The Killer Inside Me.

I’m off to Arizona for some Fall League scouting this week, so barring a rainout there won’t be a chat or podcast, and dish posting may be sporadic.

I’m a huge fan of noir films and novels, starting with the hard-boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler but, having finished both of their canons, moving on to darker crime novels like those of Jim Thompson, whose The Killer Inside Me is the third and most unsettling of his novels I’ve read so far. The basis for a 2010 movie starring Casey Affleck and Jessica Alba, the novel delivers exactly what the title promises: It’s a first-person account of a sociopathic deputy sheriff whose solution to almost every problem is to kill whoever’s causing it.

Lou Ford is the narrator and killer in question, a cliche-spouting officer of the law who has a troubled background that has limited him to low-level police work, even though he has the intelligence of his father, a successful doctor who may have recognized that his son was mentally unstable. Ford’s narration is of dubious reliability, and he only gives us glimpses of his history of violence, but is more transparent when describing his predicament when an attempt to exact revenge on the town’s wealthy industralist backfires on him (in part through his own duplicity). Every solution he conceives involves violence, usually committed by him but pinned on someone else. After a few deaths too many, however, the facade he’s constructed starts to crumble as he realizes his bumpkin act isn’t fooling the powers that be any longer.

Thompson utilizes violence as a literary tool, as a window into “the sickness” inside of Ford and as a physical manifestation of the character’s inability to properly process negative emotions such as frustration or insecurity, largely avoiding lurid descriptions of Ford’s actions. Thompson largely avoids the question of a first cause, other than a hint that Lou may have been abused when he was a teenager, and focuses instead on the character’s almost robotic responses to difficult situations. He’s the pre-Anton Chigurh, but with a complexity that McCarthy’s arch-villain lacked, showing glimpses of emotions directed at others (through the lens of his own well-being, of course) and a wry sense of humor in between the spasms of violence.

The Killer Inside Me functions as a perverse character study, but its main appeal is its suspense – will Ford continue to kill with impunity, or will the various authorities stop him – and if they do, what kind of fight will he put up before he’s caught or killed? Ford even confesses to another murder he believes he has to commit – whether for practical reasons or due to “the sickness” is unclear – well before it takes place, then takes his time getting around to it, as if he’s enjoying toying with the reader’s emotions, or merely enjoying reliving the murder in his own mind.

The hazard of any novel that uses first-person narration where the narrator is the central character (and probably an unreliable narrator too) is that other characters become two-dimensional because we only see what the narrator sees, or what he wants to tell us. Thompson conveys the sense of a net closing in on Ford in part through the sheer number of characters whom Ford suspects have figured out his ruses, yet none of them has any depth because of the limitations of Ford’s own perception of others and their emotions. Ford is textured and at times opaque, but Thompson gives us a character who doesn’t describe other characters well because he can’t understand their emotions other than fear.

I didn’t enjoy The Killer Inside Me as much as the similar pop. 1280, which is more nuanced in its portrait of a ruthless killer, or The Grifters, which revolves around confidence men double-crossing each other in a study in sociopathy. Thompson’s ability to portray these half-people, consumed only with themselves and unable to feel anything for others, is disturbing in its realism, but that darkness is an essential ingredient in noir and, I admit, part of what I find so compelling in his novels.

Next up: I’m about a third of the way through George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and knocked off Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native last week.

The Orphan Master’s Son.

When the Dear Leader wanted you to lose more, he gave you more to lose.

I’ve read about half of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, including the last thirteen, and overall, my impression is that they pick some pretty dreary books. Many titles won for what I thought were fairly obvious reasons of political correctness, and others have won for reasons that escape me entirely. A few seem like lifetime achievement awards, like Faulkner winning for two of his lesser novels or Cheever getting an omnibus award for his short stories. Last year, they punted entirely, failing to name a winner for the first time since 1977, sparking some outrage from independent booksellers who see a spike in sales of the winner in years when the board deigns to name one.

The most recent winner, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, breaks that recent trend in many ways, all of them good. Unlike most winners, the novel isn’t set in the United States, and has nothing to do with the American experience. It’s set almost entirely in North Korea, yet explores themes, especially the natures of freedom and identity, that go well beyond the confines of the world’s most repressive regime. It’s rendered with deep empathy for nearly all of its characters, encapsulating a surprising amount of humor (some of it dark, of course) in a wide-ranging tragedy that harkens back to Shakespeare. Johnson even crafts government agents who are better than caricatures, and makes the horrendous conditions of life in North Korea real on the page without pandering. It’s a compulsive read in spite of, or perhaps in part due to, the difficulty of the subject matter.

The main character, introduced to us as Pak Jun Do, the son of the book’s title, begins life in a North Korean orphanage run by his father, after which he progresses through a series of jobs that bring him into increasing conflict with the regime that controls every aspect of North Korean life. His final role involves the assumption of the identity of a national hero, bringing him into the orbit of the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong Il, leading to the ultimate conflict that drives the final half of the novel, where Pak Jun Do, now called Commander Ga, tries to save his new wife, whom the Dear Leader wants for himself.

