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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

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

How Grace Paley turned modernism on its head

Some years ago, in the 80s I think, when I was the books editor at the Journal, Brown U held a conference on postmodernism - I think it was in part a tribute to faculty member and postmodernist par excellence John Hawkes, who was retiring - and the event created a stir and even drew some protesters who asked: Where are the women? Good question; the entire roster for the event was made up of male writers. The fact is there were few if any female postmodernists - and on reflection that speaks well for female writers, as postmodernism - writing reflecting on its own composition, breaking with conventions of narrative and structure, etc. - proved to be a dead end, w/ the postmodernist writers hardly held today in the high esteem they once received. We've moved on - through magic realism, international fiction, feminist and queer fiction, to cite a few literary forces that have emerged on the past 3 decades. One of the writers the protestors suggested should have been invited was Grace Paley; re-reading her first story collection, The Little Disturbances of Man, I don't see any connection between her work at postmodern fiction. She was not interested in playing with literary form - she was telling stories, w/ vivid characters, concise action, and well developed point of view. She was a pioneer in many ways; as noted in yesterday's post, she was one of the first to write frankly and openly about female sexuality. Gradually, she became increasingly political in her writing, with more and more of her stories focusing on the oppression of women, particularly single moms trying to raise a family, abandoned in fact or in spirit by ne'er do well husbands. She's an East Coast counterpart to her contemporary Tillie Olsen - and nothing like the postmodernists, who had little interest in political literature (Coover a possible exception). Stylistically, the most distinct element of her early short stories is their abrupt beginnings: Sometimes it's hard to figure out who the characters are, when their names are even, until you're well along in the story. It's as if she's dropped you right into an ongoing action or conversation. If "modernist" fiction, short stories esp., is noted for its "open" endings - all modernist writers are the descendants of Joyce - Paley turned the convention on its had an gave her stories an "open" beginning (and sometimes ending as well). Today, her stories still feel funny and fresh - though some of the politics and attitudes feel dated and, in fact, disturbing: e.g., the story about an A.C. repair man who seduces a young girl, gets hauled into court on a statutory rape charge, and makes it all good by pledging to marry the teenager. For a politically astute woman, Paley seemed blithe and oblivious about the obvious sexual exploitation of young girls, which goes unchecked and uncensured in her early fiction.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ways in which Grace Paley was ahead of her time - and not

Amused to read Grace Paley's first story collection - published sometime in the 60s, stories published for the most part in the 50s - The Little Disturbances of Man, and in particular to see some of the blurbs (affixed to me 1980 pb), all of them noting that she's frank and "un-ladylike" in her portrayal of female sexuality. No doubt about it - the heroines of her stories had largely been segregated from literature up to her point in time. It was fine for men to have powerful sexual drives, to flirt, to cheat, to break up marriages and homes - at least in was fine in the macho lit of the time, Miller and Mailer and even Hemingway and a thousand followers - but women were the objects of desire, not the perpetrators. Until Paley; in each of the stories at least from the first half of the collection the women pursue the men and get the men into deep troubles: a devout Christian trying to help a woman abandoned by her husband falls for her and risks or loses all; a famous Yiddish-theater actor takes on a woman as his mistress, sets her up in an apartment etc., and to hell w/ his wife - and she thinks this is a great deal, and eventually wins him in marriage; a woman has sex her ex who turns up unexpectedly and later reveals to him that she's happily married and her husband's away on a business trip - and so forth. In other hands, these stories could be bitter and tendentious, but Paley makes each of them hilarious and conversational - even the most disturbing one, about a 13-year-old girl coming on to a soldier on leave (he tries to get the OK to marry her, but fails the health test, a victim of VD) - are funny and sharp. GP had a great ear for street dialog and a good sense of how working-class (mostly) Jewish families lived, talked, and struggled. The stories stand up really well today and can take a place beside Roth and Bellow (and maybe Singer) among American Jewish humor. One element that's missing, however, is the political energy and perspective that by all accounts was central to Paley's life but that I think she didn't embrace in her fiction until the more active decades of the 60s and later - the years of struggle for civil rights for women's rights and against the Vietnam War.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The good and the not so good aspects of the promsing work of Semanta Schweblin

Semanta Schweblin's story in current New Yorker, The Size of Things, reminds me of her well-received novel (Fever Dream), for better and for worse. First, the for better: in both works Schweblin shows that she really knows how to establish a creepy and mysterious scenario, full of innuendo and hints of strange and dark forces at work. Briefly, her novel is about a woman renting a summer house that appears to be haunted by the specter of a child; the novel is narrated as a series of inquiries and responses, an interior dialog between the woman and child, though both are dead or near death (I may have details slightly wrong in my recollection; see Schweblin under the index for this blog for my initial impressions while reading Fever Dreams). The current story is about a young man, who's come into a large inheritance, but who lives with his mother and is considered by the entire community to be odd in some way. The narrator, owner of a toy shop, notices the young man staring into the shop window; the man buys a series of airplane models, though he resists engagement in any discussion about his apparent "hobby." Then he shows up one day at closing time and asks if he can stay overnight in the store; the narrator obliges, and the next day finds the items on display rearranged by color sequence - confusing at first, but immediately enticing to potential customers, Over time, the man sets up residence in the store - and then continues the re-arrangements, ultimately detrimental to business, and declines to leave (saying curtly that it would be best if he stayed at the store - obvious Bartleby reference there). OK, so again SS does a great job establishing a story - but then - here's the "for worse" - she doesn't really seem to know what to do w/ her premise. The man gradually withdraws from social interactions and mutters something about wishing people would stop hitting him - and then, ta da, his mother shows up and grabs him by the arm and brings him home with her, the end. Really? What's the point? A long journey toward not much of an ending. Compare this with the beautiful, mournful conclusion to Bartleby, to give just the obvious point of comparison. I know little about SS and suppose she is a young (Argentine?) writer and I will say she definitely shows a lot of potential but in my view doesn't bring this story over the top.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The final haunting moments of Reading in the Dark, and a guess at the meaning of the title

Some final words on Seamus Deane's excellent and under-appreciated Reading in the Dark (1995): Among its unusual aspects is that at the outset it appears to be a series of short essays that taken in sequence constitute of coming-of-age story about the protagonist, beginning in 1945 when he's about 5 years old, in a Catholic family in Northern Ireland during the "troubles." As the novel progresses, however, a plot emerges, and by the end we're engrossed in the complexity of the plot - a series of secrets that the narrator learns about his family history but that for various reasons he cannot discuss w/ either of his parents. The plot requires our attention but it never overwhelms us, leaving us free throughout to appreciate the beauty of the language, the eccentricity of some of the characters in the narrator's community and neighborhood, and the beauty and strangeness of some of the interpolated stories - all concluding w/ a harrowing set of final chapters, as the narrator looks back from a somewhat more mature vantage, age 30 or so, escaped from his Northern Ireland home community and embarked on his life, recollecting the death of his parents, the secrets about the death of his uncle Eddie, a suspected informer, and his mother's possible complicity in that death, still unspoken, a burden weighing on all of them and carried to the grave (though perhaps - if these chapters represent a true family history of the author, or even a version of same - with some alleviation for Deane through the process of writing this novel). Having completed reading the book, right down to the final haunting image that the narrator sees or envisions, I remain a little puzzled by the title: who's reading in the dark? I suspect that may be us - reading this tale of family secrets and betrayals, or a country at war with itself - picking up clues along the way as best we can and struggling to see the light.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

