Friday, July 20, 2018

July Reads Part Two

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Turning Around

An expired horse I tend to flagellate is questioning the purpose of my blog. Recently, I identified four uses of the blog: the archive, the exercise, the prose, and the growth. This last aspect applies to this post, in which I cogitate on the malleability of my opinions and the usefulness of my blog for charting that same shifting. Opinion drift, we might call it.

I've been itching quite badly to revisit Ross MacDonald (which I mentioned in my last meta-post) even though my earlier reviews of his novels make them seem a lot more average. I've kept working at MacDonald because I'm convinced there's something wrong with me, rather than something wrong with him. As the years have gone by, I've thought a lot about The Underground Man and my reaction to it. I wrote that I found it bland and lifeless. I'm embarrassed to report that I wrote this:
But a lot of the time, the muscular tough guy prose, a hallmark of the genre, is absent, replaced with simple flat descriptions. Like Hammett at his worst.
Oy vey. I can understand where Past Matthew was coming from; the reputation of a Chandler descendant made me believe I was in for, say, a Daniel Woodrell-style mystery (now there's an author I should revisit!) but what I read was something more. MacDonald's style is not one of detachment or aloofness, but a careful control of emotion. The danger in his novels isn't just bodily harm but letting these crimes, these generational crimes and lies and abuse wear Archer down. He has to stay apart, he has to stand away for fear of becoming embroiled or entangled in their sordid small lives. The dirt and decay of criminality is contagious in MacDonald's world and Archer, like Marlowe, must do what he can to stay clean. Hence, Archer's coolness. What I called "simple flat descriptions" are artfully composed and self-collected observances of an awful world.

Am I better reader now than then? Undoubtedly. Every year I grow (I hope) as a reader. My tastes haven't changed remarkably since I began this blog: I still prefer genre fiction over literary; I'm skeptical of realism but understand its practicability; aesthetics and structure interest me just a smidge more than the rudiments of plotting. However, my opinions on certain things have shifted, thanks to, in part, my growth as a reader.

Yet, I can't ascribe the entirety of opinion drift to how I read. I should responsibly attribute some of opinion drift to that fourth dimension, time. A glaring rot in the ecology of criticism is the immediacy of it: paid critics are paid to produce reviews in a timely manner, usually before or around the release date of the product. In film criticism, there's a rush for clicks by publishing one of the earliest reviews. io9 publishes articles aggregating early reactions to critic screenings of movie, an Ourobouros of first takes. Reviewers are encouraged to tweet their opinions while the end credits are still rolling.

But not all objects give up the goods that quickly. Some texts need time to work their magic, to burrow into the mind, to linger there, to take up residence. Some movies, for example, I thought were pretty good when I watched them, but as time marches forward, my opinion rises steadily, until I can't stop thinking about how much I loved that movie. I had a blast with Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014). Years later, I saw it a second time in the theatre and I had an almost transcendental experience with it. The film went from "fun monster movie I liked" to "existential environmentalist nightmare I worship." The shift wasn't instantaneous. Going into the theatre a second time was simply the tipping point. Rather, the opinion drift was slow and inexorable. The movie just needed time to work its way into my brain.

Likewise, Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, which I read in February of 2014. I wrote that it "was pretty damn good." But time helped. I haven't reread it yet, though I will, because now I think about it as one of the best novels I've ever read, painstakingly plotted, ambitiously structured, practically flawless in its thematic exploration of greed, capitalism, colonialism. It's a novel I recommend to people all the time. Some texts strike you as stupendous the first instant (How to be both by Ali Smith, or really, any Ali Smith) and some take only a couple days (Sarah Schmidt's See What I Have Done). The Luminaries was "pretty damn good" but it just needed a year or two to work around in my head.

A final example: Jack Ketchum's Off Season, which I read in October of 2016. I wrote that it was empty misanthropy but that I was still impressed by its ferocity. Now I think of it a lot when I think of extreme horror. I think of how much it shook me, how much it carved me, lacerated me, wounded me. Visceral, thrilling, chaotic, but still tightly controlled. I found myself checking the results of the recommendation algorithm on Goodreads to scratch that itch of survival horror. That same month, I read Floating Dragon, which stunned me for its grandeur, but I search my memory and it didn't electrify me in the same short shock way Off Season did. I think I sold my paperback of it, which was a critical mistake. Which isn't to say that Straub hasn't improved in my memory. I often recollect the horrors of Koko and Mystery, but they didn't quite stir me the same way Floating Dragon did.

