Some books barrel into a room uninvited. They speak loudly and rhetorically about their own greatness while you're trying to enjoy the subtle artistry...moreSome books barrel into a room uninvited. They speak loudly and rhetorically about their own greatness while you're trying to enjoy the subtle artistry of a Joel Schumacher film or trim your toenails at the kitchen table. Often these books will tell you, in a voice like Harvey Fierstein's, but louder and less mellifluous, that Susan Sontag is (I mean, was) an enthusiastic fan of it. Perhaps while beating together two large cookie sheets just above your head, for example, the book will inform you [intermittently, between cymbal crashes] that Susan Sontag regarded it as a 'startling antecedent to the poetic ambiguity of postmodernism' or a 'neglected triumph of Latvian dissident literature.' You might endeavor to say, glibly, unfairly, 'Fuck Sontag' because you want to see the end of Flatliners, but that book will drown you out with childish nyah nyah nyah nyahs and other accepted debate techniques. If all else fails, the book will remind you that its primary subject is the holocaust or Stalin's Gulags or the cricket-playing community of New York City after 9/11, so if you aren't interested, maybe you're just morally bad and wrong and evil and mean, in the categorical George W. Bush employment of the words.
Other books, meanwhile, tiptoe into the room. You don't even notice they're there until they whisper in your ear, gently, almost subliminally, to please pass the crackers. Usually these books wear self-deprecating outfits. You know what I mean. The kind of clothes ugly people with low self-esteem wear hoping never to be noticed. A long, voluminous skirt with its hem dragging on the floor. A boxy wool earth-tone sweater that suppresses any indications of gender. Longish, unkempt hair obscuring much of the blushing face. Maybe I'm talking about Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club here. At any rate, this sort of book is unassuming and consequently arouses no suspicion in us (the readers) that it might be great or even very good.
Hangover Square is the Ally Sheedy kind of book. It's not at all what I would expect to like. It's essentially the story of a mentally ill, alcoholic loser named George Harvey Bone, who lives a lonely, desperate life in London (just before WWII), aided only by the fellowship of a few other very nasty alcoholics who delight in using and abusing him. Generally, I've pretty much exhausted my taste for Alcoholic Literature of the British Isles since I took that Irish Literature class in college. (Ireland needs some more literary subjects besides alcoholism, poverty, and religious enmity. Maybe a book about a talking dog or something.)
But wow. Patrick Hamilton can really sneak up on you and scribble out a book that you can't (or don't want to) put down. The Slaves of Solitude was the same way. He makes his characters' psychology so vivid and potent that it's enough to read about them taking out the trash or scrubbing their toilets. They have a vast and very real inner life that gives way to the suspense or the pain or the misery of his novels.
Hangover Square is a peculiar novel—peculiarly successful—in that readers will inevitably root for the protagonist Bone to do something truly awful—morally reprehensible, in fact. We are lulled into an ethical twilight state by Bone's put-upon haplessness and his mental infirmities, which seem to preemptively exonerate him, to whatever extent. (less)
In the hazily autobiographical novel Fiasco, Imre Kertész describes the return of his surrogate-protagonist György Köves from the German concentration...moreIn the hazily autobiographical novel Fiasco, Imre Kertész describes the return of his surrogate-protagonist György Köves from the German concentration camps after World War II to his native Hungary, now a communist satellite state. To be sure, Kertész incurs more than a small debt to Kafka here, as the bewildered Köves is suddenly immersed in an irrational society beholden to shifting and unintelligible rules—but that debt is commensurate with the pay-off because Kertész does long-form Kafka better than Kafka ever did. Kafka’s worlds were hollow-feeling, abstract—which lent to a sense of alienation and strangeness, sure, but the worlds they described were correspondingly insubstantial. Kertész, by way of contrast, creates a more inhabited, relevant world for his readers.
Fiasco is a strange book. It opens with a hundred-twenty-page section that is neither a preface nor an introduction. It’s both part of the novel and distinct from the novel—an apology for, perhaps, or shaky explanation of the narrative which is to follow. A writer (though he declines the title) putters around his apartment in present-day (1980s) Budapest feeling compelled to write another novel after his previous novel (Kertész’s Fatelessness) is rejected by publishers, but lacking a clear objective. Why should he write? Why should anyone write? Do writers write to entertain, to inform, to gratify their egos, to exhume the depths of their hearts and minds? He fumbles for an answer, finding none of them entirely satisfying. And he recalls his previous effort—the novel about Köves’s experiences in the concentration camps—and its utter failure. The writer rereads the harsh rejection letter in his files. But was the novel really a failure? Does one write only to be published?
