Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Ginger Star, Altered Carbon, the Ragman's Memory, Chasing Darkness, Grave Peril

It feels like a long time since I last wrote anything, so I guess I've got a fair amount to catch up on...

Two audiobooks and three real books... probably just as well I don't have so much to say about each one.

In The Ginger Star, Leigh Brackett revisits and updates Eric John Stark, himself an updating of the Tarzan story. It's good, pulpy fun, but also very vivid. It's interesting to compare to, say, The Lensman books, where a lot goes on, but I don't have such a good picture in my head of what the various planets and places looked like. I find that Brackett conjures up a very conrete sense of what Skaith looks like.

I also read Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon, sort of the other end of the science fiction scale from The Ginger Star. Morgan is very interested in grim, gritty realism. The gimmick that drives the whole story, that people can have their minds moved from body to body, is thoroughly explored, and given a reasonably scientific basis. In the end, I feel like it was a bit too grim and gritty for me -- I found the book interesting, but have absolutely no desire to read anything else by Morgan.

I have had The Ragman's Memory on my shelf for a while, but hadn't gotten around to it. I have to be in the right frame of mind to start an Archer Mayor book; they're all so slow at first. This one stayed slow pretty much the whole way through, and I thought it was his most successful book yet. The problem with the others has been that the fireworks at the end don't really suit the methodical nature of the police investigation leading up to them. Here, Mayor delivers a solid, deliberate novel that seems to be as much about the people as about the mystery.

Chasing Darkness is Robert Crais's latest Elvis Cole novel, and I really enjoyed it. He had Elvis shot up very badly in the last book, and I think he was signalling a change of direction in his writing. With Elvis so wounded, the novels can't really end with the huge firefights that have been his signature, and I think this is a good thing. At first, they were exciting, but they got ridiculous, as each book had to top the one before. Here, Crais is writing at a slower tempo, and leaving us with some open questions at the end. It's still a popcorn novel, but it's his best novel in quite a while.

Lastly, I read Grave Peril, in which Butcher has opened up a number of plot threads. I'm interested to see where he'll take them, but it feels almost pointless to talk about the book now, until I see where it goes.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Mrs. Dalloway

I first ran across Virginia Woolf's writing in high school, when we read To The Lighthouse, a novel I very much disliked. At the time, I resolved never to read anything more by Woolf -- in fact, I'm not even sure if I finished Lighthouse, all those years ago.

However, it struck me recently that critics constantly link Woolf to Joyce. They are both modernists pioneering stream-of-consciousness writing, avoiding the more traditional plot structures of the Romantics. Since I love Joyce, I thought I should give Woolf another try, and settled on Mrs. Dalloway, which always arouses comparisons to Ulysses, since it focuses on one day in the life of one character. (I almost wrote "an average day," but I'm not so sure that's true, and I think each book loses some resonance when you assume that).

In the end, though, I think Mrs. Dalloway is least successful when it is most Ulysses-like, and most successful when it's least Joycean. As an example of the former, both Joyce and Woolf attempt to circumvent the restrictions of writing about one day by referring to events gone by (Bloom thinks about his daughter, Steven thinks about his mother's death, and, in Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway has long reminiscences to before she married).

But Joyce breaks up these reminiscences into only a few sentences at a time -- it's only after reading a signifcant portion of the book that they start to fall together into a semi-coherent timeline. In Woolf, on the other hand, each flashback can almost stand on its own -- we get a vivid image of people in the novel as the were when they were young. Woolf's approach is certainly easier on the reader, but I feel like Joyce's approach more accurately mirrors our experience of flashbacks -- we often only think in flashes about the past (x reminds us of y briefly) -- and Woolf somewhat takes the easy way out here.

On the other hand, Woolf has what seems to me an almost cinematic technique (I know this is an odd term, because in her day there wasn't a cinema as such. But that's the word that springs to mind...) It's almost like there's a camera panning across. We might start with Mrs. Dalloway thinking about her party, then the flowers she's going to have, then she notices some flowers she's passing in the road. Then, it's almost like the narrator is a camera, and pans over to describe the flowers, then keeps going to, say, a passerby looking at the same flowers, and what he thinks of them. From there, his thoughts might jump to what he's having for dinner tonight, and off we go following him for a while.

This is a technique that Joyce never really used, and I really enjoyed reading it -- it's a great way to jump around, giving us a sort of mosaic of what people are thinking, but at the same time it maintains the unity of the scene. Very rarely do the jumps feel startling or artificial; it feels more like we readers are a sort of disembodied sprit folllowing first this person, then that.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Slaughterhouse Five, Veniss Underground

Jenna and I listened to Slaughterhouse Five, and it was a good way to experience the book, I think. I'd read it a long time ago, but it was nice to get back to it. The book is more layered than I remembered.

I had thought that the book presents Billy Pilgrim's view of the world as a good one to have -- things happen, and we have no control over most of them, and the best thing to do is to look at the pretty things and not the ugly things. But, on re-reading, I now think the book is more nuanced than that -- Billy Pilgrim is not Vonnegut, and Vonnegut is explicit about that. Is Vonnegut the narrator? That's less clear-cut, but I tend to think that he is.

The narrator says that Billy's view is difficult to accept, even disquieting. Even when he seems to be approving of it, when he seems to say that there's nothing anyone can do about the horrors of Viet Nam, he's clearly not really following Billy's path, since that would mean ignoring Viet Nam, not talking about how evil it is. It's a very despairing philosophy dressed up as a comforting one -- if you can't change anything, it doesn't really matter what you do. I think the clearest evidence that Vonnegut himself doesn't hold to that position is that he wrote other books, books which urge us to change the way we do things. If every moment is just what it is, and everything is set in stone, then there'd be no point to writing anything -- everyone would do just what he always did.

This weekend I read Jeff VanderMeer's very short novel Veniss Underground. The whole thing clocks in at 180 pages, with another 4 short stories filling another 90 pages. But those 180 pages pack as much wonder as much longer books. VanderMeer introduces us to Veniss, a far future city that's falling apart, with genetic engineering run completely amok, citizens selling body parts to others, and an under-city that's almost hellish.

There are three sections, each about double the size of the previous one, and told in the three persons (the first story is first-person, the second is second-person, and the third is third-person). This has a subtle effect -- the first section's viewpoint character is incredibly annoying because he's so self-centered. By getting to know him so well, we don't care as much when he ends up meeting a bad end. The second-person section is more dream-like, and feels more distant, partly because second-person narration is such a rare technique that it draws attention to itself just by using it. The viewpoint character here is the linchpin of the three sections, and I think it's interesting that she's so distant, even after we're done with her section. The last section's viewpoint character chooses to act rather than think, so it's fitting that his section is the least interior-focused.

Aside from the stylistic quirks, the story is filled with religious imagery (a sort of Golgotha, but the crucifixes are placed by this story's god; that same god-like character lives inside a giant whale; one of the characters carries around a talking head on a plate called John the Baptist; the examples just go on and on). I'm not sure what it ultimately adds up to, unless maybe a sort of Gnostic vision of the world -- the creator has become crazy, and the whole mess needs to be swept away so that the good god can come in and set things right. It'll bear some thinking, always a good thing.