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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, November 18, 2017

Volume 1 of The Sleepwalkers: A story of one man, or a broader look at social forces?

The end of Book One (The Romantic) of Hermann Broch's 1928-31 3 vol novel, The Sleepwalkers, leaves me puzzled and confused. So the main character, the young German officer Joachim, tries to leave money to his Berlin girlfriend, the sometime-prostitute, poorly educated, "lower" class Ruzena, but she, always classy in her way, completely declines the money and berates Joachim, w/ particular venom toward J's (only?) friend, Bertrand. J then formally proposes to Elisabeth, the daughter of a wealthy landowner who lives near his family estates; this is the marriage that all of the families hoped would take place. But it's obvious his heart isn't in it - nor is hers, as in fact the conniving Bertrand had declared his love for her but, realizing they would never be able to marry, he takes off on a business expedition, possibly to India (the ends of the earth for a European in this setting - 1888). So J is right to think he has been betrayed by Bertrand, but what about this marriage? Why does he enter into it w/ such lack of feeling and emotion? The volume ends with their chaste wedding night, a totally strange night in which J seems to have hallucinations that his wife's face is not a human face but is some kind of landscape, with mountains and valleys. He's obviously sexually experienced, but just not drawn to this woman; she doesn't seem afraid or frigid, in fact seems more forward than he is, but they end up sleeping side by side w/out touching. In the end, I have no idea what to make of this: Is this a portrait of a somewhat mentally disturbed young man, pressured by conflicting forces in his society (drawn toward the sexually adventurous woman but married to the proper German daughter, loyal to his country - he's a soldier though we see nothing of his military profession - and his family but always in the shadow of his older brother who died in a duel "of honor" and of his father, who is increasingly mentally ill himself and trying to disinherit his only son? Is this story meant to represent the forces at work in society in the late 19th century? If so, it doesn't really click - at least not in comparison w/ the other great German language epics of its time: Magic Mountain, Man Without Qualities, Berlin Alexanderplatz - all of which are imbued w/ their time, wrestle w/ grand ideas, and present a broad spectrum of society and not just the torments of a late Romantic. That said, this volume reads well and has some fine, weird passages, the wedding night among them; I will at least have a go at volume 2, sent in 1903 and called The Anarchist (which sounds promising already).

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Friday, November 17, 2017


The first volume of Herman Brock's 1931 novel, The Sleepwalkers, moves along placidly up to a point; the first hundred pages of so establish the dynamics of the plot, which centers on the young German army officer Joachim Von Pasenow. J is surrounded by opposing forces. His tyrannical napoleanic father insists that, following death of older brother in a duel of "honor," J come home to manage the family estate and to marry the daughter of wealthy neighbor. J is very attracted to the beautiful daughter , Elisabeth, but he is also deeply involved in a love affair w a woman in Berlin whom he had more or less rescued from a life of prostitution (Ruzena). His (only?) friend, Bertrand, a successful international businessman , has insinuated himself into both relationships - and at some point the novel feels frozen in place w the protagonist unable to make any decisions about his love, life, and future - a hamlet/prufrock sort of character. The novel takes a turn for the bizarre and dramatic, however, when the father , herr von pasenow, suffers some kind of nervous breakdown and insists on disinheriting his son and exhibits odd behavior (obsessed w mail delivery, angry at dead son for not writing). Meanwhile so-called friend Bertrand tries to set Ruzena up in a dress shop , which she rightly sees as a way to buy her off; furious, she shoots be w a pistol, grazing his arm. When J hears if this he goes off in search of the now- vanished R; finds her in ladies room at night club/casino. After ugly scene there she leaves w a customer- back to her old ways it seems. J - a la the German romantics (this part of the novel set in 1888 and called The Romantic) descendants of Young Werther considers suicide but literally falls asleep from exhaustion while writing the note. It's impossible however for readers to imagine his settling in marriage w either woman - one too socially outcast the other to good and "pure" - tho perhaps not naive about sexuality, a very open theme in this ahead-of-its-time novel. We hope,however, that he will have the chance to tell off his officious father.

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Another great Modernish novel that few today have heard let alone read

