Review for this coming probably on Tuesday, as I'm traveling. For now, I'll just note that this is the only book I can think of where the deus ex mach...moreReview for this coming probably on Tuesday, as I'm traveling. For now, I'll just note that this is the only book I can think of where the deus ex machina comes at the beginning.
"I, too, as happens to every man once in his life, have been taken by Satan into the highest mountain in the earth, and when there he showed me all the kingdoms of the earth, as he said before, so said he to me, 'Child of earth, what wouldst thou have to make thee adore me?' I reflected long, for a gnawing ambition had long preyed upon me, and then I replied, 'Listen,--I have always heard tell of Providence, and yet I have never seen him, nor anything that resembles him, or which can make me believe that he exists. I wish to be Providence myself, for I feel that the most beautiful, noblest, most sublime thing in the world, is to recompense and punish.' Satan bowed his head and groaned. 'You mistake,' he said; 'Providence does exist, only you have never seen him, because the child of God is as invisible as the parent. You have seen nothing that resembles him, because he works by secret springs and moves by hidden ways. All I can do for you is to make you one of the agents of that Providence.' The bargain was concluded. I may sacrifice my soul, but what matters it?" added Monte Cristo. "If the thing were to do again, I would again do it."(less)
Not sure exactly what to make of this one, style-wise, but after the recent vague disappointments of David Cay Johnston and Naomi Klein, I can definit...moreNot sure exactly what to make of this one, style-wise, but after the recent vague disappointments of David Cay Johnston and Naomi Klein, I can definitely say that it helps me understand why I mostly read novels instead of non-fiction: maybe you learn a lot more from non-fiction, but the things you learn from fiction are infinitely more useful.
Stoner might turn you off at first with its telling-rather-than-showing, its didactic, stilted manner, its insistence on a Jude-the-Obscure plotline with a cipher at its center. But it gathers as it goes, patiently following Stoner on the rigid, seemingly choiceless path that is his life, and focuses increasingly on those small but crucial revelations known to every man but articulated clearly by very few. To try and say more about what those revelations are would be a disservice to the book itself, so here's a demonstrative quote:
"And he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance. And what else?....What did you expect? he asked himself."
If that sounds bleak, understand that the book isn't about redemption; it's about coping with the bleakness that lies at the heart of everything.(less)
Honestly, I didn't even get close to finishing this, but I felt like I got the message. The problem with it isn't that it requires some background kno...moreHonestly, I didn't even get close to finishing this, but I felt like I got the message. The problem with it isn't that it requires some background knowledge of how taxes work (of which I don't have much); it isn't that the writing is lackluster (although that contributes); it's that all the problems Johnston outlines in the book have only gotten worse. Maybe this is true of most socially conscious non-fiction--it gets dated really fast because the problems it discusses either go away or intensify. I guess I'll read whatever he wrote most recently and see if it feels any fresher.(less)
This is what On The Road would/could have been if Kerouac had A) been a much better writer, and B) had more complex attitudes about stuff like race an...moreThis is what On The Road would/could have been if Kerouac had A) been a much better writer, and B) had more complex attitudes about stuff like race and gender. Another winner from Pynchon.(less)
Whoever paid alleged reporter Robert Neuwirth a bunch of money to go live in squatter communities and write a book about it must have been pretty disa...moreWhoever paid alleged reporter Robert Neuwirth a bunch of money to go live in squatter communities and write a book about it must have been pretty disappointed when he came back with this: a poorly written, barely researched, meandering, incomplete view of a few different squatter communities. It's less like his living in slums was meant to be research for this book, and more like he conned someone out of some money and planned himself a four-stop Third World vacation, with the book as a mere afterthought. A side effect of this is that he spends three quarters of his life in the slums in what you'd call ritzier-than-average squatter communities like Rocinha, a safe, comparatively-well-developed beachfront community in Rio de Janeiro. From his perch there, he's able to do some cursory summary of nastier slums like Jacarezinho, but overall you realize that Rocinha fits his agenda much better (seems to be basically hey, slums aren't so bad, and they're better than anything the government could come up with) than the gloomy, dirty Jacarezinho does, so he spends much more time and space on Rocinha.
