Friday, March 26, 2010

The Count of Monte Cristo, All the King's Men

I finished, coincidentally, two very long books at about the same time, one on audible and one on the kindle.  I think that each of them is also marketed as a kind of book that they're not.

Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo is often called one of the great adventure novels, but I think that readers looking for adventure would find it a long slog.  Instead, it's a novel about revenge and obsession.  Edmond Dantes is wrongly imprisoned for life, but ends up escaping and finding a source of (essentially) infinite wealth.  Where many of us might choose to live up the high life (living well is the best revenge, as they say), he devotes the next nine years of his life to destroying the men who imprisoned him, as well as their families.

In some ways, the very length of the book is a part of its moral vision.  We have to watch Dantes' steps as he slowly sets up his plans in order to realize with him that, in fact, he doesn't have the moral standing to declare himself the agent of God and bring down suffering on evil men.  As he attempts to do so, he finds that he wounds innocent people, including the son of his biggest benefactor.  If the book were significantly shorter, I don't think that this insight would have the impact that it needs -- the whole point is that Dantes is so obsessed with his revenge that he can see nothing else.

All the King's Men is often presented as a political novel, but I think that that's a mistaken view -- there's very little politics in the novel, even though it's about a Huey Long-like character.  We see almost nothing of his rise to power, never see any of his wheeling and dealing or what makes him such a political force.  At its heart, the novel is a morality tale.  The moral vision of All the King's Men is much darker than Monte Cristo's.  The novel seems to have a very Calvinist morality at its core -- everyone is tainted by original sin, and there is no good person who doesn't have some evil at his core.

The hospital that Willy Stark wants to build is the perfect symbol of this version.  He wants to leave one pure monument, even as he's compromised everything else he's ever touched, and resists any attempt to curry favor with political donors who want contracts to build it.  In the end, though, he finds that he has to make that compromise in order to be elected to the Senate.  When he decides to keep his hospital pure, his second-in-command engineers Stark's death by the only "noble" person in the novel -- thus spelling the end of the hospital.  The symbol is clear; the hospital was too pure to exist in this fallen world, and only the compromised can succeed.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Cold Dish, The Judgement of Strangers

The requirements of the mystery genre can be a useful prop for a first-time writer, as they are for Craig Johnson in The Cold Dish.  The story, set in a small town in Wyoming, is at its best when Sheriff Walt Longmire is dealing with the death of two convicted rapists.  The writing is taut and compelling, as are Walt's conflicted feelings about the case.  He had helped convict the two and thought they got off too lightly in court, and now he has a duty to protect the other two men involved in the case.  (Johnson makes the story a little more palatable by killing off the worst offenders first, with the other two being only accessories).  Johnson also has a great eye for the natural world as well as the human one, and the section where Walt forges into a blizzard to rescue a wounded man is thrilling.

Unfortunately, there's also a whole lot of folksy stuff, particularly in the first half of the book.  Walt's friends are trying to get him to get in shape, and conspire to make him work out, and the writing here is just slack.  The same is true of Walt's faltering romance with an old friend.  Luckily for Johnson, each time that the folksy stuff starts being too irritating, the mystery forces its way to the front again, and he picks up steam.  I'm looking forward to reading the second book in the series, hoping that he keeps more to his strengths.

Andrew Taylor is a much more experienced writer (The Judgement of Strangers is his 20th novel), and so he decided to dispense with most of the scaffolding for a psychological suspense novel.  Unfortunately, he didn't replace it with much except a lot of foreshadowing.  There's no real drive to this novel, whether one has read the first novel in the trilogy or not.  (The previous novel was the excellent Four Last Things).  If you have read it, then you already know which character ultimately turns out to be crazy, while if you haven't read it, Taylor's withholding of all the interesting events until the last 10 pages makes it hard to keep reading.

I was really disappointed with Judgement of Strangers; it's a weak follow-on to a very strong novel, but, more than that, it feels like it could have been so much more.  David Byfield, the first-person narrator, is a great character -- mordantly amusing on the subject of others, while largely blind to his own faults.  But he's stuck in a story with not much to do, and I think it takes a different kind of writer to pull off a novel consisting solely of witty commentary on society.


