Books Acquired, 4.23.2012 — Or, Here’s What’s New from Picador This Month

20120502-162855.jpgNice little stack from the good people at Picador—novels, reissues, first-time-in-trade-paperbacks, nonfiction . . . a nice little spread.

First up is Chris Adrian’s latest novel The Great Night, which, improbably, I’ve yet to read—I’m a huge fan of Chris Adrian’s other books, especially The Children’s Hospital (although I’ve reviewed his other books here too, for those inclined to hit the archives), and I love A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I know The Great Night basically riffs on. Anyway, my wife snapped this one up right away (I had to go through her nightstand to fetch it up for yon photograph), so my reading will be delayed (although I will likely con her into reviewing it here).

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From Patrick Ness’s review at The Guardian

The Great Night is set in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco. Titania and Oberon – the very ones from Shakespeare’s play – live under the park’s main hill with their full court. Puck is there too, a malevolent but chained force, chafing for revenge against his masters. He may get his chance, for Titania is collapsing under grief. Boy, a changeling brought in by Oberon to amuse her and for whom she felt the first maternal feelings of her immortal life, has died of a very human disease, leukaemia.

Consumed by the pain of her loss, Titania makes a terrible mistake and tells Oberon she never loved him. Furious, he abandons her and shows no signs of returning. But perhaps if Titania releases Puck, who the other faeries refer to as the Beast, then Oberon will have to return to enslave him again. Won’t he? She breaks Puck’s bonds on the Great Night – Midsummer’s Eve, naturally – for which he says, “Milady, I am in your debt, and so I shall eat you last.” . . .

. . . Adrian does nearly everything right here. The Shakespearean references are worn lightly, and the plotting is so skilful you barely notice it falling into place. The characterisations are rich, too. There’s a spellbinding chapter on Molly’s childhood in a performing Christian family band that is both deeply weird and blisteringly sad. Plus there’s an eye-wateringly matter-of-fact approach to sex (and lots of it), which here is essentially indistinguishable from magic, and from love as well, in all its “intimations from the world that there was more to be had, something different and something better”.

I like the cover of the Adrian, which I only mention here to transition into The Eye of the Storm, the novel that won Patrick White the Nobel in 1973. The book has been adapted into a film, so of course there’s a reissue with a film tie-in cover. (Buzzfeed’s addressed this phenomena recently; I did it a few years ago myself).

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Speaking of covers: Love love love this one for The Sly Company of People Who Care by  Rahul Bhattacharya:

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Here’s novelist Dinaw Mengestu, from his review in The New York Times:

In the opening paragraph of Rahul Bhattacharya’s first novel, “The Sly Company of People Who Care,” the unnamed narrator, a former cricket journalist from India, declares his intentions for his life, and thus his story — to be a wanderer, or in his words, “a slow ramblin’ stranger.” That rambling, through the forests of Guyana; the ruined streets of its capital, Georgetown; and out to the borders of Brazil and Venezuela, constitutes the novel’s central action. But its heart lies in the exuberant and often arresting observations of a man plunging himself into a world full of beauty, violence and cultural strife.

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The Kirkus review of Mike Magner’s Poisoned Legacy:

This angry investigative report begins well before the 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

In the first chapter, National Journal editor Magner describes a possible cancer epidemic in a Kansas town where refinery wastes have poisoned a wide area and where a courageous retired schoolteacher is fighting an uphill battle to force BP to clean up. Apparently, he had been researching this problem when the Gulf blowout forced him to change the book’s focus, but both stories alternate throughout the narrative. Readers with a taste for heated fist-shaking will have plenty of opportunities as Magner delivers detailed accounts of BP’s mishaps, emphasizing the massive 2005 Texas refinery explosion, leaks and malfunctions along the Alaska pipeline and the Deepwater disaster. Each follows an identical pattern: BP officials cut costs, safety budgets drop, employees grumble and warn of disaster, disaster occurs, individuals who suffered terribly tell their stories and government regulators and the media suddenly show interest, resulting in an outpouring of outrage, investigations, damning reports, fines and apologies from BP executives and the inevitable avalanche of lawsuits. Magner makes a strong case for BP’s negligence and the American government’s feeble oversight, but his case that BP operates less competently than other oil companies is not as convincing. Perhaps wisely, the author makes no argument that Americans are willing to make the painful sacrifices necessary to ensure that these catastrophes never recur. We want oil, and we don’t want it to cost too much.

A relentlessly critical denunciation of the latest environmental disaster that leaves the impression that more will follow.

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Groove Interrupted immediately piqued my interest and quickly found its way into my stack. Excerpt from Jazz Time’s review:

New Orleans native Spera, a longstanding music writer for The Times-Picayune who was also part of the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Hurricane Katrina coverage team, focuses on tales of musicians confronting the challenges of trying to continue to make music in a post-Katrina environment. He covers those displaced New Orleanians forced to seek refuge in Houston, Austin, Nashville and other points around the country in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (known around New Orleans as “the Federal flood”). His profile of the cantankerous, Slidell-based blues guitarist-singer-fiddler Gatemouth Brown, who succumbed to lung cancer shortly after Katrina hit, is particularly moving, as is his eloquent recounting of Aaron Neville’s escape from his beloved hometown in the face of Katrina, his subsequent mourning over the loss of his wife to lung cancer in 2006 and triumphant return to New Orleans in 2008.

