Monday, January 27, 2014

John Pass' crawlspace

The reader may be forgiven for thinking the poems in crawlspace, John Pass’ 2011 collection, claustrophobic and dark. Surprisingly, then, one flips from one page to the next and discovers moods both light and confident, heavy with knowledge yet unwilling to submit to philosophical defeat. And doubly surprising since his recent book, Stumbling In The Bloom, became bogged down in muddy walks, muted colours, and pointless digressions.

Part of the cause for improvement is in the lively treatment of similar subject matter.  Largely missing (with a couple of exceptions) are the bloated nature reveries that draped over skin and soul like muggy, interminable spring days. In their place are specific anecdotes that use purposeful comparisons well, as in “Sparrows”, where the rhythmic vitality of “Trapped, they loop and weave their ways among the fixtures” eventually transitions into Pass’ penchant for reflection, though instead of  portentous gravity, we’re treated to a brisk challenge and playful metamorphosis with “A realist in our midst? Busy denizen, at home in our dark//densities, our nesting power, while we lean/and crane our necks ... “.

Pass is still beset by personal crawlspaces of the heart where the reader is squeezed out, as in the banal ruminations of “Say No More” with its robotic opening and closing “I’ve been walking, walking, walking,/walking. A marginal distracted pacing” and “outpacing/the enormous stasis of my thought.” But he’s far more engaged with the particularities of his travels in crawlspace, and the woe-is-me-in-this-bad-weather chaff is less conspicuous than in his GovGen-winning volume.

Martin Amis' The Pregnant Widow

There is one major advantage and one major disadvantage in reviewing a book two to five years after it first appears: one can assess others’ thoughts about it in the context of personal reactions, and so form a richer conversation about the work; and one can also be in danger of repeating others’ arguments about it, whether pro or con. The benefit, for me, while weighing in on Martin Amis’ 2010 The Pregnant Widow, is that most of the commentary on the novel has been of the “Martin gets it wrong, again” variety, so the four-years-delay disadvantage doesn’t seem to apply as much.

Reviewers are often frustrated moralists. Amis’ sparkling and intelligent prose, here as in all of his efforts, both fictional and essayistic, gets hasty and begrudging slow claps, like an opera-goer who nods at the coloratura’s performance while noting the political statement her choice of dress implies. That’s a little unfair, of course, because Amis, in this novel of 1970 sexual experimentation and expectation (wait for it), broadens the comic tone to make many forceful conclusions regarding residual damage undergone by his characters in the novel’s forty-year follow-up. The concentration on ideas of the sexual revolution (awful, and false, term) is still misplaced, then, but I’d give it more of a pass if the arguments made more sense. First to the actual prose, including dialogue.

“The deep streets, the crushed cobbles, the fig-dark shadows, all silent in the siesta hour, which were given over to the faint trickles of digestion.”

“[W]hen he saw his first child on the paediatrician’s monitor, delightedly busying itself like a newt in a millpond, all ashiver with festive and apparently humorous curiosity, Keith’s first thought was of Adriano and his hunger: the hunger of the enwombed Adriano. The tiny ghost and his face of pain.”

“Drawn like iron filings in obedience to magnets of varying power, the young men squirmed and milled and then divided – with graphic candour – into two columns ...”

“[H]e felt like a man due to begin a prison term of fantastic duration ... like an ascetic backing into a pothole in Surinam, committed to remain within until the arrival of Christ or the Mahdi (or the End of Time).”

“ ‘What is old money?’ “
“ ‘It’s what you get when you did all your gouging and skanking a couple of centuries ago.’ “

“[Y]oung men in sharp shirts and pressed slacks, whooping, pleading, cackling – and all aflicker, like a telekinetic card trick of kings and queens, shuffling and riffing and fanning out under the streetlamps  ... The energy coming off them was on the level (he imagined) of an East Asian or sub-Saharan prison riot.”

The above quotes were cobbled together in five minutes, and from a text not marked beforehand in any way. Fairly random, in short. On most pages, there is virtuosic evidence; on every page, there is felicitous syntax and rhythmic creativity. But the moralists want to concentrate instead on the ideas. OK. Fair game.

