Clear, dense, lyrical, convoluted as The Big Sleep, a tale of intersecting fates and levels of reality on the Mendocino Coast of California. Fairchild...moreClear, dense, lyrical, convoluted as The Big Sleep, a tale of intersecting fates and levels of reality on the Mendocino Coast of California. Fairchild, the grower of pot, son of a real Steinbeckian/Keseyish owner of 10,000 acres of uncut redwood, is the cause and center of the disaster which swirls out from his clever, overheated, lying, imaginative, cowardly, self-justifying self--an inevitable screwup over a drug deal.
What a cast and crew--Fairchild's schizophrenic brother, living in the redwoods where he's trying literally to avoid the radar emitting from large domes in the hills. His soon to be ex-wife, Winona, to whom the father has deeded all Fairchild's inheritance, to keep the marriage together. His little hippie mistress, Melissa, who is sleeping with everyone and has no idea how obsessed Fairchild is with her. Frankenheimer, surfer, paranoid, whom Melissa is obsessed with. Clarence Meadows, Fairchild's partner in the pot plantation. Etcetera. Mix in a witch and a cop from LA and hired killers and ministers of various stripes and soul thieves, a good heaping handful of the lingering Sixties, mix it up and pour it out among the redwoods on the world's most spectacular stretch of coastline, and you have Johnson's 'Already Dead.'
Is it a mess? Probably. Is it a splendid mess? Absolutely. A Pyncheonesque outpouring of invention? Sure. However, it was Robert Stone who kept coming most to mind as I read. The book is very like a gorgeous, perilous, violent, self-justifying, Sixties-inflected Stone. The care taken in every sentence takes this book off the map into the region of pure untrammeled beauty. The richness of observation has all the earmarks of love-- for what do we see this deeply but the object of love? These deeply understood characters in all their dangerous quirks. I loved the unapologetic use of dreams and madness. That the news and newspapers figure in the book, that everyone reads and has had his or her worldview shaped by literature.
Here's a random example of Johnson's descriptive firepower. Here's Fairchild's point of view: "Vagueness came up over the ridge in billows. I'd had PG&E put a street lamp at the head of the driveway, it cost less than seven dollars a month, and they took care of the thing. Its glow a quarter-mile off seemed unattainable, seemed imaginary. A large creature, an owl probably, in this atmosphere it looked white, swept up from under the edge of the hill behind me and passed directly over my head. I could hear its wingstrokes like desperate breaths. I followed around to the front of the house and watched it moving off toward the front gate and the streetlight, where its shadow opened out from behind it like a tunnel through the lamp-lit fog.The tunnel closed to nothing as the bird passed over the source, and now there was only the iridescent mist. Everything looked so much like a science-ficion comic book it hardly seemed possible to be inside it and not to be able to turn a page..."
Here's Clarence Meadows, a decorated Iraqi war vet, thinking about the action which won him his scars: "But the dream had all the feelings, slowed down as if for savoring--or maybe they savored him--that during the actual events had been smeared sideways by motion and soaked in a wondrous deafness. Clarence dreamed of driving in the open jeep across Beirut with the sunrise burning over his shoulder. He didn't know what they were heading for but they were heading straight toward it. This was a general scramble of hysterical proportions, anyway, some brief, giant thing had torn into the day like a can opener..."
It's a very masculine book--there are wonderful women characters, but the point of view characters are all men--another aspect which heightens the Stone-ishness of it. And I enjoyed seeing the various viewpoints of men as they considered the women and their relationships to them--with great acuity.
