I wouldn't say this is a book for all readers or all occasions, but it really was the perfect book for a rainy Fourth of July weekend when I was stuck...moreI wouldn't say this is a book for all readers or all occasions, but it really was the perfect book for a rainy Fourth of July weekend when I was stuck at home alone with my dog, laid up and non-ambulatory after some improperly stacked firewood fell and crushed my toes.
I liked this better than The Sportswriter, though I did find some characters and conversations tiresome and can see how lots of people wouldn't get into this book. I got deeply into it, though, because it's one of those long novels in which not a whole lot happens but which allows you to occupy totally another person's life and mind. So instead of lying glumly on the couch all weekend with my foot wrapped in towels and ice while America joyfully celebrated its birthday outside, I got to tour New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York State, and rather than just being an immobilized, bored, and crabby version of me, I got to see what it was like to be Frank Bascombe for a change.
Not that there's anything particularly fabulous about being Frank Bascombe, but sometimes it's nice to be someone else. In Independence Day, we pick up a bit later than we left off with Bascombe the last time we saw him, at the end of The Sportswriter. It's now Independence Day weekend in 1988, and Bascombe has entered what he calls his "Existence Period," drifting through his forties while working as a real estate agent in his beloved Haddam, NJ. Basombe is a basically good-natured poster child for easy American privilege: straight, white, well-off, and more or less content in his suburban idyll, despite a few bumps in the road -- a deceased child, the divorce he hasn't been able to recover from, a brutally murdered ex-girlfriend. He's existing, quite nicely, doing mostly fine.
But... Okay, there is no "but" here. This isn't a novel about conflict or rupture or surprising and unexpected turns of events. For me it really was just about living inside someone else while he goes about a more interesting weekend than the one I'd had planned for myself. Instead of icing his purple toes and limping pathetically around the dog park, Bascombe has to show a house to a difficult couple of clients, run a few Haddam business errands, visit his girlfriend on the Jersey Shore, and take his troubled adolescent son on a bonding trip to the basketball and baseball halls of fame. The majority of the book is Bascombe driving around the Northeast in his Crown Vic and having conversations with various characters, with whom he generally tries to share moments of meaningful human connection, with varying degrees of failure.
It's really plain to me that I would've hated this book had I tried to read it at most earlier stages of my life, which I wouldn't have, because it's about a divorced realtor living in suburban New Jersey, and that's not the kind of novel I ever used to want to read. Note that there are no tricks here: you shouldn't read Independence Day if that thumbnail description sounds awful to you! This was one of those novels that made me realize I've officially become a boring grownup with interest in and empathy for boring grownup concerns: there were pages in here that were the main character's thoughts about real estate, and I found them fascinating. Ditto his thoughts on parenting, aging, mortality, and divorce. This book is not for the spritely or young at heart, and my enjoyment of it marks some yet-unnamed midlife Period of my own.
Without worrying too much about irresponsibly sweeping gender essentialism, I'll say that this book's representation of masculinity and being male was really interesting to me. Bascombe reminds me in certain ways of my father (who's from New Jersey) and my husband (who loves sports), and there was a lot about his character that seemed to represent and partly explicate some of what I find opaque and mysterious about many men. So I did get a kick out of that.
I also loved all the landscapes and descriptions of place. I can't remember the last book I read that transported me with such vividness to places I almost knew but didn't -- I'm pretty familiar with that part of the country, but I haven't been to Cooperstown (really hope to go, someday) or to Haddam (which doesn't exist), though now I definitely feel that I've seen them and the other places in here as well. And I hugely appreciated that on this homebound July Fourth weekend, which otherwise could have been an even more depressing wash.(less)
When Edward St. Aubyn's dead and his legacy gets hammered out, Lost for Words will be considered one of his minor works.
Don't get me wrong, this book...moreWhen Edward St. Aubyn's dead and his legacy gets hammered out, Lost for Words will be considered one of his minor works.
Don't get me wrong, this book was fun enough. I read it in a day, and when I put it down, looked forward to picking it up again. But ultimately I found it slight, disappointing, and not nearly as good as its writer.
