Saturday, January 29, 2011

Speaks the Nightbird Vol 2

I know, I know. It’s taken me over a week to finish a novel. It’s not my usual speed. I have no excuses for it. But I have finished this giant book, even if it did take me awhile. I decided to review each volume separately as its own post, and I’m going to finish that off right now. Right from the outset readers should know that I am not going to spoil this magnificent mystery. It would ruin the experience.

When we last left our hero, Matthew Corbett was chasing some dude into the wilderness just a day before the so-called witch’s judgement is to be revealed. Matthew is certain that Rachel, the witch, is innocent, and he has numerous pieces of the puzzle, but he’s not quite close enough to put it all together. When Rachel is eventually sentenced to death, Matthew finds he has just days to prove her innocence before they burn her at the stake.

Honestly, a lot of the same things I said about the first volume apply here. A lot, but not everything. McCammon’s style is still imminently readable and generally enjoyable. He’s very clever with turns of phrase and has a distinct ability for description.

In the first volume, I complained that McCammon jumped around too much with characters’ perspectives. He wasn’t grounded enough in Matthew and let his narrative dip into everybody else. That’s been curbed a little bit, once the stage has been set (ornately) and the players in place. He lets Matthew become the focus, rightly so, and stays with him, with a jump here and there. It’s a great improvement from before.

The focus of the plot becomes even tighter with the second half, which should be expected. Really, if Speaks the Nightbird hadn’t reined in its unwieldy cast and plot by the second half, I’d be worried. The mystery of the novel is so labyrinthine that I wasn’t sure if McCammon even had plans for unravelling it for the denouement. I shouldn’t have fretted though; McCammon indulges in a “gather everybody and laboriously explain the solution to the group” scene. It’s not the most exciting scene, but it does lay out the sheer amount of detail put into the mystery.

And yes, McCammon does play fair. Mostly. A careful reader could put together the clues and solve the mystery himself, save for a couple details that are misdirection on the part of the culprit and the author, which is why it’s mostly playing fair and not totally.

The major issue that readers might have with Speaks the Nightbird is its interminable length. There’s a famous author who once said that critics tend to over-praise long novels if only because of the relief of finishing such a task. Speaks the Nightbird is a long novel. Almost 900 pages in paperback. For the most part, McCammon keeps the pace up, the historical detail flying, and the plot engaging. Could it use a trim? Sure, why not. I’m guessing the first draft was somewhere in the 1500 pages realm.

One of the things that they teach you in creative writing is to grind your story down and remove any fat. Keep it lean and mean. Often, an unwanted effect of this is that the story becomes lifeless, without a heart. Something that struck me about Speaks the Nightbird is that at no point in the entire novel does it feel lifeless. In fact, mostly the opposite. This book has that X factor that people are always talking about. It’s not just a matter of the technical detail, or the complexity of the plot, or the historical background. It’s a mix of it all. McCammon found himself a fantastic protagonist in Matthew Corbett, a flawed original mixture of a man, and it’s no wonder that McCammon wrote two more books starring him.

Speaks the Nightbird always feels like it’s too big for the pages, like it wants to leap up and keep going, and only McCammon’s experience as a novelist holds the entire thing in check. That’s part of what makes the experience so enjoyable. The other part is that the reader trusts in McCammon. This is clearly not the work of a first-time author. It’s comforting knowing that McCammon knows where everything is going and knows how to properly get the reader there.

It’s a shame to do this, but McCammon’s skill as a storyteller reminds me a lot of Stephen King. While the subject matter is not shared between them, their love of a damn good story and telling it is. King’s novels and stories wouldn’t have been nearly as popular if it wasn’t for the fact that King is just so expert as spinning tales. The same can be said here. If McCammon wasn’t such a good storyteller, right down to the basics, then this Hydra-esque narrative would have been an absolute chore to slog through.

I’ve written a lot about the purpose of art and its didactic nature. I’ve also gone on record many times that escapist art is never to be shunned. It’s a contradiction and I’m more than willing to recognize that. Speaks the Nightbird is escapist literature and proudly so. Nothing wrong with that. One can’t blame anybody for wanting to escape, especially to such an enticing place and time. But McCammon doesn’t shy away from the real history of the locale. The medicine is awful, the people racist, black people enslaved, and the life dangerous. It’s nice to see historical fiction that is neither nostalgic and forgetful, nor revisionist or obsessed with exposing the hatred and corruption of the people. It’s a balancing act that’s hard to do, and McCammon, for the most part, succeeds.

Ultimately, I really liked Speaks the Nightbird. It’s witches and Indians and shootouts and swordfights and pirate’s treasure and everything else you could ask for in historical fiction. It’s a rollicking adventure that threatens to dash off and do its own thing but McCammon keeps it in line. It kept me entertained all the time, and I learned a few new things about 17th century medicine and culture. I will definitely be reading the next Matthew Corbett adventure!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Animal Kingdom

Australia. Never been there. Always wanted to go. Sexy accents. Awesome beaches. Scary wildlife. It's an amazing country. And with that, there's some amazing film coming out of the country. Can't say that I've seen everything. Or a lot. Or anything, really. Just movies here and there. I have been on the market to see Animal Kingdom since I first heard about it half a year ago. I love crime stories. Of genres of movies that I will watch no matter what, crime movies are pretty much number one. Animal Kingdom came out in 2010, and one of the supporting actors got a nomination this week at the Oscars.

Animal Kingdom is based on the true story of a family of bank robbers. When his mom dies, "J" goes to live with his estranged grandmother, and her brood of bank robbers. "J" meets the three uncles and their partner in crime, and slowly gets twisted into helping them. When the cops make it violent, the family responds, and it escalates, until J is a center of a struggle between the head of the armed robbery division and his eldest uncle.

I give the barest of outlines because I want to avoid spoilers. This is a movie that you don't know where it's going at all times. You think you're following it down one path, but it turns away from the predictable.

I've been harping about reality and art and purpose and story the past couple posts. I'm probably going to do the same with Animal Kingdom, but in a more positive way. I liked it. I thought it was a well-acted, well-written drama, but it could've done with some trimming. It's a bit too long, and the pace suffers as a result. That doesn't mean I was bored senseless at any point during the movie - it just could've been a little faster.

Story is key with this movie. This is a good fucking story. It's a crime movie, it's a character study, it's a family drama, it's a social movie about Australian crime. It's fucking fantastic. There's a lot going on in here, but the director keeps things fairly focused, and by that, I mean he keeps the focus on the plot.

I mentioned that the plot twists and turns a little, but not in the showy "twist" kind of way. Every time something shocking happens, it's built organically. It comes from the characters and the situation, not from the screenplay. This is a very fine distinction and a lot of movies seem to get this wrong. Changing the dynamic of the character by revealing a hidden past or motivation is not necessarily bad, but it must serve the story, rather than serve the audience.

I've been reading a little bit of David Mamet the past while, and he says some interesting things about film. He says that getting the point of the scene across the audience is the most important job of the director. The actors, the set, the props, etc, are all meant to convey the scene. Obviously the director of Animal Kingdom understands this. He understands that flashy camera work and over the top violence are just window dressing. It's all superficial if you don't have the story there.

There's violence in this movie. Shocking violence. Some of the loudest gunshots I've ever heard in a movie, frankly. But it's never cartoonish, and the audience consistently feels the weight of that death, the senselessness of it, the heartbreak.

