The OF Blog: February 2013

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in Fiction: Lydia Millet, Magnificence

She condescended to the sexes of men, but it wasn't personal.  Clearly they also condescended to hers.  They had their own opinions about the sex of a woman, and those opinions were not all positive.  That much was obvious – from, say, pornography, which almost every man loved, from the purest young boy to the jaded defiler.  In other words small secrets were also held against her, and she did not need to know them.

Pornography, she thought.  Degradation and debasement.  A man liked to degrade a woman, in pornography.  It made perfect sense.  If she were male, she'd like it too.  Because a man might not know he was tragic, but he often suspected it.  On a subconscious level, a man suspected himself of pathos.  A man walked around bearing that half-aware, weary load; it was more stressful to suspect than to know for certain.  Women were oppressed from the outside, via the patriarchy – girls raped in various African cultures, for instance, then put to death for their trouble.  But men were oppressed from inside their own skin.  She saw it this way:  the testosterone was a constant barrage, not unlike an artillery shelling.  They had doubtless needed it, in, say, prehistory, to run around spearing meat, build up muscles that impressed the breeding-age females, etc., much as baboons made their loud wahoo calls or sported shocking pink anuses.

But now that the men were deprived of the endorphins of the chase and the butchering, the hormones were a call with no response, a ceaseless, useless siege upon the male psyche.  Naturally the men, held hostage in bunkers of flesh, sought refuge in pornography and violence.  It was just self-expression. (Ch. 1, pp. 10-11 e-book)

Out of the five finalists for this year's National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Lydia Millet's Magnificence is perhaps the most difficult to review on its own merits.  As the concluding volume of a thematic and plot trilogy, it has a "beginning" that truly lies outside of its page.  Although Millet does make Magnificence into a story that does not depend upon its antecedents as much as most trilogy conclusions do, there is still the sense, particularly in the beginning stages when the novel's protagonist, Susah, thinks of T. (her boss, who was the main focus of the opening volume, How the Dead Dream), or of her now-dead husband, Hal, (the protagonist of the middle volume, Ghost Lights, as he goes to Central America in search of the now-disappeared T.) that there is a wealth of backstory that would inform Magnificence and make it an even stronger novel for those such as myself who read the volume without realizing at first that it was only but the last third of a larger trilogy.

Magnificence opens with Susan's reflections upon her often-frustrated sex life with her late husband and the many infidelities that she committed (including one into which Hal walked into just before he left for Central America in the second volume).  It is a powerful opening, perhaps the best writing in the novel, as Millet captures eloquently a middle-aged woman who alternates between her disdain for the strictures of patriarchal society (in particular, the double sexual standard when it comes to unfaithful spouses) and her vague regrets that life did not turn out differently for her.  Susan is, even for those readers like myself who have not read the previous readers, a fascinating and fully-fleshed character here, neither "good" nor "bad," but somewhere in-between.

Magnificence is at its best when Susan is the focus of the narrative.  As she learns about her paraplegic daughter's burgeoning career as a phone sex operator and as she struggles to deal with the sudden inheritance from an uncle of a large house in a tony section of Los Angeles, her puzzlement over the turns her life has taken adds layers of depth to what otherwise might appear to be a vapid, self-centered life.  It is this dissonance between the dissatisfied, curious woman who investigates the strange contents of her inheritance (including a mysterious basement that cannot be reached by normal means) and the detached participant in casual sex that provides interesting insights into one of the more fascinating characters that I've read in recent years:

When she told him, in the entryway of the house, he was mildly surprised.  Not floored even.  At this lackluster response a part of her was incredulous.  And then, as the moment expanded quietly between them, infuriated.  Apparently he was too insensitive to be shocked even by sudden death.  A human block of wood.  On the other hand, he was easy to shock with sex.  The news of Hal's death barely moved him, but when she indicated that they could proceed from the sound bite to having sex he was uncomfortable.  She relished his discomfort.  She led the dog into the backyard and closed the door behind it.

A dog was not sexy.  Also it was T.'s dog, which she and Hal had been taking care of after T. disappeared – practically a proxy for T. and thus also for Hal, for both of them conflated. (p. 24 e-book)

Susan's cool, almost clinical approach to intimate relationships is mirrored in one of the inherited house's strangest possessions:  a large collection of stuffed animals, a taxidermist's dream.  These stuffed animals represent on some levels the imposition of order upon a chaotic (ex-)life, a bestiary that in code might represent something deeper about Susan's life and of those around her.  This collection and the mystery of why it was begun and for what purchase consumes much of the second half of Magnificence.  There were times that allusions were made to events in the previous novel that passed over me, leaving behind only a vague sense that there was something more profound being stated there which I could not be privy to due to not having read the previous two volumes.  Yet this mystery did not detract from the novel, but instead made it somehow even more enticing for me.

The conclusion is superbly-executed.  The mystery of the closed-off basement is revealed in a somewhat spooky fashion, with a sense of faint horror mixed in with an introspective look at life, both in general and in Susan's specific case.  The musings that opened Magnificence are echoed in her reactions to what she discovers at the end:

Men slew each other, they slew the animals, went slaying and slaying.  Women were mostly witnesses.  They were not innocent – it wasn't that simple, not by a long shot – more like accessories to the crime, if not the principal offenders.  They saw killing ravage all things beneath the sun and were the silent partner in it.  You didn't want to kill, you had no interest in killing – your very genes went against it.  Possibly your hormones.  Again, the molecules that governed you.  But you were also far too weak to stop it.  Your weakness was your crime.

Not weaker than men, per se, just differently weak.  The wanting to be liked, avoidance of were profoundly and eternally guilty of this terrible weakness, this moral as well as physical weakness, the fear of being hurt, of being injured, of being embarrassed.  You were crippled by the guilt of being who you were.  Guilty of being yourself. (Ch. 10, pp. 189-190 e-book) 

By novel's end, there is a sense of subtle illumination, of Susan discovering answers to questions that she only half-dared to ask herself throughout the narrative.  The numinous appears to be half-revealed, or at least enough for Susan to recast her life and her desires and regrets in a new light.  Capturing this sense of (partial) enlightenment is very difficult to do in fiction without appearing to be hokey or trite, yet here in Magnificence Millet manages to achieve this difficult feat.  Magnificence, indeed.  One of the best novels on this excellent National Book Critics Circle Award shortlist.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Library of America's American Poets Project

Realized this weekend when I was reshelving my Library of America books that I had forgotten to list the volumes that I own in their American Poets Project.  This ancillary series contains selections of poets, including introductory essays written by the volumes' editors that explain the context of the poems and the reasons why certain poems were selected over others, from all walks of American life over the past few centuries.  Below are the volumes currently available, with bold being books I've read, italics for unread books that I own, and plain for books I've yet to buy:

