**spoiler alert** I don't like to write reviews with spoilers, but I can't avoid it fir this book.
First the good: I very much enjoyed the narrative s...more**spoiler alert** I don't like to write reviews with spoilers, but I can't avoid it fir this book.
First the good: I very much enjoyed the narrative structure, in which several narrators' views merge seamlessly to tell the story. High degree of difficulty, interesting characters, done well. It was easy to read, and pulled me along nicely.
Not so good:Although Jacob's literalism was referred to many times, his narration contains many examples of figurative language. This may in fact be consistent with the way high-functioning people with his condition speak, but it jarred me out of the character several times. Why not have his narration avoid metaphors and similes? It seems a reasonably straightforward editing job; it's not like the writing is so elegant that the book would suffer. That's not what this novel is about.
Finally, the spoiler: the latter half of the book disappointed me. Three bothersome elements in fiction are coincidence, contrivance, and Deus ex machina, and this suffers from the first (Theo's choice of house to break into) and especially the second (we are expected to believe that Jacob never says that the victim was dead when he arrived, or that Emma never asks, ALTHOUGH she does ask if he's innocent and he says no). I'll accept that the lawyer doesn't want to hear Jacob admit the the crime, but the conclusion was so blitheringly obvious that all the characters dissolved for me the further I got into the trial -- and I am NOT a person who tends to anticipate endings. Picoult came up with a cute way to show a "house rule" and thought it was cleverly disguised, I guess, when it wasn't.
Too bad, really: the novel could have survived smarter characters. For me, it doesn't survive the way it is written.(less)
As I read through the library's copy of this innovative novel, I paused every few pages to strip out a sticky-note that a previous reader had attached...moreAs I read through the library's copy of this innovative novel, I paused every few pages to strip out a sticky-note that a previous reader had attached -- maybe one every fifteen pages. Like most readers, I think, when I happen across a margin note in a library copy or a used book, I read it, to see if it contains a nugget of insight that could inform my own reading. Crowdsourcing, you know. Well, I read the early notes and found them entirely unimpressive: banal summaries, aiming to do little more than identify what was happening on a given page. "Jocelyn is a recovering addict." "Noreen is very weird." "The way this book jumps around can be very confusing at times."
I can quote these because I saved them all, simply to avoid littering. I stickied them to each other, into a makeshift bookmark. That was all they were good for. Then I got to the end of the novel, and, on the acknowledgements page, the stickerer left one final sticky-note: "notes by Dean". What a riot! It was a piece of performance art! Whether intentionally or not, it was as desultory and low-quality as much performance art is, but I had to laugh.
Like the previous reader's bizarre little bustle of notes, Egan's novel makes a stab at altering and enhancing the narrative experience; unlike the banal note-bustle, the novel is much more than a mere ploy. This deserves to be considered a postmodern milestone that adds to the narrative landscape for thematic effect, not simply in the way of some self-congratulatory "art" that values newness for the sake of newness.
Each of the wedded, webbed stories enriches the novel overall; as the web broadens, the reading experience deepens. Not all stories are equally good -- "Goodbye, My Love", in which Sasha's uncle Ted searches for her in Naples, was my favorite, while I was less impressed with "X's and O's"; interestingly, both of those stories reminded me of George Saunders in voice and character and action. Egan even delves into some Saunders-like sci-fi that (as with Saunders) isn't really sci-fi at all. "Great Rock and Roll Pauses," done in the form of a PowerPoint from a 12-year-old girl, could come off as self-indulgent, but is an affectingly creative and touching story that just happens to communicate in slides instead of paragraphs, trying (and generally succeeding) to suggest animation and presentation. Egan has a deft touch, like a soft voice the sweetness of which is not appreciated until one hears it up close. Her patience in developing the various strands becomes evident as the book goes on, back and forth through time, into the future.
I wish I could say this was a classic, even a postmodern classic. It is enjoyable to read, fast-paced, full of rich characters, and extremely creative. Its satirical commentaries and themes about connection and disconnection are astutely rendered evocations of the (post)modern world that can be both depressing and enormously engaging to us all. I hope it catches an updraft and floats back into the public and critical consciousness. Not many books in the 21st century have struck me as more apt to it than this one. When I come back to the novel in a few years, I want my reading experience to be as positive as this first read was.(less)
Irving is the original master of the kind of quirky that many young novelists would love to do but botch into cloying, silly, or self-important (mainl...moreIrving is the original master of the kind of quirky that many young novelists would love to do but botch into cloying, silly, or self-important (mainly the latter). The difference -- one of them, at least -- is that he has something to say, especially in a fine and important novel like this one.
The menagerie here dazzles with its variety, but no one denizen overshadows the others because there is so much vivacity spread around. True, characters like Dr. Larch and Melony are especially memorable, but Candy, Wally, Senior, Olive, the Eameses, Nurse Angela, Nurse Edna, Lorna, Nurse Caroline, Curly Day, Mr. Rose and especially Homer hold their own. The more minor characters are no slouches, either: it's a New England bestiary that somehow takes broad strokes while simultaneously avoiding irritating cliches.
