Follow by Email

Welcome

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

Thursday, March 31, 2016

More vivid writing and further character development in A God in Ruins

I'm kinds going through the long chapters in Kate Atlkinson's novel A God in Ruins one at a time, and the chapter I read last night focused on the youngest generation of the Todd family - centering this novel on Teddy, wwII bomber pilot born about 1920 - Sunny is his grandson, son and older child of Teddy's only child, the grumpy Viola, who more or less neglects, even abandons her kids, and ultimately decides to send them to live w/ their father, Domenic - they had never marred and D was a hippie painter, with little talent but, fortunate for him, a lot of money in his "noble" family.  Sunny moves in w/ his father's family, at about age 7?, in the early 80s? - and that's where we pick him up. He is miserable, constantly picked on and tormented and corrected at every step by his evil grandmother; the grandfather is witless and out of the picture, the poor kid is suffering, literally starving, and unfortunately for him he's not the cleverest or brightest or wiliest of his - he can't easily figure things out, and he's just trying to get along in his misery, he wants to please the adults around him but can't read any of the social clues. Two dramatic elements carry this chapter. First, we are always in one way or another coming back to Teddy's point of view, and we see that he is tormented by is ill-conceived decision to let his grandson go with his father's parents: when they came to pick up the boy, it was obvious that they were mean people and ill-suited to take care of a child, and he should have put his foot down right there. 2nd, Sunny's father, Domenic, is seriously disturbed, and this culminates in a manic episode in which he takes Sunny and they walk a great distance, D., takes several tabs of lsd, even considers giving some to Sunny!, and they when they come to a rr crossing D has them sit down to contemplate the beauty of the parallel lines - eventually, right in front of the kid, he's smashed to death by an oncoming train. If this were not trauma enough, the idiot medical examiner assumes or believes that D died trying to save his son (in fact Sunny struggled to pull D off the tracks before jumping to safety). Sunny cannot figure out why people scorn and shun him, as if he were guilty of patricide - so we see in this chapter the formation of Sunny's troubled mind and get another key piece of information about Teddy. Again, this is not exactly the kind of novel I usually read - not sufficiently plot-driven, all about setting and character - but another example in this chapter of vivid and insightful and sometimes beautiful writing.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

War fiction from Troy to Afghanistan - first person? or based on research?

Giving Kate Atkinson props here for her war chapter - as noted in yesterday's post it was obvious she was building toward this - Teddy's War 1944, in which we get the first real glimpse of how the war experience formed the personality of the central character in A God in Ruins, Toddy Todd; we follow him, out of sequence, over the course of his whole life, but the deeper we get and the more knowledge we build the more we recognize that the 2 most important segments - his war years (he was a bomber pilot) and the death of his wife, Nancy, are the central elements. I wondered what Atkinson could bring to this game that was new - there's been so damn much written about WWII, still being written (and filmed), amazingly. But this chapter is among the tops - I've never read anything that put me so definitively aboard a plan in combat. There of course has been great writing about every war, from Troy to Afghanistan, but most of the writing has been by combatants -almost always men, or always until recently I guess - but there are a few great works about war by non-combatants - Crane comes to mind tho I haven't read him in years, more recently Stuart O'Nan on Vietnam and Richard Flanagan (had to look up his name) and Narrow Road to the Deep North (about WWII in Burma) - and Atkinson takes her place among them as war writer based on he research and imagination: the seams of the research never show, if you didn't know it was impossible you'd think she had this info first-hand. Very powerful writing in a fine, if somewhat sprawling, novel - but I have faith that the various strands will come together and inform one another as I move toward the 2nd half of the book.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

A journey from innocence to experience - for a character, and for a nation

Much of the middle passage in Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins concerns the later years of the main character, Teddy, as his grumpy and difficult daughter (whom we learn quite late is a successful novelist, though she does not seem the type, to me, with her indifference to other people and their feelings)  - and we also get a few sections about his early married life - he worked on a small newspaper, his wife, Nancy, moved about among teaching jobs, some doing the noble work of teaching math, or, as the English say, maths, in a working-class school, later at a posh private, or as the English say, public, school. A few mysteries remain: How exactly did Nancy die? We know she died young, devastating her only child, the unhappy-ever-after Viola, and leaving Teddy in isolation - it appears he never remarried and we know little about his social life outside of family. Second, Teddy - what made him as he is? It's an English novel, so we know before even starting that the War formed his character; we have had, so far, half-way thru, no significant direct scenes about his war experiences, what we know we have gleaned from indirection, such as his few reflections to his also-sullen grandson, Sunny, as they visit a military cemetery near York (I think), his occasional memories of a wartime tryst or the death in combat of friends of acquaintances. We know he wrestles w/ guilt about bombing civilian targets and nasty, holier than thou daughter plays on that and holds it against him - but what was he to do, he was fighting for his country in one of the few great noble battles, a fight against tyranny, fascism, and anti-Semitism - so if he had to bomb the hell out of Germany so be it, I say. Somehow this part of his life hasn't opened yet in the novel, but I'm confident that Atkinson is building toward the war scenes, the time that turned Teddy from a sheltered and somewhat innocent boy into a man, at about age 20. His transformation is, or will be, a paradigm for much 20th-century (and before) fiction, a journey from innocence to experience, youth to age - but in his case the journey parallels that of his nation.

Monday, March 28, 2016

A good story, but Porter backs away from its darker potential

I wouldn't say that Katherine Anne Porter's The Cracked Looking-Glass is one of her best "long stories," even tho it appears in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories. It's almost as if KAP chickened out as her narrative began to get interesting and dangerous (unlike some of her more famous, darker stories, like Noon Wine, if I'm remembering it correctly). Like her other stories, it centers on a lonely and somewhat isolate couple - the husband, Dennis, is 75 and his wife (his 2nd wife), Rosalee (?) is 25 years younger. She's youthful and attractive and a mismatch for him - which leads to lots of neighborhood flirtation: traveling salesmen, neighbor mean who stop by for a visit and stay a little too long. Rosalee, moved by a vision that she has, goes off to NYC and then Boston to seek out her sister whom she believes may be grievously ill - at least acc to her vision - but finds that her sister has left Boston w/out a trace (communication was much more difficult in 1930); she meets a young man, a fellow Irish immigrant, and buys him dinner, takes pity on him, invites him to come live w/ her and Dennis, and the man gets the wrong idea, which leads to a big fight. When she returns home she learns of the gossip that surrounds her in the farm community where they live. OK, but KAP backs off here - instead of having R take some risk, some desperate action, leaving her husband, attacking one of the gossips - essentially what happens is that she recognizes that all of her visions do not turn out to be predictive, and she snuggles up by her husband, content - and btw she forgot to buy a new "looking glass" to replace the warped one that gives her the wrong image of herself. The ending is too easy and the symbolism too heavy - but that said I could see this story adapted into an effective short play, maybe good for a student production, or maybe it would have been back in the day.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Let's not call it a novella

