Gateway by Frederik Pohl : I haven’t read any good SF (I would say sci-fi, but I’m afraid a fanboy might find this blog) in a long time. I think Ubik was the last one, and that was like a year ago (!). The chief interest of Gateway so far is that it is a pretty standard SF narrative told as flashbacks during the protagonist’s therapy sessions with an artificial intelligence. That seems to be a way of injecting a genre that’s usually big on ideas and short on characters with a little humanity. Robinette Broadhead (that’s the narrator’s actual name) is hiding some secret pain, you see. It’s oh so very 70s, full of the sort of pop psychology that The Bob Newhart Show was so good at poking fun at. But there is quite a bit at stake with all the psychoanalysis, because beneath the narrator’s lackadaisical façade he seems like he maybe did really become unhinged during his time at Gateway. And he’s started repeating himself, in very obvious ways, even in complete sentences, which may be greater proof that something is not quite right in the deep structures of his brain, that his “feelings” are troubled. Or maybe his brain operates according to a system of functions just like his robot analyst. Hmm…
Berlin: City of Stones by Jason Lutes : Beautifully drawn fictionalized account of the last years of the Weimar Republic. So technically proficient that it seems a bit lifeless at times, but this guy’s lines are unbeatable, and I’ve never read a comic book that’s so well oriented in the space of a big city. The discussions of art, writing, Frans Masereel, etc. among the characters are illuminating, authentic, not too meta. Structurally this is fairly similar to John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy: the same era, the same sorts of players with interlocking narratives, different country.
Other recent reads:
Double Indemnity by James M. Cain : I guess Billy Wilder knew he had a hot property when he filmed this, because not much was changed for the movie. The ending is a bit different; the main players meet the same fate, but in a way that is more fatalistic, more Cain (the attractiveness of Death, star-crossed lovers, and all that). There’s also some nice play with a minor character’s doctoral thesis (which Cain wisely doesn’t make a big deal out of, just a clever aside), and some weird (maybe non-existent) homosexual codings unlike any I’ve ever encountered. I don’t think James M. Cain was gay, but there’s always such an overbearing psychosexual element in his novels that it carries over into every interaction.
Bighead by Jeffrey Brown : An individual Bighead comic might seem amateurish even to a child, but collected in this volume, they really are quite something. Jeffrey Brown is so insistent with this Bighead character that it becomes apparent that he needs the comics like R. Crumb needs the comics. The series is both a deflation and a celebration of superhero comics, featuring villains whose chief crime is selling bootlegged CDs, and lines something like the following: “My name is Crabby, but most people call me… Crabby!” It will make you feel good about being a hopeless nerd.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao never lived up to those first 80 or so fantastic pages, but I still have a lot of affection for it. It is one of those novels in which everything is overstated (always trying hysterically to maintain its vitality, as James Wood might say). This doesn’t work as well in the historical sections as it does in Oscar’s (where it comes across as ironic and funny) and Lola’s (where it adds up to the sort of tragic teenager narrative worthy of the (brilliant) new M83 album). The sections relating the lineage of Oscar and Lola are good enough, and I like the idea of using one’s parents’ histories as a template for making a start in life, but otherwise it’s been done before (I can't help thinking of Zadie Smith again)—whereas books are never written about people like Oscar, even though he deserves to be the hero more than most.