Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Really Good Stuff


The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson : Jim Thompson is the most cynical writer I’ve read in a genre of cynics, the crime novel, and this is said to be his nihilistic peak. This is from the early 50s, but none of its horrors are coded: everything is out in the open.

Other recent reads:

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder : It doesn’t really need to be said again, but this is a perfect little book, capturing the same poignancy as one of my favorite Morrissey lyrics: All those people, all those lives, where are they now? / With loves and hates and passions just like mine / They were born and then they lived and then they died / Seems so unfair, I want to cry. One might expect a 1920s American like Thornton Wilder to treat his 18th century Peruvian subjects in a condescending manner, but the way they are written, they are as fully human as any fictional character can be.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow : I love books like this (turn of the century America, high diction, lack of dialogue) simply on principle, but that’s not to say this one didn’t earn that love. It’s a page-turner, though not in the usual sense, and a joy to read, but I’m still pleasurably baffled by some of its effects. The book seems to suggest some of the inherent problems of writing history, and adopts a playful attitude toward the project, taking a lot of liberties with historical “truth” but retaining the essence of the times. One way this plays out is in a series of meetings of the minds, including plausible conversations between J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford, Harry Houdini and Franz Ferdinand, and Emma Goldman (who?) and Evelyn Nesbit (double who?—Wikipedia helped here). How fun! In a way, I would’ve liked the novel to be even more diffuse and abstract, to peer into the minds of other great men and women. More, please! The best lines aren’t the ones that concern the characters, but the ones that begin, “This was the time in our nation’s history when…” After Martin Dressler, this is the second book I’ve read recently expecting, and not finding, a nostalgic romp, which may have been more gratifying but would not have been nearly as fulfilling. I find it odd that Ragtime was nominated for a Nebula (the famous literary sci-fi award) upon its release, suggesting that the grand Nebula committee was interested in Doctorow’s academic project of alternative history (though that genre is usually concerned with the way history impacts the present, while the history presented in Ragtime has no bearing on the time after). There is a scholarly aspect to the novel, but it is a great imaginative feat as well. And how to account for all the changes in America since the turn of the last century? The novel plausibly demonstrates dissatisfaction to be the natural state of the world.

One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry : Collection of absolutely delightful autobiographical comic strips originally published on Salon.com a few years back. Barry went to college with Matt Groening, and she achieves the same warm and loose depiction of a happily dysfunctional American family as The Simpsons. She despairs of her intellectual powers, but in her nine page comic strips, she arrives at moments, concerning music, dancing, pets, the past, and more, as profound as I’ve ever read. She asks more questions than she answers, but her questions are great ones.

Gateway was a pretty compulsive read, and its ending is the most touching example of robot psychology I’ve encountered since 2001. But nothing can excuse its vision of the future as a swinger’s playground. Oh yes, something can: it is from the 1970s. I appreciate the honesty amidst all the casual sex, but I don’t appreciate lines like this one: “Although we had very little conversation in a verbal sense we communicated beautifully with our bodies.”

Two things I learned about Jason Lutes after finishing Berlin: City of Stones: He grew up in Missoula, Montana (!) on a diet of Herge and other such comics luminaries. Also, he has never been more prolific than he’s been over the past year. He has recently churned out a number of new issues of Berlin, and book two, City of Smoke, will be published next month (!). Given the number of storytelling techniques at his command and the wealth of historical detail in book one, there is no reason to stop reading, or to assume the complete trilogy won’t be a monumental triumph.

Plus a little something not related to my daily reading:

I thought I would take a moment to list a few words and phrases that I dislike, ones that often make me cringe when I encounter them while reading. I don’t mean to be nitpicky, and I don’t really have a problem with the use of these words by people who know how to use them properly, but I am not that person.

Because these actions seem impossible…

1. Screwing up one’s face/eyes
Does this refer to making oneself look like the victim of a bar fight, or controlling one’s features with a screw-like motion? I’ve never known, but I don’t know how either one is achieved.
2. Gnashing one’s teeth
Gnashing one’s gums in the absence of teeth is a possibility, but this just seems painful.
3. Sucking one’s teeth
How can you suck something on the wrong side of your lips?

Because they can only be used in one context…

4. Aquiline (as in noses)
5. Akimbo (as in arms)
What’s the use of a word with no versatility? If I could say Have you seen John’s new aquiline dreamscapes or I placed the chairs akimbo in front of the fireplace, then I would like these words, because they sound cool.

6. Graphic novel

For these reasons five:
a. Connotations of the word “graphic.” Doesn’t “graphic novel” describe porno-graphic fiction as well? On a more fundamental level, “graphic” simply refers to writing, and no novel can exist without being written.
b. It is often used erroneously. A collection of Peanuts comic strips is not a graphic novel, but a person who thinks the term is synonymous with “comic book” might refer to it as such.
c. It is often used to justify the literary value of comics by people who would be embarrassed to be caught reading a comic book. Well, not all comics have literary value, though there are other reasons why they are worthwhile for non-adolescents.
d. It removes contemporary comics from the history that they are heir to. A comics artist may be in part a student of literature and construct his work specifically as a novel, but calling it a “graphic novel” emphasizes that aspect of his art and deemphasizes his debt to old newspaper cartoonists and other comics artists.
e. It is such a leaden term. It sounds like required reading.

No comments: