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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, November 30, 2014

Jersey Shore - and the 4th volume of Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe series

Glad to start reading the terribly titled Let Me Be Frank with You, the 4th volume in Richard Ford's long-running Frank Bascombe series - now that Roth is retired and Updike gone, Ford's Bascombe series is probably the best American episodic chronicle of American life as seen through the consciousness of one outwardly ordinary American man. This volume - different from earlier ones in that it appears to be a set of four (sequential?) 60-page stories, or perhaps each is a novella - the previous three volumes were novels and the most recent, The Lay of the Land, was a very long and tedious novel, and I'm glad to see Ford has taken a vow of concision here. Bascombe is now 68 and retired from the real-estate business, living happily married or so it appears in a small central NJ town, having sold his very nice house on the coast. As we know from previous volumes, he's ruminative, loquacious, and opinionated, leaning somewhat left but not too far - he's a businessman and has to deal w/ a wide range of prospective buyers and sellers - well educated, and at heart a moralist. I read the first of the four sections - I'm Here - which begins in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, as Frank receives a call from the guy to whom he sold his own house, which is now in ruins, asking him for advice - Frank declines, as he's out of the business - and asking to meet him at the site of the ruin, which Frank assents to, out of some kind of moral obligation to the hapless buyer (who in any case, despite his loss of property, is very wealthy - the house was a vacation home, btw). Honestly not a hell of a lot happens in this story - perhaps typical of the previous volume as well - except that it gives Ford occasion for some excellent description of the coast in ruins and gives Ford/Bascombe occasion for many observations, on everything from the force of nature to Peter, Paul, and Mary (the trio, not the Biblical personages, though maybe this choice of detail reflects a Biblical aspect to the story - destruction and resurrection?). Ford's narrative ventriloquism - we have to believe that, though B. differs greatly from Ford in biographical detail, he is a mouthpiece through which Ford can opine and speculate - like most first-person narrators, for that matter - carries the day, at least through this section; the quality of the book as a whole will depend I think on how well each section adds to the picture of a man in a particular place and time, on whether one piece develops from the other or whether, at the end, we feel we've read 4 scraps from a work not completed or pulled together.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Draw conclusions on The Wall: The meaning of Sartre's story

Poking around in some old fiction anthologies I read or probably re-read (it's been a long time) Jean-Paul Sartre's story The Wall - a tense, well-paced, gripping first-person narrative about four men imprisoned by Franco's right-wing forces in the Spanish Civil War, all scheduled to be shot by firing squad at dawn. First of all, this is probably the greatest fictional account of the dread men go through while awaiting execution - only near-equal that comes to mind is Koestler's Darkness at Noon (not sure if that was also first person). Second, this piece holds an important place in Sartre's canon and for those grad students who today still may read and get lost in his philosophical tomes it's probably helpful and illuminating to read some of literary works. For a guy who became famous by writing dreadfully obscure philosophical tracts and essential creating the world concept of "existentialism," now passe but a guiding principle in post-war Europe and 1950s counterculture, such as it was, in America as well. I'd say comparisons between The Wall and his most famous play, No Exit - "Hell is other people" - have been the material that launched a thousand Ph.D. theses, or at least grad-school papers. Both about a small group - of 4 to be precise - held in some kind of captivity, driving one another crazy, unsure of their fate - but one really seemingly about politics and rebellion, the other about being and nothingness. Yet perhaps there's more of a connection between the two works than is first apparent. (Spoilers to come.) There should be no surprise that the narrator of The Wall survives the night and the dawn - as it seems he lives to tell the tale (though I think Koestler's narration of executive ends in sudden blackness, like the last moment of The Sopranos) - but what's striking actually is how her survives: they're trying to squeeze from him the location of a much more important loyalist soldier, he tells them a location that he believes to be a macabre joke - says the guy is hiding in the cemetery - but that turns out to be in fact where the guy is hiding, so they let the prisoner-narrator go (at least they don't execute him at dawn - long-term, we have no idea of his fate among these sadists and functionaries). The story ends with the narrator laughing at the apparent irony of his fate and his rescue. So the story of political resistance, in the end, becomes an existentialist tome as well - and a cynical one, at that. Heroism, ideals, resistance do not matter - we are all creatures at the hand of a more powerful fate, and our lives are a matter only of "existence" - not of "being" or "becoming."

Friday, November 28, 2014

I dissent: The Blue Flower is not a classic work of fiction

Ok 130 pp or so into Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower - i.e., more than half-way through the novel - and I have to register my dissent from the general consensus that this is her greatest book and a classic novel. For one thing, I believe the standard for a classic historical novel has to stand at a higher mark. The novelist is not creating characters, events, scenes, plot - but rather infusing a historical story line with life, meaning, insight. There are two types (at least) of historical novels: one takes an episode in history that we are most likely familiar and gives us new meaning and makes the dry scenes of historical tomes vivid. Think, for example, of Gore Vidal's historical fiction or, though I was not a great fan of this work, Wolf Hall. Another type takes a lesser-known or even largely unknown historical personage or episode and introduces this info to a readership - an example: The Great Lord Bird (John Brown rebellion). The novelist I think has to make the case this there's an advantage to presenting this material as fiction - there has to be some "value added," otherwise, why not a great biography like the many presidential bios in the U.S., Adams, LBJ, et al.? Fritzgerald takes a historical personage little known, to me virtually unknown except as a name-check, Novalis, a German Romantic poet, She tells his life story as a series of brief episodes through about 60 chapters each about 3 or 4 pages only. To me, first of all, he does not come alive through these vignettes - I don't see him ultimately as more than a fragment, a glimpse: he's an awkward young man and philosophical dreamer, somewhat weak-willed and very tied to his large, prosperous, bourgeois family, who falls in love with a 12-year-old girl and proposes marriage to her (when she comes of age), to the astonishment of his family not so much because of her age but because she's not in their view especially smart or pretty. The fragmentary nature of this novel ensures that Fitzgerald never explores any scene or emotion in any great depth, leaving Novalis unknown and elusive. Most important - why should I even care about this character? Absolutely nothing in the novel up to this point give me any indication of how he became a great poet, what he thinks about art and life - he's just a dream-filled undergraduate who likes to wax philosophical - but there's no evidence whatsoever of any great drive or talent or even struggle. Why did she choose this subject, and why is it so appealing to so many (mostly British) readers? To me, Fitzgerald makes this work unnecessarily difficult - almost sadistically enjoying overwhelming us with German place names, few of them familiar, and with many variants on the names of each of the characters - for ex., the main character called various Fritz, Friederich, and various spellings of his patronym - as if she's trying to mimic Russian fiction by adopting its least appealing characteristic, the obscurity of the nomenclature. There are so many works of modern British fiction more appealing, moving, and thought-provoking than this one - I don't get it.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A story that's not about ... or is it?: One Graham Short

