The driest and most difficult of Millhauser's collections, with only maybe a 50-60% success rate, but more richly varied than the others and full of aThe driest and most difficult of Millhauser's collections, with only maybe a 50-60% success rate, but more richly varied than the others and full of alluring ideas even in the stories that don't work. It's hard to talk about Millhauser in general terms -- you can say things like, "he's interested in imagination and creation and the mysteries of art and narrative, and the relationship between reality and artifice, and he loves to overload the reader with physical details," and that would be true, but would sound cornier and less fun than Millhauser's actual writing (although, this particular book is often not particularly fun -- SM was working out some more experimental ideas that, as far as I know, he hasn't really returned to since, maybe because they weren't all that fun), so I think I'll just go story by story here:
A Game of Clue: If you've read the "Cat and Mouse" story in Dangerous Laughter (and you should), which delves into the inner lives of a cartoon cat and cartoon mouse locked in a predator-prey struggle of gamesmanship, this story has a similar operating principle, but with the characters in the board game Clue. Millhauser toggles between the potential murderers in the game and the family members playing the game in (our) reality. Col. Mustard is a rape-y playboy who won't quit until he seduces Miss Scarlet; Prof. Plum is addicted to wandering the seemingly endless secret passageways of the mansion; Mr. Green is a damnably indecisive nebbish who spends pages waffling on what room he should or should not enter; meanwhile, the psyches of the players are plumbed as well, creating two distinct layers of reality. It's a great idea and for the most part well-executed, but it has a circular structure that means the story could have gone on for hundreds of pages, and Millhauser just stops it abruptly after about 50, with no clear resolution in either reality. But it's a cool world to hang out in.
Behind the Blue Curtain: This is one with a good idea that doesn't really work. A boy goes to the movies by himself for the first time, and wanders behind the screen where he finds movie characters hanging out in real life. This premise could have led anywhere but Millhauser fashions only a vague and banal bit of sexual awakening in the boy's experience with one of the lady film characters. Disappointing.
The Barnum Museum: This is classic Millhauser, an exploration of a fictional institution of strange enchantment. The titular museum's fantastical exhibitions are described in Millhauser's great verbless sentences, lists of strange objects and creatures, while equal attention is given to the human reactions to the museum, to what it has done to the residents of its town. SM has written half a dozen stories with pretty much this same format, and they're always great.
The Sepia Postcard: Very dry, dull. I'm not sure what he was going for here but a bit of googling suggests it might be some kind of Henry James pastiche.
The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad: Also dry but worthwhile. Millhauser explores the nature of narrative itself on three tracks: a first-person retelling of some of Sinbad's adventures, a third-person account of Sinbad's melancholy reminiscences as an old man, and a meta-history of the Sinbad story itself. Full of cool ideas.
Klassik Komix #1: I stopped reading this one when I realized it was a retelling of a T.S. Eliot poem that I was only vaguely familiar with. Boring unless you're an Alfred Prufrock scholar.
Rain: I honestly have no idea where he was going with his one. A guy comes out of a theater in the rain, drives home in the rain, and then melts into the rain, or dissolves, or something? I have no idea. I don't mind Millhauser's deluge of detail when it's in service of some Millhauser-y obsessive fascination, but this was just a trial.
Alice, Falling: Millhauser's riff on Alice in Wonderland. The premise is that when Alice jumped down the rabbit hole, she stayed in a perpetual state of falling and never actually got to Wonderland. The descriptions of the walls of the hole/tunnel are a bit much, but SM gets to play around with different levels of dream and reality to mostly interesting effect.
The Invention of Robert Herendeen: OK, Millhauser saved the two best for last. This story is like if the movie Weird Science was written by Vladimir Nabokov. A wannabe artist, unmotivated for life after finishing college, creates a female companion out of his obsessively detailed imagination, but ends up creating a male rival as well. Herendeen gets lost in his new reality, but we can't always control our imaginations...great stuff, written in a more ornate prose style than the other stories (more similar to Millhauser's Nabokovian novel Edwin Mullhouse).
