as he does, and by the time the book heads into its final pages, the ‘we’ has become a character of its own which he also makes pay off nicely in the book’s nostalgic and melancholy ending about how much we can miss people we barely even knew.

Comment / Posted in Agency, Books, Fiction

Exhibit 9.18

The Thirteenth Tale

This was another work book club pick and based on the early buzz around the water cooler (ed note: we don’t actually have a water cooler) it’s going over a lot better than The History of Love. That’s a shame because THoL has a bit more weight to it, but it’s hard to resist a gripping mystery, especially won with such reverence for the books it’s liberally borrowing from.

Apparently a lot of people felt this way as this book was huge. Or so I’m told. Despite being a Times #1 bestseller with favorable reviews, I’d never heard of the book when a coworker suggested it. There’s probably a lesson there about the sometimes arbitrary distinctions that separate commercial fiction from literary fiction. This book, like a lot of the books that get picked for book clubs just like mine, doesn’t straddle that line as much as it refuses to stake a claim. Its language isn’t the most artful but it’s mostly graceful and compelling. Its plot is a mystery with a strong gothic element, but it’s literary rather than sensational, purposefully following in the tradition of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre (nearly to a fault). Ultimately, it’s not a book I’ll find myself mulling over years later or returning to, but it’s a book that more than deserves its successes, literary or commercial.

To put it another way: there aren’t enough books that work this well to spend time worrying about its literary value. It does exactly what it means to do, even if it all it means to do is tell a good story.

There’s a place for that on my bookshelf.

Update: Odd. Two hours after I wrote this post I came across an essay by Michael Chabon defending entertainment in literature. He, as expected, says it better.

Comment / Posted in Books, Clubs, Fiction

Exhibit 9.5

The Pink Institution

It’s a horrific book in the best sense of the word. The characters are sketches but their devastation is real, and it’s a hard book to read without thinking of modernists classics (mostly Faulkner) that get every last bit of sadness out of each word. It’s a book of beautiful language which, in this case, doesn’t mean poetic or rhapsodizing language but rather an innovative use of the page’s white space and words that cut. The writing and the physical presentation of the book–complete with old photographs and text from a ball program–work so well together that it’s easy to image the fragmented text dilapidating in conjunction with its story.

I haven’t spent much time on that side of the Mason-Dixon line, but books like this one (not to mention Barry Hannah and Larry Brown, etc.) make it hard to believe the Civil War has ever really ended. Saterstrom’s work which isn’t so much about the South as it is the Southern condition. The story of four generations of a family told in 140 sparsely worded pages, the book works in cycles of abuse, alcoholism, and neglect. Each generation repeats the last one’s mistakes, and even as modernity slowly breaks into the novel the characters remain mired in an antebellum angst which they pass on to the next generation.

As you might have gathered, it’s a dark book. The characters get scarred early and seem to spend the rest of their lives making sure their own children get hurt worse than they did. But it’s also a quiely beautiful work that stands apart from a lot of contemporary literature. It reads like a classic that people have been reading for a long time, and one imagines they will be.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction

Exhibit 8.20

I’ve got to be honest, I’d be a little upset if every one’s favorite book was Atlas Shrugged but I can deal with the Bible. It’s not that it’s a good answer–it’s probably the opposite–but it’s just not surprising that a majority of people would come up with this answer when asked apropos of nothing by a stranger on the telephone.

I guess a poll like this is taken and published in order to create a certain amount of outrage over the country’s shamefully lousy reading habits and narrow worldview, but I can’t get worked up over people falling back on the easy answer to a question like this. Anyone who has ever asked a classroom of students for their favorite book or movie knows the blank stares and posturing answers that get thrown out. About half will say the most recent thing they experienced (“…my favorite movie is Superhero Movie“), a quarter will answer something that someone else answers only without conviction (“…um, I also liked Superhero Movie okay”), and the rest will answer with varying degrees of honesty with one or two having actually spent a great portion of their lives thinking about the answer to this question (“Star Wars.”)

Picking a favorite anything is hard, and most people are far better than the rash, sentimental answers they are forced to give. That there is no consensus choice for number two is a good thing. It’s seems preferable to have a country without consensus on the issue than a country where everyone universally loves The Lime Twig. Well, maybe.

Comment / Posted in Books, Deafness, Oh Well

Exhibit 8.8

The Intuitionist

Colson Whitehead’s novel is about race. And elevators. Actually, mostly elevators. Which are, presumably, a metaphor for racial progress. So it’s still about race. But elevators, too.

