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.

Feb 242013

“Style is the substance of the subject called unceasingly to the surface.” ~ Victor Hugo

Before picking up The Road, I’d never read any of Cormac McCarthy’s work and had no idea of what to expect. A few chapters in, I paused to orient myself to the world he evokes: set in a post-apocalyptic future, a father and his young son travel through civilization’s ruins while remaining true to a moral code. This is good stuff, but it’s McCarthy’s writing style, the sparse, fragmented prose of this novel, which made me into an ardent fan. Of course, style doesn’t matter if the story fails. So first, I’m going to touch on a few narrative nuts and bolts to see why it succeeds, and then I’ll fling some superlatives around regarding style.

The story’s success is remarkable given the plot’s limitations: it’s the day-to-day survival of a father and son adrift in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Keeping to major roads, they travel south toward an unknown destination; and because roads act a lot like like rivers, they attract desperate groups of people, many of whom enslave and eat other people.

Okay, more happens than that, but my point is the daily task of surviving in a bleak environment could’ve been oppressively tedious. But McCarthy makes it work by paying careful attention to the rate of revelation: scraps of information about the apocalypse are bundled with the father’s back story and doled out regularly in between crises. This backstory delivery system saves the novel from becoming a repetitive slog as the plot’s structure depends on simplistic conflict resolution: the characters need food, the characters find food, and the characters avoid/run away from cannibals, rinse & repeat. (Did I mention that nearly everybody else on the road seems to be a cannibal!? Seriously. Like, lots of scary cannibals.)

This plot structure is, of course, germane to a survival narrative, but McCarthy deserves credit for sticking to realistic speculation regarding day-to-day issues and not allowing the story to become something more exotic or cliché: like, a detour where the duo overthrow a cannibal kingdom or found a colony intended to be humanity’s last, best hope. Instead, the author stays focused to a much more ambitious story about a man determined to raise his son to be a principled human being in a desperate wasteland. The stakes are high as two individuals struggle to maintain their moral and ethical cores in an environment where principles are regarded as either liabilities or quaint relics of the past. That these characters struggle to do the right thing in the face of a hopeless future makes individual choice a central theme.

That The Road foregrounds individuality marks it as a distinctly American novel. Additionally, there are number of moments that have a Western-genre feel to them. Does it get any more American than the Western? You could easily place these two characters in a day-to-day struggle to survive Montana Badlands of the 19th century, replete with bushwacking outlaws and painted-Indian war parties, and gotten a similar story. Don’t get me wrong, the tone of Western-genre fiction doesn’t detract from the work; it’s just another aspect of the novel’s style.

Ah yes, style: we’ve finally arrived at the subject  causing all the chatter. Cormac McCarthy makes some brilliant choices in regards to syntax. That is to say, I found them brilliant. There are plenty of grammarians who hate this novel because he breaks so many rules. Specifically interesting to me – McCarthy declines to adhere to an important grammatical marker: the sentence boundary. Instead, the author deploys both the logic and organization of cumulative sentences while refusing to play by the rules dictating where they pause or end. This unconventional approach is used to good effect when working to evoke a broken world. Here’s an example:

“The kitchen door stood open and he crossed the porch and stood in the doorway. Cheap plywood paneling curling with damp. Collapsing into the room. A red formica table” (119).

Okay, so McCarthy ignores commas and uses periods instead? Yep. But also notice there are plenty of transitional words missing as well. Thinking things through, it becomes obvious one could revise this example to become a single cumulative sentence which delivers the same information with an entirely different effect. Like so:

“The kitchen standing open, he crossed the porch and stood in the doorway, observing the cheap-plywood paneling that curled with damp and collapsed into the room, a room with a red-formica table.”

Of course, there’s a ton of different ways one could rewrite the sentence. You might need to read a longer section to get a real feeling for the style, but the example above makes my point. And while I find McCarthy’s style effective, I can see why choices like this might put someone off; because when periods are used in place of commas, sentences no longer reliably exist as propositions. Instead, the period becomes a moment of pause – a crack to step over – while the reader is left to determine where the next clause fits in.

The novel would be a failure If this approach didn’t work. But it does.

By breaking down the cumulative form into discrete units, the author achieves a similar effect of evoking a detailed image. However, the choice of abandoning conventional syntax has a significant, secondary effect because the combination of sparse language and busted-up syntax clearly enhances this description of a world that’s bleak and broken. – That he made this choice is a big part of what makes this novel great.