The quirks of character and place are generous and warm here, but also meaningful and challenging. His weaving of a dozen strands of narrative can be oppressive at times, such as when he oscillates back and forth between all the strands in a single chapter, which he seems to do throughout the middle of the novel. The final accounting reveals a fine pattern coming out of that work that initially seems little more than busy. Repetition adds instead of bothering, and apparently loose strands end up satisfyingly tucked into the pattern.
The examination of abortion and ethics excels here, but it is the storytelling that makes the book great. Irving is wise to be neither simplistic nor vague -- and gifted enough to avoid those two shoals that sink many would-be-literary vessels. The deftly researched elements of medicine and apple farming enrich, as well. I am moving on to A Prayer for Owen Meany next, but so far this is my favorite of Irving's very entertaining works.(less)
"They're turning me into someone else," claims Turow's classmate Gina, in a lament about the effect of Harvard Law School. "They're making me differen...more"They're turning me into someone else," claims Turow's classmate Gina, in a lament about the effect of Harvard Law School. "They're making me different" (72). The essence of Turow's memoir seems to be fear: the undermining of identity, the shaking of certainties, the challenging of purpose. The confident superachievers in the HLS student body can stand to be made to feel some of the uncertainty that the rest of us mortals know, but it's no more pleasant to watch them twist and scratch, although maybe those of us with pronounced Schadenfreude organs may feel differently. While Turow almost always qualifies his critiques with something positive, it is almost impossible for a reader to come away from this book thinking well of law, professors, Harvard (mostly HLS), and law students.
That the book hums along briskly and is always clear seems small comfort. It is distressing to think that this is the way that America's lawyers are/were trained this way. And yet it lurks in the back of my mind that Turow seems overdramatic about this, perhaps for the sake of storytelling, which seems both stereotypically lawyer-like and supremely distasteful.
That may be unfair. I never lost sight of a sense (in him as narrator) that the goal here was to reform more than to badmouth. He is sympathetic even in his unsympatheticness. The villains are cruelly egotistical professors (Perini in particular) and, even more so, cutthroat peers (Kyle in particular).
I didn't read this book to learn about the law, although I did find some of the musings -- like the ones inspired by Professor Nicky Morris's abstract approach (191-193) -- enlightening. In the final accounting, this book is a hearty and maybe a little bit vengeful piece of demythologization, inflicted upon an organization that probably could use at least a little bit of that. Even if it's not 100% true anymore (Turow credits the subsequent dean and current Supreme Court associate justice Elena Kagan for this, in his Afterword), I see this book as a healthy goosing that future law students could spare a weekend to inflict upon themselves.(less)
It is never a good sign when, 50 or even 100 pages into reading a book, one thinks, "I don't plan to finish this." Indeed, this novel, which came reco...moreIt is never a good sign when, 50 or even 100 pages into reading a book, one thinks, "I don't plan to finish this." Indeed, this novel, which came recommended on a Buzzfeed or Upworthy or so-and-so website* as one of the funniest books out there, underwhelmed. While it redeemed itself partially -- enough to drag me forward to finish it and not hate myself for having spent the time to do so -- it (a) suffers from intelligence that embodies smarmy cleverness more than thoughtful expansiveness and (b) had no business being on a funniest-ever list.
I imagine Lipsyte going about his life, thinking of snarky clever phrases or scenes, writing it on scraps of paper, then (at book-writing time) shuffling through the collection to sequence each piece of Clever into the book. Many don't really make sense. Many are so desperately trying to say "Look how hip and funny I am!" as to be painful.
On some level, this has the pretense of being a satire about America. The Serbian immigrant Predrag, a minor character, muses to the narrator that he wants to believe the lie "That in America, things can be okay" (186), and is irritated by the interference of various loathsome characters in what Lipsyte has attempted to design as a menagerie a la Pynchon or Heller. The job is shallow, work and co-workers are horrid, love is a myth, money twists everything. A few moments about the granola preschool are amusing, but it verges on cliche how self-involved and they -- so many of the other Americans here -- are.** The mossy old lawyer Lee Moss grumbles, "All you need to remember is that nothing changes. New technology, new markets, global interconnectivity, doesn't matter. It's still the rulers and the ruled. The fleecers and the fleeced" (195). Hey, thanks!
Unfortunately, snippets of Clever and the pretense at Satire don't make Humor. There are a few good setups, like when Bernie the toddler thinks a minor character's jail term is for the crime of drinking from the milk carton. But way more is forced, with unpleasantness and profanity shoehorned in the way that mediocre comics do it. Let's have a conversation where one character says bizarre things and the confused narrator confusedly repeats part of each line back in confused confusion. Very little of the so-called humor here is developed as a situation that develops into farce or relies on something we have already come to understand or builds off both halves of a dialogue. Lipsyte is trying to tell jokes, not write a humorous novel, which is a shame.