I think it was Katherine Anne porter who objected to use of the then-voguish term novella soni'll oblige her spirit and call the hundred-page story I'm reading - the cracked looking glass - a long story Esp as it's included in the 100 years of best american short stories collection. And I guess the term is accurate because it doesn't have the breadth or scope of a novel - focusing on one married couple and one plot event - but is much more deeply developed in back story then most short fiction. Story concerns a couple both Irish immigrants settled on a somewhat remote farm in Connecticut some time in the 1930s - husband at least 20 years older than wife a retired head waiter and physically very run down while she is young and spirited. The marriage was a mistake for bothe obviously. Much of the first half is from his point of view as he hears her discussing things and gossiping often about him w flirtatious salesmen who come to the door (as the used to do - a staple element of much short fiction of the era). Story shifts somewhat as wife determines to visit sister in Boston - she'd had a vision that her sister was ill and needed her - but it's clear to us if not to her that she is seeking independence- on arriving in Boston after overnight boat ride - yes travel was different the! - her sister seems to have vanished. They were not close but this is extreme - and a window into the world a century ago when communication was difficult and sporadic.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Purloined fiction and a reputation gone: clever McEwan story in NYer

Ian McEwan has a clever, if not truly credible, story in the current New Yorker, My Purple Scented Novel (correct punctuation - no comma, no hyphen, go figure). The story is in the form of a "confession," written by a 60+ novelist who is explaining how his reputation has risen while that of his lifelong friend, another novelist, named Jocelyn something (is it possible that Jocelyn could be a guy's first name? even in England?) has declined. He tells the story of their friendship from school days when they were the two aspiring writers publishing in small lit mags and dreaming of a literary future - Jocelyn then sold a play to TV, which the confessor (can't remember his name) thought to be a sellout and insincere (espousing some cause of the day, about which Jocelyn had never held any views), from which J goes on to a highly successful career while the confessor publishes a few obscure novels, marries, has 4 kids, takes a job in an small college in the far north - and visits J a few times a year in J's posh London home. Then the writer, pushed by jealousy and envy, exacts some revenge - I won't give it away, but in short he purloins some of J's work through a clever scheme that leads to J's literary demise. Could it work? Not likely, but it's still an entertaining piece - very much captures the sense of British literary culture, so much more interconnected and culturally important than the sprawling, marginal literary culture in the U.S. One very funny aside in this story, as the writer is cooking up his scheme, he references a literary antecedents for purloined fiction (Borges, Calvino) and even a novel by Martin Amis, noting that he'd heard that Amis got his idea in a long discussion w/ that writer, he says, whose name eludes him, with the Scottish name and English attitude - ha!, a true insider jab w/in the clubbish London literary world.

Friday, March 25, 2016

An impressive portrait of a man, of a familiy, of England over the course of a century

Kate Atkinson's novel A God in Ruins, a family portrait over generations told in long chapters from different eras, out of chronological sequence - a mosaic technique that Atkinson managers effectively because of her attentive development of character and her acute sense of period detail (without being flashy and without showing the seams of assiduous research) - is beginning to cohere, about 1/3 of the way through, into a novel about Teddy: we see him in the first long chapter as an 11-year-old and in later chapters as a WWII RAF combatant (these will be developed much more later in the novel it seems); as a young man in the banking profession, which he hates (following his father, the dull and dour Hugh), on the eve of WWII and about to enlist; as a newlywed to his next-door-neighbor and childhood sweetheart, Nancy. Chapters I read last night show him as an older man, in about 1980 dealing with his difficult daughter, Viola, who lives variously in squats and in rural communes and is perennially unhappy, unappreciated, unfulfilled, and bitter - then in a later chapter ca 1999 as he's in his 80s and Viola, along w/ her sullen children (at least the boy is sullen, with the "ironic" name Sunny) moving Teddy against his wishes into assisted living, and trying to get her hands on any and all of his valuables (she misses out on the potential value of some of the period furniture and kicks herself later - ha!). We really are getting to see a complex character unfold over the course of a lifetime, and in the process watching the whole culture of England unfold - facing the traumas of both world wars, the sadness of reconstruction in the 1950s, the social upheavals of the Vietnam and Thatcher eras - a pretty impressive book, and not one I ordinarily would be drawn to, so far.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Atkinson's novel and the British obsession with the World Wars

Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins is a multi-generation story but she successfully avoids the boring tedium of straightforward chronology, the inevitable march of life, and tells the story in segments - large segments, long chapters - each focused on a different family member, different generation, but there are natural points of contact or areas of overlap as obviously different characters in the family appear in one another's segments (they don't tell their story, it's the more elegant 3rd person) at different ages. Whether Atkinson can build a plot and narrative - I'm not sure yet - but she's very good at creating a sense of time and place and at delineating character: the people from 1920 feel just as real and present as the people living on a commune circa 1980. I will blog more about this in future posts, but have to remark on one aspect - and I think I've posted on this before - but I continue to be amazed at the English/British obsession with the 2 World Wars. I can understand a generation or two ago why WWII was a major theme in English fiction but at this point there's literally no one living who can tell directly about the first World War and very few with direct knowledge of the 2nd, for that matter - and still it seems every other British novel or show has something to do w/ one war or another or, as in this novel, w/ both. Obviously highly traumatic events for the English - incredible losses of male population, the bombing of cities, English bravery, the suffering after the war, the diminished empire - but seriously WWII was 75 years ago, so why is this topic still on the literary forefront as if it's current events?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Who's not afraid of Virginia Woolf?: A novel in her style - A God in Ruins

Giving Kate Atkinson a lot of credit for the opening segment (about 50 pages) of her novel A God in Ruins, which introduces many characters across 4 generations and somehow manages to keep the characters clear and distinct - she has found, it seems, the right balance between making each character unique and specific without falling into the trap of making characters into types, cliches, or assemblages of characteristics. Her muse, I think, has to be Virginia Woolf, especially in long chapter two which focuses on a day in the life of a family, primarily the 11-year-old son, Teddy, but shifting kaleidoscopically among the characters, shifting points of view to present a larger picture, a mosaic-portrait. Her style of course is not as elegant as Woolf's and she relies too frequently on fragment, which to me are incomplete thoughts, a writer's crutch (and a bloggers salvation). to give a brief sense of where the novel stands at this point: Oldest generation, ca 1920, father a banker who avoided service in the War (yes, this is an English novel so we will of course get not one but 2 world wars) ad who thinks about having an affair with next-door neighbor (whose husband is an injured war vet and cannot have sex) and his wife an artistic-literary type (her father a well-known 19th-century portraitist who died in deep debt); of the children the focus is on Teddy, an active and inquisitive kid formerly a Boy Scout but now joined w/ a new pacifist and co-ed group; has a crush on neighbor's daughter Nancy; he's visited by Aunt Izzy, a bohemian and scandalous sort, who in the long chapter plies him w/ annoying questions about his interests and habits - later we see that she has done so to use him as a character, Augusts, in a series of children's books. We see in a short chapter that Teddy served w/ the airborne in WWII; we also see Teddy's somewhat estranged daughter, Viola, in 1960s or so, she and partner are "flower children," unwed, parents of 2 (Sunny and Moon), all of whom have difficult relations with the more conventional grandfather. Whew. We'll see where she goes with this - can this novel bear the weight of more characters? And will the picture cohere or scatter?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A completely unrealistic novel - but so what?

