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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

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Authenticity and the novel: The case for Robert Stone

Can't say by any means that the ending of Dog Soldiers (Robert Stone) is uplifting but Stone holds a few surprises in store right down to the last page or two, and we do see Converse, the guy whose greed and stupidity put this whole drug-smuggling deal in motion, make one wise and ethically sound decision (won't give it away). The 30-page account of Hicks's trek across the forest and salt flats, badly wounded by a shot from an imploding pellet, hoping to reach the two with whom he's collaborated and whom he betrayed in the deal on gone haywire, in hopes that they will rendezvous at agreed point and drive him to safety, is Stone's tour de force, an internal monologue that's near-Joycean in power and in range. I've noted before but worth noting again that Stone is, or was, almost unique among writers of literary fiction in that he seems to have down perfectly the world, jargon, world-view, motives, interior life of some very low, even despicable characters - the type whom most writers rarely encounter or, if they (we) do, are so alien that we cannot enter their consciousness except through heist or satire. Stone seems to know this world intimately - whether from his own experiences or from his fertile imagination, I can't say and it doesn't really matter. The writing feels authentic and genuine - for the most part (he does have a penchant for highly literate thugs, which I think is a writerly exaggeration or conceit) - and if a thug were to read Dog Soldiers and laugh and say Stone got it all wrong, so be it. Do you have to be Iceberg Slim or Lee Abbott to tell of the life of the underworld? I think a smart writer with an eye, an ear, an imagination, and a reportorial interest in other people and cultures can give us access to a world and consciousness not entirely his own - which does not mean trying out a heroin just to use the experience in a novel or screenplay, as Stone shows through the fate of a minor, idiotic character (not a thug) in this novel. Not a novel or novelist for all tastes, but a thrilling and imaginative story-teller who explored avenues down which few have ventured.

Friday, January 30, 2015

What it's like to read a Robert Stone novel

Reading a Robert Stone novel (Dog Soldiers, in this case) is a little like going on a really scary carnival ride - where the whole time you feel sick, scared, excited, thrilled, exhilarated  (maybe) and at the end you say: what did I do that for? And maybe you'll ride again anyway. His novels, from what I can see, are sui generis - though drawing perhaps from Elmore Leonard (the tough-guy low-life talk, well researched or observed, depending) and also from Pynchon - the antic, complex plots that often involve a journey of desperados - maybe he and Pynchon influenced each other come to think of it. What makes Stone special is that he uses the noirish tough mystery-novel gear in a high-literary fashion; nothing seems quite to fit: thuggish, murderous characters who read Nietzche, quote Hemingway and Blake (if I remember) and Danny Kaye (yes, I picked that one up - probably few did as I think Danny Kaye and Robert Stone are two worlds that rarely coincide). All to say that I am quite engaged w/ this novel, that I've nearly finished, but don't know that I'll feel anything but relief when I do finish: with partial exception of Dieter, the guru/sensei who at least has moral values even if he spouts a lot of nonsense (and I'm guessing he's the character that Stone knew best, so to speak), these are a very unlikable lot who deserve one another. One witty irony of this novel is that it begins in Vietnam, where we see no combat whatsoever, and ends in the American southwest on a Zen retreat where Stone presents a battle scene among drug dealers and various outlaws that's worthy of its place in any novel; I don't know where Stone gathers his experience - he obviously has a tinderbox of an imagination, characters he may have brushed against ignite or bloom, to change metaphors - but I don't think he saw combat - but his narrative about armed combat is great; there are a few others who wrote about combat without experiencing it - Crane for one, also Stewart O'Nan more recently - Stone, too. Toward the end, one of the main characters, Hicks, badly wounded, goes on a trek across an unpopulated landscape seeking rescue - a great extended scene, which remind me in some ways of Cormac McCarthy, a high compliment.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Where is Robert Stone in Dog Soldiers?

Wondering where author Robert Stone exists among the characters and events of Dog Soldiers - in that the material feels, intentionally, like a world that few writers would know anything about, hustlers and drug runners, addicts and thugs, purveyors of porn, corrupt cops, washed out dreams and hopeless addicts - not the kind of background from which writers usually emerge. Well, there are at least 2 writers in the novel: the guy who sets the drug deal in motion, Converse, who in the first two or three chapters reminded me of a world-weary Graham Greene hero (I was soon disabused of that) - he's a would-be writer with one moderately successful play (about a Marine who it seems turns against the service?), not written anything worthwhile since, goes to Vietnam for some material and inspiration, ends up running heroin - and writing cheap tabloid crap for his successful, left-wing father-in-law. This guy is not Robert Stone - Stone is in no way a washed-up, disillusioned writer caught up in schemes and scams. The second writer is a would-be Hollywood screenwriter, presumably very prosperous (not from earnings but from marriage) who hooks up with the Rx dealers to try some H just to have the authentic experience before he writes about it. Guess what: he dies. Not Stone there, either - not only because Stone lives to tell the tale but because he would not pay for cheap access to experience. Though it's hard for me to believe that Stone knows this world of dealers as part of his direct experience, I think he must be a master of the indirect experience - a guy who listens and learns, takes everything in, and has his own way of giving the "status details" vibrancy and life so that his writing never feels like a report from a foreign land but rather like something intimately known to the writer. I would say Stone is most like the guru/senei/Zen master who's retreated to the top of a mountain somewhere in the Southwest - when two of the dealers - Ray and Marge - come to see him in hopes that he'll offload their stash, he instead tries to pull Marge from her addiction. He's one of the few, maybe the only, morally sound adult characters in the novel. Stone, as noted yesterday, has self-described as an active participant in the counterculture; I think he must have seen, through a glass darkly, the underside that this novel conveys but has removed himself from that world to observe and recollect, as from a great height and from a higher order of wisdom and perception.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Does Robert Stone truly write about the "counterculture"?

You can't stop, or I can't stop, reading Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers in the same way that you can't not turn to look at an accident scene. That's a tribute to the power of Stone's writing - just excellent clear direct sentences, sharp observations, odd and oblique dialogue - even though the world he depicts is dark and insane and pretty much nothing at all like the world that most of us - I think - live in and maybe not a real world at all, even among the most desperate of junkies and dealers isn't there at least a shred of affection and humanity? His characters are across the board addicted (Rs and alcohol), selfish, greedy - and never stupid. That's the quirk: they're low-lifes but all highly intelligent and well-educated. They - or Stone - even show off: someone quotes a passage of literature, asks another "do you know who wrote that?" and the response is "yes" - which of course puts him on a plane above me as I had no idea (well, maybe I had an idea). Definitely not a writer for everyone, as this novel is unrelentingly dark, but inasmuch as one pleasure of fiction is to bring us (safely) into places that we have never seen or known, either in our own time or others - or even in other worlds - Stone certainly does that: most readers of serious literary fiction, his own conceit aside, aren't all that familiar with heroin dealers and could hardly imagine stepping into that world as amateurs, as his hapless protagonists do, with expected consequences. What I wonder is whether this is a real (realistic) world-view or concocted solely, or primarily, from Stone's rich imagination. I know from the few interviews and appreciations I've read that Stone considered himself an active participant in the counterculture, whatever that may mean (it wasn't exactly a political movement in any unified sense) but this dark side was never so far as I knew a part of the counterculture of the 60s and 70s - unless it was the hidden fires of hell that fueled the engine of peace and love?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When you're down in the Rain: Living the low life in Dog Soldiers

