before reading; I already love Ben Ehrenreich -- The Suitors was beautiful, and he had that story about squid and the end of the world in a McSweeney'...morebefore reading; I already love Ben Ehrenreich -- The Suitors was beautiful, and he had that story about squid and the end of the world in a McSweeney's a ways back that broke my heart. Plus he made a Spotify playlist of inspirations for this book, which is full of enough lovely things (Nico, Nina, Lucinda, Joy Division) that I will overlook his inclusion of 50 Cent.
after reading: I paid full price for this book, which I never do, and so I am really mad that I didn't holy-motherfuck love it. In fact, I kind of hated it. It was just so heavily, heavily symbolic. It was plodding and emotionally distant, with characters who didn't have names (there was "the stranger" and "the tall and fat man" and "the bagman" and things like that, which became almost immediately cumbersome and annoying), and all this meta stuff where the character like haunts the author and talks to him and gets angry when he won't reveal things.
It was also often like a magicalization of homeless people? I mean it seems obvious and a little tired to elevate the crazies to mystics, to me. I hated The Fuck-Up, but the thing I remember about that book was how real he made it that a "regular" person, through a series of bad decisions and bad luck, could wind up homeless and helpless and destitute. Ether takes as given that lots of people are homeless and crazy, instead of delving into the hows and whys, and then bestows a kind of scary inherent idiot-savant spiritualism on them, kind of. Argh, I'm doing a bad job of explaining this.
Lots of people will like this a lot, I imagine. I, meanwhile, am still waiting for him to do something half as spectacular (and tangible) as that squid story from McSweeney's.(less)
I'm not sure why I play these weird games with myself. I had triumphantly gotten my most-highly-anticipated book of the moment, Swamplandia!, right be...moreI'm not sure why I play these weird games with myself. I had triumphantly gotten my most-highly-anticipated book of the moment, Swamplandia!, right before I left for a week-long beach vacation. But I wouldn't let myself start it before I got on the plane, and so I had a gap of like a day, and so I had to pick up something else to read first. Why did I pick such a long book? Why did I pick such a long, strange book? This one wound up taking up my entire damn vacation (I admit, there was a lot less reading-on-the-beach time than I'd anticipated, but still). In a way it wasn't so bad, because this book was awfully engaging, and of course it turned out later that Swamplandia! was a huge fucking disappointment, but still. But still! Stupid, stupid.
Shall I say something about this book? It's weird as hell. Heidi Julavits has stuff to do with McSweeney's, so I was expecting something maybe a little twee-er, maybe a little quirkier, maybe a little more wide-eyed and upbeat. This book is instead really really twisty, in that backwards-forwards way (I should have been tipped off to this by the title) where it starts glancingly in the present, then shoots way back into the past, then slowly boomerangs itself back and forth and back and forth until the past catches up and we're all in the present. But the "present" parts never really got fully explained, and I was either too sun-blind or too stupid to quite connect all the necessary dots, I think, so I finished it feeling a bit unsettled.
But. It was still very big, very polished, very engaging. Great characters and dialogue. Really evocative settings and atmospheres. Tons and tons (maybe too much at times?) of internal struggle, where things are explained and re-explained, looked at over and over by a very introspective and very slightly suspect narrator. Heidi is super smart, obvs. I'll definitely read more of her. But probably not on vacation.(less)
Oh boy. Oh man, do I have a lot to say about this here book. I can't even begin to tackle it as a whole entity, so I'm going to do a review of each st...moreOh boy. Oh man, do I have a lot to say about this here book. I can't even begin to tackle it as a whole entity, so I'm going to do a review of each story, unless I get tired and have to smoosh.
Also: I am the kind of person who listens to all my music on shuffle, which means I clearly have no respect for the artist's conception of a complete work. Consequently I read these stories totally out of order, and will review them the same way.
"The Suffering Channel" and "Mister Squishy" I think these are examples of DFW at nearly his best. They're certainly typifications of what I think of when I think of him. These long twisty stories with a fairly simple (though unique) plot, constellated with exhaustively depicted characters—to the point, sometimes, that it seems like the sort of pre-writing exercise you're taught to do in a creative writing class, where you jot down every single thing you can think of about your characters, from their appearance to their education to their mannerisms to their innermost fears and desires. Of course, those exercises are typically meant to be reference points only, a tool to help the writer really know his characters, so that they can be rendered more real on the page. But pff, DFW doesn't—didn't, oh god, pain in my heart—follow rules like that. Another rule he doesn't follow? The normal flow and rhythm of a story. Even pomo or trickerish authors tend to do things like group similar ideas or moments into the same paragraph, but not DFW. No, his stories (or his stories of the type exemplified by these two) have dense paragraphs that cover everything at once, with the interior monologue of one character tripping over a physical description of another character which is then pushed up next to the action the first was contemplating making a few pages ago. I want to make a metaphor about balls (ha), like juggling, but it's not like juggling, it's more like shuffling, like each part of the story is one suit in a deck, and he just swishes them all together so that everything is on top of something else, and you have to, um, count fucking cards or something, or anyway work really hard to keep each running narrative in your head so you know whom he means each time he says "she" because, following the logical sentence structure, it does not refer to the person it ought to refer to. Gosh, did I manage to make that sentence as confusing as the thing I'm trying to explain? Maybe I should have said that DFW at his best claws his way into your brain and makes you think and write and sometimes even talk like him, which is amazing and thrilling and a little bit awful.
