This novel is a mish-mash of spirituality and the kind of big-think science-fictional existentialism that I come across rarely as a SF reader. I poste...moreThis novel is a mish-mash of spirituality and the kind of big-think science-fictional existentialism that I come across rarely as a SF reader. I posted an extended review here: http://www.whywewaltz.com/post/155689...(less)
...he was witnessing an insane relay race in which each contestant ran faster and longer than the last, arriving nowhere but at his own destruction.
Fo...more...he was witnessing an insane relay race in which each contestant ran faster and longer than the last, arriving nowhere but at his own destruction.
For some reason I keep thinking of le Carre as a writer of thrillers, and it's true that his recent crop of novels definitely follow a kind of thriller model, but his earlier novels, like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and A Perfect Spy, are really high tragedies that use some of the reversals of the conventional spy thriller to ease the delivery of the hefty dose of cynicism and dysfunction that fill his characters and the institutions at the heart of his stories. They're excellent portraits of the slow drift towards insanity that the Cold War set off, and they also come across as pretty thorough condemnations of the more secretive machineries that waged that war.
The Looking Glass War is probably the least thriller-y and most high tragedy of the le Carre I've yet read. Like in classical Greek drama where the tragic hero commits an act of hubris and is brought low by the gods, in the Looking Glass War it is a secretive British military intelligence agency that commits an act of bureaucratic overreach culminating in the recruiting and training of a secret agent to send into East Germany to gather information on a potential missile site.
Le Carre seeds the story from the very beginning with very subtle hints that the people running this agency are over their heads--the big deal the characters make out of being able to charge expenses, for instance, and their excitement at being able arrange a car service from the ministry, their inferiority complex towards their more functional sister intelligence agency, nicknamed the Circus. By the time we get to training the agent--the unfortunate, hapless Leiser--alarm bells are ringing in the reader's head as Leiser fumbles through one training exercise after another, never learning how to work the wireless set, for instance, all the while the head of this intelligence agency look on seeing only a return to their WWII-era operational glories.
It's a bit cringe-inducing to read when you realize that this will not end well (and it's not a spoiler to reveal this, since, as I say above, the author telegraphs this pretty early on), but it is still thrilling, with an ending that takes a bit of the wind out of you. (less)
And as this dirge went up, so did his hands to strike his founts of sight, not once, but many times. And all the while his eyeballs gushed in bloody d...moreAnd as this dirge went up, so did his hands to strike his founts of sight, not once, but many times. And all the while his eyeballs gushed in bloody dew upon his beard ... no, not dew, no oozing drops—a spurt of black-ensanguined rain like hail beat down.
Gross. This is the first time I’ve re-read this play since high school and of course I’d forgotten how powerful a story it is--and just how gruesome and brutal a story it is. In true Hitchcokian fashion, the reader/audience knows Oedipus is fucked from the get go, and the tension that comes from watching him accuse Tiersius and Creon and anyone but himself of incurring the gods' wrath and dive head-first into that ancient Greek uber sin, hubris, is quite affecting. And then Oedipus grabs the knife and we get that bit of text up there. Apollo is one cold muthafucker.(less)
It doesn't seem quite right to shelve this short novel under the mystery category, though it is perhaps a distant cousin of Raymond Chandler's Marlowe...moreIt doesn't seem quite right to shelve this short novel under the mystery category, though it is perhaps a distant cousin of Raymond Chandler's Marlowe novels in the sense that the mystery at the core of the story--in this case, Rhee's missing father--provides the impetus for the protagonist's journey through a dark and occulted world, and the experience of following her through this world is such an intense and fascinating one that it makes the ultimate outcome of the central mystery almost irrelevant. In that sense, Heart of Darkness is a better candidate for this novel's ancestry than anything that came out of noir.
