“We are the walking dead, my friend: America’s winners. Too tired making money to live. And the rest of the country? Too tired living to fight.’ Touché sat on the edge of an armchair and leaned toward me, conspiratorially. ‘Eduardo Lopez sent my father a book once, by the Italian anarchist Alfredo Bonnano. This was in the months before the coup, when politics was still intoxicating and the future might belong to anyone. The book was meant to be a counterargument to unrestrained free enterprise, but my father was bothered by its theories and put it aside. I found it in his office during one of my visits, and intrigued — for my father is many things but most definitely not an anarchist — I skimmed it. Only one sentence was underlined. I still remember it, for my father had scrawled a giant question mark in the margin: “Beyond the crises, beyond other problems of underdevelopment, beyond poverty and hunger, the last fight that capital will have to put up with, the decisive one, is the fight against boredom.”—David Goodwillie, American Subversive | Scribner 04.20.10
“All the seminars, in fact, had a fatal family likeness. They were repetitive in the extreme. We found the same clefts and crevices, transgressions and disintegrations, lures and deceptions beneath, no matter what surface we were scrying. I thought, next we will go on to the phantasmagoria of Bosch, and, in his incantatory way, Butcher obliged. I went on looking at the filthy window above his head, and I thought, I must have things. I know a dirty window is an ancient, well-worn trope for intellectual dissatisfaction and scholarly blindness. The thing is, that the thing was also there. A real, very dirty window, shutting out the sun. A thing.”—Character of Phineas Gilbert Nanson in A. S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale (via literarypiano)
Very tempting to dislike Goodwillie right from the jump, because of the very of-the-momentness (or of-last-momentness? the moment is a names-slightly-changed Gawker ascendancy; do we still live in Nick Denton’s world?) of the concept, and the self-loathing of the critique. Which is unfortunately compounded immediately by the introduction of protagonist Aidan’s inner circle, on-again / off-again girlfriend Cressida, best friend Touché. Here’s to Goodwillie, then, for getting past that tailspin of an initial setup and very quickly making an engaging caper out of things.
Setting aside that last sentence: the swimmy hypothetical is strange here, stranger when Harvey does it three times in a row for three sniper victims. I suppose there’s the sense that this shooting cuts off all the positive possibilities of Jessica’s future. But it’s metaphysically strange, that her implausibly bright future is so thoroughly mapped, so deterministically laid out, and the actuality of the sniper is a surprise. On the other hand, I suppose all these cavils are unfair, at least for a book with blurbs from Grisham and Connelly on the fancy split cover, but while I’d like to subscribe to the notion that a book be judged at the level of its ambitions these small objections do not seem to be too much. And then, set alongside the predictable heroes and villains, the false-climax-filled plotline, they become telling small pieces of a whole.
And then one page later — making it page 19 — Nelson Algren’s name drops (along with his evident pride in decaying metal, which was never anything I associated with Algren, but I’ve only read one or two of his greatest hits). Now, these are picayune, small details, the disappearing medic and the gratuitous Algren shout-out, but they’re indicative of larger things. Like character names — the FBI agent is named Lawson, the arrogant and incorrect profiler Supple, like lawyers in a morality play. And, difficult in a different way, the mayor is named Wilson, which immediately divorces the Chicago of the book from the Chicago of municipal reality, and indicates how far Harvey misses the track of the great, detailed, urban crime novel that Pelecanos or Price or Lehane or Goodis write.
Very early going, in a minimalist style-driven thriller, rather than an overstuffed info-packed one, and already having to flip back through the chapter to find out where the medic came from. And then finding that this is the first mention. Frustrating.
“Philadelphia had been conceived in the style of an English rural town, one where houses and businesses would be spread far apart and surrounded by gardens and orchards. So thought Mr. Penn and Mr. Penn alone. In the absence of a superior class to set the tone, the city’s inhabitants, in pursuit of their own profit, crowded by the Delaware river and subdivided and resold their lots as many times as you can fold a piece of paper. Thus, while the grand center of the town is often praised as the birthplace of American democracy, it is only at the waterfront that one views the consequences of majority rule.”—Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America | Knopf 04.20.10
This is Carey very nearly, but not quite, overplaying his hand; it sticks out excerpted like this, but sits more comfortably in the flow of the narrative. But it is in moments like this that the author hints that this book, with all of its bustle and charm and historical greebling, isn’t entirely concerned with the nineteenth century, and indeed wants to critique this one from the lofty perch of Tocqueville.
