Sunday, September 1, 2019

August Reads

Broken Harbour by Tana French
Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy
The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwan
The Barbarous Coast by Ross MacDonald
The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Prestige by Christopher Priest  
The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley
Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy
Pseudotooth by Verity Holloway
The End of Alice by A. M. Homes
You Bright and Risen Angels by William T. Vollmann
Joe by Larry Brown
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley

August was very productive thanks to vacation!

Let's start with the not-so-great. R. O. Kwan's debut novel is tantalizingly close to good but the writer gets in her own way. The Incendiaries follows two young Korean-American students, one a former evangelist, the other succumbing to the allure of a charismatic cult leader. The narrative gallops towards a tragic conclusion and because of this momentum, the novel never slacks. The problem is the prose is a bit too mannered, a bit too fussy for the immediacy and vividness of the plot. The religiosity of the writing is welcome and thematically appropriate, but when diving into matters of the flesh, of the irrational, of the violence, the narrators keep their writerly flourishes. I liked this, but I can't say I'll ever read it again. I do hope to read her next project, though.

Water Shall Refuse Them thrilled me less in the ways intended by the plot and more in the way Hardy writes. There's an extremely welcome physicality in the prose, a sensuous, almost drunken attention paid to the body, to the stickiness, to the sweat, to flesh. The teenage protagonist experiences a physical bout of Teenage Magic (of which I wrote about here) thanks to a sexy boy and then goes through some literal magic. Everything is great up until the end, when all the big revelations hit, all of which are a bit deflating. Another example of an author I hope to follow and watch grow.

Broken Harbour was terrific, another stellar example of sharp crime writing from the venerable and reliable French. The opening scene of the novel lasts over a 100 pages! With each page, I asked myself how long she could sustain this opening scene, and to my delight, it just kept going and going. I briefly held hope the entire novel would have been the opening scene (a dream of mine is write something that's all opening scene and nothing else) but alas, this wasn't to be. Whatever disappointment I felt encountering the first scene-change was dissipated entirely by her commanding skills. The mystery itself was more mysterious than in previous French novels, which I was surprised by, but she still hangs her social commentary on top of it, in this case, the recession and subsequent depression that ravaged Ireland in 2008-9. The murder victims in Broken Harbour are literal victims of "keeping up with the Joneses" and she bangs on this drum quite loudly. This novel's narrator, Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, has a voice a bit too similar to that of the previous novel's narrator, Frank Mackey. But I wonder if this is more of a byproduct of French's commitment to realism and how cops all speak the same. I've heard that the next French novel, The Secret Place, is the worst of them all, but we'll see.

The Barbarous Coast was typical MacDonald: beautifully written, melancholic, fiery, and moralist. Here's a sample that sums up the novel quite beautifully:
I didn't mess with any of it. I wanted no part of Stern's death. I drove home on automatic pilot and went to bed. I dreamed about a man who lived by himself in a landscape of crumbling stones. He spent a great deal of his time, without much success, trying to reconstruct in his mind the monuments and the buildings of which the scattered stones were the only vestiges. He vaguely remembered some kind of oral tradition to the effect that a city had stood there once. And a still vaguer tradition: or perhaps it was a dream inside of the dream: that the people who had built the city, or their descendants, were coming back eventually to rebuild it. He wanted to be around when the work was done. (481)
This sixth novel in the series provides us with a sadder, angrier, wiser Archer, one who has realized, or is coming to realize, that his proximity to the corruption he's constantly exposing will have its inevitable effect on him. He cannot observe without being changed by that which he observes. When Archer encourages a character to answer questions, in an effort to "solve this murder," the character replies, quite sagely, "'Will it? Say you do, then what will happen?... The same thing will happen that happened before. The cops will take over your case and seal it off and nothing will happen, nobody get arrested'" (479). Slowly, with each book, we see a detective beaten down not by the crimes he witnesses but by the inexorable corruption which leads to crime. This novel takes Archer back to Hollywood, where a former boxer is being turned into an actor and an estranged wife is being blackmailed. In what can only be said to be trademark aspect of each Archer mystery, every character the detective meets is lying, cheating, and part of the complicated web spun by greed. While The Barbarous Coast wasn't as top tier as The Ivory Grin or The Drowning Pool, it was still a cracking read.

Reading The Death of Sweet Mister, I think, concludes the set of all the contemporary-set Woodrell novels he's published so far. I have only his historical fiction to look forward to now. I didn't love this one as much as Give Us a Kiss or Tomato Red, but it was still terrific. I wish I had read these novels in order of publication to see how each novel expands its scope and anger from examining the individuals who are greedy and murderous to the way in which poverty and society force these people to victimize each other. The "death" of the eponymous sweet mister, ie Shuggie, the overweight adolescent protagonist, is not literal, but the death of his innocence and his inevitable slide into ruthless, inescapable helplessness. It's a coming-of-age novel in which you pray the character won't age, won't be forced to see adulthood any more than he's already forced to by poverty and rootlessness. Instead of blaming these sad sacks, Woodrell saves his ire for the lack of opportunities and the disparities of class they cannot escape.

The Bluest Eye was obviously a fucking masterpiece. There's so much going on in the novel, though, so even if it's a masterpiece, it's a smidge less of a masterpiece than say, Sula or Beloved, both of which tread some of the same ground but do it in a more focused way. For example, there's a long section devoted to Soaphead Church who serves, narratively-speaking, to send Percola over the edge of sanity, but it's 50 pages of overwrought monologue to get there. It's too much. But otherwise, this was incredible.

