The Keepers of the House.

My thoughts on the Jeff Samardzija contract are up for Insiders. I’m still waiting for details on Hisashi Iwakuma’s reported contract before writing that one up.

Shirley Ann Grau’s novel The Keepers of the House, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1965, is an outstanding work of seething rage that manages to address themes of race and racial injustice by telling the story of a white family, of all things, in rural Alabama, from the late 19th century through the period just before the book’s publication. It is obvious to me why it won the award, and baffling to me that it has all but disappeared from reading lists, with no film adaptation or anything else to keep it alive.

The book nominally details seven generations of the Howland family, but the focus is primarily on two of them: the fifth William Howland and his granddaughter Abigail, who returns with her mother to live with her grandfather after her father abandons the family to fight in World War II, and ends up raised by her grandfather after her mother dies shortly after. William brought a young black woman named Margaret in to be the housekeeper after his own wife died in childbirth, and Margaret eventually became his mistress, bearing him three children, each of whom was sent away to schools in the north where their mixed heritage would not be held against them. While the relationship was commonly known in the area, the locals – depicted by and large as the sort of upstanding racists you might associate with the South of the 1950s – overlooked it as a quirk of those crazy Howlands.

After William dies, Margaret moves back to the black section of town with her family, and Abigail and her ambitious politician husband John Tolliver move into the Howland estate. When John runs for Governor of Alabama, a post he’s favored to win in a landslide, one unknown detail emerges about William and Margaret that derails his campaign and marriage while bringing the wrath of the town upon Abigail, thereby unlocking within her generations of outrage at the hypocrisy all around her, from the local whites who would tolerate such miscegenation up to a point to William and Margaret’s children who try to reject their black heritage.

The first three-fourths of Grau’s novel feel like many other novels in the subgenre of southern literature, telling a vast story of a family that once ruled a vast estate or accumulated great wealth but watched it fritter away via complacent or dissolute descendants. But Grau plants many seeds (no pun intended) in the early going to set up a dynamite climax (same) that gives Abigail two shots at revenge on her family’s tormentors, taking advantage of the unspoken dependence of the townfolk to enact a vicious vengeance. Abigail serves her revenge piping hot, and because of its genesis, it’s an extraordinarily satisfying conclusion for the reader.

It’s even more potent for Grau’s decision to tell the story with Abigail as the narrator. Imposing that fog over the family history – it’s passed down orally, so bits of it seem embellished, perhaps impossible – meant that images become clearer as the story approaches the material Abigail herself would have seen, and allows us to trace the development of her identity as a Howland, especially from the time when she goes to live on the family estate. In the time when Grau wrote Keepers, it was unthinkable to have a black character enact the sort of revenge Abigail gets – as it was, Grau ended up with a cross burned on her lawn after the book was published – so giving us a white woman who was raised in a house where black children were treated as cousins was probably the closest Grau could get. And in so doing, she never spared the white racists who smiled and said the right things but harbored the same centuries-old bigotry in their hearts.

Next up: I just finished Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks, a Nero Wolfe mystery, and have begun Stephanie Kallos’s highly lauded 2015 novel Language Arts.

Come Back to Sorrento.

My thoughts on the David Price and Chris Young contracts are up for Insiders.

Dawn Powell is one of the most criminally overlooked novelists I’ve come across; moderately popular (more with critics than consumers) during her lifetime, her books all fell out of print after her death, only coming back thanks to the dogged efforts of music critic Tim Page and a seminal 1987 essay by Gore Vidal that reignited some interest in her work. That interest has flagged again, unfortunately, as so many of her devotees are themselves out of the conversation or have passed away (other fans included Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos).

I first encountered her work in 2009 when I read her magnum opus A Time to Be Born, a scathing, witty satire that showed off her sparkling prose and deep understanding of character. Her novels fit into two main categories: Stories of artists and pretenders up to their necks in the life and culture of New York (think of the Algonquin Round Table … and imagine a book about all the people who think they belonged in that circle), and stories of people trying to escape dead-end lives in rural Ohio, usually hoping to get to New York. The former novels tend to be more incisive, while the latter are softer even though Powell doesn’t ease up on the parodic throttle.

