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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

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Nothing more ridiculous than out-dated scifi

Honestly, there's nothing more ridiculous that out-dated science fiction - said I must admit by someone who's not a fan of scifi in particular, though I guess I've read some of the classics and a # of young adult scifi novels when I was in fact a young adult. But now, why am I doing this? Well, I am always in search of great novellas, because I love the form, I think it's under-appreciated and under-populated, and I think novellas are the ideal format for our book group  - and came across an online list of great novellas, many of which I'd read and about which I concur, so decided to pursue some I hadn't read - leading me of all things to H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. I will give it one more day, to see if it picks up on 2nd try, but over the first 50 or so pages - it is a creaky, clunky vehicle to put it mildly. The idea of a time machine in itself is by now so shopworn - but I guess Wells was among the first to explore the concept, and the first chapter is a scientist's explanation to some skeptics about time's being the 4th dimension - very familiar thinking to us today but no doubt novel in Wells's. Then he shows off this contraption he's made to catapult people forward or backward in time; of course this machine with levels and bars or quartz is ludicrous to us today - but I still was interested, thinking about how in a sense computers and laptops are the time machine that Wells envisioned, essentially erasing the time for communication among people across the planet and the time for passing of information that is far more remarkable than, though in a sense similar to, the time travel that Wells posited. So that's where the novella becomes really ridiculous: if you have to send your scientist on a time journey, can't something more interesting or even credible happen than an encounter with wordless 4-foot-tall creatures? The beauty of travel to other civilizations, whether across time or space (cf. Swift, not Tom, Jonathan), is they way in which the newly discovered culture helps us understand or re-examine our own. That, at least so far, does not happen at all in the Time Machine - at least for starters. Will he move it in other directions - for example, travel into the past and the effect that messing with past events, if even possible, would have on the present? I'll stay with him a little while longer to see - but so far, Time Machine is just a quaint curiosity.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Did The Treatement work? Did the treatment work?

More questions than answers in last night's book-group discussion of Daniel Menaker's The Treatment - notably, universal acclaim for the character of Morales and for the smart, sarcastic humor throughout the dialogues between him and Singer - that alone was enough to make The Treatment worth reading, and yet, there was a disappointment as well - we were sorry to see Menaker move gradually farther away from his starting premise - perhaps to illustrate Singer's gradual gaining of emotional independence? - and moving the story into a pretty standard action-melodrama. Could he have centered the whole novel on the Singer-Morales dialectic? I for one wish he had dared to do that - risky, difficult, sure, but we all agreed that he gave up his best material - it was as if he started with a few great short stories about man and his shrink and then got a little lost as he tried to expand that material into a novel. With 2 analysts and 1 therapist in the group, we did discuss whether the treatment (as opposed to The Treatment) was successful, but reached no universal conclusion: We concurred that Morales was a strict Freudian of a type that, even in his day (the 1970s) was becoming rare if not extinct - treating mainly or exclusively the very wealthy - but still wondered if he was over the line in his insistence that Singer discuss everything with him before acting. This strategy, not so helpful in a long-term analysis acc. to LR, may have been Morales's attempt to control his patient - which also may explain the last chapter, in which we see Morales down at the heels, possibly engaged in ethical lapses, and taking off on a strange, egomaniac rant against Singer: which leads me to my view, that Menaker would have us believe that Morales was a fraud, that Singer got better, took action, on his own and not because of the help that Morales tried to bring to him, whereas I would say that Singer didn't actually get better - he got lucky, in love, fortune, career. On the other hand, we don't exactly know what led Singer to analysis in the first place - paralysis in love and career, it would seem, and anger at his father - and all those things were worked out by the end: again, because of Morales, or because of the exigencies of a comic novel?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

My dinner with Changez: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Not a great book but a thoughtful and provocative book that I think would be a good choice for our book group, or any book group - Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a sad and straightforward account, from Pakistani's point of view, of how America coalesced into a jingoist and xenophobic myopia in the days and months after the World Trade Center attacks. The narrator and protagonist, Changez, recounts, over dinner, to an American traveler he encounters and oddly befriends, a listener who serves as a stand-in for us, the readers, who never speaks - the entire novel is a Changez's monologue, his life story (reminds of My Diner with Andre, to a degree) : Princeton-educated, career in finance and consulting, difficult and strange relation with girlfriend Princeton classmate Erica who is fixated on her first love dead from cancer and is clearly mentally ill and severely depressed, his feelings of failure and emptiness in that relationship, and then the attacks, and he begins to feel watched and hated, his business life falls apart, the relationship ends, he goes back to Pakistan, bearded and bitter, and becomes the fundamentalist of the title. Though smart and insightful, the book is not particularly surprising - there's no great conflict or single dramatic turning point, and it's never made completely clear what it means for this young man to e a fundamentalist: is he a terrorist? a jihadist? The ending is ambiguous to say the least (won't give it away) and in itself would be topic for discussion, as would the question of whether Changez's conversion is healthful or hateful, and whether it is typical or unique. In other words, does his story help us understand why many around the world despise the U.S.? Oddly, the very specificity of the novel, that is, its unique qualities and its strengths, make the story particular rather than representative or universal: for example, Changez's relationship with the deeply troubled Erica is highly atypical, so insofar as that relationship was a major factor in his devolution and reture to Lahore a changed man, then, no, the story seems to be less about a cultural phenomenon and more the unique and perhaps tragic story of this one similarly troubled man; however, the story also speak to the loneliness and isolation of many outsiders striving to "fit in" and full of self-doubt and insecurity.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

September 11 at the heart of two unusual novels

Another reason why Mohsin Hamid's novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist reminds me of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland: both center on the September 11th attacks on New York, and both have the unusual point of view of the foreign, noncitizen resident in New York and the effect of the attacks on his (and in Netherland also her) psyche. As in Netherland, the protagonist and narrator of Fundamentalist, a Pakistani born and U.S. educated 20ish man named Changez (echo of the French "to change" may be a slightly hidden meaning), is a wealthy young New Yorker, raking it in through his job at a consultant firm, whose world and world view changes dramatically upon the attacks. Changez, initially, feels both very privilege - highly educated, making far more money than he possibly can spend, very successful at his job, popular with friends - but also a bit of an outsider, as his mentor at the consulting firm - himself a working-class guy who worked his way through Princeton - keeps reminding him. And there are some very minor slights: some offhand insenstive remarks by his quasi-girlfriend's father, for example. Also, his relation with college mate and object of affection, Erica, is very odd, as she is completely fixated on former boyfriend who died of illness - she and Ch. seem to have no sexual relationship at all - and it's amazing how little this bothers him. After the attacks, things "change" for him: he feels himself suddenly an object of suspicion, forced through extensive security at airports, for example. None of this is really surprising to readers, and I'm not sure why this social suspicion would transform him into a "fundamentalist," a term not yet defined in the novel, but the story is moving along at a steady pace with gradual accumulation of details building a full characterization, a full and rounded character, who is telling his story in his own words to an imagined listener, who seems to have no story to tell of his own. Of course the narrative is just a device - it's not realistic to imagine a near monologue of this length among strangers over tea in a cafe - even Conrad's long narrations are more credible, as they are carefully set up as a tale-telling, aboard a ship at night or in a club or whatever, a convention designed for silent apprehension, but the convention does make this tale more immediate and personal - if this were just written as a traditional first-person narrative, we would constantly be wondering why is he writing this, what propels him to do so, is it a confession, a jailhouse memoir, what? As it is structured, we know enough about the narrator's present status to trust him - as his listener does - but with wary attention.