Amis’ Achilles heel isn’t the oft-denounced attention to, and ineptness of, his plot machination and detail. He isn’t a meticulous plotter, but this isn’t genre fiction. No, it’s his overambition. Amis has provocative ideas, and some of them are even convincing, but the comic narrative, here as in London Fields especially, is trampled upon by feet of apocalyptic nonsense, structurally and emotionally out of tune with the story-proper. Amis himself is also a moralist, of course, and in The Pregnant Widow he’s not shy, particularly in the fractured post-Italy catch-up, about ruminating on decay, death, sexual satisfaction and shifting social politics (the fifty-fifty work detail at home, in a needless and obvious point, seems to be the only altered reality over the past two decades). But Katha Pollitt has nothing to say about Amis’ scarring visual, surely the most important passage in the novel, of Keith thrusting into Gloria from behind while they both look into the mirror. This scene makes redundant and paltry and long-winded any meta-commentary on narcissism during the sexual revolution. And just those two words, usually capitalized, get the theorists, feminists or otherwise, out from under their intertextual footnotes, to drop sweet dung from twentieth-floor ivory tower turret-cracks. From Pollitt: “What bothered me most about The Pregnant Widow, though, is that it just doesn’t ring true to feminism as experienced by women in 1970. I’m exactly the same age as Martin Amis, and granted, our lives were very different.” Yes, your lives were very different, as were every one of the millions of lives different, one from another, during the seventies. So one must allow one’s story to be heard from a unique perspective. That’s where Amis gets in trouble with the grand statement. But when he sticks to the tower in Italy, the story is convincing. Pollitt doesn’t get it. The narrative wasn’t true to her, but she seems to miss the elementary and cogent point that it’s being told by one narrator, who happens to be male and, much more importantly, also happens to be narcissistic and naive. Of course he doesn’t register the full interior drama and concerns of Lily or Scheherazade in the novel, though the complex Gloria, the rapacious Rita, and (in an admonishing context) the disturbed Violet are given vivid and believable space. Keith’s awakening has to do with learning how to negotiate sex without love. The eternal problem (which has nothing to do with its so-called original appearance in the sexual revolution) of the sex-love split is captured remarkably well by Amis in the suspenseful episodes between Keith-Scheherazade and Keith-Lily, but in addition, what did the nay-sayers think all the references to D.H. Lawrence, Philip Larkin, and Jude The Obscure were about?

Michiko Kakutani thinks the novelist’s characters “so shoddily drawn and so off-the-rack generic that Mr. Amis is keen to emphasize their vital statistics, as this may be the only way he can remember who is who.” This is ridiculous. As mentioned above, the characters are strongly etched, distinctive, and represent different facets of what one or another real-life Lily or Rita was going through at the time (or in any time). And the focus on vital statistics, aside from being hilarious, is there to make a larger point. Keith is twenty years old. It may be superficial or demeaning (don’t forget, the highly-educated young women in TPW also talk non-stop about arses and tits, and though Pollitt wouldn’t believe it, it actually happened then just as it happens now), but it may also be Amis’ way of depicting the young coping with their insecurities by catty superiority. Hardly an anomalous situation.

Ron Charles objects to Amis “filling a long novel with bizarre tics and body parts instead of, say, actual characters”. Again, this is missing the reason the concentration of “body parts” is there at all. Keith is obsessed with sex. This is not news to any other twenty-year-old. Despite the focus on body parts, however, Keith still manages, in a hot castle filled with the unchaperoned driftngs of attractive young women, to read long English novels, and to think and talk about what he has read. He has an ambition beyond the bed, then, even at twenty and even in this circumstance, and he would later become a commercial (if not literary, we don’t know) success from that second obsession.

Despite the novel’s occasional and unfortunate serious tone, especially in the disappointing sixty-page round-up, The Pregnant Widow is a delightfully lightfooted meditation on formative sexual experience and the mark it leaves. The sexual revolution was always (I can’t resist) overblown, but it’s a good decade in which to investigate farces as well as arses.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Joyce Carol Oates' A Fair Maiden

The 5,942nd novel by Joyce Carol Oates, 2010’s A Fair Maiden, was my first experience with her creative prose. The short narrative develops to its inevitable exclamation mark with increasing back-and-forth manipulation from the two main characters.