1.  Edna St. Vincent Millay:  Selected Poems
2.  Poets of World War II
3.  Karl Shapiro:  Selected Poems
4.  Walt Whitman:  Selected Poems
5.  Edgar Allan Poe:  Poems and Poetics
6.  Yvor Winters:  Selected Poems
7.  American Wits:  An Anthology of Light Verse
8.  Kenneth Fearing:  Selected Poems
9.  Muriel Rukeyser:  Selected Poems
10.  John Greenleaf Whittier:  Selected Poems
11.  John Berryman:  Selected Poems
12.  Amy Lowell:  Selected Poems
13.  William Carlos Williams:  Selected Poems
14.  Poets of the Civil War
15.  Theodore Roethke:  Selected Poems
16.  Emma Lazarus:  Selected Poems
17.  Samuel Menashe:  New and Selected Poems
18.  Edith Wharton:  Selected Poems
19.  The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks
20.  A.R. Ammons:  Selected Poems
21.  Cole Porter:  Selected Lyrics
22.  Louis Zukofsky:  Selected Poems
23.  Carl Sandburg:  Selected Poems
24.  Kenneth Koch:  Selected Poems
25.  American Sonnets
26.  Anne Stevenson:  Selected Poems
27.  James Agee:  Selected Poems
28.  Poems from the Women's Movement
29.  Ira Gershwin:  Selected Lyrics
30.  Stephen Foster & Co.:  Lyrics of the First Great American Songs
31.  Stephen Crane:  Complete Poems
32.  Countee Cullen:  Collected Poems

Own 10/32, so not too bad so far.  A bit cheaper (usually $20 or less new) to acquire than the main LoA series, so I might complete this one first, considering my enduring love for poetry in its multitude of forms.  How many of these have you read in these volumes?  Thoughts on their quality/content?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Spent part of this evening reshelving some of my Library of America books, placing them in publishing order.  Due to the cramped space of the room in which I keep most of my books, I had to take this picture at an angle to capture most of the 109 volumes that I currently own.  I also updated the list of current and forthcoming titles (through the end of 2013), in case you want to see what they have published to date.  They are not cheap editions (usual new price is $35-45 a volume), but they certainly are worth the expense (even though roughly half of mine are used copies that I've either bought online or in two area used bookstores) and in the years to come, I hope to have a complete set.

I also (slowly) will be reviewing several of these volumes.  Over at Gogol's Overcoat, I've been reviewing (took this past Friday off due to making arrangements for my upcoming second job) volume #39, the collected fictions of Flannery O'Connor story-by-story, similar to how I was reviewing some of William Faulkner's stories and novels (maybe later this year, I will resume those reviews).  Toying with the idea of choosing another author from this list and reviewing his/her stories/novels in a similar fashion to the Faulkner and O'Connor volumes.  But I'm uncertain when I'll commence this project, as I need to get acclimated to my new jobs first.

If you've read any of these volumes before, what did you think of the presentation and the notes found within these volumes?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A bit of personal news that may affect this blog

After 14 months of either being unemployed or working under 20 hours a week as a substitute teacher, within the past 9 days I have accepted two jobs.  The first is a part-time ESL teaching position and the other is working with severely autistic teens.  After these jobs were accepted, one of the squirrels was moved to do this:

Edit:  Well, it was moved to do something until the photographer contacted me (see below).

As for reviewing/posting here, it might be a bit less than usual, at least until I get used to working/traveling as much as 13 hours/day, but there should still be some time to cover a few things, especially before I begin full-time at the second job in mid-March.  Just thought I'd give readers here a heads-up in case I do go "radio silent" here for a week or so at a time.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Zoran Živković, Nemogući Susreti (Impossible Encounters)

Umro sam u snu.

Nije to bilo neko naročito umiranje.  Gotovo da ga nisam ni primetio.  Sanjao sam kako stupam nekim velikim hodnikom, punim vrata s obe strane na malom međusobnom rastojanju.  Kraj hodnika nije se mogao sagledati u daljini, a u njemu nije bilo nikog drugog osim mene.  Na zidu, pored svakih vrata, visio je oveći, uramljeni portret, obasjan svetiljkom postavljenom iznad njega.

Posmatrao sam likove u prolazu.  Šta sam drugo mogao da radim?  Portreti su ovde bili jedina stvar koja je narušavala nedoglednu jednoličnost hodnika.  Koliko sam uspeo da procenim, postojao je približno jednak broj slika žena i muškaraca.  Uglavnom je to bio vremešniji svet, povrmeno baš u dubokoj starosti, ali tu i tamo mogli su se videti i mlađi ljudi, pa čak i deca, premda sasvim retko.  Likovi su delovali svečano, kako to već biva na portretima – doterani, pomalo uštogljeni, svesni svoje važnosti.  Mahom su se osmehivali, ali bilo je i lica uz koja osmeh naprosto nije išao, pa je na njima stajao izraz stroge ozbiljnosti. (pp. 5-6)

I died in my sleep.

There wasn't anything special about my death.  I hardly even noticed it.  I dreamed I was walking down a long hallway closely lined with doors on both sides.  The end of the corridor was invisible in the distance, and I was alone.  On the wall next to each door hung a framed portrait, slightly larger than life, and lit from above by a lamp.

I looked at the paintings as I passed by them.  What else could I do?  Only the portraits disturbed the endless monotony of the corridor.  There seemed to be male and female portraits in approximately equal numbers, but randomly distributed.  The people were mostly of advanced age, and some were very old indeed, but here and there was a younger face, or even a child, though these were quite rare.  The images were formal studio-portraits, and the people were all elaborately, even ceremonially dressed.  They looked conscious of their own importance, and that of the occasion.  Most of them were smiling, but some faces were simply not suited to smiling.  They looked grimly serious. (p. 81, translated by Alice Copple-Tošić)

Zoran Živković's second collection,  Nemogući Susreti (Impossible Encounters in English), is structured similarly to his first, Time Gifts, in that there are six stories that share a common theme and at least one recurring feature between the stories.  Although the similarity in structure between these collections (and others that I have reviewed over the years) may seem too familiar to those who esteem variety even when it might not denote quality, the familiar qualities of these stories serve to accentuate the luminousness of Živković's stories. 

If time and the use of time's "gifts" was the overarching scene in Time Gifts, here in Impossible Encounters the "impossibility" of the encounters that the narrators experience (and the repeated mention of an eponymous book in each of the six tales) provides a narrative unity that builds upon each constituent story.  Take for instance, the first tale, "The Window."  Here we encounter the narrator after his death (which may or may not be a dream).  He finds himself in a large gallery, filled with images of humanity.  He discovers his own portraits and is struck by a mixture of surprise and bemusement at seeing his image there.  The surrealness of this situation is not the only "impossibility," as he encounters a curator of sorts who offers the narrator a second life, with a permanent death at the end.  It is in this offer that Živković explores not just our understanding of our life/death dreams, but also on conceptualizations of beauty that extend beyond our own limited, finite understandings.  "The Window" concludes with a sly twist ending that causes the reader to reevaluate what she previously understood the story to be about.

The second story, "The Cone," is perhaps the closest Živković comes to telling a Borgesian tale.  If anything, it is a clever inversion of Borges' "Borges and I," except here the story is told via the viewpoint of the younger self.  It is a story of not just revisiting old memories and scenes of personal enlightenment, but of a true singular visiting again.  It is a conceit worthy of a Pierre Menard and his attempt to not just recreate Don Quixote but to write the Don Quixote for a new age and yet Živković manages to pull this complex weaving of past/present together with aplomb.

The third tale, "The Bookshop," is more overtly SFnal than the other stories in the collection, as it concerns a connection between writers on two different planets somehow brought into contact with each other through the first author's seeming "conjuration" of the second's world.  In reading this, I was reminded favorably of one of Ray Bradbury's tales from The Martian Chronicles, "The Summer Night," particularly the merging of thoughts and "reality" for the recipient group.  Contained within is a subtle critique of science fiction and its influence on the shape of some people's dreams, although this element is subordinate to the larger theme of "impossible encounters."  Despite liking the constituent elements of this tale, "The Bookshop" was perhaps the weakest story in Impossible Encounters, perhaps because it is too easy to separate one of the two characters into an "alien" role, depriving the story of the intimacy that is present in the majority of the other tales.

