Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Exercises in Style, Lirael, Magic for Beginners

Exercises in Style is an interesting idea.  Queneau has taken a short anecdote about an altercation on a bus and re-written it in 99 different styles, from operatic to mathematical.  Some of them are funny, or make a good point about how the style influences what we're reading, but I felt like there were just too many of them.  Aside from the completely pointless ones (like a couple where he just scrambles the letters), there were a few where the style so far obscures the anecdote that one can't really draw anything useful from it.  (For instance, one style replaces everything with a reference from flowers, but what results is just confusing, not funny).

The other problem, though, is that I felt that it's a re-hash of Ulysses's "Oxen of the Sun" or "Cyclops" episodes, with their multiplicity of styles.  Joyce shows us how the style of narration can enhance or confuse our sense of what's going on, just as Queneau did, but the Ulysses episodes also feel like they're part of a greater whole, not just exercises in style.  In the end, Exercises is more of a curiosity than a book to learn from.

Lirael is Garth Nix's followup to Sabriel, which I enjoyed very much.  Unfortunately, I thought Lirael was much weaker (though still good).  I think that both novels are approaches to coming-of-age novels, but Sabriel is much less explicit.  Sabriel is thrown into a world where all of the rules that she's used to have changed, but everyone expects her to know them anyway, and I think this is an interesting metaphor for becoming a teenager, although Nix never makes it explicit.  In Lirael, we get the story of two people in their early teens, and there's a fair amount of "nobody understands me/I have unique problems" moaning.

By the end of the novel, the two protagonists have just gotten past this stage, and I'm hoping that Lirael returns to being as strong as Abhorsen.

I read most of Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners a while ago, and enjoyed it a lot.  Link has a unique voice, where most of the fantasy happens off-screen, or sometimes not even within the confines of the story itself.  But the e-book version (which is what I read) was missing two stories, the title story "Magic for Beginners" and "The Faery Handbag."  Both of these illustrate what I'm talking about; in the first story, whatever magic there is happens before the story starts, and to the protagonist's boyfriend, not to the protagonist herself.  In the second one, it's not at all clear what's going on with the fantasy element, even by the end of the story (I don't want to be more explicit, because I think that one of the joys of reading Link's stories is how each one goes off in unexpected directions).

I ended up buying the book in hardcover just to get those two stories, and all I can say is that it was completely worth it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Farewell to Arms, Finch

I enjoyed Hemmingway's A Farewell to Arms in high school, and decided to see how well it would hold up 20+ years later.  (Time flies...)  One of the main things that wasn't apparent to my younger self was Hemmingway's beautiful style; now that I've had more exposure to older novels, his changes are more apparent to me.  The short, objective sentences were so absorbed into the mainstream that it's easy to lose sight of how different they are from what came before.  In addition, they're really masterful; a few short sentences can quickly establish a scene.

Hemmingway, of course, had a really distinctive style, but the other book I just finished is by an author on the other end of the scale, a complete stylistic chameleon.  I've written about the first two Ambergris novels here and here, and Finch rounds out the cycle.  The first was a very post-modern sort of mish-mash of styles, mixing drawings, texts, secret codes, and so on.  The second owed something to Pale Fire, where the real story can be seen in footnotes on the ostensible text of the book.  In Finch, Vandermeer has taken his inspiration from noir novels, as well as stories about cities under occupation.

In his earlier novels, had a "literary" style (for lack of a better word).  The style in Finch is almost self-consciously an anti-style.  Very choppy, short sentences and fragments predominate.  It most reminds me of James Ellroy's White Jazz, a noir classic.

I do think it's possible to get too wrapped up in the noir aspects of the novel, but Vandermeer's real achievement is not doing a noir knock-off set in Ambergris.  Instead, he's using the associations we have with the noir style to set a mood, which he can then use as a backdrop to looking at various forms of betrayal and friendship, and how they interact in a city under occupation.

And he does all this while providing a reasonably satisfactory ending to the story of the graycaps.  In a way, I think I'd have preferred something less straightforward -- the graycaps have always been so mysterious that it's a bit of a letdown to have them finally explained.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Likeness

One other thing about The Likeness, which I'm not really sure what I think about it.  There's a fairly low-key strain of the supernatural running through it.  Cassie tells us many (many, many, many) times that Lexie or her spirit are pushing her on, that Lexie drew her in, that she's somehow doing Lexie's will.  It's pretty low-key, mostly worth noticing because there's a similar low-key supernatural element in In the Woods.

But it might account for a lot of the hokier plot elements if we see it as a ghost story -- the unlikely coincidences become instead the workings of fate or the supernatural.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Likeness, Every Dead Thing

The Likeness, by Tana French, is a good book with some great flaws.  I've felt for a long time that the true strength of the mystery genre is that it places characters in emotionally heightened situations, allowing the author to bring out psychological portraits that might otherwise be too diffuse to make a compelling story.  The Likeness is the kind of book that shows off the strengths and limitations of the genre to psychological studies.

It's pretty clear that French is most interested in drawing a picture of five disparate housemates uniting against a hostile world; she's not really that interested in writing a whodunit.  The mystery part of the novel serves two functions: it allows her to bring the lives of the housemates into focus, as they try to cope with the increased stress of an investigation, and it keeps the narrative focused, rather than letting it wander off into the minutiae of the housemates' lives.

The price she pays, though, is that the set-up is incredibly contrived.  Detective Cassie Maddox, from The Woods, was an undercover agent before that novel started.  She's been out of undercover work for some time, when a double of her shows up dead, with a driver's license in the name of one of her undercover personae.  To investigate the murder, she infiltrates the house, disguised as her double.  Although French pays lip service to the difficulties involved, it's never really convincing.  It's one thing to have a close double (I've met two completely unrelated people who could be brothers), but it's a whole other thing to move in with people who've seen the original every day.  More importantly, the whole set-up just seems like a very backward way to do an investigation.  It's hard to imagine the police going for the kind of manpower and undercover investigation takes instead of a brute force interrogation.

If you can accept the premise, though, the novel is very successful.  French's portraits of the students and their effect on Cassie felt very real; no two-dimensional characters here.  French is also exploring a theme which she mentions explicitly a couple of times, that you can have what you want, but you must pay for it somehow.  I know that some reviewers have questioned Cassie's engagement at the end of the novel, but it seemed to me that she'd finally learned this lesson -- you can't have everything, and, for the things you choose to have, you have to realize what the price will be and decide whether to take them.

I also enjoyed John Connolly's Every Dead Thing, but it's a much simpler novel.  It's two serial-killer procedurals in one novel, with a bit of the supernatural thrown in for spice.  He's obviously not reaching as much as French was, but on the other hand, he's accomplished what he wanted to do and ended up with an enjoyable novel that doesn't have the kind of glaring flaws that The Likeness had.