Wednesday, July 31, 2019

July Reads Part Two

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Someone At a Distance by Dorothy Whipple
Dancer at the Dance by Andrew Holleran
And Shall Machines Surrender by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

An almost perfect run here, folks. Five books in a row that blew my socks off in the best possible way. Let's start with the clear winner, The Age of Innocence. Never before had I finished a Wharton; I remember stalling out with House of Mirth about 11 years ago, but this did not happen with Age of Innocence. I picked it up, the Library of America College Edition I bought in Chicago around 5 year ago, with the intention of sampling it. I read 100 pages in one sitting. Wharton's style is one of exacting lightness, each word so carefully, precisely chosen, without ever getting bogged down in Henry James-style circumflexion. Sentences are brisk, readable, but never simplified. Wonderful stuff.

What surprised me is how much I felt Wharton had written a novel for me. I don't necessarily mean the plot, though this is the kind of plot I'm drawn to. Mostly, I'm referring to its structure, scene to scene, and its style. This blog is, as often mentioned, a remembering machine for me. It tracks my tastes, the shifts, the avalanches of thoughts and opinions as they undulate across my brain. For now, my interests are mostly aesthetics, but still with a wide eye on plotting. I think more about individual scenes and how they're described than whether or not the Story as a whole succeeds for me. How I'm seeing a novel now is an aggregation of scenes beautifully written and smaller stakes, to the point where scenes should be one-on-one, two people with different goals, possibly opposing goals. I'm also, as the years go by, more interested in style than in efficient delivery of information. The other day, Priscilla Page, a film critic, posted a picture of a letter written by Raymond Chandler:
A long time ago, when I was writing for the pulps I put into a story a line like 'he got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water'. They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn't appreciate this sort of thing: just help up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was that they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn't know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death.
Forgive me for posting a solid of text, but I needed the whole thing to get Chandler's point across. This isn't the first time I've posted about Chandler's thoughts on fiction and I'm finding the older I get, the more my desires align with his goals. I found myself savouring the transitions writers would compose, the scenes of landscape description or traveling or whatever banal action takes the plot from one beat to another. I remember my mother complaining Thomas Hardy was all descriptions of landscape and when I finally read him, I was astonished by a) how inaccurate this was and b) how disappointed I was not to encounter endless adjectives reporting the English countryside. These moments of quietude offer writers a moment to show off. The spotlight is off the characters and writers can put it on themselves at least for a paragraph or two. It is in these stretches where you'll find the best poetry. And Chandler is right: these lines create emotion. If readers really wanted action, they'd go to the theatre or read a play, where everything is held up by the actors. No, what we really want is emotion conjured forth from all the literary tools in the kit.

Here's a bit from the very end of The Age of Innocence, when an older Newland Archer has arrived in Europe with his adult son. He is due to meet the Countess for the first time in 30 years.
He got up and walked across the Place de la Concorde and the Tuileries gardens to the Louvre. She had once told him that she often went there, and he had a fancy to spend the intervening time in a place where he could think of her as perhaps having lately been. For an hour or more he wandered from gallery to gallery through the dazzle of afternoon light, and one by one the pictures burst on him in their half-forgotten splendour, filling his soul with the long echoes of beauty. After all, his life had been too starved.... (Chapter 34)
 I might have chosen something less portentous, but I wanted to show off Wharton's economical style. In one sentence, she provides us with a "dazzle" of light, which is immediately compared with the pictures "bursting" on Newland, as if he is wandering through a constant shimmer, the way light vibrates in the heat. As if the Countess herself is a mirage in the distance. And in many ways, she is. It's efficient and sustains the emotion of regret, nostalgia, but also homecoming all at the same time. Just a smidge after this paragraph:
They had come out into the great tree-planted space before the Invalides. The dome of Mansart floated ethereally above the budding trees and the long grey front of the building: drawing up into itself all the rays of afternoon light, it hung there like the visible symbol of the race's glory.
More light, more splendour, all hammering down on Newland, a weight that's both heavy and comforting, burdensome and relieving all at once. The mirage of Countess floats "ethereally" just as this dome does. It's a visible symbol of what he didn't choose when he stayed loyal to his wife. These bits don't advance the plot, but they create the emotion. We can't have characters announce their feelingsthis isn't a playso why not let the landscape do the heavy lifting? So yes, superb in all ways. A masterpiece.