Crime is a real facet of society. It's built into society. Animal Kingdom is a movie about the toll of crime, about its destructive powers on the individual. J's grandmother, Smurf, as she's called, does things in defense of her family. Her boys are the most important thing to her, but they're submerged in crime, wallowing in it. She descends to their level. It costs her. It costs the family.

The cost of the things we do is something rarely explored in art. We revel in the violence, we revel in the action, but we mistake the cost of our actions. Animal Kingdom is a movie that doesn't shy away from cost.

It's important for art to show this idea and expose the audience to the realities of the world. It's important that the audience knows that crooks, no matter what, always go down.

It's a good fucking movie. Animal Kingdom might be one of the better crime movies I've ever seen. It's finely acted, well-directed, the screenplay is amazing. It explores some similar themes that Heat and a million other ones do, but its story remains fresh, and unpredictable. If you get a chance to see this, do so.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

I Spit on Your Grave

I think it's funny that the movie I decide to watch the day after The King's Speech is I Spit on Your Grave, the remake though, not the original. Also, isn't it funny that The King's Speech has a million Oscar nominations? I do. Surprising as well is True Grit's multiple inclusion. I Spit on Your Grave is a movie that will not win any Oscars or Golden Globe or what have you. In fact, many critics were positively infuriated by this horror flick.

It's not hard to see why. I Spit on Your Grave has a simple premise: young attractive woman rents a secluded cabin in the woods. Some locals, including the sheriff, gang-rape her, and attempt to murder her. They do not succeed, and she returns to exact horrible bloody revenge.

Let me say right at the outset that I didn't hate this movie, and I'm having difficulty with it. Let's start with the good things about this movie, the reasons why one could watch this. It's gorgeously filmed. And I mean gorgeous. Every single shot is perfectly framed and perfectly lit. Every time I watch one of these horror remakes I keep thinking that they can't get any more beautifully shot, and here this movie changes that. The lighting is mostly natural, almost Terence Malick-esque. There are some moments of almost transcendent beauty in this movie.

However that is juxtaposed against the absolute debasing method of horror. This is a movie that will make you feel ill. Physically and mentally ill. But before I get to that, a couple more positive thoughts.

There are a couple good "gotcha" scares that are extremely effective. They aren't as obvious as the scares you'll find in other horror movies. In fact, the two fantastic jump scares are somehow creepier and imply far more than the surface would have you. It's a very rare case of showing and not telling in horror. I won't explain what the two scares are, but they are sublime.

That's about all I can say in terms of positives about I Spit on Your Grave. Other than these fleeting moments, the movie is an exercise in how much the viewer can handle.

The gang-rape scene is excruciating. Absolutely excruciating. I was reminded a few time of the remake of The Last House on the Left, which also features a terrifying and horrendous rape scene. In that particular movie, the rape lasts about 3 to 4 minutes. And it's fucking disturbing. I Spit on Your Grave completely disregards decency or humanity. The rape scene last for over 15 minutes. Over 15 minutes! That's almost unbearable. I had to turn the sound down on my TV because I couldn't handle it.

So let's revisit my angry diatribe from the last post. I was angry because people are excited over a movie about nothing, about the struggles and the pain of a dead monarch, a figurehead with no political power. I watched afterwards a movie about a young woman being raped and then fighting back. Is this anymore real or important?

Yes, part of it is. I've been thinking a lot about the purpose of art. Yes, the purpose. Art has a purpose and I'll be damned if any Dadaist is going to say otherwise. I'm going to outline my thoughts in another post, I think, but suffice to say that I believe important art should be important because it's about the real world. It should promotes awareness about society's problems, it should instigate discussion and critique about the issue it raises. I'm going to get into here, but I think that the first half of I Spit on Your Grave is important.

Bear with me, don't look away. I'm going somewhere with this. Before you get upset, think about this. Here's a statistic for you: there were 194,270 white and 17,920 black victims of rape or sexual assault reported in 2006 in the US. Here's another: one of every 200 women in the UK was raped in 2006, which works out to be 85,000 women.

Can you imagine this? No? Fuck that. You should. You should understand the pain and the horror and the fucking sickness that happens in our society. Not just male on female sexual crimes, but any other combination. Sexual assault and rape are fucking sick displays of mental illness and power and corruption.

Art has a duty, yes a fucking duty, to show the world that this happens. People should understand that this happens, and that it is not right. It should never happen. But it does, and we should do something about it.

Organizations such as Take Back the Night are trying. They're trying to keep the darkness away. If you care, you should donate, by clicking here.

The second half of I Spit on Your Grave follows the men as they are brutally tortured and abused and dismembered and killed by the rape victim. Is this rape-victim-empowerment? Or is it exploitation?

I guess the question is, does this movie have a moral center? Does the movie ask of the viewer to choose? I'm tempted to say that I Spit on Your Grave asks the viewer to choose retributive justice, typically popular in the United States. It's a paradigm with many defenders and many detractors, but this type of justice, in the lawful sense, is always meted out by someone appointed, someone responsible for that decision. Of course, this argument just falls apart when the qualifications and criteria for judicial positions comes into question.

Ultimately, I have to say that the movie doesn't have a moral center. While superficially it may seem like we should side with vengeance, the movie fails because it asks us to be entertained by such a notion. This isn't a failure of its identity as a movie. Far from it. As a movie it succeeds on technical details, realistic depiction of rape and assault (save for the last scene) and its grueling misanthropy at the center. That's why it fails as important art, or even art. It's as misanthropic and low as movies come. Hatred of humanity can never have positive results. Showing how evil humans can be is certainly a purpose of art. But reveling in it, loving it, loving hatred and anger and inhumanity is not.

I Spit on Your Grave is a grueling two hours of rape and torture. It's not a nice movie. It's not even a good movie. But it's certainly a movie that's often pretty to look at, is made with technical skill, and features some excellent acting. But it angers me because it's obsessed with inciting hate. I don't want that anymore.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The King's Speech

When you watch a movie, there's certain things you don't notice because you're supposed to be engaged with the scene, the characters, the plot. Some of these things include lighting, set design, costumes, and composition. Composition refers to staging, how images are framed. A lot of this has to do with the rule of thirds. Here's an example of almost perfect composition, from Woody Allen's Manhatten.

If the composition is off, the staging bizarre, characters off to the side without proper contrast, then it can be distracting. I'm not usually distracted by something like that, but The King's Speech consistently made me wonder what in the world the director was thinking when he framed shots.

There are a ton of instances where the director, Tom Hooper, framed his shots by having the character on the far left of the screen, and nothing on the right. This can be off-putting because I had no idea where to rest my eye. If my eye wanders, then so does my mind.

This is a shame because the screenplay for The King's Speech is quite good and the performances immaculate. Even though Geoffrey Rush is the one most acclaimed in this movie (and deservedly so) but Colin Firth's Bertie is stellar. It's not as flashy as Rush's, but it's an excellent example of seamless acting. At no point did I ever believe Firth was not Bertie. It's an instance of sublime acting.

Bertie, the Duke of York, has a stammer and no doctor or therapist has been of any help. He and his wife enlist the help of the controversial speech therapist Lionel, in order to help Bertie speak on the new medium of radio, which will no doubt take over the world.

