Posts tagged ‘Book review’

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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February 11, 2013

Flann O’Brien’s Novel At Swim-Two-Birds Is a Postmodernist Masterpiece of Comic Storytelling

by Edwin Turner

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The vibrant force of storytelling in Flann O’Brien’s excellent first novel At Swim-Two-Birds threatens to overwhelm reader and narrator alike—and what a strange joy it is to be overwhelmed. This novel overflows with stories; its plot threads twist into each other, break out of each other, erupt into new ideas, characters, riffs, sketches. First published in 1939—the same year as James Joyce’s Finnegans WakeAt Swim-Two-Birds seems light years ahead of its time—indeed, this is a book that is still ahead of its time.

Summarizing At Swim-Two-Birds is difficult but worth attempting. We have an unnamed narrator, a student living with his uncle who doesn’t think much of how his nephew spends his time. Our narrator likes to imbibe large quantities of porter and wax philosophical with his friends about his literary projects. These projects, our narrator’s riffs and scribblings, begin to take on lives of their own: they intersect, overlap, intermarry, degenerate and regenerate.

The book’s opening paragraph announces the novel’s intention to disregard the classical unities of action, place, and time:

Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.

First, we meet “Pooka MacPhellimey, a member of the devil class,” a hobgoblin of Irish folklore (he turns out to be a thoughtful and polite fellow). Then, there’s John Furriskey, who “was born at the age of twenty-five and entered the world with a memory but without a personal experience to account for it.” Furriskey is the literary creation of another of the narrator’s literary creations, one Dermot Trellis, a grumpy old man who writes Westerns; Trellis (an author, it’s worth reiterating) is the eventual antagonist of the novel, the target for all of the other characters’ vengeance. The third opening offers up Finn Mac Cool, “a legendary hero of old Ireland.”

Much of the early part of At Swim-Two-Birds features Finn Mac Cool holding forth on all matters Irish in wonderfully baroque and hyperbolic passages. Here’s a snippet (a long one!), featuring Finn on the ideal man:

When pursued by a host, he must stick a spear in the world and hide behind it and vanish in its narrow shelter or he is not taken for want of sorcery. Likewise he must hide beneath a twig, or behind a dried leaf, or under a red stone, or vanish at full speed into the seat of his hempen drawers without changing his course or abating his pace or angering the men of Erin. Two young fosterlings he must carry under the armpits to his jacket through the whole of Erin, and six arm-bearing warriors in his seat together. If he be delivered of a warrior or a blue spear, he is not taken. One hundred head of cattle he must accommodate with wisdom about his person when walking all Erin, the half about his armpits and the half about his trews, his mouth never halting from the discoursing of sweet poetry. One thousand rams he must sequester about his trunks with no offence to the men of Erin, or he is unknown to Finn. He must swiftly milk a fat cow and carry milk-pail and cow for twenty years in the seat of his drawers. When pursued in a chariot by the men of Erin he must dismount, place horse and chariot in the slack of his seat and hide behind his spear, the same being stuck upright in Erin. Unless he accomplishes these feats, he is not wanted of Finn. But if he do them all and be skillful, he is of Finn’s people.

It’s hard not to feel something of Joyce in the passage (I’m particularly reminded of the Cyclops episode of Ulysses), and O’Brien’s narrator name-checks Joyce (along with Aldous Huxley) in the first few pages of the book. The narrator’s comically mechanical and precise descriptions also recall Joyce. Joyce and O’Brien drew from the same well of mythology, but O’Brien more keenly attunes his focus on Irish legend and folklore in At Swim-Two-Birds, while Joyce’s project skews to archetypes. Similarities and divergences aside, there’s something strangely fitting about O’Brien’s Finn Mac Cool dreaming his way into other characters’ lives in At Swim-Two-Birds, as if this Finn is the psychic twin of Joyce’s Finn.

Indeed, such a reading would fit neatly into our young narrator’s ideas about the function of character in literature:

Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before – usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimble-riggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature.

This decree strikes me as wonderfully post-postmodernist. That the “modern novel should be largely a work of reference” finds its suitable echo over half a century later in the note-card novels of David Markson (and other reality smugglers). The citation above serves as a metatextual description of At Swim-Two-Birds itself: O’Brien’s narrator framing the various tales that erupt in the novel, but also undoing the frames, allowing his characters to converge, to tell their own stories (and within those stories characters tell other stories…).