Your appreciation of Valeria Luiselli's novel the provocatively titled The Story of My Teeth, from the respected Coffee House Press, one of the few surviving literary houses, will entirely depend on whether you can tolerate a completely and willfully eccentric and unrealistic narrative, and I'm not talking about magic realism, although some may see Luiselli in this context (she is a Mexican writer, writing in Spanish) - rather hers is a pointedly absurd narration: the narrator's story of his life - and of his many obsessions - including teeth. He has a multi-hyphenate name, as do all of the characters in this novel, but he goes by the moniker "Highway" - no idea why - and his aspiration in life was to become an auctioneer, which he does after a course of study in the U.S. He tells us he is the world's greatest auctioneer and has learned that he can sell anything if he makes it part of a story (yes, he is in this sense the "meme" of an author of fiction - this novel is abundant with sly literary references and winking allusions). All this could have been much more interesting (to me) if, a., we learned what he learned and how he learned it in auctioneer school or at least, b., if we could see him at work in an auction. Well we do see him at work: his big auction is selling an old set of teeth to a crowd of elderly bidders, and he tells them the "story" of each one - each was supposedly (a complete fabrication of course) a tooth from a famous writer or thinker. Sadly, there's nothing at all interesting of persuasive about Highway's narrations. Highway himself had all of his teeth removed and replaced with a set of teeth that he's told had been Marilyn Monroe's. At one point in the novel, while he is asleep, someone steals the teeth from out of his mouth. With me so far? Most, maybe all, of the characters have literary names - his son is named Siddhartha, and other characters' names include literary patronymics like Sanchez-Proust or Garcia-Walser (I can't remember the exact names), but to no apparent purpose other than winking to the reader and sparking the joy of mutual reference. In other words, there's not a thing I believed or even cared about in this novel (I read slightly more than half), although others may find it witty and entertaining. But truly, I wonder, is there a thing Luiselli herself believes about this novel? It has the feel of an improv - a novel that plays completely by its own rules - and though I didn't get to the end I could see it coming, a big "So what?" Coffee House - glad you're taking risks, but you could do better.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Minding Death: Great conversation about Memento Mori

One of our best book-group discussions in many years last night as we wrestled with Muriel Sparks's 1957 novel, Memento Mori. Interestingly, nobody was particularly enthusiastic about the novel itself, which we felt generally was hard to follow with so many characters introduced and little distinguish among them; also I think most agreed w/ me that Spark played a cheap trick by setting up a mystery and never even attempting to resolve it. That said, we took to heart the message of the novel - as I outlined it, the novel shows many different ways in which the many characters, all of them 70+, deal with remembering or minding death, and that led is far into a discussion about death and how our knowledge of death determines and defines our lives. Without trying to sound too pretentious, I opened by saying that in a sense death is what makes us human; we are the only living creatures not only aware of death but aware that all living things must die - including ourselves. It's virtually impossible to imagine life without the foreknowledge one's own death - we would live our lives differently if we did not know that we were mortal, but the knowledge of our mortality in a sense keeps us focused on that which is important - which will differ among us. We talked about what it is that death makes us focus on, or what we would do if we knew we were soon to die: some talked of focus on family, some on posterity (a book, a work of art). I brought up the question: when is it that we first learned or understood that we would die? It's obvious that we learn that shocking fact at some point in childhood: not that death happens, but that it will happen to you! - yet no one can seem to recall the moment when that terrifying knowledge dawns. Then I talked about immortality (sorry to focus on what I said, but these thoughts are very much in my mind): that we know we will die but we desire to live on - whether that's through children, though passing on wealth or property (huge theme in this novel), through art and ideas (another theme in the novel), or through influence on the lives of others (we have 3 psychotherapists in the group; they can relate to this, as can teachers). Sometimes even a mediocre book can lead to great conversation, just as sometimes a great book can leave us speechless.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

13 Ways of Looking at Death: Memento Mori

In prep for book group this evening a few thoughts on Muriel Spark's Memento Mori: As the title of calls tells you this is a book about thinking about death, and what see large cast of characters, all of them elderly (by 1957 standards, anyway), all of them English, all of them either of the upper crust or directly in service to the upper crust, in other words, it's hardly a Chaucerian attempt to show all of English society, illusionary as that might be, but to show all of English society as seen by the wealthy and entitled (and artistic-literary). We see in a sense a range of approaches to the approach to death: one man (a sociologist/gerontolist - Alec) studies old age, others face death by trying to secure their immortality through art (the poets), others try to secure their financial future (the schemers after the estate of a recently deceased), others try to manage their own estate and to manipulate their heirs (Lettie), others try to revitalize their sexual ardor (Godfrey), others try to amend relationships w/ family (Charmian), some approach it through mysticism and faith (the detective), finally others try to come to recognize death as part of the life process and to accept it peacefully and stoically - Jean, and the other women in the hospital ward for the elderly. Probably missing something here as well. If only this all tied together into a better narrative - I still think Spark's perverse decision to establish a mystery (phone calls warning various members of the family of approaching death) and making no attempt to answer the basic question: who's making these calls and why? It's a cheap answer to say that they're just a literary device to get the story going - especially in a story that is in all other respects conventionally realistic.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Cruel World: Annie Proulx's warped vision

Apologies to the many fans of Annie Proulx and admitting that I was moved by Brokeback and somewhat entertained by Shipping News, but there's a cynicism to her work, a cruelty and a fascination with violence and suffering, that I find completely disturbing and, in fact, sensational. Her story in the current New Yorker, A Resolute Man, exemplifies this characteristic: Story appears at first to be a period piece, an adventure story from the early 18th century about a 50-year-old man who'd spent his life at sea and then, through improbable circumstances, inherits a fortune and resettles as a gentleman in the limber business in Boston. He falls in love with a woman - married to a minister - whom he meets on shipboard during his crossing to America (she's traveling solo). Disembarking in Boston, there's an accident on the tender and she is strong enough to pull him back aboard to safety. He visits her when he settles in Boston and finds her living in poverty and her husband, the minister, appears to be seriously mentally ill (and showing signs of physical abuse as well). Okay, a story of mismatched couples and unrequited love, or of illicit and forbidden love, or of passion over religion, or what? - many possible pathways this narrative could follow. But here's where Proulx takes this: the man gets the husband shipped off for "recovery" in the country, and when he learns that the minister actually is recovering he sneaks off in the night and murders him (crime never discovered). Then marries the beautiful widow and finds that she is a sexual fiend and predator who beats the crap out of him while they are having sex. And he also finds out that her beloved father - also in the lumber business, as it happens - is a horrendously crude and cruel man who speaks more coarsely than you can even fathom and boasts of introducing the daughter to sex - and yet the daughter reveres good old dad, even invites dad to join them on their honeymoon to NYC. So is this supposed to be entertaining or funny? Shocking? I say it's just part of Proulx's warped world vision - that people, men in particular, are mean and nasty and coarse and that we constantly repress our evil nature in order to live together, from time to time, as a society, a family, a couple - but our happiness is doomed to destruction. Does she really believe this - or is this just her way of writing a sensation story?

