Redshirts.

I’ve been busy on the baseball side too, with Insider posts on All-Star snubs, the Samardzija-Hammel trade, and the Brandon McCarthy trade.

John Scalzi’s Hugo Award-winning novel Redshirts takes Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (#52 on the Klaw 100) and transplants it into a science-fiction setting, where the characters in question appear on a Star Trek knockoff TV series rather than in a book. Metafiction where the characters interact with or rebel against their author is nothing new, and Jasper Fforde (who gets name-checked in one of the book’s three codas) pioneered the destruction of the wall between fiction and metafiction in his Thursday Next series, leaving Scalzi with a narrow space in which to craft something new, without settling for some light satire of the “redshirts” phenomenon. By focusing on the redshirt characters and allowing them to muse on their metafictional status, he has created a witty yet intelligent philosophical novel that covers themes from the writer’s responsibilities to whether man has free will.

The term “redshirt” refers to the disposable characters found in the original Star Trek series who would join three regular/named characters on away missions and never make it back, typically dying before the show’s halfway mark. They’d appear to represent the danger of a situation without the need to sacrifice a series regular. In Scalzi’s universe, a few techs and ensigns on the starship Intrepid have started to pick up on the trend that such crew members typically die horrific deaths on away missions, often as a result of rash or irrational actions. When Andrew Dahl, a new crew member who realizes that the ship and its inhabitants are all behaving in weird ways, decides to investigate, he realizes what they are and what’s causing all of these calamities, cooking up with a crazy plan to try to save all of their lives by using the Narrative’s illogicality in their favor.

The setup here is truly brilliant as Scalzi sends up Star Trek and its many derivatives in so many ways, targeting the obvious and the subtle equally well, while even hitting problems that plague non-sci-fi series like the various crime-solving shows that make use of bullshit scientific explanations and impossible coincidences to get the perpetrators caught (or killed) and everyone home by the end of 44 minutes of screen time. Most of the jokes will make sense even to folks who’ve only seen a few episodes of any sci-fi series, and some, like the Box, are just funny in their own right – only funnier if you realize Scalzi is mocking every hack writer in Hollywood who decides to hand-wave away days or weeks of science because that won’t fit in the show’s timeline.

Around the midpoint, when Scalzi has his characters come to the realization one-by-one that their will may not be their own, he sends the core quintet back in time to our present to confront their Creators, relying on one significant coincidence to push the plot forward but otherwise driving it by the consequences of their appearance in the wrong timeline – and in the wrong universe. (There’s some many-worlds-theory quantum thinking behind this, but Scalzi wisely stays out of that sort of digression.) After that, the novel doesn’t lose much wit, but it’s more dialogue-driven than satirical humor, as Scalzi shifts course, mixing in more philosophical musing on free will and the nature of existence. If the show is cancelled, do the characters disappear? Does their whole universe end? How can they believe in free will if the Narrative turns out to be real?

The novel itself only runs about 225 pages, after which Scalzi gives us three codas, all worth reading. The first one delves further into a question first broached in the novel proper: Does the writer have a responsibility to treat his characters more seriously? Ignoring the novel’s conceit that characters put on paper or screen become real, there’s a legitimate argument here about using death or injury as a cheap plot trick. I’ve read and still do read many classic novels, and few use a character’s death as a mere convenience to move the story along; the main exceptions revolve around wills and inheritances. Characters’ deaths may be exploited for the responses of others, but they don’t usually come cheap. (Mr. Krook notwithstanding, and besides, that’s the best example of a character killed for humor’s sake in literary history.)

I enjoyed Redshirts as a brilliant satire that turns into a compelling adventure story with surprising dashes of heart, but there’s also an exhortation here for other purveyors of fiction to just write better. I can see why it earned the Hugo Award and why FX is trying to turn it into a limited-run series. It’s an outstanding mix of humor and action layered on a thought-provoking concept. Even if you’re not a Trekkie – I’m far from one myself – it’s a must-read.