Eventually, in a sort of blind momentum, he begins the new novel—this novel Fiasco which then becomes informed by the author’s earlier musings on writing. The writer writes a novel about Köves, who himself becomes a writer—but accidentally. Through some sort of bureaucratic error, Köves returns home to discover he has been discharged as a writer for a newspaper, a job he never occupied. This mistake, like many such mistakes in life, determines his fate, for lack of a better motivation.
Fiasco is not an easy novel to read. The beginning section is written in a scrupulously overdetailed style, emphasizing banality itself, and the sentences are long, winding, and occasionally difficult to follow. The novel-within-the-novel is written in a more generous style, but it remains cagey and elliptical. At times we’re not quite sure if only we the readers are confused about this world Kertész has created or if Köves shares our disorientation. In fact, Köves becomes assimilated faster than I did—which is as it should be. From a distance of a few steps behind Köves, we can watch him adapt and become integrated into this disturbingly irrational society.
Side Note: Melville House (publishers of Fiasco) has some of the worst proofreaders in the publishing industry. Or else it has no proofreaders at all. Get your act together, Melville! These are some sloppy books you’re putting out! (less)
Winesburg, Ohio, is certainly the geographical ancestor of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Washington, and Lumberton, North Carolina (Blue Velvet) -- not so...moreWinesburg, Ohio, is certainly the geographical ancestor of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Washington, and Lumberton, North Carolina (Blue Velvet) -- not so much for its omens of severed ears and one-armed men, but for its wealth of turbulent emotion (e.g., rage, despair, lust, contempt... all the good ones, really) concealed behind a picturesque scrim of small town American life. Yeah, the shopworn theme of middle class American repression has been done to death -- Sam Mendes’s American Beauty may have seemed its trite little death knell -- but the masters always manage to make it fresh and insightful. And let’s not forget, naysayers, that Sherwood Anderson published this, his masterpiece, in 1919. That’s right. Ninety years ago, and I guarantee that it’s a helluva lot more modern, in language and sensibility, than some of the stuff being written today. If it weren’t for the talk of carriages and Butch Wheeler lighting the street lamps, you might not even guess at its age at all. It’s had literary Botox or something.
One of my new favorite books of all time, Winesburg, Ohio is also the longest shortest book I have ever read in my life... which isn’t to say that it’s tedious or verbose or difficult, but that each short story in this compilation of character sketches about Winesburg residents contains so incredibly much, that the emotional weight of three or four of them in one sitting is enough or is as much as human empathy will tolerate. Make no mistake... The people of Winesburg are, for the most part, pretty fucking miserable. I ain’t kidding you: the lion’s share of them are privately contending with some deep sense of loss or regret or dissatisfaction which they are -- or merely feel -- powerless to overcome.
I mean, just take a good look at a few of ‘em: Wing Bindlebaum lugs around the (unfounded) rumors of his pedophilia, keeping him from expressing himself freely; Elizabeth Willard suffers from marrying her cold, neglectful husband Tom because 'he was at hand and wanted to marry at the time when the determination to marry came to her' (ah, romance!); Elmer Crowley is so obsessed with the fear of being perceived as strange (or 'queer' in the original sense of the term), that he makes of himself the most inexplicable town oddity; and Alice Hindman, who I think is the saddest one of all (no small feat), saves herself for a man who has left town and forgotten her and lies in bed at night 'turning her face to the wall [and:] trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.'
Wow is right. There are some pretty baroque -- not to say bleak -- interior lives inhabiting these plain and simple-seeming folk. Because the narrative component in these stories is only a means to illustrate -- no, not illustrate -- transmit these inner lives to the reader, I think it’s fairer to call them vignettes. Regardless of seasons, characters, and particulars, each one transpires in a gauzy-golden-late-autumnal-Bergmanesque-twilit-dream-state. We see too opaquely into the psychological interiority for this to be hard-and-fast realism. We experience these vignettes primarily as auras, moods, and eulogies.