The Prestige surprised the hell out of me. I'd always avoided reading the novel because I worried my familiarity with the film adaptation would make reading the source tedious. Thankfully, Priest's novel has one additional layer of narrative the film dispenses with, and it provides the best surprise I think. Especially since Priest's narrators assume the reader has figured out what the film presents as the major twists, such as the Bordens being twins. It's assumed as fact about halfway through the novel which is neat. I loved the novel but honestly, I would have gone gaga for it had I not seen the movie. Alas!

The Beauty was terrific. The edition I have is the North American one which includes a similar length story called "Peace, Pipe" which I thought was interesting but not all that great. "The Beauty" was a unique take on the post-apocalypse genre and there were sentient fungus in the shape of human women so who could hate this?

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy was recommended to me by Brandon Taylor and I loved it a lot. I read this slowly over the course of a month (started in July) and finally whipped through the last third in one day. Meloy reminded me a lot of Richard Ford in the careful unadorned prose, the plain speech, and attention to the ways people sabotage themselves in life and in love. I wouldn't mind reading more of her work.

I very much wanted to like Pseudotooth more than I did. From its synopsis, I was expecting this to be about a young woman's life with severe mental illness and how the world just doesn't understand neurodivergent folks. And yes, that's part of it, for about one third of the novel (my preferred third, obviously). However, the novel veers into traditional portal fantasy and loses me. I'll mention briefly that I'm using "portal-quest fantasy" as Mendlesohn defines it in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy:
In both portal and quest fantasies, a character leaves her familiar surroundings and passes through a portal into an unknown place. Although portal fantasies do not have [her italics] to be quest fantasies the overwhelming majority are, and the rhetorical position taken by the author/narrator is consistent. (1)
While the protagonist of Pseudotooth doesn't go on an explicit quest as in say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but there looms, behind the scenes, the idea that the secondary world's stability is linked closely to the mental stability of the first world's two human characters, and so, solving the problems of the secondary world will do so for the protagonists. Mendlesohn writes "the portal-quest fantasies are structured around reward and the straight and narrow path" (5) and though Pseudotooth does not conclude with a reward or even dangle such a bauble over the head of the protagonist, the route from unwell to atonement (at least mentally) is a linear path. The secondary world in this novel is Weird as Fisher defines it:
The sense of wrongness associated with the weird—the conviction that this does not belong—is often a sign that we are in the presence of the new. The weird here is a signal that the concepts and frameworks which we have previously employed are now obsolete [his italics]
It's not a world made of orcs and dragons but a British village, with factories and chocolate and shops and gossips, but slightly wrong, slightly off. Magic might exist in this secondary world, but maybe it doesn't. The protagonist has to navigate this new world and find her way home, despite wanting to stay here forever. But I was never invested, neither in the secondary world (too sketchy, too cosy, like a 50s pulp story from the UK) nor in the protagonist. I can't remember her name and don't really feel like looking it up.

I'm shocked by how much I disliked The End of Alice. I've previously enjoyed A. M. Homes a lot! I think, often, of May We Be Forgiven, and its deadpan tone more deadpan than I'd ever encountered before. But The End of Alice is not deadpan at all. Instead, it's the purple prose of a convicted pedophile in prison who corresponds with a college girl who plans on seducing a child. I thought the correspondence would be the bulk of the story, but it's more about the convict navigating prison than anything. I don't object morally to this novel. I've read worse. But at least with similar novels, like Lolita or Tampa, there's an insidious counter-narrative slowly revealed, in which the narrator is delusional or at least, self-delusional, and a loser. There's no counter-narrative here; we already know the narrator is a loser. Nothing changes by the end except a revelation about the titular Alice which problematizes nothing in the narrative, though it's meant to, like one of those shitty twists which ask the protagonist to compromise themselves morally (like in Fede Álvarez's Don't Breathe). Anyway, this sucked but it was only 250 pages.

It took me 8 days to read Vollmann's You Bright and Risen Angels and by the end of it, I was a bit resentful; not of the novel, but of the time spent with it. I could have probably read four novels in the time it took me to read this one. It was entertaining as all hell, like a messier Pynchon, and just as fun, but perhaps without the singular genius that is Pynchon, often imitated but never duplicated. When explaining the novel to friends, I was at a loss: a war between the Establishment and an alliance of revolutionaries and the insect kingdom? an ahistorical history of electricity? a simulated computer game between two narrators? You can see why I accuse this of messiness. But as I said, I had a lot of fun with it and can't wait to read another one of his mammoth tomes.

Joe was revelatory. Like a Cormac McCarthy story in an Elmore Leonard plot but set in Mississippi. It's a slow novel, with the two protagonists not encountering each other until almost the halfway point, and it revels in that slowness. A scene might start with Joe walking up to the local store and sharing a beer with a friend for pages until a crucial bit of plot pokes its head out. Larry Brown has the gift of living inside his characters and, critically, living inside the setting. The landscape plays as much a part of the story as any other character, thankfully. I will definitely read more Larry Brown, don't you worry about that.

Late in the Day is not really a novel I thought I'd enjoy so much. It's definitely the most bourgeois novel I've read in a long time. It concerns itself with two couples shattered by the death of one of their own, leading to adultery and copious flashbacks. The structure, with its laborious flashbacks, and its slow forward momentum, its cast of wealthy "middle class" people who drive Jaguars, own art galleries, have scintillating conversations about Tarkovsky, pour over art books, and enjoy first editions⁠—these all would have driven me up the wall save for Hadley's effortless style and psychological insight. A very old-fashioned novel, to be honest. A. S. Byatt might have written this back in the day. I read a review of this in the Guardian which called it a "Hampstead novel," apparently a derogatory term for novels of the 70s-80s written by women about middle-class adultery. One of the victims of this accusation back in the day was Margaret Drabble (sister to Byatt, surely not coincidentally) and so I guess I will give Drabble a try. And probably another Hadley I liked this so much.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

July Reads Part Two

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Someone At a Distance by Dorothy Whipple
Dancer at the Dance by Andrew Holleran
And Shall Machines Surrender by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

An almost perfect run here, folks. Five books in a row that blew my socks off in the best possible way. Let's start with the clear winner, The Age of Innocence. Never before had I finished a Wharton; I remember stalling out with House of Mirth about 11 years ago, but this did not happen with Age of Innocence. I picked it up, the Library of America College Edition I bought in Chicago around 5 year ago, with the intention of sampling it. I read 100 pages in one sitting. Wharton's style is one of exacting lightness, each word so carefully, precisely chosen, without ever getting bogged down in Henry James-style circumflexion. Sentences are brisk, readable, but never simplified. Wonderful stuff.

