Friday, June 15, 2018

June Reads Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 4, 2018

June Reads Part One

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

May Reads Part Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 28, 2018

May Reads Part Three

Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie
Wide Open by Nicola Barker
Music for Torching by A. M. Homes
Blackwater: The Flood by Michael McDowell

Wide Open wasn't quite the sublime delight of her later books, but I found it entertaining nonetheless and fascinating as a rough draft for what is to come. The plot is her usual ragtag band of misfits and weirdos brought together by "fate" as it were, or rather, as stories demand. I get the sense Barker enjoys writing fiction because of the possibilities inherent to the form; she pushes things as far as they can go within the mode of realism and never stepping over the border into the fantastic. Mostly, the pleasures to be had in Wide Open are in her prose. There you feel Barker's true talents lay: she has the gift of assembling the new from the detritus of the old. A sampling then. Here is one of her signature show-off similes: Connie looked up, startled. Sara was standing in the doorway. She looked pale and her hair was scuffed up wildly, like two rooks fighting over her moon of a face" (203). This particular line elicited a guffaw from me. It's the audacity of the simile more so than its success or failure as an artistic device. Later, she writes: "Through his side window Nathan saw a distant crust of mismatching eczema perched on the crest of a preponderantly flat landscape. It was dusk. Light hatched out like angry zits" (I didn't get the page number for this one). This description doesn't quite work—it's from Nathan's perspective, but there's little characterization to support that he would imagine the world in such a corporeal and/or disgusting manner. Mostly, I like this because it's just so... daring and unique and flavorful. And finally, a short paragraph which includes a phenomenal simile and a sample of Barker's trademark rhythm:

He drifted from room to room. First, Sara's bedroom. It was plain and powdery and vaguely mussed. The cupboard doors were open, and inside her clothes were hung on old metal hangers like a threadbare assemblage of frustrated sighs. He fingered the assorted fabrics. He looked down at the shoes. A hat-box on the top shelf, and, in the corner, under dense plastic, a long white dress. A wedding dress. He lifted the dress from the cupboard. He pulled off the plastic. Net and dust and old yellowy silk fell from his clumsy fingers and frothed on to the carpet. (183)

In my review for Cartesian Sonata, I wrote "the assembly of words into astonishing patterns, hitherto never heard, has always been my favourite magic trick" and Barker does exactly that in her fiction. The frustrated sighs, the vaguely mussed, the froth on to the carpet, it all gives me shivers for the delight of encountering a combination of words I'd never thought of before. That's the appeal, for me, of fiction. Plots are one thing but it's the words that thrill me.

It's been over 5 and a half years since I read A. M. Homes' Women's Prize for Fiction-winning novel, May We Be Forgiven. Thank god for this blog because how else would I have remembered that? I read it in October of 2013 (here) (that same month, I wrote my long essay on Star Wars and exhaustion. Good god where does the time go?) I'm not sure why, in my review for May We Be Forgiven, I seemed so intent on stressing the novel isn't satire. Perhaps I had just read the Wikipedia article on satire and thought I was an expert? That's happened before.

I have fond memories of that particular novel and I still have the hardcover at my parents' house. After reading Beattie and Barker, Homes' name popped into my head. I've kept a hold on Music for Torching and This Book Will Save Your Life in all those intervening years with the hope of reading them. I'm glad I never sold them. I started reading Music for Torching eons ago (ie some point in 2013 or 2014) and abandoned it, disliking its narrator's flat voice and its penchant for seemingly random quips of dialogue. Rarely do people have straight conversations in Homes' fiction, it appears. But this time, inspired by Beattie's superlatively good Chilly Scenes of Winter, I managed to read Music for Torching in under 24 hours (partly due to a sick day; thanks, stomach!) And Beattie's style and influence does feel as if looms over Homes here, not just in the terse, reportage-style prose, but also in the precision, the almost cutting insights.