Sherwood Anderson’s use of language in Winesburg, Ohio is definitely worth mentioning because it feels profoundly unique. Yeah, sure, his sparse, colloquial prose is a kindred spirit of sorts with Gertrude Stein’s and Ernest Hemingway’s, but it’s certainly not neat or easy. What I mean is that, just because the bulk of the words are elementary, monosyllabic, it doesn’t follow that the reader glides effortlessly over the prose. Anderson often tosses in non-sequiturs, layered abstractions, mysterious phrases, and clunky rhythms to keep his readers fully engaged. Nestled within the simple, matter-of-fact narration in 'Death,' for instance, we find these two sentences:
In the big empty office the man and the woman sat looking at each other and they were a good deal alike. Their bodies were different as were also the color of their eyes, the length of their noses and the circumstances of their existence, but something inside them meant the same thing, wanted the same release, would have left the same impression on the memory of an onlooker.
Incredible. 'Something inside them meant the same thing.' That little verb, dispatched in an unfamiliar and enigmatic way, makes the sentence. Rather than feeling or thinking the same way, the two shared a significance. What does that mean exactly? You can almost grasp it or catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of your eye, but it’s one of those things you need to feel to really understand.
I also can’t help but love the serial parity of eyes, noses, and existences in the second sentence. There’s a beautiful awkwardness in that phrase that quietly thrills me. (Yes, I’ll own my literary geekiness. It thrills me... and, now, no longer quietly!)
Winesburg, Ohio is only the nineteenth book I’ve added to my literary Valhalla, otherwise known as my 'pants-crapping-awesome' bookshelf. It is a rare and beautiful thing, and I am still wondering if you realize how much I loved it... If not, call me at home and I’ll tell you all about it. (less)
This book is a book about a woman who was a German who is dead (now). Before she was dead, she was alive and a dancer when she was younger, but dancer...moreThis book is a book about a woman who was a German who is dead (now). Before she was dead, she was alive and a dancer when she was younger, but dancer should really be in quotes because she danced like Ed Grimley sometimes, and at other times she danced like swatting wasp colonies and at still other times she danced like scraping dog poo off shoes. If you don't believe me (about the dancing), please see her first movie, which was a mountain movie called The Holy Mountain (1926). In the silent movie era before sound was ever even invented or ears were useful, Germans loved mountains (apparently) and movies about them, just like now we love movies about urban dancing and mountains also. Some people say that the mountains that Germans loved to look at on movie screens had something to do with their fascism, and other people do not say this at all or even think of it. I'm sure there are books written from both perspectives which may be read by readers who read books about fascist aesthetics, which include eagles and columns and nude Greeks and bunting and, some say, mountains. The mountain which stars in The Holy Mountain gets second or third billing after Leni Riefenstahl who dances in quotation marks by the seashore at the beginning (alone) and later on a stage where people allegedly pay money to watch her do so and are not at all angry-looking afterward. Here is the story of that film about mountains: Leni plays a woman who dances in quotation marks by the seashore (alone) for no known reason except to kill time because if movies were fewer than one hundred minutes the people who watched them felt gypped. After she is done with doing that, she dances some more in quotation marks on a stage where people, who appear uncoerced, come to spectate her strange and uncanny movements. A young man who is named Vigo afterward appears to be in love with her and sticks a flower in her car. It is assumed he is touched as they say because he stuck a flower in her car and because just look at Leni, who is a woman with frizzy hair and cuckoo eyes and crazyways. Leni smiles at Vigo who is watching her notice a flower stuck in her car which is weird any way you slice it. She drives away to her lover who is less young and less good-looking and less adept in flower placement than Vigo is, but Vigo and Leni's lover are friends, but Vigo doesn't know that Leni is dating his friend, and his friend doesn't know that Vigo is putting flowers in Leni's car. Also there is this: the friend of Vigo is referred to only as The Friend in the film because of a reason I don't know, but I suppose that it is a very artful reason nonetheless. Vigo, you should know, is a skiier who skis very well and is German and wins a skiing race in Germany and everyone is excited and saying, 'Yay for you winning skiing race!' but in German and silently because sound is still uninvented. Leni is impressed with Vigo's skiing, and Vigo is impressed with Leni's dancing. Out in the snow Vigo throws his head into Leni's crotch area (I am not kidding about