Sunday, December 18, 2016

Stendhal's Scarlet and Black

Romanticism remains a literary football, its detractors, on different teams, digging leather-bound products from dust-filmed closets and kicking them all over their studies. The excesses of confessionalism are sometimes traced back to earnest lyrics by Wordsworth. Soft-lens adventure yarns are damned as low-middlebrow James Fenimore Cooper excitations. But Romantics – even those in the first-wave of 1789-1824 – developed specific obsessions that were faithfully adhered to, even throughout Realism, until the great artistic tumults of 1913. One of those obsessions, of course, was a worshipper’s belief in the power and value of intense feeling. And when the hyper-rational George Bernard Shaw calls Shelley’s The Cenci one of the great tragedies in English drama, one can only imagine how passionate must have been the views of its adherents back in the day when Napoleon was busting heads.

Stendhal’s masterpiece, the novel Scarlet and Black (most often translated as The Red and the Black), came out in 1830 when the first onrush of Romanticism’s emotional and individual force had lessened somewhat, though its aesthetic dominance, while not monolithic, was unchallenged. Stendhal’s genius was a combination of a unique style – wildly at odds with the descriptive flourishes the dominant movement required – with Romantic passion bordering, at times, on melodrama. That emotional drive, though, was pestered by an ironic view, finely placed, on the proceedings. (Romantics – Byron and maybe a few others excepted – hate satire.) And that style must have been a brave approach: plain and without immersive symbolism, but set in complex subordinate clauses mellifluously rendered, and with a psychological acuity both brilliant and detailed among variously motivated class-positioned characters.

Well before this point, it’s traditional for the reviewer to give a plot synopsis, but I hate those kinds of reviews. The biggest reason is that it destroys narrative surprise (though if it’s a postmodern novel, that’s usually unimportant, even encouraged). Another reason is that even in plot-heavy novels, the story is just a framework to hold more important features of the work. It’s here I smile, because the preceding few sentences of meta-commentary is a lead-in to Stendhal – that trailblazing out-of-time realist – as whispering Lawrence Sterne, the French author sneaking in one paragraph, a now famous one, which operates as a shocking narrative interruption, an l’art du roman. I include it here, prefaced by most of the preceding paragraph:

“[T]hese attach themselves with obstinate tenacity to some particular set, and if that set ‘makes good’ all the best things society can give are showered upon them. Woe to the studious man who does not belong to any set; even his minor doubtful successes will be held against him, and superior virtue will triumph over him by robbing him of these.

Why, my good sir, a novel is a mirror journeying down the high road. Sometimes it reflects to your view the azure blue of heaven, sometimes the mire in the puddles on the road below. And the man who carries the mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror reflects the mire, and you blame the mirror! Blame rather the high road on which the puddle lies, and still more the inspector of roads and highways who lets the water stand there and the puddle form.”

The novel’s long chronicle reaches its exquisite finalé in the drawn-out prison scene, Julien a presursor for Camus’ Merseault in L’Etranger. As much as I love the latter novel, and realizing that Camus’ first-person anti-hero was neutrally positioned, Stendhal’s protagonist’s clash with the cleric, his father, and the exchanges with his two visiting loves, is elemental, frenetic, yet almost documentarily conceived, pitiless yet moving, eerie, funereal. It makes the similarly-plotted L’Etranger climax seem desiccated and didactic by contrast.

(My edition was wonderfully, painstakingly, translated by Margaret R.B. Shaw.)

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Leon Rooke and Tony Calzetta's Fabulous Fictions

“First there was the Word ...” Even if not a Biblicist, most have heard this phrase (from John?). Flattering to literary types, when thought of as a collaboration between, say, poets and creators within a different artistic field, the words usually come first. Schubert composed lieder to Goethe’s poetry, for example. The relation of words to painting, however, has occasioned a reverse sequence. Ashbery, among other poets, often uses a particular painting or drawing as a starting point for excited speculation. That relationship continues with veteran short story maker Leon Rooke and painter Tony Calzetta, in this year’s Fabulous Fictions. The latter provided a set of typically vivid abstract objects floating from or over a simple background of night sky or amoeba-like flourishes which evoke a curious feeling of neutral pulsing with menacing foreboding. It’s a perfect fit for Rooke, whose stories, here and elsewhere, trick us with uproarious dialogue, monologue, and plot (such as it can be in these particular flash fictions), so that the underbelly of human-besotted action creates shock by contrast. “Bank President’s Address To Minions On The Eve Of The Release Of The Annual Financial Report Showing Profits Heretofore Unseen In The World” shows Rooke’s strength to best effect. At first, the story seems like it could travel down the typical path of simple political denunciation, but the president’s speech, without seeming to adjust its register, incorporates personal failure, and the two narratives are interwoven expertly without the speaker’s remorse for either experience. A more immediate justice is served in other stories. “Son Of Scroll”, in what must be less than two hundred words, proceeds by way of amoral (immoral?) interviewer probing the life of another outsider now part of the ‘backwards’ island community. But it’s the interrogator who proves backward during the witty ending (which I won’t spoil). Fabulous Fictions is a delightfully insouciant production from The Porcupine’s Quill.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Jan Conn's Edge Effects

“The drifter and I are hanging on/by our teeth”, is most of a couplet from “Night Deeper Than Water”, from poet Jan Conn’s Edge Effects, out in 2012. I know the feeling. Many of the offerings from this 85 page collection waver in the space between suggestion and disjunction, or, to put it less charitably, between suggestion and inscrutability. Fortunately, though, since the oneiric and fabulous are major modes within the volume, a realistic exploration of image and metaphor vacant or dismissive of organic linkage is fine. And Conn scores with many intriguing metaphysical etchings well-grounded in vivid imagistic particulars: “Pumpkins glow in the field like planets/of a brand new solar system” is just one example. Reverie’s dark side, however, is, past its inventive play of possibilities within its world-without-space-and-time, a flight from depth, or at least waking perspective. Hence, the instances of “I no longer stay at the bombed-out Ritz:/too many ashes in the swimming pool/and no laundry service.” (from “The Erotic Error Bar”), and “the lanterns explode./Sisyphus shows up drunk,/out of work and mean.” (from “Orpheus’ Garden”), which, despite their downmouth diction, fail to shock with poem-ending gravitas or humour, being merely clever with atonal juxtaposition. This is a quibble, though. Many phrases, lines, and poems deliver with imaginative concentration, both focused and playful, and although I had problems with sonorous overreach – an exotic lexicon seems to have been shoehorned into some long lines as travelogue sparkle – Conn takes chances, and succeeds, with an intriguing blend of image and psychic residue.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Richard Stark's Backflash

Every other year or so I decide to read a book from the straight-up crime genre. This time, it was probably because I’d recently read Graham Greene’s The Human Factor, which followed the interior excitations of a British double agent pursued (until the final scenes, psychologically) by his patriot employers. Knowing next to nothing about the legacy of noir lit, and not wanting to scour its history, I took a flyer on a plug from a comment on a crime novel blog: Richard Stark’s Backflash, from 1998.