What surprised me is how much I felt Wharton had written a novel for me. I don't necessarily mean the plot, though this is the kind of plot I'm drawn to. Mostly, I'm referring to its structure, scene to scene, and its style. This blog is, as often mentioned, a remembering machine for me. It tracks my tastes, the shifts, the avalanches of thoughts and opinions as they undulate across my brain. For now, my interests are mostly aesthetics, but still with a wide eye on plotting. I think more about individual scenes and how they're described than whether or not the Story as a whole succeeds for me. How I'm seeing a novel now is an aggregation of scenes beautifully written and smaller stakes, to the point where scenes should be one-on-one, two people with different goals, possibly opposing goals. I'm also, as the years go by, more interested in style than in efficient delivery of information. The other day, Priscilla Page, a film critic, posted a picture of a letter written by Raymond Chandler:
A long time ago, when I was writing for the pulps I put into a story a line like 'he got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water'. They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn't appreciate this sort of thing: just help up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was that they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn't know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death.
Forgive me for posting a solid of text, but I needed the whole thing to get Chandler's point across. This isn't the first time I've posted about Chandler's thoughts on fiction and I'm finding the older I get, the more my desires align with his goals. I found myself savouring the transitions writers would compose, the scenes of landscape description or traveling or whatever banal action takes the plot from one beat to another. I remember my mother complaining Thomas Hardy was all descriptions of landscape and when I finally read him, I was astonished by a) how inaccurate this was and b) how disappointed I was not to encounter endless adjectives reporting the English countryside. These moments of quietude offer writers a moment to show off. The spotlight is off the characters and writers can put it on themselves at least for a paragraph or two. It is in these stretches where you'll find the best poetry. And Chandler is right: these lines create emotion. If readers really wanted action, they'd go to the theatre or read a play, where everything is held up by the actors. No, what we really want is emotion conjured forth from all the literary tools in the kit.

Here's a bit from the very end of The Age of Innocence, when an older Newland Archer has arrived in Europe with his adult son. He is due to meet the Countess for the first time in 30 years.
He got up and walked across the Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries gardens to the Louvre. She had once told him that she often went there, and he had a fancy to spend the intervening time in a place where he could think of her as perhaps having lately been. For an hour or more he wandered from gallery to gallery through the dazzle of afternoon light, and one by one the pictures burst on him in their half-forgotten splendour, filling his soul with the long echoes of beauty. After all, his life had been too starved.... (Chapter 34)
 I might have chosen something less portentous, but I wanted to show off Wharton's economical style. In one sentence, she provides us with a "dazzle" of light, which is immediately compared with the pictures "bursting" on Newland, as if he is wandering through a constant shimmer, the way light vibrates in the heat. As if the Countess herself is a mirage in the distance. And in many ways, she is. It's efficient and sustains the emotion of regret, nostalgia, but also homecoming all at the same time. Just a smidge after this paragraph:
They had come out into the great tree-planted space before the Invalides. The dome of Mansart floated ethereally above the budding trees and the long grey front of the building: drawing up into itself all the rays of afternoon light, it hung there like the visible symbol of the race's glory.
More light, more splendour, all hammering down on Newland, a weight that's both heavy and comforting, burdensome and relieving all at once. The mirage of Countess floats "ethereally" just as this dome does. It's a visible symbol of what he didn't choose when he stayed loyal to his wife. These bits don't advance the plot, but they create the emotion. We can't have characters announce their feelingsthis isn't a playso why not let the landscape do the heavy lifting? So yes, superb in all ways. A masterpiece.

But this wasn't the only masterpiece I read this month. Baldwin's If Beale Street... was the kind of experience which reminds you why you read in the first place: the rush of emotion, the growing awareness that you're in the hands of a master, the dawning reminder that literature can do this, can be this, can accomplish so much. From the very beginning of novel, you know you're in masterful hands:
I walked out, to cross these big, wide corridors I've come to hate, corridors wider than all the Sahara desert. The Sahara is never empty; these corridors are never empty. If you cross the Sahara, and you fall, by and by vultures circle around you, smelling, sensing, your death. They circle lower and lower: they wait. They know. They know exactly when the flesh is ready, when the spirit cannot fight back. The poor are always crossing the Sahara. And the lawyers and bondsmen and all that crowd circle around the poor, exactly like vultures. (6-7)
Baldwin's narrator, apparently the only time he ever used a woman narrator, balances this beautiful spirituality and clear-eyed honesty about the world. The crossing of the desert, the plight of the Jewish peoples, the oppression of the Black people. It's connected.

I didn't love the ending of the novel. It's a bit too abrupt. And this criticism has to be significant because I generally love abrupt endings (an example: Dog Day Afternoon). But it feels like Baldwin just stopped writing. I don't mean the plot. It's not necessary to know if Fonny is released from prison. But it just ends on a scene already in progress. I wish there had been one or two more pages. Otherwise, just wonderful.