3 chapters from Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark could stand alone

There's yet another twist in the multi-layered and mysterious plot in Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark, as the narrator learns more about his family history, a tragic history that centers on the disappearance of his Uncle Eddie, suspected of being an informer for the police in Northern Ireland. As the novel progresses and as the narrator recounts the course of his childhood, from about age 5 through (in section 4) age 18, more pieces the story fall into place, that is, the narrator gradually learns more about the fate of his uncle and of his entire family; what makes this dawning knowledge and this entire narrative especially compelling and even unique, is that the young boy is learning things that his parents don't even know - they each know pieces of the story, but he's the only one to begin to put together all the pieces - in this tale that involves Protestant-Catholic rivalries during the "troubles," police informants, double-crossing, rivalry between sisters, troubled marriages - altogether, a story with a lot of depth and dimension, but told in beautiful, accessible, and sometimes hilarious short chapters, each like an essay or a very short story unto itself. How much Deane must have saved up over the course of his life! (He was about 55 when this novel was published, and to my knowledge it is his only novel - I suspect it may be sat unpublished for a long time and maybe found its rightful audience thanks to the success of Frank McCourt's memoirs, but that's just a guess.) One of the hilarious chapters, by the way, is on religious instruction, and it makes a great triad w/ 2 of the other chapters that describe Catholic school in N.Ireland in the 1950s - Maths Lessons and the Facts of Life: these 3 chapters could be read on their own and would in themselves be a masterwork, but they're all the more impressive as part of the weave of this rich novel.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Deane (Seamus)

At the end of section 3 of Seamus Deanne's excellent (and only?) novel, Reading in the Dark, the plot tightens another notch - another "turn of the screw" we might say esp in noting Deanne's evocation of that James novel in the first story the narrator's aunt Katie tells. In the 3rd story she tells, this one more like a brief confession or cri de coeur, ( no spoilers don't worry) of a strange twist in her relationship to the narrator's mother - all of which puts the mysterious disappearance of uncle Eddie into yet another perspective. The narrator is now about 14 and bearing the burden of holding many family secrets - he actually knows more than his elders about the tortured family history, twisted and shaped by the "troubles" in n Ireland. He's also of course at this point in his life feeling his first waves of sexual desire - which leads to another hilarious chapter, the facts of life, in which a well-meaning but feckless priest speaks to the narrator about same, as the narrator struggles between his desire to ask questions and to seem cool and knowledgeable. He also goes on his first movie date, another funny chapter that, like so much else in this novel blends humor w pathos - as the narrator gets roughed up by a rival , which turns out like much else in this novel and in the culture of its time and place to have a political dimension as well. This is a truly fine coming-of-age novel, thoughtful, graceful, and accessible.

Sent from my iPhone

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A narrative-memoir that actually has a powerful plot: Reading in the Dark

Reading in the Dark (Seamus Deane, 1995) is not only a beautifully written memoir-like novel, with each chapter - all of them short, all with titles, as if they were short stories - proceeding chronologically across the life of the narrator, from about 5 years old up to ... I'm not sure where it will end. But also: the novel develops a compelling plot line as well. This is not just about a series of moments in the life of the narrator, who is part of a large Catholic family in Protestant-controlled Northern Ireland, beginning in 1945 (when the narrator, like the author, was 5); Deane does a terrific job slyly introducing a plot, centered on the mysterious disappearance of the narrator's uncle Eddie. In a series of revelations, the narrator learns that his uncle didn't disembark for Chicago, as rumor had it, but was actually killed because it was learned that the was a spy for the British-Protestant police officers. This narrative goes on to get more complex - there will be no spoilers here - involving both sides of the boy's family. In many memoirs, part of the energy comes from the naivete of the narrator - we know more than he can know or understand at his young age; this novel plays a trick on that familiar trope, with the young narrator actually knowing more than the adults around him, but pledged to secrecy - and he's of course tormented by the burden he's carrying inside. Death of grandparent is also a trope in many memoirs and memoir-novels, and we do get that plot element here, but Deane brings much originality to this episode - the young narrator sitting in vigil beside his dying grandfather, witnessing his grandfather's refusal to give confession and take the last rites, and then having the grandfather "confess" to the young boy - a powerful and unusual scene, which Deane follows with a harrowing chapter about the depression and delusions that the boy's mother suffers after her father dies: no one in the family except the young narrator - and us - understands what is drawing her down.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Really impressed with Seamus Deane's only novel, Reading in the Dark

I am really impressed (half-way through) w/ Seamus Deane's novel from 1996 - apparently his one and only novel - Reading in the Dark. Of course some of our greatest memoir-novels are long, multi-volume publications in fact, but among short or single-volume memoir-fiction this work represents all that a memoir-novel can and should be: concise, evocative, dramatic, informative. Not to beat a dead horse, but comparing this novel with the novel we just struggled through in book group, Testing the Current, you can easily see what works and what does not: we don't need to know every detail of every event in the writer's life; the detail selected must be sharp and telling. The narrator or protagonist may of course be young and innocent and not able to comprehend some of his own observations of family, cultural, and political life - but the writer, whether her or she is doing a first- or third-person narration, needs to make something of the innocent observations of his or her protagonist. For example, as this novel develops the narrator's childhood self is vaguely aware that his family was involved in some IRA activities, that his uncle Eddie had to leave Ireland under mysterious circumstances. Fine, but you can't just leave that fact hanging out there in the void. Deane builds on the naivete and innocence of his younger self: in one key episode (the novel is made up of short, essay-like sections, each w/ a title and date) a group of neighborhood toughs threaten to beat up the young protagonist; he has only a vague idea why - that is, others in the community suspect he and his family informed the police about a cache of IRA weapons. To get out of this jam, the young boy throws a rock at a passing police car. The car stops, the threatening toughs take off, and the police take the boy home. But that's not so good, as all the neighbors see the young boy being escorted home by the police. The father reacts in a totally unexpected way - slugging the young boy and yelling at him that he should have taken the beating from the toughs rather than squirm his way out of it by seeking rescue from the police. So what we see from this is the young boy developing a sense of the conflicts in his family and in his life, arranging in his mind a value set and set of expectations - but all done through dramatic action and concise recollection. Lest you think, however, that the entire novel is made up of politics, there are some hilarious chapters, in particular Maths Lessons (sic) that had me laugh out loud, a rare response. And in some others the young boy hears from others strange tales and legends, in particular a story of ghosts and possession that his aunt narrates that is nearly as powerful and weird as Turning of the Screw (and about 1/20th the length).

