Sunday, April 09, 2006

Nice Knowing Ya....

I have an announcement to make.

So long, fair Blogspot. It was nice to have met you. Our relationship was long and enjoyable. But it's time to move on.

Yep, I have a new online alcove. I now rant and rave from my very own fortress: http://www.read-this-now.com.

I look forward to seeing you all there!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Heavy


It’s hard to know what Tim O’Brien was trying to say in his (autobiographical?) novel The Things They Carried. It’s hard to tell truth from fiction. It’s hard to know what he was getting at, beyond an understanding that it can’t be understood.

Let me try to explain. The book opens with a chapter that is little more than a list with brief personal anecdotes thrown in. It is a list of the things they carried. Photographs. Bibles. Comic books. Medicine. Marijuana. Flak jackets. Grenade launchers. Guns.

The guilt and confusion that came with being a young, clueless soldier in Vietnam.

O’Brien, himself a soldier in Vietnam, and having written several nonfiction books about his time there, obviously pours himself into the book. The short vignettes that comprise the rest of the book are set mostly in Vietnam, but one follows a young man—a young man named Tim O’Brien—who sets off for the Canadian border hoping to escape the draft, but ends up lacking the courage to bail for real. You wonder what might be real and what might not. Several chapters address this directly; notably, “How to Tell a True War Story,” which begins, “This is true,” and which I maybe believe and maybe don’t, and “Good Form,” which implores, “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” As a novelist, I understand what he means, completely and unquestionably. That’s how novelists live; that’s what they swear by. You lie to tell a greater truth, and, within the context of the book, people believe those lies, and they walk away recognizing those lies as such but clutching that greater truth in their place.

But what was the greater truth here? O’Brien says repeatedly that no real war story should have a moral, and that if it does, it isn’t true. War is senseless, he says. War is weird. War makes people do things, become people, that they aren’t. True war stories don’t give people a new view of the world. They just make people cringe. So tell me, what was the truth? What did I walk away from it with? When everything is laid out on the table, I don’t need to dig, and I read to get my hands dirty. I love to dig. This book made some excellent points, and it was phenomenally written. The blurring of fact and fiction was at times frustrating, but after I learned to take everything I read at face value, even the corrections and supposed truths which supplemented the supposed lies, it was the right choice for the book.

My only other gripe about the book had to do with the lack of continuity in the storylines. I understood that it was really just a collection of vignettes, a collection of “true war lies,” as I’ve dubbed them. But to really understand a character, and to come to truly care about him, you need to see his everyday life. The most stable and continuous character in the book was Tim, the only one you saw before departure for Vietnam. It was after his draft notice, though, and he was running for his life and for his values. The book deals only briefly with his return from Vietnam. In any novel, but particularly, I think, a war novel, one needs to see the monotony of the before, the excruciation and occasional beauty of the during, and the irreducible change of the after. The before was undersized, the during choppy, and the after interesting only in the story of one of O’Brien’s comrades. I could appreciate the stories for what they were, but I could never really get inside the people and see it through their eyes.

Maybe that was the point. You can’t understand unless you’ve been there.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Drop Everything! *Thud*

Jose Saramago’s Seeing makes no attempt to directly follow the genius that was Blindness. If it had, it would have, in all likelihood, failed miserably. But with a master’s intuition and prudence, Saramago gave the first space to breathe, letting the second speak for itself until the two collide with terrifying, breathtaking violence.

I find the near-identical cover designs for the two absolutely fascinating. The only main difference is the inversion of color between them. The symbolism inherent in that visual is alive and well in the books: Seeing tends initially toward a more lighthearted, satirical veneer, a brighter picture of society. Gradually, though, the persevering strength that the city’s people at first appear to possess after overcoming the events of Blindness begins to falter, and the atrocities of human nature are again unmasked by a catastrophe of quite a different order.

On a torrentially rainy early morning, the staff of a polling center sit around the ballot box and talk. They cast their votes. They wait. It gets later, then later still. No one else arrives. They call their families, they call the other polling places, seeking absent reassurance. People trickle in, still in abnormally halting fits and starts.

