Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man redux

So, I've blogged about each part of Portrait, but how does it stand as a whole?

I think the biggest thing I realized this time through is how disciplined the work is. Portrait always invites comparison to Ulysses, because it seems that Joyce is trying out the techniques that he will present to such great effect in the later work. Also, Stephen is our viewpoint at the beginning of Ulysses, so it seems like Ulysses is picking up where Portrait left off.

But I now think that this comparison is unfortunate and unfair to Portrait, which can stand strongly on its own. Ulysses is the flashier of the two, showing off Joyce's brilliance at every turn Every effect in Ulysses is on a large scale -- where Joyce wants to put some literary effects into a section, he puts in 57. Portrait is much more naturalistic as subtle in its effects. It's easy to read through and not notice the alliterations and other effects, or the change in the narrator's speech patterns, though Joyce clues you in on the first page.

Joyce is a subtle writer, but in Portrait not so fond of puzzles for their own sake, which may be why I found the footnotes here not terribly useful. We can trace the Dedalus family's descent into poverty without needing to know each address they move to -- mentions of twice-watered tea served in jam-pots instead of cups tell us all we need to know. Stephen himself is overly clever, but I think we're not necessarily supposed to understand each of his allusions -- he's just playing intellectual games for their empty sake. When he writes for himself alone (in the diary fragments at the end), he's generally straightforward, although of course fragmentary and cryptic to outsiders.

I suppose anyone writing about Portrait is tempted to think about how much is autobiographical. Stephen lives in many of the same places as Joyce, he has the same preoccupations about the Irish language, he has bad vision, and so on. I discussed in an earlier post the question about whether Stephen's artistic manifesto is really Joyce's -- is he giving us a way to evaluate his work within the work itself?

But on this reading, I've come to think that really it doesn't matter so much. More clearly than any manifesto could, Joyce's writing shows us how the artist transforms the world he sees as a through a glass darkly into glittering words. Of course there's some relationship between the raw material and the finished work, but the work stands on its own. Just as Stephen transforms his raw experience into art (as his namesake Daedalus does), so Joyce has transformed his raw experience into Portrait.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

With its seeming equation of virtue and beauty, The Picture of Dorian Gray looks like a fable. For the purposes of the story, everyone accepts that Dorian Gray must be good because he is beautiful, at least for a while. But I think that Wilde is really trying to puncture that attitude by a sort of reductio ad absurdum.

Lord Henry Wotton, who leads Dorian down the path to ruin, is an engaging character, and it seems that the narrator picks up Henry's manner. Most of the epigrams that we hear from this novel come from Henry's mouth. ("People nowadays know the price of everything and the value of nothing," "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it," etc). It's easy to be seduced by Henry's manner -- Basil Hallward, his foil, is a comparatively a bore.

But ultimately, Henry's path is barren. He believes in beauty only, with no connection to the value of the underlying object. One senses that he might even approve of Dorian's cruel acts, since Dorian has the picture to absorb their consequences. Wilde makes Henry so entertaining, because if we were instantly repelled by him, we would never think that his attitude could touch us, that we could be cruel like Dorian.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (part 5)

Portrait is a pretty short book, so I was able to polish off part 5 as well today.

In part 5, Stephen outlines his aesthetic theory, which he draws largely from Aquinas. There are some who conflate Stephen's theory with Joyce's, but I think that Joyce intends this section to be something of a joke on Stephen. Stephen spends a lot of time fretting about the fate of the Irish language, which he feels is symbolized by the word "tundish," a word that the English priest doesn't know. But Stephen later realizes that the word actually has English roots, and is not Irish at all. I think that this is a micro version of Stephen's macro struggles to define himself -- he's constantly getting lost in a labyrinth of his own making (like his namesake Daedelus).

He wants to establish an independent aesthetic theory, but ends up drawing on the very Catholic Aquinas (my Penguin edition says that he owes less to Aquinas than to the Duns Scotus, but I think the point is that Stephen thinks that he's drawing heavily from Aquinas, even as he wants to reject Catholicism). Stephen also sets himself up as Satan with his non serviam, but he is also bound by Jesuitical modes of thinking.

In the end, he flees Ireland, but it's hard not to see his ultimate failure that comes in Ulysses, where he returns after a very short stay in France, and to recall Buck Mulligan's claims that Stephen's refusal to take the Eucharist had killed his mother. Even though I think we're not supposed to take Buck seriously (he's Antinous to Stephen's Telemachus), I think that he's addressing a real fear of Stephen's -- that his break with religion has indeed pushed his mother over the edge.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (part 4)

I wanted to set down my thoughts on part 4 of Portrait before I forget them...

Stephen gives up the idea of the priesthood, realizing that it was never a realistic option for him. As soon as he does, we get a beautiful (but somewhat purple) passage:
The phrase and the day and the scene harmonized in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the grey-fringed fleece of clouds.
I think Joyce is showing us how overwhelmed Stephen suddenly is with the world, and how self-consciously he's poeticizing the world -- he can't even see all these things very well. The purpleness of the prose shows us that Stephen is still an adolescent, over-reacting to everything. From here, Joyce goes us on to throw a bunch of alliterations, compound words, and even 2 chiasmi at us, again showing us Stephen's sudden awakening, but also his immature over-reaction -- he wants to make a metaphor out of everything he sees, turning the girl wading in the sea into a bird, a tidepool into a silver ring, and so on.

Gawain and the Green Knight, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Over the weekend, I read Simon Armitage's translation of Gawain and the Green Knight. I have the Tolkien translation, but haven't read it yet, so I don't have anything to compare it against. Having said that, I really enjoyed his translation. Although Armitage took some liberties with the a a | a x alliterative scheme, it seems that the Gawain poet did as well, and Armitage mostly manages to work in three alliterations per line, even if they're not on the first three stresses.

My biggest complaint was the weakness of his bob-and-wheel translations. In these sections, the poet switches to a rhyme and meter prosody that should be ababa, but Armitage often loses one of the a's, and sometimes even two of them. He does keep the rhythm, though, and I liked the way that it feels like a contrast to the longer lines above.

Speaking of alliterative lines, I finished the third part of Portrait, and it seems that Joyce added alliteration to Stephen's arsenal. There are a lot of alliterations, and I think they reflect Stephen's growing sense of the sound of words will become important as he decides to become a poet. In part 4, at least as far as I've read, both the compound words and alliterations have declined, because Stephen is going through a much more plain portion of his life, having renounced worldly pleasures. It'll be interesting to see if they resume as he abandons the priestly life.

Also, a note on the Penguin edition footnotes: they're godawful. There's one on "From the door of Byron's publichouse to the gate of Clontarf Chapel... he had paced," that tells us that Clontarf Chapel is on Clontarf Road. What I want to know is how far that is from Byron's public house (because it might tells us something about Stephen's state of mind), or at least something about the neighborhood. (Or, if those things aren't particularly important, just don't have a footnote!)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Jar City

Jar City is probably the first novel I've read set in Iceland, and, surprisingly enough, it ends up being a story that could only believably take place in Iceland, so I've got to give Arnaldur Indridason props for that. More importantly, his main characters are interesting, particularly his lead detective Erlendur. Erlendur is pretty sympathetic, but Indridason also makes him well-rounded so that we can see his flaws, and see him reluctantly starting to address some of them. I'm interested enough in his character arc to read the next in the series.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I've just started re-reading Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and I wanted to jot down something I'm noticing in part 2. Maybe the significance of it will come clear to me later, so I don't want to forget it...

Part 2 uses a lot of "Homeric" compound words, for want of a better word. We have, in a short space, "hollowsounding", "freshfaced", and "suddenrisen". In part 1, there aren't any, so this is a pretty marked change in style -- is it supposed to mark Stephen's sophistication? He's not reading Homer at this point in his education (I think). Although, come to think of it, the beginning of part 1 talks about the "moocow", so maybe this is a pretty direct way to show how Stephen's conceptions are becoming more sophisticated.

Added a bit later: In part 3, there are more compound words, this time focused around Stephen's religious epiphany (judgementseat, lurkingplace, bloodred, etc). Is it now part of the way Stephen looks at the world? The end of the book has Stephen conflating a girl and a bird -- maybe this is a prefiguring of the way he combines disparate concepts. I'll have to see if these words appear much outside of the sermon in this section.

Various miscellany

Some further ruminations on books I posted about earlier...

Titus Groan: The opening of the novel is almost cinematic. Peake starts with the people outside Gormenghast Castle, the bright carvers. He moves to their carvings, which are stored inside the castle, and watched over by RottCodd. Flay comes in tell Rottcodd that a son has been born, and we then follow him through the kitchens up to Lord Sepulchrave. It's like a long tracking shot taking us through most of the personages who will be important in the novel to come, but completely unintrusive. It also tells us right away that Gormenghast is a place with many unvarying traditions, and introduces us to the rivalry of Swelter and Flay which will become critical as the novel proceeds.

