Sunday, August 5, 2018

August Reads Part One

In the Woods by Tana French
The Fungus by Harry Adam Knight

I generally avoid modern mystery novels because I find the violence inherent to the genre quite distasteful. The victims end up being forgotten, or barely props, their bodies poured over in almost pornographic detail, and usually, the victims are women, their violent deaths "solved" by troubled but brilliant detectives. From the reputation and the covers, I avoided French's series. However, the admin department at my work are all going bananas for these novels. They're all reading them and gushing over them, and since I trust (some of) them, I gave the first one a try. The great big positive I can say is that it's readable and the solution to the mystery is an afterthought, in the best way. Murders can't be "solved"; murder is an irrevocable problem without a reversing fix. Detectives can only find the transgressor and hope justice might prevail. I prefer my mystery novels to either have no solution (such as George Pelecanos' sublime The Night Gardener) or consider the irreparable damage a murder can have. French's In the Woods has two mysteries, only one of which has a solution, and that solution is presented without any of the usual fanfare. In fact, the detectives figure it out during a interrogation, an almost quotidian ending compared to most climaxes. However, the drawback to this casualness is that the victim and her family are less important to the whole narrative than the narrator's emotional crisis. The whole cast, save for the narrator's partner, feel disposable, like props in a stageplay to be discarded during a soliloquy. Thus, In the Woods feels like two competing, opposing forces: an investigation into the way the past haunts us and a murder mystery about sociopaths and the lengths they'll go to get what they want. It doesn't quite add up and it's almost frustrating because French clearly has a way with words and with characterization. The prose reminded me a lot of John le Carre, surprisingly, in the long spools of twisting dialogue and the careful, melancholy observations of the physical world. Everybody in the back office says the second one is better so I suppose I'll keep going.

The Fungus was the most fun I've had with a horror novel in a long time. I'm struggling with things to say about it, but I think it captures the kind of horror I like the most: the fungus is unstoppable, it is everywhere, in everything, from the largest to the microscopic and it is so terrifying in its totality that the novel verges on pure nihilism, an existential panic so complete as to be paralyzing. This novel marks a great halfway point between the more implacable Weird fiction and the creature-feature genre, which externalizes an internal threat (in this situation, the fear of plague and contagion). Fungus is one of my favourite "characters" in horror fiction and I'm surprised more isn't written about this mysterious and singular kingdom. This, by the way, is the cover of the edition I purchased.

I found out last night that venerable (but expensive) publisher Valancourt Books is releasing new editions of this fantastic title and Knight's harder-to-find Slimer. I also picked up, just by chance, Knight's Carnosaur (the basis for Roger Corman's Jurassic Park cash-in). So look back for more Harry Adam Knight in the next few months because I definitely loved this one enough to give more a try.

Friday, July 20, 2018

July Reads Part Two

The Moving Target by Ross MacDonald
The Drowning Pool by Ross MacDonald
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

I've exhaustively catalogued my desire to revisit MacDonald over the past two months, so I won't go into that here. The Moving Target is the first Lew Archer novel and I believe MacDonald's fourth overall. The mystery itself is simple and his usual gaggle of greedy wealthy Californians turn out to be relatively innocent, which is bizarre, considering the author's ire for them in later novels. The prose is stellar. Moments of introspection or descriptions of weather leap off the page. I'm not sure what the fuck I was talking about all those years ago when I said MacDonald was lifeless. Instead, it's Archer's malaise and weariness that provides the flatness, an aesthetic flatness, similar to Didion and Bret Easton Ellis. It's affected. This was great, especially as a dry run to the existential unease MacDonald will go on to perfect.