The problem with historical fiction is that the end is usually known. The screenplay has few secrets, and the viewer will know the story beats as they come. However, as aforementioned, The King's Speech acknowledges that aspect, and lets the sharp dialogue do all of the heavy lifting. There's no spots that drag, and

I don't think I loved this movie, but I'm filled with indecision on my opinion. For one, I found the composition distracting and irritating. Hooper shot quite a few scenes from an extreme looking-up angle, causing Rush and Firth to have giant heads and smaller bodies, and more often than not, put them on the side of the frame for no discernible reason.

The King's Speech is an enjoyable way to spend two hours but after watching it, I felt it go through my hands like sand. There's nothing to hold on to other than some funny lines and a couple of good performances. One can't hang an entire experience on acting. While watching the movie, I was liked it, I was entertained, but afterwards I feel empty, like it had never happened. There was no catharsis - I was distanced from the movie, and I think this might be because of its bizarre direction. I was never immersed, something which is mandatory for historical fiction that I already know the outcome to.

This has been a strange review because I'm not even sure what I feel about the movie. I feel weird about it. I feel like I didn't watch it, but I have the memories to prove it.

Meh. Whatever. It's going to win Oscars, you can bet on it, and its actors are deserving of it. Which is weird to think of. Deserving. Deserving. Like they deserve accolades for impersonating the trials and struggles of real people, people who loved, who stubbed their toes, who farted, who had their hearts broken, who made love, who did all these things, but acting never includes any of that. Acting never includes reality. It's always an artifice with bits and pieces of reality weaved in to support the artifice. Though, we've elevated actors to the realm of gods.

Actors weren't always the top of the heap, you know. In fact, they were scum, mistrusted and scorned. And why not? Their whole career is built on fabrication. That's not trustworthy. That's not admirable. Yet, actors grace every page of every magazine and we fawn over them and we love them.

I can't say I'm any different. I have my favourites. I have actors that I look forward to seeing: Christian Bale, Jeff Bridges, David Tennant, Tom Hollander and whoever the fuck. They're just people pretending to be people, but they're charismatic or engaging and that's what draws me in. Do I give a shit about their lives? Well... I used to. I think I'm over that.

The most important thing to me now is story. Story, story, story, story. You can't have a good movie, book, comic, whatever without a good story. Acting, direction, cinematography, all of these things are meant to prop up a story, but it should stand on its own two legs.

Is The King's Speech a good story?

Sort of. I guess. The outcome of it all, that King George VI helped his country get through its darkest hour through the medium of radio isn't a good story. So the screenplay dramatizes it up, makes it more cathartic for the viewer. There's no catharsis in World War Two.

I'm not sure why I'm so upset about this movie, this movie that means nothing to me, means nothing to my life, starring people I've never met pretending to be people who were dead long before I could blog.

I started this post with the intention of reviewing a movie with good performances, decent dialogue, irritating and distracting direction, and a lack of catharsis. I've said all these things. But to what end? This is the existential movie review of the year for you.

Do we watch these movies because we want to watch the movies, or just stay in the loop, stay with the zeitgeist? Does anybody even care about King George and his stammer anymore? Not to sound harsh. I'm sure it was terrible going through that, and it must have been very relieving to work through those issues. But does it matter?

People are dying of AIDS and the Pope won't allows contraception for Catholics. Homeless freeze to death. Young single mothers go through endless cycles of abuse, drugs, disease and hopelessness while their babies starve or end up in the same cycle. Drug addicts steal from their own family to fuel urges beset by callous dealers who are only dealing because it's the only way to live, to survive, to make sense of the world. Middle class people live in debt for their entire lives, hoping for their retirement investments to stay afloat.

And here we are talking about a movie where a monarch, a powerless figurehead, has daddy issues and has a stammer?

Actually, you know what? I'm decided on this movie: I'm putting it out of my mind. Never thinking of this movie ever again.

End of review. I'm going to have a beer.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

True Grit

I am a huge fan of the Coen brothers. Well, of their work, I guess. I've never met the two guys. I'm sure they're nice people. They're from Minnesota, after all. Anyways, I always try and go see their movies in the theatre, if only to support the team, if you know what I mean. My Dad was nice enough to take me out to see the True Grit remake (thanks, Dad!).

Mattie Ross's father is shot and killed in a town where no one knows him, and Mattie thinks the law isn't giving enough of a shit to do something about it. So she hires Rooster Cogburn, allegedly the meanest Marshall in town, and they pursue the man who shot her father. They are followed by LeBoeuf, a boasting Texas Ranger, who has been chasing the same man for months.

True Grit, or at least, the remake, is a pretty pure and simple genre movie. It's a Western with good guys and bad guys, some violence, and a heart. This isn't the first time that the Coens have done something so purely genre - Miller's Crossing would probably fit that bill. Of course, the Coens wouldn't just make something genre and leave it at that.

Apparently, and I haven't read the book, but the novel is closer in tone to the remake than the original, redolent with eccentric characters, bizarre diction and outrageous dialogue - all elements shared by Coen brothers movies.

The dialogue is easily the highlight of the movie. Some of the funniest lines I've heard all year are in True Grit, and they're shared by Hailee Steinfeld, as Mattie, and Jeff Bridges as Rooster. Bridges' performance is one to savour. It's hilarious, and Bridges just throws himself into the role.

It's a pretty damn good movie, and I loved it, but - and there's always a but - it could've been a little meaner. This was one of the rare times in a Coens movie where the good guys make it and the bad guys don't. Sometimes the horrible outcomes of their movies are what make the movies so different and what lets them get under your skin. True Grit is different, but it's not cut throat.

This is a trifling complaint, and shouldn't deter anyone from seeing it though. True Grit is a fantastic movie with absolutely stellar performances, and some amazing photography from longtime collaborator Roger Deakins. I loved the movie, and so should you. Just go in reminding yourself it's a comedy, and you'll love it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Alias Grace

This is my fourth Atwood novel that I've read. I think I'm going to read more of her work, but with a lengthy break, as her novels tend to overlap in theme and scope. This one, however, Alias Grace, is a different animal than her previous books.

Margaret Atwood is a maximalist, a structuralist, and a formalist, although I'm sure people would dispute. Her novels tend to have a rigid structure, a specific form that she adheres to, and above all, she throws in everything she can into the book. This is especially true of Alias Grace. The novel is made up of two narratives, as well as letters, quotes, extracts from newspapers, letters, articles, poetry, and even a couple drawings of the woman herself. Alias Grace has a very large canvas and Atwood uses every inch to create her intricate game of trickery and symbolism.

And it's an intricate game, all right. Alias Grace is historical fiction based on the real life nineteenth century murder case in which Grace Marks was imprisoned for life and her alleged accomplice hanged. The narrative follows Dr Simon Jordan, a member of the burgeoning field of psychology as he interviews Grace sixteen years after the murders. Simon gets Grace to tell her story from her humble Protestant Irish beginnings, to the journey across the sea to Canada, to her first few jobs as a servant, and finally, when she became an employee of Thomas Kinnear, and ultimately ended up being involved in his brutal murder.

