Shirley Jackson was such a kooky genius. Emphasis on genius. Also, emphasis on kooky.
I'm learning that there is a whole world of Shirleyana beyond thShirley Jackson was such a kooky genius. Emphasis on genius. Also, emphasis on kooky.
I'm learning that there is a whole world of Shirleyana beyond that one story which shall remain nameless because everyone read it in high school.
The premise of this one is simple but also highly bizarre. A wealthy family, plus assorted hangers-on, waits around in a big old house for what they believe to be the imminent apocalypse. Most of the family members are pretty awful in one way or another, and they mostly hate each other. The novel chronicles their interactions as they wait for a premonition to come true and plan for the paradisiacal new world that supposedly awaits them.
Also, it's funny.
The neat irony at the center of Jackson's style here is how all the characters comport themselves with extreme decorum and refinement, yet at the same time are openly hostile toward each other. It makes for a lot of dryly hilarious dialogue and devious plotting.
Another impressive thing Jackson does is to render irrelevant the question of whether the end of the world is "real" and whether the characters are crazy for believing in it. There is no authorial judgment of the characters; the point is that they believe in this thing, for various reasons, and it doesn't matter if we believe it. And they do have their reasons: leadership opportunities, spiritual connection with dead loved ones, fear of non-paradisiacal life lived as a failure, or the simple power of Pascal's wager.
Speaking of those characters, they are wonderfully drawn--especially for such a short novel. My favorite is the world-weary, self-deprecatingly witty Essex, who I could easily see being played by George Sanders. (In fact, almost all the characters come off as British--I guess mid-20th-century pseudo-aristocratic Americans acted rather Britishly). And it's impossible not to love the family's wicked matriarch Mrs. Halloran, who takes charge of the family's post-apocalyptic planning with extreme prejudice. (In one of the book's funniest details, Mrs. Halloran insists on wearing a crown during a party given at the house, and thereafter into the new world.)
Amid all this there is at least one nail-biting suspense set piece, involving a character's attempted escape from the house. Since the rest of the book is relatively uneventful, plotwise, that one sequence really sticks out as a tour-de-force. There's also one really funny sequence involving another group of eschaton-hopefuls, whose belief system hinges on salvation courtesy little green men from outer space.
I don't think it's too spoiler-y to say that the book ends on a note of ambiguity. My immediate reaction to this was annoyance, but after some thought I realized the ending is perfect. As Maureen put it in her lovely review, the ending one might crave would have to be a whole other book. It's so much more tantalizing and frightening to imagine the possibilities that Jackson leaves open.
I'm holding back on five stars because there is one exposition-y section earlyish in the book that is, as far as I can tell, completely extraneous on both a narrative and a thematic level. I kept thinking it was gonna pay off, and it never did. But that's really a nitpick. Call it 4.75 stars. Regardless, it's an unclassifiable, largely unheralded work that really deserves to be back in print. Check your local libraries, folks....more
So it's October, and that's when you're supposed to read horror fiction, right? And I always feel like I should be reading horror, should be uneartOy.
So it's October, and that's when you're supposed to read horror fiction, right? And I always feel like I should be reading horror, should be unearthing the good stuff, because I like horror movies and in theory the genre appeals to me, but in practice I have never really come across a horror novel that has served my particular literary needs. Unless you count Shirley Jackson, which I guess I don't, because the only genre she belongs to is the genre of the fucking sublime.
But I sometimes give it a go this time of year. My 2011 attempt began with the '70s voodoo-curse thingy All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By (which my fingers almost just typed as All Hands on the Bad One, a Sleater-Kinney album that would be a better use of your time than reading that John Farris book). It wasn't really actively bad, just pretty dumb and unsatisfying, so I didn't/don't have much to say about it. Undeterred, I moved on to what turned out to be a much worse piece of shit, namely this book. 0 for 2.