Before reading Michael Dibdin's final book, I decided to do a mini-retrospective and re-read his Aurelio Zen stories in order.  Ratking introduces Zen, already middle-aged and shunted aside by his superiors.  Each novel is set in a different region of Italy, and this one takes place in Umbria, where Zen is sent to handle a kidnapping case.  The tone varies in each novel as well, from farce through tragedy, but here Dibdin employs a straight-forward police procedural style.

Zen starts pretty much the same way he remains throughout the series -- a compromised idealist, willing to cut a lot of corners to get to the "right" outcome, but also knowing that, in any case, the "right" outcome almost never works out.  Here, Zen has been brought in as an outsider after political pressure is brought to bear on the local police force in Perugia to solve a kidnapping case.  Zen soon has to deal with the contradictory wishes of the local police force, the judicial prosecutor, the victim's family, not to mention the industrialist who brought Zen into the investigation in the first place.

In the end, Zen has to make do with a kind of partial justice, and the book ends in a pretty melancholy state.  Michael Dibdin was one of the genre's finest writers, and this book, with its deft characterization both of the people and of the region, showcases one side of his talents quite neatly.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Yume no Hon, Labyrinth, The Ritual Bath

After finishing The Orphan's Tales, I've been on a bit of a Cathrynne Valente kick.  I got her first and second books out of the library, Labyrinth and Yume no HonLabyrinth seems to me a very private book.  It's about a woman who's wandering through a labyrinth of some sort  where the doors are dangerous and in which there are many odd creatures wandering around with whom she converses.

The story (such as it is) is given to us in snapshots.  Here she talks to a lobster, there she evades a pack of doors, and so on.  There's no real sense of forward movement, or why she's in the labyrinth at all.  All in all, it was one of those books which feel like they mean much more to the author than to the reader.

Yume no Hon (the Book of Dreams) is likewise a dense thicket.  It's about Ayako, an old woman in Heian Japan (most likely) who lives in a deserted pagoda a little way from the nearest village.  Villagers (or ghosts?) bring her food, which she eats (or ignores, or she eats the villagers).  Ayako sometimes thinks (or dreams) she's Isis, sometimes the sphinx, sometimes a ghost.  Although this shifting web of meanings is too elusive to pin a story onto, I somehow found it compelling anyway.  Obviously, the simplest reading is that the whole book consists of Ayako's dreams, one after another.  But there's a sense of progression, as the same dreams return in different guises, and by the end she seems to have achieved some kind of contentment (but is it as illusory as everything else in the novel?)

The Ritual Bath, by Faye Kellerman, is a much more straight-forward proposition.  It's a mystery set in a kollel in L.A, and promises an interesting look at the customs of black-hatters.  It's hard to say what someone new to Orthodox Judaism would think of this book; the religion is so central to the novel that Kellerman must spend an inordinate amount of time talking about it.  To her credit, she does leave the reader with a bit of an ambiguous feeling toward the kollelniks, and to religion in general.  For example, at one point, Decker, the lead detective, is discussing his roots with the chief rabbi, and the rabbi tells him that "maybe God brought you here to discover these things," and Decker can only think that "no, it was a rape that brought me here."  It's as nice an encapsulation of the problem of the theodicy as I suspect you can have in 2 sentences.

Having said all that, for me there was a sense of been-there-done-that.  I don't need to have Shmulie explain the meaning of megillat Ester to me in a long paragraph, or to have Rina explain why she can't eat in restaurants.  Maybe all books set in specialized subcultures read like this and I just haven't noticed, because they strike me as new and fresh, but it seems to me to be a particular flaw of the Jewish ones.  (I'm not considering novels like The French Lieutenant's Woman here, in which anthropological exploration is a major theme)  It seems as if every so often the novel just stops dead for a while, while the author explains some minutiae of Jewish life.  I remember the same thing from the Rabbi Small books, and from some other book whose name I've forgotten about a Jewish girl who gets kidnapped.  Whereas I feel like the informational snippets are more scattered in, say, Donna Leon's books about Venice.

On a totally different note, one thing which I really liked was the way Kellerman jumps forward a few days and fills in the details with a deft line of dialog or two -- nothing as heavy-handed as "that was a great weekend; we went camping and hiking", but maybe just a quick allusion to something the character saw while hiking.  If only the Jewish pieces had been as deft, I would've been happier with the novel as a whole.