It's not just organization and bias and laziness that's the problem here, though; the writing itself is terrible, as I'm starting to find is so often the case with otherwise-lauded nonfiction books. There are embarrassing typos on almost every page (e.g. stuff like "The first problems was what to do about the hole."). Even worse, there's some obnoxious, high-school-level philosophizing, e.g.:
"The dark continent. I never wanted to use the cliché. After all, what does it really mean? Is Africa dark the way Europe was dark during the Dark Ages: dark to knowledge? Is it dark as Joseph Conrad implies in his novel Heart of Darkness: a place that exposes the darkest parts of human nature? Is it dark because of the skin color of the people who live there? Any way you parse it, the phrase is objectionable."
So...why mention it, then? The quoted paragraph is a non sequitur, unrelated to what it follows or what it precedes. Bewildering.
However, I will say that I don't regret reading this whole book, although really as a piece of writing and research it was offensively bad. My original intent was to learn something about how these communities work, and Neuwirth does a decent job of explaining that during the first half of the book. Some examples of the more interesting bits of the book:
- In the 1880's, an American named George Streeter had his new boat run aground on a sandbar in Lake Michigan, right alongside the Chicago shoreline. Rather than do whatever it is you or I would do, he brought in some people to dump rocks and sand in the river, creating 180 acres of new land which he then promptly claimed as his own. He held out for a while, but was eventually evicted and thrown in jail. That land is apparently some of the most expensive property in Chicago now.
- In the impoverished Nairobi slum of Kibera, you can get rich off of building mud huts and renting them out. There's no maintenance cost on a mud hut, so being a landlord involves no work. There is also one millionaire in Kibera, who's got his hands in everything about the slum, meaning that "in these areas of town, you cannot drink a soda or a beer that the squatter millionaire has not made money on. You cannot eat anything made from corn or wheat--including the ugali and chapatis that are the basic starch of the diet in Kenya--without contributing to his wealth."
- Only one person from Rio's favelas has become a political figure in Brazil; she had a short career as the acting governor of Rio, lost the election, and moved to Brasilia to work under the president. Interestingly, though, she's lost the support she had from the favelas, largely because she no longer lives in one.
The book's full of interesting facts like those, which is what saves it from being a 1 star fiasco. Recommended only if you have a specific interest in squatter communities.(less)
If you haven't already read Pynchon's encyclopedic blurb above, let me direct your attention to it right now.
Done? Well, let me assure you that every...moreIf you haven't already read Pynchon's encyclopedic blurb above, let me direct your attention to it right now.
Done? Well, let me assure you that every bold claim Pynchon makes about this book is true. And the beauty of it is that Warlock may be a novel of ideas, as he argues, but it is not primarily that. It's primarily a thinking man's Western, a history of authority, a gritty tale of revenge and strife. If that sounds roughly the same, there's a good reason for that: that all of the preaching or philosophizing is intricately interwoven with the story in a way that can only be described as organic, in a sharp contrast to any number of other novels that are slaves to their own philosophies.* Or another way to put it would be that with other literary novels, the story serves the philosophy, whereas in Warlock, the philosophy is firmly in the service of the story.
I'm shocked that none of my GR friends have read this book yet, since I think it's a natural book to encounter after one's read Against the Day, which is Warlock's spiritual successor. Although even knowing about it seems to require that one has read the intro to Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me, which is where Pynchon mentions Warlock. Oddly, I haven't gotten to that one yet, but it'll have to happen soon, because Pynchon is 2 for 2 with 5-star recs for me.
At any rate, the aforementioned blurb was so jaw-droppingly apt that it took all the thunder out of any real review I might have written, so I'll have to be satisfied with a blanket recommendation: everybody read this!
This is probably really a four-star book, but to me it just read like a simplified version of Ice, set in the tropics. There's still a passive, blonde...moreThis is probably really a four-star book, but to me it just read like a simplified version of Ice, set in the tropics. There's still a passive, blonde female character, but in this one she's stuck with a powerful, hypermasculine guy named Mr Dog Head, which is, incidentally, what made this novel so appealing to me. His name. He's a character, fully fleshed out in just one dimension. She's a bit deeper, but neither of them possesses the space for multiple interpretation that is so abundant in Ice. Throw in the third leg of the triangle, an earnest young man known only as Suede Boots, and you've got the basics. There's not much more to it than that, except of course good writing. And one thing Who Are You? manages to say that you won't find in Ice concerns the value of stoicism; or, in other words, how useful it is to let the slings and arrows bounce off of you until there aren't any left to be shot.(less)
This one gets better as it goes. I was on the fence until about two thirds of the way through, when I found this disturbing Truth:
"'Nobody these days...moreThis one gets better as it goes. I was on the fence until about two thirds of the way through, when I found this disturbing Truth:
"'Nobody these days holds the written word in such high esteem as police states do,' Arkadian Porphyrich says. 'What statistic allows one to identify the nations where literature enjoys true consideration better than the sums appropriated for controlling and suppressing it? Where it is the object of such attentions, literature gains an extraordinary authority, inconceivable in countries where it is allowed to vegetate as an innocuous pastime, without risks.'"
