Posts tagged ‘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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April 4, 2013

RIP Roger Ebert

by Biblioklept

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RIP Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

Roger Ebert had a tremendous impact on how I thought about criticism and how a review should be written, voiced, pitched. I didn’t always agree with the guy, but I loved watching his show (usually more than the films he and Siskel reviewed) and reading his reviews, and I loved following him on Twitter, where I’ll miss him most I guess.

March 3, 2013

A Riff on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Film The Master (Including a Take on the Ending)

by Edwin Turner

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1. I finally saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master last night. I’m going to riff on the film. Fair warning:this riff will contain spoilers—I’ll talk about the film’s final scene, for instance (and if you just want to read about the ending, scroll down to point 23, after the embedded video).

2. The first hour of The Master is probably the best thing PTA has done.

3. The Master begins on a beach somewhere in the South Pacific. These are the final days of WWII. Navy boy Freddie Quell (portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix), solitary from his fellows, pours from a can of the mystic moonshine he brews into a coconut he’s hacked open with a machete. He then drinks the potion and mimes chopping off his hand with the machete. After this, he humps a woman made of sand and jerks off into the ocean.

4. The idyll of the Pacific beach contrasts strongly with Quell’s tortured psyche—it’s clear from the film’s first few moments that he’s borderline deranged, a sex-obsessed alcoholic who was damaged long before the war.

5. Quell is also a profoundly talented chemist (or alchemist) capable of brewing strange cocktails mixed from whatever’s at hand. These potions intrigue Lancaster Dodd (henceforth Master, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who samples a flask and asks Quell to brew more. Quell says he’ll make Master something different from that first batch, asking him, “How do you want to feel?”

6. “How do you want to feel?”

This question governs The Master, and the film is at its best when probing and plumbing these depths.

7. Back to my second statement: The first hour or so of The Master is probably the best thing PTA has done. Freddie Quell is an intriguing figure, a desperate madman who recapitulates the crimes of Oedipus where ever he goes.

He is The Misfit of Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” trying to match faith to the phenomenal world.

He is Jonah, fleeing angry Yaweh, stowing away on a ship.

8. The first scenes of The Master borrow liberally from the Terrence Malick playbook:

The opening scene on the beach strongly recalls the opening of The Thin Red Line, and the subsequent scenes where Quell maybe murders a man and then must run feel like the opening minutes of Days of Heaven.

Like Malick, PTA lets the gorgeous cinematography convey meaning; dialog passes through the background of the film.

9. The dialog begins when Quell meets Master, charismatic leader of “The Cause.” You know of course that Master is based on L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. It’s worth pointing out that the film isn’t really about Scientology, or cults, or charlatans—although these points are explored, for sure—it’s really about the search for meaning, for stability. For some kind of peace.

10. The friendship—and friendship-as-dialog—between Master and Quell is by far the most compelling part of The Master, and the film’s best scene is a long episode where Master initiates “Processing” with Quell—delving into the man’s founding traumas to purify his spirit. I usually hate to laud actors, but Hoffman and Phoenix are sublime here, fully inhabiting the characters through the scenes deep emotional shifts.

The Master never surpasses this scene.

11. Indeed, the biggest failure of the film is that there’s no moment in its back half that can respond to the Processing scene. The film’s final scene attempts to mirror it in some ways, but the attempt lacks the weight. It’s off balance.

12. I feel the need to preface what I’m about to write by saying very clearly:

Paul Thomas Anderson is an extremely gifted auteur, a filmmaker who has, moreso than perhaps any of his contemporaries, continued in the (anti-)tradition of the New Hollywood films of the seventies. I would rather watch a PTA film than a film by just about anybody.

But:

The guy has a real problem sticking the ending. His films fail to cohere, to transcend the sum of their parts. This might be an editing issue or a plotting issue or something more commercially-driven, like running time. I don’t know.

13. Exceptions to PTA not sticking the ending:

Punch Drunk Love, easily his most concise and focused film, a long short story from a filmmaker who works in sprawling novels.

Possibly Boogie Nights, which sags in the final third but is nevertheless buoyed by an energetic scene featuring Alfred Molina, a mixtape, some cocaine, and fireworks. (This scene is lifted from Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope, by the way).

14. For the most part though, PTA’s films swell outside of the margins that their own narratives establish in the beginning of each film (I’m not sure if this sentence makes sense—what I mean is that the films’ endings fall apart w/r/t the films’ beginnings).

In There Will Be Blood, PTA uses a stunning, violent, unforgettable final moment as a punchline to the film. It’s probably what most of us remember, and it’s certainly a great way to close the epic. Still: When I rewatch Blood, I start to become impatient with the film’s meandering after its thrilling opening hour. I start to anticipate the horrific punchline.

15. The easiest example to point to of PTA’s undisciplined sprawl is Magnolia. I can’t think of a film with a stronger opening that so quickly devolves into Altmanesque chaos. Which is the point, yes, I get—but Magnolia, again, is a PTA film which can’t live up to its first hour. (Again, PTA covers over the back end’s sloppiness with a marvelous final scene).

16. So, to return to The Master: I went into the film with high expectations—hoping that this would be the film by PTA that coheres, that is more than just a collection of fantastic performances and amazing scenes. And for the first hour, I was enthralled: I cared deeply about Freddie Quell, found his strange passions heartbreaking, was moved by his bizarre relationship with Master.

And the film is great—it really is—but it’s not as great as I wanted it to be. (Which, yes, I know, says nothing about the film and everything about me).

17. The film’s seams start to show after the magical sea voyage from California to New York. The first few scenes in New York are fascinating (especially when Master is confronted by a skeptic at a party), but as the The Cause moves back West over land, PTA increasingly relies on montages and shorter scenes that seem like placeholders to cobble together the film’s longer sections.

18. The last truly transcendent scene is where Master sings “I’ll Go No More A-Roving,” and it comes at almost exactly the half-way point of the film’s 138 minute running time.

19. All kinds of interesting stuff happens after the “Roving” scene—and PTA seems content to raise more mysteries than he resolves, which I’m fine with—but a long montage showcasing the different Processing techniques of The Cause sucks the energy right out of the film.

20. What follows is a lot of meandering, a lot of unexplained—or worse, unexplored—moments between characters that shift focus away from the relationship between Master and Quell.

21. Maybe I want a longer edit of The Master.

22. Here’s a 20 minute reel of cut footage:

23. And what about the ending of The Master? As I tried to convey in points 13-15, PTA usually closes with a very strong scene or image. With the exception of There Will Be Blood, I’d argue that the final moments of PTA’s films generally depict moments of love, redemption, or reconciliation. The Master fits into this trend. How so?

24. Okay: So The Master is in some ways formally Oedipal.

Quell’s crimes are two-fold: He kills a man who he says reminds him of his father and he has sex with his aunt. The film leaves open the possibility that both of these crimes—crimes he confesses to Master during Processing—are simply displacements for the more direct sins of killing his real father and fucking his real mother.

The Oedipal tensions that underwrite the film are strongly on display in the relationship between Master and Quell: Master is in love with Quell; Quell needs a father figure. All sorts of weird familial displacements ensue between Master’s family members and Quell.

The Oedipal theme also evinces in the film’s motif of breasts, bellies, and other pregnancy images. While not many of The Cause’s ideas are expressed clearly in The Master, the idea that all founding traumas are recorded in/on the soul is made plain several times. Put another way, all people are subjected to traumas that exist in pre-Oedipal, pre-lingual, pre-conscious states.

Quell wants to return to the womb to correct or ameliorate or avoid these traumas. The impossibility of achieving this desire drives him to self-medicate with his homemade brews and to see sex in everything.

The film ends with Quell having sex with a stranger he picks up in a bar. They laugh heartily—another of the film’s motifs—laughter as a measurement of joy, but also dejection, also hysteria, also fear, also irrationality, also no language, just laughter—they laugh heartily, and in a shot that foregrounds his sex partner’s large breasts, Quell begins Processing her.

25. We then get the film’s last line, delivered with laughter: “Stick it back in, it fell out.”

The referent of the “it” is, on the surface level, Quell’s penis, but it also serves as a substitution for Quell himself, who would like to return to a mother, to start again in a new life. (The scene, a riff on Quell’s first Processing with Master, can also be read as the displaced sexual consummation between the two men).

The film’s final image gives us Quell lying down next to the woman made of sand, her huge breasts erect, dominating the shot; he curls into her, peaceful, serene, fetal. The shot is deceptive: It suggests reconciliation or even redemption, but the memory of peace is just one fragment of Quell’s terribly fragmented life. Significantly, the moment comes from the beginning of the film. If Quell is to be reborn and live again—as Master believes all people are—it is clear that he has not transcended his base animal urges.

When Quell awakes, he awakes to trauma.

26. Having riffed on the film’s end, I think the film is probably better than I gave it credit for earlier. It’s a cold Sunday. I think I’ll watch The Master again.

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.