Sixty-eight year old Marcus Kidder pursues sixteen-year-old Katya with precious dialogue which would occasion either vomiting or wild laughter in any woman over twenty. But Katya, though prematurely worldly-wise, has no experience with which to register the laid-on sophistication, and her final response, late in the novel, is gear-grindingly predictable. Kidder’s back-story is given only the sketchiest of outlines, adding further to the reader's lack of interest in the lead characters in what could have been a terrifically heightened and psychologically exciting narrative.

Why terrific and exciting? Because despite my severe misgivings, Oates has a lot of natural talent at her disposal. The writing is excellent, lyrical with a purpose (her Lawrencian fandom has paid off – the flower metaphors are superb); the plot, though problematic in obviousness and pacing, nevertheless manages to build suspense; the setting is rendered with apt detail and interesting variation; the minor characters are convincing and vividly drawn (it’s too bad they weren’t given more development); and the denouement will either disgust or move the reader, maybe both.

In an interview, Oates has called herself a realist. This book lacks any trace of humour, so as realism in fiction has come be known, yes, the label fits: Dreiser and Zola (I’m aware of the naturalism tag here, as well) were as grim as they come. But it’s a dangerous game to play, not presenting any offsetting positive character(s), and not even dipping a toe into the black humour pool once in a while, because realism then becomes a narrowly-focused study of various extreme characters, evil pitted against lesser or equal evil. It’s not the one-sidedness of it that troubles, but the lack of proportion and ... well, reality. Maybe other work proves me wrong – I’m assuming quite a bit, after all – and I look forward to reading one of her other novels, the corpus of  which take up the entire third floor of the Vancouver Central Library branch.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Bill Gaston's The Order of Good Cheer

By alternating two distinct stories in a back-and-forth sequence of four chapters each (plus a coda from the first one), Bill Gaston, in his 2008 novel The Order Of Good Cheer, is hoping to make specific connections. The main thematic of acceptance of circumstance, no matter how dire, with joy and courage, is a fascinating and important one. In l’Habitation, Gaston’s fictional account of 1606-07 Port-Royal, the carpenter Lucien provides the positive character study, spurning the humourless and danceaphobic authority of Champlain in order to roam and, eventually, couple passionately with an indigenous Mi’qmah woman. (There’s a further association one can make with Lucien’s profession and his eventual outsider status, especially considering Champlain's reluctance to convert heathens desirous of the Christian faith.) Andy Winslow, in the contemporary Prince Rupert story, is the passive obverse. At thirty-nine, and still pining for his high school sweetheart, the grain worker’s pensiveness and insecurity deepens when he learns that she’ll shortly be arriving in the port town.

Gaston’s tone is compassionate, his writing is crisp, even elegant, if a little over-reliant on eighteenth-century mannerisms (“he must needs” appears as a frequent all-purpose crutch) in the generative narrative, and his characterizations are colourful and distinctive. Champlain, here, is a complex character. Deeply afraid of a repeat of the “scurve” among his men, he comes around to the idea that those susceptible to the sickness are weakened by their own gloom. So, despite his own anguish, he proposes an “order of good cheer”, a feast and convivial appreciation, every evening in attempt to waylay the insidious disease. From our superior position in history, we can laugh at the luck involved in the vitamin C-laden needles mixed in with the chef’s beefy kitchen compositions. Perhaps Gaston is saying that fate favours the imaginative and proactive. Andy’s own story-closing party is similarly informed by a hopeful communal urge, as well as an unconfident one. And because Andy’s runaway will-she-won’t-she fretting over Laura’s incipient reception of him became overmuch by mid-book, it was good to see the relationship work out in a more complex series of questions and open-ended possibilities in that last full chapter.