Friday, March 18, 2016

Story in current Harpers (Gllory): an immigrant's tale or a universal truth?

Lesley Nneka Arimah's story Glory in current Harpers is not exactly ground-breaking in style of subject matter but is a thoughtful look at the troubled life of a young woman, immigrant (at age 6, so very Americanized, so to speak) from Nigeria, settled in Minneapolis and working a menial job (after bad college experiences and dropping out of law school), the girl, the eponymous Glory (actually Glorybetogod is her name - have to love that - Arimah remarks on the difficulties she experiences w/ driver's license and FB page) brings shame on her parents because of her lack of success and her single, childless status. At work she meets a young man, fellow Nigerian immigrant (but  much more recent arrival and therefore more conventional and traditional - devoted to parents, chaste, sober) who falls in love with her. Since he's exactly the kind of man her parents would want her to marry, all should be good, right? - but no, she has a self-destructive streak. Most would see hers as some kind of condition, depression or borderline behavior or something, but she - drawing on family and cultural traditions - sees herself as simply cursed, born to live under a dark star, so to speak. Her grandfather pronounced this on her shortly after her birth - and it's hard, impossible, to say whether he "saw" something in her or if his pronunciation defined and sealed her fate. In any event, the more her man - Tom - seems to want her and love her, the more she pulls away from him (and his doting mother). At the end, Glory has to make a decision; Arimah is coy about that and leaves us hanging, a little, at the end - but we kind of figure out which direction Glory's life will take. Her depression and bad decisions could be the story of many young women - it's not necessarily a story of a Nigerian immigrant, but the overlay of spiritualism and legend - her grandfather tells a story about tricking the gods that seems to influence her life - gives the story a multi-cultural subtext that makes the story a little more appealing and informative (and publishable, to be honest) than the same story would have been if told about an American-born troubled 20-something.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Day of Abandonment: Stopping reading the Neapolitan novels

I've really tried to like Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels - I like many novels of this type, a series of memoir-like novels based on the writer's close personal reflection on his or her life - as I have noted in many previous posts: notably, Proust, Knausgaard, Anthony Powell. So why not Ferrante? And it's not that I am more attuned to male authors, although no doubt that's true. I read all of vol one and now 1/3 of vol two, The Story of a New Name, and although vol 2 showed promise, rising to literary levels in a few scenes such as the sexual encounters between Lena and Antonio and the much more violent encounter between Lila and Stefano on their wedding night - both brutal and crude and short, and a real insight into sexual predation from the woman's POV - overall the writing is flat as a board, totally pedestrian. One even after another will almost no establishment of a sense of place, of voice; very little reflection by the mature narrator looking back on her youth. Although a lot happens to the characters there is little character development - and none of the characters emerges clearly other than the two central figures, whose names annoyingly are almost identical. More than one volume in - and I still find myself asking, wait, who was this character? The baker? The grocery-store owner? The shoemaker? The communist? And so on. People say that you "get to know the characters" - I'm just trying to keep them straight and learn their names! M has said the volume really picks up when Lena goes to Ischia - scenes of a romantic brush and a sexual assault in volume 1 - but honestly I can't get there, it's been a slog and I'm not willing to continue. The journey just can't be worth the payoff.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A central scene in the Neapolitan novels: The professor's party

When they make the inevitable TV series based on Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels (maybe they've done so already? Wondering if it will be or has been made by the Italian team that put together the great but now almost forgotten series The Best of Youth), one of the key moments will have to be the party scene: Lena invited by her beloved and revered Professor (Galiano ?) to a party at the prof's apartment and told it's OK to bring a friend/date. Has no boyfriend at the moment but doesn't want to go alone; she asks Lila (who btw is sometimes also called Lina, just to make things ridiculously difficult for readers I guess) and surprisingly Lila agrees. The party is the first real awakening for Lena: she sees how the educated live, begins to speak fluent classic Italian (as opposed to dialect - something we lose in translation I'm afraid), sees the intellectual, Nino, on whom she has had a lifelong crush, sees that Nino's beautiful girlfriend is actually the prof's daughter (a twist I didn't like as it seemed to heavy-handed and novelistic, breaks the mood of a memoir-novel), and spends a lot of time speaking with young people her age about politics and ideas - something she never does with her friends from the neighborhood, where life is about fighting, struggle, vengeance, and pursuing a profit in one of the trades. On the ride home, Lila goes into a nasty tirade about how horrible the people were, how pretentious, how boring, how she wished she'd never gone. She is incredibly rude to Lena, and this tirade causes total break in the friendship - another world has opened for Lena, and she will pursue entry to that world of the educated - and Lila has realized that this door is closed to her, even tho she is the smartest and most artistic one of all. Instead of trying to change her life or form an alliance w/ Lena, she lashes out in bitterness and envy - perhaps she thinks she will persuade Lena to agree w/ her and to keep Lena in her power, but Lena is now too powerful in her own way to fall into that trap. Of course this relationship will continue to evolve - as we know from the outset of the first novel: Lila will grow, too.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

An Ann Beattie story set in Manhattan

Ordinarily I would get annoyed w/ a story that introduces many, many characters, right from the start, and then keeps introducing more, making it extremely difficult, at least on first read through, to know who are the main characters, which are peripheral, and what relationships hold among the characters of significance. But Ann Beattie is creating this jumble of characters for a reason, in her story For the Best in the current NYer: I think what she's doing is putting us head-first into a social whirl among 70-somethings in posh NYC townhouses; our main character, Gerold, is invited to a party (at the Clavells, we never learn much about them nor do we need to) where he expects to run into his ex-wife, whom he hasn't seen in 30+ years (hard as that is to believe, given that they have as son from their marriage and that it appears they both live in Manhattan ... maybe I missed something?). In any event, over the course of this relatively long story we experience w/ Gerold (sp?) a # of encounters - some with the very wealthy set attending the party, one with his former accountant, now a frail but jovial 80-something, toward the end a rather rueful encounter with the doorman, Alonzo, in his apartment building, at which we get a glimpse as to how little the affable Gerold actually knows about this man w/ whom he exchanges pleasantries every day - and we see a young woman who lives in the building treat Alonzo very officiously. The re-encounter w/ ex-wife is almost lost in the shuffle, but we see that she seems to have a serious alcohol problem - and a sharp tongue - both of which may have led to the divorce and the long estrangement. The point of it all?: We get a portrait of late life among a set that, from the outside, appears confident and successful, but we get a few glimpses of the loneliness and fear of aging and dying that stalk them all, all of us in fact. BTW, has inveterate traveler AB shifted her locus from Maine to NYC, or is this a one-off?

