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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

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Motocycle Nightmare: The Flamethrowers

There are three distinct (and connected)  narrative components (I hesitate to call them story lines, as I'm not sure that there is a story) in Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers (great title), at least the first 20 percent of the novel (I have no idea how many pp., as I'm reading it on a weirdly configured Kindle): 20ish narrator riding motorcycle across Nevada (her home state) en route to racing on the Bonneville flats in Utah, circa 1976; same young woman a few months or years before her race (and crash) arriving alone in NYC hoping to get engaged in the arts scene, searching for guy on whom she had a crush back in art school in Reno who had left a year earlier from MYC, and eventually meeting new boyfriend, Valero, well established in the arts scene - a player in all senses - who tries to help her advance her career as a "land artist" (sculptures like big spirals on the ground - there are such things of course - and this is part of her purpose in her racing exploits in Utah - photographing the trails her bike leaves on the sand flats); and finally earlier scenes before and during WWI in Europe focused on Valero's forebear (grandfather, I'd assume) with his early fascination with motorcycles, time in a motorcycle brigade in the war, and post-war building a prototype of the bike that would bear his name and advance the family fortunes (mostly, a tire business - is it based on a real Italian tire company?). Wow, lots of material here - and lots of fine writing. On the positives, Kushner tells her entwined tales with cinematic details - and although sometimes that's a backhanded put down I don't mean it that way here. Many "cinematic" novels are just slightly dressed up screenplays - many mysteries, e.g. E. Leonard's, fit that bill and more power to them - but Kushner's narrative also has a lot of introspection, observation, and narrative voice - as well as a tremendous sense of aptly chosen detail and shrewd observation. I, too, have tried to write about the NYC arts scene in the 1970s, but without the precision and the oblique sensibility that Kushner manages - hats off! The motorcycle-racing episode is quite a surprise - I don't know how she has such knowledge (or imagination) about racing bikes but it feels very true and complete - unlike many other novels that feel like rehashed research (e.g., Goon Squad - which never convinced me the author knew all that much about the music industry). My only concern as I move deeper into The Flamethrowers is: to what extent will these strands come together to form a plot? So far, Kushner has established three situations, but there is not yet any particular conflict, direction, or problem to move the plot forward. The title is very intriguing and I wonder where the main character is headed - what she will do, what drives her, what she's driving at.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Some gems from George Saunders

I will quote a passage or two from George Saunders's fiction to give an idea of how his mind works, here goes:

"Harris ain't dealing with his potty mouth," Ma said.
"She's only doing it because of work," Harris explained.
"Harris don't work," Ma said.
"Well, if I did work, it wouldn't be at a place that tells me how I can talk," Harris said. "It would be at a place that lets me talk how I like. A place that acceps me for who I am. That's the kind of place I'd be willing to work."
"There ain't many of that kind of place," Ma said.
"Places that let me talk how I want?" Harris said. "Or places that accept me for who I am?"
"Places you'd be willing to work," Ma said.
"How long's he staying?" Harris said.
"Long as he wants," Ma said.
"My house is your house," Harris said to me.
"It ain't your house," Ma said.

I love that he almost always keeps the verbs simple - Ma said, Harris said - which of course makes the one deviation, Harris explained, very funny. This great dialogue would not work well on a stage, at least I don't think it could, because it's so elliptical and flat - but works great in a story, jerking us a around, delineating character. The questions from Harris are of course a bit of a set-up, leading into Ma's great punch line, but Saunders brings us right along with the choppy flow of this dialogue - funny, inelegant, on point.

Or this:

Based on my experience of life, which I have not exactly hit out of the park, I tend to agree with that thing about, If it's not broke, don't fix it. And would go even further, to: Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you'll probably make it worse.

Could there be a better credo for a loser's life than this? And yet - it's kind of wise, too. Look how beautifully Saunders slips in that clause - which I have not exactly hit out of the park - a cliche, given a wry twist through the adv. exactly through the oddity of the image: how would one hit "life" out of the park, anyway?

I could pluck other examples randomly from almost any page in Tenth of December, a really fine collection of very odd, funny, and haunting stories.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Joyce Carol Oates: A distorted mirror held up to the passing highway

Say this about Joyce Carol Oates - she always gives you your money's worth. She's written about 50 novels and maybe a thousand short stories? And it seems every one of them gives you plenty of action, clearly delineated characters, a beginning and middle and an end - all the basic expectations of fiction, esp of short fiction. That is, she writes to tell a story. She's not showy in any way, rarely experimental, doesn't have a single defining setting or population of political stance - all of which has probably hurt her reputation in some ways - in there is no such thing as a JCO story in the way that there is clearly a Saunders story, a Carver story, Chekhov story, a Bollano story, and so on. And she's disturbingly prolific, which makes readers and critics think that it's just too easy for her. Actually, writing is never easy. She's just a truly dedicated artist with a copious imagination (and memory). In fact, there is one defining quality to her fiction, and that's the omnipresence of violence - which makes her work generally dark and disturbing. If you buy into her world view, that we are beset by violence and every day's peace is a triumph over the inevitable, then her fiction is a great example of contemporary realism. I think hers is a willfully distorted realism - a fun-house mirror held up to the passing highway. Story "Mastiff" in current New Yorker a good example of her work: 40ish couple just getting to know each other, but no sparks there, especially on the part of the woman, who is actually yearning for a relationship (and a child), though we know this one won't be it - go on a hike, and encounter another hiker with a dog, a mastiff, that he can't control and that attacks the hikers. This experience does not exactly draw the two together as a couple - in fact, it seems to push them farther apart. Well, any hike can go wrong - especially in fiction (I've written about a hiking disaster, too) - but is this how most of us view the world? A peaceful walk through the woods is a likely place for an encounter with a crazy dog? No - it's very JCO, and very frightening, an within the realm of possibility - but not likely, not representative of life as most of us know it. Of course fiction does explore the exception, life on the margins, but JCO's skill is to make us feel that the exceptional, the bizarre, is actually not so - that the world is a crazy and violent place, full of muggings and beatings and maulings. Go there if you dare. Interesting, BTW, that the past two NYer stories about been about hikes through the woods and encounters with violence and almost spiritual identification of the woman hiker with the spirit of an animal (cf McGuane's story about an encounter with a wolf).