October 30, 2012

I Review The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights, a Chapbook by Allen Kechagiar

by Edwin Turner

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“The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights” is a lovely little chapbook, new from Pilotless Press, an Athenian  outfit (uh, Greek, not Georgian) that  knows how to put together an aesthetically-pleasing text. “Lockwood Heights” is their first release. It’s by Allen Kechagiar, who, full disclosure, I’ve been email-friendly with for a several years now.

What’s “Lockwood Heights” about?

An unnamed narrator, a young man, returns to his hometown in California, the titular Lockwood Heights, “another far station, another dead end valley prone to fire, another far suburb with no other cause than the profit it would generate for its contractors.” With little going for it in a depressed economy, the citizens of Lockwood Heights allow porn production to become their town’s raison d’etre. Studios move in and the girls of Lockwood Heights soon find they can essentially auction off their virginity on camera:

They struggle to keep their virginity intact (or at any rate their parents struggle to keep it so) and hope that they will be chosen as the royal heir’s queen consort. Here, at Lockwood Heights, we had our very own race: at its finish line there was no prince to greet the winners, but a whole menagerie, or more accurately a bestiary, comprising of artificially tanned Californian would-have-beens, barely legal girls with gigantic strap-ons, transvestites and hermaphrodites, midgets and giants, obese, anorexic, effeminate, silicon-enhanced or not, all of them with a ticket to her body, standing in a metaphorical queue. A body that wasn’t hers to control anymore. The studio owned it from then on, through the unwritten contracts of promised fame that is rarely delivered.

They were also called the Treasurers or The Knights Who Say No. Their motto was non numquam. Their herald was a locked gate.

The various histories of these girls fill most of “The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights,” and as the narrator often uses the first-person plural “we” (that is, the high school boys), the story sometimes takes on a melancholy and wistful tone similar to Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. These are the finest moments of “Heights,” compact and precise narratives that relate the sad (and sometimes not-so-sad) lives of these girls who make porn (or, in some cases, refuse to).

It’s not just the girls of Lockwood Heights who sell their bodies on film—our protagonist comes home to sell all he has left, his “twin virginity” to be lost for a director who is sometimes called the Stanley Kubrick of porn. Scenes of the narrator meeting the casting director, his costar, and other workers on the film’s production are interspersed with the girl stories, as well as the backdrop of the narrator’s homecoming. His father has died, his mother is absent, and a strange little ersatz closet has been constructed in one of the house’s corridors. The interrelationship between these three elements is not as fully developed as it could be; I found myself wanting more. I also wanted more of the strange, aphoristic asides the narrator occasionally offers, like this one:

When we sleep we do not live in the full sense of the word. We rehearse death. Our dreams, the fallout of our daily lives, can only be remembered. They cannot be lived.

When they happen, we do not exist.

In its best moments (and there are plenty of those), “Heights” commands the reader’s attention with its bizarre mix of pathos and the pathetic, with sharp humor that threatens to tip into something more sinister. The southern California exurb Kechagiar crafts recalls the slightly off dystopias of George Saunders—the kind of place we wish were more removed from our immediate reality. “The Mundane History of Lockwood Heights” feels like the starting point of something bigger, more expansive, more detailed—and I’d want to read that something. Recommended.

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.

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—

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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.

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.

May 21, 2012

I Review Patience (After Sebald), an Oppressively Overstylized Documentary

by Edwin Turner

Let’s get this out of the way first:

I love W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.

I think it’s an important book—but more than that I think it’s an engrossing, good, excellent book, an enlarging book, a bewildering book, a depressing book, an intelligent book, an extraordinarily affecting book.

reviewed The Rings of Saturn  and you can read that review if you feel the urge for me to support those claims in greater detail.

Better yet, read Sebald’s book.

Whatever you do, please don’t use Grant Gee’s new documentary Patience (After Sebald) as a substitution for actually reading Sebald. It’s not that Gee’s film doesn’t lovingly attempt to approximate the spirit of Saturn. No, Gee and his cast of writers, architects, historians, and other Sebaldians clearly attempt to match the rhythms and moods and content of Saturn—and herein lies the film’s failure.

In an essay on Virginia Woolf—a writer who shows up in both Sebald and in Patience—literary critic (and Sebald champion) James Wood notes the anxiety of influence always at work between the artistic subject and the would-be critic:  “The competition is registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.” Wood here is specifically calling attention to Woolf’s own critical powers—of her ability to transcend merely reviewing a work, of her status as a poet-critic—but I think he gives us a simple little rubric for evaluating critical work in general: the truly excellent stuff goes its own route. Gee’s film so dutifully commits to visually and aurally replicating the melancholy and erudite mood of Saturn that it often seems cartoonish or clumsy—or, even worse, dreadfully boring.

It’s not fair to put down one filmmaker for not being more like another, but I wish Gee had taken a page out of, say Errol Morris’s book. Morris’s style is, in a sense, to remove style, to eliminate the aesthetic shield between the subject and the camera/audience. In contrast, Patience is overstylized to an almost embarrassing degree. The film veers between lethargic, numbing black and white shots of the places that Sebald visited on his walking tour in Saturn, occasional archival footage, and slippery impositions of text, maps, documents, and talking heads—sometimes delivered in a bizarre, agitated pace. Perhaps the tone I’ve just described may seem appropriate to any critical measurement of Saturn; in my review of Sebald’s novel, I noted that one element of saturnine melancholy is “sluggishness and moroseness, paradoxically paired with an eagerness for action” — but Gee’s lack of restraint here is bad art school stuff. It’s as if he doesn’t trust the viewer to simply listen to (let alone watch) a talking head for a minute.

A few notes on those talking heads:

There are some very smart people here saying some really cool things about Sebald—writers like Rick Moody and Iain Sinclair, lit critic Barbara Hui (if you’re a Sebald fan you might’ve already seen her maps of his walks), some historians and architects and so on. There are also excerpts of Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm interview with Sebald woven into the film, sometimes to great effect. Especially interesting are remarks from Christopher MacLehose, Sebald’s publisher, who recounts the time he asked the author which genre his book belonged to. Sebald replied, “Oh, I like all of the categories.”

Gee’s technique with his band of experts is to mostly cast their voices over cold landscape shots, occasionally superimposing a head for a few seconds in a ghostly mishmash that dissolves—along with the voice—into another shot or another voice. Sometimes this is really frustrating because, hey, maybe we’re missing some enlightening remarks, but more often than not it’s frustrating in its sloppiness. Film editing that constantly calls attention to itself is tiresome. The film is at its best when it it stops trying to honor/compete with Saturn and instead imparts some meaningful information about the man and his work. When Patience relaxes enough to simply show archival footage of RAF training flights, it’s a welcome moment from the film’s earnest, torpid buzz.

I realize “torpid buzz” is an oxymoron, but I think it fits Patience. In fact, it might be exactly what Gee was going for. There’s an oppressiveness about the film that belies the often gorgeous and expansive and empty shots of Suffolk, and yes, to be clear, there’s often a similar oppressiveness in Sebald’s book—an oppression of history, of self, of other—but this paradox does not translate well into film.

Sebald makes ample room for his reader; we get to go on this excursion with him. He lets us puzzle out his themes, connect all his strange dots (or not, if we so choose, or, perhaps just as likely, find ourselves unable). The gaps in clear meaning make Saturn such a strange, engrossing book, the kind of book that you return to again and again, the kind of book you press on others (I’ve given away two copies to date). In contrast to the breathing room that Sebald allows his readers, Patience feels somehow stifling and simultaneously small.  There’s a brickishness to it, a forceful inclination to fill in all those marvelous Sebaldian gaps. And while yes, some of these people have some really keen insights about Sebald and Saturn, over the film’s interminable 80 minutes these opinions and insights and back stories start to torture meaning out of the text. Any potential reader has had much of her intellectual work removed at this point.

But perhaps I’ve been harsh without illustrating enough. Here’s psychoanalytic critic Adam Phillips who probably gets more voice time than anyone else in Patience; throughout the film he repeatedly over-explains Sebald’s project. I’ll shut up and let him talk (these are a few clips strung together, if my memory is sussing this out right):

Did you watch it? I watched it too—and it seems pretty cool at under four minutes, I’ll admit. But over the course of the film the heavy, “arty” edits, the overexplaining, well . . .  it’s too much.

Admittedly, only ten minutes into the film I asked myself who the film was for. As a fan of the book I’d much prefer to just spend 80 minutes of my time rereading parts of it. Or, alternately, a straightforwardish biography would be nice too. And I suppose there are many, many people who will love what Gee’s done (the film has gotten plenty of rave reviews, including one by A.O. Scott at the Times). I also suppose many folks will commend Gee for trying out his own hybrid, for showing a little plumage. This is another way of saying that I think that Gee has turned in the film he intended to make—it just wasn’t for me.