One of my favorite parts concerned the central character, Fairchild, considering that his whole life has been built on lies. What a remarkable understanding of human weakness, the way each action has its repercussions, definitely the Karmic central theme of the book:
"Maneuvering through my lies was like hopping faster than the eye would follow from branch to branch across the roof of a jungle, a jungle cultivated to cover up earlier lies, the whole business lacing back delicately to find its mother-root in my first lie, completely forgotten now, and never to be discovered by anybody else, the lie to cover my first little crime, also forgotten--no, I swear I didn't take the cookies--or more probably, a whole childhood fashioned to avoid the question of the cookies in the first place, my every move, to this day, warped around the absence of getting caught, the void where there should have been my arrest and trial and punishment: a new route to school planned in order to avoid the boy who owned the stolen cookies, and a reason invented to explain the new route to whoever might ask, and evidence concocted to demonstrate that the reason isn't a lie--I need the exercise, I'm going out for track and field--and then a career of track-and-field events and long practice in a sport that doesn't interest me, and a new personality shaped, a false persona who thrives on track and field, who loves running (But I do love running. Don't I? Or why else pend so much time doing it?) and hurdling over the intricacies of his falsehoods toward this day, Tuesday, September 4, when I'm ready to commit murder to deal with my mistakes without actually correcting them because... because I don't want to correct them. I can't survive the correcting of them. I just want them erased."
I'll stop quoting but the book is covered with underlines and check marks and notes in the margins.
It had some of the problems that a book told through multiple points of view often have--in dividing the readers' loyalty out among so many characters, it's hard to pull it together for a fully satisfying ending--though Johnson does his damnedest.
Friends were surprised to hear that this was my first Denis Johnson--I guess people normally start with Jesus' Son. The new 'Train Dreams' is also a big hit. I happen to love Northern California, so I started here, and don't regret it. Johnson fans--Which should I read next? Jesus' Son or Train Dreams? (less)
Beautiful, sober, passionate, redemptive poetry. It's been a while, but want to read again. Somehow reminds me of Rothko's black on black paintings......moreBeautiful, sober, passionate, redemptive poetry. It's been a while, but want to read again. Somehow reminds me of Rothko's black on black paintings... Profound, postwar German/Jewish poet writing in German. An encounter not to be missed. (less)
A charming, fast paced scrappy novel of the early days of silent films, before stars took it over, before writers planned every frame and anything cou...moreA charming, fast paced scrappy novel of the early days of silent films, before stars took it over, before writers planned every frame and anything could happen on a film set. Camera and director had to keep up. Mabel Normand was the queen of the Sennett comedies. Here she is in her freewheeling physicality and impulse and wit, a story through the voice of a young kid from the neighborhood who gets involved in the 'flickers'--whose journey takes us through every aspect of the rough and ready filmmaking in those early years. I especially loved that it's set in my neighborhood--Effie Street, where young Flicker lives... Ewing... Allesandro... takes us to the clubs and bars of Vernon, the tough pleasure zone of the pre-Prohibition era, and really gives you a feeling most of all of the energy of the times, which created such breathlessly paced films that enchanted a nation. (less)
In this small, lovely book, a woman, Anjali, a Columbia PhD candidate and devoted wife, finds an unimaginable spiritual life opening up for her during...moreIn this small, lovely book, a woman, Anjali, a Columbia PhD candidate and devoted wife, finds an unimaginable spiritual life opening up for her during a random occurrence, the heart attack of a street vendor on the upper West Side of New York. This book is unpredictable to the very end, centered around a topic rarely seen in contemporary literature--the disruption that a true spiritual awakening can cause in an everyday life. Monona Wali's depiction of American East Indians is a special pleasure, and this fine debut novel's treatment of the stresses of academic life and upwardly mobile marriage is spot on. Her treatement of the possibility of spirituality erupting into the quotidian is right on the edge of magical realism, but seems more like a realistic description of what such a spiritual experience could be.
I'm reading this in an exquisite edition, on watercolor paper with a raw rough edge, a beautiful object to hold. I gather this was a small first edition--probably still available--after which there will be a standard paperback.(less)
Another uneven maddening crazy brilliant Shteyngart book, this time a memoir. The tale begins in early childhood in Leningrad, follows the family's em...moreAnother uneven maddening crazy brilliant Shteyngart book, this time a memoir. The tale begins in early childhood in Leningrad, follows the family's emigration to New York, his attendance at an orthodox Jewish school and attempts to Americanize himself, the shock of entering the highly competitive Stuyvesant High School for Math and Science, entry into Oberlin, all the way through to becoming the Shteyngart we basically have today.