I should also have said that "The Suffering Channel" is a brilliant excuse to have a whole slew of different characters have long, involved conversations about shit and shitting and playing with shit and caring for shit and preserving shit and making art out of shit—all while maintaining his aura of brilliance and scholarly aplomb. And I know there's nothing new under the sun etc etc, but I would bet a large amount of money that no one ever, in the history of the world, has used the phrase "intracunnilingual flatus vignette" before. These two stories each get high B+, and for a lesser author would be the top of his achievements. (See "The Soul Is Not a Smithy" and "Good Old Neon" for why DFW, of course, can do even better.)
"Incarnations of Burned Children" As MJ promised in the comments below, this story is fist-chewingly great. And devastating. In fact, this might be DFW at his best, but that's hard to claim, since it's so unlike what he usually does. It's short, it's too the point, it's sharply poetic, it's emotionally raw, it's essentially free of character description or background or intellectualizing. It's a short sharp stunning burst of beautiful horror.
"Another Pioneer" This story was too much on the over-intellectualization. It's kind of what you'd expect from DFW telling you a fable, I guess, reinterpreted through his ridiculous brain and spat out by a weird narrator, shot through with obtuse Latin phrases and rendered much less moving by being made so so writerly. Stories like this are why the haters hate DFW.
"Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" and "Oblivion" These stories can suck a dick. Lest you think I am just a mindless DFW fluffer, I want to stress that he can absolutely be just insufferable at times, which is why I always give his books the "too smart for their own good" tag. "Oblivion" in particular just made me furious, written as it is in this incredibly stilted style, with all kinds of "words" put in unnecessarily "quotation marks," as if the narrator were some kind of alien or moron who had never been in polite society. Which he wasn't. It was just a story about a dude who was having weird trouble with his wife, a story that should, in fact, have been a really interesting and engaging, involving sleep studies and intra-familial weirdness and strange manifestations of psychological trouble between long-married people after their kids leave home and the many, many layers of thought and self-doubt and self-assurance we use to fool ourselves and those we love. But he just fucking buried it all under this stupid conceit where everything was overexplained and mummified by weird constructions and stilted language and it was just awful. Ditto for "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature." Fail.
"The Soul Is Not a Smithy" Spectacular. Hands down the best story in the book, and the reason why DFW is a consummate motherfucking genius.
***I'm still not done with this review, dammit. I have obvs a lot more to say about that one, and I haven't even gotten to the utterly wrecking "Good Old Neon." Why can't I just spend my entire life writing book reviews? Can someone pay me a million dollars for that please??(less)
My birthday is always right next to Thanksgiving. Growing up, this pissed the shit out of me, because a) my birthday always got overshadowed by turkey...moreMy birthday is always right next to Thanksgiving. Growing up, this pissed the shit out of me, because a) my birthday always got overshadowed by turkey and I had to sleep on the floor in the basement in a sleeping bag because a visiting grandma or aunt or someone got my bed, and b) all my friends were always either out of town or busy with family and couldn't come hang out and party with me.
Anyway, my parents always "consoled" me by saying that someday I'd be old enough to appreciate that I'd always be spending my birthday with my family. I am not yet quite old enough to actually appreciate it, though I guess I'm getting there. This year I could have spent my birthday fighting hideous holiday traffic from Virginia to New York, only to find that when I finally got home, no one was around to take me out to dinner (except my boyfriend, whom I'd just spent six hours bickering with in the car). So meh, I decided to just say fuck it and stay in Virginia and let my parents take me somewhere fun.
Which they did! We had amazing Vietnamese food (shrimp with sugarcane!) and then went into DC to see a crazy dance/play interpretation of Master and Margarita, which was both balls-crazy and incredibly awesome. (My dad slept through it, so you know it was good.) Here is the trailer because any description will not do it justice, but I will say that it was produced & directed by a husband & wife dance team, the costumes/scenery were gorgeous & the effects were sick, Azazell was a sexy contortionist, and it was just overall brilliant, if also somewhat impenetrable.
Obvs my only thought upon leaving was that I had to hurry up and get back to Brooklyn so I could read the book again. Which I did! And man, this book is so fucking weird. Good, I guess, in an accomplishment kind of way, but weird. (less)
I forgot to mention, for the record, that this was book #4 for Jugs & Capes, my amazing all-girl graphic-novel book club. We discussed it this eve...moreI forgot to mention, for the record, that this was book #4 for Jugs & Capes, my amazing all-girl graphic-novel book club. We discussed it this evening over truffle-salted popcorn and green tea gelato. Isn't that grand?
You can also read this review (slightly tweaked) on CCLaP.
I've been wanting to read this book for years. Isn't it crazy that I had to start an entire graphic novel book club to somehow give myself permission to read it?
