Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge is an elegant collection of creepy intertextual tales

revenge

In Yoko Ogawa’s new collection Revenge, eleven stories of fascinating morbidity intertwine at oblique angles. Tale extends into tale: characters, settings, and images float intertextually from chapter to chapter, layering and reticulating themes of death, crime, consumption, and creation. (And revenge, of course. Let’s not forget revenge). Not quite a story cycle or a novel-in-tales, Revenge’s sum is nevertheless greater than its parts. It’s a brisk, engaging read, and as I worked my way to the final story, I already anticipated returning to the beginning to pull at the motifs threading through the book.

The book’s dominant motifs of death and food arrive in the first tale, “Afternoon Bakery,” where a mother tries to buy strawberry shortcakes for her dead son’s birthday—only the baker is too busy bawling to attend to sales. We learn why this baker is crying in “Fruit Juice,” the second story, a tale that ends inexplicably with an abandoned post office full of kiwi fruit. The third story, “Old Mrs.  J” (one of Revenge’s stand-outs) perhaps answers where those kiwis came from. More importantly, “Old Mrs. J,” with its writer-protagonist, elegantly introduces the thematic textual instability of the collection. There’s a  haunting suspicion here that the characters who glide from one tale to the next aren’t necessarily the silent extras they seem to be on the surface. Our characters, background and fore, are doppelgängers, ghost writers, phantoms.

The penultimate tale “Tomatoes and the Full Moon” lays the ghosting bare. Its protagonist is a magazine writer, whose “articles” really amount to little more than advertising. Staying at a seaside resort, he’s pestered by an old woman, one of the many witches who haunt Revenge. The old woman claims to be a novelist, and points out one of her books in the resort’s library:

Later, in my room, I read ‘Afternoon at the Bakery.’ It was about a woman who goes to buy a birthday cake for her dead son. That was the whole story. I should have gone back to my article, but I read her novel through twice, finishing for the second time at 3:00 a.m. The prose was unremarkable, as were the plot an characters, but there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again.

The final line is perhaps a description of Revenge’s haunting intertextual program—although to be clear, Ogawa’s plot and characters are hardly “unremarkable,” and her prose, in Stephen Snyder’s English translation, is lucid and descriptive. It’s the “icy current running under her words” that makes Ogawa’s tales stick so disconcertingly in the reader’s psychic gullet. And if her prose is at times “unremarkable,” it’s all in the service of creating a unifying tone. All eleven tales are narrated in first-person, and each narrator is bound to the limits of his or her own language.

These limitations of language bump up against the odd, the spectacular, the alien, as in “Sewing for the Heart”:

She had explained that she was born with her heart outside of her chest—as difficult as that might be to imagine.

The line is wonderful in its mundane trajectory: Our narrator, an artisan bagmaker, witnesses this woman who lives with her heart outside her chest and concedes that such a thing might be “difficult . . . to imagine”! There’s something terribly paltry in this, but it’s also purposeful and controlled: Here we find the real in magical realism.

But this bagmaker can imagine, as we see in an extraordinary passage that moves from the phenomenological world of sight and sound and into the realm of our narrator’s strange desires:

She began to sing, but I could not make out the words. It must have been a love song, to judge from the slightly pained expression on her face, and the way she tightly gripped the microphone. I noticed a flash of white skin on her neck. As she reached the climax of the song, her eyes half closed and her shoulders thrown back, a shudder passed through her body. She moved her arm across her chest to cradle her heart, as though consoling it, afraid it might burst. I wondered what would happen if I held her tight in my arms, in a lovers’ embrace, melting into one another, bone on bone . . . her heart would be crushed. The membrane would split, the veins tear free, the heart itself explode into bits of flesh, and then my desire would contain hers—it was all so painful and yet so utterly beautiful to imagine.

Painful and utterly beautiful: Another description of Revenge.

Sometimes the matter-of-fact tone of the stories accounts for marvelous little eruptions of humor, as in “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger”:

At fifteen, I took an overdose of sleeping pills. I must have had a good reason for wanting to kill myself, but I’ve forgotten what it was. Perhaps I was just fed up with everything. At any rate, I slept for eighteen hours straight, and when I woke up I was completely refreshed. My body felt so empty and purified that I wondered whether I had, in fact, died. But no one in my family even seemed to have noticed that I had attempted suicide.

The scene is simultaneously devastating and hilarious, an evocation of abyssal depression coupled with mordant irony. The scene also underscores the dramatic uncertainty that underpins so many of the tales, where the possibility that the narrator is in fact a ghost or merely a character in someone else’s story is always in play.

There’s no postmodern gimmickry on display here though. Ogawa weaves her tales together with organic ease, her control both powerful and graceful. Her narrators contradict each other; we’re offered perspectives, glimpses, shades and slivers of meaning. A version of events recounted differently several stories later seems no more true than an earlier version, but each new detail adds to the elegant tangle. Like David Lynch and Roberto Bolaño, Ogawa traffics in beautiful, venomous, bizarre dread. Like those artists, she offers a discrete world we sense is complete and unified, even as our access to it is broken and discontinuous. And like Angela Carter, Ogawa channels the icy current seething below the surface of our darkest fairy tales, those stories that, with their sundry murders and crimes, haunt readers decades after first readings.

What I like most about Revenge is its refusal to relieve the reader. The book can be grisly at times, but Ogawa rarely goes for the lurid image. Instead, the real horror (and pleasure) of Revenge is the anxiety it produces in the reader, who becomes implicated in the crimes cataloged in the text. Witness to first-person narratives that often omit key clues, the reader plays detective—or perhaps accomplice. Recommended.

Revenge is new in handsome trade paperback from Picador; Picador also released Ogawa’s novel Hotel Iris in 2010.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in the spring of 2013; we republish it here in the spooky spirit of Halloween].

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Sandokan, Nanni Balestrini’s Poetic Examination of Criminal Brutality

Nanni Balestrini’s novella Sandokan, in English translation from Melville House, tells the story of the rise of the Camorra crime syndicate in the small, poverty-stricken cities around Naples. Balestrini’s unnamed narrator occupies a fascinating insider-outsider perspective: one one hand, he, unlike many of his peers, does not join the gang, or “clan,” as its called–in fact, their behavior repulses him. On the other hand, he’s a native of the small town where Francesco Schiavone (aka Sandokan), Antonio Bardellino, and their henchman rule mercilessly, an eye-witness to the brutality and inhumanity of organized crime. The narrator is a sensitive young man who delineates clearly how the crime cartel was able to achieve such economic prosperity and power in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, detailing the various rackets the clan imposed upon the town, like stealing elections, peddling drugs, and manipulating the agribusiness that is the main source of income for average Neapolitan peasants. The narrator also explores why these small towns fall so easily into the terror of organized crime. The main reason: boredom stemming from little or nothing to do.

