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.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Miami Blues

I've marked down somewhere on this blog that I've read Miami Blues and I don't think I finished it. I remembered the first third or so, but the turn at the halfway point, I did not remember (the synopsis on the back of the in-print edition gives the illusion this turn is the opening incident, which is not the case, and I'm glad I hadn't spoiled it for myself). I also don't remember the book being so weird, so offbeat. I'm extremely suspicious of myself. I think I wrote down that I read it just as a way to inflate my numbers! J'accuse!! 

I wonder what my reaction would have been had I finished the book. Certainly, I was kept off-kilter for almost the entire book by its aesthetics and I suspect a younger me might have been put off or have penalized the novel. I'm not sure I'm wiser now, but I think I'm more open-minded when it comes to aesthetics. Miami Blues is one of the weirdest crime novels I've ever read and I'm not 100% not referring to the plotting. Nothing particularly abnormal or outside the lines happens, nothing that wouldn't sit comfortably in a Leonard novel, but it's all in how Willeford tells his tale that made such an impression on me right now.

His Wikipedia page gives insight into the uniqueness: novelist Steve Erickson is quoted as saying, "The camera's not really focused on the middle of the scene. It's a little bit off. They're not plot driven or language driven, which makes them really different from most major crime novels. They're character driven and cunning in a very eccentric way" (here). The language isn't particularly beautiful—no one would praise him for poesy. And, as I said, the plotting isn't all that wild, either. But there's just something off about everything. Part of the effect derives from how flat all the description is. There's lots of paragraphs giving step by step directions the characters are taking, which highway and which street and that same flat delivery is used for scenes of violence. The gore and gunshots and bodies get the same treatment as clothes, booze, cars, desks, coffee, food. But Willeford rarely pays lavish attention to whatever object in the scene might be the central metaphor. Hoke Moseley's false teeth, for example, are rarely described or focused on, even when they're being thrown out a window. Broken bones, shot faces, blood and guts are rarely lingered over. Like Erickson says, the camera is just always off a little. Here's the inciting scene, when the antagonist meets a Hare Krishna in the airport:
"I want to be your friend," the Hare Krishna said, "and—"
Freddy grasped the Hare Krishna's middle finger and bent it back sharply. The Krishna yelped. Freddy applied sharper pressure and jerked the finger backward, breaking it. The Krishna screamed, a high-pitched gargling sound, and collapsed onto his knees. Freddy let go of the dangling finger, and as the Krishna bent over, screaming, his wig fell off, exposing his shaved head. (3)
The actual breakage is just a single phrase but the noise the victim produces gets three sentences and a variety of sounds: yelp, gargle, scream and then a repetition of scream. Just fascinating choices. 

In the next chapter, Hoke, his partner, an assistant DA, and the coroner are talking about the man killed of a broken finger:
"...I'll have to research this case, that's all. We can't do anything about it anyway until you catch the man in the leather jacket."
"That's all we've got to go on," Hoke said. "Leather jacket. We don't even know the color of the jacket. One guy said he had heard it was tan; another guy said he'd heard gray. Unless the man comes forward by himself, we haven't got a chance in hell of finding him. He could be on a plane for England or someplace at this minute." Hoke took a Kool out of a crumpled package, lit it, took one drag, and then butted it out in a standing ashtray. "The body's all yours, Doc. We've got all of the stuff out of his pockets." (11)
Mostly I quote this to highlight the single puff on the cigarette, but also to get a feel of the dialogue. People don't talk like this, but it also isn't stilted enough to sound false. It doesn't sound real but it doesn't sound not-real. It's like Willeford is editing a transcription. Again, it's that off-kilter feel to everything. Of course there's a standing ashtray. Of course he adds "or someplace" to the hypothetical location. Why England of all places? The world in which these characters live in is weird.

Speaking of which, I was worried, for the first half, if this novel was secretly reactionary, secretly upset with immigrants, with how much crime non-white people "bring" into the US. Though Hoke is investigating this one crime, he's also busy with a quadruple homicide, one of the victims being a child, and another being a hotel maid. There's a misanthropic vein pumping under the skin of Miami Blues. Another aspect of the off-kilter vibe is that the antagonist, Freddy, keeps stumbling upon crimes-in-progress. He goes to the mall and watches a pickpocket; he pops into a convenience store for milk and interrupts a stick-up. Everywhere he goes, he runs into crime already happening. Miami, in this novel, is Hell, a thieves' paradise, a hotbed of ceaseless crime, shit piling up and up, with cops barely able to keep their head above the tide, or swimming with it. Hoke's cop friends are always on the verge of retiring because of the crime. One cop complains a guy on the street threw a cinderblock through the police car window. 

But the novel is also at pains to remind us Freddy is piece of shit, too. A "blithe psychopath" he's called in the first sentence of the novel. Though the reader might see a reactionary position, a hatred of Latino folks, the truth is that Willeford is frustrated with the systems of inequality, the way the gears grind, how the machine is lubricated with the blood of the poor. Innocent or criminal, the poor suffer in Miami Blues. Either they're destined for crime by dint of class or they're destined to be victims. All the while, in the background, never seen and never named, are the ruling classes who own the properties, the highways, the freeways, the very city in which they live. The threat of property development lurks on the edges of this novel all the time. It's capitalism to blame for the cycles of violence these characters find themselves enacting repeatedly. Of course, there's no accounting for "blithe psychopaths" in this schema, but he at least gets his comeuppance. 

Yet another example of Floridian literature where the panhandle feels like an alternate dimension. It sounds like America, it feels like America, but it isn't. There's a great moment where Freddy orders a Denver omelette and the waiter doesn't know what he's talking about. He describes it and Susan, his accomplice from Florida, says, "He wants a homestyle omelette." It's always just a little off. It sounds familiar but it isn't. Willeford spends as much time describing highways as he does the ever-pervasive humidity. Freddy complains it's like breathing underwater. Florida is a sidestep out of reality, where crime is this ceaseless activity always already happening and the swamp is creeping at your feet, always ready to swallow you whole. 

Monday, July 8, 2019

July Reads Part One

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst
Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Maximum Bob by Elmore Leonard

I last read an Elmore Leonard novel in 2013 (La Brava) making it 6 years to the month. I'm currently on a smidge of a Florida kick; I can't stop thinking about this alien dimension just jutting out from the continental USA. It's this weird zone of everything all at once—swamps, forests, gators, beaches, lush land, pastel colours—and the people are famously (infamously) bizarre too. There's a "Florida Man" stereotype of bananas criminals who do the dumbest things. Florida is like if California was a hundred times more humid and without the patina of respectability offered by the film industry. It's pure id, all desire and grasp. Or at least that's how it feels as an outsider. There's a reason why Jeff VanderMeer set Area X in Florida!

Maximum Bob is generic Elmore Leonard in the sense that it's exactly what is say it's about and it's more about the good time you're going to have with it. During my experience with it, I tried to slow down and figure out the craft toiling away in the background. What is it about Elmore Leonard that makes this so good? His technical accomplishments feel effortless, as if he dashed this novel off in an afternoon. And maybe he did, maybe he's that gifted of a writer. The nuts and bolts, the actual words on the page get their force from the efficiency. Leonard has perfected minimalism; he provides enough physical detail in short sharp sentences to create the atmosphere and then lets his characters loose in that world. It's all about the elimination of the extraneous. I'm sure there's a highly verbose, lushly written crime novel out there as fun as Leonard's stuff, but I haven't found it yet.

Tampa I read not because of its lurid subject matter, but because of its setting. Which is a shame as its setting doesn't impact the novel much. It's background information. I tend to avoid "disturbing" or edgelord stuff nowadays because they use their shocking subject material as a veil to hide a paucity of substance or meaningful engagement with ideas. In other words, it's shock for shock's sake. Which is why, despite enjoying A. M. Homes quite a bit, I haven't yet read her The End of Alice which sounds as edgelord as this. Perhaps I should. Perhaps the craft elevates the material? That's the case with Tampa. The treatment of abuse and manipulation wouldn't have worked as well as it does if the novel wasn't as funny as it is. I laughed riotously at the protagonist's absurd private fantasies, such as imagining the pleasure she'd have if a gigantic Godzilla-sized version of her crush would obliterate her under his massive foot. She goes on to imagine this giant crouching, his penis so large it crushes a nearby car. She compares said member to a sequoia and I couldn't stop laughing. I suppose that's the only way to write such objectionable material with impunity from society: use satire to scrub away any possibility of endorsement. I liked this well enough to seek out Nutting's other work!

I'm heartbroken to announce that The Sparsholt Affair is Hollinghurst's worst novel. Though with the caveat: his worst novel is still better than most of the dreck being published. The major issue, the fatal flaw, is the novel replicates quite self-consciously the structure of The Stranger's Child, but without the connective tissue of a poem. The titular affair is not a single thing but a pun, referring to a scandal (similar to the Profumo Affair, but gay) spoken of only in the background and the extramarital affair itself. Thus, it doesn't have the same force as the poem which unites the previous novel's disparate sections. Where The Stranger's Child is about memory and time and art, The Sparsholt Affair is more about the changing fortunes of gay men in England. Not necessarily a negative thing! In fact, if I hadn't read The Stranger's Child, I would call this one a classic! It's just less ambitious, less successful, and more ephemeral than its older sibling. What a shame. The novel is wonderful to read in the moment thanks to Hollinghurst's careful prose. He innately understands the importance of seemingly-banal touches and gestures during conversations. A hand on a shoulder has as much dramatic force as a gunshot in a Hollinghurst novel. I wonder if he has another novel in him yet.