The powerful idea behind The Order Of Good Cheer is at times telegraphed too obviously, the ties between one chapter and the next unsurprising. But Gaston also works that idea with wisdom and sharp realization, even with a subtle accusation and anger, as in, “[i]t is exceeding strange how many will search deeply in themselves for sign of sickness, and therefore find it, but not fall as truly ill”, from the beginning of the last full “Champlain” chapter.

Enjoying the book throughout, but wary of an unearned feel-good ending, I was relieved to see the various ideas work themselves out organically.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

James Dickey’s Deliverance

James Dickey’s best work was accomplished with ragged right-side lines. He was a justly lauded poet, but the same markers – extreme experience, surreal and ambiguous transformation, lyrical power – appear in his novels. It’s understandable, then, that the bookending chapters, and the preamble to the second section, show Dickey’s worst side: he’s in choppy water with mundane detail and thought, often and justifiably absent in much poetry but necessary in most novels. “The routine I was used to pulled at me, but something in me rose daringly above it, full of fear and feeling weak and incompetent but excited,” This is awful writing, but low-boil connection also suffers. After the long tension-drenched narrative has subsided, the reader encounters dialogue that strains emotional credibility, as in this response from Ed Gentry to his confused  wife: “ ‘I don’t think so. But I’m not sure. Somebody may be after me. Also, the law may be after me. I’ve just got to tough it out. If nothing happens for a couple of weeks, I think we’ll be all right.’ “ Well, that’s sure comforting, especially since Ed’s wife has no idea what he’s not even hinting at. And she’s a tough woman, too!

Dickey’s prose shines, though, when it’s one man against chaotic elements, and the psychology of violence. He also shines with lyrical description, and many times those strengths piggyback one another, as in this quote during the long wait before the kill: “... the river in its icy pit of brightness, in its large coil and tiny points and flashes of the moon, in its long sinuous form, in its uncomprehending consequence.”

The first chapter also introduces the theme of stunted or inferior art: Ed is a competent arranger of artistic expression in his ad career (with experiences, no doubt, from Dickey’s own unhappy advertising job) but cannot come up with a generative idea; Drew is an entertaining guitarist, but without originality; Lewis is depicted as an exceptional athlete and outdoorsman, ideologically, practically, and intuitively. But even after saving the lives of two of his friends (three, briefly), the river “defeats” his superior body. Dickey, by relentless natural description, offers a convincing conclusion, weak in more theoretical novelists and poets, about the limits to personal will and artistic manoeuvring. The novel, unlike the movie, ends on a curiously upbeat note, and Lewis, with permanent limp by the placid lakefront (wonderful touch by Dickey) accepts his mortality with grace and humour.  

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Thomas Pynchon's Vineland

Many Pynchonheads read their novelist-idol for the dizzying conspiracy adventures, others for the lyrical run-ons. Some love the crazy-ass dialogue, some the scientific speculation, some the scattershot narratives.  One or two, I’m sure, grow mystic or misty-eyed over alternative universes and imagined histories. I can dig all facets, but I’m most cool with the (frequently disparaged) puerile humour and insouciant tone.

That tone was crucially fractured beyond even a postmodernist’s effective complex structure in V., Pynchon’s first novel. Hijinks flipped with solemn death traps, and the shocking switches in tonal approaches didn’t highlight either polarity to good formal effect and control. Formal control? In Pynchon? Well, the novel here ain’t your realist Zola castigation, but it shur-as-shootin’ ain’t mix highlights from Thomas Hardy to Dave Barry, either.

In Vineland, Pynchon’s various storylines, still and always shaggy and out-of-bounds, inform each other even when main characters are absent for two-hundred-or-so pages. Actually, that’s a funny choice of words, “inform [on] each other”, since the darkness in Vineland – hippies as snitches in a new, opportunistic field, as offshoots of the FBI – brilliantly prefigures many elements in the West’s wire-tapping, computer-mapping, surveillance-sapping modern world, as well as looking behind to the Soviet Union of the twenties and East Germany of the sixties. That said, it’s a terrific victory for Pynchon in that he’s lighter, more convincingly so, in this 1990 look at 1984 (Reagan’s re-election, not Orwell’s vision, though those comparisons are unavoidable, as well). And the frequent humour scores on another level, as well, as all good humour should – the faint optimistic vibe throughout, even after the shit has hit the whirling fan, is maintained because many of those ineffectual layabouts have a personality, a skewed, unbureaucratic imagination that can’t be crushed by federal Brock Vond decrees.