Balestrini’s narrator’s description of the Camorra is systematic, detailing the awful history and brutal practices of the syndicate in spare, concrete terms. His explications of the clan’s violence is not so much thrilling as  it is ugly, as the narrator always shows how “normal people” (his words) are cheated, killed, or otherwise harmed by the Camorra. The narrator’s tone is often journalistic but never clinical; he always shows what’s at stake for the “normal people,” how they are affected by these crimes. At times the narrator is wryly funny, a tone that results in large part from his observation that the townspeople, the people he grew up around, begin to normalize the violence. It becomes part of their daily lives and affects them so directly that it becomes casual, and the sensitive narrator is one of only a few not to bow to it, ignore it, or take part in it–yet the violence and crime is so overwhelming that to live with it is to live with absurdity. Balestrini employs a punctuation-free rhetorical style in Sandokan that captures the breathless energy and frustration of the narrator. While many readers might balk at the lack of commas, periods, or semi-colons, I found the technique quite liberating. It enhances the immediacy of the narrator’s voice, the rushed sense of importance to his tale. It also promotes sustained readings of the text–I read most of Sandokan in three enthralled sittings.

Sandokan has its cinematic twin in the 2008 film Gomorra, directed by Matteo Garrone. The film, like the book, illustrates the affect that crime has on a range of “normal people,” mostly occupants of a housing project outside of Naples. As in Sandokan, the ordinary citizens find that they have no choice but to choose between sides as an absurd, petty gang war ravages their already decimated landscape. Where Balestrini’s punctuation-free rhetoric allows readers closer access to his narrator’s pathos-driven story, Garrone lets his camera wander freely over the grim landscape without ever imposing any clear narrative structure. It is not until the film’s final third that the five disparate stories he tells coalesce, and even then, it remains unclear who is on whose side. What is clear is that the violence and crime is quickly stealing–and killing–another generation.

In an age where violence is sensationalized and glamorized, particularly in gangster films and TV shows (do I really need to list them?), Sandokan and Gomorra both lay bare the Darwinian cost of crime. In both narratives, the violence is mundane and inescapable, meaningless yet awful, and very, very dark. Neither narrative is didactic in the least–or even hopeful, for that matter–but their is an implicit suggestion that if only there were some alternative to the Camorra–libraries, social clubs, movie houses–there might be another prospect for the young people in this area.

I highly recommend both Sandokan and Gomorra. As an end note, I’d love to see more of Nanni Balestrini’s work come into English translation, perhaps via Antony Shugaar and Melville House, who’ve done a lovely job here.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept published a version of this review in January of 2010]

 

Mortal Lock (Book Acquired, 5.02.2013)

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Mortal Lock by Andrew Vachss seems like a good choice for anyone who digs short, punchy crime noir stories. There’s also a screenplay in here. Random House’s blurb:

A hit man stalks his mark at a race track. A sociopath crosses every moral boundary to become a published author. An ex-mercenary obsessively defends his “perimeter” from a dangerous interloper. A man for hire grudgingly accepts help from a teenage girl to track an online predator. In a dystopian future, young people struggle for survival underground, forming themselves into vicious gangs with only the graffiti of the “last journalists” accepted as truth. Andrew Vachss collects twenty tight, powerful stories—all from the past decade of his career, including some now published for the first time—along with an original screenplay. Together, they form Mortal Lock, a searing portrait of the criminal underworld, with both its depravity and humanity on display.

 

Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge Is an Elegant Collection of Creepy Intertextual Tales

revenge

In Yoko Ogawa’s new collection Revenge, eleven stories of fascinating morbidity intertwine at oblique angles. Tale extends into tale: characters, settings, and images float intertextually from chapter to chapter, layering and reticulating themes of death, crime, consumption, and creation. (And revenge, of course. Let’s not forget revenge). Not quite a story cycle or a novel-in-tales, Revenge’s sum is nevertheless greater than its parts. It’s a brisk, engaging read, and as I worked my way to the final story, I already anticipated returning to the beginning to pull at the motifs threading through the book.

The book’s dominant motifs of death and food arrive in the first tale, “Afternoon Bakery,” where a mother tries to buy strawberry shortcakes for her dead son’s birthday—only the baker is too busy bawling to attend to sales. We learn why this baker is crying in “Fruit Juice,” the second story, a tale that ends inexplicably with an abandoned post office full of kiwi fruit. The third story, “Old Mrs.  J” (one of Revenge’s stand-outs) perhaps answers where those kiwis came from. More importantly, “Old Mrs. J,” with its writer-protagonist, elegantly introduces the thematic textual instability of the collection. There’s a  haunting suspicion here that the characters who glide from one tale to the next aren’t necessarily the silent extras they seem to be on the surface. Our characters, background and fore, are doppelgängers, ghost writers, phantoms.

The penultimate tale “Tomatoes and the Full Moon” lays the ghosting bare. Its protagonist is a magazine writer, whose “articles” really amount to little more than advertising. Staying at a seaside resort, he’s pestered by an old woman, one of the many witches who haunt Revenge. The old woman claims to be a novelist, and points out one of her books in the resort’s library:

Later, in my room, I read ‘Afternoon at the Bakery.’ It was about a woman who goes to buy a birthday cake for her dead son. That was the whole story. I should have gone back to my article, but I read her novel through twice, finishing for the second time at 3:00 a.m. The prose was unremarkable, as were the plot an characters, but there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again.

The final line is perhaps a description of Revenge’s haunting intertextual program—although to be clear, Ogawa’s plot and characters are hardly “unremarkable,” and her prose, in Stephen Snyder’s English translation, is lucid and descriptive. It’s the “icy current running under her words” that makes Ogawa’s tales stick so disconcertingly in the reader’s psychic gullet. And if her prose is at times “unremarkable,” it’s all in the service of creating a unifying tone. All eleven tales are narrated in first-person, and each narrator is bound to the limits of his or her own language.

These limitations of language bump up against the odd, the spectacular, the alien, as in “Sewing for the Heart”:

She had explained that she was born with her heart outside of her chest—as difficult as that might be to imagine.

The line is wonderful in its mundane trajectory: Our narrator, an artisan bagmaker, witnesses this woman who lives with her heart outside her chest and concedes that such a thing might be “difficult . . . to imagine”! There’s something terribly paltry in this, but it’s also purposeful and controlled: Here we find the real in magical realism.

But this bagmaker can imagine, as we see in an extraordinary passage that moves from the phenomenological world of sight and sound and into the realm of our narrator’s strange desires:

She began to sing, but I could not make out the words. It must have been a love song, to judge from the slightly pained expression on her face, and the way she tightly gripped the microphone. I noticed a flash of white skin on her neck. As she reached the climax of the song, her eyes half closed and her shoulders thrown back, a shudder passed through her body. She moved her arm across her chest to cradle her heart, as though consoling it, afraid it might burst. I wondered what would happen if I held her tight in my arms, in a lovers’ embrace, melting into one another, bone on bone . . . her heart would be crushed. The membrane would split, the veins tear free, the heart itself explode into bits of flesh, and then my desire would contain hers—it was all so painful and yet so utterly beautiful to imagine.

Painful and utterly beautiful: Another description of Revenge.

