Friday, 28 January 2011

A palimpsest of evolving interpretation

Palimpsest (from the Oxford English Dictionary online):

a. A parchment or other writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another; a manuscript in which later writing has been superimposed on earlier (effaced) writing.

b. In extended use: a thing likened to such a writing surface, esp. in having been reused or altered while still retaining traces of its earlier form; a multilayered record.

I know most people don't require these definitions, but I love the OED - the writers behind it make everything sound so ridiculously elegant and fascinating. I posted these definitions almost entirely for my own pleasure, yes. (Do you love dictionaries, too? I will sometimes page through one, or the OED online, for hours just being delighted by the strange lexical weirdnesses I come across. Given the way he plays with, and invents, words I suspect China Mieville has spent similar time with dictionaries in his day.)

But about the novel...
Mieville's The City & The City is a novel whose subject is the palimpsest of history, cultural memory, identity, and politics; these interleaved subjects are explored through a generic palimpsest that includes fantasy, science fiction, murder mystery - subset noir with elements of police procedural, and political intrigue - all woven together by a narrative voice that seamlessly alternates between the straightforward revelation of events and the theoretical interpretation of those events within the strange context in which they occur. This is a novel about a fictional archaeology and it is itself an archaeology of textual creation and meaning.

The two cities of the title are Beszel and Ul Qoma, two cities existing alongside one another and sometimes within each other's boundaries. The boundaries are physical, cultural, linguistic, psychological - where streets or parks or buildings exist in both cities simultaneously, citizens engage in a life or death ritual of unseeing the other. To walk from an Ul Qoma street into its Beszel counterpart, or vice versa; to acknowledge that one is seeing a denizen of the other city while standing in one's own; in some cases, to simply behave as though one is in the other city, can bring about swift retaliation from the mysterious organization known as Breach. To breach the boundaries of the cities is to get oneself disappeared forever.

This is the context. The story is the mystery in which Besz detective Tyador Borlu investigates the discovery of a murder victim in his city - a young PhD student who turns out to have been working in Ul Qoma. This investigation, of course, turns out to be much more than it initially appears to be (no plot spoilers here, friends) and Borlu's archaeological adventures lead him through the generic and historical layers that comprise the palimpsest of the plot and the book itself.

What I really liked about this novel is that while it is extremely clever, and Mieville constantly upsets readerly expectations by adding layers of meaning and misdirection both through Borlu's continuing discoveries and his own generic manipulation, it never swerves from being first and foremost a good read. This is a tricky balance which I've seen many other PhDs turned novelists fail in embarrassingly spectacular fashion, and so Mieville's successful tightrope walking is a very welcome surprise. And my husband recently read The Scar and loved, loved, loved it so it seems The City & The City wasn't simply a happy accident.

Best of all: Mieville writes good fantasy completely devoid of any of the elements of swords and sorcery fantasy. I'm always looking for good fantasy that has nothing to do with swords and sorcery; yes, I am asking for recommendations, and yes, I have already read (and loved, although I was also terrified by) the fantastic insanity of John Crowley's Little, Big. (A little terrifying is okay, by the way, if the book is excellent.)

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The definition of sentimentality

I would like to say that it's a shame, a damned shame, a huge bloody shame that The Catcher in the Rye is so damned popular, and has been for so very long. It has unfairly pigeon-holed J. D. Salinger as an Earnest Writer of Novels about Earnest (read whiny) Teens Feeling Things, Deep Things, Intensely. People have forgotten, self included, that he wrote other books - other lovely and amazing books, such as Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction.

I was forced to read The Catcher in the Rye when I was in high school, as many of you no doubt were as well. Even then, as an Earnest, Whiny Teen Feeling Deep Things of my own, I was irritated by the wankey Holden Caulfield. I wanted to punch him in the neck but couldn't articulate that then; "punch him/her in the neck" hadn't yet been incorporated into my special lexicon, and so I merely floundered about, silently hating this loser and nursing a resentment.

Now, the fact is, I read Franny and Zooey before reading TCITR, and absolutely loved it - as in stayed up all night to read it and then re-read it as soon as I woke up the next afternoon. I don't remember why I loved it though. I think it, or a large part of it, was just a lot of talking, and that Salinger's gift for fictional conversation had me at "howdy" - an experience reproduced in this latest reading venture. And because my memories of Holden and his Problems are almost as vague and fuzzy as the conversation of F & Z, I wonder if, in fact, TCITR doesn't suck at all - but that the way it was taught sucked, and that was the problem. And you know? That often was the problem in high school, so why should this one book have been an exception?

