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

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

Monday, September 30, 2013

Philip Roth

Goodbye, Columbus ends when Neil visits Brenda in Cambridge both of them avoiding families (and work) during the Jewish holidays for their tryst and b shares w n 2 letters from her parents - their reactions to mother's discovery of b's diaphragm that she had oddly left at home. N correctly surmises that she wanted her ps to know about her sexuality - but it remains a mystery ( Bcz b wont open up in any way to n or to us) as to whether she wanted to break w her family or to break w Neil. The letter from her father is a classic piece of ventriloquism as Roth perfectly mimes his voice and mannerisms right down to odd capitalizations and exuberant grammar - this is the first and only time in the novel that mr p becomes full as a character ( I think some of this material became spoken dialogue in the movie). N leaves Brenda and his footsteps take him to a Harvard library, which of course reminds him of his work - and of the huge gap btw him and b - as wide as the gap btw Cambridge and Newark. He has a path to choose and takes a night train back in time for work - another "goodbye" tho we sense that the mature narrator of this story looking back on his life is not doing so from the ref desk at the Newark pl but from a place much more like Harvard. It is striking how little b shows of intelligence or intellectual curiosity. She's just competitive in everything and of course would do all it takes to get into "the best a schools" as she says several times. A strange and wistful end to this sardonic coming of age novella.

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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Philip Roth

Probably the greatest scene in Goodbye, Columbus is Ron and Harriet's wedding in which Roth tells the whole story by focusing on the bit players ie the members of the potimkin family in particular mr p's half brother a struggling willy Loman type who spends several pages unloading his miseries to Neil. Probably a unique example in lit in which a character is so dull as to be extremely interesting. He gives us a sense of how everyone else views the potimkins - and we see through him a vision of how Neil would be seen if he were to marry into the family - a lucky intruder. The scene is a comic your de force and amazingly includes no account of the ceremony or celebration - just the characters and their monologues (to Neil). Despite the greatness of the scene I think roth missed the opportunity to develop me p's relation to his daughter and thru her to Neil. Roth would have it that mr p pays little or no attention to Neil but I think he would pay a great deal of attention to him and make it clear what a "catch" Brenda is or else try to drive him away from his precious daughter.

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Goodbye, Columbus

What does the title mean in Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus? On the most literal level Ron Potemkin has a record that he plays again and again made for graduating seniors from Ohio state - clips from sports events (he's mentioned as a departing b-ball star ) and other nostalgia - he mentions it early in the piece but we don't hear the contents until a tour de force section near the end (did such records really exist?) so it's partly leaving the simple world of college behind - an experience the working-class Neil never has - but also the ref to Columbus - is it perhaps we are no longer discoverers of america - the ship has departed for the new world and we're left ashore. But I think it's also that we are in the new world saying goodbye to the explorer who has opened the continent to Europe - he has gone back to Europe leaving the natives behind - each of which touches on Neil's life ( and Roth's and many others) - facing decisions about career and independence from fam torn between aspiration ambition and ambiguity - is Brenda really such a great "catch" or prize as her fam at the wedding seem to think or would marriage to her consume Neil and destroy him?

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Friday, September 27, 2013

Philip Roth

The scene in which Neil visits Potemkin Sinks to pick up some stuff for the wedding and sees Ron in his new job - his new life - and hears mr. P on the phone with various suppliers is one of the best in Goodbye, Columbus (in th movie as well) - Mr. P slyly showing Neil that he could well have a place in this enterprise - he's far more capable than Ron they both know - but n without exactly saying so is looking into a future vision of hell - subservience to father awkward rivalry w Ron - in fact a Shakespearean clash among unequally skilled brothers potentially - and most of all a career he cannot abide. He knows he does not want to work forever in a library and has not expressed any other aspirations but we can see clearly that he is if not a Roth avatar at least someone who is kind and thoughtful about kids and would make a great teacher. But would the Potemkins in listing Brenda allow this or would he be belittled for the rest of his life - depending on the family money while eating (and earning) "like a bird." To them eve to mr p he has barely registered - a bit surprising in that I thin mr p would really be sizing him up.

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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Philip Roth

As the Potemkin family goes into a frenzy preparing for Ron's wedding (another aspect that dates this novella - no family of this stature prepares a wedding on such short notice) and Brenda increasingly confused - she's a total daddy's girl w a strong competitive relation to mom - emulates her yet is her greatest rival - and as wedding approaches she feels increasingly displaced - she's as much an outsider in the fam as Neil is - and that may b why she is so flagrantly provocative. Two things happen: n asks her to get a diaphragm and she gets insulted and refuses. Why? Does she have a sense that if she does so she will be committing To Neil? And stepping further away from her father? We don't really know what they think of n tho we have the sense that they see him as beneath Brenda in status. 2nd thing: b tries to find $300 (a lot the) hat dad had hidden away for her - their secret pact - and when she can't find it she again feels the alliance w dad is breaking apart. She flings herself at n but we sense this is not about him but about her provocation of her family - trying to reclaim her stature as the reigning princess.