Sometimes the matter-of-fact tone of the stories accounts for marvelous little eruptions of humor, as in “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger”:

At fifteen, I took an overdose of sleeping pills. I must have had a good reason for wanting to kill myself, but I’ve forgotten what it was. Perhaps I was just fed up with everything. At any rate, I slept for eighteen hours straight, and when I woke up I was completely refreshed. My body felt so empty and purified that I wondered whether I had, in fact, died. But no one in my family even seemed to have noticed that I had attempted suicide.

The scene is simultaneously devastating and hilarious, an evocation of abyssal depression coupled with mordant irony. The scene also underscores the dramatic uncertainty that underpins so many of the tales, where the possibility that the narrator is in fact a ghost or merely a character in someone else’s story is always in play.

There’s no postmodern gimmickry on display here though. Ogawa weaves her tales together with organic ease, her control both powerful and graceful. Her narrators contradict each other; we’re offered perspectives, glimpses, shades and slivers of meaning. A version of events recounted differently several stories later seems no more true than an earlier version, but each new detail adds to the elegant tangle. Like David Lynch and Roberto Bolaño, Ogawa traffics in beautiful, venomous, bizarre dread. Like those artists, she offers a discrete world we sense is complete and unified, even as our access to it is broken and discontinuous. And like Angela Carter, Ogawa channels the icy current seething below the surface of our darkest fairy tales, those stories that, with their sundry murders and crimes, haunt readers decades after first readings.

What I like most about Revenge is its refusal to relieve the reader. The book can be grisly at times, but Ogawa rarely goes for the lurid image. Instead, the real horror (and pleasure) of Revenge is the anxiety it produces in the reader, who becomes implicated in the crimes cataloged in the text. Witness to first-person narratives that often omit key clues, the reader plays detective—or perhaps accomplice. Recommended.

Revenge is new in handsome trade paperback from Picador; Picador also released Ogawa’s novel Hotel Iris in 2010.

Biblioklept Interviews Novelist Ed Lynskey About Appalachian Crime Noir and His New Novel Lake Charles

Ed Lynskey’s new novel Lake Charles (new this month from Wildside Press) explores the seamy underbelly of a rural Tennessee community. The book balances traditional crime fiction tropes (fast plotting, hairpin turns, terse dialog, and good old-fashioned violence) with a strong evocation of setting. Lynskey’s novel should make a nice addition to anyone’s summer beach reading schedule. He was kind enough to talk to us over a series of emails about Lake Charles, archetypes vs. stereotypes, violence, and more.

Biblioklept: Your new novel Lake Charles is a crime thriller set in the backwoods of Tennessee in 1979, which you paint as a criminal hotbed riddled with police corruption, a huge marijuana operation, a young lady mysteriously disappeared, and all other sorts of dark intrigue. The setting seems intrinsic to the plot—did the novel originate as an evocation of place, or did the story come first? Or perhaps a mixture of both?

Ed Lynskey: The setting came first. I’ve carried the place inside me since I was a teenager visiting the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. The real Lake Charles is a manmade body of water, not a natural one and that genesis alone corrupts it. The lake had enjoyed a glorious past when it was used for recreation and pleasure, but now the earthen dam is leaky, and the water is scummy, stagnant, and brackish. That’s how I pictured the unsavory setting, and then I molded the criminal elements around Lake Charles. The manmade lake used in James Dickey’s novel Deliverance was in the back of my mind though I’d only seen the film and didn’t read his novel until after Lake Charles got published. Reviewers have cited the native characters as “rednecks” and “hillbillies.” I view those handy labels as a shallow stereotypes. It’s true wild things go on in the boonies. On the other hand, I live in Washington, D.C., and every night on the local news I can see a galore of murders, mayhem, corruption, drug rings, and kidnappings. So the major crimes thrive and seethe everywhere.

Ed Lynskey

B: I’m from the South, and I often find myself feeling offended at certain portrayals of Southerners, which, if done incorrectly, tend to skew to the grotesque. I imagine that a writer never wants to produce a stereotype, but at the same time, certain genres necessitate particular archetypal figures to fulfill reader expectations (not to mention basic plot functions). When crafting a crime noir piece like Lake Charles, do you feel any tension between what is stereotypical and what is archetypal?

EL: The characters in Lake Charles hail from a small mountain town in Tennessee. Though they’re a little rough around the edges and turn violent if pushed enough, I don’t choose to view them as a stereotype. The challenge for the writer, as I see it, is to make the characters familiar enough to the readers but to also keep the characters’ personalities distinct and original. Stereotypes are here to stay. Rick Bragg tells the funny anecdote how his New York City editor wrote in the comment “doublewide what?” on his manuscript. Try hard as they might, they just don’t get it. But getting back to Lake Charles, I wanted a young protagonist, and an older guy who’s a war vet to serve as his mentor because the plot needed that dynamic to be set up. I believe the war vet is probably a flatter character, but the protagonist is coming of age, so I hope he’s a more complex character.

B: I like the relationship between Mr. Kuzawa, the archetypal wise (but gruff) older man, and Brendan Fishback, the protagonist who narrates Lake Charles. Brendan is definitely in over his head, but there’s a certain relief in his having Kuzawa as a mentor. Still, you put Brendan in a lot of trouble. When you were drafting the novel, did you have a clear trajectory for Brendan’s finding a way out of the mess he’s in? Or was it part of your writing process to ensnare your protagonist and see how he might extricate himself?

EL: Lake Charles has gone through numerous revisions, and I don’t recall what my original strategy was for creating Brendan as the protagonist. I knew he was in a heap of trouble, as they like to say down South, but I didn’t think he had the right savvy to find a way out of his sticky jam. If he figured it all out on his own, he’d come off as seeming unbelievable and less credible as the narrator. I’m not sure if Kuzawa is too much of a James Bondian know-it-all who steers Brendan through the wickets. He’s a bit larger-than-life. Sometimes you meet people who seem to suck all the air out of a room with their forceful personality.

B: Switching gears for a moment, Lake Charles isn’t your only novel being published this year, right? Can you tell us a little about your other new books?

EL: You bet. Thank you for asking, too. Quiet Anchorage coming out this spring is a small town cozy mystery featuring two senior amateur sleuths who’re sisters. Their favorite niece is falsely arrested for the murder of her boyfriend, and of course her aunts flew to her defense. I wrote QA to take a break from the noir and hardboiled arena and to have a little fun. The reviews have been generally upbeat and favorable. So, I hope I can publish the second title as a new series next year. The third book, The Zinc Zoo, is the next title in my PI Frank Johnson mystery series. Frank has moved to the suburbs but still manages to get into difficult cases with prickly clients. I’m not sure when TZZ will be out. The publisher has been dealing with a serious family illness since the start of the year. The snazzy front cover art has been finished, so hopefully things will pick up again soon.

B: Three books in a year (plus several novels in the past five or six years)—-that’s fairly prolific. Are you composing these novels simultaneously?