Spoken like a true bureaucrat, and with an officious glee I haven't seen since Colonel Korn.
Here's one more for the road:
"'The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.'"(less)
Not much to say about this one, despite its classic status and gargantuan size. It's typical Pynchon, with a little less paranoia and a little more an...moreNot much to say about this one, despite its classic status and gargantuan size. It's typical Pynchon, with a little less paranoia and a little more anti-industrialism. The side effect of this is more clarity in the writing--critics apparently caught onto this and called it Pynchon's "most accessible book." I wouldn't say that, necessarily, but I would say that when you write about paranoia, your writing is automatically going to be a bit murkier than it might otherwise be, since you can never know precisely what you're talking about, which probably goes a long way toward explaining why some people find Pynchon so difficult, now that I think of it.
At any rate, here are some quotes that should explain what I mean better than I can. I've never been able to write a decent Pynchon review.
"The Professor was literally having an attack of nausea. Every time Tesla's name came up, this was the predictable outcome. Vomit. The audacity and scope of the inventor's dreams had always sent Heino Vanderjuice staggering back to his office in Sloane Lab feeling not so much a failure as someone who has taken a wrong turn in the labyrinth of Time and now cannot find his way back to the moment he made it."
"'For dynamite is both the miner's curse, the outward and audible sign of his enslavement to mineral extraction, and the American working man's equalizer, his agent of deliverance, if he would only dare to use it . . . Every time a stick goes off in the service of the owners, a blast convertible at the end of some chain of accountancy to dollar sums no miner ever saw, there will have to be a corresponding entry on the other side of God's ledger, convertible to human freedom no owner is willing to grant . . . Answering the question, how can anyone set off a bomb that will take innocent lives?' 'Long fuse,' . . . 'Think about it . . . like Original Sin, only with exceptions. Being born into this don't automatically make you innocent. But when you reach a point in your life where you understand who is fucking who--beg pardon, Lord--who's taking it and who's not, that's when you're obliged to choose how much you'll go along with. If you are not devoting every breath of every day waking and sleeping to destroying those who slaughter the innocent as easy as signing a check, then how innocent are you willing to call yourself? It must be negotiated with the day, from those absolute terms.'"
"'La Mayonnaise has its origins in the moral squalor of the court of Louis XV--here in Belgium the affinity should not be too surprising. The courts of Leopold and Louis are not that different except in time, and what is time? Both monumentally deluded men, maintaining their power through oppression of the innocent. One might usefully compare Cléo de Mérode and the marquise de Pompadour. Neuropathists would recognize in both kings a desire to construct a self-consistent world to live inside, which allows them to continue the great damage they are inflicting on the world the rest of us must live in.'"
(A Tatzelwurm is apparently a horrific beast that lives in mines and torments miners) "'The really disturbing thing is when you see [a Tatzelwurm] and it looks up and sees that you are watching it. Sometimes it will run, but if it doesn't, then prepare to be attacked. It helps if you don't look at its face too long. Even in the dark, you will know where it is, because it will be screaming--a high whistling scream that like the winter cold will creep in to occupy your bones.' 'Once you have had the encounter, it is with you forever. This is why I believe they are sent to us, to some of us in particular, for a purpose.' 'What's that?' 'To tell us we shouldn't be doing this.' 'Tunneling?' 'Putting railroads.' 'But we're not,' Reef pointed out. 'The people who are paying us are. Do they ever see the Tatzelwurm?' 'It visits them in their dreams.' 'And it looks like us,' Flaco added.'"