Noting now that Robert Stone's 1974 novel Dog Soldiers is not about Vietnam - though it begins there, at the height of the war - but is about a drug deal - moving pure heroin out of Saigon, via a military transport, into California - and in particular about the chain of risk-taking, clever, drug-crazed, well-educated (often self-educated) misfits that move the Rx for a few thousand bucks. Stone is rightly known, honored, and remembered as a chronicler of tough guys and tough talk, and his novels, from what I know of them, are worth reading for the dialogue alone: enigmatic, even cryptic, with phrases often broken off, interrupted. Everything in his novels is oblique, characters never quite sit down with one another and say, look, this is what we're going to do, this is the plan. It's really hard to follow all the mechanics of this drug deal - and totally unnecessary. What happens isn't so important as how it happens or who's making it happen. Your opinion of the novel, however, will depend on how well you can tolerate life among the low-lifes: a washed up journalist hoping to rekindle something of his skills in Vietnam, where others are risking their lives; an ex-Maine who reads Nietzsche on the side and smuggles the heroin aboard an aircraft carrier and picks fights on scary downtown Oakland bars, the journalist's wife who works the night shift in a porn theater and pops pills on her way home to take care of her kids. All of this seems, to a guy who knows no better (me), completely accurate and legit and possible - but maybe it's all bullshit, I just don't know. At the very least, Stone has a great imagination and a facility for creating scenes that seem visceral and plausible. Maybe he knows this world as well, through research, ears open, or experience. Not sure it matters anyway - though I suppose some of his "knowledge" comes from pop culture, pulp fiction, and noir cinema, not from hanging out in biker bars and shooting parlors. As with most fiction, the success and magnitude of Dog Soldiers will depend, in the end (I'm about 1/3 through), on whether characters grow, evolve, learn anything from their experiences; in earlier post I compared the first chapters with Graham Greene, and you can see in his best novels how important character growth is to the success of the form - so far Dog Soldiers very powerful writing but pretty much all on one plain or level: low.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Very funny satire of "a world that just does not exist"

Tepid discussion last night as book group minus one met over Edward St. Aubyn's farcical satire Lost for Words - all agreed it was a very funny book, especially the excerpts from the various books up for contention for the Elysian Prize plus the spy novel in progress by ditzy prize judge Penny Feathers. We laughed reading some of the passages aloud; I in particular admired St Aubyn's way of nailing home a point with a single word or phrase: the sun setting "in a westerly direction," the item purchased as "Sotheby's, Geneva." JRi greatly, as was I, by the supposed historical novel about Shakespeare and friends, which opens something like: "Ben!" "William!" "Do you both know John Webster?" "Lads!" - and also includes a scene of young William with his nurse (Rosalind), who observes that one of William's favorite pastimes is comparing one thing with another! All said and done, however, we felt the book wasn't much more than a romp: the plot such as it was was silly, the characters pretty much just sketches and types. We valiantly tried to find more meaning in the novel: I wondered about the overall sense of British culture, a last vestige of high-minded devotion to art and culture complete enervated by petty politics and logrolling? I was also struck by how inaccurate their portrait of contemporary British literature was: you'd think from this that the top books in English-language fiction are all insipid; American writers aside (this satire looks back on the days when Americans did not compete for the Man Booker), where in this world is Marin Amis, Ian McEwen, Peter Carey Monica Ali, Ali Smith, Rohynton Mistry - just to name a very few of the established English-language contenders, not to even mention the many rising stars, especially from Africa and Asia? Not present. St. Aubyn's satire is very funny and even "brilliant," as the English say, but in a way he's picking easy targets and satirizing a world that "just does not exist." He's a very dark guy and dangerous foe, I think, and readers have to wonder how much bitterness and how many personal slights this novel avenges - or creates.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A world in which book awards matter: Lost for Words

Re-reading (some of) Edward St. Aubyn's Lost for Words in prep for tonight's book group and 2nd pass through makes me realize how many parts of this novel are extremely funny - not only the many excerpts from the books on the list for the Elysian Prize (aka Man Booker - although I know there's some other big brit lit prize sponsored by a massive corporation like Guinness? - I'd forgotten the first chapter in which St Aubyn describes the corporate misbehavior of Elysian and its attempt to buy respectability through this prize). Top of the list for dreadfulness, and it's a close call, would be All the World's a Stage, the "historical" novel that, as judge Penny chirps, makes you feel that you're sitting right there with Shakespeare and his lads. Funniest line in the novel may be "Shakespeare's": "Happy the horse that bears the weight of Essex!" Close runners up would have to be the Scottish drug-pub novel - even the characters acknowledge its antecedent Welsh, and I'd add Kelman: "wot u starin' at?," which begins with a triptych of epithets and goes downhill from there. Even though it's not short-listed, judge Penny's spy novel, written with the help of software that suggests words and phrases!, as also hilarious (the sun sets "in a westerly direction" as she waits in her Audi "with all-leather seats.") Secondarily, the accounts of the characters lives, some anyway, are also hysterical line by line: Penny's comments during the judging, the absurdly narcissistic Indian prince with his unreadable novel that he imagines will be welcomed w/ hosannas (he recalls from his youth winning yet another horse race against the House Jockeys). The book falters a little on plot: I had little patience for the sexual predatorship of the lovely Katherine, was only vaguely interested in the various characters' troubles w/ the adult children, and found the assassination subplot to extreme even for a comic-satiric novel. All that said, a very funny if slight piece that leaves me envious of writers who live in a culture where book prizes are a big enough deal to satirize and to corrupt.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Theconversion of I B Singer: Inventing the truth

It's surprising to see a "new" story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Inventions, in the current New Yorker - as IBS died about 20 years ago I think - but it's not surprising why this story was never published. The story is slight and atypical and I would suspect it's a piece that IBS discarded, disowned, or set aside for further work. Not to say that it's a terrible story - but not on the level of Gimpel the Fool, for example, to put it mildly. Story has two time frames - one of an older man, the writer, who has trouble sleeping, has very rich dreams when he does sleep (he describes one of clawing through a basement and a tunnel, trying to escape, a very typical anxiety dream - is anything more pat and dull that dream sequences in literature?), and when he's awake he has vivid ideas for fiction - and he presents one (so this is a story about a man writing a story, hm): a Polish communist intellectual, Krakower is his name I think, in the Stalinist era attends a party conference and at night in his hotel room is visited by what he first takes to be a nightmare but later comes to believe is a visit from the spirit of a denounced and "disappeared" party leader whole failed to kiss the ring of Stalin. Krakower is shaken to the core by this visitation, as he comes to realize that if he accepts it he must abandon his lifelong belief in materialism and communism - and begin to explore spiritualism and idealism. Story just ends there - or does it? Is there something at the elemental autobiographical level here, even if somewhat shrouded and masked in metaphor? Perhaps IBS, the writer outside the frame of the story, is trying to examine an element of his own life: shift from political beliefs that blinded him to an acceptance of spiritualism, which opened up for him an entire world of fictional possibility. His work is universally known for the golems, dybbuks, and ghosts that populate his stories and determine the behavior, ideas, beliefs, and fate of his characters - but perhaps behind this spiritualism lies a writer's struggle: present his fictional world - the shtetl and the Jewish settlements in New York - as controlled by fates or by material forces? We know which way IBS turned, but he may be recognizing here that to do so he had to undergo a conversion of sorts, a visitation. The title of the story indicates this as well: He is not recounting truth, although his stories are rich in detail and seem to many to be truthful chronicles of the world of his childhood, but he - like all writers - is inventing truth.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Why is he in Vietnam?: the nihlism of Dog Soldiers

