Wednesday, August 13, 2008

August, Come She Will

Probably moving on to The Big Money by John Dos Passos next. Haven’t started it yet, so I don’t have anything to say, except that I’m deeply invested in the USA trilogy, and the last installment is damn long.

Other recent reads:

The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing : This 1940s novel describes the corporate world with such insight and modern cynicism that it seems a shame at first that it doesn’t just relish in it and instead develops a plot. But that plot is ingenious (reassembled from other crime novels though it is) and airtight (well, Fearing does fudge it in a few places, to set up situations in which his themes and metaphors are right at the surface). Fearing was also a poet, that profession other than crime novelist that knows how not to waste words, so the elevated diction and terse objectivity mix beautifully. The novel is frighteningly intelligent, with more on its mind than working through a clockwork plot. There’s a great plotline in which a painter’s career is given a reappraisal in a popular magazine merely to aid in a manhunt (the appraisal is phony; art has no value as art in this world, even though the paintings described sound great and I wish they were real). That same magazine is also working on a project called Funded Individuals, in which every human being will be incorporated for a value of a million dollars and crime will be eradicated. That’s a sci-fi concept if I’ve ever heard one, but by leaving it as a notion of magazine writers and not making it real, this novel underlines the mistake that a lot of sci-fi makes. (There’s also a lot of Jesus/Judas/Caesar/Brutus/maybe a bit of J.P. Morgan stuff going on in the characterization, but that’s beside the point.) The central metaphor here is the big clock that controls life, a meaningless design that cannot be escaped. That’s our hero’s philosophy anyway, though I would have liked to see it removed from the first-person narration and made concrete with a real clock in the action of the story (e.g. The towering Janoth Enterprises building really ought to be topped by a huge clock). But that would make it Fearing’s philosophy as well, and I don’t know if he shares it. The key might be the last phrase, “Ousted publisher, plunges to death.” That reminds me of a song by Zounds, “Did he fall or was he pushed?” Meaningless design or divine retribution? Answer: great novel!

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers : McCullers was one of the first authors I came to love after the long anti-reading period of my early teens (I had to do a report about her in 11th grade), so it is nice to find that she is still one of my favorite writers and not forever locked in the milieu of clichéd teenagerish reading (my other favorites then included Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick). She’s a good writer for young people, and a great observer of adolescence, and this one is something like an extended meditation on puberty, to the extent that it is a fairly unusual coming-of-age story (if it is even that). It is also a story about desperately wanting to be (or be with) your older sibling, which is the oldest story in the world as far as I’m concerned. How refreshing after the entitlement and vague bigotry of The Sportswriter to find a novel with such a deep love for all humanity. Identity is both amorphous and inescapable; the characters here speak frankly about name changes, sex changes, there is a black woman who is slowly turning white. It didn’t even bother me when Frankie scales the impossibly tall heights of naïveté, because her delusions are so much the delusions of a sad young person. This book made me love the author as much as it made me love her characters, which is one of the best feelings that reading novels can give.

I entered that weird zone with The Sportswriter in which I’ve decided I don’t like a book and become increasingly irritated by the tiniest details (overuse of the word “vaguely,” the way Frank’s car is always “easing” somewhere, adjectives that needed to go), but then found myself liking it for extended periods. Richard Ford is a strong writer in certain respects, but I can’t say I got much out of this (he’s prone to clichéd wisdom that he tries to mask with his writerly confidence). It’s good at least to be reminded in these pages that Macalester is a good school and the reason that Montanans are not introspective people (untrue). For the record, Frank does end up changing his mind about the importance of a person’s background, but his original opinion is so unbelievable that this change is the epitome of too little too late. I’d advise anyone interested to start with Independence Day, because it would be a shame to have that novel ruined by a preconceived bad impression of its protagonist. Cases in point: we leave 39-year old Frank in The Sportswriter as he is about to seduce a 19-year old, which he treats almost as an act of nobility; elsewhere, the racism is unsettling, and while it may only be Frank’s racism, it is still unjustified, because there is not much to say about it except to note that it exists (i.e. his racist comments are his birthright). Maybe I’m being stupid and overlooking something, but as a non-introspective Montanan, I guess I won’t look into it.

Other things I’ve liked a lot recently:

Tropic Thunder
Flight of the Red Balloon
Chop Shop
Beijing opening ceremonies
Laceless shoes
Smell of apple cider vinegar
Certain children
People doing well at the Olympics

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