Maybe my memory of May We Be Forgiven is blurry from the years, but Music for Torching feels less over-the-top comic and less wild and thus, a bit more successful in its aim. It's more focused, more like a razor than a circus of freaks, paraded for guffaws and gasps of "can you believe this shit?". Music for Torching lays bare the secret and not-so-secret ways in which people hate each other, let their bitterness seep out, become rotten and malignant. Yet, there's a measure of a pity for these characters. Elaine, one of two protagonists, can't stop comparing herself to Pat, a neighbour with a perfectly organized home, perfectly behaved children, an ambitious and loving husband. Elaine believes herself a failure. In a scene around two-thirds of the novel, Elaine goes to the grocery store:
Milk, OJ, coffee. There is a row for everything. On some aisles, she shops well, planning ahead, buying the economy size in anticipation of desire, need to come. On others she takes nothing from the shelves; expiration dates make her anxious, the dairy case upsets her enormously—too much pressure.
Paul, the other protagonist and husband to Elaine, flits between affairs, lights upon the household like a bird ever-ready to take flight. He seems to float through life. Numerous morning scenes has Paul in a good mood, ready to take on the day, ready to be a better husband, a better father, but his own bitterness wears him down, so by lunchtime, he's already preparing his poor decisions of the remaining day.

Elaine and Paul circle around each other like animals about to test each other's position as alpha, but neither can ever make the finishing blow. They simply circle, endlessly, in a pattern circuitous as their suburban neighbourhood. It's no wonder Beattie and Cheever hover over this novel: the quiet desperation of modern life, often exaggerated for comic effect, beats in the breast of the three authors. Music for Torching is fun, funny, despairing, and a great time capsule of America in the 90s, before Columbine, before 9/11, before Bush, before Obama. I'm not sure if its observations on the mundane nature of suburbia are still as razor-sharp, thanks to the erosion of the middle class and the almost complete death of any mass culture movement against capitalism. But that's an essay for another day.

The Flood, the first part of McDowell's Blackwater serial (or long novel split into 6 parts, I'm not sure yet), is a goddamn cornucopia of riches. I've been feeling the itch for some Southern Gothic and have been pecking away at Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom, but it's not an easy read. McDowell's is, obviously, a much easier time. It's dripping with Southern Gothic atmosphere and as an added bonus, it's got incredible scenes of horror. McDowell was operating on a level far above his peers in the paperback horror dimestore industry. I don't want to say too much on The Flood, if only cause I'll end up repeating myself 5 more times as I read each one. Suffice it to say, this is fantastic. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

Chilly Scenes of Winter

Of course, Beattie is a name I've long heard hailed, especially for her short stories. As I seem to be a little allergic to short fiction, I went with her 1976 debut novel. Set during the time between epochs, as if anticipating the upheaval and great change of the 1980s, Chilly Scenes of Winter depicts the delicious pain of waiting, the absence of events between moments. Charles, our protagonist, is waiting for his lover Laura to leave her husband. He's waiting for a new job, a new direction, a new anything to change his life. When confronted with the possibility of change, he leaps at it, hoping that this one shift will signal the momentous one, as the pebbles herald for the landslide. His mother is crazy, his sister is away at college, his only friend has just lost his job, and he can't seem to muster any interest in the limited possibilities for romance in his life.

