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.


aaron said...

"gilead" is actually really good? i considered reading it, but it seemed like it'd be a chore. agreed abt graham greene, catholics are a presumptuous people, always assuming that we care abt their dumb cult (tho the film version of "the human factor" is catholicism-free and pretty great if you've never seen it)

I don’t expect (or even desire) great art in a comic book
why not?

Geoff said...

Well, the parenthetical may not be entirely true, and "great art" may have been a poor choice of words. I was just referring to comic books that let indulgent graphic design get in the way of good storytelling.

I guess it's possible that someone might find Gilead boring, but it is at least not incomprehensible, or a chore. It is similar to The Road in many ways. I've actually read one of Graham Greene's so-called "entertainments," Our Man in Havana, which was in fact very entertaining, light on Catholicism and heavy on comic intrigue. So by "anything by Graham Greene" I meant anything by Graham Greene I don't like. Does The Human Factor have Anthony Hopkins, or am I thinking of The Human Stain?