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Book Shelves #14, April 1, 2012

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Book shelves series #14, fourteenth Sunday of 2012.

This is a strange shelf: it’s the bottom shelf of the ladder book shelf I’ve been photographing over the past few weeks, and it’s probably the least organized so far. There’s also a higher ratio of unread books on this shelf than in previous shelves. Anyway, left to right:

I was far more enthusiastic about Jonathan Lethem just a few years ago. I still think The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn hold up (they do in my memory, anyway), but Chronic City was awful (then why is it still on my shelf) and You Don’t Love Me Yet is one of the most pointless, silly, and gross books I’ve ever read.

I had good intentions to read John Crowley’s Little, Big and  Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco and John Wray’s Lowboy and Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love: I’m actually pretty sure I got all these novels around the same time. They must have been in a stack that eventually got shelved here during a reshelving.

I’ve read at least five or six more Margaret Atwood novels than the ones here, but have no idea where they are (likely a combination of cheap mass markets that I gave to friends or lost).

Chris Bachelder’s U.S.! is an underread gem. Chris Adrian: Again, I was more enthusiastic about his work a few years ago, but I think it holds up. Also, would the person who borrowed my first edition hardback of The Children’s Hospital please return it? Padgett Powell’s slim novel is not bad.

Will Self’s Great Apes holds the distinction of being the ickiest novel I’ve ever read. Horrifying stuff. I bought it at an airport—in Bangkok? LA? Houston? I really can’t remember—I was returning to the US from Thailand and had bought the cheapest possible plane ticket—one that would basically keep me en route for three days, sleeping on planes and in airports. Anyway, Self’s nightmare book is bound up in that experience: it’s a riff on Kafka; dude wakes up to find that he’s become a chimp. It’s just so gross on so many levels. (Maybe I should add that I find seeing chimps dressed as humans to be the acme of perversion).

The Wells Tower collection is gold.

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is gold, but I never got past the first 20 pages of number9dream, which seemed to really bite from William Gibson. I loved both the Tom McCarthy books, particularly C. Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a bit overrated and Baudolino’s first half is not bad, but it just goes on and on and on . . .  but it’s funny.

Time, Space, Distortion: Falling Toward a 9/11 Literature

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In his essay In the Ruins of the Future,” published in December of 2001, Don DeLillo wrote this about the 9/11 attacks: “The writer wants to understand what this day has done to us. Is it too soon?” His question was both profound and at the same time utterly banal—of course it was too soon to measure the effects of the 9/11 attacks. But could time’s distance somehow sharpen or enrich perspective? DeLillo continues: “We seem pressed for time, all of us. Time is scarcer now. There is a sense of compression, plans made hurriedly, time forced and distorted.”

In retrospect—what with the Bush administration’s ludicrous invasion of Iraq and the power-grab of the Patriot Act—DeLillo’s notation of “plans made hurriedly” seems downright scary. Still, I remember that immediate, overwhelming shock, that paralyzing inertia that had to be overcome. DeLillo wanted—needed—to grapple with this spectacular destruction immediately. David Foster Wallace responded with similar immediacy; the caveat that prefaces his moving essay The View from Mrs. Thompson’s states that the piece was “Written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock.” The same caveat would also apply neatly to Art Spiegelman’s big, brilliant, messy attempt at cataloging his impressions immediately post-9/11, In the Shadow of No Towers.

In contrast, the trio of 9/11 stories at the heart of Chris Adrian’s short story collection, A Better Angel, all employ distance and distortion—both temporal and spatial—as a means to address the disaster (or inability to address the disaster) of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Adrian’s 9/11 tales (and his works in general, really), ask how one can grieve or attest to death on such a massive, spectacular scale. The victims of the 9/11 attacks forever haunt his protagonists, literally possessing them, demons that can’t let go, forcing the living to wallow in grief. In “The Changeling,” for example, the grief of the attacks is literally measured in blood, as a father repeatedly maims himself as the only means to assuage the terror and confusion of his possessed son. Adrian sets one of the collection’s most intriguing tales, “The Vision of Peter Damien,” in nineteenth-century rural Ohio. This temporal distortion veers into metaphysical territory as the titular Damien, along with other children in his village, become sick, haunted by the victims of 9/11. Adrian’s displaced milieu creates a bizarre cognitive dissonance for his readers, a response that DeLillo also articulated in his 2007 novel Falling Man.

DeLillo initiates the novel as a sort of creation story: “It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.” The demarcation of this new world recapitulates DeLillo’s initial concern with time and space, but his novel seems ultimately to suggest an inertia, a meaninglessness, or at least the hollow ambiguity of any artistic response. This stands, of course, in sharp contrast to his sense of urgency in his earlier essay. Like the performance artist in the novel who is repeatedly sighted hanging suspended from a harness, there’s a sad anonymity in the background of Falling Man: the artist hangs as static witness to disaster, but looking for comfort, or even perhaps meaning, in the gesture is impossible.