Another classic Modernist novel that for some reason few have heard of let alone read: Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers (1928-31, 3 volumes) - which I started reading yesterday. First volume, The Romantic, set in 1888 Berlin and a family estate elsewhere in Germany.Very briefly the initial plot concerns the younger son, Joachim, of the titled landowner, Herr von Pasenow. The younger son forced to go to military school age 10 and into a career in the Army, to which J does not feel fully suited; older brother gets to live on and run the estate. Older brother dies in a duel "of honor," so J may have to go back to run the estate and, presumably, marry daughter of neighboring landowner, Elisabeth - but he is now used to life in Berlin and has fallen in love w/ a bar-girl, i.e., prostitute, Ruzena, who is Czech and not well educated - completely unsuitable marriage from POV of stuffy and hateful father. All that said, this novel isn't plot-driven, although it does have a few beautifully rendered scenes: the father visiting son in Berlin and going out for a night on the town, father tries to "buy" Ruzena for son for 50 marks, a mortifying scene - and perhaps the precursor to the father-on-the-town scene in La Dolce Vita; the beautiful scene of J and R spending a day in the country and falling in love, ends w/ their having sex in R's apartment - a surprisingly frank and detailed description of sexual relations for a 1920s European novel. Most of the novel, though, involves long conversations examining various topics and viewpoints: the morality of dueling, the inevitable rise of the black population in the African colonies. So the novel feels like a novel of ideas, but as such not as focused as the standard-setting Magic Mountain, in that the ideas arise from conversation rather than from action and conflict. Like Mann and Musil, Broch writes in 3rd person, so this doesn't feel as much like an examination of consciousness as does Proust; also like Mann and Musil, Broch does not experiment in form or w/ language (as does, obviously, Joyce). Perhaps the closest literary relative would be Doblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz - though the social milieu is largely landed gentry and military officers rather than thieves and other criminals, the mood is similar, examining the dark side of Berlin life - and obviously doing so across a long span of time (the 3rd volume is set in Brach's present of ca 1930).

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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Possible meanings of the "riddle" in Tom McGuane's story

Another fine Tom McGuane story, Riddle, in the current New Yorker; McGuane has established himself as the great chronicler of the changing times in the Northwest, Montana in particular (his friends Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford have also written well about this region and there are many similarities particularly between McGuane and Ford). This piece, in which a contemporary man looks back on an unusual, perhaps pivotal, day in his life about maybe 20 years back, and he himself, as narrator, says he cannot quite make sense of the events or even be sure which if any may be imagined rather than recollected. McGuane focuses many of his stories on the migration or invasion if you will of West Coast $ into rural Montana, whether from those fleeing the pressures of life in the tech or entertainment industries or more often from the uber-wealthy building vacation ranches and estates. His (male) protagonists play a facilitating role in this invasion, which is changing the world they grew up in or at least settled into, in their modest ways. The narrator (often a realtor, a la Richard Ford's major protagonist, interestingly) in this case is an architect, whose specialty is building models for presentation and use by other architects; he notes that "in those days" he rented a small office in town (presumably, no need for him to have an office at present - for reasons left open - too successful? only builds models no need to meet w/ clients? to un-successful? change of career?) and notes that he had a model of FallingWater on display and that his clients usually thought it was a house he'd designed. Ha! On this night, after heavy drinking to closing hour, he sees an old ranchhand on the near-deserted Main Street greeted warmly by a young many or boy, and narrator is profoundly moved by watching this encounter - he's not even sure why, but we can sense that it's out of his own sense of loneliness. On his ride home to his house out in the country (at least 10 miles) he comes across an "accident" scene, which proves to be a scam as the purported victims steal his car and take off. He gets a ride home from a woman - an ER doc - and at his home they have sex; presumably, he never sees her again. The next morning the Sheriff arrives and tells him his car was involved in a bank robbery and the driver and passenger were hit in a fusillade of bullets when they were arrested. He asks why the narrator never reported the theft of his car; narrator cannot answer this - which seems to be the eponymous  "riddle." Was it because he was not sure of his facts? Did that have something to do w/ the ER doc? So odd that an ER doc would pick him up on the highway; could he have gone to the ER and his memory blanked? Did he in some odd way ID w. the bank robber Bonnie & Clyde-like couple, see them as an emblem of what his life could - or should - be: on the run, escaping from norms and expectations, or at least w/ someone instead of out in the country 10 miles from a small city, nobody else in his life?

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Why writing a novel is like a socially acceptable form of insanity

Laurent Binet wraps things up, kinda, in the last section + epilogue to The Seventh Function of Language, but honestly the conclusion is so Byzantine I just could not figure it out or answer all of the questions. But does it matter? Not really; this novel, though a mystery novel in structure, is not at all like a mystery novel in mood or intention.We really don't care exactly who dunnit or why they dunnit - it's more about the send-up of academe and the examination in a lighthearted and entertaining manner of certain complex literary and philosophical issues. But we never or at least I never quite learn what the eponymous 7th function is; at the end I still think it's some kind of pronunciatory function (I now declare you ... which by so uttering makes it so) of language, with the idea tha the 7th function by establishing fact through utterance can influence the behavior of others - in other words, can become a tool of political oppression or control. But we also see - in the final debate in the Logic Club - that the 7th function doesn't work; and then we learn - I guess this may be a spoiler but if you're with me this far you know that it doesn't really matter - that Barthes did not discover the 7th function - one of his mentors (Jakobson) did so, and for some reason entrusted Barthes not w/ a manuscript describing the function but w/ a fake description - which is why the 7th function failed in the Logic Club debate, because it wasn't the real function. So what is? Who knows? At the end of the novel, Simon Herzog - now good buddies w/ police inspector Bayard - is still trying to puzzle out whether he's a character in a novel or living a so-called "real life - hah! - and has the final insight int he last section that he's not only a character in a novel, that in fact he is the author of the novel. Well, hm, I know nothing about Binet but we surmise that, like Herzog, he's an academic perhaps in a philosophy department - but he obviously did not go experience the life of his character, replete w/ murder attempts and the lopping off of his right hand. But in a sense all authors are (all of) their characters; as I have said elsewhere, writing a novel is something like a socially acceptable form o insanity, as novelists carry on these long and complex relationships w/ people who exist only in their heads. Talking to one's self is another function of language, I believe.