The world Woodrell creates here is a distillation of the Missouri Ozarks slow filtered through prose that oscillates unsteadily between Flanery O'Connor and the Book of Job. The effect of such prose is somewhat similar to stage lighting that casts giant shadows on the background and hides actor's faces in semi-silhouette, which can exaggerate the human form into something monstrous. And Woodrell conjures up a few pretty convincing monsters here, particularly Thump Milton, the Mr. Kurtz of this particular heart of darkness.
But I think what I really got from this novel wasn't the monster story so much as a vivid depiction of a closed and ancient society that exists within but very much apart from maintream society. I had seen the movie before picking up the book, and it's the ancient part of the Ozark culture that surprised me the most in this book, the various digressions in which Rhee recounts the ancestors of her people, and their founding mythology and frontier spirituality. Winter's Bone is at heart, I think, a guided tour through a world that may very well exist within our own, that resembles mainstream society only in the most superficial of ways but which functions by codes and mores that can be quite alien to those of us on the outside.(less)
I'm not much for royalty, and I know nothing about the War of the Roses--even the Wikipedia entry on that subject g...moreTomorrow a whisper may destroy you.
I'm not much for royalty, and I know nothing about the War of the Roses--even the Wikipedia entry on that subject gives me a sense of confusion I haven't felt since high school algebra classes--but Josephine Tey manages to recast one of the most infamous scandals of of that era as a kind of detective story, and it works remarkably. Once I found out what this novel's schitck was I was ready to bounce, but I'm glad I didn't.
Inspector Grant is laid up in a hospital bed recovering from a bad fall, and a friend brings him a portrait of Richard III. Grant, who doesn't recognize him as Richard III at first and who has a talent for reading faces, at first places him "on the bench" instead of "in the docks", and he is surprised when he learns that it is the face of one of England's most notorious royal murderers.
Because he's bored out of his skull sitting in a hospital bed, he starts to "investigate" further, trying to figure out how his impression of the portrait could have been wrong. Virtually immobile, he is assisted in this by a visiting US scholar, Brent Caradine, and the bulk of the novel consists of dialogue between Grant and Carradine, recounting historical events. For a novel where the main characters sit around and talk about centuries-old events, it manages to be both engaging and suspenseful. Tey gets in a lot of good digs at history and those who write it (history, it turns out, isn't just written by the victors, but by the victor's lackeys), and mints a term, Tonnypandy (in reference to the Tonnypandy Riots) to refer to false events that are provably false that people go on believing are part of actual history anyway.
It's a pretty incredible thing for a mystery novel to work with no on-page murder, corpses, chase scenes, or sex, but the historical intrigue carries the story quite well.(less)
I remember in the weeks after 9/11 listening to WNYC, the local NYC public radio station. Their FM antenna was on the World Trade Center and it went t...moreI remember in the weeks after 9/11 listening to WNYC, the local NYC public radio station. Their FM antenna was on the World Trade Center and it went to static immediately when the planes hit, and their studios were in lower Manhattan, so they had to broadcast out of another office uptown, sending their signal out from a tower somewhere in New Jersey. The voices sounded fuzzy and full of a sad confusion, and the regular music that filled the spaces between segments was no longer the usual bourgie pop but some quasi-atonal clarinet melody that seemed to pour salt on all the bad feelings. But still, I listened every free moment I had, to the point where it started to feel almost like a chore or a daily penance.
I hadn’t thought much about those days recently, but early on in this novel it all came back to me. About thirty pages in, the BBC’s Director of Programme Planning pulls the plug on a French general’s rant on live radio without telling anyone, the effect of which Fitzgerald describes like this:
For the past ten minutes there had been total silence on the Home network. The fifteen million listeners had heard nothing. But their reaction was not surprise so much as a kind of relief, the interruption of their programmes being exactly the kind of thing which everyone had expected from the moment war was declared, but which had failed to happen, holding the listeners’ attention in a supersaturated solution which had failed month by month to crystallize.