Idylls of the King: This poem has an awful view of women! I try not to let politics of another time get in the way of my enjoyment of most books, but Idylls makes it very hard. Most of the women are horrible. Aside from characters like Vivien, who is always evil, I found the portrayal of Guinevere to be one of the most negative I've ever run across. The only female character who is presented in a positive light that I can remember off-hand is Enid, who smiles through what's essentially an abusive relationship. I've read that Tennyson's portrayals of women were very influential to the Victorians. I suppose we can't blame him for that, but it does explain why the Victorian attitude toward women was so negative.

The French Lieutenant's Woman: I see that I was incredibly terse about this novel in my first post, thinking I'd get back to it. And that's a pity, because in retrospect it was one of the more interesting novels I read this year. Fowles gives us a few conundrums in the novel, but I think the central one is what to make of the titular character. Fowles tells us she is his "protagonist," and yet she's never a point-of-view character, and isn't even present in most scenes. I think most people would call Charles the protagonist, so what is Fowles getting at?

This is a novel about people trapped in their time period. Fowles gives us many details about Victorian times not merely to set the scene, but to show us how all the characters are trapped by their current mores. Sarah is the one exception -- she chooses her place in society, even if it's a negative one. She lies about the lieutenant, even though it places her in a worse position; we may not understand why she does it, but it's a clear choice.

I think this ties in to the odd double/triple-ending. In one sense, the first ending is a red herring. Charles can never choose to return to his former life; it would be a complete betrayal of his character. However, the other two endings are both possible to Charles, and depend somewhat on how we (and Charles) see Sarah. In a sense, Charles has a chance for the first time to make a real choice; Sarah gives him that option.

Another game that Fowles plays with the two endings is by claiming that they're equivalent -- one is as likely as the other. However, he knows that we readers have to read the first ending first; this isn't a hyper-text novel where we can click a link and choose the order of the endings at random. So, does he intend one ending to be more important than the other? If so, is it the first, which is more emotionally satisfying, or the second, which seems somehow truer?

On another note, Fowles uses evolution as a metaphor for the Victorian age. (As does Byatt in Angels and Insects: it would probably be instructive to compare how they do so, but space doesn't permit here). Society as a whole is evolving in unforeseen ways (Marxism being just over the horizon is another major theme in the novel), and most of the characters have to change or die, so to speak. The aristocracy is fading into irrelevancy, and the self-made man is gaining in respectability, as Charles is dimly beginning to see.

I'd probably need to give the novel another go-through to address most of these issues...

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Cricus of Dr Lao, Blindsight, Ivanhoe, Iliad

I ran across Charles Finney's The Circus of Dr Lao when I was unpacking a crate of books recently, and so, remembering it as a bit of an odd book, I decided to re-read it. Odd it certainly is; it's hard to even imagine it getting published today -- it's a slim 150 pages, and it couldn't possibly be expanded or turned into a series. Instead, we're given a day in the life of Abalone, Missouri when Dr. Lao's odd circus comes into the town.

There are no central characters, and there isn't really a plot. In the first third of the book, the people of the town react to the news that a circus is in town, then we look at the sideshows for the next third, and then we watch the circus, followed by the very odd catalog of all the characters, creatures, foods (!), and a list of unanswered questions. Through the whole book, Finney seems to be presenting two contradictory ideas. On the one hand, the townspeople are painted as too dull to perceive the magic in the circus -- faced with a werewolf-woman, two men are bored because when she turns human she looks 80 years old rather than the young girl they were hoping for. On the other hand, the magic itself is presented as being dull -- a man is resurrected from the dead, and the first thing he does is look at his watch and announce that he's late for an appointment, whereupon he runs off, not to be seen again in the story (though he shows up in the catalog).

The catalog often drives home the message that plenty of strange things happen in our daily lives, but in a distinctly non-romantic way. More like "you just never know what's going to happen to you -- it could be really great or really terrible" (or just boring, as Mrs. Cassan finds when she goes to the fortune-teller who tells her that the rest of her life will be the same as the previous 10 years; nothing new will ever happen to her. In her case, though, I think that Finney's problem with her is that she's constantly waiting for some outside thing to happen to her -- the dark handsome man to come into her life, or to inherit an oil well -- rather than looking around at her children).

If the word that describes The Circus is odd, the word that describes Peter Watts' Blindsight is cold. We're given a narrator who's had the empathy centers surgically removed from his brain. He sees all human interactions as games of one sort or another. He, along with 5 team-mates, is sent to check out the first alien intelligence that humanity has found. This is a very ambitious novel, with speculations on the nature of intelligence and sentience, the interaction of biology and environment, and some really good thoughts about where humanity is heading. And so I wanted to like it more than I actually did -- but for me, the void at the center of the novel made it hard to care about what happened to anyone in the book. The society back on earth is completely decadent, the only likable character dies about halfway through, and there's no-one to really anchor yourself to. But I think it's not even that I found the characters unlikable -- Macbeth, for example, is an unlikable character but we still want to know what happens to him. It's more that it's hard to invest any emotion in characters who are in some ways so alien already.

Ivanhoe is, of course, the medieval romantic/historical fiction par excellence. It's not typically a genre that I'm interested in, but I thought it might be fun to listen to on audible. Plus, I figure that if I'm going to read one book in a genre, it might as well be one of the best... I'm now at the 2/3 mark and having a blast with it. Scott's characters are nuanced, even though they're larger than life.

His treatment of the Jews is particularly noteworthy. Isaac the Jew seems at first to be a stereotype of a Jew (grasping and servile), but Scott does 2 things. The first time we see Isaac, Scott tells us that he acts the way he does because the Christians of the day have forced it on him. He then makes Isaac act occasionally generous (and more so than the abbot of the local monastery), while maintaining his essential character. More importantly, Isaac's daughter Rebecca comes across as the true heroine of the novel. Although the lady Rowena would seem to be the heroine when she first appears, she's actually a very passive character. Rebecca can verbally joust with the Templars, can heal the sick Ivanhoe, and on top of it all maintains her Jewish faith in the face of romantic and monetary temptations.

Scott's portrayal of Robin Hood is also a lot of fun to watch, and Wamba the jester is a great character as well. All of the characters, Norman and Saxon, are much more well-rounded than I was expecting, and I can already see why Ivanhoe is a classic.

In my Iliad readings, I've just gotten to the section where Hephaestus makes a shield for Achilles. It's a commonplace to note that the mortals in the Iliad act out the heroic tragedy, while the gods give us the counterpoint of domestic life, and I think that the sequence where Thetis visits Hephaestus is one of the great examples. We get some 30 lines of pleasantries as he and his wife Charis invite Thetis to join them at their meal and entertain her, while she asks Hephaestus's help. It's a charming scene, and it's a welcome interlude between Achilles' mourning of Patroclus (with his concommitant decision to die in battle at Troy rather than return home to a long life in Greece) and the long description of the shield which is to come.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dr. No, The Fugitive Pigeon, Recalled to Life, Almost Dead

Audible was having a big sale, including lots of James Bond, so I bought Dr. No as a bit of a lark. The book was actually a surprise in a few ways. Probably the biggest one was the treatment of Bond's love interest, Honey Rider. He has moral qualms about possibly taking advantage of her (and never does so through the novel), she ends up escaping from her trap before he does. Bond himself is also portrayed a bit less cold-bloodedly than I remember.

On the negative side, Dr. No is not a very interesting villain. His plan is pretty pedestrian (interfere with US missile communications to have the missiles drop into the ocean), and it might as well not be there -- I think it's mentioned for one paragraph in a throw-away, and Bond never even goes to the trouble of shutting it down. Dr. No seems more interesting in torturing Bond for no particularly good reason. On the whole, it was a fun read; at 7 hours it's a very short book, and in these days of logorrhea, that's not a bad thing.

If amazon can be believed, The Fugitive Pigeon was Donald Westlake's first comic caper novel. These are stories where the hapless protagonist blunders into a situation and ends up having many people chasing him for their various nefarious reasons. The problem with many of these stories is that the whole plot is always based on some initial misunderstanding, and so the ending can be a letdown -- they journey's the thing, not the destination. The Fugitive Pigeon, though, manages to avoid this problem. By the end of the book, with the whole mob chasing after our hero, it turns out there wasn't a misunderstand; there was a deliberate frame that he was placed into. In all, if this was Westlake's first such novel (they'd later become one of his staples), it's a remarkable example of the genre.

I wasn't so enamored of the last couple of Dalziel & Pascoe novels I read (Bones and Silence and Underworld), but Recalled to Life is a return to form. There's the playfulness moving from the title, through the epigraphs from each chapter being obviously from A Tale of Two Cities to the cute "It was the best of crimes, it was the worst of crimes etc". More importantly, there's a nice balance between Pascoe's private life and the main story, as well as a nice balance between Dalziel and Pascoe.

On a side note, this novel also shows one of the positives of a series vis-a-vis a stand-alone novel. We can see the steady degradation of Pascoe's marriage over time in a way that would be difficult in a stand-alone novel. It's not really interesting enough to make the focus of a novel; if anything, it gains poignancy from the fact that there aren't any major dramatic moments. There are also enough fits and starts to make me hope that they work it out in the long run...