Nice to see a story, One Graham Short, in The New Yorker by an Israeli writer - Etgar (?) Keret - that's not about contemporary social issues, Palestinian-Israeli conflict, religious fanaticism, just about a guy - could be American or British and anything, it doesn't really matter - who develops a crush on the girl who waits on him in his local coffeeshop and - hearing that she is into "recreational drugs" wants to come on to her by offering to smoke some weed with her (figures she won't turn that down, though she might turn down and invite to a movie or to dinner, leaving him forlorn), but first he has to acquire some marijuana, so he looks up an old h.s. pal who was a known stoner and asks if he can provide but the guy says he's completely "dry" since they've tightened security on the Egyptian and Syrian borders, but the guy works out a deal: a local lawyer who has a medical-marijuana perscription is willing to give them some marijuana return for their agreeing to accompany him to court and pretending to be the grieving and enraged friends of the (friendless) couple he represents, whose daughter was killed by a young driver of Egyptian descent and whose large family is there to support plea for a light sentence, so they go to court, scream at the other family, call them terrorists, get into a brawl, and the only way our narrator can bring himself to participate is to use his imagination and picture the coffee-shop girl as his wife and the victim as their late daughter. After the fracas, the lawyer provides, and he goes to the coffeeshop, face bruised from the fight - the waitress asks what happens, he says he fell, she indicates she'd be more interested had he been hurt in a fight (ha!), which gives him the courage to ask her to to smoke weed w/ him but to go to a movie - what he'd wanted all along - and (spoiler here ...) we never get her answer - but he does reflect that now he can't help but thinking of her not as a beautiful woman but as the mother of a car-accident victim. Wait a minute. Did I say this was not a story about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, about border conditions, about religious fanaticsm? At the end, we see surprisingly that it's a story about all of these things - subtly and mysteriously: the ethnic-religious tensions work their way insidiously into every aspect of contemporary life in Israeli, poisoning the legal system, the economic system (the sealed borders), the reckless behavior of youth (being "dry"), even fantasies, even crushes, even love. Excellent, concise story.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The development of the character of Fritz von Hardenberg in The Blue Flower

It really takes a while for Penelope Fitzgerald to get the story into gear in her "undisputed masterpiece," The Blue Flower, and to be honest I might well have given up on the novel - a series of very short chapters presenting the life story of the German Romantic poet Novalis (I knew or know almost nothing about him). The first 15 or so vignettes are confusing a difficult to follow - lots of characters introduced, some important others marginal, and the life of the poet - aka Fritz von Hardenberg - does not really come into focus: we see no particular evidence of his genius, and he's a passive character, a young many interested in philosophy and the arts - who isn't? - who lets his powerful father dictate the course of his studies and his career: Dad says he will study law and business and become, like his father, an inspector of the salt mines and a government official, and Fritz obliges: no American protest and yearning for independence and freedom. Eventually, about 80 pages in, Fritz is boarding at the home of a wealthy government official who's teaching him about business, and he begins a relationship of some sort with the man's niece, who's also living there as a household helper: she's in her late 20s, and by all accounts unlikely ever to marry - Fritz tells her that he yearns for friendship, and she becomes an audience of one for some of his first attempts at writing; obviously, she takes the relationship much more seriously than he does - he reads her a romantic poem and obviously she thinks, though cannot say to him, that she believes the poem is about her. Fritz goes off on a trip to meet another business-owing family and falls immediately for the daughter - who is, get this, 12 years old! I realize that in that era many marriages were arranged from an early age, but his seems really bizarre. Fritz announces his new love to all - obviously deeply upsetting Karoline (the niece) and his family (he has I think 10 siblings, all but one younger), who are upset not so much by the age differential but by what they consider her stupidity, immaturity, and homeliness. We have to wonder as well what is with this odd man to fall immediately in love with - and to propose to - a 12 year old girl - even if she were a beauty and a genius. The success of the novel, I would say, from here out, depends on his Fitzgerald can examine Fritz/Novalis's personality and his art. At this point, he reminds me somewhat of Prince Myshkin - not an "idiot," obviously, but a complete innocent, innocent to the point where his naivete leads him into terrible social and interpersonal blunders: acting on impulse, flouting convention, hurting others by blurting out his feelings, all the while under the thumb of his domineering father.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Disputation regarding an "undiputed classic": The Blue Flower

Inspired by not one but two reviews of the Penelope Fitzgerald bio I went back to read her most famous novel, The Blue Flower, which has been on my list for 20 years I guess; I think I've read only one other novel by her. Was impressed by the excerpts from her works in the Wood review of the bio the the NYer, and Wood called Blue Flower and "undisputed classic" so where have I been? One evening's reading into it - well, I won't dispute Wood's generalization but my mind's not made up. Clearly, it's an intelligent - and unusual - novel; I think all of her other work was contemporary English, and this one is set in the late 18th-early 19th century, in Germany - a historical novel about the life of Frederich (Fritz) de Hardenberg (may have that wrong), who became the German Romantic poet Novalis, and died, as Romantic poets tended to do, about about age 30. The novel is made up of many very short chapters, each a vignette - reminded me in that way of Mrs. Bridge. Some of the first are vivid anecdotes or scenes - the young Novalis wakened early int he a.m. and hustled off by a college friend to referee a duel - arriving in time to find one of the men with half his hand cut off, and Novalis puts the fingers in his mouth to keep them warm for possible re-attachment survey (about which we never learn the results); characters sketches of his mother, Auguste, who had 11 children and outlived all but one. But some of the sketches are (intentionally?) pretty rough going, with a lot of unfamiliar place names and historical references - and very little background or hand-holding. We're just thrown right into the complicated family, much like the friend whom Fritz brings home for a weekend visit - befuddled, and trying to make sense of those around him, or around us. This novel strikes me as the prototype of historical fiction that English readers love - and that came to fruition in Wolf Hall: a sequence of loosely connected, chronologically arranged scenes, without the narrative backing of authorial intervention and exposition. WH left me cold - Blue Flower seems more promising, perhaps because I'm more interested in its literary context, although Novalis is an author about whom I know very little. I wonder what drew Fitzgerald to such an obscure and distant subject, and why it found resonance w/ so many readers. Hard to imagine a successful publication in the U.S. - and in fact I believe it was never even issued in hardback edition in the U.S., publishers here having little faith in such esoteric material.

Monday, November 24, 2014

A great story by the near-forgotten Maugham that ends with a devastating line (I will not give it away)

Once upon a time ... everyone (but me) read Somerset Maugham, especially The Razor's Edge; the only book of his I've read, I think was a novel whose name I've forgotten about a colonial official who goes off to some pretty remote SE Asian capital, bringing his wife, and as I recall they get exposed to an Ebola-like virus and she dies - a good novel, and it provided me with a beautiful quotation that I used at my mother's funeral service. That said, Maugham hasn't exactly felt like a gap in my reading, as virtually no one talks about his work today it seems. But I've been turning occasionally to an old pb I have of Great European Stories, or some such title, and last night read Maugham's story The Colonel's Lady and thought it was terrific: a concise, painful, believable story about all that's wrong or could be wrong in a marriage. In this case, a Colonel retired to the English countryside; his wife is a "good wife" in every respect, or so he thinks, but she's not enough for him - too plain, too cold - and so he keeps someone "on the side" in London - he's all very clubby and class-conscious. His wife, Evie, publishes a book of poetry - he can't really even deign to read it but tells her it's "jolly good"; to his surprise, the book becomes a literary sensation (in that sense, this story is dated - otherwise, not) and he's "put out" by the attention she's receiving. So he reads the book and finds that it's a narrative about a lonely middle-aged woman and her deep love affair with a much younger man - who dies for love. Now the Colonel is deeply embarrassed angry; he talks to his lawyer about what he ought to do. The lawyer, a very sensible guy, tells me pretty much do nothing - and the Colonel comes around; the story is beautifully ambiguous - we never quite know whether she had such an affair or if she used her literary license - and he can never know, either - but we see very subtly and obliquely the enormous spaces between these two people and potentially between any two seemingly comfortably married adults. The story ends with a devastating line, which I will not give away - a question that the Colonel asks of his lawyer.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The ending of the Patrick Melrose novels