Just like in The Blind Assassin, nothing is as it seems. Atwood has pulled off a very mighty con game with Alias Grace, and she does so in the most subtle and clever way possible. Now, this isn't to say that there's some ridiculous twist ending, or even a solution to the murder. This isn't Miss Marple. The con game is that the reliability of Grace is questioned, and it cascades upwards, from Grace to Simon, from Simon to the author, from the author to the reader, where the reader is questioning the reliability of the author. Atwood is asking the reader to think really hard about historical fiction, and the supposed art of forming a narrative from fact. Can it be done? I think Atwood eventually concludes that it cannot.

The motif of quilting and knitting and weaving plays very heavily in Alias Grace. It's an image that at first glance, seems obvious and kind of pretentious. That is to say that stories are often compared with weaving, and sometimes stories are even called yarns. But Atwood goes further. Weaving and liars often go together too, and so do liars and stories.

But all of this is academic, and one begs the question, is it any good? It doesn't beat The Blind Assassin, but it comes close enough to start eclipsing. On the surface, Alias Grace reads like a murder mystery, and it's a ripping good tale. I was never bored and I was never confused, and Atwood keeps the dual narrative flying (she even manages to perform a couple feats of narrative trickery in how to present memory loss). Both Simon and Grace are fascinating characters, complex and frustrating and sometimes likable, and they are characters. Don't let their historical origins fool you.

Alias Grace is a great novel, but it's not perfect. Up above, I mentioned that Atwood is a maximalist, and this sort of works against her in this book. She includes excerpts from the "confessions" of the alleged killers that were taken down during the first parts of the trial, and she includes poems and songs influenced by the notorious crimes. Atwood is going for more of the "question the truth" theme, by introducing various perspectives, but it's just too much. At least 50 pages are taken up with these epigraphs and excerpts, spread across the novel. Even without reading them, the reader would still come away with the same sneaking feeling that all is not as it seems. It's a crime of overkill.

The book is ultimately great, even with a little bit too much on the structure and form. Atwood keeps the reader's attention so firmly fixed to the book that I had trouble stopping even when it was bedtime. I really liked this book, and it's really worth a read, and it's worth talking about in a critical sense. Atwood keeps reminding people with each successive book that she's easily one of the smartest novelists ever, but she still remains a topnotch storyteller.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Speaks the Nightbird Vol 1

I wasn't sure if I wanted to do two posts about this book, or just wait and do one. The reason why I hadn't decided up until now was that I'm reading it in two installments. In paperback, Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon is split into two volumes. I just finished reading the first volume. It's my blog, which means it's my decision.

It's 1699, a magistrate and his clerk have been called to the small settlement of Fount Royal, deep in the Carolinas. It seems they have a witch that needs to be judged by the law. The clerk, Matthew Corbett, is astonishingly astute and clever, and as soon as they arrive to the town, they see all it not as it seems.

I read McCammon's Swan Song last spring, so about a year and a bit ago, but I never bothered to blog about it, among other books I wasn't reviewing. His reputation, in my mind, was of Stephen King-clone, but more hardcore. Reading Swan Song kind of reinforced that notion. Swan Song, his Stand, if you will, was strong but derivative and the ending a little obvious. Looking at his catalogue, I saw McCammon left horror fifteen years ago, but couldn't find a publisher for his historical fiction. Finally somebody decided to give it a try and published Speaks the Nightbird, a giant 1,000 page novel about a witchcraft trial.

I'm very pleased I decided to give this book a try. Very pleased. That isn't to say that this first volume is without its flaws, but then again, what book isn't? Firstly, McCammon, though a professional author of more than 10 books, cannot keep his point of view in rein. This is the ultimate in third person omniscience, as McCammon gleefully hops into the heads of a myriad of characters, and once, even within the span of the same paragraph. He predominantly follows Matthew, obviously, but then skips around a little to the magistrate, and sometimes hops into the head of the doctor or the town's resident rich man. While it's a little bit distracting, it's not a deal breaker. It's certainly outweighed by the novel's positives.

The mystery of the book is clearly not supernatural. It's obvious from the fact that Matthew is characterized as being a slave to logic and reason. Having a supernatural explanation would betray the character (whom has further adventures) and be a cheat to the reader. It's a mystery, and it's a complicated one. Or at least the details are. Even the most naive reader will deduce that there's a conspiracy afoot in the town of Fount Royal, and the witch is innocent. It's just a matter of the what's and how's to be sorted in the second volume.

In addition to a nice complicated mystery, there's McCammon's surprisingly vivid description. For a lesson on how to immerse the reader in history, look no further. McCammon has done copious amounts of research and it shows, but not in an overly intrusive way. He gives the world believability, but never does the description reach a level of didacticism. In fact, McCammon's narrative voice is often fun and light. There are a couple instance where I chuckled out loud at a clever turn of phrase.

While the specific narrative voice is different, I was reminded a lot of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, where both books treat historical people as being real people, who shit and piss and swear and sweat. Even if they lived hundreds of years before, they were still people and they should be portrayed as such. I don't think either author was a slave to historical fact when it comes to speech and slang, but that's an artistic choice to keep things readable, a commendable thing I think.

It's hard to pass judgement on half of a novel, but that never stopped me before. I really liked Speaks the Nightbird and I've already got my hands on the library's only copy of the second volume. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Frontier is Everywhere

Not an official video for NASA, but something lovingly created by a fan. I love science.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Hamlet

William Faulkner is a shadow that looms over literature, and especially Southern fiction. Every time I finish a Faulkner novel, I'm always excited to read another one by him, but I never do. It's in part to the impenetrability of his sentences and archaic descriptions, and also in part because of the sheer complexity of the book. There's a lot of work to be done when reading a Faulkner novel, I find, but most of the time it's worth it.

The Hamlet, the first of the Snopes trilogy, has been sitting on my shelf for almost 4 years now. I purchased an antique boxset of the the trilogy and have always meant to read it. Every time I start it, though, I'm just not in the right mood. I've read the first 10 pages probably 10 times. But no longer. I finished it.

Flem Snopes, and his family, move into Jefferson, and very quickly ingratiate themselves into the town's economic system. His father, Ab, has a history of difficult to work with, and the rumour of barn-burning follows him. Flem takes a job as a clerk in the store owned by the town's most prominent businessman, Will Varner. Slowly but surely, Flem moves up the economic ladder, eventually marries the Varner's precocious daughter, and owns the old mansion. In a series of swindles and tricks, Flem comes to figuratively own the town.

The Hamlet is mixed up and confused. It's not sure whether it wants to be an episodic picaresque, or an important novel about the South's neverending problems with money. Faulkner lets the narrative twist and get lost in eddies of tangential flashbacks. Not all of it is necessary for plot, but it's included nonetheless.

The absolute strongest part of the novel is in the middle, when Eula Varner's backstory is given, and then the circumstances around her marriage to Flem Snopes. It's a very tight (longish) short story and extremely evocative of the time and place that Faulkner wants to immerse the reader in. The section even does double duty of advancing Faulkner's pet themes of archetypes and classical allusions, giving the South's a sense of ancient history.

The worst part of the book is easily the last part of the book. It's a long and rambling story apparently cannibalized by a previous short story about a horse swindle, in which some guy buys a horse from a hustler and then gets trampled by it. Afterwards, this man and two other characters get involved in a "salt gold mine" hustle prepared by Flem. The punchline is good; the delivery is slow and winding. It feels like work to get through the last section, and not the good kind of work - the slogging kind.