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Philip Roth

Roth's narrator, Neil , in goodby Columbus takes a vacation late in his summer of love w Brenda - a vacation at her fam house in short hills - this really dates the story back to the days when travel was out of reach for most people - still for Neil this seems like and edenic opportunity tho I still wonder whether Brenda let alone Neil would be so sexually avid on her fam home. In any case his vacation gets turned on its head when Brenda's bro , Ron, the jock gentle Jewish giant w the taste for montalvani classical stringed orchestra announces he's getting married to his g friend , Harriet. Potemkin clan goes into full management mode planning big wedding and it's obv that Neil is in the way. Once again he's the outsider intruder and observer. Prob never again has a Roth Barr been such an outsider chronicling a life not his. Some great scenes here - particularly Ron coming in to Neil's room and his awkward attempt to make conversation and the fam informing Neil that Ron joining fam biz Potemkin Sinks but starting at $200 a month - he'll have to work his way up - while n struggling for a tiny raise in a job he hates. N notes that Ron has wanted to b a gym teacher but curtly told - he has responsibilities now. And clearly n can see what his course in life wld b w Brenda - selling sinks and in thrall to dad and eventually to Ron - and it's clearly not a course he will peruse - and we c here for a menu Roth too at a crossroads decoding where his life can go - how to b a writer how to bear responsibilities to fam but also to self.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Philip Roth

Reading further into Philip Roth's great debut novella Goodbye, Columbus and seeing the tensions and parallel story lines develop so artfully. One of the most beautiful passages is narrator Neil's description of his walk thru the Potemkin house in short hills - and his discovery of the old refrig in the basement. He recognizes that this refrig must have made the journey up from Newark w the Potemkins - and he reflects that it began life in a four family house and he whitefish and cream cheese and now - it's filled w fruit. Neil stuffs his pocket w cherries - plucking from the abundance of Potemkin village. He's caught in the act by kid sister Julie - and that leads to development of their relationship perhaps most important in the work - she insists on playing various sports and keeps asking for do-overs, which her fam always allows but Neil will not. It seems cruel of him but actually he is the only one trying to keep her from being a spoiled brat - so he is "educating" two kids. But what of his relationship w Brenda? One wrong note in this novella for me is her sexual avidity - she does not seem to me like someone who would have sex w (new) boyfriend in tv room while whole fam is at home - even more so if I remember accurately the demise of their relationship. But Roth doing a great job of introducing the kind of narrator an avatar of Roth himself who will guide us through the social strata of Newark Jewry w attention to social markers and details on par w Flaubert as well as w his greatest contemporary Updike. What a pair - two great American novelists who limned such different but parallel worlds.

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Monday, September 23, 2013

Philip Roth

Had forgotten the subplot of Philip Roth's goodbye Columbus about the black kid who goes into the Newark lib to read the "heart" books ie art books and draws racist suspicion from the staff except for Neil the narrator who is moved by the kid's innocent awe at the Gauguin images. Part of the point of course is to build the social strata - Neil has so many fewer prospects than Brenda w her wealth and social poise but the black kid from the city has so much less. What are the chances of a parent or teacher nurturing his love of art? Think of how the Potemkin family dotes on each child and as Neil chides "fixes" everything. Neil feels inferior, from a crummy college and in a drudge job he fears will b his gate, but we know he will thrive - will become the acerbic and trenchant roth or someone like him - but what will become of the millions of others in Newark? Roth so bitter in this novel a real chip on his shoulder re the emigre Jews - but his real affection is for his native city - description of downtown Newark outside the library is classic.

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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Flannery O'Connor

Read in the New Yorker an excerpt from religious journal f o'c kept in the 40s (?) when she was a grad student at Iowa and it's guaranteed to be unique among grad student journals not filled w poetic jottings and laments about lost loves and social snubs but is addressed to god each entry a small prayer. This oddness - a 20 something pursuing a career as a writer of serious fiction being so overtly devout - brings up an issue about O'Connor that I have raised in other posts - would we comment so assiduously on the religious themes in her work has we not known how important her church was to her life? I think not - I would not have thought had you given me her stories unsigned that the author of the artificial nigger and a good man is hard to find was a devout catholic. Rather she seems to be satirical about faith and even cynical about human behavior and fate. There is no obvious salvation or redemption in her work; the characters just seem to suffer - each in his or her uniquely grotesque way. No I would think of her as a cynic or an agnostic and was surprised years ago to learn more about her. Her religious journal of course is being published only Bcz of the success she earned as a writer. Lit fans prob won't find much revelation in it other than a hint that she did have some sexual drive - but the book has a chance to sell v well I think in the religious faith market.

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Goodbye, Columbus

Many many years since last read Philip Roth's great first collection Goodbye, Columbus and it still remains vivid in mind esp title novella in part Bcz of excellent film adaptation v rare for Roth's works - someone should try some of his other pieces now that he's retired from writing. Also vivid Bcz these are the very streets i grew up on - I am sure the passage in which he describes the streets aspirationally named for eastern colleges refers to the streets in wo tho in the novella they are placed in short hills. This piece fortells so much of Roth's great career notably the comic yet affectionate portrayal of his peeps (and mine) and the cocky yet socially insecure or slightly inferior protagonist who could just as easily be a character in nemesis 60 years later!