Someone at a Distance is Dorothy Whipple's most famous novel, I believe. I found two of her novels from Persephone Classics (a Virago analogue) at a charity book sale, quite a find considering they each retail for about 30 dollars in paperback. Whipple is the kind of writer who makes it look easy. You read it quickly, enjoy the odd beautiful turn of phrase that purposefully calls attention to itself, and you set the book aside. But, like I've said of other novels, that efficiency is a mark of true quality. The kind of writing that flows this cleanly isn't a mistake. It's professionalism. It's talent. Someone at a Distance chronicles the buildup and fallout of infidelity. A middle class English family finds a cuckoo in their nest, a French woman who seduces the husband out of boredom and out of material greed. I wish the novel had began with the affair already in play, ie the old chestnut that stories should start as late in the action possible, but the methodical building of the circumstances offered their own pleasures. I quite liked this, even if at times I felt the novel was a bit inconsequential. That's the problem with these middlebrow novels from the mid-20th century, and I 100% do not mean "middlebrow" in the pejorative.

Dancer at the Dance is one of those seminal important gay novels I just haven't read because I spent my youth reading Stephen King instead of exploring my identity through fiction. This is not a bad thing, of course, because younger me might not have enjoyed Holleran's novel for its aesthetic beauty, which is distinctly the pleasure here. Holleran charts the rise and fall of a Gatsby-like character, a beautiful and damned gay man who bounces from one lover to another.
It got very hot very soon that summer⁠—tremendous heat that made the East Village almost sensual for a spell: shadows, and breezes, and the sun beating waves from the pavements toward the clear blue sky. The fire hydrants were open, gushing day and night. Peaches were ripe in the fruit stalls on Second Avenue, the streets south of Astor Place were empty at dusk, and every figure you came upon walking south shimmered for a moment in the distance, then materialized into a group of boys playing ball in a lot littered with broken glass. (200)
The whole novel is like this: light on plot, heavy on sensual, opulent physical detail. I was saying to a work colleague, a gay man in his 50s, who has read all this shit long before I was born, that one reason why I return to gay fiction over and over is that gay men labour happily under the looming shadow of Oscar Wilde. The decadence of gay life is mirrored in the decadence of their prose. Everything is all the more sensual, all the more lavish, because they had to hide in the dark for so long, that the minute the light hit them, they went wild. Even that single comma after "shadows" feels garish and expensive.


Benjanun Sriduangkaew's latest novella, And Shall Machines Surrender (which I keep transposing the "shall" to after "machines"), is more of a mystery story than previous efforts. I didn't love this aspect of the narrative, especially when it necessitates copious amounts of exposition. When Sriduangkaew is writing individual scenes, such as a wonderfully violent action sequence (in which a cis dude, American of course, gets his face peeled off), she's writing on a level other writers can't even glimpse at. She always picks the interesting or off-the-beaten-path adjective or adverb, giving her writing a colour that's utterly unique. My favourite scenes, other than the boorish American dying a horrible death, are the sex scenes between the two protagonists. I'm not embarrassed to admit I was flustered by Sriduangkaew's obvious skill. I wish the novella had been a bit more contained, less sprawling, but this is still science fiction at peak quality. What I love about Sriduangkaew's writing is not just her aggressive, resolute queerness, but her attention to detail. She isn't just "writing the movie in her mind" like so many godawful genre writers do. She's considering her words, she's writing, not just transcribing some fantasy to make a buck. It's a breath of fresh air.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Miami Blues


I've marked down somewhere on this blog that I've read Miami Blues and I don't think I finished it. I remembered the first third or so, but the turn at the halfway point, I did not remember (the synopsis on the back of the in-print edition gives the illusion this turn is the opening incident, which is not the case, and I'm glad I hadn't spoiled it for myself). I also don't remember the book being so weird, so offbeat. I'm extremely suspicious of myself. I think I wrote down that I read it just as a way to inflate my numbers! J'accuse!! 

I wonder what my reaction would have been had I finished the book. Certainly, I was kept off-kilter for almost the entire book by its aesthetics and I suspect a younger me might have been put off or have penalized the novel. I'm not sure I'm wiser now, but I think I'm more open-minded when it comes to aesthetics. Miami Blues is one of the weirdest crime novels I've ever read and I'm not 100% not referring to the plotting. Nothing particularly abnormal or outside the lines happens, nothing that wouldn't sit comfortably in a Leonard novel, but it's all in how Willeford tells his tale that made such an impression on me right now.

His Wikipedia page gives insight into the uniqueness: novelist Steve Erickson is quoted as saying, "The camera's not really focused on the middle of the scene. It's a little bit off. They're not plot driven or language driven, which makes them really different from most major crime novels. They're character driven and cunning in a very eccentric way" (here). The language isn't particularly beautiful—no one would praise him for poesy. And, as I said, the plotting isn't all that wild, either. But there's just something off about everything. Part of the effect derives from how flat all the description is. There's lots of paragraphs giving step by step directions the characters are taking, which highway and which street and that same flat delivery is used for scenes of violence. The gore and gunshots and bodies get the same treatment as clothes, booze, cars, desks, coffee, food. But Willeford rarely pays lavish attention to whatever object in the scene might be the central metaphor. Hoke Moseley's false teeth, for example, are rarely described or focused on, even when they're being thrown out a window. Broken bones, shot faces, blood and guts are rarely lingered over. Like Erickson says, the camera is just always off a little. Here's the inciting scene, when the antagonist meets a Hare Krishna in the airport:
"I want to be your friend," the Hare Krishna said, "and—"
Freddy grasped the Hare Krishna's middle finger and bent it back sharply. The Krishna yelped. Freddy applied sharper pressure and jerked the finger backward, breaking it. The Krishna screamed, a high-pitched gargling sound, and collapsed onto his knees. Freddy let go of the dangling finger, and as the Krishna bent over, screaming, his wig fell off, exposing his shaved head. (3)
The actual breakage is just a single phrase but the noise the victim produces gets three sentences and a variety of sounds: yelp, gargle, scream and then a repetition of scream. Just fascinating choices. 

