I'm sure this was devastating when first published in 1989, and the novel has for the most part aged quite well. What none of the blurbs or reviews me...moreI'm sure this was devastating when first published in 1989, and the novel has for the most part aged quite well. What none of the blurbs or reviews mentioned is how funny the damn thing is. Our protagonist Mr. Stevens could be a British cousin of one of Thomas Bernhard's narrators, given his penchant for talking around a subject for pages, without ever directly addressing it. (Interestingly, the Austrian novelist gave this condition to wealthy narrators, while his British counterpart gives it to a manservant.)
The old saw that we are all unreliable narrators when it comes to recounting our own lives does work wonderfully here. It's a tightrope walk, to be sure, and Ishiguro's master stroke is the book's setting: in postwar England our protagonist wishes desperately to slow the national pendulum's swinging away from his patrician values, towards the liberalized 1960s.
The irony, of course, is that his values are the very things which blunt his ability to articulate--or even wholly grasp--the changes afoot. It's funny, but it's this constant not knowing that elevate the novel to its classic stature. This high-wire approach is also why it reads like a novel with the architecture of a short-story: Ishiguro set very narrow parameters for himself.
You wouldn't think a fusty English butler obsessed with the 1930s would have a lot to teach the reader in 2014. But it's a testament to Ishiguro's gifts that all of us, sadly, are a little Mr. Stevens sometimes.(less)
I read this at the recommendation of an enthusiastic friend. And while the milieu of the book was as dirty, corrupt, drunken, and comic as advertised,...moreI read this at the recommendation of an enthusiastic friend. And while the milieu of the book was as dirty, corrupt, drunken, and comic as advertised, I confess I found the narrator's voice tiring. Had this been a bit shorter in length I would have heartily endorsed it.
It's still worth a read for the Mexican gloss on the old battle-hardened, tough-guy noir. Bernal's Mexico City makes Hammett's San Francisco look sunny by comparison. And the body count would be farcical if it didn't also symbolize the apathy at the center of the protagonist's despised "civilization."
At heart Garcia is a thug who prefers simplicity: if the cops tell him to off someone, he'll do it. But if they tell him to off someone in order to maintain the balance of the social order... you can see him rolling his eyes. I wish I had a better sense of Mexican and Latin American politics--one of the central themes is the transition from revolution to "peaceful" governance--and I suspect Bernal's skepticism is a part of the novel's acclaim.
One of the book's blurbers compares Monzó to Etgar Keret, which is apt: both writers can twist the everyday world into comic absurdity in the space of...moreOne of the book's blurbers compares Monzó to Etgar Keret, which is apt: both writers can twist the everyday world into comic absurdity in the space of a one-page story. Excellent stuff. (less)
First things first: go read this book. It has the feel of sentences forged by the heavens. The only reason I've not given it five stars is its somewha...moreFirst things first: go read this book. It has the feel of sentences forged by the heavens. The only reason I've not given it five stars is its somewhat mild ending, a feeling of stoppage rather than transcendance. Knowing Kushner's genius this may be my fault. A few years from now when I take it up again I may discover she's ended the novel in a quieter, subtler way than I could appreciate at first glance.
It's a great novel. The title is quite apropos: much like the magician's trick of soaking a finger in alcohol and then lighting it on fire, The Flamethrowers burns with a measured, sustained intensity just this side of dangerous. Except nothing about it is illusion: Kushner's the real deal.(less)
One of the smartest and funniest books to appear in recent memory, as brilliant a high-wire literary performance as any of the well-reviewed debut nov...moreOne of the smartest and funniest books to appear in recent memory, as brilliant a high-wire literary performance as any of the well-reviewed debut novels populating the Times Book Review. It's a testament to this book's originality that it escaped most review coverage, as How to Sharpen Pencils seems to operate completely outside of the publishing industry.
I kind of wish I were in grad school just so I could devote a month to studying the book. I'd pair it with another recent work, Mark Leyner's The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, for creating a new kind of structure for humor writing, one utterly current and fresh. Rees's conceit improbably holds up for most of the book, only to explode in the last chapter ("How to Sharpen Pencils With Your Mind") which simultaneously subverts and strengthens the entire endeavor. (less)
One of Salter's strengths is his ability to convey the slow negotiations of new love, from two strangers meeting to the frisson of flirtation and the...moreOne of Salter's strengths is his ability to convey the slow negotiations of new love, from two strangers meeting to the frisson of flirtation and the raw physicality of intercourse. (And by "raw" I don't mean fast; in Salter's universe the sex is quite deliberate.) Pair this with a protagonist who works as a literary fiction editor in the postwar years--a time ripe for easy nostalgia--and you have the makings of a great novel.
So why then is All That Is so underwhelming? Perhaps it has to do with the book's awkward gender politics, which themselves seem stuck in the 1950s.
The main character, Philip Bowman, acts despicably toward women, framing them as objects to be desired and owned. The social upheavals of the 60s and 70s never register in the novel, as if Bowman were exempt because... well, we never find out. It's as if the Roger Sterling of the first few seasons of "Mad Men" calcified into an unrepentant urbanite, ignorant of the world at large. What seems like a curious oversight midway through the novel becomes a damning flaw by its conclusion.
So the question becomes: is this intentional? What, if any, is the distance between Bowman's voice and the author's? The unfortunate answer can be found in the novel's byways, the many brief chapters about Bowman's colleague Eddins, or his first wife Vivian, or his various paramours. (Every male is introduced by his CV; every female, by her looks.)
In the hands of a lesser writer, these flaws would provoke immediate ire from critics. What's truly vexing is Salter's talent: the first chapters soar in crisp prose, the stuff of classics. You can almost see how this book could have been great. Perhaps the book, rumored to have been composed over several decades, simply gestated too long.(less)
This novel reads as the British response to Franzen's Freedom, but with an extra 40 pounds, in both senses of the word. Lanchester's book is obsessed...moreThis novel reads as the British response to Franzen's Freedom, but with an extra 40 pounds, in both senses of the word. Lanchester's book is obsessed with money, to the point of wilfulness. It's also cast its net so wide that in covering all of London, Lanchester covers none of it. Which is to say, the book it too schematic, too organized. The short chapters and panoptic viewpoint make for a quick read--no small feat for a 500page novel--but also prevent any investment on the part of the reader. I wish the author had tightened the focus to five or eight characters, so that we might generate both pathos and sustained psychological acuity.(less)