The point is, I picked up a Salinger book, in spite of this high school reading disaster, and it was gold. I love, love, love his writing. And I was so pleased to discover, much to my surprise, that he's hilarious! Here's the beginning of Boo Boo's letter to Buddy, about their brother Seymour's upcoming wedding (this is from the beginning of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters). The whole letter is ridiculously good, but I'll just get it started for you, to tempt you. I'd give my left arm to be able to write letters half so engaging as this (I must keep my right arm, however; otherwise there will be no letter-writing by me regardless of what I give away):
Dear Buddy,
     I'm in a terrible rush to pack, so this will be short but penetrating. Admiral Behind-Pincher has decided that he must fly to parts unknown for the war effort and has also decided to take his secretary with him if I behave myself. (p.8)
I may have squealed with delight when I began reading this epistolary bit. And yes, that's all I'm giving you. I demand that you go read this. Because it's not just that the writing is really, really good, or that it's funny as hell; it's also that Salinger is so damned nice to and about his characters. His narrative style is one of a very benevolent god looking down upon his sweet but confused creations. He pokes fun at them, yes, but so gently it seems like kindness itself.

And Seymour - the subject of both novellas, and the eldest of the Glass family children, all brought into show biz early on - is the reflection of this narrative voice. He's brilliant, strange, and absolutely beamingly in love with the world, but especially his family. He is sentimental according to the definition that makes sense to him: "we are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it" (p.67). This is what defines and motivates Seymour's actions throughout both pieces. Sentimentality, here, is not a disparagement; rather, it's something that only the doomed Seymour is capable of.

In Seymour: an Introduction, Buddy tries to describe his deceased brother. He circles about and about, discussing things not apparently to the point but slowly revealing more and more of the loveliness and brilliance of his elder sibling. He's incapable of the kind of uninhibited sentimentality that illuminated Seymour's life, so he tries to get at it from odd angles. And he manages it, in spite of himself. This is Salinger's power - to so perfectly show Buddy's struggle, at the same time that he shows us what we need to know about Seymour, without Buddy realizing he's succeeding brilliantly in his painful task.

If my memories of TCITR are close to accurate, I hope that it was a one-off of angst and gloom and lameness, because I'm going to be reading whatever Salinger there is left to read. And I'll be more disappointed than I can say if I have to punch any creation of Salinger's in the neck.

PS-I am reading China Mieville's The City & The City as per your voting, and I thank you for it. Please go vote in the NEW POLL!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Meh; better than meh

Two short and unsatisfactory reviews for you, about two shorts books, one of which was almost entirely unsatisfactory and the other of which was only so at the conclusion.

1) Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination by Edogawa Rampo.

Go ahead. Say this author's name out loud and then guess who his favourite writer in the whole world was. I'm all for homage, but the stories in this collection mostly sucked, to be blunt. Mind, I haven't read the American hero's stories of mystery and imaginating, with a few exceptions, and so don't know if they don't also suck. It could be a case of suckiness all around.

One story, "The Caterpiller", was pretty good. It told the story of a young wife dealing with the armless, legless, bitter (understandably, I might add), mangled lump her husband returns home from the war as. I still prefer the Metallica video though.

Of course, I also suck for not intuitively knowing that this collection would probably suck and therefore avoiding it.

2) Grave Mistake by Ngaio Marsh.

I enjoyed approximately the first 5/6 of this book very much. It's a classical whodunnit and it's very well written, so incredibly enjoyable on two fronts.

But. The guilty party? And what motivated the guilty party? I guessed both these details very early on but dismissed them because they were too obvious and cliched. The disappointment was pretty intense when my first lame, non-mystery reading assumptions turned out to be correct. Le sigh.

This isn't to say that I won't read pretty much everything Marsh wrote; I will. The pleasure of genre fiction really well-written (see also, Sayers, D.) is still new and exciting. Also, I like my characters more British than a Corry St./Elizabeth II sammich slathered with double Devon cream - and Marsh, in spite of being a Kiwi, obliges.

(These are books 4 and 5 for the Awesome Author Challenge!)

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Delicious distractions

I got barely any reading done this weekend because I was busy preparing to hold my first large-ish social event in about three years. While we were in the bookshop, we had no time to entertain and besides, our apartment was a hellish bit of hell on earth and we were too embarrassed to have friends over.

Yes, we had a party and do you know what kind of party it was? It was a PIE-LUCK. Yes, like a potluck but ONLY pies. There was a pretty even mix of sweet and savoury offerings, and all of them were ridiculously kick-ass. This may be the best idea I've ever had in my life; I'm not really kidding.