In the next chapter, Hoke, his partner, an assistant DA, and the coroner are talking about the man killed of a broken finger:
"...I'll have to research this case, that's all. We can't do anything about it anyway until you catch the man in the leather jacket."
"That's all we've got to go on," Hoke said. "Leather jacket. We don't even know the color of the jacket. One guy said he had heard it was tan; another guy said he'd heard gray. Unless the man comes forward by himself, we haven't got a chance in hell of finding him. He could be on a plane for England or someplace at this minute." Hoke took a Kool out of a crumpled package, lit it, took one drag, and then butted it out in a standing ashtray. "The body's all yours, Doc. We've got all of the stuff out of his pockets." (11)
Mostly I quote this to highlight the single puff on the cigarette, but also to get a feel of the dialogue. People don't talk like this, but it also isn't stilted enough to sound false. It doesn't sound real but it doesn't sound not-real. It's like Willeford is editing a transcription. Again, it's that off-kilter feel to everything. Of course there's a standing ashtray. Of course he adds "or someplace" to the hypothetical location. Why England of all places? The world in which these characters live in is weird.

Speaking of which, I was worried, for the first half, if this novel was secretly reactionary, secretly upset with immigrants, with how much crime non-white people "bring" into the US. Though Hoke is investigating this one crime, he's also busy with a quadruple homicide, one of the victims being a child, and another being a hotel maid. There's a misanthropic vein pumping under the skin of Miami Blues. Another aspect of the off-kilter vibe is that the antagonist, Freddy, keeps stumbling upon crimes-in-progress. He goes to the mall and watches a pickpocket; he pops into a convenience store for milk and interrupts a stick-up. Everywhere he goes, he runs into crime already happening. Miami, in this novel, is Hell, a thieves' paradise, a hotbed of ceaseless crime, shit piling up and up, with cops barely able to keep their head above the tide, or swimming with it. Hoke's cop friends are always on the verge of retiring because of the crime. One cop complains a guy on the street threw a cinderblock through the police car window. 

But the novel is also at pains to remind us Freddy is piece of shit, too. A "blithe psychopath" he's called in the first sentence of the novel. Though the reader might see a reactionary position, a hatred of Latino folks, the truth is that Willeford is frustrated with the systems of inequality, the way the gears grind, how the machine is lubricated with the blood of the poor. Innocent or criminal, the poor suffer in Miami Blues. Either they're destined for crime by dint of class or they're destined to be victims. All the while, in the background, never seen and never named, are the ruling classes who own the properties, the highways, the freeways, the very city in which they live. The threat of property development lurks on the edges of this novel all the time. It's capitalism to blame for the cycles of violence these characters find themselves enacting repeatedly. Of course, there's no accounting for "blithe psychopaths" in this schema, but he at least gets his comeuppance. 

Yet another example of Floridian literature where the panhandle feels like an alternate dimension. It sounds like America, it feels like America, but it isn't. There's a great moment where Freddy orders a Denver omelette and the waiter doesn't know what he's talking about. He describes it and Susan, his accomplice from Florida, says, "He wants a homestyle omelette." It's always just a little off. It sounds familiar but it isn't. Willeford spends as much time describing highways as he does the ever-pervasive humidity. Freddy complains it's like breathing underwater. Florida is a sidestep out of reality, where crime is this ceaseless activity always already happening and the swamp is creeping at your feet, always ready to swallow you whole. 

Monday, July 8, 2019

July Reads Part One

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst
Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Maximum Bob by Elmore Leonard

I last read an Elmore Leonard novel in 2013 (La Brava) making it 6 years to the month. I'm currently on a smidge of a Florida kick; I can't stop thinking about this alien dimension just jutting out from the continental USA. It's this weird zone of everything all at once—swamps, forests, gators, beaches, lush land, pastel colours—and the people are famously (infamously) bizarre too. There's a "Florida Man" stereotype of bananas criminals who do the dumbest things. Florida is like if California was a hundred times more humid and without the patina of respectability offered by the film industry. It's pure id, all desire and grasp. Or at least that's how it feels as an outsider. There's a reason why Jeff VanderMeer set Area X in Florida!

Maximum Bob is generic Elmore Leonard in the sense that it's exactly what is say it's about and it's more about the good time you're going to have with it. During my experience with it, I tried to slow down and figure out the craft toiling away in the background. What is it about Elmore Leonard that makes this so good? His technical accomplishments feel effortless, as if he dashed this novel off in an afternoon. And maybe he did, maybe he's that gifted of a writer. The nuts and bolts, the actual words on the page get their force from the efficiency. Leonard has perfected minimalism; he provides enough physical detail in short sharp sentences to create the atmosphere and then lets his characters loose in that world. It's all about the elimination of the extraneous. I'm sure there's a highly verbose, lushly written crime novel out there as fun as Leonard's stuff, but I haven't found it yet.

Tampa I read not because of its lurid subject matter, but because of its setting. Which is a shame as its setting doesn't impact the novel much. It's background information. I tend to avoid "disturbing" or edgelord stuff nowadays because they use their shocking subject material as a veil to hide a paucity of substance or meaningful engagement with ideas. In other words, it's shock for shock's sake. Which is why, despite enjoying A. M. Homes quite a bit, I haven't yet read her The End of Alice which sounds as edgelord as this. Perhaps I should. Perhaps the craft elevates the material? That's the case with Tampa. The treatment of abuse and manipulation wouldn't have worked as well as it does if the novel wasn't as funny as it is. I laughed riotously at the protagonist's absurd private fantasies, such as imagining the pleasure she'd have if a gigantic Godzilla-sized version of her crush would obliterate her under his massive foot. She goes on to imagine this giant crouching, his penis so large it crushes a nearby car. She compares said member to a sequoia and I couldn't stop laughing. I suppose that's the only way to write such objectionable material with impunity from society: use satire to scrub away any possibility of endorsement. I liked this well enough to seek out Nutting's other work!

