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.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The literary narrative as the shadow of life

For reasons I can't begin to fathom, our nine-year-old, Tobey, who until recently was mostly interested in superheroes and video games, has suddenly developed abiding obsessions with chess and, of all things, topology. (At the top of his Christmas list: a Klein bottle.) Needless to say, we approve. But this latter obsession recently produced an interesting byproduct, which I delivered a brief, impromtu lecture on yesterday in my undergraduate Weird Stories class. It's an idea that came from this YouTube Tobey and his brother turned up the other day, and which we've all watched a few times since:

In the video, Carl Sagan demonstrates the way a perfect cube is rendered in two dimensions, in shadow, its equal sides distended, its perfectly square planes skewed. He goes on to describe the "shadow" that a four-dimensional hypercube would cast in three-dimensional space--indeed, he's got a model right there with him (of course, YouTube is two-dimensional--but leave that alone for now).

It occurred to me, walking to work yesterday, that a literary narrative can be conceived as a two-dimensional rendering of three-dimensional reality. That is, with a few notable exceptions, literary narratives are told linearly--you read one word after another, turn all the pages in the same direction, and never go back.

In reality, though, we experience linear time more complexly. When I walk to the bus stop (I told my class), I go out the door, down the steps, across the driveway, through the meadow, and across the parking lot of the school next door, then stop on the shoulder of the road to wait. Linear. But my mind is traveling through time--noticing the chicken shit the birds left yesterday, imagining having to clean it up tomorrow. Noticing the broken taillight on the car from the mishap of last week, picturing myself bringing the car to the mechanic after the weekend. Recalling having mowed the meadow; anticipating its spring return.

When we write a story, we strive not to represent the linearity of time, but to evoke the way memory and the imagination extend themselves forward and back. Flashbacks, foreshadowing, frame stories, back stories--these are all techniques we use to collapse more dimensions into fewer--like Sagan and his cube, to cast the shadow of reality onto the page.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

This week's blogging caesura is attributable to work and an unfortunate pedestrian incident, but we are back in action with this bouquet of praise for Wells Tower's amazing new story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I first came across Tower's fiction in The New Yorker, which published his story "Leopard." I thought it was pretty good, but not good enough to make me go scrambling for this book when it hit the shelves--indeed, in retrospect it seems to me to be the weakest in the collection. But then Ed Skoog was in town and insisted I buy the book, saying that it was the best debut in a decade, reminiscent of Jesus' Son, etc etc, and as usual, Skoog was right.

The collection is indeed reminiscent of Denis Johnson's collection, in its brevity, directness, and wild energy; it also evokes Raymond Carver, for its convincing portrayals of working-class angst. It's a guy book, for sure--that is, a book that is masculine in tone, not a book that women won't like--with flawed male protagonists brooding over their failures and indulging their eccentricities. But it eschews the trappings of simplistic self-destruction narratives and chooses instead to wallow in the weirdness of life. Characters are strange, very strange, but very convincingly strange--never do you feel you're reading something that's quirky for quirkiness's sake. The Wacky is nowhere in evidence.

Here's a passage from "Down Through the Valley," a story in which a man is convinced by his ex-wife to drive their daughter and her injured current boyfriend back to town from the new age retreat where he hurt himself. Barry is some kind of earthy herbal therapist.

I asked a lot of people about Barry when Jane got mixed up with him. I knew a lady who'd legged down with him one time. She said the weird stink of him had been a problem, which I was pleased to hear. She also said that he had a huge banana, that he did breathing exercises beforehand, and that afterwards he'd gone in the kitchen and whipped up a big beet salad.

You've got to love the word choices here--"lady," "legged down," "the weird stink of him," "banana"--and the way the beet salad serves as a kind of subtle exclamation point at the end of the paragraph. Tower's language is just great--highly original, seemingly effortless.

There are many standout stories here, but people seem to talk the most about the title piece (also the last in the book), which takes the easy, workingman's poetry of the other stories and applies it to what appear to be Viking marauders. You'd think the result would come off as Donald Barthleme lite, but instead it's extremely fitting, very funny, and deeply disturbing. A neat trick to top off a winning collection.

Am I an asshole to hope he's writing a novel? I really do, though I will happily accept more stories.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Chronic City

This seems to be the year in which my favorite writers publish novels that don't make any sense. I'm talking about the new Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City, an exhaustingly unmoored narrative about weird male friendship, set in an alternate-universe Upper East Side. There's lots to like here, especially if, like me, you like Lethem--an escaped tiger wreaking havoc, giant urban conceptual-art pits in the ground, a chocolate wind, a mayor with apparently magic powers, a 9/11-like event that left the towers standing but covered downtown completely with a mysterious gray fog. This is a world that mingles real pop cultural referents (Lou Reed, Marlon Brando) with familiar-sounding simulacra: A 1000-page novel called Obstinate Dust, by someone named Ralph Warden Meeker; a band called Chthonic Youth; a children's TV program called The Gnuppet Show.

Our guide through this world is washed-up child TV star Chase Insteadman, whose first person narrative focuses primarily on a doomed former rock critic named Perkus Tooth, and all his wild ideas. They pal around with Richard Abneg, former squatter and presently the mayor's real estate fixer. There are some women for these guys to moon about (Chase's doomed (again) astronaut fiance Janice, and his earthbound bitchy ghostwriter girlfriend Oona; Richard's socialite lover Georgia; Perkus's doomed (yet again) waitress crush), but mostly this is a book about guys being friends in New York.

