Friday, March 23, 2012

Fiction Notes

I know, I know. I was going to be reading all this fiction, wasn't I? And presumably writing about it, but it's been seemingly all non-fiction all the time here at the blog. So it might seem. And yet, it turns out, of the 20 books I've read so far this year, 13 have been fiction. Though writing about it is something else entirely. So then this is something of a first-quarter round-up (which runs the risk of making it sound like I expect/plan to be doing quarterly fiction round-ups; note/reminder: no announced plans have ever come to fruition on this blog).

Anyway, here are the 13 I've read as of today, with remarks, maybe:
  • Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt — I really enjoyed this novel, and frankly, it was just the thing I needed to get back to fiction. It's smart, not difficult. And funny, very funny. I thought the workplace satire was spot-on, and I loved the piled on clichés, some of which were just perfectly employed to comic effect. It's not the brilliant novel that The Last Samurai is (few books are); it's much more modest in scope, doesn't try to do too much, or convert its satire into an obvious message. 

  • The other day, DeWitt pointed us to the discussion at The Morning News Tournament of Books, in which her book was pitted against the latest by Julian Barnes in the quarterfinals of their ridiculous annual competition. Though it's hard to argue with Kevin Guillefoile's observation that Lightning Rods might be a difficult book to recommend in certain company ("I would have to know you really well before I would suggest that you would like this novel."), the conversation (or "meta-commentary") between him and John Warner didn't offer much (not that I expected it to), and worse, led me into reading the annoying and stupid comments that followed. Actual complaints about a lack of realism. Arguments about verisimilitude, in connection with inaccurately reported details from the book. Fun.

  • Zone, Mathias Énard (French; Charlotte Mandell, trans.) — The back copy of this novel claims it is "One of the truly original books of the decade—and written as a single, hypnotic, propulsive, physically irresistible sentence . . . " Propulsive? Yes. Hypnotic? Possibly. Occasionally. Physically irresistible? Hm, at times, OK, yes, I'll allow this. A single sentence? I've already tweeted about this to some annoyance, but it's not a single sentence. It's not even close! The novel is primarily a stream-of-consciousness sort of narrative, the thoughts and memories of a French-born Croat who's spent the previous couple of decades doing awful things, as a spy, a soldier, etc, in some of the worst wars and hot spots in Europe ("the Zone"), on his way via train to Rome, where he is supposedly to hand off a briefcase full of intelligence on countless other similar types of bad characters, some of whose stories we are treated to as he recalls their adventures, after which he is to ride off into the sunset under a stolen identity. There is not a single full stop in these parts of the novel. Where people get the idea that a sentence must have a period in order to come to an end is beyond me. This is not exactly written according to Strunk & White's guidelines. For one thing, it's divided into chapters, each of which begins what is obviously a new sentence, punctuation or no punctuation. For another, several thoughts are completed, and do not grammatically belong with the thoughts that follows them. Complete sentences! Perhaps I'm belaboring the point and no doubt you don't care. But also: there are three chapters that are from the novel our narrator takes a break from his reveries to read from. Its prose is fairly conventionally punctuated. Sentences! OK. Enough with that. The novel itself is quite good (propulsive, at times even hypnotic). I may have already mentioned this, but it reminded me a great deal of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, in particular the detailed descriptions of the unpleasantness of war, which we usually prefer to ignore.

  • Liquidation, Imre Kertész (Hungarian; Tim Wilkinson, trans.) — I'm sorry to have to report that I have nothing at all to say about this novel, other than I liked it, I think. It didn't leave much of an impression. It came to my attention via David Auerbach's discussion of the other Hungarian writer, László Krasznahorkai, who all of the lit blogs I follow have been talking about constantly lately; he referred to Liquidation as "stunning", so when I saw it at the library, I took a shot.

  • Stoner, John Williams — I wrote about Stoner here. To re-cap: I thought this novel was wonderful. I'd begun a second post about the novel, intended to focus on Stoner's wife, but I have as yet been unable to finish it. I make no promises that I ever will.

  • Dreaming of Dead People, Rosalind Belben — Belben is a favorite of Gabriel Josipovici's, which automatically makes her a writer I want to read. And yet I've had difficulties. Our Horses in Egypt, while at times quite lovely, nevertheless seems written with a very specific, that is to say necessarily small, audience in mind: readers familiar with horse jargon, World War I military jargon, and Edwardian slang. I am, it turns out, not one of these readers; as such, the book was at times very nearly unreadable for me. And yet, for all that, I nevertheless found the book charming (though not enough to feel I needed to keep my copy or ever read it again). I'd been assured that some of her earlier novels were likely more my speed. And, indeed, Dreaming of Dead People is frequently marvelous. The recollections or meditations of a lonely old woman, observing the world around her, and the course of her life, it is at times heart-breaking. And sexually frank, which was something of a surprise.

  • I.End of I., & Meyer, Stephen Dixon — I have a post in the works on these three Dixon novels; stay tuned.

  • Slowness, Milan Kundera (French; Linda Asher, trans.) —entertaining; not as good as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, better than Life is Elsewhere. Alternating tales of seduction, two hundred years apart. Seemingly a trifle, and not without its cloyingness, but the stuff on slowness and time and memory set it apart a bit, and help it remain in the library.