"The Train" takes one of the enduring questions of Christendom, "What would I ask God if I were to meet him?," and turns it into a small, almost quotidian event.  A bank executive is traveling by train when he encounters a heavy-set middle-aged person in a dark suit who at first he confuses for a retired colonel until he strikes up a conversation and learns that this is God, who is offering him a no strings attached question that he may ask him.  The nature of the question and the response reaffirm this twisting about of common expectations of such an "impossible" encounter (after all, would you dare ask God, if possible, a petty question?).  This story's confounding of expectations causes its confusion to have a greater impact than it otherwise might have.

The fifth story, "The Confessional," inverts the preceding tale.  Here is a priest having Satan himself as a penitent.  Their conversion covers the nature of hell versus heaven, the guilt found in souls who do not themselves truly release their sins, and the troubles found within those who themselves are charged with the absolution of sinners.  It works separately from "The Train," yet when read one after the other, the two tales complement each other and build upon elements found within each of them, making these two, along with "The Window" my personal favorites from Impossible Encounters.

The final tale, "The Atelier," binds the five preceding stories together.  The title itself is a reference to the older form of artistic instruction, that of a true workshop in which the artist would train apprentices to produce elements of an artistic work which, when complete, would bear the master's name.  In it, the stories preceding it, all of which contained references to an unnamed author's Impossible Encounters, are shown to have a "realness" that extends beyond the author's conception of that word.  In it, the author enters into his own fiction and becomes a character, blurring the lines between what is "real" and "unreal."  It is a fitting coda to a collection that challenges its readers to reconsider how they view the world, its beauties and dangers, and themselves in relation to the worlds they live and which they inhabit in their dreams.  Impossible Encounters is a collection whose stories have haunted my thoughts for nearly a month since I last re-read it in both Serbian and English and it is perhaps slightly stronger than the preceding Time Gifts.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Laurent Binet, HHhH

How can you tell the main character of a story?  By the number of pages devoted to him?  I hope it's a little more complicated than that.
Whenever I talk about the book I'm writing, I say, "My book on Heydrich."  But Heydrich is not supposed to be the main character.  Through all the years that I carried this story around with me in my head, I never thought of giving it any other title than Operation Anthropoid (and if that's not the title you see on the cover, you will know that I gave in to the demands of my publisher, who didn't like it:  too SFF, too Robert Ludlum, apparently).  You see, Heydrich is the target, not the protagonist.  Everything I've written about him is by way of background.  Though it must be admitted that in literary terms Heydrich is a wonderful character.  It's as if a Dr. Frankenstein novelist had mixed up the greatest monsters of literature to create a new and terrifying creature.  Except that Heydrich is not a paper monster.
I'm all too aware that my two heroes are late making their entrance.  But perhaps it's no bad thing if they have to wait.  Perhaps it will give them more substance.  Perhaps the mark they've made in history and on my memory might imprint itself even more profoundly in these pages.  Perhaps this long wait in the antechamber of my brain will restore some of their reality, and not just vulgar plausibility.  Perhaps, perhaps...but nothing could be less sure!  I'm not scared of Heydrich anymore.  It's those two who intimidate me.
And yet I can see them.  Or let's say that I am beginning to discern them. (Ch. 88, p. 136 e-book)
 More than any other event of the 20th century the Holocaust has cast a shadow over our own lives, over 80 years after the Wannsee Conference and the formalization of the actions undertaken the prior year under the Einsatzgruppen and collaborators in the occupied Eastern front.  The prime actors in this horror fascinate us, almost hypnotize us from the grave.  Hitler.  Himmler.  Eichmann.  Mengele.  Those names are infamous for being involved in some form or fashion with the Endlösung.  How could such atrocities be enacted on such a mass-produced, industrial scale?  This question has haunted historians and laypeople alike ever since the extermination and concentration camps were liberated in 1944-1945.  A huge argument over this issue, the Historikerstreit (the Historians' fight), took place in Germany as historians of World War II and the Holocaust divided over the issue of Intentionalism (the German government intended all along to commit mass genocide) versus Functionalism (that the nature of the killings and the timing occurred as a function of the war and the priorities of total war at the time).  Yet even today, nothing truly has been decided on the issue; it likely shall forever be a topic for debate, or at least as long as people can bring themselves to care deeply about the actors and the event itself.

In 2010, debuting French writer Laurent Binet's HHhH (the acronym for Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich, "Himmler's brain is Heydrich) was published to great acclaim, winning the prestigious Prix Goncourt.  In many ways, it complements and critiques a previous French bestseller/award winner, Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones in its treatment of the Holocaust.  HHhH, however, is not a strictly linear novel.  Through its short (rarely more than a single page) chapters, Binet's narrative divides itself into several streams:  a mostly straightforward historical recounting of the events of Reinhard Heydrich's life leading up to his assassination in the occupied Czech territory in 1942; the motives and lives of those who planned and committed Heydrich's assassination; asides that look at the interpretations of the Heydrich assassination; and the author's own evolving reactions to and relationship to the material he is researching and reshaping into a novelistic form.  It is simultaneously very lucid in its presentation and devilishly complex in its structure.  Yet for the most part, HHhH realizes its extremely ambitious goals.