The key line, in a way, smarmily comes in one of those half-hearted dialogues all the way on page 229, when the narrator says to one of the few relatively serious characters (most women are not funny, by the way, in Lipsyte's world, although they may be burdened with funny names), "I mean, if I were the protagonist of a book or a movie, it would be hard to like me, to identify with me, right," and she replies, "I would never read a book like that, Milo. I can't think of anyone who would. There's no reason for it." She's got a point.
But it's interesting -- and not all that funny -- that the author embedded such a meta moment deep in this novel, after long establishing Milo as a schmuck and loser. His wife, his kid, his co-workers, the incidental people at childcare and the preschool, his college comrades: all schmucks and losers. A three-year-old kid as a schmuck and a loser? And with this line, on page 229, Lipsyte seems to be saying, "Hey, this may be mediocre, but the self-referentiality makes it deep, so it has to be smarter than you thought it was, huh?" He winks feverishly, and I avert my eyes in embarrassment for him.
*I checked. It was Flavorwire. Technically, the title "25 Books Guaranteed to Make You Laugh" is reasonable, as I did laugh twice. But the listor (someone named Jason Diamond) writes things like "Lipsyte might be the contemporary American writer who best understands how to balance humor with great writing," which is either wrong (the writing is far from great) or a sad indictment of contemporary American writers, or both. The list -- these lists are infuriating, and should be stopped somehow -- also bears the superheading "Funniest Books You'll Ever Read". No. It does include worthy entries like White Noise and George Saunders, and it does an admirable job of mixing new and old, male and female. But it's a fool's errand to make such a list, and this errand was not well-run even by that low standard. No Catch-22? What about Don Quixote or something by Dickens or Pynchon? [Book:The Rachel Papers]? Forget it, I'm not even going into this.
But I am going to take one more moment to point out the contrived edginess that I suppose some (I'm talking to you, Jason Diamond) take as "great writing". Here's an example of a too-typical piece of "funny" description:
They held up the N train at Queensboro Plaza for a medical emergency, somebody maybe stroked out on the car's sticky floor, mistaking for a celestial communique the guarantees of Upper Manhattan's number one pimple doctor, or the public service announcement about condoms targeted at Spanish-speaking men who believed they were not gay. The victim's eyes might even have alighted on the new Mediocre [the name Milo uses sarcastically for the university where he works in the Development office] subway campaign: Knowledge and Discovery: A Better You. A Better World, the words stenciled below a beautiful Polish exchange student in a lab coat. This could be what the admissions folks called a change-of-life opportunity. If Strokey lived he might quit his job, go back to school, become what he always wanted to be, namely, somebody standing next to a beautiful Polish exchange student in a lab coat.
The urgency spills over. Sentences full of artful-seeming asyndetons, repetition of phrases, ha-ha-the-guy-had-a-stroke warts-and-all snapshots of messy old character-rich New York City (but it didn't really happen, even in the novel -- it was just his twisted imagination). Ironic tone ladled on thick. It's dense with nouns and adjectives and odd verb choices, so it must be good writing, right? Right?
** There was one line that really did strike me as funny to the point of being inspired, so much so that I am compelled to include it here, because I've been pretty harsh on the book. This struck me as an ideal piece of characterization for Milo: "For a time I wore only heavy, steel-toed boots because I figured it apocalyptic war broke out, sturdy footwear would be a must. Then it dawned on me that the better the boots, the more quickly I would be killed for them. My only shot at survival was shoeless abjection" (82).(less)
The typical Grisham page-turner, which is certainly not such a bad thing. As I prepare to spend my summer learning more than usual about the law, I fo...moreThe typical Grisham page-turner, which is certainly not such a bad thing. As I prepare to spend my summer learning more than usual about the law, I found myself especially interested in that aspect of the book, but it's the human drama -- the mostly-loathsome characters and their somewhat-cliched conflicts -- that makes Grisham worth the (quick) read. Spirituality and environmentalism added new aspects that I hadn't remembered in my earlier forays into his work, but, then again, it has been a long time and I have only read three or four of his novels. He handles both elements effectively. Not his most exciting, but worth my time.(less)
Fast-paced and competitive as our modern world is, experiencing a novel like this one, constructed by the assured master Lahiri, is a gift that every...moreFast-paced and competitive as our modern world is, experiencing a novel like this one, constructed by the assured master Lahiri, is a gift that every adult should cherish. Realistic family-based stories abound in the market of fiction, bringing readers escape and reflection. But it takes a Lahiri, with her surgical precision, to recreate us in the way that only the best literature can.
Were I to categorize the drama in this sort of realistic fiction genre, I would start by posing that some revolve around secrets that are not revealed until later in the book -- we use words like "spoiler" to talk about the power these plots hold -- and others tell the secret early on and make us readers co-conspirators in withholding it from characters. This novel uses the second formula brilliantly: when will Bela discover the story of her birth? How? Will she at all? More importantly, that mystery is not even the most important thing about the novel, which glides and builds and wrenches even as we and Subhash and Gauri know the secret and the other characters do not.
