Monday, November 30, 2009

Three weird new books

Well! We are all back at the grindstone after multiple Thanksgivings and various nefarious activities, so I thought we'd offer up a triple-header of brief book reviews. Since my semester is drawing to a close, and I have been teaching the undergraduate edition of my Weird Stories class (which ends with a reading of perhaps my favorite weird book ever), today's theme will be New Weird Novels.

First up, Padgett Powell's new novel, The Interrogative Mood. We've been fans of Powell's for many years, particularly the short story "Mr. Irony Renounces Irony," which for the better part of a decade we walked around the apartment/house quoting at random. This new novel isn't quite a comeback, as Powell never stopped writing, but it does represent a new public interest in the man, which Rhian commented upon in an earlier post. Powell deserves it; the book is great fun--very smart, unexpected, bizarre, and just long enough. It consists entirely of questions, much like William Walsh's recent book Questionstruck, which I also liked, and in fact blurbed. Powell's book is different--much breezier, less rigorously po-mo, and about more stuff than pretty much all the other novels this year combined. The only reasonable response to it is to answer, at random, a page of questions. And so, my answers to page 64: 1) Any old paper is fine. 2) I have no idea. 3) Halberd yes, halyard no. 4) Yes. 5) Sometimes, I suppose. 6) I doubt it. 7) Probably not. 8) Yes, I certainly can.

Up next, Margaret Atwood's new one, The Year of the Flood, which is a sequel to her wonderful Oryx and Crake--indeed, the new paperback editions of that earlier novel now declare it "Book one of the MaddAdam trilogy," which suggests that the inventor of the LongPen is not through with this particular post-apocalypse. Personally I'm glad of it. I love Atwood in her sci-fi mode, and this book is every bit as good as the first, if perhaps a bit too dependent upon it in its formal approach. It consists of two parallel narratives, one in first person, one in third, from two narrators, onetime members of an environmental religious cult, and now two of the only surviving people in the world, in the wake of the events of the first book. The narratives here consist of a brief frame story in the ruined present, with generous helpings of flashback, just like Snowman's narrative in O&C, and we get to see some of the same characters again, this time from a new perspective, and with new contextual weight. Atwood is doing a marvelous job creating this world, and she sketches out the religious cult ("God's Gardeners") with something resembling breathless glee.

Finally, and I'll keep this short, is Stephen King's new one, Under the Dome. For several years I enjoyed nothing more than obsessing over my obsession with King, but all of a sudden I don't feel like talking much about it. I gave up about a third of the way through this one, and I think I have given up on King for good. There's a reference in the note in the back of UTD to some kind of heavy editing that supposedly took place, but I see no evidence of it here, as the plot, delightful as it is (inexplicable force field surrounds small Maine town), plods along dreadfully, with the exact same kind of gloomy events (rapes, beatings, murders) repeating themselves over and over every 25 pages or so. (King's embarrassing loathing of academia, by the way, is on display here as well, with probably the most pathetic portrayal of an English professor I've ever read. In what world are people really like this? And does he think professors don't ever read him? Hell, some of us even teach him.) It ought to be light, quick, and fun, and ends up being ponderous and depressing. I dunno, maybe it's me that's changed. But 35 bucks is a lot to pay for a book, and I think I've just dropped my final wad of scratch on the Master of Horror, alas. Great cover, though--lurid, glossy, and over the top. Tell you what--just grab this cover image, print it out, stick it to your fridge, and call it a day.


ed skoog said...

Last month, Jill and I saw Atwood give lead a musical extravaganza at the GWU Lisner Auditorium (Public Enemy played there the following week). We're on the list for a library copy--the list is long. The cost of new books scares me--I reached to buy Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, at Elliott Bay Books yesterday but recoiled at the $27.00 sticker. Went with Old Filth, by Jane Gardham, at a paperback rate, the paperback at the price that the hardback should be. And then, for good measure, some more Tao Lin and Stephen Elliott. Also "The Conrad Argosy" as a christmas present for a family member yet-to-be-named.

Drifting from the topic, here.

Were we talking about Wallace Stevens? There's a new Selected that is very handsome. I paged through it and it doesn't seem like Stevens--the type is different from the Collected, the paper's wider--altogether different poems, somehow.

ed skoog said...