Monday, March 14, 2016

Ferrante volume 2 - losing its steam

Ferrante's volume 2, The Story of a New Name, is grinding its gears a bit - one-quarter of the way through and, after a promising start that included some of the most vivid writing in the series (so far), we seem to be tilling the same ground again and again: Lila is smart, rich, sexy, unhappily married, and the sometime narrator, her best friend, Lena, is not quite as smart or sexy and constantly in Lila penumbra. Among the plot elements, there's a big to-do about whether the new shoe store can use a blow-up picture of Lila in her wedding attire as a promo for its line of shoes; after much back and forth - why are shoes so goddamn important to Ferrante? - Lila (and her husband, Stephano) agree, though Lila does some weird cutouts to give the portrait a contemporary, fragmented look. Meanwhile, Lena: at times she thinks she'll resign herself to marrying Antonio (they are still teenagers - one of the astonishing things about this novel, how young these children are to get married and make life decisions) and work at his family gas station - no reader can imagine that this will be her fate - and she yearns for the radical, intellectual Nino (?), who is in love with another girl. Lena does something really stupid: goes to Antonio's arch-enemies, the Serrano bros., for help getting him out of military service. When A learns of this he is infuriated and says he will serve in the Army no matter what. How could Lena not have seen this coming? I keep hoping for more, but, all told, it's a good, gossipy novel and over time you get to know the main characters better, of course, but seriously, is this really great literature, or even literature? The writing is so flat and unengaged, the narration so nonreflective, there's minimal description or mood or nuance - just one event after another. Bring on the mini-series.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Ferrante and the mult-volume fiction-memoir - how does she measure up?

Though I had many reservations about Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend I have moved along to the 2nd volume of Ferrante's memoir-novel series, The Story of A New Name - as readers of these posts will know I have a weakness for multi-volume memoir novels, including Proust, Powell, Knausgaard - now good to read one presumably) by a female novelist. Stepping into volume 2 it is still maddeningly difficult to keep the many family names and occupations straight, but of thankfully this volume, so far, feels somewhat more focused on the two lead characters, primary narrator and generally presumed authorial stand-in Lena and her "brilliant friend" (whom I believe actually to be the authorial stand-in) Lily (violation of a cardinal rule of fiction composition, two lead characters w/ same initial letter). Much of the first 10 or so chapters concerns the episode that closed out volume 1, the appearance at the Lily-Stephano wedding of a rival character wearing the pair of shoes that Lily had designed - an episode of great symbolic significance (and also an echo of the Red Shoes of the Duchess passage in Proust?), showing that Stephano has caved in to the power of another clan and that he will betray Lily's trust. It feels as if Ferrante, however, makes too much out of this episode - in fact, I think she should have concluded the episode in volume one about begun this volume once she's cleared the air (probably starting at chapter 6). That said, the writing in this volume is more descriptive and nuanced - the two rather crude and brutal sex scenes in the first few chapters - Lena and Antonio after Lily's wedding, and Lily and Stephano on the first night of their honeymoon - are far more detailed and powerful than any of the writing in volume one, and each shows the cruelty of the men, the perverse power relationships that the women have to accommodate themselves to - at least until they break free from the enslavement of male-dominance and marriage - and they examine the force of female desire (and repulsion). More of this writing will lift this volume to a higher level, I hope, and it appears that this volume will focus on the the parallel relationships of the 2 friends and less on establishing all of the alliances and conflicts among the many neighborhood clans. A further note: I found the first chapter hard to fathom - Lily entrusting Lena with a large packet of her writings and drawings, Lena pledging not to read them, but she does read them almost immediately (and gives a long and boring description of what they contain - we'd rather read these notebooks ourselves, which maybe we are?), and then she tosses them in river (an echo of a key scene in A Dance to the Music of Time?), which is incredibly mean and hard to imagine her doing under any circumstances.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

F. Scott Fitzgerald and addiction

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Babylon Revisited, one of his best and most famous stories (included in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories as one of 3 representing the 1930s) is in part about the wreck of his own life - a family essentially destroyed by alcoholism and mental illness, exacerbated by the reckless and profligate life of American ex-pats in Europe after the First World War - as it is a portrait of a generation in turmoil. It's hard in some ways to feel much sympathy for his central character, Charlie Wales, who made a fortune on the market in the 20s and lived in Paris where the dollar was incredibly strong against the flank and instead of doing anything with his life just drank and flirted and cheated on his wife and eventually broke apart the marriage when he locked her out of the apartment on a snowy night, leaving her to nearly catch pneumonia - and there's a hint that his mistreatment may even have caused her early death, attributed to "heart trouble." The story concerns Charlie's return to Paris after some years - he's now a successful businessman in Prague - in hope of reclaiming his young daughter, who has been living w/ her aunt (her mother's sister and now he legal guardian) and uncle. Charlie has to persuade them that he's reformed - he's not terribly convincing; his argument that he takes one drink a day so as not to make the craving for alcohol too big a deal, seems a recipe for disaster, so to speak. His plan to reclaim his daughter goes off the rails when two of his drinking partners from the old days show up at his in-laws house, disgusting his sister-in-law and shaming Charlie. Fitzgerald makes the woman (Nancy) the heavy and her husband (Lincoln) another one of feckless male nice guys. Nancy may be bitter and unsympathetic, but she's probably in the right - it would be very difficult to give up her guardianship and let the young girl go with a man so tenuously sober. Fitzgerald in my view never quite succeeds in building sympathy for Charlie's case, and that may not even be his aim - he makes it pretty clear that the life Charlie et al. led in Paris in the heyday was, in FSF's term, "dissipated" - vanishing into nothing, and Charlie seems to close to the verge. In this sense, we shouldn't confuse Charlie w/ FSF himself - FSF fought the same battle against addiction and illness but despite all his troubles he did make something of his life to say the least - writing one of the great novels of the century and several stories (like this one) and secondary novels that have defined an era, a time, and a place.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The once-influential Ring Lardner - still worth reading?