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Monday, November 13, 2017

A turn toward the grotesque in the late stages of The Seventh Function of Language

Entertaining, informative, and provocative as it is, Laurent Binet's novel The Seventh Function of Language takes a turn toward the grotesque toward the end - in the "Venice" section, when the characters converge for a high-level meeting of the Logic Club, in which members and "challengers" face off in one-on-one debates on various esoteric topics, the "loser" of the debate has to, gulp, put his hand on a chopping block and have a finger lopped off. We'd already witnessed a few of these debates - I suspect that this club and its gruesome competitions is a sly mockery of some academic face-offs, though I have no idea what Binet's target might be - but the big confrontation in Venice is far more graphic and disconcerting. The debates themselves: In the first, the protagonist Simon Herzog, who amusingly continues to wonder whether he's actually leading a life or if he's just a character in a novel - prevails over a higher-ranking club member in a debate about Classic and Baroque style (a good primer in this section on these two terms in art and literature); in the second, Sollers, whom we believe may be the only person in possession of the document from the late Roland Barthes on the eponymous 7th function, the document that has set this entire mystery into action, does a horrible job in his debate, speaking in fragments and seemingly in a stream of consciousness. Is this supposed to be a demonstration of the 7th function? If so, it's a useless function; Binet has hinted that the 7th function involves provoking others into action, but at this point I suspect all readers are wondering whether we'll ever know what the 7th function is, or even if there is such a thing. In any event, for some unknown reason the novel turns to the grotesque at this point. To put it bluntly, Sollers, loser of the debate (and the husband of Helene Cixous, another "real-life" character in this novel and here a supposed Bulgarian agent seeking the Barthes document) has his balls cut off; shortly after that horror, Simon is attacked by agents of the man whom he defeated in the debate - a prominent Italian politician, as Simon has correctly surmised based on various "signs" - who sever Simon's right hand and toss it into a glassblowing furnace. Why does Binet do this, and unsettle us so much? Perhaps the two short final sections of the novel will elucidate.

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Sunday, November 12, 2017

A character in a novel who recognizes that he is a character in a novel

Laurent Binet's The Seventh Function of Language has a really great postmodern moment (p. 247) in which the hapless philosophy professor, Simon Herzog, whom the French police inspector Bayard has pulled from his academic setting and made him an advisor and sidekick in the search for the eponymous document that various spies and other operatives have been seeking for means fair and foul, including possibly the assassination of the one who composed the document, Roland Barthes. At this point in the novel, with Herzog and pretty much everyone else completely befuddled by the tangle of events - and we still don't know why this document is so important to anyone aside from the French intellectuals and their coteries - Herzog takes stock of his life. He realizes that he has had more adventures and strange encounters in the past few weeks than he'd expected to have over the course of his life: To name just a few, he's had sex in an Italian piazza, had witness a couple engaged in sex on a photocopying machine, had seen a man stabbed to death with a poisoned umbrella, had been involved in a car chase across Paris ending when the pursuers tried to kill him, etc. Then he tries to make sense of the adventure he's been brought into, and he goes over in his mind a # of the shaggy plot points that bother attentive readers as well, or this and of numerous other adventure novels: Why, for example, didn't the Prime Minister just have the suspect (a female Bulgarian philosopher) brought in for interrogation rather than send Bayard and Herzog to a conference in the U.S. to spy on her?, etc. At last he says: I think I'm stuck in the middle of a novel! Great: That's a sentence that calls attention to itself in so many ways. Yes, he is a character in a novel, so in addressing that fact he utters a true statement. But then again, even his recognition of his status as a "character in a novel" is suspect: Words are things, too, but what is the reference point here? Who is making this observation? A character? An author? We, the readers? Narrators often step outside of their own narrative to address the reader; characters, rarely so - and even when seeming to do so they remain characters. In a sense, Herzog's feeling of being a character in a novel is something we readers may also feel from time to time: My life is so complicated right now it should be a novel - who hasn't thought that? In some ways, Herzog's utterance is "within character," that is, just a realistic/naturalistic moment in this dizzying narrative.