I pretty much swore off Charlie Huston after A Dangerous Man. It wasn't so much bad as just disappointing, and I just looked back and realized I never even blogged about it. I do see that in my post about Six Bad Things, I said "Huston doesn't break any new ground with this novel, but he does the same-old-same-old so well that I know I'll be reading the final book in the trilogy." Unfortunately, that same-old did start get old. But amazon was offering Almost Dead as a free download, and I figured that maybe a totally different sort of novel would reinvigorate my interest.

Almost Dead has an intriguing premise -- a hard-boiled vampire detective novel set in New York. Huston fleshes the setting out with 5 vampire clans competing for territory while trying to stay hidden from humans. The book was fun while it was lasted, but I have no particular desire to read more of the series. It's partly that vampire books don't really push my buttons, but also the book is too self-conscious about the various genres it's mixing -- Huston has a clan of kung-fu vampires, another drawn from mob stories, another that's a parody of socially-conscious movements, a biker gang, and so on. You can see the literary antecedents of each one, and Huston is just a little too over-the-top with each one.

It's funny -- it just occurs to me that I lauded Reginald Hill for doing something similar in Recalled to Life. I think the big difference is that the Tale of Two Cities references mostly lie there in the background, not really calling much attention to themselves. They add an extra resonance (or even just a moment of pleasure at the cleverness) if you recognize them, but Hill isn't constantly drawing on Dickens, or throwing in Darnay/Carter equivalents.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Name of the Wind, Patriot Acts, Dr Bloodmoney

Patrick Rothfuss's Name of the Wind came very highly recommended by some acquaintances, and it took me a while to get around to reading it. Now that I've read it, I must admit that I just don't get adulation. Not that it's a bad book. Rothfuss is a competent story-teller, and his word-smithing is good. But in a fantasy field that contains writers like Nix, Vandermeer, and other luminaries, I'm not sure why it was so seized-upon.

The story concerns Kvothe, a hero-in-the-making, and relates his time in university. Kvothe is a prodigy who can learn a language in a couple of days, and he enters the academy at the age of 14, earning the jealousy of many students and teachers. I suppose part of my problem comes from this premise -- I feel that if you're going to have a genius for a narrator, he shouldn't sound like the guy next door, but Kvothe too often does. Another problem I had was logorrhea -- the frame story alone probably takes 50 pages to get started. I have no problem with length per se (I loved The Brothers Karamazov), but the length should have a purpose, and I felt that too often Rothfuss was just noodling around without going anywhere.

Patriot Acts, by Greg Rucka, was another disappointment, although I should've been prepared to be disappointed, I suppose. It's the penultimate installment in his Atticus Kodiak series, which started with a really fresh idea -- Atticus Kodiak is a bodyguard, and the books were about his various guarding assignments. Unfortunately, Rucka upped the ante in a couple of the more recent novels, having Kodiak defend clients from two of the world's greatest assassins, leaving the carefully-established realism in the dust. In this novel, Kodiak joins forces with one of those assassins (now former assassin), and together they try to hunt down a man who has a contract on them. At this point, Rucka might as well be playing in fairy-land. It may be that these super-assassins exist (though I confess myself a skeptic), but I have a hard time believing that a 35 year old man can suddenly train to become one in the course of a few months.

Dr Bloodmoney is an altogether different kettle of fish. In some ways it's more audacious than the other two, and so it's a harder book to judge. Superficially, it's a post-WWIII story, following the fortunes of a small group of people in the Bay Area 8 years after a nuclear attack. But Dick invites a more allegorical reading from the first. Communications across the US are maintained through a satellite manned by Dangerfield, whose mission to Mars was screwed up when the nuclear attack happened. Everyone in the US tries to listen to the radio as Dangerfield's satellite flies overhead, and this is seen as a unifying effect across communities -- it's the one thing everyone does.

The two people trying to stop Dangerfield are Hoppy Harrington, a phocomelus with psychic powers, and Dr. Bluthgeld, the "Dr. Bloddmoney" of the title. Harrington wants to be the center of attention, and he wants to usurp Dangerfield's place, imitating Dangerfield's voice so that nobody would even know. Hoppy's nemesis is another kid with a birth defect, Bill Keller, who can channel real dead voices. So I think that Dick has set up a pretty clear opposition between the real and the counterfeit, as he does so often in his work. But I think that Bill Keller is a pretty scary figure as well -- it's not so obvious that Bill is any better than Hoppy, except that in the end he does the right thing and Hoppy doesn't.

Dr. Bluthgeld, on the other hand, is not so easy to classify. He's paranoid with delusions of grandeur, but he may actually have the ability to start a nuclear war. That uncertainty is par for the course with Dick, and didn't bother me. But I felt that (a) it's too much of a throw-away -- in the end, it barely matters if Bluthgeld could start WWIV or not, and (b) to the extent that Bluthgeld is responsible for Dangerfield's illness, there's no story reason given for it. I understand that on a symbolic level, Dangerfield represents community and Bluthgeld represents a destructive force inimical to that community, but within the story there's no really good reason.

On the whole, I felt that Dr Bloodmoney is not one of Dick's strongest books. It showcases a lot of his obsessions, and carries his kaleidoscopic style, but it doesn't really gel. It was worth reading, but if someone asked me for a book to get started on Dick with, it'd have to be something like The Man in the High Castle.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Death Masks, Dead I Well May Be, Shriek: An Afterword

This is what I get for putting off posting for so long -- a lot of new books, including a couple I'm skipping.

These are three pretty disparate books, and I think they show disparate approaches to style. Jim Butcher's Death Masks is almost anti-style -- the author will happily butcher the language (pun intended) as he tries to get his story across. The characters are all smart-alecky, he re-uses phrases (like the incessant "Hell's bells"), and, in short, can really grate on the ear. But, for all that, I enjoyed the book -- I can give Butcher a pass on the style, because the story's so entertaining, and he's playing with some clever ideas. It also helps that the novel is pretty short, because if a book like this starts to drag, you end up thinking about the writing instead of the plot, and that's the kiss of death in such a plot-driven book.

Adrian McKinty's Dead I Well May Be takes pretty much the opposite approach. It's a pretty standard revenge story about a man set up for a crime who escapes to seek revenge on the people who set him up. McKinty's style, though, rescues this book. Michael, the protagonist, has a beautifully expressive way of telling a story, and is very funny to boot. He complains that when he's fleeing the police (in handcuffs), nobody tries to stop him -- "have they no social responsibility?" I think he's also a great incarnation of a character who's very clever, but is ultimately feckless because he just can't get motivated. In the end, I was a bit sorry that the plot-line was so weak, but I certainly want to read more about Michael, so I'll tune in for the next installment and hope that McKinty brings his talents to bear on a worthier plot.

Jeff Vandermeer's Shriek:An Afterword is a perfect marriage of plot and style. The set-up at first seems rather precious: Janice Shriek, sister of Duncan Shriek, is writing an afterword to her brother's brief history of Ambergris. She thinks he is dead, and so her afterword turns into a memoir of her interactions with him. He, however, is not dead, and has scribbled his emendations into her text (though he is also an unreliable narrator). On top of all that, Janice is in a disturbed frame of mind, and she keeps backtracking on her story, even starting over a couple of times.

In practice, though, the artificiality of the device fades as we become wrapped up in the story. This is a story about an enigma -- what are the Gray Caps, and what do they want? At least so far, they're ultimately unknowable, and so this fractured view is the only way to tell this story. In a more straight-forward attempt to tell the story, we'd lose much of the mystery -- what did Duncan find underground? Is a sea-change actually happening in Ambergris, or is it just Janice's imagination?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Titus Groan, Bones and Silence

Sometimes, while I'm reading a book I start wondering what an author was thinking about when he started writing the novel. Since it's pretty rare that an author actually tells us, I'm in the happy position of not easily being shown to be wrong...

A case in point is Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan. The books starts as if it's going to be a sort of other-worldly Dickensian novel. We get a swooping overview of Gormenghast Castle, filled with the sorts of grotesque caricatures that Dickens liked to write, down to the names (Dr. Prunesquallor, the cook Swelter and his rival Flay, Lord Groan, and so on). And so I wonder if Peake had originally intended for the whole book to be a satire, but then realized that satirizing a non-existent place was too limiting for his imagination.

Because, as the novel unfolds, the characters acquire depth and pathos -- there's a sort of turning-point half-way through, when the castle library burns, that brings out the best and worst of these characters. And it seems that Peake's attitude toward his characters changes then as well -- up until that point, the authorial voice is pretty cold, leading us to despise most of the characters, but afterwards, we end up feeling more sorry for them, or impressed by them, as the case may be. And I think it's interesting that the only characters who don't come out as more well-rounded are the twins and Swelter, who are also the characters who aren't at the library during the fire.

Another example would be Reginald Hill's Bones and Silence, which feels like a really great short story grafted on to a mediocre novel. The novel is about Dalziel's attempt to prove that a man killed his wife, where all the evidence points to suicide. By the end of the novel, he's linked the man to four murders, which would be OK, but there's just so much of the hugger-mugger that gives detective novels a bad name -- the obscure clues, the convoluted motivations, and so on. Interspersed through the novel, Dalziel receives letters from a suicidal woman which he refuses to take seriously, and passes on to Pascoe. Pascoe's attempts to unravel the letter-writer's identity make a great little story, but they're too split up by the main novel to be truly effective.