Ring Lardner is yet another writer from the 1920s-30s once very popular and now almost never read or discussed - I recently looked for any of his books in my town library and found none at all - but he was definitely on the every h.s. American lit syllabus 50 years ago. His story Haircut, included as one of 3 representatives from the 1920s alongside Anderson and Hemingway in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, today looks very simple and even naïve, which is probably why it influenced a lot of h.s. writers many years ago, including me: this story is entirely narrated by a barber giving an eponymous haircut to an out-of-towner and filling him in on the gossip of this small Michigan town --  we learn about an entire way of life in a provincial community, not unlike Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. I read Lardner in h.s. partly because his book You Know Me, Al was one of the few literary works at the time about baseball, and I remember writing a (very bad) story modeled on Haircut that I think I called Taxi, in which a cab driver gives a long and dull narration to his fare, who it turns out is a baseball player trying to get to the park for the game. Anyway, what struck me reading Haircut many years after first encountering it is the incredible cruelty and meanness of the character the barber is describing - a terrible bully, misogynist, nasty man whom the barber and perhaps everyone in the town remembers as quite the "card." Reading the story now I see the all-too-evident irony that I don't think I saw in my youth - the guy in the chair, that is, we the readers, can't wait to get up and leave, and we wish we could tell the barber and all of his cronies to go to hell - though there's the sense that they all were terrified and humiliated by the Jim the bully and are too spineless to admit it, even now, This could be a la Flaubert considered a tale of provincial life. A central component of the story is the meanness of the tricks and teasing Jim plays on a young man who evidently has retardation or brain damage - an intriguing anticipation of IB Singer's Gimpel the Fool (could he have possibly read Lardner?), which much more sensitively and thoughtfully is narrated by the victim of town bullying and teasing.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Why My Old Man is not one of Hemingway's best stories

Editors Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor select Ernest Hemingway's story My Old Man as one of 3 to represent the 1920s in their anthology, 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories. Clearly this is neither one of Hemingway's best stories nor is it one of the best of the 1920s (American), but their hands are tied - I think they are restricted to stories that appeared in one of the annual Best Short Stories collections - which skew a little toward mid- to late-career stories (easier to go w/ a safe pick than to cast lots on a newcomer) and, if the first 3 stories in the anthology are evidence, with fairly conventional, plot-driven stories that either have a full narrative arc or build to a point of revelatory crisis, or both (though this may be evidence of Moore/Pitlor taste - mine as well, frankly). My Old Man is a first-person narrated account, by a young man, though it's hard to gauge his exact age, either in writing the story (he is looking back on his youth, but he might be no older than a teenager) or the exact age of the events of the story - probably very early puberty, as he develops a crush on a girl he's seen in a café, but has no sense of how to meet her or speak to her. Otherwise, his life is entirely male-dominated. His "old man" is a jockey working the tracks in Italy and, later, the Paris region - the young boy is living with his father and going to the track every day - not receiving any formal education. Mother, we learn almost en passant, has died; the boy and father are American, but the father thinks America has gone bad in some way (unspecified) though he wants to go back to the U.S. someday for the boy's education - all this very unspecific. The boy, however, does receive a good education in re European horse racing (as do we), and Hemingway takes special delight in the argot - race horses are "skins," for ex. The heart of the story is the boy's loss of innocence, his gradual if vague dawning knowledge that his father was a cheat - fixing races and trading inside info with other jocks - which causes some trouble for them and leaves his father w/out work for a while. As the story progresses, the father dangerously increases his drinking and his risk-taking, with expected results. The story his the beauty of Hemingway's acute observation and simple prose, but without the concision and allusiveness of his greatest stories - Hills Like White Elephants, Clean Well-Lighted Place, Indian Camp (another father story), two name just 3 - compared w/ which My Old Man is a bit more obvious and explicit. Read it in its time and you'd say it's a fine magazine story but you don't exactly see Hemingway as a ground-breaking writer here who would establish a tone of voice and a set of parameters for the short story that would influence writers for 100 years.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Unreliable narrators, and why Sherwood Anderson is still worth reading

Sherwood Anderson is another one of the early 20th-century American writers once very much in vogue but now thought of (and read) only seldom - though old friend Charles Baxter did edited a great collection of Anderson stories a few years ago, including some previously unpublished, that brought some new and deserved attention to Anderson's work. He was once grouped among Hemingway and Fitzgerald as a pre-eminent American story writer of the first half of the 20th century, mostly based on his groundbreaking Winesburg, Ohio, the forerunner of about a million collections of "linked stories," the staple of all graduate writing programs. Moore and Pitlar include an Anderson story, as one of 3 stories representing the 1920s, in their collection 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories - and it's one of his lesser-known, or at least not part of Winesburg: "Brothers" - a strange, mysterious piece that anticipates some of the motifs that became much more common later in the century: unreliable narrators, multiple story lines center on one moment of conflict of crisis. Simply, this story is narrated by a man who lives in the hills about 20 miles from Chicago; we know little to nothing about the narrator. Story begins and ends during an October rainstorm; the narrator tells how he walked in the fog the day before and crossed paths w/ a neighbor who lives alone w/ his little dog and is generally considered "insane" - his mania or delusion is that the believes (or tells others anyway) that he is related to various people who come up in the news (the Chicago papers are read in this rural suburb). The latest example concerns a murder: narrator recounts (this constitutes 90 % of the story) a lurid tale of a bicycle-shop foreman who stabs his wife to death (he had developed a romantic crush, unrequited, on an office secretary), confesses when caught. The "insane" man tells the narrator that he is the killer's brother - totally not true, as we are aware. In telling this tale, the "insane" man becomes so wrought that he squeezes his dog - probably to death. The next day, the narrator sees the insane man walking in the rain, alone. So we begin to wonder: what is truth and what is delusion? Who are these 2 lonely men? 3 if you count the murderer? What parts of the narrative are real and accurate - even the tale of the murder - it seems to have info that would not and could not have been in the newspaper accounts of the day. The story also anticipates the way news - far more sensation and overwhelming today than a century ago - permeates our lives, consciousness, conversation, even dreams. Is the "insane" man any more delusional than the writer, who makes up and imagines these lurid tales? If the author has a role in this story - which one is he?

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Is Edna Ferber more than a high-brow literary hack?

