This was getting 4 stars until that ending. Tibor Fischer generally abandons narratives, characters, and"Our happiness is destruction's coffee-break."
This was getting 4 stars until that ending. Tibor Fischer generally abandons narratives, characters, and complete plots for digressive anecdotes whose philosophical underpinnings are the world is random, and often things seem understandable but they aren't.
This is black humour, which I like all the more because it seems to come from a writer who could pass in society. I imagine Fischer prefers staying in bed, laughing at everyone who has to take the morning train. But on days when he has to take the train, he does so without complaint and without attracting anyone's attention. Fischer seems to dislike wider society or finds it darkly laughable, but he isn't a drunk (Bukowski), a junkie (Burroughs), completely paranoid (Pynchon, Celine), seemingly homeless (Bukowski), or ready to punch someone out for a stray word (Hemingway, Gifford, Bukowski). I imagine him to be an empathetic everyman who loves the few people he knows, and eschews everything else if he can help it. A lovable, loving misanthrope.
I can understand why this book would be rated low. Voyage is black humoured and not obvious. Its disaffected characters are neither covered in garbage, drinking themselves to death, nor looking for a fight. They mostly stay indoors and tell each other stories. Voyage mimics life: a whole lot of nothing, then too much randomness too quickly, bleakly funny vignettes, and answers that make little sense. There are also plenty of laughs and surprising sweetness....more
Adler published a novel of 5 previously published short stories that mostly consist of temporally and spatially disjointed, aphoristic paragraphs. InAdler published a novel of 5 previously published short stories that mostly consist of temporally and spatially disjointed, aphoristic paragraphs. In sum, a novel of pithy standalone paragraphs. Some paragraphs are biting, some banal. All are the often subvocal observations of narrator Jen Fain. Fain is by turns a journalist, teacher, and political intern, who drifts through jobs and lovers. She attended expensive prep schools, summer camps, and ivy league universities; studied abroad in Paris; and takes group vacations on Malta and other Mediterranean islands. Her rapid, jet-setting life doesn't descend into alcoholism, bohemianism, drug addiction, or squalor. She tries to get along with all her advantages, and still finds living in New York fast, tough, and fragmentary.
If, like me, you've ever wondered what growing up rich and waspy in Connecticut or Upstate New York, then trying to "make it" in the big city with all your connections and wealth was like, Speedboat delivers on this experience.
Some of the paragraphs ring true and are quotable (See below). City life is a bothersome dance of transactions. People must wade through a welter of trends and lifestyles and depressing parties, giving each absurd gesture and pose its due, while managing to push themselves forward through hectic rather disappointing lives. Fain's thoughts, and the recorded snippets of conversations she either has or endures, mimics the frenetic pace at which we now live. Comparisons elsewhere have been drawn between Fain's thoughts and hypertext. Even if that were the case, which it is not, Speedboat would be a yellowed zoetrope next to a Pixar film. Speedboat is sui generis, working on its own terms without tortured comparisons to the internet.
The first chapter has a neurotic urgency, which subsequently trails into flat anomie in the register of an upper-class Aubrey Plaza. Speedboat works much of the time. When it falters, the book is as smug, insular, and shapelessly ironic as a bad New Yorker cartoon (i.e. two besuited dogs in a boardroom drop a weak pun about economics, because dogs understand economics as well as John Updike did: ruff).
The novel has negligible characters, description, and development. The few other reoccurring characters are identified only by name and a quirk or two. I wonder if this spareness was a defensive position taken by Adler, a Harvard-trained lawyer. She was also a long-serving critic at The New Yorker, noted for her savaging of Pauline Kael, the latter of whom rarely saw a movie she didn't bitch about and loathe for a couple thousand words. Perhaps, Adler the lawyer wanted to give critics little to carp about. She wrote a spare novel, and from her dominant critic's perch, she then reaped the rewards of having every aspiring writer and critic briefly kiss her ass. Nearly 40 years later, the dance happens again with a reprinting.
Half of Speedboat is excellent. The other half is listening to someone complain about her existential angst as she pops vicodin on the deck of her yacht. I'm sure the über-wealthy experience the human condition as keenly as anyone else, but their advantages do not imbue their utterances with any extra legitimacy, and only another of their number is truly sympathetic....more
Tove Jansson is one of my favourite writers, because she is wild, dreamy, flinty, and if her novels are to be believed, sensibly unafraid of all peoplTove Jansson is one of my favourite writers, because she is wild, dreamy, flinty, and if her novels are to be believed, sensibly unafraid of all people, and completely unconcerned about their thoughts and judgements. She seems to be a mad, sweet loner, a people-watching misanthrope, who loved and tried to understand the individuals who bothered to approach her.