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Friday, September 20, 2013

Tahar Ben jalloum

Powerful story in recent New Yorker By Fire by Tahar Ben Jalloum that tells the of the tragic downfall of a young man in unnamed Muslim autocracy whose father died young and now unable to find any work using his univ degree and skills English and history must take over his father's tenuous work as a fruit vendor. This puts him in conflict w many forces in society including police seeking bribes other venders fiercely competitive finally the govt that puts the squeeze on him to inform on leftist college friends all leading to a tragic but all to likely end - w a v nice uplifting twist at end as fam takes a step to preserve his and their dignity. Story all the more powerful Bcz so simply told at least in the translation from French. All to familiar a tragedy in too many countries and now it's obvious the is is not immune to this autocracy either.

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Plot, character, and the rules of fiction

I'm going to have to put aside Elizabeth Strout's The Burgess Boys for a little while and in fact elliotsreading, after nearly three years of daily posts, may take a short hiatus - though I will try to post if possible - but just a few notes on Burgess Boys: More than in her previous novels, Strout seems intent on developing a taut plot and on taking on social issues, both of which are to her credit - however, I am hoping the plot involves some surprises and some transformation of characters. In great novels, characters change, grow, and evolve - and do so in credible ways and as a result of forces with which they are in collision - familial, social, psychological. Great novels generally have plots (or structures at least) that are inventive, but which obey a certain set of rules and conventions and honor these - that is to say, in a realistic or naturalistic novel, a character cannot suddenly transport into another time dimension (except in the most inventive of novels, which have their own weird rules, e.g. Master and Margarita, 100 Years of Solitude). In other words, what the characters do in naturalistic fiction may surprise us - but ultimately must convince us that the actions are within the bounds and capabilities of the character, and the world, that the novelist has posited. Strout seems devoted to the conventions of realism - but I worry that the novel may be too easy to foresee. I will give two predictions, having just finished part 1 (about 1/4 of the novel): younger brother Bob (who is not gay as I had thought perhaps he was, but does have troubled relationships w/ a # of women and regrets his solitude and his lack of children) will get involved with the Unitarian priest who comes to comfort his sister in Maine - she's too distinct a character to introduce and then drop (and perhaps will adopt a Somali child?). Second, older brother Jim, whom we now see will have to return to Maine to retrieve the car that Bob had abandoned there, will end up as the defense lawyer for Zach - putting him in direct conflict w/ the Somali community, and no doubt with his younger brother (maybe he'll represent a Somali?). That will be the problem that the novel must resolve: family v. justice. We'll see how good a prophet I am - and how good a novelist Strout is.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Somalis in Maine? : Strout's novel

Still enjoying Elizabeth Strout's The Burgess Boys though I don't think it's as groundbreaking in form as some of her earlier work - a pretty conventional narrative told with multiple protagonists all living in the same community, and it centers on a hate crime committed by a troubled teen against the newly arrived and growing Somali community in this small Maine town. We see things from alternately the POV of the boy and his family - the main character is his uncle, a Brooklyn lawyer and a bit of a loner and, compared with his extroverted and highly successful older bro, a bit of a failure - and over time we'll see if they develop a relationship, familiar or professional, and what kind of atonement they can make toward the Somali community (are there really hundreds of Somali immigrants in Maine? I hope this isn't an "issue novel"). The most Strout-like aspect is not the developing plot line but the peculiar relation between the lawyer/uncle - Bob - and his dour twin sister, Susan, the only one in the family to stay on in the small Maine town. Bob seems like a lost Anne Tyler character, the hapless and eccentric bachelor (or in this case divorcee) - and Susan seem like I don't know, a type unto herself, cranky and self-centered. For a dour character, though, she does talk a lot - which enables Strout to provide lots of plot info, but that also makes it hard to understand just who she is and what her relation to the two brothers, both in Brooklyn, might be or become.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Maine Street: Strout's newest novel, The Burgess Boys

A few observations about the very first chapters of Elizabeth Strout's novel The Burgess Boys, which are, first, that the opening chapter, in which a daughter (much like the novelist I suspect) and her mom reminisce about a family from years ago in their small Maine town, a family in which one of the sons went on to become a well-known public figure, trial lawyer recruited of OJ Simpson dream team, the other children - son and daughter - leading ordinary lives of quiet desperation - reminds me to a degree of Alice Munro, a kind of wandering recollection of life years ago in a small rural town in the remote north, as recalled years later by a female narrator who "got away"; also reminds me of Alice McDermott, in the sense of a shared community gossip that endures for generations about one of the more prominent or troubled or eccentric families in town. That said, after the prologue chapter in which the daughter/narrator decides to write this story, the one we're reading it seems, we go into a more conventional third-person narration about a family drama surround the kids in the Burgess family, the boys living in Brooklyn, the older brother a wealthy lawyer and the other sort of a misfit - a hint that he may be gay - and another hint about his troubled and childless marrige(s), they're summoned to help sister, Susan, back in Maine whose son has committed a hate-crime atrocity against a mosque serving the new immigrant community, Somalis. The younger, less responsible, much needier brother (Bob?) takes on the journey as older bro (Jim?) heads off with fam on vakay. Except for her penchant for providing great chunks of plot detail through dialogue, Strout's a really good writer and she sets this plot in motion very well - and we'll see where it leads us. All Strout roads lead to Maine, however.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A novel in patches - and what's right about British fiction