EL: Is it prolific? I never really thought of it that way, but I can see your point, sure. I can’t work on two books at the same time. The plots and characters cross-talk in my brain, and I get things mixed up. I just work steady on one project at a time. I usually woodshed a project for several months before I go back to revise it for presentation. For instance, Lake Charles took me ten years to write from a short story into a published novel. Plus when the economy first went (and still lags) south, I didn’t publish any books for over 18 months. Stuff was just in the pipeline waiting to come out. The erratic schedule makes it more difficult to promote the project because it means I drop whatever I’m working on and shift to do the marketing bit.

B: Clearly you’re having to do some marketing now—but what future projects do you have cooking?

EL: The two large projects looming immediately ahead for me are the second title in the small town cozy mystery series and the large mob novel set in Washington, D.C. But that’s how I envision things today. It’s a fluid situation not because so much is happening as I’m hustling the new projects here and there.

B:  Have you ever stolen a book?
EL: I don’t believe I’ve ever filched a new book from a store. I know there was a book swap in the Bermuda bed & breakfast where you left a book if you took one. I think I traded a baseball book for a mystery. That’s about as close as I can get to that situation.

The Skating Rink — Roberto Bolaño

The Skating Rink was the first novel Roberto Bolaño published, a murder mystery in Spanish, all the way back in 1993.  It’s a short novel, but full of devices and ideas that readers will recognize from the late Chilean master’s later and better-known works. Characters who populate the novel recount events as if speaking extemporaneously to a reporter or a detective and discuss ideas and themes that the author would return to again and again:  obsession, alienation, lack of national identity, underappreciated poets, homelessness, and homicide.  The Skating Rink is a brief novel at 179 sharp and engaging pages. It wouldn’t be incorrect to call it a minor novel, but it would be a mistake to consider it merely a warm-up for the more intricate routines that the writer would perfect in the future.

The novel is about the construction and existence of a clandestine ice rink built in a deserted mansion on the cliffs of a seaside resort town in Catalonia, Spain. Erected to please Nuria Marti, a beautiful figure skater cut from the Spanish Olympic team, the rink and its inspiration are reserved and glacial while the locals who populate the seasonally bustling city are, with varying degrees of success, just trying to hold everything together. When the body of an itinerant singer is discovered in the middle of the ice deep within the labyrinthine halls of the decaying house, everything the characters have strained to preserve begins to fall apart.

The book is narrated by three men who represent different strata of Spanish society. Enric Rosquelle is an outwardly arrogant bureaucrat in charge of the city’s various social service agencies whose desperate need for love leads him to embezzle the funds  in order to build the skating facility for the athlete he knows will never return his feelings. Gaspar Heredia is an illegal Chilean immigrant who works in a campground for tourists and falls for a homeless woman who never relinquishes the kitchen knife she keeps tucked in her jeans.  Remo Moran, a legal arrival from Chile, has enjoyed success as a businessman and as a poet and is anxious about his own precarious sexual relationship with Nuria. Each man is more or less aware of his shortcomings and they utilize similar Bolañesque (Bolañan?) digressions to explain their motivations and feelings. They come to know and discuss each other in their retelling of events and so become interesting, sympathetic, and full characters.  Enric is jealous of Remo and suspicious that South Americans in general trade in filth and drugs.  Gaspar relies on his old friend Remo for his job and secretly watches Enric coaching Nuria.

The sense of loneliness and the failure to take advantage of fleeting opportunities are palpable. In a number of places, the narrative and the novel’s setting evoke a Wong Kar-wai movie. In slow motion, men follow women through cobblestone streets, not quite able to grasp that thing they desire. Hang-gliders dance in the sky and while everyone else is watching the fliers against the cool blue sky, we’re being told about how she’s just disappeared through a door down a side street. Solitary women stroll up cliff-side highways while our narrators limp behind. I almost expect Gaspar to sit down next to Tony Leung while cellos or Chinese versions of well-known pop tunes play from a nearby jukebox.  Unlike Wong Kar-wai though, Bolaño sees the single-minded pursuit of unrequited love as pathological and often a precursor to violence. The men in The Skating Rink, like any number of other men who populate Bolaño’s novels, are unable to resist the wills of the women they love or submit to personally or professionally. Two men here are willing to sublimate their own wishes for those of Nuria, whose choice of profession illustrates her own desire to overcome the normal limitations of geography, climate, and national history. As they seek her favor, they find themselves acting in unfamiliar ways, on uncertain paths and  unconcerned with appearance or ethics.

Like most of Bolaño’s work, endings (and beginnings and middles) are ambiguous. Readers are left unsure as to what has actually happened and the murder remains (I think) unsolved.  The Skating Rink could serve as an easy introduction to the writer’s more complex creations because it deals with time and plot in a relatively conventional manner. The characters get to say proper good-byes and reflect on the things that have happened to them. Like a standard mystery, most of the knots have been untangled.  But because real understanding sits just outside of consciousness, this reader is still waiting for the feeling that my task is complete. There are occasional missteps, like when Bolaño compares an elderly woman’s voice to a locker room, but passages lodge in your head like slow songs on repeat in dark comfortable places. Like those jams, The Skating Rink might be a masterpiece or something to be forgotten when something better comes along.  It’s short, so listen to it a couple times and decide for yourself.

New in Paperback: Ali Shaw Does Creepy Fables, Cathleen Schine Channels Jane Austen, and Joan Schenkar Plumbs Patricia Highsmith

The Girl with Glass Feet is the début novel from British author Ali Shaw. Set in the remote archipelago of St. Hauda’s Land and steeped in the traditions of English folklore, Shaw’s novel works in the idiom of magical realism. His titular girl Ida Maclaird suffers from a strange affliction: she’s slowly turning into glass. She returns to St. Hauda’s land in the winter (after a previous summer holiday there) in the hopes of finding a cure. There she meets Midas Crook (whose symbolically overdetermined name seems part and parcel of Shaw’s program), a photographer fascinated by his father’s ghost stories about the isolated archipelago who is trying to capture something of its haunted spirit in his pictures. Together (and with the help of some strange locals) the pair tries to find answers against a melancholy and magical backdrop of tiny winged cows, albino crows, and other grotesques. A sample ghost story, one of many in Glass Feet

His father had once told him a legend: lone travelers on overgrown paths would glimpse a humanoid glow that ghosted between trees or swam in a still lake. And something, some impulse from the guts, would make the traveler lurch off the path in pursuit, into the mazy trees or deep water. When they pinned it down it would take shape. Sometimes it would form a flower of phosphorescent petals. Sometimes it drew a bird of sparks whose tail feathers fizzled embers. Sometimes it became like a person and they’d think they saw, under a nimbus like a veil, the features of a loved one long lost. Always the light grew steadily brighter until–in a flash–they’d be blinded. Midas’s father hadn’t needed to elaborate on what happened to them after that. Lost and alone in the cold of the woods.