Which is, you know, fine. We're all entitled to a good time, and St. Aubyn has the right to hit the little bloop single instead of crushing everything out of the park. Though I'm normally very cheap and a big library user, I plopped down almost thirty bucks for this skinny thing yesterday, and I'm not bitter or regretful at all. I'm happy to have supported my local bookstore, FSG, and this gifted writer; I should buy new books more often. Lost for Words eased the pain of a trip to the DMV and provided an evening of diversion ("arresting my attention in the midst of distraction," as one character might have it), and I'm not asking for my money back.
There were some things that kind of bummed me out about this book, though. A satire of the Booker Prize selection process from an author who's been subject to it sounds pretty fun, and I guess it is, but the book lacks the sense of special access that I would have liked. Of course, there must of been tons of this and it was just such inside baseball that it all just flew way over my head, but unfortunately a lot of the characters just seemed like stock caricatures so it didn't matter if they were based on real people in ways that would've been hilarious had I only known. And not to sound like a shrew, but the female characters mostly sucked, from the man-eating sex siren to the not-one-but-two negligent mothers who'd alienated their offspring by focusing too much on their careers. I guess to be fair, though, the male characters kind of sucked too. I felt I'd seen most of them before, except for the Indian prince, and there were good reasons for that... Let's just say that if St. Aubyn were normally a sculptor, this cast of characters would represent his foray into two-dimensional media.
Which again, hey, that's fine, man. Paint a picture, draw a comic, take it easy for a change! Here's the thing I didn't like here, though no other readers seemed to mind it so probably I'm just too dumb to understand the brilliance of this book: satire of low-hanging fruit, that has good guys and bad guys, doesn't mean all that much at the end of the day. It's essentially television. That is, it can represent something and make a statement about it, but it doesn't really do what I think a novel's meant to do, and expose a truth to transform the way its readers understand the world. Some of the characters in this book are ridiculous idiots, while others are -- I think -- supposed to be sympathetic real-ish people, and this split just didn't work for me. At first I assumed we were all in for it, but by the end I felt that some of us had become cartoons while others of us got to be turned into real boys with dignity by an authorial blue fairy, and maybe I just didn't understand the book properly, but I found this disappointing. It seemed like I was supposed to side with certain characters' views of literature and come out of it all with my own cherished notions intact, and I just expected to finish this with more damage than a giggle at some pretty predictable targets. That is, I feel St. Aubyn is capable of a brutal scorched earth campaign but he restrained himself here to selective shots and not very difficult ones. (Unless I missed the whole point, which is always highly possible, and in this case I'm suspicious that I did.)
Finally, a lot of this book comprises parodies of various literary (or not so literary) styles, and while they're cute, they're not nearly as awesome or as funny as I wanted them to be. That kind of trick -- whatever it's called -- is one of my all-time favorite literary devices, but for it to work the way it's supposed to I need to look forward to the italicized parts. I didn't at all here, though, and sort of groaned when I got to them, because St. Aubyn writing as St. Aubyn is a billion times better than St. Aubyn writing as Irvine Welsh or whoever.
Which brings me to my real final point, which is that while the end of this book was completely stupid (which did leave me cranky) and the characters were lame, it was still written extraordinarily well by a guy who truly understands the English language, so who fucking cares? I'd read Edward St. Aubyn's g-chats -- in fact, I kind of feel I just have -- and it'd still be more enjoyable than most of the crap that gets published and given prestigious prizes these days... which was maybe all he was trying to say.(less)
Though the timing wasn't intentional, this turned out to be a fun book to read during the World Cup. It's livening up games I wouldn't care much about...moreThough the timing wasn't intentional, this turned out to be a fun book to read during the World Cup. It's livening up games I wouldn't care much about -- suddenly I have strong feelings about France v. Germany on Friday, and a sympathy for Belgium I wouldn't feel otherwise, given recent events.(less)
I liked this, but I didn't love it as much as most people here do. Certain aspects of the plot -- the love affair, the persecution by a sort of comic...moreI liked this, but I didn't love it as much as most people here do. Certain aspects of the plot -- the love affair, the persecution by a sort of comic booky disabled villain -- struck me as a bit silly, though most of what was here seemed much more solid and good. I agree that it was very well-written, with that kind of magic that makes you go, "I don't quite understand why I'm so into this story about a dull-farmboy-turned-dull-academic, but somehow I am utterly rapt."(less)
This droning, paragraphless trek through the sludge of a hate-filled, pathetic, sickly-and-depressive-Austrian-Mr.-Burns-with-intellectual-aspirations...moreThis droning, paragraphless trek through the sludge of a hate-filled, pathetic, sickly-and-depressive-Austrian-Mr.-Burns-with-intellectual-aspirations-who's-obsessed-with-his-sister-type narrator's mind should be a total downer, but instead it's weirdly elating. Somehow the distillation of all this odious, self-defeating, self-inflicted, and yes, disturbingly close-to-home misery has an invigorating comic effect that can make the reader feel positively perky. This isn't schadenfreude; it's something much darker and more weird.