Patrick Melrose goes home alone after his mother's funeral, opting to avoid the company of wife and children to have some time alone in his "bedsit" (I guess we'd call it a studio apt.) to "unconsole." After flirting w/ the idea of calling the attractive waitress who served the catered food at the funeral - a pretty appalling idea, and would she really be interested in a wreck like him? - he takes a somber and complex assessment of his life. These internal passages are some of the densest and most challenging in the entire five-volume series; sometimes, I can't even understand the subtle working of his (or author Edward St Aubyn's) mind - same goes for the interior thought processes of the philosopher, Erasmus, though I think on those St. Aubyn may be having us on, and showing off, a bit - but the essence of Patrick's reflection is that he has to get beyond blaming his parents for the terrible things he's done in, and w/, his life:  it's kind of a self-administered psychotherapy, and in that sense it endorses friend Johnny's defense of his profession and puts the lie to the now late Nicholas with his bitter and foolish indictment of psychotherapy. If only it were as easy as Patrick likes to think! But he does make a wise observation that behind his harmful and even sadistic parents lay other layers of evil parents - all in need of love and pity. So where do we break the chain and break free? He seems to have warm feelings toward his children, but feelings are not (always) deeds and actions: he has pulled himself out of their lives to tend to his own needs and indulgences. Btu at the end of this dark novel (series of novels), there's a bit of hope and he decides to call his estranged wife and maybe bring himself back into the family life, chastened and a bit wiser. This is by no means an uplifting book, but it ends on an open, if not an entirely positive, note.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sorrow and Pity: Trying to empathize with Patrick Melrose

The writing in Edward St. Aubyn's At Last continues to be acerbic and brainy, full of smart exchanges, acidic wit, and thoughtful reflections, but omg the novel itself is so dark and dreary, as one might expect from a novel that takes place entirely at a funeral service and the "after party." We desperately want to like the protagonist, Patrick Melrose, and as we learn more about his childhood we feel sorrow and pity toward him - what chance did he have of a normal life, with such an upbringing? - but he (or St. Aubyn) makes it so difficult to like this guy, who's the epitome of snark. In this volume, through Patrick's recollections, we revisit the horrifying incident of his early childhood when his father threw him into the deep end of a pool then calmly explained to friend Nicholas how he didn't believe in pampering children etc., that this was the way to prepare them for the world, etc. - in other words, he was literally willing to kill his son to prove a point (kill, not sacrifice - nothing Biblical about this scene). As Patrick reflects after the service, however, his absent and indifferent mother was equally to blame - it's taken him a long time to get to this point, as we have made that observation volumes ago. All that said, he continues to be self-centered, narcissistic, and full of self-pity, as epitomized by his constant yearning (carried on by his older son, btw) for the family estate in France, where he'd spent so many happy hours - or so he imagines; we see them as miserable hours. In any case: Get over it. You were born to great privilege, and you've lost some of that privilege, but you still have far more - materially, anyway - than most people, plus a fine profession, if you care to use your legal skills to do any good for yourself or others - so the novel itself continuously undermines our attempts, our desire to empathize with Patrick. Fortunately, he has it seems one good friend from youth, Johnny, a psychiatrist, who adds a note of sanity and humanity to this novel: the long drive from the funeral home or crematorium to the club where the party will gather is a strong point in the novel, partly for Patrick's reflections - mocking Garbo, he notes that he wants to be alone with his thoughts - and partly for the occasionally wise counsel - alongside some quips - that Johnny has to offer. He may to a degree be an enabler, but he's also a rare, a unique steady presence in Patrick's life.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Story about bohood and cruelty in current New Yorker

Pretty good story in the New Yorker this week, Eykelboom, by Bard Watson, a writer I've been vaguely aware of but haven't read before and will watch for now. This story set in a small Southern town, perhaps in the 1980s or 90s?, on a suburban street on the edge of town and the edge of a swampy, mysterious forest eyed by developers and a great  place for kids in the neighborhood to explore, build forts, dig caves, etc. A new family comes to town (one of the tropes of story telling - a stranger comes to town ... ), the Eykelbooms, and they're more or less shunned by the residents - and the boys in the neighborhood never accept the kid their age - referred to only by his last name. There's something terribly wrong w/ this family, and we never know exactly what it is except that the fierce=looking father is a brutal disciplinarian who terrifies his son. The story is told essentially from the point of view of the gang of neighborhood boys - it's not a first-person plural narration, but it does feel like one, reminding me a little of Virgin Suicides - we see everything from a group POV without much sense of any of the individual boys in the group. The fairly simple plot builds up to a point where E. runs away from a feared punishment or beating by his odd father and he's never found again, which leads to much speculation over time as to whether he ran away from the family and started a new life or drowned in one of the sinkholes in the swampy area or was otherwise lost in and consumed by the dense and dangerous forest - fleeing from one danger into another. The story's about boyhood and cruelty - both by parents and kids - and the secret lives of others, very well narrated, believable, and kind of spooky.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Making sense of Patrick Melrose - pitiable and full of self-pity

Trying to make sense of the character Patrick Melrose, or more specifically of Edward St. Aubyn's depiction of Patrick in volume five of his series, At Last, which takes place, it seems (more than half-way through) entirely at the funeral service for his mother. After an extremely painful section of the novel in which we learn more devastating details about the abuse Patrick suffered at the hands of his sadistic and predatory father, and we are reminded of his mother's self-absorption, indifference, and failure to protect her son, material that can almost make me like Patrick despite his many flaws, St. Aubyn then shows us Patrick the whiner, the soul of self-pity: He goes off on a long revery about the property in France and how much he misses the glorious days of his youth (really? It would seem to me that his childhood home, scene of repeated sexual abuse, would be a terror for him that he would be glad to be rid of) and continues in his bitterness toward his mother for giving the property away to a spiritualist charlatan. Then, he is summoned to NYC to deal with a so-called small trust left by a great-grandparent - he's in NYC when he learns of his mother's death, conveniently putting the entire burden of managing the funeral on the shoulders of beleaguered (ex?) wife, Mary - and he learns the trust amounts to $2.3 million - no matter what this guy does to ruin his life, he always lands on his feet, so to speak. He does make some wise observations - summarizing St. Aubyn's theme - about the wasted lives of those in his social class, people who almost universally (his friend John may be the exception) contribute nothing to society and yet belief they are entitled to the great wealth and privilege that accrue to their social class. At last the funeral service starts, beginning with the Gershwin son, Plenty of Nothing, done in mock black dialect no less! - which Melrose considers perfect for the occasion but I would consider appalling - more self-pity and crude irony. Then one of the spiritualists speaks, an easy target of course for Melrose's scorn - but does he have anything to say? Is there anything he can contribute? If he so loathed his mother - fine, she deserves it, but why pretend otherwise? And if he does have feelings of love and gratitude, why not express them instead of sitting to the sidelines with a perpetual sneer?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Dying Aristocracy - and the horrors of an abusive father - the Patrick Melrose novels