While this does sound like ManPain The Novel, or the collected works of Jonathan Franzen, Beattie's light touch, aesthetic precision, and awareness of Charles' pathetic nature alleviate any of the gross manpain aspects. Laura, the object of his affections, is certainly objectified: when he imagines her, when he constantly obsesses over her, his thoughts are a melange of memory and fantasy. He remembers having those goofy couple moments every couple has (the kind that just can't be explained to an outsider with all sincerity and without couching it as some lark or silliness) and he imagines a life with her in the future. When they finally meet in the emotional climax of the novel, Beattie's narrator mentions twice Charles' focus on her ass. Charles' pretext for meeting is to have Laura cook him a dessert, the domestic symbol of orange souffle that he's been pining for. His dead father, his crazy mother, his dim but well-meaning stepfather have never given him the singular family unit he so desperately desires but can't really articulate. Laura and her dessert, Laura and her domesticity represent such a shift from his mother and her failure to mother. Charles is nothing but a lost child seeking stability and meaning.
Laura is baking bread. She is probably not still baking. It is probably out of the oven. The Ox [Laura's husband] is probably eating it. Charles is hungry; he would like some of that bread. More than that, he would like that dessert. More than that, he would like Laura.
He meanders from encounter to encounter, just as the novel does. In the review at The New York Times, J.D. O'Hara makes mention of Beattie's skill with situation, rather than plot. He writes:
Little in our own lives corresponds to this orderliness, and our own sensibilities are seldom so goal-oriented, except in supermarkets. Beattie understands and dramatizes our formlessness
O'Hara's aside of the supermarket is a sly nod to one of the recurring jokes in the novel; Charles has a nervous tic, since time immemorial, of checking and rechecking his wallet for sufficient funds when visiting the grocery store. He can't stop himself from this, even when he knows he has enough. He always has enough but he still feels anxious about having enough. A symbol, yes, but without the bright neon flashing signs directing our attention to its symbolic function. O'Hara calls attention to Beattie's gentle and skilled hand with symbols: "Such moments, with their texture of sadness and comedy, evoke our own lives directly, with none of the fashionable evasions of symbolism; they imply that life signifies...."

The more I think about this novel, the more I think it's one of the finest things I've read in a long time. Not only in its construction and scaffolding, but in the bricks of prose of which it is composed. Her short, declarative sentences, staccato without feeling terse, have the feeling of journalism. Beattie piles on details in long paragraphs, memories and thoughts and sensations, without too much flourish (a distant relative of Gass's technique of bombardment of seemingly inconsequential specificity) and the cumulative effect is almost journalistic. It's her eye for detail: she makes mention of a can of V-8 juice on the table, during a sequence of dinner preparation; she—and Charles—notices a pair of black boots on a woman; the narrator notices an absence of Muzak in an elevator. The absence hums through the novel, a background radiation affecting everything. Near the beginning of the novel, during a conversation between Pete, the step-father, Susan the sister, and Charles, Susan provides an illuminating clue:
"Kids dance nowadays, don't they?" Pete says, riding down in the elevator.
"Not much," Susan says. "Nobody does much of anything any more. I don't even think there are many drugs on campus."
The Sixties and its promise are over: Nixon is a crook (Charles imagines him tanned and golfing) and Kennedy is dead (Charles read the National Enquirer, which teases JFK is a vegetable with Jackie O tending to him, in secret). All that's left is the gaping maw of the future, a dark abyss to be filled with the hope of something—anything—happening.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

May Reads Part Two

Cartesian Sonata And Other Novellas by William H. Gass
The Yips by Nicola Barker
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Nicola Barker is a genius. And, I suppose, I'm a contrarian. Why is it that I'm drawn to the novels with the lowest scores on Goodreads? Right now, The Yips is rocking a 3.12 out of 5 on that venerable book-rating website. The most popular review, by 20 likes, is fairly balanced; written by an obvious fan of Barker, the review mourns for the darkness and moodiness of her earlier novels (here). The writer ends his 3 star review with the recommendation of starting with Darkmans first. The second-most popular review, stamping The Yips with a singular and weighty one star, calls the novel "the biggest pile of horseshit I have read in many years" (here), complaining about the characters, calling them wooden and "arbitrary." The writer calls the dialogue, in which the novel is mostly composed, is "insufferable" and "offers very little guide to character or nuance." Yet, these are all reasons why I like the novel so much! I should start reading novels with low scores all the time, especially by women who are doing different and/or interesting things with the form of the novel. Ali Smith, the century greatest writer of puns, is frequently scored 3.5 or less on Goodreads, and she's one of my favourite writers. Perhaps it's the lexical dexterity in pursuit of the pun that vexes Goodreads writers so much. They all seem to hate Adam Roberts too (whom we adore around these parts) and he's the king of groan-worthy wordplay.