Thursday, June 27, 2013

One horrifying concept and what it means: The Semplica Girls

At the conclusion of George Saunders's story The Semplica Girl Diary in his collection Tenth of December the narrator-diarist, Dad (do we even know his name?) comes to a painful and wistful and in some ways touching realization about his life: he will never achieve his ambitions, his life will be full of trials and disappointments, there will always be others who have or seem to have more. And he realizes, without stating this in any direct or didactic manner, that life is this way, probably for all - and the best he can hope for is to be kind to his family and to others, and that is and must be good enough. It's a perfect Saunders ending - especially for this story that is built upon one of the most horrific concepts in recent literary fiction: the Semplica Girls are women from impoverished countries who sign a contract to decorate the lawns of wealthy Americans as living lawn ornaments - groups of SGs connected by a "microfiber" line that passes through their brains and holds the girls together on a strand - they're hoisted up above the ground for display. So weird and terrifying, like a nightmare - and then we pause and wonder how close this comes to our current use of immigrant labor, to clean our houses, to trim our lawns, etc. - and the SGs are just another step further along that line. The diarist in this story buys a strand of SGs and for a time feels great - his lawn is now as beautiful as everyone else's, people start paying more attention to him, his daughter now has friends who come over to play - until daughters begin to rebel at the horror of the whole concept, freeing the girls, plunging family back into debt (they have to make good on the loss). Story is filled with Saunders's grim humor - the visit from the claims rep for the company, who keeps referring to "them," distancing himself from the contract he's enforcing, the language in Dad's diary with his odd uses of = in place of verb forms of "to be", the crazy TradeMarks such as EzyReleese for the buckle that holds the SGs in place. But it's not a funny story - it's deeply sad and disturbing - and the end, though the SGs are free, is by no means upbeat. They're free to be and do what, exactly? Where have they gone and how will they survive? And the family is back in its sadness, outsiders and misfits who have just blown through a windfall that could have helped them straighten out their lives. The knowledge Dad gains comes at great cost - and in that way, pathetic though he may be, I think we all can identify with him at least to a limited extent. I wouldn't go so far as Berryman - Life friends is boring, but we must not say so - but I do believe life is full of disappointments, and like this narrator somewhere in our interior monologues we are constantly striving for what we don't have, constantly comparing ourselves with others, constantly measuring our lives against the fake standards we see on TV, in magazines, even in books, and our life seems by comparison, sometimes, empty - and it's important to realize that yes, this is our life, this is our family, these are our friends and neighbors, and it's good, it's enough.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Eliot's objective correllative - and the Semplica Girls

George Saunders's story Al Roosten in Tenth of December is a bit of a throwback to his earlier work, which focused more directly on losers and outsider, those well-known habitues of American short fiction; in this story the eponymous Roosten is the owner of a small and unsuccessful (antique?) shop and a guy with very weak self-image. Story entails his taking an impulsive act of vengeance - essentially, hiding keys and wallet - against a town leader, family man, image of success - and then Roosten frets about what he's done - had it ruined the guy's life? made it impossible for his daughter to make a doctor's appointment? - and thinks about returning to the scene, "finding" the keys, becoming the guy's good friend, becoming a success, running for mayor, what should his slogan be?, and so on - very typical Saunders wild interior monologue, but funny and disturbing, as he conveys the almost obsessive surges of emotion, the oscillation of feeling from self-abnegation to grandiosity. Story ends on a quiet note as Roosten nods to a homeless man - they seem to recognize something in each other, that's his real "counterlife" perhaps. The most important story in the collection, however, is The Semplica Girls Diary - in which the narrator (story in the form of his diary, which he hopes will provide future generations with info about how life was led today!) is a character much like Roosten, leading a pathetic life of quiet desperation and deeply envious of those who have it better - he would like to be a social climber but doesn't have even the skills for that. I'd read the story in magazine appearance and had forgotten the long set-up - it takes quite a few pages before we have any idea who or what the Semplica Girls are; we just get these strange references to the SGs that his wealthy neighbors have in their yards - and his kids are curious about these. At one point, he wins a small lottery payout and, rather than do anything wise with the $ such as pay off maxed out credit cards, he and wife decide to have their yard landscaped - and as part of that the "install" some SGs. This occurs about 20 pp into the story - and we still have no sense of what they are. In fact, they are a lawn display of enslaved women from 3rd-world countries, earning their way out of poverty, sending $ back home - a horrible thought of course, but in some ways how different from the maids, the landscapers, the migrants on whom so many Americans, all Americans in some way (e.g., the produce we purchase, the trash that miraculously disappears once a week) depend? The SGs are in some way what Eliot called an Objective Correlative - not a symbol, which is one thing representing another, but a concept that stands in for a constellation of feelings and ideas. Will post more on Semplica tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

An evolution in Goerge Saunders's style

Note that George Saunders's story Escape from Spiderhead in his collection Tenth of December is another story of heroic action - albeit in the entirely weird way that heroism evolves in a Saundes story - but it seems that at this point in his career he is evolving and moving away from the outsider-loser characters that populated his earlier fiction and developing characters with deep flaws and peculiar mentality who overcome these conditions to achieve a moment of grace. Spiderhead perhaps the best example - a pretty long story (Saunders has published a few novellas, and one that if I remember right was expanded for inclusion in a collection) about a man, apparently a prisoner in on a murder charge who is allowed to do part of his sentence in a controlled drug experiment - he seems to be working for an upstate NY pharmaceutical giant with strange overtones - perhaps it's actually a government agency? (in Kafka it would be; today's terror is corporate control rather than government control - or at least was until recently); all of the subjects wear a MotiPak (one of several TM names throughout the story) that carries an assortment of Rx, which the experimenters can release at various times - always preceded by a voice-over comment: Drip On, to which subjects respond "Afirmative." In this experiment, Jeff meets a young woman in a room; they are each flooded with a Rx that makes them fall instantly and passionately in love; when the drip stops, they are puzzled and a little ashamed. Experiment repeated with another girl. Then, Jeff goes into the control center, Spiderhead, and has to choose which girl will receive a potentially lethal dose of a horrible Rx. Essentially, he refuses to choose and administers that Rx to himself, an act of suicide. Wow, does this sound ridiculous in recounting it! Who would want to read this story? Sounds like a comic book at best. And yet - Saunders's spooky tone and his capacity to get right into the character's interior monologue make this story strange and compelling. Is it an allegory in some way? Obviously we all use Rx in some format - caffeine, alcohol, recreational drugs, mood-altering drugs - which change our behavior and relationships. How different is this from this conspiratorial pharmaceutical giant willing to kill people in an experiment in order to produce a Rx that will help people "who love too much or too little"? Interesting to compare Spiderhead with another Saunders story in the collection, which is one of his prototypical loser stories - a fictive version of characters that often remind me of Ricky Gervais in the original Office: idiots who think that everyone else things they're smart and charming.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Why George Saunders is an excellent writer