As we get deeper into Edward St Aubyn's At Last, the concluding volume of the Patrick Melrose series, the question becomes not why has Patrick pretty much destroyed his life?, but rather how has me managed to live at all? As we move away from his mother - bad and self-centered as she may be - and learn more about his father, the novel becomes increasingly horrifying. If you thought the abuse scene in volume 1 set the tone for the portrait of an evil father, the abuse in volume 5 is more than a tone, it's an entire symphony - and the abuse involved other children as well. This portrait of the wasted lives of the fading British aristocracy is so brutal and extreme that by this point it becomes not an indictment of a class but a case history. In other words, the father is so evil that it's beyond class and in the realm of psychosis. The mother, thereby, becomes the more interesting character - guilty not because of what she did do but because of what she did not do: she failed to protect her child from the ravages of her own husband. Was she that desperate and needy that she as afraid to jeopardize her marriage, pathetic as it might have been? Or so impaired that she didn't see or know anything? Or just checked out - a metaphor, in a way, for a world in which the so-called upper classes are insulated from the suffering of others. We get much of this info in back story - the entire first third of the novel at least is set in the few minutes as the funeral service for Patrick's mother is about to begin - some of it from the POV of P's estranged wife: he has apparently abandoned his family (and his profession) but there she is, quiet and loyal, at the funeral. Not clear where the children are at this point. St. Aubyn's acid wit and unusual, analytic, precise syntax make the novel a both a challenge and a reward, especially when you come on such gems as Patrick noting that his much-ignored wife is reading a dense philosophy tract by a family friend, says that the only reason she might be reading that tome is if she were having an affair with the author, to which she says: Believe me, it's almost impossible even then. Touche!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Wealth and privilege squandered - The Patrick Melrose series

The 5th and final volume of Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose series, At Last, picks up more or less where the others left off: we're, I don't know, maybe 5 years later in Patrick's life, he's mid-40s, and it opens at his mother's funeral - obviously recalling his father's funeral, the subject of volume 2; both parents are hateful creatures, the father in particular, and this volume dwells on the 1001 ways Patrick can and should and does hate his mother. Shall we list them? First of all, as we learn from one of the legion of cynics who populate these novels, she descended from a line of American (horrors!) business financiers and her parents and aunts had tremendous wealth that they used for nothing but their own cybarritic (sp?) pleasure and for asserting class power, in other words, typical of most of the characters in this series of novels. Patrick in particular is angry at his mother for willing all of her property to a spiritualist charlatan - but we have to wonder whether Patrick would have done anything with an inheritance other than squander the money on drugs and alcohol. When wed last seen Patrick he was making strides toward recovery but somewhere between volumes 4 and 5 he's had another falling off: we learn that he has been depressed and suicidal, hospitalized for some time - time enough for him to condescendingly recollect the others in his recovery group and to develop some sort of fantasy crush on a much younger and possibly even more depressed fellow patient (Becky). What's happened, by the way, to his wife and children? They seem as this volume opens to have been tossed aside, like trash flipped from the window of a moving car. This is so odd - there are huge lacunae between the volumes of this series, reminding me in a way of Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, which I'm concurrently reading and which also over 11 volumes barely mentions the narrators wife and children. How odd; how English. In any event, this novel, from the first 50 pp or so, does not disappoint, depending on your appetite for acidic wit, but it feels as if it will be a descent even deeper into darkness, with no redemption. Are there any good characters? Do these people do anything useful, for themselves or their society, with the incredible wealth and privilege that has been handed to them at birth?

Monday, November 17, 2014

A ruling on The Children Act

Despite some quibbles - that is, some behavior that seems extreme and improbable (would the young man Adam Henry likely fixate on the 60-year-old judge whose order saved his life?), too many second-and narratives (summaries of cases in family and criminal court that maybe make for good discussion points but feel far too extraneous to the plot and narrated and a pedestrian manner) and a lot of showing off by by author Ian McEwan (I get it, your a British polymath, able to discourse on the law, architecture, classical music, the infield fly rule - just kidding), and a bad title, The Children Act is a very good novel, one that in fact gets better as it moves along to a very strong and moving conclusion (my experience is that far, far too many novels start off as a great idea and the author has no idea where to go with the premise or how to wrap it up). The great strength is the central character, Fiona Maye, a woman in crisis. As we gradually ascertain over the course of the novel, she is focused on her work to exclusion of her marital relationship, perhaps not feeling sexually attracted to her husband any more, but concerned about her aging and her losing her allure, and when she meets a young boy in the course of her work - visiting him "in hospital" to prepare to hand down a ruling as to whether he can be forced to take blood transfusions - she needlessly flirts with him (though should wouldn't see it that way); because he's so emotionally frail, he fixates on her, writes her letters, sends her poems, eventually follows her to a northern city where she's on assignment and asks if he can move in with her. She sends him away, but stupidly kisses him on the lips - stirring all kinds of emotions in him, presumably, and risking her career should anyone have seen her. Finally, she seems to begin to understand that what she needs is to re-gain the affection of her husband, who had started off the novel by walking out of the marriage but has now returned, and she begins to open up to him - though it will be a long and difficult process.  The last scenes is somewhat reminiscent of the close of The Dead, in mood and in plot elements - though in this case it's the woman, not the man who died young, who sang the beautiful song. Very intelligent examination of her psyche and of the challenges in many marriages. As a family court judge, she sees domestic world at its worst - her work life is consumed with battles between spouses over the fate of their children - so her image of what a marriage is or can be is distorted (much as a police officer sees his or her city as one of crime and mayhem - rather than a place where most people go through most days just living their lives). Perhaps not McEwan's best novel - that would be Atonement, with which this shares some qualities - the fate of a person hinging on one mysterious moment of contact and how that was perceived or misperceived.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The New Yorker name checks Dave Eggers, with mixed results