A few brief notes on Jane Gardam's Old Filth following book group discussion last night - during which we were pretty universal in admiration for the novel, though no one was absolutely in love w/ it and we were quite surprised that it was a best-seller in England - such a serious literary novel with a daunting structure could never catch on in the U.S., I think. For all the weirdness of Britain, they still have a tremendous literary culture - whereas in the U.S. it seems to be all mega-best sellers and niche books, in England there's support for a vast mid-list of literary novels that are by no means great but each is respectable, serious in intention, well crafted, literate, and intelligent. Where else could a novelist like, say, Anita Brookner, have such a long and successful career? We pretty much agreed re Gardam and OF that the trilogy came to her as an afterthought, following the success of OF. More than in my previous reading, it seemed to me a book complete in design, if odd and quirky in structure - she built in "secrets" by telling the story out of chronological sequence, and to tell it chronologically would most likely flatten it out rather than creating an effective "arc" of narrative. There are, however, many holes in the narrative, and I believe - from comments LR in particular, that the two subsequent volumes fill some of these gaps by presenting the narratives of secondary characters - Betty and Ross/Loss. That said, I think Gardam misses some narrative opportunities by failure to develop further the evolving relationship between F. and former arch-rival Veneering. Yet again struck by many well told scenes, some very difficult to narrate, and by the scope of the story that's put together in pieces; in some ways it reminded me of the very fine Mrs. Bridge, also the complete telling of a life in fragments, a series of very short chapters - though in that instance told in straight sequence. Mrs. B. also spawned a sequel, and in wonder if these mosaic novels invite a sequel because they leave so many open spaces through which the novelist can weave new strands of narration.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Catch hell from Richard Burton ... : The fine conclusion to Beautiful Ruins

There are so many things that could have gone wrong in Jess Walters's novel Beautiful Ruins that it's actually amazing that she brings off this incredibly complicated plot with such grace and dexterity. For example, a novel in which it turns out that one of the main characters, completely unbeknownst to him, is the out-of-wedlock son of Richard Burton, replete with scenes of a drunken Burton careening around in a sports car in Italy during filming of Cleopatra? Should be a ridiculous and exploitative scene, but Walters makes Burton work as a minor character and brings off this strange plot twist without making this a stunt or celebrity novel. Late in the novel some of the main characters visit a regional theater which is staging a play about the fall and redemption of an addicted, narcissistic musician-comedian (Burton's son, in fact), and as Walters present the first scene I'm thinking, uh oh, this will never work, a play within a novel - not even a play exactly but the synopsis of a play, yet by the end of the chapter I'm very moved by the characters, she presents a snappy and wistful, almost Chekhovian conclusion, and I'm thinking: I'd see that play! The conclusion builds toward two of the main characters having a late-life reunion with the beautiful woman who crossed their paths some 50 years in the past, she now dying of cancer (the mother of Burton's son, and she's now the head of the regional theater co.), and I'm expecting, or at least fearing, a melodramatic ending - either she dies just before they get there, or everyone dissolves in tears, or something like that, but once again Walters brings off the near-impossible and plays the conclusion low key and awkward, as it probably would be in life - and they rips off a final chapter in which she gives us a superabundance of plot detail bringing forward the lives of many of the characters in the novel, major and minor, with I think just the right touch - the kind of closing sequence we see a lot now in movies, but here with a novelistic level of detail - and it works mainly because she's not trying to overwhelm us with info or dazzle us with her talent for invention but just to show us the complexity and surprises and happiness and failure in everyone's life, how decisions made early in life can have vast repercussions for many lives, yet how nothing is irrevocable or beyond recovery - a very beautiful ending to a fine and entertaining novel.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Hurtling toward the conclusion of Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins hurtles toward its conclusion as the gang of four heads by plane then van to Sandpoint, Idaho, for the meet-up with Dee/Debra, the long-ago movie aspirant whose life has entangled several of the main characters. Author Jess Walters is a little stymied as to how to handle this scene, with lots of info to convey, so falls back on the overly familiar device of a private detective who, improbably, has assembled a ton of info about D's life over the past 50 years, which he presents to the group in form of a dossier of clips and printouts, which they pass around to one another en route to Sandpoint. A little clumsy and not especially dramatic, as the only "reveal" in this scene is that Pasquale learns for first time that D had married A Bender, the failed novelist who used to stay at his hotel. We pretty much have all the key pieces of her life by this point - the great remaining unknown being what has happened in P's life - he says for first time that he has been married and has children - and of course what will happen when they all see one another again.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Quippiness - in Beautiful Ruins

The weird gets weirder in Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins as we explore the back story of actress Dee Moray, or, with her career now in the rear window, Debra Moore, as she raises her son, Pat, whose actual dad is Richard Burton, but who believes is actual dad is the long-lost hotelier Pasquale and who is raised at least first four years by mom and her husband - we've seen in earlier chapters that his name is Bender, and of course he's the Alvin Bender who was writing his "war novel" in Pasquale's pension where Dee also stayed - following this? Didn't think so. Bender comes back to the States, realizing from a passing remark from Dee that he really only had one chapter to write, the sad and lovely chapter about his encounter with a beautiful Italian woman and his guilt after trying to force her to have sex - in one chapter we see him try to meet the woman about 15 years after the war, he thinks he's tracked her down and she turns out to be a prostitute in Genoa, who feigns not to remember him, or maybe really doesn't, or maybe it's really not the same woman - later Bender, giving up his writing, joins the dad's auto biz back in the states and goes to Seattle to set up a farnchise and there tracks down Dee, who's been acting in amateur theater and fending off advances from many men, including a kind of sympathetic gym teacher. If there's one fault with Walters's energetic style, it may be that too many of her characters are "quippy," that is they speak in quips like characters on TV or in 30s movies, and their quips sound very alike. The Bender chapter ends with a bit of melodrama - not at all unanticipated, as we know he died young and we're just waiting to see how, and of course we do. The novel should be nearing its end - and won't be able do so until the long-separated characters - Dee, Pasquale, Deane - come together at last and until her son, Pat, learns his true star-crossed origins.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A bit of postmodern playfulness in Beautiful Ruins