Eisenheim the Illusionist: One of his most famous pieces thanks to Neil Burger's loose film adaptation The Illusionist. A turn-of-the-century magician forsakes elaborate mechanical tricks in favor of manifestations that seem to be conjured out of supernatural powers. A great encapsulation of Millhauser's enduring interest in the limits of reality and "the indestructible realm of mystery and dream." Suspenseful, weird, beautiful -- one of his best.
Although I prefer his later collections like The Knife Thrower and Dangerous Laughter and would recommend neophytes start with those, there is a slightly formulaic quality to those stories that isn't present here, so even though this book frustrated me I appreciated it for opening up Millhauser's range. I understand he has a new collection coming out this year with the great title We Others, so start getting caught up now!...more
This book made me long for the warm swaddle of classroom discussion. Not that there's anything manifestly "difficult" about Bernard Malamud's writing;This book made me long for the warm swaddle of classroom discussion. Not that there's anything manifestly "difficult" about Bernard Malamud's writing; he writes in clear, straightforward prose about the most fundamental and universal ideas and emotions. But he is the kind of writer who writes toward themes, and whose seemingly simple stories are packed with layers of meaning and symbolism. This is particularly evident in the endings of his stories, which are often pointedly enigmatic, strange, abrupt, puzzling and haunting. They would be perfect for the classroom setting, where teacher-led discussions can spend big chunks of time teasing out meaning from the text, volleying interpretations and possibilities. In high school and college I got fairly good at this game of find-the-subtext literary whack-a-mole, but in recent years my skills have atrophied, I can't swing that mallet quickly or accurately enough. If reading fiction critically is a menage a trois of narrative, aesthetics, and thematics, then I have more or less mastered the first two and too often ignore the third. On some level this is probably fine — we have to be selective about what we process in the art we absorb, or else we would go insane trying (and failing) to understand everything. But I do miss those academic acts of collaborative detection, especially because I didn't really appreciate them when I had access to them. You don't know what you got till it's gone, and so forth.
If I had read Malamud's National Book Award–winning collection The Magic Barrel in such an atmosphere, we probably would have talked about how several of these stories, written in the 1950s, contain grief-stricken echoes of the Holocaust, his Jewish characters victims of a kind of identity-based PTSD. We may also have discussed how Malamud is less interested in the reality of Jewish life than in the metaphorical potential of Jewish identity: avatars of human suffering who struggle daily with the pain of living in an unjust world. We might have theorized about the strange mix of empathy and cruelty with which Malamud treats his characters and has them treat each other. We probably would have spitballed some thoughts about why a full three of these thirteen stories by a Jewish American author are set in Italy, of all places, and why he populates those stories with educated young men instead of the impoverished old-world geezers of his New York tales. And we would circle back to the big "why" questions of those endings, questions I am woefully unprepared to answer. Like a Malamud protagonist — just imagine me as an elderly Jewish shopkeeper or baker — I'll just have to move forward in spite of my ignorance and confusion, stumbling toward some kind of acceptance, even if it turns out to be a false kind....more
It's fucked up, how dark and miserable those pulp guys in the '50s sometimes got. Something was in the water. This is a perfectly balanced crime novelIt's fucked up, how dark and miserable those pulp guys in the '50s sometimes got. Something was in the water. This is a perfectly balanced crime novel -- 100% bleak without losing its humanity, tightly structured without sacrificing its poetic style. The ending maybe overreaches a bit toward operatic tragedy, but the story is so vivid it almost feels like it's unfolding in slow motion. Hardcore stuff....more
Twin Peaks meets Then We Came to the End meets Capturing the Friedmans meets the ending of 25th Hour meets the concept of Tralfamadorian time from SlaTwin Peaks meets Then We Came to the End meets Capturing the Friedmans meets the ending of 25th Hour meets the concept of Tralfamadorian time from Slaughterhouse Five....more
Massively disappointing. I assumed I would dig this, because a) I liked/loved the other two Richard Powers books I read (coincidentally both also starMassively disappointing. I assumed I would dig this, because a) I liked/loved the other two Richard Powers books I read (coincidentally both also starting with G), b) Mike Reynolds raves about this one and c) the opening grafs are gorgeous as hell. But the chapters about the corporation read like a fucking textbook, and the ones about the sick woman are mainly just boilerplate coping-with-cancer drama. I respect the ambition of commingling the epic history with the close-up human story, but this just doesn't work, not even on a language level -- Powers seems to be holding back stylistically on this one. I am not soured on Rick P., though. Generosity and Galatea earned him a lifetime pass and I still want to maneuver through the rest of his catalog....more
Hmm, is it time to write a review of Patton Oswalt's book? I expected to put the book down upon finishing it and eagerly race to Goodreads to pen a fiHmm, is it time to write a review of Patton Oswalt's book? I expected to put the book down upon finishing it and eagerly race to Goodreads to pen a five-star hosannah extolling the multifaceted brilliance of Mr. Oswalt's first official literary endeavor, but the reality is that I was slightly disappointed by the totality of the (occasionally masterful, always amusing) text. So this review is a little more muted in its enthusiasm than the one I hoped to write but you'd still be crazy not to read this book.
If you don't know who Patton Oswalt is, you are a cultural illiterate and I will politely request that you remove yourself from my Goodreads "friend" list and/or never send me a friend request.* He is a stand-up comedian and actor by trade, but to his fans he is so much more than that — a cultural guru and dispenser of strange, wonderful wisdom. I would follow Patton anywhere. Like many Goodreaders, Patton is an unrelenting culture junkie; his aesthetic discernment, his taste in film & literature & comics & music (& comedy), defines him as much as any of his (hilarious) stand-up routines. He proved himself to be a terrific writer long before this book existed or was even planned to exist — one need look no further than the fussy language-based constructions of his stand-up to know this, though one could look slightly further to the online missives he has written for his website and old myspace blog. So the question was not "did a comedian write a decent book?"; the question was "did a unique genius write an awesome book or an epochal masterpiece?" And the answer is the former. Alas.
The book isn't quite a memoir and it isn't quite an essay collection. The best way I can think to describe it is a book split between autobiographical essays and shorter, more impersonal humor pieces. It's kind of like if Jonathan Lethem's The Disappointment Artist was spliced with some jokey little book you'd find in the humor section. By far the best chapter in the book is the first piece, "Ticket Booth," about Patton's time working at a shitty multiplex in his suburban Virginia hometown. This piece is absolutely everything I wanted from a Patton Oswalt book and if the entire book were in a similar vein I would probably have loved it to an unreasonable degree. It is about Patton's nascent engagement with the world via art, and cultivating empathy for the local fuck-ups he was just beginning to realize he needed to leave behind, and a young man's dawning awareness of the world outside himself, and so many complicated things that I can't translate here — all tied to a very entertaining narrative about an endearing cast of characters, and written in elegant, massively insightful prose even better than I expected from Patton.
Unfortunately, nothing else in the book even approaches the greatness of "Ticket Booth." It's clear to me that Patton spent more time and effort on this piece than on the rest, because the other chapters read basically like his online writing (in fact, at least one of the chapters was previously posted on his myspace blog). Which is not such a terrible thing! It's all very funny and entertaining, because it all comes from Patton's fabulously skewed perspective, and some of the other memoirish pieces flirt with the high personal insights of "Ticket Booth." My second favorite piece is probably "A History of America from 1988 to 1996 As Recounted by the Three Types of Comedians I Opened for While Working Clubs on the Road," in which Patton finds the humanity in a trio of untalented comedians, placing humor side by side with poignance.
In the book, Patton reveals that his original ambition as a young man was not to be a comedian but to be a writer — a novelist, eventually. Because of this tidbit, I feel confident in assuming that Zombie Spaceship Wasteland (the title isn't the geek-bait you may be thinking; all is explained in the titular essay) is the beginning of something, not a one-off. So I still believe a true Oswaltian masterpiece is forthcoming. Possibly he won't do his best literary work until he starts writing fiction. Until then, enjoy this.