Not for everyone, certainly. But it worked for me.(less)
I really love lesbians. I'm not sure why this is. It's not that I love them all -- there are plenty of lousy lesbians out there -- but for some reason...moreI really love lesbians. I'm not sure why this is. It's not that I love them all -- there are plenty of lousy lesbians out there -- but for some reason a person being a lesbian improves my chances of liking her by maybe a factor of five. I feel like lesbians often have a good perspective on things. Many are good at being self-aware without being self-absorbed. There might be something about being a lesbian that improves people's personalities, or maybe girls with good heads on their shoulders wind up turning out gay? Whether it's correlation or causation or whatever is impossible to know, but there it is, that's how I feel even if it's inappropriate to say.
I feel like there's a specific personality type that a certain kind of lesbian has, that I find really wonderful and appealing. I can't really explain what it is or what it has to do with their being lesbians, except that Eileen Myles reminded me of a couple of my favorite lesbian friends and it's not just the having-sex-with-other-women thing, there's something else too. It's this special kind of reasonableness, and a charmingly clear-eyed cockiness and mild narcissism mixed with honest self-deprecation, a disarming candor and humor and insight into things. I don't know where that comes from, or if it has anything to do with not getting wrapped up with men, or, alternatively, with having to deal with the craziness of women in relationships? Probably neither.
Anyway, I really took to Eileen Myles, which is why I enjoyed this book, even though it's not the kind of thing I'd normally get into. It's a series of autobiographical stories about growing up in Massachusetts (because I'm a sucker for stories about bad kids in the early-to-mid 1960s, I liked these best) and then being an alcoholic scenester poet back when New York was still cool. It took me a little while to decide I liked Myles or cared about what she had to say, but once I did she just seemed like such a great lesbian, like an older, more famous version of some of my friends, and I got kind of mesmerized hearing stories about her life. Even while I'd be thinking, "Why am I reading this boring story about getting drunk and a bunch of stupid relationship drama in the seventies?" I somehow wasn't bored, I was engaged. I'm not a fan of our age's preoccupation with memoir and reality TV and blogs and whatnot, and since this is kind of the literary equivalent of that, I'm surprised I liked it, but I did. I liked her writing style. I haven't read Myles's poems because poetry scares me, but maybe someday I will.(less)
So this book is a highly disturbing, rapey version of the much-beloved eighties kids' sitcom Out of This World. Its premise is that instead of half-al...moreSo this book is a highly disturbing, rapey version of the much-beloved eighties kids' sitcom Out of This World. Its premise is that instead of half-alien, hand-chair-owning teenage girl Evie, an adult man working as a Boston temp has the power to stop time at will and keep moving and doing whatever he wants while everyone else stands frozen in place. Perhaps not surprisingly, but problematically for this reader, our narrator uses this power to sexually assault scores of women without them ever being any the wiser.
I'm having a very hard time accepting the premise of this book. While I don't need a nice narrator and normally remain open-minded and non-judgmental in my approach to fiction, I feel like for this book to work I'm supposed to be experiencing both an empathy and amusement that I obviously cannot and do not want to feel. Baker's a fun writer, but I'm super grossed out and repelled by this book so far -- not just by the premise, but by the author's apparent assumption that magic-enabled sexual assault is an amusingly naughty caper and an impulse the reader should be able to relate to and enjoy.