Perhaps. But who cares about the machinations I forced myself through to get to it? I am so glad I did. This book is simply spectacular. It is dense, fraught with meaning, stuffed with prose and complimented by simple illustrations. And in addition to being incredibly smart, incredibly illuminating, and incredibly inventive, it's also incredibly sexy. There's a scene where Alison and her girlfriend are in bed together making out, while reading the dictionary. Sexy nerdery! Incredible!
In case anyone doesn't know, Fun Home is a memoir about Alison Bechdel's childhood and early adulthood. She has two younger brothers, an actress mother, and a father who teaches high-school English and runs a funeral home. Yeah. Oh, and dad's a deeply closeted gay.
I'd like, as I always do with well-done memoirs, to invoke one of the blurbs on my favorite-ever memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: Finally, someone with a life worth writing about has got the skill to write about it. Oh, Alison, what skill! What a life! What a uniquely wonderful way of telling it!
The book has seven chapters, each of which is structured around a book. And I'm not talking about lowbrow or predictably canonized books, either; we've got Icarus and Dedalus, Camus's A Happy Death, The Great Gatsby, Proust, The Wind in the Willows, Henry James, and Ulysses. Holy moly, Alison is one smart cookie. She shrewdly and exhaustively catalogues and examines the parallels between these disparate works and the structure and choices and emotional makeup of her family, enhancing an already fascinating story with layers of intertextual readings and adept analysis. She says: "I employ these allusions to James and Fitzgerald not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms. And perhaps my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison." That makes me shiver.
Her language made me shiver a lot, actually, which is not something I expect from a graphic novel. (But let me reiterate that I've read probably less than a dozen graphic novels in my adult life, so excuse me if that's a stupid assumption.) Her prose is complex, lyrical, intelligent, and apt. She describes a summer afternoon in Greenwich Village by saying, "the city was reduced, like a long-simmering demiglace, to a fragrance of stunning richness and complexity." In a section which covers her own puberty as it coincides with a cicada summer, she says, "Next the locusts settled down to an orgy in our tall maple trees, cloaking us from dawn to dusk in the ambient noise of their conjugal exertions." In the chapter about her own journey of coming out as a lesbian (which is also the Ulysses chapter), she says, "I was adrift on the high seas, but my course was becoming clear. It lay between the scylla of my peers and the swirling, sucking charybdis of my family." Beautiful.
And I haven't even gotten to the art yet. I'm still working out how I relate to graphic novels, and it turns out I'm both too harsh a judge and also too easy. It takes little to impress me artistically—much less than it takes to impress me literarily, for sure—and so I find almost any art to be good. On the other hand, though, when I read graphic novels, I can't stop wondering why the author chose this format to tell his or her story, which is certainly not something I ever stop to consider with straight prose. Due to this, I actually find myself a little bit distracted, over-examining many of the frames in order to try to parse just why this story needed illustrating. I did that a lot in this book too, and while I didn't come to a clear answer, I did find many frames that were not just augmented, but wholly changed, for the better of course, by the compliment of the illustration.
For example, there's a half-page frame at the end of a chapter that shows Alison visiting her father's grave. With a short phrase of text that only harkens back to an anecdote related earlier in the chapter, the reader is free to attach all the end-of-chapter meaning to this large image, which is the graveyard, at twilight (probably; the shadows are long), empty but for Alison lying on her back in front of her father's monument, her bike on its side next to her. This is such a beautiful, aching image! And she didn't have to bother spelling out her loneliness, her puzzlement, the hours she spent in silent communion with her dead father. It's all there, exquisitely bare. Or in another image, full page, she compares a picture of her father at twenty-two to a picture of herself at twenty-one. In this one she does use words to enumerate certain similarities—pained grin, flexible wrists, angle of shadow on faces—but still the illustrations augment these bare-bones descriptions brilliantly. One last example: as she discusses the artifice in her childhood diary (she has written, "We might have to move! How horrid!"), the text reads, "How horrid has a slightly facetious tone that strikes me a Wildean. It appears to embrace the actual horror—puberty, public disgrace—then at the last second nimbly sidesteps it, laughing." The illustration here? Alison and her father watching, on TV, the Roadrunner eat the "free birdseed" and then speed away just before the anvil comes crashing down on his head. So there's the wry literary analysis of herself as an over-dramatic teen, the sharply augmenting pop-culture parallel, and then also the overlay of she and her father laughing together, in a rare moment of closeness. What a terrific, multi-layered whole!
There's so much left that I didn't talk about yet, but I suppose it won't do any good to say much more. This book is an absolutely astonishing delight, and if I haven't convinced you of that yet, I'm not going to bother trying anymore. (less)
Nov: Karen & I went to see Adam Levin read last night and he was great, not to mention ridiculously cool & nice. He is also the second author...moreNov: Karen & I went to see Adam Levin read last night and he was great, not to mention ridiculously cool & nice. He is also the second author I've met who hugged me when he found out I was his copyeditor (Deb Olin Unferth, who is also fantastic, was the first). As if I could have liked him more! Shit you guys, read this fucking book already and make the man rich & famous.
also: for anyone still on the fence about trying this -- especially those with whom I've lost reliability because I so overly effusively love everything -- check out this essay compiled from the Rumpus Book Club discussions. It's very detailed and measured and illuminating, although a bit spoilery.
Oct: Ooh, I just found out that this book is on the shelves now, so I feel like it's okay to expand my review a smidge.
First I will say again: holy moly, this is fucking stupendous. Totally unlike anything I've ever read before. it's the story of Gurion Maccabee, a ten-year-old Hebrew scholar and brilliant, brilliant boy, whom many of his friends (and also some grownups) believe is the messiah. It's absolutely steeped in Jewish philosophy, which believe me, I would have considered a huge turnoff if someone'd told me that that was what I was getting into, but it is just fascinating the way it's done here. (n.b.: I'm not anti-Semitic or anything; I'm a Jew by birth myself, but I just don't tend to gravitate toward religiously expounding books.)
Anyway, Gurion's dad is a fallen Chasid and his mom is an Ethiopian Jew who was a sniper or secret agent or something in Israel, and dad has taught Gurion to be an intense scholar and mom has taught him to be a serious fighter. The parents are thrilling characters, sexy and brilliant and terrifically fun. But most of the story actually takes place at Gurion's school, a last-resort school for fuck-up kids, because he's been kicked out of three other schools in a row for inciting and participating in serious violence. The whole book is written sort of as his scripture, as he rallies and trains his troops, then foments and carries out the Gurionic War against those who would keep down the Israelites with draconian rules and unjust punishments. The kids in the school, and especially Gurion's inner circle, are just amazingly complexly realized characters, so full and fascinating and devastating and fucking real. His girlfriend Eliza June and his best friends Benji (a gentile and a thug and in his own way even more brilliant than Gurion) and Eli (a beautiful and terribly sad transfer student and scholar who is it turns out so strong)... oh god, they are just so goddamn good.
I may have mentioned that the book is over a thousand pages, so obvs I've told you basically nothing at all so far. But each character is a wonder. The dialogue is phenomenal. The theology, rather than being a pedantic distraction, is thrilling. The scope is massive. I don't even know.
Obvs it's impossible to describe truly unique works of literature, and obvs I've done a bad job. But I am sad to say that I also think the promo copy does the book a bit of a disservice by name-dropping DFW and Philip Roth. I mean, it's like they went, "Uh, the book is really long and weird...compare to DFW! And it's super-Jewy...compare to Philip Roth!" Not to say that there isn't maybe a little something to the comparisons—it is long and weird and super-Jewy—but that just seems lazy to me. Adam Levin is his very own brand of insanely awesome, is all I mean.
Anyway, fuck. I'm getting shivers just thinking about this book. I can't wait to read it again.
June: Holy shit, you guys, this one is going to blow your fucking minds. Brilliant, sprawling, edifying, invigorating, devastating, dreamlike, utterly unique, just totally spellbindingly spectacular.... It's over a thousand pages and still too short. I don't even know what to say.(less)
bought for $1 at the art book fair. I'm ten pages in and it's already hilarious & awesome.
Aw, this book is very clever & funny. It takes...morebought for $1 at the art book fair. I'm ten pages in and it's already hilarious & awesome.
Aw, this book is very clever & funny. It takes fifty-two songs and examines them fairly thoroughly, giving their history, who wrote / performed them, lyrical and musical explications, why they're depressing, etc. He's a bit over-enamored with his own sense of humor, though; you can tell that he's writing to make himself sound very witty and smart, which can be a bit grating. He also uses pretty predictable construction of musical metaphors (like "The song ends with a flurry of reverse piano figures whipping around, as if the entire bird flock just soared into the Transamerica building) and artistic augmented comparisons (like _____ sings like a poor man's _____ on drugs / being run through a cheese grater / falling out of a helicopter, etc). But I did laugh aloud fairly often while reading, so that's pretty good.
His song choices are pretty varied; from the predictable ("Teen Angel," "Strange Fruit") to the obscure ("The Christmas Shoes," "In the Year 2525"), from old standards ("The Rose," "Tell Laura I Love Her") to new-ish hits ("The Freshman," "Prayers for Rain"). He introduces ideas like the Quantum Tragedy Paradigm ("the shorter the relationship between two people, the more overwrought and tragic the song that describes it") and the Perfect Storm ("mortality plus misguided passion," plus generally a horrifying diva screaming it out). There are very good goth-girl-about-to-off-herself illustrations throughout, and after I finished reading I had a whole bunch of new songs to download. So all in all a nice book to read in distracted small pieces, like on smoke breaks or on the crapper.(less)
pre: Found in a rain-wilted box on the curb, and I don't know one single thing about it. Very exciting!
post: Holy shit this book is great. Given that...morepre: Found in a rain-wilted box on the curb, and I don't know one single thing about it. Very exciting!
post: Holy shit this book is great. Given that it is all about amnesia, intentional and unintentional memory suppression, the existence or non-existence of consensus-based reality, the possibility or impossibility of coincidences, etc., I am stunned and delighted that it came to me so anonymous, so unknown. I still know not a thing about Sam Taylor (though I plan to learn more once I finish this review), but for such a book-obsessed nerd like me, that is so refreshing & awesome. To go into a book with no expectations, no popular "wisdom," no snobbery or elitism or pre-hate...well, it's fucking great.
