Saturday, July 7, 2018

Turning Around

An expired horse I tend to flagellate is questioning the purpose of my blog. Recently, I identified four uses of the blog: the archive, the exercise, the prose, and the growth. This last aspect applies to this post, in which I cogitate on the malleability of my opinions and the usefulness of my blog for charting that same shifting. Opinion drift, we might call it.

I've been itching quite badly to revisit Ross MacDonald (which I mentioned in my last meta-post) even though my earlier reviews of his novels make them seem a lot more average. I've kept working at MacDonald because I'm convinced there's something wrong with me, rather than something wrong with him. As the years have gone by, I've thought a lot about The Underground Man and my reaction to it. I wrote that I found it bland and lifeless. I'm embarrassed to report that I wrote this:
But a lot of the time, the muscular tough guy prose, a hallmark of the genre, is absent, replaced with simple flat descriptions. Like Hammett at his worst.
Oy vey. I can understand where Past Matthew was coming from; the reputation of a Chandler descendant made me believe I was in for, say, a Daniel Woodrell-style mystery (now there's an author I should revisit!) but what I read was something more. MacDonald's style is not one of detachment or aloofness, but a careful control of emotion. The danger in his novels isn't just bodily harm but letting these crimes, these generational crimes and lies and abuse wear Archer down. He has to stay apart, he has to stand away for fear of becoming embroiled or entangled in their sordid small lives. The dirt and decay of criminality is contagious in MacDonald's world and Archer, like Marlowe, must do what he can to stay clean. Hence, Archer's coolness. What I called "simple flat descriptions" are artfully composed and self-collected observances of an awful world.

Am I better reader now than then? Undoubtedly. Every year I grow (I hope) as a reader. My tastes haven't changed remarkably since I began this blog: I still prefer genre fiction over literary; I'm skeptical of realism but understand its practicability; aesthetics and structure interest me just a smidge more than the rudiments of plotting. However, my opinions on certain things have shifted, thanks to, in part, my growth as a reader.

Yet, I can't ascribe the entirety of opinion drift to how I read. I should responsibly attribute some of opinion drift to that fourth dimension, time. A glaring rot in the ecology of criticism is the immediacy of it: paid critics are paid to produce reviews in a timely manner, usually before or around the release date of the product. In film criticism, there's a rush for clicks by publishing one of the earliest reviews. io9 publishes articles aggregating early reactions to critic screenings of movie, an Ourobouros of first takes. Reviewers are encouraged to tweet their opinions while the end credits are still rolling.

But not all objects give up the goods that quickly. Some texts need time to work their magic, to burrow into the mind, to linger there, to take up residence. Some movies, for example, I thought were pretty good when I watched them, but as time marches forward, my opinion rises steadily, until I can't stop thinking about how much I loved that movie. I had a blast with Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014). Years later, I saw it a second time in the theatre and I had an almost transcendental experience with it. The film went from "fun monster movie I liked" to "existential environmentalist nightmare I worship." The shift wasn't instantaneous. Going into the theatre a second time was simply the tipping point. Rather, the opinion drift was slow and inexorable. The movie just needed time to work its way into my brain.

Likewise, Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, which I read in February of 2014. I wrote that it "was pretty damn good." But time helped. I haven't reread it yet, though I will, because now I think about it as one of the best novels I've ever read, painstakingly plotted, ambitiously structured, practically flawless in its thematic exploration of greed, capitalism, colonialism. It's a novel I recommend to people all the time. Some texts strike you as stupendous the first instant (How to be both by Ali Smith, or really, any Ali Smith) and some take only a couple days (Sarah Schmidt's See What I Have Done). The Luminaries was "pretty damn good" but it just needed a year or two to work around in my head.

A final example: Jack Ketchum's Off Season, which I read in October of 2016. I wrote that it was empty misanthropy but that I was still impressed by its ferocity. Now I think of it a lot when I think of extreme horror. I think of how much it shook me, how much it carved me, lacerated me, wounded me. Visceral, thrilling, chaotic, but still tightly controlled. I found myself checking the results of the recommendation algorithm on Goodreads to scratch that itch of survival horror. That same month, I read Floating Dragon, which stunned me for its grandeur, but I search my memory and it didn't electrify me in the same short shock way Off Season did. I think I sold my paperback of it, which was a critical mistake. Which isn't to say that Straub hasn't improved in my memory. I often recollect the horrors of Koko and Mystery, but they didn't quite stir me the same way Floating Dragon did.