Johnson spins an elaborate plot that remains quite easy to follow, even with his technique of telling the Commander Ga story through three different perspectives – a third-person view, the first-person narrative of one of Ga’s state interrogators, and brief dispatches from the state’s own mouthpiece. The first third, covering Pak Jun Do’s life from the orphanage to his time as a spy on a fishing vessel to a trip to Texas with a low-level diplomat, is all prologue to the story of the actress, Sun Moon. Yet even she is only a part of the larger story of Pak Jun Do’s own disillusionment and attempt to find what freedom he can in a totalitarian state, and to fashion an identity for himself after the state wiped out the first one and gave him another.

The development of Pak Jun Do, whose name sounds similar to the English “John Doe,” allows Johnson to explore those these of freedom and identity while folding in stories like that of the true-believer state interrogator who questions not just his allegiances, but the entire structure of his life to date – but does so subtly, almost as an objective outside observer of his own life, while he continues his job of chronicling prisoners’ lives before wiping out their memories with electroshock therapy. Johnson humanizes the inhuman, and gives texture to flat images that seem too awful to contemplate, weaving it all into the narrative as background, so that the characters’ stories can occur in front of a realistic setting that might otherwise have overwhelmed them.

Johnson did visit North Korea, but like the few Westerners allowed to enter that backwards nation, he wasn’t permitted to speak to any average citizens, which meant that he had to imagine their quotidian lives and their typical dialogue without the benefit of first-person research. I found his incorporation of the omnipresent state into nearly every conversation realistic, or at least reasonable, for a situation where a single errant sentence could get you sent to a prison camp (which, by the way, the North Koreans still deny they use) or worse. The refraction of normal conversation through the prism of the police state twists not only words, but the mores of everyday life:

“What happened?” Buc asked him.
“I told her the truth about something,” Ga answered.
“You’ve got to stop doing that,” Buc said. “It’s bad for people’s health.”

Even though Pak/Ga does some awful things during the course of the book, including participating in kidnappings of Japanese citizens (something the North Koreans have admitted doing), he earns the reader’s sympathy through the strange development of his character. The use of a “John Doe” soundalike name can’t be a coincidence; he is a blank canvas, growing up with memories but no independent identity, and shapeshifts into different roles, developing his moral compass and his emotions later in life, so that the person he is at the end of the novel bears no resemblance to the person he was at the start. It’s only a minor spoiler to say that the conclusion finds him at his most free, and with the clearest identity he’s had in the entire story. How he gets there, and how Johnson takes us along, is one of the strongest experiences I’ve had as a reader in years.

Next up: I’ve just finished Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami and am about to start Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career.

Last Man in Tower and The Member of the Wedding.

Aravind Adiga’s first novel, The White Tiger, won the Man Booker Prize and was a late cut from my last book ranking, earning a very positive review from me when I read it during spring training in 2010. His second true novel, Last Man in Tower, replaces some of the bitterness and irony with a more open-ended approach to characterization, without losing the scathing social criticism of the new India that made The White Tiger so powerful.

The man of Last Man in Tower‘s title is the retired teacher known affectionately as “Masterji,” who lives in a dilapidated coop apartment building in the Santa Cruz neighborhood of Mumbai, near the city’s massive international airport. Redevelopment is advancing quickly into this district, and when their coop society receives enormous offers to sell out so a developer can tear the buildings down and put up luxury condos, one by one all of the society’s residents accept, until Masterji is the only holdout, insisting that he wants “nothing.” His refusal to sign is not about price or money, but, in his view, about principle, holding back the wave of corruption and gentrification that is destroying the old India and widening the gap between the country’s wealthy and poor.

Adiga strikes a better balance here between satire and storytelling than he did in White Tiger, but in the process lost much of the dark humor that made the first book so memorable. Masterji deserves a more thoughtful treatment than Balram Halwai, and he gets it, with explanations of how the deaths of his wife and daughter and his distant relationship with his son affect his view on the developer’s offer and the threat of massive change spawned by a forced move to another community. Masterji’s apparent obstinacy – his refusal to sign the offer means no one in the building can sell – has its justifications, and while in the end I found myself siding with his neighbors on the matter of the offer, Adiga creates enough ambiguity to prevent the reader from coming down wholly on either side of the matter.

Adiga’s other key decision was to try to personalize the developer as an independent character, rather than leaving him as an unseen, amoral force in the shadows; while he wasn’t entirely successful, it did help to round the book out more fully. Shah is not sympathetic, but he is also real, and is shown as motivated not just by greed, but by ambition, shame, and an unsatiable desire to overcome his humble beginnings. Yet any sympathy his history might engender is rather quickly wiped out by the horrible treatment he dishes out to his assistant and to his mistress, details that I assume indicate that Adiga’s distaste for hypercapitalism on to the page twon out over his desire to craft a fully developed antagonistic force to pull on the reader’s emotions.