Come Back to Sorrento belongs to the second group, a very short novel about two people in small town Ohio who believe they were destined for greatness until Fate intervened, although even here we can simultaneously see Powell’s empathy for these flawed characters while she’s mocking their pretension and self-absorption. Constance “Connie” Benjamin was blessed with a beautiful singing voice and once sang for “the great Morini,” but her grandfather refused to give her any support for lessons or to start a musical career, so she ran away from home and, yata yata yata, ended up married to a cobbler in a small Ohio town, with two daughters, one of whom has no respect for either of her parents. Connie’s life picks up when she meets the new music teacher, the bachelor Blaine Decker, who has his own story of a brush with fame and a belief that he’s a genius whose life is being wasted through no fault of his own. Connie’s situation is foolish, while Blaine’s is tragic, but the two find kindred spirits in each other because each will support the other’s delusions of faded grandeur – even as their lives appear to be going absolutely nowhere.

These two characters swirl gradually towards the drain in the nosy, insular small town that they feel doesn’t deserve their greatness, until an event that Connie in particular should have seen coming a mile away leads her and Blaine on a futile mission to the medium city (you know, the one you have to pass through before you get to the big city) that lays bare before Connie how little substance there is supporting her ego. The trip devastates her and unravels the fragile friendship she had with Decker, whose demons are more tangible and harder to avoid even with the facade he throws up before himself – one which no one but Connie seems to believe in the first place. Decker ends up the one who gets the second chance to live his life, although even as the novel closes it’s unclear whether he has the courage to match his ambition.

Come Back to Sorrento is currently out of print, again, but can be found in the Library of America’s five-novel volumee Dawn Powell: Novels 1930-1942, which also includes A Time to Be Born. David Mamet has the film rights and wrote a screenplay for the book, with the movie apparently to star Felicity Huffman as Connie and William H. Macy (natch) as Decker, but as far as I can tell it’s been in turnaround since about 2010.

Next up: Shirley Ann Grau’s The Keepers of the House, winner of the 1965 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which has been very engaging for the first 40% of the book.

The Way West.

My latest post for Insiders covers the Jordan Zimmermann and J.A. Happ signings.

A.B. Guthrie’s The Way West won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was the second in what would become a series of six novels covering the settlement of what is now the northwestern United States from Montana over to the Pacific, with this novel specifically detailing one wagon train heading out on the Oregon Trail. Although Guthrie’s work all seems to deal with that same topic, The Way West comes across much more as a “buddy movie” sort of book, covering the nascent friendship between the two most significant characters as they assume the leadership of the wagon train and deal with various hazards between Missouri and Oregon.


It’s a real page-turner.

Lije (I assume it’s short for Elijah) Evans is the most central of the various characters in the book, the man who eventually becomes the captain of the caravan by virtue of the respect the other men in the group have for his character and his calmness. Yet it’s Dick Summers, who appeared in the preceding book The Big Sky, who makes the journey possible; he’s an experienced hunter and traveler with nearly supernatural capabilities, able to speak with many different Native American tribes, to hunt all manner of game and fish, and even to forecast the weather, a man without whom the group would likely have faltered somewhere east of Wyoming. The mutual admiration society that develops between these two stoic men is the emotional heart of the book, the one constant through the vicissitudes of the group’s months-long trek across dangerous and hostile terrain.

Guthrie infuses The Way West with plenty of subplots, although they lack the intensity or narrative greed of the two connected strands of the bromance between Evans and Summers and the overarching plot of the trip itself. Evans’ teenaged son Brownie becomes infatuated with the one teenaged girl in the caravan, Mercy McBee, the sexually precocious daughter of two rather worthless parents, who herself has gotten into trouble with the married Curtis Mack. (Mercy and Mack’s wife Amanda both show signs of past sexual abuse or trauma, although it’s never mentioned explicitly in the text.) Guthrie gives the Native Americans a little more humanity and intelligence than I’d expect of a writer of his era, especially as they’re seen through Summers’ eyes; while they’re still a bit of the ‘noble savage’ and are frequently depicted as thieves, Guthrie couldn’t be clearer about his disdain for white settlers who viewed them as less than human or took their lives without cause.

It’s definitely a male-centric novel, as the female characters are mostly props, even Lije’s wife Rebecca, who has some strength to her character but gets relatively little screen time, which adds to the book’s dated feel – we’re already going back over 150 years here, and while it’s historically accurate to have the white guys making all of the decisions and doing the hunting and shooting and fighting, the women on such caravans still had to do a tremendous amount of work. Giving a couple of the women more prominent roles than getting pregnant and cooking dinner would have made the novel a much more enduring read.