Friday, April 26, 2013

One hand clapping: Unusual narrative voice in The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, timely reading in light of recent events though the narrator is novel like those Boston idiots, or so it seems so far, cultured and educated, outgoing but introspective - so we will have to see what turns his life has taken, as hinted broadly in the title. The narrator is a Pakistan-born Princeton graduate who had at least for a time great success on Wall Street and now is back in home city of Lahore - he stoppeth an American and offers to guide him to the best tea shop around - it's perhaps surprising that the American would accompany a stranger and not feel drawn into a trap, but the narrator speaks perfect English and seems to be just a good-faith ambassador for his country - seems so, anyway. The novel has a very unusual narrative structure: it's entirely a tale told by the narrator to you, the reader, but more specifically addressed the young American man he encounters - we learn at least a little about the listener through things the narrator says, though the entire voice of the novel is the narrator's. Interestingly, it is clear from his comments that the listener also speaks - but we hear only one side of their novel-length conversation - something like the narrative strategy in Yehoshuah's great Mr. Mani. The novel is well paced, the narrator's character is complex and intriguing - especially as we are trying to learn who he is and where and how his views about American life have evolved, and perhaps turned him into a the eponymous fundamentalist, or perhaps a terrorist - his personality reminds me a little of the narrator of O'Neill's great novel Netherland: a foreigner who came to the U.S. and made a fortune but can never separate from his past, his ancestry (the two are very different but share that trait) - and who always feel a bit of a social outcast, despite success and recognition. It seems that both novels may be about terrorism, but as experienced from different sides - yet both narrators share a deep sense of loneliness and alienation.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Bits & Pieces: Ferris's story in the New Yorker

Josh Ferris's first novel And Then We Come to the End (?) was probably the best I've ever read about the weirdness and horrors of corporate culture - a really captivating and entertaining book, funny on the surface but with a dark heart. I haven't read much by him since then, and was glad to see his story The Fragments in the current New Yorker - and I enjoyed the story as kind of a one-off, not a great story by any stretch but very successful within its small scope: a 20ish (I'm guessing) Manhattan guy lives through a few days of angst as he gradually surmises that his wife isn't staying out late on business but she's having an affair; in despair, he calls out from his window that he's giving stuff away. People start coming up to his apartment, skeptical at first - is this really your place? - but eventually they start walking away with pillows, lamps, etc. (I'd think they'd be really worried that they're being scammed - but to what end? - they are, in a sense being scammed - robbing someone to exact personal revenge for another) - wife comes home and tries to figure out what's going on. Okay, what makes this story special and unusual, though, is the motif that the main character wanders the streets of NYC every day, in sorrow and anguish, and he overhears many fragments of conversation as people pass by him - sometimes in dialogue, often yapping into a cell phone. The fragments of conversation are the counterpoint, or the basso continuo perhaps, of this story, and give us a map of the ragged (or rugged) emotional terrain of New Yorkers. Very good idea brought off well - but if I were Ferris's writing coach (fat chance) I would encourage him to push it even farther: why not a story built entirely from the fragments of conversation that a passerby hears, and the narrative builds around him in surprising and odd ways. Or, even farther, why not a story with no "him," no one hearing the conversational fragments but us, the reader?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Sea sick: Abandoning ship on The Starboard Sea

I'm guessing Amber Dermott's debut novel The Starboard Sea was not meant for readers like me, or of my cohort. I admire a # of things about the book, in particular Dermott's clear and at times elegant writing, and as noted in yesterday's post after a shaky start she begins to build the narrator, Jason Prosper, into a character with some depth and complexity - his confusing (to him) bisexual drive, his yearning for a connection to his parents and to his older brother, his guilt about the death of his best friend, his ambivalence about competition - but eventually I just got overwhelmed by the juvenile behavior of everyone around Prosper, his classmates in the boarding school, and though I hope and expect that by the end of the novel Prosper will do something about all of his dilemmas and about the cruelty and crudity of the world in which he lives, I just can't hang on long enough to get there. For example, Dermott makes a point showing the how the schoolmates at Bellingham belittle the "townie" who works in the dining hall; Prosper just observes, but later he befriends the kid a little bit and learns his name (Leo - everyone else calls him Plague). But when he sees the kid in the company of his friends, he's unable or unwilling to reach out to him. This will have to change - but how long can a reader wait? The first half of the novel - that's 150+ pages, is all set-up - establishing Prosper's condition and conflicts, but he does very little, he's largely an observer of a nasty scene - and sometimes a participant. It is unclear to me what Dermott's stance toward her narrator is: for ex., after a hurricane (in which he stupidly goes out for a long drive with his brother - OK if they want to put themselves at risk, but they needlessly put public-safety officials at risk as well, as every New Englander is well aware) - the boys break into the athletic complex and play a long game of tackle football (2 per side? Is that even possible?) using historic equipment that they lift from shattered trophy cases. This is just one example among many showing the kids as completely irresponsible, oblivious of anyone else's property - Dad's money can take care of any damages, of course - in other words, nasty, spoiled brats. Prosper holds himself a little at a distance - though he does play in the football game - but what exactly is the point? Will he change? Will he change others? Will he leave? In other words: Is he a contemporary Holden Caulfield? or (Sillitoe's) Long-Distance Runner? Huck Finn? Or is this just a comic romp in which everyone misbehaves and the guy gets the right girl, in the end? (cf Farrelly's Outside Providence)? I'm not sure and probably won't find out, but am fearing that Dermott wants it both ways: comedy at the expense of others, salvation on the cheap.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Reality Fiction: The Starboard Sea

Amber Dermott's The Starboard Sea begins to find its sea legs by about a third of the way into the novel - and that's because of two things: First, she is gradually making the protagonist and narrator, Jason (?) Prosper (funny name!) more likable. At the outset, he seemed a narcissistic spoiled prep-school brat, snarkily recounting the misadventures of his friends, his wayward course through a number of academies on the way toward a last chance prep school for extremely privileged kids; the kids he meets in his first days there engage in various forms of nasty and cruel behavior, and Prosper is swept along with the tide, sort of - but gradually Dermott lets him emerge as a character - I think she, too, is finding her sea legs over the course of these pages, as we learn the sad story of the death of his best friend, Cal, his estrangement from his father and his brother, and most of all we see his behavior change - as he reaches out to some of the isolates on campus. .How Dermott sustains this reach (nautical term) will determine the course of the novel - it will e important, I think, for Prosper to do something that is brave and defiant and not in his immediate self interest. Second thing I'm beginning to like about this novel is Dermott's detailed knowledge and information about sailing - far more than other novels in which sailing is an amusing recreation - here it's a sport and even a way of life (as it is for many I know in my R.I. town). The info she provide seems truly authentic to me, and it brings me into a world I really didn't know very well; I have to recall the first lesson in the first fiction-writing seminar I took in college, where Professor Joseph Whitehill, a novelist whose career foundered (nautical term) unfortunately, told us that the information in our stories (he read to us a lengthy and quite good story about flight) had to be accurate. I'll tell this anecdote in more detail in some other post - but I remember thinking at the time, who cares about that, I read fiction great stories, characters, language - the facts be damned. But of course he was right - authenticity brings the author authority and the work a grounding in reality, a grounding from which buildings can rise or flights can soar.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Wave it good-bye?: Three Reasons to Keep The Star-Spangled Banner