I know he's hugely popular but I haven't read much in the works of Dave Eggers - perhaps because he's hugely popular? - but have from afar admired his dedication and his principles, his works about the impoverished and oppressed in Africa and especially his tremendous work to advance literacy and writing skills among the youth, particularly in SF. That said, his story in current New Yorker, The Alaska of Giants and Gods (I keep wanting to read it as ... and Dogs), is probably not a great place to start: his style, as I've seen from the other shorter pieces of his I've come across, is breezy and witty, he has a nice eye for detail (this story set in Seward, Alaska, and captures what I imagine to be an accurate sense of place, desolate, cold, scenic in a brutal way) and a keen ear for voice - the main character, Josie, is sharply colloquial and true. But beyond this topical details, is there anything in the story as a whole that rings true? The premise is the J is a 38-year-old divorced mom of two young children, a dentist who gave up her practice after losing a serious malpractice lawsuit, and decides almost on a whim to sell everything, take the two kids to Alaska, rent an ancient RV, and set off for who knows what or where, starting with the bleak coastal fishing port of Seward. Who does this? Answer: only people in movies, or, occasionally, in stories. Unless the person is seriously mentally troubled or even abusive, and J. is none of these, just quirky, supposedly. OK, let's give the story its premise, but then what?: so J sits down near a wharf and an older man, Charlie, comes on to her and her kids and invites them aboard the docked cruise ship on which he's a passenger to enjoy a magic show. Properly, J wonders about whether she's getting into trouble but decides the guy is harmless. They go to the show, which is bad even by cruise-ship standards, but J., feeling sorry for the pathetic entertainers, begins cheering and hooting loudly, embarrassing those around her (do they think she's mocking and derisive?). The final entertainer has memorized all of the nation's Zip codes and has audience members call out a code and he tells them the location. End of story. Perhaps that's meant to be some kind of riff on the emptiness of American life and landscape? Or a nod to the 39 Steps - which would be OK if there were something going on here: what's Charlie up to? Are J and her children in any danger? What's next for them? I understand that perhaps this is lifted from a longer piece, that this is one episode on their odyssey, but if so it's a poor selection as the ending brings about no clarity, resolution, or even mystery. If this is part of a novel, I wouldn't write it off based on this excerpt, but when the NYer name-checks major authors they owe us more than this.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The best interest of the child: McEwan's novel and the questions it raises

Family Court judge Fiona (Maye) heads off by cab to a South London hospital to visit with the 17-year-old Jehovah's Witness boy who's dying of leukemia and declines blood transfusion on religious grounds; he's a bit sassy, precocious, and polymathic, like so many Brits (in literature, anyway) and probably in some ways like the polymath author of this novel (The Children Act - I know, another awful title), Ian McEwan, who absorbs (and regurgitates?) a tremendous amount of knowledge and info in this and other novels: in this, he's become authoritative on the, esp. family law, on architecture, on music, so far. In any event, she, and we, are impressed by the boy and saddened by him, too, his desperate need to keep talking with Fiona, to entertain her; oddly, he plays a little tune he's learned on the violin, and she knows it a setting for a Yeats poem, "I was young and foolish" (the opposite, btw, of My Back Pages, the great Dylan [not Thomas] lyric) and she sings it to his accompaniment. Oh those polymath Brits! Perhaps we're meant to see that she is that much more cultured than his rather poky parents who are insisting he not have the transfusion and who, as Fiona writes in her ruling, have kept him too sheltered for him to truly make up his own mind. The decision she writes is the one that most readers would wish for - save this poor f-ing kid's life and order the transfusion - but her reasoning is rather weird and narcissistic: we know far more about life than this teenager, and if he could ever break free from the cultish religion of his parents he, too, would choose life. This ruling does not seem to be w/in the scope of the law, which is to allow people to make their own decision as long as those decisions are reasoned and not harmful to others - though perhaps it is within the spirit of the eponymous act, which puts the best interest of children paramount. Had he been of age, i.e., 18, this would not have been at issue, but at 17 his views should not be relevant and she should simply rule against the parents without regard to the boy's own pleadings. At end of this section (3), Fiona's husband returns home w/ suitcase and, figuratively, hat in hand, and says he could not bring himself to carry on, or even begin, the longed-for affair with the 20-something. Do we believe him? What damage has this done to their marriage - or has his wished for infidelity exposed fissures in the marriage that neither had recognized?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Family Matters - in The Children Act

The second section of Ian McEwan's The Children Act brings the main character, a 59-year-old London family-court judge, Fiona, into her workplace: her husband Jack the night before told her he wanted to have an affair with a 20-something from his workplace, she naturally told him to go to hell, and he wallked (or drove - taking their only car, I think) out of the house. Now, through her day on the bench, she ponders her domestic crisis while dealing with the very difficult issues that come before her. IN part one we learned about 2 cases and now about 2 more: one involving a father who transported his children to Morocco and the mother wants them back - an issue to be taken up by some sort of world court; the other about a Jehovah's Witness family refusing permission for blood transfusions for their 17-year-old son (I once covered a story about that involving a much younger child). Each of these matters - including the domestic matter between Jack and Fiona - is like a test case for readers: what would you do? how would you decide? The only problem is that the material feels distant and undercooked - the cases before Fiona are presented largely in summary (though there is some interrogation on the JW case), and we don't get terribly emotionally or even intellectually involved in any of them, in that none of the characters come alive: they're characters twice removed, we're reading about someone else's reading about them (the case summaries or Fiona's decisions). I hope McEwan turns up the dial at least on the marital crisis: Fiona takes the rather impulsive and vindictive action of changing the locks on their house, which I would think would provoke some fireworks, unless Jack really just wants out of the marriage - despite his protestations that he loves Fiona - and will use her action as excuse for ending it all. Impossible to believe, btw, that he's not already engaged with the 20-something Melanie: as one much wiser than I on these matters has noted, a man doesn't leave a good woman unless he's already involved with someone else.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Seven weeks and a day (would have been a good title for McEwan's novel)

Started Ian McEwan's The Children Act - helpfully, he includes a quote explaining the act, a piece of British law that establishes that decisions in family court will be made in the best interest of the child (how novel) - and, though it's a little slow out of the gate it looks to be a pretty intelligent and thought-provoking novel Central character is a 60ish (but still beautiful, as a colleague remarks) family-court judge in London, sitting a lone and drinking heavily while working on some decisions; we soon learn that her husband, an academic (of course) has told her he wants to have an affair with a 20-something in his office or department - he's 60+ and will never have another chance, blah blah blah, but he still loves his wife and doesn't want to end the (childless) marriage. He wants it all, in other words. I his defense, he notes and she concurs that they have had ext for months (7 weeks and a day, he says - which she notes sounds like a sentence). Of course what anyone but a shit would do would be to discuss this problem and maybe get some couples therapy and try to save the marriage, but he seems like a shit. She of course suggests none of this, either, and tells him if he has the affair (which she suspects as would anyone that it's already under way - and you have to suspect that the 20something wants her claws into this guy and his $, right?) she will give him the boot. This rather tawdry and familiar marriage plot is enriched by discussion of several cases the judge has presided over or is working on: one of conjoined twins, one of whom cannot survive for more than a few months and will kill them both when he dies - should doctors be allowed to separate the two to save the life of one, over parental objection? The other: two young girls in struck orthodox Jewish family, parents separate and the mother wants them in a more secular environment, to which the father objects - what's in the best interest of the children? Though it seems obvious to side with the more secular mother, is that the right choice or just the one we would make? Remains to be seen how well McEwan uses these "case histories" - will he develop these two into full subplots, or will there be many to illuminate or parallel or even undercut various elements of the main plot? Hope he doesn't have too many such case histories, as the narration of same feels summative and dutiful rther than engaged and dramatic. He's done his research, though.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Kelman's Joyceans stories and others