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A novel, a memoir, and what the narrator learned about "beautiful wrirting"

Started reading Seamus Deane's 1995 novel, Reading in the Dark, his first and maybe his only novel - primarily, he's been a scholar focused on Irish literature; this is another memoir-like novel with an intriguing structure. It's made up of short chapters, each like an essay, most about 2-4 pp., arranged chronologically, beginning in the early 1940s (Deane was born in 1940) and focused on the life of a Catholic family in North Ireland. So we get the expected tropes: extreme poverty, large families, childhood death, early death of parents leading to breaking up the family and various adoptions, some not so benevolent (memorably: in one the adopted child told not to eat butter, he has to take margarine, butter is for family). Also "the troubles," including complete distrust of the police force and more generally of all authority, distinction between Catholic and Protestant holidays and celebrations, and, most important, the draw of the IRA - in particular the threats to get family members to tell what they know of IRA connections, the brutal interrogations, and the disappearance of some family members, most notably the young narrator's uncle Eddie rumored to have escaped to Chicago but perhaps not - dead? returned to Ireland? nobody's sure, or at least the young narrator is confused. There are also scenes of ghosts and of haunting, and all of this Deane renders beautifully with simple, never overwrought language. Perhaps the finest chapter in the first third or so of the book is the title chapter, in which the young narrator is in class and the teacher reads an example of an excellent student essay - surprisingly, not the narrator's (this isn't Portrait of the the Artist) but a "country" kid who writes about a family preparing a Spartan but beautiful dinner and waiting for the father to come whom from work in factory or fields, a family life told simply. Beautiful writing!, the teacher says, and the narrator is surprised, as he thinks great writing has to include knights and dragons and high drama. The lesson he learned that morning applies well to this novel, though of course with a touch of irony, as there are ghosts and fights and flight and gruesome death in this novel, it's simply written but the life his harsh and unforgiving, not a simple dinner waiting on the table. The teacher (a priest, I believe) was half-right only.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Why McPherson should have written a memoir

Abbreviated book-group meeting (only 4 of us) last night discussed William McPherson's Testing the Current (ca 1980), a pick we regretted as few were even able to finish the book. We all agreed: McPherson had a prodigious memory and summoned up the events of a year in his childhood (this is a personal narrative thinly disguised as a third-person narrative work of fiction), so the first chapter or so of the novel seemed promising as we meet some eccentric characters and McPherson clearly establishes a sense of time (the 1930s) and place (a well-to-do Midwest Protestant summer colony replete with all of the racial and anti-Semitic prejudices of the day). But as we proceed through the novel it becomes increasingly apparent that ... nothing happens! At best we can say that McPherson is diligent about creating a view of the world strictly from the POV of the 8-year-old Tommy; we see everything as Tommy sees it, and as a result we get no narrative guidance about any of the horrors or scandals - drug addiction, racism, marital affairs, e.g. - taking place all around; Tommy sees, remembers, doesn't quite understand. Nevertheless, in any worthwhile novel the lead character needs to develop, change, or at least participate in some kind of action. McPherson creates many opportunities for the novel to open up, and we all agreed on these in discussion last night: Tommy sees Mr. Wolfe try to sneak into the house at night while Dad's away; it's obvious to us though not to the child that there's an affair going on. Why not have Tommy blurt something out (why was Mr. Wolfe crawling into Mommy's bedroom window last night?), creating a crisis. Ditto for the explosion at the factory: Shouldn't that lead to some moral or at the least political anguish in the family after 3 men die in dad's factory? But, no - nothing happens. Other examples abound. As I have noted in previous posts, today (or even by 1990) any editor would have said trim, cut, and rework this as a memoir - which would at least give it the stamp of credibility (memoir was not yet in vogue when McPherson wrote this; he was about a decade ahead of his time). I personally am not a huge fan of memoir - I prefer authors who shape their experience into art - Proust, Powell, Knausgaard, to cite 3 of my favorites, each quite different - but McPherson's work misses the mark as a novel and he was, sadly for him, a bit ahead of his rightful time.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The strange open ending of Ge Fei's The Invisibility Cloak

Ge Fei's novel (2012, English tr. 2016) The Invisibility Cloak is an entertaining read top to bottom (only 120 pp.), presenting a smart portrait of the narrator, a 40-something Beijing man who makes a modest living putting together super-high-end audio systems for a private clientele, some of them business people among the newly wealthy in China and some academics, whom the narrator (Cui?) scorns. It's fun (at least for me) to read about the extremely expensive components and the extraordinary steps the audiophiles take to get the best possible sound - sometimes to listen to pretty trashy music, after all. This seems like a well-thought-out account of life in contemporary China, where there's always the collision between extraordinary wealth and peasant-like poverty and where amid the contemporary flash and gizmos there's still a persistent belief in superstitions and omens (and perhaps even the devotion to hifi vacuum-tube phonics represents a form of ancestor worship). The story is pretty simple and concerns the narrator's getting into financial straits and taking on a new client, a gangster, who wants the most expensive hifi system in the world. Predictably, the gangster doesn't pay his bills, which leads the narrator to try to collect the money owed to him and eventually to establish a relationship with the gangster's girlfriend/ex-wife - not clear. Like too many novels, however, this one doesn't really build to a point, just sets up a series of episodes and ends with the narrator in the relationship w/ the gangster's ex. (The gangster supposedly can at times where an eponymous "invisibility cloak," which may explain his disappearance toward the end of the novel - w/ the hovering threat that he could re-appear and take vengeance on the narrator. Spoiler: He does not reappear.) There's not much of a point to the story, nor does it click the way a well-made crime novel does or at least should; the plot is loose and episodic rather than organic and directed. The heart of the matter may be the contempt the narrator holds for academics (and the author is one), who engage in endless abstract discussions about whether the government and culture of China is on the verge of collapse or whether China leads the world economy (sometime they hold both views at the same time); at the end, the narrator interrupts one such discussion as he installs a system for a client and tells them: Life is pretty good. What a strange conclusion; is this something that Ge Fei (a pseudonym) feels forced to build in as his novel's conclusion in order to publish in China and maintain his academic standing? Are we meant to see an irony behind those words, which the Chinese censors may overlook?

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A contemporary Chinese novel in the noir tradition - The Invisibility Cloak

Started reading another NYRB find, The Invisibility Cloak (I'm half-way thru and have no idea what the title means) by Chinese 40-something author Ge Fei (published 2012, translated into English last year). Ge Fei seems to be another non-American writer fascinated by the noir style and tone of the great American crime writers: tough and self-confident but social isolate protagonist, femmes fatales, creepy underworld types, moody streets and neighborhoods in well-known cities but unfamiliar (to most) locales. When I started reading this short (120 pp.) novel, I thought first of Murakami, but gradually realized the similarities were superficial only. In Murakami's noir-like Japanese fiction, he is fascinated by all things Western and we see a contemporary Tokyo that has adopted or adapted many American styles and cultural touchpoints: jazz music, recreational jogging or racing, spaghetti, coffee, and others. We get a sense of the world as one homogeneous culture under the sway of American cultural hegemony. Fei differs: His protagonist (unnamed?) is a specialist in super-high-end audio equipment, and while at first this seemed to me "Western" I have come to see this as an emblem of life among contemporary Chinese. The narrator's customers divide into 2 groups, extremely wealthy (often corrupt businessmen) or highly intellectual (college professors - much harder to deal w/, apparently). There are many elements to this narrative that feel odd or alien to American readers: the mother's belief in fortune-telling (she warns the narrator, aptly, against his impending marriage), the music the customers listen to is primarily Asian pop (w/ some Western classical, the narrator's favorite), for example. The novel moves along well, and technical info about high-end audio equipment and its maintenance (some afficianados, for ex., will listen only at night when the voltage is more steady and pure) fascinates me; on the other hand, Fei is a little slow out of the gate in developing his plot. Each chapter stands alone well (and each has a title, as if they are short stories), but half-way through we're waiting for some plot development: there's a looming element of a high-end customer who's sinister, but no confrontation, yet.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Why Lively's Moon Tiger is good but not great

