I've been thinking about what I could have missed. I try, but can't find the similarity to The Catcher in the Rye that others found. Which is good, be...moreI've been thinking about what I could have missed. I try, but can't find the similarity to The Catcher in the Rye that others found. Which is good, because I don't think Catcher is much more than a prerequisite and definitely not an end unto itself. Beer in the Snooker Club bears more similarity to A Passage to India. BITSC's protagonist, Ram (the nephew of a prominent Egyptian family who floats through life on privilege, good connections, a classical education, and a winning personality) resembles Dr. Aziz much more than he does Holden Caulfield - if not in temperament, at least in navigating the dangerous terrain of being native and operating in an Anglo-dominated high society. Besides that, Holden Caulfield would never have contemplated a fortnight on the town with reference to The Sun Also Rises, which is what Ram does - proposing the protagonist and his party abandon decency like "the Hemingway people in Spain." Caulfield treated most human interaction as a form of vandalism, with a satanic drive to simply be left alone. Ram constantly feels the effects of his growing alienation from his contemporaries. He resents the sycophancy of his cousin, the self-loathing manners of his francophile maternal relatives, the condescension of liberal English upper class families, the hopelessness of those stupid or idealistic enough to get involved in politics. His attitudes toward those he cares about are much more complex. He finds it easy enough to lure the women in his life away from their natural, likely prospective mates but difficult to secure any kind of commitment from them. The mixture of love and apparent rejection weighs heavily on his heart. The gradual drift away from his best friend, who may lack Ram's highly developed sense of self, is one of the book's central devices. I just don't see Holden Caulfield being concerned by alienation or the feelings of others.
Beer in the Snooker Club is a beautifully plain-written novel. The setting - 1956-1959 by my own estimate - is easy to identify with, even in a location that seems exotic to North American readers. The Sinai War and its effects on geopolitics is well known and can be used for mise en scene without spending much time on the political/historic circumstances. Though BITSC is an inherently political novel, it feels like a 20th century English novel in the vein of Anthony Powell or Evelyn Waugh. The scattered, occasional suggestions that the book will take a turn toward Dostoevsky or Darkness at Noon/Nineteen Eighty-Four are not brought to term. Only at the end, when it is plain that there is an entirely concealed side of Ram's character does the reader understand how political the book truly is. For all practical purposes, the reader interfaces with it at a totally non-political level, focusing instead on the first generation's identity struggle in a post-colonial world. If Beer in the Snooker Club had been written later, we would call Ram's identity crises a sign of globalization and its discontents.
Ghali's prose is impressionistic, rather than reactionary. He describes Egypt as "(invoking) in you, I suppose, a scene of a fellah trudging home in the twilight, a spade over his shoulder, and his son leading a cow behind him. Well, Egypt is a place where middle-aged people play croquet" and later as "many different things. Playing snooker with Doromian and Varenian the Armenians, is Egypt to me. Sarcastic remarks are Egypt to me - not only the fellah and his plight. Riding the tram is Egypt. Do you know my friend Fawzi? He can never give an answer that isn't witty... and yet he isn't renowned for it. He's an ordinary Egyptian. Last week I was riding the tram with him when a man stepped on his foot. 'Excuse me,' said the man, 'for stepping on your foot.' - 'Not at all,' said Fawzi, 'I've been stepping on it myself for the last twenty-seven years' ... How can I explain to you that Egypt to me is something unconscious, is nothing particularly political, or... or... oh, never mind."
Beer in the Snooker Club is a beautiful novel, if not characteristic of Egyptian literature (of which I know nothing) at least a good study of the state of the novel itself in the 1960s. It's a shame this book is not more widely available or taught in the US. I'm very grateful for the publishers for bringing it back to print.j(less)
A life in public service is like the five stages of grief. And like O, Democracy!'s protagonist, Colleen's, experience with the five stages of grief,...moreA life in public service is like the five stages of grief. And like O, Democracy!'s protagonist, Colleen's, experience with the five stages of grief, the public servant (especially the lower-mid-level one) experiences them all at the same time, superimposed on top of each other and without the luxury of time to space them out and put the raw and screaming emotions they awaken back to rest. It is also like the movie Groundhog Day, in that this cycle repeats over and over again, several times over the course of the public servant's career.
