Thursday, July 1, 2010

Stuff I've Been Reading: June

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
I’m a Stranger Here Myself, Bill Bryson
The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson
The Killer Inside Me, Jim Thompson
Fragile Things, Neil Gaiman
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami
Imperial Bedrooms, Brett Eaton Ellis
The Passage, Justin Cronin

“Now for a time there is glory in your might; yet soon it shall be that sickness or sword will diminish your strength, of fire’s fangs or flood’s surge or sword’s swing or spear’s flight, or appalling age; brightness of the eyes will fail and grow dark; then it shall be that death will overcome you.”


All fantasy fiction, hell most heroic fiction in general, is about death. This is true from everything from The Illiad, to Beowulf, The Sandman, The Chronicles Of Naria, The Lord Of The Rings, even Harry Potter. They all build to a moment when the hero for all their trials and tribulations, for every insurmountable obstacle they have encountered, faces the one that trial that none of us will best.

Whether the death is metaphorical or literal, whether the hero is resurrected in a blaze of glory, sinks gently into the abyss, or is whisked to the grey havens, all fantasy fiction brings us to the point, the absolute limit of our experience.

But I don’t know if I’ve ever read a fantasy novel that crystallizes this idea so perfectly as The Passage. Like The Fountain, its uses genre fiction to explore death not as subtext, but as text. And creates what is probably the most startling work of genre fiction I’ve read since The Stand.

This is not the world wiped clean and about to rebuild. This is a dead world, where even the animals have been scourged from the earth. Not since Children Of Men have I seen a work of art so stunningly depict a world without hope.

It wouldn’t be fair to give away The Passage's story. Suffice to say, what starts as your standard boilerplate about a military experiment gone awry, does such a graceful literary sidestep about two hundred and fifty pages in that it blows my mind.

And just when it seems that the story has gotten off track. (It does contain one pretty big narrative misstep involving an epidemic of psychic contamination that is never explained.) Just when it makes its strokes just a bit too broad and on the nose. Just when it seems the stories becoming too episodic, it resolves itself in a conclusion so strikingly resolved in its purpose, that its just incredible. The finale of The Passage, where everything the hero cares about is taken from him piece by piece, has a narrative purity and resonance to it.

It’s a sequence that reminds us how powerful and necessary heroic fiction can be. How essential it is. As does the book.

I’ve never been a huge Haruki Murakami fan, but I’ve recently started running again and picked up this book on a lark. And have made a habit of reading a chapter after each workout. Finding that I’m more responsive to his spacey detuned prose when my brain is swimming in endorphins.

What I talk about When I Talk About Running is a part memoir part manual as Murakami writes about his history as a writer and a marathon writer. But if you thought that Murakami would be any more straightforward when talking about himself, you don't know him very well.

Everything Bill Bryson writes is witty, interesting, warm and wonderful. He could right a pamphlet on Lawn Mower parts and I would be sure to pick it up. These are both minor pieces of work for Bryson. The first a light etymology. The other a series of columns about adjusting to American life he wrote for an English newspaper. Still no matter how well worn the ground Bryson makes the trip worthwhile.

I have an odd relationship with Hemmingway. I’ve never bought into the cult of Poppa (a nickname that If I hear someone use will guarantee I will never take anything they have to say seriously again). But neither do I dismiss him as so many do, all the dull predictable things the PC critics throw against him. Hemmingway is simply put a valuable 20th century author. He is not however THE valuable 20th century author. And I can easily name a dozen authors from the same time period whose works I’d save from a burning building, before I snatched A Movable Feast.

I buy into the doomed romanticism of The Lost Generation. Perhaps more then I should. And The Sun Also Rises is famous for two things, being the definitive depiction of such, and its rampant anti Semitism.

On one hand it is an appealing depiction of damaged, affluent Americans using Paris and Spain as their playground between the wars. It features Hemingway’s style at his best and worst. His most cartoonishly macho, and haltingly fragile. And it also makes Mel Gibson look like a Zionist.

I actually have pretty strong issues with how easily some stuff gets labeled as racist or misogynistic. A lot of times people seek to penalize authors and directors for their supposed racism or sexism, when what they’re actually doing is commenting on said characteristics (DePalma) or portraying them honestly. These critics seem to live in a world where people aren’t often misogynistic racist assholes. And while that sounds like a pretty great place, the world I live in is chock full of them.

That being said, The Sun Also Rises crosses the line between Joe Friday style “Just the facts reporting.” And actually inexcusable about the eight millionth time Cohn is asked to stop being such a dirty hook nosed kike (not a paraphrase). It’s not the harshness of the language or attitude towards Cohen, which were probably accurate. Nor the fact that Hemingway’s protagonists all agree that Cohn should stop being such a Heeb. This could also be labeled under simple accuracy. No what pushes The Sun Also Rises firmly into troubling is that COHN himself seems to agree that he should stop being such a Jew. His entire role consists of him being a punching bag for people who despise him, because he’s too much of a Jew to either A) punch them in the face or B) tell them to go fuck off. It’s a concept of Jewishness not far removed from Eric Cartman’s.