What a huge improvement. The second Archer novel, The Drowning Pool, takes 70 pages before getting to the murder so luridly referenced in the synopsis, and takes long detours (literally and figuratively) throughout much of the plot, leaving behind the ostensible subjects of the investigation. Archer is initially tasked with identifying the writer of a blackmail letter but his employer is absurdly reticent to provide any helpful information or workable leads. Archer's mix of stumbles and intuitive guesses lead him from the oil-rich—and regular richcounty in California to across state lines in Nevada. He meets a mendacious chauffeur, a conniving wife and star of illicit pornography, two men coded as gay, a psychotherapist whose favourite method is hosing down his patients, among others. Some of what makes this style of detective fiction (in the Hammett/Chandler mode) so memorable are the oddballs and ne'er-do-wells the protagonist meets along the way. These weirdos show up only for a scene or two, so they're not in dire need of deep, textured characterization; in fact, the more weird and shallow they are, the more sardonic and witty the protagonist's rejoinders can be. Of course, the trade-off is a lack of thematic cohesion. Which this one suffers from, a smidge. The plot veers into this scary psychotherapist and loses a bit of the overall picture, but gamely sticks the landing. The epilogue and finale are completely devastating and speak to the humanity and morality these books traffic in. He still hasn't quite coalesced the mystery and the exploration of unhappy families the way he does in later books, but there's a more obvious sign of the genius to come with this second novel than the first. I gave the book 5 stars on Goodreads but it should have been 4 and a half (Goodreads does not allow ½ stars).

Recently, a customer in the bookstore where I work overheard me mention I was reading Little Women; she complimented me, exclaiming "a man? reading Little Women Well done!" I said nothing, other than some noncommittal murmur, but I felt a bit weird about it. How low is the bar set when I can be congratulated simply for reading a pivotal text of American literature? That reading works by women is in of itself a task worthy of celebration? I didn't tell the customer that I try to read 50% gender parity (even though I haven't hit that number in two years) and I didn't tell her that my collection of Virago Modern Classics is about to hit a total of 75 titles. I felt the need to do so, to almost defend myself, even though her surprise was complimentary. I felt almost compelled to dismiss the praise, to minimize it, but I knew it would accomplish nothing but make the conversation, the social interplay that much more sticky, more complicated. After all, our subject positions are different. What I should have told her, but didn't, is that I quite liked it, and its insights into a specific class of white women in 19th century Maine are fascinating and alluring, all the more so for the novel's glimpses into that which is heretofore inaccessible for me.

I wasn't familiar with the novel beforehand, I have never seen any film adaptation, and as I was raised a boy, it was never a part of the fabric of my North American childhood, though it has been for countless women. Thus, I was surprised how the first half of the novel is structured as a loose series of moral lessons, small easily digestible snippets of daily life, though intentionally instructive. Little Women is not shy about this, frontloading its intentions in the first chapter. Alcott deftly sketches her four protagonists, though nobody can fault her that the sheer dynamism of Jo overshadows the other three by a tremendous degree. Jo is easily one of the most endearing protagonists of 19th century literature I've so far encountered. Not even Dickens seemed capable of making a more likeable, yet flawed human being.

We sometimes talk about bravery in art, about the strength needed to open one's self up for consumption by audiences. What we're often referring to, when we collectively congratulate authors for their sacrifice, is bifurcated by gender: for men, we applaud them for showing us their worst behaviour; and for women, their revealed trauma. Bustle, the women-centric blogging site, made an industry of mining women for their trauma (see Gawker's essay about this here); many of these writers were called brave but few enjoyed literary success or critical commentary. But authors like Knausgaard (whom I've never read and never plan to) are deemed "brave" for their style of confessional writing, which is more rooted in their base and craven behaviour. "Brave" as semantic categories shifts depending on subject position.

Alcott, like countless authors who are autobiographical in their fiction, is brave for a different reason. While confessional in that we learn Jo hasn't always been the best behaved, Little Women isn't pornographically focused on Jo's faults or how she has been hurt. Instead, there's a bravery in that Jo is a complicated character, based on the author, who isn't perfect, who isn't always likeable, who is often infuriating. This is confession without the lurid excess of violence or pain. This is confession for emotional maturity, not rapacious clicks. And thus, I find it a type of bravery no longer fashionable. And completely alluring.

Likewise, the series of moral lessons is scaffolded by this gentle strain of melancholy, the kind specific to parents can't help but watch their children learn all the small cruelties of everyday life. It's inevitable, from the opening scenes, the fates of the characters: they must all grow up. The pain of adulthood is so carefully and expertly drawn. We all know childhood must end, but the parting is still sorrowful, even if under the happiest of circumstances.

Little Women is a terrific read, even if its idealization of narrow fields of femininity are a bit bunk. What a looming shadow this novel casts over young adult fiction!

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


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.