If Joy Williams were just a little less brilliant and withering, I'd hate her. Blatantly unrealistic, overblown dialogue, tangential approach to story...moreIf Joy Williams were just a little less brilliant and withering, I'd hate her. Blatantly unrealistic, overblown dialogue, tangential approach to story/narrative (no rapid page-turning here, really; and even the strength of the writing wasn't enough to keep me from turning to other novels occasionally), cynical ruthlessness towards her own characters along with a stubborn resistance to portraying any successful/hopeful connection between humans.
But, I get the comparisons to Flannery O'Connor. They couldn't be more apt. That tightrope walk between disdain for humanity and respect for her characters...they may be unhappy, wrong, ruthless, completely adrift in their own lives--but they speak like prophets with doctorates, even, or especially, the 'lowest' among them (the five year olds, the brain damaged, the bored teenagers, the truck drivers, the dogs, the otherwise entirely unenlightened). Williams isn't dealing in realism, she's building an impression of the real as it might be built by someone at a distance from their humanity, someone dead or half-dead, or someone who is an animal--at a distance from our usual excuses for and sympathies with the terrible things we casually do, and even from our own useless horror at the terrible things we do as a species (there's some brutal black humor at the expense of leftist activists here, even though that's unquestionably where Williams' sympathies lie--but then, Flannery O'Connor wrote obscene religious characters, though her overall perspective was decidedly devout).
Dead animals, as a group, might as well be considered a major collective character. Williams spends time on them and gives each an undeniable, unsettling presence that rivals every human character consciousness we're allowed to invade. And invade we do--Williams uses completely omniscient perspective and jumps into the heads not only of the major characters, but also the ones we meet only for a page, often offering up a jarring impression from the mind of a 'stranger' that we're never allowed to later plumb or revisit.
She's very funny, in a blackest of black humor way. I had to put it down occasionally just because the hopeless cynicism was starting to affect my consciousness in a negative way (it's kind of a default of mine that I have to fight for balance, so your mileage may vary--if your thoughts trend negative, depressive, morbid, cynical, you might want to have something light on hand too). But it works. It's pitch perfect. It's balanced by moments of beauty and profundity that never veer into preciousness. I read most of this in a window seat on a connecting flight from North Carolina to Arizona, then out. I feel like that helped, seeing the craters, the Barry Goldwater memorial parking deck.
Pay attention to the roadkill you passed. Pay attention to that strangely revolting kitsch in the road stop, that dead-end job, that place you stuck your father when he got old, that stupid protest nobody cared about that you passed on the way to work. And that roadkill. They are this story, too. Maybe more than you.
Gaiman always makes me want to throw my hands up at the end--did I like it? Did it fall flat? Would I recommend it? I can never choose a side. But I d...moreGaiman always makes me want to throw my hands up at the end--did I like it? Did it fall flat? Would I recommend it? I can never choose a side. But I do read to the end, to throwing my hands up in the air.
I think the problem is that I like his premises so much. So full of promise. So wide of scope. The idea of writing a novel in which all gods of all mythologies are fair game for your cast of characters, mobilizing to some end that will make a statement about America's soul--it's not fair. I'm salivating. I want too much from this. His main characters often read like ciphers for Gaiman to me, Mary-Sues if you will, and Shadow kind of reeked of this. I felt like it was a little hammered-in too many times that Shadow's "the strong, silent type," the big lug who's secretly pretty smart--a common fantasy hero trope, first of all, and also just a bit off-putting in the first part of the book, where I just didn't get much of a whiff of personality from Shadow at all. He bored me to death. I kept reading for Wednesday (whose character really should've gotten more of an arc instead of getting shunted off-stage at the end) and the other gods, Gaiman's asides between chapters--really anything that got us away from Shadow. Though I liked him despite myself, don't get me wrong. I have no complaints with strong, silent, smart types. But what right does he have to compete for time with characters who are gods? And his utter lack of curiosity was maddening...I would've thrown Shadow overboard for an Alice-in-Wonderland style protagonist. (In fact, there was a character a bit like this--I've forgotten her name, but she's the college lesbian who hitches a ride with Shadow--SHE would've probed every aspect I wanted to learn more about).
That said, Gaiman just doesn't let me full-on hate anything he writes. It's maddening. Just when I think the writing's gotten too insipid and the storyline's just going to disappoint me by not living up to what it could be, he breaks into a side chapter and rhapsodizes/synthesizes things beautifully--often a vignette with a fascinating character with more force of personality than any in the main cast.