Last Man in Tower‘s other characters are all very well-developed, giving Masterji a few friends and many foils just within the coop society, several of whom get their own backstories, often just enough to make you want more; for me, Mary, the building’s maid, who herself lives in a nearby shantytown with her son and whose livelihood is threatened by the potential redevelopment, deserved further screen time. I could see Adiga building up to a longer, even more complex novel from here, one with multiple interwoven storylines involving a multitude of well-developed characters, perhaps rewriting the wrongs done to India by E.M. Forster and Rudyard Kipling. I enjoyed White Tiger more, in part because I enjoy funny, incisive satire like that, but Last Man in Tower is just as strong a novel, less witty yet more ambitious, indicating Adiga’s maturation as a novelist.

I picked up Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe – I’m going to miss that store quite a bit – because it was on sale and because McCullers’ best-known novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is among my favorite novels ever written (#15 on my last ranking, in fact). McCullers’ signature work includes a cast of flawed, mostly sympathetic characters, inhabiting the same world despite narrow and wide gulfs between them, a sphere filled with grief, alienation, and sadness. Member of the Wedding doesn’t reach the same emotional depths, but does turn the conventions of the coming-of-age novel upside down with its story of a motherless girl who fills her life with fantasies to replace what she’s lost.

Frances “Frankie” Addams is a 12-year-old girl living with her mostly absent father, with help from a live-in African-American woman named Berenice, and the frequent presence of Frankie’s young cousin John Henry. Frankie’s brother Jarvis returns from a stint in the Army in Alaska with a fiancee and an announcement that they’ll be getting married in a few days in the nearby town of Winter Hill. Frankie decides that she’s going to run away with her brother and sister-in-law after the wedding, building up a vague, exotic fantasy about a life other than the one she has now.

The central conflict in the book lies between that fantasy, of escape or just change from a destiny that seems predetermined, and the reality of life in their small, slightly backwards town, where blacks and whites intermingle but exist on separate planes, and the army is one of the only ways to leave the track into which you’re born. (Death comes up on the story’s margins as one of the other ways, and probably the most commonly utilized.) Frankie’s narrative touches on themes of oppression, racism, and gender identity, but the one that kept coming back to me was that she’s a girl who needed her mother, and is trying to fill that void, as well as the one left by a father who’s barely present in her life, with anything she can find, real or imagined. That also leads to a disturbing interlude with a soldier on leave in the town, perpetually drunk or in search of it, who seems to mistake Frankie’s age by a hard-to-imagine distance.

The overriding sadness that permates The Member of the Wedding isn’t well balanced the way that a similar vapor in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is, where McCullers pairs the gloom with a deeper understanding of its origins and dimensions. Here, Frankie is a little more pathetic than sympathetic, especially when her vision of escape with her brother doesn’t quite come off as planned, leaving me with the sense of having read something superficial, not the immersive emotional experience imparted by McCullers’ masterpiece.

Next up: Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Keeper of Lost Causes, a Danish detective novel and first in the “Department Q” series.

pop. 1280

My draft reviews are all up now – full recaps for every NL team and every AL team, plus my chat from early on day two, my day one recap, and Friday’s Behind the Dish podcast where I talked a bit about day one.

When I reviewed Jim Thompson’s The Grifters a few weeks ago, a reader said I should read his Pop. 1280 next, as it was his best work. It’s much tighter, definitely funnier and yet in ways far more fitting of the “noir” label, setting up the reader again and again for twists that turn a situation that seemed almost silly into a vision of paranoia and sociopathy.

Nick Corey is the narrator and protagonist of pop. 1280, the apparently hapless sheriff of the sparsely populated county of Pottsville in an unnamed state (probably Texas). Corey finds himself disrespected by the local criminals, including the two pimps at the town’s whorehouse, and verbally abused by the haughty sheriff of the more populous neighboring county. His manipulative, domineering wife Myra rules the roost at home, where they live with her simple-minded peeping-Tom brother. Nick presents himself as the amiable dunce, but the reader learns quickly that he is anything but friendly or a fool, and is either coldly rational and without empathy or is delusional and psychotic.

Thompson’s portrayal of the character is skilled and precise, crafting boundaries and expectations for the reader and then knocking them down as the character develops before the reader’s eyes. I don’t know if Nick is actually a sociopath – he might have a personality disorder, like narcissistic p.d., although that’s a better question for a psychiatrist who likes to diagnose fictional characters with mental illnesses – but he commands your attention. I found myself hanging on his words; I was eager to read what happened next, because he was unpredictable and his schemes were clever, but also because I wanted to hear what he said next because his words were less predictable than his actions. One by one, Nick identifies his problems and “solves” them, without significant regard for the consequences because he seems to believe that the rightness of his actions will protect him from any negative results.

One question the book didn’t and likely couldn’t answer was whether Nick’s standing in the town was a function of the public’s fear of him – did they recognize how dangerous he was, and leave him in office out of fear? I couldn’t view Nick as a reliable narrator, but at the same time we receive no other information beyond what he tells us, leaving us with no choice but to accept his version of events. Myra manipulates Nick, and cheats on him, and yet there are times when her demeanor towards him changes from condescension to fear, as if she’s witnessed a change in his personality from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. He’s one of the most interesting antiheroes I’ve come across in any genre.