And so rewarding – in this case, anyway. Before I do too much delving, I'd like to let this otherwise not overly meta book give you a description of itself:
Someone should write a true-to-life detective story, James thought bleakly; an existential mystery in which the answer is not to be found, clear and logical, at the book's end, but only to be glimpsed, or half-grasped, at various moments during its narrative; to be sensed throughout, like a nagging tune that you cannot quite remember, but never defined, never seen whole; to shift its shape and position and meaning with each passing day; to be sometimes forgotten completely, other times obsessed over, but never truly understood; not to be something walked towards but endlessly around.
I know that might be off-putting, especially for those who had an aversion to, say, House of Leaves, so let me assure you that, while this book is tricky, and slippery, and seems always to cycle itself away from the truth, refusing to reveal its secrets, which seem so tantalizingly close to the surface...while all that is true, it is much, much more satisfying than the preceding description would indicate. It has a clear narrative structure, interesting and consistent characters, lots of surprises, and a totally satisfying conclusion. So, to summarize: trickery, yes; obnoxious, no.
Let's go back a bit. The Amnesiac is the story of James, who lives in Amsterdam with Ingrid, but who is haunted not by his memories, but by his lack thereof. He can't recall anything that happened to him for about three years, not the last three, but some time ago, in college. This drives him to such eventual confusion that he lets Ingrid leave him, and returns to London to figure out his past.
Thick with real and metaphorical labyrinths, clouded windows, and mirrors reflecting mirrors, James's journey back to his past is slippery and very cleverly done. Everything seems at once pre-determined and also too absurd to be continuable. As his fragmented memory begins to reassemble, things get weirder and weirder, then pull back into normalcy, then slip off into absurd dreamworlds, then switch again to comprehensibility. But it is all so carefully controlled, you have full faith in the author's ability to let James (and you) untwist slowly and, eventually, clearly.
I should mention that there are strong correlations to a certain somewhat recent upstate New York movie, also about memory and its insistence on recurring, no matter how hard we try to repress it, and though I was a little bit bothered by this, it was only because it made some of what should have been gasping surprises a little bit predictable. But no matter; Sam Taylor is masterful and brilliant, meshing James's present life in modern-day Amsterdam with a long snippet-ly revealed Victorian murder mystery, with also a longish research paper about an imaginary philosopher, plus of course James's fragmented and splintery distant past and recent past and close and overtaking future. All beautifully counterpointed, intricately woven, creating an eventually terrific and complete whole.
I'm putting this on the new-new-new-thing shelf, even though it's not that new, because it is similar to all these new-new types of books happening no...moreI'm putting this on the new-new-new-thing shelf, even though it's not that new, because it is similar to all these new-new types of books happening now, which if I was more into theory or had gotten a Master's, I'd probably know the proper pedantic terms for. The point is, it's written fairly self-consciously, there are scattered meta bits and winks at the audience, it's clear Ben Ehrenreich is very smart and wants this book to be very unusual. And it absolutely is! But although I've got an extremely high tolerance for this kind of trickery and intellectualizing, The Suitors did feel a little contrived at times, a little forced.
Let me go back a bit. The opening sequence is wonderful, a very slippery picture of our hero and heroine, who start as characters outside of time, become more focused and detailed and personalitied, and then become more nebulous again, become a bit everyman and everywoman. I'm not doing a great job of describing this, but they're Payne and Penny, and they're at once specific characters with sketched personality traits and also meldings of all different kinds of characters, all of whom are united by the fact of falling in love with each other. (That's the best I can really do without quoting; have I made my point yet about intellectual trickery?)
(Actually, that was all Chapter 2. The first chapter, which is also the last chapter, is a very explicit snapshot view of everyone quite bloodily and gruesomely dead.)
Well, Payne and Penny get married and go off to live in the country in a little cabin. But Payne isn't happy with a little cabin to house his queen; he starts making little improvements and minor additions, then bigger and bigger and crazier things. It becomes clear that he wants to build a palace (because what else is fit for a queen?), and then the book enters its next phase, because skittering around the outskirts of their property is a nebulous number of other people, kids I guess, in the teenager sense, who spend all day huffing paint and having sex. Well so Payne enlists them all to help him erect his edifice. He is a ruthless taksmaster, and after the palace is built, they start going on raids to fill it with things. Soon it's filled with enough food and furniture and supplies and jewels and money to last several lifetimes, but they keep raiding, kind of just to kill people. Then they mine the mountain and start a smelting plant to make guns with, but when Payne tells them that they have to go fight in a war, everyone quits. Payne leaves anyway, leaves his Penny walled up in her castly, leaves his minions behind, and goes off to war.
Thus begins the next phase, which is the bulk of the book, where Penny, now pregnant, goes on to lead her bitter, furious, disassociated life with the minions. Did I mention that every single one of them, boys and girls alike, are destructively and totally in love with Penny? Yeah, that's the only reason anyone was doing what Payne told them to do all that time. I mean, they all couple and uncouple amongst one another, but each is slavering at all times for the merest hint of affection or even attention from Penny. And so it goes: they have lavish dinner parties, do inordinate amounts of drugs, fight terribly with one another, worship Penny, live their angry, unsatisfied little lives.