Inevitably Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers (1974) recalls Graham Greene's The Quiet American - both about world-weary, desperate, drug-addled Anglo ex-pats in a a SE Asian country in the midst of or on the verge of war and insurrection. As I recalled, Quiet American concluded with a bombing scene in the capital city striking civilian targets - and Dog Soldiers begins that way, so maybe this is a sequel of a sort by another author. As noted yesterday, Stone is one of those writers I'd always meant to read who'd somehow slipped below my literary radar - and that's my bad; this novel gets off very well, establishes a mood and a voice right away, and feels very contemporary even though it's about 40 years old - could have been written today if you substitute the Vietnam War setting for just about any Third World civil war or insurrection. The protagonist, an American freelance journalist in Vietnam at the height of the war, named Converse, without any real drive or values, left wife (and child?) at home (California) in a pact of mutually agreed destruction, or so it seems - large part of the first chapter is his reading a letter from home, in which wife quite openly talks about her infidelities. Among the many strengths are Stone's facility with dialogue, his keen sense of detail to establish a setting unfamiliar to most readers (not sure how he gained his knowledge of wartime Vietnam - he didn't serve there, I'm quite sure), his pacing, and his stoner world view. Unlike Greene, he's not talking about a guy with lost ideals, corrupted by the war and by the Sybaritic ex-pat tropical culture - no, Converse has no values, he's not - so far as we know from the first few chapters - involved in espionage or service of any sort. He's trying to score a major drug deal, and his wife at home is part of the plot. Early on, he meets up with a far-gone (American?) woman who provides him with 3 k's of pure heroin - she has something going with the biggest and most corrupt drug manufacturer in Saigon - and he will get a cut if he can get it safely to his wife for distribution in the States. He has no moral qualms about this, and apparently no or little fear - he's just an entrepreneur, trying to make good. The novel is very promising, though one hopes, going in, that there will be some kind of character development or contrast - for first chapters, Converse seems hopelessly lost and all his acquaintances are equally nihilistic.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Everybody must get Stone: Catching up on a writer I'd more or less missed

Robert Stone is a novelist whom, sorry to say, I have almost totally missed; read and reviewed one of his novels some years ago, Children of Light, and it was clearly one of his weaker efforts (though the Times welcomed it glowingly, if I recall - they picked this as the novel to anoint him as a major American writer, but they picked the wrong one I think); otherwise, haven't read much by him, though have always heard good things. Now, it's too late - for him - but not for us, and as often happens his obituary sparked an interest. Also, several writer friends and acquaintances have been post on him in memorium; we knew a few writers in common and I've always heard good things about him as a person. Friends posted in particular about one of his stories, Helping, and I thought that would be a good place to re-enter his work - and they were (I was) right - it's a very good story that captures I think the strengths of his voice and style: good sharp dialogue, rough and strong something like Hemingway or maybe Raymond Carver (though that might be the working-class and hard-drinking milieu as much as the prose style), but in a subtle way more hip, funnier, and off-kilter. Helping is nearly a classic in form, adhering to the conventions of unity of time (less than 24 hours), place (more or less - though a few settings all in the same New England rural community), and action (recovering alcoholic falls off wagon). Stone does a great job building the tension throughout this story - it's like a ticking bomb - and keeping us turning pages, anxious and eager. Roughly, story is about a social worker, working for the state, who initially is helping a ne'er-do-well suffering from PTSD as a Vietnam vet, although the patient is not the Vietnam vet - the social worker is; these attempts to insinuate himself into the social worker's memory disturb social worker deeply, and he breaks 15-month abstinence and gets loaded on Scotch. At home, his wife becomes tearful and they play out a scene of drunken rage - interrupted when a local tough whom the wife, a public-interest lawyer, had confronted in court. Thug makes threats, protagonist of the story basically says "bring it on" and he stands guard all night with his shotgun; in morning, goes skiing, confronts a neighbor whom he dislikes (yuppie conservationist type), and story ends in moment of yearning as he looks across snowfield at wife standing in window. Didn't love the ending - one of the epiphanic moments rather than real resolution that have become a short-story cliche by this time - but loved everything else about the story - the vivid and economical characterization, the sense of troubled and dangerous lives in a remote community far different from the typical fictional landscape, the struggle the protagonist is living through, every day - makes us comprehend the difficulties of breaking an addiction, and the cost. Protagonist is one of the very few I have ever encountered who bears my name, yet one completely unexplained element is that, while Stone consistently calls him Elliot everyone in the story calls him Chas. What are we to make of that?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Writing as obsession, compulsion, and atonement: Memory in My Struggle

Karl Ove Knausgaard's volume 3, Boyhood, ends in a bit of a rush, as KOK reaches puberty and a degree of independence, entering a new school (the equivalent of a middle school in the U.S., I think), and most of all, with his father now, at least for a year, out of the picture - so we don't have the constant tension and anxiety, KOK is not continuously on the lookout, in fear of the unpredictable rages of his tyrannical father. He is growing up. And yet - he's still a kid; this volume ends with him at age 13, starting to be seriously interested in girls yet completely awkward and inappropriate with with them. We also see a new theme emerge, as kids in his school begin to pick on him and tease him, calling him a "jessie" (loosely translated, I think, as "faggot"). This seems odd, as KOK seemed to be a pretty active, boyish, even popular guy, but now he's a bit on the outside, just as he's freed from the terror of his father. Very sad - would be unbearable had we not known that he goes on to a reasonably happy young adulthood and to success in life. Volume ends with a beautiful, reflective passage as the family leaves the island of Tromoyo for a new life on the mainland, and a new school, and KOK looks back and reflects that the people he knew there will soon forget him, he will be like a blur in their memories, and he will move on - and then KOK notes that this wasn't so at all: he has tried to look up some of his childhood acquaintances on the Internet and found nothing (today, he would do better I think), but they have stayed with him for his whole life, completely vivid and alive in his memory. This phenomenon is something that I believe almost all writers experience: absolutely vivid childhood memories that provide a lifetime of material (and that astonish non-writer friends). Updike wrote beautifully about the phenomenon in his final poems - these vivid memories are a writer's blessing and curse, and the act of writing is a mixture of obsession, compulsion, and atonement - and sometimes of purging as well, as I believe most of us (I for a moment put myself among the other, far greater writers here) lose the thread of these memories once we summon them up and memorialize them in fiction: they're there for others, but no longer for us.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