George Saunders's story Puppy (?) in his new collection Tenth of December is similar to the first in the collection,Victory Lap, in that it's not especially strange in regard to plot - in fact the plot is very simple - a family with 2 kids heads off the country to pick up a dog they'd seen advertised - and when they get there they find that the family with the dog is extremely crude, "white trash," I think the mom calls them - and then the mom witnesses the mistreatment of a disabled child (kept chained to a pole in the backyard) and therefore they decide they don't want this dog - as if it will bring a taint to their household. They leave, and the country mom takes the dog out to a cornfield and abandons it - an act of both cruelty and in a weird way, tenderness, as she does not want to make her husband shoot the dog. Stop for a moment now and ponder the ways most writers would handle this material: sentimental maybe, ironic, gothic, ending dramatically, or with a subtle image - many different ways no doubt but all within the orbit of realism - the story has all the potential for establishing scene and developing character - but Saunders handles it in a way that no other writer (except maybe Kafka?) would or could: alternates between the point of view of the two moms, each suffering in her way, each odd and thinking her odd behavior is normal. Example the mom seeking the dog talks about her fondness for her husband who, whenever a new concept, such as a pet, is introduced into the family life, says Ho-HO, which becomes a kind of spooky refrain throughout the story. So we see this little anecdote not as an example of social realism or family dynamics but as an exploration of theinner core of character: his stories are revelations of self-consciousness, our internal monologues, strange as they are and uncensored, spilling out into prose. Part of the greatness of fiction is giving us access to the consciousness of the consciousness of another; another part is giving us access to an author's unique style, vision, or world view. Saunders's stories do both. This story and Victory Lap are a bit unusual for Saunders in that they verge on the sentimental and optimistic; Escape from Spiderhead, a much longer story in this collection, is more typical of his work, dark strange and disconcerting. Intend to discuss in tomorrow's post.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

One of the most imagintive writers of short fiction

I'm one of the early adopters when it comes to George Saunders's short stories, so I feel a kind of aesthetic vindication reading all the encomiums that have welcomed his newest collection, Tenth of December, including a to-kill-for NYTsunmag profiles called something like "greatest writer you've never heard of" - well, excuse me, some have, and have been waiting for Saunders to get his props. He's definitely one of the most original and imaginative writers of short fiction today, and perhaps someday his work will be judged alongside Kafka, Calvino, Borges (it's already often compared with Barthelme). The first story in the collection, Victory Lap (which I think appeared in the NYer, which has recognized Saunders's voice and talent) is a pretty good intro to his work: superficially a story of a foiled abduction, a neighborhood thug tricks his way into the home of a teenage beauty and starts to drag her away - but the nerdy cross-country-running teenage neighbor witnesses the scene and, after wrestling with fears and inhibitions, steps up and knocks out the perp by throwing a rock (a geode). That said: this is not by any means a crime story or a "dramatic" story - it's a story about consciousness and personality: story told in shifting POV among the 3 characters, and we see, in Saunders's weird manner, the deep insecurities in each: the beauty with her strange fantasies of meeting the boy of her dreams, her posting and posturing; the runner with his teenage crush on the neighbor and, most interesting, his struggles with his bizarre controlling family. (The abductor is much less developed than the other two characters.) The runner is the most typical of a Saunders character - an outsider, a bit of a loser, surely an obsessive; his family also typical of Saunders types: the dad building a "status clock" that shows at any time which family members are home, and award "points" to the son (the "precious only") for behavior/misbehavior that he can "cash in" for extra TV time and the like - many Saunders stories involve these odd social contracts and controlling behaviors, sometimes in office settings or, a particular Saunders specialty, in amusement parks and theme parks. The girl is less typical - an obviously successful and popular social type - but in this story Saunders shows how even she - even everyone - rattles odd thoughts, fantasies, and fears through the mind.


Saturday, June 22, 2013

A perfect example of why writers should show not tell

Finished Jane Gardam's Old Filth a little disappointed - throughout I admired her copious imagination and at times her very fine writing - e.g., the description of OF's sea voyage to Asia, his drive to the north of England to visit his estranged cousins - and felt she did a good job telling a tale out of narrative sequence. But: she does seem to lose control of the thread of her narrative as the novel progresses. You really get the feeling that she is inventing as she moves along - that she does not at any one point have a clear sense of the arc or the design of the novel as a whole. Her strong imagination and writing facility become her own enemies, allowing her to get away with narrative short cuts that lesser writers couldn't handle. I can see now why OF is the first of a trilogy - material begets material, and she can no doubt fill two more volumes with episodes from OF's life. Still, I think she owes us more in this volume, which ends with a thud as we see OF as a young, struggling lawyer, with very little money and few prospects, a victim of the idiotic caste system in English law where the senior lawyers rule at "inns of court," when his old traveling companion Ross (aka Loss) enters and offers him a gig in Hong Kong - clearly, this just points toward the next volume, rather than wraps this one up suitably. Bigger concern is how Gardam handles the central mystery of this novel: what happened that was so horrible among OF and his two cousins in the foster home they lived in in Wales? We learn at the end (spoiler here, obviously) that the three children actually killed their terrible foster mother (Mrs. Dibbs?). Now that's a pretty juicy bit of info to hold back till the last pages - and I don't mind a novelist holding back the goods - however, this is as good an example you'll ever see of "show don't tell" - rather than actually present those events from OF's POV, as she does so well with other parts of his life, Gardam presents all this info in a letter OF receives from his cousin - what a flat and cheap way to present this dramatic material! Aside from the extreme unlikelihood of one's putting all this info into a letter in any case, ever after, or especially after, 75 years! Who knows I may read the next volume - OF was easy to read, moved along nicely, I do have a little curiosity. But I also feel a bit cheated - like someone just hit me with a watery decaf after a fine meal.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Western drifters - and why the New Yorker shouldn't public novel excerpts

Tom McGuane's story "Salt" in the current New Yorker is another cool entry in his ever-lengthening list of fine stories about contemporary Montanans - like so many Western Plains (and mountain) drifters, but with often a New Age slant or, in other stories, part of the real-estate scrum and the catering to the huge appetites of Hollywood moguls living in the Northwest as part of a great weekend playland. This story is about a young woman, somewhat affectless and rootless, begins with her on a hike when she encounters a man who's just trapped a wolf - she tries to intervene and keep him from shooting the wolf, but he does so anyway, inevitably - and thus begins a long downward spiral of her emotions and sensibilities - she turns away from her boyfriend, is completely rude and insensitive to his eccentric father, goes on leave from her job, and devotes all her time to hiking the trails around Missoula. This mission pulls her farther away from society and from normal social contacts - and closer, spiritually and literally, to the wolves. There's just the slightest, deft hint at the end of the supernatural - not that she's a werewolf or anything, but there's a sense that she is a true "lone wolf." So in very short story we see a transformation of a young woman who is able to care about creatures, about nature - but not about people, not about herself. Very Western in feeling - not just the setting, though McGuane very good on topial details - but also the Western drifter mode - this young woman seems to have no history, no family, no background - another one who at some time in her life "set out for the territories." On another subject - briefly - check out Charles May's Reading the Short Story blog for a good post on the NYer fiction issue - he and I certainly agree on the New Yorker's sad shift away from the short story form, but I would add a few things: first, I do admire that they had a theme - noir detective fiction - in the current issue (though the Lahiri piece does not fit the theme); I would be a little tougher on the NYer for their novel excerpts (May did the ressearch - I just guessed the Lahiri's piece was part of a novel, but he's seen the promos) - aren't they just being shills, giving the publisher a free boost? A paid-for boost in fact? I agree with May that Lahiri is a fine short story writer and that this excerpt would not meet her standards as a well-designed short story - and I would go farther and say that the style, w/ its many fragments, fall short of her standard for elegance.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

How much plot material can a novelist afford to squander?

