Sunday, November 4, 2018

October Reads Part Two

Perfect Recall by Ann Beattie
Dancing After Hours by Andre Dubus
The Snow by Adam Roberts 

Dancing After Hours is as close to perfect as short story collections go. From "All the Time in the World," about a young woman yearning for a connection beyond the physical:
The other men she loved talked about marriage as a young and untried soldier might talk of war: sometimes they believed they could do it, and survive as well; sometimes they were afraid they could not; but it remained an abstraction that would only become concrete with the call to arms, the sound of drums and horns and marching feet. She knew with each man that the drumroll of pregnancy would terrify him; that even the gentlestthe vegetarian math teacher who would not kill the mice that shared his apartmentwould gratefully drive her to an abortion clinic and tenderly hold her hand while she opened her legs. (89)
This quote, excavated from a longer paragraph gives examples of what makes Dubus' stories and prose work so well. His sentences are long (this isn't even close to the longest sentence in this collection) but never lose focus or clarity; his use of the polysyndeton ("and" instead of commas) generating a beautiful rhythm; the sensitivity and honesty; the love he has for these characters even when they frustrate. Most of the stories in this collection are harrowing little pieces of drama, the kind of short stories which use random catastrophes and tragedies to probe about how people will react, how they'll cope, how they live. Which is to say, my favourite type of short story. I can't wait to read more of his work.

Perfect Recall is more of the same from Beattie, but with a bit more stylistic and formal experimentation than in previous collections, I've gathered. The first story even features a rare appearance (in a Beattie story) of a Joycean epiphany! Some of these were ok and some contained the brilliance which keeps me coming back for more. "See the Pyramids," about two models and their flaky boyfriends, tickled me, as did "In Irons." Two of the best stories featured men taking care of other men, either as a job or as friends. "The Big-Breasted Pilgrim" (not a great title) follows a chef's personal assistant and the surrounding friends and lovers as he attempts to organize a private dinner for the then-President Bill Clinton. This is mirrored quite in a lovely way with the final story, "The Famous Poet, Amid Bougainvillea" in which two personal assistants to two famous artists have been disabled and are hiring their replacements. In each case, the characters are confronted with the assumption of gay romance, but all of them resist this easy speculation; instead, the relationships are complicated in different ways, not cluttered by eroticism, but cluttered by professional responsibilities and idiosyncrasies. All in all, not the most even collection—I can now understand why people claim her star dimmed in the late 1990s—but still a terrific read. 

Reading a high concept work of science fiction from Adam Roberts is often deflating. He zigs where other authors might zag, leaving readers potentially disappointed that the narrative didn't do what was promised on the tin, as it were. The Snow suggests an end of the world cozy catastrophe (yes, the Aldiss refrain about Wyndham) but instead, like Splinter and Gradisil, opts for emotional exploration using the structure of a speculative fiction novel. The snow does indeed fall, though this takes up only about 40 pages of a 300 page novel. The rest is an emotional journey, following the narrator (through a series of false documents) as she reacts, mostly passively, to the insanity of a government forming itself from the ruins of society. I suspect that, like many of his other novels, The Snow is self-consciously inspired by Wyndham's 1950s cozy catastrophes. The society Roberts imagines to form feels conservative and bourgeois, in a decidedly pointed way. It's no accident that the narrator is a woman of colour; this allows Roberts to bounce her off of Wyndham's small-minded science fiction. But like I say, it can be a bit deflating. There's a long section from another narrator which details his drug abuse problem as a Hollywood TV writer, and while it's funny and well-written, I can't help but wonder why Roberts loves his digressions so. Especially since the crucial piece of information in this section is purposefully and explicitly omitted, only to be revealed much later. He does love his puzzles that Adam. Still, as always, a pleasure to read.

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