Stark was a pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake. Making Balzac look like a constipated, somnolent, fastidious follower of Flaubert, Westlake pumped out over a hundred novels, about twenty-five of them from the Stark brand, and about twenty of those in a series whose lead character, Parker, schemes and tricks and blasts his way to depressing glory through the grubby particulars (in Backflash) of a riverboat heist. This anti-heroic, weary, shithead protagonist is supposed to garner respect, if not sympathy. Like any of the other characters, he’s two-dimensional, and the dimensions are grey and brown. Parker has the charm of a loose dental dam, so the clipped, professional banter doesn’t reveal anything interesting about the thug, but acts simply as a way to push the plot along like an overwhelmed paramedic shifting a heart attack victim on a gurney over a busy beach sidewalk. There’s one segment, featuring unfunny but interesting dialogue, where Parker and one of his aides banter off-topic about inconsequential issues while waiting for reinforcements during an intense half-hour or so. I subsequently learned that Quentin Tarantino got his famous dialogue schtick (with the two too-cool-for-school, wisecracking, violent cops) in Pulp Fiction from Westlake/Stark. Then again, I also learned (a few years ago) that he got it from Charles Willeford. At any rate, Stark’s wit is pedestrian and repetitively signaled, which just goes to show that an idea’s originator is often poor at executing it to any positive renown.

I guess the drill for enthusiastic readers centres on plot, plot, and more plot. Oh, and suspense. The novel checks those boxes moderately well, but as for writing, characterization, ideas ... well, it’s traditional crime fiction, and the best authors of the genre know how to operate the Pavlovian machine to page-turning rhapsody.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Danny Jacobs' Songs That Remind Us of Factories

In his inaugural collection, Sounds That Remind Us Of Factories, (2013), Danny Jacobs’ poems resemble exotic vines threading their way through a thick trellis: powerful, relentless, knotted, and flashy. “Pacific Energy Super 27” sets out with, “Wind-scribe, smoke-crate, one-show boob tube/caterwauling pipewise”, and continues, nine lines down the page, with, “dustbin dreaming sleekness firebox and baffle/deep”. Many lines of many poems are similar in descriptive concentration: (from “Ox”: “set to charge the sagged cat’s cradle/of rusted wire, go gorge happy and play/longhorn sky-high ragdoll”). One is impressed with the sonorities, the doubled- and tripled-up vowel extensions which would be terrifically scored as spilling over their bar divisions on sheet music. But the technique, though impressive, tends to overwhelm. Interiority isn’t muted, it’s often replaced by dogged observation. Similarly, the limited range of emotion – stoical toughness, ironical self-awareness (in the good sense of that contemporary, prevalent ploy), bemused regret – isn’t always a problem since the images, and the sounds that power them, are doing the shovel-work of drama. The feelings are genuine, though, which is the more important consideration. And Jacobs will often unflex his line-busting biceps toward concluding epiphanies or rueful summations: “go back/to your overlords,/we may mean you harm”, from “Domestic Entomology” (first sub-poem); “It’s never loss but a changing of forms.”, from “How to Shoot Skeet With My Grandfather’s Lost Double Barrel”. If you can stay with the often-dense wordplay, and intone the lines in rhythmic momentum, the assonance is enjoyable and appropriate for much of the gritty content. However, overindulgence is the dark attraction for the author going all-in for sound. Hence, an at-times Eunoia-esque bass-loop sticking, “frumpy bolted hulk with breech plug,/lift lug, and locknut flush to the inch.//With wife gone he shunned his lawn/and got stuck on mock-ups. Wind-snug,/dud draft plans hugged my screen door”, from “Hobbyist”. In like fashion, “Scripted Pitch” ’s jackhammer jolts fill the ears with the letter ‘i’.

When Jacobs relaxes his frequent Eldar Djangarov-like itch to dazzle with pyrotechnics, poems breathe, and phrasal surprises light up (at least) this reader’s imagination with more staying power than euphonic play alone. “We’re Growing” is terrific start to finish, an intelligent lament for, and diatribe on, unspoiled wood acreage and land ‘development’, respectively. “The neighbourhood’s on the fence” is perfect, as is “ferret/out new hovels”. “Miscue” flirts with mathematical (ideational, not structural) complexity, but is grounded in its poolroom particulars, character quirks given concise variation throughout a snooker-route of differently plotted, and effective, enjambments. The “Insight” sub-poem from “What the Walls Said” is the best of the telesales section, confidently ironic, and able to maintain a direct force throughout without the self-satisfied collapse into flippant mimicking mockery other poems of contemporary anti-marketing fall into: (“If you leave for home with your headset/still horseshoeing your neck like a sci-fi ascot,”).

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building

Either translated dully by Humphrey Davies, or translated faithfully to the dull stylings of author Alaa Al Aswany, the latter’s 2002 The Yacoubian Building is a failed structural precursor to the much superior Last Man in Tower, by Aravind Adiga. Adiga’s novel, set in Mumbai (and reviewed at this site), begins with a dramatis personae, a dozen or so characters all living in different apartments in the same building where their idiosyncrasies, colours, stories, and complicated relationships come to life. Not so with Aswany’s novel.