In fiction, the difference between a good use of style and great use of style is as follows: a good use of style makes for enjoyable reading and marks a writer’s work as being unique. A great use of style fulfills all aforementioned requirements but also reflects, informs, and enhances a central theme of the work.

It’s that simple. The choice to ‘break’ the prose when evoking a broken world is ambitious: successfully pulling it off is fucking genius. So after reading The Road, I developed high expectations for McCarthy’s work, and, so far, he’s yet to disappoint. That said, I get why many readers dislike this novel. Many who attack it have ample ammunition that’s well-reasoned. But the bottom line for me is the author took a gamble, and it paid off big time. This book has a lot of popular appeal, and it’s easy to see why. Despite radical linguistic choices, The Road manages to hold a reader’s attention with an adventure while putting some heavy topics in play. That is to say, McCarthy treads the fine line between writing gratuitous fiction and writing great fiction. That he pulls it off makes this novel worth a read.

Mar 242012

Khushwant Singh is a renowned journalist, historian, novelist, and translator; he is a savvy writer who weaves the historic past and a fictional present together with wit, intelligence, and authority. That is, Singh is renowned in India and to literary minded people the world over who are not doomed to be as parochial as I am. I should know because I almost tossed his novel Delhi aside after growing bored with it. This would have been a great error in judgment. Whether you chalk it up to a lack of patience, my ignorance, or the novel’s flaws, I was  unimpressed with the first forty-nine pages of the book; happily, I made it to page fifty because, after that, I became unwilling to put it down for food or nature.

My own discovery of the author’s work was a lucky accident. I ran across a Wikipedia entry on Khushwant Singh while looking up information about Sikhs. I can’t remember why the hell I was looking any of this up, but I recall doing a search for Sikh intellectuals and finding the article. The entry sparked enough interest that I took a two-dollar chance on a worn copy of Delhi. A few weeks later, I found myself plodding through the beginning of a raunchy – seemingly gratuitous – novel that had a few literary gestures thrown in as asides. Written in first person, the literary character Khushwant Singh seems to have constructed inhabits Delhi, with the protagonist clearly a stand-in for the author à la Bukowski. The novel opens with Singh’s arrival from afar, and then follows him as he putters about Delhi: he describes the city, his haunts, and his position as man of letters with powerful government connections; a lonely lecher in the late summer of his life, the protagonist is primarily concerned with wringing out the last of his hedonistic juices one bitter drop at a time.

Looking back, the reason I was bored by the early chapters was the apparent story is of a jaded playboy’s declining years. There were fart jokes, and some cultural color was described while I fought to stay awake. In the second chapter, Singh has an awkward and unpleasant sexual encounter with a middle-aged English aristocrat, and then goes on to describe his relationship with a hermaphrodite prostitute named Bhagmati. But – the stakes seem low. Yes, the prose is well written, and the setting is interesting; however, I was uncertain the story was going anywhere significant. Of course, had I known more about this author, I would have been reassured that I was in good hands: all of this was leading up to something remarkable.

In the third chapter, the novel jumps backward to significant periods in Delhi’s History. Here Singh takes full command of the narrative as he evokes the rich, bawdy, and brutal history of the city.  And while the contemporary sections weren’t nearly as interesting as the historical bits, they do become more resonant as history characterizes the modern setting and contextualizes Singh’s position within Indian culture. Of course, I have to consider the fact that I was reading as someone who is effectively ignorant of this historical context the author gestures to from page one. Hunter S. Thompson quips about the futility of showing card tricks to a dog: my lack of knowledge regarding Indian history when beginning to read Delhi is a good example of this metaphor.

But getting back to the topic of historical novels, this jumping back and forth between past and present is a fairly conventional structure for books of this kind. One cannot help but notice many novels utilize this structure which utilize history as a kind of ornate crutch to propel an otherwise anemic narrative forward; in other cases, it works the other way around, where historical yarns seems tacked on with the more contemporary sections holding reader interest. While I maintain the trips to Delhi’s distant past were more interesting than the novel’s present, ultimately, Singh succeeds in articulating a complex and unified novel that doesn’t spare any religious, political, or cultural group from scrutiny including his own.

