just trying to keep score.

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“Though Mordecai could name any fish or seabird’s rank in phylum or species in a flash, I was beginning to understand that he knew nothing of what they swam in and flew over. He did not account for those things that could not be mapped: the vagaries of wind or a sudden storm that might force a pod of whales deeper, slower; a freak of cold threading up from the deep to send a school of squid spiraling away from the whales, the whales hurrying after, away from Mordecai’s precious route. Having lived indoors his whole life, he was so untuned to the sea and its ways.”

Janice Clark, The Rathbones

From the files of too-easy-to-take-advantage-of: despite a stack of juicy subject matter (incest! whaling! serial wife-abduction! a guest appearance by Circe!) this tends toward timid and equivocal; the frame story seems insufficient to carry the weight of the history Mercy wants to discover, as she and Mordecai move from revelation to revelation with very little friction, and the tone, which teeters somewhere between magical realism and full-on fairytale, smooths things out too, making the book into a series of linked set-pieces. The set pieces are often nice, with nicely poetic language and images pulled through, from one to the next — but the soft frame and the soft tone don’t give enough of a skeleton for the pretty bits to stick to.

Doubleday 08.16.13

February 10, 2014, 9:30am  Comments

“Yes, they still make TV shows somewhere. The rest of the country is still pretty shiny, from what I hear. Apparently the West Coast is more or less the same. Sunshine. Palm trees. Beautiful women in drop-top convertibles. Singing surfers. Moral rot. The whole enchilada, in the shape of California.”

Adam Sternbergh, Shovel Ready

If I’ve not been clear enough, and I’m never sure I am, another comparison that’s probably worthwhile is to the last few William Gibson books — because the kind of stuff Sternbergh is doing (near future, semi-dystopian, deadpan cool, genre conventions; even and especially the virtual-reality layer of plotting and action) comes out of, has membership in, the world Gibson’s created. Shovel Ready is much, much tighter than (especially) any of the Blue Ant books: surface is perfect, plot never bogs down, manages its dumps of exposition gracefully, which is one of Gibson’s great failings. But Gibson’s flaws, especially in terms of exposition, put across the author’s sense of enthusiasm, his excitement at how strange things (increasingly actual contemporary things, too) really are: they’re glitches. By being glitch-free, Shovel Ready is better entertainment, probably, but entirely, completely low-cal.

Crown 01.14.14

February 09, 2014, 9:30am  Comments

Toronto’s The Grid's NYC (read Manhattan) dystopia map: rather Canadian and thoroughly incomplete, but still pretty and relevant to the foregoing.

Toronto’s The Grid's NYC (read Manhattan) dystopia map: rather Canadian and thoroughly incomplete, but still pretty and relevant to the foregoing.

February 08, 2014, 9:30am  Comments

“So Chinatown withered. Went from egg-drop to pin-drop.”

Adam Sternbergh, Shovel Ready

The lovingly destroyed New York is evidence of that: it’s really obviously great fun to do, if we judge by how many times we get to see it each year, a boy’s game everybody gets a turn at. Sternbergh’s terrorist attacks aren’t quite as inventive as Nathaniel Rich’s grand flood, but the notion of the city persisting, half-full, is evocative. But the apocalypse is basically setting, background, something for the characters to run around on and deliver one-liners about (this one being particularly tidy, but Sternbergh keeps such a very very impressive pace with his quips that the grand guignol spatter of the plot mechanics has trouble keeping up sometimes; apocalypse as standup act). Again, ‘work of art’ is too strong a criterion, especially because Shovel Ready aims so clearly to be an entertainment, an effortless performance — but there’s not much ballasting the flawless execution of genre moves here.

Crown 01.14.14

February 07, 2014, 9:30am  Comments

“Every garbageman has funny stories of stuff he’s found on the job, of course. False teeth, brand-new flatscreen still in the box, a fake leg, a stuffed ferret. A double-ended dildo switches on, leaps out of the bag, twisting like an electric eel, stuff like that.”

Adam Sternbergh, Shovel Ready

High-concept, hard-boiled dystopia, confidently done. Not anything particularly deep, and not really intending to be: in the land of judging a work by how well it realizes its ambitions, Shovel Ready is an easy winner, and Sternbergh is smarter enough than his material to make everything run with precision, and enjoys what he’s doing enough not to sneer at how easy he makes it look. This is a good performance — a better performance than it is a work of art (for lack of a better word).

Crown 01.14.14

February 06, 2014, 11:39am  Comments

“Me neither, lad. I arrived in Tokyo when I was twenty-two. My company made transformers, and they sent me up for training. I get off the train at Tokyo station, and twenty minutes later I find the exit. Would I ever hate to spend my life living in this hell-hole! I think. Twenty years on, look at what I did. Beware of holidays in paradise, lad. You think too much about what you never did.”

