Umberto Eco writes in "Foucault's Pendulum" of what I believe he called 'synchrony', the idea that there's a Theory of Everything connecting all secre...moreUmberto Eco writes in "Foucault's Pendulum" of what I believe he called 'synchrony', the idea that there's a Theory of Everything connecting all secret occultish groups and their histories and practices. Who could have guessed such a thing might assume the form of a man, and, once more, a man in the tradition of Hammet's Spade or Chandler's Marlowe, though uniquely his own being.
MR. BLANK opens with a wide platter of possibilities. The main character, we learn, is a creep-for-hire employed by virtually every secret society within (and beyond) Wiki-able range. He's long been privy to the truth of Atlantis, JFK, aliens, and even, as he notes, Bigfoot's tax status (from where does Bigfoot gets his income? Maybe History Channel and Animal Planet royalties). Mr. Blank is whatever these groups need him to be on a given day. Until, well, someone goes a little murdery on him, and he has to figure out who. As one can imagine, the variety of suspects is daunting.
Daunting also, would be the writer's prospect of carving out a great romp through this world, this comically diverse world where one reader might want a story about the aliens, another about the Templars. The book offers much flexibility, which is why Robinson's focus on Mr. Blank himself, his pursuit and pursuer, is key to the novel's focused and engaging narrative, made all the more entertaining by the strikingly clever voice, full of wry, pop-cultured commentary and well-delivered, noir-ish humor that far lesser supernatural comic writers like Christopher Moore, who crams his passages with such flat inanity, could only wish to achieve. (less)
With "Death, the Devil and the Goldfish", Andrew Buckley has successfully skirted many of the problems plaguing humorous books. His is not the tiring...more With "Death, the Devil and the Goldfish", Andrew Buckley has successfully skirted many of the problems plaguing humorous books. His is not the tiring mode of a Christopher Moore or Carl Hiaasen so much as Douglas Adams, with a bit of Mark Twain (I'm thinking of "Letters from the Earth"), and a pinch of Clive Barker. There is insanity, there is silliness, but running beneath it all are very delectable philosophical conundrums and questions. The beauty of this book is that it works on both levels: one can explore the questions, or just roll with the laughs.
Perhaps most significantly, the beat of the novel resounds with a sense of fun and play. Andrew Buckley clearly had a great time in the literary sandbox, and that shines through every page.
The prose is effortless and crisp, straining very infrequently for humor. While everything is explained lucidly, as the narrative snowballs in weirdness some readers may experience slowdown, especially those like myself who make a digressive, recreational habit out of trying to string together seemingly disparate elements of a plot: the character of Death at a pub, drunk --nobody in the world is dying -- the Devil inhabiting a cat -- a wonderfully forgetful goldfish -- a gambling telekinetic investigator -- and stepping into this mix are the usuals like, say, Santa Claus or a penguin. It all sounds daunting in a zany way, and, in lesser hands, could easily have disintegrated. Yet everything is accounted for, quilted together in the logic of Buckley's universe, logic to which he's refreshingly faithful (unlike some authors, there's no presumption of "anything goes"). Helpful motifs are artfully deployed, too, subtle through-lines of explication or repetition that provide revitalizing familiarity, respites before facing whatever else -- robotic, demonic or human -- that lurks around the corner.
While the spirits of Halloween and Christmas may brawl over which claims more affinity with "Death, the Devil and the Goldfish", they'll both lose. It is an all-seasons book, but, like any traditional holiday-specific reading or viewing, it will bolster the mood of each. How many can say they've created something like that?(less)
As I'm sure many have discovered, it's imperative (if a near prerequisite) that anyone wishing to appreciate "Finnegans Wake" acquire of copy of Josep...moreAs I'm sure many have discovered, it's imperative (if a near prerequisite) that anyone wishing to appreciate "Finnegans Wake" acquire of copy of Joseph Campbell's Skeleton Key. One could theoretically go it alone, or certainly use the many other companion pieces and interpretations that have appeared over the decades, but not only is Campbell's by and large the "original" Rosetta Stone for this tome, it's also, at least to me, the most intellectually and spiritually fulfilling.
Of course, as the saying goes, ask someone to interpret a passage of the Wake and that will tell you a lot about that person. So I don't pretend that Campbell's analysis or my own is correct. Rather, I feel it's a good rebuttal to the cynically prevalent question of "Is it worth my time?", for which the asker usually has their own answer of "No!" at the immediate ready.
The Wake is Joyce's attempt to put the Universe in print, to squeeze Life, with all its yins and yangs, between two covers. It is an exhaustive and noble effort; "ambitious" proves too thin a word for the scope of, well, his ambitions. Quite honestly, many elements mesh when viewed through a pantheistic prism. Finnegan's fall from the ladder at the beginning is essentially the fall of Adam, or, rather, to put it more positively, the transformation of the "God" figure from a high state of paradise to the ruggedness of the physical world (the idea being that, always perfect, God/Cosmos couldn't know perfection until it had experienced the other polarity - one can't know hot without cold, etc.). Soon after, Finnegan is replaced by the character HCE (one meaning of which is "Here Comes Everyone"), who creates multiple families (just as humans have created multiple societies), and is swept up in violence and scandal.
This barely scrapes the surface of the Wake's vastness. It is also drawn from over sixty languages, cycles back on itself much as seasons (and the Universe, as projected by the Big Crunch theory), and some have even spotted patterns of DNA structure in its pages.
Just as the world is a three-dimensional Rorscharch test, seen differently by every set of eyes, understood differently by every mind, so too is the Wake a glorious experience in subjectivity. Life in print. And for this if nothing else, Joyce as an imaginative artist deserves significant accolades. (less)
I will in all likelihood remember "Victory" as one of the more inconsistent reads I've ever encountered, not in terms of tone, style or plot but in te...moreI will in all likelihood remember "Victory" as one of the more inconsistent reads I've ever encountered, not in terms of tone, style or plot but in terms of my fluctuating interest in the tale Conrad spun and what he wanted to say with it. Often I felt myself pushed away by a lumbering pace and wooden caricatures to the outer ionosphere of reader absorption, nearing a point where the thin gravity of my interest in its grander themes was the only thing keeping me from snapping off into orbit and relegating the book unfinished to the dusty shelves. Then, the book would pull me back in by way of a beautifully phrased summation of Heyst's life or philosophy, which is what I seemed to admire and/or connect with most about "Victory". In fact, my problem with the first third of the book was not knowing more about Heyst - far too many pages are used up on Schomberg and the villains, who to me felt more goofy than menacing.
The book's characterizations also dip in and out of authenticity and humanity. Perhaps we are meant to feel detached from Heyst for much of the story, unable to truly "touch" him, as it were. But the girl Lena and his Chinese island companion Wang are, for the most part, two-dimensional, every once in a while popping into the third-dimension albeit all-too-briefly, yet just enough to keep my hand turning the pages. I also found the presence of the strange wildman Pedro completely inexplicable and rather campy, which served further to undermine the villains' menace.
The novel retains very hearty, muscular prose throughout. It's regrettable that Conrad's beautiful line-by-line style, in conjunction with a very promising premise, wasn't married to fuller, more believable characters and better pacing. (less)
The recipe for Updike's "Toward the End of Time" could be appropriated as thus: one tablespoon of Philip Roth (I'm thinking of his "Portnoy's Complain...moreThe recipe for Updike's "Toward the End of Time" could be appropriated as thus: one tablespoon of Philip Roth (I'm thinking of his "Portnoy's Complaint"), one tablespoon of Norman Mailer, one teaspoon of McCarthy's "The Road" and a pinch of Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" and Paul Harding's "Tinkers". Clearly, since "Time" precedes several of these works, I'm not implying they had a direct influence on Updike. Rather I'm trying to characterize the ingredients of my experience reading this book, and I think that's arguably an accurate portrait.
The strange thing about this novel is that I like some things about it and I didn't like other things, and more often than not, those things overlap. Some days I liked them, other days not. The idea of essentially doing a literary dress-up of science fiction is intriguing, filtering an international apocalypse, quantum mechanics, mysterious spaceships and mutant life-forms through the perspective of an aging libidinous death-doting curmudgeon (because let's face it, such people are so often the protagonistic focus of New Yorker-style literary fiction). But as other reviewers have pointed out, such disparate elements don't really cohere into a satisfactory whole.
Especially incongruous, at least to me, are the sexual asides. I wasn't at all offended by them; rather I found them funny, if somewhat disjointedly out of place. Once I finished the book, I could in retrospect see what he was (maybe) intending with it (the "End of Time" referring to the end of history and to that of Ben's personal time, so identified with sex and the need to procreate), but the porn-like passages and the special historical trips to biblical periods or Nazi Germany and the golfing and the Chinese War all kept clanging into one another and never meshing.
The prose is wonderfully crafted, very supple, very rich, and very evocative. However, I think one of the novel's problems might have been solved had Updike chosen third-person limited and not first-person. For one, such eloquence is difficult to believe coming from the protagonist, given his overall maturity and life spent in finance. The well-crafted narrative creates a disjunct between the character and the reader. I'm not believing these are Ben's words. They're Updike's, hardly veiled as Ben's. If authors want to run wild with floral prose, they either need to make their first-person narrators believably capable of such eloquence (writer, critic, scholar, etc.) or simplify and tell the story third-person. (less)
Once a biting caricature of 1980's Reaganaut culture, the Wall Street-led debacle of recent years has revitalized the significance of "American Psycho...moreOnce a biting caricature of 1980's Reaganaut culture, the Wall Street-led debacle of recent years has revitalized the significance of "American Psycho", giving it a contemporary dimension. As with a lot of satire, the characters exist on the borderlands of the cartoon with their exaggerated (and often funny) manners, behavior and inane back-and-forths; yet the spiritually leprous condition masked by such caricatures strikes a devastatingly real cord. Despite any coke-addled words to the contrary, they are wholly and painfully out of touch with themselves, drowning in materialistic minutia.