Cairo’s Yacoubian building is much more class-divided than is its counterpart in Adiga’s novel, yet the possibilities for economic illumination and dramatic thrust are missed by Aswany. Many of the characters rarely (or don’t at all) mingle and interact, so I don’t understand why the novel was set up in this way. Still, as a narrative squarely planted in realist soil, it promised at least a peek into a corner of the world English-speaking readers rarely get to experience. It didn’t deliver, and the problems are multiple.

The prose is either boilerplate he-moves-here-she-moves-there, melodramatic, didactic, or logorrheic, sometimes the latter three at once. I weary to provide quotes, but if you need examples, just flip to most any page, especially towards the last half of the book where the histrionics are ratcheted to ten. As in any melodrama, the ending is predictable, or should I say the many ends, since the five or so (almost entirely) segmented stories steam away in a pressure-cooking pot, and with as much mechanical fascination. In what is perhaps the main story thread, Taha’s sweetheart since childhood has left him in order to secure needed cash for her family by accepting the sexual contract of your standard lecher with means. Taha’s commitment to Islam is intensified, and in an ending logistically impossible, psychologically unbelievable, and predictable two hundred pages prior, his demise, in a spray of bullets, leads to this bizarre passage: “Then it seemed to him as though the agony was diminished little by little and he felt a strange restfulness engulfing him and taking him up into itself. A babble of distant sounds came to his ears—bells and sounds of recitation and melodious murmurs—repeating themselves and drawing close to him, as though welcoming him into a new world.” This isn’t irony, and one doesn’t know how much of this psychic heaven-merging propaganda was made necessary by implicit censorship, or how much was Aswany’s attempt at giving a romantic veneer to the earlier, grittier scenes which at least had the good faith of legit interaction.

The dialogue, too, is horrendous. Each character speaks, no matter what the unique level of education, emotional sensibility, or life experience, in the same stilted and (at times) bombastic formulations. The novel is a parade of newspaper ideas set in the mouths of convenient cut-out characters. Once the outlines are set, it’s like pulling cords dangling from their backs to get the appropriate canned response.

I’m tough on this book because it’s an easier sell to an international audience who may tend to overlook these egregious miscues in order to focus on the ‘exotic’, as well as on the putatively unique issues the novel involves itself with. But any decent fictional work has to transcend its cultural and geographical particulars. The Yacoubian Building was written by a dentist-journalist. The publisher should have pulled it from production, and suggested it as multi-issue filler in a newspaper, but, as the novel’s deficits (hysterics! mysterious people and places!) make clear, it was the perfect springboard to a movie adaptation. Ka-ching!

Monday, December 12, 2016

Juan Filloy's Op Oloop

Immediately after finishing Juan Filloy’s incredible first novel from 1934, Op Oloop, I flipped to the back page and noted, with encouragement and dismay, that only two of the Argentinian author’s works (fifty-five, I’ve since learned) have been translated into English. I can only read one other, then, but there’s hope, at least, for more cross-language communication. The man lived in three centuries! Somebody throw a pile of cash at (Op Oloop’s translator) Lisa Dillman!

The novel is a hilariously inventive mapcap, structured, and very loosely themed, on Joyce’s Ulysses, which Filloy obviously devoured. Covering twenty hours in the life of the eponymous tragi-comic Argentinian ex-pat Finn, the story has our peripatetic hero traveling from bathhouse to fiancé’s house to a late-night park to dinner-hosting at a restaurant to brothel and finally to his residence, all the while alternating between considered wisdom and wise madness.

The entire book is a highlight, but I especially enjoyed the long, highly-charged emotional discourse among friends and acquaintances at the restaurant, at which Optimus Oloop gives the only explanation (not a spoiler, since the novel is a modernist consideration, but it has to do with the Great War) for his anguish in his failed attempt at self-control and mathematically-ordered daily habit. Filloy, a psychologically astute (Freud knew him, and followed his work) world-renowned palindromist, speaker of seven languages, neologist, and boxing referee, has great fun in creating an effervescent prose reading experience, full of humour and dark colour, angry and loving exchanges, and, not least, a pervasive and daring exploration on the nature of love, presented (often) in a surprisingly compatible mode of absurdity. Sparse quoting can’t do the book justice, but here are a few selections, anyway:

“ ‘It brings forth a flaccid rotundity as soon as the mouth stops articulating thoughts in favor of gobbling meats and sweets. When one reaches that stage, the cerebral lobes abandon the skull and sink down into the buttocks ... ’ ”.

“ ‘As has already been stated: some people’s brains border their anal regions. Thus, their senses are dulled, and the psychopathological pestilence is such that the intrepid scholar-explorer inevitably butts up against a dead end’ ”.

“ ‘Gentlemen, I know perfectly well that friends, like cigarette lighters, tend to fail just when you need them most. Why, my own uselessness is notorious. Unless it’s for a bash or a brawl! ... I can box, so I like to piss people off. See, if it weren’t for my jibes, I’d never use my jabs. So the touching thing about my friendship with Op Oloop is the mutual indifference that unites us. I don’t care about statistics, and he has no interest in who I punch’ ”.

“All the memories clotted together in her heart like so many aneurisms; all her tears lay buried beneath her desperate maquillage; and all the jewels given to her by her ‘sweethearts’ were pinned to her black taffeta dress, suitably buttoned up to the neck’ ”.

“Just when vertigo was on the verge of wrenching him free, Op Oloop shut his eyes, guillotining its magnetic pull.”