The five stages of grief are (if I remember correctly without consulting the Internet): denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The five indices of civil service ennui are more specialized, and include frustration, cynicism, isolation, fatigue, betrayal, and a general feeling of impotence (wait, that's six...). For an ideological Gen-X/Y/Milennial, these feelings hit even harder. We tend to feel the "betrayal" part the most. And this cycle, like it does for the protagonist, frequently pushes the, quote, "conscientious," bleeding-heart generations out of public service before their souls acclimate. Kathleen Rooney captures all of this, spot on, in O, Democracy!
There were many times Rooney's book made me want to exclaim, "Yes! That's happened to me! That's my life!" while reading O, Democracy!, particularly the observation that great passion is required to compensate for loss of individual agency. At the mid-lower-level, the public servant is shut out from the decision making processes, is not given the real reasons behind certain decisions, and is asked to toe the line without question. The low-mid-level person is meant to keep the water smooth so that the organization can operate in a stable environment - that is, one that protects the organization's most fiercely guarded goal: continued existence. Government organizations want only to continue; they do not want to change.
This is tough on the "conscientious" generations, who trusted their social science and liberal arts instructors and believed they would change the world if they found the right organization. This is double tough on those of us who set aside projects, such as photography or screaming in a band, to join the machine and be disenchanted. Waking up at 28 with the realization that civil service is less romantic than promised - coupled with the realization that you never got that MFA and/or that you're now too old to grow your hair long again and start a new band - is tough. And, again, the author has perfectly captured it.
O, Democracy! isn't quite All the King's Men, but then Dick Durbin is hardly a Huey Long. O, Democracy! isn't Game Change either. Rooney employs all of those real world characters and drama - and more - but without the use of names. Characters are referred to obliquely, as the Illinois governor who is grotesquely Elvis Presley-esque or the tortured singer-songwriter who stabbed himself in the heart. The book is full of codes. The more closely the reader's life resembles that of the protagonist, the more unnamed mise en scene is understood. I found this aspect of the book immensely enjoyable. And it also reminded me that - oh my God, 2008 was six years ago!
The protagonist, Colleen, made it out. Presumably it is now 2014 for her, too, and she's 34. We hope she's happy doing whatever she's doing (though I'm not sure she will be). For those of us who are still in the public service role, trying to project competence, trying to be pleasant, patiently waiting for the old guard to get old and retire so the apparatus will select us as their replacements, O, Democracy! can be a little confrontational, reminding us how bleak it is out here. O, Democracy! is a little longer than it needs to be.
But it ends on a high - a high the reader (presuming s/he is Democrat, I suppose) can remember and relate to. The novel ends in Lincoln Park, with the 2008 presidential election called - with Senator McCain's concession speech and President-elect Obama's hopeful aria. It doesn't seem to matter that the novel's cast has divided by this time - with the lower level staff doffing margaritas and reveling in the park and the upper level staff entrenched in their policy bunkers already planning the next phase. The reader was, literally there, man, with them (whether in Chicago that night or in a bar or a living room in middle America). I remember how warm it was that Tuesday night. And what it felt like. And how the world seemed to have changed. Turns out it didn't, but it turns out it never does. Rooney's novel captures the majesty of this beautiful and maddening reality wonderfully.(less)
The Girl in the Road is a dystopian, surrealist, Rorschach mindfuck initially disguised as a simple trashy book for ladies. Thankfully, it isn't anyth...moreThe Girl in the Road is a dystopian, surrealist, Rorschach mindfuck initially disguised as a simple trashy book for ladies. Thankfully, it isn't anything nearly as classifiable. To the extent anything can be in this day and age, TGITR is a completely new literary form.
I don't like writing "I can't explain this book" anymore than anyone likes reading such a cowardly sentence. I'm tempted to compare The Girl in the Road to Middlesex, A Thousand Splendid Suns, or even (at a stretch) to Swamplandia! just to have something to, you know, say. But that would be colossally foolish.
One doesn't so much read TGITR as go deeper and deeper into the fractal of Monica Byrne's prose. When - if - I ever get tempted to stop trying to detangle her observations on sexuality, globalism, religion, rites of passage, and pilgrimage I have the author's own words to urge me forward: "Such beauty cannot amount to nothing or the universe would not cohere." TGITR is a tough book. I won't sugar coat the fact. But like all "tough" books, there are deep rewards waiting for the reader with perseverance. A work of rare beauty.
(Now they just need to something about the horrid graphic design and typeface used in the proof I was given to review.)(less)
Neptune's Brood suffers from too much: pirates, mermaids, interstellar warships, corrupt high church officials, replicants. The phenomenal parts - pai...moreNeptune's Brood suffers from too much: pirates, mermaids, interstellar warships, corrupt high church officials, replicants. The phenomenal parts - painstaking speculation on interstellar commerce and the implication of long distance travel and the human body (and a hive of communist squid people!) - are offset by the many things going wrong in the novel.
