Showing posts with label Fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fiction. Show all posts

Sunday, April 06, 2014

TC Boyle


@ Kelly Writers House

March 2014

Monday, March 24, 2014

Samuel R Delany:

Talking @ Pratt

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Thursday, May 27, 2010

No less an authority than Herman Melville once declared Redburn: His First Voyage to be “trash,” a work of commerce & not art. It was the fourth of the eight novels that Melville wrote in an eight-year period of immense creative output stretching from 1846 through 1853. Written after the commercial failure of Mardi, the book recounts the travels of Wellingborough Redburn as he ships out on a voyage to Liverpool & back. In it we see less of the wide-eyed autobiographical memoir of his first two books – Melville certainly is not Redburn, a supercilious young prig buffeted by the lumpen of the ship’s crew – but don’t yet find the majesterial wanderings of imagination that feed into Moby-Dick.

It is, in fact, the seams that I find most compelling in this book, which I downloaded from Gutenberg & popped as a PDF file onto the old Palm Pilot I still use for such purposes. Melville teaching himself to write is the much more fascinating tale here & anyone who has read Moby-Dick knows that the digressions are not just part of the story, but very much its essence as well.

Digression, of course, is as old as Tristram Shandy, even Don Quixote. It’s baked into the formula of the novel itself, regardless of whatever Saul Bellow & the other advocates of the invisible text might think. More interesting, at least here, are the other seams, for example Redburn’s character, which Melville struggles to separate from himself. Redburn comes away as pompous in that defensive manner overly serious young men can take on. In turn, what it tells us is that our narrator is both young & uncertain of himself. This latter part is tricky, since the tale is told retrospectively. To what degree are we to read Redburn’s callowness as an index of his youth, and to what degree is this a character flaw inherent in the man? And do we ever spy Melville himself peering through the veils?

One place would appear to be a trio of mentions of John Milton scattered throughout the book. The first two mentions are the sort of passing allusions one might expect from Buttons, as the other sailors call him, who takes his rural New York sophistication seriously, for example, saying of the drone of a particular Liverpool beggar that

it produced the same effect upon me, that my first reading of Milton's Invocation to the Sun did, years afterward.

The second occurs in the most magical passage in the entire book, Redburn’s flight of fancy in response to the hand-organ music of his friend Carlo, which invokes – among many other things – a door that “like the gates of Milton’s heaven … turns on golden binges(sic).”

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

As my homies Ange Mlinko & Pattie McCarthy can both attest, there is not much more to the Paoli Library than a large room at the back of an ill-designed (but with an “historic” façade) bank. In the 15 years I’ve lived here, the bank name has gone from Core States to Meridian to First Union to Wachovia to Wells Fargo – I may even have forgotten one or two – as one institution has swallowed another in the ongoing quest to become Too Big to Fail. The library has continued on as though nothing has happened. The stand-alone PCs that crowded the center of the room when I first moved here in 1995 have web access now, but that literally is about it.

In the sallyport off the parking lot, which enables the library to be open on Sundays when the bank is not, the Friends of the Library have stocked a couple of small bookcases with either books withdrawn from the collection or donated paperbacks. Seeing among the latter an Elmore Leonard novel available for the grand sum of 25¢, I picked up Mr. Paradise & brought it home. It then sat on my fiction/memoir-to-be-read bookcase for a year or three before I picked it up in the wake of reading Herta Müller.

“What is that?” Colin asked when he saw me reading. “That doesn’t look like the sort of thing you’d usually read.” This, I replied, is an amuse-bouche, tho what I really meant was a palette cleanser, which is how I described it when Colin followed my response to his first question with another What’s that?

Elmore Leonard, I explained, used to write great crime novels about Detroit, notable for his unmatched ear for dialog. Then he got famous, got rich, got to Florida, had movies with the likes of John Travolta, George Clooney & Jennifer Lopez in them, got sober (good for him), and I’d long ago concluded that the hard edges had all been rubbed smooth & soft by the ravages of time. Now – now being a relative term since Mr. Paradise first came out in 2002, the same year that Frank Sherlock & CAConrad penned The City Real & Imagined, also the year I began this blog – he has returned in his fiction, this book at least, back to Detroit. I wanted something to serve as a break between Müller & whatever comes next, and Mr. Paradise looks like it would be just the trick. [You can read the first chapter here and samples of other sections at Google Books.]