I made chocolate pumpkin pie (filling recipe courtesy of Dreena Burton and flaky crust recipe courtesy of Colleen Patrick-Goudreau), which you can see in the photo below - it's the one with PIE LUCK written on it in Dreena's appropriately named Celestial Cream. There was also blueberry pie, chocolate peanut butter banana pie, bourbon pecan pie, S'Mores pie, curried cilantro granola pie, pot pie with mushrooms and leeks and cracked pepper biscuits on top, quiche, frozen peanut butter pie with raspberry coulis, Boston cream pie cupcakes - just to name a few. In the end, there were more than 10 pies going. This will definitely be an annual event with us!

Tomorrow, I'll be back to the books with a slightly larger belly. :) 

In the meantime, the results of my first reading poll is in - after I finish Ngaio Marsh's Grave Mistake, I'll be reading China Mieville's The City & The City. Tell me how you feel about deciding my reads for me in the comments!

Friday, 14 January 2011

Curious/Creepy: Totally Super-Epic Pan-Toronto Edition!!!

It's probably going to take me days to finish writing this post, I have so many book sightings to share with you. If it does take me days to write it, I hope it won't take you days to read it. Okay, dammit, LET'S DO THIS THING.

Wednesday Evening, westbound train

Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir by Marina Nemat

This tome was the catalyst for this latest frenzy of creepiness, although it was noted with total ease - the woman reading it was sitting right beside my husband and me. Even though this is just the sort of book I've mocked Earnest, middle-aged white women who don't necessarily have passports, for reading before, this reader hadn't wrapped her book in brown paper for the sake of either anonymity or self-respect.

Ironically, I am now going to respond to this book earnestly, and mildly angrily: I would like just ONE person in my spyings ever, ever, EVER to be reading a book about the plight of natives in this country. But no, it won't happen - too close to home. Iran is so comfortably 20 hours and complicated visitors' visas away by aeroplane. Not that simply reading a book changes anything, of course, but still - can y'all at least pretend to give a shit about your neighbours if you're going to pretend to give a shit about someone?

Oh dear, I'm going to lose you if I don't put on my clown nose and funny hat!

Next up: P-Greg wannabe Anne Easter Smith's The King's Grace!

I have a sneaking suspicion that some bodices are going to be the subject of energetic ripping in this novel! I hope the grace to be shown by the king, wink wink, will only be offered in deep summer; otherwise, someone might catch cold and die the death.

I think there's a certain sense, in terms of maintaining sanity in the winter vortex of hellish hell that this city has recently become, of reading steamy books on very cold days. On the steamy subway. In a parka. Phew! I bet the ladies who read this sort of book in such close quarters end up tearing off their own bodices when they get home...and then catching the pneumonia but not dying the death because we have antibiotics. (I mention this because apparently Gaston Leroux died of a urinary tract infection, which is silly - but no antibiotics!!! I know!)

Further down the train on this fruitful but dangerous Wednesday evening, I very ineffectively (for he saw me coming and wondered what was wrong with me) crept up on a fellow reading Julian Barnes's Nothing To Be Frightened Of.

Friends, Barnes is operating under a grave delusion, and so I fear was the reader of this book, for he looked, inexplicably, as though he were enjoying himself. There is plenty to be frightened of. Examples: Our eventual and inescapable deaths. Nuclear war. Biological weapons. The greenhouse effect. Sarah Palin. Strangers spying on your reading. Julian Barnes novels. MSG. Overdue fines at the library. People who own personal sets of tarot cards. People who don't own personal sets of tarot cards. Occasions on which one is expected to wear high heeled shoes. Flu pandemics. Cockroaches that fly. Sweatshirts prominently displaying cute kittens. Pot of Gold chocolates. Blinding oneself while applying mascara. Lists of random but terrifying things.

Avoid this book, unless you prefer to operate under grave and dangerous delusions - or like to wear sweatshirts prominently displaying cute kittens.

I've read is Max Brooks's World War Z; this doesn't make me as proud of the two books below which I've read - guess which ones they are!

This book, like most vampire and zombie films, had potential and then ended up shitting the bed in ways even the Toronto Raptors can't conceive of. Alright, I might be exaggerating - but only a little.

I am frankly shocked and unpleasantly surprised that this book has remained in the public consciousness so long. It's so obviously the diabolical precursor of those Classic + Weird Shit books which started coming out, what a year ago? Why anyone would read such-

Oh dear God, I see it, I understand but wish I didn't. Brooks put out this book and it has, like one lone bite from a slavering zombie demanding BRAAAAINNNNSSSS, created a pandemic of increasingly rotten and mindless bad taste in terms of popular fiction. First, it was just Pride and Prejudice and Zombies but then the infection began spreading exponentially and there are now approximately 500 similar titles out there. It's just a matter of time before those of us unwilling to let go of our David Mitchell, George Eliot, Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan, etc will be holed up in our cellars blowing the heads off the encroaching multitudes of famished Robin Cook paperbacks. AAHHH!!! AAAAAHHHHHHH!!!