The circumstances are different—this is London during the blitz, when the possibility of a Nazi invasion seemed all but certain—but the sentiment is similar.
Human Voices tells the stories of a handful of people in the BBC’s broadcasting department in 1940, at the beginning of the Nazi blitz. But this is neither a pulse-pounding tale of survival nor a tragic drama of romance and loss, though there is certainly a dash of romance and loss tossed into these pages.
Instead, Human Voices chronicles these characters through the mundane activities of their daily lives, following them as perform the not-so-exciting tasks associated with producing radio—gathering recordings, juggling schedules, facing off with other divisions of the British government that want to commandeer the airwaves for their own purposes—and lead their lives in whatever small spaces remain outside of work and the war.
What I really came to love about this novel is how its characters find solace from the overwhelming stresses of air raids and the threat of imminent invasion in the humdrum of bureaucracy. There are very few conversations about the war in general, or global politics. The closest we get is the following conversation between Jeff Haggard, the BBC's Director of Programme Planning, and another administrator:
“The day the United States declare war on Nazi Germany, the Central and South American Republics will follow suit… Now Mr. Haggard, all of them are going to want representation at the BBC. That in turn means fifteen new sections … they’ll all of them want carpets, chairs, desks, typewriters adapted to the Spanish alphabet and steel filing cabinets….”
“I hadn’t thought of the position exactly in that way,” Jeff replied.
“I daresay you hadn’t, very few have. Decisions are made, as you know, with very little thought as to how they’re to be carried out.”
“You have my sympathy.”
“But what do you suggest I do?”
“Pray for a negotiated peace,” said Jeff.
“Now, Mr. Haggard, you don’t mean that, we all know you don’t mean half of what you say.”
“I don’t at all mean that it would be desirable. I’m simply saying that it’s the only solution for the problem of the steel filing cabinets.”
By filtering such large matters through lens of bureaucracy, Fitzgerald seems to be reminding us that the small events of our lives are the only way we really understand the significant events of the world around us, events that history books so glibly dissociate from the level of personal experience and put forth as definitive accounts. Here, Fitzgerald returns them to their proper place.(less)
Yes, the first 50 pages are exceptionally brutal. I was reading them on the subway during rush hour and my hands were shaking.
Yes, there are a lot of...moreYes, the first 50 pages are exceptionally brutal. I was reading them on the subway during rush hour and my hands were shaking.
Yes, there are a lot of different voices—a third-person narrative interspersed with three (maybe four?) first-person accounts of strange occurrences that intrude upon the third-person sections. But I never really lost the thread of the story.
And yes, there are some scenes that dance on the edge of bestiality, when a female bear somehow becomes a convincingly appropriate object of sexual desire (never thought I’d use that particular combination of words).
But there are also moments of absolute truth and emotional resonance so powerful it’s like hearing a tuning fork tuned to the specific frequency of your heart. Moments like this one, one of the first-person accounts of a character named Ramstrong, one of the few kind-hearted men in this novel:
“I remember when Anders were born, how all on a sudden I was joined to everything. When, as a bear, I flew across the country and I saw the pattern we all belong to, well, that was a momentary thing, and the sight faded behind my later adventures; but when my first son were handed to me—I remember, I thought I had never held linen so clean, nor been in a morning so absolutely new—the pattern came clear again, but this time, rather than flying above it and seeing it whole, I fit into it and was right down here on the hearth and against the beat of it, my face in the warmth. I felt the house of it all around me.”
Some fiction picks you up and gives you the aerial perspective of things, showing you the pattern of interactions between people and institutions and behaviors using omniscient narrators and giving the reader information well in advance of the characters. But this is a novel that brings you right up to the face of the people within it in all their smelly horribleness, their ecstatic exuberance, and their sincere, loving kindness.
It was a bit of an emotional struggle to get through, but it really is one of the best fantasy novels, and one of the best novels about being a human, that I’ve read in a long long time.(less)