Posts tagged ‘audiobook’

November 11, 2013

Review: Tim O’Brien’s Novel The Things They Carried, Read by Bryan Cranston

by Edwin Turner

thingsI’ve used Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried” in the classroom for so many years now that I’ve perhaps become immune to any of the tale’s rhetorical force.Trekking through the story again with a new group of students can occasionally turn up new insights—mostly these days from veterans going back to school after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan—but for the most part, the story “The Things They Carried” is too blunt in its symbols, too programmatic in its oppositions of the physical and metaphysical, too rigid in its maturation plot. There’s no mystery to it, unlike other oft-anthologized stories which can withstand scores of rereadings (I think of Hawthorne or O’Connor here; when I reread “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for example, I always understand it or misunderstand it in a new, different way).

But my students invariably love “The Things They Carried,” and I love reading it with them.

Despite reading the story “The Things They Carried” semester after semester, I hadn’t gone back to the novel The Things They Carried in years, until the kind people at Audible sent me a new audiobook version read by character actor Bryan Cranston (Malcolm in the MiddleSeinfeld). I enjoyed the audiobook over a week of commutes.

The Things They Carried is a loose collection of stories that centers on a character named Tim O’Brien and his time with Alpha Company during the Vietnam War. The book also focuses on O’Brien’s experiences, as well as the experiences of some of his fellow soldiers, before and after Vietnam. O’Brien ties the book around a few major stories, fleshing it out with fragments, and telling tales from different viewpoints and even different chronologies. If a character dies in one story, he’s welcome to show up in a later story or vignette. That’s how memory works. And when memory fails, there are stories:

Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

O’Brien’s major concern in The Things They Carried isn’t just the experiences of regular soldiers in the Vietnam War. He’s also deeply concerned with how to frame, recall, tell, and retell those experiences. In this sense, the formal aspects of the novel—its fragmentary, decentered structure—carry out its themes. The result is a strange beast, a novel that is simultaneously postmodern metafiction and dirty realism. Almost every single story in The Things They Carried attempts to suss out its own telling; indeed, how to tell, how to witness to (horror, violence, war) is probably the book’s real aim. Nowhere is this more evident than in “How to Tell a True Story”:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

The notation of a “rule of thumb” there is a dark little sick joke, a thread that O’Brien picks up from the opening title story. Moments like these, little threads, little images, help the work to cohere as a novel, even as O’Brien does his damnedest to fracture the whole business. His hand-wringing about truth and fiction and reality begins to wear on the reader. It’s not that O’Brien isn’t right to be concerned about these issues, but The Things They Carried spends a bit too much time dithering over its own right to imagine a truth.

O’Brien is better at the dirty realism, I think, which we can see in the brutal vivid details in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” a story about a guy who brings his teenage girlfriend to Vietnam. “Vietnam was full of strange stories, some improbable, some well beyond that,” O’Brien writes at the beginning, “but the stories that will last forever are those that swirl back and forth across the border between trivia and bedlam, the mad and the mundane.” In “Sweetheart,” O’Brien toes that line to great effect. The story culminates in imagery that seems borrowed from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I’m tempted to share the story’s strongest image but won’t. No spoilers.

“Sweetheart” is less concerned with the frames and edges of its own telling than some of the other stories in The Things They Carried, but O’Brien still highlights the essential problem of witnessing:

“Patience, man. Up to now, everything I told you is from personal experience, the exact truth, but there’s a few other things I heard secondhand. Thirdhand, actually. From here on it gets to be … I don’t know what the word is.”

“Speculation.”

I think it helped me to hear The Things They Carried in a different voice, a different tone or mode or mood than my own. Bryan Cranston does a wonderful job here. I’ve written before about how a good reader makes all the difference in an audiobook. Cranston, surely most famous for his iconic performance as hapless father Hal in Malcolm in the Middle, telegraphs O’Brien’s tales in a straightforward but sonorous voice, injecting pathos and wry humor at the appropriate moments. Cranston inhabits each voice in The Things They Carried, imbuing every character with his own tone and rhythm. The result is a compelling and moving interpretation of The Things They Carried. Cranston opens up what I had thought to be a more-or-less closed book.

This new audiobook features a bonus essay called “The Vietnam in Me” which recounts O’Brien’s 1994 return to Vietnam with his young girlfriend. The essay reads as a condensation, repetition, and extension of the book that precedes it, with O’Brien repeatedly admitting as much—reminding us again and again of the relationship between memory and story. O’Brien reads the essay himself in a reedy, often shaky voice. The recording quality seems to depart from the clean studio perfection of the book proper—there’s more hiss, more crackly, longer gaps. More dirty realism. Strangely, O’Brien’s quaver suggests a man less in control of the story than alter-ego Cranston’s confidence suggested. The divergence in the two readers underscores the book’s core theme, reminding us that it’s not just the story that matters, but the storyteller

You can see/hear Cranston read bits of the book in this video:

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January 23, 2013

Download RTÉ’s Superb Audio Production of James Joyce’s Ulysses

by Biblioklept

patch2James Joyce’s Ulysses might seem like a prohibitively difficult book, but it’s not as hard to read as its reputation suggests. There are any number of strategies for tackling the great tome (although enjoying or experiencing are more fitting verbs here), but one that many readers might overlook is listening to an audio recording.

I’ve tried a few audio versions of Ulysses, and none can hold a candle to RTÉ’s 1982 full cast production. I reviewed it a few years ago, and wrote:

I listened to, absorbed, choked up at, guffawed about, cackled around, and generally loved RTÉ’s 1982 dramatized, soundtracked, sound-effected, lovingly detailed recording of Ulysses, a work crammed with voices to match (if perhaps not equal) Joyce’s big fat work. This recording is not as widely available as LibriVox’s (free) full cast production or Jim Norton’s Naxos reading, but, after sampling both, I’d argue that it’s better. The Irish players bring sensitivity and humor to their roles, but beyond that pathos, the energy of RTÉ’s troupe is what really makes the book sing. Leopold Bloom gets his own voice, as does Stephen Dedalus and Molly (and all the characters). This innovation propels the narrative forward with dramatic power, and clarifies the oh-so indirectness of Joyce’s free indirect style, making the plot’s pitfalls and pratfalls more distinct and defined. There are songs (and dances) and music (and musing) and humming (and hemming and hawing and reverb). There is chanting and chawing and brouhaha. There is chaos and calamity and confusion. There is brilliance and peace and transcendence. It’s all very good, great, wonderful.

You can listen to and/or download the production here (big thanks to reader Eve for sending the link in!).

August 20, 2012

“What’s Outside the Window?” (Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives Revisited)

by Edwin Turner

Untitled (Desert Landscape) by Salvador Dali

Biblioklept has already published two reviews of Roberto Bolaño’s big novel The Savage Detectives.

In the first review, from 2008, I suggested that the book was technically impressive but ultimately “unmoving.” In the second review, from 2010, Dave Cianci argued that my first review “was unfair and premature.”

