Monday, August 31, 2009

Lush Life

The ability to write convincing dialogue might be the most important thing that I require from an author. After being spoiled by William Gaddis, Richard Yates, Richard Ford, and a host of others with the skill, I tend to judge poor dialogue very harshly. Clunky conversations can make or break a novel for me. So it was with great pleasure that I discovered the incredible Richard Price, and his most recent novel, Lush Life.

Ike Marcus, a waiter in New York, is shot dead on a random street, and the only witness is struggling writer Eric Cash, who may or may not be telling the truth when he's interrogated by Detective Matty Clark. Billy Marcus, Ike's father, hounds the police in a seemingly Sysphean effort to have this unfathomable murder solved. Using the parallel narratives of Matty and Eric, the novel traces the investigation of the murder, and the emotional and sociological fallout. 

The plot of this novel is thin, but that doesn't matter really. The star of this work is the absolutely brilliant dialogue. Pages upon pages of perfect, nuanced, clever, and most importantly real dialogue wash over the reader, creating a portrait of New York, circa 2008. It's a story about the neighbourhood, and every little character, and every little detail is shown to us, efficiently and vividly. 

Price's eye for detail and character and ear for dialogue is unmatched by contemporaries. I can't say enough about how he manages to make every single sentence sound real. Not only that, but it's enjoyable to read. This isn't just a bunch of conversations about nothing. For these characters in this borough, the stakes have never been higher. 

When we reach the inevitable and realistic climax, the audience isn't taken aback or thrown for a loop. It reveals itself in a logical and rhythmic manner. It's all about beats, in terms of speaking, and in terms of plot. Price's background as a screenwriter helps him create a structure to hang the plot on, and the same training helps him create the dialogue to move that forward.

I keep harping on the dialogue, but for good reason. Richard Price is well known for his attention to detail. When doing research, the man has gone on ride-alongs with the police. He spends years researching and picking up little stories and little details that go into his novels.

One of the reasons why his characters stand out, even the ones non-essential to the plot, are the fact that Price lays them out so vividly so quickly. He sketches them in very few paragraphs and they stick with you. I can still remember Billy Marcus and Eric Cash, and I read Lush Life back in February of this year. Not to mention the other Price novels I read, many characters within that I can still picture, or remember their details. Many authors pray they could sketch a fully realized character as quickly as Price does, or even as Scott Smith does, the writer of A Simple Plan and The Ruins. It's an envious skill.

While Lush Life isn't the deepest or most insightful, and while it doesn't stand up beside the great sociological realist novels, it's an excellent work, worthy of attention, just like Price is telling us these people in this borough are worthy of our attention. His uncanny ear for dialogue, and masterful skill with plotting, make Lush Life an entertaining and breezy read. 

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Up on Blu-Ray

The best movie fo the year comes out in November (my birthday month). Here's a look at the packaging and the specs (courtesy of
  • Commentary by director Pete Docter and co-director Bob Peterson.
  • Dug’s Special Mission – An all new original short film that follows the misadventures of Dug as he attempts to complete his “special mission.” The short is directed by Up Story Supervisor, Ronnie Del Carmen.
  • The Many Endings of Muntz – Many ideas were hatched about how to dispose of the film’s arch villain, Muntz, and now viewers can see the many alternate endings proposed during story development.
  • Partly Cloudy –The hilarious short film that preceded screenings of Up. Everyone knows that the stork delivers babies, but where do the storks get the babies? The answer lies up in the stratosphere where the cloud Gus is a master at creating “dangerous” babies, which prove to be more than a handful for his loval delivery stork Peck. Directed by Pixar story artist, animator and voice actor Peter Sohn.
  • Adventure is Out There – This action-packed documentary tells the story of the filmmakers’ own trek to the tepuis mountains of South America to research the design and story of the film.
  • Digital Copy
  • Cine-Explore – A visual montage of concept art, clips and documentary coverage that illustrates the directors’ commentary.
  • Geriatric Hero – A character study of Carl, from research to realization including art and design, rigging, animation and story. It focuses on the issues of aging, “simplexity”, shape-language and compelling character arcs.
  • Canine Companions – For anyone who ever wondered where CG puppies come from, an introduction to the design, behavior and language of dogs.
  • Russell: Wilderness Explorer – A character study of Russell from inspiration and design to finding the character arc and authentic voice for this wilderness ranger.
  • Our Giant Flightless Friend, Kevin – Find out how avian research and development at Pixar helped bring a mythical, 13-foot tall iridescent bird to life.
  • Homemakers of Pixar – Carl and Ellie’s house is an important “character” in the film. Fans follow the development of the house from story to art to its ultimate realization in the computer.
  • Balloons and Flight – Carl’s house and Muntz's dirigible presented the filmmakers with two different problems—how could they make a physical impossibility possible? And, in the case of the dirigible, how would they unearth a fallen giant and let it soar?
  • Composing for Characters – Composer Michael Giacchino returns to score his third Disney Pixar feature film. See how the Up filmmakers collaborated with Giacchino to create the memorable score and compelling musical themes.
  • Married Life – The original story concept that became the powerful “Married Life” scene, showing Carl and Ellie’s love story.
  • Global Guardian Badge Game – Players try to locate countries, states and capitals around the globe in a multi-layered BD-Exclusive geography game enhanced by BD-Live.
Once I get my hands on this Blu-Ray, I'll post an in depth review. For now, just let it be known that when I saw this movie in the theater, I cried tears of sadness, tears of joy, and tears of laughter. I'm not exaggerating; this is the best film of the year.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Gathering