Which it is, sorta. There’s no question about the hard edges having gone soft & squishy, but Leonard still has an ear – something, say, that Robert B. Parker never had, and likewise what separates someone on the order of Stephen King from hacks like John Grisham, Dan Brown or Michael Crichton. Reading Mr. Paradise is more like eating a rich dessert than an amuse-bouche, but functionally it let me get all the echoes of Müller’s prose (as translated by Michael Hoffman) out of my system, leaving no residue of its own.

Leonard adheres to the rules of the genre, but with his own special sauce, which is that everybody in the book tends to be a loser. Imagine, to use Parker’s Spenser for Hire series as a point of contrast, the affable but earnest bungler Spenser without the inscrutably lethal sidekick of Hawk & the presence of his lady friend the shrink. Delsa, the homicide cop at the heart of Mr. Paradise is not so different from Spenser, a little less of a wise-ass perhaps. But around him a dozen or so important characters waltz through Leonard’s motions, not one of whom is better than they ought to be, so to speak.

The plot, roughly, is this. The title character, who is dead pretty quick here, is an old criminal defense lawyer now in his dotage, waited on by a couple of former clients & whose one pleasure in life would appear to be a $950-an-hour call girl who has taken him on as her exclusive client for $5K a week. When Mr. P gets popped, and his lady friend Chloe along with him, wearing naught but her University of Michigan cheerleader’s skirt, Delsa steps in to solve the crime, and in the process finds himself becoming personally involved with Chloe’s roommate, a model by the name of Kelly whom one of Mr. P’s staffers tries to rope into a scheme of claiming Chloe’s “inheritance.” There are a pair of middle-aged hit men, some young gang bangers involved in a drug hit (one victim was cut up post-mortem with a chain saw & the book has a running gag – both senses of that word – about the number of parts involved), and both of Mr. P’s staffers have their roles to play, plus some additional cops & robbers, plus Mr. P’s daughter who ought to wear the sign “Plot Device” around her neck. In the end, the supposed bad guys are all caught, the supposed good ones safe & sound, somebody makes out very well on an inheritance, tho not whom you might expect nor what you might imagine, & Delsa can shower with Kelly to his heart’s content.

The problem of loserhood is a critical one for Leonard, because it’s what differentiates the periods of his work. In the early Detroit novels – I’ve never read the cowboy novels that began his career – there is a grittiness to it that comes across as very believable. In the Hollywood & Florida-based works, someone is often not a loser, and these works come across much as treatments for possible screen plays (which more than a few ended up as). Returning to Detroit seems at least like an attempt on Leonard’s part to get back in touch with that original grit that made his writing so different from others in his genre. But now, however, everyone – everyone – is a lovable loser, even the lethal bad guys. The hit men don’t like killing people – they’re not sociopaths – but it’s a good living. The guy who is orchestrating everything, the ultimate baddie, is almost as conflicted as the “innocent” model trapped in the middle of the plot. She spends less time lusting after her savior the cop than she does trying to decide whether or not to steal the inheritance all for herself. Nor is Delsa, with his serious boundary issues, sleeping with a suspect, any less compromised. The only character in the book who is presented entirely in negative terms is the wife of one of the hit men. But otherwise, this is a book written entirely in shades of grey.