I'm heartbroken to announce that The Sparsholt Affair is Hollinghurst's worst novel. Though with the caveat: his worst novel is still better than most of the dreck being published. The major issue, the fatal flaw, is the novel replicates quite self-consciously the structure of The Stranger's Child, but without the connective tissue of a poem. The titular affair is not a single thing but a pun, referring to a scandal (similar to the Profumo Affair, but gay) spoken of only in the background and the extramarital affair itself. Thus, it doesn't have the same force as the poem which unites the previous novel's disparate sections. Where The Stranger's Child is about memory and time and art, The Sparsholt Affair is more about the changing fortunes of gay men in England. Not necessarily a negative thing! In fact, if I hadn't read The Stranger's Child, I would call this one a classic! It's just less ambitious, less successful, and more ephemeral than its older sibling. What a shame. The novel is wonderful to read in the moment thanks to Hollinghurst's careful prose. He innately understands the importance of seemingly-banal touches and gestures during conversations. A hand on a shoulder has as much dramatic force as a gunshot in a Hollinghurst novel. I wonder if he has another novel in him yet.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

June Reads Part Three

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Supper Club by Lara Williams

There's a moment early in The Golden Notebook that gave me the widest smile. If I had been a white liberal on Twitter, I would have retweeted it, saying "YASSS KWEEN GO OFF," but that's exactly the kind of shit Lessing mocks in this novel. In one of the notebooks, Lessing's narrator and fellow author observes that the novel has become merely a travelogue for the bourgeoisie, a way for them to see How It Is Over There, with "there" standing in for any marginalized group exploited through the vagaries of realism. Lessing's observation is both severely acute and incredibly prescient as realism of late has increasingly lost interest in social realism, opting instead for heartwarming narratives of the poor "overcoming" their hardships by hard work etc. It's a shame the Americans with their masochistic Protestant valorizing of work have dominated the publishing world as true socialist realism seems completely antithetical to their project of naked capitalism. How else to explain the ceaseless waves of New York novels about affluent white people with marriage problems, published by affluent white people with family in publishing?

The Golden Notebook is an excoriation of bourgeois values, a call-to-arms, and absolutely feminist (second wave, but second wave feminism is better than none, I suppose). Its subject isn't just a challenge to the bourgeois—its very structure represents a provocation to the usual novel. At first glance, the narrator's disillusionment with the local Communist Party and its critique of Stalin and Stalinism might appear to be anti-communist, but dig a little deeper and you'll see the narrator loves the idea of communism and has only ire for the comrades who have twisted its goals for their own desires. Though, desire isn't quite the word. Perhaps appetites is a better word. The men in this novel are ravenous but only for exploitation. All they want is to use up women, to exhaust them of their individuality, their sex, their own desires.

My favourite sequence in the entire novel is a day in the life of our narrator. She wakes up and realizes her period has started. She's been trained to find menstruation disgusting and she does what she can to disguise it. She takes meetings with men and finds herself irritable. Is she irritated because of her period or because of men? Would she have been as irritated if she hadn't known her period had started? It's hot and sticky in London and her thighs feel gross. She takes the tube during rush hour and a man leers at her, his eyes wide, his grin lascivious. She gets off a stop early, just to avoid this man, but he follows her. "Fancy a drink, love?" he asks her repeatedly. It's harrowing and it's harrowing for its commonness. 

Later in the novel (or early in the timeline, it's difficult to parse sometimes), the narrator goes to a cocktail party hosted by blacklisted Americans hiding in the UK. This provides Lessing with an opportunity to mock Americans for their caustic humour, their aggression, their need to hurt everybody. A married couple trade some gentle barbs, but it's clear there's resentment underneath. It finally explodes:
(With a look at his pretty blonde wife wich said: Don't worry honey, you know I'm just covering up, don't you?) but it was no good their covering up, the group of protection was not strong enough for the moment of violence. Nelson and his wife were alone, forgetting all of us, standing at the other side of the room, locked in hatred for each other, and a desperate yearning plea to each other; they were not conscious of us any longer; yet in spite of everything, they were using the deadly, hysterical, self-punishing humour (469)
This little bit gives us insight into the rest of the novel's feelings about marriage and couplings. In the fractured modern world, individuals are pitted against each other, and even if they strive for harmony, the very conditions of modernity preclude it, forcing people into adversarial relationships. The whole novel is a bit second wave in many ways, especially it's biological essentialism and vague homophobia, but its clarity of purpose overrides some of the problematic aspects. It is a 60 year old novel after all. While behind the times in many ways, it's aggressively progressive in other ways, such as its frank treatment of orgasms and masturbation and periods and anger, righteous fury. 

I loved the novel until I didn't, though. The last two hundred pages a bit of a slog: the narrator gets into an emotionally abusive relationship with an American expat and while its commitment to depicting the cyclical nature of these kinds of relationship is admirable, it's exhausting. By the end, I wanted one of them to murder the other just for a change of pace. Otherwise, an astonishing book.