This most adult of adult fiction -- it put me in mind of books like Never Let Me Go and Kaaterskill Falls -- manages time with ache-inducing artistry. Scenes uncoil with painstaking stippling, then shed time like a snake's skin, in huge swathes. Nothing seems overdramatic or otherwise out of proportion. Pain and pity rise and recede, as the several narratorial voices mingle. Scenes to which we had not been privy to appear later, but we were not waiting for them, because we had been well-fed on the dishes in front of us; these insertions are instantly essential even as their omission never seemed to have been a burden on the story.
I was unsure whether to place this on my Goodreads "Historical fiction" shelf. Initially, no; maybe I'll change my mind later. One thing for sure is that Lahiri uses the strands of the World-historical and the Individual to the enhancement of both. The Naxalbari/Naxalite story and the general post-partition history of India develop in ways that are easy to understand. Similarly, science and history and even agriculture are active participants; this novel is hard to pigeonhole, to its credit, and expansive despite its individual focus, to its even greater credit.
But the greatest achievement here is psychological, in the way of the best novels. In straightforward, unadorned, loose-constructed sentences like Allegra Goodman's (but more beautiful), Lahiri has given life not only to several realistic, human, imperfect characters, but to life itself in all its interpersonal and intrapersonal messiness. "In a world of diminishing mystery," she writes, "the unknown persists" (307). It is testament to the novel's greatness that this profound truth about the Modern age can be brought to life so vividly.(less)
I like my humor with intelligence, which is why Fey is an all-time favorite. There's apparently a subgenre of this sort of semi-memoir, semi-humor boo...moreI like my humor with intelligence, which is why Fey is an all-time favorite. There's apparently a subgenre of this sort of semi-memoir, semi-humor book (Mindy Kaling's subsequent book, too, although Fey's is much better). Who knew?
This was a great choice for my first e-read.(less)
The book I finished the day I started this one is Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Hearing that, you surely understand how jarring it was for me to rea...moreThe book I finished the day I started this one is Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Hearing that, you surely understand how jarring it was for me to read Didion's thoughts about self-pity. The privileged life of Didion and her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, juxtaposed uneasily with my own (and I'm hardly without privilege!), let alone Pecola Breedlove's. And yet, Didion won me over with this heartfelt rumination on horrors I would wish on nobody: the sudden death of a spouse, the devastating illness of a daughter.
The action and scope of some of my recent fictional reads (The Bluest Eye, The Interestings, and Go Tell It on the Mountain, all of which have plenty of things to say about privilege, although certainly not the same things) contrast mightily with Didion's nuanced, quotidian musings. Never in my reading life has a read been so impacted by the other reads that happenstance has juxtaposed it with. (I mention how the nearness of The Blues Eye also had an impact on my reading of The Interestings in my goodreads review of the latter; the impact was greater here with Didion...but it occurs to me that the real point this makes is about the power of Toni Morrison.)
The linchpin of this book, for me, is that Didion is not self-pitying. She is real, regardless of the dignitaries she knows, the opportunities she got (and earned), the travel she has done. "I kept saying to myself," she writes, "that I had been lucky all my life. The point, as I saw it, was that this gave me no right to think of myself as unlucky now" (172). She's just correct. To dislike her for her privilege is to engage a lack of empathy that would offend the humanism of Toni Morrison, Meg Wolitzer, and James Baldwin.
The musings on dying and living -- like her remembering John talking about "doing things not because we were expected to do them or had always done them or should do them but because we wanted to do them" (183) -- are simultaneously blunt, touching, and sometimes annoyingly obvious. She is no philosopher; she is a journalist. She is thoughtful because she is writerly, in the best way, but she is essentially writerly. That's perfectly appropriate. The research and characterization engaged me deeply, and I was struck by very thoughtful notes she synthesized into her musings, like Philippe Aries's "A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty" (qtd. on 192), in Western Attitudes toward Death and D.H. Lawrence's poetic line "I never saw a wild thing / sorry for itself" (qtd. on 193). "Time," she writes, in a characteristically artistic execution of an almost-banal line, "is the school in which we learn" (198).
I admit that although she wields her art with skill, I was put off by some precious overuse of certain stylistic devices...and then I forgave her because the book is so much more earnest than it is precious. I admit that I'm a little curious to read some of her and Dunne's books, now that I've heard snippets. I admit that I wonder if I could be as strong as she was in the face of tragedy. She is not portraying herself here as any sort of a hero, despite whatever privilege she glibly mentions; her humanity is what is compelling.(less)
This was one of the most disturbing books I have read, but it is also very compelling. Made into a disturbing -- but much less disturbing -- and impre...moreThis was one of the most disturbing books I have read, but it is also very compelling. Made into a disturbing -- but much less disturbing -- and impressive film that has deservedly won high praise, it does not relent. Precious's graphic recollection of incest and abuse is in the same category as chillingly repulsive violence recounted in such books as Bastard Out of Carolina, and probably more wrenching than even that brutal novel.