Leonard was himself 78 when Mr. Paradise came out, pretty much the same age bracket as the dear departed title character, and the softer tone of his more recent work is not unlike, say, the more casual lyricism Robert Creeley took on in his 70s. The two writers make for some interesting comparisons – both were born in the mid-1920s and did their best work around the age of 50 – Creeley’s Pieces, Leonard’s Unknown Man No. 89 & maybe 52 Pickup – and one might argue that both found writing to be a most comfortable habit toward the end, pushing no envelopes whatsoever. I’ve always felt that Creeley was in no way obligated to keep pushing (and that Mabel & Presences suggested the limits of that approach in any event) – that Creeley had worked for decades to clear the ground for the writing he needed & wanted to do, and having found such ground had less need to head off once again into the wilderness. With Leonard, I find myself far less forgiving, and I wonder why. Is it that for him that ground wasn’t in his best work per se, but in the work that reaped the greatest rewards? That sort of just goes with the territory for genre fictioneers, no? Why hold Leonard to a different standard? Plus, one of his most successful works – twice made into a motion picture, once with Glenn Ford & Van Heflin, once with Russell Crowe & Christian Bale, 3:10 to Yuma was one of his earliest short stories.

I think it may be that I once had some sense, possibly foolish, that Leonard was shooting for the most honest of crime fiction and that led to dispassionately examining the character’s lives & their flaws & their language. Now I see a novelist who knows how to hit all the requisite spots in the form, but seems to have lost interest in the world it invokes.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Robert B. Parker

1932 2010

Robert Parker is not the sort of writer I would typically think to memorialize here. In spite of his invocation of the 16th century poet for the name of his iconic character Spenser, there was not a lot that Spenser had to do with poetry. Parker’s prose has none of the ear for spoken English that one associates, say, with Elmore Leonard at his best (i.e., the Detroit period), nor for the pure pleasures of syntax that one recognizes in Stephen King. In making his surname-only primary character a tough guy with feelings, complete with a therapist girlfriend & a penchant for fine cooking, Parker demonstrates that he understands his audience as a market & understands it fairly well. Spenser's sidekick Hawk is an Enkiddu surrogate right out of Queequeg by way of Tonto & is interesting mostly as a stepping stone toward the more violent & psychotic Mouse created by Walter Mosley to accompany Easy Rawlins.¹

Still, I went through my Robert Parker period like a lot of other readers, one that may have gone on a lot longer than it otherwise might have because I read Parker’s best book, Looking for Rachel Wallace, fairly early on. It took me a dozen novels at least to realize that I wasn’t going to find another. Rachel Wallace is a lesbian feminist who needs protection but isn’t thrilled to get it from the testosterone-poisoned Spenser. She fires him only to need rescuing anyway, which he does in his usual way of wading into the dark parts of the story just to stir things up so he can begin to chase whatever squirms out into the light of day. There is a self-conscious clumsiness at the heart of Spenser’s method, the antithesis of the detective who solves crimes through subtle analysis. Wallace is constantly challenging Spenser on his brutish methods & he responds with the trademark wisecracks, but in the process Parker creates a novel that is a wonderful interrogation of the presumptions underpinning the crime story genre, and that literally asks all the questions. In the patented Spenser style that was already largely set when the novel came out in 1980, Rachel Wallace describes 18 meals in its 31 chapters, starting with lobster, ending with red beans & rice, and rescues the damsel via an act of violence. Parker clearly sides with his genre, while giving readers a vision of the much larger picture. If you haven’t read it, you owe it to yourself to do so.


¹ When they brought Spenser to TV in 1985, the producers tried to soften Hawk just by having the regal Avery Brooks play the role. Like the late Robert Urich, who portrayed Spenser, the opera-singing Brooks never quite fit his role.

Friday, October 23, 2009

I have always thought of Summer Brenner as a poet who sometimes writes fiction, so I was surprised to see in the front matter to I-5: A Novel of Crime, Transport, and Sex, that Brenner has published six novels to just two volumes of verse, and that she hasn’t published a book of poems in 32 years. Having now read – and completely enjoyed – I-5, I still think Summer Brenner is a poet, but one with notable narrative skills & a deep commitment both to her characters & to justice. I-5 is an effective novel, tho certainly not perfect, and one that would translate easily to the big screen. It has all the elements: a tough-as-nails hooker heroine who is also the protagonist & very much the “good guy,” plus a variety of secondary characters, minor Russian mafia wannabes, other prostitutes, a trucker with an illicit cargo, prison guards with their own demons & secrets, and a villainous capitalist trying to control everyone in his orbit. It has an ending that is both very much what the reader will be hoping for & yet almost entirely a surprise.