First Love and other sorrows in Karl Ove Knausgaard's Boyhood

Nearing the end of volume 3 of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, and one of the episodes in the final pages is the piece that the New Yorker ran, in edited version, as a story several months ago, KOK's brief first taste of pre-teen love: he meets a pretty girl from another town at a holiday parade - he teasingly tries to lift the hem of her skirt with a flagpole he's carrying, and she smiles at him; she later shows up at his soccer practice and eventually has a friend make contact and tell KOK she'd like to go out with him. He's really pleased and flattered and smitten - and like almost any 6th-grade boy has no idea what to do w/ his feelings, much less with her (Kajsa, I think). They go for a bike ride; have no idea what to say to each other. She is, as girls always are, far more mature and advanced; she invites him over to her house on a day when her parents won't be there - and he's a bit overwhelmed at this opportunity. Before that, they go on another bike ride, and he has an elaborate plan to kiss her: he wants to break a friend's local record for the longest kiss. Disaster. It's clear after that this she's just not into him; she breaks off the Saturday date and ends the brief relationship. His lesson #1 should to be just be himself, smart and observant. In fact, though, when he goes home and confesses all to his older brother, the brother gives him the line about many fish in the sea, etc. - not much solace there. Then brother puts on a Norwegian-punk record about a guy who's just broken off a relationship - and this give KOK solace - yes, music has does that from the beginning of human time no doubt. What we see over the course of this volume, and could not see in the New Yorker story alone, is the gradual maturation and independence of KOK, contrasting this w/ his very playful and innocent first-grade crush, and seeing how he is finally emerging as a personality in his own right and not as a trampled, humiliated son of a tyrannical father. The father's spirit dominates this volume, but the story is about the emerging of KOK from boyhood (the volume title) into early manhood. We think back to volume 1 and the spirit KOK shows as a teenager and we understand the strength and resiliency of his personality and the honesty of his writing.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A third aspect to Karl Ove Knausgaard's struggle: Not being his father

At around p. 250 of volume 3 of My Struggle Karl Ove Knausgaard surprises us with one of the moments in his narrative - describing his boyhood (the title of this volume) on the Norwegian island of Tromoyo (sp?) - when he jumps into the near-present, and offers some perspective, as the narrator, on the significance of these minutely detailed events of his life. He tells us, astonishingly, that he can hardly remember his mother, that all the detail that he includes in this volume doesn't feel like something he's called up from memory but like something someone has told him about his mother, at a later date. He lived his entire childhood in the shadow of his father; his mother made the house livable and tolerable - and he notes that he no doubt would have killed himself had he lived solely with his father - but he tells us that every single moment of his childhood was imbued with fear of his father, as has become abundantly clear to any reader of this volume by this point: not just his father's evil temper and petty tyranny, but his inconsistency - veering at a moment's notice from the good-guy pal, taking the boys skiing, for example, to a monster set off by the slightest infraction (grabbing KOK by the ears and screaming at him because he lost a sock at swim practice, e.g.). KOK makes the sorrowful but no doubt true observation: his entire fatherhood (4 kids, as the dust jacket says) has been focused on not being his father, and he believes his children have never been afraid of him. His goal, he says, would be for them to look back from some time in the future and say that they could hardly remember their father, just as he can hardly remember his mother, and then he will gladly accept that as success and know he's done his job. How sad is that. But we see in this a 3rd element to KOK's struggle: the struggle to not be his father (and the act of writing these volumes and exhuming these memories and sharing them with the world of readers is part of that struggle, essential to the struggle).

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Ha motze levetz me'en ha aaretz?: Making sense of Breadman

Have to say I did not completely "get" J. Robert Lennon's story in current New Yorker, Breadman. Yes, it's easy enough to follow the story line: narrator sent on errand by wife who's home sick w/ a cold to purchase bread, which they (she) gets from a sort of new-age, gurulike baker with a pop-up retail outlet in a down-at-heels section of the (unnamed) city - as narrator keeps reminding of; Breadman has a cultlike following; business open for just a few hours a week in space rented out in some "tchatchke store" (surprised to see this Yiddish term in this story?) - where people line up, sign in, pay in cash, and when the product's sold out the day is done. Narrator is a real complainer, critical of the Breadman, his system, his following, his disciples, even of wife for sending him out on this mission. Not much happens till the end when narrator feels cheated out of his purchase by a line-jumper who, it turns out, is the Breadman's own guru; a fight ensues, and, as we jump forward to the present, we learn that the events of the day led to the end of narrator's marriage as he learns wife had been having an affair with one of the baking assistants, and narrator is now off somewhere else, some other city, still unnamed, and not sure what his ex is up to now. So where are we? I think where we are is a story about an unreliable narrator - who reveals more about himself than he thinks he's revealing; he lets slip almost as an aside that he's on anti-depressants and we suspect has much more serious psychological problems than that; and in fact as he tries to punch the Breadman in dispute over focaccia (sp?) loaf we realize, yes, this guy has pretty serious issues with anger management and impulse control - even though the narrator himself recounts the event as if he were justified in his violent behavior - perhaps much as he might describe this event, some years after the fact, to a therapist. What I can't get at is Lennon's attitude, if he even has one, toward the Breadman and his pretensions and his crew: Does he share the narrator's mocking contempt, or is the contempt one of the narrator's symptoms, or does that even matter? Story is a portrait of a many with a troubled mind, told in his own words - but there are hints that it's also about society: gentrification, narcissism, even cultism - or maybe just about food trucks and pop-ups in SF or some similarly food-obsessed contemporary city.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Karl Ove Knausgaard, and the doo-wop song that captures the essence of a million love stories

Lest anyone get the wrong impression, it's not just the absolute meanness of Karl Ove Knausgaard's father that dominates the story - there are plenty of memoirs out there about kids living in horrible families, e.g Richard Rhodes's painful book and to a degree Geoffrey Wolff's, but what raises KOK's My Struggle to a higher level is the sweetness and good nature of the child and the fearless honesty of the adult KOK as a novelist, who includes every detail of the child's life, including some that must have been painful for him to write (and maybe palliative and necessary, as well), everything from minor gaffes and blunders - mocking a friend young man with obvious learning disabilities, without really appreciating the harm and pain his remarks caused - to throwing a rock at a car on a highway, causing a near collision - even to remarks about his body image and his stuttering (no doubt caused in part by constant fear of mockery from his father). Yes, we know he will grow out of these childhood troubles - to the extent we "grow out" of anything - and that his childhood pain will provide him with rich ore to mine as a writer, but there's something far beyond the ordinary in this series: take for example the exquisite account of his first "love," Anne Lisbet, won and lost, over the course of a school year (they are 7 years old) - who hasn't experienced that sense of exuberance when you first feel or sense that someone you're drawn to seems to like or love you as well (maybe not at 7, but sometime), and the hurt and humiliation when she or he moves on to someone bigger, stronger, faster, better - or when she or he is, seemingly suddenly, just not into you - and who hasn't done the same? Everyone knows the powerful hurt and jealousy Proust captured in his novels, but KOK, modeled in many ways on Proust and inevitably compared with him, presents a much more contemporary, familiar experience, not obsessive bordered on mania but something we all endure in life and learn from - possibly never captured as well and, in a way, as concisely, as in his volume 3, Boyhood. There's a great doo-wop song that contains essentially only these lyrics: Gloria, it's not Marie. Gloria, it's not Cheri. It's Gloria - but she's not in love with me. That is the essence of 10,000 novels and 100 million love stories.