Ahem. And finally, on that Wednesday evening westbound subway train, I also saw Christopher Fowler's The Victoria Vanishes.

This book looks like a mystery, and it is, but you may be surprised to hear that it features former Ontario attorney general and cyclist-runner-over Michael Bryant teaming up with federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May! Yes, it's true! Together, this unlikely and star-crossed duo fight crime and solve the mysteries of shrinkage at Toronto's new flagship Victoria's Secret store in north Toronto.

You wouldn't think shop-lifting would be such a problem in the posh Yorkdale Mall, where there's a cover charge simply to look in the windows of the shops, but there is. You see, the young ladies working there still make only minimum wage - which means they can buy approximately 1/5 of a clearance table thong per each hour of paid employment. Obviously, you can't go back to wearing Sears bargain basement scivvies after shilling lace and silk anal floss all day long, and so previously honest girls trying to make some money for college quickly turn into hardened criminals.

So, why do Bryant and May devote their downtime to pursuing such nefarious and but relatively minor crimes? Simply because they love justice. Especially when justice is being exacted on poor people (Bryant) and involves environmentally friendly, because existing almost entirely in the imagination, undergarments (May).

Thursday morning, heading east via various forms of public transportation

My first inkling that an EPIC Curious/Creepy was in the making was on Thursday morning, as I headed into Kensington market to do some reading and eating before heading even further east to have a good palaver with my excellent pal, The Catastrophizer. Yes, I am friends with a website - what? It's not like I'm going to marry my dakimakura or something...Damn it, you just leave Franklyn out of this! That's not what we're talking about here!!!

I saw this very unique and perhaps interesting, not to mention smarty-pants, book being perused on the southbound Spadina streetcar: E.P. Sanders's Paul and Palestinian Judaism.

I think this book might have something to do with religion, but I'm not entirely sure because none of the big names are quoted on the cover, e.g., "Palestinian Judaism is an oxymoron" - Elie Wiesel; "It's all bollocks, you bloody weaklings!" - Christopher Hitchens; "Can I just read Philip Pullman instead? This looks hard." - Terry Eagleton; "Why would I want to review this book if I won't make any money off of it?" - Dan Brown.

And what's with the rolling pins on the cover? I don't understand religion at all, but I'm suddenly having a mad urge for pie.

Next, I espied two interesting books while I was in Moonbean; the first was Noam Chomsky's Profit Over People.
Ah, grad students - you are so obvious! The young lady reading this book had very correct posture, a small laptop, and her hair tied back in the regulation half-bun that shows one is intelligent but not narrow-minded, hard-working but confident and relaxed when appropriate.

She read this book like it was her enemy, and frequently put it down to write no doubt scathing critiques of Chomsky's failure to see how important it is that grad students be able to afford to buy clothes, which they can only do when said clothes are made by 9-year-olds in Asia, so that they can leave the house and do important work on Noam Chomsky.

I wonder how many people were quietly laughing at me/commiserating with me as I wrote my thesis in Moonbean? Good times!

At the table next to me, I saw one of those older men who are blessed with retaining a full head of hair that turns a lovely white instead of a drab yellow, and which they grow to wavy, shoulder-length glory so people know that they're "in the music business" and therefore capable of making sweet love to very young and feisty women. This was his book, of course: Electronic Music and Sound Design, Volume 1 by Alessandro Cipriani and Maurizio Giri.

So. Hot.

But seriously, I thought Lady Gaga was the last word on electronic music. Why bother consulting these dry book-writing scholarly types when you can just listen to "Alejandro"? She loves you, boy, hot like Mexico (which I hear is pretty damned hot) - rejoice! (Yes, I had to watch the video after linking to it. Why are these hot boys in hot hot-pants made to march like Nazis and sport such terrible hair? I think these must certainly be human rights violations. I want to rescue them. Don't judge me.)

After leaving Moonbean, I took the eastbound Queen streetcar to Te Aro (maker of coffee dragons) and finally met up with my friend, the website mentioned above. Immediately, I saw a young lady sporting the regulation Uggs, gross baggy sweatpants, puffy coat, and blond hair of the Ontario undergraduate; she was reading The Diary of Anne Frank and underlining parts of it for her essay, or at least for class discussion.