I stuck mostly with positive examples of opinion drift in this post. I could have gone on with just as many, if not more, examples of films and books I've soured on in the intervening years. I thought I might keep proceedings upbeat for this post, because on the whole, I'm grateful for opinion drift. I like that my thoughts and feelings aren't static. I'm not inflexible, this proves. I'm not stuck in the same place, this shows. I look at my blog and though embarrassed by things I've wrote, I've never deleted a post (I have made some posts inaccessible because I feared I was being plagiarized by university students seeking free intellectual labour). I'd rather look back and see how I feel differently and why. It's much more interesting that way. Why bother blogging if it's going to be the same thoughts tilled over and over?

Thursday, July 5, 2018

July Reads Part One

The Terror by Dan Simmons
The Bridge by John Skipp and Craig Spector

I bought The Terror the day it was released, way back in January of 2007. I had graduated university, during which I devoured his Hyperion Cantos, all four books, and had dabbled in some of his other books (such as the eye-rollingly bad Darwin's Blade, a novel I'm shocked I managed to finish) but none of his non-science fiction works excited me. The Terror has a cracking premise: what if the lost Franklin Expedition was actually picked off by a terrible beast? The first time I read it, I thoroughly enjoyed the first couple hundred pages but I stalled out, thanks to Simmons' renowned loquacity and clumsy exposition. This time, I had a bit more luck (opting to check the item out from my local library, instead of buying the book a second time).

Simmons does a lot of research for his novels and he wants you to know it. Every page feels crammed with arcane facts and hyper-specialized jargon gleaned from endless hours of research. However, where Simmons stumbles—other than his notorious and well-documented Islamophobia—is the integration of research into narrative. I'm the last person to quibble that exposition feels forced or unnatural. I'm not married to realism. However, sometimes Simmons gives us a bit of prose so cumbersome as to elicit chortles. Here's a tin-eared chunk from page 368:
Bridgens smiled. "I was almost jealous when he lent you that book. What was it? Lyell?"
"Principles of Geology," said Peglar. "I didn't really understand it. Or rather, I did just enough to realize how dangerous it was."
"Because of Lyell's contention about the age of things," said Bridgens. "About the very un-Christian idea that things change slowly over immense aeons of time rather than very quickly due to very violent events."
Not only does it sound awful but it doesn't quite make sense. Why would Bridgens be jealous a book was lent to anybody if he didn't know what it was? And also, if he knew what it was, and what the book was about, why would he be jealous? The next page features something even worse:
"Charles Babbage?" said Peglar. "The fellow who tinkers with many odd things including some sort of computing engine?"
Barf. I do like historical fiction and I especially like anachronistic historical fiction—historical fiction is, by definition, a construction and a fantasy, so why adhere so strictly to "historical fact" which is meaningless. However, the knowing winks and prodding elbows like that aforementioned Babbage line provide more cringes than the warm comfortable knowledge. That's all these knowing asides are for: comforting the reader, making them feel smart for "getting" the joke. It's empty manipulation. 

When Simmons lets go of this ungainly style and stretches forward into phantasmagoria, I'm entirely on board. The main protagonist, Captain Crozier, quits drinking after his private reserves run out and he goes through intense withdrawal. Instead of portentous dreams laden with symbolism, Simmons flashes forward and across space, giving Crozier glimpses of his fate and how the lost Expedition touches other lives. It's all the more horrifying because the reader knows everybody's eventual future (death on the ice) and Crozier does too; there's little he can do to avoid it.

The Terror is pretty good but boy does it need a trim. The climax happens with ~100 pages still to go. There's a killer 500 page novel in here but without that long steady march to oblivion which characterizes much of the horror (not the monster but the survivalist stuff) it might not be as effective.

I read The Light at the End by Skipp and Spector back in October of 2016. I wrote of that novel, "The Light at the End is violent, nasty, and ultimately a meat grinder for its cast" and the same can be applied to The Bridge. Where the former novel fascinated me for its depiction of a dystopic New York City, the latter, with its didactic environmentalism and abundance of characters, frustrated me. When The Bridge is describing its horrors, its wonderfully over-the-top abominations, the novel works for me. When it's introducing yet another character, an inevitable victim for the meat grinder, I was a bit impatient. I wish The Bridge had been a bit longer or a bit shorter. With more room, characterization, something Skipp and Spector are quite good at, could have improved. I guess I keep wondering how and why these two authors could produce something as sweet and caring as Animals but be more well known for obviously inferior stuff like The Bridge. If the Bridge and The Light at the End and The Clean-Up (which I found for 2 bucks at a local bookstore just recently) are what Skipp and Spector are famous for, what influenced and impacted a generation of horror writers, then imagine how much more ahead of the curve they were with Animals, a stupendous exercise in empathy (a key ingredient in effective horror). I still liked The Bridge but I wanted something more or something leaner. At its current length, it's not quite enough or it's too much to be the shock it wants to be.