The first few dozen chapters of HHhH are mostly straightfoward in their discussion of Heydrich's life and how his character was shaped.  Binet's research is impressive, as he adroitly utilizes several historical accounts to recreate a sense of the subject of Heydrich as being grounded in a standard historical monograph.  Yet even in these early chapters, before the assassins are introduced, there is a subtle working of Binet the Reader into the text, as the "I" becomes not the voice of authority, but instead the destabilizing element that makes the reader pause for a moment to reconsider what he or she might have blindly accepted as fact.  This can be seen in a subtle fashion in the concluding paragraph to Ch. 49, in response to Heydrich's directive, as the assistant leader of the SS in 1947, for the German regular police, the Kripo, and the Gestapo to go beyond the letter of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws and send the Jewish women arrested for illicit sexual relations with gentiles to the concentration camps:
In other words, when the Nazi leaders are – for once – ordered to show a degree of moderation, they are unafraid to thwart the Führer's will.  This is interesting when you consider that obedience to orders, in the name of military honor and sworn oaths, was the only argument put forward after the war to justify these men's crimes. (p. 81 e-book)
This interjection of opinion becomes more apparent in the latter half of HHhH, as he opines on Flaubert's Salammbô in relation to his (Benet's) own struggle to corral his bucking bronco of a text into novel form.  These interjections, which in most cases should be annoying because they break the flow of the historical events being interpreted here, actually manage to provide the novel with a greater depth, as they illustrate Binet's own "real time" struggles with the implications of the material he is researching in light of other works on the subject (including Littell, although most of his observations regarding The Kindly Ones was redacted by his editor; the "missing chapters" were published here in 2012).  One of the few observations that did survive his editor's cuts provides an incisive look at not just Littell's book, but also current understandings of National Socialism and the Holocaust:
A poster on an Internet forum expresses the opinion that Max Aue, Jonathan Littell's protagonist in The Kindly Ones, "rings true because he is the mirror of his age."  What?  No!  He rings true (for certain, easily duped readers) because he is the mirror of our age:  a postmodern nihilist, essentially.  At no moment in the novel is it suggested that this character believes in Nazism.  On the contrary, he displays an often critical detachment toward National Socialist doctrine – and in that sense, he can hardly be said to reflect the delirious fanaticism prevalent in his time.  On the other hand, this detachment, this blasé attitude toward everything, this permanent malaise, this taste for philosophizing, this unspoken amorality, this morose sadism, and this terrible sexual frustration that constantly twists his guts...but of course!  How did I not see it before?  Suddenly, everything is clear.  The Kindly Ones is simply "Houellebecq does Nazism." (Ch. 204, p. 316 e-book)
In this single paragraph, Binet goes straight to the heart of the dissonance that exists between the motives and actions of the actors of the 1940s and how we, after not just the revelations of the death camps but also the subsequent horrors in places such as Cambodia, Uganda, Rwanda, Bosnia, and now Syria have chosen to underscore certain elements of these narratives at the expense of other components.  Binet says as much when he declares in Ch. 239 that despite having "a colossal amount of information about Heydrich's funeral" that it's "too bad, because I really don't care."  In another context, say that of an "authentic" historical account, this would be tantamount to willful distortion of the historical record.  But speaking not just as a novelist, but also as a reader of the period, he notes:
My story has as many holes in it as a novel.  But in an ordinary novel, it is the novelist who decides where these holes should occur.  Because I am a slave to my scruples, I'm incapable of making that decision. (p. 378 e-book)
It certainly can be said that there are "holes" in HHhH.  The narrative, fractured as it is, often is frayed to the point of nearly dissolving into a mess.  Yet Binet does an admirable job of rescuing the novel from its own centrifugal forces by acknowledging frankly that it is by decentering the subject (whether it be Heydrich alone or Heydrich as representative of the forces that led to the Holocaust) that we can even begin to grasp the enormity of the issue, not just in the past but also in our present today.  HHhH works precisely because there is no singular explanation that can be provided; it is in the muddled confusion of those times (and our own tortured relationships to it) where greater truths can be found.  HHhH is far from a "perfect" novel, but its imperfections serve to affect us more than any technically perfect world could achieve.  In a crowded National Book Critics Circle Award field for Fiction, HHhH is perhaps the most ambitious and most moving of the finalists.  It certainly is worthy of reader consideration, even despite its (intentional) flaws. 

Brief reaction to a quote from Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?

Currently reading the National Book Critics Circle Award-nominated Why Does the World Exist?:  An Existential Detective Story, by Jim Holt.  Fascinating reading about 1/3 into it.  Here's a quote from Holt's interview with Richard Swinburne:

And why, I asked, is simplicity such an epistemic virtue?

"There are innumerable examples to illustrate this," he said, "and not just from science.  A crime has been committed.  A bank has been robbed.  There are three clues.  A chap called Jones was reported to be near the scene of the crime at the time of the robbery.  Jones's fingerprints were found on the safe.  Money from a bank robbery was found in Jones's garret.  Plausible explanation:  Jones did the crime.  Why do we think that?  Well, if the hypothesis that Jones did the crime was true, you would probably find such clues; and if it wasn't, you probably wouldn't.  But there are an infinite number of other hypotheses that meet this dual condition – for example, the hypothesis that somebody dressed up like Jones as a joke and happened to walk near the bank; and another person, not in collusion with the first, had a grudge against Jones and put Jones's fingerprints on the safe; and a third person, having no connection to the previous two, put the proceeds from a quite different robbery in Jones's garret.  That hypothesis also meets the dual condition for being true.  But we wouldn't think much of any lawyer who put it forward.  Why?  Because the first hypothesis is simpler.  Science always reaches for the simplest hypothesis.  If it didn't, one could never move beyond the data.  To abandon the principle of simplicity would be to abandon all reasoning about the external world." (p. 96)

While this line of reasoning was used to set up a rationale for the existence of God (i.e. the simplest explanation for how an universe that contains everything that it does is one that posits God), I was struck by some tangential explanations that can be found in Swinburne's last few sentences.  The first is the "science always reaches for the simplest hypothesis."  If this is in fact true, then could it be that in this grasping for the most concise and "simple" that scientists may dismiss the more complex and complicated explanations because they do not jive with held beliefs on the theories with the fewer dependent conditions being most likely to be most valid?  In a perverse way, this could take Adolf Grünbaum's comments earlier in the book regarding complex theories not necessarily being the least valid and turn his non-theist conclusion on its head. (Mind you, this is a conclusion that in turn could be reached through a simplistic interpretation and not something that would refute Grünbaum's stance on the question of the origin of "something", if there can be such a thing as "origin.")  Furthermore, for some, the possible resultant distrust in the conclusions reached by a methodological "scientific" approach can perhaps explain some of the rationale for views of the world, its prime movers, etc. that others might consign to the category of "conspiracy theories."  Reductionism by some oddly seems to cause a reactive expansion of (im)plausible hypotheses and guesses on the part of others.

Curious to see if Holt's book will address these tangential thoughts of mine, because it seems to me so far that he's setting up a lot of metaphysical and theoretical physics pins for a giant bowling ball to come crashing down (or not) on them.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A panoramic look at three bookcases

Started work last night on moving bookcases around in preparation for two large solid wood bookcases (which are currently on order) to be added.  Thought I would try out my new iPhone 5's panoramic picture option and this is the slightly-warped look that occurred.  Makes me wish I could have convex bookshelves...

If you want to read the titles on the spine, click on the image to enlarge it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Angélica Gorodischer, Trafalgar

Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer's fiction has run the gamut from relatively straightforward science fiction (1973's Las jubeas en florThe Jubeas in Bloom – albeit with some commentary on gender roles and expectations in some of this collection's stories) to ethereal fantasy (1983's Kalpa Imperial) to more recent crime novels published in the last decade in Argentina.  Yet until this January, only Kalpa Imperial and one of the stories from Las jubeas en flor were available in English translation.  For those readers who are not as familiar with the shifts and turns in Gorodischer's writing, the recent translation of her 1979 mosaic novel, Trafalgar (excellently translated by Amalia Gladhart), will likely appear to be widely divergent from Kalpa Imperial (at least in terms of the subject matter), yet there are certain narrative traits in common that those who enjoyed Kalpa Imperial likely will find Trafalgar to their liking.

Trafalgar is a series of short stories, some of them almost surreal in structure and content, revolving around the experiences of a Rosario businessman, the eponymous Trafalgar Medrano.  Gorodischer never makes it clear as to whether or not Trafalgar is a BS artist; raconteurs inhabit their stories regardless of their veracity, after all.  Yet it is in the interplay between the narrator and Trafalgar in which the disparate stories gain an unity that makes the mosaic novel stronger than its individual stories.  Below is a quote taken from the first story, "By the Light of the Chaste Electronic Moon," in which Trafalgar's character is established:

And he went back to his black coffee and unfiltered cigarette.  Trafalgar won't be hurried.  If you meet him sometime, at the Burgundy or the Jockey Club or anywhere else, and he starts to tell you what happened to him on one of his trips, by God and the whole heavenly host, don't rush him; you'll see he has to stretch things out in his own lazy and ironic fashion.  So I ordered another sherry and a few savories and Marcos came over and made some remark about the weather and Trafalgar concluded that changes of weather are like kids, if you give them the time of day, it's all over.  Marcos agreed and went back to the bar.

"It was on Veroboar," he went on.  "It was the second time I'd gone there, but the first time I don't count because I was there just in passing and I didn't even have time to get out.  It's on the edge of the galaxy."