I was kind of surprised that in the 2nd part of Jane Gardam's Old Filth we come back to a scene involving both OF and his lifelong rival and now, late in life, friend and neighbor and confidante - his weird name is Veneering, I could not remember that name in previous posts - only to learn that Veneering is now dead, leave OF alone again as a character. How odd - I would have thought Gardam would want to build to some kind of scene, a confrontation or a confession (V. had carried on a very long-term affair with OF's wife, Betty), but oddly she doesn't - she's a very strange novelist indeed. As noted previously, she builds this novel, a portrait of the life of a successful if "ordinary" Englishman, through scenes out of sequence, and gradually the picture comes together, like a mosaic - but I'm surprised that she scorns plot to such a great extent - why would a novelist piss away her chance for a really good scene, perhaps the capstone scene to the entire novel? (Well, maybe she works that out later - as the novel is out of sequence - so she could come back to a confession - though I doubt she will). OF at this point in the novel is alone, Veneering's next-door house is being torn down or rebuilt or something and a family is moving in - England changes - and there's a scene in which the children next door find some "old beads" in the garden - we known (OF does not) that these are valuable pearls Betty buried there, I think on the day she died - also improbable. V. encouraged OF to write his memoirs - these chapters are not his memoirs, none is in first person - but we see in these chapters the material for the memoirs that he is unable to pull together. We gradually learn a little more about his terrible childhood - some of which he recounts to V. - and we're building toward learning about how he became engaged in WWII - the ship that was evacuating him to Asia turned around and brought him back to England, as the Asian ports had fallen to the Japanese apparently. It's not clear, yet, whether OF ever saw his father again, after more or less being abandoned in infancy. I hope he does. Won't Gardam give us at least that much? How much plot material can a novelist afford to squander?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A man to whom "nothing happened"

Some writers have to stretch their material or vamp for cover, building stories into novels that should have remained stories or stuffing novels with dull patches of prose or with needless subplots and plot twists - but this isn't Jane Gardam's problem at all. She has an abundance of material and, in Old Filth, which essentially tells the life story of a retired English barrister about whom others think nothing really happened in his fortunate life (unfortunately, Gardam tells us this more than once - in silly little chapters structured as overhead dialogue among OF's friends - we got it the first time) - and of course we see and understand that a great deal happened in his life, in fact we see a little more than he does (the affair his wife carried on with his arch-rival - unbeknownst to OF apparently, though in art 2 he does seem to overhear some gossip about this point - one would think, smart guy that he is, that he would have at least had suspicions all along, esp as he and Betty had no children and thus had a lot of time to spend with each other). In part 2 we see qquite a bit more of the events of OF's life, as it opens with his evacuation from England to Asia for safety during WWII: Gardam's problem, to the extent she has one, is that she burns through this material too fast. OF's ocean crossing seems to have enough events to constitute a novel in itself, but Gardam moves it along at a fast pace - and I think that's to the good: far better to leave us wanting more than to leave us wishing for less. The most sad and poignant element through OF's early life is the cruel indifference to him from his remote father and his self-centered aunts, who as we learn are basically stealing the funds his father sends for OF's upkeep, offering him nothing (they literally almost send him on his ocean voyage with no money at all), and either delude themselves or outright lie in stating how much they care for him, how much they have sacrificed. Horrible people all around him - it's amazing he thrived - I guess he did so thanks to a few good teachers and his school friend. The he finally manages to cross the ocean en route to his father and safety in Asia, we know from info given early in this out-of-sequence novel that the journey is pointless and that he will return somehow to England to serve in the war. Amazing that not only does Gardam have abundant material for this novel but that she built this life story of a man to whom "nothing happened" into a trilogy.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Flat narratives and narrative arcs

At tend of Part 1 of Jane Gardam's Old Filth we get the first info about what was so terrible about the foster family that raised Filth, aka Edward Feathers, and his two cousins, Claire and Babs, in Wales when they were young children - on his visit to Claire, from whom he's been estranged for many years, he wakes in the bed in the guest room and has a moment of panic, flashing back to his childhood, wondering if he's wet the bed and expecting to be beaten and humiliated - but he gradually wakes and sees that it's Claire who's entered the room, bringing him tea. Gardam does a good job putting us directly within the mind of a character - narrating the moments of the novel as he/Filth sees and experiences them - though we are in third-person mode it's a third-person of intense individual consciousness, a device pioneered by the modernists - now considered almost a cliche and often misused - too easy to drown in the stream of consciousness - but Gardam uses the method judiciously, to illuminate only key moments that would not be accessible to a distant third person or to any of the other characters. In the final chapter of this section Gardam introduces two new characters - surprisingly late in a novel to do so, especially as at least one other seemingly major character, Filth's Hong Kong antagonist and rival, has been left aside for many chapters. The new characters are Claire's son and his wife, Vanessa, a lawyer like F. - they are part of the British Yuppie set, wealthy, childless (not married actually), in an up and coming area (F. thinks of it still as a slum, he's out of touch with contemporary London) - Claire hopes F. will leave them some money, and we wonder about her motives for getting F. to meet her son. I thought part one, though, would end with more of a kicker - a big reveal of a significant plot development; it doesn't. Although Gardam is doing an excellent job constructing her novel scene by scene out of time sequence, I think at some point it needs to develop one of the conflicts that G. has introduced - we're moving along rapidly, but on a flat plane of narrative rather then along an arc.

Monday, June 17, 2013

What happened in Wales? - is the big secret in Old Filth, so far

Nearing end of part 1 (of 2) in Jane Gardam's Old Filth, and the mosaic image gradually becomes more clear - as noted in previous posts this novel told out of chronological sequence but largely from the POV of the eponymous filth, real name Edward Feathers, looking back on his life. Now widowed, we see early on that he has in some ways made peace with his oldest rival in the (legal) profession, whom we also know (Filth does not) had an affair with Filth's deceased wife Betty - but that whole plot element has been pushed aside for the moment, maybe to return in part two? The last few chapters of part one follow OF on an ill-advised journey see his two cousins, Claire and Babs, shortly after Betty's sudden death. Gardam does a great job describing his reckless jaunt - he hasn't driven beyond his little Dorset (?) village for years and is perplexed by the traffi and the motorways (and truck drivers blast horns at him - Gardam keeps us strictly in his POV but one can guess he's driving poorly and slowly). Both his cousins, whom he has not seen in many years, are "barmy" in different ways - but from these visits we get more and more hints that something traumatic and formative happened to the three of them when they were all placed in care of a Welsh family. Gardam is playing games with us a bit, teasing us with big plot reveals but not tipping her hand at all - but it does work, keeping me reading, and keeping me curious. Some of the plot mechanics, however, are a bit clunky in this portion of the novel - e.g., why would OF's wife's obit be prominently displayed in a national newspapers, and way several days after her funeral for that matter? And is it really likely that OF would come upon an old London barrister friend on a chance stop in a remote inn? Maybe, England's like a small town in some ways (at least within a certain class - as caste-bound as India it seems), but I think at times the productive Gardam is rushing headlong and solving plot problems as the arise as best she can. Know the feeling.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