The character's honesty -- and, at the end, all the girls' stories -- commands every bit of attention and, despite some (understandable) vitriol, Precious is a deeply sympathetic character. Sapphire has created a book that is surprisingly readable despite the intensity of the material.
There is one odd 17-page segment when the narration switches from Precious's misspelled rambling prose to a third-person narrator, and I'm still not quite sure why that shift occurs. It is well-done, and the rest is well-done, but the shift could have been avoided. It doesn't interfere too much, I suppose, but it's a structural question-mark in a book where voice is otherwise paramount.(less)
One of the magnificent things about Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 is its balance between chaos and control: the novel is a manic spew of late-...moreOne of the magnificent things about Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 is its balance between chaos and control: the novel is a manic spew of late-'60s Californiana that is somehow both hysterically spinning and perfectly balanced, like one of those sailboats that tips so far out of the water that you think it HAS to flip over and yet it doesn't. Now here's Pynchon in 2013, trying very hard -- and visibly so -- to recreate that moment for a new age, with a novel set in New York in 2001. While he remains both gifted and inspired, the new novel cannot sustain the effort, and it tips into the water several times, and the friction drags it to too many halts.
Maybe it is his earlier success that afflicts him for me. It's not only CoL49 and its themes here; there's a lot of Gravity's Rainbow too. Were this a first novel, unladen with expectations and patterns, it may have seemed less derivative. The themes about searches for hidden meaning amid latent conspiracy matter no less now, in the age of 9/11 and the NSA, than they did then. If anything, history has borne him out, for which Pynchon deserves all due praise as one of the most important postmodernists and cultural-pastiche masters.
And this is not merely a rehash. Maxine, the forensic bookkeeper defrocked into the Pynchonian underworld, worries to her father about her sons in a moment of post-9/11 seriousness -- there don't seem to be any such moments before the attack: "I don't want to see them turn into their classmates, cynical smart-mouthed little bastards--but what happens if Ziggy and Otis start caring too much, Pop, this world, it could destroy them, so easily" (422). The internet and its Deepness has altered the landscape for the worse, the analog weirdness of Oedipa Maas's Southern California having gone disturbingly, untracingly digital. That even Pynchon is solemn about some things, especially in contemplation of the devastation of 11 September, is sobering...but he doesn't maintain his sobriety for long.
One interesting passage, which brought up a line of commentary addressed by David Foster Wallace (and, to my mind, distorted in a Salon article shared with me just a few days ago by a former student), refers to a character's thesis that irony "has now become another collateral casualty of 11 September because somehow it did not keep the tragedy from happening." Irony, the character muses, may have "actually brought on the events of 11 September, by keeping the country insufficiently serious--weakening its grip on 'reality.' So all kind of make-believe--forget the delusional state the country's in already--must suffer as well. Everything has to be literal now" (335). The tug between the ironic and the serious bends the 21st century mentality, and Pynchon notes/participates. Another random character (in fact, an unnknown source, speaking through an avatar in the virtual reality world DeepArcher) says, "All these know-nothings coming in, putting in, it's as bad as the surface Web. They drive you deeper, into the deep unlighted. Beyond anyplace they'd be comfortable. And that's where the origin is. The way a powerful telescope will bring you further out in physical space, closer to the moment of the big bang, so here, going deeper, you approach the border country, the edge of the unnavigable, the region of no information" (358). Pynchon is searching for the origin, using every tool and formidable talent at his disposure. The quest is a noble one.
He seems to want to be Raymond Chandler more than any other writer, which is no bad thing. The (amateur) detective, the argot, the oddball and often repulsive characters, the snappy dialogue, the seething underbelly of the city: he rejoices in capturing this stuff, which is wonderful for us readers. The cleverness can get to be a bit much, despite the occasionally brilliant pun or comment. Maybe more than occasional, but still.
There are too many prophets in Maxine's New York. Oedipa's detectivework, loopy as it was, made a sort of sense. The whiffs of coincidence and artifice are distressingly strong in the more-than-twice-as-long Bleeding Edge. (Don't get me started on Gravity's Rainbow, which shares with this book a stronger sense of the world-historical than the more personal but no-less-profound Lot 49.) The chaos itself, deepened as part of the design, including a stultifying cast of crazies and a plot-map that would look like a capillary system or a neural network, may be logical from a designer's point of view but it drops the signal too often. The speeding boat takes on water and grinds to a crawl...althought it usually does regain its movement.