The Yips repeats much of Darkmans, in terms of aesthetics, formal play, and plotting: a gaggle of quirky hyper-verbal characters cross orbits in a snarl of paths with little in the way of high stakes plotting. Where Darkmans is obsessed with the long shadow of history, The Yips concerns itself with pain. This means the tiny (but very much welcome) history lessons of the former aren't nearly as present in the latter, though they make their appearance. Where The Yips improves upon its older sibling is in the intricacy of the plotting, what plot there is. Barker leans less and less on incident and more and more on the illusion of random interactions. Nothing is arbitrary in a Barker novel, not even the ways the characters' paths converge. In some ways, this has the effect of making each novel's universe small, in the same way, the Star Wars universe often feels small (there seem to be only Solos and Skywalkers in the entire galaxy), but her situating of the events within the smaller communities dotting the English country makes this shrinkage work in her favour.

The novel is funny, but then again, I find wordplay the funniest of all humour, so one's mileage may vary, comedy-wise. Humour is tricky and subjective. The construction of a joke feels infinitely more difficult to me than all the tragedies. Jokes have this incredible intricacy, requiring precision and care, exquisite timing, modulation of voice and pitch, all to elicit a simple laugh. I'm probably overthinking this.

All of Monty Python's available works have been uploaded to Netflix recently, and I've been thinking a lot about the appeal of the Pythons and British humour in general. My partner, watching me bray like a donkey at their antics, observed that they didn't really understand the appeal. I tried to explain: for Monty Python, it's the combination of high and low humour and a generous helping of absurdity. The Pythons were extraordinarily well educated, almost too educated (Graham Chapman was a non-practising physician). Their dialogue consisted of wordplay, of heaping words upon words upon words, all articulate and refined.

Barker isn't entirely in the vein of Monty Python, yet she and Ali Smith probably owe a bit to them: the wordplay, the mountains of words piled on each other, the fascination with etymology and the intrinsic comedy of funny-sounding words. These two sketches I've linked to here, while they're still available on YouTube, are the History of the Joke sketch, in which Graham Chapman explains simple slapstick in academic jargon, and the Travel Agent sketch, in which Michael Palin attempts to sell a travel adventure to Eric Idle, who cannot arrest his monologue about the tiny indignities and inconveniences of modern travel. Both are taken from Live at the Hollywood Bowl. Both sketches help illustrate Pythonesque humour: the absurdity, the surrealism, the endless waves of words, the high and low mixed together quite happily. Barker's much the same: neverending shovelfuls of words, with puns and trickiness.

Though, Barker's bag of tricks seem to wear on Goodreads readers. They find her tiresome, repetitive, with quirks instead of characters and an absence of incident masquerading as narrative. None of these things bother me, I suppose. My desire for realism and relatable character dwindles with every passing year and the 21st century's obsession with intricately plotted stories with nonstop incidents wears on me. Barker feels like an oasis, not one of nostalgia for another aesthetic period, but instead a different space where different authorial muscles are flexed and practiced. Innovation and experimentation aren't out of vogue; the much feted Rachel Cusk proves that; Nicola Barker makes this type of exercise fun and playful. It's what makes Monty Python so alluring: the mixture of high and low. 

Tom Wolfe passed away last week and though I've tried to read two of his books multiple times, his idiosyncratic prose style thwarted me again and again. As I'm a different reader than I was last time I tried reading The Bonfire of the Vanities, and with his death, I tried gamely again to plow through. And I did, but with little success. My initial instincts were right, no matter where I'm at as a reader: Tom Wolfe might have had a huge contribution to journalism but as a novelist, he stinks. The plotting of this novel is engaging, but it's nothing readers haven't encountered with the pulps in an earlier time. What makes this novel so famous is its satirical bent and its aforementioned prose style. Wolfe brought his journalistic eye to bear down on every level of New York society, from its high ranking attorneys and politicians to its lowly dumb criminals. Inspired partly by the "city novels" of Dickens, The Bonfire of the Vanities uses a sledgehammer in the form of prose to make its point that New Yorkers are greedy and selfish.