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Saturday, November 11, 2017

Another possible meaning of the Seventh Function of Language

As we continue trying to figure out the mystery behind Laurent Binet's The Seventh Function of Language - what was Roland Barthes's final, eponymous theory and why would a team of Bulgarian and, possibly, Soviet agents be on a murderous spree trying to find or learn the contents of this esoteric document? - and as the central characters - police inspector Bayard and his "impressed" (as in impressed seaman) aide, literature prof Simon Herzog - head of for Ithaca (N.Y.) to try to find the document or its significance (Binet includes in the Ithaca chapter a hilarious take on an academic conference in progress) another theory about the possible 7th function arises: The pronunciation function. Like everything else in this novel it's entirely odd and over the top yet just barely comprehensible and possibly even plausible. The "pronunciation" function of language refers to utterance which in and of themselves become true when and only when uttered, by their very nature. Two examples: I now pronounce you man and wife - it becomes true when pronounced. Similarly: The court is now in session. But why would it be so important to understand this function? Herzog is thinking about this and posits that it may be a way to use language as a means of control. Yes, if a government could at will apply the pronunciative function of language it would be the ultimate degree of fascism and dictatorship: The government says so and it therefore becomes so. This could be a description of the totalitarian world of 1984 (this novel, published this year - 2017 - is set in 1980). 


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Friday, November 10, 2017


To give a sense of the weirdness of the plot of Laurent Binet's The Seventh Function of Language - in which it is posited that the famous critic and theorist Roland Barthes does not in a random pedestrian accident but was assassinated by foreign agents (Bulgarian no less)in search of his final essay on the eponymous 7th Function - one of the people whom the French police believe may have received from RB a copy of the final essay was the philosopher Althusser but when A learns that his wife threw out the essay scrap believing it was some junk mail he strangled his wife to death. That seemed such an extreme plot device that I had to look it up and in fact A did strangle his wife to death and was acquitted when judged insane. These french theorists are actually stranger than fiction. We are still, like the police, in the dark however re motive: why would all these agents and assassins be in pursuit of this essay from a writer so esoteric that none but the French intellectuals - if the - can follow his line of thought? In any event the police and others are now focusing on an American intellectual as the possible key to this mystery and are tracking him down at Cornell which is to say they are going to Ithaca, which of course brings along a whole raft of literary allusions. Another note: Binet seems to have fun taking jibes at his fellow pseudo mystery writer modiano by noting a few times that he's not sure of a setting and we the readers can place it anywhere in Paris - laughing in his sleeve no doubt at M w his excruciating attention to specific addresses in obscure Paris neighborhoods.

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Thursday, November 9, 2017


Motivated by the dying word - echo!- of the young male prostitute to whom Roland Barthes entrusted w the text of his vanished final essay - the eponymous Seventh Function of Language - police inspector Bayard and his "interpreter" Simon Bayard a semiotics prof at a leftist Paris university head for Bologna to get the info from not echo but Umberto Eco. We really don't know or understand yet why various dark forces including Bulgarian and soviet agents are interested in Barthes's theory- but it may be just the classic Hitchcock "maguffin" that sets the plot in motion. In bologna Bayard and herzog find themselves at a meeting of the logic committee (they'd been to a Paris meeting earlier) where the audience watched one on one debates on various political esoterica - w the loser holding forth his or her hand to have a digit lopped off! What the hell? This weirdness must be a sendup of some European group or cult - tho the reference eludes me and I would suspect most American readers as well. Author Laurent Binet raises the stakes by having one of the combatants be Antonioni - why I'm not sure but it goes along w the many send ups and takedowns throughout this novel - one for which the standard disclaimer ... any resemblance between the persons in this novel and real people etc ... would be ridiculous and totally against the point.

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Wednesday, November 8, 2017


The plot of Laurent Binet's novel The Seventh Function of Language centers on the bizarre premise that famous semiologist and literary critic Roland Barthes who died in a pedestrian accident in Paris in 1980 was actually assassinated, and Binet posits that a police inspector assigned to the case knows nothing about Barthes'a philosophy so he recruits a young prof to "decode" the "signs" as he investigates the case. They determine that some sinister outside force - probably Bulgarian agents in link w Soviets - are seeking a paper RB left behind in which he describes his latest theory, the eponymous 7th function. In one great scene we watch the paper disappear into the Seine but we also know that RB entrusted a homosexual prostitute, Hamad, w the info, which hamad has committed to memory. Aside from why this theory would be so valuable to various top government officials (including eg Andropov and the French PM) the novel raises the question: what are the other 6 functions? The sidekick, herzog, gives a good summary of the 6, as per Jakobson's theories: referential (relating to the work around is the central function ), expression (the I function), influence on others (the you function), beauty (poetry literature), the "phat" function which is the funniest and we might call small talk - talking about meaningless stuff eg last night's sports eg just to keep up communication without anyone's caring about the content (majority of spoken communication), and meta communication ie communication about language itself eg do you understand me?, dictionaries, learning a foreign language. It was speculated that magical formulae might be a 7th but that is rejected. Strange novel - but informative, too.