Friday, January 16, 2015

One of the worst fathers in literature: Why Karl Ove Knausgaard's father is such a monster

How can you not feel almost unbearable sorrow and pity for the young Karl Ove Knausgaard in volume 3 of his series, My Struggle, trying as best he can to live a normal boyhood (the title of this volume) and living in constant fear of the wrath of his unpredictable and nasty father (an Old Testament god?). Among the many, many painful scenes: KOK comes home from a day in which he romps with his friends in the forest near their home, feels the first stirrings of love and arousal as he shows off for his crush (they're 7 years old!), helps an old woman clear a tree stump from her yard, for which she gives him and 3 friends (including the girlfriend) 5 kroner, and he buys candy that he will share w/ the 4 of them - and then - he gets home and father discovers the candy - what are you hiding under that blanket! - accuses the kid of lying about how he got it, throws the candy away - why oh why is he so mean and dominant? Every time KOK comes home he first checks to see if his father is home, makes these elaborate scheme to evade his father's detection and wrath, is so afraid of his father than he can't even tell him that he can't manage to turn the key to let himself into to house after school (again, he's 7!) but instead rigs an elaborate scheme to move a garbage can and climb in through a window that he leaves open - and then he's terrified his father will see tracks in the grass from moving the can. This is awful - so why do we keep reading? Because set against this is the wonderful story of the smart, sensitive, and playful kid who's just trying to lead his life, make friends, fit in - as KOK said in an earlier volume, there are 2 aspects to his struggle: one is to fit in and be like others and the other is to not fit in and be himself. As a writer, he is absolutely fearless in chronicling every aspect of his life, including painful and embarrassing moments - many of them in this volume about his earliest years, of course - blurting out to the teacher that one of the classmates isn't in school because his father is drunk all the time, reprimanded by the teacher - he just didn't know that this was wrong, he was just a kid - and the teacher is super-kind and thoughtful: we all have these kinds of experiences, and most of us, except for bold writers like KOK, forget, repress, or cringe in shame at these memories - but he puts all of it out there. It's amazing that his father didn't just crush his personality - not that his father was the worst in the world by any means, he's not, for ex., physically abusive or deranged, but it's his moodiness and unpredictability that makes him so harmful and frightening, the poor kid never knows what reaction he will get, and under the "partial reinforcement" syndrome he's constantly striving for the rare praise and support: if his father were a monster always the story would have no dimension and the child would simply avoid him at all costs. The occasional kindness makes him, in that sense, even worse - and the story more compelling.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Evil fathers in Boyhood (movie and novel)

Yes the evilfather figure is a looming, dangerous omnipresence throughout volume 3 (and volume 1, first half, for that matter) of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle - interestingly, volume 3 has the simple title Boyhood, and it calls up inevitable comparisons with the 2014 film this year of same name (film came out way after volume 3 of My Struggle but oddly was shot over roughly the same time span that KOK worked in). In any event, KOK, the narrator and main character, has a boyhood relation with his father that is much like the relationship with the evil stepfather (the first one in particular; the 2nd in a way as well) in the film Boyhood: throughout every moment of KOK's boyhood on the remote Norwegian island he is living in fear of his unpredictable, angry, and sarcastic father: he has all these wonderful boyhood adventures, playing with his pals in the woods, swimming, soccer, childish mischief, reading comics, and so on, so easy for so many (for me anyway) to identify with, but always in his mind is the looming or lurking fear of his father's anger: did Dad see us up on the cliff, will he know what we were doing, will he ask, can he see right through me? Among the many incredible and incredibly sad moments: the father yelling at him for stacking wood the wrong way, the father insisting that he go to swim class wearing a girl's swim cap that the kind but ditsy mother bought by mistake, the father driving fast and dangerously, the father angrily doling out candies as they watch a soccer match on TV, and most memorably KOK eating a bowl of Cornflakes with milk gone sour because he's afraid of his father's reaction were he to tell him the milk is bad (the father, so unpredictable, is entirely sympathetic and pours fresh milk - his unpredictability is what makes him especially fearsome).  There are so many great moments in this volume, but two I'll mention (I wish I'd marked the pages): the account of the drive home from visiting the grandparents and the sense of being safe in a speeding car in the darkness (contrasted with the tedium and slow passage of time on the journey out - leading to one of KOK's reflections on time) and the very unusual thoughts on shadows as creatures of the night that have some how creeped into and stolen a part of daylight, growing, lengthening, as we move toward their world of darkness (more time reflection, and a particularly Scandinavian observation, as night is so long coming and long shadows so evident in the summer).

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Like reading your own diary?: Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle

One of the comments someone offered about Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle is that it's like opening someone else's diary and finding out that it's your own. So true! Even though my life is in many, many ways entirely different from the life - his own, obviously - that KOK chronicles with great detail, wit, honesty, and insight across these volumes (I've just started reading vol 3, Boyhood) - so much of what he captures is my experience exactly. His writing, in a sense, helps each of us - or at least many of us - open the doorways to our own seemingly forgotten or inaccessible memories. I'm thinking particularly of the long opening section of Boyhood in which he recounts his days at approximately age 6 (starting age for public school in Norway then, maybe not now) and the hours he spent exploring the woods and fields near his home, engaging in daredevil stunts with other kids, playing pickup sport, playing with matches, all, to me, so incredibly familiar. KOK's been mocked sometimes for over-attention to detail and trivia - this volume includes the passage where he contemplates a bowl of Cornflakes, which has provoked some mockery - but seriously he is engaged with every aspect of a child's experience and perception and in the process of creating a monumental literary interpretation of consciousness, from the grand (sections on the nature of death and of memory) to the mundane. A dark theme in volume 3, and thankfully an aspect with which I do not directly identify, is the ever-present menace of his strict father - a disciplinarian and for that matter a nasty bully. In this volume we see primarily the fear, as KOK experienced as a young child, the constant tension of wondering when his dad would snap at him, punish him, threaten the family peace. We see much more of this in volume 1, which gives us a context for the dark hints that open this volume. It remains, so far, a mystery as to why KOK mourns his father so profoundly in the second half of volume one - one might think he would bid him good riddance - but I think in vol 3 we begin to see that his mourning for his father is a mourning for the family life that could have been but wasn't, a mourning for his lost childhood.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Boyhood (not the movie but Volume 3 of Karl Ove Knausgaard's masterwork)

Volume 3 of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, called Boyhood (not to be confused with the excellent movie of same name), begins at the earliest part of the narrative, with KOK (author, narrator, central character) recalling the very few scenes he can remember from his earliest childhood, first six years of life, just a few moments that are more like snapshots than scenes or events, but it's all he has retained of those first years - which to readers who have come this far with KOK is kind of funny, because we know that, about his later years, he can recollect and re-create even seemingly mundane moments and events with extraordinary detail (obviously, he makes up some stuff, too - this is a novel, not memoir, so he's free to use extensive dialogue, for ex., which pure memoirist would not do). His inability to recall details of earliest years is significant: these few snatches of memory that he "summons up" are not like Proust's madeleine - quite the opposite in fact. They don't open up the gates of memory, flooding the mind with associations; rather, they are all that he has, so his early years, instead of being rich with actual memories is built around a few stray moments, none especially significant, even to KOK - and that leads him to some further speculation, wondering why, for example, we don't have different names that we bear through each phase of our life: is he really the some person as the 6-year-old KOK? Even when he cannot recall more than a single scene or two over the six-year span? The idea he's putting forward is that our sense of who we are is composed of fragments of memories - just as our sense of who others are is composed of fragments of recollection and encounter. If you were to be asked to tell all that you knew of your best friend, how far could you go? How much could you say? What would come to mind? A scene, an anecdote, a mood, a scent, what? We are bits and pieces to one another, and even to ourselves - but literature, the act of writing (same may be so for some types of psychotherapy) as an attempt to build a sense of a singular, whole, complete person from the fragments that we maintain.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Housing Project Hill: Novel about Russian immigrants in German, or is it?