May 7, 2012

Flann O’Brien’s Novel The Third Policeman Is a Surreal Comic Masterpiece

by Edwin Turner

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Here’s the short review: Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is a dark, comic masterpiece—witty, bizarre, and buzzing with surreal transformations that push the limits of language. I am ashamed that I came so late to its cult (how the novel escaped my formative teens and twenties escapes me), but also thankful that I trusted the readers of this blog who kindly suggested I read it.

I’m also thankful that I knew pretty much nothing about the book going in; I’m thankful that I skipped over Denis Donoghue’s introduction (which has the gall to spoil the novel’s end); I’m thankful that I resisted looking up information on de Selby, a philosopher I had never heard the name of before The Third Policeman. I read the novel in an ideal state, a kind of Platonic purity of appropriate bewilderment, at turns gaping and guffawing at O’Brien’s sublime impositions on plot, imagery, thought, language.

To be plain, I think that you should read the book too, gentlest reader, and if you are fortunate enough to possess innocence of its strange virtues, all the better. The less you know about The Third Policeman, the more enjoyable your first time will be. But if such conditions are too much to ask, here are a few fragments of plot:

We have an unnamed narrator, a one-legged orphan and would-be de Selby scholar (don’t ask) who enters into a nefarious plot with a man named Divney. Okay, they plan and execute a murder for treasure. Shades of Crime and Punishment creep into the novel by way of Poe’s nervous narrators; the plot even anticipates in some ways The Stranger, though not as moody and far funnier and honestly just way better. (I’m riffing on books here because, again, it seems to me a disservice to the interested reader to overshare the plot of The Third Policeman).

Let’s just say there’s a two-dimensional house. Let’s just say there’s an absurd picaresque quest to recover a missing black box. Let’s just say there are two policemen (okay, there are three), alternately terrifying, edifying, assuaging, bewildering. Let’s just say there’s an army of one-legged men. Let’s just say there’s a soul. Let’s call him “Joe.”

Let’s just say there are bicycles. Lots and lots of bicycles.

And the wisdom (?!) of de Selby, of course, “the savant,” who, via our unnamed narrator’s erudite footnotes (including the notes of de Selby’s esteemed commentators, of course) offers up opinions and maxims on matters of natural science and philosophy alike. Here’s a taste of de Selby, from the epigraph:

Human existence being an hallucination containing in itself the secondary hallucinations of day and night (the latter an insanitary condition of the atmosphere due to accretions of black air) it ill becomes any man of sense to be concerned at the illusory approach of the supreme hallucination known as death.

It’s also a good taste of the bizarre thrust of The Third Policeman; the first five words might work as a dandy summary, or at least summary enough.

But maybe I should share some of O’Brien’s language (and not just some philosopher that if you’re being honest you’ll admit you’ve never heard of before, although it seems like maybe you ought to have heard of him, hmmm?).

Just the first paragraph, gentle soul. It was enough to hook this fish:

Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar. Divney was a strong civil man but he was lazy and idle-minded. He was personally responsible for the whole idea in the first place. It was he who told me to bring my spade. He was the one who gave the orders on the occasion and also the explanations when they were called for.

And: two more excerpts that you can read, funny-stuff, context-free.

Okay. Hopefully I’ve convinced you a) to read The Third Policeman and b) to quit reading this review (let’s be honest, this isn’t so much a review as it is a riff, a recommendation, and it’s going to get even ramblier in a moment). You can get The Third Policeman from The Dalkey Archive, so you know it’s good, but oh-my-God-guess-what-can-you-believe-it? The Dalkey Archive is actually named after one of O’Brien’s novels, The Dalkey Archive.

So, yes, very highly recommended, read it, etc.

The rest of this riff I devote to puzzling out (without resolution) some of the marvels and conundrums of The Third Policeman; if you haven’t read the book, I suggest skipping all that follows.

I imagine that there’s a ton of criticism out there that might try to explain or elucidate the meaning of The Third Policeman, and while I’d love to hear or read some opinions on the book, I think it ultimately defies heavily symbolic readings. I suppose we might argue that the bicycle motif points toward the slow mechanization of humanity in the post-industrial landscape (or some such nonsense), or we might try to find some codex for the plot of the novel in the work of the fictional philosopher de Selby (and his critics), or we might try to plumb the novel’s mystical and religious underpinnings. It seems to me though that the absurd, nightmarish fever-joy of The Third Policeman lies in its precise indeterminacy. Here’s an example, at some length, of our narrator’s marvelous powers to describe what cannot be described:

This cabinet had an opening resembling a chute and another large opening resembling a black hole about a yard below the chute. He pressed two red articles like typewriter keys and turned a large knob away from him. At once there was a rumbling noise as if thousands of full biscuit-boxes were falling down a stairs. I felt that these falling things would come out of the chute at any moment. And so they did, appearing for a few seconds in the air and then disappearing down the black hole below. But what can I say about them? In colour they were not white or black and certainly bore no intermediate colour; they were far from dark and anything but bright. But strange to say it was not their unprecedented hue that took most of my attention. They had another quality that made me watch them wild-eyed, dry-throated and with no breathing. I can make no attempt to describe this quality. It took me hours of thought long afterwards to realize why these articles were astonishing. They lacked an essential property of all known objects. I cannot call it shape or configuration since shapelessness is not what I refer to at all. I can only say that these objects, not one of which resembled the other, were of no known dimensions. They were not square or rectangular or circular or simply irregularly shaped nor could it be said that their endless variety was due to dimensional dissimilarities. Simply their appearance, if even that word is not inadmissible, was not understood by the eye and was in any event indescribable. That is enough to say.

O’Brien’s unnamed narrator repeatedly runs up against the problem of the ineffable, of the inability of language to center meaning.

The policemen—Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen—are handier at navigating the absurd pratfalls of language. When the Sergeant asks the narrator if he’d like “a velvet-coloured colour,” we see the tautological, self-referential scope to description, and hence the underlying trouble of approaching pure communication. Much of the humor of The Third Policeman comes from such language. The Sergeant tells of an angry mob that “held a private meeting that was attended by every member of the general public except the man in question,” and we see the mutability of oppositions like “private/public” played to absurd comic effect.

When the policemen describe machines that break sensation into opposing and contradictory parts, we get here an anticipation of deconstruction, of the idea that difference and instability governs sensation and meaning. There is no purity:

‘We have a machine down there,’ the Sergeant continued, ‘that splits up any smell into its sub – and inter-smells the way you can split up a beam of light with a glass instrument. It is very interesting and edifying, you would not believe the dirty smells that are inside the perfume of a lovely lily-of-the mountain.’

‘And there is a machine for tastes,’ MacCruiskeen put in, ‘the taste of a fried chop, although you might not think it, is forty per cent the taste of…’ He grimaced and spat and looked delicately reticent.

The policemen’s analytic machinery correlates strongly with the narrator’s interest in philosophy and science. Through de Selby and his various critics, O’Brien simultaneously mocks and reveres the atomizing pursuits of knowledge. Delivered mostly in footnotes that would give David Foster Wallace a run for his money, the absurd philosophy of de Selby underpins the physical and metaphysical conundrums of The Third Policeman (this is, after all, the story of a man traversing a world where the laws of physics do not adhere). Here’s an early footnote:

. . . de Selby . . . suggests (Garcia, p. 12) that night, far from being caused by the commonly accepted theory of planetary movements, was due to accumulations of ‘black air’ produced by certain volcanic activities of which he does not treat in detail. See also p. 79 and 945, Country Album. Le Fournier’s comment (in Homme ou Dieu) is interesting. ‘On ne saura jamais jusqu’à quel point de Selby fut cause de la Grande Guerre, mais, sans aucun doute, ses théories excentriques – spécialement celle que nuit n’est pas un phénomène de nature, mais dans l’atmosphère un état malsain amené par un industrialisme cupide et sans pitié – auraient l’effet de produire un trouble profond dans les masses.’

This is wonderful mockery of academicese, a ridiculous idea presented with some commentary in French. At this point in the novel, I started to doubt the existence of de Selby; as the narrator’s notations of de Selby’s ideas grew increasingly bizarre, I soon realized the joke O’Brien had played on me.

And yet these jokes do not deflate the essential metaphysical seriousness of The Third Policeman: This is a novel about punishment, about crime, about damnation; this is a novel about not knowing but trying to know and describe what can’t be known or described.

This not knowing extends strongly to the reader of The Third Policeman. I was never sure if the narrator was dreaming or hallucinating or wandering through a strange afterlife—and in a way, it didn’t matter. There’s no allegorical match-up or metaphysical scorecard from which to parse The Third Policeman’s final meaning because there is no final meaning. Here’s O’Brien—or really Brian O’Nolan, I suppose; O’Brien was a pseudonym—summarizing the novel in a 1940 letter to William Saroyan:

I’ve just finished another book. The only thing good about it is the plot and I’ve been wondering whether I could make a crazy…play out of it. When you get to the end of this book you realize that my hero or main character (he’s a heel and a killer) has been dead throughout the book and that all the queer ghastly things which have been happening to him are happening in a sort of hell which he earned for the killing. Towards the end of the book (before you know he’s dead) he manages to get back to his own house where he used to live with another man who helped in the original murder. Although he’s been away three days, this other fellow is twenty years older and dies of fright when he sees the other lad standing in the door.