However, all is not lost. While The Hamlet feels slight and airy, Faulkner's presence stops it from being disposable. His vocabulary is precise and his attention to detail even more so. He spends the time to develop his characters, elevate them beyond Southern stereotype, and give them the history and respect they deserve.

The Hamlet is a good book, but clearly not Faulkner's best. It's a little too scattered and unfocused, and the final section is a chore. However, the rest of the book is strong. Even a bad book by an author like Faulkner is actually better than most novels published. I'm going to take a break from Snopes, but I will return and read the next book.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Good Soldier

I had no idea what I was getting into when I started reading Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier. I thought it was a modernist novel about a soldier in the Great War. I thought Ford was an American. I was wrong on both counts, that's for sure. Widely wrong. Allegedly one of the greatest novels of all time, The Good Soldier is not about the Great War at all, but it is modernist.

Dowell and his wife Florence are rich Americans living abroad in France. They have made friends with a rich upperclass couple of Edward and Leonora. Over the course of nine years, they do things together, travel, have tea, share a newspaper. But Florence and Edward are having an affair, and it has disastrous outcomes for all involved.

At 240 pages, The Good Soldier is a slim volume, but it packs more into 240 pages than any other novel of a similar length. I've never read anything quite like this book. It's often heralded as a masterpiece of narrative and modernism. I would love to go back in time and see how contemporary reader reacted to this startling and off-putting novel. How would they make head or tails of something so different and alien, something that questions the moral fabric of society itself, something that questions the novel itself? What would they say?

Well, obviously I have no device for time travel. All I can do is think about The Good Soldier and try to organize my thoughts in a more coherent way than Dowell's narration. That's the first thing anybody would notice about this book, so let's start there.

This is one of the first examples of a decidedly nonlinear approach to storytelling. Dowell's first person narration is disjointed and mixed up. He has problems sorting order from the chaos of his wounded mind. Ford's fractured chronology isn't terribly hard to follow. There are a couple bits that I had trouble keeping in the correct order, but nothing that detracted from the emotional content or the overall plot. It's pretty seamless.

Dowell, as a narrator, is the classic, and I mean classic unreliable narrator. The most interesting and probably most complex in terms of theme is Dowell himself, even if he tries to talk about everything other than himself.

Dowell has been constantly duped by his wife, lover of many people during their marriage, and he almost never suspects a thing. Even when Leonora comes close to revealing the truth, Dowell metaphorically covers his ears to avoid the painful truth. That's the reader's very first clue that you absolutely cannot believe everything he says. The fact that his chronology is mixed up is the other clue.

The key to this novel lies with Dowell's inability to face reality. No matter what happens, he still thinks fondly of Edward, because he's "good people" - but not in terms of morality, rather in terms of class and background. He decides at the end of the book who the heroes and villains are, but we can't trust that because we can't trust his judgement.

I can't say I really enjoyed reading this book like I enjoy reading things. I appreciate the novel. I think it's complex and worthy of discussion, but I didn't really have a good time. Part of that was the language Dowell uses. I don't think Ford has Dowell use such obfuscating narration because it's a character trait - I think that's the way Ford writes. And it put considerable distance between me and the text. Ford dances around a lot of ideas using Dowell, and it makes clarity sometimes fleeting.

The Good Soldier is a big book squeezed into a little one. It's a spectacular example of modernism, nonlinear chronology, and unreliable narration. It's also a brilliant examination of the terrible things people do to each other. But it's not a fun read, and it's dense and sometimes opaque. I liked it, but I never really enjoyed the experience. I will read something else by Ford, probably his quartet, Parade's End. Hopefully that's not quite as affected as the prose with this novel.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Slaves of Solitude

Miss Roach is 38 years old and living in a boarding house in Thames Lockdon in 1943. Her place in London was bombed during the Blitz. She's a lonely solitary person, but things might change for her, as a Lieutenant from America has taken an interest in her, and her German expatriate friend Vicki is going to move into the boarding house too. If only that pompous windbag Mr Thwaites of the boarding house could keep out of their business.

Here's a game for you. For every drink the characters have in this book, have the same for yourself. I assure you that you'll be in a coma by the halfway point of the novel. This is a sad, sad novel about some sad lonely people. Hamilton has created a very small world and populated it with very small people.

I was immediately thinking of The Siege of Krishnapur when reading The Slaves of Solitude. The prose has the same ironically aligned with the protagonist style, but always distanced enough for the reader to be in on the joke. And a joke is definitely what this whole thing is.

Imagine, if you will, a romantic triangle of Miss Roach, the Lieutenant and Vicki, but blown up into epic proportions, and by epic, I mean a classical epic. Yes, Hamilton has written a sort of Rape of the Lock so the sad and disenfranchised of WW2-era London.

That sense of humour pervades throughout the work as Miss Roach tortures herself over a callous American and bitchy German. She goes through so much turmoil and so much heartache, but it's all for nothing.

I don't think that Hamilton, unlike Farrell, holds disdain for his characters. While I think Hamilton is having some fun, he also sympathizes with his characters. He doesn't think that their stories aren't worth telling. He wants to be down with them, at the bottom of a bottle in a lowly pub.

To me, that what's made The Slaves of Solitude a good read as opposed to a great read. It's satire, but it just doesn't quite have enough bite. It's not mean enough, I suppose. I liked the cast of this novel but it was more Schadenfreude than warmth.

I did really enjoy a glimpse of life in a boarding house during the war. If it's true to life, than Hamilton's sense of place and time is immaculate. I was thoroughly immersed in their tiny lives.

The Slaves of Solitude is a good book, bristling with naturalism. Hamilton's prose is excellent and clear, and his love of his own characters shines. If only Hamilton had been a little bit more nasty with the cast, then I might have loved the book rather than just enjoyed it. I will probably read another book by him, and hopefully I'll love it.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Light Years

I had heard good things about this book, and I was interested in giving it a go. I heard that James Salter was an excellent prose stylist and that this particular novel was Yatesian in its approach, but without the blunt prose that Yates is so famous for.

Nedra and Viri are happily and unhappily married. They have two daughters, a beautiful country house, they are not faithful to each other, and Light Years documents about 25 years of their lives, as they wine and dine, have affairs, travel to Europe, see plays, watch their daughters grow older.

There are aspects of this novel that I loved, and aspects that I hated. Let's start with the bad this time, and maybe end the review on a good note for once.

I hated the cast. Hated them. If I had met these people in real life, I would have trouble disguising my loathing of them. You know that type of person that's always quoting Proust and talking about a certain vintage of some obscure wine? This whole book is populated by those people, those irritating, self-serving, egotistical rich white people who contribute almost nothing to society save for spending vast amounts of cash on nothing. A whole book of that.

A whole book of their annoying conversations about plays and actors and how Europe is so much goddamn better than America. I know it is, I don't need these people to tell me on every page. And on top of these irritating talks, they're extremely selfish and self-centered.

Case in point, Nedra, the wife. She throws away her marriage to Viri because she wants to be free and she wants to travel to Europe. Yes, that's the basis upon which she divorces him. Because she wants to get laid in Europe. And she eventually meets the most annoying American expatriates in Europe and has the most amazing sex ever with them. Ugh.