"Piece of shit" is unfair, I guess. It's fairly ambitious, certainly not hackwork, but it is a spectacular failure. I was intrigued by the Southern Gothic comparisons, the weird title, the conjoined-twins hook, even the text of the first page. But Piccirilli simply does not have the prose skill to support this kind of book, a plotless mood-piece about a bizarre backwater swamp town where everyone is various shades of fucked-up/violent/sex-crazed/insane/scarred/depraved/etc. There are a bunch of different plot threads involving the protagonist's affairs with different crazies, but there is absolutely no narrative engine to the book, no tension, no stakes — and the "mood" being cultivated is totally ersatz and transparent and ineffective, and Piccirilli just isn't capable of style at the level he reaches for, so there is really no reason to turn the pages at any time, no matter how much fucked up shit happens (ultimately not even that much; the creepy conjoined triplets with a single brain don't even do anything, they're just in the background for the first few chapters and then pretty much disappear). It's all just a pretentious mess, and certainly nothing remotely close to "scary" (though I'd have settled for "readable"). As for the publisher and reviewers who dropped Queen Flannery O'Connor's name in conjunction with this book, I hope they have trouble sleeping at night.
Horror and I will one day have a blissful union, but it didn't happen this time....more
It would be an insult to the boozy soul of this book to write a review while sober, so for now I'll just say that it's a goddamn masterpiece of AmericIt would be an insult to the boozy soul of this book to write a review while sober, so for now I'll just say that it's a goddamn masterpiece of American detective fiction, and the best book I've read this year.
Update: OK, I'm still sober but want to get some thoughts down now, so my apologies to the late Mr. Crumley.
This is a post-detective novel, cut from the same cloth as '70s anti-mystery films like Penn's Night Moves ("Maybe he would find the girl...maybe he would find himself" could be the tagline for this book as well) and Altman's Long Goodbye, dripping in post-Vietnam, post-hippie declining despairing zeitgeist, and engaged in a complex relationship with the conventions and clichés of its hardboiled forebears. Crumley doesn't exactly reject or revise the classic Chandler model of the tough, cynical, morally centered P.I., but he does present us with a detective whose every action is to some degree in reaction to that model. Sughrue, the drunken dick in question, is one conflicted son of a bitch: conflicted between the romantic mythology of his profession and the dirty shitty world he sees around him; between his urge to help the people he's working for/with and his instinct to get the hell out of there and drink himself to forgetting in some anonymous bar; between the remorse he feels over the terrible acts of violence he committed as a soldier in Vietnam and the violence that he can't stop himself from using as leverage in his investigative work. As he tries to track down a flower child ten years missing, he fears succumbing to the cliché of the detective falling in love with his subject: I was like the rest of them now, I suspected, I wanted her to fit my image of her, wanted her back like she might have been, but I feared the truth of it was that she wanted to stay hidden, to live her own life beyond all those clutching desires. Unless she was dead, and if she was, she had already lived the life she made, as best she could. That's obviously gorgeous writing, but it also indicates a level of both self-awareness (he knows he's falling into an old private-eye pattern) and empathy (also knowing that said pattern denies the missing girl her subjectivity and free will) that defines the character and sets him apart from his ancestors.
It so happens that around this vivid protagonist there is a rather brilliant mystery narrative. Crumley maintains a ramshackle, spontaneous vibe even as he fills his story with twists and suspense — including a revelation in the final pages that ends the book on a truly grim, hopeless note — so it should please both the "fuck plot!" and the "plot rules!" factions of crime-fiction appreciation. The setting roams all over the American West, and it's clear that Crumley has probably gone on a few drunken tears across this part of the country himself. And the prose, my god, the prose — Crumley's writing has style and soul and wit, descriptive poetry and zingy dialogue that would make Elmore Leonard cry, a damaged voice that's what you'd expect if Philip Marlowe went to Vietnam and came back to a broken world as a broken man. The other characters are great, too, especially the alcoholic writer Trahearne who is at once Sughrue's target, drinking buddy, ward, betrayer, sidekick and arch-nemesis.
Man, I just fucking love this book. It's insane that there has never been a film adaptation, so I hereby announce my intention to write and direct one myself, to star Walton Goggins as Sughrue and John Slattery as Trahearne. Open casting call for the female roles — message me, ladies!...more
DeLillo's L'avventura. Kind of. The arid desert, the lack of anything happening, the disappearance of a character...this makes me wonder if DeLillo haDeLillo's L'avventura. Kind of. The arid desert, the lack of anything happening, the disappearance of a character...this makes me wonder if DeLillo had been chowing down on some Antonioni lately. And L'avventura came out the same year as Psycho, a film that is the focal point of this novel's intro/outro bookend chapters. Coincidence? (Yes.)