I have never known if it is true or not that Trafalgar travels to the stars but I have no reason not to believe him.  Stranger things happen.  What I do know is that he is fabulously rich.  And that it doesn't seem to bother him.

"I have been selling reading material in the Seskundrea system, seven clean, shiny little worlds on which visual reading is a luxury.  A luxury I introduced, by the way.  Texts were listened to or read by touch there.  The rabble still does that, but I have sold books and magazines to everyone who thinks they're somebody.  I had to land on Veroboar, which isn't very far away, to have a single induction screen checked, and I took the opportunity to sell the surplus."  He lit another cigarette.  "They were comic books.  Don't make that face – if it hadn't been for the comic books, I wouldn't have had to shave my mustache." (pp. 2-3)

Trafalgar's diffidence permeates most of the stories.  Regardless of whether the transactions of which he is a part are mundane or fantastical, his slightly self-contented yet understated delivery of these tales provide an interesting contrast that makes the reader curious not just about what he is describing, but what he is not.  Although the narrative form and content differ significantly in many ways, a comparison can be made to Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities in how the banter and interplay between the narrator and storyteller serve to create a narrative dissonance that makes both the "in story" and frame story elements a joy to read.

There are, of course, some elements that might baffle younger readers.  The smoking, the depiction of gender roles, these are a bit out-of-fashion thirty-four years after the book's initial publication in Argentina.  While much of this can also be chalked up to cultural differences (one could say that Trafalgar merely tiene creído, but that might be more true of a porteño than anywhere else in Argentina), it does bear noting that at times Gorodischer seems to be deconstructing the characteristics of a Trafalgar to make a point regarding gender roles, similar to what she did in her 1973 story, "The Violet's Embryos," regarding masculinity and the natures of desire. 

Leaving aside these potential issue for some readers, Trafalgar is largely a triumph of storytelling, as Trafalgar (and the female narrator who interacts with him and teases these stories out of him) is beneath his quirky behavioral tics a storyteller who melds plausible and implausible elements together to create stories that are among the best SFnal stories of the past half-century.  Although not baldly stated as such, each story links into the other, often through an aside that leads into a story of its own.  These semi-nested stories, which spring organically from each other, rarely ever feel too "artificial" or contrived; they "flow" naturally from one into another, leaving the reader eager to discover what happens next in Trafalgar's adventures.  Sometimes, all a reader wants is a well-told story that feels "inhabited," and Trafalgar certainly provides that in spades.  It may not be the perfectly-told series of tales, but it certainly is nearly flawless and even most of its few, minor flaws end up adding to, rather than detracting from, the overall narrative.  Highly recommended.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Time for eine kleine nachtbookporn...or something

Two more Library of America editions, bringing my total to 107 out of around 230 volumes published so far.

The Holt book is fairly good so far, 40 pages in, and the Kiernan I will hopefully be reviewing sometime in March, when it'll be available in stores.

Serbian writer Zoran Živković's latest two books, The Five Wonders of the Danube and Find Me.  I imagine UK editions will be later this year or next.  Sent to me by the author to help me with learning Serbian.  Many thanks still for this!

Trafalgar I hope to review in the next few days, followed by The Best of All Possible Worlds when I finish reading it.

An Ace Double (a story by Brian Stableford is on the other side) and Yoko Ogawa's excellent collection, Revenge, released in US translation last month.

Two new SF/Horror anthologies that I plan on reading in the next month or so.

I bought the Terron after K.J. Bishop mentioned it to me and it is excellent.  Review in the near future.  Curious about El carnaval, even though it's now Lent. ;)

No, I'm not reading Atxaga in the original Basque.  One language that I probably will never learn to read fluently!

Two interesting French titles, including one by Andre Gide.

Petronius' most famous work (in Latin) and a Dumas that I haven't read (in French)
Franklin Library leatherbound edition of Jean Stafford's Collected Stories.

 Hope these titles tease, entice, and titillate those of you suffering from a Valentine's Day hangover.  I'll be busy...I have to be fingerprinted twice tomorrow.  Not complaining, though.

The insidiousness of the "echo chamber"

Yesterday, I was driving in downtown Nashville on my way to a job interview when I heard an interesting piece on the sports talk radio show, the Midday 180 on 104.5 FM.  The hosts were discussing a piece that a colleague of theirs on the 3-6 PM show, Clay Travis, had written on his site, Outkick the Coverage, in response to a post by another prominent sports blogger, Will Leitch, on ESPN sports personality Daren Rovell.  Even if you do not enjoy sports as much as I do, be sure to read the two columns now. 

One pertinent point that the radio hosts made when discussing Travis' column was that too quickly sports bloggers come to conflate the opinions of themselves and fellow sports bloggers with "the voice of the fan."  That point hit close home to me, as it so easily can be applied to a whole host of hobby blogs, including literary/genre blogs and the people who operate them.  It is an enduring irony of online communication that people are able to be pseudonymous and feel like they are "separate" from a larger population, yet too often when a cross-section of blogs in a certain field are examined, there is indeed a conflation of thought.

Take for instance, books that have "generated buzz."  Some might decry this as being solely due to publisher influence/pressure, but it's as likely an internalized thing, where a certain group of bloggers want to be a "trendsetter," with the result of certain books getting promoted within a short span as "the hot thing" to read for month X.  Sometimes, these books do end up being popular bestsellers, but sometimes they do not and books that are decried as being "rehashed pulp" that only the "mindless drones" read end up being the real sellers.  It is all too easy to confuse the taste of one's self and one's peers with "the public."

Of course, I myself am not innocent of all this.  After all, the "mean" part of the articles linked to above can be applied to my criticisms of certain bloggers, even those whose entire approach is antithetical to mine.  Even though I do the same in-person as I do online to those who might need to have their egos pinpricked (mine needs it as well), it can be too tempting to just rip apart the opinion or the delivery method of that approach and fail to recognize that one's own opinion may not be the most "popular" one.  The "echo chamber" of opinions can lead to a flattening out of personal takes, as some may want to fit in with the crowd when it comes to attacks, just as it happens for endorsing new releases/authors. 

Maybe it's a sign of impending "maturity" or middle age, but I have grown weary of trying to fit in with a "larger conversation."  What I review may or may not be popular, may or may not be of interest to those who see my opinions here, on Gogol's Overcoat, on Twitter/Facebook, or on various online forums where I occasionally post.  I like to think that I post for myself, but perhaps sometimes there are others who share common interests (or experience Schadenfreude when I write a snarky post or excoriate someone's writings on Twitter, such as that one post linked to above).  But I hope that I don't confuse that with a "mainstream" of thought, because if I do, then I really have little clue as to what "connects" with people in terms of literature.  Perhaps it'd be safer to presume that I don't have such a clue and write/review with the belief that the expression of my opinion is not the voicing of common opinions. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Over the years, Magreb and I have tried everything – fangs in apples, fangs in rubber balls.  We have lived everywhere:  Tunis, Laos, Cincinnati, Salamanca.  We spent our honeymoon hopping continents, hunting liquid chimeras:  mint tea in Fez, coconut slurries in Oahu, jet-black coffee in Bogotá, jackal's milk in Dakar, Cherry Coke floats in rural Alabama, a thousand beverages purported to have magical quenching properties.  We went thirsty in every region of the globe before finding our oasis here, in the blue boot of Italy, at this dead nun's lemonade stand.  It's only these lemons that give us any relief. (p. 12 e-book)
A vampire couple fighting their centuries-long addiction to blood.  Japanese women trapped in a silk factory begin to morph into a human-silkworm hybrid.  American Presidents in a pastoral afterlife.  Mysterious seagulls and a vulnerable young boy.  These are some of the stories that appear in Karen Russell's just-released second short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.  Within them, reality and fantasy blend together to create fictions that sometimes are surreal but always deeply personal in scope.  It perhaps is her strongest work to date, as the uniform quality of the stories make it difficult to select a single "strongest" story, while maybe only one or two are even slightly lesser in quality.