On the other hand, that story only works because Pascoe's got a number of characters from the main story to draw from -- in a short story, it'd be obvious too quickly to us the readers who the letter-writer is. So it seems like Hill had this great story in mind, but couldn't find a way to make it stand effectively on its own. He needed to introduce more characters, and we end up with all the business of Dalziel playing God in the York Mystery Cycle. It's great stuff, but too flimsy to hang a novel on, and I can imagine Hill just deciding he didn't want to throw it all away, and sticking the other story in on top. Unfortunately, in the end the weaker story dominates the novel, which is a pity.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Manual of Detection, Redbreast, Metamorphosis

Jedediah Berry's Manual of Detection is the most surreal mystery I've ever read, except maybe for Auster's New York Trilogy. In fact, it's hard to see why the publisher packaged it as a mystery at all, and not as general literature (like, again, the New York Trilogy). In the end, though, I just read books, I don't choose the genres, and this book was a really wonderful one.

Unwin, the protagonist, starts as a clerk in a huge detective agencies, assigned to a detective who's solved celebrated mysteries like "The Man who Stole Tuesday." He's promoted to detective, and in the course of the novel ends up in the middle of a case where all of the city's alarm clocks are being stolen, entering dreams through vinyl LPs, and discovering the identity of "The Last Victim." I think that these kinds of stories stand or fall on how well they hang together. They don't necessarily have to make logical sense, but they can't be totally random either. For this kind of story to work, you have to feel at the end that there's an internal logic that's held up, and Berry pulls it off.

More famously surreal, of course, is Kafka's Metamorphosis, which I finally got around to reading this weekend. I don't know that I have anything to add to the mounds of analysis that have been written about this story, except that I think that one must have at least a somewhat literal reading. I think the story loses a lot if you read it as completely symbolic. I also think a symbolic reading is much too reductive.

Redbreast, by Jo Nesbo, is straightforward by comparison. It was a bit odd to read the blurbs in the front-matter, and go in expecting a whole take on neo-nazis in Norway, and end up with a Day of the Jackal-type novel. In a way that's good, though -- as a non-Norwegian, I'm not sure how much relevance a treatise on intolerance in Norway would have meant to me. But I am sure how brilliantly Nesbo ratchets up the tension through the novel, and what a great character Harry Hole the lead detective is.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Keeper, Idylls of the King

Sarah Langan's The Keeper is a horror novel that doesn't quite succeed, and I'm musing about why. Part of the problem, I think, is that you can tell from early on which characters she likes, and you know that they'll come out of everything unscathed. Other writers have the good and bad suffering alike.

But it's not quite so simple -- I loved Heart-Shaped Box, and I think there's never any doubt that the protagonist will prevail, and it's pretty unlikely that his girlfriend will die. I think the difference is that Joe Hill performs some narrative sleight-of-hand to keep you from seeing it too closely -- Jude gets injured pretty severely, and his employee dies right near the beginning. Langan, on the other hand, really pushes it in your face, paradoxically by having more characters die. There's a section about 2/3 of the way through where about 10 characters die in horrible ways, but it's not scary because they're mostly ad hoc characters -- they don't really exist outside of that chapter, so it's hard to care what happens to them. More importantly, it drives home the fact that Langan doesn't want to take out any characters that she's spent any time on developing.

I'm in the middle of listening to Tennyson's Idylls of the King, so I don't have a complete opinion of it, but I wanted to note something that I like. It's mostly the story of various of Arthur's knights, and Arthur doesn't feature heavily in most of the stories so far. This gives Tennyson a chance to mention Guinevere's affair with Lancelot in passing in the stories, so that we get a sense of how long the affair is actually going on, and how pervasive it was (as various knights avoid thinking about it, or as Guinevere and Lancelot cover it up) . I think that versions which focus on the triangle never really give you that sense.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Smiley's People, Berlin Game, His Majesty's Dragon

Coincidentally, two spy novels this time around. Audible was having a big sale, and I've been thinking about re-reading Smiley's People for a while. I've also been kicking around the idea of reading some Deighton, since he's in much the same sort of espionage as leCarre.

LeCarre has two modes that most of his writing falls into. There are the suspenseful novels and detective-y, more character-based novels. (These things are relative, of course -- even at his most suspenseful, leCarre isn't writing James Bond novels). The former ones are books like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Night Manager, while the latter include books like Tinker, Tailor and A Murder of Quality. It certainly isn't the case that one style is better than the other -- in my examples above, Spy Who Came in and Tinker, Tailor are among the best espionage books around, and the other two are not so good.

Smiley's People is at the extreme end of the detective-y side (although I suppose Murder of Quality is arguably more so, but it's a lousy novel, so I don't count it). There is a little bit of suspense when KGB agents try to arrest one of the minor characters in Paris, but most of teh action happens off-stage. Instead, we follow George Smiley around as he follows up the death of one of the Circus's informants against the wishes of his superiors. As the novel progresses, Smiley gets closer and closer to Karla, his nemesis in Moscow Centre, but le Carre makes the process deliberately anti-climactic. I say deliberately because le Carre has shown that he can do suspense as well as anybody, and so I think that he decided not to, here.

Indeed, le Carre has subverted a number of conventions in Smiley's People. For one, he never actually confronts Karla. When Karla finally defects to the West, he crosses over the border and gets into a car. In a sort of epilogue, we here that Smiley may have debriefed him, but we never get to hear any of it. Further, Smiley ends up getting to Karla through Karla's daughter, not because of Karla's fanaticism, or because of some mis-step that Karla made in a plan against the West. Lastly, it's not even clear what this victory means -- by the end of novel, the Circus is still in disarray, and it's not clear that this will put it back on the right track.

Len Deighton's Berlin Game is treading the same ground as le Carre's work, in having a spy novel that's as much about office politics as about world politics. He's not as good as le Carre's peak period, but neither is le Carre any more (see my discussion of A Most Wanted Man.) Berlin Game is about Bernard Samson, an agent now past his prime, who used to work out of Berlin. When one of their sources in East Berlin wants to cross over to the West, Bernie is sent in to persuade him to stay, while trying to watch out for a KGB mole in the deparment.

I enjoyed this book, but very much because of the last 1/3 or so, maybe even last 1/4. Up until there, the book errs on the side of realism, and we're treated to endless scenes of Bernie worrying if his wife is unfaithful, if he's going to get a promotion, complaining about dinner parties, and so on. Realism is great, but Bernie's not such a likable character that we want to spend that kind of time with him. By the end of the book, though, he has a number of illusions about himself punctured, so I think I'll give the next book in the trilogy a shot.

A quick note that I read Her Majesty's Dragon, but I don't have much to say about it. I think it'd be hugely appealing to fans of dragons (so I've recommended it to Moshe) and fans of Napoleonic wars historical fiction, but I don't fall into either category. Also, the dialogue was annoying -- not quite right, but not really modern either. I'd love to run into another writer like Susanna Clark, who really seems to get the dialog right (to my untrained ear, at least).

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Starfish, Heart-shaped Box, The Lake, The Blonde

A few more books from my recent spate...

I finally finished Mizuumi (The Lake) by Kawabata. It's an odd novel, not really unified in any way, and without much of a conclusion. As the novel progresses we learn more about Ginpei, the main character, but in the end he's still something of an enigma. I loved the way Kawabata moves around in time seamlessly, one second in Ginpei's childhood, the next in his time as a school-teacher. Still, this is a hard novel to love on the whole -- Ginpei is completely unsympathetic, and there's no plot to hang your hat on either.

Speaking of books with unsympathetic characters and minimal plots, I finished Starfish, by Peter Watts, recently. The main character is certainly unsympathetic, since the story is about people who live deep underwater maintaining geothermal energy stations. The book's main conceit is that only very disturbed people can live down there, so almost all the major characters are borderline psychotic. There's a plot that shows up at the end of the book, but it's almost perfunctory -- it seems that Watts got through 70% of the book, then decided that nothing had happened yet, and he added a plot (although I understand that it features heavily in the sequel).

Having said all those negative things about the book, I must say that I enjoyed it considerably. Watts's portraits of the disturbed characters are gripping, as we see them gradually acclimatizing to life underwater, and realizing that they don't really want to go back.

I also read Duane Swierczynski's The Blonde. I just checked amazon to see how to spell his name, and I see that most of his writing has been for comic books like Cable. I think that's really the only way to approach this novel -- it's like a prose version of a pulpy comic book. A very fast read (I think it took me all of 6 hours to read), not much to think about when you're done, but a lot of fun while it's going on.

Lastly, I finished Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box, which I thought was a brilliant horror novel. People have made a big deal about the fact that Hill is Stephen King's son, but his writing doesn't owe much to his father. King can write psychological horror (as he showed in The Shining), but he also likes to go for the gross-out (as he put it in Danse Macabre). In this novel, a man is haunted by the ghost of a former lover's step-father. He wants revenge because his daughter committed suicide after being dumped, and is trying to get out hero to kill himself. The ghost can't directly affect the physical world, so most of the horror is watching him trying to manipulate Jude (the main character) into killing himself and his current girlfriend. As Jude tries to get rid of his ghost, he ends up growing up -- in some ways this is a coming-of-age novel, even though Jude is in his 40s.

