May 192015

As mentioned in an earlier post, there are books worth reading, and then are books worth looking into. This is fairly common in regards to short story collections, and books of non-fiction, but novels that fall into this category are a rare breed – an anomaly. For my money, Underworld by Don DeLillo is a good example of such an anomaly.

Underworld opens with one of the most compelling and ambitious chapters I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, I found the rest of the novel to be a bore. The good news is the opening chapter can now be purchased as a stand-alone novella, which I’ll talk about shortly.

The novel opens with the deciding game of the 1951 pennant race between the Giants and the Dodgers. DeLillo’s ability to capture a multitude of voices and the spectacle of this event is nothing short of genius. In addition to a number of working-class perspectives, some of the other characters inhabited and heard from include: Jackie Gleeson, J. Edgar Hoover, Russ Hodges, and Frank Sinatra.

In Underworld, this chapter is titled “The Triumph of Death.” And while the explicit focus is the Giants Dodgers game and the fabled ‘shot heard round the world,’ a number of subtexts and events run through the piece that gesture to a much grander scope of history unfolding around this crowd of 35,000 people so intently focused on the ballgame. The character used to deliver these larger implications is J. Edgar Hoover, who is far more fascinated by an image of Bruegel’s painting, which happens to fall into his lap, than he is the ballgame.

There’s so much going on in this story, I find something different and new each time I read it. And that’s the touchstone of great fiction.

The ballgame, which occurred on October 3rd, 1951 serves as ‘the event,’ which informs the rest of the novel, affects a number of characters, and provides an often invisible point of connection. I could say more. I could be much more specific and accurate with details, but I’m not going to be. This reductive, thumbnail sketch of the story’s concept is more interesting than the rest of the novel’s characters and events.

Luckily, you can purchase this chapter as it first appeared, as a stand-alone novella titled, “Pafko at the Wall.” First published in Harper’s Magazine, the story can be gotten on the cheap as an e-book or hardcover.

I have no idea if DeLillo was working on Underworld before “Pafko at the Wall” was published or if he was prompted to do so by the success of the novella. My gut feeling is the latter of the two is what occurred, but I haven’t seriously researched the subject. What I do know is this: I consider the chapter/novella to be an amazing pieces of fiction, one to be sought out and consumed.

I wouldn’t bother reading the novel unless I was having trouble falling asleep.

Mar 192015

Mr. Elphinston talked of a new book that was much admired, and asked Dr. Johnson if he had read it. Johnson: “I have looked into it.” “What,” said Elphinston, have you not read it through?” Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to his own cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, “No, Sir; do you read books through?” ~ Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson

Life’s too short to read fiction that sucks. I’ve little patience for it, and each time I add a novel to my ‘must read’ list, my patience grows that much shorter. Once it becomes obvious there’s little, if anything, to be gained from reading a novel or collection, it gets tossed aside.

But there are books worth ‘looking into,’ even if you only read sections of them. Making this call is easy when it comes to nonfiction or short-story collections. But when it comes to novels, the idea becomes somewhat contentious. Why? Because, generally speaking, a novel is presented as a unified story. Many readers who fail to read a novel in its entirety feel as if they’ve failed somehow.


There’s no point in reading something ‘just because.’ Of course, if that’s your thing, then more power to you. But there are plenty of readers who’d rather take their time with what’s great than read tepid prose while half asleep for ‘street cred.’

That said, it’s equally important not to be discouraged from seeking out gems in a sea of mediocrity. So I’m working on a series of posts about novels and short story collections that contain brilliant writing and compelling moments that stuck with me, yet I find severely lacking when evaluated as a whole. Some of these titles are books I endured to to the bitter end. Others – not so much.

Why do this? Certainly not because I have anything against the authors. I make it a point to separate a specific work from a body of work and do my best not to allow one to affect the other. Nabokov, in an interview, said something very similar, and I’ve been gloating ever since.

No, I’m doing this for a variety of reasons, which, I hope will become apparent as time goes on.

Anyway, as an example of a book worth looking into, I have the perfect candidate, Don DeLillo’s, Underworld.

I’ll be posting more examples as I remember or discover them.

Jun 182009

Upon finishing the novel Platform, I felt as though Michel Houellebecq could have written a great book. Instead, he wrote a mediocre book containing flashes of brilliance. To be sure, he was getting at all the right issues when exploring the novel’s central theme of sexual tourism: the economic reality of the phenomenon; the culture of global capitalism; the impotence of service economies; the cultural fallout/repercussions of global, western corporatism; and the melancholic irony of failed communist states that now tacitly commodify its citizens. Yes – I could add more to that list; and to my mind, almost any serious attempt at exploring those issues would at least make a novel worth the effort to read and evaluate. If I were a postmodernist scholar, Platform would provide fertile soil for quite a few conference papers. However, I am a merely a fiction writer; one who toils at becoming better at my craft. That is the lens I read through. Therefore, I want to talk about where/why this book succeeds and fails.