Question: Why, why, why are Uggs, gross baggy sweatpants, puffy coats, and blond hair so ubiquitous that I can entirely without irony call them "regulation undergraduate" apparel? Such slatternly costumes are sinful, dammit! They sin against the 20-something's duty and ability to get laid as much as possible (because, little ladies, you need to look good in your clothes to make people want to take you out of them!). Such outfits sin against the Christian God, who knew that fig leaves were the way to go when both broke and young and looking to get laid. And, finally, they sin again Anne Frank. Did she die so that you could look like you have to buy your underwear at Goodwill on half price day? No, she didn't. So stop it with the Derelicte; only Ben Stiller can pull that shit off without sinning against anyone.

Near the bar, sat a young fellow with a mohawk. He was possessed of a computer. As a counterbalance to his display of counterculture and toughness, he had on display but did not read, Marguerite Duras's The Lover. What exactly does this particular novel indicate to the young ladies smart enough not to wear Uggs, gross baggy sweatpants, and puffy coats (blond hair is acceptable if it's natural and/or not worn in conjunction with the preceding)?

This book thus displayed says, "I love sex. I might even like dangerous sex - the kind of dangerous sex that you would shamefully enjoy. But I'm also sensitive. Thoughtful. Well-read. And quite possibly a subtle enough kisser not to go at your face like a horse after a bag of oats." In a total fail of being sufficiently either curious or creepy, I didn't notice whether or not the other ladies in the cafe were responding appropriately.

You see, besides having a coffee date with a website, I was noting other interesting books. Also on display and not being either read or consulted were, together, Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.

These books were situated directly behind me, so discovering what they were involved my flawless execution of a complicated dance of dizzying heights and dangerous climbing rivalled only by the mating rituals of the leopard slug.

Yes, just like the video which I hope you've just watched, it was sublime and beautiful, as well as ridiculous, laughable, and disgusting. But sometimes great efforts, regardless of the potential damage to pride or reputation, are required when one holds the great responsibility of writing Curious/Creepy.

Soon after this balletic masterpiece of spying was accomplished, I left Te Aro and walked a bit further east to get my bunnies some hay. Yes, I have bunnies. They are both exceptionally good-looking and have PhDs in Urban Planning. They are very tolerant of my silly PhD in English and its embarrassing dearth of practical applications.

On my way to the hay, I saw a fellow standing at the streetcar stop reading Julia Glass's Three Junes. Yay for challenging gendered reading stereotypes, my friend! This is one of the most book-clubby looking covers I've seen. And the title. If Glass had changed her first name to Hank and the book's title to These are the Junes I Know, I Know, I'd know that this book wasn't just for ladies. And crazy avant-garde reading transit-takers.

Seriously, amongst those shopping for books for their book club meetings - ladies who always possessed nicely typed up lists and NEVER EVER EVER bought anything not on their lists, or even looked around AT ALL - this was one of the most popular writers in my store. If I were an author and somehow discovered, say through a handy world-famous blog, that my biggest fans were those who only read what other people picked out for them, and only probably once a month, I'd get all Dickensian and eat my own head. That, or blow my brains out. With a rocket launcher.

Thursday evening, westbound train - the circle is complete

I was not feeling primed for effective spying on this trip home. I was breaking under the weight of four bales of hay, a large bag of books bestowed on me by the website, and my feet were cold and wet as the result of a major footwear fail. I was rather more primed for sulking, laying around in my pj's, eating bowls full of cookies, and watching tv. You understand.

But the gods of creepiness were generous and bestowed on me Ann Rule's A Rose for Her Grave and Other True Cases. Ooohh, true crime! Which reminds me: I once got an online order for a book about serial killers. The buyer told me that one of the killers in the book had been one of his commanding officers in the forces, before being caught obviously. Personally? I don't think I'd want to know that. I also think that if I were going to write a true crime book, I wouldn't give it such a V.C. Andrews-esque title. I'd call it Killers and the Poor Doomed Bastards They Kill to Death.

And finally - thank blogness - I saw a young man reading Jake Adelstein's Tokyo Vice, ANOTHER true crime book, on the same train, sitting next to the woman reading the Ann Rule book - but they weren't together. I feel like this is a sure sign that I - and you my friends, you too - we're all in someone else's murder mystery novel.

The question I'm asking myself and which I'm sure you're also asking yourself is this: How the fuck did we all end up stuck in a Robin Cook novel and not a Dorothy Sayers novel? Because we so clearly are. How do I know this? There was no internet when Sayers was writing. SCIENCE!

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The clever cleverness of the very clever J.M. Coetzee

As I read the slim but still much too long Youth, it occurred to me that maybe Ian McEwan has ruined me for J.M. Coetzee. Before my recent reintroduction to McEwan's perfect style, I had mentally held Coetzee in reserve as my go-to author for great writing. Indeed, I've admired Coetzee's writing so much in the past that it's helped me get over the fact that I'm generally averse to his subject matter and often profoundly repelled by his characters. Well, no more; Coetzee is on probation.

