Wednesday, January 14, 2009



Gilead by Marilynne Robinson : I never expected to love a novel about a preacher so much, but this one, while not secular, has a humanist emphasis, with a narrator who is constantly surprised by the wondrousness of existence. Robinson’s interest in John Ames has much to do with what they share as writers, or as people who concern themselves with the lives of others. Baptism is described as a sensation of “really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time,” a line that corresponds to this one: “Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it.” Both of these work as descriptions of what a truly great writer like Robinson does. I hope those lines give a sense of how much more approachable this book is to a heathen like me than anything by Flannery O’Connor or Graham Greene. Gilead makes clear the true and simple purpose of religion in Ames’ life: to help him live a purposeful life, be good, occupy his time, and recognize beauty.

Other recent reads:

Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan :
Mediocre comic book with hyperbolic praise on the back cover by Joe Sacco (whose Palestine I have avoided reading because the new edition comes with an introduction by Edward Said—nothing against Edward Said, but I don’t like comics and theory to mingle so closely). The story is typical: two characters search for a man missing after an attack on a bus station in Tel Aviv; they become intimate along the way, discover things about the missing man, discover things about themselves, so on and so forth. The drawing style is lumpy and awkward; I don’t expect (or even desire) great art in a comic book, but I could never warm up to Modan’s drawings. There’s nothing in the characterization to make the protagonists more than bland and anonymous; a wider array of facial expressions would certainly help here. I will say that Modan is a fantastic colorist, though.

Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser :
I adore Steven Millhauser, except for those moments when his writing makes me aware of his weird sexual foibles. There’s not a female character in this entire collection who is not either weak, invisible, or in the act of turning her face away. Is he even aware? Well, perhaps it’s to be expected, as invisibility is one of his primary concerns, along with invention, architecture, history, passion that borders on madness. He’s an ideas man, and not in some boring theoretical or philosophical way, but in the way that Thomas Edison was an ideas man. He’s more a watchmaker than a writer, and reading these stories is like being presented with some fantastic new invention, complete in itself.

Atmospheric Disturbances
by Rivka Galchen :
A very good first novel whose pleasures are mostly in the Philip K. Dick vein. I guess all of the sci-fi elements here are simply delusions of the narrator, but I read the book in a sci-fi frame of mind, holding out hope that the delusions would eventually prove themselves real. In the end, the book is a love story, not a meteorological thriller, but it’s a lot of fun while it lasts. It’s full of brilliant observations, most of which double as hypothetical science fiction ponderings and romantic truths.

I don’t know what the hell I was talking about the last time I wrote about The History of Love (I mean my vagueness, not the quality of the book), but here are some things about it that seemed to me to be unbelievable (implausible)—nearly as unbelievable as that moment in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button when Tilda Swinton’s character is referred to as “plain as paper”:

1) Reading The Street of Crocodiles in one afternoon. I seem to recall this book being about 140 pages long; it is fairly dense and the character who reads it in The History of Love is only 15 years old. I’ve estimated my reading rate to be about 20 pages an hour on average, so The Street of Crocodiles must have taken me about seven total hours—certainly more than an afternoon—and that after years of practice reading “fairly dense” books. At a full time job where my only duty was reading books, I would get through two 400-page books per week, or The Street of Crocodiles six times. Anyway, I’m insecure about how slow I read, and moments like this, in which teenage characters read with such ease, frustrate me enormously. (Even more infuriating: hack film critic Noah Forrest, who seems nice enough but who I love to hate, claims to have recently read Watchmen in one afternoon! What? Even the superhumans it depicts couldn't possibly read that fast, especially a 400+ page book so dense with meanings. It took me a week of heavy reading to get through it!) But it’s nice to see Bruno Schulz getting some love, because he’s one of the best and I thought only weirdos like Guy Maddin knew who he was.

2) The book is saturated with “firsts”: the first time Leo Gursky becomes aware of death, the first time Leo Gursky becomes aware of love. Literature is full of these moments, which I don’t believe have any existence in reality. I don’t mind the hyper-literariness of The History of Love for the most part, but this is one place where it strikes me as a flaw, because it makes even a character like Leo, despite the richness of his voice, seem overly constructed and impossible to grasp. I could accuse Everything is Illuminated of a similar implausibility, but I liked that book better because it was more willfully and consistently eccentric. Krauss seems to want it both ways, to write about rich characters and to write meta-literature (she is brilliant at the latter), while Foer, by being simply absurd, arrives with ease at big emotions, and melds the two halves of his story without the awkward construction of Krauss’ ending. And it seems to me a much more profound revelation to find out that Alex has never been carnal with a woman, than it is to find out that Bruno isn’t real.

However, I really liked when the mother makes a dinner of fake meat chicken nuggets. That could not be more plausible.