I've always thought of Edna Ferber as a high-brow hack, but maybe I've underestimated. I remember reading Cimarron in, when, 8th grade English, which shows you the level of sophistication in the English curriculum in the schools I attended. A couple of her novels have been made into OK movies - but that's it, her posthumous reputation has never kept pace w/ her near-contemporaries, that is, she's never mentioned in the same company as Wharton or Cather - but she does bob to the surface once in a while - notably, in the recent collection 100 Years of the Best American Stories (Moore and Pitlar, eds.) - which I've started reading around in, and Ferbers's story A Gay Old Dog (a title that would sound totally weird today), the sole representative in this volume of stories pre-1920. So of course this is a very old-fashioned story in style and mores - but a really good example of fiction in and about its day and age: published circa 1917 and it's about a 50-something "man about town" (as they would have called him in New York, Ferber wryly notes) from Chicago, Jo (correct spelling) Hertz, who goes to all the right restaurants, to his favorite table, to his orchestra (parterre, is the term she sues) theater seats, dresses like a "dandy" - a guy we generally would care little about, and not the type of man often portrayed in fiction, as he's so decidedly unliterary, unintellectual, but Ferber's genius here is that she asks: Who is this man? And as she notes to tell his story in a few pages (which she proceeds to do) is impossible, as his story is more like a novel (whose isn't? - as so many great semi-autobiographical and naturalistic novelists have proven again and again). What works so well is that she doesn't need the scope of a novel to tell of Jo's sorrowful and ill-fated life: He pledges to his mother on her deathbed that he will take care of his 3 sisters (OK) and that he will not marry until all of them have married (stupid - and like the beginning of a Shakespeare tragedy perhaps). Over the course of his life, he comes to realize that he has wasted his entire life in service to his selfish and self-absorbed sisters - his chance to have a life of his own has come and gone, and now - the story ends as the U.S. is entering the World War (I) - he will never have a son of whom he is proud, a woman to love and cherish and share a life with - just the empty trappings of his wealth (he is not exactly a war profiteer but we see that he has made a fortune selling supplies to the military, while 19-year-old boys march off to war) - the story, though a bit melodramatic at the end when he confronts two of his sisters - ends with a true sense of pathos - a tragedy in a minor key.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The overlooked and the forsaken - Atticus Lish's incredibly sad novel

Such a sad novel - truly one of the best-written novels I've read in years, but I recommend it with caution as there is little about it that is uplifting or encouraging, it's about as dark as they come, from the opening section right down to the bitter and dramatic conclusion (I won't give anything away, but I think readers who start Atticus Lish's Preparation for the Next Life will have a pretty good sense of where this novel is headed). A few notes in conclusion: I have posted on the difficulty in seeing what draws these characters, Skinner and Zou Lei, together, particularly why she is so devoted to him, with his overwhelming problems and his occasional cruelty and violence toward her - but of course as you read along and look back you can see that these are two very lonely and needy people. They are both marginalized, the typical outsiders of much American fiction, and they are both "below the radar," - she's one of millions of struggling immigrants, working endless hours at cash-only service jobs, and it seems that she has no friends, meets few people, can trust almost no one - with the exception of Skinner. In a perfect world, she could do better - but in this world she is the detritus of society, and Skinner alone treats her as a woman and as a friend. By the time I finished, I kept thinking about how people like these two - an "illegal" immigrant and a suffering war veteran - are everywhere, where we eat and shop, at thousands of highway intersections - and we just ignore them, look through them - and these are the people whom so many of our politicians either rail against (build a wall, send 'em home) or pay lip service to (our brave soldiers!) without doing a damn thing to help. Sure, let's have less government, let everyone fend for himself (herself), and lower taxes for corporations (they're people, too, after all) and less regulation - and see where they gets us, or them. An incredible book, hard to read and hard not to read, about the overlooked and forsaken Americans.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

An unconventional love story: Preparation for the Next Life

As the blurb notes on the jacket of Atticus Lish's Preparation for the Next Life, this is a "modern love story" - though I would describe it as an unconventional love story, two very needy people in crisis brought together by a chance encounter who stand by each other against great odds. There are times you think it would be better for either, or both, of them - especially Zou Lei - if they were to split, as they threaten to do many times. But they fulfill for each other some strange and hardly articulated need. It would be easy to suspect that Zou Lei stays with Skinner in the hope of marrying him and gaining U.S. citizenship, but she passes on several opportunities to do so - she's the one who is far more cautious and circumspect about marriage, especially in that she is living under a fake name and ID and wonders if the marriage would truly bring her citizenship. She seems to love Skinner and to have something of a savior complex - the more trouble he gets into, the more he threatens her and even harms her, the more hopeless his life course seems to be, the more she stays w/ him. Of course she doesn't have a lot of options, but there do seem to be some opportunities for her to pursue a better job outside of NYC and she turns these down. As to Skinner, he's obviously drawn to Zou Lei for the comfort, the caring, the sexual relationship,  the one bit of stability in this life - but he doesn't seem capable of following her example of hard work and diligence and sacrifice. It's not clear if he has a source of income at all - maybe he's still drawing a paycheck from the Army? I can believe almost anything about the Army, but it does seem rather incredible that the Army denies him treatment for PTSD, saying his mental imbalance was not related to his service. If his isn't, whose is? That seems something Skinner could focus on - and maybe his relationship w/ Zou Lei keeps him from looking at his future, at his next step. In short, it's almost impossible to imagine this relationship successfully enduring, and it feels like we're heading toward some tragic denouement.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Pity the Poor Immigrant: Preparation for the Next Life

Tensions building in Atticus Lish's Preparation for the Next Life, as the strangely matched couple at the heart of this novel, Chinese (illegal) immigrant Zou Lei and PTSD-troubled Iraq War vet Brad Skinner talk about getting married. More than any other section of the book, this part becomes political-polemical, as we see the enormous obstacles the poor immigrant faces at every step: her pecuniary boss at the Asian restaurant continues to cheat on her pay check, knowing she has no recourse and cannot fight him or challenge him in any way. She seeks how marriage to Skinner could perhaps solve her green-card problem, granting her immediate citizenship, maybe - but she's caught in a bureaucratic whirlwind of Kafkaesque dimensions - but this seems very real and accurate, not surreal and expressionist. She tries to get legal advice - of course has little idea where to turn and no idea how to afford the costs of a lawyer - but does learn that she will need some kind of legal identity dox just to get married - and applying for these could put her immigration status in jeopardy - she may have to return to China and apply from there - but how to afford that? And at what risk? The stars are against them - and meanwhile Skinner is sinking deeper into his drug-addled depression, and the ex-con son of his landlord seems to be conspiring to kick him out of his basement apartment - just one more misery in the endless strand of misery he faces. Writing continues to be extraordinary throughout, including a long tour-de-force chapter in which three tough street guys drink heavily and talk about street fights and revenge and generally bang each other up - the kind of passage that, yes, could have been cut, just peripheral and ornamental to the plot, but make up the whole tone and world view of this novel, which is a vision of a usually inaccessible and overlooked world and culture rather than a conventional love story or domestic tragedy: the plot itself is peripheral in this novel.