I have to say, the first half of this book is beyond priceless. I adored his description of his Russian childhood and especially the intricate emotionality of his family life, and his layered difficulties finding a place for himself in American life. But as the story unfolds and he becomes more and more American, I found myself less and less interested. I too went to college, I too had been a young person having relationships and so on. I did find it intriguing that he always found a mentor/patron for himself, an older man who paid the bills--one of whom was a gay sugar daddy whom he nevertheless never slept with if the story is to be believed. There was also a fascinating relationship with a woman who had another lover as well.
But in general, the more familiar his story became, the less I cared. He hung the tale from the gossamer thread of 'how I become a writer' which I'm sure was huge for him--but the thrill of his first contract etc was so much less interesting to me than his grandmother left behind in Russia and his parents looming 'razvot' (divorce).
And the deeper flaw--I found Shteyngart far kinder to himself (he was a horrible little momser) in this book than the merciless eye he usually employs when describing his characters ... He lets himself off the hook, again and again--the opposite situation to that which you usually find among writers, who generally are tougher on themselves in a memoir, and more empathetic and generous with their fictional characters in their novels.
Yet I wouldn't have missed that brilliant first half of Little Failure (what his father called him, as well as 'Snotty' and "Weakling" in that odd Russian penchant for amalgamating endearment and blunt criticism) for anything, and will probably read it again.(less)
A stellar debut. Probably the most surprising book I've read this year. Received it in galleys after having met Cynthia Bond years ago, when this nove...moreA stellar debut. Probably the most surprising book I've read this year. Received it in galleys after having met Cynthia Bond years ago, when this novel was most likely just a gleam in the author's mind. I opened it with that mixture of curiosity and dread with which every reader of a prepublication copy of a novel greets that package. Hoping only that it 'won't be too bad.' Then I began to read and I found myself shouting out to my partner (who was trying to sleep) how beautiful it was. The roots of my hair prickling.
It reminded me at times of Toni Morrison's Beloved--the darkness, the poetry, the haunted legacy of lynching, the bitterness and the terror, the literal hauntings--but also at times of the comedic later Faulkner and his small-town yokels. The very long relationships and collective memories of people who don't move around much, Plus the hope of a long-last love story. And what writing! Elegant, poetic, earthy, this book has it all. Pure magic. (less)
This book may inspire a new shelf, a substratum of 'the love story', which is 'the mistress's story.' A young, but not too young, woman looking for so...moreThis book may inspire a new shelf, a substratum of 'the love story', which is 'the mistress's story.' A young, but not too young, woman looking for something for more in her life, more fun, more juice, something to really matter, than her economics dissertation, which seems, the longer she waits to complete it, less and less necessary. She moves up to the Sierra, into her parents' cabin--where, ironically, her parents had taken her and her sister as teenagers to remove them from the temptation of boys--and begins a casual affair with a playful, too-old-for-you lodge owner, and then a much more serious affair with a married carpenter.
The affair, in the hands of Michelle Huneven (Jamesland, Blame), proves an intoxicant as addictive as any substance, and actually reads a bit like a drug story, though there is hardly the fight to put it down that there would be in any self-respecting junkie tale. Because obsessive love isn't illegal, or expensive, at least in monetary terms (interesting that the character is an economist!). The costs are to be paid elsewhere.
The photograph on the cover, of a woman sitting next to a bear (the St. Petersburg photographer Gregori Maoifis is an amazing artist--that is a real bear, and the model was terrified! Check out his work, he did a great series with the bear, and another based on the Tarot, fantastic.) is the perfect image for this book--for the bear, a friendly bear, is a great metaphor for this kind of all-encompassing sexual connection. You can't argue with a bear, you can't finesse it, you can't game it, it's dangerous, there's no future, it can claw the daylights out of you, and yet, it's your bear. What you bear. What you can bear, what you should bear.