James Kelman is not for all literary tastes and a little goes a long way as his stories are relentlessly bleak and sorrowful, albeit with plenty of wit and sharp observations, but I'd recommend to anyone to at least look at a couple of his stories in teh 1980s collection Greyhound for Breakfast; they range from what now has become "flash fiction"- only a single paragraph, often in first person, much like a prose poem or the "found" poetry popular in the 1970s such as Michael Casey's Obscenities (Vietnam War poems from a combatant) - to very short fiction, 3 or 4 pages, with a few standard-length stories in the collection as well. Would recommend the title story, last in the book, as a place to start - a story about a man who obviously foolishly buys a greyhound racing dog w/ dreams of making some money at the track yet has no idea how to care for the dog - spends the entire day, and story, walking around Glasgow with his dog, worrying about how he'll explain this odd purchase to his wife, who's "always right" and children - weans, in Glaswegian dialect. the story will obviously evoke in micro form Leopold Bloom's journey across the streets of Dublin, and many of Kelman's stories are Joycean, not just because of the stream of consciousness and use of dialect but also thematically: lots of drinkers and "punters" (bettors), lots bumming of cigarettes and drinks, and also several stories about children: a very good one about a boy bullied at school who tries to stand up for himself (The Wee One Who Died, is the title I think) and another, Sunday Papers, about 12-year-old subbing for his older brother delivering newspapers: both stories are particularly poignant for the glimpses they give us of the difficult family lives of these children, parents too caught up in their own poverty to offer much support if any for the children. Few of these stories are about women, unfortunately, and in those that are the women come off poorly (to be fair, so do the men) - in one amusing short piece, Dear O Dear, a man notes seeing an attractive woman in a store, has brief fantasy about her, than sometime later sees her on the street arguing with a john about money he owes her for "last time" - the typography itself is worth looking at in this story, as Kelman arranges the line breaks to literally draw a sketch of a woman.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A very short story, what it means, and why it works

Trying to get at the  unusual qualities of James Kelman's short stories (in Greyhound for Breakfast), which, as noted in previous posts, give voice to the marginal, to the down and out work-class people, men almost always, in contemporary Glasgow. From title of book you can see that Kelman is deft and provocative with titles; some of the pieces are extremely short and seem more like fragments of even prose poems, on for ex., that's a paragraph long only with the title The Man for Fuck Sake and which begins: "This man for fuck sake it was terrible seeming him walk down the edge of the pavement." Check the rhythm of that sentence and how it conveys the pattern of thought (if that's the right word) and the rough cadence of voice: not a man but "this man" - particularizing, pointing out; the interpolated "for fuck sake" not only there for its vulgarity but to add a sense of pity, we feel sorry for "this man" so obviously impaired but what can you do about it? Yes, "it was terrible" just to see him walk - but now his walking is some undefined time in the past - "this man" becomes "that man," in a sense. And why was it terrible? Because he was on the "edge of the pavement" - there no doubt because the speaker and his "mates" were walking, toward him?, down the middle of the pavement and "this man" was trying to avoid them. The paragraph/story ends: "How can you blame us? You can't, you can't fucking blame us." So "they" did some harm to "this man" - robbing him, injuring him, pushing him into traffic? It's unstated - though we think back to the first story in the collection about three toughs who rough up a guy sitting on a park bench, and the many moments in these stories of someone asking a weaker counterpart for a cigarette or for some money - but in this story there was, apparently, an act of violence, never described though, just left aside and ending in the pathetic but frightening apologia. Why can't we blame them, why shouldn't we? Because their world is one of chance and opportunity - why wouldn't they rob this guy, he made it so easy? He was natural prey. The broader question is: whom is the speaker addressing? He seems to be speaking almost to himself, or perhaps to a fellow drinker in a pub - and trying to convince himself that he should be blameless, but in a sense making his case worse: we do blame him, we feel sorry for the man on the edge of the pavement, who could be anyone, any of us, at any time.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A culture not often given a voice in literature: James Kelman

A few of the odd stories in James Kelman's Greyhound for Breakfast are just eyebrow-raisers but most are really excellent, each a look at the lives of struggling people, many of them low-level hoods and gamblers, in contemporary (1980s) Glasgow - for most readers they will call to mind Dubliners, but of course the language is much more fierce and vulgar and Kelman, with 80 years of grace since Joyce showed the way, is more daring in his use of "stream of counsciousness." One excellent story in the vein of Dubliners is the piece about a "lad" who invites a buch of his friends over while parents are out for some games of poker; surprisingly, the parents and another couple come in early, a little high, and when the father sees that the son's been playing cards he invites the boys to sit with him for a few hands - in order to teach a "lesson" - as he gradually raises the stakes. The story gets pretty nasty. In contrast, one of the very short stories in this collection - some are only a page or only a paragraph - a guy recounts standing on a betting parlor and a man comes up, bums a cigarette, then lights it with his own gold lighter and indicates he's just there waiting for the bank to open so he can cash a check. Cigarette-giver feels burned. So many of the people, almost all of them men, in these stories are living day to day, hand to mouth, always bumming a last, half-crushed cigarette, looking for a way to win a little money at cards of the track, maybe not averse to some low-level crime - a very tough world, a set of characters not often given a voice in fiction, and here captured quite vividly. In some ways it's probably best not to read through the collection in sequence, as the tone is pretty much uniform and, with so many stories, it's hard to remember most of them specifically - but on the other hand the pieces do form a whole portrait of a culture, again as in Dubliners, with the whole becoming perhaps greater than the sum of its parts.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Problems story writers face

I've been a fan of Antonya Nelson's stories for some time - though have read them primarily in the NYer and not in volumes. Not to knock the short-story form, but I wonder why she hasn't tried her hand at a longer form (maybe she has and I've missed it); even Alice the Great (Munro) gave it a shot. In any case, Nelson is a true devotee of the short form and her stories always bring something to the table. She's observant, very witty, and she has tremendous insight into the lives and minds of young women, usually very intelligent, often Midwestern, in difficult and often unconventional famly situations. Current NYer story is case in point, from the title, which will make you think twice (and maybe turn to Google if you don't get the reference), Primum nole nocera (my spelling is probably off, sorry) to the puns and misperceptions (girl thinks her mother, a psychotherapist, is asking callers if they are "cell-phoning," when in fact she's asking if they're "self-harming"- ha - though a bit of a stretch). Nelson accurately captures the conflicts that occur in a family where one of the parents is a psychotherapist and can say almost nothing about the work that consumes her life every day - and the patients call all the time, anyway. In this story, a woman shows up at the door while teenage daughter is home alone; woman sneaks her way into the house where she will wait for the mother to come home. Daughter feels increasingly uncomfortable, and eventually threatened, and manages to call her stepfather - quite a bit younger than the mother - who comes home and tries to put things right, without a lot of success. In short, an excellent premise for a story, and Nelson had me with her all the way - but I will raise the quibble that the story, once the highly competent and outspoken mom returns home - just sort of ends without much resolution. Imagine what Joyce Carol Oates would do with this set-up - or maybe don't imagine. Nelson bumps up against the problem many story writers confront all the time: I've created characters and a situation, and now what? Short stories can get away with being just a scene, a perception, a moment in time - but the more they depend on a traditional story arc, the more we expect the arc to complete the design. I felt a little let down by this story, which does not fulfill its, or my, expectations.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