Oh, Atwood--that was it. She read short passages from The Year Of The Flood, and other parts were acted out by GW theater students, and a singer-songwriter friend of hers from Venice Beach named Orville Stoeber sang and arranged for choir a number of the hymns from "God's Gardeners," a sect from the novel.

Ms. Atwood tried to clap along with the choir. A bit behind the beat.

A welcome change from the normal sort of reading.

Anonymous said...

Hear hear! The normal sort of reading can be very dull.

I'd kind of like that Stevens because of the extra newesque poems, but everything that is not the original Collected or Palm at the End of the Mind will always seem off to me.

zoe said...

I loved that Atwood book. I loved Oryx and Craik too. I can't get enough of post-apocalypse numbers. I love to plan my survival (ridiculous, I know).

I am reading Z for Zachariah to one of my classes at the moment. It's a book from 1972 about a girl who survives a nuclear war. She thinks she's the only survivor until a man appears over the horizon. It's really low key and full of farming descriptions, but I love it. The reason I'm telling you this though, is that the man (he's a bad man) is called John R Loomis and he works at Cornell. Spooky huh? Well, a bit spooky.

Anyway, I love the Atwood book despite the quite annoying hymns.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha!, I will keep my eyes open for this Loomis guy...yikes...

Another very good survival novel (with feminist undertones) is Marlen Haushofer's The Wall. In fact, it's pretty much the Stephen King book--invisible force field and all that. Except good.

Anonymous said...

Oh and as for the hymns...they're not all that interesting...but you can tell she was having the time of her life making them up.

sjwoo said...

$35 is a lot for a book, but is there anybody who actually pays that much for UTD? It was on sale for $9 not too long ago on Amazon and Wal-Mart. Even indie booksellers offer a discount on that tome of a dome.

I totally understand where you're coming from, though, giving up on an author. I sort of felt that way after reading Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. Same beats from the same drum can eventually lead to monotony.

Zachary Cole said...

I was one of those who bought UTD for a cool ten dollars. I love the book so far, but yes JRL (abbreviations abound!) Thurston Marshall is a caricature. By the by, did you know that he guest-edited "Ploghshares"?

And since you mentioned the cover, look closely at the dog just in front of the barn. Doesn't it look like one of the artists Photoshopped two dog images together?

rmellis said...

Skoogie Doo! I just Special Ordered Old Filth at the book store tonight. Weird. It got me thinking that someone ought to write an upper east side expose called Filth Avenue.

We charge the whole $35 for the HC of Stephen King at our bookstore. If it's a bestseller we'll discount it. How does my store survive in the age of Amazon? As my boss says, even after cars were invented, there were still a few blacksmiths around.

Tonight I lost a sale because, when looking to see if a certain book had come out in pb yet, I went to Amazon to check and the customer saw that he could get it for $25 instead of the $40 that we and Borders and B&N and everyone but Amazon has to charge.

Damn you Amazon and your nonexistent overhead!!

Anonymous said...

I paid full price at Buffalo Street Books...

James said...

This bookseller says thanks for paying full price.

Anonymous said...

I buy all my books at an independent, no exceptions!

jon said...

I loved The Blind Assassin, especially the sci fi story, and was always surprised that her fans especially disliked the Planet Zorg business, at least the ones I knew. It was so cool that in the midst of this realistic social novel she inserted an absurdist fifties sci fi book. So i will have to get Oryx and Crake, and maybe by the time I'm done with that the new one will be available used. Post Apocalypse books are the ultimate wish fulfillments. There's the Dylan line from Talkin' World War 3 Blues:
Well, the doctor interrupted me just about then,
Sayin, "Hey I've been havin' the same old dreams,
But mine was a little different you see.
I dreamt that the only person left after the war was me.
I didn't see you around."

Anonymous said...

"Mr. Irony Renounces Irony" is a great story and TIM is a funny and somehow highly emotional, well, novel. Thanks for your earlier review, which clued me into the book's existence. Powell's work remains "surprisey," as Mr. Irony would say.

rmellis said...

Did you know you can read "Mr. Irony Renounces Irony" on Google Books? You can! And one other story in that book. Who decided which stories, I wonder?

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