Youth contained the predictable self-absorbed, prickish sort of protagonist I expect from Coetzee. He is self-absorbed but in no way self-aware; he is more invested in looking like a poet than in being one; he is dedicated to becoming literarily cultured but shockingly narrow-minded about what constitutes good literature:
His ambition is to read everything worth reading before he goes overseas, so that he will not arrive in Europe a provincial bumpkin. As guides to reading he relies upon Eliot and Pound. On their authority he dismisses without a glance shelf after shelf of Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Mereditih. Nor is anything that came out of nineteenth-century Germany or Italy or Spain or Scandinavia worthy of attention. Russia may have produced some interesting monsters but as artists, the Russians have nothing to teach. Civilization since the eighteenth century has been an Anglo-French affair. (p. 25)
When I read this early passage, I concluded that Coetzee was being ironic, for not only do I know him to be a very slippery fellow when it comes to the book-writing, but the contrast between John's proclaimed "ambition" and his 1) lack of independent thought (relying on Eliot and Pound to tell him what to read), and 2) the shockingly narrow strictures he places on what he considers "worth reading" are the very antitheses of readerly ambition. I don't know about you, but I consider true readerly ambition to constitute the impossible dream of reading everything, end stop!

But like much of Coetzee's fiction, Youth contains no clear-cut moments for establishing the novel's either irony or complete lack thereof. I don't know if this book is an ironic look at the Earnest Dreams of youth and their wretched fragility, or if it's a lament for the same - or both. In the end, it doesn't matter to me because the writing style Coetzee chose for this novel is far inferior to what I've come to expect of him, and I found no enjoyment in considering it from any interpretive angle. Indeed, his slavish reliance on the rhetorical question made me so impatient and bored that I considered giving up on the damned thing with only ten pages left! (I had a friend back in high school who once confessed to me that he'd given up on St. Urbain's Horsemen only four pages from the end; I couldn't credit it. Now, sadly, I get it; I really, really get it.)

That an author as accomplished as Coetzee could think only to have his wanky protagonist simply ask himself heap after heap of Deep and Probing questions, to show that he doesn't have any idea of what to do with himself, seemed straight-up lazy to me. Here's a representative example of the kind of passage that made me want to scream quietly in frustration, and which comprises the majority of the book:
Yet misery does not feel like a purifying bath. On the contrary, it feels like a pool of dirty water. From each new bout of misery he emerges not brighter and stronger but duller and flabbier. How does it actually work, the cleansing action that misery is required to have? Has he not swum deep enough? Will he have to swim beyond mere misery into melancholia and madness? He has never yet met anyone who could be called properly mad, but he has not forgotten Jacqueline, who was, as she herself put it, 'in therapy,' and with whom he spent six months, on and off, sharing a one-room flat. At no time did Jacqueline blaze with the divine and exhilarating fire of creativty. On the contrary, she was self-obssessed, unpredictable, exhausting to be with. Is that the kind of person he must descend to being before he can be an artist? And anyway, whether mad or miserable, how can one write when tiredness is like a gloved hand gripping one's brain and squeezing? Or is what he likes to call tiredness in fact a test, a disguised test, a test he is moreover failing? After tiredness, are there further tests to come, as many as there are circles in Dante's Hell? Is tiredness simply the first of the tests that the great masters had to pass, Holderlin and Blake, Pound and Eliot? (pp. 65-66)
Descend? Young John, you're already mired in the self-obsession and unpredictability you find so tiring! You are so boring you exhaust me and all the characters Coetzee places around you! Such character defects are clearly no guarantee of literary output either, for John thinks a great deal about writing poetry but doesn't write anything to speak of. The whole book reads this way - just these endless questions of no interest and questionable literary merit. Coetzee may be being ironic about his character and what he wants, but I doubt he'd purposefully produce a badly written book just to get the point across!

Or maybe he would...near the novel's conclusion, which is a whimper rather than a bang if ever I saw one (another homage to Eliot), John discovers the novels of Samuel Beckett - and his search for poetic inspiration and meaning comes to an end, for he has discovered a literary style that fits him perfectly:
There is no clash [in Beckett's novels], no conflict, just the flow of a voice telling a story, a flow continually checked by doubts and scruples, its pace fitted exactly to the pace of his own mind. (p. 155)
Aha! This novel was written by someone very like John on the model of what he admires most in Beckett's prose. So, the whole novel could be an entirely ironic and very prolonged satire on what it means to be a writer, particularly one perhaps overly devoted to his literary heroes. If it is, I might concede that Coetzee is clever, but in this case I won't concede that he's smart. The near unreadability of this book is not improved by the possibility that Coetzee is playing an elaborate and prolonged joke on the reading world and probably also on himself. The joke may be clever, but it's too dull and exhausting to be even remotely amusing. Now Swift, he could write a prolonged and elaborate joke both amusing and extremely well-written...

