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.

Gravity’s Rainbow.

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is #23 on Daniel Burt’s Novel 100 and is part of the TIME 100, as well as holding the distinction of being the only book recommended by the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction committeee yet rejected by the Pulitzer Board. It is a transgressive novel, drenched in paranoia, replete with esoteric knowledge of fields from engineering to calculus to military history, with detours into magical realism and Beckett-esque absurdity.

Also, it sucks.

I don’t mean sucks in the sense that mass-market paperback pablum like James Patterson or Janet Evanovich might suck. Gravity’s Rainbow isn’t cookie-cutter or cliched, it doesn’t lack imagination, it is in no way predictable, and it is incredibly ambitious. It is also one of the least enjoyable reading experiences I have ever had. It is difficult to the point of obtuseness, it is repulsive without meaning, it is largely unfunny despite a clear intent to be humorous, and parts of it are painfully misogynistic.

To the extent that Gravity’s Rainbow has a plot, here it is: It’s World War II and the Allies are trying to predict where the German V-2 rockets aimed at London are likely to land. They discover that American Tyrone Slothrop, conditioned from birth in a Pavlovian process similar to the Little Albert experiment, can predict the landing spot of the next rocket due to a peculiar case of hysteron proteron paraphilia: The rockets hit in places where he’s recently had sex. If it’s hard to fathom how that thread can turn into a 776-page opus, fear not, as Pynchon shows great capacity to craft new characters (and discard them just as quickly) and sent Slothrop and the other semi-central actors in the book on various wild goose chases across Europe, frequently involving explicit descriptions of sex, often on the deviant side of the ledger. What Pynchon really needed here was an editor, but in all likelihood, the editor knowledgeable enough to tackle this book didn’t exist.

If you’ve read, or are at least familiar with, Joyce’s Ulysses, imagine a book of that scope and with a similar multitude of allusions, but designed to express modern paranoia in all its forms, from fear of military (and soon nuclear) annihilation to fear of government intrusion to fear of mortality to fear that we lack free will for reasons metaphysical or genetic. It’s all in here, somewhere, if you can find it; I’d be shocked if Pynchon wasn’t a major inspiration for later paranoiac writers like Gibson (Neuromancer), Dick (Ubik) or Stephenson (Snow Crash), and perhaps even Jasper Fforde, who mines dystopian alternate realities for laughs in the Thursday Next series and in Shades of Grey. But unlike those books, accessible for all their erudition, Gravity’s Rainbow is work, work to follow his prose, work to follow the nonlinear plot, and work to follow the references. It’s no wonder most reviews I’ve found of the book, including Burt’s, refer to it as a book with a very high owned-to-finished ratio.

One of the Pulitzer committee’s main objections to Gravity’s Rainbow was its vulgarity, and the book is, in relative terms, pretty filthy, with unstinting descriptions of sado-masochism, incest, rape, coprophilia, and … well, there doesn’t really need to be anything beyond that. Pynchon’s obsession with the functions bodily accentuates the male-ness of the book and narrative but highlights the fact that women in this book are largely there to have sex with the men. There are only two female characters of any depth beyond a few lines. One is Katje, a triple-agent who’s there to seduce Slothrop. The other, Jessica Swanlake (Pynchon loves funny names, but usually just violates Ebert’s First Rule of Funny Names), is there to have sex with Roger Mexico even though he knows she will betray him in the end and return to her fiancee, making her faithless in two relationships. Even the prepubescent Bianca/Ilse character, who might be two different girls, is a temptress, sexually mature beyond her physical development, and available to the adult men in the book, without any indication of approbation from other characters or the omniscient narrator. The term misogyny is frequently used now simply to mean bias against women, or imbalanced treatment, but the word’s original sense, hatred of women, applies as strongly here as in any book I can remember.