this), and wouldn't you know it, the friend comes skiing around the cabin and sees Vigo's head in Leni's crotch area and isn't happy to see this happening very much. He goes away, without screaming out, 'I see your head in her crotch area!' or anything, and begins to start plotting schemes and machinations. Later, after that time, he tells Vigo to go climb a mountain with him that very night because the mountain must be climbed right at that moment because it is exceptionally needful of having climbing done upon it! Being a good friend of The Friend, Vigo says, 'Well, okay, I guess,' but not aloud because the film is very silent. He wonders perhaps in quieter moments why the mountain is needful of being climbed upon now, because the weather is less good than at other times and because it is night and because it is a cruel mountain; cruel, meaning steep and tall and death-causing. Leni has a performance of her dancing in quotation marks again that night because the people can't get enough of it and therefore we must watch more of it or fast forward the DVD. Vigo and The Friend are supposed to attend the performance because there is nothing else to do in this place where they all are but watch Leni move around on a stage and ski and skiing should be reserved for the daytime, and this being night... 'I suppose we'll go watch that broad move around again on a stage.' Meanwhile, while dancing in quotation marks is happening on the stage, Vigo admits that he loves Leni to The Friend and then falls off the mountain but is held up by a rope by the The Friend, which is meant to show, I think, that The Friend forgives Vigo but there is really nothing to forgive because Vigo didn't even know that The Friend was seeing Leni. And why two men would fight over one Leni is beyond the limits of disbelief most suspended, especially if you've seen her. So The Friend holds up Vigo for a great long while until they are both frozen and then eventually they both just fall off the mountain and die, which ruins Leni's morning for the most part. She sticks her fist in her mouth and flails around to show us how sad she is, and it isn't much different from her dancing in quotation marks. But the man who comes to tell her that Vigo and The Friend are dead makes her feel better about things when he tells her how The Friend held up Vigo all night and that loyalty in a friendship is very important. Somehow this makes her happy even though she was only told about their deadness a minute and a half before, and I think that makes her stupid or shallow or both. (Oh. By the way, Leni Riefenstahl also did Nazi films but that's not very important right now.)(less)
I've been thinking a lot about this, and I have come to the conclusion that David Sedaris is one of the worst human beings in history, i.e., since hum...moreI've been thinking a lot about this, and I have come to the conclusion that David Sedaris is one of the worst human beings in history, i.e., since human beings were first invented by an incompetent, Jerry Lewis-like god or by the inscrutable permutations of natural phenomena. This isn't a moral judgment. It's more like when someone tells you that you have spinach stuck in your teeth. It's both the mere reportage of a fact and a public service. Because, after all, you wouldn't want to walk around all day with spinach in your teeth, and you wouldn't want to spend your life mistakenly thinking that David Sedaris wasn't evil and unfunny.
Maybe I hate David Sedaris so much (abstractly; not with the visceral hatred I have for Mariah Carey) because I imagine all of these young straight couples in J. Crew worsted wool sweaters throwing back their heads like Mrs. Howell, laughing at his weak but fashionable humor. Maybe they're in their Toyota Highlanders driving out to Restoration Hardware to look at the brushed steel knobs and the faux-Victorian gewgaws. Have you been to Oak Brook? They probably live there and have heated floor tiles and towel warmers in their bathroom. The women all look like cut-rate Carolyn Bessette-Kennedys (before the plane crash), and the men look like the guy getting married in The Hangover.
David Sedaris is an entry-level gay for these people, right? They're all liberal, sure, but out in Oak Brook their gay contacts are limited to the service industry. The housewares clerk at Lord & Taylor, the hairdresser, or that one swishy waiter at Maggiano's who's stingy with the bread basket. You know, the usual A-Team of tanned men with shaved forearms and hyperreal hairdos.
What I am saying is that David Sedaris is a nice accessory. Sure, your grandparents might find some of his humor off-color or distasteful, but in the age of Sarah Silverman he's almost quaint. Anal sex (and its intimations) take on a Bombeckian glow in his hands. And that kerrunk, kerrunk sound you hear is Jean Genet rolling over in his grave (and masturbating on a pile of his own feces).
There are currently twenty-one people on my friends list who have rated this book. Only two have assigned it fewer than three stars. Defend yourselves, bourgeois scum. I mean that affectionately. You probably thought Bob Saget was funny on America's Funniest Home Videos too, didn't you? (less)