I tend to agree with Cianci’s criticism of my early review, although in my defense I struggled with a first reading of The Savage Detectives because I was ignorant of the history of Latin America, Central America, and Mexico, a history that provides much of the context for the Bolañoverse. I was like the auditor in The Savage Detectives who listened as Ulises Lima

reeled off a story that I had trouble following, a story of lost poets and lost magazines and works no one had ever heard of, in the middle of a landscape that might have been California or Arizona or some Mexican region bordering those states, a real or imaginary place, bleached by the sun and lost in the past, forgotten, or at least no longer of the slightest importance here . . .  A story from the edge of civilization . . .

The citation above more or less pins down some of the problems first time readers to Bolaño might have with The Savage Detectives. More so than the rest of his oeuvre, Detectives dwells on “lost poets and magazines and works no one had ever heard of.” These poets and writers are mixed in with famous poets (like Octavio Paz, who appears as a character in one segment), and parsing the various characters’ attitudes toward these writers can be a perplexing challenge, and at times a turn off.

And it’s not just the names of poets and writers that can addle a reader: Many of Bolaño’s narrators share an obsessive compulsion to name every avenue, street, or alley they walk on or past, details that become frankly boring over an extended period. It’s a novel of names and places: canonizing, map-making.

Why the map-making? Because this is a book about being lost. Its first section is titled “Mexicans Lost in Mexico.” Notice how many times the word “lost” crops up in the citation above. Indeed, The Savage Detectives is not only about what it means to be lost, but also about what it means to lose—one’s friends, one’s group, one’s country, one’s mind. It’s a book about exiles.

Maybe, dear reader, you’re looking for a bit of plot summary, a morsel at least—that is, maybe you haven’t read The Savage Detectives and you want to know if you should or shouldn’t. I suggest reading Cianci’s review in that case. In any case, I don’t suggest starting Bolaño with The Savage Detectives (although I’m sure plenty of folks might disagree with me here). A better starting place might be the short story collection Last Evenings on Earth. Or really just jump into the beast at the abyssal heart of the Bolañoverse, 2666.

I reread 2666 this summer and immediately knew I had to reread The Savage Detectives, knew I had to parse some of what I missed in my first “unfair and premature” reading. I ended up checking out Blackstone Audio’s recording of the book, featuring the voice talents of Eddie Lopez and Armando Duran.

The audio production is excellent: Lopez, surely a very young man, reads the narratives of Juan García Madero that bookend the central section, “The Savage Detectives,” which is read with a startling depth of range by Duran. Lopez’s García Madero comes across as the naïve pretender to cynicism, the would-be artist faking a life of romance. In Duran’s handling, the myriad characters in the middle of the novel come to life with humor and pathos. He animates the characters, showcasing the irony and pain and sadness and small moments of lunatic joy that erupt in the book. The Savage Detectives makes for a surprisingly excellent audiobook. (Quick note anticipating a query those familiar with the novel may have: The cryptic pictograms that show up late in the novel are included in the audiobook; they displayed on my iPod in tandem with their sections, and I imagine they would pop up on any player with a screen).

I enjoyed The Savage Detectives much, much more this second time. I still found parts of it boring (perhaps purposefully boring, but boring nonetheless), and the episodes I enjoyed most on the first reading (the duel, the cavern, the Liberian segment, the Israeli prison, the campers in Spain) were the ones I enjoyed the most on the second round. Better equipped for this reading, I appreciated the riches of Detectives, the way its fragments, intertextual, metatextual, reach out through the Bolañoverse to couple with other fragments, other texts.

My metaphors above are all wrong—the texts don’t reach or couple—the reader does this work, this reaching, this coupling, this detecting.

In my first reading, not up to playing detective, I surely blew through this passage near the end of the novel, a passage that ripples with strange significance for anyone puzzling over 2666:

And Cesárea said something about days to come, although the teacher imagined that if Cesárea had spent time on that senseless plan it was simply because she lived such a lonely life. But Cesárea spoke of times to come and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesárea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something. And then, when the teacher couldn’t help but laugh at such a random date, a smothered little laugh that could scarcely be heard, Cesárea laughed again, although this time the thunder of her laughter remained within the confines of her own room.

Here we have lost poet Cesárea Tinajero, object of the savage detectives’ quest, holed up in her room in Santa Teresa, the central setting for the murders of 2666, a map of a factory (a maquiladora, like the ones the murdered women work at in 2666?) pinned to her wall; here we have Cesárea Tinajero, who keeps “a switchblade with a horn handle and the word Caborca engraved on the blade” by her side, believing she is “under threat of death.” Cesárea Tinajero is prophet to the horrors at the core of 2666.

2666′s Benno von Archimboldi twins Cesárea Tinajero. Just as a quartet of savage detectives search for Tinajero, so to a quartet of literary critics seek out the lost Prussian writer. (Archimboldi even shows up a few times in The Savage Detectives, albeit under the pseudopseudonym “J.M.G. Arcimboldi,” identified as a “Frenchman,” the author of The Endless Rose, his second novel in 2666). Cesárea Tinajero is also repeated in 2666′s Florita Almada, a psychic medium who not only testifies to, but also tries to stop, the unrelenting violence in Santa Teresa.

I suppose I could keep teasing out these intertextual meetings. I could point out that Detectives character Joaquín Font winds up in an insane asylum babbling about fate (fate and insanity being two major themes of 2666). I could point out that Auxilio Lacouture, narrator of Bolaño’s novella Amulet, gets to tell her story in miniature in Detectives. I could point out that the central figures (“central” is not the right word of course) of Detectives, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima are everywhere in the Bolañoverse—even unnamed, it is clear that one of the duo fathers the bastard Lalo Cura, one of the good detectives of 2666. But what would be my point in elaborating detail after detail here? Or, and perhaps this is the real question I mean to ask here—is a full reading of The Savage Detectives ultimately dependent on intertextual relationships with other Bolaño books?

Maybe a better way to finish here is to hash out the last few pages of the novel, which find our narrator García Madero driving around Sonora with Lupe, on the run from the law (maybe). The last few entries of the book—in diary form—are simply a list of place names, obscure places in the Sonora desert the pair presumably drive to. García Madero takes up the mantle of exile and reads Cesárea Tinajero’s notebooks, which perhaps influence him—the last three entries of Detectives feature pictographic riddles that recall Tinajero’s visual poem “Sion.” Here is the final entry, which is also the final page of the book—

20120819-152744.jpg

I suppose there are plenty of answers to Bolaño’s final riddle. What’s outside the window? Abyssvoiduncertainty. Aporia. And also: Possiblityopennessfreedom. Certainty. And also: The perforated suggestions of a shape, lines to guide our scissors, form. And also: It’s to be taken literally, a literal dare to the reader to get up, to look out, to see. I could probably keep going.