I stuck mostly with positive examples of opinion drift in this post. I could have gone on with just as many, if not more, examples of films and books I've soured on in the intervening years. I thought I might keep proceedings upbeat for this post, because on the whole, I'm grateful for opinion drift. I like that my thoughts and feelings aren't static. I'm not inflexible, this proves. I'm not stuck in the same place, this shows. I look at my blog and though embarrassed by things I've wrote, I've never deleted a post (I have made some posts inaccessible because I feared I was being plagiarized by university students seeking free intellectual labour). I'd rather look back and see how I feel differently and why. It's much more interesting that way. Why bother blogging if it's going to be the same thoughts tilled over and over?

Thursday, July 5, 2018

July Reads Part One

The Terror by Dan Simmons
The Bridge by John Skipp and Craig Spector

I bought The Terror the day it was released, way back in January of 2007. I had graduated university, during which I devoured his Hyperion Cantos, all four books, and had dabbled in some of his other books (such as the eye-rollingly bad Darwin's Blade, a novel I'm shocked I managed to finish) but none of his non-science fiction works excited me. The Terror has a cracking premise: what if the lost Franklin Expedition was actually picked off by a terrible beast? The first time I read it, I thoroughly enjoyed the first couple hundred pages but I stalled out, thanks to Simmons' renowned loquacity and clumsy exposition. This time, I had a bit more luck (opting to check the item out from my local library, instead of buying the book a second time).

Simmons does a lot of research for his novels and he wants you to know it. Every page feels crammed with arcane facts and hyper-specialized jargon gleaned from endless hours of research. However, where Simmons stumbles—other than his notorious and well-documented Islamophobia—is the integration of research into narrative. I'm the last person to quibble that exposition feels forced or unnatural. I'm not married to realism. However, sometimes Simmons gives us a bit of prose so cumbersome as to elicit chortles. Here's a tin-eared chunk from page 368:
Bridgens smiled. "I was almost jealous when he lent you that book. What was it? Lyell?"
"Principles of Geology," said Peglar. "I didn't really understand it. Or rather, I did just enough to realize how dangerous it was."
"Because of Lyell's contention about the age of things," said Bridgens. "About the very un-Christian idea that things change slowly over immense aeons of time rather than very quickly due to very violent events."
Not only does it sound awful but it doesn't quite make sense. Why would Bridgens be jealous a book was lent to anybody if he didn't know what it was? And also, if he knew what it was, and what the book was about, why would he be jealous? The next page features something even worse:
"Charles Babbage?" said Peglar. "The fellow who tinkers with many odd things including some sort of computing engine?"
Barf. I do like historical fiction and I especially like anachronistic historical fiction—historical fiction is, by definition, a construction and a fantasy, so why adhere so strictly to "historical fact" which is meaningless. However, the knowing winks and prodding elbows like that aforementioned Babbage line provide more cringes than the warm comfortable knowledge. That's all these knowing asides are for: comforting the reader, making them feel smart for "getting" the joke. It's empty manipulation. 

When Simmons lets go of this ungainly style and stretches forward into phantasmagoria, I'm entirely on board. The main protagonist, Captain Crozier, quits drinking after his private reserves run out and he goes through intense withdrawal. Instead of portentous dreams laden with symbolism, Simmons flashes forward and across space, giving Crozier glimpses of his fate and how the lost Expedition touches other lives. It's all the more horrifying because the reader knows everybody's eventual future (death on the ice) and Crozier does too; there's little he can do to avoid it.

The Terror is pretty good but boy does it need a trim. The climax happens with ~100 pages still to go. There's a killer 500 page novel in here but without that long steady march to oblivion which characterizes much of the horror (not the monster but the survivalist stuff) it might not be as effective.

