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.

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