*Not really. But consider yourself judged harshly....more
It is a curious enigma that so great a mind would question the most obvious realities and object even to things scEpigraph as authorial hand-tipping:
It is a curious enigma that so great a mind would question the most obvious realities and object even to things scientifically demonstrated... while believing absolutely in his own fantastic explanations of the same phenomena.
Were it not for this epigraph, which comes from Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, the reader might, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, believe that Adam Levin tacitly approves of the violent actions of his ten-year-old scholar/terrorist/possible-messiah Gurion. It's not a spoiler to say that there are violent actions or that he is a terrorist, because this information is pretty much revealed before the book even starts, in a message from the "publisher" as part of the book's framing device. We read the first 800+ pages knowing that some shit is gonna go down, we read the last 200 pages of nonstop shit-going-down, and then the book is over, and we are left to ponder the moral implications on our own, because Levin and Gurion have cut and run, so to speak; instead of allowing the reader to continue living in this world after the shit has gone down, to observe the shit's effects on the book's many characters and to carry their moral questioning to the point it has seemingly been building toward, Levin and Gurion porkypig the reader: That's all, folks.
You can't read a book this long without the book becoming part of you. It's doubtful I will ever think of the word "damage" or "arrangement" the same way again. Despite the exaggerated reality of a world in which a ten-year-old can write a thousand-page scripture and lead actual armies in violent revolt, the characters are pretty vivid and knowable (with at least one problematic exception) and it's not hard to form attachments. So the attachment I formed to Levin's world partly accounts for my disappointment with the ending. I really hate to sound like one of those rubes who complained about The Sopranos ending being too ambiguous, or one of those dim fanboys who couldn't handle the ending of Lost failing to answer all their burning questions. I can handle ambiguity, really I can. But when Levin ends it where he does, he effectively cuts the book off from its themes, so that the book just isn't enough about what it's supposed to be about. Or at least, that is my near-immediate reaction upon finishing; I reserve the right to decide that I'm wrong.
From where I sit, the book is principally about two things: (1) the rabbit-hole of (over)analytical thinking about both oneself and the world in terms of morality, faith, and practicality -- what Douglas Wolk's Bookforum review describes as being "talmudically obsessed with worrying out every possible interpretation of everything" -- and (2) violence, violence, violence -- the mechanics, the ethics, the causes, the justifications, the consequences, and so on. For whatever reason (mainly an aesthetic one, I suspect), Levin avoids the word violence like the plague and replaces it with the word damage. Damage takes many forms, and nearly every scene in the book is somehow related to some form of damage. (One of my favorite digressions in the book is a brilliant monologue by one of the school security guards that's basically a long, impassioned moral defense of bullying and bullies.) When the book ends where it does, Levin forces us to reconsider these themes in light of the shit that has gone down, without actually further developing them himself. What does Gurion, with all his endless analytical hand-wringing over fucking everything, have to say about the events that came to define his life? We don't know, except in little hints. Maybe this is totally fine and I'm having a naive, unsophisticated reaction. Maybe I'm just pissed at the disappearance of Bam Slokum from the narrative, a fascinating character who was built up as the villain of the piece and given a handful of stunning monologues before Levin discarded him and left his purpose in the novel unresolved. The book is over a thousand pages long, but it seems unfinished.
I had other problems, too. The aforementioned obsession with interpretive analysis is a pleasure to read for a while, but after several hundred pages it becomes extremely tiresome. The love interest, June, is a vaguely defined character, and I never found her relationship with Gurion convincing. I've mentioned before that I have trouble following action sequences in prose fiction, and this book's big violent set piece just made my eyes glaze over -- though that's maybe more my fault than Levin's. (Also, from the department of petty, meaningless complaints: some of the Chicago geography is questionable, even though Levin lives here.)