Alina Bronsky's Broken Glass Park (2008) is by no means a major work of fiction but it's a fine debut novel showing a promising talent. Bronsky creates a credible, sharp-tongued, troubled, beleaguered, self-destructive narrator (Sascha) who comes to us, or to me anyway, from an unfamiliar world - Russian immigrants marginally settled in a grim German housing project. To her credit, Bronsky packs this short narrative with action an events; the novel centers on Sascha's desire to avenge the death of her mother by killing the murderer, who's doing time in prison. We never quite take her ambition seriously, as there's no possible way she could act on this impulse, but it does establish her as a driven and possibly dangerous young woman. After many episodes and encounters, at the end of the novel she does engage in a destructive act - though hardly on the level of murder. As a result of the suffering she's endured, she sees herself as a man-hater, but over the course of the novel she does develop a tender loving relationship with a young man her age - although she also, for no clear reason, abjects herself before a neo-Nazi guy whom she loathes. She's one of these really tough people who sees herself as a victim - and in fact who pursues and nourishes her victim-hood: for example, she develops a seemingly good relationship with an older man, a newspaper editor, who gives her shelter from her difficult family - but then she follows him into his bedroom one night, makes alluring sexual comments, eventually he lunges at her, tries to have sex with her, fortunately thinks better of it and stops, humiliated. He's a beast, but she's not blameless, either. As in so many novels, there's no clear conclusion to this one; Sascha heads off for Prague - heading out for the territories, you might say - leaving her problems unresolved and in the rear-view mirror - a quintessentially American ending. I suppose this entire novel could be transposed to a housing project in any American city - which makes it, if not exactly universal, a novel that speaks to our time rather than to a specific place or culture.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Pity the Poor Immigrant: Alina Bronsky's Broken Glass Park

Curiosity piqued by review of her most recent novel, I picked up a copy of Alina Bronsky's first novel, Broken Glass Park (translated from the German), and finding it engaging, credible - what feels like a true-to-life depiction of the life and times of a 17-year-old immigrant (from Russia) living in tough public-housing complex in a small city near Frankfurt. This novel is unusual within the vast realm of immigrant literature in that it's narrated by a young woman who is entirely assimilated - her German is fluent and unaccented, she's really in some ways like any teen living in her country, in near-poverty cheek to jowl with the prosperity of the contemporary German economy, but what does make this an "immigrant" novel is not her experience but that of her mother, her aunt, and their cohort - they are clearly at sea in Germany and reliant on the younger generation to navigate the waters. The story centers on a sensational case: the narrator (Shascha) lets us know in the first pages, maybe even the first sentence, that he mother has been murdered by an ex-husband/boyfriend (father of Sascha's two younger sibs), and Sascha wants revenge on the killer (imprisoned for life), Vadim. She's a really angry (understandably), smart, wily, aggressive, and witty young woman, and her voice drives this story, much like Holden Caulfield's drives Catcher. Of course, there's a world of difference between the two novels: Caulfield's alienation is so striking because he's in many ways a typical adolescent, albeit from a particularly disengaged family (shunting him off to boarding schools, etc.), which makes his story more resonant and even universal. Sascha's story is more particular to her circumstances, and we feel that she's not representative of her generation but of her particular tragedy. As the narrative moves along - one long piece w/ no chapter breaks, although there are a few (very few) line breaks well into the text - Sascha engages with a young man her age - her (and his) first experience of sex - and she learns, as she's taken in by his family (he lives w/ his divorced father) that the "haves" also experience fear and anxiety, as does she; this brief account may make this novel sound to schematic and polemical, which it definitely is not; I think it's to Bronsky's credit that she opens the narrative and has it involve people other than Sascha and her problems, that Sascha learns and grows over the course of her narrative.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

To the end of time: Volume 12 of Anthony Powell's series

As predicted in yesterday's post, Anthony Powell concludes his 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time with the image of fire, not just a bonfire but precisely the same image that started the series, a "fire bucket" with a coke-fire sending sparks up into the sky, people gathered around for warmth - the dance really is a cycle, at least in a way. But that's not precisely the way he closes the series - he does so with the account of the death, finally and as anticipated, of the loathsome Widmerpool: could this series of novels in any way continue without Widmerpool as foil? I have to say i was a little disappointed in how Powell handled W's death - in this final volume he falls victim to the writer's malady of telling not showing. Shouldn't Jenkins, the narrator, have directly witnessed W's demise? Shouldn't we see it eyes on rather than hear about it, through Jenkins, second-hand? And for all that it seems to me that W. just collapses as he's romping in a final escapade with the cultists he's taken up w/ at the end of his life. I expected something much more dramatic, even epochal: the destruction of the mansion (Stourwater) that had been central to the series, or a Manson-like cult episode, or a police raid on the cult - think how differently an American author might have handled the concluding scene, not in this hands-off, buttoned down British manner. Despite this late-in-the-game quibble I hae to say these books held my interest over a long period of tie and the series is a remarkable and almost unique account of the transformation of a society over 50 years of history, as experienced and recounted by one narrator and a kaleidoscopic set of characters; at times, it's comical how the names and relations overlap and how various characters leave the stage and then return unexpectedly. We don't know any (but Widmerpool, perhaps) intimately - even the narrator is opaque and unknowable - but they all become our familiars so that when names re-occur volume after volume, we get the sense that we, too, are part of this world. It's a more cerebral multi-volume memoir than Search for Lost Time, and not nearly so interior and reflective - but on the other hand it's more social and political, especially the wartime volumes, and a damning indictment of social class in England - w/ a lot of other targets as well, notably literary life, pseudo-intellectualism, sexual repression (the issue of repressed and oppressed homosexuality is hinted at but, I think, the term homosexual never even appears until the final volume). Powell doesn't really develop the dance metaphor, although he has some insightful things to say about time itself in the final volume - notably how literary time inevitably differs from time for an artist, as novels and stories are told in a sequence, with pace and rhythm - like life in that regard of course - and we understand, for a moment, how literature is an "imitation of life" in verbal form.

Friday, January 9, 2015

How will Powell end his 12-volume series?

Toward the end of the final volume of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, the narrator (Nick Jenkins) comes across the omnipresent Widmerpool outside of the Stourwater mansion that was the scene of various previous episodes in this series - the industrialist Donners owned the mansion, and Widmerpool in his early career was Donners's toady - and now Widmerpool is in a blue robe, jogging through the countryside, and leading a group of the spiritualist-cultists, all of them about 20 years old or so. He is completely out of place and, by all accounts, has more or less lost his mind. When he learns from Nick that the grandfather of the bride (they're at Stourwater to celebrate the wedding of one of Nick's nieces, if I have that straight) is a man he'd offended years ago in boarding school, apparently ratting him out, with a suspicion, if I remember correctly, of homosexual advances, and the guy got expelled from the school. Widmerpool wants to make amends. He enters the old castle and joins the festivities and, when he sees the man he had wronged so long ago, he drops to all fours in abasement - an utterly weird scene. One of the elderly wedding guests falls over him and a bit of comic chaos ensues. Frankly, I thought that Powell would do more with this scene, that the intruders would turn the whole wedding celebration into some riotous Bacchanal, but in fact the scene kind of winds down, everyone goes outside, and a squabble between Widmerpool and Scorpio Mortland (have to love the names Powell comes up w. throughout these volumes; he's a Pynhon precursor there for sure), the true leader of the cult, get in an argument about whether members have the freedom to leave. The end of the series is in sight; throughout, Powell has tended not to do too much w/ conclusions - many of the volumes just seem to stop abruptly - but I expect more of him in this final volume, and would not be surprised if it ends with a fire or at least an image of a fire, as I recall that the very first scene in volume one involved the observation of sparks rising from a fire into a dark sky?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Another slyly inventive story from Robert Coover