In the end, Penelope Lively's Booker-winning 1987 novel, Moon Tiger, is a good but not a great novel and here's why. Good: terrific accounts of battlefield scenes, including a strange confluence of boredom and terror; good and efficient account of the protagonist, Claudia, at the end of her life reflecting back on the key moments or epochs in her life, including in particular her love affair with a British soldier (Tom) who dies in battle; smart and effective use of a narrative device that more often wrecks a good novel rather than heightens and enhances the drama, that is, multiple narrative points of view and story told out of chronological sequence; clear, non-histrionic writing throughout; smart account of the prejudice that women writers faced, and probably still face. But what keeps this from being a great novel is her inability to tie the strands together and bring the narrative to a meaningful conclusion. There are many references throughout to Claudia's intention to write a "history of the world" (she is a popular, non-academic historian), and we kind of get that what she means by this is that telling the story of a life is in some ways like telling the story of the history of the world, as world history is not, in her view (and Tolstoy's) made up of grand events but of the lives of people and families. Great, but she never capitalizes on this theme: Is Claudia grandiose, even delusional, in her ambitions? Or does she succeed? If so we (I) don't see it. Further, the narrative concludes w/ Claudia's receiving via mail Tom's war diaries, which her wrote to explain to her what battle was like, and that end abruptly w/ his death (and a note appended by his sister). Well that would be fine if the diary she receives would disclose some kind of mystery or plot element, which it doesn't - just provides us with details of his war experience. Perhaps the point is that he's as good a writer as she, or better? I really don't know - the novel just seems to wind down at the end (as we also meet a character, Laszlo, a Polish emigre, who was apparently important in her life - a little late to intro a new character unless he, too, carries some weight for the plot, which he doesn't - the Laszlo chapter could be cut w/ no loss). So I wish this good novel could have been better - though it was good enough to win the Booker (ha - as we know, the awarding of the Booker is a result of lots of payback, log-rolling, and compensation for past mistakes. Maybe they confused Penelope Lively with Penelope Fitzgerald).

Thursday, May 18, 2017

An unconventional narrative that advances the narrative rather than obscures in: Moon Tiger

I'm increasingly impressed w/ Penelope Lively's 1987 novel, Moon Tiger, as a terrific novel about the entire course of the life of the narrator (in the "present tense" of the novel she is in hospice care, sometimes near comatose, at other times relatively communicative) and as an examination of a # of issues, most notably the trauma and sorrow that those who survived the second World War endured and the sexism that marginalized women journalists and academics. The narrator, Claudia, was a war correspondent in Egypt; she met and fell in love w/ a British soldier, who later died in battle, and she never recovers from that loss. Reading through the novel we learn that after the war she engaged in an incestuous relationship with her brother (he, too, was traumatized by loss, but we don't know much about his suffering) and established a relationship w/ a social-climbing careerist academic, Jasper, and they have child together though the never marry (the child, Lisa?, has children of her own in the "present" and is carrying on an affair w/ a doctor - whom she hopes to leave her husband for and marry, when her children are older). It's a sad and unconventional novel; because of Lively's unusual narrative, which shifts between first and 3rd person and tells the story out of chronological sequence, it's hard at first to understand the characters, but their lives gradually come into focus - more accurately, it's as if pieces in a puzzle come into place and provide an increasingly full picture - and by the final third of the novel we feel and understand their grief. I don't yet fully get the narrator's claim that she is writing (in her mind) a complete history of the world, unless all she means by this is that if you tell the complete history of a life you've conveyed the history of the world by analogy. Lively's type of narrative games-manship is something I usually don't care for or even disdain - as  quaint relic from another era of writing (postmodernism of the 70s), finding that it usually obscures the narrative and gets in the way of the reader like stumbling blocks. Not here - Lively's narration is easy to follow because of excellent transitions between segments and the broken narrative mirrors rather than obscures the complex patterns and relationships among the characters and across a span of some 80 years.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Yet another British war novel but with an unconventional setting and narrative style - Moon Tiger

I'm guessing that most of the enthusiasm, including the Booker Prize, that rose up for Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger (1987) came about because of her account of the war years in Cairo, in which the narrator, Claudia, served as a war correspondent. God knows there are many novels about WWII, especially English novels. In fact, are there any 20th-century English novels (even 21st century - think Kate Atkinson) that do not concern one or both of the World Wars? There are so many that I thought Ian McEwen's Atonement - one of the best British novels of the past 20 years - took on both world wars (as well as country manor and boarding school) in an attempt to punch-list all of the cliched British-fiction topics and to one-up. So yes, Lively was on familiar ground in some ways, but there aren't many that I can think of that focus on North Africa. And her account from the correspondent's POV of desert warfare is terrific; at one point one of the soldiers describes desert warfare as like a board game w/out a board, which I think is a terrific analogy. So amid the unconventional narration of this novel - shift from first- to third-person narration, story told out of narrative sequence, the idea that the narrator is composing this novel in her head as she lies on her deathbed, nearly comatose - the novel adds something to the storehouse of British war fiction and touches on the familiar tropes: It's a novel experimental in form but not in content. At heart, it's a story of love lost during warfare: Claudia meets a British soldier, Thomas, has a brief on-leave affair with him, falls in love, and then he is lost in battle (or so it seems at least) - the ur-war novel, in a sense (follow-ups include The English Patient, the afore-mentioned Atkinson, many that I haven't read). One thing that puzzles me as I pass the half-way point in Moon Tiger is the narrator's various references to writing a "history of the world" (she is a popular, non-academic historian, perhaps like a Barbara Tuchman); is the narrative of her life story meant to be analogous to a world history (rather presumptuous I think), or is she saying that every life is a version of the history of the world because history consists of a near infinitude of individual lives, not of great battles and discoveries (a Tolstoyan idea). In any event, Lively isn't clear about the narrator's intentions and ambitions, at least t this point.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Experimental narration - English v American