That British obsession with WWII


I've posted on this many times before most recently in posts about Parades's End but the issue comes up again - how and why is it that English writers to this day are so obsessed with the effects of the two world wars? Ok I get it that the wars hit England much more profoundly and directly than they they touched American lives and of course the us and Canada have had our share of war novels - mailer jones Ondaatje to cite 3 off the top - but honestly these have long been eclipsed by novels of recent wars but not in England - no, it seems at least to me that the war esp WWII is the dominant theme in much British fiction (and tv?) still - two generations later.  Reading now Jane Gardam's very good novel first of trilogy Old Filth and seeing that once more the character of the eponymous lead character formed by his wartime experiences - in section just read he is about to head off to oxford when his best friend Pat delays college to join RAF just after receiving word brother shot down over channel. Filth aka Eddie feathers is humiliated because estranged father insists he be evacuated to Asia for safety - in part because of his own horrible war memories. Gardam handles material v well but this such familiar ground by now - don't British agents, publishers, readers ever tire of this topic? When will WWII become a "historical" topic like the wives of Henry VIII?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Another piece in the mosaic - Old Filth

Read just a little father in Jane Gardam's Old Filth, enough for the intro of another character, I. who writers to Filth/Feathers when she learns of the death of his wife, Betty - and he thinks back to when he met her, the cousin of his close school days friend who shows up at their country house - he's completely fascinated by her, older, attractive, fiercely independent - she comes into his bedroom at night and asks him what he thinks of her - and he rebuffs this advance. He sees this, retrospectively, as a great turning point in his life - we;re not sure yet why this is so. In her letter to him, which he reads reluctantly, she says he must have guessed or known that she is a lesbian - again, we don't know yet whether he had surmised this, and if so (or if not) what difference that makes to his life. But her introduction is another piece in the collage or mosaic that makes up this unusual portrait of the life of a British expat, seemingly serene and content on the surface but underneath roiling with jealousies, hatreds, possibly prejudices, and eccentricities. Very British.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Gardam's Old Filth - a challenge to screenwriters

A few quick notes on Jane Gardam's Old Filth, next few sections - in which we learn - through sections of life told out of sequence but knit together very deftly by Gardam, that Filth (his real name - Edward Feathers), now widowed, had been betrayed by seemingly devoted and strait-laced wife, Betty (?), who had been carrying on an affair back in Hong Kong with Filth's antagonist and rival (who later becomes his neighbor in retirement, both men widowed) - the Featherses retir first and Betty gets a cryptic and secretive call from her lover, who tells her that his son has died (he tells Filth this later when they patch up their friendship late in life). We also learn that both Filth and spouse are dishonest with each other - as they plan a day trip into London to sign their wills (why do Brits capitalize Wills?) they say that they're each going to have lunch with their club - Mrs. F. actually spends the day at the National Theater (not sure why, but it's perhaps becoming clear that she does not have a ladies club) and he goes off to the Temple Bar (the legal enclave I think) and, though we don't see his scene, it seems that he either did not go to a club himself or, if he did, it was a pretty miserable experience - he didn't know anyone. Then, in a deeper back-story section, we see that Filth, after his horrible childhood, had a very fine experience in his boarding school with eccentric headmaster, "Sir," and met a soul mate who became his best friend and whose family more or less adopted F. as their own - the salvation at the hands of others not his family helps explain the later-life success and (seeming) stability Filth attained. Pieces are gradually coming together - I'm surprised there's enough to sustain a trilogy, but I guess Gardam is vastly inventive - and that's part of the trick, disproving the notion that Filth is fortunate because "nothing ever happened to him." Wonder how this would work as a movie - the sections out of chronological sequence could be daunting and disconcerting within a film narrative, yet to tell the story in straight chronological order would destroy essence - a compromise, present tense with long flashbacks, would probably be the right approach.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The dirt on Old Filth

Jane Gardam's Old Filth, first volume of a trilogy, starts off well - very readable, esp afge my working my way assiduously through the 1st volume of the daunting Parade's End; Gardam's book like Ford's is told out of sequence, and with a few slightly off-putting narrative quirks (the first v. short chapter is strucutred as a chorus of voices), but she does have the reader's interest, and patience, in mind and is generous with back story and attentive to detail and narrative coherence. Essential set-up is this: Old Filth (can't even remember his real name, Edward something) is a retired British lawyer, who left London in his early years and made a lot of money practicing in Hong Kong (Filth is an acronym:Failed in London, Try HongKong). He's now back in the English countryside, widowed and somewhat isolated - and moving he finds that his new neighbor is another HK lawyer, retired, his deepest antagonist, opposites in every way. They ignore each other for some time, and then strike up a conversation, and perhaps a let bygones be bygones friendship, to the surprise of both. Then we go back to the chorus of voices - lawyers at the London "bar" - who envy OF for his prosperity, and say that "nothing ever happened in his life." Obviously that's not true - and then we jump back in time to, what we soon realize, is an account of his birth, in Malaya, mother died of an infection from the childbirth, father in that distinctly English cruel way, totally ignored the child, shipped him back to Britain where he was terribly mistreated by a family that took in Raj orphans, as they were called, and then off to a small boarding school - which may have been his salvation - the headmaster is a quirky Brit (aren't they all) but actually nice and attentive - a break from expectations there. But what is with these British families (saw the same thing in Parade's End, btw) with their complete indifference to their children? I've always joked that they treat their dogs and their gardens better than their kids -a situation that is perhaps class-bound and is also, I hope, a quaint and long-gone custom.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Lahiri's New Yorker story - or is it first section of a novel?

As I thought it might, Jhumpa Lahiri's long story in current New Yorker, fiction issue, does make its way to the U.S., but, unike almost all of her fiction, it's not a story about the immigrant experience, esp as lived by the more assimilated 2nd generation - in Brotherly Love (spoilers coming) the younger brother, U., dies as a result of his political activities and older but much more conservative and self-effacing brother, C., comes home to Calcutta from his post as a grad student in the U.S. Part of C's mission is to learn exactly how (and why) U. died - he knows it was some kind of police action, and it takes him some time to unearth the details from the unforthcoming witnesses, but he does learn that U. was killed, assassinated actually, by the police and that his young wife more or less was forced to give him up. The drama of the story centers on U's fascination with the wife, whom the family does not really accept - she's too leftist, she was not an "arranged" bride and therefore the marriage is an insult to the entire social structure, and perhaps she is of a "lower" caste, though this is never exactly clear. In any case, to little surprise, at end of story she agrees to marry the older brother, C., who will raise her half-orphaned child, his nephew or niece and stepchild. Have to wonder whether this long piece is actually the opening section of a novel in progress (or soon to be in print, as is so often the NYer way), as I think The Namesake also debuted with its first sections in the NYer - this work may follow the same pattern, as it would seem that the new couple cannot stay in Calcutta and C. will want to return to his studies in the U.S. - like the namesake, this could be a story of the assimilated/assimilating 2nd-gen Indian immigrants, but beginning with a back story that explains the family's complex origins and gives a glimpse of the socially stratified world they have left behind. I have to say I was pleased to see Lahiri use Rhode Island as an explicit setting - she was raised (here) in Rhode Island, and R.I plays a recognizable role in some of her fiction, but I think - I could be wrong - that she has never id'd R.I. specifically, that most of her specific place names are in Cambridge (area) or NYC. Welcome home, Jhumpa!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Has Jhumpa Lahiri ever written a bad story?