I can't really add anything to Brian's review, although I'm going with 4 stars because 3 stars usually denotes underwhelmment, and that's certainly not what I'm feeling about this book. In some ways it feels like a doodle, but then it's also grappling with these huge questions that Brian lays out. Structurally, the second half is almost an implicit rebuke of the first half. The Psycho bookends are absolute crack fucking cocaine for film nerds. His rhapsodizing on "Arbogast" (the Martin Balsam character) made me shout a muted "YES!!!" in Barnes and Noble because it was so fucking true to my own experience with the film. Makes me wish DeLillo would just write a book of film scholarship. Or, better yet, get a weekly reviewing gig! How awesome would that be, Don DeLillo babbling on about that new Mel Gibson thriller or whatever.
Confidential to those who've read the book: Is the unnamed man in the gallery actually "Dennis," and the woman he meets there is Jessie? I figured this was intended, but I'm not sure if it matters.
For the people who thought Falling Man was maybe a little too much a case of DeLillo being a slave to his own reputation and delivering the novel that people expected of him....here is a deeply strange book that will shit on your assumptions about DeLillo and about most other things too. ...more
If you like stories that sustain a tone of creepy dread without any supernatural riffraff or even a particularly eventful plot, then you ought to makeIf you like stories that sustain a tone of creepy dread without any supernatural riffraff or even a particularly eventful plot, then you ought to make reading this short novel a priority.
I think I read Jackson's "The Lottery" at some point in my scholastic life, or at least had its plot described to me by someone else, but that aside this is my first exposure to her work, and now I want to read all of it. This book is a triumph of narrative voice--being the profoundly disturbed 18-year-old orphan Merricat Blackwood, who lives with her older sister Constance and ailing uncle Julian, all of them shut-ins in a large house where the rest of their family was killed six years ago under mysterious circumstances. The sisters carry on a bizarre routine that's all the more unsettling for how matter-of-factly Merricat relates it to us. The routine is interrupted when an estranged cousin comes to visit. Merricat doesn't like it when the routine is interrupted.
I may have made it sound like she's gonna go apeshit and the book will climax in a gruesome, violent confrontation. Nope. This isn't a novel about shit happening; it's about the psychological disturbances underlying a pair of lives in which shit pointedly doesn't happen. As Merricat and Constance preside over the diminution of their lives, affecting the least possible amount of shit-happening, the book paradoxically gets creepier.
Oh, I also wanted to add that the book has a coal-black sense of humor, too.
The Penguin Classics Deluxe edition from 2006 features awesomely macabre cover art by Thomas Ott, and a typically incisive introduction by Jackson superfan Jonathan Lethem....more
So, this is pretty fuggin' fantastic. My first Powers--I've always resisted, thinking of him as literature's Bill Nye the Science Guy or something. AnSo, this is pretty fuggin' fantastic. My first Powers--I've always resisted, thinking of him as literature's Bill Nye the Science Guy or something. And maybe he is. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.
Some might complain that there's too much stuff packed into this novel's relatively slim, 295-page frame. We've got five (or six) major characters. There's Russell, the depressive writer/editor/teacher; Candace, the therapist and Russell's love interest; Thassa, the young Algerian woman in Russell's class who captivates every other character and sets the plot in motion with her seemingly preternatural glow of happiness; Thomas, the hotshot scientist specializing in genetic research who takes a (too?) keen interest in Thassa's case; and Tonia, the TV journalist who doesn't exactly have a clear reason for being in the book except to be a foil for the scientist, with whom she engages in a series of televised interviews. And lurking behind them all is Mr. Disembodied Authorial Presence (henceforth Mr. DAP), a metafictional narrator. (More on him later.) But boy, there are goodies on every dense page. An aesthetic and intellectual feast, this novel.
Generosity is at its most compelling when it focuses on the Russell-Thassa-Candace triangle. The other two are pretty much plot/theme devices rather than fleshed-out characters, but Powers knows this (Mr. DAP lets us know he knows it, at one point), and it's a sin I had little trouble forgiving. If character-as-mouthpiece has been a stumbling block for you in the past, it might trip you up here w/r/t Thomas and Tonia--but that's only if Powers fails to hypnotize you with the stylish richness of his prose and the nonstop deluge of his complicated ideas. Which he won't. The scientist represents a possible future in which happiness, as well as any other human trait, is a malleable and marketable commodity. He isn't exactly the villain of the piece--I don't think Powers cares enough about him as a character for that--but he could be. If Russell were the narrator instead of Mr. DAP, Thomas the "transhumanist" would be pretty near mustache-twirling in his villainy.