On the outside: A highly unconventional story collection from James Kelman

James Kelman, Scottish fiction writer and controversial Booker winner some years back, is definitely not for everyone and, in large doses, probably not for anyone - but he has created a style and world view all his own and is one of the few and one of the best at getting into the mind and consciousness of outsiders and the marginal. First few stories in his late 80s collection with the odd title of Greyhound for Breakfast (I don't know, you tell me) show his talent at its apex (or nadir, depending on your point of view): some a very short almost sketches, two among the first 30 pp or so are longer and more like conventional short stories, at least in magnitude: Old Francis and Renee. Each is the  sole consciousness in these first-person narrations. Kelman gets at the ebb and flow of cognition as well as anyone since Joyce, as he has us follow the characters through a few days, or in the case of OF, in a few minutes. We see the struggles of their lives (the narrator in Renee is a Scotsman working a fairly menial job in London and squatting in the factory or warehouse or institution - hard to know - where he works; story is about his awkward by finally successful attempt to get together with a co-worker, the eponymous Renee - another young person far from hom and just barely getting by in the big city; Old Francis, a Glaswegian, like most Kelman narrators and characters, tells his own story, his confrontation with a trio of toughs who rough him up a bit as he's sitting on a park bench). These stories are at times crude and vulgar, but also deeply sensitive to the hard life and times of the characters; he's not interested in presenting a view of an entire society, nor in the conventional resolutions typical of English fiction over the years - growth and maturation of an outsider narrator who eventually is incorporated into or welcomed by or even elevated within conventional society and class structure, cf Copperfield, Tom Jones, et al - but rather a rogue's gallery showing the lives of the bystanders, each with his or her own histories, traumas, hopes, and dreams - even if the dream is just to get by.

Friday, November 7, 2014

These people are all crazy!: Volume 11 of A Dance to the Music of Time

So volume 11, Temporary Kings, in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, ends, as do the other volumes, without a real sense of conclusion - nor should these volumes conclude with a finality, as each is part of a grander design; in this volume, the last scene is a Pamela Widmerpool, the beautiful but sadistically deranged wife of the obsequious and pathetic Lord (Kenneth) W., reaching her apex, or nadir, as she discusses openly and disdainfully her infidelity to Widmerpool, his sexua voyeurism and the thrill she gets from being on display - recalling here the ceiling fresco discussed earlier in this volume - and then crudely describes how another of her lovers, the American film producer Glober (?), collects snippets of hair from the "pussy" of each woman he has sex with. One-upping, Glober suggests that he uses the hair as pillow stuffing,Ha? Huh? Ugh? These people ar all crazy - that's about the only conclusion one can draw at this point - despite all they've lived through in war and peace, their lives consist of consistently making one another miserable. Powell keeps this novel moving along with his sharp with and great ability to mimic all sorts of speech, including windbags and cliche-spouters. The final moment of the volume has the narrator, Nick, meeting Widmerpool by chance, as W is on his way to the House of Lords (the fact that he sits in the House tells all we need to know about British government and the death of the empire); W. is full of complaints and self-pity, indicating he was set up in a recent scandal (he was accused of being in the employ of a Soviet satellite state but got cleared for some reason), and then he continues on his way: life, history, England marches on, slouching toward Bethlehem.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Analysis of a sentence in A Dance to the Music of Time

Here's a sentence from vol 11 (Temporary Kings) of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time: "Friends made in a military connexion were, on the whole, to be seen more conveniently, infinitely more agreeably, in settings of a less deliberate character, where former brother officers, now restored to civilian life in multitudinous shapes, had often passed into spheres with which it was hard to make conversational contact." This sentence gives you an idea of Powell's style and way of thinking - incredibly English (yes, "connexion" is not a typo), hesitant, ruminative, full of qualifications and almost amusing circumlocutions. It's anti-American or at any rate anti-Hemingway (whom he mentions a few times), but not at all decorative, florid, or effusive (not Proust, not Faulkner), not experimental (not Joyce either). At times, he's almost a Python precursor - can you vaguely hear the John Cleese of the cheese shop episode, "ceasing [his] Walpolian activities in order to convey myself ..."?) You could "translate" the sentence into this, I think: When you meet Army friends after the war, your lives are so different that it's almost impossible to have a conversation. But that squeezes our all the nuance, and all the sense that Powell consistently gives us of a mind at work trying to chronicle his life. Interestingly, this 12-volume novel isn't difficult to read, even though the individual sentences sometimes are; there's also a lot of dialogue, very clear in the writing though very subtle in the nuances, and there are extremely few languorous passages  - so it's possible to read the novel at a good clip, not pause to puzzle over the subtleties of language, just get the plot, which is deliciously gossipy throughout. Doing so, however, misses the point - strangely, almost paradoxically, this is a novel that moves forward rapidly, each volume is pretty short and covers only a small swath of time, but that has an almost hypnotic semantic rhythm, forcing your own mind, as you  read it, or write about it, to reflect and qualify, as I am doing in this sentence.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Unusual sentence structure and a very funny gag line: Dance to the Music of Time

Took a look at a website to try to get the clef to the roman a clef aspect of A Dance to the Music of Time and it does seem, despite Anthony Powell's demurring that most of the characters are based on actual people - all but one or two completely obscure to me - of composites of same. Good thing he as a novelist, even under Britain's stricter law, was protected against suits for libel - as so many of the characters are really devious - most especially Lord and Lady (Kenneth and Pamela) Widmerpool. In volume 11, Pamela's serial infidelities reach the point of mania, and so many other characters major and minor are skewered by Powell's sharp wit: example being the character newly appearing in this volume, Tokenhouse, an amateur artist living in Venice w/ strong views on everything and who imagines himself an artist as left-wing social critic. His work sounds pretty dreadful. Another "new" character in volume 11 is the American movie magnate and ladies' man, can't quite grasp his name here, but he is a precursor to Ted Turner (right down to the Montana ranch). It almost seems his entire reason for being (in this novel) is to build toward a gag line: describing the potential movie about a lovers shootout at his dude ranch, someone calls it The Western of the Playboy World. Ha! As in all previous volumes, the narrator, Nick, is a trenchant observer but hardly a participant in any of the action - unlike everyone else in his set, he has no outside dalliances or strong views on anything, and, as noted in previous posts, we know virtually nothing about his back story and even less about his wife and children. In these posts I virtually never quote from a printed page, but maybe tomorrow will have the copy beside me as I blog and quote a brief passage or two to give readers a sense of Powell's unique literary style: fairly simply languages and extremely complex sentence structure, like a mind at work, a complex mind.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A truly powerful and original post-apocalyptic story by Jess Row