You've never read an author use so many exclamation marks in their fiction before! Every sentence! Ends with one! It's like reading Jack Kirby's dialogue from his Fourth World stuff. Wolfe is also a big fan of sound effects, typing them out in painstaking verisimilitude. Instead of replicating a yokel's braying laugh with three "haw"s, Wolfe gives us eight or nine in a row. The eye glazes and slides across the page, protecting itself from the noise: laughs and coughs and shouts and gasps. Every possible vocal utterance is captured in this novel. It's exhaustive in its cataloging of all the different things American accents can do. Words and phrases are constantly repeated, first by the narrator without flourish, then again spelled out phonetically. Everybody speaks with an accent, a fact which should be obvious, but Wolfe wants to make sure. Accents have a class dimension, no argument, and they're part of the fabric of Wolfe's satire; without them, the joke might feel incomplete—and incomplete is anathema to Wolfe. The Bonfire of the Vanities must encompass the entire range of New York, a microcosm for ᴀᴍᴇʀɪᴄᴀ (also, Wolfe loves to use small caps to denote a volume of voice even louder than italics or regular all caps. They're the alpha male of yelling in this novel). In order to be so encompassing, every single character, no matter how small, gets a vocal tic or an accent. Even up to the very last scene, when the protagonist and his lawyer are being driven to an arraignment, the chauffeur gets to enjoy his moment in the spotlight, with exaggerated "yeahs" drawn out with copious vowels. 

I'm a sucker for satire about 80s Wall Street doofuses: American Psycho is one of my favourite novels and The Wolf of Wall Street is my favourite Scorsese movie (even beating out Raging Bull and Goodfellas!). For the first 300 pages of this novel, I was having a grand ole time. Wolfe's eye for detail is fantastic, if exhaustive. The protagonist's first scene has him take the dog out for a walk, in the pouring rain, as subterfuge for making an illicit phonecall to his mistress. Wolfe perfectly captures the sodden trenchcoat, the sweat, the overheating from exerting one's self against a dog, even during the cold rain. It's all sharply drawn. But the problem is that there's too much of it. Every scene, no matter how inconsequential, gets this torrent of detail. Around page 300 or so, once Sherman McCoy is in deep shit, my interest began to wane. Wane! Extremely fast! Waning terribly! The denouement, the self satisfaction, grated on me. The smugness! Wolfe is so smug! In his satire! 

I finished this thanks to the sunk cost fallacy. I took out the book from the library (third edition hardcover from 1987!) the day he died, along with The Right Stuff, which I hear is his masterwork, but I don't think I'll continue with him. There are too many better prose stylists than this clunky noise machine.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Cartesian Sonata And Other Novellas

I once wrote a review of Edward Yang's superlatively good film Yi Yi which suggested sometimes works of art are so excellent as to resist even a compliment. The same can almost be said of Gass's collection of 4 novellas. Gass is a name I've been familiar with for years (the Penguin edition of The Recognitions begins with a loquacious and energetic effusion by Gass) but I had never felt the burning desire to read his work. Part of my hesitation was due to his reputation; some of these great postmodern writers have a bibliography the length of the phonebook—where does one even begin? Though it turns out, Gass wasn't terribly prolific. I was also under the impression his work was metafictional tomfoolery and I've rarely been in the mood for that in recent years. I was finally given the push I needed, after his death in 2017 at the impressive age of 93—certainly a morbid and almost cliche reason to start reading a writer's work. 1998's Cartesian Sonata And Other Novellas is probably not the best place to start with Gass but I still muddled through the first two stories with conviction and determination. Because, yes, Gass is difficult. He's a writer of a lot of words, to put it in an unsophisticated manner. Seth Colter Walls, writing for the Guardian (here), observes in Gass's fiction that:
Characters tend to develop strangely (or not at all); settings are sometimes created from a fusillade of petty-seeming details that can collectively avoid a straightforward accounting of the basic proscenium stage of action...
Gass was a lover of lists (going so far as to compose an ode in essay form to the list, in "I've Got a Little List") and his fiction reflects this. One sequence in "Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop's," the third of four novellas, categorizes the folksy names of flowers and plants, taking a page and a half, sans paragraph breaks, to catalogue all the fun names. Here is sampling of this inventory:
...or were simply borrowed from their fruiting season like the Mayapple, or taken from root or stem or stalk or fruit or bloom or leaf, like Arrowhead, Spiderwort, Seven-angled Pipewort, Foamflower, Liverleaf, Shrubby Fivefinger, Bloodroot; while sometimes they gained their name principally through their growth habit such as the Staggerbush did, the Sidesaddle Flower, Prostrate Tick Trefoil, Loosestrife, Spatter-dock, Steeplebush, Jacob's Ladder; alother often the names served as warning about a plant's hostility or shyness the way Poison Ivy or Touch-me-not did, Wild Sensitive Pea, Lambkill, Adder's Tongue, Poison Flagroot, Tearthumb, King Devil, Needlegrass, Skunk Cabbage, Chokeberry, Scorpion Grass, Viper's Buglos, Bitter Nightshade and Lance-leaved Tickseed...
Never do these lists feel exhausting or a waste of paper, such as, for example, Douglas Coupland using 41 pages to list digits of pi in JPod. Rather, like Colter Walls says above, the accumulation of details, the petty-seeming details, produces the texture of the story, if story can be called what Gass is creating. Instead, the story is the details, the wealth of material and emotional things that build up around a person, almost, as it were, producing the person. The aforementioned Emma lives and breathes nature but through the details gleaned from poetry, her escape from banal torturous life in rural Iowa. Her blankness as a character isn't so much a deficiency in Gass's skills but instead a reflection of her absence from her own life. She is a blank space, a void, a white emptiness sharply human-shaped, surrounded by the incessant noise of nature, flora, fauna, sky, sun, father, mother, farm, shed.

Even if the story and characters were inconsequential or forgettable, Gass's prose is like no other's that I've read recently. There's a careful precision to every sentence, but without ever feeling exhausted of beauty or magic; Gass's novellas have the energy of a first draft and the meticulous exactness of a tenth draft, a musicality and liveliness. Here is Gass, in the second novella, on books:
But inside that misplaced secretary there were all those books, each compressing hundreds of pages into something simple as a brick, while upon those pages lines of words were layered the way beneath a quilt there was a blanket, an embroidered sheet; and the words were several sounds as leaves and blooms and maybe a boat upon a pond were threaded together, making better environments for one another; thus with the cabinet shut, book covers closed, you couldn't hear any talking going on, the shouting and the singing, yes, quiet as a reading room, though in each reading head there'd be a booming world: that was why his empire was so wide and full, both few and many, near and far.
The bounce, the rhythm of the prose, the endless similes, they all call attention to themselves without ever seeming drawn out or overworked. Gass's use of polysyndeton, the replacement of commas with "and" spaces items in a list out, gives them their ultimate equivalency, because, after all, that's what a simile is, the serendipitous comparison between unlike objects to produce a satisfying and estranging novel view of the two objects. In "Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop's," Emma observes that while film can produce beautiful imagery like a fog, that fog on the screen is missing its simile companion, its lambswool, the secondary object Elizabeth Bishop used to create her miraculous comparison. Gass finally puts into words what it is about prose and narrative which draws me like no other, why it is I'm always coming back to words even if imagery is more efficient. The assembly of words into astonishing patterns, hitherto never heard, has always been my favourite magic trick.