Then, at four in the afternoon, people begin to pour into the streets, bombarding the polling places. There is no immediately apparent reason for this sudden amassing of people. The staff are too relieved that anyone showed up at all to register with more than the most perfunctory concern the profound oddity of such a situation. The lines dissipate, the polls close, the votes are counted.

More than seventy percent of the ballots are blank.

The polling is repeated. This time eighty-three percent of the votes come back unmarked.

This is the rather interesting situation in which the (still-unnamed, as are the characters, though it is once postulated in one of Saramago’s narrative digressions that, purely hypothetically of course, the country in question just might be his native Portugal) country’s government finds itself. The situation escalates to epic proportions, with protesters wearing buttons and carrying banners that proudly proclaim, “I cast a blank vote,” and marching on the president’s mansion. It’s all entirely nonviolent, but quite enough to put the fear of god into the government’s hearts, and they flee the errant city to the surrounding countryside.

The book is full of Saramago’s characteristic meanderings and asides that, coming from any other author, would seem very strange—if not downright annoying—but from him are welcome and fascinating breaks from his unrelenting, intense narratives. The narrative of Seeing doesn’t even approach the horror, the commentary on human nature, the repulsing beauty, that Blindness’s did, but in its own way it keeps the focus tight, the narrative thread stretched taut at all times.

So, you’re probably wondering, how is this supposed to connect to Blindness at all? The plot seems entirely unrelated, and it’s set four years after Blindness was. The only connection is that of location.

Ostensibly, yes. But, as the government investigation on the genesis of the blank votes wears on, a member of the party led by “the doctor’s wife” in Blindness makes the tenuous mental leap to surmise that she might be somehow behind the blank votes. (If anyone has read Blindness, play guess the traitor!) Truth be told, the characters I got to know and love in Blindness make little more than cameos in Seeing, but I don’t think it really could have been any other way; as I’ve said before, the respectful distance with which Saramago treated the connection between the two books allowed them each to stand on their own, preventing the mutual reliance that many pairs of books have, which weakens the narrative independence of each. This isn’t to say that Blindness shouldn’t be read before Seeing: it is by far the better of two phenomenal books, and the jarring conclusion of Seeing would be far less so without experience with both books. I simply appreciate how Saramago allowed Seeing to speak for itself, without constantly looking over its shoulder for support.

While several key issues in Seeing are never resolved, that’s a hallmark of Saramago’s work, and to expect a straight answer from him would be slightly crazy. In fact, during one of his musings on writing, he refers to “one of those analytical readers who expects a proper explanation for everything,” later going on to say that “it is difficult to give…an answer likely to satisfy such a reader totally.” While this remark is made within a very specific context, it would easily be applied to any of Saramago’s work, and the many puzzles he proposes within.

It’s not Blindness—but then it never tried to be. While I’m not overly pleased with Saramago right now, that’s for reasons of my own, and he’s still my favorite author, ready with another book full of ups and downs and sadness and anger that I’m glad to feel, because it means he reached me.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Geography


Michael Cunningham’s pointed A Home at the End of the World is an uncompromising and heartfelt, but sometimes slightly farfetched, vision of modern life.

Jonathan Glover and Bobby Morrow are teenagers in a tiny, sleepy Cleveland town. Bobby is loud but strangely, paradoxically polite, free of most, if not all, ethical qualms. Jonathan is quiet and impressionable, gay and unsure of himself, living somewhat on the social fringes. The two quickly become inseparable.

There is a time jump to years later, when the boys are in their twenties. Jonathan is living in New York with outlandish, irritable, but somehow likeable Clare, ten years his senior. Bobby is still in Cleveland, living with Jonathan’s parents and attempting to open a restaurant. When Jonathan’s parents move to Arizona, Bobby is forced to do something—and so Jon’s apartment phone rings.