One of the best friends of the group is mugged and beaten almost to death. He loses an eye and loses the beauty of his speech. He mumbles and stutters now, but his mind is fine. What do all of his friends do? Leave him behind because they can't bear to have the memory of him stained by reality.

Now, you can clearly see where Salter is going with this. These people are not to be envied, but to be pitied. Nedra and Viri are shallow, selfish people who never amount to anything, although Viri shows signs of complexity when he worries about obscurity in regards to his career as an architect.

Both Yates and Bret Easton Ellis kind of do the same trick: they show the utter emptiness of these people and show how utterly small a single person is. The difference between Yates, Ellis and Salter is the style. Yates is brutally honest. Brutally. Nothing escapes his cold hard stare. Ellis distances himself and the reader, as far as he can, creating a disconnection. Salter, however, uses sumptuous, immaculate poetry to describe his world, tricking the audience into thinking these people are good. It's sleight of hand.

Salter's prose is, as I said, amazing. It is poetry. He uses very small phrases, sometimes not even connected but still in the same sentence to get his point across. He's very sensual and erotic in description. Some of the best scenes in the book are when the two daughters are growing up and realizing their potential to be "fantastic in bed" as one irritating lover describes her.

But great style does not equate to a great book. Light Years, while deep in imagery and symbolism is utterly shallow in its theme. Light and the river are predominant images, and Salter's impressionistic structure is on the whole successful.

Light Years was a disappointment. I hated the cast so much as to disturb the rest of the experience, which is a shame, because I did truly enjoy Salter's structure and prose. But Yates did this so much better, with less pages and less fancy in-your-face stylistic quirks. Even Ellis did this better with Less Than Zero. I didn't hate Light Years: there's too many good elements to dismiss the entire book, but I didn't love Light Years. This review is pretty harsh, but lovers of excellent prose would do well to give this a read. Maybe they'll see something that just didn't.

The Return of the Soldier

Now here's a slim volume for you that is impressively deep. I just picked this up because I'm always interested in the First World War's literature. So much amazing work was done in response to the Great War. This is one of them, and at a meager 185 pages, this packs a punch.

It's 1916 and Chris Baldry has come back from the front, suffering shell-shock so severe that he has amnesia. It seems he doesn't remember the past 15 years, including his wife Kitty and their deceased young son. However, he does remember Jenny, his cousin, who narrates the story, and he remembers a beautiful girl of humble origins named Margaret, whom he loved so fervently for a year. But it's 15 years later in his perspective, everybody is old, and Margaret has been married. The three woman must decide whether to let him be, happy as a child, or to return him to his own present.

This was a very strong book. Rebecca West published this when she was 26 years old, the same age as I am. While this isn't necessarily a war book, this is written in direct response to the men coming home from the front and being devastated.

This is also a book about the great social change being brought about by the war and by natural means. The archaic class structure, so rigid in England, is being criticized in The Return of the Soldier, but it's all with such a subtle and careful hand.

Jenny, the narrator, is the Nick Carraway of the novel - which is to say that even if she isn't the focal character, she is one of the most interesting for the little things she says and refers to. Jenny is aged thirty in the novel, unmarried and devoted entirely to Chris, and to a lesser extent Kitty. But all of this is shattered by the revelations revealed by Chris and Margaret about their love affair, 15 years ago. It seems Jenny's never felt such passion or happiness and is weak of jealousy over it, but she never really says it explicitly. She says that she's jealous, but everything else is very carefully implied.

Even the imagery Jenny uses is fascinating. Her language in regards to Margaret changes very subtly: Margaret is described first as a dirty, pitiable creature, but then slowly, she begins to be referred to in saintly terms, with images of whiteness, angels, and holiness. Until eventually, the comparison is made explicit and Margaret becomes the White Goddess.

How Kitty and Jenny react to Margaret is as important as Chris' reaction to returning home. Kitty sees Margaret as poor and destitute, but we find out that Margaret has had a rich inner life, full of passion and love and lust, a real life. She's also lost a baby as well.

I haven't really discussed Chris because I didn't find him as fascinating as the three women. The return of the soldier, the title itself is a sort of Byatt-style pun. He comes back from the front as a different man, but eventually, his amnesia falls away, and the soldier in him returns.

The Return of the Soldier reminded me a lot of Kate Chopin's The Awakening, not just in terms of length. In both novels, the female focal character awakens to a reality beyond being a wife or an attachment to a man. Both Jenny and Edna are emotionally complex and have an inner struggle against their class and their position in society. Whereas Edna's awakening goes further, Jenny still benefits from the revelation of a new world. Unlike Edna, Jenny's awakening is at a terrible cost: at the microcosm, her cousin's happiness and at the macrocosm, society due to the Great War.

This is a fantastic novel. West's prose is careful, and her exercise in first person narration is very ahead of its time. Her use of symbolism and imagery is quite clever, and the novel can even take an allegorical interpretation if you wanted to (Margaret represents the mother, the old country, Kitty represents the new society, etc etc etc). The fact that the novel can support so much criticism is a sign of excellence.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Flex Mentallo reprinted?

I know I haven't posted a lot of stuff about comics in the past year, maybe three or four posts, but this is worthy of a low-content post. Apparently, Vertigo is planning to reprint Flex Mentallo in a deluxe hardcover. Holy crap.

If you don't know what Flex Mentallo is, then you are missing out. It's easily one of the best miniseries ever, and one of Grant Morrison's greatest works. It's also a phenomenal metafiction about superheroes themselves. This is the groundwork for tons of meta superhero commentary, building off Watchman and Dark Knight Returns and moving into the future of superheroes.

It's also a kickass story. I can't fucking wait.

A Division of the Spoils

I finished the Raj Quartet. I read the last half of the fourth volume in one day, due to its breathless pace at the end, and my desire to finish this monumental achievement. It's sad, actually. When I had about a hundred pages to go, I felt despondent: what was I going to read after this? what will sit on my bookshelf like an old friend, waiting to be picked up again? On the other hand, there's elation at completing such an undertaking.

It's not like the Raj Quartet is À la recherche du temps perdu or A Dance To the Music of Time in terms of length. But it is monumental. This is a staggering achievement and it's absolutely heartbreaking that Paul Scott doesn't enjoy the critical reputation as some of his contemporaries. The Raj Quartet is a masterpiece of post-colonialism fiction, historical fiction, romance, mystery, post-modernism, and even a thriller.

Section One - A Division of the Spoils

A Division of the Spoils seems to be the most plot-heavy of all four books. It's less concerned with symbols or metaphors, and more interested in allegory and plot. Scott takes his time at the beginning, setting up the new characters and moving everybody across the chessboard of British India.

At the beginning, in 1945, we meet Sergeant Guy Perron, an expert in Indian language and history. He is not an officer, but he comes from the ruling class back in England. He even went to school with Harry Coomer, or Hari Kumar nowadays. Perron is our point of view through the turmoil of Indian independence. He works in Intelligence, and meets Sarah Layton, Ronald Merrick and Nigel Rowan, who readers might not remember as being the officer who interrogates Kumar in the second volume.

It seems Merrick has fully ingratiated himself into the Layton family: he is going to marry Susan Bingham née Layton, widow of fellow officer Teddie Bingham. Sarah, her sister, is against this, but has no foothold in the family, due to a one night stand with an officer, an unwanted pregnancy, and ultimately, an abortion.