These make it worth the reading time. It's my personal pet theory that Gaiman's a little afraid of these characters. They can't be made to go anywhere predictable. When we return to the main cast, to Shadow, Laura...I felt I could've written their trajectories and dialogue myself.
And I just couldn't stop rolling my eyes through Shadow's hero's-journey christlike climax--I couldn't decide whether it was a failure that it was included but not emphasized that much, or appropriate, because he's such a lackluster Christ figure.
Oh, and it did feel like a very British idea of America...not particularly insightful of the national culture, but flattering (?) in that the novel seems to equate 'American' with modernization in general.
That said, where Gaiman is funny, dry, and/or waxing philosophical, he is very, very good. For all my frustration, I loved the headspace this book put me in, and perhaps wanting to write it for him isn't such a bad impulse to be given. Also, where it's good, the book is very quotable. I was underlining all over the place and hope to put some of my favorites here soon.
I picked this up after serving an americano to a guy who had it tucked under his arm, when I worked at Urban Standard. He seemed discriminating. Had g...moreI picked this up after serving an americano to a guy who had it tucked under his arm, when I worked at Urban Standard. He seemed discriminating. Had good hair. I googled it. What, is that weird?
Didn't realize until halfway through that Markson's the guy who wrote "Wittgenstein's Mistress," which I always meant to read but haven't.
The character of "the writer," is not really a character and not really interesting. But the book is. Sometimes. Oh, and there's no narrative. And no optimism really. Read if your own stream of consciousness anecdote machine isn't bleak or literary enough.(less)
Four novels in one book. "Wild Seed" is definitely the favorite, and "Patternmaster" definitely my least favorite--although read together they all see...moreFour novels in one book. "Wild Seed" is definitely the favorite, and "Patternmaster" definitely my least favorite--although read together they all seemed better.
I could eat everything Octavia Butler writes. Deserves more of a review, but I want to wait until I've read everything she wrote for some reason.(less)
Despite several things that I thought would turn me off in a novel--breakless dialogue/narrative, oversimplified archetypes for characters, watered-do...moreDespite several things that I thought would turn me off in a novel--breakless dialogue/narrative, oversimplified archetypes for characters, watered-down Lawrencian-isms--I clipped along with this at quite a rate. The story is totally unremarkable, but the telling is total pleasure-in-ideas. Also: a very cleverly-designed edition. (less)
David Mitchell never seems interested in drawing you in, but it's worth initial slogging to watch what he does with his gimmicks. This one is basicall...moreDavid Mitchell never seems interested in drawing you in, but it's worth initial slogging to watch what he does with his gimmicks. This one is basically a narrative Russian doll, with several stories split in half and shown in two parts, culminating (sort of) in a center-but-not-necessarily-central story, and all referencing or partly showing up in the other halved stories. The postlapsarian middle is ripest.(less)
like fairy tales for adults--so I'm using it as such, a tale or two before bed. It'll be a while before I get through at this rate...
update: 01/02/10:...morelike fairy tales for adults--so I'm using it as such, a tale or two before bed. It'll be a while before I get through at this rate...
update: 01/02/10: Yeah, this one's gone back on the shelf...just not what I want right now.
update: 07/12: One of the most incredibly imaginative modern storytellers I've come across. At this date I'm completely in love with the author's work, blog, and hilarious unrelated gif tumblr, and I'm gearing up to read the sequel. I even re-read this aloud for hours at a time for the boyfriend on a long car ride. Right time for every book.(less)
A hodgepodge, but a fun one. Highlights include "Wasteland" the musical, a reimagining of an episode of Batman, and of course, every illustrated colla...moreA hodgepodge, but a fun one. Highlights include "Wasteland" the musical, a reimagining of an episode of Batman, and of course, every illustrated collage piece. Still, probably for diehard Barthelme fans only.(less)
Salter writes well, and carefully, all while hardly ever changing his syntax structures. He jams poetic and ordinary language back to straightened bac...moreSalter writes well, and carefully, all while hardly ever changing his syntax structures. He jams poetic and ordinary language back to straightened back with a very simple "NOUN VERB OBJECT" structure, no inversion, few commas...exhausting, sometimes, fascinating, sometimes, and possibly interesting enough for the aesthete to make up for all the dull, done-to-death, 60s "French" eroticism of the story itself. (less)