In a country with such a long and complicated history, the author does a remarkable job of utilizing significant events to skewer Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs alike with ruthless, measured thrusts. To this ill-informed American reader, the novel seems as fair to all sides as it is rich with specifics of just how awful these groups have treated one another when they were in power; however, the reality is that I know very little about India’s history or culture. I have no illusions that I could ever surpass the most facile understanding of the repeated conquests and colonialism that Singh evokes in this remarkably slim novel with such skill. But as someone who’s invested in using historical contexts to complicate and enrich fiction, I learned a lot from this book. I look forward to returning to it for future lessons. If you know nothing of Khushwant Singh, I recommend looking at a couple of articles to whet your appetite for his writing; he’s quite a character and unapologetically so.

Finding the fiction of Khushwant Singh was indeed a happy accident, and I look forward to reading more of his work.

Nov 292009

I was first exposed to God’s Little Acre in a graduate seminar, and I’ve been fascinated by this novel ever since. Caldwell operates on a number of levels within his prose using a variety of techniques that I admire. Currently I’m working on a novel and find myself picking up Caldwell, dipping in here and there, thinking about how it is put together. One technique that strikes me is Caldwell’s repeated invocation of an image that’s woven into expository material, altered slightly each time, and then fully articulated at the climax of that particular narrative thread. It’s as though the author starts by piling up individual tiles for smaller mosaics while working towards an idea that will thematically dominate the end of the work.

The reader is given access to the thoughts of Will Thompson, as he fantasizes about the mill he worked for and other mills in the area. An example of one of his daydreams comes shortly after the character is introduced:

He remembered the when the mill down below was running night and day. The men who worked in the mill looked tired and worn, but the girls were in love with the looms and the spindles and the flying lint. The wild-eyed girls on the inside of the ivy-walled mill looked like potted plants in bloom (69).

Variations on this thought can be found running through the prose like a slender thread for the entirety of the book in ways that are significant but not overstated. This is a subtle technique that’s difficult to pull off successfully. In effect, Caldwell is able to present the reader with a poignant symbol for the novel’s political agenda while developing Will’s character and imbuing him with a kind of supernatural aura. One could pick apart the significance of these fantasies for symbols and/or tropes: gender, labor, class, etc; all of these things are present and relevant; however, I am much less interested in why Caldwell places it here much more eager to figure out how he pulled it off.

It could have gone horribly wrong. Each lapse into poetic language might stick out drawing attention to itself. The reason it doesn’t is that Will is established as thinking in these terms almost immediately, so it seems natural for him to do so. He is the only character to think in such a manner, and for that reason alone he stands out. The other characters operate on a much more subsidiary level: Ty Ty has no vision for his land beyond his delusions of hitting the mother lode; the family, and extended family living with him, follow the patriarch with little thought for anything besides immediate sexual urges as well as vague longings for something beyond the farm that they are unable to articulate. This is one of the reasons Will’s visions are both haunting and significant without being distracting, as they are often woven into expository material. He will often think of the mill, the working girls, or the ivy-walls in sections where the fantasy is not fully realized. Other times, he will have tiny bursts of thought that stem from seemingly unrelated topics. This technique is a kind of endless refrain that inhabits the reader’s subconscious with the symbols the author wants to get across while not doing so in a fashion that is so overt that the reader is sickened by what they may read as polemic.

I’m interested in using this in my own fiction and see Caldwell’s work as a case study of its success. I think part of the trick is to use language that’s as specific and lyrical as it is ambiguous; language that inhabits the prose in an organic and germane manner yet alludes to greater themes without beating the reader over the head. It is all so simple and straightforward in theory. Isn’t that always the case? I’ll probably blog about GLA more in the future as this is a rich text for a fledgling novelist, and I find myself turning to it quite frequently.

Oct 302009

I am fascinated by immigrant narratives. Not so much because I’m taken with the experience of migration, but because I am interested in the ways in which a writer can utilize common events, framed by cultural alienation and poverty, as points of extreme tension within a story. It is quite common for such narratives to linger in the leanest of times, and abruptly terminate once the characters begin to assimilate. In Natasha, David Bezmozgis does not make that move. Instead, the last two stories in this collection, which sparkle alongside the others, explore what is at stake for those who have relived the financial stressors and now grapple with the repercussions of what it means to have assimilated, all while attempting to locate what is left of one’s identity.

Bezmozgis loads each sentence with information, and interesting details that are performing a number of functions at once. This is the kind of prose that makes short stories hum. A lot of this book consists of expository material, and this can be a dangerous thing as the reader may become bogged down in a morass of prose that neither advances plot nor develops character. Bezmozgis is smart about writing his exposition and skillfully weaves in the details that delight and interest the reader while constantly revealing more about the characters and complicating them. Add to that a talent for knowing when to insert dry, deadpan dialogue, and the story crackles right along.