But this wasn't the only masterpiece I read this month. Baldwin's If Beale Street... was the kind of experience which reminds you why you read in the first place: the rush of emotion, the growing awareness that you're in the hands of a master, the dawning reminder that literature can do this, can be this, can accomplish so much. From the very beginning of novel, you know you're in masterful hands:
I walked out, to cross these big, wide corridors I've come to hate, corridors wider than all the Sahara desert. The Sahara is never empty; these corridors are never empty. If you cross the Sahara, and you fall, by and by vultures circle around you, smelling, sensing, your death. They circle lower and lower: they wait. They know. They know exactly when the flesh is ready, when the spirit cannot fight back. The poor are always crossing the Sahara. And the lawyers and bondsmen and all that crowd circle around the poor, exactly like vultures. (6-7)
Baldwin's narrator, apparently the only time he ever used a woman narrator, balances this beautiful spirituality and clear-eyed honesty about the world. The crossing of the desert, the plight of the Jewish peoples, the oppression of the Black people. It's connected.

I didn't love the ending of the novel. It's a bit too abrupt. And this criticism has to be significant because I generally love abrupt endings (an example: Dog Day Afternoon). But it feels like Baldwin just stopped writing. I don't mean the plot. It's not necessary to know if Fonny is released from prison. But it just ends on a scene already in progress. I wish there had been one or two more pages. Otherwise, just wonderful.

Someone at a Distance is Dorothy Whipple's most famous novel, I believe. I found two of her novels from Persephone Classics (a Virago analogue) at a charity book sale, quite a find considering they each retail for about 30 dollars in paperback. Whipple is the kind of writer who makes it look easy. You read it quickly, enjoy the odd beautiful turn of phrase that purposefully calls attention to itself, and you set the book aside. But, like I've said of other novels, that efficiency is a mark of true quality. The kind of writing that flows this cleanly isn't a mistake. It's professionalism. It's talent. Someone at a Distance chronicles the buildup and fallout of infidelity. A middle class English family finds a cuckoo in their nest, a French woman who seduces the husband out of boredom and out of material greed. I wish the novel had began with the affair already in play, ie the old chestnut that stories should start as late in the action possible, but the methodical building of the circumstances offered their own pleasures. I quite liked this, even if at times I felt the novel was a bit inconsequential. That's the problem with these middlebrow novels from the mid-20th century, and I 100% do not mean "middlebrow" in the pejorative.

Dancer at the Dance is one of those seminal important gay novels I just haven't read because I spent my youth reading Stephen King instead of exploring my identity through fiction. This is not a bad thing, of course, because younger me might not have enjoyed Holleran's novel for its aesthetic beauty, which is distinctly the pleasure here. Holleran charts the rise and fall of a Gatsby-like character, a beautiful and damned gay man who bounces from one lover to another.
It got very hot very soon that summer⁠—tremendous heat that made the East Village almost sensual for a spell: shadows, and breezes, and the sun beating waves from the pavements toward the clear blue sky. The fire hydrants were open, gushing day and night. Peaches were ripe in the fruit stalls on Second Avenue, the streets south of Astor Place were empty at dusk, and every figure you came upon walking south shimmered for a moment in the distance, then materialized into a group of boys playing ball in a lot littered with broken glass. (200)
The whole novel is like this: light on plot, heavy on sensual, opulent physical detail. I was saying to a work colleague, a gay man in his 50s, who has read all this shit long before I was born, that one reason why I return to gay fiction over and over is that gay men labour happily under the looming shadow of Oscar Wilde. The decadence of gay life is mirrored in the decadence of their prose. Everything is all the more sensual, all the more lavish, because they had to hide in the dark for so long, that the minute the light hit them, they went wild. Even that single comma after "shadows" feels garish and expensive.


Benjanun Sriduangkaew's latest novella, And Shall Machines Surrender (which I keep transposing the "shall" to after "machines"), is more of a mystery story than previous efforts. I didn't love this aspect of the narrative, especially when it necessitates copious amounts of exposition. When Sriduangkaew is writing individual scenes, such as a wonderfully violent action sequence (in which a cis dude, American of course, gets his face peeled off), she's writing on a level other writers can't even glimpse at. She always picks the interesting or off-the-beaten-path adjective or adverb, giving her writing a colour that's utterly unique. My favourite scenes, other than the boorish American dying a horrible death, are the sex scenes between the two protagonists. I'm not embarrassed to admit I was flustered by Sriduangkaew's obvious skill. I wish the novella had been a bit more contained, less sprawling, but this is still science fiction at peak quality. What I love about Sriduangkaew's writing is not just her aggressive, resolute queerness, but her attention to detail. She isn't just "writing the movie in her mind" like so many godawful genre writers do. She's considering her words, she's writing, not just transcribing some fantasy to make a buck. It's a breath of fresh air.

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