Next up: Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir Yes, Chef.

Infinite Jest.

Today’s Klawchat was heavy on draft questions. I also have a new draft blog post up on UNC third baseman Colin Moran, and a post up on Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, and other Durham and Charlotte prospects.

It took just over two weeks, but I finished David Foster Wallace’s sprawling magnum opus Infinite Jest, all 1079 pages of its madness and hysteria. It’s a work of tremendous intelligence, a novel that wants to challenge you to follow its undulations and hairpin turns, and yet a work of great empathy as well with its well-considered meditations on subjects like mental illness or addiction recovery. I doubt I can do this book justice in a blog post, given its depth and breadth, and the sheer number of things I liked or disliked about it.

The plot itself is intricate, looped and non-linear, at times deliberately involuted and interrupted by footnotes that have, unfortunately, become one of the book’s hallmarks. The main plot threads involve Hal Incandenza, a tennis prodigy and heavy marijuana user who has lost the ability to feel emotions; Don Gately, a recovering drug addict and thief who is now one of the staffers at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (yes, that’s the name); and a mysterious film made by Hal’s father that causes viewers to enter a catatonic state where they lose interest in anything else other than watching the film again. The film loosely ties the first two storylines together, although Wallace avoids any kind of full integration or catharsis, and I’ve read a very compelling argument by the late Aaron Swartz that the book’s actual end is in the beginning. (Smashing Pumpkins would approve.)

The plot strands themselves may not be the point, or at least not the ultimate point, of Infinite Jest, but as springboards for Wallace to provide us with lengthy ruminations on subjects as wide-ranging as depression, addiction, popular culture, environmentalism, and, of course, tennis. Hal lives and studies at the Enfield Tennis Academy founded by his father and his mother, highly dysfunctional individuals who had, until Hal’s father’s suicide, a highly dysfunctional marriage. Hal’s older brother, Orin, wasn’t so hot at tennis but found a calling as an NFL punter, and appears in several passages in which he starts to think he’s being followed by wheelchair-bound fans, unaware that they are in fact a group of wheelchair-bound Quebecois separatists who are trying to find a master copy of Incandenza père‘s film. The tennis academy and the halfway house both contain assemblies of colorful side characters, fleshed out in impressive detail over the course of the book (so while the book is too damn long, at least most of the real estate is properly utilized), and are eventually connected by the woman who hosts a radio program at MIT while using the pseudonym “Madame Psychosis,” who also appeared in the mysterious film that the Quebecois separatists are after.

Why are Quebecois separatists so central to the book? Infinite Jest is set in the not-too-distant but clearly dystopian future, where the northern part of New England has become the continent’s garbage dump, about which the Quebecois are none too pleased. That and the seeimingly draconian terms under which Canada entered the new Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N., alluding to this guy) have spurred a number of separatist movements, including the ruthless, violent terrorists on wheels who are after James Incandenza’s film. It’s a bizarre sideplot in a strange book, although the presence of some shadowy force bent on mass destruction is necessary for the central gambit of the Entertainment, the nickname for the film the separatists are hunting.

Speaking of mass destruction, one of the book’s best scenes, filmed by friend of the dish Michael Schur in his video for The Decemberists’ “Calamity Song,” is the game of Eschaton played by the main characters at the tennis academy. Named for a formal term for the religious concept of the “end times,” the game simulates a worldwide military conflict where players represent various nuclear states and stage attacks by hitting tennis balls (lobs, to be specific) at opponents’ targets. The game played in the book devolves into a mess of recriminations and missiles fired at other players, with comically violent results.

The various digressions on more serious subjects, like mental illness and addiction, veer from what we traditionally want or expect in a novel, at least an American novel – it harkens more to the traditions of 19th-century Russian literature than anything more recent. His description of depression, starting on page 695, is absolutely remarkable, describing it as “a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it … a nausea of the cells and soul … lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed.” Much of what Wallace writes about addiction, both in discussion of the addict characters’ experiences and the mind-numbing effects of the mysterious film, foreshadowed more recent advances in our understanding of the neurology of addiction, and why addiction may be best treated as a physical disease rather than a mental or intellectual failure.

Wallace apparently had a prodigious vocabulary – I wrote down about 50 words that I didn’t know but that were common enough to appear in my Kindle’s dictionary (or that weren’t Wallace neologisms) – and also seemed to love wordplay and literary allusions. The book’s title comes from a line in Hamlet, during the title character’s eulogy for Yorick, and Hal is the novel’s Hamlet, the son of a father who took his own life and a faithless mother whose love for her son lacks any actual emotion. This might be a stretch, but I thought Hal’s name might also refer to the antipsychotic drug Haldol, used to treat schizophrenia, given Wallace’s deep knowledge of pharmaceuticals. The pun involved in O.N.A.N.’s name is obvious, as are James Orin Incandenza’s ironic initials (he was a depressive and alcoholic who took his own life). Madame Psychosis is a play on the Greek word “metempsychosis,” meaning transmigration of the soul, while her real name, Joelle van Dyne, sounds like a play on the word “anodyne,” meaning a painkiller or analgesic. Wallace shows an odd obsession with the curvature of characters’ spines, even naming a character Otis Lord (a play on “lordosis,” the inward curvature of the spine at the lower part of your back). He names a town in Arizona “Erythema,” which is actually a skin condition involving red patches on the skin. Many characters, especially the teenagers in the tennis academy, engage in wordplay in their dialogue*, and Wallace makes up his own words and phrases as he goes along, like “novocaine of the soul,” which I assume inspired the Eels song by that name. It doesn’t necessarily make the novel better, but as someone who just loves language and seeing others stretch it and bend it in unusual ways, I found this one of my favorite aspects of the book.