But the main thing that blew me away is how relentlessly tense the novel is. The ghost is a constant presence, and even moments of relaxation are suddenly shattered.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Exit Lines, Child's Play, Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden, Dead Sleep

With the various Jewish holidays, I've been able to polish off a few books in the last couple of weeks.

For whatever reason, I decided to download the next two installments of Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe series, Exit Lines and Child's Play. The former was excellent; the latter was very good. Exit Lines hits just about every note perfectly. The three deaths in the story happen to three old men, and this ties in thematically with the aging of Pascoe's father-in-law, and his first signs of senility. It's rare that detective novels manage to parallel the private lives of the detectives with the mystery. In addition, Hill keeps the three investigations separate very skilfully -- it's almost like watching a juggler in action (and when a fourth investigation rears its head, he still manages to keep them all clear for the reader). Lastly, we finally get to see some real development of Dalziel's character.

The only negative I can think of comes from this being a book in a series. Dalziel is under investigation for manslaughter, and it seems like he could be on the take as well, but there's never any real suspense around those issues, since we know he's got to continue for the rest of the series.

Child's Play is very good, but, in the end, is very conventional. I feel like Hill was setting up future events -- we see some cracks in Pascoe and Ellie's relationship, and Pascoe is starting to be less of a whiz kid, and having to face up to that. We also see how political Dalziel can really be when manipulating his superiors (leading to one of the funniest scenes I've read in any mystery). But you can see Hill pulling the strings -- one or two too many coincidences, characters with guilty secrets, and so on. Standard fare for a mystery novel, but Exit Lines had me hoping for better.

Catherynne Valente seems to have tried to see how far she could take the story-in-a-story concept, and the result is In the Night Gardens. In this book (it's hard to call it a novel), a character will, say, set off on a quest to find a foozle. Along the way, he meets another character, who says that she encountered the foozle years ago, and here's her story. In her story, she runs into someone else, who tells his story, and so on. As various stories finish, she pops back out to the outer stories, moves them forward a bit, then back to a new inner story. As a formal experiment, I found this fascinating. There are rarely more than 3 pages in a row from one character's story, and yet there's never a sense of treading water -- each story is interesting, and there's constant forward movement. Her writing is gorgeous as well, changing voices for the different characters' stories easily. The one thing that was missing was a sense of emotional involvement, and that's a big lack in a book so long (almost 500 pages). Still, I'm looking forward to reading her follow-up book.

Greg Iles's Dead Sleep is a great example of why it can be so hard to write a good mystery/thriller. Most of the book is very good, setting up a great character in the middle of a scary situation. But the last few chapters, where the villain is revealed, were a complete let-down. I think there's no other genre where a relatively few pages can so quickly retroactively sink what led up to them. But in a thriller, if the climax isn't good, the rest just falls apart retroactively, so to speak.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Hammerhead Ranch Hotel, Gone to her Death, The Guards

A bit of a dry patch this week... I read Tim Dorsey's Hammerhead Ranch Hotel, and it was pretty unsatisfying. I've got many reasons for not liking it that I could pontificate on, but it really just comes down to not having any likable characters. The obvious contrast is to Donald Westlake, who made a career out of humorous crime novels. But he realized that if you're going to have a novel full of people doing stupid and illegal things, their should be at least one sympathetic character, even if he's also doing stupid and illegal things.

For example, Westlake's Dortmunder gang is never violent, as well as being spectacularly unsuccessful in their various schemes. Dorsey's Serge Storms, on the other hand, ties someoneto the ends of a drawbridge when it's going to open. Even if that person is total scum, there's a point where things aren't really funny any more. (Obviously, to me -- Dorsey seems to have plenty of fans!).

Gone to her Death was a very solid puzzle mystery, and I really like the relationships between the major characters. I don't know what it is about British writers -- they really seem to work nicely with the language in a way most Americans don't bother with. McGown has a lot of nice similes, but unobtrusive. She also has a great narrative voice, just a touch of occasional snark/cynicism. Same with Reginald Hill (whose Exit Lines I'm in the middle of right now, and which is so far excellent) and P.D. James. Even Peter Robinson and Peter Lovesey, of whom I'm not a big fan. Whereas faux-British Deborah Crombie or Elizabeth George just don't have it.

I also read Ken Bruen's The Guards, and it was OK, but it felt like I'd already read it all before. P.I. who used to be a policeman -- check. Main character an alcoholic -- check. He reforms, but a particularly gruesome crime knocks him off the wagon -- check. Short punchy sentences -- check. It's not that I hated the book, but life is too short to read retreads -- I doubt I'll pick up any of Bruen's other books.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Iliad, Canterbury Tales, Sabriel

I've got a bit more of a mixed bag this time around than the three mysteries from last time.

First off, I finished book 17 of the Iliad. The last section of the book shows, I think, why the Homeric poet is a great poet, not just a great story-teller. In a few rushing lines, as the two Ajaxes cover Menelaus and Meriones's retreat from the Trojan advance, we get 5 similes, and each one is beautifully worked to show one (or sometimes more) aspect of the conflict. First, the conflict is like a raging fire, pushing townsmen away, with a horrible din. Then the two heroes are like mules, hauling Patroclos's body, as they sweat and strain. The Aiantes hold back the Trojan advance like a wooded ridge holding back a river, but Aeneas and Hector scatter the greeks as an eagle scatters starlings.

It's even more amazing when you consider that this was all worked out within the constraints of a very strict formular system.

I sent Garth Nix's Sabriel with Moshe to summer camp because I'd heard very good things about it, and, now that he's back, I decided to give it a try myself. It was very, very good indeed. Nix has a great feeling for similes (an evil spirit laughs like a match striking, for example), and his fantasy world feels unique. I'm not normally into books about the undead, and I probably wouldn't have started this one if I'd known that undead spirits were going to be a theme, but he really pulled it off in a way that didn't owe anything to other authors. Necromancers in this book control the dead through the sounds of bells, and Nix's aforementioned skill with similes really works well, here -- each bell has a different sound, and he evokes them all beautifully.

I've been listening to The Canterbury Tales, and I've been very gratified to find that it was better than I'd hoped. Chaucer tells all sorts of tales in all genres -- animal fables, ribald jokes, sermons, courtly love, and so on. I'd known that going in, but I wasn't expecting to find how much he gave each narrator his own voice, whether by giving some characters Latin words to throw in, or quoting from more or less learned sources, or using more or less foul language. The multiplicity of narrative voices is something that I've associated with more modern writing, and it's interesting to run across it in some of the oldest English literature extant.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Roseanna, Wireless, Angel's Flight

In the past week, I've listened to/read 3 mystery novels with somewhat different approaches (I guess it's more accurate to say that two have different approaches, and the third is in some wild place of its own).

Roseanna is a straightforward police procedural with no fireworks. Even the setting (a city in Sweden) barely impinges in the story -- one can imagine the story occurring in just about any city anywhere. The story is told in a very down-to-earth fashion: the victim isn't somebody special, there are no wider implications in her death, the investigation plods along in a very straightforward way. Unfortunately, it's easier to admire that sort of attention to quotidian details than to enjoy it. I found the story rather dull over-all; I think that any job is probably dull if it's described in enough detail.

Angel's Flight is an entry in Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series, and overall it felt like a reach that didn't really work for him. He's trying very hard to be politically relevant with references to the Rodney King case, but it feels very forced. In addition, the ending attempts to put an ironic spin on the whole story, but I found it very weak. I think irony and police procedurals don't really mix (with the exception of Michael Dibdin's novels, but he writes with a much lighter touch, and is very judicious in its application).

And then, as if to demonstrate the wide range of the mystery genre, there's Jack O'Connell's Wireless. Although it's technically a crime novel (a priest is killed at the beginning, and there's a police officer trying to solve the case), the crime gets very little space. O'Connell uses radio jammers (who disrupt legitimate radio broadcasts) to explore questions of anarchy and authoritarianism, and questions of ends and means.

I realize that I haven't done an Iliad update in a long time. I don't actually have much to say about what I'm reading, but, as a marker, I'm near the end of book 17 now. I think the most striking thing about the original that doesn't come through in translation is the driving sense of rhythm always pushing the reader forward. Homer varies the locations of the caesurae and diareses in a way that prevents the simple hexameter from growing stale.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Angels and Insects, Glass Books of the Dream Eaters

The second story in Angels and Insects, "Conjugal Angel," is sort of the obverse face to Byatt's earlier novel Possession. The heart of Possession is the love affair between two Victorian poets that Byatt invented. One of the attractions of that book is her pitch-perfect mimicry of poems she invents for her characters, and the analysis she has her literary detectives perform on the poems.

All this falls flat, though, in "Conjugal Angel," when she takes the game a step further and concerns herself with the real poet Alfred Tennyson and the real poem "In Memoriam." Now, instead of giving us a whole new poem, she only gives snatches (since, after all, one can read the real poem anywhere), and gives the analysis to Tennyson himself and his sister, which just feels tendentious. Underneath it all, there's a nice romantic story trying to get out (just as in Possession and also in "Morpho Eugenia"), but here it's too buried in all the Tennyson details.

Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, by Gordon Dahlquist, takes an intriguing idea and chracters, and pulls them until they're spread paper-thin, which is a pity. The novel, set in Victorian England, gets off to a good start when Miss Temple gets a letter ending her engagement to Roger Bascombe, and she decides to follow him and see why he might have broken the engagement. Dahlquist writes wonderful scenes, and is great at imagining derring-do and hairbreadth escapes. But, at the end, it just didn't amount to very much -- a simple adventure doesn't suddenly become deep just because it's been stretched to 800 pages.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Angels and Insects, Confession

"Morpho Eugenia", the first story in A. S. Byatt's Angels and Insects, is a literary mirror maze, starting with the title. Morpho Eugenia is a species of butterfly which is beautiful to behold, but poisonous to eat, and Eugenia Alabaster, the eldest daughter of the Alabaster household, was betrothed once, only to have her fiance die, and is now pursued by a second lover.

So the mirror seems clear enough, until we realize that Eugenia isn't the main character of the story, and in fact disappears from it for most of the second half, as the story focuses on the naturalist William Adamson. His name, I think, also gives us clues to the theme of the story -- Adam, of course, named the animals, as a naturalist does (the references to Linnaeus just cement this theme). But, in another inversion, Adamson spends most of the story pointedly not discovering new species to name, as he so dearly wishes to do, but instead is stuck in England, teaching the Alabaster children about the ants in their own backyard.

This all sets us up for the main mirror in the story, insect and human society. Byatt draws some clear parallels to start with: the males who do nothing except flock around the queen = the young men who do little but drink and hunt; the hive with all the workers = the Alabaster house with its many servants, and so on. But I think she's also playing a bit of game with all this. Throughout the story, many people are mentioned as drawing lessons from the insect world -- insects are cooperative like socialists, or insects care for their young as God cares for us, or insects take slaves like evil humans, and so on. Ultimately, the insects can't be anthropomorphized so easily, as William himself constantly reminds us. They must be studied on their own terms if we want to understand them.

Mattie Crompton reminds us that things aren't always what they seem. The Alabaster house seems like a hive, and sometimes has a hive-mind, but people within it can change roles (as a caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly, another persistent image). Eugenia herself changes from object of pursuit to object of disgust, and, of course, Mattie herself goes through the biggest changes of all, finding her voice as an author and naturalist.

There's so much going on in this story (I feel I'm just scratching the surface with these musings -- I haven't even touched on the questions of hybrids, Darwinism, the stories-in-stories) that it's almost hard to believe it's just a novella. I've started on the other story in the collection, but so far it seems relatively barren; I hope that will change as I finish it.

On the other side of the literary spectrum, Olen Steinhauer's Confession is a police procedural set in a Soviet state around the time of the Hungarian Uprising. (He doesn't give his state a name, but it's clearly supposed to be near Hungary). The mystery itself is fairly hum-drum -- it's not hard to stay ahead of the detectives in figuring it out -- but Steinhauer is more focused on the tension of living in a totalitarian state, where one can be shipped off to labor camps for any infringement, and sometimes for no infringement at all. Ferenc, the main character, ends up doing vicious and brutal things, just to be able to do something over which he has control, and I think that this same theme is reflected in the characters who return from the work camps driven by revenge.

In the end, I found the book emotionally devastating, in a way that Child 44 (a natural comparison to this book) never was. Child 44 is more focused on the hero's slow discovery that the Soviet state is not just brutal (which he already knew), but brutal toward innocent targets, and not always interested in actual justice. In the end of that novel, he's offered the chance to create a true police force, and there's a sense of closuer. In Confession, there's never a sense that justice is served. It's true that the main antagonist is executed, but for the wrong reasons, and, in the meantime, innocent lives remain ruined. Ferenc discovers that vengeance doesn't set things right, and can make things even worse, but isn't given anything to replace it with. In the end, justice is arbitrarily handed out, and sometimes you're lucky and the right person is punished.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Stone Diaries, Sharpe's Triumph

While I was at my parents this weekend, I read The Stone Diaries on Jenna's recommendation.

The writing was definitely beautiful, and Shields rings the changes on the different styles of writing. One section is epistolary, one is written from the points of view of many characters, and so on. On the other hand, it was all in the service of a void.

I felt like the point of the novel is the difficulty people have understanding each other, or even themselves. To illustrate this idea, Shields very rarely gives us any insight into her main character, but only gives us the fragmentary impressions of others (it's telling, for example, that the above-mentioned epistolary section contains no letters by the main character, only letters to her and about her). I think that having a vacuum at the center can be done (though no examples spring to mind right now), but Daisy, the main character, is too slender a reed to stand up to the task.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the passive Daisy is Richard Sharpe, hero of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe's Triumph. Set during the British conquest of India, the novel is about Richard Sharpe's rise from sergeant to ensign, which was apparently a difficult feat in those times (ensigns were the lowest rank of officer, and getting promoted to that rank allowed a man to become a gentleman). It's one of those historical novels where the parts that are hardest to believe are also the most accurate -- in this case, Sharpe is involved in the battle of Assaye, in which 10,000 British troops beat a force 5 times their size and with superior firepower.

It was a fast-paced read and gave me a feel for the time and place -- in the end, that's what I was looking for, and I'm sure I'll be reading more of Sharpe's adventures in the near future.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Today I finally finished 2666. I listened to it rather than reading it, and at 40 hours it clocks in as the longest one I've listened to.

The fifth part is about the writer Archimboldi, and mostly concerns his early life, from about 1930 through 1948. Even in those years, it's more about the stories of other people that Archimboldi runs across than about his story per se. Even in this digressive novel, this part is particularly digressive. We have the story of a Russian Jewish writer, the story of a Nazi functionary who's responsible for some 500 Jewish prisoners, the story of a Romanian general, not to mention the stories of Archimboldi's father, sister, and so on. It ends up in Santa Teresa, although before Archimboldi actually arrives, placing it chronologically before part 1. It also forces us to reconsider part 1, where it seems that the critics have actually encountered Archimboldi but didn't realize it. Maybe we should also reconsider parts 3 & 4 now that we know who Klaus Haas is. In short, part 5 brings us full circle, but not as directly as Finnegans Wake or Infinite Jest.

I'm not sure what to think of the novel as a whole. It's a sprawling novel, very undisciplined in some ways. I think it's clear that Moby Dick is one of Bolano's models, in which Melville seems to wander all over the place with all his various essays, and yet is focused around a general theme. And Bolano makes it clear in the novel that he'd rather have an ambitious failure than a successful minor work.

So what's the center of this work? I think it's too easy to say that the Santa Teresa murders are the center. Although they figure into every part to some degree, they're not at all central to the outer two parts, which form, so to speak, the first and last impression of the book. The first and last parts are, in their ways, about the difficulty of really knowing other people. And one can also find that theme in the third part, about Fate. But that's too trite a theme forsuch an ambitious work, and feels too shallow.

Ultimately, I don't think the work has one simple center (although Bolano claimed it does, so what do I know...). I think we can consider each part as a sort of center that the other 4 revolve around, and see the novel in a new light under each configuration. For instance, if we take the part about Amalfitano as the center, we're looking at a novel about the effects of living in an area in which tragedy can strike at any moment, even if one has not yet been personally affected. And we can see echoes of this in the part about Archimboldi, with all its people who've been warped by WWII, in part 3, with its depiction of the African American community in Harlem, and so on. On the other hand, if we take the part about the murders as central, then part 1 can be about how the academics have trivialized these terrible events that are outside of their frame of reference (turning the murders into a bit of barroom trivia). And so on.

Unfortunately, I think that, although there's too much to find in one reading, I don't see myself returning to this novel, the way I have to, say, Ulysses, or plan to with Infinite Jest. It just didn't end up resonating with me on that level.

Black Money, Field of Blood

This weekend, I managed to read Ross MacDonald's Black Money and Denise Mina's Field of Blood.

McDonald is often seen as the literary heir to Chandler and Hammett. I like Chandler very much, Hammett less so, but I'm starting to think I don't like their literary heirs very much. (I'm not a huge fan of Robert Parker either). It felt like MacDonald's style is based on the most obvious characteristics of Chandler's style -- the striking similes and the trenchant dialogue. And the book is well-written on a scene-by-scene level. But Chandler always feels like he's aiming at a moral note that's somehow missing from Black Money. It is a pretty late work for MacDonald, and maybe I'll go back and read one of his earlier books that established his reputation in the first place.

Field of Blood is less a murder novel than a novel that happens to have a murder in it. It's more a coming-of-age novel for its protagonist Paddy Meehan, who wants to become a reporter. She's having a tough time fighting the sexism of the department and of her family and fiance (who don't think she should have a job) when she stumbles into a story about the murder of an infant. On a sheer page-count basis, if nothing else, her investigation is a small part of the story, which deals a lot more with her relationships with her family and fiance.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


This is a quick follow-up to my earlier post about 2666.

I've now finished the part about the murders, and I've shifted my idea of what the book is about.