I'm guessing that Jhumpa Lahiri has never written a bad story, a bad anything, in her life, that her first-grade book reports were probably worthy of publication in the New Republic. That doesn't necessarily mean every single story, novel, essay she's written is great - but she has a certain elegance of style and structure that raises every one of her works to a very high starting point - then, as with every writer for that matter, some are better than others. I do think she's best in the short story format, from what I've read of her, and I also think it's better to read her collections over a long period rather than in one sitting, as the stories do have a certain sameness, not only of topic but also of ending - a flash of insight, a little twist, that somehow illuminates the hidden corners of the story and pulls together most of the loose strands. Her story Brotherly Love in the current New Yorker, fiction issue, is very long not necessarily by Lahiri's standards but certainly by the New Yorker's, and I doubt they would have taken this one on in a standard magazine issue - but it's great to have a near-novella length work though over a day or so; I'm about half-way through the story and will hold off on overall judgment, but the story so far is impressive and notable for a few points. The story, at least to this point, is set in Calcutta, late 1940s, after the India-Pakistan partition, with many Hindi living as highly impoverished even by Calcutta standards refugees and the few remaining Muslims feeling threatened. Teh brothers of the title are S. and U. (I don't remember exactly how to spell their names), S. the older a bit more timid and withdrawn, U. more the rebel and the socially active. Story starts as they are late teens, fascinated by the private (English) country club, gated and off limits, and by the game of golf; the sneak onto the course at night to play with a castoff club - till they are caught and a cop beats U. with the club before letting them take off (as others do, he mistakes U for the older brother). Over time, U. becomes radical and politically active. Two things strike me about the story so far, regarding theme and style: it's one of Lahiri's few if not only story to focus on Indians in India (unless the brothers become immigrants to the U.S. later in story?) - as her work has almost enitrely been about the immigrant experience in the U.S., with children becoming inevitably more assimilated and to a degree estranged from parents - much like so many immigrant stories (both Roths, e.g.) with the major exception that in this ethnic group the immigrant parents are highly educated and professional. Second, I have always noted Lahiri for her lapidary sentences and paragraphs - almost any single one of which, selected at random, could be an epigram or a passage in Bartlett's. Surprisingly, Brotherly Love is constructed mainly, or at least largely, of sentence fragments - not sure why but maybe she has so much ground to cover she's going for speed over style and nuance. To me, the fragments diminish the art of the story, making it seem more like a notebook entry than a finished piece - but we'll see how it goes, they may add to the cumulative effect.

Monday, June 10, 2013

A sense of an ending - in crime stories - and a fine story by Ed Park

Who wouldn't like Ed Park's cool story in the current New Yorker? I don't know anything about Park, don't think I'd read him before this one - perhaps he's a crime novelist, as that's the theme of this fiction issue, but this story stands up well outside of any genre - at first it seems like a pretty clever "shouts and murmurs," in which a guy rattles through his brain all of his many passwords, all of the variants we create all the time, the instructions to change the password, the parameters of every damn site that asks for a pw, our weird mnemonics, our feeble attempts at safe storage, all the worry this entails - it's very funny because every one of us shares the experience Park depicts - and it's equally funny to see, hey, he uses the same tricks I use to create a password? I guess mine's not as "secure" as I'd thought - and then the story take a rather dramatic turn, which I won't give away, and becomes more than just an amusing spree and a real story with an arc and a plot and perhaps even characters. Interested to see the Buffalo setting of the story - streets I know well - and wonder what Park's Buffalo connection may be - I don't think we were contemporaries there, in any case, but we probably know people in common. On the subject of New Yorker stories in the current fiction issue, Annie Proulx's story is pretty good, too - if you are a fan - she is not for everyone's taste and not my taste in particular, but I admire her very strong prose style. She's done quite a few frontier-myth stories, and in this one taking a turn back toward the New England sites that she had written about earlier in her career - again a sort of backwoods tall tale, this one about Main and Canada and the Penobscot. I find her fiction somehow cruel and misanthropic, but for those who are not put off by that view, or who don't see it in her work, this story is pretty powerful - like all the crime stories in this issue, in fact like all crime stories, it has and they all have much more of a "sense of an ending" than the typical literary story, with its often open and ambiguous ending, a stuyle first honed by Joyce and made universal by the New Yorker itself.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Dashiell hammet

D hammet story in current New Yorker an inch and a half of courage a great example of the kind of stories serious writers popular writers and hacks of all sorts had to generate back in the day when people actually read stories in magazines and mags actually paid writers for their work. The very best writers rose above the expectations and conventions of magazine fiction - think f Scott Fitzgerald eg - but others just provided marketable commodities. This story is an example - a little fake moral lesson about a man who gains some fame thanks to a heroic rescue and then becomes too proud and cocky and his life is destroyed until he atones. Hammet is a pro so this little toss off is well written and constructed w fine carpentry - but it is hardly stirring or surprising once you pass the striking opening scene - a child looks out the window of a burning building. Hammet and heirs smart enough to know this piece would not be part of his legacy so it hasn't been printed or reprinted till now. It does no harm to hammet however to see him as a working pro - but the piece also feels musty and dated. Though short fiction today is no longer a commercial venue I think the art of the short story today is far beyond what was envisioned back then - then it was a way to make a buck but now a way to make a reputation. Thank g Munro Trevor Beattie Saunders et al have been able to create and publish their terrific fiction without having to curb their talent to meet the standards and expectations of a commercial market.

Sent from my iPhone

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The craziest seduction line in literature

Finished the first volume, Some Do Not..., of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, and that will be it for now, though may come back to it someday, probably after watching the HBO miniseries (what a cop-out, I know). Such a strange book, and it doesn't really hold up as a novel - I think any reader would be puzzled and disappointed by its lack of a "sense of an ending" - clearly, it's an awkward and eccentric introduction to a set of characters whom we will watch change and evolve - I assume, I hope - over the course of the next 3 volumes, that is, over the course of the war (wwI). At the end of volume one, I'm left with a bitterness and contempt for (most of) the main characters: Macmaster the social climberr living off the benevolence of his easy-touch friend and his indulgent wife (that won't last), the pathetic Valentine Wannop tending to her eccentric mother and dissolute brother and yearning for the unavailable Tietjens while doing nothing with her talents and education aside from uttering quips and correcting the Latin of others, Sylvia T. who abandons husband and child until it's convenient of her to return and then gets weirdly possessive, most of all Tietjens with his serial affairs. Despite his bravery, his willingness to go to the front and even return from to the front, when he clearly could get out of the service or at least assigned to a safe post, he's in many ways a loathsome character - which becomes most evident, to me at least, in the later sections of this volume, as he abandons his wife on the eve of his return to war hoping in his simpering way to have an affair - or resume his affair? I think so, though it's not completely clear - with Valentine W. His seduction line to her pretty much says it all about his character: Will you be my mistress tonight? Oh, so he doesn't love her, doesn't talk about sex or passion or simply how beautiful she is, no, he wants to possess her (be my.... ) but not feel an responsibility for her or compassion or kindness: my mistress. My god!, what kind of people are these? And this poor young woman - her brother a complete idiot and her mother a needy mess - throws herself at T., instead of looking for, even hoping for or expecting or thinking she deserves, a normal relationship - with man who isn't already married and who hasn't been involved in about 5 other sordid affairs, of which she is well aware. Get out of his life, Valentine! I know it's wartime and there are few eligible men hanging around in London - but still, no good can come of this relationship. If any man asks you: Will you be my mistress tonight? - what do you think the answer should be?