David Foster Wallace’s short story “The Suffering Channel,” (from his 2004 collection Oblivion) is in many ways a far more satisfying take on 9/11, although to be fair, the majority of the story’s events take place in July of 2001. The story (or novella, really; it’s 90 pages) centers around a magazine headquartered in the World Trade Center that plans to run an article—on September 10th, 2001—about a man who literally shits out pieces of art. Wallace’s critique of American culture (shit as art, commerce as style, advertising as language) is devastating against the context of the looming disaster to which his characters are so oblivious. As the novella reaches its close (culminating in the shit artist producing an original work for a live audience), we learn more about “The Suffering Channel,” a cable channel devoted to broadcasting only images of human beings suffering intense and horrible pain. Wallace seems to suggest that The Suffering Channel’s audience watches out of Schadenfreude or morbid fascination, that modern American culture so disconnects people that genuine suffering cannot be witnessed with empathy, but only as a form of spectacular, disengaged entertainment. And yet even as Wallace critiques American culture, the specter of the 9/11 attacks ironically inform his story. With our awful knowledge of what will happen the day after the shit artist article is published, we are able to see the ridiculous and ephemeral nature of the characters’ various concerns. At the same time, Wallace’s tale reveals that empathy for suffering is possible, but also that it comes at a tremendous price.

To contrast the journalistic immediacy of pieces like “In the Ruins of the Future” and “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” with their respective writers attempts to measure 9/11 in literary fiction is perhaps a bit unfair. Still, Wallace’s and DeLillo’s essays transmit something of the ineffable, visceral quality of that terrible day, as well as the strange ways we sought comfort through human connection. In contrast, the distance and distortion of their literary efforts lose something. I apologize—I don’t have a word for this “something” that the essays have that the novel and novella lack (perhaps the absence is purposeful; perhaps not). It’s not clarity, but perhaps it’s a clarity of distortion that the essays convey, the duress, or to return to Wallace’s own notation, the pieces were “Written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock.” It’s that shock, I suppose, that I’m trying to name, to say that it’s still there, accessible in those early responses (I realize now I’ve unfairly neglected Spiegelman’s book, which is a great example of immediacy). And to relive that shock is important, because, as Wallace reveals in both of his pieces, the cathartic power of shared tragedy makes us human, allows us to really live, and to be thankful that we do live.

Looking over this piece, I realize that it’s overly long and really says nothing, or at least nothing much about 9/11, or literature, or whatever. But I don’t want to be negative. I highly encourage you to read (or re-read) The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” and In the Ruins of the Future.” And I’ll leave it at that.

[Editorial note: We ran a (somewhat sloppier) version of this essay on 9.11.2009]

“The Warm Fuzzies” — Chris Adrian

Read Biblioklept favorite Chris Adrian’s story “The Warm Fuzzies” at The New Yorker. Excerpt–

There was a time when they had been just the Carters, and not the Carter Family Band, but Molly could barely remember it. There was a time when her father had been a full-time instead of a part-time dentist, and her mother had been the dental hygienist in his office, when they had all gone to regular school instead of home school, when the family car had been a Taurus instead of a short bus, and when Melissa hadn’t even been born. Then her parents woke up one morning—without having seen a vision or having experienced a dark night of the soul—with a new understanding of their lives’ purpose. They both took up the guitar, never having played before, and started to praise Jesus in song.

There was a time, too, before they made albums or went on tours or appeared in Handycam videos produced and directed by their Aunt Jean, which aired (rather late at night ) on the community cable channel and then, eventually, on Samaritan TV, when Molly liked being in the band, and liked being in the family. She had had Melissa’s job once, and had danced as enthusiastically as Melissa did now, and had felt the most extraordinary joy during every performance, whether it was a rehearsal in the garage or a school-auditorium concert in front of three hundred kids. Then one morning two months ago, she had woken up to find that the shine had gone off everything. It was a conversion as sudden as the one her parents had suffered. She had come to breakfast feeling unwell but not sick, and was puzzling over how it was different to feel like something was not right with you and yet feel sure you were in perfect health, but she didn’t know what her problem could be until she noticed how unattractive her father was. It wasn’t his old robe or his stained T-shirt or even how he talked with his mouth full of eggs; he wore those things every morning, and he always talked with his mouth full—it was just how he was. She kept staring at him all through breakfast, and finally he asked her if there was something on his face. “No, sir,” she said, and a little voice—the sort that you hear very clearly even though it doesn’t actually speak—said somewhere inside her, He’s got ugly all over his face.

Biblioklept’s 777th Post Spectacular

Welcome to Biblioklept’s 777th Post Spectacular*

*Not guaranteed to be spectacular.

777 seems like a beautiful enough number to celebrate, and because we’re terribly lazy, let’s celebrate by sharing reviews of seven of our favorite novels that have been published since this blog started back in the hoary yesteryear of 2006. In (more or less) chronological order–

The Children’s Hospital–Chris Adrian — A post-apocalyptic love boat with metaphysical overtones, Adrian’s end of the world novel remains underrated and under-read.

The Road — Cormac McCarthy That ending gets me every time. The first ending, I mean, the real one, the one between the father and son, not the tacked on wish-fulfillment fantasy after it. Avoid the movie.

A Mercy — Toni Morrison –Slender and profound, A Mercy should be required reading for all students of American history. Or maybe just all Americans.

Tree of Smoke — Denis Johnson — Nobody knew we needed another novel about the Vietnam War and then Johnson went and showed us that we did. But it’s fair to say his book is about more than that; it’s an espionage thriller about the human soul.