Although the book is full of dead ends and wrong turns, it also seems to be about pushing forward regardless. The fourth part ends without an actual resolution to the murders, but it somehow feels closer by the end than it did in the middle. The part ends with a politician vowing to push on until she finds out who is behind the murders.

It's interesting that this politician (whose name escapes me) is staying in the same room in the same hotel in Santa Teresa as Liz Norton was, back in part 1. I'm still trying to figure out the thematic significance. Both are staying in a room where two mirrors can be maneuvered to reflect each other, yet not show the person who sees the reflections. Are the mirrors supposed to represent Liz and the politician, each reflecting an aspect of the other? Or is it to say that both of them don't belong in Santa Teresa, which is why the mirrors (which are part of Santa Teresa) won't reflect them? Or is it on a grander scale, to say that the two parts are fundamentally connected, even though they seem so different from each other?

After the 4th part, the part about Archimboldi is rather anti-climactic. What I've read so far covers Hans Reiter's life from his birth in 1922 to his WWII experiences in Germany and Russia. I'll write more about it once I've read more; I'm only a few pages in.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Leave the Grave Green, Etched City

This shabbat I read Deborah Crombie's third book, Leave the Grave Green, and it got me thinking about what separates a competent mystery from a really engaging one. Not that the musing went anywhere... Leave the Grave Green should by all rights have been an excellent novel; the characters are richly drawn, the solution to the mystery isn't annoying, and the setting is well-done.

And yet, something was missing. Maybe it's the chemistry between the two main characters, which I've never quite bought. Maybe it's the way she seems to be reaching for a deep thematic resonance between the prologue and the main events of the story, a resonance that just never really develops. The book starts with an accidental drowning in a river, then jumps forward 20 years to another drowning in a river, but this time it was murder. But, other than the bald fact that we know that the first one happened, its dramatic possibilities are never really exploited -- it could just as easily have been a death by fire or a snakebite. In some ways, it was worse than not having the prologue at all, because then I wouldn't have been waiting for an emotional payoff that never comes.

I also read Bishop's The Etched City. Bishop is writing in the same vein as Jeff Vandermeer in City of Saints and Madmen, about a decadent city where strange and nasty things happen, and where the characters are as likely to be anti-heroes as not. I think Vandermeer is more successful, though, for two reasons. One is that the world of Ambergris is accessed through short stories, not one monolithic novel, which means that the characters don't have time to pall on us.

Secondly, Vandermeer is more audacious. His inexplicable events are on a grand scale -- a whole city disappears, for example. There's a hint that there might be an explanation, but there's also a feeling that strange things just happen. In The Etched City, unexplained things happen, but they're on a smaller scale, so they don't have a sense of cosmic significance. So readers end upwondering what those events mean -- is Bishop trying to point to deeper forces or not?

Overall, it's still a very good book, with a sense of a deep world which we're just catching glimpses of, and Bishop has a flair for using odd words that adds to the feeling of a decadent civilization. It's probably a pity that I read it so close to City of Saints and Madmen -- it might have seemed better if I'd read it at some other time.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


2666, by Roberto Bolano, is a novel of wrong turns, dead ends, and misdirection. Although I'm only 2/3 of the way through, the book is so huge that I wanted to put down some impressions, and certainly the most prominent of those is that this is a book rife with hidden meanings.

The first sign that you're in for rough sailing is the title, 2666. Although it seems to betoken a science fiction novel, there's nothing science fiction-y about the text. In fact, the text doesn't refer to 2666, and I've seen a few guesses on-line as to what it means (the most persuasive is that it refers to a line in one of his other novels).

This theme of hidenness is pervasive through the first part, "The part about the critics". All four critics are obsessed with the German writer Archimboldi, and spend a fair part of the section seeking him out, ending up in Mexico, but he remains elusive, and the section ends without any clearer idea of who he is than when it started. But I was thinking today that the theme plays out in another way. The Italian critic seems to disappear for the last part of the novel, but he's actually central to the relationships between the other three, as we find out at the very end when it turns out that Liz Norton is actually in love with him and left the other two in Mexico to return to him. Of course, we also get the first elusive mentions of the Santa Teresa murders in this section, and they will become the center of the novel as a whole, even though the central characters in this section are essentially oblivious to them.

In the second section, Professor Amalfitano is slowly going mad -- he can't make any sense out of the world, worried that his daughter could be a victim at any time of the random killings in Santa Teresa. Archimboldi and the critics have completely disappeared in this section, and everything revolves around Amalfitano's incipient madness. I think that this section is the most obviously symbolic (at least, so far). Amalfitano hangs a geometry book (the ultimate symbol of an orderly mind) on a clothes line, and the wind and weather (the imperfect real world) tear it apart. But, for all that, I think his worries for his daughter make it the most affecting of the three.

The second section pretty obviously relates to the sense of hidden meanings and senselessness -- Amalfitano is sure that there is some key to understanding the world around him, if only he could find it, but, as the geometry book shows us, nature is blind and random.

The third section, "The part about Fate", is about an African American journalist who comes to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match, but ends up wanting to write a story about the murders. But the murders become the negative space around which this section is constructed (as Archimboldi is in the first section). They're constantly alluded to, but we don't learn anything about them. Oscar Fate first hears about them in a restaurant, when he overhears a detective talking about his theory that there's more than one serial killer, but leaves before he registers the significance. People often ask him if he's there to write about the women, but he doesn't understand the reference. When he finally learns of the murders, his editors won't let him write the story. And, finally, when he decides to go ahead and interview the chief suspect anyway, the section jumps right over the actual interview, and we never find out what was said.

Everyone says that the fourth part, about the murders, is the heart of the novel, and I'm finding that to be, if anything, an understatement. It's sort of an anti-police procedural, and it's here that the theme of dead ends really jumped out at me. I'm not quite done with this section, but a few things really stand out.

1. Bolano has fictionalized the real-life murders in Juarez for this story, and he's playing with the duality a bit. On the one hand, I think readers are expected to know about the real events. On the other hand, though, he's done a number of things to make it clear that Santa Teresa is not Juarez, such as moving the town from the Texas border to the Arizona border. I think this is to leave him free to play with details of the killings, and not have readers constantly trying to figure out if he left out something important.

It also leaves him free to occasionally insert things that would be unknowable in a non-fiction work. (Having said that, this section is notably dry and reportorial in voice).

2. Bolano gives us a little bit of a back story for most of the victims. (She wanted to learn about computers, or she was a school-teacher, or whatever). This is a similar technique to what we see in the Iliad, where Homer gives warriors who have been killed in battle a small life story (this one was about to be married, that one's father is a priest, etc). It adds to the pathos, and lessens the feeling that this is just a long list of victims.

3. It's interesting how many victims turn out to be from a killing not related to the serial killer(s). Why does he do this? I think it's to show the general brutalization of women, and maybe of all people. For instance, he has the occasional comment like "there were no killings in Feb, at least none of importance, only a pick-pocket and his friend," which show how cheap life has become.

4. This section is an anti-police procedural. We're told that some clue is significant, only to see it go nowhere. Some policemen try to apply more modern methods, and make some progress, only to see it dissipate. If, as I suspect, Bolano intended readers to know the actual murders he's modeled this book on, then we know that ultimately the quest for the killer is futile, sort of the opposite of a Jack-the-Ripper book in which the author wants to show who he thinks the Ripper actually was.

I hope to write more once I've actually finished this novel.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Dracula, The Lake

Thanks to an amazon recommendation, I decided to read one of the original vampire novels, Dracula. It was with a bit of trepidation that I started the book -- after all, who doesn't already know the story? Who doesn't know about the vampire mythology? Would it still be interesting? Would it end up feeling overwrought and disappointing, the way Frankenstein did for me, or would it retain some freshness?

In the end, though, I found it to more than hold its own against more modern interpretations of the vampire legend.

The first thing anyone notes about Dracula is that it's an epistolary novel. This gives the novel an immediacy, and gives Stoker the chance to write from a first-person POV for some characters who will end up perishing. However, this style also has an obvious weakness. At first, Jonathan Harker's journal entries make sense in the context of a man stuck in a castle with nothing to do except write down his thoughts. By the end, though, we have Van Helsing scribbling down full conversations with Mina Harker in the hours while waiting for Dracula to show up -- and you have to ask, "Doesn't the man have anything better to do with his time?"

The other problem, though, is a bit more subtle -- there's a huge gap where Jonathan Harker travels back to England, but he's in no shape to write about it. How did he get there? Why does the Count let him leave? We never find out. (Oddly enough, I did a quick search on-line and didn't find anyone commenting on this).

I've also been reading Kawabata's Mizuumi, or The Lake. It's a story about Ginpei, a man who's haunted by some misdeed in the past, but really it's more about shifting perceptions. The novel slips between the present and the past with a fluidity that I haven't seen outside of Joyce, and that's particularly hard to follow in Japanese, where the tense system is less precise than that of English. But I think the challenge is intentional -- I've read other Kawabata stories, and this one is uniquely difficult to follow; his writing is usually brilliantly clear. Maybe it's supposed to reflect the confused mind of Ginpei. I'll write more after I've read more of the novel.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

City of Saints and Madmen

Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen is sui generis -- I've never read anything like it. About half of the novel consists of five novellas about the fictional town of Ambergris (and one of those already stretches the term "novella" to the breaking point.) Then add in a glossary, a monograph on king squid, stories by characters from oter stories, and you end up with an unclassifiable novel.

