30 September 2014

Mr Norris Changes Trains, by Christopher Isherwood

The first 50 pages of this novel are some of the best I've read in a long time. It's a marvelous set-up -- the narrator meets a man on a train and, with a wonderfully detached sort of bemusement, is gradually drawn into the orbit of this mysterious, bizarre character. I wasn't completely taken with what Isherwood decided to do with the story from there (it was quite literally on page 50 where I suddenly thought, oh, hmmm. Ok.), but his prose is so archly fantastic that you're happy to go along for the ride ("She could drink most of the English journalists under the table, and sometimes did so, but more as a matter of principle than because she enjoyed it.").

It's a kind of sub-genre, I think, the story of a narrator who meets a strange person and becomes somewhat entangled in an utterly unfamiliar and not entirely appealing world, ultimately managing to retreat, usually mostly unscathed, as the hurricane of this strange individual passes by. Diana Athill's Make Believe, which I read recently, actually follows a similar model. There is something not entirely satisfying to me about the narrative form -- it places you in the perspective of the ipso facto less interesting character, who is meant to be the screen that displays the crazed meanderings of the real point of interest, who always remains a little bit mysterious and is vaguely being judged as flighty, immature, unstable, etc, whereas the milquetoast narrator gets to be the sensible, wise, responsible one. Or, alternatively, the wildcard ends up seeming like such a self-centered monster that you both despise him/her and blame the narrator for putting up with this nonsense for so long. Either way, my interest is often tempered by a sense of indignation.

Isherwood ameliorates the problem somewhat by giving us a narrator who is a bit of a cad, just aware enough of his tendency to romanticize deadbeats as to allow us to feel comfortable doing the same, and willing to go along with the craziness enough to clear him of the charge of priggishness or prudery (there is a particularly delightful scene where he gets rip roaring drunk and floats along through scenes of chaotic decadence: "Here one of the anaesthetic periods of my evening supervened. How the Baron got me upstairs, I don't know. It was quite painless."). What is more, Isherwood cleverly inserts several other judgmental characters, friends of the narrator's who warn him that Mr Norris is not to be trusted, leaving it open as to whether they are close-minded or sensible.

Two things that make this novel, which was written in 1935, particularly interesting are the ways in which it handles the rise of Nazism and the gay subculture of Berlin. I haven't read many novels written in the 30s that actively portray life in Germany in the 30s (are there many?), where there is no awareness of the tragedy that will follow (or is there, is of course the question). Not knowing what is to come, the book leaves all possibilities open (what Michael André Bernstein, in a very smart book, called 'side-shadowing'), so the sense one has is of a vague undercurrent, not explicitly discussed. The book's treatment of homosexuality, strangely, seems similar -- it seems completely apparent, I think, to a modern-day reader, but one wonders whether Isherwood's contemporaries were slower to catch on (I vaguely seem to recall reading something where a person mentioned being very surprised to realize it). Only once in the novel is it made completely explicit that a character is gay (when one character asks another if he knew that someone was "a fairy"); there is an amusingly euphemistic quality to the rest of the novel, where two men will disappear together for a few hours and resurface later, rather like the fireworks scenes of films from the time.

In any case, I certainly look forward to reading more of Isherwood's writing.

The Thin Man

Tonight was a homecoming of sorts -- after a day of working at the bookstore, I went to my beloved Doc Films. I went at least once a week while I was in graduate school, and it was soooo good to be back. I've always loved movies, but going to Doc regularly really shaped my tastes. Although I grew up going to arthouse theatres and watching independent and foreign films, I got to know and love a lot more classic movies -- especially noir and stuff from the 30s. In many ways, it was like taking a film studies course, except I didn't have a teacher to tell me what I was supposed to appreciate about the movies, so I have ended up with more of the naive enthusiasm and idiosyncratic knowledge of the autodidact. But I digress.

It is often considered blasphemous to say that a movie is as good as the book it is based on, but in the case of The Thin Man (and, I would wager, a lot of other film noir), it really is true. I read the book last summer and very much enjoyed it, but the movie is equally entertaining, and in some ways, better.