Friday, January 2, 2009



The History of Love by Nicole Krauss : A book about words, literature, books, characters who sometimes believe in one or all of these things and sometimes don’t, but who keep coming back. Well, I don’t want to generalize too much yet, but I’ve gotten a sense of Krauss’s larger design, and it seems like it might be beautiful. The book suffers at times from the “tyranny of the short sentence” (though that is perhaps just how Leo Gursky speaks), details that are mere details, and, yes, cleverness, that modern feature that is a flaw only when it undermines the laws of the fictional world for the sake of poetry. Krauss is allowed some leeway because her book is very much about language: the right words, the wrong words; a character speaking a “wrong sentence” is an admission that there is a right sentence. I can think of many situations for which the right words exist. But then I have never doubted the existence of poetry or the right words.

Other recent reads:

Why Are You Doing This? and I Killed Adolf Hitler by Jason : Was it a mere two years ago (give or take a few days) that I first became consumed by the world of comic books (to say nothing of my childhood, when I read mostly Ren and Stimpy comics, something called Tales from the Bog, and other such slim issues indiscriminately)? Aye, it was. No better way to round out the second annum than with these two by Jason, a Norwegian artist who writes novelette-length absurdo-deadpan tragicomedies starring animal-headed humans. Both are conventional by definition (conventions recycled): Why Are You Doing This? is a wrong man thriller, and I Killed Adolf Hitler is the most brilliantly silly time travel narrative of recent years. Also, an economical and beautifully patterned love story (I have just described Back to the Future). Even so, it is the lesser of the two Hitler assassination plot stories I’ve encountered recently (Valkyrie was surprisingly good). I wonder if these stories would be even funnier if the characters were visibly human. I suspect they might be.

Drown by Junot Diaz : Not unlike his novel, though these stories benefit from having a less intricate overall design. Recalls Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, both thematically and in terms of sequencing. Diaz ends with an archetypal yet meticulously detailed story of a Dominican man making his life in the U.S. It is as powerful, though perhaps not as beautifully written, as Lahiri’s “The Third and Final Continent.” A certain commenter on this blog was right in describing the title story in this collection as similar to something I’ve recently written. I couldn’t hope to match Diaz’s quality of writing, or the bottomless despair of his narrator (I might’ve called it “Drown, but maybe float in the end”), but I could easily have included the only corresponding character who is absent in my own story, the mother, because she is so recognizable. Regret…

Destiny by Otto Nuckel : 1930 woodcut novel, the most relentlessly bleak story ever told. I read a couple of these “picture storybooks” last winter, by Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward. Masereel’s The City is among my favorite things ever, a happy-sad succession of images of decadent 1920s Germany. Masereel’s cuts are somewhat lumpy, absent of cross-hatching, but in a single image, he can convey all of the beauty or sadness of a life. Lynd Ward’s Mad Man’s Drum tells a linear story, and is built around a single gesture that gains in power and evil as it recurs. Those fingers, held in that position…so disturbing it could just about make you pass out, an even likelier possibility given the breathtaking intricacy of Ward’s images. In Destiny, Nuckel opts for a blurry style of cutting, particularly effective in rendering human faces. More than Masereel or Ward, he relies upon universal human experience, and his cityscapes are smothering and prison-like. It is fitting then that the woman whose destiny is shown is fuzzy-faced, her suffering always seen from a distance. There is one exception: in a single image Nuckel gives her real visible features, and it is unbearably sad to see her there, reaching her hand out to a bird on the table. At book’s end, after her fate has been sealed, a bird lies dead on the ground, pierced through the heart. So much for a happy ending. Nuckel was not optimistic about life, and “destiny” has no glorious connotations here.

Summer Blonde
by Adrian Tomine :
Four great stories in the Daniel Clowes style, though different in that Tomine doesn’t seem to have any attitude toward this world of high schoolers and twentysomething survivors of high school. That makes these stories more pleasurable in a way: no cynicism, just a strange sympathy for his characters and their weaknesses; the real life world to Clowes’s ghost world. Compulsively readable, like a good crime novel: there is mystery in these lives.

Maurice has a remarkably happy ending (spoiler) in which Clive continues to lie to himself and will spend the rest of his life lying to his wife, with whom he has no physical relationship, for which reasons Maurice tells him off and then goes to live with charming Alec in the wilderness, owners of the land but outcasts from English society, existing outside class and the infinite invisible pressures that imprison the supposedly enlightened masses. In a nutshell. Forster says the novel might have been published upon being written had he given it an unhappy ending, because then it would have read like a warning, but that he would not have written it for any reason but a happy ending. I personally agree (I would never write anything with no hope in it), but I wouldn’t want to generalize to discredit a book like Destiny, which is hopeless, but authentically so. Thank God Maurice got away from that Clive fellow for another reason: his chastity was becoming unbearable. A last bit of pondering: how might this book be different if race was a factor? I’m thinking of an article by Dan Savage about homophobia within the African American community and racism within the gay community (not an equilibrium, according to Savage). Pure and pale love between men seems to be a prerequisite for Maurice; I don’t think a gay black Englishman would get much love in its pages, but I might be wrong.