Jessica Walters's Beautiful Ruins is a pastiche of styles and genres, and just as we think she's about to bring the strands of the plot together she throws us another curveball, so to speak, with an interpolated chapter billed as the rejected first chapter of Michael Deane's memoirs. We know from earlier passages that famous but washed-up director Deane has revived his career, to an extent, by publishing a memoir that's essentially The Art of the Pitch, and has become a Bible for aspiring screenwriters, such as Shane, so misguided as to give a great pitch for an absurd movie about the Donner Party ("But we won't show the cannibalism!") to Deane himself, and then makes the mistake of crediting Deane's book for teaching him how to sell the story -mistake?, because Deane notes that they completely rejected his draft and sent him to "rewrite" where some hack freelance turned the choppy memoir into a how to book and a best seller at that. So it's funny to read the first chapter - in which Deane recounts how he got his first break and essentially "saved" Cleopatra by turning movie PR on its head: he was assigned to keep the Burton-Taylor onscreen romance from the press, as the studio didn't want word out about two more broken marriages, etc.; he got the idea that he should publicize their romance, that scandal would build interest in this turgid piece. I have no idea if this account is based on any bit of truth, but it seems like a plausible and even a compelling story - that memoir probably would have sold, too - but Walters is sharp enough to include the readers notes, in which the reader worries about the libel potential (maybe, but not if the stuff is true) and about the unresolved plot elements: What happened to the girl whom Burton got pregnant? That's funny because the answer to that question is not in Deane's memoir but in the very novel we're reading - a bit of postmodern playfulness on Walters's part.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

I don't usually go for historical characters making a walk-on in fiction, but...

Jess Walters has been leading us on - she's wanted us to think that this guy Pat Bender, 45ish failed musician-comedian and the son of one-time bit actor Dee Moray, the romantic center of the novel Beautiful Ruins, is Dee's out-of-wedlock son from her affair with now famous but mostly over the hill director Michael Deane - the novel centers on Italian hotelier's quest to find Deane some 50 years after his encounter with Dee to get him to help try to locate her, as she's left the industry and seemingly fallen off the grid - and then Walters springs it on us that Pat's father was not Deane but was: Richard Burton. Burton now becomes a minor character in this novel - he's there because the events in Italy in 1962 center on the filming of Cleopatra - Dee had a walk-on until she left the set because of her pregnancy, and the film set, at least in this novel but I believe truthfully, was where Taylor and Burton first hooked up. Okay, I usually don't go for novels at all that involved stunt casting with historical characters - but there's something so winning and appealing about Walters's style: the story is just plain overwhelmed, and overwhelming, because of the many plot details, all the loosely strung together episodes - but they are strung together; the novel doesn't exactly feel coherent, but it does feel like a linear logical structure, with each piece of the plot logically if not exactly plausibly leading to the next. Walters's exuberant style and fecund imagination, as well as her sharp humor and terrific facility with send-ups - a drunken Burton bloviating to the Italian fishermen about a tiny craft on the choppy waters, paraphrasing from Homer and from Hamlet, is just one of the many examples of how Walters makes this novel a lot of fun. I don't 100 percent buy into the story, but it's fun along the way - good company.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

On the fringe: a chapter about music

We go on a long road trip with Pat Bender, a failed 45ish musician whose act involves a music-comic schtick in which he comments on his own songs in a self-deprecatory and quirky manner - the narrator notes he's been likened to Spalding Gray. Enticed by a 20ish Irish guy, Joe, he met in a Portland bar, he goes to the UK to perform in the Edinburgh fringe festival - and we get, Jes Walters's novel Beautiful Ruins a rather peripatetic chapter - quite a challenge for Walters, who is pressed to write a musico-comic patter for Pat, which doesn't always sound all that funny - maybe it's not supposed to? but still - in which Pat finds a bit of a following and then loses it - and loses his manager, ends up completely down and out, and finally calls home to his mom in Idaho, from whom he's somewhat estranged, to ask for help - his ex-girlfriend and subject of his best-known song, Lydia, answers (she's caring for mom who is ill w/ ca.) and puts him off - no connection. Of course there is a huge connection to the ever-sprawling plot of this novel: his mom is the beautiful actress, Dee, who stayed at Pasquale's hotel back in 1962 and whose story we follow in the alternate chapters - novel oscillates between present and '62 - whom Pasquale is searching for, w help from onetime rival, the famous director Michael Deane - apparently Pat's father - though he didn't even know that till Pasq. just revealed. They have hired detectives to track down Dee - but not clear how they will find her or more important how this discovery will effect each of the characters: will Pasquale still love her after all the ravages of the years? What has happened in Pasquale's life over this span? Will Deane in some way make good for abandoning her with child? We know she has been an amateur actress in local theater troupes, but we know nothing else about her. Where did the surname Bender come from? Pat thinks his father died when he was 4 - is that just a story, or was there a man involved in raising him early on? I'll go out on a limb here and say there will be a lot more plot and subplot complications before this one wraps.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The plot unthickens - Jess Walters's sprawling novel Beautiful Ruins