Friday, June 7, 2013

Why I read classics

Friend LB asked me last night what good books I've read  lately, which is always a difficult question for me to answer - usually people are asking what good new books I've read, and there aren't that many - it's like asking what great paintings have you seen lately - most likely the answer will be a Cezanne or a Van Gogh or something from a museum rather than a contemporary work in a gallery, right? That said, right to the top of the list goes The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers - and LB enthusiastically agreed that it was an amazing book, especially as a debut novel - smart and moving and scary and beautifully written. After that, the deluge  of mediocrity. We both had the same reaction, btw, to Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which is often compared with or grouped with Yellow Birds as they came out at about the same time and both deal with the brutal aftereffects of the Iraq war, but I found after some initial promise that Billy  Lynn just went nowhere and I abandoned it about halfway through - in an earlier post I asked if others had the same thoughts or if I was just cranky and out of synch - LB confirms it's not just me  - some novels get strong reviews because they deal seriously with admirable subjects - noble intentions not make a novel, film, or documentary any good. The only other recent readings that come right to mind as recommendations are several classics - Tale of Two Cities, for fun, and Middlemarch, as one of the monumental works of English lit. and totally compelling and impressive in every line. Later in the year I'll go back and review my readings and post my 2013  list.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

One quality of great literature: Characters who grow and "grow on you"

An amazing amount of time spent in Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End explaining and unraveling the many complex relationships and affairs among the small group of characters, to the point where I'm saying : to what end? It's all kind of eerie - just about every one of the central characters hopelessly confused about their love life and sex life - generally hating their spouses, indifferent at best to their children, and in love with someone inaccessible - all totally mismatched and surreptitious and back-stabbing - and meanwhile there's a war going on - which they hardly seem to talk about - but it's as if the war makes every moment of domestic life more intense and in a way ephemeral, each character trying to extract as much experience from every moment because it may be his, or her, last. That said, it's an awfully meandering piece of writing. Evidence is that it has made a pretty good TV series, and I don't know if it's been adapted before; I will probably watch the HBO series at some point, and I suspect it may be better than the book, in eliciting the strands of plot from the complex weave of the novel - or at least it may be good in a different way. Nobody should read Parade's End for plot - you won't find it. But the characters, in their eccentricities and quirks, do grow, and grow on you, over the course of the narrative - one (though surely not the only) measure of great literature. By characters - I mostly mean the main character, Christopher Tietjens, a somewhat slovenly aesthete and savant/genius who gives up opportunity to continue serving the country in the Office of Statistics (he's a high ranking planner and advisor) to serve on the front, where he suffers shell shock - he's also very wealthy and indifferent to his wealth (and title), and in a horrible marriage with a beautiful but cruel wife (and with a child that neither cares for or about) and in an affair with at least one woman (Wannop) and maybe two, including the now wife of his best friend, Macmaster, whom he more or less supports in a lavish lifestyle (keeping up) through many loans. Yes, it's complicated, and that's only part of it. I can't and won't read my way through all four volumes unless more happens - so far, tons of talk - going forward, but it's an impressive piece of work never the less.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The most popular topic in English fiction

To make matters even more ridiculously complicated, Valentine Wannop suspects that her crush, Tietjens, who's been carrying on an affair with her with complicity of his wife, Sylvia (she herself had been involved with another guy with T's tacit complicity, too), has also been having an affair with Mrs. Dumarche (sp?), her neighbor and, subsequently, the mistress and then, after her husband died in prison, the wife of T's best friend, Macmaster. Got all that? Mainly, I feel - these poor, these idiotic people - they seem to have no commitment to or loyalty to anyone. It becomes clear, though, moving on through Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, that wthe war (WWI, setting is mostly 1914) has upended life for everyone - the men such as Tietjens, as he's about the head back to the front, feeling that each day at home might be his last, and therefore taking reckless actions. In this section, we get a lot of back story about Valentine W., particularly about how her family has suffered because of her brother's political views - as a communist, he hates the war effort, despises people like T. who volunteer to serve, even sympathizes with the Germans - he is imprisoned, and the family left at home, widowed mother and daughter V., suffer in poverty - the butcher won't sell her meat, even when she has a ration card. They head off to London, where conditions may be better; not clear to me what Valentine is doing about all this. Oddly, the brother gets out of prison and the mother uses what little influence she has to get him assigned to a minesweeper - a little safer than being in the trenches I guess. Who knows how these things happen in England at that time?, but it's clear that class status played a huge role in the amount of risk any man wanted to face and the degree of glory he wanted to pursue. Tietjens is brave but a puzzle - he does not at all seem like the kind of man who would want to go to the front, especially not twice, as he has no obvious bravery and no political or patriotic fervor that I can detect. He talks about wanting to go into the antique furniture business after the war - he apparently has an eye for that kind of stuff. This novel, or actually quartet of novels, takes a while to get off the ground but as I move forward I'm starting to see its shape and its theme - largely, the way the war affected an entire generation in England. It's a topic that has been written about, acted out, and filmed almost ad nauseum, and it's amazing to American readers and viewers, this one anyway, to see the persistent interest in English literature and the arts in both world wars - we're talking about events a century ago and 70 years ago - but the subject strikes deep for so many English - the strength, fortitude, survival, perseverance, patriotism, nobility - you have to wonder if there is anything fresh to say about this era - but Ford was among the first to articulate these views (and now having a small revival thanks to HBO).

