Funny how this is kind of the same book as Never Let Me Go, but with [spoiler:] instead of [spoiler:]. I loved them both. Even more than Philip Roth,...moreFunny how this is kind of the same book as Never Let Me Go, but with [spoiler:] instead of [spoiler:]. I loved them both. Even more than Philip Roth, Ishiguro is a master of tell-don't-show. (Turns out our high school teachers were wrong!) There is perhaps less narrative intrigue here than in NLMG, but it is equally sad, a lot funnier, and--because Stevens the butler is a more erudite character than the plainspoken narrator of NLMG--written with greater style. Both of these novels are must-reads that will probably still be read and discussed 100 years from now.(less)
Ok yes, Saunders in fable/allegory mode is not as great as Saunders writing stories about flesh-and-blood characters. And the concept here could play...moreOk yes, Saunders in fable/allegory mode is not as great as Saunders writing stories about flesh-and-blood characters. And the concept here could play like the most obvious, bush-league satire ever. But I really dug this because it's still a book that only George Saunders could have written. His uniquely stylized dialogue, his anger toward societal injustice, his empathy for emotional turmoil, his boundless imagination, his cracked and hilarious sense of humor--it's all here, in concentrated form, in this breezy, awesome little novella. I laughed many times while reading this. Gives me confidence he's got a great novel in him. Or, you know, any novel.(less)
[Upgrading from 3 to 4 stars because for some reason I keep thinking about this book even though I read it like a year ago, and because I fucking love...more[Upgrading from 3 to 4 stars because for some reason I keep thinking about this book even though I read it like a year ago, and because I fucking love the audacity of the opening sentence.]
What an odd book.
The first section really is magnificent, instantly hooking you with descriptions of the bizarre illness alluded to in the title as well as vivid sketches of the sufferer's life at home and at work. (Some early office-set scenes actually do offer an interesting echo with Ferris' Then We Came to the End, containing the book's sole nods toward humor, although Ferris loses interest in the work thread pretty quickly--a symptom of his surprising lack of focus in this novel.) All the pieces are in place for Ferris to pull off a wrenching tragedy. As is my wont, I was imagining the cinematic possibilities: a man wakes up in an unfamiliar place, alone and disoriented; he shakes the sleep from his body and waits for his mind to follow suit, takes out his phone, and then we cut to the car ride home with his wife, all tense silences and lens flares. Later, an unbroken shot of the man walking, walking, over bridges and along sides of highways, walking and then stopping and then cut; back to the wake-call-ride ritual. The blinking editing rhythms plunging us into his vicious cycle of involuntary escape and shameful return. If nothing else, this first section could make a fine piece of elliptical filmmaking. And of course it works on its own as a study of a family under catastrophic duress, the wife and daughter just as compelling as the man.
And then, shit gets weird. In what I can only assume is a show of solidarity with his perambulatory protagonist, Ferris ditches the sharp sense of purpose he had in the first section and starts wandering aimlessly in the narrative hinterlands. Wife and daughter recede into the background; plot elements introduced earlier fail to pay off even cursorily; different thematic/philosophical hats are tried on, none purchased. Voice and tone become crushingly inconsistent. It's established that the characters don't know what causes the man's condition, but does Ferris know? Did he have any sort of endgame or overarching design in mind? It feels like he was just winging it. But line-by-line the book remains fascinating, and although the shift in conflict from external to internal cuts off too much of the reader's air supply, it's an understandable choice and a gutsy one. One thing Ferris doesn't lack is balls.
The Unnamed is a long way from the fully realized masterpiece that was Then We Came to the End, but I still recommend it, and I think it confirms that Ferris is a writer of consequence and substance who could develop into one of our more interesting prestige novelists. Contrary to the Goodreaders disappointed over Ferris' departure from comedy, I applaud him for trying something different, even if it didn't totally work. Again: balls.(less)
I wasn't going to write a review of this but I feel like I want to get back into the "swing" of Goodreads.
This is my first Ruth Rendell book but I kno...moreI wasn't going to write a review of this but I feel like I want to get back into the "swing" of Goodreads.
This is my first Ruth Rendell book but I know a fair bit about her. I know that her corpus is divided into two camps--the detective mystery series starring a recurring police inspector (my mom loves these books but they sound boring to me; all whodunits are boring to me unless they were written by hard-drinking badasses in the mid-20th century), and the non-series crime novels which are more psychological thrillers than whodunits. This novel, later made (loosely, I understand) into a movie by Pedro Almodovar, of all people, is of course one of the latter. It's about a serial rapist who gets out of prison and embarks on a weird relationship with the policeman he crippled via gunshot during a standoff 10 years earlier.
As much as any book can be while still being marketed as a thriller, Live Flesh is plotless. It's all inside-the-mind-of-a-psycho, baby. Psycho runs errands. Psycho visits his aunt (and steals cash from her house). Psycho flashbacks to earlier episodes of his life as a rapist. And we are privy to all the minutiae of his psycho thought-processes throughout his mundane existence.