2666 — Roberto Bolaño — How did he do it? Maybe it was because he was dying, his life-force transferred to the page. Words as viscera. God, the blood of the thing. 2666 is both the labyrinth and the minotaur.

Asterios Polyp — David Mazzucchelli — We laughed, we cried, and oh god that ending, right? Wait, you haven’t read Asterios Polyp yet? Is that because it’s a graphic novel, a, gasp, comic book? Go get it. Read it. Come back. We’ll wait.

C — Tom McCarthy — Too much has been made over whether McCarthy’s newest novel (out in the States next week) is modernist or Modernist or post-modernist or avant-garde or whatever–these are dreadfully boring arguments when stacked against the book itself, which is complex, rich, enriching, maddening.

Why I Dislike Dustjackets

I’m lazy. I let other people do good reporting and then hijack their work. Here’s Dennis Johnson at MobyLives citing a recent Guardian story:

What, exactly, is the point of a dustjacket, asks Peter Robins in this Guardian story. “The clue can’t be in the name: on the shelf, the most dust-prone part of a book is the top, which a jacket doesn’t cover … the jacket remains an unnecessary and vulnerable encumbrance.” And now, he says, “some in the book trade appear to be reaching the same conclusion.”

The Guardian article cites a number of recent books (including Zadie Smith’s latest, Changing My Mind) that forgo jackets in favor of art printed directly on the cover. I wish this trend would normalize in publishing. Dustjackets are annoying. They are ineffective as bookmarks, they tear and curl easily, and they tend to slip off of the book. They make grasping books difficult, especially larger volumes, and I always find myself removing them to read. Because I don’t want to throw away the “cover” of the book, the jacket has hence to languish in some weird droopy unstackable blip in a random corner of my house or office. Again, annoying. I can think immediately of three recentish books which are far more lovable aesthetic objects; all eschew dustjackets.

David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries is a beautiful cloth-bound volume; the biker-icon, title, and author appear to be embossed but are actually slight depressions. A simple sticker on the back of the book displays retail cost and isbn info. The inside front cover and first page display the blurb and author info that one would usually find on a wrap-around. There’s something wonderfully tactile, warm, and pleasing about the book. It’s also a really good read.

I bought Douglas Coupland’s novel Hey Nostradamus! despite its silly name because I was enamored of its lovely embossed cover. There’s a smooth elegance to the design. The back cover repeats the kneeling figure, leaving room for embossed blurbs. I should really get around to reading it.

McSweeney’s hardcover edition of Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital doesn’t feature anything as fancy as cloth or embossing. No, it’s just a plain old image–a good design, to be sure–but nothing that you wouldn’t expect on a dustjacket. Only there’s no cumbersome dustjacket. McSweeney’s issued the book with a slight wrap-around–more like a bookbelt than a dustjacket–displaying isbn and other info. The peripheral bookbelt was easy to throw away. McSweeney’s has released plenty of beautiful jacketless books, but they also know how to do a jacket right. Several hardback editions of McSweeney’s Quarterly (numbers 13 and 23, for instance) feature “dustjackets” that unfold to reveal short short stories, comics, and paintings. If you’re going to do a dustjacket, make it an aesthetic object worth keeping.

Time, Space, Distortion: Falling Towards A 9/11 Literature

The_Falling_Man

In his essay In the Ruins of the Future,” published in December of 2001, Don DeLillo wrote this about the 9/11 attacks: “The writer wants to understand what this day has done to us. Is it too soon?” His question was both profound and at the same time, paradoxically utterly banal, purely rhetorical–of course it was too soon to measure the affects of the 9/11 attacks. But could the distance of time somehow sharpen or enrich perspective? DeLillo continues: “We seem pressed for time, all of us. Time is scarcer now. There is a sense of compression, plans made hurriedly, time forced and distorted.”

In retrospect–what with the Bush administration’s ludicrous invasion of Iraq and the power-grab of the Patriot Act–DeLillo’s notation of “plans made hurriedly” seems downright scary. Still, when I think back to those early days after the attacks, I remember that feeling of overwhelming shock, the paralyzing inertia that had to be overcome. DeLillo wanted–needed–to grapple with this spectacular destruction immediately. David Foster Wallace responded with similar immediacy; the caveat that prefaces his moving essay The View from Mrs. Thompson’s states that the piece was “Written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock.” The same caveat would also apply neatly to Art Spiegelman’s big, brilliant, messy attempt at cataloging his impressions immediately post-9/11, In the Shadow of No Towers.

In contrast, the trio of 9/11 stories at the heart of Chris Adrian’s short story collection, A Better Angel, all employ distance and distortion–both temporal and spatial–as a means to address the disaster (or inability to address the disaster) of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Adrian’s 9/11 tales (and his works in general, really), ask how one can grieve or attest to death on such a massive, spectacular scale. In his vision, the victims of the 9/11 attacks forever haunt his protagonists, literally possessing them, demons that can’t let go, leaving the living to grieve over and over again. In “The Changeling,” for example, the grief of the attacks is literally measured in blood, as a father repeatedly maims himself as the only means to assuage the terror and confusion of his possessed son. Adrian sets one of the collection’s most intriguing tales, “The Vision of Peter Damien,” in nineteenth-century rural Ohio. This temporal distortion veers into metaphysical territory as the titular Damien, along with other children in his village, become sick, haunted by the victims of 9/11. Adrian’s strange milieu creates a bizarre cognitive dissonance for his readers, a response that DeLillo also articulated in his 2007 novel Falling Man.