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A great sendup of French intellectual thought - in a mystery novel

Laurent Binet's novel The Seventh Function of Language is completely strange and surprisingly funny myster novel in way that only a French novelist could conceive and bring off, and equally surprisingly the novel is far more appealing and accessible that it sounds. Essentially, Binet takes the death of the French literary and cultural critic Roland Barthes - killed when hit by a van while he was crossing a street in Paris in 1980 - and imagines the death of Barthes may have been a criminal act rather than an accident. Suspecting that Barthes had numerous enemies in part because of his ties to a leftist candidate for PM, Binet sets a police detective off in search of clues about the possible political assassination. The detective, an ordinary non-intellectual officer, Bayard, is completely puzzled by RB and his philosophy and his entourage so he enlists another, younger, less prestigious professor of semiotics, Herzog (name not chose by chance) from one of the most far-left Paris university campuses to aid him in his search, and that's where it gets funny. The two guys are from such different worlds that they can barely communicate, but Bayard appreciates H's ability to read or decode "signs," e.g., in one funny scene H figures out what is contained in some boxes in the PM's office and he explains how he "decoded" the signs to get the answer - all are impressed. There are about a 1,000 Paris-intellectual-political in jokes, and no American reader can get them all, but we can get the drift, and above all it's a great academic satire - with all or at least almost all the bit characters being actual French intellectuals and politicians of the time (wonder if any libel suits are in the works). So far, a great read, tres asmusements.

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Monday, November 6, 2017

Reasons to read My Absolute Darling before you see the (inevitable) film version

I won't give anything away here, but it's obvious to any attentive reader that Gabriel Tallent's My Absolute Darling is heading toward violent, dramatic confrontation, and Tallent does not disappoint us. He narrates the conclusion of the action in this story with high drama and great literary flair. It's not always a compliment to describe a writer's style as cinematic, but in this case, yes, he has a cinematic way of presenting a complicated, tension-filled dramatic climax. The novel altogether comprises an unusual mix of high style and vivid dramatic action - few other such books come to mind, maybe two would be God of Small Things and Snow Falling on Cedars, both debut novels, like Tallent's - so you can see he's in exalted company (although these examples also show that great first acts are tough to repeat). One element that is a surprise in GT's novel is the slow and subtle conclusion; after all the drama of the climactic confrontation, the last two chapters are quiet in tone, even meditative, and GT makes a daring decision to leave some of the plot strands open at the end - ending on a note of possibility rather than resolution. I'm sure this novel will be optioned for film, but it would be a good idea to read it first, as the film will inevitably miss much of the subtle mood and psychological insight that makes this novel so strange and exceptional.


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Sunday, November 5, 2017

A fine New Yorker story (Enright) that is more than it at first seems

Surprising story by Anne Enright, Irish novelist, in current New Yorker, The Hotel, which at first seems as if it's another one of the tired laments about wayward international travelers. The narrator has just completed a complicated flight with a few legs - on closer examination the route makes no sense - and arrived in an airport where she has to make one more connection. Gate is closed or it's been changed at the last minute, she's all confused, seems to have a hotel voucher, figures she can get to the hotel and get 4 hours or so of sleep before an early-morning departure, wanders about, not even sure what country she's in though signs seem to be in German (sometimes w/ an unhelpful sign in "French," such as Hotel w/ a circumflex over the "o"), noone's around, sees some soldiers who tell her the hotel is "just over there" or something like that - by this point the story seems Kafkaesque, strange and moody, but to be honest up to this point I didn't really care, thinking the narrator is obvious a veteran traveler and just feeling sorry for herself, but then even stranger things happen, as the narrator steps out of the airport and sees the "hotel" across the street, but it turns out, dreamlike, that the hotel is more like a warehouse and there's a long queue of people waiting to get in - not the smart international set like the narrator, but impoverished, people living filth and near starvation, desperate to keep their place in line, there's no way for the narrator to enter or join this queue without giving up her comforts and her identity - and subtly the story has shifted from a Kafkaesque nightmare narrative to a commentary on contemporary civilization, as we sense that her life has crossed w/ the lives of migrants and refugees, and we sense that all of our lives, even privileged lives of the international business set, are just on the margin of these sometimes invisible lives of chaos and torment that we have created or at the least that we endure.