Sounds maybe kinda boring? Well, here's something that'll make it sound even boringer: this rapist dude, Victor, has got to be the single most mild-mannered psycho in the history of literature. He is so polite and quiet. At first I was like, is this what all British rapists are like? And there is a sense of that, of this being the tea-cozy Merchant-Ivory version of The Killer Inside Me or whatever. But then I figured that Rendell was just sidestepping sensationalism and trying to provide a more realistic psychological portrait of a pathological violent criminal. In fact the tone is closer to Greek tragedy than to crime thriller, almost. Rendell paints Victor as a lonely man, prone to panic attacks, who never developed social skills and suffered at the hands of seemingly neglectful parents. He's not violent except in isolated moments when he loses control, he can't figure out why he did what he did, and his waking hours are consumed with plans and hopes for redemption--most of which involve befriending aforementioned wheelchair-cop...and his sexy girlfriend. UH-OH!!!
I said this played like Greek tragedy so you can guess that things don't go as planned for Victor. There's never much doubt about that. But what makes the book work is that Rendell doesn't allow us to escape from Victor's head. All his rationalizations and delusions keep mounting to a point where they accumulate a tragic weight. The forced identification means that it's always jarring when Victor reminds us that he is, in fact, a rapist (and worse...of course there's a murder at some point). Like the policeman and his girlfriend, who gradually come to like Victor and want to help him, the reader would have to be a truly heartless bastard not to root for this pathetic creature, even as we know how undeserving he is of our sympathy. Don't criticize someone until you walk a mile in his shoes, goes the old aphorism of childhood? Indeed: after several miles in those shoes, you may well start defending rapists. Rendell really breaks in those shoes. The heels are frayed, the soles worn.
It's not a great book. That same virtue of relentless psychological immersion inside the protagonist can also make the book feel suffocatingly monochromatic. It's really dry. And I think Rendell could have eliminated some of the repetitive, mundane details. Honestly the book is boring about half the time. But I think what Rendell's trying is interesting and I'd like to read more of her psychological thrillers.(less)
I wish there were more books like this--literary comedies that are at once laugh-out-loud funny, phraseologically intricate, and...moreGod damned brilliant.
I wish there were more books like this--literary comedies that are at once laugh-out-loud funny, phraseologically intricate, and resonant on the level of the emotions and the psychology and the whatnot. Let's face it, Catamounts: most good writers aren't funny, and most funny people couldn't write a novel any more than some non-funny schmo like me could.
But this guy Sam Lipsyte, damn. He is the total package. And in Home Land, he's written a book that kinda needed to exist.
This novel covers a lot of thematic ground. Some would say its central concern is disappointment. I actually think the book is mainly about high school. It's just that it's set 15 years after high school ended. And therein lies the "needed to exist" part. High school is a topic that has been exhausted as a narrative resource. Our culture is forever fascinated by high school, from I Was a Teenage Werewolf to John Hughes to that dumb-ass show about the school chorus that is popular right now. But all that shit takes place during the actual four years of high school. Boring! Sam Lipsyte understands that those of us consuming and producing all these high-school narratives are, necessarily, most of us no longer in high school. We are obsessed with it because it's something in our past that has never really left us. I think that's true regardless of whether your high school experience was "the best years of your life" (cliché), or the polar opposite (countercliché, thanks for that one Rick Linklater). Those years are so formative, and the experiences we have during that time have this almost surreal quality of being at once part of an alien, separate life (the no-man's-land between childhood and adulthood) and also kind of still feeling like the default setting of life in a weird way that's hard to explain, like everything else has been an extended postscript, or a head-desk daydream during trigonometry.
Anyway, Sam Lipsyte gets this stuff, even if I don't. Home Land is about a 30-something slacker (known as "Teabag," for reasons that have to do with a high school locker room incident) still hanging around his old hometown, and everything that happens in the book is basically either a recollection of high school or a present encounter with people he knew in high school. Among the latter, my favorites were Teabag's run-ins with his old HS principal, who is like Mr. Belding from "Saved by the Bell" reimagined as a tragic boozehound--in that he is hilariously unrealistically over-involved in the lives of his students. Or at least in Teabag's life. For instance, the principal is engaged in a kinky affair with the wife of a local drug dealer who is also the AA sponsor of Teabag's best friend, who got rich by suing a psychotherapist for convincing him that he was sexually abused when he in fact wasn't. And the dealer wants the principal dead. If this sounds like melodrama, or screwball comedy, it's neither. Lipsyte is just interested in shiftless fuckarounds and the high school history that unites them. The tragicomic meaninglessness of it all, the strange and disappointing paths our lives take--it all starts in high school.