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Olga Tokarczuk's House of Day, House of Night

With interlocking approaches of antic myth, oneiric philosophy, iconographic satire, existential apocalypse, sexual transference and inversion, historical erasure, and folkloric recovery, Olga Tokarczuk’s 1998 novel, House of Day, House of Night, may be seen as an over-ambitious stew of spare parts and mismatched formulas. But the author mostly succeeds in holding it all together through geographical, temporal observation and imagination. Set in fictional Nowa Ruda after WWII, when that town was ceded to south-west Poland from Germany, the novel intersperses many narratives: longer segments on the co-existing mixed-up sexual identity of the protagonist’s life with his work on the tragic fate of Saint Kummernis; sexual boredom and excitement centring on another hermaphroditic interloper into the life of a couple in a moribund marriage; death recipes involving gathered forest mushrooms; a woman who (hazily) ‘succeeds’ in pursuing the man in her repetitive dreams; a wise old crone (neighbour Marta) who is presented through a subtly ingenious filter, in a mythical play against stereotype in modernist re-occurence, and with whom the head narrator is unable to communicate with rationally, but whose pervasive ruminations on entropy and death underscore the work. Here’s an extended passage, as seen through Marta’s eyes:

“Once she saw a valley, over which hung a low, orange sky. All the lines of this world were indistinct and the shadows were blurred, cast by some alien light. In the valley there were no houses, no traces of humanity, not a single clump of nettles or a wild currant bush was growing. There was no stream, though the place where one used to be was overgrown with thick, hard, tawny grass, like a scar. In this world there was no day, and no night either. The orange sky kept shining all the time—neither warm nor cold, motionless and indifferent. The hill was still covered in forest, but when she looked at it closely she could see that it was dead; at some point it had hardened and turned to stone. Pine cones hung on the spruce trees, and their branches were still covered in ashen needles, because there was no wind to scatter them. She has a terrible foreboding that if any sort of movement were to occur in this landscape the forest would come crashing down and turn to dust.”

Similar to the frequent Kummernis-Paschalis narrative, though, the above passage is used, earlier in the novel, word for word, from the mind of a clairvoyant widower, Leo, who follows it up with, “That was how the end must look. No deluge, no rains of fire, no Auschwitz, no comet. This is how the world will look when God has deserted it, whoever he is ... In this spectral light everything will crumble.” There is an attack, online, on the Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ translation of House of Day, House of Night by a reviewer who posits that the novel fails, in its transferred language, to understand a supposed feminist take on what Tokarczuk was up to. I can’t comment as to specifics since I don’t understand Polish and I won’t access the complete review (it costs $41), but my imperfect understanding is that the author is erasing the more superficial gender complaints with a wider sympathy, that once an existential realization occurs (typically, in the novel, when age has granted wisdom to some of the characters), a universal application, among men and women, takes over.

You’ve gathered this isn’t light fare, but in that Eastern European vein, humour hovers over the often bleak narratives like a mischievous, levitating sprite, the best scene of which involves a man who, reflecting on a three-score-and-ten well-lived, dies on a hillcrest at the exact junction between Czechoslovakia and Poland, and is then discovered by authorities who drag him to the more bureaucratically expedient side of the border.

Dense in observational weight and light, Tokarczuk’s novel is a metaphysical gem.

Juan Goytisolo's Juan the Landless

The final entry of Juan Goytisolo’s loose trilogy, 1975’s Juan The Landless is more of the same, with, if possible, even more vitriol, sarcastic irony, rage, mockery, denunciation, and repetitive accusation. This anti-novel, bilious prose-poem fusillade, or diary-in-exile, starts with a model – in both the moral and aesthetic meaning of that word – Catholic couple’s excremental necessities (with ham-fisted symbolism) and ends with a mock trial against the in-story author at a reading of his work. You have to admire an author who not only cares not for his bookish image, but who trashes its conception: “his gaze travels from one review to another with a serious, pained expression as his lips utter the magisterial reproaches as though he were telling the beads of a prickly rosary (a) excessive use of foreign phrases (b) lack of linguistic rigour (c) suspect representation of reality (d) inability to communicate the facts coldly and objectively (e) meaningless accumulation of sick, morbid personal obsessions (f) deliberate employment of substitutive myths (g) abandonment of all claim to truth ...”. The ‘faults’ are admitted, and the accuser seems not only petty, but obtuse, with the embedded, ironic critique: “coldly and objectively ... reality ...truth”. Further scatalogical irony builds in a long, hilarious exchange between a cultural defender trying, in apotropaic futility, to counter our good narrator, the tail-end of it noted here with: “leave me alone!, he will say: you can go jump in the lake! I’d be happy to, but I don’t happen to have my swim trunks with me. I can’t stand this!, he will howl: I’m about to explode! and that is literally what happens, without your being able to do anything to prevent it: a bland, gelatinous substance spurts out of his head, as though it were a bursting shell, and splatters all over the walls and ceiling of the ultramodern office painted in restful pastel colors”.

Reviews, synopses, and blurbs are frequent in their claims that this book somehow relaxes into a counter-proposal, a positive emotional balance, the vibrant Moors appearing as the longed-for corrective. I don’t see much of it, except in a narrowly-based nomenclature.

Helen Lane stays aboard for this translation, fortunately, managing Goytisolo’s relentless outrageousness to great effect. More reminiscent in structure to the first novel of the trilogy, Marks Of Identity, with its frequently long block paragraphs, hallucinatory discombobulation, and brutal historically-flavoured anecdotes, Juan The Landless is best taken as a bitter on an empty stomach, though it’s not distilled for most tastes, for which Goytisolo, no doubt, would react in loud, nasty laughter.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Cormac McCarthy's The Road

Readers perusing reviews of Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 The Road hardly need one more consideration of that mega-hit, but I read it, and’ll have my say. (Perhaps one or two things here have been bypassed by the reviewing community, I couldn’t tell.)

Most will be familiar with the story: post-apocalyptic, (and probable), nuclear winter; man shepherding young son through the horror in a constant search for food, clothing, warmth, and (not least) secrecy to avoid murderers and cannibals.

Two quibbles: there are sporadic sections of writing that strain for the profound. For McCarthy, this comes about through grand abstractions and easy metaphors: i.e., “commissaries of hell”. That’s a pretty good association, but by that slice in the novel, we’ve had “[fill in] of hell” many times. Ditto with “black [fill in].” McCarthy’s powers of description – in vocabulary, in understanding of the (un?)natural world’s flux, and from the narrator’s self-sufficient wisdom – are awesome (I hope that last word still retains, somewhat, the power of its original meaning), and don’t need the buttressing overkill. The other problem has to do with biological and physiological plausibility. It’s hard to credit the father with the energy needed to carry out several of his arduous tasks in the desperate environment he and the boy find themselves in. The intricate (and fast) threading of sutures on his own arrow wound in the cold and dark, covered in dirt, already exhausted; the power needed to wade through ocean waves to scramble onto an ancient, decrepit ship in search for food and other items, therefrom crashing into a locked hold, all while seriously ill; and, (from the grimly amusing points taken from a blogging biologist), the mistakes made by cannibals on caloric comparisons in the two most lurid scenes (which I won’t spoil here for those who haven’t yet read the book).