Next up: I’m about halfway through Paolo Giordano’s Premio Strega-winning debut novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers.

The Locusts Have No King.

I didn’t realize Paste posted my review of the largely terrible Downton Abbey boardgame, a game for which I had low expectations that it still couldn’t meet.

“Man of integrity, Mrs. Caswell,” Strafford nodded toward Frederick with a deep sigh. “That’s what I admire – integrity. But it does make people hard to get along with.”

I’ve praised Dawn Powell a few times around here, praising her masterwork A Time to Be Born (#21 on the Klaw 100) and just generally arguing that she’s an under-read American author. I seem to have failed to take my own advice, however, having read five of her novels in a twelve-month span from December 2009 to December 2010, then nothing since. She wrote fifteen novels in total, thirteen of which are currently in print thanks to Steerforth Press, mostly satires of the in-crowd in Manhattan in the periods just before and after World War II.

The Locusts Have No King finds Powell aiming her derisive lens at the literary set, both writers and the simpering publishers who see them in terms of dollar signs, during the tumultuous period right after the end of the war. Drawing its title from Proverbs 30 (“Four things on earth are small, but they are exceedingly wise … the locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank”), Locusts is loosely centered around the affair between Frederick Olliver, a struggling writer who refuses to compromise his principles to write something more commercial, and his married lover Lyle Gaynor. Lyle’s successful career as a playwright suddenly hits the skids right as Frederick finds his didactic works picked up by a benefactor who sees commercial potential in them, a shift in fortunes that drives the two of them apart.

Ah, but the burst of energy that upsets the momentarily stable particles at the heart of the book is the perfectly-named Dodo, a sexually rapacious young woman who uses her physical charms to try to sleep her way into higher and higher circles of literary society. She latches on to Frederick, who is guileless enough to fall into her clutches, while his roommate Murray, of uncertain vocation, seems to have more lovers than he can handle and desires to handle none of them save his controlling ex-wife Gerda. Dodo becomes the willing pawn of several of these women as they too seek to entrap more powerful men, mostly for reasons of career advancement rather than sheer gold-digging (Powell had no problems satirizing women, but never puts them down as a class in that stereotyped way), while she herself tries to ingratiate herself into the circle of the Beckleys, the folks with the money to fund or prop up the writers’ various projects.

While Powell’s incisive wit may have been more precise than ever in Locusts, given her three decades (by that point) in the publishing and dramatic fields, the novel also feels more insular than her other works because the archetypes she lampoons are not easily recognized by those of us on the outside. There is certainly humor in her dialogues, including nearly every time Dodo opens her mouth but also the fatuous ramblings of the publishers who push Olliver’s work without understanding it in the least, but characters who satirize unfamiliar targets can feel flimsy rather than funny. Other than the Beckleys – and I wondered if the name’s similarity to the word “feckless,” which described them well, was a coincidence – none of the characters clicked for me as parodies of people or types I knew. Even the witless publisher Tyson Bricker seems a bit harmless as satires go; if he’s funding Olliver for the wrong reasons, at least he’s funding something worthwhile, right?

Frederick and Lyle return to center stage as the novel starts to wind toward its conclusion, after first Lyle keeps Frederick at arm’s length and then realizes by doing so she’s left him vulnerable to the likes of Dodo. Yet Powell ensures that their slow dance back toward each other’s arms is unsatisfying to the reader, capturing both the fragility of the success Frederick is suddenly enjoying and the rise in anxiety over the nuclear age. The novel ends at the time of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests, an event she incorporates into a closing scene that provides the ambiguous closing note a novel of this tenor deserves.

Next up: I’m about three books behind in reviews, but right now I’ve just started Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove.

Swamplandia!