I also found it a bit light on action – there are hard times, including conflicts with natives and difficult terrain crossings, but they happen quickly, as if Guthrie very clearly did not want to confuse the people-centric narrative with the tension of a shootout with the Sioux or of a wagon collapsing as the group attempts to ford a rough river. Such scenes give way to longer passages of dialogue or describing the as-yet unspoiled country between the western edge of white civilization and the Pacific coast, which I imagine was part of the Pulitzer committee’s logic in choosing The Way West to win the award. The resulting book, however, is one that’s well-written but dry, lacking so many of the dimensions that make more recent winners (like The Orphan Master’s Son) more colorful, gripping experiences.

Next up: I knocked off Dawn Powell’s Come Back to Sorrento over the weekend and have since begun yet another Pulitzer winner, Shirley Ann Grau’s The Keepers of the House.

The Killer Angels.

Michael Shaara only wrote four novels during his life, one of which, the baseball book For the Love of the Game, was published posthumously and turned into a critically panned movie, but his magnum opus was the Civil War novel The Killer Angels, for which he won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That book, which takes its title from one general’s father’s reaction to a line in Hamlet, served as the basis for the four-hour epic film Gettysburg, and Joss Whedon has said it inspired him to create the series Firefly.

The book retells the Battle of Gettysburg in substantial detail, using memoirs and letters from the generals involved where possible, narrating from the perspective of five of those generals and showing the discord on the Confederate side on how to attack the Union’s positions. General James Longstreet wrote an extensive memoir after the Civil War and we get much of his view on the South’s ill-fated decision to hold Gettysburg rather than retreating to more favorable ground; instead, Robert E. Lee, who is depicted here as in failing health and of a distracted, stubborn mind, chose to attack Union positions on two hills south of the town that provided the blue troops with a decided defensive advantage. (Longstreet was roundly criticized for decades afterwards for these failures and his request to delay the assault until an additional brigade arrived for support.) The main voice for the Union, Joshua Lawrence Chamberain (called Lawrence by his brother, Tom, throughout the book), led the defense of one of those hills, Little Round Top, and became one of the war’s primary heroes after the battle, commanding the Union troops at the surrender ceremony at Appamattox and later serving four years as Governor of Maine.

The Killer Angels is a war novel through and through, which means there’s very little else in it – including no female characters at all, but also little dialogue or even thoughts beyond the exigencies of the next battle. If you’re interested in military tactics, there’s likely quite a bit in here for you to enjoy and digest, especially with Longstreet’s recollections of the battle informing so much of the text. If you like character development or any plot threads at all beyond the war itself, this isn’t the book for you – or me, as it turned out, because despite strong prose and a quick pace through the action, The Killer Angels struck me as rather dry and, no pun intended, an antiseptic look at a pivotal moment in U.S. history. They came, they fought, some of them died, and those losses – nearly 8000 soldiers from both sides were killed, with around 50,000 total casualties – seem horribly pointless through the narrow lens of the book, which gives no broader context to the battle. (Not that the broader context makes the deaths any less lamentable.) The generals in Washington who were directing the overall war effort are only present on these pages as the idiots the leaders on the ground criticize for their dimwitted direction, while families are off-page distractions mentioned only in passing. There’s none of the substance I’d expect to see in a work of literature, because Shaara chose to make the novel all about the battle itself. That may suffice for many readers, and it does qualify the work for the Pulitzer criterion that the winner “preferably (deal) with American life,” but it’s not my personal preference for higher-end reading.

Next up: Another Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner, A.B. Guthrie’s The Way West, which won in 1950.

The Late George Apley.

I’m on a little run of past Pulitzer Prize for Fiction/the Novel winners right now, and just finished John Marquand’s extremely subtle satire The Late George Apley, which won the prize in 1938 when it was still only awarded to novels. The book is clearly a satire of the isolated, self-important life of the patrician class of the early 20th century, especially the so-called Boston Brahmins, but Marquand plays it so straight that I found myself vacillating through half the novel on just what parts he might have wanted readers to take seriously.

The book is a sort of fake biography/epistolary novel, where a longtime friend and former classmate of the title character has been asked by Apley’s family to write a private story of the man’s life, leaning heavily on his correspondence. The author (the fictional one, that is) traces Apley’s story back several generations, explaining the grand history of his family line within the United States, the first of many times when he tries to impress upon the reader the importance of the name. He gives us Apley’s birth and upbringing in a life of privilege and strict expectations, his attendance at the prestigious Groton School in Massachusetts (then all boys, now coed, which would have made for an amusing postscript to the book) and at some liberal arts college in Cambridge, and so forth, with every step already laid out for him by his imperious father and the constraints of polite society of the time. He falls in love with an Irish Catholic girl, is forced to end it when he’s shipped off for a Grand Tour, comes home, marries a woman of proper breeding, bangs out a couple of kids, and so on.