If we know Bolaño’s detective games, we know that the mysteries are really labyrinths, mazes where we might get trapped and go insane. (The Savage Detectives is in large part a novel that outlines the risks—mental, physical, emotional—of literature). How do I read the gaps in the visual riddle? The gesture is visual ambiguity, paradox. The dashes open to void and close to make form; they define yet are indefinite; the window is there and is not there. So what we’re left with is a way of seeing, or at least an invitation to a way of seeing, which is to say a way of reading. So, if you like—and I like—what’s outside the window is the rest of the Bolañoverse—or at least an offer to play detective.

July 1, 2012

I Audit Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (Part 3 of 3)

by Edwin Turner

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell, Hans Holbein the Younger

(Parts one and two for those who care).

I suppose one sign of a great book is that it leaves you wanting more, and as Bring Up the Bodies arrived smoothly and precisely to its end, I found myself wanting more—more of those impeccable period details, more shots of London crowds gathering to ogle corpses, more of Henry VIII’s pretzel logic—but most of all, more time in Thomas Cromwell’s mind, which is the supreme pleasure of the book. Mantel’s restraint pays off, although a glance at Bring Up the Bodies hardly seems restrained: it’s 432 pages in hardback, or 24 hours in the audiobook version I listened to. I usually shudder when a review copy of 400 pages shows up at Biblioklept World Headquarters. It seems to me that most books of 400 pages could be improved dramatically if the author cut 200 pages—or added 600 more. And surely Mantel could have added 600 or 700 pages to the story of Henry’s offing the Boleyn siblings. The material is just that rich. But Mantel knows what she’s doing here, and the book she delivers is balanced and thorough and engaging and, as I said, leaves the reader wanting more, leaves us anticipating the trilogy’s conclusion, The Mirror and the Light.

Mantel’s ability to express Cromwell’s keen intelligence reanimates the Tudor saga, which I frankly could give a rat’s ass about on its own. Okay, the plot is fascinating, but much of history fascinates. What’s remarkable is the manner by which Mantel channel’s Cromwell’s mind. His brain is always at work, and Mantel shows us that brain at work. It would be a mistake to suggest that Bring Up the Bodies has no prose style, but it’s difficult to describe the style—Mantel elides authorial intrusion; her free indirect style stays close to Cromwell’s perceptions, but she knows when to move her camera out, knows when to show her audience a shot of his face or a gesture of his hand when he receives some piece of information or imparts some command. She rarely tells us what Cromwell is thinking, instead allowing us to go through the cognitive process with him.

And that cognitive process never rests. There’s a remarkable passage near the end of the book that ties together so many of the book’s themes and images. I would quote in full but I listened to the audio, so I’ll have to paraphrase (forgiveness, please). Cromwell is busy making arrangements for the executions of Boleyn and the men accused of sleeping with her, and his mind turns somehow to imagery of gristle and bone and fat—and he wonders what the ancient Greek pagans and Hebrews of the bible did with the meat from their sacrifices—Surely they didn’t waste the meat, surely they gave it to the poor, he thinks. Cromwell figures Boleyn as a sacrifice and then converts that sacrifice into a concern for the common people of the commonwealth.

Of course, it’s a mistake to see Cromwell’s motivations as absolutely pure. The revenge plot of Bring Up the Bodies unfolds so smoothly that the reader (okay, this reader) is slow to catch on, to see how delicately and expertly Cromwell snares those who brought down his beloved mentor Cardinal Wolsey. His control is so precise (Mantel’s control is so precise) that he refuses to tip his hand to himself, let alone the schemers around him, let alone the reader.

Still, Bring Up the Bodies concludes with an uneasy Cromwell, a man already looking for solace in grandchildren, in some kind of futurity, in a life (in a rare metatextual gesture on Mantel’s part) on paper, a figure marked in ink and words. He’s too perceptive—too sharp a reader—not to see the writing on the wall, even if that wall is some years out, even if that writing is still malleable and undefined. Cromwell has controlled the myriad political, familial, and personal circumstances that surround the wishes of his prince, King Henry, but he knows that it’s only a matter of time before his favor falls.

Bring Up the Bodies is a fantastic sequel to Wolf Hall, picking up the reins in media res, yet never resting on that first book’s tropes (“Choose your prince”; “Arrange your face”), but rather absorbing them and then adding to them. Mantel has given those of us not particularly interested in historical fiction a great reason to read some, although dithering about genre seems silly here. Ultimately, she gives us a powerful, character-driven story, a story that we think we already know, but understand anew in her retelling. Recommended.

June 22, 2012

I Audit Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (Part 1)

by Edwin Turner

The good people at Macmillan Audio were kind enough to send me a copy of the unabridged audiobook of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the highly anticipated sequel to her 2009 Booker prize winner, Wolf Hall. (I loved Wolf Hall, by the way). I’ll be writing about Bring Up the Bodies in brief installments as I audit the book, instead of waiting to complete the whole thing before reviewing (as I usually do) because a) it’s hard to dogear passages from an mp3 and b) the book is pretty damn long (about 24hrs) and c) I’ve yet to read a review of the book that might color my own perceptions.

Bring Up the Bodies—now seems as good a time as any to point out that, hey, that’s just a great title—Bring Up the Bodies picks up right where Wolf Hall left off. Just as that first book throws its audience into the deep end, with one of the more bewildering openings in recent memory, so too does Bring Up the Bodies begin abruptly in media res. Please forgive me if I begin in the middle of things as well—to be clear, it’s not a good idea to jump into Bodies until you’ve read Wolf Hall. And Wolf Hall is worth your time.

It’s 1535 and our protagonist Thomas Cromwell is 50 and starting to feel his age (he laments at one point that he no longer remembers any of the snippets of Welsh he once knew; he can no longer play tennis). His prince, King Henry VIII, is also quickly aging, his body turning to the fat lump that we tend to picture him as these days. An expanding tummy is the least of Henry’s worries, however—and Henry’s worries are Cromwell’s worries. The major plot arc will likely be Henry’s plans to oust his newish bride Anne Boleyn, a repetition of sorts from Wolf Hall, where Henry and Cromwell (mostly Cromwell) worked to annul Henry’s marriage to Queen Katherine. Obviously though, we can’t accuse Mantel of a lack of imagination in crafting her plots. She’s working from history of course, and what’s most amazing about both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is how Mantel invigorates that history. Who knew the hoary Tudor saga needed a retelling?