DeLillo initiates the novel as a sort of creation story: “It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.” The demarcation of this new world recapitulates DeLillo’s initial concern with time and space, but his novel seems ultimately to suggest an inertia, a meaninglessness, or at least the hollow ambiguity of any artistic response. This stands, of course, in sharp contrast to his sense of urgency in his earlier essay. Like the performance artist in the novel who is repeatedly sighted hanging suspended from a harness, there’s a sad anonymity in the background of Falling Man: the artist hangs as static witness to disaster, but looking for comfort, or even perhaps meaning, in the gesture is impossible.

David Foster Wallace’s short story “The Suffering Channel,” (from his 2004 collection Oblivion) is in many ways a far more satisfying jab at 9/11, although, to be fair, the majority of the story’s events take place in July of 2001. The story (or novella, really; it’s 90 pages) centers around a magazine headquartered in the World Trade Center that plans to run an article–on September 10th, 2001–about a man who literally shits out pieces of art. Wallace’s critique of American culture (shit as art, commerce as style, advertising as language) is devastating against the context of the looming disaster that his characters are so oblivious too. As the novella reaches its close (culminating in the shit artist producing an original work for a live audience), we learn more about “The Suffering Channel,” a cable channel devoted to broadcasting only images of human beings suffering intense and horrible pain. Wallace seems to suggest that The Suffering Channel’s audience watches for mere schadenfreude or morbid fascination, that modern American culture so disconnects people that genuine suffering cannot be witnessed with empathy, but only as a form of spectacular, disengaged entertainment. And yet even as Wallace critiques American culture, the specter of the 9/11 attacks ironically inform his story. With our awful knowledge of what will happen the day after the shit artist article is published, we are able to see the ridiculous and ephemeral nature of the characaters’ various concerns. At the same time, Wallace’s tale reveals that empathy for suffering is possible, but also that it comes at a tremendous price.

To contrast the journalistic immediacy of pieces like “In the Ruins of the Future” and “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” with their respective writers attempts to measure 9/11 in literary fiction is perhaps a bit unfair. Still, Wallace’s and DeLillo’s essays–at least in my opinion–transmit something of the ineffable, visceral quality of that terrible day, as well as the strange ways we sought comfort through human connection. In contrast, the distance and distortion of their literary efforts lose something. I apologize–I don’t have a word for this “something” that the essays have that the novel and novella lack (purposely, I believe). It’s not clarity, but perhaps it’s a clarity of distortion that the essays convey, the duress, or to return to Wallace’s own notation, the pieces were of course “Written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock.” It’s that shock, I suppose, that I’m trying to name, to say that it’s still there, accessible in those early responses (I realize now I’ve unfairly neglected Spiegelman’s book, which is a great example of immediacy). And to relive that shock is important, because, as Wallace reveals in both of his pieces, the cathartic power of shared tragedy makes us human, allows us to really live, and to be thankful that we do live.

Looking over this piece, I realize that it’s overly long and really says nothing, or at least nothing much about 9/11, or literature, or whatever. But I don’t want to be negative. I highly encourage you to read (or re-read) The View from Mrs. Thompson’sand In the Ruins of the Future.” And I’ll leave it at that.

A Better Angel — Chris Adrian

Better Angel

How does one grieve? This central question runs through the nine stories that comprise Chris Adrian’s A Better Angel (available now in trade paperback from Picador). For Adrian’s protagonists, mostly adolescents and children, the past is inescapable and insurmountable, and the future promises only depression at best and eternal suffering at worst. These are stories about hauntings. In Adrian’s world (and it is a fully-realized world in the same way that Tolkien’s Middle Earth is its own discrete place), ghosts, angels, and even wayward friends are all likely to to demonically possess some sad, troubled weird kid. Again and again, these stories force their protagonists–and their readers–to question how one might witness to death, disease, and disaster–and still keep a modicum of sanity.

Those who’ve read Adrian’s novels The Children’s Hospital and Gob’s Grief will find that the stories in A Better Angel work to flesh out a distinctly Adrianesque milieu. There are hospitals and doctors and nurses, dead brothers and absent parents, events of epic destruction and personal crises of illness, drugs and alcohol, ouija boards, and plenty of angels and demons. Adrian’s narratives explore a fine line between metaphysics and pure biology that each protagonist has to navigate. In “The Sum of Our Parts,” nurses and doctors wonder how our body parts make us individuals as a ghost tries to escape her coma-bound body. The fraudulent doctor of “A Better Angel” uses drugs as a way of subduing the angel who haunts him. “I make my living praising the beauty of well children,” he says. “I love babies and I love ketamine, and that’s really why I became a pediatrician, not because I hate illnesses, or really ever wanted to make anybody better.” Indeed, Adrian’s characters seem doubtful that anyone can make anyone else better, but it doesn’t stop them from trying. There’s the father of “The Changeling,” whose son is possessed by the ghosts of those murdered in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, who parcels out his own body as a sacrifice to appease the dead. The story recognizes though that it’s not really the dead he is honoring–he’s really showing his love for his son–but this measure of love is not enough for the dead. “The Changeling” is one of three stories in A Better Angel addressing the 9/11 attacks (we’ll write more about this trio in an upcoming post, and we’ve already addressed one of the stories here), but the September 11th victims are hardly the only ghosts here. In “A Hero of Chickamauga,” Civil War re-enactors try to commune with the dead and somehow bring personal justice to something beyond comprehension. “A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death” posits disease as the ultimate affront to cosmic justice. Its protagonist Cindy, an ailing “short gut girl” who lives in semi-permanent residence at a children’s hospital, remarks to no one in particular after the death of a young child,

