Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Gorky Park

The first book I read on the trip was Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park, which aims very high, even if it doesn't quite hit its mark. The book is about a Russian detective, Arkady Renko, who gets drawn into a plot to smuggle sables out of Russia and create a new sable industry in the US.

It seems that Smith is aiming for the lofty territory of le Carre, drawing equivalences between Americans and Russians (everyone's after money, loyalties shift very freely, and so on), with a world-weary hero. But Gorky Park doesn't have the moral bite le Carre often has. In le Carre's books, people have principles, and the drama is in how much they'll compromise them, or even undermine them while ostensibly promoting them. For example, the way that a democratic government will try to prop up dictators, or even undermine fledgling democratic movements, if it seems to be in the national interest.

In Gorky Park, so many of the characters are venal, that there's no real tragedy; it becomes a game of watching how the pieces move. As it happens, Smith has put together a fascinating game to watch, and it's an excellent novel, but I kept hoping for just a little bit more.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

New York Trilogy

Just got back from our honeymoon to Belize. Great trip! Also great for my reading -- I got through 6 books on the trip. Too many to write about right now, so I'm just going to talk about the most interesting one, maybe with a line or two about the others some other time.

Most thought-provoking was definitely Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. The trilogy consists of three odd short stories, City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room.

City of Glass
sets the tone by its combination of literary story and detective story. Writer Quinn gets a phone call by someone looking for the famous detective Paul Auster, and gets sucked into the middle of a dysfunctional family relationship. He's hired to tail a man who tortured his son to test his theories of language development, but loses track of the man, and goes into this weird fugue state as he tries to find the man again.

Ghosts is the story of a detective, Blue, who's hired to watch a man, Black, who sits in his room all day writing. Blue eventually decides to take a more active role, and confronts Black directly, only to find that Black is actually the man who hired him, and that Black is writing the story of Blue's surveillance.

In The Locked Room, Fanshawe, a long-distant friend of the narrator's, suddenly disappears, naming the narrator his literary executor. The narrator then sets out to find Fanshawe.

It's been commonly noticed that all three novels share a detective-novel theme. I think that it's not so commonly noticed that all of them dwell on one aspect of the detective novel, namely shadowing a suspect. This is notable, I think, because following someone is the most passive common activity in what is generally thought of as an action-oriented genre. In the outer two books, the heroes are writers, which makes them natural observers. Blue, in Ghosts, is an actual detective, and he takes the most active steps in breaking out of the mold that someone else has set for him.

I found all three novellas somewhat disturbing, particularly The Locked Room, which rings so true to life in so many ways. They all deal to some extent with a breakdown in sanity -- when can you really tell that you've gone over the edge? For Quinn the fall is sudden and obvious -- but does Blue ever fall over the line? What about the narrator of The Locked Room?

Friday, November 7, 2008

History of Love, the Resurrectionist, the Limits of Enchantment

Three fairly literary books this time.

The History of Love is about a book called The History of Love and its author, although we don't actually learn that till near the end. Along the way, we meet Leo and Alma, the former a Jew who escaped the Nazis, the latter a young girl looking for a father figure. The actual story is very complex, maybe needlessly so -- Kraus does a lot of maneuvering to get everyone into the right places at the right times. I also felt that it was a book aiming to be uplifting -- Leo dies in the arms of someone who knows who he is, instead of anonymously, which was his great fear.

But I felt more depressed than uplifted at the end. To get to this blessed state, Leo has spend the last 20? 30? years friendless and alone, to the point where he had to make up an imaginary friend just to get by. Alma never really finds what she's looking for, and her brother is clearly autistic, and presumably undiagnosed -- he's seeing a therapist by the end, but it's not clear that that's going to help.

I'll probably have to read The Resurrectionist at least once more to understand what Jack O'Connell, the author, is saying. The novel starts with a clear delineation between reality and fantasy, but by the end, it's not really clear to what extent the protagonist is hallucinating. Overall, it was a really great mind-bending read, but I felt it was seriously marred by the noir elements. Unlike Will Baer, who uses the noir elements of his work as a background against which the more literary elements can work, O'Connell keeps foregrounding them, and it feels like the rest of the story is fighting against the more stock pieces.

Why is Sweeny the pharmacist not dismissed for beating up a co-worker on the first day of the job? How does Nadia the nurse get a job at a research hospital with no credentials? How can Buzz Cote be taken seriously as a father figure?

I'd read other books by O'Connell, because the good stuf was really great, but I feel like he just missed hitting the heights of, say, the Phineas Poe trilogy.

Lastly, I just finished Graham Joyce's Limits of Enchantment. Joyce is revisiting the same ground he visited in The Facts of Life, but I liked this one better. Mammy feels more real, less idealized. Some of her wacky ideas turn out to have sense, but she's not infallible. In Facts, Cassie just sort of floats through life, with no real consequences for her detachment. Here, we see that no-one can really get away with that -- the real world will reach in, regardless of how little you care for it.