I really don't know much about Jess Row though I'm sure I've read other stories by him (her?) in the New Yorker - will go back and see if I can figure out which - but whatever I may have thought of other Row works I have to say I was very impressed by and disturbed by Row's story in the current New Yorker, The Empties - New Yorker remains a a roll w/ many strong stories, some by debut or little-known authors, in recent issues. Ro'w The Empties is a post-apocalyptic story (the character banter as to the difference between post-apocalyptic and dystopian - our first hint that these are educated, intelligent characters), set somewhere in the near future in Vermont. Somehow for unexplained or unknown reasons the entire power grid of the U.S. (or is it the whole world? apparently not as there is a brief mention of Chinese flights) has gone down permanently. There are many post-apoc books and films - in fact, the characters discuss some of them in trying to make sense of their plight - and the grim and surprising realism of this story puts the others - like McCarthy's long trek through deserted landscape - in the shade: they seem very fictional compared with this story, which I think gets much more at the feeling of daily living in those conditions. We center on a 30ish female protagonist - I don't think we ever learn her name - and she seems to be living in what may once have been her parents' house? - there are many "unknowns" in this story - which has a reasonable amount of supplies, for the moment. She has relationships with a few different men, but other than one - a carpenter, I think, with whom she barters sex in return for services - it's unclear if any of the relationships are romantic. People seem to have pulled away from one another in their struggles to survive, or actually to endure: Row examines survival in precise and sometimes surprising ways - the barter, the value of cordwood, the smart Vermont self-sufficient folks who gerry-rig some charging stations, the issue of laundy and of garbage (reference to the title), most of all the need for food and the fear of on-coming winter. In an odd scene a stranger arrives in town with word of a convoy of black SUVs from the government, heading for Canada. Knowledge is scarce, and rumors fly - and by leaving various aspects of the story ambiguous and by giving no back story at all, Row puts us right in the mood of this dwindling community. The whole story makes us ask, wonder: How much to we take for granted? How thin is the thread holding us in place? Could we survive in such a world? Would we want to?

Monday, November 3, 2014

The most gossipy literary novels ever written?

No doubt Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time is the most gossipy literary novel (or series of novels) ever written, about 50 years worth of "dish" - the various loves, hates, lives, deaths, achievements, despair, malevolence and benevolence among a set of about 20 people whose lives continue to cross over decades and continents, through war and peacetime, as all of England consisted of about 20 people (which for those who've lived there and been part of a "set," literary or theatrical or journalistic of whatever, will make a lot of sense - England feels like a many little clubs inhabiting the sceptered isle) or maybe the 20 are representative of greater social forces - a Chaucer's pilgrims represent in their way all of medieval England. But no these characters aren't really types - they're distinct and peculiar (right down to their crazy names, e.g., Dicky Umfravillle, Forrand-Senechal, X Trapnel, to name 3) - as as I read through, now in volume 11 so about time I asked myself this, is there any greater meaning and significance, or is it all just gossip (a friend of M's once said that all literature is basically just gossip, and there's some truth to that: all fiction emanates from the same well as gossip: Let me tell you a story ... )? Well for one thing I suspect much of Dance to the Music is a roman a clef, to which I don't have the clef - but I'm sure people have written about this and decoded the characters, many of whom, of course, are composites. There's much incidental talk about art and culture, but it generally feels like small talk; comparing it with the long discourses in, say, Knausgaard, comes out not in Powell's favor - again, the literary talk often descends to publishing-world gossip. There is very little description - of anything actually - very much unlike Proust in that regard. Mainly, the novels are character-driven - we see characters unfold over a long period of time, living through not just one but literally a dozen different phases - phases not only in their lives but in modern English history - and I'll go with the majority of critics and agree that the wartime (and the immediate postwar) novels are the strongest, as they chronicle the time when English culture was under its greatest duress. But when I come right down to it I do like these novels as high-end gossip, and I believe they particularly come to life primarily when Widmerpool is on the scene: he appears in numerous guises throughout all volumes, and by now, in volume 11, in a tempestuous relationship with his abusive wife, Pamela, herself a serial cheater, that we almost, but not quite, feel sorry for the man: superficially so successful but, as everyone knows, a completely obsequious and insufferable man: Victor Kartheimer (aka Pete Campbell, of Mad Men) could and should play him, if they ever remake a TV series of these novels.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Childhood Lost: We know almost nothing about the narrator's family in A Dance to the Music of Time

We get a rare glimpse into the childhood of the narrator, Nick Jenkins, in volume 11 of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time - yes, that's right, volume 11, and it's kind of incredible how little we know about Nick's family, his upbringing, his ancestry, and his childhood - usually the basic raw materials from which writers craft bios or memoirs or, and especially, autobiographical fiction - just thinking of three other similar magnum opi that I have been reading or re-reading: Proust (the font of all), St. Aubyn, and Knausgaard, to name 3 - all of which build on a foundation of childhood memories and trauma, variously. Not Powell - and there may be something consummately English in this, as if his life began in boarding or, as they so quaintly call it, "public" school. Even what we get in volume 11 is only a hint - we learn that his father was in the military (maybe he'd said this somewhere before but he did little w/ that information), that he took the family to Venice - in between postings? for vacation? I'm not sure - and he had fallings out w/ various friends over the years. Nick recalls one of these friends manquees, who is now in Venice, where Nick is attending a writers' conference, and he takes steps to look up this oddly named guy: Tokenhouse, I think. This diversion of the plot - to a character not even mentioned up to this point - is a typical Powell feint, pulling him away - I think - from the unfolding "action" - and maybe we'll never get back to learning about Nick's childhood, or maybe if he does connect with Tokenhouse he, and we, will learn more about his paternal lineage.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The litr'ary life: Volume 11 of A Dance to the Music of Time

Returned to Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time and started on volume 11 (of 12), Temporary Kings; it's clear that the last "movement" of this series is about the literary life in which Powell, or more precisely his narrator and alter ego, Nick Jenkins, engaged in after the 2nd World War. I have noted regarding previous volumes that there are amazing ellipses in the narrative: we are told that Nick is a published novelist but see and know almost nothing about his intellectual life or literary tastes, that is, he doesn't seem like a novelist in the way that Proust's Marcel or, more recently, Knausgaard's Karl Ove, consistently do. By the last three novels, however, though we still know little about his taste and sensibilities except perhaps by inference, we are absorbed in the London world of literary gossip and backbiting, an insular world, then (this volume set int he mid-1950s) and still, at least compared with the varieties of literary experience in America. In volume 10 Nick was working for a left-leaning publishing house and magazine, Fission, and working with the rising star literary phenom, a Wellesian (Orson) character, X. Trapnel (?) whom, at the end, steals from the loathsome and careerist Widmerpool his beautiful and cruel young wife, who in spite destroys the novel that X had nearly completed. Now, about 5 years later, Nick has risen in stature and is invited to various international literary conclaves, quite a life, where the same people gather to talk and gossip at the expense of others. At a conference in Venice - once more, his wife is almost entirely out of the picture - he meets an American professor who is hoping to write a bio of X: we learn that X never recovered from the loss of the manuscript, his talent waned, his bloviated waxed, and he died young. I think one of the running jokes is meant to be the ridiculous nature of Trapnel's title, his most famous work entitled Camel Ride to the Tomb. But I'm not exactly sure Powell means that to be funny, as his titles are equally absurd: Temporary Kings, btw, is a reference to a theme of The Golden Bough, regarding village folk given royal status for a day or so during a seasonal holiday (e.g., the May Queen) - the idea being that literary stars such as Nick et al. are enjoying only fleeting fame, on loan from and largely to amuse the truly powerful and influential (while lulling the masses into narcosis).