Oh, yeah, and pot. There's lots of it. Almost everyone is high almost all of the time. While high, they bid on stuff on eBay, get acupuncture, discuss conspiracies, and eat hamburgers. It is a bit like a baked Seinfeld.

If that doesn't sound so bad, it isn't. Lethem is funny and inventive, and as with Lorrie Moore's incomprehensible novel, I found myself perfectly happy to return to Chronic City and read a few more pages. But when you get right down to it, this is a stoner book. It just goes on and on, folding over on itself, referring to itself, creating mini-mythologies out of its intricate, chaotic parts. We hear of mysterious detail after mysterious detail, conspiracy after conspiracy, and it will not surprise you to learn that Everything Is Connected, and Nothing Is What It Seems. The problem is, nothing seems to mean anything outside the smoky self-refential boundaries of the book. Here is a typical late passage:

In my brain Sterling Winston Hobo was to Ralph Warren Meeker as Florian Ib was to Morrison Groom. Or maybe they were all the same person! Was Noteless involved in designing the tiger? [...] The secret lay outside my understanding. Oona Laszlo might have my existential puzzle's edge pieces hidden on her person somewhere, but I'd never make her admit it. I could only forumlate bizarre accusations: for instance, that Oona was preventing anyone from reading Meeker's Obstinate Dust. This was obvious, since she'd tricked me into chucking one copy into Urban Fjord, and then pretended to forget the title when Perkus requested a second.

You can tell why Michiko Kakutani hated it. It's as if Lethem set out to create the book that would most offend her sensibilities--a postmodern, self-mythologizing Dork Side Of The Moon. She actually called it "lame," right there in the Times!

I wouldn't go that far--as a Lethem superfan, I am happy to take the bad with the good. There is something perversely satisfying about these 467 pages, in their audacious unlikeliness; you almost can't believe what you're reading. Personally, I lived Chronic City on the sofa, laid up with the flu, and it has inhabited my dreams and disrupted my sleep for several can't, in all fairness, call such a novel a failure.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Why can't more books look like these?

I don't understand why we haven't yet seen an early-seventies mass-market retro paperback cover trend. To wit:

(Click for a larger image.)

I've written here before about my desire to be published in mass-market format--to be, once and for all, fully back-pocketable. But the other part of my love for this format is the work that went into the cover art, back in the MM heyday. In general, I dislike photographs on fiction book covers--indeed, my favorite two of my own book covers (Mailman and the US version of Pieces For The Left Hand) are the only ones with no photos on them, and the most retro in intent. A photograph implants itself in your head; it detracts from the invention your mind has to make when reading. The covers above are interpretive, not representational; they spark the imagination.

Occasionally a new book comes out that seems to follow this aesthetic, one that wears a beard proudly, a beard that is just now beginning to be flecked with gray. The new Lydia Davis collected stories is one--pictures don't do it justice, it's simply a beautiful, beautiful literary artifact.

And of course there is nothing worse than the movie tie-in cover, complete with photos of the actors in dramatic poses, or their photoshopped faces hovering in the air over a burning house, or some such horseshit. "You better check out the movie first," these covers seem to say.

So what do you think, people? Are you with me? As long as we've got the seventies economy, can't we have the book covers, too?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Your relationship to language

I find myself getting into arguments on the internet lately, taking a side that, at one time, I didn't think I'd ever take: that of defending some of the most irritating habits of colloquial speech. If you spend any time reading and contributing to online discussions, you know the kind of argument I mean. Somebody says something like, "My sister has issues," and then some self-appointed savior of the language swoops in to inform the OP (original poster, for those of you who don't engage in these kinds of discussions) that their sister has problems, not issues, and that they hate it when people confuse the two. (And then there are those who will object to my using the plural possessive to refer to a singular antecedent in the previous sentence, whom I respectfully invite to suck it.)

No, I don't especially like lazy and imprecise usage--but I dislike sanctimony even more, especially when it is in the service of a pointless losing battle like the one waged daily against the forces of linguistic invention. The fact is, "issues" is now a synonym for "problems," and if the world needs a new word to claim the territory that "issues" is now spread too thin to cover, then such a word will soon spring into being. Your OED may not be fond of one's sister's issues, but soon it will be, because, as any lexicographer will tell you, the rules of language are constantly in flux, and innovation is constantly ongoing. Mistakes turn into habits turn into scripture, more quickly now than ever before.

I'm a teacher of writing, though, and I can't help but be annoyed when I encounter, even among my grad students (you know who you are!), fundamental problems ("issues," if you will) with verb tenses, point of view, subject-verb agreement, and syntactic ambiguity (the unintentional and distracting variety, that is). They should know better. But really, it's hard to blame them--the writer has to inhabit two minds at once: the one that adores the colloquial, with all its beautiful awkwardness and random innovation, and the one that values clarity and brevity above all else.

For my part, I fall more into the colloquial-enjoyment camp with every passing year. Indeed, the main reason I love the internet so much is the enormous variety of written voices--freed from the rules of grammar and usage (not to mention definitive personal identity), internet writers are wildly expressive and distinctive, as much through their flaws as communicators as through any intentional gambit.

Where do you stand on this issue? (Not, I'm sure you'll agree, "problem".)