Lemme address Mr. DAP. At first I was thinking, okay, this is just kind of a goofy (but well-done) metafiction trick of the kind we're all pretty well familiar with--commenting on the characters and the action as "he" "creates" them. But it actually does have some thematic relevance. See, the issue of "the happiness gene" (essentially this book's MacGuffin) raises questions about free will and determinism (Powers studiously avoids these terms, maybe because they're too obvious), nature vs. nature, and the like. If our entire personality, and thus our choices and actions, is coded in our genetic make-up, then how can we be the authors of our own lives? Mr. DAP is trying to be the author of a group of fictional lives--fiction being, theoretically, a way for us to exercise some absolute control over someone's destiny, even if haven't any over our own. But the joke here is that Mr. DAP can't even sustain authorship of these fake lives. He becomes more of an observer than an author--at one point, Thassa says something in Arabic and Mr. DAP mentions that he translated it "later." And there are other instances like that, and various references to Mr. DAP passively watching the characters do things. Even in fiction, agency is slippery.
Powers also wants this to be a Way We Live Now novel, and it's there that he runs into a wee bit of awkwardness with constant references to the virtual life of the internet. (A paragraph about a character's Facebook page contains the unfortunate sentence, "Her pokes exploded.") Powers isn't exactly the writing staff of 30 Rock when it comes to being glib about stuff like this, but he does have a strong grasp of how information exchange has changed so dramatically in the past decade, and he integrates that into the plot quite plausibly. There's even an Oprah analogue ("Oona"--weirdly, also the name of a character from Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City), and the paragraph describing her importance is maybe the best thing I've ever read about Oprah. Powers is a frighteningly smart dude, and he's very much in touch with contemporary culture. And he wants us to know it. Pretty refreshing, actually, with so many intellectuals of a certain age hiding with tail betwixt legs at the mere thought of engaging with our modern mores and info-overload. There's no looking backward for Powers.
And the great thing is that there's nothing clinical about this. It's a very emotional book, both despite and because of the science. Thassa is such a great character--at first she seems like a fantasy, someone you have to suspend your disbelief to buy as real, but Powers slowly cracks the shell, and by the outstanding third act...well, let me quote David Cross's parody of James Lipton: "And no one was left unmoved!" Powers shares Bill Nye's gift for making science palatable to the layperson, but Bill Nye never made me cry. I'll be reading more Powers, hopefully soon....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
William Gibson wrote something not long ago -- well, tweeted something, actually -- that has haunted me unexpectedly. Speaking of the sea change in AmWilliam Gibson wrote something not long ago -- well, tweeted something, actually -- that has haunted me unexpectedly. Speaking of the sea change in American culture brought by World War II, Gibson noted that "WWII Americans looked like us; 1935 Americans seriously didn't." Somehow, this statement is totally accurate. If the past since WWII is a foreign country, the past before WWII is an alien planet.
Graham Greene wasn't an American, of course, but the same mysterious principle applied across the pond. Greene's Brighton Rock is a pre-war novel by a writer primarily known for his postwar output, and as such it is constructed from cultural and verbal materials shockingly different from those composing his later efforts. This strangeness enhances the sense of alienation and ineffable evil afflicting Pinkie Brown, the teenage killer, wannabe gang-leader, and perverse poster-boy for Catholicism at the center of the story. Greene was at least to some degree a devout Catholic himself, but my reading of Brighton Rock paints an awfully ugly picture of the faith: it can conceive only of Good and Evil, not of Right and Wrong; if you resign yourself to damnation -- as do Pinkie and his accidental girlfriend Rose, one of the most tragic characters in any literature I know of -- then you're bound by no code, unburdened by any conscience, capable and willing to execute any misdeed. No one toggled between a ripping good yarn and deeper thematic resonances better than Greene, and to read Brighton Rock is to see him discovering this methodology under the circumstances of exquisitely intense material. The prose is thicker, more of an obstacle than in other Greene, owing to the nature of pre-war discourse -- as foreign as the physical appearances in the photos troubling William Gibson -- but by no means unbeautiful.
I've not yet seen either the 1947 film version (evidently very good) or this year's remake (out soon in the U.S. and receiving tepid reviews so far), both of which apparently alter the ending in a manner that arguably improves on Greene's (I read spoilers for the films), although the final sentence of this book is pretty amazing. As a gangster drama, a romantic tragedy, and an (unintentional?) attack on Catholic values, and certainly on various other levels as well, this deserves its rep....more