It works here of course because Cromwell is such a fascinating character. Mantel anchors her impeccable free indirect style in Cromwell’s mind, and she channels his intense intellect with sharp grace.  Here’s a remarkable passage that somehow summarizes (broadly, of course) much of Wolf Hall and showcases Mantel’s ability to move her prose seamlessly from exterior to interior,  from how others might see Cromwell to how he might understand himself:

Thomas Cromwell is now about fifty years old. He has a labourer’s body, stocky, useful, running to fat. He has black hair, greying now, and because of his pale impermeable skin, which seems designed to resist rain as well as sun, people sneer that his father was an Irishman, though really he was a brewer and a blacksmith at Putney, a shearsman too, a man with a finger in every pie, a scrapper and brawler, a drunk and a bully, a man often hauled before the justices for punching someone, for cheating someone. How the son of such a man has achieved his present eminence is a question all Europe asks. Some say he came up with the Boleyns, the queen’s family. Some say it was wholly through the late Cardinal Wolsey, his patron; Cromwell was in his confidence and made money for him and knew his secrets. Others say he haunts the company of sorcerers. He was out of the realm from boyhood, a hired soldier, a wool trader, a banker. No one knows where he has been and who he has met, and he is in no hurry to tell them. He never spares himself in the king’s service, he knows his worth and merits and makes sure of his reward: offices, perquisites and title deeds, manor houses and farms. He has a way of getting his way, he has a method; he will charm a man or bribe him, coax him or threaten him, he will explain to a man where his true interests lie, and he will introduce that same man to aspects of himself he didn’t know existed. Every day Master Secretary deals with grandees who, if they could, would destroy him with one vindictive swipe, as if he were a fly. Knowing this, he is distinguished by his courtesy, his calmness and his indefatigable attention to England’s business. He is not in the habit of explaining himself. He is not in the habit of discussing his successes. But whenever good fortune has called on him, he has been there, planted on the threshold, ready to fling open the door to her timid scratch on the wood.

Of course, good fortune is not without its headaches, and Bring Up the Bodies quickly establishes the daily grind of being the king’s chief minister. Cromwell has to worry about the uncertain finances of the kingdom; the plots of the Catholic Church; the ever-present threat of Katherine’s nephew, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor; Cromwell also has to worry about scheming at court and gossip in the towns. And yet he keeps a level head, even as he appeals to his memories of the late Cardinal Wolsey, who hangs like an ironic ghost over the early chapters of Bring Up the Bodies. (I’m hoping Wolsey’s ghost will continue to haunt the book). It’s when Cromwell turns his sharp mind to a critique of the cleric class (he’d turn out all the abbeys and seize their coffers), or to a flat rebuttal of the concept of confession (“God doesn’t require an intermediary”), or even when he sniffs at Machiavelli as too conservative that we see in Cromwell the advent of modernity.

A quick word on the audio production—it’s great stuff. Reader Simon Vance delivers the tale in a dry, clear cadence that perfectly suits Mantel’s prose. Vance knows when to lean into the ironic inflections that sometimes color Cromwell’s dialogue (both interior dialogue and speech with others), and he employs a range that easily differentiates the other voices that pop up in the narrative without losing a consistent tone. As I’ve stated on this blog many times, a good reader makes all the difference, and Vance is a good reader. More to come.

June 5, 2012

Everybody Hates a Tourist (I Sort of Review the Audiobook of David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)

by Edwin Turner

I recently listened to Hachette’s new audiobook version of David Foster Wallace’s essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, a collection of essays that I’ve read and enjoyed several times. My outline and notes for a review of the Fun Thing audiobook quickly swelled into an ugly, unmanageable bruise sporting a lengthy intro and dithering asides, when what I really intend to say boils down to “The audiobook is not very good.”

Why is it not very good? I hate to rest all the blame on voice talent Paul Garcia, because I’m sure that there were other people involved—a director, a producer, etc.—who also abetted this thing. If you’ve heard Wallace read—and I had to go back and listen to the few essays from Lobster that he reads to reconfirm this (more on that in a minute)—-if you’ve heard Wallace read his own stuff, you know that he brings this wonderfully restrained not-quite-affectless tone and rhythm to his work. I hesitate to call it naturalistic, but I guess that’s the closest word I can think of for what I’m trying to describe. Another way of putting this might be that when you hear Wallace reading his work, there’s a conversational tone to it, and that even when he’s reading something that is grossly hyperbolic or soaked in venom, he restrains himself from over-emoting these positions. It’s as if a barrier is removed between reader and auditor. In contrast, Paul Garcia mugs and hams his way through the essays in Fun Thing as if he’s doing bad dinner theater. He seems to delight in overzealously stressing every other syllable. The affectations tend to highlight how a certain way of reading—or perhaps hearing Wallace, in reality—can make him seem like a pompous, verbose asshole.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that hearing Garcia read Wallace’s first-person pronoun essays made me hear a different version of Wallace, one that I’d never heard in my own head when I’d read these pieces. Garcia made me hear a version of Wallace that I often disliked—finicky, vituperative, arrogant—one at odds with my own reading.

Reaching for an antidote, I then audited a few of the essays Wallace reads in Consider the Lobster—”Big Red Son,” recounting his trip to the AVN (porn film) awards in Las Vegas, and “Consider the Lobster,” where he visits the Maine Lobster Festival. These two essays balance neatly with the pair that likely stands out the most in Fun Thing: the title essay, Wallace’s infamous documentation of a luxury cruise, and “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” an account of the Illinois State Fair. (I think “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a rumination on Lynch’s place in cinema set against the backdrop of the filming of Lost Highway also holds up remarkably well—even in Garcia’s reading—but I’ve used some notes on it for another essay I’m working on about Roberto Bolaño and evil, so I’ll hold off any discussion). In any case, these four essays together illustrate the pattern Wallace’s reportage is most often identified with: Wallace goes to some place that he’s not really familiar with and writes about it, usually in obsessive, personal detail, mixing both humor and pathos as he details its absurdities and contradictions.

Several themes unify A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (one of the biggest is Wallace’s ever-present agon with irony), but what stood out most in going through the essays again was the sense of despair, the strange sadness that Wallace expresses when he shows us what happens when large groups of people get together for a good time. One of my favorite lines from pop music comes from Pulp’s “Common People,” where crooner Jarvis Cocker gently snarls, “Everybody hates a tourist.” I guess I love the line because I think it’s true, and it’s especially true in its own self-awareness of what it means to be a tourist—that a true tourist must be either oblivious (and thus hated) or self-hating (and thus in despair). So much of David Foster Wallace’s travel writing (if you want to call it that; I mean, it’s not travel writing, it’s more writing-about-mass-groups-of-people-in-contrived-situations) seems to be trying to work out these strange poles, to somehow understand what he is witnessing and overcome the hatred and disgust he feels at the vulgar, venal displays he’s seeing. In a footnote in “Consider the Lobster, Wallace lays it all out better than I can:

I confess that I have never understood why so many people’s idea of a fun vacation is to don flip-flops and sunglasses and crawl through maddening traffic to loud hot crowded tourist venues in order to sample a “local flavor” that is by definition ruined by the presence of tourists. This may (as my Festival companions keep pointing out) all be a matter of personality and hardwired taste: The fact that I just do not like tourist venues means that I’ll never understand their appeal and so am probably not the one to talk about it (the supposed appeal). But, since this note will almost surely not survive magazine-editing anyway, here goes:

As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way—hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. (Coming up is the part that my companions find especially unhappy and repellent, a sure way to spoil the fun of vacation travel:) To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

I suppose it’s too easy, maybe even intellectually lazy to gravitate to Wallace’s despair in the cold light of his suicide, but this despair nevertheless is a thick vein that runs through his work. Just a few paragraphs above I offered a bit of bad logic, wherein I suggested that being a tourist is always an either/or position (oblivious, ignorant, smiling or hyper-aware and self- and other-loathing); if I’m more honest I suppose there are third and fourth ways, maybe fifth and sixth, but they become hard to imagine.