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Saturday, November 4, 2017

Tallent's writing gets stronger and more self-confident as novel progresses

We get some highly dramatic and almost excruciatingly painful scenes in the 2nd half of Gabriel Tallent's My Absolute Darling. GT's writing gets more controlled, stronger, more powerful as this work progresses; in the early going the writing was good but too self-conscious, as noted in earlier posts - so much attention to naming every flower and weed it felt for a while as if I were reading a field guide, and felt certainly out of sync with the consciousness of the characters in the novel - the narrator looming above them like a God, or at least like a botanist. But as we get more caught up in the dramatic plot, so does Tallent, and his writing feels so much more self-assured in these mid-novel scenes: Turtle and her friend, Jacob, swept out to sea by a rogue wave, their struggle to get to relatively safe landing on a rocky outcrop, their struggle to build a fire to survive the cold of a night on the Pacific coast, the return to land and Jacob's solicitous attentions to the wounded Turtle - and, then, the return of Turtle's father, Martin, and his sadistic behavior toward Turtle. You can't stop reading these scenes, but you have to pause once in a while for breath and to shake yourself free from the horrors and intensity of this novel. One thing that's great about this work is Tallent's understanding of the mind of his central character; while it's obvious to us that her father is a sadistic monster and that she should seek shelter and protection from him at whatever cost, we also understand that he is all she knows in the world, at least up to this point, and she's bound by the love he professes for her, this poor lost soul. We get little or nothing of her back story, but we can see her as a severely traumatized victim suffering from a version of the Stockholm Syndrome, falling in love w/ her captor/tormentor in a desperate attempt to save her life. It's not entirely fair to call Tallent's writing "cinematic," as that's only one element of his writing; he also has a depth of understanding of his characters and a detailed appreciation of and knowledge or their world that would not easily be transported on film - though I believe (at least up to this point) that the novel would translate well, if not in its entirety, onto screen.

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Friday, November 3, 2017

Tallent's writing at its best at the half-way point in My Absolute Darling

At the mid-way point we encounter some weird plot developments in Gabriel Tallent's My Absolute Darling: First, Turtle's grandfather notices the severe bruise marks on T's shoulder and things and correctly intuits that her father/his son, Martin, has been beating her. Grandfather tries to confront Martin about this and, under great stress as M denies everything, the grandfather suffers a stroke and dies. Oddly, the night of his father's death, Martin goes over the grandfather's trailer, bringing Turtle with him, and destroys the place via arson and a propane explosion (that nearly kills Turtle, btw). After they bury the grandfather - Martin has hoped to make the coffin himself, out of cardboard or some such crap - Martin disappears in the middle of the night, leaving T completely alone. Equally strangely, she takes an axe and a chainsaw and demolishes much of their house (inexplicably burning several thousand $ in cash). She gravitates over to the nearby town of Mendocino and finds the 2 boys she'd befriended, Brett (whose mother, a totally spaced-out massage therapist, reportedly) and Jacob, on whom T has a bit of a crush - and who turns out to be from a very wealthy, artistic, tolerant family. The 3 begin spending a lot of time together (again, I can't help thinking of the relationships among the group of young boys and the alluring girl in Stranger Things), and at one point Jacob comes over to T's house alone - looks like we're heading for a sexual relationship between these two (and I can't quite figure out why her house isn't in ruins, but it seems she's done a lot of repairs and clean-up? - she's not a totally abandoned child, but it's not obvious as she's very competent and school is out of session, so no adult or authority figure is involved in her life - Jacob's parents and oblivious or indifferent of both) when they go fishing in a tide pool for eels and get swept to sea by a sudden rogues wave. Here we see Tallent's writing at its best, as he gives a great, cinematic description of their effort to survive while churned about by waves and tide. So we're half-way through and wondering when or how Martin will reappear, what this will mean for Jacob or for any young man involved with Turtle, and what T will do w/ the guns and knife that she so meticulously maintains.

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Thursday, November 2, 2017

When wil the gun go off in My Absolute Darling, and who will be the victim?