In its finest moments (of which there are many), At Swim-Two-Birds operates on an ad hoc logic that it creates and describes in motion, a kind of improvised dream response pattern. Most books, particularly postmodern books, teach the reader how to read them—that is, most novels provide keys, hints, and reading rules early enough in the text to allow perceptive readers to interpret (subjectively, of course) what the novel is doing. O’Brien’s novel in toto, with its discontinuities, gaps, eruptions, and juxtapositions, paradoxically is its own discrete, unified key.

But I seem to be getting bogged down in a bit of literary theory, which is not my intent at all.

Instead, let me draw attention to a wonderful extended jaunt in the middle of At Swim-Two-Birds where the Pooka MacPhellimey enters into an ersatz quest with the Good Fairy, two cowboyish thugs (or thuggish cowboys) named Slug and Shorty, the poet Jem Casey, and the mad King Sweeny. This ragtag band sets out to bequeath gifts to the forthcoming child of Miss Lamont (the creation of a creation of a creation). These episodes unfold in comic bravado, their slapstick rhythms recalling the manic but precise energy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin and the linguistic brio of the Marx brothers. This miniature picaresque is tempered in sweet pathos for poor crazy Sweeny who must be plied forward with the promise of a feast. The poor man, broken, starving, and living solely on watercress, falls into despair. What eventually moves him? The force of language:

And getting around the invalid in a jabbering ring, they rubbed him and cajoled and coaxed, and plied him with honey-talk and long sweet-lilted sentences full of fine words, and promised him metheglin and mugs of viscous tarblack mead thickened with white yeast and the spoils from hives of mountain-bees, and corn-coarse nourishing farls of wheaten bread dipped in musk-scented liquors and sodden with Belgian sherry, an orchard and a swarm of furry honey-glutted bees and a bin of sun-bronzed grain from the granaries of the Orient in every drop as it dripped at the lifting of the hand to the mouth, and inky quids of strong-smoked tabacca with cherrywood pipes, hubble-bubbles, duidins, meerschaums, clays, hickory hookahs and steel-stemmed pipes with enamel bowls, the lot of them laid side by side in a cradle of lustrous blue plush, a huge pipe-case and pipe-rack ingeniously combined and circumscribed with a durable quality of black imitation leather over a framework of stout cedarwood dovetailed and intricately worked and made to last, the whole being handsomely finished and untouched by hand and packed in good-quality transparent cellophane, a present calculated to warm the cockles of the heart of any smoker. They also did not hesitate to promise him sides of hairy bacon, the mainstay and the staff of life of the country classes, and lamb-chops still succulent with young blood, autumn-heavy yarns from venerable stooping trees, bracelets and garlands of browned sausages and two baskets of peerless eggs fresh-collected, a waiting hand under the hen’s bottom. They beguiled him with the mention of salads and crome custards and the grainy disorder of pulpy boiled rhubarb, matchless as a physic for the bowels, olives and acorns and rabbit-pie, and venison roasted on a smoky spit, and mulatto thick-tipped delphy cups of black-strong tea. They foreshadowed the felicity of billowy beds of swansdown carefully laid crosswise on springy rushes and sequestered with a canopy of bearskins and generous goatspelts, a couch for a king with fleshly delectations and fifteen hundred olive-mellow concubines in constant attendance against the hour of desire. Chariots they talked about and duncrusted pies exuberant with a sweat of crimson juice, and tall crocks full of eddying foam-washed stout, and wailing prisoners in chains on their knees for mercy, humbled enemies crouching in sackcloth with their upturned eye-whites suppliant. They mentioned the leap of a fire on a cold night, long sleeps in the shadows and leaden-eyed forgetfulness hour on hour – princely oblivion. And as they talked, they threaded through the twilight and the sudden sun-pools of the wild country.

I’ve perhaps overshared here, let our characters babble on too long—but the verbal dexterity of the passage above illustrates O’Brien’s rhetorical force, the force he lends his characters in order that they should move their insane and desperate friend forward. There’s a sublime alchemy at work here, where imagination turns into words and words turn into food and drink.

I also fear these big chunks of text I’ve pulled from At Swim-Two-Birds don’t highlight O’Brien’s extraordinary talent at rendering speech. The dialogue in this novel is hilarious but nuanced, its ironies rarely if ever remarked upon by intrusive attributions. That O’Brien’s narrator’s characters (and their characters…) speak through the layers of texts adds to the book’s juxtapositions.

These juxtapositions will perhaps confuse or even alienate many readers. At Swim-Two-Birds can be read as an attack on the classical unities of action, place, and time. O’Brien’s novel is a send-up of stability, order, and tradition. Some of the novel’s best moments are its strangest indulgences, as when O’Brien (or his narrator) gives the novel over to citations from imaginary antique texts, or allows his characters to indulge in a seemingly endless recitation of obscure facts, or satirizes the moral dangers of tea-tasting. These moments seem to erupt from nowhere, bizarre, wonderful, joyous.

