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.