Tuesday, August 31, 2010


I finished one of my least favorite episodes today, "The Sirens", which sits right after one that I've really come to like a lot, "The Wandering Rocks."

In the siren episode, Joyce tries to imitate a piece of music, starting with the warmup, which pre-figures themes to come:

Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips. Horrid! And gold flushed more.

A husky fifenote blew.

Blew. Blue bloom is on the

Gold pinnacled hair.

A jumping rose on satiny breasts of satin, rose of Castille.

Trilling, trilling: I dolores.

For me, this is just obscure for the sake of obscurity.  Unlike the other obscurities in the novel, I think that this is one that gives no enjoyment if you're not already in on the joke.  By contrast, the changing literary styles in, say, the "Golden Oxen" episode are fun to read even if you don't get the pregnancy symbolism.  Since starting to write this entry, I've begun the "Cyclops" episode, and the same thing is true -- the mix of literary styles is very funny, even if you don't understand quite why they're there.

By contrast, the "Wandering Rocks" episode seems like an exercise in lucidity.  I understand that that's one of the traps Joyce has laid -- the chapter is not quite as straightforward as it seems, with its tricks like referring to the wrong Bloom -- but it's still a section that's very rewarding even on the most surface reading.  Joyce's portrait of Father Conmee is satirical and affectionate at once; he manages to throw a lot of pathos into the short bit with Stephen's family; and so on.  I can imagine excerpting just this chapter to hand to someone as an independent short story, called "An Hour in the Life of Dublin" or something.

As I mentioned above, I've just started on the "Cyclops", one of my other favorites, and a huge contrast to the clarity of "Wandering Rocks."

Monday, August 30, 2010

Ulysses, The Magician's Accomplice

The Magician's Accomplice was one of those conspiracy books that just spirals out of control.  We have something like 30 people murdered in the space of a few weeks, and yet we're supposed to believe it's a secret conspiracy.

More interestingly, I'm listening to the "Scylla and Charybdis" episode of UlyssesUlysses is probably one of the most-commented-on novels of the 20th century, and this episode in particular draws a lot of commentary because of what it says about Stephen Dedalus's relationship with his father, other poets, Shakespeare, and so on.  But all the commentary that I've seen on-line talks about the external world, so to speak -- what actually happens in the episode, what the conversations say about the characters, etc.

But I think it's important that in the episode the narrator's voice starts to break down.  (The narrator intrudes in "Aeolus" by putting in headlines, but not into the actual flow of the text).  At first, the narrator confines himself to making puns or doublets (the Quaker librarian speaks "quakingly"), but then starts mixing up character's names with each other, sometimes to the point of ludicrousness.  Although Stephen is the controlling point-of-view for this episode, the narrator's games are not the sort of intellectual tricks that Stephen indulges in.

I do think that any description of the section that leaves out this feature of the narration is missing an essential piece; it's as striking as Joyce's use of play format for the "Circe" section.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Ulysses, Matisse Stories, Stalking the Unicorn

I finished Stalking the Unicorn, but it wasn't worth it.  Too many forced jokes, and Resnick doesn't know how a detective story should be structured -- you can't have the big plot revelation 75% of the way into the novel; the rest is waay to anticlimactic at that point.

A.S. Byatt's Matisse Stories was also incredibly disappointing.  In general, I'm a big fan of her writing; I loved Possession, loved her short fiction, and even liked The Biographer's Tale, which was relatively weak.  But the Matisse Stories just didn't have a spark to them.  Part of it was the way things sometimes felt contrived (Gerda Himmelblau's name means "heaven blue", a phrase that is repeated through the story to indicate terror of open spaces).

And I've begun listening to Joyce's Ulysses again.  It's one of those books where new things jump out every time.  In the Telemachus section, we move from the solid outside world, starting with a sentence about Buck Mulligan, rather than Stephen Dedalus.  We gradually move into Stephen's interior world until we get to the solid interiority of the third episode.  Then we go back to the exterior world for the first Bloom episode (although this time we start immediately with Bloom himself).

What I love about Ulysses is the way that it's a sort of showcase for a lot of ways of writing.  The newspaper section is wonderfully impressionistic, as conversations overlap and we read them overlapping, yet it's always clear who's responding to whom.  I must admit that I don't get the point of Stephen's story about the two women, but someday I will...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

More on If On a Winter's Night a Traveller

This book is at once very oriented toward literary theory, exploring different conceptions of the relationship between writer and reader, and at the same time dismissive of theorizing.  He presents us constantly with theories, shows us a silly reductio ad absurdum, but then shows us that the theory has an underlying truth anyway.