That's all the summarizing I can handle.
Here's the thing. As with most of this type of book, this motherfucker can write. There are large swaths of great beauty, be it philosophical asides, stunning descriptions of scenery, dissertations about love and hate and being and non-, snaps of great dialogue, brutal scenes of sex and murder and mayhem. The book is mostly very beautiful to read. But there's a lack throughout... I don't know if it's nothing more than a yearning for some kind of traditional narrative structure, or a need for some little bits of explanation for some of the more impossible things (characters sometimes go months without eating, for example, or swim entire oceans without stopping), or what, but it's all just sometimes... unsettling.
I bought this because Ehrenreich has a story in a forthcoming McSweeney's collection that is just mindblowingly incredible. (Plus his mom is the lady who wrote Nickel and Dimed!) It really is fascinating book, totally unique and strange and brutal and beautiful, but honestly? The short story was better than all of this. Hey Ben? Can you turn that into a novel please??(less)
The Slide is undoubtedly a great book. It hovers somewhat close to a magnificent book, and lots of people obviously think it gets there. But for me it...moreThe Slide is undoubtedly a great book. It hovers somewhat close to a magnificent book, and lots of people obviously think it gets there. But for me it was only almost.
It's a bit hard to explain why I think this is so. I mean, this is a book written to appeal almost directly to me, for one thing. It's practically about me, or at least plenty of people I know. The hero is Potter Mays, upper-middle class disaffected overly smart kid who just graduated college and has (somewhat) sheepishly moved back in with his parents -- just for the moment, of course, while he figures out what he's doing next. He's constantly thrust into the midst of everyone he went to high school with, many of whom are on the cusp of being successful, either financially or familially. It's summer, and he spends most of his time having semi-awkward exchanges with his parents or retreating to his best friend's poolhouse to get stoned.
So this is a nice, easy plot, right? A calm slacker bildungsroman, sort of, where the too-smart hero watches all the douchebags he used to know flitter around getting douchier, while he tries to figure out why he's not yet living the rarefied life he was destined for.
Not quite. There are a few kinks in the predictable plot arc which occur early and are carried through. Without being too spoiler-y, two of them are that Potter's girlfriend is on a European backpacking trip without him -- with their bisexual friend, actually -- doing who knows what with who knows whom, and sending Potter sporadic pictures and packages that don't ever reveal their meaning. So much of the book is filtered through Potter's questions about how much -- and if -- he really loves / loved Audrey, and what he will do when she comes back.
Another hitch is that Potter had an older brother who died as a young child. I don't want to discuss this much more, because there is a lot of the plot that hinges on this, and Freddy's effects on the characters are startling, chilling, and often beautifully sad. I leave the readers to discover these for themselves.
There's more, of course. One unexpected thing that Potter chooses to do is to get a manual-labor job, driving and lugging huge jugs of water all around the city. There is a nice dichotomy, therefore, between the relative wealth and easy life he has always known vs. that of his coworkers, who are all older, coarser, no-nonsense-er, and who all despise him to varying degrees. And there is further contrast with the lives of the people to whom Potter delivers the water, many of whom are actually really poor, living brittle lives in rundown shacks.
In one of these shacks lives a tween boy, Ian, whom Potter -- in another unexpected twist -- comes to befriend. Again, I don't want to give a lot away, but the relationship between Ian and Potter is both consistently surprising and sometimes desperately sad.
The last thing, plotwise, that I will mention is Potter's hot younger next-door neighbor Zoe. Their relationship is also surprising (though maybe less so than Potter and Ian), and their interactions are not only clearly the most achingly beautiful in the whole book, they're some of the flat-out most terrific budding-romance-type scenes I can remember reading ever. Stunning, wonderful, magical. Brilliant. I would gladly read a whole book of Potter and Zoe.
So. There's all of these strands, all of these elements -- and more, but come on, this is getting long enough. And it's great, the pacing is great, the dialogue is great, the characters are believable and unique and interesting. But here's where we get to the part where I fell away from loving this book. Because about two thirds of the way through, the whole thing spins and there is a twist which I found totally un-believable, and everything thereafter seemed much more forced to me, much less natural and believable and real. And worse than that, I can't help feeling that Beachy consciously decided that he had to do this to... I don't know, elevate his work, to make it move away from simple realism and normalcy and into something else, something higher, I guess. It all felt way too intentional, I guess, and instead of following an easy trajectory, he shot way away. And he lost me. I mean, I still really loved the book, but I just lost the sense of trust I had in the author, I guess.
(Note: for pretty much the exact opposite reaction to the above, please see this review by the always amazing Jason Pettus.)(less)
once finished: Well it has become pretty clichéd to say, but yes, it took me about fifty pages of this relatively slim volume to get over my instinctu...moreonce finished: Well it has become pretty clichéd to say, but yes, it took me about fifty pages of this relatively slim volume to get over my instinctual hatred of this successful young (my age when published) writer, and just get over myself and enjoy the book. Which, shit you guys, is really fucking good.