At Swim-Two-Birds lacks the cohesion of theme and voice that characterizes O’Brien’s other masterpiece, The Third Policeman, but this is hardly a deficiency. At Swim-Two-Birds is one of those rare books that actually deserves to be called dazzling, a critic’s crutch-word that mars too many blurbs. Its dazzle derives from its rhetorical force, its humor, and its openness to experiment with not just the novelistic form, but the form of storytelling itself. And it’s here that O’Brien’s novel is most real—he captures the strangeness of storytelling, its mutability, its crazy rhythms. Ultimately, this is a novel unconcerned with providing pat answers and clear solutions. I loved this book, loved reading it—and then immediately rereading it. I’ll let O’Brien get the last word:

Answers do not matter so much as questions, said the Good Fairy. A good question is very hard to answer. The better the question the harder the answer. There is no answer at all to a very good question.

August 28, 2012

A Rambling Riff on the Age of the Amateur, Book Review Ethics, and Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son

by Edwin Turner

1.There’s been a lot of hubbub (at least in my particular echo chamber) the past few weeks about book reviews and the ethics of book reviews:

Too nice?

Too mean?

Just fine?

What about straight-up buying a book review?

And what about when authors get involved, via social media, in calling out reviewers?

2. A sloppy synthesis of what I’ve linked to above might be:

The traditional position of the serious book critic is perhaps being undermined via social media in the hands of well-meaning amateurs.

3. I’m not sure that I exactly agree with the statement above.

4. Still, we live in the Age of the Amateur.

(Saturday Night Live parodied this phenomena in a sketch called “You Can Do Anything!” that hits nail on head).

5. (SNL also unintentionally documented what happens when an amateur is given a forum beyond her untested abilities).

6. I suppose I could spend a few paragraphs parsing the delicate distinctions between literary criticism and book reviews and awarding fucking stars on Amazon or Goodreads, but I think you, gentle reader, probably get all that already.

7. (I consider myself an amateur book reviewer with an interest in but no pretension to literary criticism. I don’t intend to write about myself, but I do feel like I should clarify this).

8. (I know I just said that I don’t intend to write about myself, but again, perhaps germane:

I don’t read a lot of book reviews, especially contemporary book reviews. I mean, I hardly ever read contemporary book reviews. If I’m planning to review the work, a contemporary review may poison any pretense of objectivity I have.

With the occasional new major release, it’s almost impossible not to get a fix on some critical consensus—and I always scan of course.

I usually read a handful of reviews of a book I’m reading after I’ve drafted a review.

And I read lots of old reviews. Lots.

Again, maybe germane to all of this).

9.  But I’m riffing out all over the place. Let me get to the point. Let’s return to the second part of Point 2:

The traditional position of the serious book critic is perhaps being undermined via social media in the hands of well-meaning amateurs.

Is this true? I don’t know, exactly. A few points to consider:

Literary criticism has existed via two more-or-less stable forms for about a century now: Academic scholarship and popular media.

Academic scholarship tends to be highly-specialized and literally inaccessible for most people. I think academic scholarship and research about literature is important and I don’t want to knock it all—but most of it simply isn’t exposed to, let alone absorbed by, a reading public.

Popular media—magazines and newspapers—is clearly in a transitional phase. A lot of this boils down to the dissemination of new technologies, the advent of the so-called “citizen journalist,” and the oligarchization of mass media. Journalism, as taught in journalism school, prescribed a set of methods and ethics that seem frankly quaint when set against the internet and 24hr cable networks. How book reviews fit—if they fit at all—into the emerging paradigm of popular media is hard to say.

10. Obviously, one model for how book reviews/lit crit fits into the emerging paradigm of popular media  is Goodreads, which I really don’t know much about to be honest. Another is Amazon, which has so many problems I don’t even begin to know how to start. Both of these sites use star ratings though, which has always struck me as probably the worst critical model available.

11. (I got an email recently about Riffle, a new service “powered by the Facebook social graph and loaded with expert curated recommendations.” I mean, how’s that for a shudder down the metaphorical spine?)

12. (Re: Point 11—What is it with this term “curator”? Is it synonymous with: “I produce no original content”?)

13. So, to return to the pretense that I have a point:

I’ve written about 300 reviews on this site. Most for books, some movie reviews, and a few other things as well (uh, malt liquor). I didn’t really know what I was doing in the beginning—I mean, I wasn’t even intending to review books. I was just writing about books I’d pilfered, pinched. Stolen. (The name of the site was its mission statement).  At some point I started making critical judgments, trying to, you know, recommend books that I loved to people who I hoped would love them also.