For me, one of the most irritating things that can occur in a novel, is for it to start out resoundingly good then take a dramatically wrong turn. In contrast, if my expectations are low then I will take such turns in stride. It is when I know that the author can do better that I get pissed off. Sadly, the first five chapters of this novel are seared into my memory as being good. In fact, they are bone jarringly good, which makes later disappointments that much harder to swallow. Houellebecq starts out delivering a first person narrative that is as honest as it is relentless; shoving the reader’s face right into ugly, contemporary issues without being didactic. The beginning of this narrative is both fearless and insightful. The reader looks at the world through the eyes of the protagonist Michel: an unapologetic sexual tourist. Houellebecq does not squander the opportunity of utilizing a self-aware, intelligent character who reflects upon issues in a disinterested fashion even as he moves through life as a kind of sexual zombie. The first three chapters gave me a lot to think about. Early on, Houellebecq has a number of voices sounding off in the debate, as he mercilessly lampoons bourgeois, European, tourists and tour-culture. The first section is darkly comic, and beautifully written. Then, out of the blue, Houellebecq begins the sixth chapter with unexplained exposition that reads as a sort of half assed third person omniscient PoV coming from Michel’s future girlfriend Valerié. The reader is given intimate details about Valerié’s early sexual experiences in a clumsy and gratuitous fashion that completely undermines the credibility the author has worked so hard to earn. This is not a minor disruption. Houellebecq switches perspective without telling the reader how or why it occurs. The author could have done any of a number of things to provide a transition for the reader: he might have created a pseudo-meta-moment where he alludes to the fact this is a book being written in retrospect before his suicide; or simply say that he later discovered the details of his future girlfriend’s childhood from her; or he could have indicated that he does not know all the facts allowing for a much more interesting and nuanced story. He does not make any of these moves. Instead, the reader is merely given the information in a herky-jerky fashion, and the first person narrative resumes.

That minor hiccup would be forgivable. What is unforgivable is second part of the novel, which takes place in Paris. The forty-year-old human sinkhole that was introduced in the beginning of the story proceeds to have an inexplicable love affair with a twenty-seven-year-old woman whose primary motivations seem ripped directly from a Penthouse letter. Michel asks the exact question that the reader wants answered: “What do you see in me? I’m not particularly handsome, I’m not funny; I find it difficult to understand why anyone would find me attractive” (99). In lieu of articulating a plausible verbal response, Valerié provides fellatio with raspberry jam. Fear not. It gets worse. Valerié is conveniently a tireless sex machine: morning, noon, night; she is perpetually ready to service or be serviced by Michel. Valerié has a career, makes a great salary, and lives in a palatial apartment. After she has worked an eighteen hour day, Valerié is portrayed as always grateful for either Michel’s penetration, or the opportunity to provide him with oral sex. I’m sure that middle-aged civil servants the world over salute the author’s imagination. To add insult to an already damaged narrative, the novel also begins to follow the career of her boss Jean-Yves. The reader is forced to endure chapter after chapter of tedious exposition regarding the life of corporate executives, as they give reports, and go to business meetings. Of course, in between there are details if Michel and Valerié having sex, or the miserable minutia of Jean-Yves perfunctory marriage.–Yawn.

Midway through the story, I remembered a very funny moment that had occurred early on; when Michel, sickened by clichéd, formulaic American novels, ends up burying several books on a beach in Thailand. I have to wonder if this middle passage is not some sort of parody gone terribly wrong. Is Houellebecq’s intent to be ironic, and I am just not in on the joke? Maybe there is something I am missing out on by not reading it in French. Regardless, the book never leaves first person, but the reader is expected to accept that Michel somehow has access to details of other character’s actions he could not possibly know. This book would not have worked third person, but Houellebecq could have found a more skillful way of dealing with the issue of 1st person.

The clumsy handling of this twilight zone exposition is exacerbated by the lack of anything significant occurring within the story. The characters are stagnant and flat, and the plot plods along. Working as travel industry executives, it is quite obvious that Valerié and Jean-Yves are going to make a foray into sexual tourism on a global scale. Once this finally occurs, Houellebecq begins to pick up steam again, as he makes a few half-hearted allusions of sending up the scheme as a metaphor for twenty-first-century imperialism. The reader is told of violent rapes and street gangs annihilating one another while our facile trio proceed to plot their sexual/financial conquest within the heights of an office building; but that is about as far as the author goes. I found myself wondering where this writer was for the last one hundred pages.

The second half of the novel partly redeems itself when Michel pitches the idea of a sexual tourism themed getaway at the town of Baracoa. Baracoa Cuba is the bay where Christopher Columbus first dropped anchor, and began to enslave, rape, and slaughter the first indigenous tribe he discovered. The significance of the launching of this fictional venture against the backdrop of that particular location, a location whose history includes both the Conquistadors and Communist Guerillas, is a brilliant postmodern moment. Finally, Houellebecq is back on track as Michel processes the ramifications of his actions even as he acts as a catalyst to bring the scheme about. At this point, the author has developed the protagonist, but to my mind he has not earned the series of events that are to follow. In short, I read the second half because the author had grabbed me by the lapels early on, and I knew what he was capable of. But, this is what I expected from cover to cover.

In an interview, Harry Crews talks about the responsibility of a writer when they know the story has taken a wrong turn. To paraphrase: Crews says that a writer has to have the courage to destroy any forward progress made the moment one realizes that the story has taken a wrong turn. If you do not have the balls to do that then you are a sham. I think the comment is dead on. Reading the first and last sections of this novel, I cannot believe that Houellebecq did not know he had completely botched the middle. For whatever reason, he forged ahead and created a book worth reading- but barely. To me that seems a damned shame. To be so close to getting at something gritty and true, and to then just chuck it for the sake of completion is a waste. Houellebecq certainly has the potential to write a brilliant novel, a great novel,and one worth recommending; Platform is not that novel.