The city is never named, nor is the year given, but it is more or less an alternate version of pre-Civil Rights era New York where elevators have allowed the city to achieve a lasting and modern verticality (notably to Lila Mae, the city’s first black, female elevator inspector, mankind has achieved this technological advancement far faster than its achieved any commitment to equality). For whatever reason, elevator inspectors are an essential cog in public service, the equivalent of police and firemen not just in their duties but in their cronyism, corruption, and insider fraternity. Lila Mae isn’t liked, not just because of her race and gender, but because she is an Intuitionist–a kind of elevator inspector who intuits problems without a physical examination of the elevator–who are opposed by the Empiricists, traditional elevator inspectors who hold power in the profession’s guild.

There’s an election coming up for the elevator guild presidency that, for the first time, an Intuitionist might win. An elevator crashes. It’s one Lila Mae has inspected. She’s a high profile Intuitionist so it’s not unreasonable to assume it’s been done to influence the election. But why? But who? But elevators?

If it sounds silly–and it probably sounds silly–it’s also remarkably brilliant. At no point does Whitehead take his subject anything less than absolutely seriously. In this world, journals are filled the minutiae of elevator repair, new elevator models are introduced to great fanfare and publicity, and who wins the elevator guild election dominates the media. That’s just how it is, and that commitment makes for a powerful allegory. Even rhapsodizing by the founder of Intuitionism on the coming age of ‘second elevation’ works for both the plot and the purpose and only at the end does Whitehead’s book strain to contain its message underneath its genre construction.

You see, it’s a mystery. To keep her job, Lila Mae needs to discover who set up the elevator crash, but she quickly realizes she can’t trust anyone, even her fellow Intuitionists. Her isolation can’t be separated from her race and gender and both ultimately play an essential role in the plot. The allegory is too powerful to ignored, but it wouldn’t be fair to the book to stop one’s reading there. It’s a really gripping plot, elevators and all, and it doesn’t hurt that Whitehead is an incredible prose stylist.

He’s that good, capable of long passages of rhapsodizing over his intricate world while still keeping things moving. He’s the rare writer capable of adapting his prose to fit the action of the book, and he does it almost sentence by sentence without it ever fracturing or feeling disjointed. I’ve been lucky to read a lot of good books recently, but I’m not sure if any were exactly what I wanted to read in the way The Intuitionist was. I want to read more novels like this one. I want to read more Colson Whitehead.

Maybe I should say that I don’t know if it ended particularly well. Or at least it ended abruptly with some threads resolved better than others. Or maybe I was just sad it was over.

You can check out the first chapter here. I think you should.

2 Comments / Posted in Books, Elevators, Fiction

Exhibit 6.25


Went to see Chris Bachelder read at Nebraska Wesleyan last night. He was fantastic, reading a gripping section of his book U.S.! which is apparently about the repeated assassination and resurrection of Upton Sinclair. Hard to beat that.

He also has an e-book available from McSweeney’s here. Go take a look.

3 Comments / Posted in Books, Fiction, Readings

Exhibit 6.23

Remainder

I don’t remember what I expected when I picked up Tom McCarthy’s book, but it wasn’t exactly what I ended up getting. The premise of the book synopsizes really well: something falls from the sky and nearly kills our narrator at which point, armed with a large settlement, he begins to experience distinct visions which he then tries to painstakingly recreate. What I didn’t see coming is that the key phrase in the synopsis is ‘painstakingly recreate.’

In most books, the room around the plot is filled with side characters or subplots. You might be reading a spy novel but the spy might be in love, etc. McCarthy’s book is adamant in sticking to its main plot and the stubbornness is admirable if not always thrilling. The narrator hires actors, architects, and set designers to reenact a moment that may or may not have actually happened to him, and once he becomes bored with that reenactment, he begins another. What’s really fascinating is that though the premise is odd, the sheer exactness and mundane nature of the initial reenactments–finding the right smell of liver, scattering the ground with cigarette butts–can make it a bit of a chore in places though that’s undoubtedly the point.

I almost loved this book, but in the end I think I admired it more. McCarthy is a great writer though his prose isn’t particularly poetic or showy. His great gift is finding a way to get inside the scenes we see again and again and make it compelling each time. For a writer, it’s a bit of a high wire act of a novel. With no other plot and only one other major character–the “facilitator” hired to oversee the reenactments–there isn’t anywhere to hide in a novel like this. There is one character with one inexplicable purpose.

