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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I Review House of Holes, Nicholson Baker’s Ovidian Raunchfest

In his Paris Review interviewNicholson Baker says that “one of the questions House of Holes is trying to answer” is: is “there still a point to writing words about sex when you can see anything you want, and a lot of things you don’t want to see, on the Web?” The book answers a goofy, gooey, bright-hearted “yes” to this question, unfolding its pornographic vignettes in a surreal Ovidian holiday, a midsummer’s night sexfest that sails lusty and smiling over the borders of morality, social convention, and plain old biology. Baker creates an organic, oozing world where genitalia is swapped freely between lovers, where one might exchange an arm for a bigger dick, where old tattoos get fucked away, where a woman and a tree can make sweet, sweet love:

She looked out from her high-splayed vantage and she said, “I’m a treefucking woman!” Dappled sunlight shone and emptied itself onto her. She squeezed her Kegeling love muscle around the smooth, thickened branch within, and when the wind came up again all the leaves twittered and shook. The tree itself shuddered: It was having some kind of orgasm.

If it seems like I’m getting ahead of myself, citing text before outlining plot, I assure you I’m not: There really isn’t much of a plot to House of Holes. Well, if there is one, it’s something like this: Lila, a large-breasted madame runs The House of Holes, an equal-opportunity brothel/fantasy factory that can only be accessed through portals that appear in strange spaces. This pornographic Arcadia operates on slippery wet-dream logic in which strangers cheerfully and eagerly engage in all sorts of raunch. Characters of varying physical attributes screw their way through a surreal holiday. There are a few conflicts, most of which are too light to touch on (this is a light book, for sure).

Two conflicts stand out with some (slight) weight though:

First, there’s the Pornmonster, “a personification of polymorphousness unlike anything the world of human suck-fuckery has ever known.” The Pornmonster is the mutant offspring of all the bad porn slurry collected on a pornsucking mission (don’t ask). The Pornmonster is typical of Baker’s tone throughout House of Holes, and its polymorphousness embodies the book’s depictions of sexual metamorphoses. This monster is tamed through playful, loving lust, and becomes a good guy, its raw sexual energy redirected for the forces of good (i.e., good sex). This is a book full of good guys.

Second, there’s the Pearloiner, an embittered, sexually-jealous TSA agent who steals clitorises (two of our heroines are afflicted by this heinous crime). The Pearloiner is a product of post-Homeland Security draconian measures, and her inclusion is about as close to contemporary culture criticism that House of Holes approaches. Sexy fun times interest Baker more.

Like the Pornmonster, the Pearloiner finds herself redeemed at the end of the book; moral shifts of allegiance are as easy as physical transformations in House of Holes. The Pearloiner and the Pornmonster alike atone their sins with a facile simplicity that fits the ludic silliness of Baker’s book. They are invited to participate in the handjob contest that (quite literally) climaxes the book. It’s an easy, orgasmic end to an easy, orgasmic book.

In some ways, House of Holes is more remarkable for what it’s not. Most of the so-called pornographic literature (or literature of pornography, if you prefer) that I’ve read has a darker streak. (I’m thinking of Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, de Sade,The Story of O, Alan Moore’s The Lost Girls, etc.). Holes shares Willliam Burroughs’s sense of surreal transmogrification and picaresque rambling and J.G. Ballard’s infatuation with the bizarre intersections of sex and technology, but it’s never sinister or cruel, or honestly, even disturbing.

House of Holes is a fundamentally good-natured book,” suggests Baker in his Paris Review interview, also pointing out that it’s a work of “crazy joy”—and he’s absolutely right: The book is joyous, good-natured, affable even. When Baker approaches a remotely Sadean cuckold fantasy he punctures it with a politeness that’s humorous—but he also dramatically lowers any stakes that may have been in play. In short, this is a novel of pure fun, of infinite gain and no loss (quite literally—Lose an arm? Get it back. Lose a clit? Get it back). Holes is silky and slippery and light, more ephemeral than ethereal in the end.

But shame on me. I seem to be faulting the book for not doing something it never sets out to do (namely, I seem to be faulting Holes for a lack of depravity and depth and darkness, three “d’s” the book’s rubric never sets out to register). It’s pure fantasy stuff, reminiscent of the partner-swapping exercise A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I am not saying Baker is Shakespeare) or the erotic shifts in Metamorphoses (ditto: Baker is no Ovid) or the voluptuous Victorian serial The Pearl: dreamy, and perhaps (small r) romantic, but not turbulent—sure, Holes will ruffle unwitting feathers (let’s be clear, it’s pointedly sexually graphic), but it’s unlikely to damage anyone’s soul. (If you’re worried about soul-damage, check out the editorial style-sheet for Holes, which lays out Baker’s invented porn-lexicon).

Is House of Holes a novel or a flimsy pornographic riff? Baker is less interested in ideas than he is in sensations, or rather representations of sensations (which is the most literature can do anyway, I suppose). Holes is unwilling to offer any answers or explications about the deep mysteries behind human desire, but it does pose questions about those desires, and it poses those questions with shameless glee. A fun, breezy read.