I read The Light at the End by Skipp and Spector back in October of 2016. I wrote of that novel, "The Light at the End is violent, nasty, and ultimately a meat grinder for its cast" and the same can be applied to The Bridge. Where the former novel fascinated me for its depiction of a dystopic New York City, the latter, with its didactic environmentalism and abundance of characters, frustrated me. When The Bridge is describing its horrors, its wonderfully over-the-top abominations, the novel works for me. When it's introducing yet another character, an inevitable victim for the meat grinder, I was a bit impatient. I wish The Bridge had been a bit longer or a bit shorter. With more room, characterization, something Skipp and Spector are quite good at, could have improved. I guess I keep wondering how and why these two authors could produce something as sweet and caring as Animals but be more well known for obviously inferior stuff like The Bridge. If the Bridge and The Light at the End and The Clean-Up (which I found for 2 bucks at a local bookstore just recently) are what Skipp and Spector are famous for, what influenced and impacted a generation of horror writers, then imagine how much more ahead of the curve they were with Animals, a stupendous exercise in empathy (a key ingredient in effective horror). I still liked The Bridge but I wanted something more or something leaner. At its current length, it's not quite enough or it's too much to be the shock it wants to be.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

June Reads Part Three

Pact of the Fathers by Ramsey Campbell
Slow Horses by Mick Herron
Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker

It's been too long since I enjoyed a Campbell novel. He's such a unique voice in today's market; his version of "quiet horror," from a long lineage including Charles L. Grant and Robert Aickman, just doesn't seem marketable any more. My guess is that Campbell's horror isn't as "cinematic" as other horror writers such as Clive Barker or Stephen King. Even big upcoming horror writers doing Weird fiction (capital W) such as Michael Wehunt or Matthew M. Bartlett are more "cinematic" and thus easier to market than Campbell's quiet slow horror. The allure of Campbell isn't so much the horror aspects but the exacting poetic prose and his control of narrative. In Pact of the Fathers, nothing much happens and nothing surprises the reader. From the moment the plot begins, there is little that will shock the reader. Instead, I devoured this novel thanks to its masterful control and its stunning prose. In one instance, Campbell describes a cold glass of water as "musical with ice." This description has stuck with me for days! I'm never disappointed by a Campbell novel, but I still haven't read one which pushed into the realm of superb. He's just a comforting read.

Slow Horses and the rest of the Slough House series has been garnering some intense praise in the UK. One article, listing the greatest spy novels of all time, put the first book of the series at the end of the list(!). I had heard Herron uses the long lineage of spy fiction, especially Le Carre, to subvert, to interrogate. I can't say I was terribly impressed with the first 100 or so pages—too much quippy dialogue and too much exposition—but after the volta if you will, my interest was quite piqued. Herron has a great skill with plotting but shows off his hand a bit too much. I reread my review for The IPCRESS File, and I noted I found the novel tedious thanks to its interest in seemingly extraneous details. I think reading it now, I would find it a different experience, one more opaque and exclusionary (I can't seem to find a review or even a listing marking the exact month in 2012 I read Funeral in Berlin, which I remember adoring it in comparison to the first of the "Harry Palmer" novels), which I must admit interests me a bit more than Herron's expository style. If there's a spectrum, with the opacity of Deighton's IPCRESS File on one end (along with Le Carre's The Honourable Schoolboy), then Herron is almost at the opposite end, but not quite all the way. He withholds some details, enough to give jolts of surprise but only ever in the next scene. In other words, Herron is writing marketable spy fiction which upends much of the stalwart, stiff upper lip aristocratic tropes of Le Carre but is still resolutely within the bounds of marketable genre fiction. Herron's George Smiley, as it were, is a flatulent, corpulent grumbler, wearing still the same shabby overcoat with ludicrously deep pockets. Jackson Lamb, this character, is fun in the way Trickster characters, like the Seventh Doctor or Willy Wonka: the bumbling is only subterfuge. I think I'll read the next in the series. Let's see how Herron refines his approach.

 Another month, another Nicola Barker, this time her epistolary novel, Burley Cross Postbox Theft, which has the clever premise of a collection of letters presented as evidence in the investigation of the titular theft. The Byzantine plotting Barker is a fan of gets even more elaborate as the holistic picture is left to the reader to assemble. The solution to the mystery, if it can be called a mystery, is probably impossible to solve thanks to the plot's impenetrability. Still, I don't read Barker for clever mysteries; I read Barker for her prose, her wit, her weirdness; and this novel has these ingredients in droves. Populated by a gang of outsiders, weirdos, hippies, stuffy aristocrats, this village is teeming with the small (but not unimportant) drama of everyday life. Barker mines comedic gold from the dissembling and obfuscation in personal narrative, such as, in an extreme example, a translator's version of African French to English not matching the original letter, also included (but in English). This novel was a bit more slow going for me than her other books if only because instead of her usual tintinnabulation of conversation she opts for long paragraphs of first person narrative. Still, Barker's similes and obvious cleverness shine through each and every letter, making this a treat. Very few writers know their way around an adverb like Barker does.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Memory