I dunno. I hate to let my shrill, humorless feminism get in the way of a good read, but I'm not at all convinced that this read is good enough to be worth my feelings of disgust. I guess I'll stick with it a bit longer and see if he's actually doing something interesting and worthwhile, but right now I set my odds of finishing as pretty slim.(less)
This starts out feeling like one of those Deborah Eisenberg stories set in a made-up Central American country, but pretty soon you orient yourself and...moreThis starts out feeling like one of those Deborah Eisenberg stories set in a made-up Central American country, but pretty soon you orient yourself and realize you're in deliciously dated late-1970s Didionland. This entails being surrounded by characters who think, speak, and behave only like Joan Didion characters and not remotely like anyone in actual life, and reading gorgeously crafted and sometimes embarrassingly dramatic sentences. The novel is narrated by steely, Didionesque observer Grace, and tells the story of Charlotte Douglas, the wealthy, childlike, hypersensual, idiosyncratic mother of a Patty Hearst-type rich-girl-turned-revolutionary-terrorist. Charlotte is hanging around Boca Grande, a fake maybe-El Salvador where she has fled to escape her Joan Didion novel of a past and to submit the enigma of her existence to the former-anthropologist-cum-hobby-scientist-and-ruling-elite narrator's gaze.
I personally feel sentimental about the Bay Area in the 1970s, as it's the ground out of which I was grown, and this book fed my hunger for a glimpse of that time. This is actually just the second Didion novel I've read, but she has such a distinctive style that I keep wanting to make broad pronouncements about her fiction. There is almost no one I take more seriously than Joan Didion the nonfiction writer, but I find her fiction pretty absurd. I happen to love it, but it strikes me at many times as coming close to camp. Everyone is so rich and disoriented and the sex is all weird and women are these confused, fascinating creatures who are sort of hapless victims of often cruel, or at least detached men who have great success both in understanding and controlling the female characters and in navigating the world. I'm not sure what to make of it all, but I do like it. This book is fun and, as I said, very late-1970s. I read it on an airplane, in a hotel, and at my in-laws' house, and it's good for that kind of vacation. Definitely recommend this paperback edition with the lighter on the front and the lady's face and Cosmo blurb on the back.(less)
I found this uneven. The first stories were incredible and filled me with obsessive love for Grace Paley, but I liked them less as I went and found th...moreI found this uneven. The first stories were incredible and filled me with obsessive love for Grace Paley, but I liked them less as I went and found the last story nearly unreadable.
Nonetheless, on balance it was way more awesome than bad, and my obsessive love for Grace Paley lives on.(less)
I feel like I can't reasonably rate this book, because a thing happened that's similar to what happened with me and the vegetarian cabbage rolls at th...moreI feel like I can't reasonably rate this book, because a thing happened that's similar to what happened with me and the vegetarian cabbage rolls at the Middle Eastern market by my house.
A few months ago, I tasted those vegetarian cabbage rolls for the first time and concluded that they were the most delicious thing I'd ever had in my life. Being as I am, I became completely obsessed and started making long, sweaty treks through the Miami humidity to fetch them, especially once I realized I didn't need to wait in the deli line but could buy multiple packages from the grocery section and heat them up at home. Quickly I concluded there was little point in eating anything else, and I passionately munched cabbage rolls until one fine day, when I thought of them, I nearly threw up, and knew instantly I'd never eat one again -- and not only that, but that even the thought of them would always produce a powerful nausea. Even now as I type this, thinking about those cabbage rolls is making me gag.
So around the same time as this brief, doomed love affair with the cabbage rolls, Javier Marías's new book The Infatuations came out. I'd read and adored Your Face Tomorrow already, and when I scarfed down The Infatuations I privately declared Marías Spain's greatest living writer (okay, probably Spain's only living writer that I've read) and resolved not to waste any more of my extremely important time reading anyone else. I devoured and loved A Heart So White, then greedily laid into Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me.
I know that for a lot of readers, this is just common practice: when you find writers you love, you read everything they've written. However, this isn't usually what I do, and there are a lot of writers I consider my favorites whose whole output I haven't read, which probably has a lot to do with my nearly pathological craving for variety (a craving that has dangerous potential for interaction with my similarly pathological obsessive intake of anything I enjoy).
In this case, a toxic overdose occurred just as happened with those once beloved, now revolting cabbage rolls, and I hated this book. Yet even as I hated it, I knew that the problem was me: I'd loved Marías's other books, and this one was almost exactly like those. Obviously, though, this was the problem. It was far more of the same than my delicate, novelty-obsessed system could handle.