One of the great strengths of the novel is the delightful banter between the hero, Nick, and his wife Nora. The film captures it wonderfully, even improves it with a dash of physical comedy and some truly wonderful facial expressions. What is more, while one certainly notices how much the characters drink in the novel, in the film version you can actually tell how drunk Nick is -- he lurches and teeters and looks a bit dazed, even as he is figuring out the intricacies of the case.

Another advantage of the movie is that it's much easier to keep the characters and plot lines straight when you can match a face to the name. Granted, there are an awful lot of blondes in the movie, which made it a little bit more difficult, but I wasn't nearly as muddled as I was when reading the text. At the same time, the movie does hustle through the story somewhat, probably cutting quite a bit of the storyline (not that I missed it), and zooming past the end without really bothering to flesh it out, thereby reinforcing the sense -- which one also has when reading -- that the mystery is rather beside the point.

It isn't the greatest social comedy or the best mystery you'll ever see, but on the big screen at your favorite local theatre, it sure is a treat.

24 September 2014

Tristessa, by Jack Kerouac

I taught On the Road a few times and grew to love it, mostly for its prose* but also for its wild, somewhat desperate adventure. I happened upon Tristessa somewhat randomly in a used bookstore and was totally captivated by the description on the back, written by Ginsberg: "a narrative meditation studying a hen, a rooster, a dove, a cat, a chihuaha dog, family meat, and a ravishing, ravished junky lady, first in their crowded bedroom, then out to drunken streets, taco stands, & pads at dawn in Mexico City slums." Don't you want to read that book? I do. Unfortunately, Tristessa is not that book.

So, it may be that Kerouac's charm has somewhat worn off for me, or it may be that I just wasn't in the mood for it at the moment. But despite occasional moments of beauty, the book did not quite work for me. There would be these lovely sequences where the hum of the novel's rushed prose lifted into music and swept me up into the ride, and then a sudden clunk would pull me out and make me think gosh, I'll bet Kerouac was kind of an annoying blowhard if you actually hung out with him. There are these moments where you become vividly aware that these are the inflated ramblings of a spoiled white boy looking for thrills in Mexico, romanticizing the local drug addicts even as he remains somewhat contemptuous of them. It's kind of gross.

*Turns out I wrote this oddly contemplative blog review of it at the time -- I guess this blog used to be a lot more personal? Perhaps it will be again; life has been taking some unexpected turns lately and I want to explore various kinds of writing more...

19 September 2014

Loitering with Intent, by Muriel Spark

I am a big fan of Muriel Spark -- even though very few of her novels are truly great (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie most certainly is though), they are always bizarre and strangely fascinating and never a waste of time. Even the rather bad ones are kind of wonderful. Loitering with Intent is pretty excellent, but it's also a book that you will appreciate more if you know something about Spark's life, and feel some attachment to her as a person. Because the novel feels very autobiographical, an effect that is wonderfully complemented by the way the plot plays with a gradual blurring between fiction and reality, describing the adventures of a young woman who is writing her first novel and finding it coming to life, partly in mysterious or uncanny ways, partly because someone is actively imitating it. It's a very weird story, but if also has a curious plaintive quality rather than the usual droll flatness of her other books.

12 September 2014

Make Believe, by Diana Athill

Athill is not only a good writer, she also comes across as a smart, sympathetic, and uncommonly self-aware sort of woman. Thus, her graceful prose and keen observations are a pleasure to read, and the book feels both warm and intimate, like a really good conversation.

That said, the contents seem more suited to conversation than a book. Chronicling her acquaintance with the increasingly mentally disturbed Hakim Jamal, Athill is basically relating what happened, without drawing much in the way of insight from it. This is not necessarily a bad thing -- when she does make a move towards more sweeping conclusions, it rings a bit hollow. One is left, instead, with the curiously cynical sense that rather upsetting trajectory of this man's life was bitterly senseless, and that there was not much that anyone could do about it. I was somewhat hoping for more of a thick description of that particular historical moment, and while there is some of that, the book seems much more personal. It does make me want to read more of her writing though.

19 August 2014

The Last Man, by Mary Shelley

One somehow doesn't except eighteenth-century authors -- even if they are Mary Shelley -- to have a good sense of what the end of the world might look like. But the apocalypse might be one of those timeless things that can be just as persuasively portrayed in 1814 as in 2014. Although this novel is way too long and has a lot of pretty boring bits, it also anticipates pretty much every 20th/21st century disaster/apocalypse film/novel in really surprising ways. I am Legend, Children of Men, Atlas Shrugged, even This is the End, amusingly, all owe a debt to Mary Shelley's vision of the final days of human life.