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Does everyone know everyone else in England? : Parade's End

Part of the dark humor of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End is that insane sense that the entire island of Britain is about the size of a city block, with everyone constantly running across people they know or finding odd connections that tie families and acquaintances together over generations - of course what we're really seeing is an exaggeration of the insularity of social class in England in the early 20th century and maybe still, they were, at least the literary evidence would have it, tiny little enclaves, self-centered and narcissistic - this patter taken up a generation later by Powell in his Dance to the Music of Time in which the appearance and reappearance of characters in odd places as absurd as a French farce. In Parade's End, if I can get this straight: Tietjens was abandoned for a time by his wife, Sylvia, for another guy in their set and there's a question as to whether their child, whom we actually never see at least through the first 250 pp., is his; he, meanwhile, falls for a daughter of a late Oxford prof., Valentine Wannop (these names!), and oddly Sylvia gives him permission to spend his last night before leaving for the front with her. These people - almost impossible to believe the hard-heartedness and lack of feeling and empathy. Through long chapter and conversation between C. Tietjens and his brother, Mark, we learn a lot of back story: their v. wealthy father had heard rumors about Chris's dissipation, even that he'd fathered a child by V. Wannop (not true); apparently her father and Tietjens's father were tight, and there's even rumor than V. Wannop my be Tietjen senior's daughter (Chris T. is amazingly blase about this possible incest). Tietjen senior has a long meeting in his club going over his affairs, then goes back to the vast estate in North Riding and while hunting shoots himself, an obvious suicide. Mark now trying to straighten out the affairs, in all senses: he offers Chris a large stipend, plus money for his wife, plus money for his mistress, plus money to help T's best friend, Macmaster - that's where all T's money goes anyway, for some reason - he is indifferent to money, no doubt because he has a lot of it - to support his new wife (whom Mark T still believes to be his mistress, not wife - who knows?). Got all that? All of this unfolds as T. about to leave for the front; he stops by at an office to give a report and his recommendations on how to better care for returning injured soldiers; they offer to keep him at home, where he would be valuable, but he declines the offer - he wants to go back to the front. They ok that, noting: Some do. Some do not - which is in part the title of this first volume. Very complex and kind of crazy but as the pieces come into place it's ever more compelling, a great big baggy gossipy "state of England" story.

Monday, June 3, 2013

One of the best debut novels in many years: The Yellow Birds

As usual, a range of opinions in book group last night - I'm always surprised but by this point should no longer be - at how much we can disagree after reading the same work of literature. BR was on the extreme this time, and pretty much alone there, but she made it clear that she thought Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds was amateurish and impenetrable - she said she loves war noels, but this one did not measure up for her (perhaps, I wonder, because it's not exactly a war novel, but an effects-of-war novel, much like its contemporary, the far less accomplished, in my view, Bill Lynn's Long Halftime Walk) - BR suggested The Iliad as our summer reading, so she's got the chops for sure. But I think she was wrong on Powers. J Ri and I were the most positive, each thinking it was an astonishingly good work of fiction, esp for a first-time novelist; apparently Powers has also written poetry, as some commented, and I don't know what literary path he will follow - but I do hope he writes more fiction - it would be a denigration to call this a poetic novel - who wants to read those? - but  personally was struck by the beauty of the writing, even if sometimes the beauty caved in on itself and became impenetrable, at least at first read: I did note that I feel the same say about some of the greatest writers. Proust and Joyce, e.g. - that their work is sometimes just beyond my grasp, and that I should go back again and give it deeper attention. A really high compliment for Powers, but well deserved. M discussed similarities, surprisingly, between Bartle and Bartleby; LR was inspired to read a poem he had written some years ago about the Vietnam War: something like Ideas for a Vietnam Memorial, which he thought should be a shit-smelling cesspool (images like this do come up in Yellow Birds, BTW) - and his poem went on to describe a young soldier he knew when he served who died in combat. Very good poem, and I encourage LR to pursue this and to perhaps write a memoir of his service as a dr. - something not well chronicled, except in MASH (set in Korea, for political reasons I guess); also encouraged him to read old friend Michael Casey's Obscenities, still one of the great American war poetry collections. Much discussion about the trauma of war, and it reminded M of the Ghost Road, and me of Atonement, and also - though not a war novel - of Netherland, in its account of survival of trauma (9/11 in that case) in a narrative voice that I called first-person reminiscent. Powers does so much so well in Yellow Birds, from incredibly well rendered scenes of battle, with all the fear and confusion, almost Tolstoyan, and some long a dark pastoral sections as well - Bartle's long walk along the railroad tracks and river banks, his watching his friends across the water bath and play, innocent and distant, his brush with suicide, with death, and his lapse into complete numbness. This book has more to say about American views of war than books 5 times its length - so much in here, and such a promising novelist.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Yellow Birds, Netherland - First-person reminiscent narration


Re-reading Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds in prep for tonight's book group and have to say am even more impressed on 2nd reading - at his tone, his pacing, his acuity, and his wisdom, quite amazing for a first novel and definitely one of the smartest and most economical war novels in many years. What was a little challenging on first read - the narrative fragmentation or disorder, events not told chronologically but in out-of-order chapters, all recollected from a vantage points about 9 years after the fact, by a much older-seeming 30-year-old vet - is obviously less troublesome on second read, and I'm very impressed by carefully and subtly Powers includes hints and foreshadowings of the tragic events the ensue; it is also clear to me that the novel would not work as well had it been told as straight chronology, beginning with enlistment, on through the battle scenes, and the sorrowful aftermath - in that the story would be falsely dramatic, building up to the death of Murph, wheres this way it's more mournful and elegaic, as we know from the outset that Murph will die in a gruesome manner. Also the second half of the novel - Bartle's retreat into isolation when he's back hom in Virginia, and the pressure on him to come clean to an Army investigator about the circumstances of Murph's death (I'm still not clear why the Army is investigating this - re-reading those chapters may answer that) would have deflated the whole story - it would have followed not an arc but a flat plane. The narrative stance - what we might call first-person reminiscent - is exactly right for these materials, a narrator trying to make sense of a trauma - reminds me of the excellent Netherland (O'Neil), but even more impressive in such a young writer as Powers, and in addition to the reminiscent tone he does a hell of a job conveying the sense of a small unit in battle, some very dramatic, even frightening scenes. It's not an action novel by any means, but Powers shows that he is deft at handling dramatic action and quiet retrospective.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Parade's End and Cubism

Somehow as the friend from somewhere, with the weirdly British surname of Port Stratho, or something like that, visits Chris and Sylvia Tietjens as T. is about to leave for the front after a short home leave (medical leave?) their conversation after circling around quite a bit begins to focus on the issue of divorce - S. is a Catholic and opposed, who knows what T. thinks? - he wanted to hang on to his marriage, though, for some reason, even after she ditched him for someone named Perowne (I think I have that one right) and even though they have no affection for each other and their child is completely ignored -and they begin talking about T. best friend, Macmaster, his counterweight over the course of this novel, so far - Macmaster now married to someone still referred to as Mrs. Ducharme (or something like that) - her husband, obviously mentally unbalanced, had attacked her and was sent to a lunatic asylum (where he dies?); Macmaster has been spending a lot of time with her and now so it took a long to actually declare his love but now that he has they are free to marry - and he's still hitting Tietjens up for money, which T. gladly pays though he's doing M. no favors by bailing him out. How is the war affecting Macmaster if at all? Why isn't he in service? And how did T. end up going to the front in the first place? There are huge gaps in this story, as it jumps around in time - but I expect that they will be filled in over the course of the 4 volumes. As noted yesterday, the narrative structure seems indebted to cubism, with an overlay of jumbled angles only gradually assuming the shape of a sketch or drawing - when the canvas is full, and when we step back and see it from a distance - 600 pages or so down the line. Sigh.