The "pitch" in Jess Walters's novel Beautiful Ruins  is very funny and has potential for further comic developments; as noted in previous posts, we go through many plot elements of this sprawling but enticing novel before we come to the pitch: Shane has been en route to pitch his movie idea to script reader Claire and he, they, get waylaid by the other half of the plot - a sudden visit from Pasquale, seeking to reunite with the American actress, Dee, whom he'd fallen in love with 50 years ago. Finally, Shane, who had been captured into helping out with some rough Italian translation so that director Deane can communicate with Pasquale about the woman they'd both loved (and evidently lost - lost sight of) makes the pitch for an epic adventure about the Donner Party. The funny thing is that his narration of the story is pretty compelling, but then you step back and say, seriously, an epic movie about cannibalism and survival? (We won't show the cannibalism!, Shane protests.) Of course Claire has the same reaction we do - this is the most ludicrous proposal she's ever heard, ludicrous in part because it's actually a good pitch, but about a horrible idea; Deane, to her surprise, however, options the script right on the spot - though it's immediately obvious to her and to us that he does so to keep Shane on hand to help him out with managing Pasquale. The comic potential is: what's going to happen to the script? Does Deane make it even worse - a zombie version of the Donner Party perhaps? A Donner reality show? And is it a success in spite of, or because of, its loopiness - a la Springtime for Hitler? In her peripatetic fashion, however, Walters does not pick up on this theme or at least not yet - as she takes us on another trip back to Italy 1962 when P. finally tracks down Deane and give him hell about abandoning Dee, and Deane pays him off if he'll get her to a Swiss abortionist. We learn - Deane learns from P - that she gave birth to a son - and then we jump to yet another plot element as we meet the wayward son, now a 45ish failed NW musician drifter. And we are soon to meet him mom, I'm sure.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

More complexities in the plot of Beautiful Ruins

It seems that Jess Walters is constructing Beautiful Ruins as an oscillation between past and present scenes, and in chapter I read last night we go back to learn more about Pasquale's relationship to actress Dee Moray when she was a guest at his hotel in 1962 and he fell in love with her - and evidently has lost touch with her over the intervening 50 years. He takes her on a hike along the rugged Italian coast and eventually leads her to a pillbox observation post from which the soldiers - we forget for a moment that these are Nazi soldiers - kept watch on the coast during the War (WWII); one of the soldiers had done some beautiful paintings inside this bunker - reminds us, I think, of the French cave paintings, totally hidden from view and painfully fragile. Dee is very moved by this artwork; P. is wondering whether to kiss her, and cannot bring himself to do so. He's somewhat shy and very insecure, especially about his English. D. makes him feel bad by pointing out some obvious flaws in his plan to build a tennis court on the cliffs for his hotel. We learn, however, that D is waiting for the arrival a man - obviously, M. Deane, the director whom P. seeks out in the present for info about D. - whom she says she "thinks" she loves, although noting he's more in love with himself (ah, Hollywood). When he fails to turn up for her, and he is still pretty ill - obviously with morning sickness, but not obvious to P. - P. heads of to Rome to track down Deane and berate him for his failing; en route, he stops in Florence, where we learn quite a bit more of his back story: the Florentine woman, somewhat older than he, with whom he'd been in love while in college, became pregnant and gave birth to a son, which the family now passes off as a much younger sibling; P. wants to see the boy, but the woman rebuffs that request: she's quite cruel and bossy and refused to marry him, even though her instincts were probably right - the marriage would have failed. In any case, it's yet another plot element: P. has a son from out of wedlock floating around somewhere in the complex plot. And then we see that the next chapter will be: Shane's movie pitch to Deane, a historical drama having something to do with Donner party (not zombies, one hopes). Walter's plot always threatens to teeter and topple over, but she keeps it running along, despite all the moving pieces, and a brisk pace.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Heron

Unusual story The Heron in current New Yorker by Danish writer Dorth Nors, writer whom I've never heard of and who I suspect is little known in the us. Story is very short and actually much like a poem in that it is about mood and symbol rather than character or plot - a story in form only or a poem in prose paragraphs if you prefer. Movement of the piece is something like this w each image established in a para: woman/narrator says that Fredericksburg park is a great place to see herons and then goes on to make these beautiful birds sound ugly and scary and describes one she saw sitting on a bench possibly ill and she'd though of sitting next to it and talking but didn't; to avoid a weird guy who feeds the herons she takes a circuitous route when in the park; this route takes her past a lake where at one time a suitcase filled w a chopped up body of a young woman was discovered by a man and his dog; wonders about effect of this on both and notes that she knew young woman who lived in house where killing took place and was traumatized; recalls friend who used to run this route w her now dead and his body eaten by worms etc. ; wishes she had talked w the heron. What to make of all this? A seriously traumatized woman who sees death and horror where others find peace and beauty - a woman whose daily life is imbued with ghastly visions, a woman with a potentially severe mental imbalance - and I'm not sure if there is a deeper allegorical meaning that may elude American readers? Something about the Danish trauma during nazi occupation perhaps? Btw have you ever seen a heron in flight? Is there anything more graceful and lovely? A heron is or should be like a blessing or a gift and Nors's inability to see this beauty - I mean her character's inability - is the saddest thing about this strange little piece.