And at some point I came across John Updike’s rules for reviewing books.

I’m not an Updike fan—wasn’t then, amn’t now—but his rules resonated with me, and I made a point of reading his criticism, which is generally excellent.

In short, I’ve tried to follow his rules.

14. (To clarify: A simple thesis for this whole riff: I think book reviewers need to follow some kind of aesthetic, ethical rubric, one that accounts for subjectivity in an objective way—and I think Updike’s list is great).

15. Updike’s first rule is his best:

Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

This one seems fairly straightforward, but is abused all the time, whether it’s Kakutani at the NYT pretending YA is not YA, or a reviewer at Book Kvetch lamenting that a metaphor-laced experimental novel isn’t a science textbook.

(I might have abused Updike’s first rule myself, but I’m not going to ransack the archives for self-incrimination).

16. Updike’s first rule is so graceful because it allows for a sliding scale of sorts, a range of possibilities beyond the critic’s own highly-subjective taste.

Put another way, it’s very easy to say, “I loved it” or “I hated it,” but Updike’s first rule places the onus of critical imagination on the reviewer. The responsible reviewer has to understand his or her audience (or at least has to try to understand his or her audience).

17. The subjective can’t be removed from reviews of course—nor should it be. I think the balancing act here might be described as taste.

18. I’ve occasionally broken some of Updike’s rules, especially when I super hated a book (usually #s 2 &3–didn’t bother to cite text—actually, I’ve done this repeatedly),

19. Sometimes a book confuses my approach to criticism.

20. Hence, Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son, which I reviewed in hardback a few months ago, and which is now available in trade paperback, and which I will use now as some sort of loose illustration for whatever point there is in this ramble:

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21. (Okay. So, normally I photograph reader copies (and other books I obtain) and run a little blurb—usually the publisher’s copy or another review—and I was gonna do this with The Orphan Master’s trade paperback (citing my own review in this case), but the post lingered, thoughts accrued around it as I glommed onto all the ideas reverberating around my little echo chamber re: this whole riff. I bring this up in the recognition that a post purporting to address in some way the ethics of book reviewing should point out that the publisher in question (e.g. this blog, e.g. me) regularly posts what amounts to a kind of advertisement for forthcoming books).

22. So why The Orphan Master’s Son?

I use it as example (barring info re: Point 21 for a moment) of a book that didn’t do what I wanted the book to do.

Here’s the end of my review:

 Toward the end of The Orphan Master’s Son, I began imagining how the novel might read as a work divorced from historical or political reality, as its own dystopian blend—what would The Orphan Master’s Son be stripped of all its North Korean baggage? (This is a ridiculous question, of course, but it is the question I asked myself). I think it would be a much better book, one that would allow Johnson more breathing room to play with the big issues that he’s ultimately addressing here—what it means to tell a story, what it means to create, what it means to love a person who can not just change, but also disappear. These are the issues that Johnson tackles with aplomb; what’s missing though, I think, is a genuine take on what it means to be a North Korean in search of identity.

I think my review of The Orphan Master’s Son was/is fair, but it didn’t—couldn’t—exactly capture how I felt about the book: a mix of disappointment and admiration.

23. To be clear, I took pains to clarify that I thought highly of Johnson’s prose and that I thought most readers would really dig his book.

I gave it, I suppose, a mixed review, which is almost like giving it a negative review.

24. But I didn’t give it a mixed review to be nice—I tempered my criticisms with the knowledge that any attack I made on The Orphan Master’s Son was really a way of defining my own aesthetic tastes. Let me cite Updike’s fifth rule:

 If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

Ultimately, my problem with The Orphan Master’s Son boils down to me wanting Johnson to have written a different book. I feel like I have plenty of reasonable reasony reasons for wanting a different book—first and foremost Johnson’s prowess as proser and storyteller—but that’s no way to review a book. From my review:

I should probably clarify that I think many people will enjoy this novel and find it very moving and that the faults I found in its second half likely have more to do with my taste as a reader than they do Johnson’s skill as a writer, which skill,  again I’ve tried to demonstrate is accomplished.

25. Let me end here in repetition (and, perhaps, here in the safety of these parentheses point to how riffing in a rambling wine-soaked list somehow frees me from actually coherently writing about any of the things I promised to—or maybe it doesn’t—which is of course its own ethical ball of worms) by restating a basic answer to some of the basic problems of amateurism:

Book reviewers need to follow some kind of aesthetic, ethical rubric, one that accounts for subjectivity in an objective way.

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