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The French Literature Project LIVES!!!

I've recently finished Gaston Leroux's uber-famous novel The Phantom of the Opera, and I was pleased as punch to realize that in spite of its pervasiveness in the general cultural consciousness (thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical of the same name), I actually knew nothing about the plot. I honestly don't know how this is possible, but having a sententious singing voice repeatedly reminding me that "THE PHAAANTOM OF THE OPERA [WAS] THEEEERE.....INSIDE [MY] MIND" was bad enough. I persevered, however, and the biggest surprise of all: I really enjoyed this book!

It's a very strange novel, indeed. It reads like both a ghost story and a detective story, and because I didn't know the plot at all, it was never clear to me how it was going to turn out. And to complicate things, Leroux threw in some liberal handfuls of the slapstick just to keep me on my toes. E.g., The Opera Ghost warns Carlotta, the principal singer in Carmen, that if she doesn't call in sick one particular night, she'll suffer a fate worse than death. She defies this threat and sings and her to find herself croaking like a toad instead of singing at a key moment. I believe the quotation is "co-ack!", which is repeated often until the end of the book.

So: detective, ghost, and comedic fiction all rolled into one. And then some difficult to ignore dropped threads that are never picked up again. And Orientalism (with the heroic and mysterious Persian, un-named of course) to boot - you'd think I'd be annoyed by this mess. But no, somehow I found it all very charming. And then - THEN! - I read the author bio at the front of my copy (the Penguin Popular Classics edition), and may have fallen in love with Gaston Leroux (and maybe also the nerd who wrote this blurb, which is probably the best author blurb I've come across). Check it:
GASTON LEROUX (1868-1927): French playboy, globe-trotter and prolific writer in a number of genres, Leroux wrote many popular detective stories....His chequered career, spanning nearly sixty years, was filled to the brim and his writing was intensely varied, reflecting his exciting and sensational lifestyle....He was also a great traveller and loved to explore remote parts of Scandinavia and North Africa, where he often had to disguise himself as an Arab in order to avoid danger. In around 1917 he went to Russia to cover the beginnings of the Revolution for the French newspapers and was continually getting himself into tricky situations, although his sharp and daring nature got him out again tout de suite....He was notorious for his sensational works of fiction, combining high adventure and a vivid imagination. This sensationalism went beyond the written word, and every time Leroux had completed a novel he shocked his family and neighbours by firing a pistol into the air.
THIS I PROMISE TO YOU: In the unlikely event that I ever write novels, I will fire a gun into the air after finishing each one. I can't promise the gun won't be a Super-Soaker, however.

As for the writing, it was good. Often clever and charming - like when the Persian describes how "ripple" is a word you hear with your tongue (he was tortured with water deprivation) - but maybe not genius. Clever and charming are more than good enough for me in a book like this though - a book that's meant to be a rollicking good time, which it is.

(This is my THIRD book for the Awesome Author Challenge. If I keep this up, I'm going to triple my original goal of reading at least ten books by new-to-me authors this year.)

Friday, 7 January 2011

What I can believe in now is the sight of all these people praying at this deep river

Friends, have you read any of Nikos Zazantzakis's (1883-1957) novels? That man clearly suffered for and struggled with his spiritual and religious beliefs; his struggle as portrayed in his fiction was, to misquote C. Dickens, one of very noisy desperation. Shusako Endo (1923-1996), writing a generation later than Kazantzakis, and in Japan rather than Greece, also used fiction to negotiate his complicated feelings and experiences surrounding his faith - but in a much quieter and subtler way.

Shusako Endo was a practicing Catholic in a country in which less than 1% of the population is Christian. Endo's sense of exclusion and fatally awkward difference from his peers were extremely difficult, and all his books apparently wrestle with these issues. Yet, I wouldn't call Deep River a "Catholic" book (whatever that might mean).

There is one Catholic character in the novel - the hapless, bumbling, and painfully earnest Otsu - but the novel's concerns aren't so narrowly focused. Rather, each of the book's main characters - Isobe, who's lost his wife to cancer; Mitsuko, an early middle-aged woman looking for some sort of meaning through Otsu, whom she alternately seeks out and emotionally tortures; Numada, a man who survives a near-fatal case of TB only through talking to his pet myna bird (indeed, he relates better to animals than to people); and Kiguchi, an elderly man who's survived horrific experiences as a soldier on the Highway of Death in Burma - are seeking some kind of spiritual solace, and they end up together on a tour of India trying to find it.