The titular story opens the collection with a sobering yet touching account of an aging vampire who desperately seeks to be free of the constraints that he himself has placed on him.  He reflects on his travels, both alone and then when he discovered the only other vampire he has ever met, Magreb, a century before.  Here love clashes with lust, desire for freedom with the sense of inevitable decline.  Russell imbues this aging vampire, Clyde, with a sense of fatalism that is more poignant because he is a nearly-immortal creature.  Passages such as the one quoted above reveal the quests of his and his wife for relief from their addiction, but there is something even deeper going on:

Often I wonder to what extent a mortal's love grows from the bedrock of his or her foreknowledge of death, love coiling like a green stem out of that blankness in a way I'll never quite understand.  And lately I've been having a terrible thought:  Our love affair will end before the world does. (pp. 19-20 e-book)

Too easily this seemingly elderly vampire's reminisces could have been played for a brooding, melancholic commentary, but she relieves this by punctuating such passages with his interaction with a young girl, Fila.  Her enthusiasm serves as a sharp contrast to Clyde's worried thoughts about his incremental loss in power and when combined with Magreb's increasingly distant relationship to Clyde, this makes for a more subtle and nuanced narrative than a simple mid-vampire life crisis.  The story's conclusion, which references and then develops the character fault lines established early in the tale, is poignant without being maudlin.

The second story, "Reeling for the Empire," is perhaps the most pointedly "political" statement that Russell has made in any of her fiction.  Set in early Meiji Japan, it begins as a tale of industrial exploitation of young Japanese silk weavers and it transforms, similar to the women themselves, into a revolutionary tale.  There is a slight sense of horror (more from the perspective of the industrialists' representative than from the women themselves) at the end, but much stronger is the echo of older revolutionary fictions:

Before we can begin to weave our cocoons, however, we first agree to work night and day to reel the ordinary silk, doubling our production, stockpiling the surplus skeins.  Then we seize control of the machinery of Nowhere Mill.  We spend the next six days dismantling and reassembling the Machine, using its gears and reels to speed the production of our own shimmering cocoons.  Each dusk, we continue to deliver the regular number of skeins to the zookeeper, to avoid arousing the Agent's suspicions.  When we are ready for the next stage of our revolution, only then will we invite him to tour our factory floor. (p. 62 e-book)
There are several symbols embedded within this story:  the oppression of Japanese women mirrored in industrial exploitation of workers; the connection between silkworms and transforming social/working conditions; outer and inner perspectives of gender roles; and the desire for personal freedom from old social constraints.  Although the social commentary is explicit, it is integrated into the narrative so deftly that it does not stick out like a sore thumb, but rather informs and deepens the narrative.

The third story, "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979," was actually my first exposure to Russell's fiction (I read it in early 2010 in Tin House 41 when I was developing a longlist for the later-aborted Best American Fantasy 4).  Unlike the first two stories, it does not as readily reveal its core elements, as it is more personal, more wrapped up in the experiences of a troubled male teenager, Nal.  The seagulls represent different elements as Nal's narrative evolves.  At times, they represent his past, while at other times they are a sort of "cosmic scavengers" that steal parts of local people's lives to feather their "weird nest." 

The other stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove explore other facets of human questing, sometimes through symbolic metaphors such as the manipulable tattoos of an Iraqi War veteran in "The New Veterans" or the reincarnation of dead, ambitious Presidents as horses in "The Barn at the End of Our Term."  In these stories, Russell plumbs the depths of human emotions, showing in some of the most surreal images our hopes, dreams, desires, and fears.  The writing in these stories is clear, incisive, and yet full of hidden layers of meaning.  In reading them, I was reminded favorably of another early 2013 release, George Saunders' Tenth of December, in how both writers would develop their characters in the midst of sometimes grim or surreal settings in such a fashion that their trials and tribulations were accentuated rather than obscured.  Russell's characters here have a greater depth than in her previous fiction and the prose is stronger for her greater attention to both character/situation detail and plot structure.  Vampires in the Lemon Grove's stories are different in theme and often in presentation, but very similar in the quality of the narratives.  It is, along with Saunders' collection, one of the best 2013 collections that I have read to date.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Translation and changes in reading approach

Reading, no matter how hard some people try to argue otherwise with their "popcorn reading" stances, is far from a passive process.  The reader has to be at some level actively engaged with the text in order to decipher the encoded symbols and to process what is transpiring in a fiction or non-fiction.  Some readers, such as myself, decode these symbols extremely fast, with some interesting results when it comes to memory (mine is better if I read rapidly compared to trying to slow it down to a pace that is "unnaturally" slow, say 30-40 pages/hour) and how information is analyzed and interpreted.  Others read more slowly and in the lacunae between the words/paragraphs that they read, there might be more time spent on the mechanics of the text at the grammatical and syntactical levels.

Yet when it comes to translating what one is reading from a secondary language into a primary one, certain things can shift.  I found myself thinking on this late Saturday night and into Sunday morning when I was busy reading/transcribing/translating Serbian writer Zoran Živković's 2011 novel, Пет Дунавских Чуда/The Five Wonders of the Danube.  I have dedicated this year to learning how to read Serbian at least at the level of fluency that I currently have in French (late beginner/early intermediate) and Živković has been kind enough to provide me with copies of his works in Serbian for me to use as practice (I've read all but the latest in English 1-8 years before).  It is one thing to read in a language, say Spanish or Portuguese to a lesser extent for myself, in which one has long had exposure.  Then, the words are not as much of a mystery and the processing takes only a slight bit more time than it would in say English.  But Serbian is not a language with which I have a lot of experience.  The alphabets are different (the Latin-based one has extra characters, while the novel at hand is in Cyrillic, which involves the use of 30 different letters) and this forces me away from reading 2-3 lines at a time to reading only 2-3 characters/letters at a time.  It is akin to starting all over again as a reader, except this time there is a residual effect from the nearly 35 years of previous reading experience (I am an autodidact when it comes to reading, so the early reading skills I developed were not precisely those taught in school; this does affect matters). 

After some initial problems in deciphering letters, the Cyrillic script itself causes very few problems (н is n, not H, for example).  But what I've noticed is that I'm having to pay very close attention to the prepositions and to related affixes.  Although I use a combination of the English translation and Google Translate to check my comprehension of words (and to see how the translator chose to render certain passages), there is a lot of time spent on affixed words and how they relate to the passages.  This is not something that a native speaker would be wont to do with something they've written, much less something they are reading.  This has caused my reading rate to plummet down to something like 3-5 pages/hour (only this past night have I reached the latter after nearly a week's extensive work with the novel).  After I finish transcribing (and jotting down the translation possibilities) for unfamiliar words (I was averaging at first something like 60-70/page), I end up having to re-read the paragraphs individually each time to work out the syntax and then eventually the semantics of what is transpiring within.  Otherwise, I would not remember the story at all for the attempt to decipher what is being said there.