Sent from my iPad

Friday, September 6, 2013

The many plot strands of Beautiful Ruins

Just a few words about the plot of Jess Walters's Beautiful Ruins - to her great credit, though Walters is building a pretty complex structure with multiple strands separated in time and in mode and told out of straight sequence, the novel so far, 5 or so (100 pages) in, is quite easy to follow and to enjoy. After the first two strands cross - the 1962 story about a movie star showing up as a guest at Pasquale's tiny hotel on an Italian isle, the hotel with the Anne Tylerish cute name of The Adequate View Hotel crossing with the story of Claire the script reader and Shane the aspiring writer on the way to Claire to make his pitch - when Shane bumps into a much older (contemporary setting) Pasq. who has come to LA to meet with Claire's boss, Deane the ancient director, to try to learn the whereabouts of long-lost Claire. OK, then two more elements arrive: we read the first chapter of the unfinished novel by another hotel guest from the '60s, which quite touchingly describes his painful march through Italy near the end of WWII and his encounter with a beautiful Italian woman - a very sad little vignette, as the woman gives him a hand job and he quickly ascertains that she has done this many times as a way to prevent American soldiers from raping her, and he feels deep remorse - somehow, we expect her to appear in the story again. And then we get to Claire's boss, a has-been director whose career is resurrected by sleazy reality TV - when he hears that Pasq has showed up out of the past he flips out and hustles over to his office to see what P. wants; he obviously has done some great harm to p. in the past, but we don't know exactly what - nor do we know what's happened to the actress, Dee. As this chapter wraps, Shane, who's been helping out because he understand some Italian, says he won't translate any more until he can make his pitch to Claire. Another plot line coming? Next!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

You don't need a weatherman - untangling the plot lines in Beautiful Ruins

No sooner do I wonder about the connection between the two strands of plot in Jess Walters's Beautiful Ruins than I flip a few more pages and she ties them together, or at least crosses them: Shane, the would-be screenwriter on his way to a pitch with Claire, script reader for has-been but famous director Deane (?), meets at the locked office door Pasquale, the hotelier from the small Italian island, who, with limited English and now quite elderly (80+?) has come all this way to find the director (he'd given him is calling card decades ago) in hopes or reuniting with the beautiful actress Dee (?) who had stayed in his hotel and whom he'd fallen in love with. (Ever hear of IMDB? google?). Though improbable, it's kind of a touching scene when Claire invites the two guys in to hear their pitches - as P. explains why he's come all this way, Claire believes he's giving a poorly practiced pitch (Shane, who'd studied in Florence, helps out) - pretty funny, if that's where this novel is heading - the true story becomes the perfect pitch, the one in a million picked u off the slush pile and made? In the next chapter we head back to the 60s and learn more about P. and his island hotel and his encounter with D. - who believes she is dying of cancer; you don't need a weatherman to know which way that story line is going - it's obvious to us, and later at last to a dr., that she's pregnant. We also learn that a failed American novelist had stayed in the hotel where he worked indifferently over the years on a ms., which, however unlikely, he had left behind and D. is reading it - and we will, too, in the next chapter. The architecture of this deceptively simple (because so colloquial and easy to read) novel is quite complex, actually, and it's kind of fun to try to figure out where Walters is heading. It would be easy to say this would make a good movie - but despite its cinematic qualities, I'm not sure that's true - part of the fun is figuring out how the strands tie together, if they do, and a movie would make the subtleties more explicit and would no doubt overplay the satire. Fun to read, and we'll see where Walters takes us.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Hitting an easy target: A Hollywood satire

Somehow Jess Walters's novel Beautiful Ruins reminds me of Visit from the Goon Squad: they both satirize and send up a culture about which we're all inevitably interested and curious, despite our contempt for their values and taste, i.e., Hollywood entertainment and pop music. Both are pretty funny and well done - Ruins the more so, at least based on first few chapters that have some damn-close-to laugh-out-loud lines (Client to agent: I've begun writing again. Agent: Wait, I'll call the Nobel Committee.), but when all is said and done: aren't these ridiculously easy targets? For a novel so immersed in Hollywood as Beautiful Ruins, I wonder what the point is or why Walters devotes her energy to this world that she holds in contempt - but this is only based on first two chapters, much depends on how she develops that material. Thus far, there are two plot lines that, at this point, are completely unrelated: First chapter is set ca 1960 on a small nearly deserted island off the Italian coast, on which a young hotelier has dreams of building his strip of land into a resort, when an American actress - she has a role in Cleopatra, filming in Rome, shows up on the scene and he falls in love at first sight. Second chapter, set in the recent present, Claire, a 30ish script reader for a has-been but famous director who now does shlock reality shows for the $, gets a job offer in a film archive - her dream job - and plans to quit her script job but gives it one last day and says she'll stay on if she gets one good pitch; meanwhile, a failed writer who has an afternoon appointment approaches her office ready to pitch - and we know what's gonna happen, obviously. So it's not the most sophisticated of structures but Walters's wit is sharp and her vision acute. If nothing else, the novel will offer incidental pleasures along the way - funny, snarky bits of LA gossip and glimpses of crappy proposals (many about zombies, the trend of the moment), much like the out-take bad auditions on Idol. And maybe - depending on how she joins the strands of the story - it will offer more.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

By indirection find direction out: A very unusual Argentine novel

So Patricio Pron's novel My Fathers' Ghost is Climbing in the Rain is a great example of a work that by indirection finds direction out: it's a novel about the Peronist political left in Argentina in the 1970s, and the dangers they faced include disappearance and death, and the disappointments they faced as they realized that they had built a cult of hero-worship rather than a sustainable movement, and the guilt about either survival or betrayal, and the guilty they felt about subjecting their children to lives in danger or hiding or on the run (the narrator recalls, when his sister prods him, that their father would go outside every morning and start the car - risking his own death by explosion before ever putting the children in the car for the ride to school - he'd forgotten why his father did that) - and yet the novel tells us almost nothing directly about these leftists and their actions. It's all told by a narrator whose father (note the weird plural in the title?) was part of the movement - and he, the son, left Argentina for Germany where he had mental problems and lost most of his short and long-term memory - but when called back to Argentina while father is deathly ill he slowly and gradually puts the pieces of his past, and his father's life, together, by looking at a collection of fragments his father had assembled - and even these fragments are not truly about the leftist politics but about a marginal figure who is murdered by some thugs who want to collect reparation $ he had received from the Argentine government, payment for the death of his sister - who in turn was a friend and comrade of the father. Long way of saying that the true theme of the novel seems to be pushed to the side and we only see it through fragments and glimpses - which could be a flaw, but which in fact is part of the portrait of the narrator: his coming of age is a gradual recollection and comprehension of the true activities of his parents, a knowledge that he'd run away from, repressed, and forgotten - but that now he feels is his burden and his mission. The fragments themselves for this unusual novel - and in a final twist, Pron in his afterword/acknowledgments/dedication informs us that the events described are about a true case of vengeance and murder (he apparently keeps the facts up to date on his website). It's a novel not exactly about the past but about a young man's coming to terms with the past - the past of his parents - and how their actions affected him, for both better (he's very devoted to his father) and worse (the fear instilled him his surely made him lose a large span - 8 years, as mentioned I think in the first sentence) of his adult life. A very provocative novel - could lead to some good discussion and analysis.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Series of Dreams - in Patricio Pron's novel

The narrator seems to "wake up" in part 4 of Patricio Pron's novel My Fathers' Ghost is Climbing in the Rain, as he begins to understand why his father collected so much material on the disappearance, death, murder of a man in a remote town - and what his father planned to do with this material. He suspects: write a novel. And we suspect: Pron/the narrator has taken on this task and created from the left-behind fragments the novel that we are reading. At the end of Part 3, the narrator becomes suddenly ill while visiting a museum (?) and goes home - actually, to his parents' home, where he endures a series of bizarre dreams. He wakes in part 4 and has a brief conversation with his mother and sister (?), wondering how long he was asleep, what time of day it is - a familiar passage to anyone who's recovered from a bout with flu or other debilitating illness. Not sure how Pron will wrap this up - but it remains an intriguing and puzzling novel with, oddly, both a very intense focus on a single event and with a great deal of material about the narrator, his family, a brutal killing, and a social context - set against the background of the brutal Argentine regime of the 1970s that killed left-wing activists and terrorized the country.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Open novels, and the sense of an ending: My Fathers' Ghost Is Climbing...

In third section of Patricio Pron's novel My Fathers' Ghost is Climbing in the Rain, narrator begins to ponder why his father saved all these records about and got so involved in the search for the missing man in remote village - we know that the guy was murdered so that some thugs could collect money the Argentine government paid him in compensation for the disappearance and death 25 years back of his activist sister. We now begin to learn - as the narrator learns - that his father drew the sister into the leftist movement, that eventually led to her kidnapping and death- so he is expiating some of his guilt. But it doesn't explain why the father did not get involved with this man's life sooner, or why the intense almost obsessive interest in the case - or even why the son is so interested. But he does tell us it's his way of coming to understand his father - he is a very strange narrator and strange personality who approaches everything by indirection. The novel is very notable for its almost complete lack of dialogue and "scenes" among characters in the typical sense - it is composed entirely of fragments of thoughts (narrator's) and of found documents (collected by father). Narrator says some very wise things about writing and literature; he knows that the father seems to be trying to break away from his profession, journalism, and to take on the challenge of writing a novel, but as he notes it cannot in any way be a "mystery" novel - even though we can see how the many fragments could be composed into a mystery. But the narrator rightly says that mystery novels put reality into a frame and a reassuring context: crimes happen, they are solved, and everything's ok in the end, in the novel, and thus, we are led to believe, in life. But he - and his father - know that in life events never completely wrap up, that not all mysteries are solved, that life is ambiguous and messy and full of guilt and of unspent emotions. Novels have a "sense of an ending," which makes them in that way different from life. This novel takes on the challenge of being more "like life" (not lifelike), so it intentionally is presented in fragments, with many missing pieces and ellipses. In this sense, I think Pron will not be able to resolve all the strands of the novel, but the open-endedness of this novel points perhaps to a more profound and intriguing design - a novel as unresolved as life.