“No matter how strong their religious sentiments, or their passion about the reform of criminals, the Americans quickly revealed themselves to be obsessed with trade and money and beyond the walls of that particular cell they simply could not see anything that diminished their enthusiasm for self-congratulation. They had got their hands on a mighty continent, from which the least of them could, by dint of some effort, extract unlimited wealth. There being so much to be extracted, it scarcely mattered how or if they were governed, because there is no need to argue when there is plenty for all. The energy put into this quest for wealth left little room for anything one might think of as culture, and so marked was this that I would always, in speaking of the wealthier families, use the English term middle class and never bourgeoisie. There was, as they were continually pleased to tell me, no aristocracy required.”—Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America | Knopf 04.20.10
So says Parrot, the servant, describing his master while narrating his own story. Carey’s written himself into a formulaic structure, the kind of historical novel with two leads where chapters alternate in each character’s voice and events overlap just the littlest bit from chapter to chapter to reinforce the difference in each character’s perception.
Again, a beautiful insight; this time, it’s also anchored with a joke. Thomas, whose head we’re in, is reading “The Kreuzer Sonata;” his boarder Olga happens upon him, and takes him to task for reading unhappy books: “why make life more difficult?” He asks Olga what books she reads. She reads magazines.
I think, too, that this is the third time Thomas asks himself what art is; that’s the opening line of the book. But this moment takes place in the hospital, when he’s been notified of his daughter’s life-threatening illness, and while the fineness of Cusk’s characters’ perceptions is indisputable, and the judgment of Tolstoy’s unhelpfulness mordant and sophisticated, that all only hinders my belief in Thomas as a father and a man. Instead, the insight and the stage clearly belong to Cusk, hovering above these people and situations she has created, untroubled to be using them as vessels for her own epiphanies.
This seems to me excellent, precise observation, rooted in one character’s perception but moving outside of, circling around, a mother and her daughter, the husband and father than joins them. Like the bit about the house below, it’s rather definitionally epiphanic, as in fact Cusk’s whole approach here is — it draws heavily from Virginia Woolf, from that brand of modernist stream of consciousness narration that foregrounds the interior workings of a character and privileges them over the external action that character participates in, comments on. And this is a precise operation — Cusk not only constructs a moment, a tableau, but arranges it in an ornate and distancing grammar that is appropriate to her character and to her character’s insight.
This is specifically in reference to her house, which is “narrow and tall and white, Georgian, impractical.” It accomplishes that trick of providing a physical description of a thing, which becomes about more than just that thing, and then reveals a wealth of detail about a character. This is a very nice skill, the facility with the telling detail, and a very specific contemporary mode of knowing, I think — look at (in a different register) Mark Kurlansky, say, who can see the story of civilization in a cod or a grain of salt. Of course, in fiction, the writer gets a head start, because all of the details can be telling, and all of the revelations and epiphanies are constructed.
“My preferred song was called ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,’ which was a strong example of the art I had been enjoying the last few months in that it blended positive emotions with negative ones. I still of course appreciate art that boosts positive emotions, because that is rare and necessary, and although the Beatles will always be special to me because of my memories and because their instrumental and vocal skills are the highest quality, musicians like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are also appealing because they sing about subjects that reject binaries and are mysterious in the way math can be mysterious, e.g., sometimes you locate an answer and the universe becomes almost magical because in the middle of chaos there is still order, and sometimes there is no answer, and because of that the universe is even more magical since it has secrets that humans can never understand.”—Teddy Wayne, Kapitoil | Harper Perennial 04.13.10
Question: awkward in general, or just because of the ESOL diction? More likely awkward because, despite the amount of time Karim has spent in America and how much he’s apparently learned (about himself and finance and the US) his diction and persona remains as hidebound as it was when he got off the plane.
Wayne desperately wants to show Karim growing. His growth, too, shows not just in understanding American cultures and customs (and butchering American idioms, like a less-amusing but no-less-condescending [or is that condescended-to?] Alex Perchov) but also in (apparently first-time) contact with pop music and girls and whatnot, so that his software- and work-centered moral dilemmas grow more complicated as the rest of his life does, too. But the language is the key here, and while Wayne sets the book up nicely at the outset, with chapters closing with dictionary-style definitons of idioms, Karim doesn’t progress quite as far, quite as well, as I expect we’re meant to think.