Although this can be taxing on my brain, I have noticed that this laborious process has had some interesting results.  I can detect certain stylistic choices when it comes to descriptive adjectives (and can see that the translator hews closely to the text both in terms of sentence structure and the number of times certain adjectives are used).  It has made it easier in recent days to extrapolate from this how other sentences are formed and how certain characters will be described.  When I first read the translation almost exactly a year ago, I remember it being a whimsical story in places, but 4/5 into the first section, this re-reading/translation/transcribing effort has opened up new insights into the layerings that Živković's story has.  There seems to be something going on within the syntax of the sentences that appears to trigger a sort of "looping" mode in which there is a pattern of description and dialogue that begins to feel familiar after a few repetitions, yet there is no exact replication.  It could also be that in staring at the words too long in my attempt to learn them that I have created patterns that may not actually exist, so there is that caveat to consider.

Yet it does bear further consideration.  It will be interesting to see what happens when the process begins to speed up and I can understand 85% or more of the words by both context and memorization (I did this same thing with Spanish in early 2004 and went from barely understanding any written Spanish to reading it semi-fluently in six months.  However, I had years of exposure to spoken Spanish and two years of half-remembered HS courses, so it was much easier to move rapidly).  It may be that the "connections" will prove to be faulty.  I may not be able to read Serbian the way that I read English or Romance languages.  But it may be that I'll become a more reflective reader, at least for a while, when actually engaged in the act of reading.  It certainly shall be something worth paying more attention to in the near future.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Jamaica Kincaid, See Now Then

See now then, the dear Mrs. Sweet who lived with her husband Mr. Sweet and their two children, the beautiful Persephone and the young Heracles in the Shirley Jackson house, which was in a small village in New England.  The house, the Shirley Jackson house, sat on a knoll, and from a window Mrs. Sweet could look down on the roaring waters of the Paran River as it fell furiously and swiftly out of the lake, a man-made lake, also named Paran; and looking up, she could see surrounding her, the mountains named Bald and Hale and Anthony, all part of the Green Mountain Range; and she could see the firehouse where sometimes she could attend a civic gathering and hear her government representative say something that might seriously affect her and the well-being of her family or see the firemen take out the fire trucks and dismantle various parts of them and put the parts back together and then polish all the trucks and then drive them around the village with a lot of commotion before putting them away again in the firehouse and they reminded Mrs. Sweet of the young Heracles, for he often did such things with his toy fire trucks; but just now when Mrs. Sweet was looking out from a window in the Shirley Jackson house, her son no longer did that. (p. 5 e-book)

Lyricism in prose can be tricky for both writer and reader alike.  The writer has to navigate between the shoals of florid prose and non-specific description.  The reader, particularly those unused to prose that differs in form and structure from dialogue-heavy content, has to learn to trust the writer more, to abandon her own preconceptions of what a novel should be and try to understand what the novel in front of her actually is.  Sometimes, the writer cannot navigate through the shoals; the reader cannot learn to trust in the writer.  But then there are those times when the writer does manage to achieve her aims and the reader's faith in the text is rewarded with a deeper, richer experience than if the story had been constructed along more conventional lines.  Jamaica Kincaid's just-released novel, See Now Then, is one of those works that will captivate the readers early on before it concludes with a devastating denouement that will linger with readers long after the final page is turned.

See Now Then has been interpreted by many critics as being an autobiographical story of a dissolving marriage and certainly there are elements in common between the slow dissolution of the Sweets' marriage and Kincaid's own situation several years ago.  But it is too facile to see some elements in common and conclude that Kincaid transfers her experiences whole cloth to the printed page; she mines her life's experiences well, but she rarely, if ever, engages in the sort of fiction/non-fiction blurring that an Annie Ernaux, for example, does in her quasi-non-fictional novels.  Instead, it would be better to approach See Now Then as a melding of the personal with something that is more universal, more "epic" in its tone and metaphors.

Take for instance the excerpt from the novel's first paragraph which I quoted at the beginning of this review.  From the very first "see now then" it is made clear that this novel will be presented from some removed perspective, akin to a "pan out" shot that lays out the field of action from a bird's eye view.  We are introduced to the Sweet (if only!) couple and their children, named after figures from Greek mythology.  Then we see the house referenced, Shirley Jackson's house, a house which in fiction has an ominous history to it.  So already the story has shifted from the purely personal to one in which the symbolism of the house, the family name, and the children's names appear to play a role in the narrative.  It is an effective combination, both of the names and of the looping sentences that follow, that slowly but inexorably draws the reader into peering more closely at the narrative than she might otherwise have done.  While for some, the long, clause-filled sentences might be off-putting, Kincaid here employs them to great effect, creating mood and establishing plot momentum more quickly and efficiently than if she had attempted to tell a similar story through dialogue.  The reminisces of Mrs. Sweet, as seen the scene quoted below, blend the personal and the universal, the real and the irreal, adroitly:

That little jerk almost killed me again, said Mr. Sweet to himself, and it's not the last time, he said again to himself, and he was reminded of that time, not so long ago then, he was coming down the stairs and Heracles was going up the same stairs and they met in the middle and by accident collided and by accident Heracles, to steady himself from this collision, grabbed Mr. Sweet's entire testicles and threw them away and he threw them with such force that they landed all the way in the Atlantic Ocean, which was Then as is so Now hundreds of miles away.  The testicles then fell into that great body of water but did not produce typhoons or tidal waves or hurricanes or volcanic eruptions or unexpected landslides of unbelievable proportions or anything at all noteworthy; they only fell and fell quietly into the deepest part of that body of water and were never heard from again.

Oh, the silence that descended on the household, the Sweet household, as it lived in the Shirley Jackson house:  on poor Heracles, who paused for a very long time at the top of those stairs; on his sister as she curled up in her bed and went to sleep like a single bean seed planted into the rich soil of a treasured vegetable garden; Mr. Sweet removed his fingers from the strings of the lyre; on the dear Mrs. Sweet, who froze over her mending, her knitting, the darning needle in her hand, the knitting needles in her hands just about to pierce the heel of some garment, just about to make complete some garment.  And then gathering up herself, surveying what lay in front of her, Mrs. Sweet sorted among the many pairs of socks she had been mending over and over again and removing a pair, she fashioned a new set of organs for her beloved Mr. Sweet, trying and succeeding in making them look identical to the complete set of testicles that had belonged to him and had been destroyed accidentally by his son, the young Heracles.  And when Mr. Sweet fell into a sweet sleep of despair after not knowing what to do regarding his lost testicles, Mrs. Sweet sewed the mended socks into their place, the heels of the socks imitating that vulnerable sac of liquid and solid matter that had been Mr. Sweet's testicles. (pp. 38-39 e-book)
This scene is representative of later scenes (such as that of Heracles playing with Myrmidons that he received as part of his Happy Meal purchases) in which Kincaid carefully utilizes the symbolic characters/places that she has appropriated here (Heracles, however, playing the role of Kronos and Mr. Sweet that of Ouranos) to enliven a tale of a father angry and fearful of his son, of a mother who is ultra-competent and yet has to contend with a husband who views her with derision:

...or building a lovely little cottage in the woods where Mr. Sweet could retreat from the disturbance of those children and the presence of that woman who had absolutely arrived on a banana boat or some vessel like that, for nobody knew exactly how she arrived... (p. 77 e-book)