Then the two of them walk back along the road to the hell place and start thro’ all the same terrible adventures again, the first fellow being surprised and frightened at everything just as he was the first time and as if he’d never been through it before. It is made clear that this sort of thing goes on for ever – and there you are. It is supposed to be very funny but I don’t know about that either…I think the idea of a man being dead all the time is pretty new. When you are writing about the world of the dead – and the damned – where none of the rules and laws (not even the law of gravity) holds good, there is any amount of scope for back-chat and funny cracks.

Happily, as I mentioned earlier, I skipped the introduction and thus missed this letter, which I think deflates the novel in some ways, including the authorial spoiler. Also, O’Brien’s just plain wrong when he contends that the “only good thing about it is the plot” — there’s also the language, the ideas, the rhythm, the structure . . .

But 1940 was not ready for such a strange novel, and The Third Policeman wasn’t published until 1967, a year after its author’s death. By 1967 Thomas Pynchon had published V. and The Crying of Lot 49, John Barth has published The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, Don DeLillo had quit advertising to start writing novels, Donald Barthelme had published Snow-White, Kurt Vonnegut had gained a large audience—in short, the world of letters had caught up to O’Brien (or O’Nolan, if you prefer). Here was a post-modern novel delivered while Modernism was still in full swing.

But literary labels are no fun. You know what’s fun? The Third Policeman is fun. And unnerving. And energetic. And surreal. And really, really great. Very highly recommended.

April 7, 2012

I Review The Hunger Games Film (And Mostly Complain About the Jumpy Camera Work)

by Edwin Turner

So the wife and I went to see The Hunger Games last night. By way of readerly context: she ate up the trilogy in a spare week; I listened to the first audiobook last summer, and wrote about it here, including these sentences which loosely sum up my feelings:

Look, I get that these books are for kids, and that they’re probably a sight better than Twilight, but sheesh, exposition exposition exposition. There’s nothing wrong with letting readers fill in the gaps (especially when your book is ripping off The Running Man + a dozen other books). Also, there’s a character in this book who I think is named after pita bread.

However, I was prepared to accept that the plot of The Hunger Games could make for a fine film—I mean, it’s basically “The Most Dangerous Game,” or Lord of the Flies, or The Running Man, or Logan’s Run or whatever—so I went with an open mind.

By way of context/citation, here’s a trailer that gives a fairly accurate visual sense of the film—up to a point (I will belabor that point momentarily):

Short review:

Plot—fine.

Dialogue—fine.

Pacing—not bad.

Acting—better than average, especially Jennifer Lawrence as lead Katniss. (Lawrence stars in a better film called Winter’s Bone, which is like the real hunger games, by the bye). Woody Harrelson brought more to his character, drunken mentor Haymitch, than Collins’s cardboard book allowed, so kudos, bro.

Music/score—surprisingly good and rarely overused. I think T-Bone Burnett supervised. Also, no forced obtrusive pop songs from the “soundtrack.”

Set design—fine, I guess, although who knew the dystopian future would look like Coal Miner’s Daughter (for the plebes) and future-Vegas/Logan’s Run (for the aristocrats). The scenes in the capital city will look incredibly dated in ten years, but whatever. The thunderdome itself where the kids fight it out was underdeveloped, but this had more to do with plotting and pacing. But hey, the movie was already almost two and a half hours long, which is long, so, fine, I guess.

Editing/camera work: Not fineHorrible. I’m probably referring more to the director’s choices than to the acutal work of the DP and cinematographer here—I mean the lighting was good — what I’m talking about was the shoddiness of the framing of each shot, of the camera’s faux-unsteadiness, as if a shaky-cam in someway connotes realism or drama. The shaky cam connotes headache and nausea — especially when used so liberally. The camera seemed unable to ever simply rest on an image, particularly during the first 30 minutes. The shots—from bizarre and disparate angles—jump-cut around, refusing to actually show the audience the staging and action.

Particularly frustrating is an opening scene where Katniss hunts a deer in a lush green forest. There’s the potential here for an excellent introduction to the character—to her seriousness, her gravity, her skill, her keen attenuation to environment (all extremely relevant later, of course) — the camera could simply show the audience the hunt, linger a bit even — I’m not talking about Malickian nature-gazing, but simply taking the time to attune character to setting. Instead, the camera whips around frenetically with a nervous energy that seems to have nothing to do with Katniss’s calm, steady bowhand. It’s as if the director does not trust the audience to attend to a specific shot or angle for more than 2 seconds.

My frustration grew after this initial scene, as the director seemed determined to withhold any simple shot that would establish place or character. This frustration culminated in a climactic scene at the beginning of the Battle Royale—excuse me, Hunger Games tournament—where the contestants, admitted to the arena, either run for weapons or cover. There’s a bloodbath here, one that highlights the intense Darwinian stakes in play—only, again, we don’t really get to see it. The camera whirls around as if it were in the hands of someone’s dad at a birthday party, two beers in, as he tries to capture everything all at once on his cheap Sony — and therefore misses everything. Sure, the conceit might be that this shaky unsteady whirling is how Katniss experiences the scene, but the Hunger Games tourney is televised, so obviously we could see what the home audience could see, right? I’m not asking for gore or explicit violence here, to be clear: I simply don’t understand why the camera refused to show the basic action that was happening on the screen. Repeat this criticism for every single fight scene.

The clunky, clumsy fight scenes reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s shoddy work in the Batman films or even the sheer incomprehensibility of Michael Bay’s stuff : is this what audiences will accept? Are these what pass for action films? I’m not arguing that these Hollywood blockbusters need to adhere to the precision that we can find in Hong Kong martial arts films (or even Ang Lee’s arty take on such films, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)—but, c’mon, even the Jason Bourne movies and recent James Bond movies respected their audiences enough to adhere to a modicum of verisimilitude.

Verdict: The Hunger Games, like any dystopia, succeeds or fails by how well it synthesizes—and then surpasses—its myriad sources. The film, in this case, is simply okay. Dystopia has so assimilated our culture’s collective imagination (from the aforementioned Batman films to political ads to the wild financial success of Collins’s HG trilogy) that its tropes are overly-familiar, to the point that they have become comfortable, well-worn. A more successful dystopian vision—let’s take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Alfonso Cuarón’s film Children of Men or Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood as ready recent examples—offers familiarity with one hand and utter strangeness with the other. Successful dystopian visions are strange, disruptive, and uncanny—they allow us to project ourselves into worlds we pray are impossible. The Hunger Games feels, dare I say, dull, predictable, and somehow awfully normal. Catch it on cable in two years.

April 2, 2012

Stuart Kendall’s New Translation of Gilgamesh Restores Poetic Strangeness to an Ancient Epic

by Edwin Turner

Somewhere in his big and often laborious book The Western Canon, Harold Bloom defines canonical literature as that which possesses a “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” Gilgamesh strikes me as exemplary of that second clause: It’s a foundational epic that has assimilated its readers such that we can no longer easily perceive its strangeness. In many of the prose translations we encounter, Gilgamesh becomes smoothed-out, a document in which we find universal symbols, characters, and themes, all ordered into a narrative scheme that resonates with our conceptualizations of story-telling. And while Gilgamesh and his wild-man companion Enkidu are clearly archetypal figures, the version of their story most of us read in our high school English class is overtly familiar, fitting too-neatly into a literary tradition with Homer, the Bible, and Shakespeare.

Stuart Kendall’s new translation of Gilgamesh reintroduces us to the strangeness of Gilgamesh, juxtaposing the epic’s irreconcilable eruptions against the archetypes it helped to originate. By using language reminiscent of Modernist poets like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Kendall’s version calls attention to the strange discontinuities of Gilgamesh, even as it paints for us a bold, concrete vision of action. Kendall’s Gilgamesh highlights the psychological dimensions of the epic, situating its heroes’ dramas of consciousness against a physical world that blends into metaphysical spaces.

Here’s a sample of Kendall’s precise language; the scene is from late in the narrative, after the death of Enkidu, as Gilgamesh searches for Utnapishtim—and immortality:

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The language here forces us to recontextualize, and thus perhaps understand anew, a scene so archetypal as to have become commonplace in even the most banal Hollywood adventure film (that is, the hero seeking admittance to a sacred space). Kendall’s language points to the narrative links between the physical and metaphysical worlds, an unstable opposition that frames the existential crisis at the heart of Gilgamesh.

I interviewed Kendall last month, where he posed the psychological stakes of Gilgamesh more aptly than I am able to:

As a drama of consciousness, then, Gilgamesh is a strange book. It is intensely physical in the sense of describing things in the world, in the same moment as it is highly symbolic. The characters are themselves symbolic and they travel through a symbolic landscape. They are recognizably human, though, and the tale is so moving, I think, because of the drama of consciousness grappling with these different registers of experience. Put a little differently, it is not hard to see that the characters are anything but fixed. They undergo changes large and small and they suffer those changes.