"That evening the Strand, as if by some consensus, was exhibiting that sinister British craving for the dark and shiny so well known to experts in erotic neuropathy, not to mention students of the chimpanzee--crowds in mackintoshes, patent boots, and top hats, the soiled allure of marcasite brooches and earrings, pomaded temples struck to chill glitter in the public lighting...even the pavement, slick with rain and oily exudations, contributing its own queasy albedo. The streetlighting carried, for those, such as Neville and Nigel, who could hear it, the luminous equivalent of a steady, afflicted shriek."
"Up into the Karst, to a vineyard gate and an osmizza just inside that served meals and wine, the lights of Trieste far below, a wine ancient before Illyria, nameless, wind-finished, ethereal in its absence of color. And because here on this coast wine had never simply been wine, any more than politics was simply politics--there lay as-yet-undiscovered notes of redemption, time-reversal, unexpected agency."
"Who at some point hadn't come to hate the railroad? It penetrated, it broke apart cities and wild herds and watersheds, it created economic panics and armies of jobless men and women, and generations of hard, bleak city-dwellers with no principles who ruled with unchecked power, it took away everything indiscriminately, to be sold, to be slaughtered, to be led beyond the reach of love."
And bleaker yet, magnate Scarsdale Vibe's address:
"'So of course we use them. We harness and sodomize them, photograph their degradation, send them up onto the high iron and down into mines and sewers and killing floors, we set them beneath inhuman loads, we harvest from them their muscle and eyesight and health, leaving them in our kindness a few miserable years of broken gleanings. Of course we do. Why not? They are good for little else. How likely are they to grow to their full manhood, become educated, engender families, further the culture or the race? We take what we can while we may. Look at them--they carry the mark of their absurd fate in plain sight. Their foolish music is about to stop, and it is they who will be caught out, awkwardly, most of them tone-deaf and never to be fully aware, few if any with the sense to leave the game early and seek refuge before it is too late. Perhaps there will not, even by then, be refuge. . . . Anarchism will pass, its race will degenerate into silence, but money will beget money, grow like bluebells in the meadow, spread and brighten and gather force, and bring low all before it. It is simple. It is inevitable. It has begun.'"
And young Jesse's essay on What It Means To Be An American:
"It means do what they tell you and take what they give you and don't go on strike or their soldiers will shoot you down."
Nearly every review of this that I skimmed through is glowing, but I didn't think it was that great. For one thing, it's populated almost solely by hi...moreNearly every review of this that I skimmed through is glowing, but I didn't think it was that great. For one thing, it's populated almost solely by hippies and wannabe eco-terrorists, and Veselka crams it with so many hippie buzzwords that it makes one gag. Yoga, yerba mate, "namaste," rallies, leaflets, community organizing, veganism, artisan craft movements, indigenous medicine, co-ops, biodynamic farming, and other hippie affectations pervade throughout. This is clearly no accident but it grates. The characters aren't aware of the extent to which they unconsciously endorse the consumerism they so ardently claim to fight against. Is Veselka? I'd like to think so, but if so, what's the purpose of such contempt for her characters?
She's obviously a good writer; among the things that made me almost rate this three stars were little gems like the following: "On the water, the city upon the hill wavered, an inverted reflection, and broke into scallops of stuttering light as the sun set." Or this: "The sun was everywhere and the leaves were just turning gold and red and falling like open palms to the waving grass." But on the other hand, when Veselka gets topical, you have stuff like this:
Mr. Tofu Scramble: So, Della, is this your first day? By the way, do you know if Franklin has ordered spelt yet? Ed, Logic's Only Son: So what's wrong with butter and cheese? It's not like you have to slaughter a cow to get cheese.
Call me pedantic, but if Ed is logic's only son, and if he is as knowledgeable as he's portrayed (though unflatteringly so), wouldn't he know that most cheese production involves rennet, which is derived from calves' livers? Meaning that in fact you do have to slaughter a cow (a baby one, no less) to get cheese?
People praise the fierce activist impulse of this novel, but I don't see it. All I see is a furious impotence, encapsulated by the characters' whining, cursing, and meaningless rebellions (hair dye, etc.). E.g. this:
"I picked it up and thought about buying it and throwing it through the glass door of the box-mall-church. But that door wouldn't break no matter how hard I threw it. I couldn't do it anyway. I'd be afraid I'd hit someone or scare some kid so I put it back. I'm sick of how they always win."