Frankly, I’ve always liked Wallace’s essays so much because I relate so strongly to his first-person pronoun’s experience of other people. When Wallace tries to navigate his contempt for the rubes at the Illinois State Fair (“Kmart People,” he calls them!) against the idea that he should try to understand and empathize with other human beings as, like, real human beings with complex inner-lives, hopes, dreams, desires, despairs, I get all that. I’ve been there. Every damn day. But it’s these complex articulations that put Wallace’s travel journalism in such a desperate position. Unlike Hunter S. Thompson, who fully embraced nihilism, Wallace couldn’t simply write off the people around him as creeps, mutants, and lizards; neither could he fully empathize or love them the way that William Vollmann seems to. In the essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” a wistful Wallace admits that he would love to jump from one ship to another in “a bold and William T. Vollmannish bit of journalistic derring-do” — but of course such a feat would never even be on Wallace’s radar (aside from a literary reference): this guy will spend the entire last day of the cruise alone in his room not talking to anyone. Which again, would probably be me.

I quoted a pop song above so I’ll indulge myself and cite another one. I love The Breeders’ fantastic 1993 LP Last Splash, and the song “Saints” is a great jam, but I’ve always felt a little alienated by its opening lyrics, where Kim Deal howls: “I like all the different people / I like sticky everywhere / Look around, you bet I’ll be there!” I guess I couldn’t hang with Kim Deal at the fair, because, if I’m honest, I don’t like all the different people, and I don’t like sticky everywhere. And even when I can enjoy a carnival atmosphere, there is usually some mediating substance like alcohol or irony involved.

This is perhaps a long-winded way of saying that I relate to the central discomfort-cum-despair that runs through Wallace’s essays about having to be in the midst of large groups of people. And while comfort isn’t the sign of great art or great writing (Wallace handles this issue as well in his Lynch essay, but more on that another time), I feel admittedly comfortable in his essays. Which is perhaps why I didn’t care for the Garcia-read audiobook: it made me feel like a tourist.

August 5, 2011

The Sot-Weed Factor — John Barth

by Edwin Turner

I finished the audiobook version of John Barth’s novel The Sot-Weed Factor last week. I’d tried to read the novel a few times in the past, never getting past page 56 of my Bantam mass market edition, which runs to 819 pages. That’s a long book. The unabridged audiobook runs just over 36 hours. That’s a long time. Too long, really, for what Barth has to offer here, but before I get into that, I’ll give a tip of the hat to the excellent production values and the wonderful voice talent of Geoffrey Centlivre, who is by turns expressive, wry, pathetic, bathetic, or understated, depending on what Barth’s prose calls for. He understands the novel and does an estimable job translating it.

The Sot-Weed Factor enjoys the reputation of being Barth’s finest work (although let me just go ahead and disagree with this generalized assumption that I’ve attributed to no one in particular and say up front that the novel is ultimately a boring overlong drag and anyone interested in Barth is better off starting with Lost in the Funhouse). The novel parodies a number of literary styles — Bildungsromans, picaresques, Künstlerromans, adventure stories, histories, romances, and serialized narratives in general. Adopting the language (diction, tone, syntax, form and all) of 17th century prose, Barth tells the story of Ebenezer Cooke, a real historical figure whose 1708 poem “The Sotweed Factor, or A Voyage to Maryland, A Satyr” is considered by some literary historians to be the first American satire.

Barth’s Ebenezer is an innocent soul à la Voltaire’s Candide (hero of another picaresque that has the decency to be funnier, sharper, and, ahem, much, much shorter), a would-be poet whose spurious claims to being “Poet Laureate of Maryland” come constantly under fire. Ebenezer attributes his artistic powers (which are dubious at best) to the metaphysical virtue of his virginity; one of the major conflicts of the plot of The Sot-Weed Factor is poor Ebenezer defending his cherry from the various whores and ne’er-do-well who populate the book. And there are a lot of these whores and ne’er-do-wells: rascals and pirates and pimps and thieves and slavers and sluts of every stripe shuffle through The Sot-Weed Factor, underscoring several of Barth’s themes — innocence versus experience, perception versus reality, virtue versus vice, and stability versus flux.

In my reading, this last theme — the instability of identity, particularly American identity — is the major thrust of The Sot-Weed Factor. But before going into this idea, I suppose I should share at least some of the plot, or at least try to summarize it, which is almost impossible, as it shifts and slants and reverses in every chapter. In the interest of making a (very) long story short, dear reader, and making my job a bit easier, I’ll borrow from Don D’Ammassa’s summary (he’s got a great Barth page for those inclined)—

The story is set during the 17th Century.  Ebenezer Cooke is the son of a well-to-do British gentleman who owns property in the Maryland colony in the New World.  Ebenezer and his sister are tutored by Henry Burlingame until his sudden dismissal while they are in their late teens.  Ebenezer is sent off to boarding school, where he finds it difficult to form a bond between himself and his environment, eventually retreating into poetry.  He is also afflicted by an extreme form of indecisiveness in which he is literally frozen in place, some times for hours on end, incapable of making a decision.  His abstraction from the world is reminiscent of Jacob Horner and Todd Andrews, although exaggerated even further.

The plot grows rapidly more complicated.  Ebenezer is apprenticed in London, where he fails to prosper.  He becomes infatuated with a prostitute, despite his own militant virginity; his poor prospects are then conveyed to his father, who ships him off to the family holdings in the colonies.  Ebenezer decides to request a commission from Lord Calvert, governor of Maryland, to become its official Poet Laureate, believes that he has been awarded that honor, and sets out for the new world.  In the course of that journey, he rediscovers Henry Burlingame, who has taken on another identity, is kidnapped by pirates, walks the plank, and eventually reaches land.

The complexity and twisted humor that ensue cannot be adequately described in a few words.  Secret identities are revealed, coincidences flourish, absurd situations follow in rapid sequence.  Ebenezer is honored and disgraced, is captured by angry natives and threatened with death.  He discovers pieces of a secret journal of the adventures of John Smith and Pocahontas, and helps Henry Burlingame discover the truth about his own origins.  There is considerable bawdy content, much of it surrounding the mysterious process by which John Smith managed to sexually satisfy Pocahontas.

I’m impressed with D’Ammassa’s concision here—he neatly puts together the major elements of a sprawling, fat novel. As you may see from D’Ammassa’s summary, The Sot-Weed Factor is all about the instability of place, the lack of solid ground in swampy Maryland, the discontinuity of historical narrative, the inability of art to overcome reality, and the rapid reversals of fortune and identity that might occur in a New World. It’s all “assy-turvy,” to use one of the character’s terms. The Sot-Weed Factor here shows its post-modern bona fides; there’s a constant inconstancy, a doubling of people, places, things, and then a trebling. Ebenezer’s Old World romantic virtues—his insistence on the metaphysical value of his virginity and the power of his feeble poetry—are not just contested but obliterated (only poor Eb’s too blind to see this). Barth reworks American history, dismantling and satirizing the Pocahontas narrative, and emphasizing the plight of the native Americans, enslaved Africans, and indentured Europeans in this brave new world.

