Monday, October 15, 2018

September Reads Part Two, October Reads Part One

The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
The Castle of the Otter by Gene Wolfe
On Blue's Waters by Gene Wolfe
Where You'll Find Me and Other Stories by Ann Beattie
Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

I took a small vacation in the first week of October and I used that time to watch two entire seasons of The Good Place and catch up on some reading. September was fairly light for me; I spent most of the month working my way through Peter Straub's The Throat, which I set aside as I was losing interest, through no fault of Straub (who writes beautifully as always in this conclusion to the trilogy). I needed a break. I hope to return to The Throat before I forget all the details and characters but I won't chastise myself for abandoning it.

The Girl Next Door has a devilish reputation and almost lives up to it, I'm equally delighted and unnerved to report. After having a crisis of opinion regarding Open Season (which I now regard as good verging on great), Ketchum's most famous novel beckoned to me. It was also cheap on Amazon and in print. I read it in a matter of hours, not solely because of the prose's simplicity but also due to its propulsion. Ketchum certainly knows how to pace a story. What fascinated me the entire time was the subtlety of the horror. I had expected wall-to-wall torture, both physical and sexual, but instead, Ketchum wrote a careful dual, interlocking portrait of the ease of evil, the banality as its known, and the ease of complicity. The master stroke of The Girl Next Door is the use of the first person. The audience is drawn into the nightmare of torture at the same time as the narrator without ever the audience forgetting the narrator's participation, silence, tacit approval. No matter the amount of crocodile tears, the narrator is still party to this. The novel can be read at the surface as a tale of everyday American horror but the text is fecund enough to support a reading of fascism's allure. One would be hard pressed to avoid comparing the torture to the Holocaust. I'm not sure if I liked this more or less than Open Season—enjoyment is a tough word to apply to either of these novels—but I do want to keep reading more Ketchum. He's much wilier than his reputation as "extreme horror" would have you believe. 

Twice a year, in my city, there's a massive charity booksale which overtakes much of a large mall. I look at these biannual sales as Christmas. I try to go on the first day and scope out the horror, science fiction, and fantasy tables. The books the sale accumulates comes from donations and private collections donated after death (I'm guessing). This can be the only explanation for the wild and esoteric books I tend to find. Usually, every sale, I stumble across an almost priceless gem (priceless to me, of course). This year, I found two hardcover omnibuses of Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (which I also own in individual paperbacks) and The Book of the Short Sun (a volume I had previously purchased online, but this particular copy is in better shape). Also, I found a hardcover edition of The Urth of the New Sun in terrific shape. A strange find, the one I was most impressed by, was a slim hardcover called The Castle of the Otter. Without examining it, I added it to my cart. After the dust settled, and I was home with my purchases, I saw the little book is a collection of essays about The Book of the New Sun. I devoured it in an entire sitting, I'm pleased to say. I skipped a chunk of the lexicon in the middle, which reads as a dictionary, but the rest was pleasant and insightful. Not so much into the meanings and symbols of the tetralogy but into Wolfe's own process. His main income source for much of his career was editing a technical journal relating to engineering and this engineering angle informs much of his writing and thinking. One entire essay is devoted to an extended rationale for the "destriers," a warhorse. He approaches his imagined future as a logic problem: if x was absent, how would people accomplish y? This shouldn't be a surprise to readers of The Book of the New Sun and its sequels, as narrators often pose problems in the form of Catechisms or logic problems to solve. I derived much of the pleasure reading this from the section in which Wolfe obfuscates and dissembles even about the very work he's meant to elucidate. He's a trickster and a fine one at that.

Reading The Castle of the Otter inspired me to dive into The Book of the Long Sun, the final three books of The Solar Cycle. On Blue's Waters returns the metanarrative to the first person narration, away from the third person of the middle tetralogy. Which provides Wolfe the opportunity to play his usual games. The key mysteries afoot here are the identity of the narrator (is it Silk or is it Horn?) and the provenance of the "inhumu," a vampire-like race (or species) that may or not be alien to humanity and/or indigenous to Green, the jungle planet in twin orbit with Blue. Where The Book of the Short Sun was an almost political text, occupied with matters of rule and governance, On Blue's Waters is more of an Odyssey homage; Horn sails across the oceans of Blue in search of a spaceship to take him back to the Whorl, the generationship from whence they came. The tone is more melancholic, as if the characters know they're near the end of the road. Most of Wolfe's usual tricks are present, such as the classic obfuscation, the withholding of vital information, the after-the-fact exposition of important moments. Equally present are Wolfe's usual faults: his complete inability to write women, the homogeneity of voices, his conservative, almost reactionary politics. Even in a new society, Wolfe imagines the populace grasping desperately for the single ruler, the king, the God. A cooperative? Imaginatively impossible for Wolfe.

Where You'll Find Me and Other Stories, from 1986, is Beattie's fourth collection of short stories. I had hitherto pledged not to purchase any of her books as they were all available from the various libraries to which I have access, but the allure of collecting won out. Now I have almost her entire bibliography on order or on the way. However, I feel no regrets, especially after this collection. There are a couple stories which shook me. When reaching the end of these stories, I closed the book and closed my eyes, to internalize, to breathe, to savour. Beattie's skill, as I've demonstrated in my review for Chilly Scenes of Winter (here), is her accumulation of observances, of the objects and emotions which comprise everyday life. Her style, imitated to exhaustion in the 80s and 90s, is one of meticulous observation and gentle minimalism. The everyday fabric does much of the heavy lifting as she's often adverse to plot or the classic Joycean epiphany. Her stories often end without signalling any end. They could almost end mid-sentence with the same effect (if ending something mid-sentence didn't have a different connotative meaning). I didn't take notes, I'm afraid, so I can't even specify which of the stories throbbed through my consciousness. With the next collection, I'll be more fastidious.

Perhaps an odd complaint, but maybe this will make sense in context of my reading practices: I wish Judith Hearne had less plot. The first half of Brian Moore's most famous novel worked wonders; its sensitive observations and characterization are sublimely juxtaposed with Moore's cynicism about the Church. I won't claim the novel lost me in the second half—it never came close to that point—but the descent into pure plot disappointed me. When the novel is carefully examining Judith and the characters around her, I was entranced. Moore's ability to make drama out of characters having breakfast impressed me. When Judith's alcoholism and subsequent fall take over, I was reminded, unfavourably, of how much better Richard Yates did this. Perhaps Yates has ruined me for prose depictions of alcoholism because I can't imagine anybody writing it better (even Zola's L'Assommoir fails to live up to Yates' mastery). I'm not sure if I need to read another novel by Moore. I liked Judith Hearne a lot, but I wasn't blown away the way I have been by other authors. 

In other news, I have been reading short stories by William Trevor (from the omnibus Selected Stories, which, contrary to the title, aren't selected), Deborah Eisenberg (from her recently released collection Your Duck is My Duck), Munro's Moons of Jupiter, and Kelly Link's Get In Trouble. Trevor's stories are immaculate, precise sparkling gems of exquisite beauty. The hype is real. Kelly Link was recently award a MacArthur "genius" Grant, thus prompting me to give her stories a try. I should have known from the blurb by Gaiman that Link wouldn't be exactly for me. She's got a great eye for detail and sentences, but I feel a bit cold with these urban fantasy stories unless they veer hard into the Weird or into horror. Link is writing extremely well... but in a register which doesn't vibe with me.