For example, Lotaria proposes a new method of analyzing literature, in which a computer tallies up lists of words, and thus we can decide what an author has decided to focus on without ever having to waste time reading the book.  (amusingly enough, I saw a real-life example of this sort of criticism, where the disputants were trying to decide if an author focused on rape in his work, and were reduced to counting the number of times "rape," "raped", etc showed up in the work, using the kindle's ability to count words in a text).  It's a silly approach, and yet she in fact manages to capture the flavor of some texts, even as she can't be bothered to engage them on a reading level.

On the other end of the spectrum is Ludmilla, the "Other Reader," for whom the author doesn't exist.  Although it seems that she eschews theory, in fact she represents Foucault, for whom the author is not an authoratative source of information about his text.  Ludmilla's approach is also silly when taken to its extreme, but she's the one character (other than the Reader) who is willing to completely engage with a text on its own terms.

In addition to his considerations about the relationship of reader/author, Calvino is interested in where the meaning of a text lies.  We have characters who invent fake works by real authors, real works by fake authors, and so on, to spread confusion about which texts are real.  So what does it mean when the Reader reads two books by Silas Flannery, who may not have written either one?  When he feels exposed to some deeper truth, does is matter if the book was actually generated by a computer programmed to ape Flannery's style?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

London Match, Hardly Knew Her, Stalking the Unicorn, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller

The only book mentioned in the title that I've actually finished is Len Deighton's London Match, the third volume in his "Game, Set, Match" trilogy.  (I talked about the first two here and here).  In some ways, Deighton is covering similar ground to Berlin Game -- is there a mole high up in British intelligence? -- but he's much more self-assured here.  As in Mexico Set, Deighton spends a lot of time on Bernard Samson's private life, but here his personal and professional lives are more intertwined than ever.  In Match, Bernie's main opponent is Fiona, his wife who defected to the USSR in book 1.

In addition to clashing in a game of wits, Fiona wants to their children.  Bernie is worried that a judge might actually give her custody if push came to shove, and Deighton works to give this aspect equal importance.  My biggest problem here is that we never really feel that Bernie actually cares about the children.  I can't decide if that's supposed to be deliberate or if Deighton just doesn't write child interactions very well.  (Bernie's reaction when he thinks that his son has been captured seem to indicate the latter, though).

Since starting on this post, I've actually finished Hardly Knew Her and If on a Winter's Night a TravellerHardly Knew Her is a collection of stories by Laura Lippman.  Individually good, they suffer from proximity to each other.  There are about 14 stories in the collection, and about 10 of them are from that subgenre where someone commits a murder and gets away with it.  Even worse, the 4 that aren't are all put together at the end, so for most of the book, you already know the punchline to the story you're reading.  It's unfortunate, because each story is very good on its own merits; I've decided to try one of her novels, and see if I like it.

Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller is a book that left a huge impression on me when I read it a long time ago, and I've been meaning to revisit it for some time.  It's a bravura performance, especially the opening "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought."  Calvino dances through genres and literary theories through this book, which is deep but also occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.  It's such a brilliant work that it's easy to miss the subtleties the first time through, and so it was interesting to re-read the novel.

Although the book seems very fragmentary the first time, with its ten opening chapters, each in a different genre, as well as a plot that moves from a sublime love story to a ridiculous story of revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, apocryphal computer-generated novels and spies.  But when we look past those things, we can see a fundamental unity; Calvino is interested in the roles of the reader and the author.  There's also a clear progression in his central characters, "you" and "I".  "You", the Reader, is at first a generic person who has bought Calvino's new book.  He starts adding in details that could apply to many readers of this sort of book -- you're a bit jaded with the world, but hoping to find at least a little excitement in a new book -- and gradually draws the actual reader in, even as he distinguishes the Reader from the reader, adding in more and more specific details.  "I" in the first chapters goes through a similar process -- it's not for a while that he even gets a name.

Stalking the Unicorn has a lot of lame jokes, and I'm not sure I will finish it...

Monday, August 16, 2010

Life of Pi, Fragile Things

I decided to try Life of Pi pretty randomly.  I remembered hearing good things about it, though I couldn't remember what they were any more, and it was a Booker award winner.  So how bad could it be?

The answer is pretty bad, unfortunately.  I take that back a bit -- the book wasn't terrible, the way, say, Absolute Power was terrible (that one was so bad I couldn't be bothered to write about it).  But it's hard to see how it won the Booker.  I thought that its religious philosophy was jejune (all religions are just different lenses to see God with) and its message about stories pretty thin as well (when you're given two explanations for something, choose the one with the better story).