It’s a dull story in its own right, which is part of the point, and how dull becomes apparent in the latter half of the book when Apley’s son and daughter take advantage of the lax attitudes of the 1920s to live a little. Apley’s letters to and about his children seem increasingly ridiculous as the world changes around him – he’s still worried about the shrubbery around the family estate when the stock market is crashing – and only when he realizes he has a terminal heart condition does it dawn on him that life has passed him by. His final letters are reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day was, full of regret without hope. Unlike the butler of Ishiguro’s novel, however, Apley’s heartbreak is darkly comic: He admits, not quite explicitly, that he should have sowed his wild oats when he was younger, gotten wasted more, gotten laid more, and told his parents to stuff it and married the girl he loved (she makes a brief cameo again at the end of the book).

I can understand why this would have won the Pulitzer in 1938, when I presume the board considering the candidates was all white males and this sort of American aristocracy was more prevalent in the culture. It didn’t resonate so much with me today, however; even though I went to that liberal arts school, the population was quite diverse ethnically and by gender, and they’ve since done quite a bit to improve the diversity of economic backgrounds too, making Apley’s experiences there seem as anachronistic as the semi-arranged marriage and emphasis on decorum and appearances. It’s an entertaining read, but it feels very dated today.

Next up: Michael Shaara’s 1974 Pulitzer winner The Killer Angels ($6 in paperback!), a novel of the Battle of Gettysburg that was adapted into the four-hour movie Gettysburg in 199.
ppu

A Summons to Memphis.

My NL ROY ballot will go up tonight for Insiders, once the winner is announced; my last post over on that other site is on the Craig Kimbrel trade. My favorite comments so far have been tweets telling me I’m wrong, from people (at least three) who haven’t actually read the article. Yay Internet.

While working my way through the list of winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (until 1948 the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel), I’ve been somewhat surprised at how few winners have remained actively read books over the years. Some of the winners were duds, and only a handful made my own top 100 list, but the majority have at least been good books – above-average novels, at least, which should be enough to keep them around; perhaps it’s just the flood of new titles that pushes them off of the mainstream reader’s radar. Peter Taylor’s 1987 novel A Summons to Memphis is one of these – a good novel, amusing and serious, distinctly American in theme and outlook, enough that I’d recommend it but wouldn’t put it on my own rankings.

The narrator, Phillip Carver, gets the titular summons from his two spinster sisters because their widowed father, now 81, plans to marry again, to a somewhat younger woman, which of course raises questions of inheritance as well as of public perceptions. The sisters are comic entities in themselves – virginal in fact and in behavior, as if their emotional development stopped at age 15 while their bodies continued to swell to near-obesity in their fifties – while Phillip, more put together, has also never married, bearing the same scars as his sisters do from the traumatic move of their childhood. When their father was caught up in a scandal in Nashville, he had to move the family to Memphis and restart his career, uprooting them all, including their mother and another brother who later died in World War II, from the comfortable life they knew in the genteel city that sounds like Margaret Mitchell would have approved of it. Memphis is depicted as rougher, déclassé, foreign to the family, with each of the three children having to give up a potential marriage somewhere along the way due to their father’s disapproval or outright meddling. Although the novel opens with the summons, Phillip doesn’t make the actual trip to Memphis – the first of several, as it turns out – until about two-thirds of the way through the novel, after he’s told the reader of his childhood and the lost loves of the three siblings via a series of flashbacks.

There’s an element of King Lear in this book, although it’s not as explicit as the allusion made in a later Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the torpid A Thousand Acres. King Lear had three daughters, two of whom earn his favor through false flattery with an eye toward increasing their inheritance at their sisters’ expenses, but Lear descends into madness in his old age and the infighting between the siblings leads to … well, it’s a tragedy by Shakespeare, so you know they all die. A Summons to Memphis relies instead on emotional violence: the father wrecked the lives of his children, especially the sisters, so they have now come around to wreck what remains of his by blocking his attempt to marry again. Phillip, the one child who moved away from Tennessee and thus has escaped somewhat unscathed (a slight parallel to Cordelia, especially as both characters are reserved when discussing their emotions), ends up the one with some semblance of a thawing of his relationship with their father, even as the girls continue to plot their revenge to the bitter end.