Those negatives are easily washed away, though, in the hurricane-level strength of sure pacing (drama; narrative and tonal shifts), religious underpinning, philosophical deftness, and, most importantly, rhythmic drive. Some have reacted negatively to the relentless force of the prose, its biblical solemnity. But surely the content deserves the appropriate approach. McCarthy delivers, and the rhythmic intensity, at times, floods into a mystical super-container, no small feat when the narrative dwells on drifting ash, shivering, hunger, and constant fear.

The dialogue between father and son is also handled with great care, and gathers into an emotionally stark resolution. This would be dangerous material for any novelist to negotiate with. How McCarthy avoids mawkishness and unintentional hilarity is a tribute to his dramatic gifts. How he avoids descending into easy messaging on human sin and redemption is also impressive, given the layout.

Yeah, Oprah gave the book a shove. And it’s not a ‘beach read’ (stupid category).But if you haven’t read it, don’t be dissuaded by the synopsis. I’m no fan of genre fic, including the sub-genre of apocalyptic horror, but this has nothing to do with falling into the conventions of a plot on autopilot.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Tom McCarthy's Satin Island

The disorder, distraction, and incomprehension of our accelerated digital age has spawned a warehouse full of fiction dealing with the insanity in either a detached, heavily ironic documentary-style, or as sci-fi, into-the-rabbit-hole thriller. Creating a novel of depth out of the material is harder than writing new string theory postulates that successfully apply to a starburst of new universes. But attempts have been made.

This is to segue into Satin Island, Tom McCarthy’s novel from last year. The narrator is an anthropologist working for a mysterious web-saturated communications-advertising company which tasks U (the narrator) with vague, byzantine projects. At first, U takes to his work with mid-level enthusiasm: “the image of a severed parachute that floated, like some jellyfish or octopus, through the polluted waters of my mind ... I found my focus, my point of identification within it and my attendant sympathy, shifting from the diminutive man to his expanded, if detached, paraphernalia”. Sub-scenes (one can’t call them plots) include a colleague dying of throat cancer, and a girlfriend unforthcoming as to her background and to how she appeared at the airport wherein the two initially met. The former is handled with affecting complexity and association: “He had one [dark lump] just above his ankle; it was more than dark – it was black. The windows of the hospital were smudged and blackened too; his room was on the twenty-first floor and they obviously didn’t bother to clean them that often, or at all.”

McCarthy’s first novel, Remainder, involved a haunting narrator-created world, removed but familiar, ridiculous and terrifying yet possible. Satin Island’s reality, by contrast, mouse-clicks over well-surfed territory. Oil spills exist next to, and with, soccer highlights; mothballed archaeological curios, their use or religious function unknown, are sold to Texas millionaires for vain display, perhaps finding their way as lifestyle images in advertising. McCarthy, however, manages to conjure wit and wisdom at each level of the rabbit hole: after the narrator’s girlfriend is let go from a horrifying experience, post-raid, she tells U “that it was ironic ... That it was my credit card that saved me after I’d been protesting against capitalism”.

The novel – short but dense – has attracted a lot of negative press. Much of it seems to be based on Satin Island’s lack of narrative thrust or direction. (The author, winking, warns of this early in the novel: “events! if you want those, you’d best stop reading now”.) But this, of course, is purposeful, and in line with the thematic concerns. Swamped by information – most of it ephemera, or is it? – all of us have at least a section of our brains available and appreciative of efforts to delineate and synthesize, sort and order. But U gives up. Late in the novel, letters of the eponymous words – appearing in a previous admonitory dream – transpose themselves on a Staten Island ferry before vanishing altogether among the ordinary, weary, down-at-heels passengers. The final image of the homeless man at a pay phone is sublime.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Tom McCarthy's Remainder

A true success story, first published by an art-based micropress, then picked up by a small literary press, then, strictly through word-of-mouth, to Vintage, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is that curious object: a novel with narrative propulsion that soars above the overbaked combat of lyrical realism vs metafictional filtering. It’s easy to see it, as did Zadie Smith’s positive essay on McCarthy (contrasting Remainder with another novel from Joseph O’Neill), as modernism’s new circuitry, but McCarthy has, himself, disavowed the pro forma connections.

The first-person, post-coma, emotionless, instant millionaire (over a million pounds as settlement from a mysterious accident) obsesses on his sense of unreality. McCarthy exquisitely navigates through the exterior dimensions of his madness, covering, in fastidious detail, the narrator’s demands and orders to his new minions – directors, actors, logistics experts, blue-collar contractors – in a desperate attempt to “re-enact” (his insisted-upon term) a previous déja vu moment, that moment filled with fluency, grace, a oneness of being, the memory and manifestation merging in spiritual bliss.

Now this is a terrific premise, and an exciting and timeless one. And it’s terrifically complex. The narrator’s team – at its peak involving over a thousand employee re-enactors – are given no interior detail (the narrator doesn’t care about others, and in any case, McCarthy stays inside this one man’s head), but the narrator, also, has little desire in illuminating the why of his quixotic plans. At just past the two-thirds mark, though, we get this, from a doctor, speaking to, and summoned by, the troubled man’s top director:

“ ‘[t]he body administers its own painkillers – hefty ones. The problem is, these can be rather pleasant – so pleasant, in fact, that the system goes looking for more of them. The stronger the trauma, the stronger the dose, and hence the stronger the compulsion to trigger new releases. Reasonably intelligent laboratory animals will return again and again to the source of their trauma, the electrified button ... although they know they’ll get the shock again.’ “

It’s here (if not before) the book’s biggest problem materializes, as startling in its way as the recreated smells of liver, re-enacted from two floors below the re-enacted building with the re-enacted players, the cats meanwhile falling off the roof, not being able to follow directions. That is, the wish for oneness, glimpsed at in the earlier déja vu vision, somehow merges with the wish for repeating, impulsively, painful behaviour. Philosophically and spiritually, I don’t buy it, unless the reader wants to entertain the possibility that the goal wasn’t spiritual unity, but a desperate bid for time-released soporifics. That said, the novel then faithfully drives the destructive element to its nadir. After the re-enactment of an actual murder and then an imagined bank heist, the narrator conspires with director Naz to attempt an actual bank robbery, with an attendant and absurd spiraling of logistical detail. I thought the novel would surely fall apart here in a ridiculous thriller-based riff, but the writing becomes almost unbearably beautiful, the actions slowed down, the detail relentless and fascinating, and the narrator’s vision morphing into further unexpected territory (“light and blood”). There’s a little too much direct nodding to Camus’ L’Etranger, but its more for emphasis than in homage. And the final scene is perfectly set-up and realized.