Going into this book assuming it a novel would be a mistake. It's a portrait. A diagnostic tool. A snapshot. A warning. It would be foolish to think Bateman and Friends are accurate depictions of every attache-toting Wall Streeter or executive, but the book highlights the dangers inherent in some of these wheeling-dealing men and their high-profile jobs that affect our lives and futures. By their very nature, such jobs encourage base desires and worldly reflex, and sometimes, as Ellis humorously shows, that can envelope everything about a person, destroy those around them, and even cripple an entire country.
Interestingly, Ellis plays on the reader's own superficiality by having Bateman as the most verbally humane of his bunch (he admonishes his friends for racism and anti-Semitism, and hollowly espouses progressive ideals), so that even when he's popping out the eyeball of a poor homeless person, some distant, shameful part of us is still thinking, "Y'know, he's not that bad a guy." (less)
I might use the term "Formulaic" for this novel, strange, I know, as the term often applies to commercial literature of the Grisham / Steele variety....moreI might use the term "Formulaic" for this novel, strange, I know, as the term often applies to commercial literature of the Grisham / Steele variety. However, whether the New York critics and MFA graduates like it or not, there is also a certain formula for literary novels, one that is rigorously pounded into the head of every university student of creative writing. When I saw Harding was a product of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, I had a strong sense of what I was in for, and I was correct.
"Tinkers" is the classic case of a book that's all language and very little else. Many literary authors disguise their story and character shortcomings by adorning the pages in crisp and elegant prose, which is usually couched in fractured Faulkner-esque narrative techniques. Of course, I have absolutely nothing against elegant prose. I wish more authors could or would write with Harding's strive for musical fluidity in their passages. But just as with an inept genre piece, when something is lacking, nothing - not plot twists or beautiful prose - can aptly conceal it. Harding's pages slosh over with classic "melancholy sentimentality". One gets the sense he is writing with the Iowa Workshop echoing in his ear, hoping to be a Great Important Author by employing the unspoken rule of literary fiction that all Great Important Work must involve depressing entropic principles, belabor sections of mechanical daily minutia and puzzle the common reader in presentation.
With that aside, I must say that Harding skirts some of these cliches with definitive moments of pantheistic wonder that seem to embrace life and death as one rolling organism of which humankind is a welcome but stubbornly individuated part(or so it seems). The passages of cosmic marvel, and of some of the interfacing between nature and human perception, are beautifully written and quite memorable, as are those involving the hermit and Howard's epilepsy, which, in its illumination of the universe, makes for a nice allusion to Prince Myshkin's reaction to his own seizures in Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot".
Yet unfortunately, "Tinkers" reminds me of the sadly ongoing divide between the commercial and literary schools. Relatively few authors have successfully straddled the bridge, able to deliver stirring plots and three-dimensional characters in beautifully minded and manicured prose. There is no need for this separation, for which both sides are at childish fault.(less)
"Humboldt's Gift" is a steady unresolved current of introspective reconciliation, punctured occasionally by a rock of solid plot. This is less a compl...more"Humboldt's Gift" is a steady unresolved current of introspective reconciliation, punctured occasionally by a rock of solid plot. This is less a complaint than an observation. One's enjoyment of the novel depends heavily on the reader's intellectual and spiritual commonalities with the somberly bewildered narrator, Charlie Citrine, whose multi-dimensional qualities are drawn at the expense of others I might have expected from a personality such as his. As such, the nature of Bellow's novel, at least the nature presented us, was, to me, uneven.
In glass-cut prose, where every sentence is a fine trinket, Bellow unfolds a world of tensions, and shows how such tensions have manifested uniquely in Citrine. "Humboldt's Gift" is, in fact, one man's long conversation with himself, fed by material from which he is trying desperately to detach through New Age-like principles. It is here where Bellow was either a success or a failure; Citrine *is* detached, yet we aren't entirely sure if he has achieved the spiritual disjunct sought or if he is spiraling further into a depressive self-loathing. Most money might be on the latter, but Bellow keeps it relatively vague. Despite hundreds of pages of his voice, we are not really plunged into Citrine. For a Pulitzer Prize winner with a clear knowledge of and respect for the powers of literature, he betrays a remarkable lack of passion for his craft. It seems his prior works were more accidental bodily functions than labors of blood and sweat.
One of the grand themes of "Humbolt" is the still-relevant (now even more so) tensions between the commercial artist and the Artist. Both sides are more or less personified in the novel: the former as the hapless gangster Cantabile, the latter as the titular Humbolt, Citrine's beloved but deeply flawed late mentor. While Citrine expounds often on art in America, quoting names along the way, these tensions aren't nearly as palpable in the novel as one might expect, particularly because, as mentioned prior, Citrine seems to no longer care much about his work. More could have been confronted head-on, with direct action, or direct thought. The title refers ostensibly to a physical gift, but one could posit that it belongs just as much to Humboldt's legacy of belief that art can literally save souls, save a country, save the world. I wish Citrine had realized this on a more conscious level.(less)