Still moving along with Gabriel Tallent's My Absolute Darling (actually, only 1/3 of the way thru, contra yesterday's post), and at this point the14-year-old Julia/Turtle/Kibble is interested in inviting a h.s. boy (Justin, I think) to the dance at her middle school - which leads to the most direct and brutal confrontation with her abusive father. When he learns that she wants to invite a boy to this dance he beats the young girl w/ an iron bar, possibly even breaking her shoulder, and threatens her, saying he's the only one in her life. This is horrifying - and the only ray of hope, it seems, is Turtle's English teacher, Anna (teachers go by first names in this loosely hip and nonconformist school system in Mendocino). Anna tries talking to Turtle/Julia - she can see that the child has all the signs of abuse - but Julia has been so demented by her father, she's so terrified, that she can't issue a plea for help; in fact, she continues to call Anna a bitch, and worse, for probing into her life. There's no doubt that this child should be visited by protective services; a social worker would find the girl living in a rundown cabin in the woods (maybe that in itself is not so unusual in Mendocino), in a house with many guns and knives. They might even discern that for breakfast this child eats several raw eggs, washed down with a swallow from her dad's beer bottle. They might find on the child's body signs of various beatings, even knife wounds. But so far all systems are failing her, and, though she's extremely strong and self-reliant, she is a victim and likely to be a dead victim if her father's behavior goes unchecked. Everyone knows one of the oldest dicta in story writing or playwrighting is that a gun in the first act has to go off by the end of the fifth act; so what will happen w/ all the guns in this nove;'s first third? Will Turtle be a victim, or will she shoot someone - and if so who? But this point in the novel GT is letting loose on his narrative style - we know longer need to know every flower or weed in bloom by name -as the plot tightens and accelerates.

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Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Thoughts on Gabriel Tallent's narrative style in My Absolute Darling

Gabriel Tallent keeps my interest and attention so far - about half-way in - in his disturbing yet strangely alluring debut novel, My Absolute Darling. You can't help but root for the troubled young teen, Turtle (aka Julia to the world at large and Kibble to her father) who's being raised by a charming, handsome, dad who is brutally abusive, sickly seductive(the title of the book is one of his creepy terms of endearment for his daughter), and a paranoid survivalist, really one of the most unpleasant characters I've encountered in reading. As the story moves along Turtle becomes friends w/ two boys about her age - they're on a wilderness hike when she encounters them, stalks them, recognizes they're in way beyond their abilities, and pretty much saves their lives by helping them set up a wilderness camp site during a sudden, cold rainstorm. Can't help but compare her and the guys to the current Netflix series Stranger Things: Turtle is uncommunicative, with almost supernatural survival abilities (supposedly trained and prepared by her paranoid Dad, but her abilities go beyond any training: walking 30 miles in the California woods, barefoot?), and the guys are kind of goofy yet intelligent (I recognize that Mendocino County has many highly educated societal dropouts and that the kids have names like Rilke, but even so it's hard to accept two 9th-grade boys quoting Marcus Aurelius to  one another and dropping references to Lawrence, Woolf, et al. - who's speaking here? Tallent? of his characters?) and they're fascinated with Turtle but unsure how to approach her. Tallent's writing is always clear and powerful and he knows how to build a plot, a few arch coincidences aside (the boy Turtle happens to meet in the middle of the forest turns out to be the daughter of Turtle's godmother?), yet his style poses some intriguing inquiries into narrative. On one level the narrator is clearly the author, seeing things that none of the characters could possibly see: so many plants, weeds, trees, leaves all  ID'd by name - I thought for a moment I was reading a field guide of a treatise by a botanist. On another level, GT's detailed knowledge of certain ephemera is well integrated into the plot: GT knows a scary amount about guns and knives and has an Eagle Scout knowledge for wilderness survival, and these branches of knowledge make sense as part of the characterization of the strange central character, Turtle, trained in these arts, threatened, inspired by, and bound to her disturbing, demented father.

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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Fabulous writing about a repulsive topic: Would you read this?

Never has so much fine (sometimes too fine) writing been put in the service of such an unpleasant tale as in Gabriel Tallent's debut novel, My Absolute Darling. Tallent begins with a fabulous description of a cabin in the remote woods of Mendocino County, Cal., in which he describes every vine, root, and tendril of every weed that's working its way through the neglected, half-constructed woodwork. Then we meet the two living in this place, an early-teenage girl, Turtle, and her dad, a fully and totally repulsive character: menacing, slothful, alcoholic, verbally abusive, survivalist, paranoid, with an obsessive interest in weaponry and self-defense. The poor girl is struggling w/ schoolwork and is a general outcast - crudely rebuffs an offer of friendship from a perfectly nice and kind of hip classmate. Father called in for a counsel with school authorities - of course they're afraid of him - and he says he'll work w/ Turtle (he calls her "Kibble" - she has another  "real" name used in school, which I forget) on her homework and for the moment they let it go at that. We soon see that he abuses his daughter sexually, and in a later chapter that he literally tortures her w/ a knife. Whew. This is almost unbearable - and would maybe be more interesting if the dad weren't such a "type," if we were surprised by his abusive behavior. Tallent as noted is really effective at building a scene and at describing a setting; the narrative consciousness obviously is his and not his characters' - so as Turtle runs through a field she doesn't step on just "leaves" but "myrtle" leaves - of course, who knew? - and the leaves all have a color (adumbrated?) and an odor, etc. It's like a story narrated by a botanist! But not just that: he also has a profound knowledge of weapons and their use (in this case, the narrative consciousness is that of the characters), and it's such an ususual combination - guns and flowers - that we're drawn in and a little puzzled. Despite my abhorrence of some of this material, I'm curious and captivated and will keep reading unless or until the balance shifts and I want out.