Sarah seems to be stuck in limbo, in regards to marriage. She keeps meeting Nigel, and contemplates a life with him, but she just can't seem to make it. She doesn't want a man whose life is India, a place that she feels is not home.

Politically speaking, the first half of the book is concerned with the Kasim family, including the Congressman father, the princely aide-de-camp son, and the traitorous elder son Sayed, an officer with the King's Commission who defects and joins the Indian National Army, that fights with the Japanese and against the British.

Merrick has been put in charge of questioning any and all captured INA members. But there is turmoil. The idea of the INA, while loathsome to the British, is a more complicated matter for Indians. Are they heroes, fighting against the tyranny of the Monarchy, or are they villains, traitors to peace and a future of Indian independence?

The second half of the novel has Perron come back to India on the eve of independence in 1947. Merrick has died under mysterious circumstances. The solution to the Muslim/Hindu/Sikh has been temporarily solved with the idea of Pakistan and India as separate countries. But this leads to constant civil unrest and violence, between all the groups.

As one can see, there is a lot of plot to talk about. There's tons going on, characters coming back, characters dying and tons and tons of politics. This is the most overtly political Raj novel, less concerned with the niceties of British society. That's not to say it doesn't play a large part.

One of the recurring themes of the Raj Quartet is the revisiting of scenes from a different perspective, not a Rashomon-style total difference, but revisiting how people felt about things. This doesn't happen as much in the fourth book, but there is a rather lengthy sequence in which Nigel Rowan brings Guy Perron up to speed on the whole Daphne Manners case. We get a little background in why Rowan was brought to investigate Merrick's handling of the case, and we get to revisit the tense interrogation scene of the second book.

In true Paul Scott fashion, even the other interrogator gets backstory and is fleshed out. This is truly indicative of the Quartet's strength: to populate an entire area with living breathing people. Just this, in of itself, is an impressive feat that succeeds completely. One could have even done with a cast list, just for refreshers.

The interrogation scene, mark two, is sort of a chore. At this point in the fourth book, the audience has gone over and over and over and over the rape a million times. But normally, when redoing a scene, new information is collected or new emotional territory is discovered. This is not quite the case with A Division of the Spoils' redo. The audience doesn't really learn anything new, and Rowan's character isn't really fleshed out any more due to the revisit. This is really the only weak spot in the entire book.

Luckily, Rowan and Perron are interested and dynamic characters. It's bold choice of Scott to introduce new characters in the last part. It's not normally done. But it works because of Scott's ability to get right inside of them and understand what they think and feel as they walk around observing.

One could almost say that the whole Quartet could have been boiled to one book if Scott had allowed himself access into Merrick's head. If we could have been inside there, we would understand everything, and not have to endlessly speculate, as Perron, Rowan, Count Dmitri Bronowsky and a host of other people do. Everybody is connected in some way to Merrick, but nobody connects with Merrick, save for maybe Sarah Layton, but she dislikes him and holds him at a distance; he is emblematic of everything Sarah finds uncomfortable about the Raj.

While it seems like Sarah takes a backseat to the plot of A Division of the Spoils, instead she is the star of the most moving and heartbreaking scene of all. Colonel Layton, her father, had been a POW of the Germans for all three books thus far, but in the final book, he comes home. Scott painstakingly recreates the train ride that takes Sarah and the Colonel from Delhi to Rose Cottage, and it's filled with some of the most emotional bits. John Layton has been irrevocably changed by his time in prison; he cannot stop cleaning up after himself, he tucks away pieces of bread for later, he adheres to exact personal schedules. Sarah wants to tell him everything, how she's tired of holding the family together, how she is no longer a virgin but a woman, how everything has changed, but she cannot. That is not the Layton way, and by proxy, the British way. It's easily the best scene in the entire novel.

A lot of this book is taken up with discussing Merrick, as I mentioned before. It seems that in this book, Merrick's paranoid, manipulative qualities has earned him a poor reputation. He finally gives into what he thinks is his dark side and he allows himself homosexual and sadistic urges. This is what finally lets Merrick sink into his fate. He chooses this fate, like he chose Hari, like he chose the Laytons, like he chose Perron. Merrick is a man of his own fate, and he's determined to live it.

The entire novel is filled with Scott's ability to sketch characters quickly, and then take the reader deep inside. He does this with Perron and Rowan and even Susan, during a beautiful scene at the end of the book. His prose is so crisp and clear, and he immediately immerses the reader into the world of 1940s-era India. It's truly incredible.

A Division of the Spoils is a captivating and gorgeous experience of a book, and I was sad to finally finish it, but it was worth all 2,000 pages that it took to get there.

Section 2 - The Raj Quartet

The entire oeuvre is due a mention. Now that I've finished the whole work, including Staying On, the coda at the end, I can stand back and appreciate the tapestry, and let me tell you: it's wonderful. I have honestly never read anything quite like the Raj Quartet. As aforementioned, it's historical fiction, it's romance, it's a mystery, it's a thriller. It's everything.

It's not a definitive statement on the Raj. Not even close. It's the opposite. It's the intimate portrait of various facets of Scott himself, and his inner demons and the subject that grabbed him and never let go.

I think I've said some books are masterpieces. There are a lot of them out there. The law of averages says so. But The Raj Quartet stands a little bit above all the alleged masterpieces. It's a tour-de-force, if I can bring out a creaky cliché.

It's epic while at the same time keeping with its roots. This is about the lives corrupted by the act of rule. This is about the systemic racism. This about love and honour and tragedy and brotherhood of man. It's sprawling in its scope, but paradoxically sharply focused on its themes, hardheaded and stubborn in conveying the inner corruption.

I've said it before: it's absolutely criminal that nobody reads Paul Scott. The Raj Quartet is one of the greatest works of literature ever, and in my mind, of the same quality as James Joyce's Ulysses and Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby.

I've written probably 8,000 words about the Raj Quartet, and I could keep going. But I won't. I'll spare you. Maybe I'll watch the miniseries, but I don't think I will. I'm not sure if I could stand it. These four books are far too near and dear to my heart to let a visual representation mar the experience.

Now I have read some of Scott's other works. Wish me luck, and thanks for reading.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The To-Read Pile

My To-Read pile is getting bigger and bigger. Not just books that I've picked up second hand, but books I mean to read from the library. Here's a look at the pile, and some quick thoughts on them. It'll be interesting to take a peek at this list, and the Year in Review's To-Read list in six months or a year and see how much I accomplished.

Light Years by James Salter
Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
Zulu by Caryl Férey
The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley
The Snopes Trilogy by William Faulkner (I have an amazing antique boxset of this that I got off eBay some time now)
The Age of Reason by Jean Paul Sartre (in fact, the whole trilogy)
God is an Englishman by R. F. Delderfield (again, the whole trilogy - I picked up each volume for a dollar each - why not?)
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster (once I finish the Raj Quartet I'm going to tackle this)
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. 
Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon
The Singapore Grip by J. G. Farrell
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

and of course, the list from the Year in Review

A Division of the Spoils by Paul Scott (currently read about 400 pages of 625)
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
GB84 by David Peace
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Sophie's Choice by William Styron
Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane
Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (read about 80 of one million pages)
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Blood's a Rover by James Ellroy 
(read about 120 of 500 pages)

Pretty hefty list, huh? Well, rest assured, my To-Read pile has been this big since I started reading seriously in middle school. While the volume never decreases (and won't ever), at least my tastes have improved and I'm not stuck reading dreary Palahniuk clones like I did before. Ugh, Palahniuk - why?