If there’s something to praise in Gravity’s Rainbow, it’s in Pynchon’s subversion of the novel’s form. Circular or other nonlinear plots can be entertaining even before we consider their literary purpose. Confusing the reader a little is fine, often part of the pleasure of reading a complex book, as long as there’s some kind of payoff in the end. Pynchon’s ambition here seems unbounded, but boundaries can be as helpful as deadlines, because sometimes you just have to pull back a little to get the thing done. The book is ‘finished,’ in that Pynchon actually completed the manuscript and filed it, giving the book an actual Ending, but it feels incomplete, not least because so many plot strands wither and die without any kind of resolution.

One coincidence that made my reading of Gravity’s Rainbow a little better: I had never heard of the genocide of the Herero people in what is now Namibia by the Germans in 1904-06 before reading about it in the book I read right before this, King Leopold’s Ghost. The Hereros figure prominently here as well, as some Hereros who fought with the Germans against their own people ended up fighting again for the Germans in World War II, with one character, Oberst Enzian (his name a slight pun on gentian), earning a fair amount of screen time. Pynchon alludes to the irony of the members of a tribe nearly wiped out by the Germans fighting for that country in its attempt to wipe out another people in a much broader, more efficient attempt at genocide.

If you’d like a similar take on the book, but with more f-bombs, the Uncyclopedia entry on Gravity’s Rainbow echoes many of my thoughts on the book, including the three-bullet summary at the top. If hating it brings me in for criticism from “pretentious, elitist snobs,” so be it.

Next up: The University of Chicago Press was kind enough to send me a copy of Richard Stark’s Parker, originally published as Flashfire and the basis for the Jason Statham/Jennifer Lopez film in theaters now.

Catching up on recent reads.

For a variety of reasons, I fell behind on book reviews in December, so I’m cheating a little with an omnibus post on everything I read between Thanksgiving and New Year’s that I haven’t written up yet, aside from the usual Wodehouse/Christie/Stout stuff I generally don’t cover here. I had pretty mixed feelings on all of these works except the one non-fiction title, which is probably part of why I procrastinated on the reviews – it’s easier to write something quickly when you know which way you’re leaning from the start, but these books had enough positives and negatives to keep me from coming down on either side.

* The longest book I read in that span, and the one most deserving of a longer writeup, is Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, part of the TIME 100 and #81 on the Modern Library 100. Tabbed “the great American novel” by Martin Amis, praised by authors from Amis to his father Kingsley to Salman Rushdie to Christopher Hitchens, Augie March is an ambitious, expansive story of its title character’s growth from an impoverished Chicago childhood through one money-chasing scheme after another, including various brushes with the law and materialistic women. It starts slowly, hits a promising note for several hundred pages, and then ends with a gigantic whimper that ruined an otherwise enjoyable serious yet comical read for me.

Augie’s odyssey of self-discovery while he’s trying to make a buck – or a pile of bucks – draws him into various webs of fascinating side characters, a panoply identified by Hitchens as Dickensian, but one I think comes from the broader tradition of picaresque novels (to which Dickens contributed in The Pickwick Papers) and that continues through postmodern works like Ulysses and The Recognitions and later writers like Dawn Powell, Haruki Murakami, and Richard Russo. Augie March even has the peripatetic thread that defines the picaresque novel, even though Augie’s adventures, like his brief but disastrous time in the Navy, rarely encompass the high ambitions of classic picaresque characters.

Augie himself straddles the line between hero and antihero – he’s the protagonist and quite likeable despite his highly fungible morality, in part because he’s got the rags-to-riches vibe about him and in part because he entertains us through one peculiar situation after another – creating a curious ambiguity about Bellow’s point. If this is to be the great American novel, what exactly is Bellow telling us about the American experience? Is the key to the American Dream a refusal to commit oneself to anything – an education, a career, a marriage? Or is he saying the American Dream is an illusion that we can pursue but never catch? I think Bellow was posing the questions without attempting to provide any answers, which works from a thematic perspective but left the conclusion of the plot so open that I felt like I was reading an unfinished work, like The Good Soldier Svejk or Dead Souls.