Supper Club is the kind of book that's going to get the most annoying press. It's already being marketed as "Fight Club for women!" which is obnoxious in the same way "Sally Rooney is a JD Salinger for the Snapchat generation" is. Lara Williams' novel isn't quite as anarchic as Palahniuk's debut and it isn't as beholden to the thriller mode, thank god. Instead, it's more of a sibling to Ottessa Moshfegh's My Year of Rest and Relaxation (here) in that it's a righteously angry book about being a woman in the 21st century. The characters aren't likeable, the plots are thin excuses for diatribes against the ways women are marginalized, minimized, ignored, disrespected. Like other books I've read this year, there's a pleasing attention paid to women's bodies—specifically not in an objectifying way: blood, guts, periods, vomit, intoxication, snot, clots, sweat, stink. Supper Club's narrator speaks to me on a spiritual level; like myself, she regards her body as a elastic prison of flesh, growing and shrinking of its own will, laden with semiotic meaning to the point of overburden. But there's a great sense of humour about it:
I leaned over, stepping into my pants [underwear] and turning around to look for my bra, and froze when I saw the little boy from the other family suddenly in front of me. He promptly burst into tears and ran away at the sight of my naked breasts.
"Everyone's a critic," I said and my aunt started laughing. (106)
I literally laughed out loud at this bit. The whole novel is filled with these little snatches of wit, which I'm grateful for, as the subject matter often made the novel heavy going. The women of this novel are scared, angry, beaten down, raped, abused, insulted all the time in their daily lives, a reality which necessitates the titular supper club, a space where they can celebrate their own appetites and literally take up space and be loud and be themselves without the risk of embarrassment or social punishment. These women are paradoxically alienated from daily life and forcibly imbricated into it. The supper club is their chance to wedge their desires between the scales on the skin of society.

I wish, though, that the novel wasn't quite so didactic. Much of the themes and meaning are explicated. It's superfluous and kind of slows things down, but on the other hand, sometimes being precise and clear is necessary praxis.

But I like I said, it's often hilarious:
I'd been to only a handful of weddings in my life, always marveling in their total abstraction, like finding out your friends own a yacht or are furries. I wondered what sort of people even had weddings—and how they planned and paid for them. It was like my mum was revealing herself as part reptile. (225)
hahaha

Sunday, June 23, 2019

June Reads Part Two

Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich
Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh

Arnett's Mostly Dead Things is getting quite a bit of praise here and there and for good reason. She has the control and attention to detail of a seasoned author with the immediacy of a debut author. Set in Central Florida, the novel is narrated by Jessa, the daughter of a taxidermist who takes on the family business after her father commits suicide. It's both a deadpan comedy of how wacky Florida can be and a meditation on grief and parental legacy. Up until the halfway point, I felt a bit deflated as the novel isn't as weird as I was hoping. But perhaps this is my own biased perception of Florida and what baggage I brought to the novel. Sure, Mostly Dead Things has goofy Floridian antics (like swimming in a pond just to tempt the gators) but it never strays from plausible, a good thing considering I'd probably find its depiction of grief as hollow if the tone in other sections had been madcap. Arnett's best skill is her attention to the body: the sweat, the stickiness, the zits, the hair, the blackheads, the skin tags, the taste of skin, the sensuality of it all. Any scene with two people touching is electrically charged, vibrantly libidinal from the possibility. Whenever Jessa's crush touches her, I held my breath, hoping for that eventual erotic release. But this works both ways. Bodies are both disgusting and beautiful at the same time. In one telling scene, Jessa and her niece trade stories about their periods:
"This one time I passed a clot the size of a garden slug. When I crushed it in my fingers, it felt like one too."
"Once I pulled out a tampon in a public bathroom. When I threw it at the little metal garbage can, it fell on the floor and rolled under the stall. Landed next to a woman's shoe."
"Never happened."
"Sweat to God."
"Did she step on it?"
"She kind of kicked it a little." (119)
Arnett's attention to bodies is no accident. The novel is full of gore, the details of taxidermy, of animals being skinned, scraped, gutted all for art. The novel obliquely, and sometimes not-so-subtly, draws a parallel to the intersection of the grotesque and the beautiful. It is only wading through the muck and the mire that art can be made, the novel gently suggests. I liked this novel quite a bit and I look forward to her next.

My partner and I watched the HBO miniseries Chernobyl (great for two episodes, shit for the final three) and I felt inspired to finally read Alexivich's Chernobyl Prayer and I glad I did. What a read. I've never read anything quite like it. It's not quite an oral history and it's not quite literature and it's not quite nonfiction. If one is looking for historical facts about the disaster, this is the last place to look. It's also not quite historical analysis, though a sort of misty central thesis emerges⁠—that the disaster rearranged how we think of the world, that to understand Chernobyl is to rethink our relationship to time, to the State, to populace. There is pre-Chernobyl and post-Chernobyl. There is a new sense of time, one in which human lives are but blips. Alexievich herself doesn't suggest this directly but lets the voices speak for themselves (of course you could argue that Alexievich herself chooses to include the testimony which suggests any and all theses). I knew this book would be devastating, the small moments of heartbreak and pain, but still some bits took my breath away. Here's from a man who worked during cleanup:
We got home. I took everything off, all the stuff I'd been wearing there, and threw the lot down the rubbish chute. I gave the cap to my little son as a present. He kept asking for it. He wore it non-stop. Two years later, he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. You can write the rest yourself. I don't want to say any more. (82)
Though the book isn't all doom and gloom. What surprised me, though I shouldn't have been, is how many jokes people tell. The darkest gallows humour. This is how people cope and Alexievich doesn't shy from it. She lets people tell it how they want to tell. Many people switch between jokes and philosophizing. One speaker even comments on the fact Chernobyl makes people philosophize. Often, they mention how atoms, invisible, tasteless, odorless, could do so much damage and never stop doing damage. 
Atoms of lead, sand and graphite combined and were shot high up into the atmosphere. They were dispersed over great distances, hundreds of kilometres. Now they were entering people's bodies via the respiratory tract.... The person affected dies, literally burning up; but whereas they are mortal, the hot particles live on. A person dies, and after a thousand years will have turned back to dust. The hot particles, though, are immortal, and their dust will be capable of killing again. (Falls silent.) (152)
Various speakers touch on the Russian identity, their fatalism, their distrust of technology, the Soviet faithfulness, the blindness, the life of a peasant. Many older folks lived through the Siege, through the War, through the Gulags and the Holodomor, only to eventually meet their finish at the hands of everything they touched, smelled, saw. Their potatoes, their vegetables, even their water was contaminated. They couldn't taste the irradiation. They went on with their lives because that's all they knew.
There was no need to invent anything. I wanted everything to be remembered: the globe of the earth in a school yard, crushed by a tractor; blackened washing which had been hanging for several years on a balcony to dry; doll which had grown old in the rain. Neglected mass graves from the war, the grass on them as tall as the plaster soldiers, birds nesting on their plaster rifles. A door smashed in, the house ransacked by looters, with the curtains drawn across its windows. People had gone, leaving only their photographs living on their homes, as if they were their souls. Nothing was insignificant or trivial. Everything needed to be remembered, accurately in detail: the time of day when I saw it, the colour of the sky, the sensations. (236)
There is no doubt Chernobyl Prayer will be represented on my best of the year list. An amazing work.