In The Three Weissmanns of Westport, Cathleen Schine transposes the Dashwoods of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility to a dilapidated beach cottage in Westport, Connecticut. When 78 year old Joseph divorces his 75 year old wife Betty, and his mistress essentially forces her from their high-end NYC apartment, Betty rallies by moving to the beach cottage with her daughters, impulsive Miranda, a literary agent, and practical Annie, a library director. The premise may sound like the domain of that most maligned of genres, “chick lit,” a fact that many reviewers tackled when it debuted in hardback last year. Here’s Dominique Browning in The New York Times

Schine sets her novel squarely in the most appealing part of chick-lit territory — its light-hearted readability — and then thumbs her nose as she starts kicking up the dust. The strange thing about the Jane brigade is that most of its practitioners have raided only her plots, apparently not quite up to the task of honoring the essence of Austen. But Schine’s homage has it all: stinging social satire, mordant wit, delicate charm, lilting language and cosseting materialistic detail.

Before looking over Joan Schenkar’s exhaustive biography of Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith, I have to admit that I thought of the writer primarily as a practitioner of pulp fiction, the kind of lurid crime tales at home in airport bookshops. In recent years, I’ve come to reevaluate my stance on crime noir in particular (which I wrote about here), a genre whose conventions I find increasingly more apparent in the “literary fiction” that I enjoy. Anyway, Schenkar’s book places much stress on the Serious Art section of Highsmith’s biography. I knew Highsmith mainly from her Ripley novels, which I’ve never read, but gather to be smart and psychologically complex. I didn’t know that Highsmith wrote Strangers on a Train, adapted by Hitchcock into a noir classic. I didn’t know that she wrote comic books for years — the weird crime ones that stirred up so much commotion in the fifties. I didn’t know that she worked homoerotic themes into her novels, and wrote one very openly lesbian novel that was published during her lifetime (albeit under a pseudonym), The Price of Salt. Schenkar makes a case for a Highsmith as an underappreciated novelist, a contemporary of Mailer and Capote who never got her due (even if her novels were bestsellers), a writer in the tradition of Kafka and Freud. Rounding out the biography is a complex investigation of Highsmith’s strange relationship with her mother, a look at her long list of lovers, and plenty of charts, diagrams, and photos (Schenkar even sneaks a topless pic in, if that piques your interest).

All three titles are new in trade paperback from Picador.

The Mike Hammer Novels — Mickey Spillane

Online auctions allow book-lovers to engage in what could be labeled “biblio-sharking.”  Some poor sap needs to clear out his basement to make room for a foosball table or a Jacuzzi, and readers take his books for an extraordinary profit. While the seller may hesitate to dispose of their treasures, I’ll readily pay negligible sums to compensate him for his losses.  So, if your rumpus room means more to you than fiction, please please please place your ads on Ebay.

Some poor mug did just that last week, allowing me to take home 18 detective novels for five clams and nominal shipping and handling charges.  Because anthologies were included in the package, I scored twenty-four books for about thirty cents apiece.  Ed Biblioklept, kept busy for weeks at a time supervising hooligans and future delinquents of America, has granted me permission to review one of my purchases, the New American Library’s collection of Mickey Spillane’s first three Mike Hammer novelsI, the Jury, My Gun is Quick, and Vengeance is Mine.

Spillane sold hundreds of millions of detective and spy stories during a long career, and the Hammer stories guaranteed him an interested and rabid following.  Although private dick Mike Hammer finds himself in any number of slippery situations, Spillane’s central character, rather than any individual plot twist, is what makes these stories both convincing and compelling.

Hammer is the archetypal square-jawed detective, but he demands that you listen to his recollections of a case because he’s clever, resourceful, and vulgar. Although indelicate by today’s standards, Hammer is a tough guy for his times, beguiling dames who are used to getting just what they want, burning through decks of unfiltered Luckies, and drinking brandy for breakfast.  What’s timeless, though, is his belief that bad guys are afforded too many protections by an impotent system of justice and that once all the pieces are put together, one extraordinary man performs a public service by putting a few slugs in the guts of murderers.  In each of these stories Hammer begins unraveling the mysteries only after someone close to him has been killed.

This was the first collection of detective stories I’ve ever finished, and each page dragged me further into a black and white world filled with villains, vixens, and corrupt politicians.  The reader becomes an unpaid extra in a B-level film noir.

Hammer explained to me, a snob, the enduring popularity of the literary detective: “You’ve forgotten that I’ve been in business because I stayed alive longer than some guys who didn’t want me that way.  You’ve forgotten that I’ve had some punks tougher than you’ll ever be on the end of a gun and I pulled the trigger just to watch their expressions change.”  Mind what you think.

Biblioklept Interviews Michael Wiley about His New Book, The Bad Kitty Lounge

Michael Wiley is a mystery writer and professor of British Romantic literature and culture at the University of North Florida. He’s published academic volumes about geography and migration in Romantic literature, but we spoke to him about the latest edition in his detective series, The Bad Kitty Lounge. Dr. Wiley was kind enough to talk to us via email about ambiguity and resolution in mystery fiction, giving readers what they want, and the prospects of Wordsworth with a Glock. The Bad Kitty Lounge is available new in hardcover from Minotuar/St. Martin’s. Read more press at Michael Wiley’s website.

Biblioklept: Your new novel The Bad Kitty Lounge picks up with P.I. Joe Kozmarski, the protagonist from your first novel The Last Striptease; both books are set in Chicago. When you were working on Striptease did you envision it as the beginning of a series?

Michael Wiley: I did. To tell the truth, The Last Striptease catches the story already in motion. I wrote an earlier Joe Kozmarski manuscript that I called Little Girl Lost, almost got published, and then tucked into a box, where it remains. I liked the character and the settings well enough that I wrote a new manuscript, which became The Last Striptease. I had set Little Girl Lost in August and Last Striptease in September, so when I started writing The Bad Kitty Lounge I decided to set it in October and aim for a series that covers each month of the year. There’s no great logic to aiming for a twelve-book series, but it seems as good of a number as any.

B: There’s a tradition in detective fiction of recurring characters (Chandler’s Marlowe comes immediately to mind). When you are writing these books, do you consciously follow or inject tropes of mystery and crime fiction? How important is it to give mystery readers what they want?

MW: It’s always important to give readers what they want. But readers might not know what they want until a book gives it to them. In genre fiction and mysteries and thrillers in particular, conventions matter, but if a writer sticks too closely to conventions the result is cliché. The key isn’t to ignore the conventions but to finesse them, use them in new ways, invert or subvert them. The best mysteries, I think, are recognizable in form but still manage to surprise us and give us great unanticipated pleasures. Before Chandler’s Marlowe, there’s Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and before Holmes, there’s Poe’s Dupin. Each of the greats has reinvented the form in big ways and has given readers what they’ve always wanted without knowing that they’ve wanted it. The rest of us innovate where we can.

B: Sometimes though it seems that writers who experiment too much with genre conventions can subvert, invert, or innovate in ways that trample on some of the great pleasures of mysteries and thrillers. I’m thinking explicitly about novels like Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music, which weds PK Dick with hard boiled noir, or Thomas Pynchon’s recent exercise Inherent Vice. Such books prize ambiguity, which leads to a shaggy dog story. There’s certainly a pleasure in reading them but many of us read mysteries because Dupin or Sherlock Holmes or Marlowe (or whomever) actually solves the case. How important do you think it is to give mystery readers an answer or solution? What place does ambiguity have in your detective fiction?