Boo hoo! Della is a PhD and she can't think of any better way to effect social change than to think about throwing rocks at windows, and to not do so. That's pathetic. Am I supposed to sympathize, or should I have the same contempt Veselka seems to? Is the book just supposed to infuriate me? Because that's what it did.(less)
Legalization of cannabis has become something of a pet issue for me, and not just because I live in Colorado and enjoy the occasional smoke. The reaso...moreLegalization of cannabis has become something of a pet issue for me, and not just because I live in Colorado and enjoy the occasional smoke. The reason I get more and more interested in legalization is because its implications are so unexpectedly broad. Pharmaceutical companies, the alcohol and tobacco industries, and the federal government all have something to fear from it, but also something to gain if they play their cards right. It's causing a renewed states'-rights debate. And if you consider the potential revenue that could be gained from a heavy tax on it, it affects other areas, too, like education and public transportation and any number of other perennially underfunded things. That's just from the psychoactive, though; legalization would allow industrial production of hemp, which has all sorts of mostly-good implications. And let's not start on how such a thing would impact traffic stops and DUI (CO/WY and CO/UT border patrols, e.g.).
What stops it from being legalized? Mostly the aforementioned parties who have something to fear from it, plus voter blocs like, uh, probably older Christians, plus the fact that 50% in favor may be a majority but it's not a majority that could induce government higher-ups to stick their necks out. But any discussion of marijuana and the drug war tends to eventually lead one to the conclusion that the main reason it's illegal is for the creation of a permanent underclass of nonviolent criminals who can only get the very worst jobs, and who are thus denied the social mobility that supposedly exists here. And if you're actually smoking while having the discussion, it'll take you further and probably convince you that all of law and law enforcement revolves around creating a few key criminal acts that are extremely appealing and largely harmless and victimless, for which enforcement officers can use their discretion as far as arresting or not arresting. Example: possession of marijuana. Appealing, since many people smoke and can usually do so without getting caught. And since you can't overdose on weed, or even really become a junkie, even if you sell it to tons of people, it's probably not going to harm your community much, so you can have a clean(ish) conscience even if you deal. But let's say you get caught driving with weed in the car. If you're a rich white kid from the suburbs, maybe you go to jail, but it's just as likely that the cop will just take your stash and your piece and let you go with a ticket. And the ounce you have next to the spare tire is probably fine. But if you're a black kid and you're in the ghetto, you're getting searched and most definitely going to jail. It allows police officers to apply a double standard according to whether they like the look of you or not. Speeding is another good example. Since we're conditioned by being able to get away with going five or ten over the limit anywhere, police have carte blanche to pull over any car they want to, for any reason, provided it isn't one of the odd ones that goes at or under the limit. The goal is, it seems, to create a world in which you are either a law-abiding citizen or you are a criminal. And a law-abiding citizen can become a criminal, but not vice versa.
If there's any one major merit that Arkansas has, any one Big Idea that it's trying to get across, it's demonstrating just how false that dichotomy is. All its characters are criminals under the definition laid out above, but they represent a whole spectrum of criminality. You have Swin, a good-natured autodidact whose main attraction to smuggling is its ease and thrill; Kyle, who's similar but more serious and with a cruel streak; Bright, a kind, innocuous-seeming park ranger who nonetheless keeps bones in his attic; and Frog, the consummate businessman, who's willing to use violence but not without exhausting all other possibilities first. All these guys are, to my mind, in that grey area between criminal and citizen, and in fact the one (not one of the four above) who starts as a criminal but goes furthest towards law-abiding-ness is the one who dies in the most gruesome way. Brandon's characters also live in the world to which criminals are relegated: a world of trailers, pawnshops, beat-up trucks, and general crushing poverty. A world that smells like "tarnished silver and bad fruit." The characters in this book are there to demonstrate what ends up being a simple point: "criminals" are just normal people, trying to work and live normal lives, under a bizarre set of extra constraints: less money, less food, more drugs, more violence, high stakes, inscrutable law enforcement. A representative quote: "You wish you could have [X]'s body cremated and go to the top of the Barnett Building and let his ashes blow all over Little Rock. You wish you didn't have to drag him through your house and down your steps and across your yard and bury him in the woods."