The McGuffin of the book, a stock-predicting program, also serves as an analog for its creator Karim’s outsider status in America: a detached nonnative observer attempting to figure out America, and able to defamiliarize American rites and customs to an American reader. Critical fish-out-of-water.
“Seeing Grandma this way, it makes me know for certain that everything about a person will show up in another person in the family. I know the scientific way to talk about this: heredity and inheritances and the things that get passed on. But I think there should be a better explanation because Grandma never needed the contributions before Aunt Loretta died. But Pop needed them for a long time before. Heredity isn’t supposed to work backward. I think about these things: the way that science or math tells us certain things. Math can explain the reason there’s a one out of four chance that I’d have blue eyes. But it doesn’t explain why me.”—Heidi W. Durrow, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky | Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 04.06.10
Perhaps also a little fine-point-y, but this Rachel is late in her teens, reaching a point where she isn’t sure she’s as constrained as her grandmother thinks she is, and wants her to be. Even more than race, in fact (although race is an enormous part of that equation) it is Rachel’s sense of her heredity and inheritances, her growth in understanding these, that distinguish her character.
“My darling girl, this is the real world. The only way to get a man like Mr Darcy is to make him up.”—
Jane Austen would never have said that. Mr Darcy is far from perfect. The book’s really about attacking the notion that love is some kind of perfect love at first sight fairytale; it’s about loving someone despite their flaws. I hate shallow interpretations of the book where Darcy is ‘sooo haawt’ just because he’s handsome and aloof.
This is Rachel speaking, the biracial daughter of a Danish mother and a GI father, who has gone to live — in the early ’80s — with her paternal grandmother after her mother jumps off the roof of a nine-story apartment building with Rachel and her two other children. Rachel’s story is both familiar and affecting, hitting the notes of those passing stories from the ’20s and ’30s that show women caught between blackness and whiteness and unable to find a space in either. Much to Durrow’s credit, she sticks closely to this trope in order to turn it on its head; her book exhumes and redefines a specific, peculiar artistic response to race. Even more to Durrow’s credit is Rachel’s voice early in the book, simple and declarative, concerned with surfaces and her place in them. But Durrow takes on a lot in telling her story: a red-herring mystery about the mother’s suicide, a couple of different versions of substance abuse and recovery, a five-year or so span when Rachel navigates not only race but her sexuality; and she narrates the story through a large cast, in chapters that switch among their perspectives. This bit here? It appears to be Rachel, but is set off in italics: maybe a retrospective adult reading? Whatever version of Rachel it is, though, it shows a tendency foreign to most of the narration by putting a rather-too-fine point on the situation, uncharacteristically sacrificing voice and pathos for immediate impact.
And then, at the end, after the necessary shocking reveal, there’s this — from a long speech that lays out explicitly everything that’s been implied, as if Kerr was not sure he had played his cards right up until now and needed to lay out the reality that existed behind the view of events he’d shown. Which winds up being a little like a magician showing his tricks, and in a book written in the first person it’s a little strange to hide a chunk of the plot from the reader.
The later Gunther books are bifurcated; after a long prelude in pre-Olympic Nazi Germany, the latter half of the book picks up the thread again in Batista’s Cuba. But the book loses a lot more than unity of place in the move; it hardens into a parody of style (in a way that’s nearly the opposite of Coover) while putting Gunther cheek-to-jowl with history (not just Heydrich; the Perons, in the previous installment, and here Meyer Lansky and nearly Ernest Hemingway). Fish-out-of-water is part of the point, true; but Gunther’s not the only fish out of water. And while the plot still moves forward, and the detective still spits quips while taking his stripes, something increasingly hysterical creeps in: the gumshoe here and there will double up on one-liners, for instance, as if anxious to get all the good quips in while he can.
Kerr’s diagnosis here is a little bit an indictment of a Nazism unable to see common traits or basic humanity, but more so an indictment of a particular worldview, or maybe a tendency toward any all-encompassing worldview, national socialism or the belief in a corrective machine for living. Gunther, and for that matter his archetype, the solitary private eye, may deplore human frailty, and may bring it to light, but at the same time he has to celebrate it and sympathize with it. There’s no room for a reformer or an absolutist in a noir, just the recognition that it’s a mean, unjust, occasionally beautiful old world.