Jansson was a Fenno-Swede, meaning she was part of a Swedish-speaking minority in Finland. White on white in a translucent wonderland, right?
Regardless of whether subtle distinctions inform her work, she's most well-known for her children's novels and comics about a family of hippopotamus-like creatures called Moomins, which is an international cartoon brand on par with Barapapa.
Later in life, Jansson wrote a series of novels, ostensibly for adults. I like these more, since her singular voice, full of gentle harshness, is more direct. It is the same voice, but without a gloss for children. In her adult novels, she calmly observes more absurdity, more madness, and more people behaving in very irrational but typical modes, unmediated by the sweetness of cartoon figments.
Sun City centers around a retirement home in St. Petersburg, Florida. Of all places, a Fenno-swede decided to write about my university town! I knew it was a book about the elderly, but the setting really surprised me. At the liberal arts school I attended, there were retirement homes and senior condominiums nearby, some with overlapping economic interests, board members, and nebulous but vaguely shady though clearly contractual links to the college. Certain famous though obscure people retired to these places. I remember Peter Handke's name adorned plaques and symposia materials around the college. Though I never did see him in person, it was clear that he was a resident nearby, and to stave off boredom, he occasionally came over to participate in academic matters as some sort of unofficial writer emeritus. In another such exchange, a friend and I had dinner with a retired Broadway actress. She'd married old money and settled nearby and liked to regale college students with stories of transatlantic New York City, using "cookie" as a term of endearment for everyone.
Sun City reminded me of these strange but genuine undercurrents that run between the main population of retirees and everyone else in Florida coastal towns. How the Florida coast is God's waiting room. How all sorts of people from everywhere shed their once-glamorous skins or sell off their businesses, and since they can't afford California living or are just too weird for that other sunny state, they rock in rocking chairs, passing the rest of their time in Florida. The book is a collection of some such retirees, living together, and gently tormenting one another with their opposing quirks. There's even a once-famous character, much like the old Broadway star, milling among the philistines of his generation, polite, patient, and completely forgotten. Did Jansson at one time occupy this role as a strange, wild-eyed Nordic retiree who did something vaguely fantastic but obscure, known to no one in a land of sunny forgetfulness? Or maybe she was a tourist, visiting friends. Either way, she accurately captures this milieu....more
A slow burn. I took a while to get into it, since NW is self-consciously experimental. Fifty pages in, and I remember why I love Zadie Smith. It is noA slow burn. I took a while to get into it, since NW is self-consciously experimental. Fifty pages in, and I remember why I love Zadie Smith. It is not that she helps my feeble mind recall the 90s: when airfare was cheap, globalism was novel, and being in a city with as much diversity and cultural incongruity as possible was the transcosmopolitan goal ("I was hanging out with this half-Jewish Jamaican guy last night. He's from Brazil, Sikh by choice, disclaims his birthright, vegan. We were smoking and listening to Russian rap online via Radio 3 Switzerland until 4am"). That's her big theme: interesting Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Africans living together in the dirty part of London in a country formerly only of boring white people. And the local colour is always more interesting for all their hard luck.
She always hooks me with incidental details. Half-faded decals of cartoon characters in a children's hospital. Her characters' use of smartphones and how the phones complicate social interactions, i.e. people using phones when they are with their friends, signalling they are bored, lonely, distracted. The mould that grows on the ceilings of unventilated apartments of people from hot countries who crank the heat in mid-winter. Seeing the wave of your friends have children, who then email you photo attachments of exhausted mother and child, in which the mothers look more sweaty, dishevelled, and alien to you than you've ever seen before. People's rooms being an expression of their inner states of mind.
I love her for these details alone, because I've been in these rooms and situations too many times. But she also fleshes out 4 fully realized people: Irish social worker, young black mechanic, professional black lady barrister, and a homeless guy (I've definitely met the lawyer). These characters, their lovers, parents, and dependants roam through Smith's old council estate, Willesden, and around to other similar neghbourhoods, causing drama, suffering, and struggling with the actual problems and non-problems of their late 20s and 30s.
Smith is still crap at endings. Her endings are abrupt, and always leave me flipping casually back through the book to see if the build-up warranted that kind of trailing off. I finally re-read the end, the beginning, shrug, and go on with my life. For her, it's the details and characters that matter.
Smith is maturing. NW is my favourite so far. ...more