  • Mavis Belfrage, Alasdair Gray
  • Now that you're back, A.L. Kennedy — The fact that I'm lumping these two books together is a sure sign that I have next to nothing to say about them. Years ago, I traveled to London with a friend. I took with me a list of Scottish authors and titles to look for. I was in the midst of my expansive attitude toward fiction, but before the despair had set in. I think I'd read Janice Galloway's excellent Dalkey-published novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, and had read an interview with her in which she named several other Scottish writers. And I'd by then already acquired my copy of Gray's Lanark. So, this is where I first found James Kelman's novels, and where I got these two books, both of which, I just noticed, are story collections. I appreciate some of Gray's work (Lanark still seems worthy, as does Janine, 1982); this particular collection, as with the novel Something Leather, is mildly diverting, but ultimately slight and forgettable. Kennedy's collection is not unlike Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains in its evident skill—she's not a bad writer at all—and in my overall indifference. A couple of the stories achieved a kind of creepy dread that made them stand out from the whole (like, "A Perfect Possession"), but overall not terribly memorable. Of the six books by Gray and Kennedy mentioned in this paragraph, all will be discarded, save Lanark and Janine, 1982. I also have two other Kennedy books that I need to at least sample before deciding their fate.

  • Dogma, Lars Iyer — I wrote about Dogma here, to widespread indifference.

  • Eva's Man, Gayl Jones — I don't have a lot to say about this novel in particular, but it's made me want to revisit a long-dead post sitting in draft-mode about Jones and modernism, in connection with her novel Corrigedora, in which I'd like to include something about Eva's Man as well. In this case, the narrator is a black woman, in jail for poisoning a man. The account of the events leading to the murder is interspersed, often confusingly, with fragmented memories of various stages of her childhood and previous encounters with boys and men.

I also read several pages in books by Martin Amis, James Wilcox, and Toby Olson, as part of my plan to read and re-read books to determine whether or not I want to keep them. Wilcox and Olson don't mean a whole lot to me (they are very very different writers, incidentally; it amuses me to pair them like that, though I don't particularly care to elaborate). Wilcox's Modern Baptists is part of Harold Bloom's modern canon, and came to my attention by way of Dan Green of The Reading Experience, in a list of under-appreciated novels he posted eons ago. Count me among those who under-appreciate it. Anyway, I read it years ago, to little impact. I also along the way acquired Wilcox's novel North Gladiola. I took a few passes at reading it, and I just didn't care. Admittedly, I was being a bit rash, but given my overall indifference toward the earlier book, I just didn't see it getting more interesting for me. Then I took a long look at Modern Baptists again, too. Decided I didn't need to keep either novel. As for Toby Olson, I've previously read, and enjoyed, two of his novels: The Blond Box and The Woman From Shame. I liked them, but they weren't important to me; they're being discarded. I'd also acquired two others: Utah and The Life of Jesus. I settled onto the couch with Utah, expecting a good read, but not expecting I'd feel the need to keep it around after I was done. But I couldn't get into it. About 20 pages in, I was bored, even irritated. Where normally I'd either persevere or put it aside for later, my attitude now is: immediate discard. The Life of Jesus, on the other hand, looks just interesting and weird enough that I did put it aside for a later pass.

Which brings me to Martin Amis. I've written how Martin Amis was once one of my favorite writers, and how I'd soured on him. I've already gotten rid of most of my Amis books, but had kept back what I always think of as the big three: Money, London Fields, and The Information. Money is the one that still has the decent reputation among people I respect. London Fields was the first of his books I'd read; it was nothing like I'd ever read before, and I still have a big soft spot for it. And The Information, I'd felt, was every bit as entertaining and fascinating, even if I was confused as hell by the ending. Though my opinion of Martin Amis has shifted over the years, to the point that I now find him rather unpleasant, still I have fond memories of these three novels, and rather looked forward to re-reading them, to see if they hold up, among other things; I figured, even if they didn't hold up, they'd still be fun reads. I started with The Information, perhaps because I'd thought it was the more difficult book of the three . . . and, god, I just couldn't do it. Where I expected to find and enjoy the great prose style he's so famous for (and which I remembered), I found instead awful, turgid writing. I couldn't make it past the first ten pages! Now I look on the other two with much wariness. Will they be painful, too? Is it worth it? Wouldn't I rather keep my fond memories? Wouldn't I rather spend my time reading something else? As of this writing, I'm still undecided.


David Auerbach said...

Don't forget Agnes Owens, the third of the Kelman/Gray Lean Tales group. She is amazing. (I'm still quite fond of Poor Things, and might rank it above 1982 Janine.)

Richard said...

Thanks for the tip on Agnes Owens, David. I'll definitely check her out.

And I should have said, I have a copy of Poor Things (first edition hard copy, for some reason), but haven't read it yet.... thanks for reminding me.

Lee G said...

I'm a fan of Gray's work. It's been a billion years since I read Lanark. Unlikely Stories, Mostly and Janine are much fresher for me. (You are now, I think, the third person I know who has read Janine.) I've got Stoner and the DeWitt on my list to pick up, for starters.