But this review has been mostly griping, and you can see I've given it four stars, so...yeah, The Instructions is not optional. It's as ambitious as it is huge, written in as inventive and precisely calibrated a first-person voice as I've ever read, often very funny, full of individual scenes of holyshit perfection, weighty without getting weighed down, and almost maddeningly thought-provoking. My disappointments with it are purely a result of its successes, if that makes sense. I look forward to seeing what Levin can do on a less massive scale, and I seriously regret missing his appearance at my local library (also Joel's local library) back in October. Still, I know where he teaches, so I suppose I could always go downtown and stalk him. I just hope he doesn't try to damage me....more
I finished this two weeks ago and I can't get it out of my head. The blunt-force terror of the abrupt ending haunts me, the characters and their miserI finished this two weeks ago and I can't get it out of my head. The blunt-force terror of the abrupt ending haunts me, the characters and their miseries and their desperation and their awful milieu imprinted on my brain. Newton Thornburg's Cutter and Bone is a bleak masterpiece and I can't recommend it more highly to those of you who are predisposed to love bleak masterpieces. Anyone who doesn't love heroic bleakness, just fuck off.
The cineastes among my GR circle may have seen the 1981 film Cutter's Way, based on this novel. It is commonly cited as the swansong of the '70s paranoid-thriller genre and has become a cult favorite, not without reason. John Heard's performance as the irreparably damaged Vietnam vet Alex Cutter is so great that you will sadly wonder why his career never really went anywhere afterwards. (Biggest mistake the Sopranos writers ever made was killing off Heard's corrupt cop in season one.) But good as the movie is, it only scratches the surface of the depressing perfection of the book, and boy does it have the wrong fucking ending. So I deem the film optional and the novel absolutely essential.
The story. It's the '70s, and the zeitgeist is crawling with the traumas of Vietnam. Cutter's been home a while but he's a total mess, crippled physically and psychologically, constantly putting on a show of psycho theatrics, ranting and raving and lashing out at the world. His odd-couple buddy Richard Bone (like Marty and Doc in Back to the Future, it's never really clear how these two became friends) is a sleazy pretty-boy bum who walked out on his middle-class family life to work a gigolo racket and sponge off Cutter's meager resources. One night Bone witnesses somebody dumping a dead body in a trashcan, Cutter gets the idea it might've been this prominent tycoon, and suddenly he has something to put his energies toward besides suicide, i.e. blackmail (or whatever). From this point the guys spiral down to the bottom, not before taking some others with them. Cutter's wife Mo is the closest thing the book has to a moral voice, but of course she's a near-nihilistic junkie who neglects her kid.
Cutter's mania is terrifyingly convincing. Thornburg gives him a brief, amazing monologue related to the photos of the My Lai massacre that's gotta be one of the high-water marks of dialogue in 20th century American literature. I won't spoil it here though George Pelecanos does in his reverent intro to this edition. The prose snaps throughout, an unembellished journalistic style so unflinching it borders on sadism at times. Cutter and Bone barrel toward their destiny and Thornburg follows them. The ending is correct.
Maybe the essential post-Vietnam American novel?...more
First thing's, as usual, first: despite what his Goodreads author page indicates, Stephen Wright the novelist is not the same individual as Steven WriFirst thing's, as usual, first: despite what his Goodreads author page indicates, Stephen Wright the novelist is not the same individual as Steven Wright the deadpan stand-up comedian. It would be almost inconceivably awesome if this were the case, but it is not. I have Goodreads librarianship so I guess technically I could fix this error, but I am a busy man*, and do not have time for such menial tasks. (*I am not a busy man.)
So. By way of forestalling my review of this great book, and to avoid making plain the fact that I don't really know what to say about it, I will begin by reviewing its blurbs. Yes, critics and authors of 1994 were evidently so blindsided by the twisted richness of Stephen Wright's hyper-stylized prose that they felt compelled to respond in kind, with some hilariously colorful attempts at describing the novel's disturbing, media-crazed perspective on life in the Gen-X fast lane. Let's look at a handful of these blurbs along with my evaluations of them.