“It seems to me, who should really know better, that all the late, new sadness of the past twenty-four hours ought to count for something, out to do something, ought to change something, inside of me, or outside in the world. But I don’t know what it is that might change, and I expect that nothing will change–children have died here before, and hapless idiots have come and gone, and always the next day the sick still come to languish and be poked, and they will lie in bed hoping not for healing, a thing which the wise have all long given up on, but for something to make them feel better, just for a little while, and sometimes they get this thing, and often they don’t.”

Cindy’s is just one of many negative epiphanies here. It’s also worth noting that this Cindy is but one of several Cindys populating this book, and she also seems to be another version of a short gut syndrome Cindy who appears in The Children’s Hospital. In fact, most of the primary characters in “A Children’s Book of Sickness and Death” are also present in The Children’s Hospital, underscoring the sinew that connects Adrian’s milieu.

This holistic vision marks Adrian as an accomplished–and challenging–author. Adrian’s challenge is not so much an issue of readability; we found ourselves quickly devouring these stories. No, what we have here are tales that many will find hard to digest, the sort of stuff that some readers will find too bitter to ruminate and puzzle out. Adrian, through his protagonists’ bleak outlooks, doesn’t offer a cure or even much solace from the pain and sickness in the world, but he does offer some temporary, if mild, relief, a sort of reckoning with that pain and sickness. Although the angels and demons and ghosts of Adrian’s world cannot be ignored or dismissed, they can be confronted, even if that confrontation must repeat without solution. Instead of pandering to his readers with Panglossian platitudes or metaphysical escape hatches, Adrian dramatizes the realities of our mortality in a way that compels both sympathy and repulsion, and above all, some deep thinking. Highly recommended.

Chris Adrian, 9/11 Lit, Thomas Pynchon, Beach Reading and More

I’m about half way through two books right now: Chris Adrian’s A Better Angel, and Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. Pynchon’s latest novel–I’ll talk a little bit about it in a sec–comes out in hardback from Penguin August 4th. Picador will release the first trade paperback edition of Chris Adrian’s latest collection of short stories on August 3rd. I’m really digging A Better Angel so far, but before I talk about it, I just wanna shill for Picador. They put out really cool, great-looking books from really cool authors like Roberto Bolaño, J.G. Ballard, Denis Johnson, William Burroughs, and DJ Kool Herc, and they also have a sexy little imprint called BIG IDEAS//small books that puts out some killer jams. They’re also really nice about sending review copies. Shill shill shill. I’m a whore, but I’m an earnest whore.

Better Angel

Anyway. Back to Adrian. Just finished “The Vision of Peter Damien,” a 9/11 story set in what seems to be nineteenth century rural Ohio. Damien, and then the other children of his small rural community, catch an illness that gives them unexplained, vivid hallucinations of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers. Adrian works in a mode of distortion throughout most of these stories so far, repeatedly employing metaphysical disruptions as well as playing with time and setting as a way of alienating his characters from each other and the reader. Adrian uses the temporal/metaphysical disruptions of “The Vision of Peter Damien” to respond to 9/11, creating an uncanny milieu for his readers. The cognitive dissonance here reminds me of other responses to 9/11, like DeLillo’s Falling Man, David Foster Wallace’s short story “The Suffering Channel,” and even Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers. Actually, Wallace’s essay “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” does a really good job of capturing all the problems of witnessing to, understanding, reacting to (etc.) spectacular disaster. Adrian’s story recapitulates the same paradoxes, injecting a motif of illness and brotherhood, contagious decay and redemption that seems to run through all of the stories collected here. I don’t have a larger comment about literature’s response to 9/11 yet, but I think that it’s fascinating to watch such stories emerge and evolve. We’re still seeing the various shapes, tropes, strategies, etc. that authors will employ to tackle (or chip at, or remark upon, or even elide) such a big historical marker. Full review of A Better Angel at the end of this month.

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Far less serious is Pynchon’s new novel, Inherent Vice, a detective noir painted in day-glo psychedelic swirls. Doc Sportello, at the behest of his ex-, is searching for a missing real-estate billionaire in the dope-haze of late 60s/early 70s LA (it appears to be set in 1969, as there are repeated references to “living in the sixties and seventies”). Pynchon’s new novel is a hard-boiled detective mystery, a psychedelic caper, an LA story, a comment on the decline of idealism and the emergence of media-unreality at the end of the 60s (because we needed another story about the 60s!), and probably a shaggy dog tale. The cover has gotten some criticism for its decidedly unliterary look, and last March I called it “horrendous.” I take it back: the campy cover, with its neon shock and beach-as-pastoral-idyll is lovingly ironic, satire that does not announce itself as satire and is thus always open to a straight-reading. Just like Pynchon’s novel, the cover can be read as an homage to both Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard (with a sly nod to all the Leonard ripoffs out there (glancing your way, Jimmy Buffett). As its cover suggests, this is a Pynchon book you can read breezily on a beach or airplane. Sure, it’s got the usual Pynchon trademarks–it’s overcrowded with zany, one-dimensional characters, it operates on a Looney Toons system of logic, it’s full of linguistic goofs–but it’s also incredibly easy to read (unlike, say, just about everything else Pynchon has ever written). It’s also a lot of fun. And to prove it’s a beach read, I’ll finish it this week at St.Augustine Beach, inebriated by strong margaritas and even stronger sun. Full review when I get back.