It is rare for me to come across a collection that I feel is strong across the board. Natasha is a book of stories that is fully unified: thematically, stylistically, and structurally. In fact, one of the reasons this book works so well is that while Bezmozgis calls this a collection of stories, it is effectively structured as a novel. The stories are always told in first person, by the character of Mark Berman, and the narrative follows him through different periods of his life in a linear fashion. So, in the first three chapters, we follow along, as the Berman family struggles to survive and is assimilated into their newly adopted culture. In the final two chapters, we see them financially established in a middle class life, and the focus shifts to the agony and awkwardness that comes with growing up. It is in these middle passages that the protagonist is struggling with the immigrant paradox. He wants to retain some of his religious and cultural heritage but is simultaneously trying to fit in. One of my favorite passages illustrating this point occurs when the protagonist brings Natasha, his newly arrived fourteen-year-old cousin, over to meet his drug dealer, and intellectual mentor, Rufus:

I noticed Rufus looking at her.

– Did I mention she was fourteen?
– My interest, I assure you, is purely anthropological.
– The anthropology of jailbait.
– She’s an intense little chick.
– She’s Russian. We’re born intense.
– With all due respect, Bermen, you and her aren’t even the same species (90).

As a young man trying to fit in, Mark wants to mask or obliterate his Jewish and Russian identity. Later, as he matures, Mark comes to understand that they are things which he will have to fight to keep alive if he is to maintain any kind of comprehension of where he came from. Natasha is a strange symbol of his homeland, and the stark contrast between Russian and Canadian reality, as well as that of the working and middle class. As soon as they meet, Natasha initiates sexual interest and activity with Mark. He is woefully ill equipped to understand the implications of such a relationship. Mark is sixteen, chronologically older, but Natasha has been involved with prostitution, and pornography since the age of twelve; subsequently, she possesses the jaded maturity of a woman in her late thirties. All of this comes to a head when Natasha runs away from home and finds herself on the street. She becomes angered when the Mark does not react in a decisive or mature fashion to her plight. Of course, the character of Mark Bermen is hardly capable of grasping what she has been through or what it has done to mature her. For her part, Natasha can only see Mark’s inability to act as a kind of betrayal, and neither character can grasp the others mental or emotional state.

Of course, by naming Natasha a collection of stories, the author is free from the burden of unifying the piece in a seamless fashion. But I feel as though this book approximately accomplishes this in its dealing with complex themes that evolve and mature with the protagonist. For example, Bezmozgis utilizes the “Natasha” chapter to mature the protagonist in such an alarming and organic way that the reader does not feel as though there are large gaps when the stories move from the mid eighties, to the nineties, and beyond. After Natasha, it seems that Mark realizes his identity as a Russian is something that he has little hope of ever really sustaining in a meaningful fashion; the text is ambiguous about what kind of cultural connections he will maintain going forward. However, the character clearly falls back on religious tradition, and the Jewish tradition is one that is long accustomed to being in a state of diaspora. In the end, it is interesting that the author gestures towards a return to religion as a means of maintaining identity; though Bezmozgis complicates this return by demonstrating religion will have similar concerns as it grapples with cultural shifts in what is morally acceptable.

Sep 052009

When talking about my favorite science fiction, Philip K. Dick’s, Do Androids Dream of Electric sheep? always enters the conversation. But before now, I never gave much thought as to what makes this novel work or looked carefully at how it is constructed. All things being equal, it’s an awkward piece of fiction: the plot contains at least one major hole, and the prose is replete with the kind of adverb abuse that sends me right up a wall. But, when a reader basks in the glow of P.K.D’s brilliant conceit(s), one realizes all things are not equal, and these complaints become trivial missteps.

That said, there are moments in this story that have always bothered me. The central problem I have with this novel occurs when Dekard goes to retire Luba Luft, and is arrested by a beat cop as a murderer. Approximately one third of the way into the story, the protagonist discovers an alternate police department that is not only crawling with androids but is run by an android who employs a human bounty hunter. The idea itself is clever and may cause the reader to doubt Dekard’s sanity. This could have been a nice turn in the plot but soon reveals itself to be a flaw. Once Dekard and Resch escape to retire Luft, a few sentences could have wrapped up the prior events in short order: the stations existence explained, Dekard’s boss saying something about an investigation, anything really; anything would be better than moving forward as if it had never happened. Instead, the alternate department is never brought up again even in passing. When the entire novel is predicated upon Dekard hunting a few escaped androids, and a police station full of them is not worthy of a few moments, I tend to get irritated. With a lesser author it would be unforgivable as would the sentences that get pushed along: relentlessly, jarringly, clumsily, awkwardly, and…well you get the picture.