Robert Coover turns up in the current New Yorker with a story, The Crabapple Tree, that seems to be part of a series he's working on, if I remember his recent publications correctly, of tales told in contemporary language and in contemporary settings about the kinds of myths, legends, and horror stories that nearly every community has, shares, or hides - the stories and rumors of the haunted house, the mad tenant, the drowning pool, e.g. In my childhood, we talked about "the Spanish mansion," a big house on the hill, made up weird stories about it, told one another, scared one another, not one story based in fact. In Coover's story there appears to be some kind of factual basis - a farmer marries a young woman who dies in childbirth and later takes a 2nd wife who's a "wicked stepmother" and also the town slut; as various people die they're supposedly buried under the crabapple tree, which allegedly produces poisonous fruit. The story narrated by a contemporary of the farmer and a sympathetic working-class woman in the town who, in the course of her narration, describes her own failed marriage and a few sputtering affairs with town officials (sources for her info or mis-info). Coover effectively balances out the story, in that we, the readers, know it's based on fact but not entirely "true," in part because it's told through a credible narrator who believes in her own tale, not by some ancient yarn-spinner or raconteur. Coover, an old friend and a great guy, has had a wonderful and brilliant writing career ranging from really long and complex novels (his debut Origin of the Brunists is one of the greats) to very short stories that experiment with narrative technique. These late-career stories, pretty conventional in structure but slyly inventive in tone and theme, are coming together as a new element in his work; glad to see the New Yorker recognizing his stature and talent.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The craziness of A Dance to the Music of Time: There Are No Strangers Here

It's hard to figure out how to read or interpret the central conflict in Hearing Secret Harmonies, the final volume of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. In this volume, Powell introduces us to a new character in the first chapter: a young man named Scorpio Murtlock, who's the leader of a mystic-hippie cult - they live in a small trailer and travel about the English countryside, engaging in various worship rituals at obscure Druid sites (miniature Stonehenges - there are many in England). Then we connect with the central character who has for the most part dominated all 12 volumes of this series, the hapless, hopeless, loathsome Keneth Widmerpool. Narrator Nick Jenkins tells us that KW is doffing his aristocratic and pretentious airs and seems somehow to want to be a leader of youth (he's now in his 60s and, Nick reports, looks even older); he asks Nick to intro him to Mortlock. And then we learn - through 2nd-hand narration (of which there's too much in this volume, in my opinion) that Widmerpool is in direct conflict with Mortlock to emerge as the leader of this small cult. Well, hm. First of all, it's incredibly hard to imagine Widmerpool dancing naked in the moonlight and engaging in group sex in the shadows of the Druid stones sculptures, but that's what we're asked to accept. If we do accept that, how can we imagine a group of mystic-hippies accepting the wizened and doltish Widmerpool as their leader? It might help to think of how Powell saw the youth culture and political activism and back-to-earth and spiritual movements of his time: in 1974 or so, when he was writing this, these movements were au courant and may have represented, to Powell, the future of England or a version of same - whereas today, 40 years onward, they seem quaint and archaic and kind of foolish (if sweet, too, up to a point). It's not clear the extent to which Powell is critical and satirical. All that's clear, half-way through at least, is that Widmerpool, as usual, will be humiliated and deservedly so. Powell continues to make me laugh with the craziness with which the characters' lives intersect. By this point, as Nick is walking across a meadow in rural England and sees a lone figure approaching from the distance, we know - we just know! - that the figure will turn out to be some long-lost friend or acquaintance or relative from an earlier volume. He never meets strangers. Also, I continue to be amazed at how little we know about Nick, after 12 volumes, and even less, much less, about his wife, Isobel, who is present in a fair # of scenes but who seems to have no personality, or life, whatsoever.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The most loathsome character in literature?

There's no question but that what keeps us (keeps me?) reading through the 12 (!) volumes of Anthony Powells A Dance to the Music of Time is the obsequious character Kenneth Widmerpool, later Lord Kenneth Widmerpool, possibly the most loathsome and pathetic character in literature. From the time we first meet him, friendless and hapless but a narcissistic and stuck-up toady, even way back in boarding school, the butt of everyone's jokes (an epochal moment in the series is the episode where a young woman dumps a bowl of sugar on his head at a dinner party - hard not to picture him sitting there, unmoved, humiliated, ridiculous) through his time in the service during WWII and later in the House of Lords, through his sham of a marriage, he's always there and always pathetic - though also somehow beyond pity. But in this final volume Widmerpool undergoes a complete transformation - as does the society around him; we're now in the 1970s, a time of youth revolt, of hippies and cultists and the radical left tossing firebombs and staging campus upheavals. And Widmerpool is the midst of this - he's a chancellor at some English university and has this weird idea that he's allied with the students; he invites two student radicals to a fancy awards dinner, where they toss a stinkbomb during his address to the audience (he's so oblivious he can't detect that he was part of the target, not their ally), and we next see him at another formal dinner for an art association - he shows up wearing a crimson sweater under a sports jacket and looking like a seedy, aged artist - and, rather hilariously for him, tells people to "call me Ken." I guess the funniest thing is that, although we would expect to be at last in sympathy with KW, as he seems to have given up his pretensions and privileges and aligned himself with the progressive left, we find ourselves holding him in even great contempt and deeper scorn, as he now seems just a phony and opportunist (he has always been that) and unaware that the radical and mystical youth and "new generation" find him to be ludicrous and retrograde. Even when he (tries to) become a hipster, Widmerpool is the ultimate square.

Monday, January 5, 2015

A Dance to the Music of Time: The Final Volume (how many have gotten there?)

I guess I'm likely to be the only living American to have read the entire 12 volumes of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time; have started volume 12, Hearing Secret Harmonies. This one is a big longer and a bit more difficult, syntactically, than the previous volumes; starts off with a strange episode that, at first glance, bears no relation to the previous 11 volumes: four "flower children" (the time is now the mid-70s) are at a pond trying to trap crayfish. We soon learn, however, that they're staying temporarily on the land owned or rented by the narrator, Nick, and his wife, Isobel; one of the girls is her nieces - the guy who's the spiritual head of this small, mystic group, Scorpio Mortlock (another incredible Powell name - he's a rival of Pynchon on that score) reminded him of the mystic from his youth, Dr. Trelawney, and we're off, once again on a lengthy series of interlocked relationships and friendships - as if all of England is one small clan (maybe it is). The time gap narrows in this volume: Powell wrote the first volume in the 1950s and it was about the 20s or 30s; over the next 25 years he completed the 12 volumes and in this one he's writing about contemporary 1970s society, with the Vietnam War, student protests, drugs, and the counterculture all within the orbit. Though these novels are only rarely reflective, Powell does have some thoughts here on time and art, his driving theme: he specifically references the Poussin painting that game the series its title, and notes that time in the painting is static, playing his lyre, watching the dancers - but he notes that time in art can be static but time in literature is dynamic and the writer is in a sense at the mercy of time - and you can't help but think of Proust and his "search" in that context as well. Much of the first third of the book concerns a literary prize funded by Donners, the great and crooked industrialist; Nick is on the awards committee (funny how I've just read Lost for Words, St. Aubyn's take on literary awards and their corruption), and they give the award to the American biographer, Gwinett, of the debauched writer, Trapnel, who has been important in the last "movement" of this series; the loathsome Widmerpool attends the awards dinner and makes a speech attacking the bourgeois establishment - he has completely, and ridiculously, transformed and perceives himself to be an ally of youth and of the left. He is surely under a delusion.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A look at the lives the marginalized in current New Yorker story