It is at this point that the repetitive structure of the descriptions, of the Shirley Jackson house, of village that lay on both banks of the river called Paran, reinforce the story in a fashion similar to the ancient epics.  If Aeneas were a man marked by his piety, then Mrs. Sweet becomes a woman marked by her suffering:

Oh Now, oh Then, said Mrs. Sweet out loud, but it didn't matter, it was as if she said it to herself, for no one could ever understand her agony, ever, ever understand, her suffering, her pain, no words could express it, nothing in existence could convey or express her existence just then, now or ever, her husband's voice, her husband had been enfolded in an entity called Mr. Sweet.  I am dying, she said to herself but that was silence; I am dying when I am with you, said Mr. Sweet to Mrs. Sweet, I am dying and that is why I hate you, for I am dying and I can't be myself, my true self, I am dying and you will die when I say this, but I am dying, I am dying, I am dying.  Oh I see, said Mrs. Sweet out loud but even she couldn't hear herself, and all that she saw, then and now, was silent! (p. 122 e-book)
It is at this point that everything crystallizes:  the "seeing," the "now and then," the use of epic metaphors within a contemporary setting.  The suffering of Mrs. Sweet, outlined in passing for the first three-quarters of the novel, now comes into its full blooming, as the husband tries to break away with the selfish excuse that he is "dying," while almost simultaneously expressing the self-centered thought that she will "die" because he shall leave her.  The emotions here are raw and visceral and while buoyed somewhat by the humor of juxtaposing Greek mythology with McDonald's and its ilk, the weightiness of this moment makes for a somber scene.  If this had been merely told as a straightforward narrative, it would have been moving enough, but when presented as a mélange of mythological and horror elements, it takes on an even greater narrative power.  See Now Then's conclusion is devastating because we see it, both the "now" and "then" of it, from the dual perspectives of shared cultural inheritances and personal, emotional connections to those whom we have witnessed (or experienced ourselves) traumatic, violent breakups of loving relationships.  See Now Then is a powerful novel because it utilizes the mythological to reinforce the personal traumas that affect so many of us.  Kincaid is almost pitch-perfect in her presentation and the result is one of the most accomplished and moving novels of this young year.  Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

This actual news item is weirder than most fiction I've read

This little AP item was in my local paper this morning:

Prosecutors want life for Amish leader
Federal prosecutors want a life sentence for the leader of an Amish breakaway group convicted in a series of beard and hair-cutting attacks, saying it's highly unlikely the attacks would have happened without his involvement.

Samuel Mullet Sr. not only orchestrated the attacks, but he also held absolute control over the members of his Amish settlement in eastern Ohio near the West Virginia panhandle, prosecutors said in court documents filed Tuesday.

Mullet is due to be sentenced Friday in U.S. District Court in Cleveland along with 15 others convicted in the hair-cuttings who live in the settlement.  His attorney last week asked for a sentence of 18 months to two years.

I am almost speechless.  An Amish leader named Mullet going around giving forced beard and hair cuts?  And this could lead to a life sentence?  The jokes, they write themselves, no?

An interesting quote from a literary study I'm reading

Currently reading Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito's recently-released The End of Oulipo?, which touches upon the possibilities that could conceivably still be mined from this famous literary movement.  I am particularly enjoying right now Esposito's opening essay, in which he makes this observation about the work of Argentine writer César Aira (an author I've praised here before, if not quite as coherently as in the quote below):

The yield from Aira's experimentation is a distinct, idiosyncratic feeling of lightness that infuses his prose, as well as an openness to juxtaposition that creates unusual metaphors and novelistic structures.  The ideas of spontaneity and improvisation are constant tropes in Aira's literature; he has claimed that when he writes in cafes he regularly puts into his fiction whatever he happens to observe, no matter how incongruous to whatever he is writing at the moment.  But this is far from the semi-automatic writing of Jouet:  a day's work for Aira will occasionally yield a page of writing, and he has stated that he throws away far more novels than he completes after being disappointed with his results.  Aira relies on his eccentric method to spur his intellect and harness improvisation, but he does not subsume his creativity to it.  Also in contrast to Jouet – fêted as a member of the Oulipo and published by France's most prestigious presses –  Aira is constantly at odds with the market, viciously satirizing literary culture and artistic pretension while publishing his books with tiny micropresses on the margins of the Argentine scene.  Aira has tipped the sacred cows of Latin American letters and argued passionately for new heroes; his authentically polemical spirit puts the lie to Jouet's critiques from within the mainstream (p. 49/135, e-book)

I could easily quote more, but this alone has made me reconsider when I am planning to re-read/read more of Aira's fictions (there is a new e-book edition of his short fiction, Relatos reunidos, that comes out on Valentine's Day in the US).  The description of Aira's approach and how it touches upon and then diverges from "traditional" Oulipo approaches provides a framework from which I myself, a reader of several of Aira's short novels in Spanish, can re-evaluate his work and test the observations that Esposito has made in his essay.  If I like nothing else from The End of Oulipo? (a lie, as I did like some of the comments on Georges Perec), then this little segment alone has made the book worth reading.

Don't know when I'll write a formal review, though.  May write an essay in conjunction with my recent reading of the newly-expanded English translation of Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style that came out back in January.  If so, it'll likely appear first on Gogol's Overcoat and then here after some delay, as I'm going to be alternating between posting original essays/reviews there and here, depending upon the subject matter.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Five new genre-bending books you may want to read this month

I don't usually post columns on books that I anticipate reading because I worry that it might have a negative influence on any reviews that may follow, but having read works by all five authors listed here, who have either had books released in either English or English translation in the US before, I think for once I can dismiss my general reluctance to promote and list the authors/books and briefly state why I'm looking forward to reading them (one I've already read):

Jamaica Kincaid, See Now Then (February 5).

Ever since reading a couple of Kincaid's earlier books, including A Small Place and My Brother, I have been meaning to read more of her fiction, as she mixes character and place so superbly.  Have this scheduled to be downloaded to my iPad Tuesday morning.

Angélica Gorodischer, Trafalgar (January 29).

I have read several of Gorodischer's fictions, including Kalpa Imperial, Opus Dos, Bajo las jubeas en flor, Casta luna electrónica, and Menta (and I have a couple of others to read/review later this year), yet I've not read Trafalgar in Spanish due to the difficulty in finding an affordable edition, so I will be buying the English translation later this week and reading/reviewing sometime this month.  Her stories remind me favorably at times of Ursula Le Guin's best and the wide range of tales that Gorodischer has told over nearly 50 years makes me curious about this translation of a 1977 collection.

Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds (February 12).

I have been looking forward to this one ever since I learned about its existence a couple of months ago.  Really enjoyed her debut novel, Redemption in Indigo.  That novel's mixture of West African and Caribbean story motifs was very well-done and I am curious to see how her writing style will translate to an off-planet setting.

Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove (February 12).

I've enjoyed Russell's fictions ever since I read one of the stories included in this, her second collection, during my readings for BAF 4.  Her first collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, I thought was an excellent debut collection and her first novel, 2011's Swamplandia!, likewise showed promise.  Yet at this point in her career I prefer her short fictions to her novel and so my hopes are high that Vampires in the Lemon Grove will prove to be her strongest work to date.

Yoko Ogawa, Revenge (January 29).

I've already read Revenge and a mostly-positive (OK, I rarely write fully-positive reviews) review will be written in the next week or so.  It is a very good collection and the translation of this 1998 Japanese work was very good.  I also enjoyed her novel The Housekeeper and the Professor, which I highly recommend to most readers of this blog.
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