(Quick aside: Our Benjamin Kunkel is, as is more or less required for this demographic, clearly enamored with his own writerly talents. Consequently this book can be a bit much at times, overly descriptive and exceedingly clever. So that can be rather off-putting for many, but I have often remarked upon my very high tolerance for pretension, so this wasn't really that big of a problem.)
That aside, the dialogue is great. Snappy and careful and clever and very real. And underlying that, of course, are some just fantastic characters. The women are the best: Vaneetha is guileless and so smart and sexy and fun; Alice is brilliant and funny and even a little tragic maybe; Brigid is really just a phenomenal creation, who speaks in the best and most lovable and slippery broken English, saying beautiful and terrible and hilarious things, and I fell just as in love with her as our hapless narrator. Who, well, him I didn't quite love as much. But that doesn't detract from his realism, oh no, I think really it increases it, and it is another testament to Kunkel's skill that I had pretty strong (though uneven) love and hate for Dwight.
And here is a nice segue, because uneven is really a very important word for this story as a whole. Some of the sections – including the drug ones (see below) and the conversation-heavy ones, especially those involving the above-mentioned terrific women, and also the roommates – were just almost unbearably great, fast-moving and extremely affecting and thoroughly enjoyable. Other sections... mmm, not so much. Much of the geopolitical (is that right?) stuff became very heavy-handed and a bit boring, the work scenes were sort of blah, and Wanda felt like a really flat character. Also some of the middle scenes in the jungle, which should have been the central conflict, really, where Dwight and Brigid find and discard one another, were a bit opaque to me, and I kind of couldn't see why each was so upset and all that. Which is a pity, because that should have been heightening and tautening the romantico-sexual tension between the two, so that when they finally get together (not that you thought they wouldn't), it would have been such a relief and a release. Instead it was more like a foregone conclusion that, yes, made you happy, but didn't make you freak out with joy.
Anyway! I am kind of tired of hearing my own voice, so I will close with this: bravo Benjamin Kunkel for a great debut. I will happily read whatever you come up with next, and maybe one of these days I'll get around to checking out n + 1 too.
a note while reading: This is not remotely related to the review I will eventually write about this book, and I don't want to mislead, because this is not at all the thrust of the story, merely a few-page anecdote, but it's amazing how reading a really well-crafted Ecstasy scene can throw you thoroughly, viscerally back to times of having done it yourself. Seriously, my palms are even a little sweaty right now.(less)
Gosh, well wow. I liked this book quite a lot. It is certainly original and cool. Also a really great blend of beautiful language, surprising insight,...moreGosh, well wow. I liked this book quite a lot. It is certainly original and cool. Also a really great blend of beautiful language, surprising insight, wonderfully strange characters, and fascinating factualness. It reads very quickly, really propelling you forward, in a sort of frenzied rush to the point when all the secrets will be revealed. I found myself getting very nervous when I realized I only had thirty pages left... then twenty... then five... I knew there wasn't nearly enough wordspace left for Rivka to extricate us satisfactorily from the net she'd woven. And to be honest, she didn't. But I didn't mind as much as I thought I would, though I do wish she'd written another fifty or a hundred more pages; the story could have easily sustained it. I almost want to read it over again right away, not because I think more will be revealed (I suspect ten subsequent readings would only leave me ten times more confused and unsure), but because it really is a pleasure to be immersed in her characters and her creation.
Oh! And a great use of visual aids. Why don't more novels have intermittent pictures?
So anyway, I think the comparisons to Murakami and Pynchon were a bit hasty, but she is definitely a good thing. I'd be happy to read lots more of her writing.(less)
**spoiler alert** There's no doubt that David Mitchell is incredibly talented, and Cloud Atlas is a superior achievement. It was stylistically inventi...more**spoiler alert** There's no doubt that David Mitchell is incredibly talented, and Cloud Atlas is a superior achievement. It was stylistically inventive, intellectually daring, etc etc, just like all the critics and reviewers promised. But ultimately it sort of left me cold, and I found myself wondering (often) what all of that effort was really for.
There are two unfortunate things that at the onset contributed strongly to this book not knocking me on my ass. The first was the insane amount of anticipation I had going into it, as I had been told by countless people that this book was amazing, astonishing, etc., and so I think it was set up to be unable to live up to all that. The second is the impossibility of ignoring comparisons to Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. I know that it's a little unfair, but Mitchell simply cannot compete with Calvino, and I couldn't stop thinking about Traveller while reading, and so my whole experience of Cloud Atlas was tarnished by that.
Let's go back. This book, like Traveller, is written sort of like a set of interlocking parentheses, with six totally separate storylines beginning one after the other, going for a while, and then breaking off at climactic points. Then, at the end of the sixth storyline, the fifth is brought back, starting at the previous cliffhanger and continuing until its conclusion, then the same with the fourth, the third, etc. Each of these storylines is extremely different in tone, style, and character – we have the travel journal of an American in Australia in like the 1600s (maybe; I'm awful with history); then letters from a British composer in Brussels to his former lover; then a sort of thriller about a young journalist in California in the sixties trying to unravel a dastardly corporate cover-up involving nuclear testing facilities; then a present-day caper story; then a dystopian-future piece told over the course of a long interview with a woman who has been sentenced to death; then a crazy post-apocalyptic oral history.