Colin Barrett's story The Ways is a good, and rare, example of a short story that conveys the life of young people living in poverty and dire straits in a direct, honest, and sympathetic manner. Let's face it, most fiction writers do not come from backgrounds of childhood poverty and trauma, weren't the kids who dropped out of school at 16, weren't the ones who were repeatedly suspended from school for fighting and bullying, and, although clearly writers are not bound to write exclusively from their own experiences, all of us are bound in some way by the conditions of our lives, and the occasional writer who examines the lives of the downtrodden and oppressed generally does so at one remove - either with some bleeding-heart sentimentality or with condescension, or even both. I know nothing about Barrett and his background but he has a great ear for dialog, eye for detail, and either a wealth of experience - either from his own life or observed life - or vivid imagination (or both, probably). This story, set in contemporary Ireland and told in an Irish working-class dialect that's odd and challenging to American (and maybe British) readers, is about an orphaned family of three more or less mostly less being raised by 20-something brother who'd had a reputation as a drinker and womanizer but is now trying to settle down, working as a dishwasher in a hotel restaurant in a working-class area outside of Dublin, the 16-year-old sister who's dropped out of school, and the younger brother - story centers on one day when the boy is suspended and on the efforts of the older siblings to deal with this immediate issue and to keep the family intact, to keep food on the table. It's a snapshot story - no particular arc to the narrative, no sense of conclusion or resolution, in fact it ends on a deliberately open note, with a question. In that sense it's not a great story, but it's a compelling and credible look at the lives of those marginalized, in literature and in life.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Are there contemporary fiction writers whose language approaches poetry?

In response to friend WS (not William Shakespeare) who asks: Are there any contemporary fiction writers whose language approaches poetry? Something a little richer than ordinary, natural talking at its best?:

I guess I'd have to say, in the battle of Hemingway v Faulkner, Hemingway won. Almost all of the great fiction written in the past 40 or 50 years, I'd say, has been in a more direct, clean, plain-speech style, focused (properly) on showing rather than telling, using natural dialogue and taut narrative rather than extensive interior monologue or extended passages of description (Carver's stories being perhaps the pinnacle). And the writers who, to a degree, work outside of this tradition, well, most are gone, or retired. Nabokov, Hawkes, Yates, Sebald, Garcia Marquez, and Updike are gone; Roth, Munro, and Trevor are or seem to be retired. Who's left? Maybe a few. James Salter is often cited as one of the best stylists alive, and I agree, though that doesn't mean that all of his books are great. Among other excellent stylists still writing: Naipaul for sure, my old grad-school friend Charles Baxter, possibly Dennis Johnson. Many people love Mark Halperin, especially Winter's Tale, but his style is too rich for me. And then there's Jhumpa Lahiri - but her stories only, not her novels, in my opinion - and also Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, which has some astonishingly beautiful sections although much of this long work is much more straightforward and direct in style, too.

Then, there are many books written in language that approaches poetry, although the authors either could not or would not sustain that style across their career: The Known World (Jones), Homecoming (Robinson), Secret History (Tartt), Snow Falling on Cedars (Guterson), Smilla's Sense of Snow (Hoeg), God of Small Things (Roy), Native Speaker (Lee), Edisto (Powell), A Delicate Balance (Mistry), Waterland (Swift). I'm sure I'll think of more later. Amazing how many of these are first novels, by the way - as if writers feel that the poetic style is something they should or want to leave behind? As if the first novel is more richly imbued with sensory memory and feeling, more personal in a way, and later novels are more crafted?

Friday, January 2, 2015

Abandonment and the novel

In the end, Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You isn't a book for me, but I think others might enjoy this novel more, women readers in particular, and it's clear she's a good writer who will write other fine books (this is her first). The extent to which you'll like the book will depend on whether you can buy into the behavior of the characters in the troubled Lee family; Ng's novel focuses on the women of the family, whose bad mothering is like a curse passed down across the generations. She also focuses on the isolation that the family members feel, particularly in the small Ohio town in which they settle, largely because they are one of the only bi-racial families in the community (the father is Chinese-American). The mother, Marilyn, is particularly odd and I found one of the central episodes in her life, her nine-week abandonment of her husband and two children to re-enroll in college w/ the goal of medical school, just very hard to fathom: these sudden abandonments, by seemingly intelligent and responsible mothers or wives, happen more in literature (and film) than in life: This novel kind of a Gone Girl meets Lovely Bones (central episode is the death of the older daughter, Lydia), but you can also see the sudden-abandonment story in The Lowland, e.g. As to the death of Lydia, Ng fills in the background very thoroughly but I keep waiting for more action in the foreground, for the brother, Nath, to confront the suspect in her death, whom he oddly declines to discuss with the investigating police officers. Plenty of good material here and much fine writing throughout but I could never quite enter into the world of these characters and their lives.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Not Gone Girl: a novel about a girl's disappearance that's not a thriller

Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng's somewhat awkwardly titled debut novel, appears from first several chapters to be a story of thee generations of sad and screwed-up women and the legacy of sorrow passed down through this family: grandmother a prim and conservative home-ec teacher in Virginia, left by her husband to raise daughter alone in the 1950s; daughter highly intelligent and somewhat rebellious (wants to take shop instead of her mother's required home-ec course), goes off to Radcliffe where mother proudly expects her to meet a nice Harvard man, she falls for her grad-student instructor, an Asian-American man of very humble background; they marry when she becomes pregnant, and never see the mother again; beset by latent and overt prejudices against an Asia-American, he settles for a teaching post in a small Ohio college, and that's where they building their life. This is the back story. More in the foreground - 1977, I think is the date she set - the parents have three children, the oldest, son Nath, headed for Harvard. The center of the novel is the sudden disappearance of middle child, a moody and serious teen who vanishes in the night. Ng writes very well, very lucid and straightforward prose, but for whatever reason she is determined to not make this a novel of suspense and mystery (i.e., this is not Gone Girl): she opens the first chapter with the bone-in-throat statement that, though the family doesn't know this yet, their daughter is dead. Then she takes us through the first day or so in which the parents call the police, who suspect daughter has run away for the night and will return. But Ng puts in all the clues we need to piece the disappearance together - her lack of friends, her relationship with the boy next door who's a troubled kid (her parents, incredibly, don't even suspect this relationship and her older brother, who's aware of it, rather amazingly doesn't bring this up during the frantic search for his sister), the deep pond in town, the fact that she cannot swim - in other words, we know way, way more than the character do and therefore watch them as if they're lab specimens. One bombshell Ng drops is the fact that the mother at one time had run away herself - and was gone long enough to draw the police into the matter - so we'll be looking at a whole family pathology over the course of the novel - maybe for even more than 3 generations, as it seems unlikely she will set the whole story in the 1970s (especially with the death discovered at the end of the first chapter).