Elsewhere in our interview, Kendall remarks that,

The characters’ moods alternate between dream, denial and delirium through the book. For heroes, they spend a great deal of time in abject fear of the animate cosmos. This is a startling portrait for scientifically minded contemporary readers, confident in a stable view of subjects and objects in the world. Gilgamesh shakes that confidence.

Kendall’s translation highlights the radical instability of human experience, an instability that first-person consciousness often attempts to organize (or otherwise give meaning to) through narrative. As such, Kendall’s translation is often far more ambiguous than many of the textbook versions we might have read. In particular, his ending refuses to specifically point toward redemptive wisdom or reconciliation with death. In this version, Gilgamesh’s quest does not stabilize his identity and square his relationship with mortality; rather, we see strange and discontinuous responses to the (unresolved) problem of death.

Kendall’s translation is an excellent opportunity to rediscover a text many of us assume that we already know and have mastered. His introduction and end notes are enlightening, but it’s the poetry that will surely engage readers’ sustained attention: it’s by turns energetic and mystifying, filled with strange adventure, pathos, and even humor. Recommended.

Gilgamesh is new from Contra Mundum Press. Read my interview with Stuart Kendall.

February 21, 2012

Teju Cole’s Open City Is a Strange, Marvelous Novel That Captures the Post-9/11 Zeitgeist

by Edwin Turner

“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall . . .” begins Julius, the perspicacious narrator of Teju Cole’s admirable and excellent début Open City. That opening “And” is significant, an immediate signal to the reader that this novel will refuse to align itself along (or even against) traditional arcs of plot and character development. We will meet Julius in media res, and we will leave him there, and along the way there will be learning and suffering and compassion and strange bubbles of ambiguity that threaten to burst out of the narrative.

As noted, Open City begins with Julius’s peripatetic voyages; he walks the night streets of New York City to ostensibly relieve the “tightly regulated mental environment of work.” Julius is completing his psychiatry fellowship at a hospital, and the work takes a toll on him, whether he admits it or not. In these night walks—and elsewhere and always throughout the novel—Julius shares his sharp observations, both concrete and historical. No detail is too small for his fine lens, nor does he fail to link these details to the raw information that rumbles through his mind: riffs on biology, history, art, music, philosophy, and psychology interweave the narrative. Julius maps the terrain of New York City against its strange, mutating history; like a 21st century Ishmael, he attempts to measure it in every facet—its architecture, its rhythms, its spirit. And if there is one thread that ties Julius’s riffs together it is the nightmare of history:

But atrocity is nothing new, not to humans, not to animals. The difference is that in our time it is uniquely well organized, carried out with pens, train carriages, ledgers, barbed wire, work camps, gas. And this late contribution, the absence of bodies. No bodies were visible, except the falling ones, on the day America’s ticker stopped.

Open City is the best 9/11 novel I’ve read, but it doesn’t set out to be a 9/11 novel, nor does it dwell on that day. Instead, Cole captures something of the post-9/11 zeitgeist, and at the same time situates it in historical context. When Julius remarks on the recent past, the concrete data of history writhes under the surface. He remarks that the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center “was not the first erasure on the site,” and goes on to detail the 1960s cityscapes that preceded the WTC. Before those, there was Washington Market. Then Julius embarks, via imagination, into the pre-Colombian space of the people we now call Indians or Native Americans. “I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories,” he concludes, peering at the non-site that simultaneously anchors these memory-spaces.

Julius’s line, like the lines that comprise New York City (and perhaps, if we feel the spirit of its democratic project, America itself) is a mixed one, heterogeneous and multicultural. Julius’s father, now dead, was an important man in Nigeria, where Julius enjoyed a relatively privileged childhood. Julius’s mother—they are now estranged—is German. He remarks repeatedly about his German grandmother’s own displacements during WWII, reflecting at one point that, from a historical perspective, it was likely impossible that she escaped Cossack rape.

Even though he sometimes seems reticent to do so, Julius delves into the strange violence that marks his lineage. He recalls a childhood fascination with Idi Amin; as a boy, he and his cousins would watch the gory film The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin repeatedly: ” . . . we enjoyed the shock of it, its powerful and stylized realism and each time we had nothing to do, we watched the film again.”

Fascinated horror evinces repeatedly in Open City. In just one example, Julius believes he sees “the body of a lynched man dangling from a tree”; as he moves closer to inspect, he realizes that it is merely canvas floating from a construction scaffold. Perhaps so attuned to history’s grand catalog of spectacular atrocity, Julius finds it lurking in places where it does not necessarily evince.

In turn, despite his profession as psychiatrist, Julius is wary of human sympathy. Throughout the novel, dark-skinned men engage him by calling him “brother.” He almost always deflects these attempts at connection, and internally remarks them as fatuous, or naïve, or false. This is not to say though that Julius doesn’t make significant (if often transitory) connections.

One of the organizing principles of Open City comes in the form of Julius’s infrequent visits to the home of his former English professor, Dr. Saito, who is slowly dying. Saito’s own memories float into Julius—this technique repeats throughout the novel—and we learn that he was interned as a young man during WWII; the sad fact is another ugly kink in the line of American history that Julius attempts to trace.

Julius also befriends Dr. Maillotte, an aging surgeon on a flight to Brussels, where he spends a few weeks of Christmas vacation, ostensibly looking for his oma (a task he performs half-heartedly at best). As Julius daydreams, Dr. Maillotte, European émigré, finds a place within his vision of family members and friends:

I saw her at fifteen, in September 1944, sitting on a rampart in the Brussels sun, delirious with happiness at the invaders’ retreat. I saw Junichiro Saito on the same day, aged thirty-one or thirty-two, unhappy, in internment, in an arid room in a fenced compound in Idaho, far away from his books. Out there on that day, also, were all four of my own grandparents: the Nigerians, the Germans. Three were gone by now, for sure. But what of the fourth, my oma? I saw them all, even the one I had never seen in real life, saw all of them in the middle of that day in September sixty-two years ago, with their eyes open as if shut, mercifully seeing nothing of the brutal half century ahead and better yet, hardly anything at all of all that was happening in their world, the corpse-filled cities, camps, beaches, and fields, the unspeakable worldwide disorder that very moment.

In Brussels, Julius meets Farouq, an angry young man with intellectual, Marxist tendencies. Farouq believes in a theory of “difference” and finds himself at odds with both the dominant Belgian culture and with Western culture in general. Julius’s conversations with Farouq are a highlight of the novel; they help to further contextualize the drama of diaspora in the post-9/11 world. Later, Julius finds a counterweight to some of Farouq’s extreme positions over a late lunch with Dr. Maillotte, who suggests that “For people to feel that they alone have suffered, it is very dangerous.” There’s a sense of reserved moderation to her critique—not outright dismissal nor condemnation, but simply a recognition that there are “an endless variety of difficulties in the world.”

Julius seems to tacitly agree with Maillotte’s assessment. His reluctance to accept brotherhood based on skin color alone speaks to a deeper rejection of simplicity, of tribe mentality, of homogeneity; it also highlights his essential alienation. At the same time, he’s acutely aware of how skin color matters, how identity can be thrust upon people, despite what claims to agency we might make. In search of the line that will connect him to his part of the American story, Julius finds unlikely “brothers” in Farouq, Maillotte, and Saito.

But let us not attribute to Julius a greater spirit than Cole affords him: Open City is a novel rich in ambiguity, with Julius’s own personal failures the most ambiguous element of all. While this is hardly a novel that revolves on plot twists, I hesitate to illustrate my point further for fear of clouding other readers’ perceptions; suffice to say that part of the strange, cruel pleasure of Open City is tracing the gaps in Julius’s character, his failures as a professional healer—and his failures to remark or reflect upon these failures.

But isn’t this the way for all of us? If history is a nightmare that we try to awake from—or, more aptly in a post-9/11 world, a nightmare that we awake to, to paraphrase Slavoj Žižek—then there is also the consolation and danger that time will free us from the memory of so much atrocity, that our collective memory will allow those concrete details to slip away, replaced with larger emblems and avatars that neatly smooth out all the wrinkles of ambiguity. “I wondered if indeed it was that simple, if time was so free with memory, so generous with pardons, that writing well could come to stand in the place of an ethical life,” Julius wonders at one point; later, Saito points out that “There are towns whose names evoke a real horror in you because you have learned to link those names with atrocities, but, for the generation that follows yours, those names will mean nothing; forgetting doesn’t take long.” Julius’s mission then is to witness and remark upon the historical realities, the nitty-gritty details that we slowly edge out of the greater narrative. And Cole? Well, he gives us a novel that calls attention to these concrete details while simultaneously exploring the dangerous subjectivity behind any storytelling.

