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j r angelella, zombie

“Dad and I have seen Planet Terror a trillion times. Shit, we’ve seen every zombie movie a trillion times, but everyone has his or her comforts.”

Arguably more than any other monster-based sub-genre, zombie stories work as metaphors. The living dead are an ideal blank slate, a useful way to work out other larger issues with the added benefit of a little splatter and gore. And what J R Angelella is trying to do here, by introducing his hero Jeremy through the conventions of zombie movies (or, rather, the conventions of zombie movies as set out by zombie movie Zombieland) on his first day of high school, is build a second layer of metaphor atop the first. A delicate zombie torte, if you will.

Soho 06.05.12

June 27, 2012, 5:38pm   Comments

china mieville, railsea

“How many of these philosophies were out there? Not every captain of the Streggeye Lands had one, but a fair proportion grew into a close antipathy-cum-connection with one particular animal, which they came to realise or decide — to decidalise — embodied meanings, potentialities, ways of looking at the world. At a certain point, & it was hard to be exact but you knew it when you saw it, the usual cunning thinking about professional prey switched onto a new rail & became something else — a faithfulness to an animal that was now a worldview.”

A bunch of the pleasures of a China Mieville book right here: the immersive, defamiliarizing language; the reach of reference, in this case out to Moby Dick, and then back to a metaphor about railroading in a world defined by rails; the tendency to put enough pressure on a handful of ideas to melt and torque them together.

Del Rey 05.15.12

June 07, 2012, 10:59am   Comments

johnson continued

“‘Where we are from,’ he said, ‘stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.’”

But, alongside that ability to imagine a plausible response, Johnson also does this: as his novel goes on, and as it shifts from a thriller to a novel of education, to something else entirely, he adds layers of metaphor. This, especially, works: the division of a person into individual and legend, man and story. And that division lines up well alongside (or, I suppose, laid over, like a transparency) the double consciousness of the man who knows about the televisions and the rice but turns his back on them.

January 30, 2012, 11:00am   Comments

szalay continued

“(An interesting idea, when she thought about it — her perception of how she felt. What was the difference between the perception of how she felt, and how she did feel? In what sense did her feelings exist when she wasn’t perceiving them — when she wasn’t feeling them?)”

Working to justify sleeping with James, after telling him she needed a break from sleeping with him. Like so much of this book, precision lavished on the second order, with the basic things left undefined. Mind you, this does not make it a bad book; instead, it’s an interesting case, a specific and particular way of getting to an effect, a metaphor. But it’s very intentionally not trying to sweep you away.

January 25, 2012, 11:00am   Comments

szalay continued

“His lack of desire, as he wiped her — wiped her stomach and the seam of her pussy like an exhausted waiter wiping a table — was extraordinary. He felt like he would never want to fuck another woman in his life. In the last minute, the way he saw her had undergone a profound metamorphosis. He noted the sanded soreness around her mouth, the zones of irritation — little livid spots — where she had shaved part of her pubic hair, the twofold meatiness of her sex … When he had finished wiping her he threw the smeared shorts onto the floor.”

So, at the heart of this book is a diffident, uncertain relationship. Katherine pulls James along, attracting and rejecting, offering herself and deferring. This affair is both the subject of the book, and its central metaphor; I think Szalay wants James and Katherine to stand in for something else, everything else. And, really, they do; the metaphor works so very well. Except that the thing that needs to animate the story, the face-value love affair, isn’t clear. I have absolutely no idea what it is that James sees in her.

January 23, 2012, 11:00am   Comments

david szalay, spring

“The question of the day was — Is the world changing more or less quickly than it was? Alexander said LESS quickly. The world was changing less quickly now than at any point in the twentieth century. Think, he said, of the fact that in 1900 there was no powered flight at all. The Wright brothers and their experiment on the sands at Kitty Hawk were still some years in the future. And not much more than a half century after that, there were supersonic airliners, spy planes photographing from the edge of space and men on the moon — while in the almost half a century since then we have essentially not moved past that point.”

This is not part of the main thrust of the book — it’s a nice bit, with the father of one of the main characters throwing himself into play-outrage over luncheon — but it’s also an interesting bit, in a thoroughly-, carefully-put-together realist novel that’s working to capture a specific moment in recent history. It echoes Kurt Andersen’s recent bit, especially inasmuch as it’s a rendering of a highly-specific just-pre-recession moment, spring 2006, in a three-hundred-year-old form.