Friday, March 4, 2016

A journalistic novel - or something else?: Preparation for the Next Life

Friend DC calls Atticus Lish's Preparation for the Next Life a "journalism novel," and not sure I agree - it doesn't feel like journalistic writing and it's not clear to readers whether the many scenes he recounts from the Iraq war and from life on the fringes in NYC are from his experience, his imagination, or his research, aka journalism. His scenes certainly have the ring of authenticity - I'm constantly thinking as I read: How did he know that? How does he observe so much? The Iraq scenes are not unique - there has been plenty of other war journalism and war-based fiction from Iraq and Afghanistan as well - but his scenes from New York (and to a lesser extent from the prison sequences in the Midwest) are truly a surprise: this is a NYC seldom seen in fiction (one partial exception would be Joseph O'Neill's Netherland) - the immigrant communities in Flushing, outer Queens, and near Long Island - the factories, warehouses, restaurants, the air-choked parks, the overpasses and tunnels - who else has captured so well the mood of a McDonald's predawn with a junkie asleep sprawled across the floor and the men's room with its broken lock? The high-pressure poorly sanitized kitchen of an Asian restaurant between shifts? In some ways this novel is a masterpiece; in others, it's a bit frustrating - so dark that there are few to whom I could truly recommend it, and as I sensed from the outset it's driven by Lish's formidable skills and the plot such as it is exists pretty much as a bystander: two lonely troubled people struggling to get by and to help each other out - though it remains unclear why the more driven woman Zou Lei stands by the self-destructive Skinner. Love is strange, sure, but we don't get enough insight into her needs, into what has driven her to this point and what still drives her. About 2/3 of the way through they begin to talk about marriage, which might solve her problem of illegal immigration (we learn she got somehow from China to Mexico and crossed the border from there), although she is cautious about rushing into marriage and unsure whether Skinner truly wants to take on that responsibility. In the background, the son of his landlady returned from prison seems certain to grasp Skinner in one of his schemes - but it's taking a long time for these plot elements to collide and combust. Still, paragraph by paragraph, scene by scene, one of the strongest (and strangest) novels I've read in some time.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

More powerful scenes in Lish's novel, and the unanswered questions about Zou Lei

Atticus Lish introduces a new character in part 2 of his novel, Preparation for the Next Life: John, the son of Skinner's landlady, a would-be tough guy who gets a union job as a tunnel worker in NYC and starts hanging with the wrong sort, goes from one petty crime to the next level, stealing equipment from the job, lands in prison, and his times just continue to get worse and harder as he becomes an addict and a punk, works his way up (or down) the prison system, coming to rest in a brutal Indiana prison where he hangs with a white-supremacist gang - in 20 pages or so Lish cores the complete ruination of a young life. Then he steps back into the main story, Skinner and Zou Lei, and we see Skinner, though on this side of the law, going into a similar downward spiral - terrible binge drinking, more severe PTSD from his war experiences in Iraq - very tough going here, this novel, though powerful on every page and at every moment, is not for every reader or every taste (and great though it is it might have benefited from some judicious editing - not all powerful scenes are created equal, or at least there may be too many peripheral moments in this saga). The question we're left with by the midway point is what is Zou Lei, with all her strengths of character and determination, doing with this guy, an obvious loser? True her life as an undocumented worker in a crappy Asian restaurant out in Queens, isn't rife w/ opportunities, but surely there must be some, surely she can see that Skinner can do nothing but get her further into trouble - or, maybe worse, pregnant. She must have a weakness, an addiction or a trauma history, that we don't really see clearly yet - we don't exactly know, yet, how she managed to come from China to the U.S.,, how she sneaked in, whom she paid and what price, what she left behind and why.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Atticus Lish's style

Read further, and this time more attentively, in Atticus Lish's Preparation for the Next Life - I think it engaged my close attention more as I moved forward in section one because the plot such as it is began to cohere - the first 50 pages or so were "just" (I put that in quotes because each passage was a tour de force) the back story on two at that point unrelated characters: Chinese immigrant Qou Lei and Iraq war vet Brad Skinner. As one would expect, the two meet and begin dating and become a couple - two lost souls, each struggling to make a new life in NYC, and whose weaknesses and character flaws will, it seems doom one or both. They're living in a tough, competitive world, they're living on the edge, and neither has a good job or a job at all, despite Qou's grit and Skinner's access if he wants it to various social services esp for veterans, both seem on the verge of alcoholism or other abuse. What's so powerful throughout the first 100 pages or so is Lish's writing, which I noted in yesterday's post - but I'm looking now a little more at what makes his writing strong. First of all he acute powers of observation - whether from experience, memory, or imagination it's hard to say and doesn't really matter, but through attention to the thousands of details that comprise our world he brings to life a wide variety of settings and situations - a Queens Asian market and enclave, a crappy basement apartment on Long Island, a women's detention center, Times Square at night, a military ambush in Iraq, many more. Sometimes his passages seem like poetry, without being archly poetic - reminding me of the accumulated details in journal poetry, such as Whitman, Ginsberg, Snyder. But I think the greatest influence is Hemingway. His style is surprisingly simple and straightforward - not the convoluted beauty of Proust, but simple declarative sentences, not a lot of clauses or introductory phrases: a textbook lesson in some the key principles in the great Elements of Style, notably "Writer with nouns and verbs" and "Avoid the passive voice."

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Terrific writing from Atticus Lish - but will it work as a novel?

On recommendation of lifelong friend DC who has excellent taste in all the arts (meaning we agree mos of the time) am reading Preparations for the Next Life, debut novel by Atticus Lish, son of the great editor/teacher Gordon Lish (a true gentleman and kind soul, from all I know) - but Lish Jr. has certainly made his own mark here. About half-way through the first of three sections of this fairly long novel - it's tough going at times but there is some truly extraordinary writing in the opening segments of the novel, essentially from four different settings, following two characters - a Chinese immigrant woman, probably mid-20s, of non-Chinese ethnic background, apparently from a Muslim community in a desert climate, with perhaps a relocation in or near Tibet?, a little hard to tell, but we mostly see her life in the U.S. at least at first, the incredibly difficult struggle immigrants live through trying to get a job, get a foothold, learn the language and culture, at everyone's mercy - very powerful writing that has the complete ring of authenticity (how does Lish know all of this stuff, seemingly from the inside?); the other character a mid-20s guy back from service in Iraq, clearly still suffering from shock and trauma, but afforded no treatment, welcome, or services to speak of - and his life, on arrival in Manhattan, hitched up from Virginia it seems, is almost equally harrowing - Lish gets that down, too, as well as a war scene in Iraq the equal of any recent mideast war novel or film. So there's a lot of tremendous writing, scene after scene, page after page, but ultimately this novel will live or die depending on whether the many scenes come together into a narrative - I do find myself skimming even this fine writing at times, looking for plot elements that can guide me, it's obvious that the two characters will get together - and though I'm by no means saying this novel should be reduced to just plot, it's much more than just a screenplay, as so many novels seem to be these days, but if he doesn't engage the plot gears soon the book will feel more like tour de force - one powerful scene after another - rather than a great novel. Hoping for the latter, I will read on.