Friend GC, a journalist, historian, and author, has begun (or picked up on) an FB campaign to adopt a new national anthem, on the grounds that The Star-Spangled Banner essentially commemorates a minor battle in an obscure war and therefore doesn't speak to the ideals that make the United States a great country. I disagree. Though I don't particularly love the idea of a militaristic anthem and there's nothing in the SPB (first verse anyway) about democratic ideals and values or even about popular sovereignty, there are some great, even unique qualities in our national anthem that I would not want to toss aside. Here are three: First, it's dramatic. Very few if any anthems actually tell a story, and this is a powerful one, beautifully narrated: Imagine (or picture) the people of Baltimore watching the battle in the harbor, unsure of its direction or outcome (this was before Twitter), the scariness of the explosions and the gunshots, knowing that your friends and neighbors possible were being wounded or killed, the excitement of seeing the flag through a few glimpses of explosive light - the odd drama of spectators watching a war, an experience slightly replicated in contemporary sports but without the stakes. You have to remember that at that time the U.S. was a fledgling, not the world's greatest economic power for better or worse, and it was entirely possible that the country would be conquered and the whole noble experiment dashed - the great uncertainty of that time should give us pause if we smugly think that the U.S. today is invulnerable. Second, it's symbolic: watching the fate of the nation through the course of a trying night makes us think about the terrible times the U.S. has gone through and, so far, withstood and come out stronger. Passing through a night of trauma to a welcoming dawn is a beautiful literary trope and something we all can feel on a personal level as well. Third, it's open-ended: I would guess The Star-Spangled Banner is the only national anthem written in the interrogative. The entire first stanza is really a question, and though singers generally present the song with bold bravura, in essence, it's a question and a plea: does the banner still wave? and does it wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave? In 1812, certainly not all under the banner were free. It's important to think of the Star-Spangled Banner as a question we should be always asking of ourselves and one another - not a smug assurance of our unique or exceptional status as a people.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Loneliness of the Preppie: The Starboard Sea

Rich New York kid alienated from parents kicked out of several boarding schools for misbehavior gets one last chance at a Massachusetts boarding school specializing in the rejected and expelled; Dad, a big potential donor and friend of the dean, drops son off, gives him a blank check, leaves with hardly a a good-bye. Sound familiar? Have we been there before? Obviously yes, so I have started Amber Dermott's debut novel The Starboard Sea with some trepidation and at least a little sense of literary deja-vu. I honestly have no more tolerance for the sufferings and shenanigans of spoiled brats - and I think Dermott doesn't either; her characters are dislikable to the point almost of parody. What can possibly make this novel work, however, is her capacity to make us care about the protagonist/narrator, as, over the course of the first few chapters, we get to see what's really troubling him: the suicide of his best friend and sailing mate from previous boarding school, and, as we gradually learn, his homosexual relationship with his friend, and his guilt over the suicide that ensued when Dad found the boys entwined. This back story distinguishes Starboard somewhat from its many predecessors: Separate Peace (suicide), Catcher in the Rye (cynical but vulnerable protag), Outside Providence (rich kids misbehaving, new kid falls for beautiful girl on campus), Secret History (though this is college, many of the same themes - though a smarter novel; interestingly, both Secret and Starboard are by women from male POV), Prep (an outsider arrives on campus). Of all of these, Starboard so far has the most worthless and privileged characters - the students are not only spoiled and irresponsible but are actually horrible to one another, to their teachers, and even to the hired help in the cafeteria. I really would have stopped reading sooner - but the suicide back story is drawing me on, and, another strength of the novel, the writing about the sea and about sailing: that's the central trope or theme of the book, as the protag was a star sailor at previous school and now the new school hopes he will lead the team on to victory, but he's unsure he can work with any mate other than his late friend and lover; on first practice, he nearly kills his new mate, making him an outcast in the school. Perhaps there's an echo here of another, quite different prep-school novel: Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (athletics and both competition and rebellion - who can forget the last scene of Loneliness, in either the novella or the fine film adaptation?). I will give Starboard's Bellingham Academy a chance to keep developing - but I wouldn't want to go there.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Fiction v Friction: Bolano's story in current New Yorker

No question: Roberto Bolano has written some really cool stories (father and son traveling to coastal resort and get involved in fistfights and boxing matches ... ) and some very unusual and provocative novels (Savage Detectives, 2066 - challenging, thoughtful, original), no question The New Yorker deserves a shoutout for more or less discovering Bolano and bringing him to an English-reading readership, no question it's sad and tragic that Bolano died so young while still at the height of his literary output but before he could enjoy his international recognition, no question there are plenty more Bolano pieces in the hands of his executors leaking their way out into publication - yet - from evidence of story in current New Yorker, The Mexican Manifesto, are we getting near the bottom of the proverbial barrel? Is this the best he's got left? This story does of course have the Bolano creepy atmospherics and the disorienting narrative style that work so well in his best stories - in this case a guy (the narrator) remembering a period of his life when he and then girlfriend, Laura, haunted the public bath houses in Mexico City, trying to find the best one - this is not a Zagat guide. Inevitably, they engage in some pretty sordid encounters in the steam. Unfortunately, little more than that. This story is a like a sketch or fragment that Bolano must have put aside, maybe to come back to some day and expand into a true work of fiction, with narrative design. But what we have here is a base and grimy piece - not exactly pornographic, more like unpornographic, in that it's deliberately coarse and even repulsive. Not fiction, just friction. Let's hope there are better pieces in the unpublished archives - and for anyone who has not yet read Bolano, don't start here.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Prisoners of War: The Yellow Birds

Like any great tragedy, there is a unity of time, place, and action in Kevin Powers's excellent war novel and debut novel, The Yellow Birds, and I'm not holding it to the strict Aristotelian criterion of the unity of a single day - too strict a boundary for the modern world - but the novel does focus on one action that occurred over the course of just a few days during a battle in northern Iraq - and on the effects of this dreadful battle; and it's very tight because it also focuses on only three main characters (there are secondary characters and bit players, too): Bartle (the Melville echo is obvious), the narrator who suffers the consequences of his own actions and those of others; his army buddy, Murph, who loses his mind after witnessing some gruesome battle and needless death and goes walking into the enemy-held village, barefoot and naked, and his company goes into the village, heavily armed, to bring him back; and finally their sergeant, the ironically named Sterling, who as we learn right away is a madman. Won't spoil the ending, but let's just say that Sterling and Bartle fail miserably in their rescue mission and though you'd expect Bartle to take it harder - he's the sensitive and observant narrator while Sterling is the tough and veteran (though only a few years older) who has shown he can be cruel and ruthless; but it's Sterling who blows his own head off, in despair about how they failed, and it's Bartle who pays for the failure - killing of innocent Iraqi civilians and destroyed a mosque and minaret - with time in military prison. But obviously all three live in despair, and only Bartle, Ishamael-like, lives to tell the tale. Very powerful war novel; though it's on familiar ground there's not a cliche in the whole book, and some very striking scenes throughout, building to the climax when at last we learn what exactly happened to Murph, how and why he died. Some may find his ghostlike wandering through the maze of the small town to be over the top, overly cinematic, if not operatic - I found it plausible and suitably weird. I did find Powers's prose at times over the top, straining too hard for meaning - but only rarely, most of the time I was with him 100 percent. It's a very humor-less book, quite the opposite of ironic war novels like Catch-22; Yellow Birds is just dark and brutal, suitable for our times, for these times.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Iraq and a hard place: The Yellow Birds

Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds is a slim and graceful novel, or novella maybe, that reminds me of a similarly brief novel that won the Pulitzer a few years ago, Tinkers, and I think Powers should have been in contention this year - haven't quite finished Yellow Birds yet but it's actually a much better work than Tinkers: both finely styled, at times even over-wrought, but Yellow Birds is a well-wrought story, carefully constructed, with a lot to say about American youth, American values, and the wages of war: in short, it's the simple story of two young men, Army buddies, and how each is destroyed, one literally, by service in Iraq. The narrator, Bartle (a Melvillean echo? He'd prefer not to?) , survives to tell the story of his buddy, Murphy, who died in Iraq - not yet clear how that happened, but seems that there was something underhanded about the death as the Army comes to Bartle to investigate, and Bartle, ruined by the war, a social isolate, alcoholic, living in abject poverty, with no hope or goals and with bedeviling thoughts of suicide. Powers presents some amazingly well-written passages: his account of the soldiers moving across an orchard as enemy fire tears through the branches overhead; the mortar attack on an open-air market; Bartle wondering along the shores of the James River near his home in Richmond; the tiny building in which Bartle sets up his abject residence. The literary influences are profound and diverse, as is often the case with first novels (which I think this is): one Joycean-Faulknerian section, another evocative of Hemingway (who inevitably influences any serious American who writes about battle and warfare). At times, the prose is a little thick for me, especially when Powers has Bartle step back and analyze or explain what he was doing or thinking (he's writing this from a later perspective, about 8 years after the events of the novel), but I feel that I'm in the hands of, or company of, a very intelligent guide and stylist who makes these scenes - and a variety of scenes, from the frenzy of battle in the desert to the swampy, Idyllic Virginia forests - seem true and alive. And all that and he maintains the mystery of the book throughout: how did Murph(y) die in Iraq and why does Bartle feel responsible for that death?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Battle Raging: Yellow Birds

Kevin Powers's novel The Yellow Birds (puzzling title explained in epigraph) is an impressive and very short novel - close to a novella in some ways - at least half-way through. It's a war novel written with a great deal of sensitivity and insight, sometimes tripping over itself in its reach for meaningful, deep significance, but most of the time straightforward and clean and, in the best war-writing tradition, letting the events and the characters speak for themselves - leaving the conclusions and the philosophizing to us. Powers's story is a familiar one of war buddies, both from the South, one the experienced guy, meaning he's 21 and has been in the service for a few years (he's the narrator, Bartle, now looking back on events from the august age of 30), the other, Murphy, a new recruit at 18. Bartle takes on Murphy as a protege and friend; they end up in battle together, in one of the many small desert towns in northern Iraq; and, as we learn very early on so this is not a spoiler, Murphy doesn't make it out of the battle. The novel is about why and how that happened, how and whether Bartle failed him or just failed in general, and about the traumatic after-effects of war. Powers tells this story not in fragments but in narrative segments - chapters - arranged a-chronologically. The effect, then, is not of a linear narrative but of a narrative mosaic; this technique can be daunting and sometimes needlessly complex (think of K. Walford's fiction) - but Powers makes the arrangement of pieces work, and the picture slowly coheres over the course of the journey - probably simpler and more effective because the narrative itself spans only a few years (so far) - from Bartle's enlistment in about 2001 and his return from the war, a grizzled and shocked veteran, in about 2005. The battle scenes, which slowly accrue and Bartles spreads them out of the the course of the narrative (they are told in sequence, unlike the other pieces) are very tense, and his sense of character detail is fine: particularly memorable, when Bartle foolishly "promises" Murphy's mother that he'll watch out for her son and, in payment, his commanding Sgt. smacks him in the jaw; also, Bartles's awol night in Germany on the eve of his return to the States, a Joycean canter through a spooky nightttown. Can probably finish novel in two sittings, and am looking forward to continuing.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Hath not a Jew eyes: Salter as (Jewish) American novelist

So James Salter is a Member of the Tribe. Who knew? Welcome to the club, James Horowitz. Hard to even begin to think of Salter as a Jewish-American novelist, but I guess that's what he is, whether he likes it or not. I know, I know - Roth himself, in the recent documentary Philip Roth: Unmasked bristles at the handle Jewish-American writer, arguing correctly that he is an American writer - but he also clearly writes about his experience and consciousness as Jewish American from a particular time and place. What to make of Salter, who adopted the patronym as what he calls (in feature in current New Yorker) a "ring name"? I can fully understand why he would need anonymity when writing, and publishing,  about his fellow flyboys during the Korean War. And he does write about his experience and consciousness, just as Roth (and Bellow, and Mailer, and Woody Allen, and Allen Ginssburg, et al. have done), but his is not really, or so it seems, a Jewish experience: he writes about wartime, about the art and act of flying, about wealthy suburbanites on the Hudson (some Jews among them, true, but as outsiders, if I remember correctly) - and these do seem to be points along the axis of his life. And let me also say, though ethnicity-hiding noms de plume kind of bother me, I also recognize that to me the world's greatest living artist and my artistic hero and favorite by far performing artist is not known to the world as Bobby Zimmerman. OK, that said, there does seem to be an element of hiding and self-loathing in Salter's fiction, which now I think I understand a little better. He is without question, as all reviews and articles note, among the finest stylists of the English language. Yet, as articles also note, he's been tagged forever as a "writer's writer" (Baumgarten in the NYer jokingly says a "writer's writer's writer") and reviewers are puzzled by his lack of fame. But it's obvious that readers don't buy or love books because of great sentences and phrases (though writers do); readers love books with great plot and characters (when that coincides, then you have a true classic: One Hundred Years of Solitude, the Known World, The Leopard, to name modern/contemporary examples). I haven't read enough of Salter to figure this out for sure, but despite his beautiful writing and his elegant settings, Salter's characters can be narcissistic and self-indulgent, privileged and pampered, that is, dislikable (I'm thinking here of Light Years, which I have posted on elsewhere on this blog). I will go back to him, however; I remember loving some stories (from Dusk, I think) that I'd read many years ago, so maybe stories are his forte - or maybe I'll try another one of his novels. I'd be glad to welcome him into the Pantheon, or even the shul.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Analyze This: The Treatment

Honestly can't think of anything right now aside from the Boston Marathon, where I know quite a few runners and spectators - so far it seems that all whom I know are OK, but such a tragedy and such a hateful act - attacking one of the true great public, democratic, spirited events in our culture - a day and an events that symbolizes, actualizes, all that is right about America. Hoping that the injured all recover and that the needless death of some will in some way bring about peace and healing - how, I have no idea.