If it needs to be said: Yes, Open City recalls the work of W.G. Sebald, who crammed his books with riffs on history and melancholy reflections on memory and identity. And yes, Open City is flâneur literature, like Sebald (and Joyce, and Bolaño, perhaps). But Cole’s work here does not merely approximate Sebald’s, nor is it to be defined in its departures. Cole gives us an original synthesis, a marvelous and strange novel about history and memory, self and other. It’s a rich text, the sort of book one wants to immediately press on a friend, saying, Hey, you there, read this, we need to talk about this. Very highly recommended.

Open City is new in trade paperpack from Random House.

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.

July 22, 2011

Midnight in Paris — Woody Allen

by Edwin Turner

Woody Allen’s new film Midnight in Paris opens with a sumptuous montage of the City of Light, clearly establishing from the get-go that the movie is Allen’s love letter to Paris. The romantic overture idealizes Paris, just as the film’s protagonist Gil, played pitch perfect by Owen Wilson, idealizes the Lost Generation of writers and artists who populated the cafes and bars of Paris in the ’20s. Gil is on a working vacation with his fiancé and future in-laws; he’s a successful Hollywood screenwriter but dreams of becoming a great novelist. Only he’s struggling with his novel-in-progress, which features a protagonist who runs a nostalgia shop. Nostalgia, or the romance of nostalgia, is the primary idiom of Midnight in Paris, and Owen Wilson transcends the usual parameters of Woody-surrogate in bringing this idiom to life. Wilson’s breezy charisma propels the movie forward at all times; indeed, the entire plot rests on Wilson’s charm, which saves the film from falling into syrupy dreck or boring indie whimsy.

Midnight in Paris works to literally charm its viewers and its protagonist, transporting the narrative back into the ’20s via a magical motorcar, where Wilson’s Gil falls in with a host of notable writers, artists, dancers, and other personalities. There are Cole Porter and Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Luis Bunuel, Pablo Picasso and Josephine Baker—but the standouts are the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway. The Hemingway character is a marvelous parody of both Hemingway’s caricature and Hemingway’s prose—although I think the humor in his scenes was lost on more than a few of the audience members I watched the film with. On Hemingway’s advice, Gil submits his manuscript to Gertrude Stein for an honest critique. In the meantime, Gil engages in a romance with Adrianna, Picasso’s muse and mistress, who herself pines for the Belle Époque era. Through another magical transposition, Gil and Adrianna move again through time, heading back to the 1890s to meet Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gaugin. As Gil pursues a romance with Adrianna (and the nostalgia of an idealized past), his own fiancé seems to be spending a bit too much time with a windbaggish and pretentious American who is a visiting lecturer at the Sorbonne. The reality of this conflict pulls Gil into making dramatic choices about his own future.

Midnight in Paris falls squarely into Allen’s fantasy films like The Purple Rose of Cairo, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Alice, and Shadows and Fog. The film has much to offer those who, like Gil, find themselves fascinated by the romance of the Lost Generation. Allen’s parodies of the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, and the rest are loving and gentle, and will surely be appreciated by most English majors. At the same time, Midnight in Paris is a slight, ephemeral work, one that relies on beautiful cinematography and the charm of its lead character more than plot, insight, or even jokes. There is no risk or danger in Gil’s fantasy, no sense that his sanity is in jeopardy or that he might not come to realize the theme of the film, which he spells out clearly for the audience if they somehow missed it—the tendency to romanticize the past has more to do with a dissatisfaction with the present than with any objective evidence that the past was somehow better, and dissatisfaction with the present should be viewed positively, for dissatisfaction can be productive and meaningful if we engage it. Recommended.

April 13, 2011

“I Rarely Remember a Book About Which I Have Had Such Violent Arguments” — W.H. Auden Reviews J.R.R. Tolkien

by Biblioklept

From the Oh, This Exists? Department — W.H. Auden’s 1956 New York Times review of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King. It’s a fantastic review that defends Tolkien’s literary authenticity against his many haters, using Erich Auerbach’s groundbreaking work Mimesis as a central arguing point. Here’s Auden’s intro, but again, I recommend reading the whole review—

In “The Return of the King,” Frodo Baggins fulfills his Quest, the realm of Sauron is ended forever, the Third Age is over and J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” complete. I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it, and among the hostile there are some, I must confess, for whose literary judgment I have great respect. A few of these may have been put off by the first forty pages of the first chapter of the first volume in which the daily life of the hobbits is described; this is light comedy and light comedy is not Mr. Tolkien’s forte. In most cases, however, the objection must go far deeper. I can only suppose that some people object to Heroic Quests and Imaginary Worlds on principle; such, they feel, cannot be anything but light “escapist” reading. That a man like Mr. Tolkien, the English philologist who teaches at Oxford, should lavish such incredible pains upon a genre which is, for them, trifling by definition, is, therefore, very shocking.

February 2, 2011

Biblioklept Recommends Five Novels, Some of Them New, Not All of Them German

by Edwin Turner

I shouldn’t be reading five novels at once. It’s a terrible idea, a symptom of a bad habit that I thought I’d broken, but after abandoning Levin’s tedious tome The Instructions and wasting my time on Shteyngart’s insipid dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story, I found myself absorbed by a lovely little cache that had been neatly, patiently stacked for a few weeks now.

I’m only 60 or so pages into Lars Iyer’s Spurious — about a third of the way through — and at the rate I’m reading, I won’t finish it until the end of this month. It’s not that it’s slow or tedious or hard work: quite the opposite, in fact — it’s funny and lively, even when it’s erudite and depressive. I’ve enjoyed taking it in as a series of vignettes or skits or riffs. Spurious is about, or seems to be about (the term must be placed under suspicion) two would-be intellectuals, W. and his friend the narrator. They bitch and moan and despair: it’s the end of the world, it’s the apocalypse; they find themselves incapable of original thought, of producing any good writing. The shadow of Kafka paralyzes them. They travel about Europe, seeking out knowledge and inspiration — or at least a glimpse of some beautiful first editions. W. is cruel to the narrator, calling him fat and deriding his intellect for sport. But it’s all in good fun. Or maybe not. I’m really enjoying Spurious and have no hesitation recommending it; however, like a strong shot of bourbon, it’s best enjoyed frequently but in small doses. Spurious is brand spanking new from Melville House.

Iyer’s book dovetails nicely with W.G. Sebald’s first novel, Vertigo, which I picked up expressly to get the bad taste of Shteyngart out of my brain. Both books are haunted by Kafka, both  blur the lines between fiction and biography, both are works of and about flânerie, and both are melancholy. The book comprises four sections; the first section tells the story of the romantic novelist Stendhal (or, more to the point, a version of Stendhal); the second section details two trips Sebald made to Italy, one in 1980, and one in 1987; the third section, which I just read last night, describes a trip Kakfa took to Italy near the end of his life. I’m almost certain that I’ve read this section, “Dr. K Takes the Waters at Riva,” before — but I can’t remember where or when. It was strange reading it, almost as if I were experiencing some of the vertigo that permeates the volume. Full review forthcoming.

Kafka was a German-speaking Jewish writer from Prague. So was H.G. Adler, author of Panorama, new in English for the first time (hardback; Random House). Another way to transition from the Sebald paragraph above to this write-up of Panorama might be to point out that Sebald references Adler in Austerlitz, a book that tries to measure continental memory of the Holocaust. Adler survived the Holocaust, forced first into Theresienstadt and then Auschwitz, where his wife and mother were murdered in the gas chambers. Panorama is an autobiographical bildungsroman, with its hero young Josef Kramer standing in for Adler, and while it will clearly work its way into grim territory, the beginning — which is to say, the part that I’ve read so far — is bucolic and sweet and strange, as we see young Josef at home with his family. There’s a cinematic scope to Adler’s prose – Panorama is a Modernist work, one where the narrative freely dips into its protagonist’s mind. More to come.

Continuing in this Teutonic vein is Heinrich Böll’s novel The Clown (also Melville House). It’s postwar Germany, and Hans Schnier is a clown who’s crashing and burning. He hurts himself–purposefully–during a performance (at one of the increasingly more provincial venues he finds himself playing for these days) and retreats to Bonn, where he holes up in his small apartment and makes angry desperate phone calls (and tries not to drink too much brandy) and reflects on his past. What’s eating him up? His gal Marie, basically his common-law wife, has reverted back to her Catholic ways and up and left him for some chump named Zupfner. Schnier rants against a complacent and complicit German bourgeoisie, spitting vitriol against Protestants and Catholics alike; some of the best parts of the novel though are his ravings about art and the role of the “artiste” in society. Also: he can smell over the phone. Full review soon.