Despite its dark narrative and despicable lead character, there are flashes of loud humour throughout – the narrator complaining to his directors that the sun won’t behave, ditto for his doctor (“I’d even have let him stay if he’d only behaved himself and not moved”), and, when going through the rehearsals for the elaborate murder re-enactment after a dizzyingly difficult set-up by his employees, congratulating himself for his supposed largesse (“I thought of asking to try too, but didn’t want to get all self-indulgent”).

There are many suggestions throughout the book as to how to process the information, the “materiality” of the novel, how to integrate that with possible meanings and to what purpose any conclusions may point to. But I haven’t yet seen the rather obvious one mentioned. That the superstructure may suggest the problems a novelist may (will) have in writing his or her work – how to move characters around seamlessly and believably, how to demand certain actions from those characters without caring about their own projected wishes, and, certainly not least, how porous are the borders between reality and fiction.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Mordecai Richler's Cocksure

Hard to believe this pervasively nasty short novel was published just three years before St. Urbain’s Horseman. It seems to have served the author as a purgative for the recent (1968) sins – newly, bureaucratically entrenched – flowering like psychedelic sun blisters throughout journalism, the movie industry, literary magazines, education, and (broadly) civic society. It’s not hard to believe, however, that Cocksure would have, today, been dead in the water during a first editorial pass if its author submitted it under a pseudonym.

Values are inverted, not in a simple reversal, but as sarcastic, scabrous commentary on the inanities of the ‘free’ society, so that egalitarianism, bizarre and plotted ‘gotcha’ racial accusations, bizarre child-rearing practises, sexual attitudes, and ideologically created and technologically dumbed-down movie images conjoin with criminality and moral bankruptcy to squash ‘square’ social norms. But Richler, an across-the-board equal-opportunity satirist, lampoons, also, prigs and tight-asses, the cuckold as well as the bull.

“ ‘God damn it, Miss Ryerson, you can’t go around blowing school kids. It isn’t done.’
‘Don’t you dare,’ Miss Ryerson said evenly, ‘take the Lord’s name in vain in my presence.’
‘Are you dead set against blowing, Mortimer?’
‘I wouldn’t know how to answer that, Miss Ryerson. We’ve never discussed, well, sex– ‘
Put out that cigarette immediately.’
‘Yes.’ ”

Shocking, yes. Offensive, certainly. But it’s in reaction to the toothless, whimsical literature that passes for satire, then and—as it turns out—now. To paraphrase Robert Altman on the TV version of MASH: the updated take wasn’t funny (compared to his original vision) because the stinger was pulled out; the show didn’t earn its laughs.

That this novel came out during the peak of the counter-culture shows Richler’s bravery. (One idiotic blurb, on its original Bantam Book cover, praised its “anti-establishment” stance.) And it’s fun, a great exercise, to draw parallels between political positions then and now. The names of movements and causes change, but the attitudes just circle out and back.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Gabriel Josipovici's Everything Passes

This episodic novelette from 2006 underscores several problems meta-fiction has found itself backed into. Ostensibly about an asshole who’s alienated his wife (now ex), daughter, son, and literary friends, these segments serve only as set-up to the book’s main focus: asshole creator shirking familial and literary duties in order to turn the tap of existential angst to ten, tricking himself with that faint hope of literary self-worth. But even that faint hope can never be realized, of course, because, as the narrator/Josipovici has it, the creator, post-Rabelais, is speaking to an invisible audience. The sections of meta-assertion, a historical critique much more fully positioned and developed in the author’s What Ever Happened To Modernism?, slams the brakes on whatever enchantment, interest, or intrigue his clipped narrative may have achieved, but there’s a more serious, more fundamental problem in the meta-critique.

Josipovici is, of course, right to point out the long history of novelist as self-conscious navigator in bellwether works . But Cervantes, Sterne, and others, used that awareness in the service of the author/narrator voice as fictional and imaginative hijinks largely separate from the transparent worries of the author over his or her own creative process. The reader of many late-postmodern works is often left with a solipsistic defense of the writing process, interesting, even fascinating, no doubt, to the author and (similarly) philosophically inclined writers, but of limited (and redundant when scrolling through book promos) appeal to those wanting to get out of the overseeing, stifling, never-ending loop.

The book is sixty pages, with plenty of white space. Most poetry collections contain more words. Despite that, Everything Passes isn’t compressed or concise. The refrain, some variation of, “He stands at the window./Cracked pane./His face at the window./Greyness. Silence.”, gathers irritation, rather than profundity, by repetition. The protagonist (if that’s the appropriate word) reminisces. Those thoughts aren’t interesting, and can’t be improved by pleading for a multiple suggestiveness from other characters or the reader her- or himself. The meta-commentary was philosophically problematic, but it was also problematic structurally. The bridge between glum remembrance and meta-aspiration was poorly synthesized, and the latter focus ended in a terribly overwrought ecstasy of creative explosion (however ironically one wants to take it) that reminded me of that ridiculous cliché to be found in the movie Amadeus, where the effervescent hero pens a new score in dramatic frenzy.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Joe Queenan's One for the Books

A cantankerous, half tongue-in-cheek provocation of bibliophilic obsession, Joe Queenan’s eight essays, gathered from previously published newspaper and magazine columns, ruminate on the author’s book reading habits (he’s polished off over six thousand fiction tomes, and, averaging out his actuarial lifespan probability, expects to read 2,132 more), library experiences and thoughts (“[p]utting James Patterson next to Proust is like displaying Babe Ruth’s uniform alongside Three Finger Brown’s” – [must be a small library]), bookstores (“[s]pindly boys with thick Clark Kent glasses wearing ill-advised polo shirts and unpersuasive facial hair routinely come up to me and say, ‘Can I help you with anything?’ as if I were a disoriented extraterrestrial or the last man to straggle home from Gettysburg”), personal reading resolutions (always different – one year it’s a deliriously happy and exclusive concentration on novellas, reading almost one a day; the next it’s books picked out blindly from the library shelves, not such a great idea), and book-related experiences on his travels (a “gaunt, humorless widow”, as landlord in Paris when Queenan was twenty-one, let him off the hook for unbecoming living habits after she discovered he was a rabid fan of Henry de Motherlant), among other thoughtful anecdotes, uproarious buffoonery, and shiv-like satire.