And yet, despite the flaws and the dopey Pynchonian affectations, there are paragraphs like this one, that show the promise and the power:
Sometimes, down in the subway, a train Maxine's riding on will slowly be overtaken by a local or an express on the other track, and in the darkness of the tunnel, as the windows of the other train move slowly past, the lighted panels appears one by one, like a series of fortune-telling cards being dealt and slid in front of her. The Scholar, The Unhoused, The Warrior Thief, The Haunted Woman . . . After a while Maxine has come to understand that the faces framed in these panels are precisely those out of all the city millions she must in the hour be paying attention to, in particular those whose eyes actually meet her own--they are the day's messengers from whatever the Beyond has for a Third World, where the days are assembled one by one under non-union conditions. Each messenger carrying the props required for their character, shopping bags, books, musical instruments, arrived here out of darkness, bound again into darkness, with only a minute to deliver the intelligence Maxine needs. At some point naturally she begins to wonder if she might not be performing the same role for some face looking back out another window at her. (439)
Our age needs its Pynchon as much as the '60s did, maybe more. This is just not the ideal sacred text for our time, though, as Lot 49 was for its.(less)
Toni Morrison's innovation was evident from the start of her career. This, her first novel, begins with the devolution of a Dick & Jane book -- a...moreToni Morrison's innovation was evident from the start of her career. This, her first novel, begins with the devolution of a Dick & Jane book -- a representation of a stereotypical life that Claudia and especially Pecola Breedlove do not lead -- into chaos, simply by the the removal of structure. Such an eloquent mirroring of theme in structure, setting a tone with elegant efficiency, critiquing both society and the expectations of readers: even in her first novel, her mastery is evident on page 1.
The novel is devastating, both in the gruesome parts that censors have hollered over and in the more gently worded but still cutting lines, like Claudia's comment about her girlish innocence: "Guileless and without vanity, we were still in love with ourselves then" (74). Anyone who loves or is capable of loving a child has to feel that like a blow to the chest. There's intelligent subversion throughout, from the opening clause of the first season in the seasonally-organized story ("The nuns go by as quiet as lust") to the unflinching but also sympathetic backstories of villains like Cholly and Junior. Judge not, lest ye be judged...but don't forget that there is indeed evil in the world. It sounds like an unhelpful contradiction until Morrison gets us thinking about it, when it becomes a profound contradiction that speaks to human universals.
Some critics of Zora Neale Hurston, herself entirely unapologetic, disliked her for focusing on women's -- indeed, individuals' -- issues in what they saw as a bourgeois way that minimized the struggle of African-Americans. Morrison starts her career in a way that both Hurston and her critics would have admired intensely. It's brutal stuff, beautifully done.(less)
Klosterman may or may not have gotten his hands around Evil, but he has a great handle on punditry: make big statement -- bigger than he can handle --...moreKlosterman may or may not have gotten his hands around Evil, but he has a great handle on punditry: make big statement -- bigger than he can handle -- and pursue rabidly, incessantly, with humor and controversy always in mind. He reminds me of another polarizing writer, Bill Simmons of Grantland and ESPN, who is both often entertaining and unusually irritating. His efficient and rhythmic thesis ("the villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least") sparks an intriguing ride, but the book is wildly uneven.
Clearly a smart guy, Klosterman scores with interesting uses of philosophy and Batman (70) and Linda Tripp (127), and the dip into postmodernism adds too ("Necessity used to be the mother of invention, but then we ran out of things that were necessary. The postmodern mother of invention is desire; we don't need anything, so we only create what we want" ). That's classic Klosterman: boldly assertive, risking overstatement, but thought-provoking. The Batman discussion -- married insightfully to a (weaker) section on Bernard Goetz -- also hits with the question "Why are qualities we value in the unreal somehow verboten in reality?" (73).
Less successful is the rest of the Clinton-Lewinsky chapter, including a dopey reach that attempts to rope Hillary into his point (Clinton is not talking, Hillary would talk "if she had anything to say"  -- wha?). Most egregious is the very Simmons-y chapter on music and especially the Eagles, which was his most indulgent, least insightful piece, which also came very early in the book and thus almost made me put it down before I got to the better parts. And why do these writers dump fifty-line paragraphs on us? Seriously: organize, transition...don't just babble.
In the final accounting, I love the topic and am not convinced by the know/care thesis, which is just oversimplified. The writer, who came into my consciousness with his Esquire essay about his archenemy, on which he follows up admirably here. He is a good thinker and usually engaging in prose, even if he's not as funny as he thinks he is. Sounds like punditry. Sounds like we in the Internet age are going to have to get used to it.(less)
What do we do with genre? Do we pigeonhole authors based on where they have come from, generically; can we even start fresh, without preconceptions, w...moreWhat do we do with genre? Do we pigeonhole authors based on where they have come from, generically; can we even start fresh, without preconceptions, when one ventures beyond his or her established domain?