It's an absolute shame that any Irish writer with a modicum of talent is going to be instantaneously compared to James Joyce. Firstly, it's not fair, considering that Joyce was a unique genius, and secondly, even if the new writer has talent, it doesn't make it the same talent as Joyce. This brings me to Anne Enright's
The Gathering, an Irish novel, in that it's about the Irish, and family, and booze, and obsessions.

he Gathering follows Veronica Hegarty as she, her eight siblings and her mother gather to bury Liam, their brother, an alcoholic who committed suicide. Veronica's complex relationships with each of her family members is highlighted, including her mother, a woman made crazy by having so many kids.

During this time, Veronica imagines the chance meeting between two men and her eventual grandmother in the distant past, and how this meeting affects them now in the present. Veronica also contemplates her views on sex and the opposite sex.

It all builds to a head and climaxes at the wake, where Veronica's dark secret that includes Liam is revealed to the audience and to some of the family.

This is a very cerebral and internal novel that isn't melodramatic or even dramatic at all. The narrator moves along in time simply commenting on everything and never judging. She can't even bother to muster anger at her mother. Veronica is a complex character, just like the individual members of her family, but I'm not sure if Veronica has anything interesting to say.

What struck me most about this novel was the narrator obsession with referring to meat or flesh when speaking of anything sexual, or anything to do with men. She would go to pains to describe a penis in the most physical and grotesque way possible. For sure there's a reason for that, along with her shaky and antagonist views on men, which relates the secret that's hinted at for most of the novel. Veronica's views on men are as close to offensive as they can be without completely alienating the audience.

Enright's prose is decent enough, but her real weakness in this novel is a lack of structure. The Gathering has a decidedly non-linear narrative; inherently not a negative thing. What makes it frustrating is the aimlessness of it. For a non-linear narrative to work, there has to be at least a story-structure to the telling of the non-events; there has to be a reason why it's non-linear. For example, and this is a very "pop" example, but in
Kill Bill, the reason why Tarantino tells the story out of order is that the character's arc in not in order. The people she kills are not in order of importance right away, but the movie is structured around the importance of the kills. That's a reason for a non-linear narrative.

The Gathering, Veronica's wandering through time strikes me as being pointless. There doesn't seem to be reason for the going back and forth. It feels like the novel would have been better had the novel followed a more visible structure.

It's irritating to compare Enright to Joyce, as the blurb on the front cover does, considering that they are very different writers. Joyce was a genius, who tried to rewrite the rules of the novel, and of the language used in a novel, where as Enright set out to compose, by her own admission, the Irish equilivalent of the Hollywood weepie.

I didn't find
The Gathering to be anything remotely close to a weepie, though. I didn't find it sad at all. This novel was more disconcerting due to the narrator's obsession with gross physicality, and the aimlessness of the narrative. The characters were sharply defined, but I just didn't care for any of them.