MW: Right. Most of the best mystery writing right now includes at least some ambiguity, though. I’ve been reading and re-reading James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux books lately, and while each of them solves a case at hand, we never have the sense that Robicheaux has restored a proper order to the universe. Just the opposite: we know that the universe is deeply screwed up and that Robicheaux is as much a part of the problem as he is part of the solution. Aside from that, some of Burke’s villains pop up again in later books even after we’re sure that Robicheaux has put them to rest.

My own books resolve crimes. At the end, we know who did what and when and why. But my books are also full of moral ambiguity. Some of the guilty parties don’t get punished. Some of the innocent parties do. Good people sometimes do bad things for either good or bad reasons. Bad people sometimes do good things. We get answers but we don’t necessarily like them.

B: I realize that I may have been putting carts before horses with some of these questions–can you tell us a little bit about the plot of The Bad Kitty Lounge?

MW: I like carts before horses. Here’s a synopsis that I wrote for the book flap:

Greg Samuelson, an unassuming bookkeeper, has hired Joe Kozmarski to dig up dirt on his wife and her lover Eric Stone. But now Samuelson has taken matters into his own hands. It looks like he’s torched Stone’s Mercedes, killed his boss, and then shot himself, all in the space of an hour. The police think they know how to put together this ugly puzzle. But as Kozmarski discovers, nothing’s ever simple. Eric Stone wants to hire Kozmarski to clear Samuelson. Samuelson’s dead boss, known as the Virginity Nun, has a saintly reputation but a red-hot past. And a gang led by an aging 1960s radical shows up in Kozmarski’s office with a backpack full of payoff money, warning him to turn a blind eye to murder. At the same time, Kozmarski is working things out with his ex-wife, Corrine, his new partner, Lucinda Juarez, and his live-in nephew, Jason. If the bad guys don’t do Kozmarski in, his family might.

In short, it’s a gritty hardboiled mystery set in Chicago. If your sense of humor runs the way mine does, it has some laughs. Booklist Magazine calls it “howlingly funny.” That may be overstating the case, but I appreciate the compliment.

B: Books critics must always be forgiven hyperbole, positive and negative.

You’re a professor of English literature; specifically, you’re an expert on the British Romantic poets. You might tire of this question–and forgive me if so–but do elements of British Romanticism find their way, consciously or not, into your detective fiction? It seems like a detective’s mission would be at odds with the spirit of Keats’s Negative Capability.

MW: From my perspective, it’s easier to deal with the positive hyperbolic criticism than the negative.

I once told an editor jokingly that I planned to write a mystery featuring William Wordsworth with a Glock. To my surprise, the editor was enthusiastic. I suppose there’s a market for these books. Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has been doing well, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a hit.

I mostly think of my day job as a British Romanticist as being separate from my night job as a writer of pulp fiction, but I know that that the two intersect and inform each other. Wordsworth and Raymond Chandler are two of the great English-language locodescriptive writers, and they’ve both influenced my handling of place. William Blake deals with ideas of innocence and experience, good and evil, and heaven and hell in ways that no noir writer has ever surpassed. And Lord Byron is great for moral ambiguity, as is S.T. Coleridge though in different ways.

So, I’ll probably get to that Wordsworth-with-a-Glock manuscript sooner or later.

B: Wordsworth with a Glock sounds great. Then you could write John Keats Vs. The Lamia; make it a graphic novel. Or just a screenplay. For now though, is the next Kozmarski book already in the works?

MW: I see a series here. My friend Kelli Stanley has set mysteries in ancient Rome. She calls them “Roman Noir.” I’ll just add a “tic” and I’ll have “Romantic Noir.” In the meantime, Joe Kozmarski will ride again. St. Martin’s Minotaur has said that they want to publish the third in the series. It’s done, it’s called A Bad Night’s Sleep, and it’s the best one yet. It should be out in 2011.

B: You teach full time and have a family–how do you make time to write? What advice could you give to young writers who want to develop that kind of discipline?

There’s never enough time in the day — or the week or the year — to write a book. There are thousands of excuses for doing something else, and nearly all of the excuses are good. I accept these facts and then write anyway. I write in the morning before breakfast if I can, or write in the evenings after the kids are in bed. I write in between. And when I’m not writing, I’m often thinking about plot, characters, and setting.

I draw from my own experience when I give advice, which is very simply (and annoyingly) this: “Just write.” Writing seems to me to be more of an act of will than of discipline. Don’t spend time worrying that you’re not writing enough; don’t spend time thinking about the act of writing (unless that’s the subject of your short story or novel) — Spend your time writing. Tell your story. Then revise it. Then think of another story and tell it. Oh, and when you’re not telling or revising or thinking of new details for your story, read other people’s stories and learn from them. That seems important too: others have told better stories than I’ll ever tell. I can learn from them. We all can.

B: Have you ever stolen a book?

MW: No. But I hope someone steals one of mine.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle — George V. Higgins

There are two distinct ironies in the title of George V. Higgins’s landmark 1970 novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The first is the word “friends” to describe the collection of folks on both sides of the law who Coyle tries to get over on in order to get out of an upcoming prison sentence (of course, most of these folks are looking to use or set up Coyle in turn). The second irony is that Eddie Coyle (aka Eddie Fingers aka “the stocky man”) is not so much the headliner here as he is the catalyst in a sharp and gritty tale of Boston gangsters, gunrunners, student radicals,  cops, state police, and federal agents.

Like David Simon did three decades later in his Baltimore opus The Wire, Higgins throws his audience into the deep end. Coyle features almost no exposition. Instead Higgins, a former U.S. Attorney, forwards his intricate and fast-paced plot using machine-gun dialogue. While many crime writers fall for the lure of hyperbolic argot, Higgins’s dialogue rings very true and very raw. He trusts the reader to sort out the complex relationships between hustlers and dupes, cops and finks from their conversations alone; the rest of the prose is reserved for tight, cinematic descriptions of gritty urban Boston at the end of the 1960s. The imagery is straight out of a Scorcese film, and like that director, Higgins has a wonderful gift for showing his audience action without getting in the way. Coyle features a description of a bank robbery that is so clean, precise, and sharp that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that someone somewhere had used it as a how-to manual.

Higgins also spares authorial intrusion when it comes to a moral voice in his novel. There are certainly bad guys here, to be sure, but they are complex and human, just like the cops and feds who hunt them. In this sense, Coyle is the prototype of a type of crime fiction that came to rise in the cinema of the ’70s–gritty actioners that viewed crime and punishment through a lens of absolute ambiguity. At the same time, Coyle doesn’t unravel into a mere shaggy dog story–there’s a definite conclusion to the story here, even if it doesn’t satisfy the district attorney who tries to make sense of it all (like, in a metaphysical sense) at the end.