The move a few hundred miles west, without even crossing state lines, seems to underscore the extent of the betrayal by the father’s business partner, who engineered the kind of financial scam that will never go out of style; while the elder Mr. Carver was cleared of any wrongdoing, it seems that he was unable to escape the shame in his own mind of his involvement, and, more importantly, of the fact that a man he considered his best friend was capable of such treason. This one event fractured their life as a family twice – once when he relocated the whole unit, including their servants, to Memphis; then again, when he exerts his authority over each family member to bend them to his will. So many individual moments and elements of the book are humorous, but the overall effect is one of deep emotional scarring.

I looked to see if any critics inferred the Lear comparison, and one of the greatest living American novelists, Marilynne Robinson, did just that in her 1986 review of the novel for the NY Times. Robinson, author of Housekeeping and the three related books that began with her own Pulitzer winner, Gilead, is a master of words and of characterization, so if she agrees with me on something, I view that as an enormous validation.

Next up: Another forgotten winner of the Pulizter, John P. Marquard’s 1938 satire The Late George Apley.

Mona Lisa Overdrive.

My buyers’ guide to the outfielder market is up for Insiders. Also, I’ll have my annual boardgame rankings post up later this week, but as a preview, my #1 game is still Carcassonne and it’s on sale now for $22.59 on amazon.

William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy began with the seminal 1984 novel Neuromancer, which was the first book to win the trifecta of sci-fi awards (the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Philip K. Dick); the book kickstarted the cyberpunk movement, foresaw all manner of cultural shifts that would come about due to the wiring of the world, and may have even helped shape some of the Internet’s early development. I read it in 2005, and it still stands out as a unique work of speculative fiction, one that is overwhelmingly intelligent without ever becoming inaccessible, with a bleak yet expansive vision of a future that isn’t quite dystopian but is certainly light on flowers and rainbows.

I read the sequel, Count Zero, around this time last year, and it didn’t move the needle much for me, as the tripartite storytelling technique felt disjointed, and it was never quite clear why I cared about any of what was going on. The conclusion of the trilogy, Mona Lisa Overdrive, ties the Count Zero plot together with threads from Neuromancer (bringing back Molly, one of that book’s two protagonists), in a highly ambitious storyline that was engrossing but never gets the coherent ending that Gibson probably had in mind.

The narrative of MLO starts from scratch, as we are dropped into four subplots that, as in the preceding book, will all come together by the conclusion, including a not-quite-dead hacker on a stretcher who is comatose and permanently jacked in to the “matrix” and the simstim (a sort of cyberspace reality TV show) star Angela Mitchell whom we met in Count Zero. Someone is after these two people, for reasons that even at the end of the book aren’t exactly clear, leading to a sort of creeping chase throughout the novel where, at first, the targets aren’t even aware anyone’s after them, and various other characters are “used” without their knowledge as part of the hunt.

Gibson’s brilliance in Neuromancer was in his foresight, seeing the potential gains and dangers of the then-nascent technology and concocting a fictional environment that built a culture around the tech – being connected, or interconnected, will change us all in substantial ways, from how we work to how we interact with each other. (It already has, in the First and Third Worlds, albeit in differing ways.) He became a cyberpunk prophet for the depth and incisiveness of his vision; he didn’t just talk about hacking, but about what hacking and hackers might be like. It’s not hard science fiction where we get lengthy explanations of how stuff works; Gibson takes that as a given, which can make his prose a bit confusing at times due to his neologisms and colloquial dialogue, but also has the effect of putting the reader more directly in the story while allowing him to focus on character and emotion.

However, Mona Lisa Overdrive‘s climax falls quite a bit short of his lofty goals. Gibson began to touch on the topic of digital immortality, of uploading one’s “personality” into the matrix to continue to function after the death of the body, but it becomes a mere plot device here, with no exploration of any of the myriad questions around the possibility. The reasons for the conspiracy to kidnap Angela Mitchell or the hunt for the comatose man are still ambiguous after the conclusion, while the actual denouement seems deliberately open-ended and rather unsatisfying. I read Gibson for his vision, but I think here he didn’t offer enough of it.

Next up: Peter Taylor’s 1987 Pulitzer-winning novel A Summons to Memphis.

A Fable.

My ranking of the top 50 free agents for this winter, with scouting/stat notes on each player, is now up for Insiders.

…thinking how war and drink are the two things man is never too poor to buy.