The book is really about what family really means, and what each person can bring to an arrangement. It’s hard to define, especially in the context of the book, unless I’m going to give away the entire thing, which I’m not. The book was good—the writing superb—and the ending, while, to me, somewhat unsatisfying, was surprising. Ordinarily I think I would have enjoyed it, but while I was reading the book I was just looking for something different.

My pet peeve about the book has nothing to do with anything between the covers: it has to do with the fact that the entire book, pretty much, was given away on the back cover. There were seventy pages in the book that were not detailed by the blurb. This, understandably, rendered the book rather suspenseless, which was a disappointment. I don’t know who writes these things—according to Max Barry, in Australia at least, the authors do it—but they should really refrain from rendering actually reading the book pointless.

Sometimes I’m just not in the right frame of mind to really read and process certain books. This was one of those things, one of those books: I really think I could have enjoyed it more—and certainly would have had more to say about it—had I read it when I didn’t already have so much on my mind.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Shoes, Eyes, and Other Assorted Metaphorical Body Parts


It never does get easier to write about memoirs.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately, both as a writer and as a reader, about the idea of inside-out and outside-in perspectives. The outside-in perspective maintains a modicum of narrative remove. It allows you, the reader, to draw your own conclusions. You might be able to hear a character’s thoughts, in a novel, but you’re not truly seeing the world through her eyes. Motivations, thoughts, symbolism, reasons, are all up to the reader to puzzle out, giving each person a little wiggle room.

But in the inside-out perspective, you’re literally looking out through his eyes. Everything is being interpreted by the character—or the person. If they’re confused about something, trying to figure something out, then it might leave room for the reader to speculate, to supply them with a solution of their own. But motivations, reasoning, all of those fun things, are already done, analyzed, dug through. They might have been interpreted completely incorrectly. But there’s no room for an outsider to do it. You don’t climb into his brain to see through his eyes; he’s inside yours. That’s what’s great about the inside-out. It’s immediately arresting, unflinching, compelling. But it doesn’t lend itself well to analysis. Novels sometimes use each perspective, sometimes waver between the two within the same book. Memoirs, though—all the analysis has to be done for you. It’s someone’s life. You’re not there to make sense of it. You’re there to live it.

Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man details the years of his life that he spent teaching English in New York high schools (and, briefly, a college). He’s the kind of teacher everyone wants to have: mildly clueless (about teaching, not his subject), engaging, caring, fun. He maintains always that he is the one learning, which seems like a cliché but sounds really true here. You can’t help but like him, and the kids he teaches.

Teacher Man was McCourt’s third memoir, and I think I would have had a better understanding of his motives in this one had I been more familiar with his earlier life, which was obviously—isn’t it always?—incredibly formative and affecting. I’m not sure, though, having seen where his life goes, that I’d go back to find out where it was. Who knows? You can’t have a future without a past. You can’t even have a now.

So, as usual with halfway decent memoirs, I did enjoy the book. We’re actually discussing it in the Barnes and Noble book club tonight, and I have no idea what we’re going to talk about. If anyone figures out how to dig into memoirs and analyze them the way I rend novels limb from limb, please let me know.

Monday, March 20, 2006

White Noise


I have come to the conclusion that all of Nick Hornby’s early work is the same. That’s okay, because it’s what he does well, and he had to find his bearings somehow. He’s better when he branches out a bit, though.

His first novel, High Fidelity, resembles in initial structure his subsequent two. It begins with a malcontented, promiscuous man (although in How to be Good it was a woman) who recognizes that something is wrong with his life, but is somewhat apathetic as far as actually doing anything about it. Rob has just been dumped by his live-in girlfriend, Laura, and pretends he doesn’t care, and then does care, and then does a lot of things to attempt revenge, which are completely ineffectual. He works at a record shop, and cares about little other than music and sex and, it turns out, Laura. Maybe.

It’s not as briskly plotted or disguisedly deep as his other novels. It spends a great deal of time wallowing in Rob’s previous girlfriends, and attempting to make sense of the reasons why they all left him. The great personality changes and reversions and mood swings, all seeming perfectly authentic in their very exaggeration, that characterize Hornby’s other novels are mostly absent here.