The review is coming off overly negative, and this novel isn't terrible by any stretch. It just did nothing for me.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On Chesil Beach

[Finally, we end the time travel streak]

This is a book about sex. Or rather, this is a book about two people having sex. More specifically, this is a book about two people not having sex, not talking about sex, and not being emotionally prepared for sex.

At the beginning of
On Chesil Beach, it's 1962 and Edward and Florence have just been married. They're both young, educated, and completely inexperienced with sex. During the course of their honeymoon retreat on Chesil Beach, the characters have dinner, go for a walk, and then attempt to consummate the marriage.

Using flashbacks, different perspectives, memories, and an anachronistic narrator, McEwan develops these characters so strongly that they seem to breathe and almost walk off the page. Almost entirely do we get each of their lives, from the beginning (or at least the beginning relevant to the story) and the end.

Both of them are so innocent when it comes to sex, both of them so apprehensive, that when they finally come together, and attempt to do it, there are disastrous consequences. Like McEwan's earlier
Atonement, all of their lives seem to impinge on a singular moment, a defining moment. What happens after are always in the shadow of this one event.

It's a testament to McEwan's power and skill as a novelist that the outcome of this moment is developed from the characters' psychology. Combined with his powerful and elegant prose,
On Chesil Beach is a masterpiece, albeit less then 200 pages.

It's a small novel, but that doesn't mean it isn't substantial. There are all sorts of things to examine in this work. For example, the narrator's curious awareness of time. It gave me a feeling that the narrator was looking back on things, like he or she was situated in a different spatial or chronological point. The effect is elegiac. It's very haunting.

The novel's structure is elegant, as well. Composed of five parts, it's set up like a classic tragedy, even though this is a small story of two people. I was reminded of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, as if Edward and Florence's emotional journey could be compared to the twilight of the gods.

But in McEwan's deft hands, their fates are as important as the gods, if not more. The author is taking a shot at the repressive society of Sixties-era England, when two young people couldn't have a frank conversation about sex. Like many great novels, this is a book about communication, or lack thereof. McEwan is stressing the dangers of a society where we can't talk to each other. However, he isn't bludgeoning the audience with his point. No, McEwan's skills are more subtle than that. This novel is a perfect example of that.

On Chesil Beach is a uniformly awesome novel. Its characters are sharply defined, its themes grand, its prose exquisite, and ultimately, it is heartbreaking. McEwan is a huge talent worthy of following no matter what his subject matter, even if it's a book about sex.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Bones of the Earth

I love time travel stories. A lot. The past two books I reviewed featured time travel used in unique and interesting ways. The novel I'm about to review,
Bones of the Earth by Michael Swanwick, uses time travel in a classic sense, kind of like Heinlein's "All You Zombies".

A mysterious man comes into a paleontologist's office with a job offer. When the paleontologist refuses, the man leaves a cooler on the desk. Inside is the recently dead head of a dinosaur. It turns out that the man has the technology for real time travel, and he's assembling the best scientists from the present and the future for research in the actual distant past. But of course, there exists contingents of Creationist groups looking to sabotage, and another mysterious female paleontologist from the future looking to expose the whole thing. So begins an epic race through time....

Sounds exciting, doesn't it? Sounds like a rip-roaring adventure? Well... it is and it isn't. If you can sort out the book's extremely complicated chronology, then you would probably have a great time. I was enjoying myself following the scientists through various periods, savoring the resolutions to paradoxes and having a blast, but then it gets even more complicated.

Difficulty in fiction isn't a problem for me. The book I read before
Bones of the Earth was Madame Bovary and before that, four novels by J. M. Coetzee. I have no problem with difficulty. However, unnecessary obfuscation for the sake of opacity leaves a poor taste in my mouth.

In most time travel stories, the plot itself unravels in a linear sense, whether or not the chronology is linear. Along with that, and sometimes parallel to that, is a linear viewpoint of one character.
Bones of the Earth features neither of those things. There are plenty of vignettes that proceed in a linear fashion, but numerous vignettes side by side seem to have little to do with each other.

The longest and most constant of plot strings in this book is the stroy of the main character stranded in a prehistoric period with a group of research assistants and very little equipment. It's fascinating, but further complicated when it's revealed that the female paleontologist at the centre of the story manipulated this event and changed its outcome due to a paradox that fixed itself.

Oy vey.