I won't try to sell Arkansas on just that point, because Brandon's actually a pretty good writer, and not really an "ideas" writer like I may have just portrayed him. What the book primarily is is a standard someone-gets-murdered-and-one-thing-leads-to-another thriller, which works to whatever extent you care about the characters. There are a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous. If I'd read more of this type of thing, maybe I wouldn't like it as much, but I haven't.
Luckily, Brandon's a good writer. To those who say his writing has a pervasive "McSweeney's" tone, I respectfully submit that you are reading too much McSweeney's and are hypersensitive to it. He's not florid or overly descriptive, but also not overly hardboiled. Maybe some examples will show it better:
"'I read a book. Did I tell you? 'You might have.' 'It was about farmers. Four hundred thirty-six pages long. You start on page thirteen, though. They count the table of contents and the part where other writers say, "This man, by damn, is a writer. If he was here, I'd give him a nut scrub."'"*
"The seat would not recline at all; it forced Kyle into the posture of a responsible citizen who trimmed his azaleas and bought cleats for needy punks."
"Your neighbor in the next condo is your best customer. His day job is carving cedar elves. A big company bought him out of his copyright, but they still sell a select line of elves hand-carved by the inventor. This man hates sleep. He hates to let time pass while he's not watching, and does not want to say, one day, that his life was short. He measures time in elves."
Sure, it may get a little self-consciously stylish especially in the second-person parts, but it's solid. Certainly nothing to drive anyone away.
Recommended. But here's where the book fails for me, and the spoilers are major so don't read on unless you've already read it or aren't ever going to: (view spoiler)[The whole plot plays out as it does, with all the casualties, because of the fact that Frog never contacts Swin and Kyle. But once you realize he's been there watching them the whole time, the motivations and rationales fall apart. Frog knew Bright disappeared and knew the boys were involved, and knew that they probably had his money, and yet he never talks to them or sends Tim and Thomas to do so. He just lets the deaths pile up until they ruin his own life. Why would he do such a thing? The book tries to smooth it over: "Whether they are accomplishing these things according to a plan, or whether they're lost in a maze of their own fuckups, you cannot say. And it doesn't matter. What could you think but the worst when they kept trying to contact Colin? They don't contact higher-ups. Everyone knows that." What? Frog is supposed to be a consummate businessman, as I noted above, so why is he unwilling to contact Swin and Kyle to see what's going on? He's not afraid of them, and contacting your boss when a work task goes wrong is a pretty normal thing to want to do. How does Frog not see this? If he were as reasonable as he's portrayed in other parts of the book, we wouldn't have a story because Frog would have just swooped in, grabbed his money back, and promoted the kids to Bright's place. Problem solved. (hide spoiler)]
*This is probably the widest block of quote marks I've had to use since writing my thesis.
All I can really say about this one is that it's like City of Glass, but more substantial and textured. Which is to say, the plots of the two are near...moreAll I can really say about this one is that it's like City of Glass, but more substantial and textured. Which is to say, the plots of the two are nearly the same--possibly incompetent private eye investigates what may be a crime, but the case is set aside in favor of an identity crisis for the narrator. The difference is that Abe at least has some good old-fashioned prose style, whereas Auster lacks in that area (as far as I can tell), among others.
A few examples, and again, these aren't supposed to be examples of Great Prose...only competent, just interesting enough to keep you reading:
"If I believed her literally--or the words she spoke to herself--within these thirty some paces an unreasonable and unforeseen event had lain in wait for him. And as a result of it he had not only disregarded the appointment at S---- station, but had boldly and irreversibly stepped across a chasm, turning his back on the world." (Interesting that the private eye seems to consider the subject's reappearance impossible, right from the beginning)
"Although it was dead winter a huge green bottlefly, slipping and sliding, was buzzing as it tried to crawl up the shade over the electric light; it kept circling around but there was no need to worry: flies know the seasons better than humans, and their wisdom is great."
And from toward the end of the book, where the prose gets a little more muddled and abstract (in a good way, if one has the patience):
"If I could get them to take her at my wife's place, the membrane between the frog's toes would be even more beautiful--like purple rubber. What was broken? What was left? Again the usual face appeared in the veneer ceiling printed with the straight-grain cypress wood . . . a laughing moon . . . why was the dream I had a couple of times a year, where I was pursued by a laughing full moon, so frightening? It was still a puzzle I could not understand no matter how I racked my brains." (This is the only place in the book that the laughing moon dream is mentioned)
And from only a few pages later, opening up a chapter:
"I could only assume someone was watching me."