Reading NYTBR cover profile of Penelope Lively made me realize I had never read her Booker-winning novel, Moon Tiger, though it's been on my shelf (and list) for decades, so here goes. We recognize pretty quickly that this will be an unconventional narrative, as the novel begins w/ an elderly woman in what seems to be in hospice care; she is the narrator, and tells us she wants to write the history of the world. We also in some passages see her from her caregiver's POV, and she seems to be almost comatose. History of the world? She philosophizes a bit, reflecting on her belief that each life represents an entire history of the world, whatever that exactly means. As the narrative gets under way we move about in time and perspective - some passages in which the narrator (Claudia) describes her childhood (rivalry w/ older brother who will as an adult become a famous scholar or historian). We also learn of her liaison with a dashing diplomat, Jasper - they never marry but the have a child, and of her difficult adult relationship w/ her brother and his much-less-intellectual wife; one section involves a visit to Plymouth Plantation (the brother teaches half the academic year at Harvard). So the novel breaks w/ narrative convention - but Lively's writing is clear and the cast of characters is limited so the narration is easy to follow. Reading this novel I sense how the English were behind American writers in narrative experimentation and unconventional plot structure: That lay at the heart of American fiction in the 80s and was just starting to make its way to England - led and inspired by a few fabulists only today receiving recognition (Angela Carter), some writers who befriended Americans and even moved to the U.S. (Carey, Amis), and most of all by the third-world writers in English, such as Rushdie. Strangely, today American writing is generally more conventional while the English as still playing around w/ narrative trickery (Life After Life, Nutshell, to cite to recent examples) - or maybe I'm just over-generalizing from a few examples. From reading the dedication and some other notes at the front of the novel, it appears that much of Moon Tiger will take place in Cairo (were Lively was born) during the War (what would an English novel be w/out one or even 2 world wars), that that hasn't happened in the first 40 or so pages.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The failings of William McPherson's Testing the Current

Skimmed the remaining chapters and finished reading William McPherson's 1984 coming-of-age novel, Testing the Current, with not much further enlightenment. It's obvious that what he was working toward in this novel was a view of the complex society of an insular, clannish, conservative Midwest culture entirely from the young protagonist's POV, so there are many hints and innuendoes about scandals and tensions and racism and bigotry but we get only glimpses of these, none is fully developed or even clarified. I guess that can work and could have worked if this novel were shorter and more focused, but as it stands it's a novel in search of a plot. I'll give just one example: toward the end, the protagonist, Tommy, speaks with young (teenage?) black man who works at the country club; Tommy notes that he talks to the man while sitting on the grass because the man is not allowed to sit on the club porch. OK, does McPh make any more of this or develop it? Then the man tells Tommy in crude and graphic detail about  sexual encounter with a young woman. Tommy listens, absorbs - but then what? Nothing. Not to re-write someone else's novel, but what would I say if I saw this in a writers' work group? For one thing, perhaps Tommy in innocence could ask an adult, maybe his dad or mom, about what he's heard from the man - and then could this have gotten the man fired? Disciplined? Could there be repercussions? Could Tommy wrestle with guilt and shame? These are the kinds of opportunities that abound throughout this novel, and McPherson capitalizes on none of them! The last events of the novel involve a 25th-anniversary party his parents throw at the country club. There are all kinds of potential for action and drama here - notably, there's a man present who most likely has been having an affair w/ Tommy's mother (it's all vague to us bcz everything comes to us from Tommy's limited viewpoint and understanding - the adult narrator never offers authority or clarification); so why doesn't Tommy blurt out something awkward and incriminating? Doesn't happen. Just ends w/ Tommy thinking that it was a wonderful party (even though he's overheard various nasty, drunken outbursts). In the very final scene Tommy dangles his legs in the current that flows among the islands of the summer retreat where the novel beings and (a year later - in novel time, not in my reading time) ends. That's a great metaphor not for this novel but for its failings: he's dangling in the current, not testing it at all.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

An abundance of detail but no organizing principle in Testing the Current

He tried - in section 5 (of 6, plus a very short section 7) William McPherson tries to introduce some plot elements into his long memoir-like novel Testing the Current, as the section begins with the 8-year-old Tommy looking out from his window as one of the furnaces in the factory where his father works as an executive explodes into the night sky. We soon learn that three workers died in the explosion. This development could have some potential interest: to what degree if any is his father complicit? How do these deaths effect the small Michigan city, at which we sense the factory is the economic heart of the matter? But, no, WMcP can't bring himself to write about any of these developments. Father has to notify the families of the death - but as the novel is told entirely from Tommy's POV we don't see any of these scenes. We hear the father arguing w/ the mother about something related to the tragic events, but what? As with so much else in this novel, in the end nothing much happens, Tommy has a vague sense - based on a visit he'd made to his father's workplace - that his father may have been aware of some flaw in the system and not acted quickly enough to rectify the situation. But it's all in a fog, a miasma - as the story - once again! - becomes about his mother's social life at the country club, about gifts and holidays. How many times! Similarly, WMcP introduces the idea that Tommy's mother may be having an affair with a dashing Canadian businessman, Mr. Wolfe. Once again - we expect that maybe Tommy will have a glimpse of them in some compromising situation, or hear something derogatory from a neighbor or a neighborhood kid. But - no - there are a few hints and innuendos and a strange scene in which the mother locks herself out of the house and Mr. Wolfe climbs a ladder into Tommy's bedroom to gain entrance - but what's the point? As in all other sections of this novel, so far, and I'm almost done, there is an abundance of detail about daily life but no organizing principle, not plot development, and no reflective consciousness (as in say Proust's narration, in which the narrator provides constant insight into the process of recalled memory).

Saturday, May 13, 2017

McPherson's Testing the Current: Why is this a novel?

Not to "beat a dead horse," but I am continuing reading William McPherson's Testing the Current, out of loyalty and commitment to book group, but wonder how anyone could possibly make it through the long section on xmas morning (end of section 3), including some paragraphs that go on for several pages of dense text!, and to what end? Yes McPherson had a tremendous capacity to summon up remembrance of the details of his bourgeois Midwestern childhood, but how does this serve the interest of his novel - page upon page of the details of an xmas morning, the gifts received, the family visits, the phone calls to and from relatives and girlfriends, Tommy's visits to several neighbors, on and on about his gift - a small desk w/ lock and key, some fancy kind of Monopoly set - and with any significance? Well, at one point a working-class neighbor comes over, and Italian whose English is broken, and presents the McAllisters w/ his annual present, or tribute one might say, of two gallons of home-made wine (which Mr. McAllister immediately consigns to the basement), so we get a glimpse of the class relationships in this community. But what does McPherson make of this, do w/ this? Is Tommy troubled by the class disparities? By the condescension? There is no depth to these details, he makes no use of them, they don't advance the plot nor deepen our understanding. At the very end of the chapter Tommy imagines the scent of some kind of pastry, a currant bun?, I don't remember, that his grandmother used to make on xmas and reflects that he will never taste that pastry again - but it's just a sentence. Clearly, there's an homage to Proust here, as Proust wrote both about the evocative nature of taste and smell (famously) and about the death of his grandmother (extensively), but giving us so much more insight, feeling, reflection. McPherson just unloads the detail. Good for him, but why is this a novel?