I’ve read more crime fiction in the past year than I ever have before, inspired perhaps by “The Part About the Crimes” in Bolaño’s 2666 or Jonathan Lethem’s forays into noir. I wrote a little bit about this the other week when I praised Denis Johnson’s noveau-noir exercise Nobody Move for its purity and its “willingness to be what it is” (whatever that means). (The tone of Nobody Move is downright lighthearted next to Coyle. Not that they need to be compared–I enjoyed both very much). What I did not directly address in that post is my own prejudice against genre fiction, a prejudice that inflamed me in my early teens to such a degree that I probably outright disregarded a lot of great writing. But there’s always more great writing out there than one can read in a lifetime, so why dwell on the past? Suffice to say that The Friends of Eddie Coyle should correct any prejudicial notions of the limits of crime fiction. Highly recommended.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle 40th Anniversary Edition with a new introduction by Dennis Lehane is new this month from Picador.

Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move and the Pleasures of Postmodern Crime Fiction

There’s an admirable precision to Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move, a dark and funny crime caper originally serialized in Playboy over four months in 2008, now available in trade paperback from Picador. Johnson limits himself to a handful of characters, a span of a few days, and four fifty-page segments to tell his story. Johnson’s economy resonates from his tight plotting and structure down to his cool, concise sentences. He works in noir archetypes, to be sure–there’s the hard-luck loser in over his head, the femme fatale with a troubled past (and present), the sadistic thug and his moll, and the sinister mastermind. Johnson’s feat here is to present all of this in a manner that’s simultaneously invigorating to the genre but also a confirmation of its pleasures.

Consider Johnson’s erstwhile protagonist, Jimmy Luntz. The name alone seems to tell us everything about this guy, a lousy gambler who spends much of his time on the run. He owes money to the wrong guys, and when a gorilla appropriately named Gambol comes to collect, Luntz makes the mistake of shooting but not killing him. Johnson traffics in immediacy in Nobody Move–there’s not a lot of backstory or dwelling on psychological motivation, thankfully–but he does offer up the occasional nugget, like this one:

Early in his teens Luntz had fought Golden Gloves. Clumsy in the ring, he’d distinguished himself the wrong way–the only boy to get knocked out twice. He’d spent two years at it. His secret was that he’d never, before or since, felt so comfortable or so at home as when lying on his back listening to the far-off music of the referee’s ten-count.

And that’s all the personal history we really need about Luntz. It’s the gaps in the story that are so engaging, that force the reader to play the role of detective in this crime story. To this end, Johnson starts the story in media res, with Luntz leaving a disappointing competition performance of his barbershop chorus. He spends much of the novel’s first half still in his white tux. The novel’s end — well, I won’t spoil the end, of course — but let’s just say that the end of the novel finds our characters poised for further nefarious adventures. But there I go, getting ahead of myself. A little more on plot: Gambol, wounded by Jimmy, finds himself being nursed by a woman named Mary. Their nascent relationship is one of the highlights of the book, funny and cruel, a bizarre study in unlikely romance. Meanwhile, Jimmy hooks up with Anita Desilvera, a dark-eyed bombshell with a serious drinking problem and a series of upcoming court dates. They complicate their problems by going on the lam together. Gambol eventually comes looking for Jimmy (he wants to literally eat his testicles) and drama and danger ensue.

Denis Johnson is arguably among the best living American writers today, having produces no fewer than two masterpieces (Tree of Smoke, one of my favorite books of the past ten years, and Jesus’ Son, one of my favorite books ever). So when he wrote a genre fiction piece under a deadline for Playboy, many critics and readers wondered what he was up to. Was he serious? How serious were we supposed to take the work? Did he need the money? The book itself offers some answers. Nobody Move is fantastic as a genre exercise, witty, dark, lean, and hard-boiled, transcending the bad or formulaic writing that can plague the genre’s novels but never trying to transcend its tropes. Put another way, Johnson here demonstrates that he can master a genre that is not his, and that he can do it under the constraints of space and time. That’s quite a feat, if you think about it, especially if you compare Nobody Move to Thomas Pynchon’s recent genre exercise, Inherent Vice, or the detective-centered works of Jonathan Lethem like Motherless Brooklyn and Gun, With Occasional Music. Pynchon’s work is in many ways a covert, loving goof on the genre, but it’s still more or less a “Thomas Pynchon” book. Lethem likes the idea of writing crime noir, but he wants to subvert it, mash it up with sci-fi, see it as a form of post-modern allegory. Roberto Bolaño is almost painfully aware of this in his fiction–his narrator in Distant Star gets to play at being a detective for a bit, but finds that it’s not nearly as fun as he would like it to be. The Savage Detectives views literature and art as a crime scene to puzzle out. And 2666 . . . well, you know about 2666 (hang on wait, you don’t know about 2666? You should really get that taken care of). Or take James Ellroy’s postmoderinst crime fiction, which owes, unwittingly or not, as much to Don DeLillo as it does to Raymond Chandler. These are all great writers, of course. But I think contrasting what they are trying to do with what Johnson is trying to do is instructive.

There’s a purity to Nobody Move, to its utter willingness to simply be what it is–and many folks won’t like that; they may even accuse Johnson of slumming. Perhaps they think it’s easy to write a tight, funny crime novel. Perhaps they know it’s not, and they think that Johnson is being solipsistic, or even mercenary. In any case, Nobody Move will probably stand outside of Johnson’s canon. And that’s unfair. Cinematic and highly visual, it recalls some of the Coen brothers’ finest work, like Blood Simple and The Man Who Wasn’t There, and even Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (minus the messy sprawl). Perhaps the best thing about Nobody Move–other than the sheer pleasure of reading it over a few afternoons, of course–is that it might motivate readers to pick up Jesus’ Son or even Tree of Smoke. For many readers, especially young readers, genre is a vital gateway to what many of us prejudicially call “more serious” literature. So pick up Nobody Move, read it, love it, and then pass it on to someone who needs to know about Denis Johnson. Recommended.

Nobody Move is available in trade paperback from Picador on April 24, 2010.

In Brief — New (and Not So New) Noir Novels

Got a great little gang of new noir (or at least noirish) novels from Picador last week. These handsome trade paperbacks are all available April 27, 2010. Full reviews all around forthcoming, but until then–

Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move is a tight snare drum of a comedy crime novel. Jimmy Luntz, still decked out in his white barbershop chorus tux (don’t ask) gets into trouble with a big gorilla he owns money too. On the run, he meets smoldering bombshell Anita. More trouble ensues. Nobody Move, originally serialized in Playboy, is a dark, funny genre exercise propelled by Johnson’s sharp dialogue and keen eye for detail. Johnson’s restraint and economy demonstrate writerly chops, but its his story and his characters that made me stay up too late reading last night.

I’m kind of embarrassed that I’d never heard of George V. Higgins’s seminal crime novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the story of a down-on-his luck gunrunner trying to get a break on a three-year sentence. Picador’s new edition celebrates the book’s 40th anniversary. Higgins’s electric dialogue thrusts the reader right into the action, trading narrative clarity for a smoky milieu of backroom deals and gritty alleys. But my phrasing here sounds way too corny and trite. Forgive me, I don’t really know how to write about good crime fiction because I’m so unused to it. I’ll lazily favorably compare The Friends of Eddie Coyle to David Simon’s Baltimore crime epic The Wire.

