Monday, April 15, 2019

April Reads Part Two

Secret Rendezvous by Kōbō Abe
The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley
The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Matt Zoller Seitz tweeted near the beginning of April he suffers from impatience with writers who frame their reviews with their personal connection to the cultural object in question. I have extremely well-developed search engine skills (my partner refers to it as "Google-Fu") leading me to suspect he deleted the tweet as I cannot find it. He deleted the tweet. But it gave me pause. Perhaps I do indulge in too much personal reminiscing when reviewing books. I often start my review by connecting the current object under scrutiny to a previous object. Is this mode stale? Am I putting too much of myself into these scribblings? Frankly, I write this blog for myself, and I'm eternally grateful for whoever might stop by, even if for only a moment. I thought of this opening gambit, this metacognition, because I knew exactly how I would open this review of a Kōbō Abe novel: by reminding readers I last read the author when I was 15 or so, struggling vainly against The Box Man. I wonder what is the point of mentioning this. To prove that I'm literate? To create a chronological connection? To illustrate how long I've been reading as an adult? Is it just narcissism? I'm not sure.

I was inspired to read Secret Rendezvous by Joachim Boaz of the blog Science Fiction Ruminations (here). I'd purchased the major seven Abe novels off a pal from Letterboxd about two years ago but hadn't got around to them. I'm glad I did, though, as this novel was a laugh riot. The narrator, unnamed of course, watches helplessly as an ambulance shows up to his house and takes away his wife, despite her being in good health and despite neither of them phoning for medical assistance. He hopes to track her down and goes to the local hospital, a nightmarish labyrinth of shifting geography and in-fighting bureaucrats. It's as funny as it is frustrating as the narrator never receives a straight answer to any of his questions and slowly, just like in modern day bureaucracies, he manages to ascend the job ladder to head of security. Kafkaesque, sure, but far more pointed in its satirical aims. Abe was a medical doctor, though he didn't practice, and from what he saw, he was angry. This should probably be a required text for any and all hospital administrators.

It's been too long since I've read an Abe book and I won't make the mistake of waiting >15 years to read another.

I don't think I'm well-versed enough in Catholicism to do justice to O'Connor's dark, psychological thriller. I read some reviews of it, and the Wikipedia article, and I knew I was in trouble, with regards to my critical lens, when I read the secular uncle was the antagonist of the book. I also read the book as quite critical of religious dogmatism and blind obedience, but apparently, the ending isn't that, because the prophecy is fulfilled and the mentally handicapped child is killed, but it's okay because he was baptized first. Reading these deeply religious works often frustrate my sensibilities; not in any prosaic, atheist way, as if my beliefs were being challenged, but in the sense that I'm coming at these texts without any of the background, cultural knowledge. My reaction to Scorsese's Silence was a large shrug (I could not fathom why Andrew Garfield wouldn't just step on Metal Jesus' face, even to save lives!). I liked The Violent Bear It Away because it's beautifully written and dripping with the much-loved Southern Gothic flavour. The prose was a lovely change of pace from the bland book I had just finished (here), but it was like reading a transmission from another planet, an aesthetically pleasing transmission, but confusing nonetheless.

I knew I was going to love the Didion collection pretty much right from the opening piece, a true crime bit of reportage which feels tired and soporific and stylistically energized all at the same time. Her voice, this perfectly pitched, pretentious, haughty, judgemental voice resonates outwards from each piece, no matter the subject. She is the subject. Yes this is style over substance but what style! what lexical precision! From her piece on keeping notebooks:
"So what's new in the whiskey business?" What could that possibly mean to you? To me it means a blonde a Pucci bathing suit sitting with a couple of fat men by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Another man approaches, and they regard one another in silence fora while. "So what's new in the whiskey business?" one of the fat men finally says by way of welcome, and the blonde stands up, arches one foot and dips it in the pool, looking all the while at the cabana where Baby Pignatari is talking on the telephone. That is all there is to that, except that several years later I saw the blonde coming out of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York with her California complexion and a voluminous mink coat. In the harsh wind that day she looked old and irrevocably tired to me.... (140)
Stunning. It's not just the careful accumulation of details (the Pucci bathing suit, the dipped toes) but the efficiency of it all. The switch from California to New York in the same paragraph, the "harsh" wind, her being "irrevocably" tired. It all hammers home this precision, this despondent, fin de siècle prose, a yawning emptiness she can't help but see everywhere she goes.

Later, in a piece on the uniqueness of Los Angeles, she goes to a piano bar, where in is written "the oral history of Los Angeles". She writes, all in one perfectly pitched paragraph:
A drunk requests "The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi." The piano player says he doesn't know it. "Where'd you learn to play the piano?" the drunk asks. "I got two degrees," the piano player says . "One in musical education." I go to a coin telephone and call a friend in New York. "Where are you?" he says. "In a piano bar in Encino," I say. "Why?" he says. "Why not," I say. (224)
This is, of course, the last paragraph of the essay, a shock to the system, a wry and sad period ending the piece. The amazing part about reading Didion is seeing where all of my favourite writers have gotten their style. Bret Easton Ellis, Ann Beattie, without Didion they would be nothing. Of course, Didion didn't entirely invent New Journalism, nor did she invent the absurdist non sequitur dialogue much cherished by short story writers (I've heard Samuel Beckett is the one to really nail this. I must investigate). But she certainly aced this style. I can't wait to read more of her work.

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