Gob’s Grief — Chris Adrian

It’s the greatest open secret, that death will take everyone, that every person is as transient as a shadow. Embracing this knowledge…was how sane people managed their grief.

In his debut novel Gob’s Grief, Chris Adrian explores the turbulent political, cultural, and social reforms of the immediate post-Civil War era through the lens of personal loss–specifically, the loss of dead brothers. Gob Woodhull, fictional son of agitating feminist Victoria Woodhull, suffers from intense grief and guilt after not running away to war with his twin brother Tomo, who dies at Chickamauga. Deciding that he must perform the impossible, Gob sacrifices his pinkie finger (and much more!) to a sinister, cave-dwelling magical being called the Urfeist, who takes young Gob on as an apprentice. Under the Urfeist’s tutelage, Gob begins designing and building a Frankenstein machine that will bring both his brother and all of the dead back to earth. Gob describes his machine and its purpose:

Don’t you understand? What’s grief if not a profound complaint? It’s what the engine will do; it will complain. It will grieve with mechanical efficiency and mechanical strength. It will grieve for my brother and for your brother and for all the six hundred thousand dead of the war. It will grieve for all the dead of history, and all the dead of the future. Man’s grief does nothing to bring them back, but just as man’s hands cannot move mountains, but man’s machines can, our machine will grieve away the boundaries between this world and the next.

The Urfeist agrees with Gob’s strange logic, explaining just what’s in it for the dead:

Unhappiness is the lot of the spirits. They are denied bodily delight, but they are creatures of desire. Desire is all that’s left to them. They want to live again! They want to be with you, all you desolate millions. How will you live without them? How will they continue without you? What sort of heaven can there be when brothers are apart?

Aiding Gob, often against their better judgment, are Walt Whitman (yes, that Walt Whitman), Will Fie, and Maci Truffant; both Will and Maci have also lost brothers in the Civil War, and these fraternal ghosts literally haunt them. Whitman too has lost a brother, but the poet more keenly misses Hank, a young man who Whitman becomes very attached to while volunteering at a hospital. Although Hank dies, his voice remains in Whitman’s head. Walt, Will, and Maci all make unique contributions to Gob’s bizarre machine. Maci serves as an engineer, Will as a visionary builder, and Walt, “the Kosmos,” serves as the battery that powers the strange, mansion-sized contraption. Added to the mix is Pickie Beecher, an unearthly little kid birthed during an early trial run of the machine.

The novel is divided into three distinct sections, each focusing on the different perspectives of Walt, Will, and Maci, and the most interesting moments of the narrative are when the events overlap, revealing the differences between these characters (the first section, focusing on Walt Whitman, is easily my favorite; it even made me go back and reread portions of Leaves of Grass). Adrian also employs interchapters focusing on young Tomo running away to the war and the Urfeist’s education of Gob. At times, this structure is fascinating, but it often gets in the way of characterization and detail: at nearly 400 pages, Gob’s Grief is a fairly long book, but it feels like it should be much longer. Adrian is fascinated with the cultural, economic, and social upheavals that preceded the Gilded Age, but much of the fine tuning seems edited away in favor of repeated descriptions of, uh, grief (at a certain point, I wanted to yell, “Okay–I get it! He’s mourning! He’s sad! Move on”). I also found the elements of magical realism, particularly the backstory of the Urfeist, to be underdeveloped, often overshadowed by a concern for the tropes of historical fiction.

Still, in Gob’s Grief, Adrian conveys a marvelous aplomb rare in debut novels, a promise he lives up to in his fantastic follow-up The Children’s Hospital (Pickie Beecher shows up again in that novel, and its main protagonist, Jemma Claflin, is a descendant of Woodhull). In all likelihood, Adrian will continue to perfect his craft. And while we’re waiting for his next great novel, we can read A Better Angel, a collection of short stories set to drop this August.

The Children’s Hospital — Chris Adrian

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“The book started out a lot more like a big happy Love Boat episode, then 9/11 (and all that followed) happened and blew it in a new direction.”–Chris Adrian (McSweeney’s interview)

Chris Adrian’s 2006 novel The Children’s Hospital begins with the end of the world. A flood of (excuse me) biblical proportions drowns every living thing on earth with the exception of a children’s hospital which has been specially engineered with the aid of an angel to withstand both the flood as well as life at sea. The residents of the newly nautical hospital–doctors, med students, specialists, nurses, some 699 sick children, portions of their families and sundry others–must navigate an uncertain future drenched in despair and loss. Their mission of helping the ill is the only thing that sustains them–initially.

Central to the story is Jemma Claflin, a mediocre third-year med student with a haunted past. Years before the deluge, each member of her family and her long-term boyfriend died in a horrific way, leaving Jemma unable to love, let alone believe in a positive future. However, as the book progresses, it becomes apparent that Jemma will have to best her fear and become the hero of this epic novel.