My few stray thoughts about reading: perhaps yesterday I would have knocked Daniel Menaker for engineering such a happy ending (at least for the narrator, Singer) to The Treatment, though right now happy endings seem like a good, palliative idea. Too bad he has to dispose of his most memorable character so crudely, however: the Cuban analyst Morales is the voice the makes this novel special, almost unique - is there really anything memorable about Singer? as noted in previous posts, it's generally the analyzed and not the analyst (or their relationship) that fuels the "in treatment" novels such as Zeno, Portnoy, even Prince of Tides. Singer is kind of a blank, an action figure and studly guy, witty and urbane, but the comic voice of Morales and his steady intrusion into Singer's consciousness makes the novel. So why is he tossed off like a wad of Kleenex at the end? At the end, we learn that Morales is a manipulative and unprofessional character - as he carries way too far a grudge against Singer for leaving the treatment, his practice declines, he seems puny man and even somewhat of a delusional figure - imagining himself the last great Freudian. Earlier on, it certainly seemed as if he was serving the best interest of S. - not giving him comfort and joy but helping him to understand how he could get what he wanted and needed from others in his life. And it would seem, on the evidence, that the treatment was a great success - though Singer (and therefore Menaker?) believe Singer's healthy relationship at the end with Allegra and her children had nothing to do with the analysis but was all Singer's independent doing: quite a slam on a noble medical profession, I would say. OK, sorry to be cranky - let's just say the ending is happy, the theme music comes on, the credits roll. But I can't help it: Morales is the more important character. He deserves a novel of his own.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Clunk, clunk: The sound of a novel falling apart

Clunk, clunk - that's the sound you hear when the machinery of plot making breaks apart and leaves nuts and bolts and pieces of the chassis along the side of the highway as the narrative tumbles, or stumbles, along - and that's what I'm hearing at the end of part 3, that is, near the end, of Daniel Menaker's The Treatment. As noted in previous posts my hope has been that M. can make good on his terrific premise, a novel about a man and his analyst, and the ongoing struggle for control, as the man, the narrator (for the most part) of the novel, Jake Singer, tries to develop a strong and loving relationship with a woman and to reconcile with his elderly, widowed father, and to advance in his career at a prep school without compromising his ideas, while his analyst insists on various rules, e.g., he is not to take his lover to meet his father without first discussing this issue in treatment. So is the analyst actually helping Singer build independence, or is he crushing that independence through blind adherence to the principles of the profession? And is Singer's struggle for independence a healthy part of the process - that is, is he cured when he can tell the analyst, Morales, to fuck off? Great premise, Morales a tremendously smart and funny character, one of the few if not the only novel about this patient-doctor dynamic - but over time the novel becomes, unfortunately, increasingly about Singer and his relation with lover, Allegra - what made the novel unique is pushed to the margins. Well and good, if the secondary narrative were equally compelling, but it isn't, as it devolves into a conventional story about a battle over a child - Allegra trying to adopt her and suddenly the birth-mother seeks return of custody. To move this along further, at end of part 3, Menaker has Singer totally improbably answer telephone at Allegra's home and engage in discussion with caseworker looking into the adoption, through which he, completely impossible, learns the name and address of the birth mother; then, S. goes off to a town near with birth-mother lives, stays with a friend, and woman comes up and rings the bell asking to use the phone - and guess who the woman is. You figure the chances. No, it's preposterous. Well, novelists do this all the time, which is OK I guess if you're Dickens but not if you're writing a novel that feels contemporary and real, or should: if the characters have to meet up, it's job of the novelist to figure out a way to make that happen - preferably through action by the protagonist (that's the pro in protagonist) not through chance or happenstance. One possibility: couldn't S. have learned about the birth mother through records on file in his schools (Allegra's child attends the school), which would be an action that would put him in moral and ethical jeopardy - all good things for developing a novel. But M. did not think of them; he took the easy way out. Clunk.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Why to read T. C. Boyle

It's always a pleasure to read a T. Coraghessan Boyle story in The New Yorker - he's been a very prolific writer for many years, his novels have taken on a wide range of themes and settings, but I think his stories are his most distinctive contribution - perhaps because there is less variety and he therefore makes a more identifiable signature. Most of his stories, it seems to me, are about a particular kind of person, a guy usually, and cronies - generally late 20s or so, intelligent and educated but not focused or driven, in tenuous relationships, pursuing good times as they see them - a lot of casual drinking and drugs sometimes, generally western, and therefore with a lot of uprootedness and often with much car travel. The narrative voice is always sharp and funny, very attuned to the latest hip and slacker language - maybe some of which Boyle actually invents. In other words, these characters seem like Boyle might have been himself at a much earlier stage or more likely are very much like some of his students. He is a believer in a well-crafted plot, too, often a rarity among contemporary writers - he's less self-consciously artful than many, which may account for his odd status - extremely successful commercially, but never quite on the map of the top literary stars. He dares to entertain. Current New Yorker story, The Night of the Satellite, is prototypical in regard to narrator, characters, setting (it's in the Midwest somewhere, but the characters are West Coast emigrants), tone, voice - but it is less plot-driven than most Boyle stories and therefore slightly less successful I think. Story involves a couple, part-time profs/grad students, as B. deftly notes they get As and Bs in the courses they're taking and give As and Bs to their students - perfectly capturing the indifference of their milieu. Two main incidents mark this story: the couple intervenes in a dispute among a couple whom they don't know, and a piece of a satellite falling to earth brushes against the shoulder of the narrator. Boy lets that stand as some kind of image or symbol - make of it what you will. He sets up the couple-dispute very mysteriously, but there's no great payoff - in fact, much of the action occurs out of the view of the narrator - we never learn exactly what his girlfriend said to her counterpart. The open structure of the story, a tradition going back to Joyce and much used and abused by many writers since, isn't Boyle's greatest strength - but this story still falls very much within his world and is worth reading as a sketch of two characters on the outer banks or a waning relationship.

Friday, April 12, 2013

These dreams are only in your head: Patient and analyst in The Treatment

Daniel Menaker's The Treatment has so much promise and contains so much material for a great comic contemporary novel that could stand beside Roth and maybe Bellow - and yet - the novel too often seems cut adrift, as if M. doesn't know quite what to do with his excellent premise, how to develop two characters with a specific type of relationship - analyst and patient/narrator - into a relationship that sustain, or that M. can sustain, across the course of a novel. He's doing something more daring than two of the most famous of analyst-novels, Portnoy and Zeno, in that in neither of those was the analyst more than a vessel or recipient. Menaker is interested in developing the relation and examining how the analytic relationship impinges on, affects, controls, even dominates the life of the patient/narrator outside the scope of the analytic sessions. One amusing device he uses to show this is that over the course of time the analyst, Morales, appears less in the narrative foreground - descriptions of the analytic sessions - and more in the interior life of the patient - speaking to the patient, Singer, in italics - which obviously sound or read exactly like Morales when actually speaking: S., like many patients, has internalized the voice. What can be interesting would be how M either helps S. to live his life - or perhaps hinders him from doing so. Menaker hasn't made his move yet on that front, half-way through the novel, and that's kind of the problem: outside of the analytic relationship the rest of what's going on in The Treatment is either far-fetched male fantasy (beautiful women bestowing themselves on the seemingly hapless narrator) or a pedestrian contemporary-issue story: birth mother tries to get back her child whom the wealthy widowed socialite (Singer's lover, Allegra) who is in the process of adopting her. Jodi Picault meets Philip Roth, in other words. The mix of genres just isn't working, and I wish at this point that Menaker had been more daring and aggressive with the narrative premise that began this novel so auspiciously.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Building a narrative or vamping for cover?