These questions arose for me when I started this novel. I knew Liss as the historical-fiction master behind The Coffee Trader. Make no mistake: this novel is historical fiction, and in no way has Liss dropped the ball in his ability to use history to make a compelling story. Witness the vibrant presence and weaving-together of Lord Byron, William Blake, the Rosicrucians and Luddites, the only assassination of a British Prime Minister, even Beau Brummell, in a crunchily fulfilling Industrial Revolution story.
The border-crossing involves his infusion of fantasy. J.K. Rowling has struggled to make the transition from Potterworld into adult realistic fiction; Liss is dipping his toe in a river flowing roughly the other direction.
Unfortunately, this book leaves me wishing he hadn't. Liss is an aggressive writer of HF, with developed chops. He uses not only details from history and culture but also speech: his period syntax and diction extend beyond the characters' speech even into the omniscient narration. (A random plumping: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Volume 1 The Pox Party does this even better.) It was easy to get into 1812. The same was not true of the fantastic elements. Almost every turn carried with it a whiff of deus ex machina -- the elegant avoidance of which was one of the marvelous victories of Rowling's Potter series, raised all the more by the depth to which she reveled in magic.
I love Yo-Yo Ma but I'm not inclined to want to hear him rap. I am willing to listen for a few bars, because I'm innately curious. I listened to Liss, and want to tell him to stick to his strengths.(less)
(Read in college -- don't remember the details but remember it being a tour-de-force. Re-reading in 2013 for the independent study I'm leading. More n...more(Read in college -- don't remember the details but remember it being a tour-de-force. Re-reading in 2013 for the independent study I'm leading. More notes to come....)(less)
I've been commenting about the Pelecanos formula -- to repeat, it's a formula that works -- so I'm starting to try to quantify it now that I just got...moreI've been commenting about the Pelecanos formula -- to repeat, it's a formula that works -- so I'm starting to try to quantify it now that I just got the two new books (thanks, Paul) that feature Spero Lucas, the latest in Pelecanos's line of investigators.
In a way, this new branch of the Pelecanos tree illuminates some things for me...but, then again, further observation should always facilitate refined theorizing -- that's how induction works. Spero and his brother, non-Greek (Spero white, Leo black) adoptees by the Greek (there's the Pelecanos root) Lucas family, are somehow the perfect symbol for Pelecanos's DC. They are manly, profane, sexual, highly competent. They love family and tradition, music, and their city. They are comfortable with people of all races, just as DC should be, regardless of whether it is (as a character says, and Pelecanos seems to feel, warmly) essentially a black city.
Expertise is perhaps the single most prominent element of this. The old saw "Write what you know" has perhaps its greatest active practitioner here. Pelecanos clearly lives life actively -- "all the way up," as Hemingway's Jake Barnes says of bullfighters in The Sun Also Rises -- and his heroes share that aficion. The love and have strong opinions about liquor, cars, weapons, movies, books, the military, bands and music, clothing, biking, kayaking, and DC. Characters wax nostalgic about less well-known songs on famous albums, and point out critic-level distinctions about lesser-known artists. There is never a vagueness here; no opportunity to cite a brand name or a distinguishing detail is passed up. In a lesser writer's hand, this would seem like name-dropping. It irritates me once in a while, but overall it simply works, simply enough.
In Hemingway-land, Pelecanos's protagonists would be bulls, and his supporting characters are bull wannabes, with a hatred of steers shared between them. Pelecanos has a profound respect for women that a Hemingway reader may doubt about Papa, but this is testosterone-ville, let's not kid ourselves. (To be clear: I'm not equating Pelecanos to Hemingway on a literary plane. I'm talking about style and characterization, which are not AT ALL trivial. On both levels, Pelecanos really is a master. But these novels are great for what they are, some of the best ever written for what they are, and that's enough. Pelecanos is not Hemingway, and these novels are not literary. They just work, and there's not a thing wrong with that.] Both Pelecanos's heroes and his villains have flaws; even the city, beloved as it is, does not become some sort of justice wonderland: although fewer good guys suffer in this novel, this DC is still not a safe place.
It is a great place to visit in a Pelecanos novel, though. I've got the next one, The Double, and I'm going back now.(less)
A number-line graph representing pride would have that positive feature somewhere to the right of center, with hubris off to its right and -- way to t...moreA number-line graph representing pride would have that positive feature somewhere to the right of center, with hubris off to its right and -- way to the left -- shame. As apropos as the dog-depicting book jacket is, given Lorenzo Brown's job, that graph may be even more representative. What gives a man or a woman pride, and what people think adds toward pride, is central to this story. Hubris often (but not always) comes with its cosmic comeuppance; shame grinds people down, and sometimes triggers disproportionate face-saving measures; pride is never far from the surface in Pelecanos's D.C.
I don't see it as a deeply literary plant but there's quite a feces motif here -- I'm not being facetious at all. Early and again late, Lorenzo's act of cleaning up after his dog draws chuckles from some of the local youth, but it is clear that this quotidian, unpleasant act is central to what we do as responsible adults: it's not all pretty, but we do it because it is part of our contract with the community and ourselves. A character who doesn't clean up after his or her dog is begging for the universe to exact karmic clean-up on him or her. It's part of the Pelecanos Code.