Wesley Stace’s new novel Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer (new from Picador) is a musical murder mystery set in the early part of 20th century Britain. Our (seemingly less than reliable) narrator Leslie Shepherd is a music critic with an aristocratic background who likes to spend his weekends collecting folk songs with other rich boys in the towns surrounding their country manors. He’s smitten (platonically, of course) with Charles Jessold, a middle class composer with a spark of avant-garde genius, and wins the younger man’s friendship quickly when he tells the story of Carlo Gesualdo, a fifteenth century composer/lord who kills his wife and her lover. (Notice the etymological connection between their names?) This tale of murder and cuckoldry is doubled in the ballad “Little Musgrave“; when Jessold and Shepherd find a new variation of the ballad, they set out to write the next (only?) great English opera, an adaptation of “Musgrave.” Oh, and that plot? The book opens with a news clipping reporting that Jessold killed his wife and her lover, and then himself, after the première of his opera Little Musgrave. Life imitates art imitates life. Stace has a keen ear for the period he writes about as well as a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge about music, but he also has the good sense to restrain himself and remember that he’s delivering a murder mystery. I’ve been enjoying Jessold quite a bit, and will return to it when I finish writing these lines. (And, for what it’s worth, part of Jessold is set in Germany).

November 4, 2010

Sunset Park — Paul Auster

by Edwin Turner

At the end of Paul Auster’s new novel Sunset Park, the narrative inhabits the mind of young protagonist Miles Heller. Riding in the back of a cab through Brooklyn, Miles’s thoughts glide through a slippery tangle of ideas. In a long sentence that runs on for almost two pages, Miles’s consciousness shifts from his own physical pain to a character in the movie The Best Years of Our Lives, a soldier named Homer who returns home with hooks for hands. This thought blends into a riff on the poet Homer, which in turn leads Miles, long estranged from his family, to figure himself a Telemachus now reunited with his father. And yet the homecoming cannot be; thoughts of Homer slip into thoughts about homelessness, his own homelessness, his friends’ homelessness, not metaphorical but literal. He then thinks about the homeless and displaced people across the country (Sunset Park is set square in the middle of the recent Great Recession), causing his mind to move back to the beginning of the novel, when he worked “trashing out” foreclosed homes in South Florida. The idea of “home” transmutes finally to “hope” as the cab crosses the Brooklyn Bridge–yet the idea (and the novel) is suspended in a strange, sad limbo.

I begin my review with Auster’s final sentence because it delineates many of Sunset Park’s themes, settings, and motifs. At its core–if such a novel can be said to have a core–Sunset Park asks its readers what “home” might mean. Is home a geographic location, a center that resonates with personal and cultural significance? Is home a place with a person you love? Can home be in your head? Is home where your family is? And, even more problematic, what exactly constitutes a family?

The founding trauma of the book, which is to say Miles’s founding trauma, is a radically ambiguous moment of violence: as a teenager, in a heated fight with his step-brother on a country road, Miles pushes the boy. At the same moment, a car flies down the road and kills him. Did Miles mean to kill his brother? At the moment of his anger, how could he not psychologically, if only temporarily, wish for the young man’s death? Did he know the car was coming? Miles cannot deal with the trauma and soon drops out of college and drops out of life. Unlike the biblical Cain, Miles’s exile is self-imposed. He breaks contact with his parents and thus breaks a family that was already twice broken; first, in his parents’ divorce and his mother’s move across the country to California; and second, in the death of his step-brother. Miles relegates himself to hard and unrewarding manual labor, wandering aimlessly around the country. It’s only after he meets a young girl named Pilar that he is able to reconstitute the idea of a family–of a self who can be in a family.

Pilar is a high school student. She is a minor. Auster does little to justify the social acceptability of Miles’s love for (and sodomy of) Pilar; instead, he repeatedly invokes the idea that other characters see the “truth” of the love by simply watching the pair. This is easily the book’s greatest weakness. Auster wants to communicate the idea that in loving Pilar, Miles is able to love a young version of himself–and thus forgive his young self (significantly, Pilar is the same age that Miles was when he pushed his step-brother)–yet the essential predatory narcissism of this “love” remains largely unremarked upon. Even Pilar’s caretaker, her oldest sister, is amenable to the romance–that is, until Miles refuses to keep bringing her high-end items that he recovers from the foreclosed homes he’s “trashing out.” Miles is again exiled, this time from his makeshift home with Pilar. He returns for the first time in seven years to New York City to stay in a squatter’s house with three other twentysomethings.

There’s a kind of silly Bohemian romanticism to the squat in Sunset Park. The project is helmed by would-be avant-jazzman, Bing Nathan, a notorious ranter who improbably subsists on funds he obtains from running his store, the Hospital for Broken Things, where he repairs typewriters and other antique artifacts. Bing thinks his friend Miles will be a perfect fit in the house–and he’s right: the other squatters love him. There’s Ellen, a skittish realtor (!) who aspires to become a pornographic painter, and Alice, an ABD trying to finish her doctoral thesis (on The Best Years of Our Lives, of course). Both women fall for Miles in different ways, although Auster’s writing never once shows why this might be.

Bing has other reasons for getting Miles back to NYC–he wants to reunite the Heller family. He’s been secretly communicating with Miles’s father Morris for years. Morris, who runs his own literary publishing house, is easily the most achieved character in Sunset Park, or at least its most realistic. Although the plot gets bogged down with his own marital difficulties (and other sundry tragedies that echo the “loss of children” theme), Morris’s narrative is the most focused and convincing section of the novel. His sad tone moves beyond melancholy but halts at bitterness, even as he reflects upon the myriad regrets of his life and the fearful future that yawns ahead (things are going badly with his wife; the publishing industry is in peril). Although Miles’s mother Mary-Lee figures less in the novel, she is also a more convincing and sympathetic character than the young people who squat in Sunset Park. Like Morris, she’s reflective, distanced enough from the young self who abandoned her only son, yet analytical enough to comprehend its traumatic effect. Mary-Lee and Morris, with their regrets and fears and hopes are far more aesthetically concrete and satisfying than the novel’s twentysomethings, who at times seem like caricatures or puppets or placeholders.

In Auster’s hands, the Sunset Park gang reflects an unrealistic idealization of youthful and artistic resistance to a predatory capitalist culture. Still, they provide him occasion for some of Sunset Park’s finest riffs, whether he’s ventriloquizing Bing (rage, rage against the lies of the man) or exploring Ellen’s enchanting perversions. Alice’s thesis on The Best Years of Our Lives (a film that somehow everyone in the book has not just seen but seen repeatedly and even analyzed) gives Auster ample material to explore how different generations face trauma, whether it’s the alienation experienced by WWII soldiers returning to a world that seems to have left them behind, or the crises of young people trying find homes in an America tottering on financial collapse.

With its ironic title, The Best Years pairs nicely with the other narrative that informs Sunset Park, Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days--a play that Mary-Lee just happens to be performing on Broadway at the time of Miles’s return. Auster–through his erudite characters–riffs frequently and wisely on both the film and the play, and these are some of the finer moments of Sunset Park; one almost wishes that Auster would have abandoned the conceit of a novel completely and just write some kind of essay with his material. Sunset Park repeats the themes of alienation, loneliness, separation, and stasis that we find in Happy Days and The Best Years, yet it veers closer to the film’s melodrama than Beckett’s absurdity. Perhaps this is a fault of form: overloaded with characters, Sunset Park sags at times, asking its reader to care about yet another over-educated, privileged New Yorker whose artistic ambitions have stalled out. A concession to Beckett’s minimalism would have done wonders, and perhaps deflated some of Sunset Park’s murky self-seriousness.

The highlight of the novel is Auster’s syntax. His keen sentences, often unfurling for pages at a time, move from concrete to abstract, to present to past to future, to inside and outside, with a precision and skill that is admirable to say the least. Sure, he hits the occasional clunker–some of the book’s early dialog in Florida is particularly painful, as is a moment late in the book when Morris refers to his wife and friend as “the walking wounded,” a cliché that neither Morris or Auster should let slip–but there’s a smoothness of vision that unites the book from sentence to sentence.

Still, syntax is not content, and Sunset Park left me wanting something–more? Something different? I’m not sure what that something is, which is a precarious criticism at best. Auster’s vision of stasis, of limbo, of the impossibility of a real homecoming runs deeply contrary to the traditions and conventions of Western story-telling: in short, we are trained to desire and look for resolution. Auster’s observations–a continuation of Happy Days and The Best Years, in this sense–are precisely the right kind of psychological dissatisfaction we must experience for this novel to be “true” in an artistic sense. However, the aesthetic dissatisfaction I experienced at the end of the book seems of a separate nature. Chalk it up to too many characters and subplots, perhaps. In any case, Sunset Park made me think and made me feel, which is really the job of art–even if those thoughts and feelings are often negative and unpleasant. Perhaps it’s my own critical failing, but in the end I wanted a light to lead me out of the Auster’s  limbo.

Sunset Park is new in hardback this month from Henry Holt.