I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it? (Swann's Way, the original Moncrieff translation)
My memory is starting to go. I don't mean in the dramatic dementia kind of way, but more so in the relaxing of elasticity in my brain. I can't pinpoint words with an exactitude I enjoyed before. I can't recall, in vivid details, all the plot points and moments from novels I'd read. There are instances, now, where I've forgotten I've read a novel entirely. Looking back at my blog, I've mentioned a handful of times now my memory isn't quite as exacting as it used to be. This blog's stated goal was to practice my writing, to exercise my critical faculties, to maintain growth. Now, a fourth major aspect must be acknowledged: the archive. I have exported the labour of remembering onto the blog. Now, and until the internet is wiped away in its entirety (fingers crossed), my blog must shoulder the burden of remembering for me.

I moved house this weekend and in the afternoon, a lazy sunny afternoon, quiet and composed after the noise and chaos of moving thousands of books and three very anxious cats, I began the pleasurable task of unpacking my beloved books. I found a handful of old Joseph Wambaugh novels, mass market paperbacks from before the era of barcodes. One of which was The New Centurions, Wambaugh's debut novel from 1970.






After stumbling across it, I considered giving it a go. I have fond memories of reading Wambaugh, even if I stalled out after 2 books in his Hollywood series. But when I searched my blog for references to Wambaugh, I saw that I have already read this, in February of 2013 (a post from an era before I began doing "Monthly" Reads posts, as I have been doing for about three years now). I had no recollection of reading this. Of the other titles mentioned in that post, I can distinctly remember reading Boyden's Three Day Road (and loving it) but my sharp memory of it could be related to my reading it for school and to my composing a paper on the novel. I don't really remember reading Give Us a Kiss by Woodrell. The other books I can remember just a bit.

Writing this and focusing on the specific book, with the cover in mind, memories begin to creep back into reach of grasp. I remember the spine being especially stiff, uncharacteristically stiff for a paperback from this era (late 70s). I remember one of the edges of the page being blue tinted (which is similar to but not the same as a gilded edge, I believe). I recall little else about the novel. I probably enjoyed it enough.


I also unpacked Ross MacDonald's The Instant Enemy. For a week or so, I've been jonesing to read another MacDonald, to appreciate him again. It's been a long relationship, MacDonald and I. We started off a bit ambivalent, me missing what the fuss was about, but as I age and think more and more about aesthetics and prose, MacDonald's world-weary, weather-beaten, shambling prose speaks to me. And of course, a cursory search of the blog to determine when exactly was the last novel I'd read by him showed that not only have I already finished The Instant Enemy but it was the last novel I'd read by him!

At least with Wambaugh, I can visualize the physical details of the book, and just slightly out of focus, a moment in my life when I was reading it (I remember reading it on the bus, which makes sense as I was in school at the time and bused instead of drove). With The Instant Enemy, I recall nothing. Zip. Even a perusal of the synopsis yielded nothing in the crowded aisles of my memory.

Should I read it again? Am I at the stage in my life when I can reread books without being bored by over-familiarity? I suppose the looseness of my memory has its pros and cons. My dad always said that rereading books was always like reading them again for the first time. He could manage to be surprised by solutions and twists despite having already read the book. Maybe rereading mysteries will return pleasure if I can't divine the solution from my addled mind.

Of course, not all is dire as I'm suggesting. Certain novels and experiences stick out, such as formative books from my teens and 20s. I still have impossibly vivid memories of reading, say, Bret Easton Ellis or Irvine Welsh. While specifics elude me, I remember lots about Atwood's The Blind Assassin and Byatt's Possession. Even books from about two or three years ago, while not quite as impacting, still linger around the edges. Casey Plett's luminous A Safe Girl to Love was our queer bookclub pick a couple months ago and though I hadn't read it since 2014, lots stood out to me. I barely needed a skim to replenish the memory banks. 

I'm almost looking forward to rereading things now. Books I may not have appreciated the first time around or aspects that were invisible to me might suddenly become clear.