This isn't just a collection of short stories -- the stories wind around each other, connecting to each other in strange ways, sometimes contradicting each other with unreliable narrators. There's also a post-modern veneer, with locations like the Borges Bookstore, and a character from Chicago, but a Chicago in which Ambergris is so successful that Disney has made a movie about it. I'm classifying this book as fantasy below, but really that's just because I don't have a category for unclassifiable.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Beautiful and the Damned, The Man Who Would Be King

On the flight home, I read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and the Damned. It's hard to know what to think about it. On the plus side, some of the writing is really beautiful or mordantly funny. But the main characters are so unpleasant, and their problems so much of their own making, that it's hard to sympathize with their downfall.

But there's also the additional nuance that (to some extent), their marriage is a fictionalization of F. Scott and Zelda's own marriage. I think it's hard not to feel a sense that the author lived some of what he's writing. (I actually had no idea before I started reading the book that some of it was based on reality, but after I got this feeling, I looked up some biographical details, and it turned out my intuition was right). I think that sense of authenticity is really part of what makes the novel work.

Overall, I think it's a lesser work compared to The Great Gatsby. Because the Patches are so unpleasant, unredeemed by any self-awareness or wish to improve their situation, they don't have the tragic depth that Gatsby has in his chase after Daisy Buchanan.

I also read Kipling's The Man who Would be King on the flight. It was a bit of a surprise to me; I've always associated Kipling with the whole Britishers-bringing-civilization-to-the-natives thing, but this story was more nuanced than that. The three men who cross over the border carrying weapons into Afghanistan are not bringing civilization, they're bringing a more efficient way to make war. I'd write more, but I'm still jet-lagged from the trip -- maybe I'll continue when I tackle some of the other books I read recently

Heaven's Prisoners, Amir Hamza, Apprentice Assassin

I was on vacation during the last two weeks, so I managed to cram in a lot of books -- always one of the side benefits of going on a trip.

The first book I polished off was Heaven's Prisoners, the second Dave Robicheaux book. I hadn't been really impressed with the first one, because it felt like there was a lot of politics about American involvement in South America shoehorned in where it didn't really fit, but I'd decided to go on to the next one, because in general Burke is a very solid writer (I've really enjoyed the Billy Bob Holland novels). This one was a tremendous improvement -- there's still a connection to politics (US immigration and drug policy), but it felt more integral to the story, and at the same time took up much less space.

I then began The Adventures of Amir Hamza, which is something between a long story and a collection of stories about Muhammad's uncle, who seems to have become this epic figure in Islamic folk stories, with a whole cycle of stories about his exploits. As a collection of folk stories, it's obviously going to be pretty episodic (though there is an over-arching story-line), but I'm not finding it to be too repetitive over-all, and I'm enjoying it much more than the Monkey King stories. I think it harms the experience of a book like this to read it straight through -- the repetition becomes more glaringly obvious -- so I'm reading a couple of chapters a day.

The New York Times Book Review had called Hamza a combination of Iliad and Odyssey (which is what intrigued me into reading it), and I think that does a disservice to both traditions. The two Greek poems are noted for their unity, their very composed nature. Hamza is much more digressive, and it lacks the Greek poems' tragic awareness. But if we look at it on its own terms, it's often very funny, with surprisingly poetic turns of phrase (a character wipes away tears with "the handkerchief of gentle words", for example).

Amar, the trickster friend of Hamza's, constantly upstages the nominal hero, and quickly became the kids' favorite character (I've been telling them bits of the story).

Amazon gives away some kindle books for free on a semi-regular basis, and one of the first was Robin Hobbs's Apprentice Assassin. I've been hearing good things about Robin Hobb for years, but her fantasies always looked a bit generic to me, so I was hesitant to give them a try. The free book proved irresistible, so I dived in. Ultimately, I think she is a good writer, and the fantasy setting isn't completely generic, but it never really grabbed me either. I think she can write some good solid characters, but I could never quite get myself to care about them (the most interesting character, I felt, was the court fool, and he remains an enigma throughout).

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Elirc, stealer of Souls

Elric: The Stealer of Souls is a collection of early Elric stories by Michael Moorcock.

This is a hard volume to write about. If you have already read some Elric stories, this is an enjoyable way to see the evolution of the character. The historical material that's collected here is really great, including a fanzine story from early on, some musings by Moorcock that he wrote at the time, and so on. It's a great way to see Moorcock's evolution as a writer -- the early stories are very much more purple than the later ones, Elric soliloquizes more about an unfair fate, the symbolism is more transparent, and so on.

Sadly, those exact things make this a hard book to recommend to non-fans. The unfortunate fact is that the early Elric stories aren't nearly as good as the later ones, and the book only starts to come together in the second half. If you're new to Elric, it may be better to read the novels first, or maybe start with the second volume of this series. Although I've rated this book 4 stars, if you're not already a fan (or aren't interested in the background of the stories), I'd have to say 2 1/2 stars is more correct.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Nicholas Nickleby, A Most Wanted Man

I recently finished listening to Nicholas Nickleby and finished reading le Carre's A Most Wanted Man.

I decided to give Nicholas Nickleby a try because I didn't like Dickens back in high school, and I thought it was worth giving him another shot. I chose Nicholas Nickleby more-or-less at random, but it turned out to be a fantastic choice. It displayed all of Dickens's great strengths, as well as his typical faults, and I finally got over my dislike of Dickens.

Dickens's faults, I think, fall into two categories -- those that come about because he's writing in an episodic manner and those that are inherent to all his writing. In the former category you have things like the incredible coincidences he sometimes resorts to in order to get his plot back on course -- it's amazing how often the same group of 10 people keep randomly falling over each other in London. On a related note, he needs to sometimes pull props out of his hat (like the secret letter that reveals that heroine of the story is actually a rich heiress), because he wants to end the story now and doesn't have another way for her to end up with money. Finally, there are episodes that go nowhere, like when he has all the characters sit around the fire swapping old legends for two chapters -- I think he just didn't know what to do with them yet, and was sort of vamping until inspiration could strike.

In the latter category, faults that are inherent to his writing, I'd have to say that he paints his characters with a very broad brush. You instantly know who's good and bad, and people almost never switch from one side to the other. I know some people would put the sentimentality in here, but Nicholas Nickleby doesn't really display that side of Dickens's writing very much, so I'll have to reserve judgment.

Although these faults should be pretty damning, I found myself tremendously enjoying the book anwyay. For one thing, Dickens's wit carried me through a lot of spots where the plot was running thin. For instance, when Nicholas tries to get a job as a politician's secretary, the job's duties were very funny. The long sequence where Nicholas joins an acting troupe was very funny, even as though it ended up having a negligible effect on the plot.

And that brings me to Dickens's other great strength -- the interaction between the characters. Although the characters themselves are painted with a broad brush (the simple farmer, the nasty schoolmaster, the simpleton, etc), Dickens puts them through endlessly entertaining combinations, playing them off against each other. So even though, say, Nicholas and John the farmer are not very interesting in themselves, their scenes together are great. Throw the schoolmaster and his daughter into the scene and you end up with a great set-piece.

All in all, I think I'll be reading more Dickens in the near future.

Unfortunately, I can't be saying the same about John Le Carre. After my disappointment with a couple of his books several years ago, I relunctantly took him off my reading list. Then a recent review in The New York Times Book Review said that A Most Wanted Man was le Carre's return to his writing style in the good old days, so I decided to give it a try.

Normally, le Carre's strengths are the inverse of Dickens's weaknesses I talked about above. His best novels have intricate plots (but never overwhelming) with well-wrought characters acting in them. (Aside from the obvious George Smiley, think of the main characters in The Looking Glass War or The Spy Who Came in From the Cold). Sadly, A Most Wanted Man had neither.

The set-up is promising enough -- a young Chechnyan man sneaks into Germany, claiming to be the heir to a fortune in money stashed in a bank. The secret services clash, undecided over whether to arrest him immediately or use him to track down Muslim extremists. And is this young man what he seems to be?

Unfortunately, the whole work ends up being driven by le Carre's ideological cause du jour. In this case, he wants to tackle anti-immigrant feeling, and so he loses sight of the two sides of the question. Even though I agree with le Carre's viewpoint, he used to be better at acknowledging that there are two sides to every important policy debate, and the knaves and fools aren't all on one side with the angels on the other. His earlier novels derive their power from characters being forced to sacrifice one principle to uphold another, and from le Carre's implicitly asking whether the game is worth the candle.

Secondly, his anti-Americanism completely ruins the ending. He introduces a CIA officer late in the game who makes Dick Cheney look like a moderate and who ends up driving all the action. His anti-Americanism has always been there -- the "Cousins" in the earlier novels are depicted as gadet-happy, without the subtley that MI5 prides itself on. But this worked better when the Americans were off-stage, affecting the story by their presence but never entering directly.