This one-off novel, with a setting familiar to Pelecanos fans but an entirely new set of characters (with Derek Strange making an uncredited cameo or two), is just as good as his various other novels. Rachel Lopez, Mark Christiansen, Nigel Johnson, Sarge, Lakeisha, even DeEric and Michael and Rico and Melvin, they all add up to the usual Pelecanos D.C. stew, and it is just as filling as ever. The ventures into the world of dogs and Narcotics Anonymous are expertly done, and the usual haunts of drugs and guns and music sing under the author's touch. The man knows his shit.(less)
Spero Lucas, the protagonist of The Cut, is back in what seems slated to be a three-book arc. It's hard to imagine a Pelecanos novel that is not compe...moreSpero Lucas, the protagonist of The Cut, is back in what seems slated to be a three-book arc. It's hard to imagine a Pelecanos novel that is not compellingly written, populated with imaginative grotesqueries just a stone's throw shy of Carl Hiaasen, and running at a breakneck pace. Once again, I ended up staying awake long past midnight to see how this one turned out.
And yet this is probably my least favorite among the eight or nine Pelecanos books I have read. There seems to be a whiff of literary intent that hovers here in an unusually ungraceful way. I love literary fiction, but when done awkwardly it is more unpleasant than if it had not been attempted at all. Pelecanos sets it up intelligently, with an archetypical anonymous bystander talking about invasive snakeheads as "predators but nothing preys on them" (18), and adding levels with the titular artwork. Eventually, though, he can't seem to resist hammering it home with unnecessary explicitness, more than once (268, et al.). I got it! I liked it!
The preachiness doesn't help. Several PSAs seem to appear, and they're all good causes, but they whack my suspension-of-disbelief over the noggin. Pelecanos has often been inclined to avid partisanship on behalf of certain causes (education, Washington D.C., and the military are among my favorites of his hobby-horses -- he rides these like a champion equestrian). The Double tips too far over into didacticism, too many times. My favorites are his characters' little screeds on things ranging from films to beer ("Anything that's not light" ) to literary fiction ("...whatever that was" )
Read it for the conflict and the action, and you won't be disappointed. I hope the next one is more like The Cut, though.
Postscript to my comments on The Cut: Another key part of the Pelecanos ethos is Work, which I hadn't mentioned. Spero says, matter-of-factly, that it all boils down to "Sex, work, money, and a comfortable bed" (15).(less)
Since I first saw the cover of this book, I wondered about the design. It struck me as weirdly simple. I looked and looked, trying to find some sense...moreSince I first saw the cover of this book, I wondered about the design. It struck me as weirdly simple. I looked and looked, trying to find some sense that I had missed. A glance at the table of contents revealed ten stories; the odd splitting of the month's name links the "Ten" with the root "Dec" (ten), leaving the "ember" hanging in darkness. Fragments of meaning poked their noses above the surface but failed to clarify or resolve themselves. My initial dissatisfaction with the design had transmuted into a latent curiosity.
This whole experience turns into a somewhat fitting representation of what it's like to read the stories that comprise this collection. Saunders has been around for a while, long praised for dark humor and innovative stories. This book, which catapulted him into the public consciousness in a dramatic fashion, shows that that praise is well-deserved: these ten stories tap into curiosities and cares that epitomize our humanity, and that's what great literature is about.
What great literature is not about is high-minded, pretentious didacticism. Nothing could be further from Saunders's project. The voices are quirky, self-seeking without being self-aware, funny but often without knowing it, plain and human even when they are distinct to the point of oddness. Saunders's typical character wants much more than he or she has, wishes for exceptionalism (or at least normalcy) and struggles toward it with limited success, is an unreliable narrator. The reader gradually recognizes fissures between what appears and what is, and, in the pleasurable work of parsing out the mild little mysteries, suddenly realizes that he or she is in the front row of the human theater.
There is clearly darkness in the humor but I'm not convinced that the book is dark, as some commentators have said. Saunders revels in the weird and unsettling, but he has a sympathy that is enormously engaging. Poignancy and tragedy loom larger than satire, despite a tone that favors the latter. There's a motif of would-be heroism that Saunders does much magic upon; the first and last stories bookend this especially well, but there's a thread of ethics and courage that snakes through several of the other stories as well.
My favorite two stories are the plain and poignant "Puppy" and the sci-fi-ish (many of them are so tinged) "Semplica Girl Diaries". If you love resolution, you're not likely to like this any more than you like Chekhov, who long ago formulated a theory of short fiction that said, roughly, the problem/question is what matters, not the resolution. Saunders does some beautiful work with cruelty, insensitivity, illness, desire, class, poverty, self-consciousness, and confusion.
That he can take these characters -- outlying points -- and recenter the human species around them is a great credit to his talent. Flannery O'Connor herself would be impressed.(less)