I imagine most readers will have either accepted the premise or put the book down at a certain point, and it’s frustrating when late in the book a possible explanation is offered for why the character is demanding these reenactments. At that point, I’d already decided I didn’t want an explanation and it comes off as a little heavy-handed, the one explanation in a book where even the narrator’s accident doesn’t get one. We get early on that he’s not the most reliable of narrators, but the beauty of the book is that the only thing to hold on to are his responses to the scenes he plays again and again. We’re at his mercy to tell us what’s real yet he doesn’t. Only he can tell us why he’s doing what he’s doing and though we are so closely in his head in every way, he never does. Each tiny bit of zen happiness he gets when the scene is done exactly right is what propels him, and the book, forward. We may not understand why he chooses the scenes he does or why he chooses at all, but we understand how it makes him feel. No explanations are necessary.

I suppose something should be said about the end. It comes quickly and the actual mechanisms of it are telegraphed pretty obviously. As the reenactments take the narrator closer and closer to danger, the mundane is no longer enough and the book’s ending seems appropriately inevitable.

Ultimately, I’m not sure quite how to feel about the book. I didn’t always enjoy reading it due to its exactness and straightforward prose, but those are also the things that brought about its best moments. At one point I was certain the book should have been a novella, but as it went on I realized it would have been pointless if the description had been condensed. There were times when I wanted someone to tell the narrator that what he was doing was crazy and times when I wanted him to do crazier things. It’s that kind of book. Until the ending, the book seems purposefully designed not to force the reader into new meanings. Its steadfast single-mindedness makes the reader enact all of the twists him or herself. The book keeps doing what it’s doing while our perceptions of it shift because, like life, it just keeps going through the same motions. Perhaps the narrator is just better than the rest of us at picking the moments that matter.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Reenactments

Exhibit 6.13

So I’ve been playing around with Goodreads for the last two days and have decided that I’m unwilling to give star ratings. Thankfully, the website has a lot more to offer so I still plan on using it as it’s a cool way to find work. It’s sort of like going to Dusty’s blog only a bunch of people are on it and it actually gets updated.

I came to the realization like this: After giving away some 5 star rankings to books I love yesterday, I found myself tormented on how to dole out stars for books I “only” really liked, or, even worse, didn’t like for very specific and often very subjective reasons. I didn’t feel like I would have the time or the mental acuity to always explain why a book got three stars instead of four, and, more importantly, I’m not really interested in creating a hierarchy of books in the first place.

I suppose I think book criticism should be more than a rating system–or a quid pro quo arrangement–but even then I think I could live with a rating system if I was capable of using it more responsibly than I probably am. Even then, I really don’t know what the stars intend to measure or if I could use them consistently from book to book. The stars go from “didn’t like it” to “it was amazing” and maybe I’m crazy, but I feel like some books are capable of making me feel both ways simultaneously. Sometimes those are the best books, but there’s no room for that in the ranking system so I suppose if I feel that way I’ll just have to write it out. I’m fine with that.

I’d prefer that whoever looks at my list of books sees books that I decided, for whatever reason and with whatever outcome, to spend my time with. There are so many out there, that I guess I see that as endorsement enough. Unlike with movies or albums, I rarely regret my choices when it comes to books because even when I hate something I don’t feel like it was a waste of time or money. It’s hard to let someone know that a book you gave two stars is deeply flawed but still an important or even beautiful book.

So apologies to Haruki Murakami and anyone else I gave 5 stars to yesterday only to cruelly remove them today. It’s not you, Haruki, it’s me.

Comment / Posted in Books, Importantly, Librarians

Exhibit 6.7

Samedi the Deafness

Jesse Ball’s book concerns a mnemonist, James Sim, who stumbles upon a man dying from a wound in his chest who tells Sim about a conspiracy that threatens to undo the fabric of society. The same day a man kills himself in front of the White House bearing an oblique but threatening message from someone calling himself Samedi. Sim’s efforts to discover the nature of the conspiracy leads him to a hospital for chronic liars who, naturally, obfuscate the true nature of the conspiracy (if there is one at all).

But that’s just the setup. Once the book settles in, it’s far less of a thriller than might be imagined. The fate of the nation rests in the balance, but no one, including our hero, really seems that concerned about it. If anything, Sim is more concerned with determining whether or not he can live among the conspirators than stopping them. In addition to his prodigious memory, Ball provides Sim with a surprising amount of insecurity. He’s the sort of narrator capable of acting decisively on every impulse but then analyzes every action until he determines he should have done the opposite.