*My favorite is the prank call Hal receives, where another character says, “Mr. Incredenza, this is the Enfield Raw Sewage Commission, and quite frankly we’ve had enough shit out of you.”

Then there was my least favorite aspect, the footnotes, a clear exercise in intellectual masturbation that not only interrupts the novel’s minimal narrative linearity but serves far too often as a way for Wallace to show off. Footnotes can be used well for the sake of humor, as in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or the early Thursday Next novels (where literary characters communicated via footnoterphone), but here they are just Wallace wanking. You can’t get twenty pages into this book without realizing how brilliant Wallace must have been, so why would he try so hard to impress us with these abstruse or esoteric notes? Or, why didn’t anyone discourage him from doing so? Nearly 400 of these notes, some of them lasting several pages and often bearing notes of their own, occupied 12% of the pages in the electronic version I read. That’s an abuse of authorial privilege. The one footnote that was legitimately funny – J.O.I.’s filmography – went on far too long.

I also found Wallace’s vision of the future a distraction from the rest of the book. To raise revenues, the government of O.N.A.N. has sold off naming rights to the years, so we get the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and the Year of Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems for Home, Office, Or Mobile (sic). Aside from the fact that I got a giggle from saying “Yushityu” in my head, this isn’t terribly funny the first time around, and gives little or nothing to the reader in the way of a forecast for or description of this future era. The characters’ quotidian lives are largely unchanged from today – Wallace’s vision of downloadable video content isn’t far off from how we view content via Netflix or iTunes right now – and much of this dystopian stuff is about as relevant to the plot as wallpaper. Again, Wallace shows off his creativity, but someone should have helped him edit this down to size.

Most of the book takes place in Boston, in the fictional town of Enfield that sounds a lot like Brighton, which means that current and former Boston residents get a few bonuses in the book. My favorite was the description of Bread & Circus, a high-end grocery chain bought some time ago by Whole Foods:

Bread & Circus is a socially hyperresponsible overpriced grocery full of the Cambridge Green Party granola-crunchers, and everything’s like microbiotic and fertilized only with organic genuine llama-shit, etc.

Other than Enfield itself, Wallace used real place names, street names, even a church in Brighton (St. Columbkill’s) that I used to pass every time I went to see a game at Boston College. It’s nice to know that even in his alternate-history version of Boston’s future, Storow Drive is still a nightmare.

Where Infinite Jest succeeded over Gravity’s Rainbow and The Recognitions, two fairly obvious influences, is in readability. As long as the book is, as long as Wallace’s paragraphs and sentences can be, there was never a point where I got bogged down in the prose or story, and never a point where I felt like I had to force myself to continue reading. The writing is bright if not crisp, the imagery is strong, there is a lot of humor within the book’s thousand pages, and the characters are so well-developed that even a tangential story will pull you along. I can’t think of another book that has so many characters crafted with this kind of care and given this kind of screen time to tell their backstories or to play a significant role in the novel’s plot. I was never as invested in either of those other two novels, which were similarly long, intelligent, and wilfully abstruse, as I was in Infinite Jest.

This also concludes my journey through the All-TIME 100 Novels list.

Next up: William Alexander’s bread-baking memoir: 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust.

The Imperfectionists.

I’m still slogging my way through David Foster Wallace’s leviathanic novel Infinite Jest, but before I cracked this one open (figuratively, as I acceded to the ease of tackling this three-pound tome on an e-reader), I read Tom Richman’s marvelous 2011 debut novel, The Imperfectionists. Reminiscent in form of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011, Rachman’s book is exponentially better in every aspect, from execution to prose to characterization, and should have won the prize over Egan’s book in a rout.

The Imperfectionists revolves around the staff of an English-language newspaper published in Rome, a paper that is dying the slow death of print as the Internet erodes its business model underneath its presses. (This paper hasn’t even established a Web presence, so backwards are its operations.) The staff of Americans comprises the motley crew you’d expect to find in such an ensemble novel, as in Then We Came to the End, with Rachman giving each character his or her own short story within the novel, while connecting everyone across the stories, jumping around slightly in time or place, so that the result is a richly textured work that provides insight into everyone – and into people in general – by looking at each character through several lenses and at varying distances.