Although, and this amuses me more than the disturbance I feel about my memory (and the general dread and anxiety I have about ageing in general): I reread Iain Banks' The Crow Road in 2013 (having previously read it in high school) and five years later, I remember very little! Looks like it's time to give it a third go!

Friday, June 15, 2018

June Reads Part Two

Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk
Distortions by Ann Beattie

I've been recommended Moore's fiction by a few people and this is one of the odd instances where my friends were underselling the recommendation. In short, Moore's slim volume of stories is as close to perfect as short fiction can be. Now I understand why she's held in such high regard. Only a single story in the entire bunch, "Go Like This," failed to thrill me to the same level as the others, but even then, it's still great. The best pieces in the collection take the form of a "how to," in second person, direct address (eg. "Meet in expensive beige raincoats on a pea-soupy night..."). The formal ingenuity brings a sparkling multi-dimensional feel.

Cusk's The Bradshaw Variations is... a varied experience if you will. For every beautiful phrase or miraculous insight, there's a simile that doesn't work or a plodding moment of inauthentic introspection. I took a few notes and quotes while reading this. Let's begin with a simile that feels so artificial, so forced, as to beg a question—was the simile invented before the object? was the object invented for the simile? On page 41: "The lawn at the back of the house is undulating: it rises like a woman's body into two mounds with a soft sloping space between them." Yuck. I was stunned by this comparison—what an inelegant and unnecessary moment. Similes, I believe, aren't simply for art's sake; these tricks and features should illuminate an aspect of the narrative, the character, the themes, anything; similes should work organically to produce meaning, not to lay there on the page like a beautiful dead fish gawping for water. The focal character in this instance isn't articulated through the simile; the simile tells us nothing about the scene, the character, the setting, anything. It's, as I said earlier, inelegant and off-key. 

Later, Tonie, one of two protagonists, is at a cocktail party with her friend, who has been asking questions of a man. This is how Cusk describes the interrogation: "She asks him one thing after another, like a mother spooning food into a baby's mouth: when she comes to the end of one question, she is ready with the next" (89). Again, yuck. I admire the reversal of the simile: we usually expect questions to extract something (info), not to insert anything, and there's artfulness in this opposite. But it clangs and stumbles, like a toddler maneuvering a new space. 

But, not all the similes are duds. Just as many soar and hit their mark. On page 129: "Her dogs were the same, quivering like compasses around her," a gorgeous turn of phrase. I'm not sure if the simile does any heavy lifting in this sentence, but when it's that lovely, we should be more willing to forgive. 

A final example, my favourite of all, on page 94: "When they talked Tonie had the sense of something big and bounteous nearby, as the sea can be sensed when it is still just out of sight." The context only deepens this beautiful sentence: she and her future husband, the second of a pair of protagonists, have begun their romance, which has all the potentiality for beauty and darkness as the sea itself, a tumultuous and scary thing, but gravely gorgeous nonetheless.  

The rest of the novel, aside from the prose itself, is just as I described Arlington Park but more so: pinched and caustic without ever being about anything other than the vague sense that a living human being is an existence defined by sorrow. Characters come and go without ever making any impact on each other. Tonie's erotically charged encounter with a visiting lecturer feels like the only narrative incident to propel the characters (in that she eventually sleeps with a different person hitherto unknown to her). The rest of the cast wander their surroundings feeling both incredibly disconnected from each other (a theme) and oddly hyperarticulate about their inner lives in relation to others. Never before have I read a 21st century novel in which the entire cast are superheroically attuned to each other's interiority. In Arlington Park, this heightened perception produced lovely thematic resonance; in The Bradshaw Variations, it yields an endless void of authenticity and hollowness. 

Again, I worry I'm being unduly harsh. I did like this novel, but after two of these exercises in miserabilism, I worry that Cusk and I don't have the same goals in literature. I don't want just formal elegance and aesthetic beauty but something more, something more than empty vessels paradoxically overstuffed with interiority careening around each other for ~250 pages.   

Distortions is not my first collection of Beattie stories. I've been reading the collection of New Yorker stories for about a month now, dipping in and out. There's a level of overlap here, of course, but with one story, I decided to reread itpartly because I hardly remembered it and partly because Beattie is such a joy to read. I have little to say about this other than the usual caveat emptor: there's always going to be a few lemons in a collection of stories, but at least there were only one or two in this book. Highly recommended. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

June Reads Part One

Five Miles from Outer Hope by Nicola Barker
Grey Area by Will Self
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

Five Miles from Outer Hope is more of the same from Barker. I don't mean this in a bad way, of course. Any Barker is welcome Barker, I'm finding. Swiftly, she has darted into the upper echelons of my favourite authors. Her similes, always a delight, are even more outrageous and guffaw-worthy in this slim novel, clocking in just under 200 pages. It's a coming-of-age story about, as is typical for Barker, a ragtag motley crew of weirdos and freaks, narrated by a wonderfully acidic seventeen year old giantess maxing out at six foot three inches. An aspect shared by all the Barker novels I've read, including this one, but I haven't drawn explicit attention to, is the author's tendency for eroticism and sensuality; not so much overt or actual sex (though there is sometimes that) but she knows intuitively that proximity of bodies leads to awareness of bodies. Barker's prose is flush with physical details of bodies: people are always touching things, sniffling, smelling, seeing, tasting and thus a sensuality ekes out from the noise of senses. Interactions between characters are charged, erotically so, though more thanks to the potentiality than explicit action. The narrator of this novel, proud of her clitoris (yes, proud), comes into conflict and attraction with La Roux, a South African boy on the run. Their aggression, their flirtation—though these are the same in a teenager's world—is saturated with a libidinal current, creating a dynamic tension. While this seems a simple act of dramaturgy, I call attention to this if only to proselytize for Barker once again; she really is at the top of the game and seemingly basic tricks of the trade are effortless in her hands. 

Hot Milk, a nominee for the Goldsmiths Prize, is an intriguing and beguiling novel. A 25 year old woman takes her mother to Spain for medical treatment, hoping to ascertain that which causes her mother paralysis and pain in the legs. While her mother endures puzzling treatments at the hand of the quizzical physician, the protagonist explores her sexuality, her femininity, her essential womanness. Suffused with symbols, laden with meaning, utterly permeated with meaning, Hot Milk has a dreaminess to it. Like other novels that skate around realism, the dialogue mixes natural dialogue with gnomic pronouncements and expostulations. I'm often cold towards this style of dialogue, despite my antipathy/ambivalence towards realism (my feelings shift case-by-case), but Hot Milk worked for me. The symbolism, the atmosphere, the dialogue all conspired together to remove any trace of randomness or unpredictability. The novel feels perfectly deterministic in the way that Nicola Barker's labyrinthine plots do. Everything is set. Nothing is up to chance. Thankfully, the novel is short, only 218 pages, and so my patience never ran out. I've heard her Swimming Home is even better, even more enigmatic and abstract. That's perhaps what I was missing with Hot Milk; I kept expecting the realism to deteriorate past an irrevocable limit, yet it never did. 