So two things here: First, let me again stress that Mitchell is extremely skilled. He does each of these drastically different things with aplomb, and is equally imaginative and able to completely immerse the reader in each one. Each has not only its own setting and story type and narrator and characters, but also its own complete language (the latter two using completely different made-up sci-fi speak). That is utterly astonishing, and Mitchell deserves due respect for it. And second: a book of this nature is excellent for helping one crystallize one's preferences, by which I mean that as someone who dislikes post-apocalyptic sci-fi nearly as much as historical fiction, it's no surprise that I liked the British composer and the American caper far more than the rest. (And I did like them, lots; if I could rate those sections alone, they'd get five stars easily.)
And it is true that Mitchell does a bit of work connecting these vastly varied stories – in storyline two, for example, the letter-writer finds half the manuscript of storyline one in an attic, and at the end of the end of his story, he plans to read the second half, which he'd found much later. But here is the crux of the non-external reason I didn't like this book as much as I wanted to: these connections were tenuous at best. It's true that there are feeble attempts to weave things together a bit further, such as a recurring comet-shaped birthmark and some vague hints that a character from one story remembers a piece of music from another story (which even this is meta-ly discredited, actually), but that wasn't nearly enough for me. I just never really understood what made Mitchell stick these specific stories together, other than to be very very clever.
And this is where the comparison to Traveller hurts Cloud Atlas the most, IMO. With Calvino, every story is constantly reinforcing and augmenting (or obfuscating) the others, everything woven tighter and tighter, not to mention threaded throughout and tied firmly with an overarching ur-story. But Mitchell does none, or barely any, of this, and so the whole thing begins to feel just like an intellectual exercise, rather than an emotionally connected whole, and lord knows I need my literary meta-experimentation to be emotional. (less)
Let me start by saying that I did like this book. I did. Marisha Pessl is probably too smart for her own good, but that's never stopped me before (se...moreLet me start by saying that I did like this book. I did. Marisha Pessl is probably too smart for her own good, but that's never stopped me before (see David Foster Wallace et al.)
That said, as with most over-intelectualized writings, I had trouble getting close to her, to her work. There's such a lot of time spent obfuscating, demonstrating how clever she is, developing stacked metaphors and allusions, that the story can be hard to get lost in. You are constantly reminded that you are reading a novel by a very smart young lady. And while some of the characters are extensively developed (Hannah, Blue's father, Jade), most of the others, including 'our heroine', Blue, remain very flat. Blue, most of all, has so little emotion that it is difficult to believe her on the few occasions when she freaks out; when she cries or yells, you wonder, 'where did that come from?'
Also, some of my friends have complained (rightly) that the last fifty pages or so seem to be a completely different book, that everything changes drastically without warning. True, true. That part didn't bother me as much, because of course, once it switches you can go, 'oh so that's why that happened, and that, and that.' But still it was a little hard to swallow.
In any case, the book is definitely compelling, interesting, imaginative, original, etc, etc, etc. And really, it's only her first book, so she's got lots of time to improve. I'll read her next one, for sure.(less)
It seems kind of silly to put up a review of the Chicago Manual -- like anyone will doubt that it deserves five stars. However, since I have begun fre...moreIt seems kind of silly to put up a review of the Chicago Manual -- like anyone will doubt that it deserves five stars. However, since I have begun freelancing, this book has saved my ass so many times, I just want to pay tribute. (less)
There is an image that I will always remember from this book. The main gal, V, wears spike heels all the time, and lives in NYC, right? And so there's...moreThere is an image that I will always remember from this book. The main gal, V, wears spike heels all the time, and lives in NYC, right? And so there's this scene where she is described as the kind of girl who can walk over sewer grates in these heels, and always lands square on the intersection of the beams in the grate, you know? So she never falls in or fucks up her shoes. (less)
So I'm just saying that I was promised that this book would scare the shit out of me, and warp my conception of what a pomo novel could be. It did nei...moreSo I'm just saying that I was promised that this book would scare the shit out of me, and warp my conception of what a pomo novel could be. It did neither. The only part I remember loving was a scene where our 'hero' was in some dark crazy unplace, and he had one match, plus the book he was reading (wait, was it supposed to be this book? I forget now), and he had to light the page he was reading on fire with the match, and finish the page before it burnt up so that he could light the next page with its guttering flame. I hope that's how it really went, because it's years since I read this, but if so, that's real cool. The rest... meh.(less)
Ok so I admit that I haven't read this entire thing, but I will say that if you look at Calvino's insanely complex mathematical formula by which he w...moreOk so I admit that I haven't read this entire thing, but I will say that if you look at Calvino's insanely complex mathematical formula by which he wrote If On a Winter's Night a Traveller (one of my most favorite books of ever), it will blow your goddamn mind. These guys are unreal-ly brilliant.(less)