August 22, 2010

Steps — Jerzy Kosinski

by Edwin Turner

One of the many small vignettes that comprise Jerzy Kosinski’s 1968 book Steps begins with the narrator going to a zoo to see an octopus that is slowly killing itself by consuming its own tentacles. The piece ends with the same narrator discovering that a woman he’s picked up off the street is actually a man. In between, he experiences sexual frustration with a rich married woman. The piece is less than three pages long.

There’s force and vitality and horror in Steps, all compressed into lucid, compact little scenes. In terms of plot, some scenes connect to others, while most don’t. The book is unified by its themes of repression and alienation, its economy of rhythm, and, most especially, the consistent tone of its narrator. In the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s the same man relating all of these strange experiences because the way he relates them links them and enlarges them. At a remove, Steps is probably about a Polish man’s difficulties under the harsh Soviet regime at home played against his experiences as a new immigrant to the United States and its bizarre codes of capitalism. But this summary is pale against the sinister light of Kosinski’s prose. Consider the vignette at the top of the review, which begins with an autophagous octopus and ends with a transvestite. In the world of Steps, these are not wacky or even grotesque details, trotted out for ironic bemusement; no, they’re grim bits of sadness and horror. At the outset of another vignette, a man is pinned down while his girlfriend is gang-raped. In time he begins to resent her, and then to treat her as an object–literally–forcing other objects upon her. The vignette ends at a drunken party with the girlfriend carried away by a half dozen party guests who will likely ravage her. The narrator simply leaves. Another scene illuminates the mind of an architect who designed concentration camps. “Rats have to be removed,” one speaker says to another. “Rats aren’t murdered–we get rid of them; or, to use a better word, they are eliminated; this act of elimination is empty of all meaning. There’s no ritual in it, no symbolism. That’s why in the concentration camps my friend designed, the victim never remained individuals; they became as identical as rats. They existed only to be killed.” In another vignette, a man discovers a woman locked in a metal cage inside a barn. He alerts the authorities, but only after a sinister thought — “It occurred to me that we were alone in the barn and that she was totally defenseless. . . . I thought there was something very tempting in this situation, where one could become completely oneself with another human being.” But the woman in the cage is insane; she can’t acknowledge the absolute identification that the narrator desires. These scenes of violence, control, power, and alienation repeat throughout Steps, all underpinned by the narrator’s extreme wish to connect and communicate with another. Even when he’s asphyxiating butterflies or throwing bottles at an old man, he wishes for some attainment of beauty, some conjunction of human understanding–even if its coded in fear and pain.

In his New York Times review of Steps, Hugh Kenner rightly compared it to Céline and Kafka. It’s not just the isolation and anxiety, but also the concrete prose, the lucidity of narrative, the cohesion of what should be utterly surreal into grim reality. And there’s the humor too–shocking at times, usually mean, proof of humanity, but also at the expense of humanity. David Foster Wallace also compared Steps to Kafka in his semi-famous write-up for Salon, “Five direly underappreciated U.S. novels > 1960.” Here’s Wallace: “Steps gets called a novel but it is really a collection of unbelievably creepy little allegorical tableaux done in a terse elegant voice that’s like nothing else anywhere ever. Only Kafka’s fragments get anywhere close to where Kosinski goes in this book, which is better than everything else he ever did combined.” Where Kosinski goes in this book, of course, is not for everyone. There’s no obvious moral or aesthetic instruction here; no conventional plot; no character arcs to behold–not even character names, for that matter. Even the rewards of Steps are likely to be couched in what we generally regard as negative language: the book is disturbing, upsetting, shocking. But isn’t that why we read? To be moved, to have our patterns disrupted–fried even? Steps goes to places that many will not wish to venture, but that’s their loss. Very highly recommended.

April 11, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil — Yann Martel

by Edwin Turner

Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil tells the story of a writer named Henry whose follow-up novel to a surprise smash hit is rejected. He moves to a large metropolitan city, gets a dog and a cat, takes clarinet lessons, joins an amateur theater group, and slowly forgets about writing fiction altogether. One day a stranger sends Henry a short story by Gustave Flaubert called St. Julian the Hospitator.” The sender has highlighted passages about Julian’s delight in slaughtering animals and also included a few pages of an original manuscript, a Beckettian play featuring two characters, Beatrice and Virgil. There’s also a note asking for help. Intrigued, or maybe bored, Henry visits the mysterious author, an old, creepy taxidermist (also named Henry). His play features two characters, Virgil, a howler monkey, and Beatrice, a donkey, who are trying to come to terms with a series of events they call The Horrors. The taxidermist’s project reignites Henry’s passion for writing and he’s soon helping the would-be playwright with revisions, blind to the inconsistencies and gaps in the old man’s strange behavior.

Beatrice and Virgil is a page turner, engaging, propulsive, and quite easy to read. It injects the philosophical and artistic concerns of literary fiction into the frame and pacing of a book designed for broader audiences. Martel displays his keenest literary skill in the early part of the novel, flitting through the kinds of subjects that bookish nerds of a certain postmodernist bent tend to obsess over: the possibilities and challenges of writing in a particular language, the complexity of pseudonymous fame, the intellectual allure of the essay versus the power of fiction to narrativize higher truth. To address this latter problem, Henry proposes that his new book comprise two sections–a work of narrative fiction and an essay to explicate that work. Why the need for an essay? Henry proposes to write an artful, fictive account of the Holocaust. The essay, which Henry wants published on the flip side of the fiction, thus eliminating a front/back cover distinction, is meant to explicate the fiction. In many ways the first section of Beatrice and Virgil functions as counterpoint to Henry’s proposed essay, concisely addressing the problems of using anything other than historical facts to represent the Holocaust.

After Henry gets the taxidermist’s package and reads “St. Julian the Hospitator,”Beatrice and Virgil moves into a faster rhythm and continues to accelerate to its end, never sagging. At times, Martel relies on stock phrasing and overt exposition to afford this pacing. I found myself wishing a few times that he would trust his audience a bit more. Is it really necessary to directly explain the titular allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy? He could also be a bit less free with his narrator’s everyman style of questioning, a device employed often to propel the plot, but one somewhat inconsistent with Henry’s obvious intellectual acumen. Martel’s occasional use of lazy devices of the Dan Brown school directly contrasts the more experimental or postmodern aspects of his book. There’s the book’s initial section, which reads very much like a lyric essay; there’s the exegesis of “St. Julian”; there’s the taxidermist’s play, Beatrice and Virgil; there’s the book’s final section, “Games for Gustav.” This final section comprises thirteen short epigrams written in second-person perspective. “Games for Gustav,” Henry’s Holocaust art, demands audience identification with the victims of the Holocaust. Its brevity and ambiguity correlate to the narrative’s ahistorical engagement with the Holocaust and communicate a sense of apprehension and distance toward the subject. Is that subject Martel’s or Henry’s? In a piece I wrote last month about Beatrice and Virgil and the challenges of an aesthetic response to the Holocaust, I suggested that “Henry, a young French Canadian with no Jewish roots is utterly divorced from any authentic response to the Holocaust. He could write an academic essay on the subject, or a navel-gazing bit of metafiction that dithered over storytelling itself, but he essentially already has an answer to his own question of why there are so few artistic responses to the Holocaust–that to re-imagine or re-interpret or otherwise re-frame the real events of the Holocaust in art is to, at once, open oneself to dramatic possibilities of failure.”

Is Beatrice and Virgil an authentic response to the Holocaust? I won’t accuse Martel of using the Holocaust as a mere prop in his novel; indeed, anticipation of such an accusation is precisely what leads Henry to suffer over an essay to explicate his fiction. Martel’s book is about murder, horror, and how one might witness to or otherwise narrativize murder and horror; Henry’s “Games for Gustav” is just one of those attempts to witness. The novel engenders multiple readings then. We can take Henry’s “Games” as part and parcel of Martel’s program, read them perhaps as Martel’s own attempt at poetry after Auschwitz. This reading would subscribe to a traditional narrative arc–Henry faces a challenge, endures a perilous task, and finds resolution in his art: a valid artistic response to the Holocaust is possible. I think, however, that there is another, more complicated reading available, one far more ambiguous, one that places any aesthetic response to the Holocaust under suspicion. If we scrutinize the elements of traditional narrative fiction at work in the novel, we can see multiple ironies in Henry’s “hero arc,” ironies outside of Henry’s otherwise perspicacious gaze. To write an authentic aesthetic response to the Holocaust, Henry must face some kind of deathly extreme that will license such art. But is such a licensing, a conferring of authority possible? I won’t point to spoilers here but will say that I read the novel’s climax ironically. I believe it complicates Henry’s (and perhaps Martel’s) attempt to engage the Holocaust via metaphor and artifice and calls the novel’s resolution into question.

But these matters are probably better reserved for the detailed dialogues the book will no doubt inspire. Beatrice and Virgil raises essential questions of post-postmodernity, exploring the porous boundaries between autobiography and fiction, history and myth, and the limits of allegory. Its rewards are not in its answers but in its questions.

Beatrice and Virgil is new in hardback from Spiegel & Grau on April 13, 2010.

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