Karen Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia!, was one of three finalists for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the year that the board decided not to give the honor to any title – in essence saying that there was no novel published that year that met their threshold for the award. It was an embarrassing decision, one that may have hurt independent booksellers, a dereliction of duty reminiscent of the BBWAA puking all over itself in the 2012 Hall of Fame balloting – there had to be a “best” book, even if the overall quality of the titles in that year was lower than previous classes. Swamplandia! fits that description well – it’s a very good book, not a home run like Empire Falls or The Orphan Master’s Son, but more than good enough to win the award and a whole lot better than the 2011 winner, A Visit from the Goon Squad.

In the novel, Swamplandia! is an alligator theme park run by the Bigtree family on one of the Ten Thousand Islands off the coast of southwest Florida, most of which are uninhabited and which are connected to the mainland (in the book) only by a daily ferry service. (In reality, the largest island, Chokoloskee, is connected by a causeway, but that appears to be the only one with such a link.) When Hilola Bigtree, a mother of three and fierce alligator wrestler, dies of cancer, the business and the famiy begin to come apart at the seams. Her husband, the Chief, seems to get lost in a delusion of expansion amidst rising debt and new competition from a mainland park, the World of Darkness; Kiwi, their oldest child, defects to the mainland to work for that very competitor; Osceola, the middle child, falls in love with the spectre of a long-dead shipworker; and Ava, the youngest child and primary character, finds herself alone at the family homestead, faced with the daunting task of trying to save something out of everything collapsing around her.

Swamplandia! itself is a profound tale of death, loss, and disillusionment, as Ava, wise for her years but still fundamentally a child, feels her mother’s absence most acutely, with all three children setting out on different searches for something to fill the void left after Hilola’s death and their father’s abdication as a parent. While incorporating elements of magical realism, Russell never lets the story devolve into pure dreamscape or fantasy, and the two primary plotlines – Ava’s search for Osceola in the “underworld” and Kiwi’s sputtering coming-of-age at the hell-themed World of Darkness – resolve in ambiguous ways, especially Ava’s, as the denouement of her story left me very conflicted on whether that particular device was necessary to wrap up her story.

Ava herself is a fascinating character, a Flavia de Luce transplanted into a darker setup, where the father isn’t just absent emotionally but physically, and her precocity isn’t always such an asset. She’s intelligent and independent, retaining some of the emotional immaturity of a typical 13-year-old, responding with an admixture of fear and determination to the impossible situation in which her father and siblings place her. She and Kiwi are the only fully-formed characters in the book, with Kiwi providing more comic relief as the fish-out-of-water on the mainland, a home-schooled (self-taught, really) teenager with the diction of a character from 19th-century literature but almost no self-awareness or ability to function in the social environment of modern teenaged life. The symbolism of some of the rides at World of Darkness is bombastically silly, but these interludes also provide a needed break from the darker sections involving Ava’s journey into the swamps.

Russell has, as far as I can see, never spoken about the theme of disillusionment, but Ava’s storyline with Osceola functions as a strong metaphor for a break with religion, or at least the “old-time” religion of Biblical literalists. Osceola finds a book on spiritualism and follows it, blindly, into the book’s underworld – a place of uncertain location or even existence. Ava connects with a prophet of sorts, the “Bird Man,” and follows him, also blindly, in search of Osceola, and perhaps her mother, deeper into the swamps of the Ten Thousand Islands in search of the entrance to the underworld, a trek that leads to what I’ll only identify as a stark disillusionment for Ava and near-madness for Osceola, as well as a sacrifice that parallels the red heifer of the Hebrew Bible (notably Numbers:19). It might be a stretch to say that the book is itself anti-religious, as Russell hasn’t publicly voiced any such views, but it struck me as at least a strong allegory in opposition to blind acceptance of religious dogma and scripture.

Next up: I’m behind on my reviews, but I’m just about finished with Tom Acitelli’s The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution, which even has a whole section devoted to Delaware’s own Dogfish Head brewery.

State of Wonder.

Thursday’s Klawchat had a lot of Hall of Fame talk plus some prospect content. The Top 100 prospects package will run the week of January 27th.

Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel State of Wonder marks a return to form for the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, Bel Canto, where she pays homage to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain while drawing on the real-life hostage crisis at the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru. In between those two books, Patchett wrote just one novel, the embarrassing Run, a not-even-thinly-veiled love letter to then Senator Barack Obama, whom Patchett clearly hoped would run for President and win. That novel lost all of what made Patchett special, even in the quality of her prose, but State of Wonder brings everything back together.

Marina Singh is a pharmacologist working for a major drug researcher that has been funding a long-running development project deep in the Amazon basin, where the women in a tribe of natives, the Lakashi, maintain fertility well into their 70s. The eccentric researcher running the project, Dr. Annick Swenson, has cut off nearly all contact with her benefactors, and another researcher sent to locate her and report back on her progress, Marina’s colleague Anders Eckmann, died of fever while still in Brazil. Marina, who studied under Dr. Swenson over a decade earlier before an incident pushed her out of obstetrics into pharmacology, draws the short straw and has to go track down her former mentor, but finds that her mission is more complicated in both a practical and philosophical sense than anyone realized.

The lead characters in State of Wonder, Marina and Dr. Swenson, stand alongside Patchett’s best characters from Bel Canto and The Magician’s Assistant as smart, three-dimensional personas. Their thinking is complex and real without becoming unrealistic; Dr. Swenson is a genius, and a different sort of person, but her character is logical and thinks and behaves in logical ways. Marina’s back story is more involved, and her character, while very intelligent, is less mature, and she’s still grappling with the fallout from that incident that caused her to switch her specialty during her residency. (The novel would also pass the Bechdel test if it were made into a film.)

Marina spends a few weeks in the (real) Brazilian city of Manaus before finding Dr. Swenson and heading into the remote jungle location of the research labs, encountering some oddball, entertaining side characters that make up for some of their two-dimensionality with their injection of humor. But Patchett’s renderings of the settings, both Manaus and the Lakashi region, are beautifully detailed, and she represents the natives, by any Western definition a “primitive” people, without resorting to condescension over their way of life, even though it would likely be warranted.

Patchett has commented in interviews that her book was inspired by several films, notably Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (TL;DW), but there’s also a clear evocation of Evelyn Waugh’s demented A Handful of Dust, where one of the protagonists, Tony Last, meets perhaps the worst non-death fate of any major character in literature, all in the remote jungles of the Amazon basin. (Patchett slips in some Dickens references which make the allusion to Waugh obvious.) State of Wonder also steps back from the overwrought political leanings of Run, instead presenting soft arguments, pro and con, on environmental subjects and treatment of isolated peoples like the Lakashi, without detracting from the central story, one of delayed emotional development for Marina. Her professional success hasn’t been mirrored by happiness, and Patchett matures her without giving her a forced Hollywood ending. Marina ends up having to make a choice with huge moral implications before leaving the Amazon, the kind of decision that ages you emotionally when you face it but that was necessary to conclude the story without turning it into a saccharine mess.

Next up: Still slogging through Robert Tressell’s socialism-pamphlet-cum-novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Little Women.

I’ve been busy this weekend, with Insider posts reacting to the Jhonny Peralta signing with St. Louis and the Brian McCann signing with the Yankees. I’ll continue posting reaction pieces as needed this week. I’ll also post an updated “gift guide for cooks” piece here on Monday.

I actually read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women when I was in third grade or so, as it was one of a series of abridged, illustrated classics I’d been tearing through as fast as my parents could buy them. I remembered the basics of most of the plots, including Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Terror (“The Telltale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Junebug,” and, surprisingly for a book aimed at kids, “The Cask of Amontillado”), as well as bits and pieces of Alcott’s book – enough to understand that episode of Friends when it aired.