For some reason, this novel just doesn’t lend itself to dissection. But since I’ve now read all of Hornby’s novels, and liked them all—just to varying degrees—and since a large part of High Fidelity involves making lists, I think I’ll make one.

  1. A Long Way Down—the only one of his novels that breaks the promiscuous-middle-aged-relationship-mending cycle of Hornby novels, though, given that the book revolves around a bunch of attempted suicides, the malcontented part is here in force.

  2. How to be Good—clever and smart, and the novel in which Hornby elevated exaggeration to an art form. He’s also at his most socially aware here, looking out beyond the screwed-up lives of his protagonists, which are plenty colorful on their own.

  3. About a Boy—sweet, simple.

  4. High Fidelity

As a first novelist, I feel terrible that those are ranked, as well as in order of my favorites, in order of publication. It’s the unfortunate truth, though—Hornby is without question a writer who improved significantly with each novel. I guess practice is good for something.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Gray Areas


This is a prime example of the reason why I attempt never to put a book down without finishing it, even if I don’t think I’m going to be thrilled with it. Because occasionally, I am.

I was initially terribly unimpressed with Intuition. Allegra Goodman’s book seemed clunky in its prose, unrefined for a fifth novel. The characters seemed strained and somehow off. I swore I could see the author’s laborious efforts clearly in the book, to the point where I saw the writing rather than the story, never a good thing.

And then the paint started to crack. The book pulls you into a glossy microcosm, so glossy that at first it seems more like a lurid picture out of a magazine than any representation of reality. Things feel forced because they are forced, but not on Goodman’s side of things. It’s that way because it has to be. And as the luster wears away, stained with blood and sweat and tears, the characters come to light, the people and their fundamental, gritty realness.

The novel details the struggles of a small Massachusetts laboratory and the people who work, some quietly, some not so, in its depths. Frustrated young postdoctoral Cliff Bannaker has continued his research into using a virus to treat cancer, against the wishes of the lab directors, Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn. The incipient stubbornness on all sides continues to grow, until Marion and another postdoc, Xiyang Feng, discover that Cliff might, in fact, be on to something. A flurry of papers, work, and enthusiasm envelops the lab, as a newly radiant Cliff floats on air. Robin Decker is less excited, though. Formerly Cliff’s girlfriend, she feels neglected and forgotten, luckless and bitter. The publicity storm rises to dangerous strength. And then Robin gets the little comment, the insinuation of falsification, she needs to bring it all crashing down around them.

The striking thing about the book is its characters. You come to know them, and you come to love them—all of them. You love them for their vulnerability, their fallibility, their humanity. Sandy, the interestingly named lab director, and his confidence, his brash insistence and surefooted resilience. Marion, Sandy’s co-director and counterpoint in her skepticism and insistent caution, along with an incisive concern. Cliff, sly and wily but high on an almost endearingly arrogant vision of the stars within his reach. Robin, methodically intelligent, bitter and needy, willing to do whatever it takes to get what she thinks is revenge. Feng, clever and quiet but determined to stand his ground when he finds his own feet. Kate Glass, Sandy’s starry-eyed teenage daughter, an adherent of literature—and of Cliff. These people simply scratch the surface of the cast of fascinating, well-rounded characters that make this book the triumph that it is. Goodman is a master of observation and invention—above all a master of plausibility, which is first and foremost as far as I’m concerned. (You know how inconvenient it is to not be able to say “In my book” because you’re a novelist? Although I could have said it there, because it would have been true.)

Some would probably protest that the book moves slowly. It’s true; I noticed it, I just didn’t mind. It’s not an “action” book. It’s a cross-examination of its various characters, a lightly-treaded investigation set alongside the lumbering one that drives the plot. Each reader must draw his or her own conclusions about everything and everyone, which to me seemed Goodman’s main point.

So I guess, if you really want to know, you’ll have to read it for yourself.