What I especially liked about this book was its portrayal--rather than description--of such a love. There is a crispness of Huneven's style which keeps the reality tight in what could otherwise have been a real bodice-ripper, in fact, in all of her books, the author's sense of reality framing the watery world of intense emotion is what keeps the reader on-course even as the protagonist heads for the falls.
The falls in this case being the way the protagonist, Cress Hartley, blissfully floating down the rushing stream of her affair, finds herself estranged from friends and supporters when her affair becomes a public commodity in the small Sierra community in which it's being conducted. It's right that Huneven has made her a big city girl, unaware of the solidarities and moralities--even if hypocritical--of small town life, thinking they won't apply to her somehow.
An excellent, emotionally accurate, adult view of a woman blown very much off-course by an obsessive love.(less)
This is such a tough book, emotionally. I was 'reading' it in unabridged audio and had to stop. It was just too suspenseful a story--too truly horrifi...moreThis is such a tough book, emotionally. I was 'reading' it in unabridged audio and had to stop. It was just too suspenseful a story--too truly horrific--to have poured into my ear that way, so slowly, drawing out the potential for harm. I found it exhausting. Concentration camp stories are hard enough, but the abstraction of this makes it oddly more awful, something about the simplicity and clear fictionality reminded me of Camus, that kind of existential dread which is almost intolerable.
Now going to pick up where I was on printed page, so I can read and get through it. Wow, I felt like I was really imprisoned in that hospital, forced to live through the vulnerablility of these inexplicably blind people in their quarantine, the awfulness of human nature rising to meet that, moment by moment, in real time. At least on the page you move through at reading pace, not the pace of spoken language.
I'm at a loss as to how to 'rate' a book like this. Who cares whether I "like" it or not! Great literature is a street crime, a mugging, it roughs us up, robs us at knifepoint, kicks us to the curb, leaves us there shaken with a bloody nose and our illusions broken in our hands. I might not 'like' it, but I go to books for a strong experience, not to be flattered, cossetted, my conscience put half to sleep. (less)
Great writing, but as usual, I was thrown when the point of view shifted after 70 pages, and from a very specific and very highly textured couple of I...moreGreat writing, but as usual, I was thrown when the point of view shifted after 70 pages, and from a very specific and very highly textured couple of Irish brothers and an intriguing problem on the physical and spiritual level to someone I couldn't have cared less about--alas, I am someone who hates to buy into a point of view and be allowed to sink into it only to have it jerked away from me. I had similar issues with Cloud Atlas which I may go back and try again. Luckily, this book begins to make itself known rather more quickly, as additional sections loop back around to that first fascinating one, and gently use as the spine--or tightrope cable-- the legendary walk of aerialist Philippe Petit between the Twin Towers in 1974. Wonder if the book will take this all way the to 9/11. We'll see... ***************** About two thirds the way through this now. The successive points of view knit and knit back again, and McCann's keenness of ear for the nuances of speech creates character as sound. The voice of Tilly Henderson, the Bronx prostitute is especially remarkable. This is certainly bravura writing, and once I got over my attachment to the first voice, and the two Irish brothers, and allowed myself to ride the currents between all these characters, the lay brother and his faith, the Park Avenue mother with the dead soldier son, the Bronx prostitute with her prostitute daughter, the guilty hipster artist and her self-aggrandizing boyfriend, the judge, and dazzling them all, up on a slender wire, the walker. The whole thing a highwire act. ****************** A dazzling book, the delights of which center around the bravura of the writing, all those voices, and all the surprises as McCann manages to lace one story through the next. The very ending was not as as resonant as I might have hoped, but by the nature of the structure of the book, divided among all these characters, it's very difficult to provide the kind of emotional satisfaction that involvement with a single character does. But the pleasures of this book are myriad, the writing of the highest caliber. I'm not surprised it won the National Book Award.(less)