Daniel Menaker is taking a risk - and I'm wondering if it will pay off: in the 2nd section of The Treatment he embarks with an entirely new set of characters, a different setting, a different tone, a different narrative voice. Why would he do this? This book is not a collection of stories or of 4 novellas; it's a novel, and he clearly wants this work to have a narrative arc, a coherent design. And yet... the second section abandons everything that seemed to be carrying this novel forward, everything that got it attention, the very reason we're reading it. The first section, in which Jake Singer ruins one relationship and then, by (his) good fortune, begins another as a very beautiful, sexy, wealthy, widowed mother of one of the students in his school practically, almost literally, throws herself at him - good for him, he's a very lucky guy - but that's not much of a story, no, the reason the first section is interesting at all - and it generally is interesting - is the counterpoint, Singer's sessions with his intelligent if eccentric analyst, Morales, whose voice and advice and cajoling Singer gradually internalizes, enabling him, at last, to feel happy and confident. Then in the second section we're in the Berkshires with a young woman who goes through several tragic relationships and has a child whom she gives up for adoption - it doesn't take long before we realize that the child is one of the 2 adopted children of Singer's new girlfriend. So these sections will tie together - but at great risk: Menaker is abandoning the most important voice of the novel, Morales's; and his second section narrative is entirely flat as narration - the whole thing (so far, 20 pages or so into it) told as back story, not as surface narrative: the prose feels "mailed in," and it seems as if we're learning all this material not in and for itself but to see, at some point farther down the narrative track, how this woman and her child or children affect the life of the novel's primary narrator, Singer. What I suspect, what I fear, is that Menaker realized he had painted himself into a narrative corner with Morales - he'd created a great character and a great dynamic and really had no idea how to sustain it, and now he's vamping for cover.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A man and his shrink: The Treatment

Remembering now what annoyed me when first read Daniel Menaker's The Treatment when it was new circa 1998 - as it shifted from comic story about a 32-year-old NYC prep-school English teacher and the course of his treatment with a very funny and abrupt and insightful Cuban-emigre analyst into a story about the narrator's romantic escapades. It's not that all Jewish guys undergoing analysis in a novel have to be comic characters or nebishes; but narrator of The Treatment, Jack Singer, becomes almost a Jewish action hero: he's an intellectual but also tough and athletic, even heroic; he plays ball with the school basketball team, confronts one of the toughest players and gets stabbed in the gut, winning over the sympathy of the unbearable head of school, he picks up or actually gets picked up by a beautiful and sexy young woman in the Met, he later gets hit on by the beautiful and wealthy widowed mom of one of the students - and so on - this guy is a super-stud, so why is he in analysis? OK, I'm not that naive, I get it that he has deeper-seated issues that make him unhappy despite all of his advantages - but the novel seems to have it both ways (I'm only about 90 pages in, so things may change) - the character in analysis does not seem to be the same guy as the character out of analysis, as if Menaker had a great idea for a long sketch about a man and his shrink but was on much shakier ground in trying to build that sketch out into the structure of a novel. What happens outside the office doesn't seem real - however - what will make or break the novel will be how much what happens in the office will affect what happens outside the office: already, we had one episode in which the (bad) advice, or more accurately observation, of Dr. Morales led Singer to break of a relation (with the woman from the Met); we will have to see whether Morales helps S. to live or ruins his life - or whether S. can evolve and gain independence and move out of the shadow of Morales's influence.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Freudian slips: The Treatment

By chance I've recently finished Svevo's Confessions of Zeno and posted on Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (after watching Philip Roth: Unmasked), two of the landmarks in literature about psychoanalysis and now am reading Daniel Menaker's The Treatment current bookgroup selection at, no surprise, the suggestion of LR practitioner in the field - I had read The Treatment about 15 years ago when it was new but am trying to come at it fresh in this revisit. First off worth noting the major difference between The Treatment and the other books mentioned: in Treatment the analyst is practically the star player, whereas he (or she) is completely opaque in Portnoy and Zeno - just the vessel that holds their confessions. Now those are extreme cases and there are other novels in which the analyst plays a significant role as character - Prince of Tides, as one example - but rarely is the analyst the main character. Here, at least in first 50 pp or so, the analyst, a Cuban emigre in NYC named Morales (the translingual pun obviously intended - as Morales says at one point, There are no jokes) is the lead: we know far more about him through the narrator's reaction to him than we do about the narrator, though, my memory is, that this balance will shift and tilt over the course of the novel. Morales through narrator's eyes is strange and abrupt and quirky and even threatening - though a very good analyst, I would think: he's very quick with opinions and barbed comments. Narrator mentions he declined to have sex with a woman co-worker (he teaches in a NYC prep school) because she smelled "a bit odd," to which Morales: A bit odd? A bit odd? And why did you not tell me you were English? There's a little bit of a danger of this drifting off into a comic schtick - a few little slaps at Morales's accent, e.g., running n a wheel like a "chamster," but Menaker does a great job of creating one memorable character. Can this be sufficient, however, to carry the novel? If over the course of the novel we watch this relationship grow and evolve and we learn more about the narrator and the issues that bring him into treatment and we watch their resolution, or dissolution, this could become a really fine novel - but it can't sustain 30o pages as a comic schtick, at least I don't think it can, we'll see.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Chile Peppers: Is Zambra's novel a work of contempt, or hubris?

Really wanted to like Alejandro Zambra's Ways of Going Home but can extend it only so much good will - before I sadly have to say - the emperor has no clothes, so to speak. This novella - 140 pp of very generous print and much white space - started off as very promising: Zambra sketches in some of the really important issues that have touched his life and the life of his country, Chile, and suggests mysterious ties and connections between these cataclysmic events and the life of his narrator: the earthquake in Chile, ca 1985, which begins the novella, as the narrator is living outside in a tent and neighbors and others gather around a bonfire and for the first time he encounters the beautiful daughter (Claudia) of mysterious solitary neighbor (Raul); later, Claudia asks him to follow Raul and report to her and narrator sees strangers entering/leaving R's house; this becomes a tie to the oppression of the Chilean dictatorship, as we later learn that R. is in hiding and that he apparently hides and protects others. OK, all good as a premise for a novel, but what does Z. do with this material? Honestly, very little - the other strands of the novel are two: first, jumps about 20 years forward in time and Claudia returns from her life in the U.S. (Vermont) for father's funeral, spats with her sister, connects again with narrator (that's when she tells him about her father's political life), they have a brief relationship, and that ends. Second strand: in two (of the four) sections of the novel, the narrator, now the novelist, asks his ex or ex-girlfriend, Eme, to read the manuscript he's working on, that is, the other two sections of this novel. She kind of refuses, then reads it reluctantly, is obviously not taken with it, which leads Z to ponder other things he could have written about or wishes he had: he drops in some lines of poetry he's working on, he wishes his work could be just a string of images, he indulges in quite a bit of name checking. How disappointing, and in fact disingenuous. Imagine for a moment, American reader, how you would react to this book if it were set in, say, Berkeley, circa 1965? If it were by an American writer who spends half the novel wondering if he should be writing a novel, this novel? Doesn't this sound like about 10,000 graduate-school novels in progress circa 1975 and the height of the long-defunct postmodernism? We seem to genuflect before too many so-called experimental works from Europe and Latin America - wanting, hoping, expecting that they bring us news from another culture, but to me Ways of Going Home is old news. There's plenty of material here that could lead to a great novel - and Zambra knows that - but to abandon that material and frame it with some temperamental ruminations on what the novel could have or should have been is an abandonment of the novelist's responsibility to his readers. Including a character who is reading the very book we are reading - and doesn't like it! - may be an attempt to disarm negative criticism, or maybe it's an act of contempt or hubris.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Chile Scenes: Ways of Going Home