The book is also a dismantling of literary history, a jab at metaphysical poetry and identity narratives like Tom Jones or the work of Dickens. While Ebenezer spouts the loftiest supplications to his airy muse, Barth keeps his humor stuck sloppily in the toilet. The Sot-Weed Factor surpasses any ribald work I’ve ever read. The book is larded with dick jokes, fart jokes, jokes about diarrhea, jokes about sex and venereal diseases and so on—it culminates with (as D’Ammassa points out above) a riff on 17th century Viagra. In short, Bath focuses most of his keen literary powers on the kind of sophomoric japes that might keep Bevis and Butthead’s attention. Again, it’s all “assy-turvy.”

Barth’s toilet humor is at times funny, but it becomes tiresome over the book’s long duration, especially when it’s often the sole reward for long expanses of poorly-conceived exposition. I found myself bored to tears at times listening to The Sot-Weed Factor, and had to force myself to continue in its final third, a challenge that became easier when the narrative finally picked up a bit. Just a bit though. The book’s major problem is not its bloat though, or its saggy exposition, or even its redundant fart jokes. No, these feel more a symptom than a cause, and I think they are symptom of a too self-satisfied (or self-satisfying) author; over its 800+ pages (or 36+ hours), The Sot-Weed Factor reveals itself as the literary equivalent of a very bright writer jacking off to his own research. In what must be the worst case of unrestrained writing I’ve ever seen (or heard, I suppose), Barth allows two of his characters, catty women arguing, one English, one French, to trade insults with each other, all various euphemisms for “whore.” This process goes on for minutes in the audiobook version and for six goddamn pages in my Bantam edition and, like much of the details in this fat beast, does little or nothing to add to the narrative. It’s as if in his research Barth has dug up dozens and dozens of lovely little antiquated slurs and can’t bear to edit a single one. If  the process rewards Barth, it does little for the reader.

But if literary diarrhea is the mode of the book, then I guess it mirrors one of The Sot-Weed Factor’s many rude motifs. Personally, I wish I had my time back. There’s great value in reimagining the origin of America (I think immediately of Terence Malick’s The New World or Toni Morrison’s A Mercy or even some of William Blake’s work), but Barth’s narrative seems too self-indulgent and unrewarding to make any real claims to democratic (or, if I’m feeling harsh, artistic) insight. Perhaps The Sot-Weed Factor is the kind of novel that remains indivisible from its form, and perhaps to a contemporary reader like me this form is just too flabby and flaccid to spark spirit. As I’ve tried to communicate here, Barth has a sharp intellect and he’s more than capable of performing a wry, wise, and often funny analysis of early American history. But he indulges too much in his own sophomoric games and winks too often at the reader. It’s amazing that such a long book could feel so hollow.

May 5, 2011

Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones Is Lurid Abject Art

by Edwin Turner

Yesterday, I finished listening to the unabridged audiobook version of Jonathan Littell’s 900+ page novel The Kindly Ones, the plot of which is too long and complex and detailed (and frankly, often boring) to unpack here. To make a very long story short (after which I’ll talk about the book’s scandalous and (deservedly) tawdry reputation), Maximilien Aue is an SS officer of mixed Franco-Germanic parentage, who, amazingly, seems to be present at an unlikely number of key events during WWII. These events include time at the eastern front, orchestrating mass killings in Ukraine and holing up during the battle of Stalingrad, where he gets shot through the head yet miraculously survives. After this, Aue convalesces in Berlin, and later visits his mother and stepfather in Antibes. He soon takes up the project of improving conditions for concentration camp prisoners, visiting camps like Auschwitz, all the while meeting and working with Nazi bigwigs like Albert Speer, Adolf Eichmann, and Heinrich Himmler. After an intense illness (the book is full of illness–more on that in a moment), Aue seeks his twin sister (uh, yeah, more on her shortly) at her husband’s house in Pomerania, where, finding her absent, he indulges in a psychotic wine-fueled masturbation binge (yes, more presently). The end of the novel ups the psycho-ante, detailing the last days of the Third Reich in Berlin, a period Littell depicts as dripping in decadent nastiness. Aue survives via murder murder murder.

This is a very brief outline of a very long book, the kind of book that dares to be important, and Littell surely knows his history. In fact, the book is often incredibly dry, dusty even, constipated by historical facts that Aue and other characters frequently reveal in long, clunky passages of exposition. Indeed, one of the great weaknesses of The Kindly Ones is Littell’s tendency to use his characters as mouthpieces, little pawns who will discourse on politics or linguistics or music or whatever for a few pages. At the same time, it’s clear that Littell wants certain passages to bore the reader. A lengthy episode in the Ukraine concerns the fate of a group of Caucus mountain people of whom the SS wish to determine a “racial origin.” Littell presents the process of deciding whether or not these people should be exterminated or not in excruciatingly bureaucratic (bureaucratically excruciating?) detail. One of the novel’s core points is an observation of the Nazi Reich as a lurching machine, a sick machine whose various limbs were often at bureaucratic war with each other.

If The Kindly Ones is often dry, its wetness is all the more foul. This is a novel that might as well take place in the asshole, or at least the colon. Our hero (?!) Aue spends much of his time describing his alternate diarrhea and vomiting; indeed, emetic purging seems to be his only form of absolution from the constant sin he’s wallowing in. It’s as if the entire Nazi project—its racial purging, its mass murder, its bureaucratic domination, its lies that were obvious to any person with eyes—is a constant stream of shit and vomit that Aue is forced to (yet unable to) process. The Nazis worked to elevate their unnatural sins to a kind of weltanschauung, yet Aue is unable to reconcile this world view with the visceral reality of the organized mass murder he daily helps orchestrate. This hardly absolves him; indeed, Aue seems to engage in every perversion and sin imaginable as a means to release the metaphysical pressure valve that’s pushing down on him all the time.

And this is the core of The Kindly Ones, and certainly why the novel is so infamous. The Nazis were an abject regime, a force that sought to “cleanse” Europe and the world of a perceived filth, and set about doing so in the most paradoxical way imaginable—by engaging in genocide, the worst kind of moral filth. Littell’s novel explores the bureaucratic nature of these abject sins in detail, but Aue is the very (tortured) soul of abjection. He is a paradoxical figure, a “true” SS party member who nevertheless idealizes Greek culture—an ironic twist, given the book’s title, a not-so-subtle nod to Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Quick warning: spoilers ahead—although, given Littell’s potboileresque structure, you’d have to be a blind Oedipus to miss these twists.