Setting aside the glut of adverbs, on a sentence level Philip K. Dick is a competent writer. He writes with straight ahead prose and little flourish; this almost gives Androids Dream a hardboiled feel. The violence is delivered in a matter of fact manner that echo the mean streets evoked by Daly and Hammet. Considering the amount of alien concepts that the reader will be forced to process over the course of the novel, a narrative style that spares the reader both sentimentality and melodrama is one of the keys to success.

In the end, it is of course the ideas that drive this story. In the introduction to the Del Rey Edition of Androids Dream, Roger Zelanzy ponders a comparison of P.K.D to Pirandello, but then chucks the idea because Pirandello’s “triumph [was] of technique over convention, possessed of but one basic message no matter what was fed into the chopper” (vii). In contrast, P.K.D’S triumph exists as a series of brilliant metaphors that, while individually sound, are brought together to articulate a unified, original concept and theme. Greater minds than mine have written at length about the genius of Androids Dream, and his other work, so I will not trouble you with my feeble musings. However, I would say that anyone interested in writing SF would do well to study the way in which P.K.D delivers the information in his stories.

To have ideas, even great ones, drive fiction, it is imperative that one find a way to have them do two things: occur organically to the world the writer has created, and then feed the new information to the reader in such a way that the description does not disrupt the narrative. It is called “info dumping,” and not many writers can use expository tactics to weave information into a story with skill of P.K.D. A good example of the author’s genius in this department comes in the form of “kipple.” The Earth has been abandoned by most of its inhabitants, but they left behind empty buildings overflowing with the stuff they have left behind. In the beginning of Androids Dream, we are told that silence of the buildings drives Dekard’s wife Iran into deep depressions; not long after, the “special” Isadore is introduced along with the ruinous cacophony of silence:

He lived alone in this deteriorating, blind building of a thousand uninhabited apartments, which like all of its counterparts, fell, day by day, into greater entropic ruin. Eventually everything within the building would merge, would be faceless and identical, mere pudding-like kipple piled to the ceiling of each apartment. And after that, the uncared-for building itself would settle into shapelessness, buried under the ubiquity of dust (20).

What works here is that kipple is both invented, introduced, and explained with an economy of language, allowing the story to continue to move along at a nice clip. The concept of kipple is as brilliant as it is subtle. For the rest of the novel, P.K.D. is able to weave in the imaginary byproduct of dead/offworld consumers, causing the reader to be viscerally aware of their absence. So, It works to amplify one of the themes of the story while providing a unique tone for the hopeless and abandoned setting. By properly explaining kipple, the author can move ahead with a story that is packed with action, meaning, and stark tragedy.

In the end, the sum of Philip K. Dick’s ideas are greater than all the hiccups and wild gesticulations that occur in their delivery. Going forward, there are not many SF writers that remain on my must-read list. But for raw, speculative genius, and generally good storytelling that make reading the genre enjoyable, P.K.D certainly abides as a master.

Jul 222009

Recently, I reread Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin because I’m interested in dismantling some of her work to see what makes it tick. While Atwood clearly addresses political issues, she’s never done so at the expense of the story. For the record, I’ve read three of her novels: The Blind Assassin, The Handmaids Tale, and Oryx and Crake. So, anything and everything I talk about is based upon knowing only these books.

Regarding structure, I’ve noticed that Atwood is quite consistent with two strategies: she withholds critical information about the plot, stringing the reader along for the payoff; and most chapters operate like a pseudo short story where there’s a set up, detailed exposition, finishing with an emotional punch. I hasten to say that Atwood’s writing is not formulaic, but it’s clear she often follows a similar pattern when moving the story from point A to B.