Admittedly I'm a sucker for obscure contemporary Latin American novels so have embarked enthusiastically on Alejandro Zambra's Ways of Going Home but will hold off on judgment till at least tomorrow - but first day of reading shows me: hm, is this really a novel or a publisher's ploy? I mean this is literally about half the length of some short stories I've read in magazines. It's about 120 pages, yes, but they are very small pages with very large type and generous white space - so the book is easy to read, a plus, but kind of a ripoff for anyone buying it (I have a library copy) and resume-puffer for the author perhaps? Well, story, novella, or novel - how good is it, is it worth reading, what's the story? Ways of Going has many of the themes and qualities to draw me to fiction: perhaps it has the scope of a novel, but very compressed and elliptical; it touches on major themes in life and politics; and it's comfortably literary if at times too arch and self-referential. Story in essence (through first 2/3rds or so): young man begins by thinking about the pleasures of being lost and not knowing exactly how to get home (I once wrote an essay on this topic); he then recalls being 10 years old during the Chilean earthquake, living outdoors (for safety) in a tent in with his family in a Santiago suburb; a neighbor - only person he knows who lives alone - Raul - shows up with two girls, one his daughter apparently, Claudia. Narrator becomes fascinated by Claudia, follows her around almost spying in her; she makes contact with him and asks him to spy on Raul, which he does - discovers various people visiting R., and reports this back to Claudia, but the relationship ends (as Cl. apparently has a new boyfriend). Not much happened. Second part: the novelist now reflects on what he's written, suffering now from writer's block, invites ex-wife -girlfriend to come over and to read what he's written; their relationship rebuilds, but she won't read his unfinished work. 3rd part: he recalls the disappearances during the dictatorship and his days in college, and he remembers, at about age 30 (?) going back to his neighborhood, visiting his parents, looking at his own books on shelf in his old room, and eventually looking up Claudia after many years - and then they get together for coffee and she tells him more details about Raul. OK - so you see the major themes: the earthquake, the politics, the literary self-references; more is to come, obviously, as we no doubt will learn about the role R. may have played in the political underground? These are the parts, but what is the sum of the parts? For this novel to be successful, it will have to rise above the level of quotidian and become deep and mysterious and surprising, like the best work of, say, fellow-Chilean Bolano. Much of it does remind me of Murakami as well, with its sense of loneliness and foreboding and disappearances - the question for me is whether Zambra can build on that mood and bring the novel to a point, or whether it's all atmospherics - whether Z can break through the cool narrative tone of the novel and bring the novel to a significant conclusion, not just this happened and then this.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Fair creature of an hour: Hadley's New Yorker story

Tessa Hadley maintains her status as the New Yorker's go-to gal for contemporary British fiction, and you can always count on her stories for a particular tone: highly literate even elegant (and sometimes over the top), often from the POV of an older narrator looking back on the foibles of her youth, set among intelligent professional London suburbanites who are pretty ordinary people not expectionally posh or cultured, but with just enough edginess and cockiness to set these apart from the genteel British popular fiction of another generation - and her story in current New Yorker a good example; Valentine, narrated by a woman looking back on a key relationship of her youth: she's like a million other intelligent and intellectual high-school kids circa 1970 who looks at her comfortable family and knows that's not what she wants or expects of life, but doesn't know quite where she's headed or how - and then she meets a guy ... in this case a Keats-like romantic soul who sweeps her away and introduces her to drugs and sex - he seems completely from another world, but he's not at all, his family is equally conventional. Hadley does a great job establishing this relationship - in fact, almost too great a job, she moves it along so slowly with such detail that it feels as if we're in a world of a novel, a relationship whose nuances and dimensions will grow and develop over many pages, chapters. It's not the most original of story premises - in fact, that's part of the point, hers is a fairly typical experience - and I wonder how this story would play if told from the male POV? Probably as crude and exploitative, whereas from the female POV it seems romantic and tragic. Hadley, unfortunately, seems to wake up to the idea that this story needs some kind of plot and not just an establishing premise when she's well along into it - in fact the last few paragraphs, the end already in sight - where she jams a few quick elements together, including the surprise ending that is a surprise to the narrator only (again, that's intentional - this is clearly a story in which we are meant to know more than the narrator did at the time of the events she is recounting). So this story shows Hadley's strength as a writer - her ability to plumb the depths of the mind of British youth, girls especially, during a certain time of change and turbulence - but also her weakness (which some readers might find a strength - that's a matter of taste): a casual disregard for creating an arc of story.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Zeno saved from madness; Why the Confessions is a great novel

A difficult but still a great book - Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno: yes, Zeno is a completely neurotic narrator, full of obsessions and perseverations, and you have to expect that, accept that, and roll along with it to appreciate and enjoy this novel. I mean, 150 pages about the agonizing courtship of his wife - his rejection by the beautiful sister, Ada, and his settling on the plain sister, Augusta, and all the suffering and humiliation that process entailed - that was a lot, and I was tempted to abandon the novel during that section, yes. And his constant egoism - his foolish belief that the young and beautiful and talentless and deeply impoverished Carla was in love with him, when obviously what she was in love with, or more accurately in need of, was the envelope of cash he brought to her each week. That said: the book is at times hilarious, and it is truly one the landmarks in providing readers with access to the "consciousness of another," a hallmark of literature I think. Zeno is also one of the great eccentric figures in literature - as noted in earlier posts, ranking alongside the Underground Man as an obsessive observer and chronicler of his own neuroses. In addition: I noted in earlier posts that another important criteria for great fiction is the maturation, growth, or change of the narrator/protagonist: does he or she learn and evolve over the course of the novel? Is the novel a journey from innocence to experience? And that is definitely the case in Zeno, as we see in the penultimate section, A Business Partnership, when he actually overcomes his jealousy of Guido and becomes a good man, a mensch you might say, sacrificing his own well-being to try to keep Guido's business alive - and failing Guido, perhaps accidentally, kills himself. The end of this section is deeply sorrowful, as Ada leaves Trieste forever, believing that Zeno hated Guido - and Guido unable, through his tears, to convince her that isn't so. She cannot see the good in Zeno; he cannot persuade her otherwise. Then, we go to the last section, Psychoanalysis, in which Z rejects the "cure" that had motivated him to write down these confessions: he has grown beyond the need to tell all to his doctor, in part because of his sorrows - but mostly because the world around him is changing. Europe is now at war - as he describes in a strange and dreamlike passage in which he tries to procure some roses and finds himself cut off from his family by troops and by military action. The book ends with a statement of such vitriol and misanthropy - a strangely prophetic statement in which Z imagines a military weapon so powerful it could blow up the earth (written in 1923) - ending the book on a completely dark and frightening note: again, prophetic, including with its hint of anti-Semitism, only reference in the book to the author's being Jewish. The end makes an interesting counterpoint to the famous ending of Magic Mountain, with Hans going off to be a soldier in the War - having regained his health, but also one among millions, bound to be food for cannons perhaps. Z ends also "cured" but not headed for slaughter - rather, locked in his solitude and misery, having learned at last to be a businessman, in fact, to become a war profiteer.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Philip Roth: Mensch