There are actually a lot of kicks to be had in reading many of Marías's books in succession (especially if, like me, you have a lousy memory), since he does fun stuff like name all his leading ladies Luisa, and there are recurring unsavory characters whom you come across at different points in their lives and via very different situations and perspectives. But for me three of his novels in a row was too much. I stalled out on this halfway though and for nearly two months couldn't even open it without tasting bile.
Finally, though, I realized the book was due back to the library, and having read a few other novels since I put it down I felt refreshed and capable of facing it in combat again. When I did finally pick it up for a second try, I scarfed down the second half in about a day, and enjoyed it a lot.
But I don't think, even accounting for my pathetic personal problems, that I liked this Marías as much as the others I've read. The characters felt less interesting, less engaging, and less real to me than those in his other books, and some displayed a misogyny that I could've accepted had it not been coupled with motivations and actions that just didn't make sense to me. That is, I couldn't relate to the characters at all, which made not liking them a problem even though I wish I didn't feel that way. I don't need to think my characters are good people, but I need to understand them on some level and there were too many times in here where I didn't see why people did things and didn't feel anchored enough to them to care. At some points, this actually was a strength and a Marías trick that I love, but there were more parts here than elsewhere where I found it awkward and artificial instead of delightfully estranging. I think the problem is that in his other novels, my sense that the protagonist is someone fundamentally different from me in significant and even disturbing ways dawns slowly, whereas here it was unavoidable from the very first scene... There were also some sections that I just found dull; the scene with the monarch character just went on and on and on. I took it as an unsuccessful version of the great world-leaders-in-mistranslation scene in A Heart So White, and it suffered from that comparison I think.
Okay but all that said, there was some great shit in here. One of my favorite scenes involved the protagonist's paranoid and irrational inability to determine whether or not a prostitute he picks up is his ex-wife whom he hasn't seen in four months. I loved this because it dramatized my own profound lifelong fear of being unable to recognize people I know, and also because of how it tied into the larger themes and concerns of the book. As ever, Marías's larger themes and concerns were interesting and worked out both through salacious, thriller-type plot twists and through plodding, circuitous, eternal return to the same points and memorably intense quotations and exact sentences... And while I felt this protagonist was less consistently human and thus less consistently interesting compared with the other Marías narrators he so resembles, he definitely did have his moments.
Aw man, who am I kidding, this guy's great. Javier Marías, you are no cabbage roll! I will continue to read your books, because they're awesome, I'll just be careful to space them out and make them part of a balanced diet so that next time I don't make myself sick. This is exactly what I've been trying to do since last week's near-catastrophe involving three consecutive pints of Ben and Jerry's Cake Batter flavored ice cream, after which I am proud to report that I put myself on a detox and have not tasted that sweet ambrosia once in the many long and hungry days since. That flavor, like Javier Marías's writing, is far too good to be ruined by my obsessive lack of control and I will carefully ration both out to myself so that I can continue to revel in their considerable pleasures.(less)
God, I love reading. A good novel one of the greatest pleasures that we get in this life, and fuck you everyone who helped me forget that, and God ble...moreGod, I love reading. A good novel one of the greatest pleasures that we get in this life, and fuck you everyone who helped me forget that, and God bless you Javier Marías for making me remember.
Okay, so I just invoked the Lord's name twice in one small paragraph, which must mean I'm a bit worked up. I don't know if I can convey how much I enjoyed this book, but beyond that, what a profound relief it was for me to enjoy it so much, now.
I'm coming up on the closing end of an MFA program. While in sum this has been great for me and I feel incredibly lucky to have been allowed all this time off from real life to read and write, in certain ways I feel that the experience damaged my relationship with the written word. It's made me cynical about writing, for one thing, and has compromised my ability to lose myself in books. This doubtless has a lot more to do with my personal pathology than with any flaw in the MFA system, but the discourse and assumptions of MFA-land (broadly speaking) have disrupted my historical enthusiasm for literature. To be fair -- and to emphasize that this is much more about my own eccentricities than anything else -- I did once go from being an obsessive bookworm-from-age-five to a near-illiterate due to high school English classes, which made me hate books, and I didn't read novels for almost two years after college because having been made to discuss and analyze it had temporarily ruined the thrill of fiction for me.
