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.

No comments: