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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Monday, May 21, 2018

A (semi-autobiographical? story about aspiring Jesuits and their struggles with faith and feelings

John L'Heureux's story in the current New Yorker, The Long Black Line, tells of a class of young men entering a Jesuit order in the mid 1950s (he calls the group of men "postulants" - I think they don't become novices until after an initial period of a year?), a story that appears to be if not autobiographical at least based on JL'H's experience (a note after the story invites readers to go online and listen to HL'H discuss his time in a Jesuit order). Several of them en, including the protagonist, drop out of the program before entering the order; one, who a novice assigned to leading the group of initiates, washes out of the order in a tragic manner. At least two of the Jesuits suffer post-war trauma (WWII and Korea), a different time from now for sure. The is interesting to read not so much for its literary qualities, although it is well written, clear, not self-consciously stylish (JL'H had a long career as a writing prof at Stanford), as for its account of a world little know to most outsiders: the rigorous schedule, the assigned work some of it pointless and tedious, the lengthy periods of silence, the obliteration of feelings and desires, the cruel hierarchy not all that different from boot camp - and also the sly and surprising ways in which the young men defy the system, in particular the vulgar language when on work duty outside of the main building (where silence is enforced) and the frank if awkward sexual advances (and rebuffs). I almost wish JL'H had written a memoir rather than a story - although of course I recognize that the factual details may be elusive to him some 60+ years after the events. But the (suppressed?) feelings endure - at least until they're given new life in fiction.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Impressive accomplishments in Urrea's House of Broken Angels

In the end, there are many impressive accomplishments in Luis Roberto Urrea's new novel, The House of Broken Angels, including some snappy dialogue, a great scene of partial reconciliation between the two de la Cruz half-brothers on the verge of the imminent death of Big Angel (family patriarch and heart of this novel), a raucous account of mucho eating, drinking, flirting, and genera carousing at Big Angels 70th and final birthday party, some good passages that present in microcosm some of the history of the de la Cruz family, in particular its emigration north from Mexico to the San Diego area. This novel is the absolute antagonist of minimalist fiction - so many characters, so many relationships, so many plot elements, some of them developed in full, others left open. As noted in several previous posts, it can be a challenge to read this novel and it would probably pay off to read it twice (which I will probably do, as it's our book-group selection for next month); it's a novel of great ambition, and a success for the most part - the dramatic and threatening confrontation near the end of the book seems to come out of nowhere as we hardly know the central character in this scene; the sheer abundance of characters and incidents can lead to confusion at a # of points (a family tree would have helped!), we really don't know enough about the half-brother Little Angel, the only one who has migrated away from this family and who's reconciliation w/ Big Angel is probably the key moment in the novel - perhaps Little Angel (who, from the author's extensive note at the end of the novel, seems to be the character closest biographical detail to Urrea) may be the protagonist in a future novel - Urrea seems to have more material in his (real and imagined) family life to populate more than one novel.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Urrea's ambitious narrative strategy in House of Fallen Angels

I will give Luis Roberto Urrea his props for the extremely ambitious narrative strategy in his new novel, The House of Fallen Angels - essentially a multi-generational family saga about the de la Cruz clan of Mexican-Americans who emigrated in about 1960 from the Baja Peninsula, settling south of San Diego (except for one of half-brother who his moved to Seattle). Urrea chooses to tell this complex story involving multiple characters through the events of just a few days: the funeral of the matriarch, a 70th-birthday party for the oldest of her sons who is pretty much the family patriarch, and I think a 3rd day that comes later in the novel (I'm about 2/3rds through it). Most writers would tell a complex family saga in a straightforward narrative: Think of the Buendia narrative in One Hundred Years of Solitude, for a great example; sometimes this conventional approach, however, can feel boring and tedious, as we work our way, year by year, generation by generation, across a predetermined narrative path (think of the recent successful novel Pachinko, which had many strengths but which at some point I just stopped reading, largely because of this march-through-time approach). So Urrea tells the family story through occasional memories, flashbacks, characters filling others in about family lore - and we get the picture(s) piece by piece, the novel becoming ever more clear as we near the conclusion. And some of the scenes/memories that Urrea presents are terrific: Big Angel's memories of his near-enslavement and physical and sexual abuse aboard a fishing boat and his daring escape and migration north if probably the high point of the novel. All that said, I am still wringing my hands, figuratively, in frustration as I try to keep the characters clear in my mind. As noted yesterday, it's as if we readers had wandered into Big Angel's birthday celebration and we're trying to figure out who's who and who's related to whom. I'm still trying, far too often, even as I near the conclusion. This is a book that, I think, you need to read twice. The same might be said, say, of Ulysses, Absalom Absalom!, or maybe even its forefather, 100 Years. Unfortunately, most readers probably won't do that. There's still plenty of value in a first reading, but it's tough going, by design.

Friday, May 18, 2018

A difficult novel but worth reading further - House of Broken Angels

I'm accepting that Luis Roberto Urrea declined w/ intent to not include a family tree in his new novel, The House of Broken Angels, because he wants us to feel uncertain and to grope around, trying to figure out the relations and interrelations and family histories of all the members of this clan - and even at 1/e of the way through this novel I'm still groping and trying to remember characters' names and to keep the relationships straight. But it's a feeling, I think, much as if we'd walked into the family gathering in progress and got to know the people present in bits, snatches, and pieces; only toward the end (I hope!) will the family stories clarify. At this point I'm pretty sure of the main character, Big Angel, 70 years old and w/ about a week to live (his family members know he's ill but don't know the dire prognosis, his wife, Perla - we see them in a tender scene lying in bed next to each other, Big Angel unable to move much and sexually impotent but with an alert mind full of many observations about death and dying and trying to take stock of his long and complex family life; and his youngest brother (half-brother), Little Angel, who's other was white and who has drifted farthest from his Mexican-American family, living in Seattle where he teaches college English, a life and locale that seems to his family like life on another planet. There are many hints and references to a dead brother, possibly shot in a gang incident, but we don't know a lot about his death at this point. If this novel weren't written w/ such vivid intensity I (and many readers I think) would shrug and put it down at some point, but Urrea's fine writing carries the day, even when we're unsure of where this plot is heading (the first 1/3 of the novel is about the day of Big Angel's mother's funeral and the post-funeral family gathering) or even who's speaking. Urrea gives us some beautiful descriptions of the Mexican-American neighborhood south of San Diego, some barbed and witty dialog, and much access to the peculiar mind of Big Angel, on the verge of death and its mysteries.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Why doesn't Urrea's House of Broken Angels include a family tree?

About 20 percent in (ridiculous Kindle edition doesn't even give you page #s!) on Luis Alberto Urrea's new novel, The House of Broken Angels, and am still trying to get my bearings. Is it me, the novel, or the Kindle format? I can't even remember most of the characters' names (that's probably on me, although a quick Google search of the title shows me that at least one reviewer notes that novels with such complex family relationships often - and should - include a family tree to help readers; GG Marquez did so!). The central character, Big Angel, is a 70-year-old patriarch of a large Mexican-American family living in the San Diego area; the novel opens as he wakes up and realizes that he (and the whole clan, who depend on him to keep them on schedule) will be late for the 100-year-old mother's funeral. We quickly get to meet his wife and several children and learn a little of his background, most notably that he worked in an office (the utility company?) and was extra-vigilant about keeping on schedule so as to combat the image of Mexican-Americans as perennially late. We also learn that he is mortally ill, has about a week to live, though he's kept this secret from his family (although they must know he's infirm, as among other things he's confined to a wheelchair). We have hints of various dramas involving family dynamics, particularly the relationship between Big Angel and his half-brother, Little Angel, who is half-Anglo and lives in Seattle where he is an English professor; there's a sense that he has betrayed his family heritage by these life choices and that rainy Seattle might as well be on another planet. The family does get to the service just about on time, where they (we) encounter several other siblings and their spouses, with a younger generation ever-present and speaking only in English (Big Angel and his cohort prefer Spanish but speak both at the needs arise; there are many Spanish words and phrases throughout the novel, but they're pretty easily deciphered by context alone for those who don't know the language). In short, the opening of the novel presents a lot of possibilities for plot and character development, but the story has not yet lifted off the ground.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The promise and the shorcomings of McGuane's first novel

By the end, I have to write off Thomas McGuane's debut novel, The Sporting Club (1968), as a highly promising first novel by a young (28) author who shows throughout a great writing style, a talent for smart and sharp dialog, a lot of arcane knowledge put to good use (lots of detail about fishing!), a talent for building up a dramatic scene and for building to a dynamic conclusion - yet, yet, can anyone really accept the end of this novel, in which the hunting/fishing camp in the Michigan woods turns orgiastic and bloodthirsty, in which the camp is essentially destroyed? The novel has a lot of promise but the young writer's skill and enthusiasm gets the best of his ability to tell a credible story; what starts as a naturalistic novel about a conflict of personalities, in particular between two old friends and lifetime rivals, becomes an exaggerated, sometimes ridiculous conflagration. In a way it's typical of the over-the-top narratives of its era - the end of civilization as we know it - and also typical of young writers learning what it means to design and construct a novel, a narrative, a plot. I would guess McGuane looks back on this novel w/ some pride and with much bemusement - because it was in fact predictive of a fine young writer at the start of his career. McGuane has gone on to an incredibly successful career - somewhat underappreciated and out of the mainstream of American letters, in part by his choosing to avoid the academy and to settle in Montana. And of course has writing style has matured and settled over the years; it's hard to walk back from his current stories about life in the newly prosperous Northwest to the Dionsysian rambunctious happenings of Sporting Club, but in retrospect we can see that the talent was there and that McGuane developed that talent, even if in unpredictable ways.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Cinematic narrative style and why Coover blurbed McGuane's debut novel

In yesterday's post I surmised that the antagonist and genuinely destructive, vengeful character, Stanton, was the one who dynamited the dam causing a dangerous flood and depletion of a lake at the hunting-fishing lodge in Thomas McGuane's The Sproting Club (1968), this based on the observations of the central character, Quinn, caught in the flood and nearly drowned, who'd heard Stanton singing as he went under. I knew, though, that this made little sense, as the obvious one to dynamite sites at the camp was Olive, the property manager, part of the trashy country folks who over the generations had been abused and displaced by the wealthy club members. So we don't know exactly who did the damage, although all the club owners believe it's Olive (the damage continues, as Olive or someone destroys the camp lodge) and they form a vigilante squad to protect the property and to bring justice to Olive and his backers. What's striking here is how these club members believe they have every right to "frontier justice," taking the law into their own hands and attacking and maybe killing Olive and his followers. These are men of white privilege, business and academic leaders of greater Detroit who have owned shares of the camp for generations and have accumulated wooded acreage by who knows how many crooked ways and means - to this novel is building into a class war, a cataclysmic end-of-days fight between the haves and have-nots. Whom would you bet on? Olive and his crew are tougher, meaner, probably better fighters; the camp owners are better armed and better educated and far better connected, if that matters. We can see from this debut novel that McGuane has a cinematic style - building toward a tumultuous, violent resolution - although I don't think this among his novels was ever made into a film and I can see why - the characters, esp the women, are just barely sketched in; I can also see why a young Robert Coover gave this novel a generous advance quote: Something about the narrative build-up toward a conflagration and the clash of social classes reminds me of Coover's own great debut novel, The Origin of the Brunists.