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Monday, October 30, 2017

O'Neill's disappointing story and Amis's unreadable novel

Joseph O'Neill deservedly received a lot of attention for his breakout novel, Netherland, a really terrific book by all measures, and the good will he received from that book - not only the quality of that novel but his perfect NY literary life story, a guy w/ various law and business degrees who gave up the profession to write full time (not clear if spouse supported the family, but never mind) while living in the Chelsea Hotel w/ spouse and 3 boys (briefly mentioned in the novel) - and that good will has carried him through at least one poorly received novels and several appearances in the NYer. But his current story or short fiction if you will in the NYer, The Sinking of the Houston (or a title close to that) maybe pushes him to the limit. Here's a plot summary: Dad, father of 3 boys (spouse not mentioned) tells of various conversations w/ his teenage sons who seem to continuously ask him if he's aware of various political atrocities, such as the Duvalier family and the child soldiers in Liberia, and he gruffly puts them off. One day one of the boys tells him he's been robbed at gunpoint on the subway; robber took his cell phone and $. Narrator uses a "find my phone" app and locates the perpetrator, and determines to track him down and break his legs. Took the story a while (about half its length) to get to this point, but now I'm aboard. Eventually perp appears in narrator's neighborhood, and he grabs a baseball bat and goes to get him - but at doorway he's waylaid by a friendly neighbor who walks with him and tells him his back story: he was a member of the team of Cuban exiles that invaded the Bay of Pigs back in the 60s. Narrator listens to this tale - and story ends. What the hell? Does he go after the guy? If not why not? What happened? Did O'Neill just stop? Is this a piece from a longer work? If so, why not at least make it a completed piece? Not sure whom to blame here: O'Neill's writing is really good, so maybe the NYer editors made a bad decision. Don't know.

On another front, Martin Amis's 1989 novel, London Fields, gets no better on 2nd night of laborious reading. Not only don't we care about the characters (the murderer and, as Amis quaintly calls her, the murderee) he doesn't even want us to care about them, as he continues w/ he "framing story" about the American writer who's writing the tale we're reading. And the style is so cumbersome. Here's an illustration (though much shorter than usual) roughly recalled: It was lower caste, low caste, untouchable. Well, which? Give us one - don't say the same thing repeatedly. I'm not writing off Amis; from other things I've read he seems to be a top-flight novelist. But this novel was no doubt of its time, but in some ways the last gasp of the self-conscious postmodernism that flared and died in English-language fiction in the late 20th century. Today, it feels almost unreadable.

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Sunday, October 29, 2017

Thoughts on postmodernism and wondering if anyone can read postmodern fiction today

The salient characteristics of postmodern American fiction, circa 1980: Narratives that call attention to themselves as acts of narration generally w/ references to the author's engagement with his or her material; a narrative style that draws attention to itself, completely nontransparent, the opposite of Flaubertian naturalism; a tendency toward maximalism, as if the value of the literary work is in direct proportion to the magnitude; following on above a tendency to provide excessive detail, repetition of detail and statement as if saying the same thing in multiple ways increases (rather than diminishes) the effectiveness of the best image; experiments w/ narrative and form, especially in short fiction, following on the premise that the "novel is dead" and must be re-born in a new form. All of these in varying degrees dominated American literary fiction in the 70s and 80s, with the high priests of the movement being Barth, Barthelme, Hawkes, Coover, Gaddis, Gardner - very male-dominated, in fact, and very at home in the halls of academe. In fact, these precepts played perfectly into the graduate seminar, as in some ways postmodern fiction required only inventiveness and imagination - and relatively little lived experience, the perfect metier for a young ambitious writer. Tellingly, there's not much of a 2nd generation of postmodern writers - most of the students of these greats failed to stand on the shoulders of the giants (Marilyn Robinson is one exception). The postmodern movement, however, migrated and crossed the Atlantic and in the late 80s British writers, long imbued w/ realism (esp the Angry Young Men movement) tried their hand - and Martin Amis's 1989 novel, which some consider his best or at least most famous, London Fields, is an example of pretty much all of the above. And you know what? Today, this style - or at least this novel - feels practically unreadable. Begins with the "author" explaining the process he went through in naming this novel; then, the narrator says that every in this novel is true, but also made up, or something like that, and he begins to tell the story of a murder, with various side comments on his invention of the characters and issues he encounters as the writer of this narrative. The novel is long, the paragraphs are long and full of repetition, and the whole project seems artificial, cloyingly self-conscious, and out of date. Can anyone read this novel today? I've gone through about 50 pp., skimming eventually, will give it at least one more night in case I am missing something or was just in a cranky mood while reading, but I believe this is a work whose time has passed.

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