I didn’t think that version of Little Women counted for the purposes of reading the entire Bloomsbury 100, so I tackled the adult version last week. (The book also appears on the Guardian top 100 list.) I knew the book would be sentimental and more geared toward female readers, but I was surprised by many elements of it. There’s a latent feminist streak in it, one that at least treats its female characters as independent-minded individuals, equal to the men in spirit if not in the eyes of society, although in the end the women do settle in one way or another for marriage and motherhood. That feminist bent was quickly overshadowed by the rising tide of feminist novels where gender inequality led to tragedy, like The Awakening, Madame Bovary, and Effi Briest, so Alcott’s feminism feels very dated today.

However, the novel also represents a different twist on the utopian novels of the time period; rather than describing a future, technical utopia, Alcott instead presents a version of her contemporary world only tangentially affected by the ills of the age. The four little women of the title are the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their father is serving as a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War, leaving them in tight circumstances but not poverty, which is something they see but don’t experience. Their father is wounded, but returns home and survives, another example of tragedy coming close but not hitting home. Across the two parts of the book – it was published in two volumes, the second coming after the first had proven a resounding commercial success – only one significant tragedy visits the March household, that in the second book and with enough advance warning to the reader that by the time it happens it’s almost cathartic. Rather than depict life as it should or might be, the type of fantastic scenario you’d find in News from Nowhere or Looking Backward, Alcott gives us life as we’d like it to be: Full of love and happiness, without serious setbacks or disasters, where most of our worries end up for nothing at all.

There’s also a coming-of-age element to Little Women that I don’t recall seeing in any earlier novel, at least not in English or American literature, where the subject was female. Boys in literature came of age; girls got married to those boys as needed. Alcott gives her girls life, with distinct personalities and differing aims. Each has some rite of passage in the first book, all of which influences their fates in the second. The one character who stuck with me most when I read the book as a child still stood out today, as Jo was Alcott’s stand-in for herself, a wilful, clever girl, forebear to Dorothea of Middlemarch (who had Jo’s intellectual bent but ruined herself in a bad marriage), and by the end of Little Women its most essential character. I wondered as a kid if the presence of a character named Jo on the series The Facts of Life, which (after Jo’s arrival) focused on four teenaged girls living together at a boarding school, was an homage to Alcott’s book, especially as both girls shared tomboyish looks and attitudes and had the same dislike of societal rules and authority.

Next up: I knocked off H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds last week, having heard the Orson Welles broadcast but never read the book, and am now a third of the way through another Bloomsbury 100 title, Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund.

The Portrait of a Lady.

New Insider content from Monday – reactions to the Carlos Ruiz re-signing and the Tim Hudson contract.

My only previous experience with the American writer Henry James was a failed attempt to read The Ambassadors back in 2005, and successful reads of two of his short stories, “Daisy Miller” and “Turn of the Screw,” back in high school. While he earns near-universal praise for the emotional depth of his writing and the quality of his prose, I always thought his prose was too prolix, and avoided him for years as a result.

The Portrait of a Lady appears on the Bloomsbury 100, which meant I either had to end my boycott or give up on my goal of reading all 100 titles, and since this also appears on the Novel 100 (at #29) I figured I’d stop being a stubborn ass about it and give it a read. James’ prose is, still, too prolix, and the novel moves about as quickly as a Yankees-Red Sox game on national television, but I could see that it’s also the work of a brilliant writer, and his central character is among the most memorable I’ve encountered.

Isabel Archer, the lady of the title, starts the novel as a young American woman who travels to visit her aunt and wealthy English uncle at their estate outside of London, where her aunt rarely spends time but her uncle and her cousin Ralph are often in residence, as both suffer from health issues. Isabel’s high-spirited, independent nature faces an unexpected test when she inherits a fortune and no longer has to even consider marrying for money, which leads her into a mésalliance that wrecks her innocence and threatens to destroy her individuality.

James invests nearly all of his time, including some multi-page paragraphs, in building and exploring the character of Isabel; rather than allowing her words and actions to define her, he crafts her with costive prose that I found difficult and unengaging. It is one thing to tell us that Isabel couldn’t feel shame for her mistakes for long because “she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself;” it is another to talk about this for over two pages without a paragraph break. James’ fustian dialogue still illuminates her character and those of her suitors, the American expatriate Madame Merle, and her friend from Albany Henrietta, so why bury them in mountains of Dickensian descriptions?