Each character's sense of where and how exactly such comfort might be found varies, but their notions are more vague than otherwise. Some, especially Mitsuko, are almost completely unaware that spiritual solace is, in fact, what they're chasing. Even Otsu, certain of his Catholic faith, has been prevented by the Catholic church from becoming an ordained priest because of his rather unorthodox views on God's availability to other faiths; he is certain of what he believes, yet he too engages in a physical wandering that reflects an even deeper spiritual path.

Endo's careful and gentle revelations about his characters' fears, needs, desires, pain, and endless searching is so beautifully accomplished that I felt almost overwhelmed at times. The beauty of this work lies in Endo's writing (as well as Van C. Gessel's translating, of course), and in the painful and protracted revelations his characters experience about themselves. Truly, this is one of the best books I've read, this year at least; time will tell if it becomes an all-time favourite. What I do know for sure is that I immediately went out and bought as many more of Endo's novels as I could find. Which leads to a translation question that I'm hoping someone out there will be able to answer...

I found an excellent selection of Endo's books at BMV on Bloor Street the other night (heads up for any fans in Toronto of Japanese lit). Because I was enjoying Gessel's translation of Deep River so much, I made a point of looking for other books he'd worked on, and I found a few. Other volumes were translated by other people whose names I can't recall....and some displayed no translation credits at all, not even on the publication info page. I don't know what this means, because clearly the works were translated. If you happen to know why such information is sometimes not provided, I'd be interested in hearing about it. The fact is, I was nervous about buying Japanese lit in translation for which the translator is given no credit. My initial suspicion is that something's gone wrong but the publisher was too broke to commission a second translation by someone better qualified - but that's just a guess and I'd be happy to hear something less...depressing.

(This is my 2nd book for the Awesome Author Challenge.)

Saturday, 1 January 2011

What a difference a decade makes

Friends, Happy New Year! I hope 2011 is all love, happiness, great books, and delicious pie for you - and for me. My new year is already looking good, as I danced into the wee hours and then made delicious banana cream pancakes for brunch. Feeling very hopeful about the Year of the Rabbit!

Things were already looking promising, though, as the last book I read in 2010 was absolutely stellar - Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. And the thing is, I might so easily have never given this book a chance; indeed, I really don't know what inspired me to drop a decade-old prejudice against the man. You see, approximately 10 years ago, while I was in South Korea making lots of money and having nothing to spend it on except books (of which I bought many, many, many), I read McEwan's Amsterdam - and thought it was a huge pile of shit. I straight up loathed that book, although I can't remember why now.

In spite of this festering literary resentment, I somehow managed to pick up On Chesil Beach AND actually read it AND now it's one of my favourite books in recent memory! The writing is so gorgeous, it's unreal. McEwan's delicate and subtle insights into his characters' fears, desires, motivations, and pasts are both humbling and invigorating. There is not one wasted or imperfectly placed word here.

The novel takes place during the wedding night of young English couple Florence and Edward. It's 1962, they are very young, and they are absolutely unable to speak honestly with each other about anything at all. Every topic of importance is a no fly zone for them, buried in personal, cultural, and historical anxieties and misapprehensions. Through these layers, they flounder painfully in their attempts to consummate their marriage both physically and emotionally. And it seems so sweetly possible, in the beginning:
And they had so many plans, giddy plans, heaped up before them in the misty future, as richly tangled as the summer flora on the Dorset coast, and as beautiful. Where and how they would live, who their close friends would be, his job with her father's firm, her musical career and what to do with the money her father had given her, and how they would not be like other people, at least, not inwardly. This was still the era - it would end later in that famous decade - when to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure. Almost strangers, they stood, strangely together, on a new pinnacle of existence, gleeful that their new status promised to promote them out of their endless youth... (pp. 5-6)
They soon discover, however, that nothing can possibly be this simple, and as the night of their honeymoon wears on, they begin for the first time to understand how mired in their various histories they really are, and how impossible that makes a true meeting for them.

I read this novel in one sitting. I really couldn't look away from McEwan's excruciating and gorgeous discovery of Florence's and Edward's personalities, and their newborn marriage together. It reminded me that good writing is my primary concern with literature - that nothing, next to nothing, or nothing that interests me can be happening plot-wise as long as the writing takes my breath away. And that doesn't happen very damned often, so you can be sure that I'll be reading more McEwan this year.