So Abe does a good job of making this plot believable--you can see the narrator's gradual descent into paranoia and, ultimately, incoherence, whereas Auster gives us nothing of the sort--while providing us with some interesting scenery along the way. But seeing as it elicited from me nothing more than a shrug, I can't in good conscience recommend it to anyone.
I had high hopes for this, but low expectations. I'd heard descriptions of it as hallucinogenic, fragmented, dislocating, with an apocalyptic-but-frus...moreI had high hopes for this, but low expectations. I'd heard descriptions of it as hallucinogenic, fragmented, dislocating, with an apocalyptic-but-frustratingly-vague background. It sounds like a lot of potential--after all, many of the best books could arguably be described as hallucinogenic: a book and a hallucinogen both have in common the goal of transporting the subject to another reality. But in practice it rarely works out like this. When people say a book barely makes sense, but is still good, I tend to disbelieve them. This is because in my experience, when what I'm reading doesn't make that much sense, or when it's extremely hard to follow, I disengage. A line from the introduction: "Because of the way Kavan describes her nameless characters, and because she is so apparently intent on physical and emotional uncertainty, the reader is frequently left stranded, if only momentarily . . . dreams and memories (or are they flashbacks?) obtrude into the main story, without warning, without explanation or even without being given a rationale within the context of the other events." So you could forgive me for being apprehensive.
But that's not how Ice works. This book actually makes sense, and it's not hard to follow. Yes, there are dreams and/or flashbacks, but even if you can't quite tell what's going on at the beginning of them, you usually can by the end. Ice follows an unnamed agent (my term, not Kavan's) as he tries to track down and rescue (kidnap?) an elusive, mysterious girl. There's also a third point to the triangle, a man usually called the warden. His relationship to the narrator is complex and obscure, but not in the maddening way I expected. These three chase each other around a globe rife with strife and balanced on the edge of apocalypse-through-titular-ice. The ice plays into the agent's dreams and hallucinations, but it's very present during the "real" parts of the book. So, yes, that does raise the question, how much of what is narrated is really happening? And that's always an interesting question, but only to have in the back of your mind--not to try to answer. The answer isn't important; only the question is.
There are lots of appealing ways to read this book, and here's one of them: one could see this as the ultimate in deranged male fantasy, the fantasy of someone suffering from unrequited love. The agent clearly has some sort of official capacity, but he cares only for finding this girl who is, in his mind, completely passive and objectified. In his memories she is mostly silent; in his dreams, completely so. But when he encounters her in real life, the interaction is different--she shows him dislike, contempt, fear. So he's maybe not a rescuer, but a crazed stalker. Which would be consistent with a lot of the other things that he does.
There's more to it than that, too. One could go further and either interpret the ice-phenomenon as a delusion on his part, a faceless foe from which he can save the object (and I do mean object) of his affection. Or it could be real, and provide the motivation for why it's so necessary that he try and track down this girl; he loves her, regardless of how she feels toward him, so if the world's going to end, the best thing for him to do, from his point of view, would be to find her and spend the apocalypse with her. How does the warden play into this? Debatable, but his sometimes-friendly, sometimes-cold attitude toward the agent would make sense if it depended on how much of a (romantic) threat the warden deemed the agent to be. One could also decide that all the badass things that the agent does (for instance, disguising himself in a military uniform, running over a motorcycle-mounted officer who's shooting at him, and ramming a frontier barricade) are exaggerations caused by his incredible narcissism, and contributing to his high-stakes, end-of-the-world romantic delusions.
So with this interpretation we have the agent as Humbert Humbert: a man who is objectively a monster, but through his narration he obscures that truth. Humbert Humbert does it with his eloquence, the agent with his insanity. To the extent that we believe his story, we believe he is good. And obversely.
But Ice is way deeper than that, because its slipstream nature allows multiple interpretations to be true in their potential. Lots of novels try to do this sort of thing and fail miserably; like I've said before, usually the idea of having many different interpretations signals some sort of cop-out. This book, on the other hand, is like its own personal multiverse. It just works. I have no idea how Kavan pulled it off.