Portrait‘s climax was by far its best and most clever part, as James gives us an ambiguous ending where we can easily imagine Isabel choosing either of the two paths ahead of her. By that point, she’s made her bad marriage and realized she’s effectively trapped in it, until an escape route appears before her – but one that would require her to sacrifice image and propriety in the eyes of the aristocratic world in which she travels. Her tie to her stepdaughter, who is growing up under the oppressive thumb of Isabel’s husband, may be a stronger disincentive to flee than her vows to her husband. Has her independence atrophied so far that she would choose a lifetime of unhappiness to save face? I’d like to imagine James writing both endings and opting to forgo one entirely because neither option satisfied him. Or maybe he just got lazy.

Next up: I’m about 2/3 of the way through Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which is also on the Bloomsbury list. Beth’s not doing so well right now, though, so I put the iPad in the freezer.

The Wounded and the Slain.

American author David Goodis’ work has largely been out of print since his death at age 49 in 1967, but the author of pulp novels and short stories in the noir and crime-fiction genres has seen a modest resurgence in popularity in the last decade as a few of his works have been republished. The Library of America has printed five of his novels in a single collection, including Dark Passage, which may have been the inspiration for the TV series “The Fugitive.” (A lawsuit was settled out of court after Goodis’ death.) Hard Case Crime brought The Wounded and the Slain back in 2007, part of their ongoing effort to revive those once-scorned pulp novels by introducing them to a modern audience – and I, as a fan of noir in general but a reader unfamiliar with Goodis’ work, can add my recommendation to theirs.

Wounded isn’t really a crime novel, earning its noir designation from its themes and setting rather than from its plot, even though there is a crime within the story. James Bevan is the drunk at the novel’s center, on a disastrous vacation with his wife, Cora, as their marriage threatens to dissolve in a highball glass of gin. James can’t stand to be sober, yet his self-destructive tendencies increase exponentially when he’s under the influence, which leads him to wander the slums of Kingston at night, eventually putting him in a bar where a riot breaks out and he’s drawn into the melee even though he’s too drunk to comprehend what’s happening around him. Cora shows vast patience with James, blaming herself for much of his licentiousness, but ultimately drifts into a flirtation with another guest at the posh resort where they’re staying. The novel concentrates more on James’ death spiral – and his reluctance to resist it – until Cora is forced to decide between fighting for her husband or pursuing her own happiness elsewhere.

Goodis paints one grim picture after another, both in scenery and in mood. The Kingston of this novel is filthy, poverty-stricken, drug-riddled, a den of thieves waiting to pick any errant tourist clean of all but his skin should he leave the safety of his hotel. The handful of sailors on shore leave we encounter don’t come off a whole lot better. James wanders into this world in an alcoholic stupor, trapped in a mind full of catastrophic thoughts, grappling with questions of suicide until he finds himself about to die – twice – and has to choose to live, only to see that the life he’s returning to isn’t worth that much. That these experiences prove disillusive for James underscores the stark existential nature of Goodis’ writing here, a prime example of noir without a hard-boiled detective.

Where Wounded lost me a little was the denouement, where Cora’s and James’s stories intersect in somewhat unlikely fashion, although Goodis saved himself with an ambiguous resolution that avoids tying anything up too neatly, which would have de-noired the book. I didn’t like how James ended up in that specific situation, as it seemed too far-fetched for a novel that often danced at the edge of the mundane in its realism. In James, Goodis has even created a compelling character who is miserable and whose mimesis is limited to the less palatable aspects of the human character, whose treatment of his wife should repulse us yet whose Appointment in Samarra-esque hurtle towards destruction will not let us turn away.

Many of the details about Goodis come from his entry in Wikipedia, and we know Wikipedia is never wrong.

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.