And that’s my biggest arguement against some of the thumbs-down reviewers/readers of Vineland. Billy Barf and the Vomitones may have a sympathetic audience, and the Tube detox may be thriving (oh wait, it’s not an issue in 2014? maybe those layabouts at least knew about one  big problem) in Pynchon’s alternate history, but the novel pays tribute to an idealism grown from the 50s (not the 60s, as is so often misunderstood), an idealism understandably naive and vulnerable. We have no such excuse for a lack of knowledge now. Unfortunately and ironically, in the saturated info age, we’re almost as clueless as ever.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Anton Piatigorsky's The Iron Bridge

(My fave read of 2013, first published in subTerrain.)

If permanent character is developed in the first six years of life, as many psychologists profess, the teenage years are the sun, wind and rain for those seeds to break out. There’s a problem with the analogy, though. We don’t often talk of “evil seeds”. In fact, in our current relative universe, evil people are just misguided, misunderstood, or unappreciated. Though it shouldn’t need challenging, Anton Piatigorsky, in his remarkable short story six-pack, The Iron Bridge, necessarily destroys that feel-good idiocy while still paying respect to the historical conditions that allow evil to fester and flourish.

Piatigorsky’s approach, consistent in all six studies, is to create an imaginary slice-of-life plunge into worthlessness and sadism. In four of his stories – featuring Idi Amin, Rafael Trujillo, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler respectively – sadism prevails, shocking in its abnormal manipulative cleverness relative to the age of its future despots. With Pol Pot and Mao Tse-Tung, however, he  concentrates on the sexual naivety and passivity of the lead characters. Some may see this latter contrast as evidence against the mistaken belief in circumstance over evil, but the author wisely shelves those early “seeds” in favour of recent causes which are common to many.

Consider the ruminations of fourteen-year-old Sar – the future Pol Pot – in the brilliant “A Plaything For The King’s Superfluous Wives”. After his humiliating sexual “awakening”, Sar “regards the serene vista before him. How wide the river is. How slow and peaceful”. This leads him to reflect on “the swollen Mekong River” which “reverses the flow of the Tonle Sap away from the sea and back into the great lake”. But if the obliteration of the self takes on a more mundane playing out for the rest of us, for Sar it’s a savage void that will have to be closed, in successive attempts, by the iron bridges of power, money, fame and sex, in results we’re all familiar with.

“Iron” is incorporated into all six stories. Idi Amin’s “gigantic fists clenched into powerful iron balls”. Pol Pot “finds a wrought iron bench beneath an ornate lamppost and takes a seat”. Mao Tse-Tung watches a mosquito as it “taps and taps against the ceiling, pulling away each time as if the boards were made from heated iron”. Stalin, as teenager Soso, faces “the iron-latticed window”. The young Trujillo “grabs his hat and an iron key ring from off a hook”. And the most faithful metaphor comes from the Hitler story, where the future Fuhrer “begins to draw the bridge”, which will, in young Adi’s imagination, “[replace] the present iron monstrosity, which is completely impractical for modern Linz”.

Piatigorski’s unobtrusive merger of fiction and history, both cultural and personal, into the stream of his narratives points to a gathering black cloud on a horizon beyond each conclusion. Aside from the metaphysical and philosophical issues it brings up about the nature and formative influences of dictators, all stories, especially the Stalin and Trujillo entries, are gripping and structurally intelligent.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Post Links

I had to pitch a hundred dollars worth of mothballs through moth-eaten cobwebs just to break into blogger again.

I've ordered most of my archived posts at the sidebar. A few still to add, including everything in the 2008 and 2009 year-end mini-reviews. Since those include many authors in one post, I'll note the "year-end" tag in brackets. As to other posts (prominently) including two or more authors, I've repeated the post across more than one author link (with a few exceptions).

Obviously I missed putting up a"best of" year-ender, but I'll post my fave in a day or two.