Graywolf 01.17.12

January 22, 2012, 11:00am   Comments

marcus continued

“When I thought of Esther alone in the house, without us, I pictured her being waited on by … us. Facsimiles of us. Robot usses. Father and mother us, hovering over Esther with bowls of berries, with the special dinner of steamed greens, the de-meated slab of protein and sauteed bread she liked. Her own baby bowl of salt, hooked onto her dinner plate like a sidecar. I couldn’t see her, Esther didn’t exist, without a satellite of us orbiting by, although I’m sure Esther had no problem imagining her solitude.”

And here’s a hint at what Marcus does — with the de-meated slab of protein and sauteed bread, with the weirdness of the image of the sidecar of salt. The things he describes are a little bit off (or a lot off, as with the odd mode of Jewish worship he describes, hiding in a hut in a forest listening to clandestine radio transmissions with a two-part receiver rig), but only in the manner of a near-future dystopia or a wet science fiction story, mild little unsettling differences from a mostly-recognizable setting. But the diction — the diction continues to get uglier, more viscerally awful, as the book goes on, the ugliness and hopelessness of Marcus’s world coded into the words he uses. In this, The Flame Alphabet resembles something like Blake Butler’s There Is No Year, which I thoroughly disliked. But The Flame Alphabet succeeds in a way that No Year doesn’t (still unlikeable, but because of a visceral recoil from the language, a calculated effect) because the diction is a vehicle for and an emblem of the plot, and the layered metaphors built up like sediment over top of that plot.

January 18, 2012, 11:00am   Comments

ben marcus, the flame alphabet

“Esther was probably riding a horse right now, wearing the black Mary Janes she refused to shed for anyone, even if it was a shit-clotted field she needed to cross. Or she was lugging a saddle to the stable, or standing not-so-patiently as someone overexplained something Esther already knew. At home she fumed when you doled out information she took to be a given. Anything factual went without saying. Esther opposed repetition, opposed the obvious, showed resistance to anything that resembled an instructional phrase, a word of advice, a sentence that carried, however politely, a new piece of information. These were off-limits, or else would be scorched by her temper. Out in the world I wondered how she concealed it.”

Normal teenage behavior. This is the start of, and really the inverse of, Marcus’s nightmare, though: the ability of the teenager to wound her parents with curtness, or silence. This is before they realize that she wounds them, literally rather than emotionally, with her speech, and which is the first of the loosely-nested series of metaphors that get suggested behind the icky apocalyptic sci-fi of the main plot.

Knopf 01.17.12

January 17, 2012, 11:00am   Comments

richard zimler, the warsaw anagrams

“Imagine black dye running off into every memory. Nothing survives that isn’t grey.”

This is the especially nice thing that Zimler does, in a perfectly adequate historical mystery (that is, a little bit of a mixed bag, with an underdeveloped frame story and the weird dissonance of a small cast of characters in the overcrowded Warsaw Ghetto setting, but a strongly and specifically-developed hero at the center of things); it’s the second repetition of a metaphor, both in slightly different terms, but the gist is the same. Some experiences, the most terrible and most affecting, don’t just alter the present or the future; they even taint the past, transmuting memory, a notion Zimler uses gently and carefully.

Overlook 07.12.11

December 07, 2011, 9:25am   Comments

sterling watson, fighting in the shade

"She watched him thoughtfully for a space. Then she said, ‘You … played football. Come with me.’ She walked into the stacks, and he followed her. She stopped in the corner of the room farthest from the checkout desk, grazed her fingers along a shelf, and selected a book with a caressing motion that made him think, Loving. She handed it to him: The Spartans. ‘Read it. Football isn’t war, but the two have some things in common.’ She bit her lower lip. ‘You need something now. New interests.’”

Perhaps a slightly unfair context-free quote-pull, but only because the football / war / ancient Greek metaphor is not the clunkiest thing in the paragraph. I’ll have you know that the person doing the caressing and the book-selection is the football player’s English teacher, and that I’m pretty sure that this isn’t meant to be a seduction scene.

Akashic 08.01.11

August 01, 2011, 12:00pm   Comments