The prose shifts from third to first person, past to present tense without any logic. The approach is less that of a deliberative literary cavalier than that of someone in dire need of an editor.
The ideas in Neptune's Brood are some of the best I've encountered in science fiction since my original, teenage fixation with the canonized heroes of the genre (Arthur C. Clarke being front and center). But the writing! Egad. The only times I enjoyed something that just stopped mid-sentence was Space Ghost Coast To Coast and The Good Soldier Svejk. The latter didn't deliberately end in mid-sentence to advance a literary concept (the author actually died in the middle of writing a paragraph) and Space Ghost was a much larger cultural enigma, existing outside of any one genre - arguably existing outside context itself.
Neptune's Brood just fucking ends, almost mid-sentence. The story is not over, but the author curtly informs his readers that he's done, man. One minute, the narrative is at the crescendo of an (admittedly cumbersome and unnecessarily convoluted) whodunit, then the writing stops. Personally, it left me feeling(less)
I've never considered Dorothy and The Wizard in Oz a particularly good installment in the Oz saga. As the author admits in his introduction, Dorothy a...moreI've never considered Dorothy and The Wizard in Oz a particularly good installment in the Oz saga. As the author admits in his introduction, Dorothy and The Wizard was written as a concession to the numerous fan letters appealing to keep Dorothy and the Wizard bound together as a fixture in the ongoing stories of Oz. As only the fourth book - well before the full cast of characters and the complete dimensions of Oz itself were defined - Dorothy and The Wizard doesn't actually go anywhere. Apparently, Baum condescended to surlily give his audience what they asked for, but didn't feel his commitment to his fans necessitated a carefully crafted story. Dorothy and The Wizard feels like a cranky "screw you" aimed at little kids who shouldn't be blamed for wanting more of a story they love than today's kids can be faulted for wanting their Mario Bros. or Batman content to stay current. Taking this as a document, one can only imagine L. Frank Baum in 1908 as a bitter, sad, little man.
I wouldn't have re-read Dorothy and The Wizard at all on my own under ordinary circumstances; I already prepossessed the impressions laid out in the preceding paragraph before re-reading the story today. It's only because of Dorothy and The Wizard's recent adaptation by Marvel comics and the subject of my family's inaugural family "reading circle" that I revisited it at all.* Dorothy and The Wizard sucks at being an Oz book: (A) It isn't even set in Oz, for Christ's sake. (B) Baum's moral inconsistency/ambivalence is on full display. Conflict is created as a result of characters' uncouthness (the Wizard's first line, go-to solution for most problems is genocide), when conflict need not even exist. The actual structured world of Oz, once the characters actually arrive there (in the last 20% of the book) is anti-democratic and anti-humanist.
The only enduring parts of Dorothy and The Wizard come near the very end, in the form of two vignettes tacked on as an afterthought. The race between Jim the horse and the Sawhorse asks quality questions about the value of being real (or fallible) versus engineered (or perfect) - essential early 20th century existentialism. The trial of Eureka the cat may be a shining point in the early Oz books - but it's hard to contextualize. I'm afraid the things that seem to be happening are the result of mistaken associations not contemporaneous to Baum's America - what we internally cross-reference when we read the Eureka trial come out of other things we know, from later material, not from turn of the century thinking. For example, Eureka's trial is as farcical as the show trial in Darkness at Noon or the Sacco and Vanzetti case - but Dorothy and The Wizard was written in 1908, so do the math... If Baum didn't display such overt anti-democratic tendencies, one might assume the trial in Dorothy and The Wizard was cautionary satire. But it's not. It's just an anomaly accidentally occurring in the middle of a squalid, serialized pablum with little (if anything) of value to say.
I'm open to criticism for being too demanding of L. Frank Baum. He - after all - may or may not have submitted his stories for moral scrutiny. However, children (both yesterday and today) have nearly limitless literary options. I do not think I am wrong for calling attention to how poorly executed Baum's body of work actually is, despite the sentimental halation.
*My son is learning to read. We're starting a "reading circle," hopefully to last for years, in which all three of us read together. Oz is a logical beginning because of the all-ages nature of the MGM film, the cultural necessity, and the tie-ins with targeted marketing, ranging from comic books to Happy Meal toys.(less)