William Faulkner is, I think, a pretty divisive figure in American literature; his lengthy sentences and often obscure descriptive style can make you insane, but he tells vast, emotionally complex stories that capture huge swaths of American history (especially of the South) through the lens of just a handful of characters. The connected novels Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury are both on my top 100, as is The Reivers, one of two novels for which Faulkner won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (posthumously, in this case). The other, A Fable, is largely overlooked today even within Faulkner’s oeuvre, despite its grand scale and rich subtexts, which seem ripe for literary analysis, but it may suffer from Faulkner’s obtuse prose and adumbration of character descriptions and plot details. (And his vocabulary; “adumbration” appears at least twice in the text, and Faulkner engages in his own wordsmithing at times, such as “cachinnant,” a Latin word that means something like “laughing immoderately.”)

A Fable is a highly allegorical work that takes the Christ-like Corporal Stephan, referred to for most of the book merely as “the corporal,” and puts him in the trenches in World War I, where he leads a group of 12 other commissioned officers in a mutiny of peace. The novel opens just after the corporal and his disciples have convinced an entire regiment of three thousand French soldiers to refuse to fight, after which their German enemies similarly lay down their arms, causing a spontaneous outbreak of peace in the midst of a war. The book itself covers the various reactions to the corporal’s move, where the French army wants to execute him while also covering up the incident so that the war can continue. Woven into this is a second, loosely related story of an injured American racehorse whose rider and trainer rescue him from either death or work as a captive stud, traveling to small towns where the horse still wins various races even though he’s running on three legs, with the rider becomes a sentry in the war and the trainer adopts a new identity and travels to Europe to find his partner.

The corporal’s Christ allusions are blatant, perhaps too much so for modern analysis. He’s 33 at the time of the mutiny and eventual execution. He’s tempted by his father (“the general”) before the order for his execution, and the night prior to his death he has a last supper with his disciples, including the one who betrays him and the one named Piotr who denies knowing Stephan three times. His mother was Marya, and his fiancée was a prostitute from Marseilles. After his death, his corpse disappears (thanks to a German air-raid). Even his name alludes to Christianity – Saint Stephan, who is mentioned in the New Testamant, is considered the first martyr in the history of the Christian Church.

The novel is virulently anti-war, as you might expect with a Christ figure at its center, but there are elements of the picaresque in the book as well, such as the ragtag group of soldier’s at the book’s conclusion who need to find a corpse to bury in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris. I don’t know if Joseph Heller read A Fable, but there’s a similar vein of lack of respect for military authority and an awareness of the absurdity of war as a solution for most international problems and of the war machine’s desire to keep the combat going as a way to feed itself. Faulkner thought of this novel as his masterpiece, which leads me to believe that he viewed it as a strong pacifist statement that would incorporate satire and religious/moral arguments as a statement against war, with World War II ending around the time he began the novel and the Korean War occurring while he was still writing it.

I found the reading itself to be difficult, in part because his prose is too prolix, perhaps Proustian, but even more because he refuses to use his characters’ names, sometimes failing to name them at all. Keeping the corporal, the runner, the sentry, the general, and so on straight is hard enough without using their names, and it’s worse when there’s another general (Gragnon, who oversaw the mutinous regiment and realizes his career is over when they stop fighting) and a handful of corporals running around the book. There’s one point where Faulkner connects the horse’s groom (Mr. Harry) with the sentry, but I kept forgetting the two were the same character because he never uses the name with the term “the sentry,” who’s also a bit of a loan shark in his new regiment. A surfeit of descriptive prose can be acceptable if it’s actually descriptive, but much of the first third of A Fable felt shrouded in fog to me, including the opening section with the mutiny and the scene where a German general flies through a faked firefight to reach a negotiation to resume combat. So while the plot itself is elegant and simple, with much to ponder and analyze, it’s a book that probably requires a second or third reading to fully grasp the specific details of the story. That’s the best reason I can conceive why it’s so little read or discussed today, even as less ambitious works like As I Lay Dying continue to receive copious praise.

Unrelated: So a smart, professional person of my acquaintance saw I was reading this book the other day and mentioned how she heard Faulkner speak at Montgomery College about “five to seven years ago.” Faulkner died in 1962. I didn’t know what to do with that so I just smiled and nodded.

Next up: James Essinger’s Ada’s Algorithm, a biography of Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and the creator of the world’s first computer algorithm, about a century before we had the first true computer.

Starship Troopers.

My latest review for Paste covers the app version of Camel Up.