I’ll let Queenan do the rest of the talking:

“In the case of The House of the Seven Gables, I know perfectly well why I have never read it – I hate people from Massachusetts, and I know the book is going to give me a headache”.

“I read [Bear, by Marian Engel] as soon as I got back to the States and loved [it], though I was somewhat surprised that this straightlaced Canadian would recommend a book about a lonely female historian who treats herself to a short, ergonomically implausible love affair with a bear. The bear was a bit surprised, too.”

“For decades well-meaning pedagogues have been sabotaging summer vacations ... One reason the average American reads no more than four books a year may be the emotional trauma suffered while trying to hack his way through Wuthering Heights at age fourteen.”

“It’s possible that minor books can lure readers to major ones, functioning as a cultural Venus flytrap, but crummy books only lead to more crummy books.”

“Reading books may make you smarter than other people. It does not make you better. I know things about the Vietnam War because I read them in books. My friend Richie, a nonreader, knows things about the Vietnam War because he went to Vietnam.”

“A few years ago, several people in my town asked if I would like to join a book discussion club ... I left town for about six weeks, disconnected the phone, stopped answering e-mails, and told people that I had a weird retinal pigmentation disease that made it impossible for me to read books. Especially books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.”

“I have come to believe that people who get dressed up in period costume, with three-cornered hats and high-buckle shoes, and who speak in archaic English, suffer from Reenactor’s Autism, a malady that renders victims incapable of detecting otherwise unmistakable visual cues indicating that most of the people in the room would like to see them disemboweled.”

“[My father’s] books allowed him to cling to dreams that would never materialize. Books had not enabled him to succeed. But they had mitigated the pain of failure.”

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Gabrielle Roy's The Tin Flute

A CanCon classic, and Gabrielle Roy’s first novel, The Tin Flute, first out in 1945, follows the fate of feisty Florentine, Montreal waitress during WWII, as she fights family poverty and relationship neglect. There’s your boilerplate plot synopsis, and if that were all the novel offered as thematic thrust and narrative line, it would be boilerplate to potboiler. Fortunately, there are sub-plots (or, more accurately, interior interludes) that make up the heart of the structure: father Azarius fighting his own lassitude and lack of purpose; mother Rose-Anna trying to keep her brood alive; Florentine’s shy second suitor, Emmanuel, infatuated, pursuing his desire with a painful mix of courageous persistence and hangdog passivity; and the snowblown streets and windowpanes themselves as (obvious yet lyrically well-handled) symbolic back-up to the shifting tonal state of the characters.

Fortunate, too, that the plot scaffolding covers little of the roof, because the Florentine-Jean will-he-won’t-he romance is pure melodrama. When the weather fails to make a point artfully, Roy dips into Florentine and Jean’s skulls with the stock groaners, “with her whole being” and “he shook his head emphatically”.

Still, the author’s grasp of psychological understanding is often acute, wise, and convincing across multiple characters in the same scene. And she gives an honest sense of perplexity without mawkish exclamation, in many instances, when dealing with the motivations and decisions of Florentine, Emmanuel and Azarius, (not so much with Jean or some of the minor personages).

Intermittently affecting, the novel is too uneven, yet its worth seems pressed in canonical cement, and after modernism’s earlier upheaval, there’s little excuse for the faded Victorianism. SPOILER! (The sex scene and subsequent pregnancy are alluded to in the airiest of hints, a quaint and amusing hunt for today’s reader.) Yet there’s a courageous honesty that lingers underneath the often ramped-up emotion, and I’d recommend the book mildly because of it.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death

First published in 1985, this cultural polemic against the pervasively deleterious influence of television on the sober subjects of religion, politics, news, education, history, and science may seem outdated, if not quaint. But, despite the blooming of computer use, TV viewing hasn’t receded much, if at all, in aggregate total hours. It was four hours a day thirty years ago; it is now, I believe, about three-and-a-half hours. Apparently, teh interwebz isn’t replacing TV watching, but other activities such as ... well, reading, for one, I suppose. In this way, Postman, ironically, may seemingly have overshot his thesis, which, because of the inherent nature of its subject, depends on prophetic weight to lend force to its argument. Still, Postman is tuned in enough to realize that television – the medium, not necessarily the intention – emphasizes image over word, speed over exposition, contemporaneity over history, disjunction over relevance, simplicity over perplexity, solutions over ambiguities, and entertainment over edification, while also noting parallels with the later electronic development.

Postman provides a brief overview of how oral communication transformed into written forms, and how those forms were dramatically altered by the Gutenberg revolution. He then gives a detailed account of typographic life in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, emphasizing the seriousness with which readers in America took their transmitting politicians, journalists, religious speakers, and even novelists (imagine Sir Walter Scott as a best-seller today). Abe Lincoln and his opponent(s) would orate over the stump for seven hours at a stretch with no complaints or restlessness from an engaged audience.

The telegraph, in 1840, changed everything. The speed of transmission could now outrun its environment. In Postman’s words, “a man in Maine and a man in Texas could converse, but not about anything either of them knew or cared very much about. The telegraph may have made the country into ‘one neighborhood’, but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who knew nothing but the most superficial facts about each other.” It’s here, and in many other examples, that Postman’s analysis creates a comparable shiver of recognition in today’s reader of political commentary, however different the mediums of discourse may appear to be on the surface. Following closely behind telegraphy, the daguerreotype (and then photography) further eroded the reign of typography as the accepted mode of serious transmission. Image over word then took off with further refinements we’re more familiar with.