It slows the speed in an effective way, making the action something separate from the plot. Surrounded by diagnosed liars, Sim has to pick through their mistruths in order to solve his mystery yet the conspirators are the liars. Whatever their motives might be, whatever the nature of the conspiracy is, Sim is forever unable to reconcile the incongruous pieces of the puzzle or think beyond the last thing he’s told.

(If only there was a word for books where intricate, absurd organizations confuse and frustrate an overmatched protagonist. It’s sort of like something that guy one guy wrote. You know, the guy with books about trials and whatnot. Grisham or whatever.)

It’s a brilliant world Ball has here, familiar only in its disappointments. But it’s an elusive book, and even when I finished the final page I wasn’t quite sure if Ball’s meditative anti-thriller really wanted to say something about the nature of truth, conspiracy, and deafness or if those elements were just something the author discovered as he discovered the characters’ names (Ball says he took from tombstones). The potential for making a political statement here is impossible to ignore since Samedi’s aim is to humble and reconstruct America, yet somehow Ball and his hero don’t touch on whether or not it’s a good thing. Frankly, I was glad.

The point seems to be that in a world of mistruths, Sim is incapable of moral outrage. Right and wrong have become as intertwined as true and false. Until he can get answers, he’s impotent and since no answer seems forthcoming, he will remain that way. That this makes him complicit never quite occurs to the character though it’s hard to avoid as a reader.

It’s such a strange and captivating read that it’s impossible to lament the somewhat unconcerned narrator. The reader, like Sim, is too driven to find the truth to bother with the fact that there’s no time to consider what the truth might mean.

Comment / Posted in Books, Deafness, Fiction

Exhibit 6.1

Absurdistan

Well, you should be reading Gary Shteyngart’s second novel now instead of wasting your time here. It’s exactly the sort of hysterical, profane satire that doesn’t come up a lot any more. Or, if it does, it usually targets celebrity or media or something small and fleeting and American. Shteyngart’s book targets those things to–at least in a way–but his obese, America-loving Russian oligarch stumbles into a bigger story of oil and politics in a crumbling former Soviet state named Absurdistan.

Misha, the oligarch, is an insatiable glutton for anything that comes his way–food, affection, conflict, etc.–and his beloved adopted country of America holds the largest excess of his vices. Struggling to obtain a visa to return to New York, he gets stuck in a staged civil war between Absurdistan’s two not-at-all distinct religious factions who are after the country’s rich oil reserves and the wealthy Halliburton contracts they’ll bring. An empathetic child in a fat man’s body, Misha’s money allows him to avoid recognizing the actors that create the world’s problems which he believes hurt him deeply. He thinks he understands hunger but he’s nearly orgasmic when feasting. He thinks he understands diaspora but only sees it in his own displacement from America.

Shteyngart keeps Misha sympathetic and where most authors might have slowly stripped him of his money and health, Shteyngart makes him complicit in the devastation of the country around him until the wall of his weight and money finally cracks and the world comes in. It’s a book about oil and greed and democracy, but mostly it’s about the loss of reason and principle in the selfish quest of a country, of a man, for wealth.

Oh, it’s also hilarious and remarkably well-written.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Shteyngarts

Exhibit 5.24

Brief Encounters With Che Guevara

This debut collection from Ben Fountain is everywhere. I had just finished reading the back cover–the second or third occasion in which I had read the back cover without making the leap of purchasing the book–when I walked into a clothing store which, for whatever reason, just happened to be selling the book on clearance. I picked it up for the plane ride back to Nebraska and while I certainly wasn’t disappointed, I wasn’t in love either.

Oddly, I read the entire collection save for the final story on the plane, and when I picked it up at home last week and read the final story it was like I was reading an entirely different book. That story, “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers,” is a strange, journalistic tale of an eleven-fingered Pianist playing in pre-WWI Vienna and is easily my favorite story of the collection. It accomplishes one of my favorite tricks of good fiction: I was convinced it was a true story, going so far as to turn to the Internet just to verify it was apocryphal. It’s a very good story, exactly the kind of thing you’d hate to teach because its big pleasure is in its telling and not its showing. I’m not sure if there is a single moment you could even call a ‘scene’ in the entire story, but it’s so much better for it.