Atwood often favors telling a story by utilizing the first person PoV of a character that’s obtuse and complicit, and or, passive up to the very end. For example, in Blind Assassin: Iris allows herself to be married off without any kind of protest, doesn’t work to subvert the marriage, states she’s unaware her sister’s being molested, is unaware her sister ‘s having an affair, etc. The story’s a retrospective of all the things Iris is blind to, pun intended. This is an interesting move because all of Atwood’s stories represent the world as a bleak and oppressive patriarchy where females lack agency. Of course, Iris does take actions, but they are vengeful, spiteful, and all of her victories are Pyrrhic. In fact, the very act of writing the book may be futile, as Iris reveals all kinds of family secrets, and it’s not clear if she makes it out of the garden alive to stash the manuscript before Myrna gets to a burn it.

For the most part, I think that if I told “Joe/Jane Reader” about the kind of character Atwood uses as the protagonist up front, they’d most likely tell decline to hear the story. And who could blame them? But her method works. It works because the world Atwood’s characters operate in is as strange, and detailed as it is fascinatingly dark: she delivers descriptions of beautiful train wrecks in slow motion while withholding the worst of the wreckage and injuries until the last few chapters. By the time you realize the protagonist isn’t the hero, you’ll have been seduced into reading a relentless and intricate tragedy of a story.

For me, this works every time.

Jul 182009

Once, in a graduate seminar, I made a comment about authors who had a political agenda but told the story first while avoiding being preachy or didactic. When pressed for the name of such an author I responded with Margaret Atwood. The professor laughed at me, rolled his eyes, and moved to another point of discussion. I have always defended Atwood as someone with a stated agenda that writes complex work until I read The Year of the Flood. The novel beat me about the head with environmental issues from the first page to the last. No, while this is a very good story that I devoured in the course of a day, it shamelessly pushes a rather one note agenda that I found tedious.

Well then, why the hell is this such a compelling story? This book is well built and built for speed, and the story itself is action packed. However, as a writer the two things that I really noticed were Atwood’s ability to maintain tension when the reader effectively knows the outcome of the novel and her switching both the point of view as well as the tense between the novel’s two main characters.

Maintaining the tension with The Flood was a neat trick because the story’s time line runs parallel to Oryx and Crake. Presuming the reader has read the author’s prior book, the standard tactic of withholding information can only work so long. At the beginning of the novel, the reader knows two of God’s Gardeners are alive, each one in a different sort of trouble: Ren is stuck inside of a quarantine area of a sex club while Toby is holed up in a day spa. Each character has their own survival concerns, neither knows the other is alive or the whereabouts of the rest of the cult. So, by flashing backwards and forwards through time, the reader grows to care about the dangerous limbo states while simultaneously wondering what happened to all the secondary characters. Atwood is brilliant in the way she feeds the reader just enough information to maintain suspense while holding out on answers until near the conclusion. The shifts in time were also handled quite well; by the time one reaches the last section of the novel, they are well informed of why these two characters are in their present states and what is at stake for them to survive and find the rest of the community.

The choices Atwood made in terms of point of view worked quite well. The novel is told from two different female characters perspectives: Toby, perseverant and tough, is presented in third person limited, present tense while Brenda, passive and immature, relates her story through first person, past tense. Presenting Toby in the present tense works well because she is a no-nonsense, live-in-the-present, character. Therefore the narrative coming from Toby in this way seems organic and her perspective on things is reliable. In contrast, Ren’s story works from that particular PoV because she is rather self involved and comes across as weak when placed next to Toby. In fact, Ren is a pretty tough cookie, and to be fair almost any character will look weak next to Toby.

The point of view shifts were not jarring. They occur closer and closer together as the novel reaches its climax. The shifts themselves form a kind of structure where the novel’s sections often start with a fragment of ‘present’ post apocalyptic tension, Brenda is running out of food and Toby is being terrorized by the Pigoons, and then look backward in time to give you the story of God’s Gardener’s and the corporate wasteland they survive in.

While I enjoyed The Flood, I would call it a post apocalyptic page turner. Like, I get it. I understand the worldview: human beings suck, we are destroying the planet, and we live in a patriarchy where every woman is mere seconds from being raped/and or oppressed in some way shape or form. Atwood sees a future so bleak that the reader is cheering on a mega plague. There is not much else to say about this narrative besides it’s a war cry for the environment and rails against the evils of corporate capitalism. The world evoked is a kind of high technology dark ages where the last best of hope of humans is that they eradicate themselves before they destroy the planet. Margaret Atwood has amazing talent with the written word. Aside from the awful hymns (I thought they were written poorly with intent until I saw one could purchase a CD of them) the book is well written throughout. Also, there are shifts in language that occur that are really quite remarkable. Atwood has an enviable understanding of when to linger on a description, when to move on, and what kind of sentence will accomplish each task best.