PS Another thing I liked was that, although the Rosh Yeshiva is depicted as being very wise, he makes a big blunder early on, compelling the police to use a local doctor to do the forensic analysis of a rape victim, rather than the official doctor.  (Because the victim would feel more comfortable with her).  I find that all to often the rabbi is superhumanly perspicacious but is ignored by the police (like the aforementioned Rabbi Small books); it was nice to see a more nuanced depiction.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

This Immortal, Solstice Wood

It's sometimes interesting to look at a novel in light of an author's whole career, and see themes that the author has played with through other novels.  Roger Zelazny's first novel, for example, This Immortal, attempts to put the mythical into a science fictional context, just as later novels like Creatures of Light and Dark and Lord of Light.  It also showcases his interest in the different voices a narrator can have, as he moves from a register that's straight out of Chandler to a more epic voice and then back again, often within the space of a few paragraphs.

In this novel though, as in Dream Master, written around the same time, he's more allusive than in the later novels.  Is Conrad supposed to be a satyr, or even Pan himself?  Maybe he's a sort of hero out of the collective unconscious -- he shares a number of attributes with Oedipus, for example, as well as Hercules.  In the later novels, those correspondences are more explicit; for example, in Lord of Light Sam is clearly Buddha.  On the one hand, it's cool when an author leaves a lot for readers to figure out, but at least in Zelazny's case the later novels are much better and more cohesive.

The oddest thing about this novel compared to Zelazny's other output, though, is the almost pointlessness of most of the plot.  Zelazny's heroes usually buck the system, and often are at least partially successful in overthrowing it.  Although Conrad is also a rebel, it turns out that most of the plot would have been the same without his presence.  Although that's sometimes an interesting direction to take, I think that here it's a serious weakness.  There's a lot of bluster and action to convince us that something is really happening, and it's almost as if Zelazny realizes that if he lets Conrad free into the plot, he'd just wreck the whole thing.  It's in the later novels that he figures out how to put a powerful character into a plot and not have it be completely unbalanced.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Solstice Wood comes late in Patricia McKillip's career (fortunately, she's still writing, but she certainly has a lot of books behind her).  One theme she's returned to often is the idea of someone like Tam Lin who wanders into fairyland and is trapped there.  She's had various takes on this idea, including more metaphorical ones such as a character trapped in his own unconscious, and it's been a fertile ground for her.  Solstice Wood gains some of its resonance from all of those other books, as it somewhat turns them on their heads.  Here, we have a sewing circle who uses its magic to enforce the border with fairyland, so that the fairies can't get over and kidnap any people.

But it turns out to be more complex than that, because the fairies are like people; some are good, some less so.  There could, in theory, be a cultural exchange that benefits both sides, rather than the hostility that has held sway until now.  Now that I see it in cold print, it seems pretty silly, but, as usual, McKillip's skilled prose makes any story worth reading.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Hunchback of Notre Dame

Over the past few years, I've set myself the project of reading a lot of classic literature (of the sort that might appear in a high school curriculum) that I either didn't read in high school, or didn't necessarily enjoy as much as I do as an adult.  This project has mostly yielded rich results -- I've tremendously enjoyed Dubliners, The Great Gatsby, and even the ones I didn't like as much, like Mrs Dalloway, were still interesting.

I knew I'd run across a dud eventually, though -- one can't like every classic book -- and it seems like The Hunchback of Notre Dame is my first dud.  My problem with it is that Hugo seems never to have met a digression he didn't like, particularly if it's about architecture.  I've been listening to it as an audiobook, and there's a solid 90 minute chunk on the history of building in Paris.  This is aside from all the minor asides along the way.  It's as if I were to write the story of my life like this:

Gavin woke up at 6:00 in his house in a suburb of Boston.  Boston was founded by early colonists to America from Britain, and the oldest houses reflect this.  When one visits the Paul Revere house, one notices the small rooms, symptomatic of the building materials used in his day. [more about Paul Revere skipped].  Gavin went downstairs to the kitchen.  Many houses in his suburb had at least two levels, with the kitchen on one floor and bedrooms on another.  If he had lived in New York City, most likely Gavin would have lived in a tall apartment building, as they are much more common on the island of Manhattan than in the suburb in which he lived.  The history of skyscrapers in Manhattan bears repeating, and it begins in the year 1903, when...

And so on.  I could probably stretch my average work day out to 100 pages, but I wouldn't expect anyone to want to read it.