Silver in the Wood is a gay version of the Green Man legend from England, and it's a Tor.com novella, a nice palate cleanser after the hard work of the Alexievich. I thought the novella was okay. I'm suspicious of M/M romance written by straight women for straight women. Just recently, a M/M romance was published with an epigraph from Ronald Reagan (here) and *barf*! Silver in the Wood is a fantasy of polite gentile white men doing the deed and being romantic, and sure, it's nice and fine and fluffy, but what a weird world we live in where gay men have become fetishes for straight white women.

Monday, June 17, 2019

June Reads Part One

The Divinity Student by Michael Cisco
The Dollmaker by Nina Allan
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara 

I've owned a copy of Cisco's Animal Money for a long time, but haven't got around to it or anything else by him thanks to his reputation as "difficult" or "impenetrable." The Divinity Student is his first novel, or perhaps more accurately, novella, and I'm intensely grateful that my local library, often not a bastion of Weird fiction, has three of his books in regular circulation! How divine! The Divinity Student might be described as surrealist fantasy, but I'm not convinced by this categorization. Yes, it's fantasy, if only in that the novel operates within the Fantastic (as per Todorov). I didn't find it that surreal and I suspect the word "surreal" has been exhausted of its specificity by overuse and liberal application. A more apt comparison might be to China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer, fantasists working outside of the Tolkien hegemony. The eponymous divinity student has his blood replaced with words, scribbles on scraps of paper, and leaves the seminary for San Veneficio, a Spanish (?) town. He works for a word-finder, getting paid to produce ever more abstruse and obscure words. He finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy (though that word might be too dramatic for what this is) involving formaldehyde, divination by corpse, and a catalogue of forbidden words.

I found myself mostly unengaged by this work, I'm afraid to report. Partly due to its alienness and partly thanks to Cisco's elaborate writing. While his prose is often gorgeous, lush, evocative, it has a distancing effect. I never quite understood what was going as each sentence belabors, quite beautifully, whatever point or description it's going for. Similar to how in Moore's Jerusalem, when a character extinguishing a cigarette could take an entire paragraph, just having the divinity student do something quotidian turned into a baroque cathedral of words. An example, then. The divinity student has entered a laboratory wherein he will learn the secret of the formaldehyde:
Magellan's familiar waves the Divinity Student to an empty chair and scuttles off to the wings—where racks of jars stand in static dust: later the familiar will tell his wife, "Today I saw a bottle containing a witch. A witches' ladder, a rope with cockfeathers woven in between the strands, throws curses. An impaled slug on a thorn, in a jaw, withered, colorless, still, in formaldehyde. Shelves of stuffed animals, motheaten, ragged, semicollapsed, dirty, glazed milky eyes. Flat glass slabs for the invertebrates—fish, eels, worms, phosphorescent. On every surface, tiny, neatly penned labels in precambrian ink, dark jumbles. 
Gorgeous writing, the kind I'm always drawn to, with multiple clauses, multiple adjectives, a multiplicity of words. Many of Cisco's choices for descriptors work so beautifully. I'd rather an excess of adjectives than a dearth; they are, after all, the spice of writing. I just wish I had been more invested in the narrative. Luckily, this is only 150 pages, a dense 150, but only 150. I look forward to reading more from Cisco.

I hope to write something substantial about Nina Allan's tremendous The Dollmaker, her most ambitious, most finely composed work yet. It might not resonate as hard with me as with The Race, but that's just personal preference. Allan has outdone herself here. A masterpiece of weirdness, all seemingly engineered to frustrate the dilettantes of Goodreads.

Machado was the highlight of Year's Best Weird Fiction Volume 2, and I was not disappointed by her debut collection. Her stories are little formal exercises, without ever losing sight of the short sharp shock of her ideas. The highlight, other than "The Husband Stitch," is the Law & Order pastiche, an exhaustive list of fake summaries for real episodes. The longest tale by far, "Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU," was slow to grab me; there was little connective tissue between the summaries, just as with the actual episodes. But slowly, like all good horror, the trick creeps up on you. The big picture reveals itself and it's just as frightening as anything a traditional horror author could come up with. I also loved "The Resident," another great work of short sustained horror, in which a writer take residence at a retreat, along other artists. Again, slow and steady, but working to a fantastic crescendo. I can't wait to read more of her work! Bring on another collection please!