* I wanted to like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, since I think Lolita is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and while I didn’t enjoy Pale Fire I do recognize how clever it is and that I might not fully appreciate its humor. But Pnin, the story of a fish-out-of-water Russian professor at a fictional university in upstate New York, suffers from Pale Fire‘s problem even more deeply: The target of its parodic efforts is too obscure for the average reader to appreciate. Where Pale Fire satirized technical and literary analysis of poetry, Pnin takes aim at the ivory towers of academic life at private universities, which is probably hilarious if you’re a professor or a grad student but largely went right by me as someone who sleepwalked through college by doing the minimum amount of work required for most of my classes.

* Abbe Provost’s 1731 novel Manon Lescaut seemed to be stalking me over the last two months, so I had to read it – it appears on Daniel Burt’s revised version of the The Novel 100, then was the subject of allusions in at least two other books I read that time, including Augie March and I think Nicole Krauss’ History of Love as well. Manon Lescaut follows the Chevalier des Grieux as he ruins himself over his obsession with the title character, a young, beautiful, and entirely materialistic woman who throws the Chevalier overboard every time he runs out of money. The two engage in multiple schemes to defraud wealthier men who fall in love (or lust, really) with Manon at first sight, and eventually end up sent to the French colony at New Orleans, where the pattern repeats itself with a less fortunate conclusion. Its controversial status at the time would be lost on any reader today over the age of 12, but its depiction of sexual obsession mixed with several early examples of suspense writing (before either genre really existed in its own right) made it a quick and intense read. Plus now I get the references.

* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is another short novel of obsession, also appearing on the Novel 100, this one telling the tale of a man who is so in love with a woman who is betrothed to someone else that he eventually takes his own life. Told through the letters Werther writes to his friend, I found the deterioration of Werther’s mind as his depression deepens to be far more interesting than the pseudo-romantic aspect of a man so in love with another woman that he’d rather die than live without her. He just needed a good therapist. It was by far the shortest novel I had left on the Novel 100 and brought my total read on that list to 80, so it was worth the two hours or less I spent on it.

* Zadie Smith’s On Beauty reimagines E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (which I read and didn’t care for that much) in a serious comic novel around a conflict of race rather than class, set in a New England college town in the early 2000s. Smith also sends up the conflict between conservative and liberal academic ideologies (or theologies, more accurately) in one of the subplots that, much like that of Pnin, ended up missing the mark for me, although I could at least recognize glimpses of my alma mater in some of the satire. The novel’s greatest strength is the way Smith defines so many individual characters, especially those of the Belsey family, headed by a white father and an African-American mother and whose children are searching for racial, religious, and cultural identities while their parents try to recover from their father’s inability to keep it in his pants. I couldn’t help but compare On Beauty, which has some brilliant dialogue along with the deep characterizations and is often quite funny, to Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, which produced very mixed feelings in me when I first read it and didn’t fully appreciate (as I think I do now) how Smith was trying to stretch the boundaries of realistic fiction to tell a broad and expansive story. On Beauty, paying homage to a classic work of British literature, feels restrained by the confines of its inspiration when Smith’s imagination is a huge part of why her writing is so appealing, leaving it a good novel, a funny yet smart one that reads quickly, but a slightly unsatisfying one because I know she can do more than this.

* Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World tells the history of that somewhat mundane, unrespected fish, which had a substantial impact on the growth of civilization in Europe and in North America, and which was one of humanity’s first warnings (duly ignored) that we could exhaust a seemingly endless natural resource. Kurlansky’s book Salt turned a similar trick, taking a topic that seemed inherently uninteresting and finding interesting facts and anecdotes to allow him to make the story readable. Cod actually has a stronger narrative thread because Kurlansky can trace the fish’s rise in popularity and commercial value as well as its role in international relations, climaxing in the sudden collapse of cod stocks and the uncertain ending around the fish’s future as a species and a food source. We’re really good at overfishing, because technology has allowed us to catch more fish (as well as species we didn’t intend to catch) which has in turn made fish too cheap to consume. Kurlansky didn’t focus enough on this issue for my tastes, although Cod was published in 1997 when overfishing was seen as more of a fringe environmentalist concern, before celebrity chefs embraced sustainability and began preaching it to the masses.

The Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver’s Orange Prize-nominated novel The Poisonwood Bible is a mixed bag of extremes: It’s one of the most authentic works of historical fiction I’ve come across, evoking a time, place, and culture with precise details while also serving to educate the reader without ever feeling didactic. It also draws its plot from diverse works of classical literature, notably King Lear, yet doesn’t feel the least bit derivative. However, the novel rests on the backs of four female characters who are so thinly drawn that you’d have to put them all together to get a complete, well-rounded woman.

The Poisonwood Bible follows Nathan Price, an evangelical preacher who, in 1959, drags his family on a dangerous mission to spend a year preaching the Gospel in a remote village in what was then known as the Belgian Congo but was also on the brink of an implosion that still echoes today, two names and four national leaders later. Nathan never speaks directly to the reader, however, as the book is narrated by his wife, Orleanna, and his four daughters – superficial Rachel; daddy’s girl Leah; Leah’s twin sister Adah, mute and slightly disabled by hemiplagia yet highly intelligent; and the innocent and much-younger Ruth May. Nathan is an ordeal in and of himself, one increased exponentially by their move to the heart of Africa, to conditions for which they are wholly unprepared. Nathan is as one-dimensional as the women in his family, stubborn, misogynistic, driven by the shame of a wartime injury that has left him shell-shocked yet with the veneer of functional behavior. Like Lear, Nathan loses his daughters one by one through his increasingly erratic and foolhardy behavior, eventually losing his wife, the last one to truly abandon him emotionally, when his choices provoke tragedy with no recourse.

Kingsolver spent a year in the Republic of Congo around 1962, after independence and the bulk of the events depicted in this book, but her knowledge of the country, its terrain, and its culture suffuses The Poisonwood Bible as thoroughly as if it were a country spawned entirely by her own imagination. The natives of the small village to which the Prices move are given respectful treatment, neither denigrated as noble savages nor elevated as wise shamen, just shown as regular people surviving in a difficult environment and demonstrating a degree of empathy that is somewhat foreign to our get-off-my-lawn culture today. The Prices’ inability to adjust to local agriculture, and Nathan’s refusal to accept or even solicit help from local women who farm with more success, is a harbinger for the ultimate failure of their entire mission, and a metaphor for the failure of Western attempts to graft our culture, religion, and even our economic philosophies on to a country that is, itself, a Western-created fiction.

Those one-dimensional characters ended up detracting greatly from the book for me, especially through the last third or so as the daughters’ ability to narrate long stretches of the story increases with their age. The kindest interpretation I can conceive is that Kingsolver intended for each of the female characters to represent a specific aspect of womanhood – maternity, beauty, intellect, fidelity, innocence – yet even if this is true, the format limits the potential for any of these women to grow over the course of the novel, especially the children as they become adults. Leah and Adah mature the most, with Leah shifting her deep allegiance from her father to her eventual husband while Adah, forced by a cataclysmic emotional trauma, must overcome both that and her physical handicap. Yet none of the women spoke with a compelling voice, not even the rhyming, backwards-talking, poetry-quoting Adah, who was interesting but whose extreme rationality came with a coldness that kept me at arm’s length. Rachel never quite grows up all the way, still displaying the same peculiar combination of a lack of self-awarness and an obsession with appearances that makes her earlier narration so hard to read.

If you read primarily for plot and enjoy historical fiction, however, Poisonwood sings in both departments. Kingsolver offers tiny bits of foreshadowing without making the book’s handful of plot twists too obvious, and as the book nears its conclusion its pace quickens to avoid reader fatigue. While Kingsolver’s prose is undeniably American, her ability to paint a picture of life in central/sub-Saharan Africa fits in with writers like Achebe, wa Thiong’o, and Adichie who spent much of their lives in the region. It isn’t a pleasant feeling for those of us who grew up and live in comfort and blissful ignorance here, but there’s merit in a reminder that these conditions existed just 50 years ago – and still exist in many parts of the world today.

Next up: Back in August of 2011, I spent much of a game in Lake Elsinore chatting with two readers, one of whom recommended King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. I finally picked up the book the other day at Tempe’s Changing Hands bookstore, figuring this was the ideal time to read it, and through 100 pages it’s quite compelling.