I-5 follows the path of Anya, a young Russian woman kidnapped into the world of involuntary sex traffic, shuttled from brothel to brothel in the United States. The premise of the book is that she’s being moved from Southern California to Oakland where Mr. Kupkin, her “owner” very much in the tradition of slavery everywhere, plans to expand his empire of young women, duped or stolen mostly from Eastern Europe. To get there entails a ride up I-5, the great (albeit boring) north-south highway of the West Coast. As they proceed north, Anya, her immediate boss & pimp Marty, a comic thug alternately called Pedro & the Tarantula & a nameless young woman who will be delivered to a new owner along the way, they get caught in the Central Valley’s infamous tule fog as well as the valley’s one growing-like-gangbusters industry, prisons. Things happen, people get separated & we get to see Anya’s complex (and ambivalent) relationship to her own slavery. More things happen & Anya & Marty reach Oakland, though not as they’d intended. More things happen still.

This is one of those books where you know from page 2, if not page 1, what Anya’s fate holds in store, though certainly not the what & how of it. Publishing the novel in a deeply noir format – Roderick Constance’s cover image is ironic without being comical – underscores what is predictable here, which is actually part of the fun of the book (how will Anya do it?). And Anya is the character here to whom Brenner is committed. To some degree, every other character in I-5 is defined by her, or at least by their function in her story.

If there are any weaknesses here, they’re relatively minor. Brenner gives us what amounts to a lesson in the history & meteorology of the Central Valley, setting up both the fog & the scene at the prison. This isn’t something Anya knows or understands, any more than she understands the back story of the young guard or of what Kupkin’s life is like in Atlanta. Brenner tells us all this & more because she wants us to know and in these postmodern times, nobody is worrying all that much about ontological or narrative consistency. If anything, Brenner makes great use of indeterminacy in the later chapters to reveal not just what happens but what can happen. But reading of the nature of tule fog or of the expansion of California’s prison system¹ feels disruptive – it was the one moment in the book where I could imagine becoming dislodged from the story itself.

Years ago, when she was writing the book that turned into The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec, Kathy Acker & I had a long conversation about the nature of character. The great trick of narrative or figurative literature, of course, is that the language on the page integrates syntactically not into a greater argument or expository structure, but instead to a displacement, an invocation of a referred world. A character represents a particular configuration of this referred world, and the difficulty of this displacement is such that we commonly acknowledge that the highest compliment one can pay to a character is that he or she is “believable.” Anya certainly is believable, but she also is a cipher, a symbol of the thousands – millions, if we think of sex traffic on its worldwide scale – of young women who submit to rape everyday. Brenner wants us to see this world through the eyes of one woman, someone young enough still to remember what hope is, even if old enough now in experience to understand just how difficult this is. I-5 is in this sense a political novel, though Brenner never lets this obstruct our view of her character. Anya is someone you will never forget.


¹ In my work in the prison movement, 1972-77, I was the lobbyist responsible for stopping funding for new prisons and was successful in each of those years. But it was already evident that the Department of Corrections, the guard’s union and far right rural legislators were bringing together the unholy alliance that would see the system explode from the nine joints I had to deal with in the 1970s to the 33 of today. The Department of Corrections is now the second largest police agency in the United States, second only to NYPD.

Monday, September 28, 2009

In the 20 months that it took me to read Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day cover to cover (1) Pynchon himself wrote – or at least completed – and published another novel and (2) a paperback edition of the original tome appeared that, if nothing else, is lighter than the volume that built up my wrist strength each night before bed. I am, as I’ve noted here before, a slow reader, slow enough in fact to be given some special education in the process when I was in what would now be thought of as the middle school grades – it seemed unreasonable that someone who read four or five years above grade level should also be the slowest reader in school, tho it never seemed unreasonable to me. For one thing, I always thought that words had sounds & took the time to voice them to myself. They tried (in vain) to purge me of that silly idea.