Robert A. Heinlein was both a prolific and critically-lauded writer of science fiction, with an emphasis on keeping the science somewhat grounded in the possible and using it as the platform to explore themes of liberty, individualism, and the role of government. Yet as far as I can remember, I’d only read one of his books, one of his young adult novels called Between Planets, and none of the four core Heinlein works that won Hugo Awards for Best Novel. (What I remember most strongly about that book was the absurd notion that humans could colonize Venus, but apparently at the time Heinlein wrote it scientists were unaware of that planet’s hellish atmosphere and climate.)

Starship Troopers won Heinlein the second of those four Hugos, four years after he won for Double Star and two years before his magnum opus, Stranger in a Strange Land, did the same. I was turned off from reading the book after seeing the trailer for the apparently very unfaithful 1997 film adaptation, but the book is nowhere near as dumb as the movie. (Casper Van Dien, who starred in that film version, was most recently spotted in a straight-to-DVD film called Avengers Grimm that holds a 13% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.) Heinlein’s book, written as a first-person memoir of the protagonists youth and first few years serving as a space marine, touches on many of the themes I mentioned above, while also apparently drawing controversy for its overtly militaristic setting … although I don’t agree with criticism of the work as somehow pro-war or even pro-fascism.

Johnny Rico is the space marine and narrator of Starship Troopers, having defied his wealthy father’s wishes and signed up for the service, only to find himself in a boot camp of unimaginable intensity, one designed to weed out most of the recruits. In this future society, Earth is ruled by a single government, and is engaged in war against sentient ant-like creatures just called “Bugs” from another solar system, and only retired veterans of the armed forces are allowed to vote. Rico’s personal philosophy is shaped by his experiences at boot camp and through “moral philosophy” professors he encounters (although he also takes a lot of math), but his presentation is hardly such that the reader should take his views as Heinlein’s. The one-world government arose after western societies collapsed due to rampant crime, much of it committed by undisciplined juveniles, and gave rise to this military-focused regime, one that seems built to feed the machine even when no conflict exists and thus to extend any conflict when one arises.

That bit of cynicism is more mine than Rico’s, but led me to believe that Heinlein was presenting a somewhat extreme scenario – a veiled dystopia – to show one potential outcome of contemporary social and economic trends. While Heinlein seems to come down on the side of harsher discipline of errant children, he also clearly presents the one-world government as one that sees war as the answer to many questions, and thus is somewhat unable to find non-conflict resolutions. If Heinlein is praising the military at all, it is for the way that such experiences can shape the character of an undisciplined young person or one who feels no sense of personal responsibility – although in Rico’s case, it wasn’t so much a lack of discipline or responsibility as a case of teenaged rebellion and a lack of motivation to work because of his father’s wealth. The world of Starship Troopers is hardly utopian; while individuals have a wide degree of personal liberty, the lack of the franchise is a significant debit, and the war-torn world where Buenos Aires and San Francisco are “smeared” by alien attacks is hardly one to appeal to any readers and make them want to sign up for the space marines.

If anything, Starship Troopers comes across as lighter fare than the discussion around its themes might indicate; Heinlein gives Rico a colloquial tone and matter-of-fact delivery that breezes through the philosophical lectures and lets the tension of the book’s few military encounters take over. There isn’t a single central narrative; the plot is the memoir itself, rather than a single military mission or even a story of the war with the Bugs. You could just as easily read the book without worrying about whether Heinlein was promoting fascism or capital punishment or revoking most citizens’ right to vote.

Next up: Still slogging through William Faulkner’s A Fable.

Inherent Vice.

I was oh for two with Thomas Pynchon books and figured that was enough to assume I just didn’t like his writing style, but two strong recommendations from friends for his 2009 novel Inherent Vice: A Novel, and seeing it available for $6 at a local B&N, were enough for me to give it a short. As much as I disliked Gravity’s Rainbow and just didn’t get The Crying of Lot 49, I loved Inherent Vice, which is a laugh-out-loud funny detective story and homage to/sendup of noir fiction, replete with the cultural allusions that mark all of Pynchon’s work, but in this case in a package that you can actually read, understand, and enjoy.

Doc Sportello is the detective, a private investigator in LA in the early 1970s, working out of the standard shabby office with the standard fetching secretary out front, but replacing the alcohol usage of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade with pot – and a lot of it, to the point where reality and hallucination start to blend for Doc and for the reader. The case walks in off the street, a woman who thinks her dead husband may not be dead after all, and as is par for the course in classic detective fiction, the superficial case opens the door to a broader conspiracy that involves crooked cops, organized crime, and a lot more pot. (That last part may not be standard for the genre.) Doc ends up knocked unconscious, accused of a crime he didn’t commit, in trouble with three or four different groups, and making a lot of wisecracks when his head is clear enough to permit it.