Friday, May 12, 2017

Gaining access to another's counsciousness is not the same as gaining access to the mundane details of another's daily life

The problem w/ William McPherson's 1984 novel, Testing the Current, is that though there may be current there's no testing. I'm almost half-way through this long autobiographical fiction - the "coming of age" story of a sensitive young man born into a prosperous, insular WASP community in the mid-West in the alte 1930s - and nothing has happened. McPherson has an abundant recollection of childhood detail, but a compendium of detail does not constitute a novel. We get long sections that describe such events as the family Thanksgiving dinner, replete with every dish served, all the songs sung, toasts made, snippets of "grown-up" conversation that the protagonist, Tommy, overhears, many moments when he knows there's some hidden significance to a remark that he can't quite make out (of course the adult author and all readers know more than Tommy). I would guess the Proust is McPherson's guiding spirit - we even have a "death of beloved grandmother" scene and a scene on being put to bed while the adults still carouse downstairs, two seminal scenes in Proust's Search - but unlike Proust McPh never develops these scenes or moments into any particular insight or narrative development. This is like looking through an enormous family album, which may interest you if it's your family but otherwise what's the point? I've said many times in these posts that one reason we read is to gain access to the consciousness of another, and this novel presents test case of that belief: It shows me that to gain access to the tedious details of another's daily life is not the same thing as gaining access to another's consciousness. Yes, I accept that all of these recollections are accurate and, to the author, meaningful, and for a time I was hoping for the best, hoping that McPh was laying a groundwork from which a story would emerge and thrive, but half-way through I'm afraid that it's all groundwork, meaningful to him but not to others.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A coming-of-age novel that maybe should have been written as a memoir

The recently deceased William McPherson was a Pulitzer Prize winning book critic for the Washington Post in the 1970s and 80s (I'd met him once or twice but can't say that we really knew each other); his obituaries, in telling his strange life story - he gave up his newspaper job and spent much of his later life in abject poverty - were glowing in retrospective praise for his (first?) novel, Testing the Current. Looking back at this coming-of-age novel, it seems a little dated, maybe even dated at the time of publication (1984 I think): not only its era-typical title (verbing the noun) and its ugly cover design but in the whole conception of the book: it's a long (350 pages, small type) account of a young man's recollection of his youth in a prosperous Michigan industrial town, life centering on "The Island" where all the well-to-do families "summered" and on the young boy's fascination with his much older siblings and their love lives and the many rumors and histories of other families in the town and on The Island. It's a totally WASP, Republican (and anti-Roosevelt) world, with country clubs and golf at the heart of the matter and with the assumption that all the children will go to "good" schools and will marry w/in their social set. The central character, Tommy, is part of the long line of sensitive young men somewhat adrift in a world of society, sports, and business. It's a little strange that McPherson wrote this novel in the 3rd person; it would have felt to me much more authentic in the first person, as an adult writer reflecting back on his youth - in the manner of Proust, obviously (though I would not say this novel is Proustian) or today's Knausgaard. Alternatively, McPherson could have written a memoir - but he was just ahead of the curve. In the mid-80s the memoir suddenly was in vogue, especially in the idea that the memoirist need not be famous nor to have suffered grievous hardship but must be only a fine writer. I suspect that had he embarked on this project 10 years later he would have written a memoir and not a novel, and that would have helped, would have given the work an urgency and an authenticity that it needs; as a novel it's, so far, abundant in period detail, many descriptions of the decor, the dress, the cuisine of the era and the class - but devoid of what makes Proust so great. We don't get meditations on the past, we don't get a sense of why the writer is driven to recollect past events (or can't help himself but recollect them), there's a ton of detail (any editor today would say too much detail, cut this by half at least) w/, so far (1/3 through) no plot or narrative to advance - it's detail for its own sake (to create a sense of time and place I guess), and there are far too many characters, seen from Tommy's 8-year-old (though precocious) POV, none of whom really mean anything to us nor to the narrative. Yet something draws me in and along - the novel is an attempt to look at a past time and now, 30 years after publication, it's a timepiece in itself.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The bravery of a writer who knew he would never see his novel in print

A further note on The Return of Munchausen, the posthumously published novel by - ready? - Sigizmund Krvhizhanovksy (Russian writer, composed this novel 1927-28): as noted in previous post on SK he was obviously thumbing his nose at the Soviet state under Lenin by, among other things, writing a surrealist and nonlinear narrative, creating a hero who's a European aristocrat from the 18th century, and upending the dicta of the Soviet authorities and censors that literature must celebrate the proletariat and, by extension, the Soviet state. Reading further into the novel, we can see that he also takes on the Soviet state head-on, in a relatively long chapter that is supposedly Munchausen's report to an English cultural society following his visit to the USSR; in this section there are numerous satirical accounts of the failures of Soviet communism: starvation, poverty, oppression, censorship, etc. These are not the most subtle satires, to put it mildly. They include descriptions of a starving populace and the government handing out a single poppy seed to each person on the bread line, so no one can truthfully say they didn't received some food. I think this would have been a stronger novel if SK had built the whole work as a report on the USSR - but to my mind the many attempts to retell portions of the legends of Baron Munchausen - episodes such as his traveling to Moscow by hitching a ride on a cannonball - ha ha - just distract from the overall message SK is trying to put forth. This is a very difficult novel for a contemporary (American) reader to take on and enjoy - full of obscure references to long-ago conflicts and debates, not especially funny or original topical satire, lots of references of course to Munchasen's legends, which is little known to contemporary readers and anyway of little interest (for funnier and more pointed satire, see Swift; for funnier tales of the overcoming obstacles and solving problems of leadership, see Wise Men of Helm or the 2nd volume of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza's empre). That said, any reader will appreciate SK's courage in writing these attacks on authority and will respect and feel some sorrow for any writer who creates a novel that he or she knows they will most likely never live to see in print.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Why and how I blog: Thoughts on Elliot's Reading

Spent the morning on air w/ host Frank Prosnitz talking about 25 Posts from Elliot's Reading, first at WBLQ (Westerly), then at WADK (Newport). Frank posed a # of intriguing questions, not only about what I've read, and haven't read, but about why (and how) I blog. In short I explained that Elliot's Reading is like a personal reading log, a daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading. I don't intend any of the posts on this blog to read like polished essays; they're not. They are like a snapshot of my brain at a moment in time; I write them "raw" and don't edit, nor do I fact check or reference the works under discussion while I am writing the blog entries. I kept this raw format in the 25 Posts booklet, although I did correct obvious typographical errors and added a few explanatory notes. But why do I blog? I think blogging makes me a better, more attentive, more analytic, and more sympathetic reader; as I'm reading I'm not just receiving information and mediated experiences, but I'm thinking about my engagement w/ the works that I'm reading, preparing, on some level, the thoughts I will post the next day. The blog also serves as a personal reference point, which enables me to recapture some of my past and otherwise long-gone reading experiences. I think it's unusual if not unique among blogs that I am not interested in posting reviews or analyses of the works I read; because I post daily as I read through various novels, some quite long, the blog shows the reading in process, as I come to understand more about what I'm reading, sometimes to appreciate the work more as I proceed, sometimes the opposite. Frank was particularly interested in whether blogging would be a goo teaching tool, and I think that it would - I would guess that many English teachers encourage students to keep a daily record of their reading, even if the record consists of no more than a sentence or two. (I'll be w/ Frank again in Thursday at 4 p.m. on WOON Woonsocket). 

Monday, May 8, 2017

A novel that challenged Soviet socialist-realism

I'm not sure what possibly can account for the popularity in Europe of Baron von Munchausen, apparently a real-life German aristocratic from the 18th century who became the subject of a series of books and tales based on stories of his entirely fictitious, somewhat antic deeds: e.g., he rides his horse through a snowstorm, sees a pole sticking up from the snow, ties up his horse and beds down for the night, wakes up and the snow has melted and the horse is dangling from a church steeple. Hah. Must be something that doesn't translate well - similar to the European obsession w/ Faust stories and themes, though those on a tragic and serious nature as opposed to Munchausen's comic mishaps. Always drawn to the books from the NYBR press, I'm reading the short (100-page) novel The Return of Munchausen - in which the Count makes an appearance as age 100+ in 1920s Europe -by the Ukrainian-born, Russian-language writer - ready for this? - Szigismund Krzhizhanovsky (from memory - I bet he had to spell that out a few times in his life!). SK wrote this novel in the late 1920s, but it didn't see publication for decades, only recently in English. I guess it's more of a curiosity than a great work of literature: we meet Munchausen in Berlin in the 1920 on the day of a military revolt (later quashed of course) against Lenin; M engages in a long conversation of a philosophic nature w/ a German poet. The M gets swooped off to London where he rides through the streets and has various encounters and provides his insight or wisdom at various London clubs. And then he heads to Moscow. I really have no idea what the purpose of these visits or travels; what's mainly striking is the surrealist prose and the fractured narrative, somewhat like an early avant-garde film, a Dali landscape, and maybe precursor suppressed Soviet novels like The Master and Margharita. Its very inaccessibility was a surreptitious strike against the Soviet state; SK was obviously in defiance of the socialist-realism that was the only acceptable form of narrative in the USSR. To write such an unconventional narrative showed, perhaps, that writers can defy and smash literary dicta, which had broader implications for defiance of the state as a whole. SK lost - in the short run - but his work has outlived his censors and the state itself; whether Return of Munchausen is still readable, however, is another question. I'll read further before deciding.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Has anyone actually enjoyed reading Eileen?

I wish I could like it more or even like it at all because Ottessa Moshfegh writes really well but I've read more than half-way through her novel, Eileen, and I can't go any more pages in this chornicle of seriously depressed 24-year-old woman yearning to hop in a car and escape from her dreary life in a Massachusetts coastal town. I can't take one more page of serious alcohol abuse, vomiting, shitting, and just plain misery, sorry. There are other novels about depressed protagonists that don't push us so far into the physical depravity, and even when they do they're more readable than this one - because for 130 or so pages nothing has really happened. The eponymous Eileen is exactly in the same dark predicament by the mid-point of the novel as she was at the outset. The novel chronicles one week in the narrator's life (she's looking back at that week as a near-80-year-old, so we know she survived and there are hints that she has lived her life in a different city and perhaps under a different name - so far we know nothing about her life after age 24, however), but for god's sake it should be an eventful week, right? And maybe it is, maybe by the end of the book she hops in a car and leaves town, but it's taking too long for anything to happen. At about the half-way point, however, there is one development: a beautiful young woman comes to work in the youth prison where Eileen has a dreary desk job, and for some as yet unexplained reason this beautiful woman take a great interest - social? sexual? something else? - in Eileen, invites her out for drinks, they go to a working-class bar, dance, get seriously drunk. I am a little curious about the woman's motives and what role she will play in turning around Eileen's life, but not curious enough to read more about hangovers and misery. I see that many critics have greatly admired this novel, but has anyone actually enjoyed reading it?

Saturday, May 6, 2017

A seriously depressed narrator in a much-lauded novel - Eileen

Ottessa Moshfegh's debut novel, Eileen (2015), created a real stir as a finalist for both the Man Booker and the NBCC fiction awards, quite a feat for any novel let alone a first. Anyone will see from the first paragraphs that Moshfegh is a clear, precise, and observant writer, as she develops the life story of the eponymous Eileen (Dunlop). ED narrates the story from the present - we don't know, yet, her current whereabouts nor even her current name - looking back at the pivotal moment in her life, when she made a clean break with her past and began a new existence. These events occurred in 1964, when Eileen was 24 years old - and the narrative begins at that period. Eileen is a seriously, seriously depressed young woman: she has a poor self-image bordering on body dysmorphia diagnosis; she has a dull job in the office at a detention center for youth (a teenager prison, she recognizes) where he co-workers are cold and dismissive; her mother died 5 years back and she lives with her father, a former police officer who alcoholic and (mentally) abusive; shall I go on? This is not a cheerful book, and not helped by its mid-winter setting in a forlorn NE coastal town - seemingly on the Boston North Shore? Sometimes, unfortunately, darkness can be seen as high literary art (whereas an upbeat story, if you can find one, can be dismissed as light comedy or less); do I really want to read more of this downbeat narrative, that even gets downbeat enough to include a detailed section of Eileen's digestive problems and bowel movement? I wouldn't, except that there is a promised transformation; she is preparing to make a break and begin a new life (talking about running off to NYC - Why not Boston. Why does so much literary fiction find its locus in NYC? Because that's where editors, agents, publishers, and therefore writers, live and thrive). One of the things keeping E in her home town is her crush on the James Dean-like prison guard who gives her absolutely no attention; my guess? - one of the big reveals that will send her on her journey out of town will be that she learns that the guard, Randy, is homosexual.

Friday, May 5, 2017

A story of scope and ambition despite a wayward narrative

There is no question that Yiyun Li's life story is amazing, judging from what we (or I) know about her from her previously published fiction and essays. Not only is she a trained scientist (I can't remember the particular, but perhaps she's an MD or a PhD in science) who decided to hell with that and opted to write fiction and essays and now finds herself as one of the New Yorker's anointed - she also is Chinese born, English is her 2nd language, and she has chosen to write in English (she lives in the U.S. I believe). It also seems from her published essays that she has overcome some severe episodes of depression. As noted, quite a story - and who wouldn't wish such a brave and talented write all the success she's earned. I can only say, I wish I liked her fiction more - but maybe she's still finding her footing? Story in current NYer, A Little Flame, is a good example of her strengths and weaknesses. First of all, it's a truly ambitious story, a full account of a life of a complex and suffering character: "Bella" (an adopted Anglicized name), Chinese born, trained as a lawyer and living in the U.S. for 25 or so years, twice divorced, and we meet her on a return visit to China as an informal tour guide for two friends, one a fellow attorney and the other his partner, who is doing research for a book about his roots (one grandparent was from China). The story is structured, or unstructured, much like an Alice Munro piece (I wonder how strong the influence is there), wandering about among various potential narrative pathways: At first we think the story's about one of the two friends, but they disappear about a quarter of the way through, then we think it's perhaps about Bella's unusual family background and childhood (she was adopted by wealthy Chinese parents - they had rejected their first adoptee on learning that she was a "deaf-mute"). Then the story settles into a reminiscence about Bella's high-school English teacher, Miss Chu, whom she tries to track down while in China; through a friend's research and some web searches she finds that Miss Chu is now an LBGTQ activist. This kind of roving narrative works for Munro, and I think that's because Munro is also dedicated to plot - Li is more dedicated to incident. A few things "happen" in this story - an encounter with a young girl selling flowers, for example - but the story doesn't seem to cohere and just seems to end when it runs out of gas. The "discovery" about Miss Chu's activism and sexual orientation is hardly an epiphany, as it does not speak to or shed light on anything in the preceding narrative. Still, it's a story w/ scope and ambition, which is more than I can say for most stories these days, and Li is worth reading going forward.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Grahan Greene's "entertainment" Our Man in Havana gets serious

