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.

Bullshit.

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.

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.

Jun 242009
 

I tend to gravitate towards all topics gritty and weird. I’m quite comfortable if that causes you to judge me; for the record, I’m not sure your tastes can be trusted either. Anyway, my idea was to read James Frey’s, A Million Little Pieces, and Denis Johnson’s, Jesus’ Son, back-to-back, and then compare the two. I had some vague notion it would be interesting to compare nonfiction to fiction and all that. Well, the concept turned out to be a drag for a number of reasons not worthy of mention. Suffice to say, others have flayed, crucified, and incinerated Mr. Frey with much more skill and insight than my humble efforts would ever yield.

However cliché Little Pieces might be, I found it entertaining. I started to write some thoughts down and pecked out a few hundred words. Only then, I found John Dolan’s articulate evisceration and thought “why bother.” My reaction to Frey was not nearly as rabid as Dolan’s, but his extended rant on what’s wrong with the book is much funnier than mine could ever be.

In the twenty-first century, books about addiction and substance abuse hardly howl from the margins of society. After Burroughs, Selby, Bukowski, Thompson, and…And…realizing just how long this list could go, I’ll end with Dr. Thompson. But yes, after all that, it is hard to not squint one eye when surveying yet another book, or even a short story, about drug use.

That said, you’d be hard pressed to find an anthology of contemporary short fiction that did not contain Denis Johnson’s “Emergency.” By the way, I have no statistical proof to back up this claim; if some clever jerk decides to go out and actually do the math, my position is clear. Regardless, the story is ubiquitous, yet somehow I managed to not read the entire collection it came from, Jesus’ Son, until this year. Johnson’s collection is all about getting high, being high and all the nutso things one does while high that seems to make good sense at the time. The book has gritty weirdness in spades. One of the central forces of style in play is that insane actions are reported in a deadpan tone as though they were perfectly normal. Of course they are not normal, but the protagonist is nearly always blasted on some kind of chemical, or recovering from one. So, because all the stories are told in first person, the ongoing psychic reality is going to be one that is insane. For example, at the end of the first story, the protagonist hallucinates a box of cotton balls screaming in pain just before a nurse administers an injection that will knock him out. With this move, Johnson lets the reader know that the protagonist is quite aware of just how sick he is. Once that self awareness has been established, the reader should understand the protagonist as someone who will deliver a story as truthfully as a substance abuser is able.

Johnson’s perspective and style of narrating the insanity of addiction is unique. Quirky. He manages to find interesting images and situations that cause me to laugh while cringing. One of many challenges that writing presents me is finding fresh ways of approaching events, images, and dialogue. My early drafts, and many of my later ones, are full of interesting moments that are riddled with clichés. For me, the clichés are often clumsy placeholders. The trick is to then go back and look for a fresh(er) way to relate that moment. So, a specific reason I see Johnson as successful is that he finds new angles to look ugliness of addiction without being didactic, preachy, or cliché. Nor does he romanticize use or users. On the other hand, there really are some remarkably interesting and beautiful images evoked in this collection that are related through a prose style that has a raw, elegant quality to it. While reading this collection, I felt as though Johnson was relating his truth through fiction in a way that made the idea of a memoir irrelevant.

Of course, as someone who writes fiction, I am biased. I freely admit that I think the whole idea of nonfictional narratives is one that is fatally flawed. Like, if a writer is working with their memory as some kind of Oulipo restriction that involves intent, then I can dig it. But if they take themselves seriously as someone who is writing a ‘truer’ version of things, well, I can’t see that as anything besides wishful thinking.

I’ve yet to read Johnson’s novel, Tree of Smoke. But, after finishing Jesus’ Son, I’d be willing to drop a couple of bucks on it.

Dec 302008
 

I was in the midst of reading Robert Fitzgerald’s interpretation of The Iliad when I abandoned it to read Stanley Lombardo’s work instead. Before setting out to read the poem, I wanted to make sure I was in good hands. So, I poked around on the internet and found an numerous opinions on the published efforts available. One author recommended a blank verse translation, but I was unable to obtain a copy. So, I waded into Fitzgerald’s attempt.

Recently, I’ve been studying Borges and learned the hazards of reading lousy interpretations. For the most part, I like Fitzgerald’s work; however, his use of the ancient Greek names threw me off at times. The true test of an interpretation, at least of something this ancient, is the interpreter’s ability to capture the feeling of the piece. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would take issue with that statement. But, I’m neither a Greek scholar or classical specialist. I’m a creative dilettante living in the 21st century. When I read The Iliad, I want to come as  close to what it felt like to sit in a great feasting hall: eating great amounts of roasted meat, blasted on wine, listening to a master orator. This is no time for dictionaries and Google every other line; instead, I should be able to hear the groans of the wounded and the stoic tramping of doomed legions.

Yeah, I know it sounds melodramatic. But you try marching into a wall of spears without a solid warrior code that is married to a complex belief in divine kings. For today’s reader, space flight is a little over a generation removed from being a novelty ; indeed, DNA has been mapped, and telescopes strain to look backwards through time to glimpse the very origin of our universe. Post colonialism, gender studies and deconstructionist theories all clamor to complicate and challenge any reader with the slightest awareness of theory and history. Sometimes these theories seem to exist merely to urinate on the parade. I thought that reading this epic poem from such a vantage point and not revel in the irony would be more difficult than suspending disbelief. However, this wasn’t a problem as the story is so completely alien to everything I know while making grand gestures to thousands of stories that I’m familiar with via cultural osmosis. Within the Iliad there is a multitude of narrative echoes that resonate within me, yet I’m unable to provide an exact reason why.

Anyway, after a few hundred pages of Fitzgerald I found a copy of Stanley Lombardo’s translation sitting around. I found there to be a bone jarring difference between the two. The person who elects themselves to be a neo bard has quite a task: to make the verses sing without losing the silhouette of the archetypes that inhabit it. For example, below are the first 8 lines out of both translations:

“Anger be now your song, immortal one,
akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men—carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.
begin it when the first two men contending
broke with one another—” (Fitzgerald 1)

“Rage:
Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalcuable pain, pitched countless souls
Of Heroes into Hades’ dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus’s will was done.
Begin with the clash between Agamemnon—
The Greek warlord—and godlike Achilles.” (Lombardo 1)

Lombardo does not concern himself with the formal cadence or elevated diction of this epic. Instead, his primary concern is how the narrative will sound as an oral presentation. To this end, he keeps a contemporary audience in mind. I think this is the primary reason that Lombardo’s version holds more appeal because he takes risks with the language other scholars seem to avoid. One of these risks is in his use of common language or slang as dialogue. Sometimes, he will have a hero turn to his men, and say things that sound like lines from The Longest day, or some other WWII era film. Lombardo makes a deliberate choice to use language in this manner, and for the most part it’s effective. Although I have to admit, I found myself wincing several times when a Greek warlord’s voice would end up sounding like James Cagney or Jimmy Stewart. Regardless, I read Lombardo’s version straight through, and will be returning Fitzgerald’s efforts to the library unmolested.

Still, I feel as though I’ve somehow cheated: on scholarly footnotes and examination of critical response. After all, this epic poem is one of the central precursors to western, narrative tradition. So, at some point I’ll take the time to read another translation. In the meantime, I have The Iliad under my belt. To my surprise, the journey was not a chore.