So my challenge for 2011 is to read at least 75% of this list. There's 24 books on the list (counting trilogies as single works) and three quarters of that is 18 books. Let's see if I can do that. So begins the 2011 Challenge. Notice that this runs concurrently with my ongoing Booker challenge and TIME's 100 Greatest challenge. There exists a little overlap in all three challenges.

Wish me luck!

The End of the Affair

Graham Greene is one of those writers that I've always been meaning to read. He's written, like, a million books and some of them are considered "the best ever". In my continuing and pretentious quest to read "classics," I decided to go with Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, so let's take a peek.

It's 1946, the war is over, and London is slowly healing from the Blitz. Maurice Bendrix, famous writer, runs into one of his acquaintances, whom he hasn't seen in 2 years. Henry Miles, mid-level civil servant, and on the way to peerage, is having problems. He suspects his wife, Sarah, of adultery, and he tells Maurice he's contemplating hiring a private detective.

Unbeknownst to Henry, Sarah did have an affair, but with Maurice during the Blitz. Maurice is still smarting from the abrupt end of the affair, and in a moment of perverse morbidity, he offers to hire the private detective.

The detective, a working class bloke, and his son, follow Sarah as she moves around, even following her when she has lunch with Maurice, after not seeing each other for years. The detective even pilfers Sarah's private journal, in which her most inner thoughts are shared, and her bizarre relationship with God.

It seems that Sarah ended the affair with Bendrix because of a moment in the Blitz, when Sarah thought he was dead. She made a pact with God, saying that she would end it if Bendrix was left alive.

Now that Bendrix knows the circumstances of Sarah's mysterious conversion to Catholicism, he presses upon her to resume the affair.

Apparently Greene was a Catholic, and this is one of Greene's more explicitly Catholic novels. If I had known that, I probably wouldn't have picked this as my first Greene novel. The outcome of choosing this particular book is the religiosity left a sour taste in my mouth, as I am not religious even in the slightest.

At first the book appears to be taking a fairly hard stance against the arguments for the existence of God. Bendrix goes out his way to tell us that if there is a God, he's a spiteful hateful thing, like the humanity he allegedly created.

However, this doesn't last. At the end of the book, there are a couple miracles, and Greene bends over backwards implying they might be supernatural. The caustic atheist Bendrix even gives in a little and allows for the existence of God.

I thought, maybe if there's something besides the Catholicism, I can enjoy The End of the Affair. But alas, I found little to please me. I found Bendrix to be such an annoying and obvious narrator, more inclined to tell than show, and the clearly autobiographical details to be intrusive and very affected.

Bendrix is a fairly terrible person. He yells at Henry after a particularly devastating moment in Henry's life, and reveals the truth about Bendrix and Sarah's affair. He even yells at Sarah, and tells everybody who will listen that Sarah is not a good person.

He's self-centered, egotistical and pretentious. Here's where somebody points out that just because a character isn't perfect doesn't correlate to a bad book.

Well, sometimes the protagonist can be so distasteful as to marr the reading experience. And this is one of those times. I found Bendrix to be so repulsive that I concluded the same about the overall novel. Mix into this the Catholicism, and you've got the recipe for a book that I just did not like.

One of the most common criticisms to be leveled at Greene is his workmanlike prose, and The End of the Affair is no exception. (There's a bit in this book where Greene addresses these criticisms by having his fictional counterpart metaphorically shrug and says "what of it?") The End of the Affair has very little to recommend, unfortunately. I found Greene's limp prose even dampened the romance at the centre of the book, removing passion and replacing it with theology.

The End of the Affair was a disappointment on an epic scale. I didn't really enjoy reading it, and the only reason why I finished it was because of its short length. Even if I was religious or Catholic, I would have found this book to be objectionable on literary grounds: the characters were awful people with little merit and the prose was boring and prosaic.

It's a shame, because I really wanted to like Greene. I think I'm going to read another of his books, one of the less Catholic books, one of the African set novels, a subject I'm interested in. Keep checking back to see if I ever do read something by him again.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Sheltering Sky

This is going to be the first book of 2011 that I finished. I had decided to read this book because I had wanted to take a smidge of a break from the two books I'm currently reading: one is very long, and the other is going to be too sad to finish. Anyway, this book appears on TIME's 100 Best English Language novels, a list that I'm very slowly making my way through. That's not the only reason why I grabbed it from the library; The Sheltering Sky is a novel whose subject interests me greatly.

Three American travelers, not tourists, have come to an unnamed North African country. There's Port, arrogant and philosphical. There's Kit, his wife, flighty, perceptive, and always nervous. Finally, there's Tunner, likeable and affable, a companion to the married couple. There's some marital strife, compounded by uncomfortable lodgings and by proximity to the handsome Tunner.

When Port meets a bizarre Australian mother and son duo, he sees a way of removing Tunner from his life and moving on to the next town. However, by pawning off Tunner, Port sets in motion events with disastrous consequences. He becomes deathly ill, but he and Kit can't find lodgings in the town. They must sleep in the French military fort. There, the couple's lives change inexorably.

At first glance, The Sheltering Sky seems a travel horror story. The threesome make some terrible decisions, flash their money, one of them has his passport stolen, and ultimately, they get their comeuppance. Superficially, it's a tourist-beware kind of thing.

But then you dig a little deeper, and you get to the weird sexual undertone that hangs around everything like a fog. While Port and Kit don't have sex with each other, they seem to have sex with everything else. Obviously Kit and Tunner have sex while previously Port has sex with a random Arabic prostitute. The bizarre Australian duo, while purporting to be mother and son, turn out to be doing it as well.

Getting to the final third of the story, once Port has succumbed to his illness, Kit seems to go off the deep end and gets raped by an Arabic caravan. Hence the superficial horror aspect, as there's nothing scarier than a dirty brown person having relations with a beautiful white lady.

Bowles isn't so crass or simple as to craft a story about how frightening other races are. This is an epic psychological exploration of the three characters, how the emptiness of the desert reflects their inner lives, how they use sex to fulfill that vast emptiness, how their naïveté is their downfall.

I was certainly enthralled the entire time I read this book, up until the brutal and bleak final section of the novel. It's hard to believe that The Sheltering Sky is a first novel. Bowles shows great restraint with the prose and the characters.

There's a ghastly opportunity here for a lesser writer to have wrung more sexual leering out of the situation. Or to have exploited the setting, which is of vast importance to the plot and to the story. But at no point does The Sheltering Sky feel exploitative or exceedingly moral. It helps that Bowles' prose is clear and evocative, but without being too flowery or too sparse like Hemingway for example.

What I didn't like about The Sheltering Sky was the final section, with its languid pace and bizarre turn of events. This might be more because of my emotional reaction to the situation, rather than to the technical aspects of it. It's brutal, and might even be overly brutal, but I suppose it serves a point.

The Sheltering Sky is a powerful, complex work. The characters are extremely well mined for psychological insight and Bowles controls them with the skill of a more expert novelist. I was really impressed by this book, and I think I will take a look at another of his novels.