I really, really enjoyed The Children’s Hospital. Adrian’s writing communicates a stirring mix of immediacy and pathos, tempered in a cynical humor that sharply bites at any hint of sentimentality. Despite its 615 pages, epic scale, and use of multiple narrative viewpoints, The Children’s Hospital never sprawls into logorrhea–Adrian holds the plot reins tightly at all times, sparingly measuring details which accrue neatly to an affecting payoff. The middle 200 page section of this book is easily the best thing I’ve read in the past few years. I actually had to stand up to read it–the highest Biblioklept endorsement there is. Yes folks–if you have to stand up to read it, it’s truly excellent stuff.

You can read the entirety of Chris Adrian’s short story “A Better Angel” here.

Knocked Up, Rakish Behavior, More Bibliomania, and a Brief Hiatus

So today we (id est, Mrs. Biblioklept and myself) saw Knocked Up, which is pretty much the best pregnancy movie I’ve ever seen (yes, better than 9 Months, Parenthood and Father of the Bride 2 put together, and at least equal to Rosemary’s Baby, which I’m not really sure even counts). Judd Apatow (we mentioned our love of Mr. Apatow’s work in a previous post) assembled a host of familiar faces from his regular crew (including his wife and daughters) to make a funny and honest (although certainly hyperbolic) movie about love, relationships, having kids, growing older, and all that crap. Highly recommended. For a more detailed review, check out this Slate article (warning: this is a typical Slate article, i.e. the author starts by saying they basically like what they’re about to discuss before hemming and hawing over every little detail in an effort to pick it apart. Still, on the whole, the article’s pretty good).

Now, writing about movies and card games and TV shows is all well and good, but once upon a time this was a blog about books (sort of), and perhaps some of you feel that I’ve gotten particularly lazy in my reading. This is actually far from the case; in fact, all I’ve been doing lately is reading. Only the reading I’ve been doing has been for a grad class revolving around the figure of the libertine. Summer school. Yay. Not that the class has been boring per se, just not really something that’s translated into anything I’ve felt the urge to write about. The poems and biographical of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester have been of great interest–this guy was downright naughty. Also a relatively recent play about Rochester called The Libertine was particularly good (much better than the movie version starring Johnny Depp that came out a year or two ago). The current reading for the class, however, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, is more than I can bear. We are reading the abridged version, which is about 550 pages, paperback. The unabridged version is a large-sized small-print trade paperback topping 1600 pages. I have no idea what the editor cut out (neither do I care). The last time I read a book like this was in high school–Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Both novels are painfully long accounts of a young lady’s trying circumstances. In both novels nothing really happens, and anything interesting that does happen is so coded that you have to read between the lines to figure it out (“Huh? Did Tess get raped? Huh?” also, “Huh? Did Clarissa get raped? Huh?”). Maybe I’m just a lazy reader.

But being a lazy reader hasn’t stopped me from buying more books. My bibliomania persists unchecked, fueled by bargain blowout prices on last year’s hardback remainders and promises of free shipping from Amazon. A quick run down of what I bought this week, complete with odds that I’ll actually finish the book.

Sanctuary, William Faulkner

Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner

The Portable Faulkner, ed. Malcolm Cowley

Fiction, Film, and Faulkner: The Art of Adaptation, Gene Phillips

Yes, I am taking a Faulkner class this summer. With the exception of the Phillips text, all materials were procured at my favorite local bookstore via store credit. Some of the books I used to get credit were not exactly mine. The Biblioklept strikes again! Likelihood that I’ll finish all of these: 99.9%. I’m a good student. I don’t cut any corners when it comes to class reading.

The Children’s Hospital, Chris Adrian

I’ve been wanting to read this all year; rave reviews all around. Likelihood that I’ll finish it: 50/50 might be generous. It’s pretty long (600 pages) and hardback (I have a very poor track record with hardback). I’ll give it a serious attempt in the two week window between the end of summer school and the fall semester. We’ll see.

U.S.!, Chris Bachelder

Another book I’ve heard only great things about. The Left (big-L) keeps reviving muckraker Upton Sinclair (you know, dude who wrote The Jungle) from the dead to help “the cause”; he is repeatedly assassinated. Likelihood that I’ll finish it: 99%–I started yesterday and am close to half finished. It’s very, very good, and I’ll try to review it later. It’s actually been a terrible distraction from Clarissa. Plus, according to the back of the book, Bachelder got his MFA from my alma mater, the University of Florida. So there.

Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon

I loved loved loved V. The Crying of Lot 49 was decent enough. Vineland was good enough, I suppose, albeit kind of silly. I’ve put down Gravity’s Rainbow more times than I can count. The first 100 pages of Mason & Dixon bored me to tears. Why did I buy this again? Oh, right, it was on sale. Likelihood that I’ll finish this: This book is hardcover and over a 1000 pages. Let’s just be honest–I will never finish this book. Maybe I’ll give it to a friend as a burdensome gift, a sort of annoying challenge.

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I realize that this post has been overlong and probably looks like a weak attempt to compensate for not having written in some time (which it certainly is); however, it will have to suffice, gentle reader, for an indeterminate amount of time. Mrs. Biblioklept will be going into the exquisite labors of childbirth any minute now (really), so I’m not sure when I’ll have the leisure to post again. Until then.