First, novelist Robert Coover goes straight-up bonkers: A sensational prime-time novel...Imagine a pornographic twilight zone of beebee-eyed serial killers, drug-stunned pants-dropping road warriors and "marauding armies of mental vampires," a nightmarish country of unparalleled savagery, where there is no longer any membrane between screen and life and the monster image feed is inexhaustible and the good guys are the scariest ones of all. Whoa! Sounds fucking awesome, but then you read the book and realize there are two problems: (1) Coover rips off several phrases directly from Wright (not just the quoted one about vampires, but also "monster image feed" and the kicker about the good guys being the scariest ones of all) and (2) Coover is kind of overstating the violence and horror of the book (a recurring theme of these blurbs): there's one serial-killer who appears in only one chapter, the marauding-vampire bit is only a metaphor, and there are in fact a number of "good guys" who remain more or less good (though many of them are women). But hey, bonus points for how excited the guy got about this book. You can tell he was popping a huge literary boner.
Now let's visit your friend and mine Don DeLillo, who offers a more concise fragment: Strange, dark and funny, a slasher classic. The phrase "a slasher classic" is gorgeously sonorous, and the fact that it's coming from DeLillo makes this a very satisfying blurb. But it's also pretty deceptive -- the book really isn't a slasher anything. I mean, there's a fair share of crime, and one of the book's eight chapters concerns a serial killer, and most of the characters are operating under the influence of violent-media saturation, but c'mon, we're not talking about blood-soaked grindhouse gore, we're talking about a very brainy, multitudinous postmodern novel. Maybe I'm being stupidly literal here but I think the blurbist carries a certain responsibility and if you're going to induce people to read a book by saying words about that book then the words should probably make sense on a literal level. Still love you, Don!
The Village Voice chimes in: [Wright] broadcasts an English as electrically intoxicating as a mescaline slurpee...Wright doesn't supply easy answers, just dark and rapturous neon reflections of the society of spectacle in this hilariously mordant and discombobulating book. Mescaline Slurpee! If someone didn't name their band after this blurb they fucked up big time. Do you see what I mean about critics trying to match Wright's gonzo flavor with a little gonzo of their own? This one is pretty silly, really, "society of spectacle" and all that.
But this one's even sillier, from Spin magazine: A phantasmagoria of roadside attractions: drugs, truckers, flophouses, movie stars, amateur porn—the miasma that rises from a red, white, and blue-balled pop culture. This is just a list of items that appear in the novel followed by a faux-clever dirty joke, "red white and blue-balled," that means absolutely nothing in the context of the book. Dumb.
But look, what's that, it's Toni Morrison here to offer a sprinkling of praise that resists the hyperbolic urge: An astonishing novel. Hmm, a tease. You couldn't be a little more specific, Ms. Morrison? On the generic side, yes, but astonishment from Toni Morrison means more than astonishment from most people, so I'm coming down pro on this one.
It's no surprise that cyberpunk progenitor William Gibson dug this book: Sure-footed, loose-limbed, lyrical, perverse, and deeply, alarmingly funny, Going Native is just about as dead-on crazy as the American novel so desperately needs to be if the form intends to survive the century. Stephen Wright is a major talent. This is a strong blurb in that it avoids specific description while painting an accurate picture of the book's tone. Nice job, Mr. G.
I'll just do one more, from the San Francisco Chronicle, though I could keep going all day, there are so many of these: Daring...a disturbing look into the nether world of American culture....Many of Wright's sentences haunt the reader's mind and demand contemplation....The work of an accomplished writer who may soon be regarded among the top echelon of contemporary American novelists. This one's retrospectively poignant because Wright never really did become regarded among the top echelon of contemporary American novelists, at least not by major cultural gatekeepers. (In-the-know folks like Mike Reynolds know better, of course.) As for the "nether world of American culture" stuff, I mean, yeah, kind of, but there's gotta be a less annoying way to talk about that aspect of the book. I'll let you know if I think of one.
The impression given by this massive hype machine is that Going Native is something like a non-retarded version of Oliver Stone's dumber-than-rocks "satire" Natural Born Killers. And in a sense -- a narrow sense, maybe -- that's sort of what it is: scenes of American fringe-dwellers and their frightening behaviors and milieus, filtered through the ubiquity of mass-media violence, very loosely taking the form of a road trip. But there's plenty of content here that strays from the blurbs' promise of lurid, psychotic wackiness. In fact, those looking for a pure dose of lurid, psychotic wackiness will probably find this novel entirely too austere and cerebral. Wright is just as attuned to subtle, internal human intricacies as any self-respecting literary novelist, but he's not afraid to color outside the lines, on an outsized canvas, in blood. (Oh fuck, now I sound like one of those 1994 critics. A crazy ride into the diseased heart of modern American excess! A gunshot to the face of America's sleaziest fantasies! An orgasmic fistfight in the back alley of the American nightmare!)