Nobody in Doc’s circle of friends and associates is remotely normal except perhaps his sort-of girlfriend Penny, who works in the local DA’s office and isn’t shy about using him as a chip to get something she wants from the feds. Doc’s attorney, Sauncho, is actually a marine lawyer whose comprehension of criminal law is about as clear as the marine layer, and who is obsessed with a ship of unclear provenance, the Golden Fang, that turns out to be significant in Doc’s case. His friend Denis – you pronounce it to rhyme with “penis” – is so THC- and other drug-addled that he provides some of the book’s funniest moments, one involving a waterbed, one involving a lost slice of pizza, and the other involving a television set. There’s a crazy former client, Doc’s ex-girlfriend (who is also tied up in the main case), the “masseuses,” the ridiculously-named feds (Flatweed and Borderline, or F&B like food and beverage?) …

…and the cop-antagonist, “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, who simultaneously bows to and blows up the stereotypical cop from all hard-boiled detective fiction, the thickheaded guy who gets in the way, hates the PI, always tries to arrest the PI for something, and ends up getting the collar thanks to the PI’s hard work. Bigfoot is big and thickheaded and doesn’t particularly care for Doc, but he’s far from the dumb or useless cop we typically get in the genre – he’s a character of some complexity, more so than any other character but Doc.

While the crimes at the center of the book are involved and take some time for Doc to sort out, to the extent that he does actually sort much of it out, Pynchon chose not to employ the labyrinthine prose and highly allusive style that made Gravity’s Rainbow, for me, an unreadable mess. You may not entirely follow Doc’s thinking or his actions, but that’s only when he can’t, because he’s stoned. That much mind-alteration can make users paranoid, and Doc is paranoid … but they’re really after him, too, and his paranoia tends to serve him pretty well. Pynchon does nothing to clearly distinguish the hallucinatory sequences from reality, but it’s also not that hard to tell when the haze has set in, and Doc gets some time on the page to sort these out himself in case you’re still confused.

Inherent Vice speaks to me because I love the genre that Pynchon is both satirizing and honoring; Doc is hard-boiled to an extent, except that he’s walking around in huarache sandals and, for reasons I can’t begin to explain, gives his hair a sort of perm at the start of the book that takes much of any hard edge off the character. But more than anything else, Pynchon has finally taken the humor that his adherents have long found in his books and put it in a format that the rest of us can appreciate. The book is flat-out funny in multiple ways – situational humor, clever banter, the absurdity of most of what Denis does, and even comedy around sex that comes off as, if not exactly highbrow, less lowbrow than most attempts at sexual humor too. Stoner humor doesn’t always hit the mark because much of it just makes the stoner out to be stupid, but stupid alone isn’t funny. It has to be a certain kind of stupid – in the stoner’s case an absurd twist on it, much in the way that Andy on Parks & Recreation was funny because his lack of intelligence manifested itself in these wildly illogical paths in his mind. Marijuana use isn’t funny, kids; it’s hilarious.

Making the book so readable means that the things Pynchon has always done well, like cultural references, are suddenly accessible to the rest of us. Pynchon loves to make up names – silly character names (Japonica Fenway, Puck Beaverton, Trillium Fortnight, the loan shark Adrian Prussia who happens to have the initials that stand for Accounts Payable), but also band names (Spotted Dick), radio stations, songs, movies (Godzilligan’s Island), and so on, and they get sillier as the novel goes on. Many names refer to plants (trillium, flatweed, japonica, charlock, smilax), although if there’s a broader significance to that than that marijuana is also a plant, I missed it. Doc is obsessed with the actor John Garfield, who played hard-boiled characters and refused to name names when called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which also comes up when Dalton Trumbo’s name is broached; the whole post-McCarthy era looms large as then-President Nixon was trying again to crack down on “subversive” elements, which is a small part of the novel’s main plot line. We even get Doc’s parents, which you never get in a detective novel, worrying about their son’s career and bachelorhood and providing one last bit of comic relief before the novel closes.

I’ve since seen some contemporary reviews of the book that were disappointed that it wasn’t vintage Pynchon, and one that cited a lack of suspense (that reviewer had to be unfamiliar with the tropes of hard-boiled detective fiction), but I haven’t read a novel in some time that hit on this many cylinders for me. It’s phenomenally funny, very smart, and yet at its core is a very well-crafted detective story. Maybe I will have to try some more Pynchon after all.

Next up: Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.