David Mitchell, number9dream

But even if number9dream isn’t authentic or original, that doesn’t make it bad (hollow, occasionally unfocused, better-designed than executed; not bad). It shows Mitchell knows what works in the Murakami style, what makes that heightened and stylized world tick. And it shows Mitchell’s range as a stylist, even if not all of the stylistic experiments work (or are necessarily to my taste). And judging from what else I’ve read of his subsequent work (Black Swan Green, perfect and limited in its execution; Thousand Autumns, ambitious and exotic and less successful than either of the others) it might be the case that Mitchell, so assured at the level of sentences and intricate design, might also beware of paradise. Or at least of extending a holiday too long.

Random House 02.11.03

January 28, 2014, 9:30am  Comments

“Leatherjacket speaks. ‘In my homeland, it is said nightmares are our wilder ancestors returning to reclaim land. Land tamed and grazed, by our softer, fatter, modern, waking selves.’ Frankenstein produces a steel comb and pulls it across his hair, keeping his other hand on the wheel. ‘Sent by who?’ Leatherjacket folds in a new stick of gum. ‘Nightmares are sent by who, or what, we really are, underneath. ‘Don’t forget where you come from,’ the nightmare tells. ‘Don’t forget your true self.’’”

David Mitchell, number9dream

And this is funny, here, the bit of authentic wisdom dropped in conversation between two thugs, characters so minor that they’re named only by physical attributes, all Tarantino-y. Of all the things number9dream actually is, authentic is not one of them: it’s very readable, kinetic, full of really impressive writing that’s often gorgeous or dazzling, but it’s not authentic. It’s very strongly synthetic, in that it jams a bunch of different modes and genres together, occasionally devolving into scrapbook — the fairytale bit, especially, reads like something Mitchell liked too well not to use, even though there’s little reason for it to be there. And more than anything else, it’s pastiche — setting aside the question of a British writer credibly rendering a Japanese teenager amok in Tokyo, which if difficult I expect can be done especially by a writer of Mitchell’s intelligence — an assembly of elements and images that are at least heavily inspired by Murakami, making number9dream read less like a novel of Tokyo or Japan than a novel drawn from the novels of Haruki Murakami.

Random House 02.11.03

January 27, 2014, 9:30am  Comments

“Lao Tzu slides a box of courtesy matches from a bar called Mitty’s.”

David Mitchell, number9dream

Very early — first scene, more or less, and more or less only because the first scene is intercut with dream sequences, unsignposted and thus disorienting, that repeat our hero Eiji Miyake’s incursion into an office tower from the cafe he’s sitting in, daydreaming. Which Mitchell pulls off: the sentences in this book are incredible, immaculate, economical, near perfect (except for one storyline, later in the book, which purports to be nursery stories that Miyake comes across and reads while hiding out from the Yakuza, which actually do go too far in a kind of precocious, show-offy way). Until here. And it’s not a fault of the sentence or its setup; it’s the tipping of the hand, the wink that tells you the writer is willing to let you in on the joke, is giving you the hint you need to figure out what he’s doing. A little condescending, right?

Random House 02.11.03

January 26, 2014, 10:51am  Comments


Amelia Gray replies to Earl. 

Reblogged from Going for the Gold, but getting only Green..

January 07, 2014, 2:55pm  Comments

“I am living in a movie that I directed myself. Up until now, it’s been a pleasant life. I have been spared from questions and attacks. I must have hoped that I would be able to sustain the fable until I believed in it myself and forgot my own life. Cultivating fables is complicated. You need a good memory. Otherwise you’re sunk.”

Benjamin Stein, The Canvas

Weschler’s story—of the man who discovers that his memories are not his own, that his actual history is not as he knows it—is also balanced and precise, if simultaneously both more outlandish and more familiar than Zichroni’s; it was only at the end of Weschler’s story, after completing Zichroni’s, that it began to resemble something like Muriel Spark rather than Patricia Highsmith, if that’s a useful distinction. Stein’s decision to separate the two narratives, and not just separate them but split them in such a way that either story can be begun from one cover or the other of the book, so that they’re printed upside-down from each other, and to encourage the reader to read one or the other first or to alternate chapters, encourages comparison between the two. But it doesn’t quite pay off as a narrative device or a gimmick: the narratives are strong enough on their own, and independent enough, that the connection between the halves doesn’t require the form, and the book might not actually be improved by the imposition of randomness, the abdication of authorial direction. That said, I’m not sure I would have picked up the book without the gimmick—so there’s that in its favor.

Open Letter 09.26.12

January 06, 2014, 9:30am  Comments