The book's structure would probably land it on Joel's "stories-no-wait-a-novel-no-wait" shelf, an approach that I have complained about on this website before. But while I dissed the novel-in-stories format in my reviews of David Mitchell's Ghostwritten and Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, I had no problem with its deployment here. Is this just a case of Whitmanesque self-contradiction (I do contain multitudes, thank you very much), or is Wright doing something different that won me over? Hmm. There is one character who pops up in each chapter, linking them all on a literal level; it's possible to view this book as a road novel told from every perspective except the protagonist's. Furthermore, the chapters are linked by style. As disparate as their characters and situations are, each chapter bears the auteurist stamp of Wright's singular voice. And while you never know quite what you're gonna get when you start a new chapter -- I don't want to get into plot specifics with this book, because part of the fun is the surprise factor of its self-replenishing conceits -- you do figure out at a certain point what kinds of stories you're being told, and the book proceeds as smoothly as a novel. There's surprisingly little of the between-chapters whiplash typical of story collections or story cycles; it really does feel like one unified work, without any overly contrived "connections," even though it lacks a continuous narrative. So I guess I no longer believe this format is inherently suck, but unless you're as great as Stephen Wright, you still probably shouldn't try it.
Wright's prose is stunning. This is the rare novel that's both highly demanding and absolutely pleasurable. Good luck spending less than four or five minutes per page; good luck trying not to immediately re-read certain passages, either because comprehension proved impossible on a first pass or simply to prolong the charged glow of a master's verbal manipulations. To anyone with even a basic appreciation for literary style -- particularly of the variety associated with postmodernism or maximalism -- Stephen Wright needs to be on your radar, yesterday. Though DeLillo is the most obvious point of comparison, Wright is more of an extremist; he often goes farther than his predecessor, embellishing ideas and pushing forward through narrative space where DeLillo would be content to offer up an elusive wisp of rhythmic aphorism. It's indescribably thrilling to be in the presence of such stylistic swagger.
After such effusion I feel obliged to provide an example. Tough to choose. Here's a full paragraph that gives you a sense of how knotty Wright's language is; most of this passage is an epic run-on sentence, followed by a startling button of relative brevity. Warm up your parsing muscles, this is a complex motherfucker:
The birth was an event of unspeakable proportions, a wild ride among significances memory couldn't recapture without damage: the cosmos was knotted in ligatures of pain; unravel the threads, liberate the stars whose blossoms promise ease from the agony of time; astounding the revelatory force of torment that carried her, teensy squeaking her, up and up, through ceiling and roof, out into space, out of space, to the cold chamber of the dark queen with the patchwork face of old nightmares who leaned from her throne to tell Jessie something she did not want to hear, and as the thin blue lips began to move, Jessie shrank back in horror, spinning down onto a point so dense the soul's implosion was averted only by a nova cry of life surfacing, and she opened her wondering eyes upon the holy puckered countenance of a new daughter, in whose glow the visions of her mad journey toward this sight began evaporating as cleanly as morning dew. Life is death's amnesia, she thought, and forgetfulness a grace to which we cling.
That's not necessarily representative -- it's probably the longest sentence in the book, and by necessity it's a bit ungainly -- but it shows you how far and how deep Wright's use of language goes to illustrate his themes. If I'm reading this section correctly, Wright is proposing that childbirth is a disease of horrifying memory-retrieval, the only cure for which is...childbirth. We create life to distract ourselves from the oppression of our own pasts and trajectories. See, those "mescaline slurpee" blurbs didn't exactly hint at this level of discourse, did they?