Rachel Cusk, much lauded novelist challenging the form, has intrigued me for years, but I didn't want to start with her Outline trilogy for fear of making her earlier work inaccessible ("you can't go home again," etc). Arlington Park, a novel enjoying a 2.92 out of 5 on Goodreads currently, felt like a representative work. It's fiercely feminist, rooted explicitly in the experience of women, and takes its form and focus from Mrs. Dalloway. Cusk is no doubt sharply intelligent and exacting; Arlington Park has breadth with precision, almost razor-sharp in its observations and judgement. However, the novel often feels pinched, humourless, sallow. The focus is on five women, five married suburban moms with a galaxy of children, ranging from lovely to monstrous, each wife with clueless semi-absent husbands who make daily guest appearances in the drama of their lives. The women strain against the barriers and dead-ends of their suburban, middle class lives, raging against the limited horizons of possibility. While this could work as a rallying call for emancipation, for a massive restructuring of the status quo, Arlington Park more so ends up as a dour, hopeless affair. I feel even uncomfortable charging Cusk with a lack of humour. I worry I'm inching closer to calling her a feminist killjoy, a pursed lips No Fun Allowed harridan. Pinched and pursed are the best words I can come up with to describe this novel, I'm afraid, and my subject position, with a male-identified first name, positions me as this destabilizing, dismissive actor. I don't know how I can reconcile my ideological sympathy with my subjective response to the novel itself. Is this an opportunity to reexamine my own tastes, my own reactions? Am I the problem? Perhaps. Cusk is, no matter the plotting, a gorgeous craftsman of sentences. Here, she describes the parking lot of a mall during rain: 
Beyond the windows a vast, bruised bank of cloud swept in over the grey prairie of the car park, extinguishing the spears of light that lay everywhere in disordered diagonals like discarded, faulty bolts of lightning. The restaurant [in the mall] darkened. A violent deluge of rain flung itself abruptly down over the defenceless landscape. (110)
I will admit that the "deluge of rain" flinging itself might be a bit much, but the gorgeous first sentence, with its "bruised bank of cloud" and "discarded" bolts of lighting work for me. Quite often, I experienced a frisson, a shiver of pleasure from Cusk's manipulation of the quotidian, infusing it with menace and estrangement. Here, she sums up the threatening aspect of familial life:
It was a dangerous place to live in, a family: it was a tumultuous as the open sea beneath a treacherous sky, the shifting allegiances, the flurries of cruelty and virtue, the great battering waves of mood and mortality, the endless alternation of storm and calm. A downpour would come or a reprieving ray of light, and in the end you didn't know what the difference was, what it all meant, what it added up to, when set against the necessity for just surviving and getting through. (193)
I worry some readers might see Cusk as over-writing, as ponderous and overburdened, almost, but not quite purple (she's too talented to ever bear that charge). A lot of her sentences are long and perspicaciously focused, reminding me a lot not of Woolf but of D. H. Lawrence. She can, when it suits her, provide a stinging little rejoinder, like this Wildean bit of wit:
She couldn't remember the last time a man looked at her as anything other than part of a boxed set that included his wife. (196)
I can understand why she has a low rating on Goodreads: she's intelligent, aggressively so, wielding prose and effect like a hyperbolically sharpened axe, both razor sharp and bludgeoning. She's also less interested in the traditional aspects of naturalism or realism: she commands the characters, the setting, the weather to serve her needs. She's remorseless and perhaps that's what is so off-putting about her work. I'm not deterred of course. Any writer capable of crafting such beautiful prose is always going to have my interest, perhaps not my loyalty, but at least my continued attention.

Grey Area, a collection of short stories, like all collections, is a mixed bag. For every singularly Selfian story which dazzles and impresses, there's another dark with misanthropy and bereft of the light touch of satire. Self is an audacious writer (in the same way my beloved Nicola Barker is): he writes not to relate the reader but to show off, to impress them. The stories in this collection are fantastic, satirical, vexing, imposing, breath-taking, irritating, all in the way Self's work has been. The two absolute bright spots are "Incubus (or the Impossibility of Self-Determination as to Desire)," a tale of realist marriage strife and infidelity which takes a wonderful left turn in the fantastic, and "Grey Area," another Zack Busner tale about a new medication providing patients with renewed patience and interest in their lives, and for one patient, too much interest. "Chest" is also terrific, a nightmare, especially for me, about an all-pervasive fog giving every single person respiratory problems, from pneumonia to asthma to cancer. Self's skill with detail shines in this story, as the coughing, the sputum, the breathing or lack thereof, all worked to constrict my own chest. I wheezed in sympathy more often than in laughter. The satirical bit in "Chest" comes in the form of class-based distinctions between anti-fog measures: some characters can afford gas masks, others can't. Like all the other Self I've read, the writing itself is the draw, but the imaginative leaps, the estrangement is what keeps me coming back.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

May Reads Part Four


Blackwater: The Levee by Michael McDowell
Blackwater: The House by Michael McDowell

The pleasures to be had in the first half of McDowell's Blackwater series are legion. I've written before about McDowell's almost preternatural skill with genre fiction, a term used fondly, rather than pejoratively, which should be no shock to any longtime readers of this blog. McDowell was writing commercial fiction, meant to sell enough copies to keep him in house and home. He wasn't looking to produce art. Though, as time marches on, it appears that McDowell was wrong: he was creating art, long-lasting and utterly beautiful art. Look no further than his ever-rising reputation, among horror writers (Stephen King was a fan, citing McDowell in the preface to The Green Mile) and among readers (Grady Hendrix and the esteemed Will Errickson). Blackwater was, for a time, a unique beast in publication, but classic in its execution.