But the best thing about the book, really, the reason to read it even if everything I just wrote makes you want to gag, is the voice. It's indescribable, completely original as far as I can tell. The chapters are ostensibly "updates" written by Teabag for his high school's alumni newsletter, and within that format Lipsyte fashions an incredibly specific tone that incorporates irony, dazzling verbal wit, (pseudo)philosophical declamations, and an almost Greek chorus-like sense of tragic understanding. I don't know, I'm standing by "indescribable" because that description wasn't very good. But this book is written in the most spectacularly exciting voice I've read in some time.
My only problem with Lipsyte here is that he sometimes uses bizarre sexuality as a crutch. It's this weird thing that some male writers of a certain demographic have...Jonathan Ames does it too, there's that ridiculously extraneous and awful sex scene that he made the centerpiece of the otherwise great novel Wake Up, Sir!. Don't get me wrong, Teabag's leg-warmer fetishism was funny. But the book goes to some self-consciously EDGY places with some sex scenes that don't really add anything. But you know what? Still five stars! That's how much I dig this book.
Can't wait to read his other shit, including that new one, The Ask, as soon as I finish this pile of non-funny books I'm reading...or probably before I finish that pile.(less)
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 th...moreShirley 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.(less)
Look, if you want to write a boring book about the social/romantic life of a nondescript policeman and a few of the equally...moreUgh. Two stars is generous.
Look, if you want to write a boring book about the social/romantic life of a nondescript policeman and a few of the equally uninteresting people in his orbit, go right ahead. That is your right as an American and as a mediocre novelist. But why disguise it as a supernatural mystery about a city full of ghosts, especially if you're going to avoid the subject of ghosts for pretty much hundreds of pages at a time? That's both annoying and dishonest, and it just doesn't make sense, especially when one of the major characters is revealed (or rather is not revealed) to have LITERALLY NO REASON FOR BEING IN THE STORY. Add some overly porn-y sex scenes--did I mention that much of the book's conflict resides in the male characters' burning desire to fuck really hot chicks?--and an annoying shortcut technique of using "police reports" to handle most of the ghost-related exposition and action, and you've got a book that was not worth my time.
I liked the prologue. I like the title. That's all the praise I can muster.(less)
Dayumn. Willeford was one subversive motherfucker in the '50s. Like his contemporaneous masterpiece The Woman Chaser, this is a dark novel with serio...moreDayumn. Willeford was one subversive motherfucker in the '50s. Like his contemporaneous masterpiece The Woman Chaser, this is a dark novel with serious ambition and zero pretense toward the pulp thrills promised by its original marketing--or even its current marketing, deceptively packaged in the Library of America's 1950s crime-novel volume. But unlike The Woman Chaser, which was basically a very deranged comedy, Pick-Up is pure nihilism, a sustained howl of bleak, hopeless agony. Honestly, it's not for the faint of heart. But if you're willing to follow Willeford down the darkest alleys of the soul, there are ample rewards.
Another reviewer mentioned Leaving Las Vegas as a reference point, and that film occurred to me as well. But while the premise and tone is quite similar, I daresay Willeford went in a considerably ballsier direction with the narrative. The concept of suicide is introduced early enough in the book that it's not a spoiler to say that death plays a major role in this story of lovestruck, alcoholic depressives in '50s San Francisco. It's fair to say that the characters spend all their time either dead or wishing for death. Or drinking till they black out. Like I said, not for the faint of heart.
So why is this brutal stuff so compelling? Willeford treats depression with respect. There's not a trace of hysteria or melodrama here--nor, on the other end of the spectrum, is there a romanticization of the characters' self-destructive lifestyle (a crime of which some have accused Leaving Las Vegas, though I've never been sure I agree). The psychology, while simple, feels heartbreakingly authentic. Willeford writes with the cool, readable propulsion of a pulp master. And he builds up to an absolutely devastating final-page twist that, as the AV Club's Keith Phipps noted, changes everything and nothing about what comes before.
It's so weird to think that the Willeford who wrote this and The Woman Chaser went on to pen the near-geriatric Miami crime novels about Hoke Moseley in the '80s. I've read 3/4 of that series now, and they're perfectly fine as light cop thrillers go, centered on an everyman detective besieged by a midlife crisis. But they're so tame compared to this early subversive stuff. Funny parallel between this and the Hoke Moseley book Sideswipe, written 30 years later: both have characters who are "non-objective painters." Dude really likes that phrase.(less)
DeLillo's debut is clearly the work of a genius in chrysalis, before he found discipline or focus. It feels very much like a novel borne of the sixtie...moreDeLillo's debut is clearly the work of a genius in chrysalis, before he found discipline or focus. It feels very much like a novel borne of the sixties intellectual zeigeist (as opposed to the sixties popular zeitgeist, which is far more familiar to us now). I recommend it to hardcore DD fans, but it's kind of a slog, and probably not worthwhile for anyone else.(less)