The book's reputation suggests that it's about conditions of strangeness. But Going Native is just as much about filtering everyday mundanity through the cracked lens of extreme, hyper-intellectualized consciousness -- the same lens that Wright uses also, yes, for stories about pornographers, junkies and knife-wielding hitchhikers. In this way, something as simple and familiar as a dinner party, a bookstore browse, or a lover's spat becomes an occasion for profound crises of the self and takes on the same frightening, massive-scaled dimensions as does an act of shocking violence. For Wright, there is no longer any meaningful difference between these theoretically disparate conditions. Wright's vision of life in the postmodern era is defined not by a ubiquity of larger-than-life incidents, but by the feverish application of a larger-than-life perspective to life-sized events. If everything is a mescaline slurpee, then nothing is.
I cannot comprehend why Wright remains so obscure, relatively speaking. Going Native has only 150 ratings on Goodreads. Even a second-rate DeLillo novel like Mao II has 2,300 ratings -- 15x as many as Wright's masterpiece. I'm not saying this guy should have achieved mainstream fame, but he deserves to be as well-known as other novelists in the postmodern canon. Maybe part of the problem is generational; born in 1946, Wright's too young to be part of the first wave of pomo torch-bearers (Pynchon, DeLillo, Barth/Barthelme, etc), but he's too old to hang with the Gen-X crew (DFW, Lethem, Whitehead, etc) -- two generations of postmodernists all of whom have gained wider and more enduring recognition than Wright has. Or maybe the answer has something to do with his sparsity of output. There are only four books to his name; I cannot wait to be challenged, creeped out, excited, flummoxed, turned on and word-intoxicated by the other three. And to re-read this one; though I basically never re-read books (already way more new-to-me stuff than one lifetime can accommodate), I'd be disappointed in myself if I never re-read this, both to gain a fuller picture of how its individual pieces fit together and to re-engage on a micro level with Wright's gloriously complex sentencework. Follow my lead, will you?
I dunno, guys. This is...not trashier, but shallower than I expected. It is basically a bloated Elmore Leonard caper novel in Victorian clothing, withI dunno, guys. This is...not trashier, but shallower than I expected. It is basically a bloated Elmore Leonard caper novel in Victorian clothing, with a feminist POV and a deceptively dour tone. It's not bad at all, but I was expecting something meatier. The length isn't really justified, either; after a dynamite first act it gets seriously draggy in the remaining two thirds. OTOH, the period milieu is totally convincing and the dialogue is great. But I wouldn't give this more than a shrugging half-recommendation....more
Man, what the hell? This book kind of sucks for some reason. Everyone knows that Hammett pretty much single-handedly invented modern crime fiction, anMan, what the hell? This book kind of sucks for some reason. Everyone knows that Hammett pretty much single-handedly invented modern crime fiction, and The Maltese Falcon is an enduring masterpiece that may still stand as the most geometrically perfect example of the detective novel form. The Thin Man is his second most famous work, owing to the popular Hollywood film series loosely based on characters therein, but it is an undistinguished, amateurish work that does not hold up on its own terms. (This gives me no pleasure to report, I should add. I assumed this would be great and I'm really disappointed that it isn't.)
The novel has the feel of a pulp quickie that was dashed off for cash, and a bit of research confirms that that's basically what it was in Hammett's eyes. The mystery unfolds as a series of exposition-packed conversations, none of which are written with much sparkle or personality. Nick and Nora Charles became Hollywood icons by virtue of their cosmopolitan charisma, witty repartee and fashionable drunkenness, but those traits are so marginalized in Hammett's novel that credit for the characters' iconic status belongs more to the unremembered screenwriters (and Wiliam Powell and Myrna Loy) than to Hammett himself. In fact, Nora Charles barely appears in the novel at all — it is mostly about Nick getting mixed up with a kooky family and sifting through their lies to solve a related murder. It is sporadically engaging, but just as often not, and I really didn't care about the central mystery or its resolution. Nor is there any of the moral weight that made The Maltese Falcon a classic.
This book is a strike against D.H. in the eternal war of Hammett vs. Chandler — the booklover's equivalent of the Chaplin vs. Keaton argument. But I still need to read The Glass Key, which I've heard was Hammett's favorite of his own books, before I make up my mind....more