*from the funniest sentence** I have ever read while tipsy and trying to fall asleep at 2:00 in the morning:
Down there in grots of fallen light a cat transpires from stone to stone across the cobbles liquid black and sewn in rapid antipodes over the raindark street to vanish cat and countercat in the rifted works beyond.
You know, I was just talking about this with a coworker, who had been blown away by The Road but was disappointed with Blood Meridian because she felt it was too similar; Suttree on the other hand feels like the work of a different writer, ornate where normally spare, and uncharacteristically exuberant in language and in describing squalor, at least compared to his later style.
Philip Kerr is a strange case — he’s got scads of books to his name, and they’re all over the genre map (please see, for instance, The Grid, a kind of sub-Crichton late-nineties techno-thriller about a smart building that kills people, which is pretty terrible even given the sub-genre) — but who also turned out a really excellent trilogy of revisionist hard-boiled noirs at the end of the ’80s. Bernie Gunther’s a great character, and benefits from his setting and his roots in the American pulps of the period. But Kerr, just a few years ago, revived Gunther after a fifteen-year layoff, filling in backstory prior to the events of the trilogy, and picking up the story after the War. It’s a strange reprise, but at least Kerr still has a way with a one-liner:
To which her sister responds, “I guess being sick doesn’t always bring out the best in people, does it?” Of course it doesn’t, and Shiver even later makes the point that, for Glynis at least, the world really does end when she does — which is an understandable point of view, if not particularly sympathetic. Pain and death, Shriver asserts, make the faithful doubt, or reject their faith; they drive people to extremities and turn them into nihilists. It’s churlish to fault Shriver for making this case, and for turning a novel about terminal illness into an extended grind (whaddaya want, dancing and singing?) but between the bleakness of her characters’ situations and responses and the very thinly veiled authorial anger that courses underneath them, So Much becomes a test of endurance.
“Jackson hated the word inappropriate, which rod-up-the-ass prisses threw around with abandon these days to make other people feel dirty and ashamed. It made you immediately want to check your underwear for stains. The word had a deliberate vagueness, too, as if what you’d done wrong was too disgusting to name. And it attributed moral qualities to the merely normative. The incessant modern-day resort to inappropriate put a thin progressive gloss on what was really a regressive conformism. The folk who wielded that chiding adjective were the same buttoned-up paranoids who spotted pedophiles under every bush, since lately you could be as uptight and sexually repressive as you liked, so long as you projected your prudish Victorian revulsion onto children. He was no more pleased that his own wife had picked up the term than he would have been had she returned from the public pool with communicable plantar warts.”—Lionel Shriver, So Much For That | HarperCollins 03.09.10
And here, at the end of the novel, Coover stares down his biggest problem. More than his chosen style of narration. It’s the conception of the book as a style exercise, divorced from content or narrative. But the style of noir, developed in the pulps and the pictures and honed as an expressive instrument by a handful of writers, never was pure style. It was always functional, an economic mode for uniting plot and character in a particular setting. When Coover cuts style loose from that grounding in plot and character (especially character, given the second person), the postmodern pose of revealing the emptiness behind style, the emptiness that accretions of style obscure, simply highlights the emptiness of the pose. Chandler never was Joyce or Woolf or Kipling; to use a critical strategy that responds to (high) modernism to critique something entirely different simply marks out the limits of the critique.
Never a good sign when a narrator asks why something should matter. But the other effect of second-person narration, which comes across here, for instance, is the way that action and knowledge split off from each other. In the first person, actor and narrator are identical. In third, the narrator is a go-between for the reader to relate with the actors. Here, the narrator is similarly godlike (or bureaucratic) but plops himself between the reader and his fictional representation of the reader, a privileged perspective on a forcibly divided self, and uncomfortable fissure.
The problem with the second person is a technical one. The problem is that the “you” in the story is never the “you” reading the story. It’s not impossible to make the two line up, because it’s not like they have to be identical; in fact, the novelist just needs to make the reading-you want to inhabit the world of the actor-you, which is why all those second-person Choose Your Own Adventure books worked so well in second person. But that puts the burden on the writer to engage, which is a heavy burden for a postmodern exercise in style.