Yes, young Max Aue is a thoroughly Greek figure. He’s a homosexual who longs to be a woman so he can feel the “pleasure” that only women can feel, yet he’s obsessively in love with his twin sister, whom he buggered regularly in their pre-teen days (and perhaps a few times afterwards). He fights Nazi bureaucracy to improve the living conditions of doomed concentration camp victims, yet he periodically murders the people around him, for no discernible reason. He delights in his own illnesses, his own filth and shit. He facilitates child murder. He fantasizes about coprophagiac feasts, sticks bottles up his ass while wet-daydreaming about Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, and pays starving boys a few marks for a dirty fuck. And, like Orestes, pursued by the Furies, he kills his mother and step-father. The novel’s greatest concession to Greekness is its reveling in horror, horror, horror.

The Kindly Ones is a bizarre book, one that asks its readers to sympathize with the lowest of low-lifes, and yet somehow nevertheless succeeds, at least in a marginal sense. Littell requires tremendous patience from his readers—and strong stomachs as well, perhaps. In short, I don’t know who The Kindly Ones is for. It’s a bit of a potboiler, yet hardly a genre novel, and certainly not the kind of thing most people would want to read on the beach. I’m not sure if most folks who read historical WWII fiction want theirs served up with so much psycho sickness. To call The Kindly Ones an oddity is an understatement. There are stunning (and I don’t use that word loosely here) passages in the book, moments of overwhelming psychosis, dream sequences that might match the verity of war, including its utter spiritual despair. There’s also a fine tawdriness to The Kindly Ones, an overwhelming sense of the lurid and grotesque, overcompensated, as I mentioned earlier, with the dry crust of historical detail. The result is messy and brutal and uneven, but nonetheless compelling, like a foul, open wound that attracts even as it repels.

April 19, 2011

Orlando — Virginia Woolf

by Edwin Turner

The plot of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando hangs on two key conceits: the title character transforms from male to female; the title character is immortal. Orlando has been a staple of gender studies courses since before such courses existed, and is in many ways the pioneer text (or one of the pioneer texts) of an entire genre. And that’s great and all—there are plenty of stunning passages where Woolf has her character explore what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman and how power and identity and all that good stuff fits in—but what I enjoyed most about Orlando was its rambling, satirical structure.

Orlando functions like an inverted picaresque, detailing the adventures of an aristocrat who finds him- (and then her-) self flung into every sort of damn predicament: Elizabethan intrigues; ice-skating during the Great Frost; a dalliance with a Russian princess; an attempt at artistic patronage; an attempt at art; an ambassadorship in Constantinople; an encounter with the Fates (I suspect); time with a band of gypsies; time with Alexander Pope; a marriage to the great sea captain Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine; and, finally (if that adverb might apply to an apparent immortal), the publication of her great small work The Oak Tree. Sorry to laundry-list plot points, but, gosh, don’t you want to read this now—or at least listen to the audiobook, like I did?

Woolf seems to be channeling Voltaire’s Candide at all times, subtly ridiculing era after era, until Orlando finally emerges into Woolf’s (Modernist) present—it’s the fuzziest moment of the novel for our protagonist, as if she, or the author operating behind her, cannot parse out the post-industrial landscape. It’s also the moment at which Woolf’s prose becomes its most fluid and free—its most Woolfian, I suppose.

I thoroughly enjoyed Clare Higgins’s smart, confident reading of this unabridged production (BBC/Chivers). At not quite nine hours long, it’s a great way to spend a few afternoons of chores or gardening, or perhaps a week’s commute. It made me fish out Mrs. Dalloway, which I haven’t read since my undergrad days, and shove it into a “to read” stack. It also prompted me to revisit Sally Potter’s admirable 1992 film adaptation starring Tilda Swinton, whose very being seems like call and cause enough for an Orlando movie. I recommend both the audiobook and the film. Great stuff.

August 15, 2010

The Passage — Justin Cronin

by Edwin Turner

Apocalypse literature, when done right, can inform us about our own contemporary society. It can satirize our values; it can thrill us; it can astound us with its sheer uncanniness. I’m thinking of Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novels, Cormac McCarthy’s novels Blood Meridian (yeah, Blood Meridian is an end-of-the-world novel) and The Road, Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence and Brave New World. There are many more of course–hell, even the Bible is bookended by the apocalypse of the flood (and Noah’s escape) and the Revelation to John. Then there are the movies, too many to name in full at this point (China Miéville even called for a “breather” a while back), but the ones that work become indelible touchstones in our culture (George Romero’s zombie films and Children of Men spring immediately to mind).

So, my interest in such works foregrounded, perhaps I should get to the business of reviewing Justin Cronin’s massive virus-vampire apocalypse saga/blatant money-making venture The Passage. But before I do, let me get anecdotal: earlier this summer, because of my aforementioned interest in apocalypse lit I tried to listen to the unabridged audiobook version of Stephen King’s The Stand. I bring this up here because Cronin’s book is utterly derivative of The Stand. I also bring it up because I had the good sense to quit The Stand almost exactly half way through–good sense I did not extend to The Passage. Yes, dear reader, I listened to the whole damn audiobook, all 37 hours of it. It helped that I had a home renovation project going that took up most of this week. So I listened to Cronin’s dreadful prose, hacky twists, and derivative plots while sanding joint compound and painting for eight hours at a stretch. True, it’s a much easier audiobook to follow than, say, something by Dostoevsky–but that’s only because anyone with a working knowledge of apocalypse tropes has already seen and heard it all before.

So what is it? In The Passage a government virus turns people into vampire-like zombies with hive mines. There’s a mystical little girl at the center of it all. Does she hold the key to mankind’s salvation? Does all of this sound terribly familiar? Cronin’s book begins in the not-too-distant future, tracing the origins of the virus that will unleash doom and gloom; then, about a third of the way in, he skips ahead about a 100 years to explore what life is like for the survivors. While the commercial prose had taxed me about as far as I could go, I have to admit that this twist a third of the way in intrigued me–what would life be like for these folks? What savagery did the “virals” (also called “smokes,” “dracs,” and a few other names I can’t remember) unleash? Luckily, there’s plenty of exposition, exposition, exposition! Cronin saturates the second part of his novel with so much background information that he essentially ruins any chance the book has to breathe. There’s no mystery, no strangeness–just many, many derivative plots and creaky set-pieces thinly connected with enough chapter-ending cliffhangers to make Scheherazade blush. This wouldn’t be so bad if Cronin’s characters weren’t stock types that would seem more at home in an RPG than, I don’t know, a novel. It’s hard to care about them as it is, but as the novel progresses he frequently puts them in mortal peril and then saves them at the last-minute–again and again and again. The derivative nature of The Passage wouldn’t smart so much if the characters weren’t so flat and the prose so mundane. The action scenes are fine–just fine–but when Cronin gets around to like, expressing themes and ideas the results are risible. It’s like the worst of Battlestar Galactica (you know, those last three seasons), maudlin soap opera that tips into mushy metaphysics.

But I fear I’ve broken John Updike’s foremost rule for reviewing books — “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” I think that Cronin has set out to make money here, and he’s written the type of book that will do that, the kind of book that will make some (many) people think that they are reading some kind of intellectual alternative to those Twilight books. There will be sequels and there will be movies and there will be lots and lots of money, enough for Cronin to swim in probably, if he wishes. In the meantime, go ahead and skip The Passage.