Graham Greene's 1958 "entertainment," Our Man in Havana, is a quick read, very funny at times, a terrific concept - out of lethargy and ineptitude, the British secret service recruits a vacuum-cleaner salesman to be their eyes in Cuba and the man, completely ignorant as to how to function as a spy, makes up fake reports and in return gets fairly lavish expense reimbursements - makes for a terrific send-up of spy novels in general and of the British spymasters in particular. It's easy to dismiss this novel, as Greene does w/ his refusal to characters it as such, but it's worth noting that this novel or entertainment or whatever you want to call it, gets pretty serious toward the end. It's all very funny that the "spy" Wormold gives the home office names of his recruited sub-agents - some he's made up entirely (lots of funny meta-fictional observations about how making up a false spy is like writing a novel - the character makes up a character, so to speak), others are real residents of Havana (country-club members; the Brits paid for Wormold to join the club supposedly to make contacts - in fact he wanted riding privileges for his spoiled daughter). But word leaks as to the ID's of his "agents" and they start getting threatened, abducted, one is even killed. This lark becomes a serious, or at least a serio-comic game. I've never seen it, but I'm sure this book has been translated successfully into film; today, it would probably have skipped the "novel" phase altogether and gone straight to screenplay. Follow the $.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

On Graham Greene's "entertainments"

Anyone who's read older editions of Graham Greene novels knows, from the list of his works int he front pages, that he distinguishes among his fiction publications between "novels" and "entertainments." I'd never read any of the so-called "entertainments," but yesterday started Our Man in Havana and find it, yes, entertaining. But what's the distinction, exactly? Aren't novels entertaining? Especially "comic" novels such as, say, Confederacy of Dunces? It seems, though, that based on this novel GG was not interested in or aiming for believable characters or plot - he's interested in comic, uproarious, even preposterous situations, all of which must be close enough to reality - and also close enough to the kind of romps we've all seen in various screwball comedies that we don't dismiss them out of hand. The premise alone of Man in Havana is illustrative: a British businessman (sells vacuum cleaners in a little shop w/ one employee) in Havana gets recruited, much against his will (initially) by a spy from British intelligence to serve as eyes and ears in Havana, 1958, with a rebellion fomenting against the (unnamed) dictator. HQ back in London makes the assumption (wrong) that the vacuum guy (Wormold!) is a big businessman, and he quickly realizes that they will pick up a ton of expenses (e.g., country-club membership, ostensibly so that he can make contacts but in fact so that his spoiled daughter can ride her horse) in return for detailed reports, which of course he fakes. In one, he sends sketches of what he suggests are implements of mass destruction in the Cuban forests; in fact, they are sketches of one of his vacuum cleaners. So yes, this is a lark and meant to be - it's not The End of the Affair or The Quiet American. I do wonder whether GG always knew exactly which what his works in progress would develop: Could have have started Man in Havana as a serious novel and then got captivated by the comic possibilities? Or could he have thought of the Quiet American as, at first, a potential comedy but then the characters and setting led him on another pathway? I think it's informative that GG recognized the distinction between his two fictional genres, but in a way I think he's selling himself short on the "entertainments." Interestingly, both the entertainments and the novels have been adapted into fine films.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Why I won't finish reading Six Four

It does happen sometimes: I've read through 350 pages of Hideo Yokoyama's crime novel Six Four and have decided enough is enough. I could obviously read on for the next 200 pages and find out who dunnit (I'm assuming the two crimes that Yokyama establishes at the outset - the disappearance of the police officer Mikami's daughter and the kidnap-murder case from 14 years back - will be in some manner resolved by the end of a 600-page novel!). But actually at this point I don't care, and there are so many great books I could be reading. For those who love police procedurals and want to read one that's a little out of the ordinary - given the Japanese setting and the unusual length and complexity of the plot - Six Four is worth a look. For others, like me, who rarely read crime fiction, this is not one with which to start. Either of the two "crimes" HY establishes could have been the spine of this novel, but it seems to me that about 90 percent of the narrative concern a third plot element, the internecine battle for control w/in the Japanese regional police department. For a non-Japanese reader, and maybe even for a Japanese reader, it's almost impossible to follow the thread of this narrative and ultimately - do we really care who comes out on top? The Tokyo national police? The administrative division? The criminal-investigations division? Who cares? I thought I would be interested in some of this, in particularly because the protagonist is assigned to "media relations," which I have worked in from both sides - media and relations - for +30 years, but none of the characters comes alive and the stakes here - will the media boycott a visit by a Tokyo police commissioner our of pique because the PD is withholding the name of someone involved in a fatal car accident? - are so low. At half its length, this novel might find an American audience but as is, despite an NYTBR front-page rave review (how did that happen?), I have my doubts.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Impressed and saddened by McCullers's Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Book group met last night for discussion of Carson McCullers's 1940 debut novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and found complete accord on two points: first, the novel is an incredible accomplishment for any author but almost unfathomable as a debut of a 23-year-old writer. How could she know so much about so many people and about her culture? How could she be so confident in her structure, style, pacing, and syntax? Sadly, this debut novel was also the highlight of her career, although she did write several fine short novels and other pieces, but it seems her life was ruined by alcohol, troubled marriages, poor health, and perhaps by struggles with her own sexual identity. Book group also concurred that this novel is incredibly sad, even mournful, a study in loneliness and isolation. I spoke about some of my observations about the unconventionality of this novel: it's neither a comedy (marriage and reconciliation at the end), tragedy (death and destruction at the end, though one character does die), nor traditional American novel (protagonist heads out for the territories, though one character does "leave town"). It's a much more unusual open-ended conclusion: each of the surviving characters is alone and troubled: Mick, possibly pregnant, facing a dreary life of working as a store clerk and giving up her music dreams, Blount having failed to convert anyone to his views leaving town in poverty, Biff alone with his weird sexual fantasies in his all-night diner, Copeland heading off to the farm in the country to die, disillusioned and bitter. Also, it's so unusual that CMcC wrote what it clearly a novel about her childhood without making it a series or stories or sketches about the artist a sensitive young soul; she writes about the entire community, and does so from a magisterial third person POV. I floated my theory that Singer (note the irony of the name - for a man who is deaf and mute) kills himself not only in mourning of Antonapoulos but also because he realizes how isolated he is from his supposed best friend/beloved: A left him nothing, not even a note; nobody informed him of the death; the man whom he thought of as the center of his life barely gave him a thought. Others disagreed on this and believe his death was in sorrow about losing A. (Note that after he gets the news of A's death he steals items from his hotel room - an echo of what sent A. to the institution in the first place, his petty thievery from restaurants.) All told, group found the novel powerful but harrowing, worth reading but painful to do so, about which I have to agree.