Rachman’s style won me over through its incisive internal monologues, often the most cliched writing in any book. His dialogue is spectacular as well, but when he moves the voice into a character’s head, he might make you uncomfortable with how accurate and honest the writing feels, rarely if ever lapsing into the kind of overwrought nonsense that might make you want to pull a Pat Solitano and put a book through a window. His characters are mostly compelling, all sympathetic to enough of an extent that you want to hear what happens, yet all flawed in believable ways, especially around fidelity, which is the book’s dominant (but not sole) theme. Rachman adds interstitial passages on the history of the newspaper, from its founding to its demise, and crafts a subtle parallel between that rise and fall and the cycles of human relationships.

The strongest of those parallels develops around the subject of betrayal, as Rachman depicts relationships that unravel due to affairs, that survive in spite of them, or that struggle to stay true. The sense of loyalty that held the newspaper together while its wealthy founder/patron and, later, his son, keep the publication afloat morphs into a sense of betrayal as ownership declines to further subsidize the mounting losses, leading to staff cutbacks and eventually the paper’s closure. He crafts other stories around the death of a staffer’s child (for me, by far the hardest to read) or the inner emotional turmoil of the least-liked member of the staff, the subject of derisive comments in previous stories who becomes simultaneously an object of sympathy and pity as you understand why she is who she is.

The one thing The Imperfectionists lacks is a real conclusion, at least in the traditional sense of the structure of the novel: Each story is self-contained, with some kind of climax and resolution, but the novel as a whole does not have a single, linear plot, with just a brief epilogue attached to provide some kind of closure for readers invested in specific characters. I thought the novel would have stood alone without that appendage, as Rachman’s skill in crafting characters made further revelations unnecessary – I completed each story feeling as if I had learned what there was to learn about the character at its heart. It’s a remarkable book that deserves your attention.

Next up … well, let’s just say that the book I’m reading how is giving me the howling fantods.

The Grifters.

I’ve got a draft blog post up on Braden Shipley and Aaron Judge, as well as a post with predictions for the 2013 season.

Jim Thompson’s 1963 novel The Grifters is my first encounter with his work, a neo-noir novel that draws from the prose style of hard-boiled detective novels but brings it outside of the detective genre, instead focusing on the cons themselves with barely a shamus in sight. The three main characters are all tied together in simple ways, but Thompson develops them each so deeply that the result is like a modern, dark Greek tragedy, written by someone who read too much Raymond Chandler. (Note: One cannot read too much Chandler.)

Adapted into the 1990 film of the same name by Donald Westlake, The Grifters centers on Roy Dillon, a mid-20s artist of the “small con,” little tricks designed to yield up to $100 that won’t attract too much notice from the police. His indifferent, manipulative mother Lilly is herself involved with the mob, as she has been for years, now helping them rig the betting against longshots at the track. Roy avoids most lasting relationships, as part of the life of the grifter but also a consequence of a childhood with a sociopathic mother, yet ends up involved with Moira Langtry, who is also on the make but whose motives aren’t immediately clear. When one of Roy’s small cons leaves him nearly dead and in need of convalescence, his mother makes her move to reestablish herself in her son’s life – for her own purposes, of course.

Roy is the far more developed character in the book, working from an independent sense of morality, wary of his mother yet unable to fully sever ties with her, but Lilly is far more fascinating – the mother who’d eat her young and who only views others as tools for her own advancement. (It cracks me up that the actress who played Lilly in the film, Anjelica Houston, is now the voice of the overly sweet Queen Clarion in the new Tinker Bell movies.) We get Lilly and Roy’s backstory through flashback chapters intertwined with the present time, which tracks Roy’s injury and recovery, and which allows Lilly to introduce Roy to the seemingly innocent nurse Carol, an immigrant who is reluctant to discuss anything of her past.

Thompson had to have been at least somewhat thinking in terms of Greek tragedies, especially Oedipus, when writing The Grifters, as the elements are too obvious for this to have been inadvertent. The incestuous undertone to Lilly and Roy’s relationship becomes clearer the more we watch the two interact, especially since sex is Lilly’s primary way of manipulating men, either to get what she wants or to get out of trouble. The three elements Aristotle identified as critical to the tragic plot – reversals of fortune, recognition, and suffering by one or more protagonists – are all present, especially in the two-part conclusion, the second half of which even surprised me. Greek tragedies often come across today as pedantic and dull, but Thompson uses both the plot and taut syntax to keep the tension high from the hit Roy takes the stomach in the first chapter to that final confrontation that lays everyone’s motives bare.

The style and subject matter reminded me of Chandler and Hammett, as well as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which I read in February, but the strongest resemblance was to James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss. Crumley’s novel is more violent and has less of the classical elements of The Grifters, but I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that Thompson had influenced Crumley’s work, especially since Crumley was in college and graduate school when two of Thompson’s most significant works, this novel and Pop. 1280 were first published.

Next up: B.S. Johnson’s manic metafictional absurdist novel Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry.

Loving Frank.

Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank falls in one of my least favorite categories of fiction – historical fiction written about real, well-known personalities, where the author is putting words in the mouths of people who likely never said or did anything of the kind. Frank of the title here is Frank Lloyd Wright, and the novel tells the story of his affair with Mamah Borthwick, a married woman who was friends with Wright’s first wife and eventually ran off with Wright, living with him until her murder at the hands of one of the family’s servants. Little is known of their affair’s details beyond scurrilous reports in contemporary newspapers, which pounced on the controversy, stalling Wright’s career in the States for years; Borthwick left few letters behind, leaving little direct evidence of her character and personality. The result is that Horan has fabricated two impossibly good characters in Borthwick and Wright, building a romance between them that feels antiseptic for its simplicity while glossing over the very real matter of both parties abandoning their young children for several years while they pursued their relationship and careers in Europe.

Borthwick and her husband, Edwin, hired Wright to build them a house, and during the process she and Wright developed a relationship around their shared interests; in Horan’s retelling, both were married unhappily to spouses who could not satisfy them intellectually, so the affair is primarily one of thoughts and emotions rather than physical attraction. Horan depicts Wright as demanding and somewhat temperamental, but also incredibly sensitive, a hard-driving boss who is tender and loving when he leaves the office – surely an idealized version of the actual Frank Lloyd Wright, who couldn’t have just left his haughty nature at work when it suited him. Borthwick was, in reality, a translator for the early European difference feminist Ellen Key, a secondary relationship Horan also explores in the book, similarly endowing Key with so many positive traits (and a way with words that just sounds artificial on the page) that she is hard to accept as a real-life character. Borthwick’s feminism contrasts with her desire to follow Wright, and eventually she must make small albeit significant choices between her affair and her wish to have an independent identity and career, but Horan can hand-wave these away because the pair did end up residing together at the origianl Taliesin in Wisconsin, a home Wright built specifically for the two of them.

The false tone of the text poisons it from the beginning of the book, unfortunately, and Horan seems to have too much affection for these superficial characters to recognize that, by lionizing them, she ends up demeaning them instead. Borthwick leaves her children far too easily – leaving her husband, an amiable provider who only wants a homemaker rather than an independent thinker, is much easier to understand – with too little remorse or guilt or even plans to maintain relationships with the children while she’s traveling with Wright and eventually studying on her own in Europe. An emotionally evolved woman like this fictional Borthwick would realize the deleterious effects of abandoning her two young children at their ages, and, more to the point, she’d miss them so powerfully that leaving with Wright and staying with him for months would have been excruciating choices. Horan needs to get Borthwick on that boat with Wright and almost dismisses Borthwick’s maternal instincts because they’re inconvenient. I found it difficult to avoid judging both characters harshly for leaving their children like that; I cannot imagine a situation where I’d leave my daughter for a year or more with barely any contact beyond an occasional letter. When you’re a parent, your child comes first. Even if the marriage is unhappy, you don’t have to flee the continent and forget your children to pursue a separate romance.

Borthwick’s murder by a Barbadian servant who never explained his “motives” (although, given the nature of the crime, he must have had some sort of psychotic break) provides Horan with a comfortable out for her story as well – it almost feels like the visitation of a divine judgment on Mamah for her abandonment of her family, and if it hadn’t actually happened, I’d be criticizing this as a needless and small-minded morality play. Instead, it’s just one false note after another, characters built around real people who were probably nothing like what Horan wanted them to be. It’s bad enough that Mamah and her children died such a horrible death; don’t spit on their graves by using them to project your own personal fantasies as well.

Next up: I’ve finished Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry and have just begun Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

I had a post this morning on Taijuan Walker, Nolan Arenado, and some other M’s and Rockies. No game for me today, but thanks to all of you for your well wishes after hearing that my daughter’s stomach virus sent us to the ER last night. She’s fine now, but everyone’s exhausted, of course.

Horace McCoy’s novella They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? reads like an extended film treatment, a la Graham Greene’s The Third Man, which is what it actually was, although in McCoy’s case the film wasn’t made until long after his book was published and he had already died. The film earned nine Academy Award nominations, a record for a film that didn’t get a Best Picture nod, with Gig Young* winning the award for Best Supporting Actor. While it deviates somewhat from the book’s plot, both revolve around a dance marathan that exploits desperate would-be actors and hangers-on in Hollywood in the 1930s, all run by a sleazy promoter who takes advantage of the contestants to line his own pockets. (Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the film.)

*Young eventually killed himself and his wife of one month in 1978; his final film, Game of Death, was also Bruce Lee’s final film, compiled from unfinished footage shot before Lee’s death from a cerebral edema in 1973.

The sparse 120-page book is more a showcase for McCoy’s bleak, hard-boiled writing style and worldview than for any depth of plot, although there’s enough story here to sustain you through its 30,000 or so words. The book opens with Robert confessing to the murder of Gloria, essentially pleading no contest, after which we get the full story of how they met and how he came to kill her. The two are in Hollywood trying to land bit parts as extras – Gloria wants to be an actor, assuming she wants to be anything at all, while Robert wants to be a director, although it’s not clear he knows what that entails – and meet on the street after failing to earn parts that morning in their auditions. She mentions that she’s heard of a dance marathon being held with a small cash prize and the chance to be noticed by some Hollywood big shots, so he reluctantly agrees, mostly because he has nothing better to do.