A note about the prose: it doesn't exactly seem like anything too impressive at first, but it's a slow burn. Here's a quote that I think is representative: "They moved with weak and tottering steps in a slow, shambling procession, their movements unco-ordinated, their faded faces reddened by the blast." The description progresses from specific to a little more cryptic, e.g. what does she mean by faded, exactly? Is it physical or emotional? And so on. Notice the iambic pentameter in the last clause, too, making it more (literally) poetic than the workmanlike rhythm of the rest of the sentence. I'm no scholar, but I'm guessing that this prose is designed to work on a subconscious level--something more subtle than your standard look-at-the-clever-metaphor Franzen-type fare. And that's the effect I think it has.
In short, liking Ice this much was quite a surprise. I'd recommend it to almost anybody, even someone who doesn't think it's his cup of tea. Because I was that guy too.(less)
Probably no better or worse than any other Hammett I've read, but this one gets a slightly lower rating because it promised slightly more: namely, tha...moreProbably no better or worse than any other Hammett I've read, but this one gets a slightly lower rating because it promised slightly more: namely, that we'd get to see a little more of one of Hammett's notoriously reticent narrators, in the form of dialogue with his "rich and glamorous" wife Nora. According to the aforequoted source, I could expect The Thin Man to be "a sophisticated comedy of manners" in addition to the normal hardboiled fare. This was not so.(less)
What did I think? I thought it was pretty damn good. I have to confess, I had very low expectations. It appealed to me because it was on the LA Times...moreWhat did I think? I thought it was pretty damn good. I have to confess, I had very low expectations. It appealed to me because it was on the LA Times "61 Postmodern Reads" list, a list that is guilty of being really hit-or-miss and also using 'read' as a noun, which consistently irks me. That, plus a couple of lukewarm reviews and a distressingly vague back-cover teaser, prevented me from reading it as soon as I otherwise might have.
But it's way less of a chore than all those things would lead you (or had led me) to believe. Hemon gets compared to Nabokov in some of the blurbs on my copy, and while I don't think that comparison is particularly apt, there are a few understated little Nabokovian games and jokes in between all the more straightforward prose that takes up the bulk of the novel. E.g. at one point Brik and his wife joke about naming their kid Claude or Claudette, and further joke with Cloud and Cloudette. It seems pointless, until it resurfaces later in the novel when the narrator is describing the weather and refers to clouds and cloudettes.
That might seem pretty minor, and in a way it is, but it also contributes to an unusual effect: reading The Lazarus Project is like reading two books at once: there's the text, which is as I said frillless and businesslike, and tells the parallel stories of Brik and Lazarus, two immigrants of different backgrounds but who share some important characteristics. Yet there's also what lies underneath that story, a dreamlike, impressionistic fugue that traffics in connotations and web-thin connections. This seems mostly to be done by the clever repetition exactly twice in the novel of a word or phrase (like clouds and cloudettes), one that's insignificant enough to fly mostly under the radar the first time you read it, but the second time makes you wonder "did I read that in this book? or elsewhere? or not at all?" When done correctly, as it is here, it can be very unsettling.
One quote, although it isn't exactly representative: (one character is telling a joke to another)
Mujo left Sarajevo and went to America, to Chicago. He wrote regularly to Suljo, trying to convince him to come, but Suljo did not want to, reluctant to leave his friends and his kafana. Finally, after a few years, Mujo convinces him and Suljo flies over the ocean and Mujo waits for him at the airport with a huge Cadillac. They drive downtown from the airport and Mujo says, See that building, a hundred stories high? I see it, Suljo says. Well, that's my building. Nice, Suljo says. And see that bank at the bottom floor? I see it. That's my bank. And see that silver Rolls-Royce parked in front? I see it. That's my Rolls-Royce. Congratulations, Suljo says. You've done well for yourself. They drive to the suburbs and Mujo points at the house, as big and white as a hospital. See that house? That's my house, Mujo says. And see the pool, Olympic size, by the house? That's my pool.
There is a gorgeous, curvaceous woman sunbathing by the pool, and there are three healthy children happily swimming in it.
See that woman? That's my wife. And those children are my children. Very nice, Suljo says. But who is that brawny, suntanned young man massaging your wife? Well, Mujo says, that's me.
A little heavy-handed, maybe, but damned if that isn't the best symbolic encapsulation of the immigrant experience in America that I've seen in some time. Sometimes the American dream can only be a dream.(less)