So the prospect of a Big Book is always a challenge – ironic, I know, given my own writing. I’m thinking I will start Robert Bolaño’s 2666 soon, but that means sometime next spring. For the nonce, I need a few novels that will function as palette cleansers after the experience of 1,085 pages of Pynchon. Against the Day is, to my mind, Pynchon’s third great book, following V & Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s a far better novel than virtually any of the reviews made out & for reasons that I have yet to see discussed properly. It may have taken me 20 months to read the book, but I was never once bored, never once felt that it was a “slog” to get through. It contains not just some of Pynchon’s best writing, but some of the best writing I’ve read anywhere.

What makes Against the Day one of the best novels of the past half century is how Pynchon deals with plot, or rather refuses to deal with it. He is a master story-teller who never completes a thought. This gets joked about from time to time – Inherent Vice, his new novel (which I’ve promised myself I won’t even buy until it’s been in paperback awhile), is reported to have a plot, as if this alone makes it noteworthy in Pynchon’s career. Certainly his early books – V, The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow – had plot-like structures throughout, tho from Vineland onward it has been increasingly clear that this is not what interests Pynchon & not what drives his writing. Some skeptics go further & suggest that he flamed out as a creative talent post-Rainbow precisely because he no longer appeared capable of telling a story. I’m here to tell you that it’s not so, tho I do think you could read the middle books, Vineland and Mason & Dixon, as preparatory exercises for the monster task that is Against the Day.

One of the really interesting – embarrassingly so – aspects of this is that you can go back to all of the book’s early reviews and read some sort of hopeless attempt at sketching a plot summary. Even Wikipedia has one. In fact, what you really notice reading all of this book’s reviews is that they focus almost entirely on the first 100 pages. The Chums of Chance, the focal point of that portion of the book, are marginal-to-irrelevant throughout much of the rest of the novel, but you won’t grasp this if what you know of the book is what you got from the major establishment media reviews. If e’er there was a volume built to demonstrate which critical emperors have not a stitch of clothing, Against the Day is that book.

What Pynchon does is much closer in practice to recent painting than it is to the Quietist novel favored by the trade presses. Instead of telling contained stories, he offers us narrative tableaux & arcs that are themselves incomplete, but fit together collage-like across large sweeps of language. Day has nearly 48 named characters, at least a third of whom might be called “major” in that they are the focal point of some period of narrative herein. In a few cases – but not all that many – there are attempts (comic in the case of the Chums of C) at closing the loop on their tale, but mostly they come & go, their tales unfinished just like life itself. There are even some significant characters introduced for the first time in the last 30 pages of the book.

Pynchon does build in certain elements that give the book more cohesion than you might imagine. The characters weave in & out of each other’s lives. There is generally a time scheme held to, starting in the 1890s, ending in the 1920s. And, most important of all, there are thematic echoes everywhere. Considering that one of the major sources of Pynchon’s style here is revenge literature, as such, it’s noteworthy just how much of this book is about forgiveness. And acceptance.

But what really matters, to my eye, is how all these elements weave together, like images in a painting, or (better yet) an assemblage by Robert Rauschenberg. It’s all story- telling, all narrative, but Pynchon doesn’t want you to get hung up on what will occur on the final page, just trust that it will feel complete & that the journey itself is what matters, regardless of whether you find out what happens to the mathematicians, to the Mexican revolutionaries, to the doomed flappers of Paris or the missing young lady in LA. He really wants you to luxuriate in the story-weaving process and the way to make you focus on it is to remove the elements of writing (e.g. narrative closure) that flip us away from the process to an imaginary universe of reference. The whole point of having the air ship Inconvenience, which starts out blimp-like & ends up rather more like a dream of Miyazaki’s, a city floating in the sky, having this airship travel upward from the south pole to the north via a hidden tunnel that connects the two – don’t think too hard about the gravitational impossibility of this – is that it is ludicrous, but it’s the ludic Pynchon wants you to see.

As you might imagine, all this is quite close to my heart. I have no clue what it might be like for somebody to pick up The Alphabet and try and make their way through, but Against the Day is in its own way not such a terrible analog of how this might feel. For me, it has been very nearly two years of engaged, fascinated reading, and the book certainly passes my own personal test of the novel – it made me feel energized just to be reading it, every day.