Fans of Philip Roth should make every effort to see the PBS American Masters Philip Roth: Unmasked - not sure why PBS is showing it so infrequently (we had to DVR a 4:30 a.m. "broadcast"), but it's a really important and informative piece of work, helping us see and understand Roth and his work in a new light - or at least a brighter light. As far as I know, Roth has rarely if every done broadcast-media interviews (at least since the 60s and the Portnoy phenomenon), and I don't know that he ever did reading tours and he hasn't taught since the early 60s - he's not a recluse or anything like that, but he just has generally shunned public appearances and has let his work speak for itself - good for him. In this 90-minute piece, which is an extended interview over several sessions, in which Roth discusses the entire arc of his career (we hear and see only him, not the interviewer/photographer), interspersed with a few comments from personal friends and from some other writers, of varying perspicacity. A few of my observations: first, this program reinforces the astounding scope of Roth's contribution to American literature; if there had been any doubt about the greatness of his work, this piece, hearing his work discussed in sequence and in total, puts those doubts to rest. It became clear to me how his work breaks into several phases: early pieces, in which he was an explicitly Jewish-American writers; the break at Portnoy into a writer who focused on narrative voice and a establishment of a strong central character who superficially stood in for the author (more on that in a moment), the third phase in which politics and world events and great themes entered his fiction, beginning with the Counterlife and including such masterworks as American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, Operation Shylock, and the Plot Against America; and the final phase of shorter works, almost novellas, with Nemesis as a career capstone encompassing all of the above themes. Extraordinary. Second, Roth seems like a true mensch: a good son, brother, and friend; funny, without being gross or crude, affable, rightly proud of his work but not egotistic, endearingly self-effacing, honest, proud of his family, protective of some of his privacy (says almost nothing about his marriages or other relationships with women), devoted to his work, and a man with great taste (beautiful and understated furnishings in the famous writing cabin we've all read about but never seen). Third, Roth is wrong about one thing: his first books weren't kicked around because of the language or the sex but because he portrayed American Jews in a comical and as a distinct ethnic group, not fully "assimilated" - nobody else had done this; also, Franzen is wrong: Roth is not great because there are so many versions of himself in his fiction. He does not write about himself (except in his few pieces of nonfiction) - he expresses himself and his ideas, which is different. Fourth: what's with Sabbath's Theater, which a few on this program called his masterwork? I read it only once but remember it as psychologically dark and pathological sexual - although I loved the section in which Sabbath returns to childhood haunt on the Jersey Shore. I'll have to re-read the book. And I'll have to take the Roth tour in Newark (who knew?) - this program shows surprisingly little of the scenes and places of his childhood.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Sentimental Education of Zeno

The long section A Business Partnership in Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno, as I noted in yesterday's post, is extremely funny - two rich guys who've never worked a day in their lives setting up a business, which is a study in incompetence and indifference and a financial catastrophe waiting to happen - but as the section develops the mood becomes ever darker and more sorrowful - it's really quite a beautiful section and could (almost) stand alone as a novella: as the section moves along, there's a very beautiful passage in which Guido takes Zeno and the two other office mates on a late-night fishing excursion, and Zeno realizes that he likes Guido very much, a real moment of sweetness and tenderness in this book filled with so much agony. But that sweet feeling cannot endure: as the firm heads toward its inevitable ruin, Guido retreats from Zeno and from his family, and there's great pressure on Zeno to try to keep the firm alive. Meanwhile, Guido's wife, Ada, whom Zeno had loved in his youth, becomes seriously ill with Graves Disease. This occasions a very sorrowful scene in which Ada realizes Zeno is a good man, a better man than her more dashing and attractive husband, and she apologizes for making him suffer years ago. Zeno, in his fashion, imagines that Ada is in love with him (he misses the point of course) - but he no longer loves her - she is old and ill, has lost her beauty. This theme of youthful longing after an unattainable woman, who later loses her beauty and begs for help, was at the heart of Flaubert's great Sentimental Education; here in Zeno, the theme is more brusque and less romantic, as Zeno is so easily wounded and so temperamental. This section of the novel, though, is a magnificent account of a disastrous business ruined by incompetence and arrogance - as well as a family drama and a sorrowful love story. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, over the course of his lengthy confessions, Zeno is growing and maturing, beginning to think about others and beginning to understand that the world does not revolve around the axis of his feelings.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The most ludicrous business in literature: in Confessions of Zeno

No doubt the long middle chapter, Wife and Mistress, in Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno is dark and sorrowful, like the legato movement in a concerto - though Zeno is oblivious to everyone but himself and his exquisitely tuned sensibilities, how can we not feel sad for his mistress, Carla, suffering from poverty and loneliness, who links herself shamefully to Zeno only to live off of his envelopes full of cash that he hands her after each visit - without realizing that his visits to her are no different from his visit to a "woman of the streets" whom he encounters after the breakup with Carla? The humor in this section is bitter, and Zeno's actions are cruel rather than quirky. But the book lifts up again, the tone brightens, the mood lightens in the 5th chapter (these chapters are a 100 pages or so - really like novellas in a way), A Business Agreement (I think): in this section, Zeno and his brother-in-law Guido, a one-time rival who married Zeno's first crush, the beautiful sister, Ada, form a business together, and their doing so is practically a sit-com in itself. They decide to form some kind of trading-mercantile company. Zeno gives the good advice that they ought to have an office near "their" warehouse, so as to keep an eye on the goods, but Guido decides that the warehouse district smells of "fish and fur" - so they rent a beautiful office space downtown. In fact, they never have a warehouse. In fact, they never seem to do any work. They spend lots of time (it's actually Guido's company, but he somehow hires Zeno for his "expert" advice) buying the finest furniture and, inevitably, hiring the most beautiful secretary, who has no skills - but that doesn't really matter because they do no work. Guido has the theory that it's best to watch and wait - which of course allows him and Z. to avoid even going into the office for weeks at a time. They finally do order several tons of copper sulfate, and immediately watch the price drop - and then panic when the company threatens to  deliver the stuff. It's all very ridiculous, and Svevo's narration is delightfully dry and understated. Essentially, we're watching two spoiled rich kids who've never had to work at day in their lives play at begin adults, largely unaware of their foolishness, stupidity, and privilege. They probably - certainly, in fact - feel the wealth that they've inherited is something that they earned and that they deserve.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Aspects of a great novel: growth of character

As I've noted in some previous posts, the truly eccentric and outsider characters tend to turn up in short stories rather than in novels. Stories, being in general confined to a single isolated incident, mood, or unit of time, are more hospitable to a character with few social connections or with a single fixed idea. Over the course of a novel, such characters become tiresome and thin - unless the obsession or the eccentricity is to an extremely heightened degree. Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno is one of those rare novels narrated by an extremely obsessive character. Readers react strongly to Svevo, and for some, such as friend WS, he's intolerable and dull as a companion and guide over the course of a 400-page novel that focuses on essentially five episodes of Zeno's life (albeit, truly epochal episodes: death of his father, courtship and marriage, "first" mistress, "last cigarette," etc.). For others, Zeno's eccentricity and humor, always at his own expense, lift this novel up to stand among the great modernists: a excellent example of fiction as providing us with access to the consciousness of another. I'm uncertain where I stand, half-way through this reading, my first return to Confessions since college. I find the Wife and Mistress section deeply sorrowful, as Zeno, an affable and generally kind man, seems completely delusional about his relationship with the very needy Carla, completely unaware that he stands in such a position of power over her, that she is needy and impoverished and essentially prostituting herself to him in order to survive, whether he can see this or not. Let's assume and hope that Svevo can see this - that he means this chapter to be sad and disturbing, despite Zeno's sanguine attitude  - his only worry being his fear of being found out by his wife, Augusta. What will lift this book higher in my view will be whether and how Zeno comes to realize his crudeness and fallibility In a great novel, the protagonist will learn, grow, evolve, complete or at least begin a journey, moving from innocence to experience (not necessary and often not possible in a great story). If Zeno remains unchanged by the end of the book, I'll be closer to the view of WS, that this novel is tedious and solipsistic. Let's hope not.