Postman’s been called a stuffed shirt, a ridiculous idealist, an alarmist, and, probably worst, hyperbolic and irrelevant. But take a few tests based on Postman’s own questions. How many people projecting facile memes (created by someone else, at that), on Facebook and other social media sites, know anything relevant about the candidates they’re mocking or celebrating in elections for premier or president? How is it that TV news is even worse than it was in 1985, what with scrolling bottom-text during the talking-head segments, as if even the half-minute ‘story’ (before the always prevalent “now ... this” mendacious fracture) commands too much attention and thought to sit still for? And how is it that Charlie “I’m interrupting once again even though I don’t have a fucking clue what I’m talking about” Rose is the leading TV interviewer on serious topics? Postman’s all for junk TV because it’s not trying to be anything else – no snob, he. ‘Gunsmoke’ and ‘Dallas’ are fine, if that’s your bag. Take away a smattering of professional sports and the occasional Hogan’s Heroes rerun, and I could do a toned-down version of Howard Beale, portable box in one hand, raised window sash in the other, ten floors above ground.

And we haven’t even covered subsequent technological developments since Amusing Ourselves to Death’s initial release: multiple recordings for distracted viewers, fast-forwarding at one click, hundreds if not thousands of channels, TV’s continued preference for speed and popularity over relevance by news hour’s highlighting of what’s going viral on youtube or what’s trending on Twitter, the accelerated link between government-media and what is even possible (or not) to air at all (though that would go against the author’s Huxley-over-Orwell argument). Postman just scratched the surface.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

I'm back for a series of book review postings, one a day until just before Christmas. As a bad habit, I've collected thoughts and jottings on books I've read this year, brushed them up somewhat, and, since they'd gathered into a dozen-plus, decided to set them down here. This is only a small sampling of what I've read throughout 2016. I've read lots, and there's no particular reason these books got words while others didn't. Time after reading a certain book, perhaps. Perhaps a particular theme or idea caught my attention. And in a few cases, a particular ecstasy or annoyance quickened my decision to engage. These are presented in no reasoned order, though they follow somewhat chronologically. Towards the last 5-7 days, I'll post some reviews from earlier journals in which they first appeared, and I may end this burst with a complete year-end reading list. I've no idea whether I'll resurrect the blog in the new year, or if this will just be a frozen quasar on a spaceship blog-log past Pluto. But enough. Here's the first review.


Montefiore’s 2003 historical biography of Stalin is an expansive genre offering in that it uses almost as much textual consideration of the Vozhd’s magnates as on the dictator himself. Most readers with a bare acquaintance of Soviet history will know, broadly, of the Great Purge during 1937-38. But the intrigue, paranoia, alliances, disinformation, frame-ups, political jockeying, secret murder, fear, ideological assertion, factional preference, 14-19 hour work days, alcoholic bingeing, fury, and bungling pervaded not only that black period, but most of the rest of Stalin’s rule from 1924 till his last breath in 1953. The author takes advantage of biographical material heretofore unreleased, but, in addition, goes the extra thousand miles to unearth detail locked away and forgotten in coded diaries from none other than Stalin’s Georgian mother. In this way, he’s able, with authoritative substance, to disagree with earlier assessments: for example, Montefiore notes that earlier biographers considered Stalin’s brutal slap and outrageous denunciation of daughter Svetlana, after she makes known her initial seduction by a sophisticated lover, a low point in the mass murderer’s roll call of evil. But the age difference (the seducer was 21 years older), the cultural norms (it wasn’t uncustomary for Georgian fathers to pull out the proverbial shotgun in such cases), and Stalin’s shrewd awareness of Svetlana’s emotionally unsophisticated personality (borne out during the rest of her life) enables the biographer to downplay prior assessments of this event. On that note, one criticism of Montefiore is that he makes Stalin too human. This, however, is what makes one of the top three monsters of the 20th century even scarier. The fact that someone who tends to his lemon trees, who gives money to old friends from decades ago just because he thought of them lately, who reads, at times, 500 pages a day of literature (or history or Marxist commentary or political news) can also issue specific death quotas of 100,000 whether many of those victims are innocent or not, can terrorize (and at times, kill) his own extended family and the families of his own Party, can psychopathically turn on long-time friends with cruel and delayed tactics, can murder millions based on absurd paranoiac fantasies of plots against his leadership or life: the complex record is an extreme reminder that wholesale wickedness isn’t the sole domain of a non-human entity, the present-day equivalent of a fantastical horror figure, but that of a brutal man made worse by upbringing, street intrigue, fanatical organization, megalomania, and a series of fortuitous circumstances.

But it’s the relationships between Stalin and his grandees that make for gripping, incredible drama. Montefiore casts a dubious eye over many post-Stalin accounts, cross-referencing them with many other sources to come up with credible reports of the maze of relationship shifts over the decades. The pusillanimous Kaganovich, the multi-faced and punctilious Malenkov, the savvy Mikoyan, the brave and ill-fated Ordzhonikidze, the plodding but effective Molotov, the alcoholic and prissy Zhdanov, the murderous rapist-terrorist Beria, the murderous bisexual dwarf Yezhov, and many more, often co-existed in close quarters, while trying to protect themselves (in part by betraying colleagues) from Stalin’s unpredictable outbursts and changing alliances.

Montefiore’s writing is all over the map. At times disjointed – he too often funnels quotes from his own narrative, thereby creating a confusion of referents – and at times typo-ridden, there are passages of surprisingly daring diction as well as sentences of gorgeous comparison: (“Malenkov stood up and ran forward, chins aquiver, with the desperate grace of a whippet sealed inside a blancmange.”)

Incredibly, Politburo vet Mikoyan survived not only Stalin, but, while also in high office, Lenin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev, as well. And though Mikoyan was implicated by signing off, with the others, on continual death warrants, he also tried to save innocents at the risk of immediate death for himself and family (wife and seven children), was a major factor in defusing the Cuban missile crisis, and (with Khrushchev) was the driving force of de-Stalinization after the dictator’s death. In a long, densely-packed armoured tank-rolling display of text, it was he, and the sporadic appearance, on the periphery, of artists, that allowed for several fresh breaths in an otherwise perpetually claustrophobic charnel house.