Good book. Preachy as hell but good.

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.

Feb 252009

There are books that strike you and then are books that run you through; books that walk the narrative right into your guts – inch by inch – as though it were a lance. Such work leaves me quieted for a few days, pondering what to make of it. Immediately after reading this novel, I was not quite sure what I wanted to say. Off the cuff, I came to the conclusion that that Blood Meridian establishes Cormac McCarthy as a living American master; that said, I do not wish to waste time by gushing over this novel’s finer qualities in a general fashion. Instead, I am interested in some of the specific stylistic moves the author made that managed to rattle my back teeth. One such move is to frame depictions of deadpan violence with a narrative voice that sounds both ancient and elevated.

First off, the book just feels old. Though set in the American west, this novel subverts most of the expectations of the genre using tactics that keep the reader off balance while providing specifics that anchor the story in the nineteenth century frontier. This is accomplished before you have read word one of the body text as McCarthy sets up the aura of classic saga by using chapter headings. For example, the headings for chapter five read: “Adrift on the Bolson de Mapimi – Sproule – Tree of dead Babies – Scenes From the Massacre – Sopilotes…” (55). Setting the headers up in this fashion is effective because the reader is tuned in to read a story with epic characteristics. Fragments like “Adrift on the Bolson de Mapimi” Simultaneously invoke the The Odyssey and Moby Dick. However, when I read “Tree of dead Babies,” I have no literary reference point for the image. It is an unexpected and grotesque landmark in a text replete with grotesqueries that become exponentially more extreme as the novel unfolds. The violence depicted in Meridian is unrelenting but far from gratuitous as the author continues to raise the stakes, through plot and theme. The result is a reader that is invested in the journey, possibly wondering if they will ever become as inured to the death and the depravity as the characters seem to be. McCarthy does a first-rate job of depicting the Glanton Gang’s decent into barbarism. The gang starts out as a group of outlaws and killers who are working as an instrument of the Mexican government and end up a roving band of murderers who kill indiscriminately. The narrative arc itself becomes a topic of conversation as some readers might see the group as unrestrained and immoral from the outset; at their “best”, the gang is collecting bounties on scalps collected from men, women and children. However, I would argue the gang certainly crosses moral boundaries, only to redraw then cross them again; this is, for me, clearly an exploration of warfare and the ‘rules’ one abides by. After all, they starts out working under a rough code of conduct, then let the facade fall away at the banquet. But by the time the gang takes over the ferry, they have shed any trappings of outward misdirection that they are anything more than killers and thieves.

To be sure, the core of the action in this novel is straight forward brutality, but the violence is framed with poetic exposition, philosophical soliloquies, and unexpected tangents that consistently keeps the feel of this narrative in flux between the American frontier, the plain outside the walls of Troy, or some yet unexplored level of the inferno:

With the darkness one soul rose wondrously from among the new slain dead and stole away in the moonlight. The ground where he’d lain was soaked with blood and with urine from the voided bladders of the animals and he went forth stained and stinking like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of war herself (55).

Zane Gray or Louis Lamour this most certainly is not. In maintaining this narrative voice throughout a novel about the nineteenth century frontier, McCarthy responds to the mythology of Davy Crockett and the grand narrative of manifest destiny that is tossed off as a quaint, abstract idea in middle school history courses from sea to shining sea. I would not presume to know McCarthy’s intent in writing about the scalp trade of the Mexican Texas border, a particularly bloody location, physically and historically in the history of both America and Mexico; but, I cannot help but read this novel as an extended metaphor for western expansion. However, instead of being didactic, the novel floats along using the cloud of myth; it is the same myth that helps to place these tottering instruments of genocide alongside Agamemnon or Priam’s rank and file. Maintaining the elevated voice is a feat in itself, but it is most effective because it is partnered with the laconic dialogue and straight-ahead violence that characterizes the western. And the bulk of the dialogue, with the exception of Judge Holden, is the kind of stoic, deadpan phrases one expects. The skill with which McCarthy displays in shifting between detailed description and immediate action makes the novel a lush experience.

After reading The Road, I was impressed with McCarthy’s style, but Blood Meridian left me in awe of this author’s ability to articulate a larger narrative. I feel like I have a lot to learn from this novel, and I look forward to dipping into it in the future.