The prose here is accomplished but straightforward, written mostly in mid-length sentences full of meaning-heavy similes and thoughtful reflection. Fountain does it so well that it would be juvenile to say these are the type of stories that M.F.A. programs typically produce and then want to publish in their literary journals, but during the lesser stories I had a hard time thinking anything differently. What saves them is their engagement with the world–mostly South America and Haiti–because though we’ve read stories like these, we haven’t read these stories.

As the title somewhat inadvertently suggests, most here are ‘encounter’ stories of an American meets the 3rd world variety. Despite some misgivings, I actually liked the non-encounter story–“Bouki and Cocaine”– the best of the Latin America stories. The others seemed to expect shock when we learn of the hypocrisy of revolution or awe at the strangeness of a foreign culture, and maybe I’m too cynical or Fountain is too polite but I felt I understood what the stories were trying to tell me long before they finished telling me. It’s not the sort of thing I would usually let bother me except that I felt these were very moral stories. Fountain obviously cares deeply for the places he’s been and it’s that wide, generous view of the world that separates the book from so many others.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel like every time a story was about to do something really interesting–a woman’s soldier husband returns from Haiti practicing Voodoo!–Fountain pulls back–she does nothing about it and learns a lesson about marriage. Only “Fingers” truly punches. The rest are like handshakes from someone whose name you are trying to remember. It usually ends up okay.

Comment / Posted in Books, Fiction, Fountains

Exhibit 5.21

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

I feel like I may have a hard time writing about this book. Not only did I read it weeks ago, I went into it with unreasonably high expectations which may have clouded my opinion of it slightly. That is not to say I didn’t love it–I did–but I felt like I enjoyed it more for its prose and its noir than its statement. That isn’t even a critique, it’s just a reversal of expectation that’s left me somewhat confused as to what place it occupies in Chabon’s canon.

The premise, much discussed, is immediately compelling and from the first sentence Chabon instills his broken hero with the desperation and cynicism of his exiled race. The plot moves in Chandler-esque fits and starts punctuated with scenes of our detective isolated, drunk, and unsure of his life and his case. Those, the moments where you can smell the cigarettes, the moments where the premise becomes background rather than what is driving the plot, were my favorite. Let’s call this the small plot (which is to say small in scope not importance).

There’s so much that’s memorable about the world Chabon has created that it almost hurts to say that I was happier when the book was just a murder mystery set in an alternate reality. It’s an almost irresistible thing to imagine and it’s flawless as a setting. As an actor in the plot, however, I found myself less convinced with how Chabon’s Sitka leads to this murder leads to this conspiracy leads to this ending. Let’s call this the big plot.

The big plot bothers me though it’s hardly the sort of thing to ruin a novel. It bothers me not because it was any more implausible than anything else in the novel (okay, maybe slightly more) but because I think it takes the leap from an ahistorical but potential reality to something that depends fundamentally on counter-intuitive logic. It’s one thing to casually mention that there was an extended war with Cuba sometime in the 60s or that Marilyn Monroe was first lady as these are really only dressing to the little plot. But when the big plot relies on motivations that seem counter to our understanding of the world, it feels a bit like a cheat.

The rules that govern the little plot seem appropriate for a world only slightly removed from our own. The rules that govern the big plot seem to suggest a more fundamental difference. It’s certainly not an unbridgeable gap, but I’m not sure that it ever gets adequately covered here. Learning the true nature of the big plot, our hero reacts–as we must–incredulously yet he doesn’t seemed shocked by the daunting levels of corruption and commitment needed to pull off such a scheme that, at least in any world related to our own, is undertaken with a very shaky motive.

I’d like to think that I’m just over thinking it–and I probably am–but I couldn’t help but feel like a brilliant, touching story with an unbeatable premise came to a bad end. The little plot is a perfectly wrought murder mystery written in stunning prose. The big plot is at best an ending that reached a little too far and at worst a small political point scored at the expense of the novel’s internal logic and continuity. It’s probably a little both, but it was enough to leave me thinking about how much I disliked being pulled out of the world in the last 50 pages after having read through the previous 350 as if they contained some delicious secret.

Even so, it’s still a fascinating book and deserving of its place on any year end list it finds itself on.

Last thought:
One of my favorite aspects of Chabon’s work is how compelling he can make characters who aren’t on the page. Like Grady Tripp’s wife in Wonder Boys or Art’s father in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, the victim here is a great character though he is, of course, dead.

Comment / Posted in Books, Chabons, Fiction