Errickson, in his "review" (I hesitate to use that word in conjunction with this essay, which feels more like an afterward to a reissue) at Tor nails it on the head: McDowell develops characters and events "economically"; he "well understands Southern life"; he tells "a leisurely tale" in "unhurried prose"; and perhaps most successfully for me, as a reader, McDowell "underplays supernatural occurrences, letting them happen organically, flowing as they do from the natural lives of the characters." The supernatural isn't quite a part of the fabric of everyday life; if it were, surely the supernatural would permanently lose its power to puncture our conception of nature and reality. The effect worked wondrously in the obscenely good novel The Elementals (here): the supernatural, while bothersome, murderous, violent, intrusive, still existed side-by-side with the family drama, the comedy, the characterization. This effect works thanks to his aforementioned "unhurried prose." He describes, at his leisure, with as little authorial intervention as possible (though, I'm sure, in aesthetics, the "absence" of narration is the illusion of an absence). Here, then, an example of his skillful hand with description:
In the black night, the water oaks swayed in the slightest win. The branches, rotted and covered with a dry green fungus, dropped twigs and leaves, or sometimes fell whole, with a crack and a thump, on the sandy ground. Beyond, the Perdido [the main river in town] flowed, muddy and black and gargling, carrying dead things and struggling live ones inexorably toward the vortex in the center of the junction [between the two rivers]. (The Levee 169)
(I intervene in the quotation just to provide some context.) His sentences are long, languid, with clauses bouncing after one another in a pleasing way. His descriptions are succinct without being too painterly and yet there's still the touch of poetry and musicality to some of his phrasing. Admittedly, this is the last paragraph of a chapter, when in pulps, authors stretch their capabilities as a stinger.


I also wanted to give a sample of his no-nonsense, practically clinical scenes of horror. I mean, that's what most people came for when they picked up a book with these covers! Here, a character dispatches Carl (a tertiary character, who exists only to die in the most horrific and entertaining way possible):
With one sudden, sure application of pressure Carl was driven to the earth. Because it was applied to only one shoulder, one side of Carl's body was instantly compressed. The clavicle gave way first, and then the ribs were jammed together and cracked. His lung was pierced with bone fragments and an artery was severed. The thigh bone was jammed up through the pelvis, the kneecap shattered against the ground. The shin and foot were crushed beneath the force. (The House 308)
This could very well read like an autopsy, and this is exactly what critics of horror fiction often complain of: there's an almost pornographic detachment to the corporeal, divorcing it from reality and turning it into a sideshow to gawk at, to leer at, with all the unsavory implications therein. But I'd prefer to read McDowell's unhurried description of horror as bringing a measure of maturity. For me, this sequence is death is all the more harrowing and scary for its lack of purple prose, for its lack of sensation. It feels journalistic and thus realistic.

Perhaps I'll expand on this when I review the other volumes: Blackwater passes the Bechdel Test in a myriad of ways. While not entirely reliable, the Bechdel Test at least helps bring attention to the general paucity, in fiction, of interactions between women not centering on men. Blackwater, so far, concerns itself with the machinations for power of two incredibly strong-willed women—this is a novel about competing matriarchies. One might dismiss the central conflict as cliched "women pitted against each other" tripe but McDowell's women are far more than dueling harpies. They're textured, sympathetic. Even the antagonist, if she can even be called the antagonist, demands some sympathy. Like all great villains, she is only acting on what she believes is right. 

I might take a break at the halfway point, so as not to exhaust or diffuse my appetite for that which makes McDowell so compelling. Or maybe, McDowell will set a new record for consecutive novels by one author. We'll see.  

* my pagination derives from the two volume hardcover set published by Avon Books in 1983. There is no ISBN as far as I can tell.

As for May in general, another very productive month of reading—and maybe more importantly, writing. In February of this year, I managed 3,716 pages of fiction in one month. I didn't quite hit that high in May, but 2,950 pages isn't a failure either. So far, according to Goodreads, I've read 13,172 pages. This number should be mostly accurate as I take care to log the ISBN of the book I read, not what I wish I had read.

I can attribute my successful run in reading these past months to two things: my abandoning Twitter and Letterboxd and my impending move. Packing boxes and going through books inspires me like nothing else to read even more, to finally tackle some of those dusty tomes. I finally decided to quit Letterboxd because I'd had enough of drama, I'd had enough of the rat race, and I'd had enough of trying to outdo everybody in terms of criticism. Twitter, and the internet in general, depress me more than it lightens up my life. Without any of these distractions, I've been firing through books.