I’ve been too engrossed with Coyle and Nobody Move the past few days to do more than skim over Clancy Martin’s How to Sell, a novel about grifters and scam artists in the jewelery world, but I did read and very much enjoy its first chapter, where the protagonist pawns his mother’s wedding ring (“the only precious thing she had left”) and yet still manages to keep reader sympathy (mine, at least). Martin worked for years in the fine jewelery business. He also translates Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Zadie Smith says of How to Sell: “It’s a little like Dennis Cooper with a philosophical intelligence, or Raymond Carver without hope. But mostly it’s like itself.” I like that.

If you’re still not in a  noirish mood, I’ll make one more attempt to piqué your interest. In what has to be one of the greatest opening shots in the history of cinema, Orson Welles begins his dark crime thriller Touch of Evil with a continuous tracking shot of a car that . . . hang on, I shouldn’t tell you what happens if you don’t know yet. Just watch the scene. It mines the same border-horror that those other noir-masters Roberto Bolaño and David Lynch also evoke so well.

David Peace on Occupied City

We’re currently reading–and really enjoying–David Peace’s Occupied City, a dark and bewildering account of the 1948 Teikoku Bank Massacre in Tokyo. Peace’s book gets its American debut later this week from Knopf. We’ll run a proper review then. For now, here’s Peace discussing the project, his difficulty in writing it, the crime’s contemporary resonance in modern Japan, and how he stole from Rashomon:

Sandokan — Nanni Balestrini

Nanni Balestrini’s novella Sandokan, new in English translation from Melville House, tells the story of the rise of the Camorra crime syndicate in the small, poverty-stricken cities around Naples. Balestrini’s unnamed narrator occupies a fascinating insider-outsider perspective: one one hand, he, unlike many of his peers, does not join the gang, or “clan,” as its called–in fact, their behavior repulses him. On the other hand, he’s a native of the small town where Francesco Schiavone (aka Sandokan), Antonio Bardellino, and their henchman rule mercilessly, an eye-witness to the brutality and inhumanity of organized crime. The narrator is a sensitive young man who delineates clearly how the crime cartel was able to achieve such economic prosperity and power in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, detailing the various rackets the clan imposed upon the town, like stealing elections, peddling drugs, and manipulating the agribusiness that is the main source of income for average Neapolitan peasants. The narrator also explores why these small towns fall so easily into the terror of organized crime. The main reason: boredom stemming from little or nothing to do.

Balestrini’s narrator’s description of the Camorra is systematic, detailing the awful history and brutal practices of the syndicate in spare, concrete terms. His explications of the clan’s violence is not so much thrilling as  it is ugly, as the narrator always shows how “normal people” (his words) are cheated, killed, or otherwise harmed by the Camorra. The narrator’s tone is often journalistic but never clinical; he always shows what’s at stake for the “normal people,” how they are affected by these crimes. At times the narrator is wryly funny, a tone that results in large part from his observation that the townspeople, the people he grew up around, begin to normalize the violence. It becomes part of their daily lives and affects them so directly that it becomes casual, and the sensitive narrator is one of only a few not to bow to it, ignore it, or take part in it–yet the violence and crime is so overwhelming that to live with it is to live with absurdity. Balestrini employs a punctuation-free rhetorical style in Sandokan that captures the breathless energy and frustration of the narrator. While many readers might balk at the lack of commas, periods, or semi-colons, I found the technique quite liberating. It enhances the immediacy of the narrator’s voice, the rushed sense of importance to his tale. It also promotes sustained readings of the text–I read most of Sandokan in three enthralled sittings.

Sandokan has its cinematic twin in the 2008 film Gomorra, directed by Matteo Garrone. The film, like the book, illustrates the affect that crime has on a range of “normal people,” mostly occupants of a housing project outside of Naples. As in Sandokan, the ordinary citizens find that they have no choice but to choose between sides as an absurd, petty gang war ravages their already decimated landscape. Where Balestrini’s punctuation-free rhetoric allows readers closer access to his narrator’s pathos-driven story, Garrone lets his camera wander freely over the grim landscape without ever imposing any clear narrative structure. It is not until the film’s final third that the five disparate stories he tells coalesce, and even then, it remains unclear who is on whose side. What is clear is that the violence and crime is quickly stealing–and killing–another generation.

In an age where violence is sensationalized and glamorized, particularly in gangster films and TV shows (do I really need to list them?), Sandokan and Gomorra both lay bare the Darwinian cost of crime. In both narratives, the violence is mundane and inescapable, meaningless yet awful, and very, very dark. Neither narrative is didactic in the least–or even hopeful, for that matter–but their is an implicit suggestion that if only there were some alternative to the Camorra–libraries, social clubs, movie houses–there might be another prospect for the young people in this area.

I highly recommend both Sandokan and Gomorra. As an end note, I’d love to see more of Nanni Balestrini’s work come into English translation, perhaps via Antony Shugaar and Melville House, who’ve done a lovely job here.

No Country for Old Men–Cormac McCarthy

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Didn’t we write about No Country for Old Men a week or two ago? Yeah, but that was for the upcoming Coen brothers movie; this post is a review of the audiobook, and I’m not creative enough to think of a different title.

So we listened to the entirety of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men over the course of two drives: from Jacksonville to St. Pete Beach and back. First off, as far as books-on-CD goes, this one was pretty good. Native Texan Tom Stechshulte manages to get all of the male characters spot on (the women in the novel sound kind of ridiculous though), and the action-filled plot, tight pacing, and simple sentences make for an easy-to-follow-while-driving listening experience (this is my number one criterion for an audiobook–you have to be able to follow the plot while navigating a road littered with truckers and asshole teenagers. F’r’instance, Faulkner’s short stories are almost impossible to follow in audiobook format).

Set in 1980, No Country for Old Men is the story of Llewellyn Moss, a Vietnam vet who stumbles across the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad and a suitcase with 2.4 million dollars in it. Of course, he takes the money and runs. Assassin Chigurh is hot on his heels to collect the drug money, leaving a bloody wake of murder and chaos. Sheriff Bell, a WWII vet who first-person narrates the beginning of each section of the book, is also on the case, trying to track down Llewellyn before he gets himself killed.

The first five discs (of seven) of the book were excellent–an exercise in genre fiction–the crime-suspense novel–that transcends the limits of the genre’s tropes. McCarthy’s spare prose moves at just the right pace, with just the right amount of “literary” interjection. However, the end of the novel morphs (evolves or devolves?) into a meditation on war and the changing nature of America and the American people. McCarthy’s symbols and metaphors seem heavy-handed and downright clunky at times, and in the end, the book becomes something of a reflection on personal failures and regrets, and how these personal failures add up to national failures.

Perhaps because I was driving, and because I had been so involved with characters over the course of five compact discs who suddenly disappeared in the narrative, I was disappointed in the end. Perhaps if I had read the book instead of listening to it on compact disc while driving, I would have found the ending more profound, or even enjoyable. Who knows–reading books vs. listening to them is probably a subject for another post. I do think that the Coen brothers will make a fantastic movie out of this story–potentially on par with Fargo. We’ll see.