Fortunately, I don't think I'll suffer such long-term effects this time, thanks to the heroism of the brilliant Spaniard Javier Marías!
I have a hard time articulating what I find so mortally offensive about my interpretation of the MFA dogma, but I think it might be the idea that everyone has something worth writing about, and that we just all need to learn certain skills in order to do it well. In fact, in my opinion, most people do not have anything worth writing about, or at least, do not have anything to write that I'd ever want to read. And that's simply because most of us humans do not have particularly interesting or original minds. I feel like a lot of the MFA world would object that this doesn't matter -- a lot of people have interesting stories, they might say, and thus the great need for all these billions of memoirs (and my response to this would be to vomit on their feet).
But yeah, I feel like the implication I picked up from MFA-land is that it doesn't matter if you don't have a uniquely fascinating mind; once you learn the tricks and techniques, you can manufacture some fiction and serve it up to people who will recognize the product as palatable and therefore consume it. I feel like that's what workshops are: sort of a quality control taste test, like what Applebee's probably has to make sure their newly developed recipes all taste like something they'd serve.
The analogy for me is cooking. The MFA is a cooking school that teaches eager students all kinds of techniques, from simple braising to complex foams, so that they can concoct all manner of restaurant-ready cuisines. The thing, though, for me, is that even with all these skills and bells and whistles, if you're using mediocre ingredients, how awesome can the dish you make ultimately be?
What matters isn't so much how you cook as what you're cooking with. In fiction, the ingredients are the author's brain, and if the author's brain isn't particularly juicy and tasty to begin with, you might wind up with a decent soup but the end product can only be but so great. Conversely, a brilliant writer can burn the hell out of something and write a shitty book; that happens all the time. But ideally, the chef's skills and technique will perfectly exploit and highlight the advantages of his raw materials, which is what Marías accomplishes beautifully in The Infatuations.
The first sentence of this book scalded away the sour aftertaste of my MFA-acquired nitpicky hypercritical reading habit, and reminded me of what it's like to read for pure pleasure. Marías's prose makes me feel like I'm a dog having my belly scratched, a bizarre thing to announce since I'm reading him in translation, which is like, I don't even know what it's like, falling in love with someone who's had a ton of drastic plastic surgery procedures done, like on those shows they had on TV a lot a decade ago where people got everything on their body redone at once, so that you don't actually know what they look like? Wait, I guess it's not like that at all. Never mind, jeez, I don't know... But if living in Miami for three years isn't enough motivation to learn Spanish (which evidently it hasn't been), wanting to read Marías properly should be. I feel like he writes very much with translation in mind, but I also get confused by the parts where he explicitly discusses the language because I don't know what the Spanish would be and what the translator had to tweak.
Anyway, my confused non-point about the author's brain and all that is just that Marías's mind is so compelling and fascinating that it makes me feel, as a lazy back-cover blurber might write, spellbound. I mean, I just feel like his mind literally casts a spell with his words and I don't care what happens in the book, as long as I can stay in it. Actually, this book did have a suspenseful plot and I did want to know what would happen next, but that pleasure was very much secondary to just wanting to keep on reading his sentences, inhabiting this consciousness he created, seeing the world from this perspective. I know people would disagree with me, but that power of seduction and hypnosis can't be taught in any school. And I may be wrong about this too, but I doubt anyone has ever inspired true love, or even profound infatuation, by relying on a copy of The Game or The Rules, which I imagine to be cooking-school-slash-MFA-in-book-form (forgive my mixed metaphors [or actually fuck it, don't, this ain't a workshop, if you don't like it too bad!]) for would-be seducers. Using these guides, you might get someone to sleep with you a few times, or who knows, even propose, but to make someone fall deeply in love with you, you need to have something in you capable of seriously inflaming another's passion. An organic tomato, as it were, or just a vision of the earth that's unlike any ordinary person's, but is enough like ours so that we can get lost in your work.
Anyway, I'm not going to say this book is for everyone, cause I bet it's not, but it's definitely for me. If you love long, recursive sentences and slow, largely internal, meditative fiction with a theoretically lurid, thriller-type plot but have not yet checked this guy out, do.(less)