On top of that, Martel wants the story to fit into exactly 100 chapters, and there's a lot of forcing that goes into that, including several one-sentence chapters.  Even worse, not only does Pi tell us that the story has 100 chapters, just so we know how clever Martel is, but it doesn't make any sense that Pi should tell us that, since he didn't divide out some of the chapters.

Which brings me to another point -- Martel hammers home his messages in such a sophomoric way that it's almost insulting.  At one point, he goes so far as to have one listener say to another "do you see how these two stories map to each other?  The orangutan is the mother, the cook is the hyena, and so on."  OK, we get it.

Neil Gaiman is another writer who is sometimes too clever by half.  He knows a lot of stuff, and isn't afraid of showing it.  But, as the stories in Fragile Things show, he's willing to give you a glimpse of a story, then get out of the way while you savor it.  His stories can have a haunting quality, because he gives you just enough information for you to get the rest on your own.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

20th Century Ghosts, Ghosts of Belfast, Aeneid

I had a whole list of reasons why I didn't like Ghosts of Belfast, even though the writing is great on a technical level.  But life's just too short.  I'd rather write about books that I like, or at least made me think more.  (Maybe I'd like Ghosts more I were Irish)

Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts, for instance, was a book that I liked and that made me think.  Hill's known mostly as a horror writer, and this collection made me wonder how he came by that reputation.  No more than half of these stories fall into the straight-forward horror genre, and they're not all the best ones.  I'm not going to do a blow-by-blow of the stories, but a few that really stood out were
  • "Pop Art" is about an inflatable balloon boy.  Very straightforward for such an outre premise, this was a great exploration of friendship and alienation
  • "My Father's Mask" was the most surreal story in the collection.  Very disquieting, even as it's hard to say precisely what it was about.  The outline isn't hard to understand, but the details seem just out of reach, as if we could understand them with just a little more insight...
  • "Voluntary Commital" is a kind of horror story I usually find annoying, where you never find out what the scary thing is or whether there even is one.  But it was very effective here
In other news, I've run across a great explanation of how Vergil plays with the rhythms of Latin stresses  against the longs and shorts of the Greek dactylic hexameter, and I've been inspired to start reading the Aeneid again.  It's a great experience, showing how important the auditory aspect is to Roman poetry.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Revelation Space, Hidden River

I finally finished Revelation Space, which I previously wrote about here.  It was a fun read, mostly because it gave me that mind-blowing feel that only science fiction can give, of a universe where all sorts of crazy things are possible.  As science becomes more and more esoteric, I think it becomes ever-harder to write this sort of sf correctly but still keep it comprehensible for the lay reader.  (Reynolds is already on pretty thin ice by the end, where he talks about space-like particles switching places with time-like particles inside the Schwarzchild radius; I've read enough physics books to know what he's talking about, but I'm sure most readers haven't.  The thing that saves him there, I think, is that it's a couple of not-so-important pages in a 580-page tome).

Reynolds also has all the problems of "classic" sf, particularly in his characterization, which is pretty flat. Looking at the amazon reviews, it seems that this aspect of his writing doesn't improve, while his imagination gets more decoupled from real science, which seems like a lose-lose situation to me, so I guess the search for great sf continues.

I don't know if Adrian McKinty originally planned for his Dead trilogy to be a trilogy, but in any case, he interrupted it after the first book to write Hidden River, and Hidden River offers an interesting comparison to Dead I Well May Be.  Before I start on that, I should make clear that Hidden River  is an impressive novel in its own right, and doesn't need to be coupled with Dead.

Both novels are about an intersection of Ireland and the US.  Hidden River spends much more time in Ireland than Dead (as well as a crucial bit of time in India), but its center of gravity is Denver. Alex, the hero of Hidden River seems to know a lot about US politics for a recent immigrant, down to the difference between Senators and Representatives, which bothered me a bit, but it does give McKinty space to poke fun at US politics from an outsider's perspective, and it's handled well.

Both books are very heavy on the foreshadowing, Hidden River even more than Dead. I must say that I found it annoying after a while; it's as if McKinty doesn't trust the reader to remember that John is going to die, that everything will go to hell in a hand-basket.  It seems McKinty may have decided the same thing, since the other two Dead books have this aspect much more under control.

I loved the ending of Hidden River, more than any of the Dead books.  It doesn't have the visceral satisfaction that they have with the violent denouements in each case, but its made up for in believability.  When characters get into a shooting-match against incredible odds, there's always a feeling of unreality when they emerge unscathed, no matter how skillfully the author orchestrates things.  By opting for a quieter ending, with much of the Mulhollands' downfall off-screen, McKinty leaves the focus on Alex's character arc, as well as closing on a more realistic note.