The marathon is a rough, demeaning endurance contest, with dancers pushed to the limit by the unscrupulous organizers, including a bizarre nightly racing “derby” in which the losing couple is eliminated from the marathon, and a staged marriage designed to court positive and negative attention from the local press. Gloria is quickly revealed to be depressed and hopeless, picking pointless fights with other dancers and wishing aloud that she were dead. Robert is more interesting in going along to get along, but he’s just as aimless as Gloria, without the rage or hopelessness. When the contest ends in tragedy and the dancers are all sent off with a pittance for weeks of effort, Gloria pulls out a gun and tells Robert that she wants to kill herself but doesn’t have the guts, an ending foretold from the beginning of the story.

The book’s introduction says it was well-received in existentialist circles in France while it was derided or ignored in the United States until decades after its publication, and the connection to Sartre and Camus is apparent – but McCoy writes with a fire that the classic literary existentialists, so bent on telling us that everything is pointless, always lack. They Shoot Horses has an angle of suspense even though you know it ends in Gloria’s death, which to me reads as a rejoinder to existentialism: That life ends in death does not mean it lacks all meaning. We can know the ending of the story and still find interest in the journey. McCoy’s message isn’t uplifting – after all, his main characters are all devoid of purpose – but it’s not inherently nihilistic, since Gloria, the most hopeless character of all, is shown in the most unflattering light.

Next review: Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank.

The Night Circus.

I have new draft blog posts up for Insiders on Marco Gonzales and Alex Balog and on Ryne Stanek. I also held a Klawchat last week.

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus mines its source material pretty heavily, stealing the circus idea itself from Ray Bradbury’s seminal book Something Wicked This Way Comes (#29 on the Klaw 100) while also borrowing from Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (#17) and relying on the hackneyed chosen-ones motif found in far too much fantasy and science fiction, including, of course, the Harry Potter series. Morgenstern layers her own imagination on top of these familiar settings, crafting an immersive scene rich with color and detail, but the main storyline never lives up to the standard set by the novel’s background details.

The circus of the title appears only at night, without warning, moving from town to town as if by magic (or actually by magic), creating a furor wherever it goes and leading some fans to follow the circus around the globe like red-scarved Deadheads. The circus itself is just the stage for a battle between two magicians who are themselves pawns of their mentors – a girl trained from age five by her father, a boy adopted near the same age by a rival – in a fight to which they are bound by a magic tie that is never explained. As you might imagine, the two opponents eventually fall in love, an attraction forbidden by the rules of the game they’re unwillingly playing, and one that leads to unfortunate consequences for the other pawns, real people who work in or around the mysterious circus.

Romeo here is Marco, a young boy adopted from an orphanage by the mage Alexander, who takes him in specifically to raise him for this challenge, which may last for years and promises no other purpose for the contestants’ lives. His Juliet is Celia, taken in by her father, Prospero the Enchanter, after her mother commits suicide; Prospero, having no apparent emotional attachment to his daughter, sees in her the gift of magical ability and pledges her for the next challenge with Alexander, a game the two have apparently been playing for centuries. His lack of empathy for his own daughter receives no explanation, nor do we learn about Alexander’s motives – this is merely an academic or philosophical fight over the nature of magic. There’s a battle going on, and the two protagonists fall for each other, which seems to shock Prospero and Alexander because they’re blind to human emotions.

Where Morgenstern excels is creating the setting and background characters that exist behind Marco and Celia and their puppet masters. The precocious twins Widget and Poppet were born into the circus just as it began and grow up over the course of the book into its secret masters, learning much about its running from the inside even as the adults who populate it are largely unaware of its greater purpose – all except the contortionist Tsukiko, whose appearance comes without explanation until much later and whose understanding of the challenge exceeds that of all others. Morgenstern crafts two parallel narratives that don’t coincide in time until the end of the novel, when the battle and romance between Marco and Celia reaches its resolution and the fate of the circus lies in the hands of the twins and their new friend Bailey, one of the circus’ biggest fans.

The conclusion of that central storyline remains a question mark for me as I considered the book after finishing it. To avoid spoiling it, I’ll say that Morgenstern doesn’t do anything too obvious with the main characters, nor does she choose a complete copout where the terms of the challenge are somehow voided so everyone can live happily ever after. There are vague hints earlier in the book of how the romance/challenge will end, but not enough to make that resolution logically consistent with the rest of the novel. As a result, the conclusion sits in that gray area where it wasn’t cheap or cliched, and yet wasn’t clever enough to feel satisfying on an emotional or intellectual level.

The Night Circus does read very quickly, as Morgenstern crafts visually compelling scenes and has a deft hand with the tension dial, creating sufficient narrative greed to help me race through the book. I wish it were a more original work, and that the story lived up to the quality of the settings, instead of feeling derivative and almost unfinished for the way she wrapped up the central plot.

I’m about three books behind on reviews, so I’ll try to post at least one of these a day this week until I catch up to what I’m reading now, which is Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School.