August 3, 2010

The Broom of the System — David Foster Wallace

by Edwin Turner

David Foster Wallace’s first novel The Broom of the System obsesses over language, words, storytelling and what it might mean to have our lives circumscribed in another person’s narrative. Hatchette Audio’s new audiobook version of Broom highlights the strength of Wallace’s dialogue, a feature of his writing perhaps overlooked, or at least overshadowed, by his complex diction and syntax and his innovative narrative structures. The Broom audiobook features the considerable talents of reader Robert Petkoff, who brings life to its many characters like protagonist Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, a switchboard operator looking for her grandmother (and namesake) in the weird nooks and crannies of Wallace’s fictional Cleveland. Gramma Lenore (grammar Lenore; lost Lenore) is a former pupil of Wittgenstein, a conceit that allows Wallace to run wild with his own philosophical-linguistic concerns. I first read Broom as an undergrad–this was almost 15 years ago now–and I was pretty soaked in post-structuralist philosophy at the time, at least enough to think I was getting what many of Wallace’s mouthpieces were saying. There’s an obsession with Self and Other and whatever membrane might keep them separate; there’s the paranoia that language dictates our lives; there’s a sense that the postindustrial landscape has led to the need to engender new means of communion. Politicians create the Great Ohio Desert–or G.O.D. (subtle, I know) as a place for spiritual quests; psychiatrists prescribe bizarre ritual theaters for families to produce in front of a recording of a TV audience; a drugged bird develops speech abilities and is mistaken for a miracle. Broom is a dizzying satire of modernity, or more properly, postmodernity (the book was first published in 1987 but set in 1990).

Journeying through the book years later is a new experience, especially in light of how much Wallace and his literary followers have remapped the terrain of fiction. Many of Broom‘s experimental innovations, like the incorporation of TV transcripts, scholarly articles, medical documents, and other “found footage” are so normalized in contemporary fiction as to be almost clichéd in 2010. While these moments are never glaring or gauche in Broom, their inclusion lacks the finesse that Wallace would later demonstrate in Infinite Jest. Similarly, Wallace’s characters in Broom are too cartoonish to connect with. Read aloud, their punning names become a cavalcade of groans:Wang-Dang Lang, Peter Abbott, Candy Mandible, Judith Prietht, Biff Diggerance, and so on, as if Wallace can’t help himself. The Pynchonesque goofiness gets in the way of the reader-writer relationship that Wallace ultimately wants, the Wittgensteinian language game that would allow for identification beyond words. Purposeful bathos is still bathos. Lenore is an engaging character but, as she frequently worries and suspects, she is just that, a character, never transcending the page like Don Gately of Infinite Jest. But it’s cruel and stupid to fault Broom for not being Infinite Jest, especially when Broom is such a rewarding novel. Published when Wallace was just 24, it shows the grand strains of First Novel Syndrome, of a genius trying to push out too many ideas, too many characters, too many philosophical riffs at once. While Infinite Jest is hardly restrained, it shows Wallace’s powerful control over Too Much; it converts Too Much into Not Enough, into Give Me More.

The highlight of Broom is in its storytelling, in its capacity to explode clichés and expose the truth and energy stored within them. Rick Vigorous, Lenore’s would-be beau with literary aspirations, repeatedly shares stories with Lenore (and us, of course). They can be silly and maudlin and mawkish and downright awful, but also inspiring and sad and horrific, all at the same time, and Wallace engineers and comments on these stories (and the other stories that populate the book) in a way that somehow breaks with or goes past the postmodern tradition he’s otherwise relatively beholden to in Broom. And while Wallace’s first novel never achieves the exquisite sadness of Infinite Jest (although it would clearly like to), it does share the same rap-session humor, the same intimate narrative voice that welcomes the reader to laugh, to ponder, to play the game. Recommended.

April 8, 2010

In Brief — Wolf Hall, Eddie Signwriter, Salinger Betrayed, and Wizard People, Dear Reader

by Biblioklept

Started a new audiobook: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, read competently by Simon Slater. Wolf Hall tells the familiar story of Henry VIII, only Mantel focuses (at least so far) mostly on Thomas Crownwell and Cardinal Wolsey. Most of the men in the story have the first name “Thomas.” I’m not particularly interested in the Tudor saga but I’m enjoying Mantel’s novel so far–its clean, precise style, its pacing, and, particularly Mantel’s sparing use of details. Historical novels sometimes succumb to the weight of the author’s passion with her subject. Thankfully, Mantel does not overload her prose with superfluity; instead she appoints detail in her narrative with care and precision, giving character and plot room to grow. Good dialogue too. More later.

I got a review copy of Adam Schwartzmann’s début novel Eddie Signwriter last week and haven’t had a good chance to read any of it until today. The novel tells the story of Kwasi Edward Michael Dankwa aka Eddie Signwriter, who journeys from his native Ghana to Senegal, and then to France, where he takes up a new life as an illegal immigrant in Paris. The story opens in a burst of action. Nana Oforwiwaa, a village elder has died and authorities are blaming Kwasi. So far, I find Schwarzmann’s prose a bit heavy. Sentences need pruning–too many redundant verbs and clauses in his sentences for my taste. Eddie Signwriter is better when Schwartzmann moves the narrative of young Kwasi along in shorter, declarative sentences. Eddie Signwriter is available now from Pantheon.

Great article in New York magazine by Roger Lathbury. “Betraying Salinger” details Lathbury’s attempt to publish J.D. Salinger’s last story, Hapsworth 16, 1924. Sad and strange. Here’s the first paragraph:

The first letter I got from J.D. Salinger was very short. It was 1988, and I had written to him with a proposal: I wanted my tiny publishing house, Orchises Press, to publish his novella Hapworth 16, 1924. And Salinger himself had improbably replied, saying that he would consider it.

If you haven’t heard any of Wizard People, Dear Reader, Brad Neely’s reimagining of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone you should do so now. Download Neely’s audiobook (to be played concurrently with a version of the (muted)  film) from Illegal Art. Neely’s revision of the first HP volume taps into the story’s primal, dark mythos; it’s hilarious. Neely’s writhing delivery sounds like a dead-on impression of Brad Dourif (particularly like Dourif’s Deadwood character, Doc Cochran). If you don’t want a full screening, YouTube is full of short, sweet solutions, like this one — “The Cribbage Match” –

February 21, 2010

David Foster Wallace Reads “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life”

by Biblioklept

The audiobook of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men came out almost a year after its author, David Foster Wallace killed himself, which kinda sorta makes it strange to hear his voice read some of these tales. Here’s Wallace reading “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life,” a short short short story. As far as audiobooks goes, this collection is fantastic. There’s a great cast here, and the actors, including Bobby Canavale, Will Forte, Christopher Meloni, John Krasinski (who adapted the book into a film which I’ve, despite having had a pirate copy for several months, been too afraid to watch) intuit Wallace’s work and communicate its humor, pathos, and subtlety. The biggest treat though is hearing Wallace’s voice again.

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