Shelley, meanwhile, is clearly drawing on both the idea and the techniques of her father in his bizarro sci-fi novel, St. Leon, particularly in doing a kind of before-and-after, where the novel begins with an (unfortunately lengthy) description of "normal" life -- so as to give you a sense of what is lost (think, too, of films like Cloverfield -- usually this kind of thing is kept down to 20 minutes or so, because it is basically "thick" description with little to no narrative momentum). Both Godwin and Shelley unfortunately produce rather dreary version of a fairly typical romance to do this, and that's just something you have to plow through. Godwin, thankfully, has occasional moments of comic irony, whereas his daughter tends to be somewhat humorless. But Godwin also doesn't have to patience to really follow St. Leon through centuries of his artificially extended life (ie, to take the device to its natural conclusion). Shelley, on the other hand,  is admirably committed to letting the plague destroy the world s l o w l y (which certainly contributes to the realism, though unfortunately the fervent language of Romantic-era passionate feeling is not extremely conducive to suspenseful terror), and to devote to these epic circumstances a monumental amount of pages, letting the text transpire in what comes to feel like an almost inhuman, planetary time. Although it may come across as overwrought, this is arguably one of the few circumstances that actually merits such lofty prose:

Did God create man, merely in the end to become dead earth in the midst of healthful vegetating nature? Was he of no more account to his Maker, than a field of corn blighted in the ear? Were our proud dreams thus to fade? Our name was written "a little lower than the angels;" and, behold, we were no better than ephemera. We had called ourselves the "paragon of animals," and, lo! we were a "quint-essence of dust." We repined that the pyramids had outlasted the embalmed body of their builder. Alas! the mere shepherd's hut of straw we passed on the road, contained in its structure the principle of greater longevity than the whole race of man. How reconcile this sad change to our past aspirations, to our apparent powers!

At the same time, the book is almost touchingly a product of its own time. Although it's meant to be set in the distant future (2100!), its author simply cannot imagine a time in which the French Revolution will not be a major reference point. Europe is, of course, still battling the savage Orient (the Turk!), and America is  still an uncultivated wilderness. Occasional clumsy references to her own present via things the character has "read about in history books" evoke somewhat condescending smiles in the reader, but they also make the novel a fascinating testament to the central concerns of its own time.

Although it is a real slog, I also think it probably ought to be required reading for scholars of the period.

13 August 2014

Dept of Speculation, by Jenny Offhill

I get frustrated with current fiction, because I read all these reviews that suggest that a book is spectacular, amazing, dazzlingly innovative and tremendously well written, and then I read it and... it's just kind of ok. I guess in the fast-paced world of publishing and book reviews, anything that is better than average is momentous, whereas to me, who does not read much average stuff and reads quite a lot of older, really excellent stuff, it is less noteworthy. But I digress.

Dept. of Speculation is essentially a monologue; a woman's brief reflections over the course of a marriage. It took me awhile to stop being annoyed that she was from Brooklyn (because of course she is. Isn't everyone?), but once I did, I really warmed up to the book. The subtle indicators of the passage of time, the sense of vulnerability and precarious security and happiness, the narcissism of youth -- they're all there, and cleverly and elegantly rendered.

But then DRAMA strikes, and the story becomes strangely much less interesting. Time seems to slow down, the prose feels more cliché, and it just isn't as compelling a narrative. Yes, the struggle to preserve a marriage -- and to figure out if you want to -- is a fascinating topic, but this rendering of it seemed somehow rote to me. The fragmentary nature of the book became an impediment, making it harder for me to get drawn in and really care about what was happening. It is hard to render female rage and woundedness in a compelling way; it often comes across as whiny and self-absorbed. Offhill teeters on the edge of that, and perhaps the brevity of the narrative keeps her just this side of tolerable. After the promise of the early-to-middle third of the book, however, this feels like a let-down. Then there's a little twist at the end, which I still don't know what I think of. It might be a smaller version of the internal deliberations I'm having about the book as a whole. Poignant? Clever? Obnoxious? Gimmicky? Or largely forgettable?