This is of course not to say that The Sun Also Rises is not worth reading. The difficulty of its subject matter does not preclude its occasional genius. Only mars it.

That The Killer Inside Me should end up pissing a lot of people off should be no surprise to anyone at all, should they have actually read the book. Whatever horrors the scourge of Sundance has on the screen I can more or less guarentee that there are worse ones here on the page writ large in Thompson’s inimitable barb wire prose.

The story of a small town deputy, who loses the carefully maintained control he keeps over his psychosis, partially in a convoluted attempt at revenge, partially to cover up said attempt, and partially because he just plain likes it. Is as merciless as they come.

Reading it is like watching the temperature gauge on a faulty boiler. It quakes in the yellow most of the time, dipping occasionally into the green for some lucid exposition. But every once in awhile it richocets up into the red. And when Thompson does that, when he gives us madness at full bore. It is terrifying.

Fragile Things is basically a collection of B Sides from Neil Gaiman, he admits as much in the prologue, but it’s a reminder of how entertaining even a collection of B-Sides from Gaiman can be.

Its uneven to say the least, and has the distinction of carrying both my favorite and least favorite Neil Gaiman stories ever written. And while its not something I would ever recommend to a beginner, it does offer a wide survey of his styles and obsessions.

Meta fiction becomes Bret Eaton Ellis (I can more or less guarentee that will be the last time you see me type that sentence). Lunar Park is as far as I’m concerned the most underrated book of the decade. A startling meditation on the responsibility of artists (this from a man accused of being among the most irresponsible), post 9/11 tension, Stephen King, and the complicated currents of love and resentment that can flow between father and son. It’s a masterpiece.

And if Imperial Bedrooms never fully coalesces into something worth reading, well for a long time it seems like its going to. Less of a sequel, then an “Elseworlds piece” Imperial Bedroom’s spends its first fifty pages or so gleefully poking its finger into the meeting place between fiction and reality, following Clay the protagonist in Less Then Zero, in a world where Less Then Zero (Both the book and the film) exist.

The insurmountable Problem with Imperial Bedrooms, is that while Less Then Zero was about a group of people watching the last remaining bits of their souls flicker out and die, Imperial Bedrooms is about characters who are already dead inside. They have finally become the “cock sucking coke snorting zombies” Ellis so famously derided in the no hold’s barred opening of Lunar Park.

Ellis has always been an author who is often unfairly accused of being immoral because he portrays immorality so well. Its odd because there’s nothing glamourous about Ellis’s depiction of evil. Its empty hunger and venality fueled to abhorrent levels by boredom and fear. Empty consumption driven to the breaking point by the characters numbness.

And yet even as the main character in Imperial Bedrooms falls to depths yet unseen by Ellis characters, the effect is curiously underwhelming. The resulting Damnation or redemption only matters if you care one way or the other. And for the first time with Ellis, I didn’t.


Gideon Strumpet said...

I love Jim Thompson, I've read all his novels, and am really looking forward to Michael Winterbottom's new film. I also enjoyed Fragile Things and I started Anansi Boys yesterday. I'll have my June reading list up tonight if you're interested.

Simon said...

I, too, think Lunar Park is absolute genius.

I be reading a Jim Jarmusch analysis and Winesburg, Ohio.

AK said...

I'm really,SERIOUSLY torn up about reading Imperial Bedrooms. On one hand, I really want to catch up with all these characters from Less Than Zero (which I'm re-reading right now). See, I have a weird semi-crush on Blair: that moment when she walks out on Clay near the end seems so--healthy, you know? And poor, disastrous Julian: the last time we see him in Zero, he's descending into a hell of his own creation (I always assume he died at some point shortly after the end of LTZ). So I honestly don't know what to think about "IB". Thanks for your non-spoiler review!
And thanks also, for reminding me about Lunar Park (still feel like a doofus for tossing it after an initial, semi-negative reading). I vaguely remember something really creepy about "author" watching a video that entered his father's house and followed him up the stairs and into the bathroom...Spooky!
Good shit.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Gid: On my way to check it out.

@ Simon: Glad to have another Lunar Park fan, looks like you've got a good line up yourself.

@ Rob: Honestly, if you really care about these characters you might just want to let it be.

Lunar Park is definitely worth a revisit.

deadlydolls said...

I like this here book corner I do! I'm a huge Murakami fan, though I can understand anyone's frustration with him. And you reminded me that I should really finish The Killer Inside Me, one of those novels I started years ago and misplaced.

Bryce Wilson said...

Aw Em, this here Reading Corner likes you too.

And Killer Inside Me is DEFINITELY worth finishing.