It's not terribly written, and this review makes the novel seem awful. It's not. Swanwick's prose is excellent, and the characters seem well developed as I could make sense of them. Maybe reading it a second time will ameliorate my experience, but as it stands,
Bones of the Earth was acceptable, but nothing praiseworthy.

Empire Star

Empire Star is now packaged in volume with Babel-17, both by the great Samuel R Delany, also the author of the incredible Dhalgren. Until I read the double feature book, the only Delany I had ever managed to finish was Dhalgren, which blew my mind. I had never read anything like it ever before, and I'm not sure if I ever will.

One can't discuss
Empire Star without first discussing Babel-17. In the latter novel, one world is warring against another world, and it seems the enemy is employing a new weapon in the form of a new language. Inspired by the (now incorrect) Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in which language shapes thought, the novel attempts to show the development of the protagonist through the development of his social and linguistic eduction.

Without ruining anything, Comet-Jo goes from some backwater satellite community to the eponymous Empire Star, the mysterious star at the centre of the Universe, the centre of the story. His knowledge, language, and wisdom increase with each encounter that he has with various people and things.

As the novel progresses, the reader and the protagonist get the eerie sense of deja-vu. It feels like all the characters have already seen Comet-Jo, or will see Comet-Jo, or are possibly Comet-Jo. It's weird, but nothing distracting.

Once Comet-Jo reaches Empire Star, with whatever message that he was supposed to bring that he'll what is when he reaches Empire Star, we realize that the novel loopos upon itself numerous times, like the anthropomorphic jewel that Comet-Jo carries around that narrates the story. It's a story refracted across time.

Even ignoring the exquisite prose that Delany is known for, the sheer inventiveness and artistry of the complex plot makes this novel amazing. Here is a book where the main character has a linear story, but everything else has a non-linear progression, and it all makes sense and is accomplished with flair.

Empire-Star is a novel that your savor and appreciate for the artifice, the skill involved in constructing something this intricate, but still short and sweet. Less is more, apparently. If you've read Dhalgren, or ever had an interest in science fiction, Empire Star is essential reading.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Chronoliths

[Let's not even talk about my extended absence; let's just get on with our lives]

Robert Charles Wilson was familiar to me only by connection with the other giant of Canadian science fiction, Robert J Sawyer, whose novels I had read and discarded due to sheer incompetence of prose and dialogue. They were often mentioned together, and thanks to my unpleasant experiences with Sawyer, I avoided Wilson. What a mistake.

I saw the book at my library, with its epic-looking cover, and the blurb on the jacket reminded me of Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos, specifically the awesome Time Tombs. So I picked up
The Chronoliths and started it.

A huge monolith suddenly appears in Thailand, made of a unfamiliar substance, marked with the celebration of a military victory twenty years in the future. Scotty, a programmer and American expatriate, is there to witness its sudden and cataclysmic arrival. The message on the Chronolith has ominous implications for the world. Who is this "Kuin" who is said to conquer this area of Thailand? Where does he or it come from? How can people stop him?

In a quiet and understated way, Wilson uses Scotty to examine what a prophecy of inevitable doom would spell for the world, in terms of sociological, economical and psychological implications. Never grandiose, never epic, but always intelligent and demur, the prose in this novel slowly unravels the mystery at heart. Along the way, it does what great science fiction does, and that's explore what it means to society as a whole, and how technology (no matter how seemingly magical) shapes and influences it.

The resolution, of course, is not what you expect, but on the other hand, exactly what you expect, the true mark of skill in an author. The conclusion must inevitably come from the nature of the characters, and not from a radical variant introduced at a critical stage. Not only is this true of Scotty, the protagonist, but of the entire human race.

This was a terrific novel that used time travel in a unique way. The audience never sees the mechanism of the time travel, but it is heavily implied in a clever way. Wilson kept me interested the entire way.

If I had a complaint with this novel, it's Wilson's prose. It never leaps of the page, it never reveals even a moment of joy or fear. It's languid and the words just plod along, simply recording the events. Now, this might be an intrinsic part of the plot, as the novel's main theme is of determinism, but still.... What happens to Madame Bovary is inevitable, but Flaubert still makes the sentences dance when they need to.

The Chronoliths is a good hard science fiction novel and of interest to those who love time travel. Since I fall into that camp, it was... inevitable that I read this.

[Ugh. Anyways, thanks for coming back to a lay of the land, if you come back]