Books I Read October 30th, 2016

A fine week, a solid week, largely uneventful apart from the unseasonable heat. I finished a draft of a book you might one day read, and an idea for another came in hard Monday afternoon, muscling aside its siblings, demanding attention. I ate and drank well, I walked distances, I saw interesting things, I read well (as you'll see). Depending on tomorrow, next week, next month, slave to the perverse subjectivity of memory, I may well look back upon the 17th to the 23rd of October as the quiet peak of my happiness on earth, walking blissfully and all unknowing the final few steps towards the precipice. In retrospect, given the crushing weight of misfortune looming ahead, I might have enjoyed it more. Ah, well, there's always next week. Or, potentially, not.

Editors Note: I wrote the above and most of the following the night before my REDACTED went into the hospital for REDACTED, hence the broadly apocalyptic theme. But REDACTED turned out fine, oh happy day. Anyway, excuse last week's absence, I promise to be more consistent in the future, but not really.

The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky – Regarding a group of brilliant novelists who have forsaken their craft to devote their energy to weekly meetings of the eponymous society, during which each tells a story that is meant to in some way upend traditional narrative conventions. The short stories themselves are peculiar but broadly entertaining, most containing a speculative element of some kind – probably the most memorable is about a government-engineered virus which eliminates free will, a clear predecessor to Orwell and Huxley, though coming out more than a generation earlier (roughly coterminous with Zamyatin's We). I dug them mostly, and the meta-narrative engenders a sort of growing horror, though I confess I could make neither hide or hair of the club's guiding philosophy, indeed am not altogether clear if I was supposed to. Krzhizhanovsky is odd and brilliant and doesn't read like any other Russian writer of the age, let alone any of his occidental counterparts, and his hits make up for his misses. I think I would probably still recommend his collection of short stories, but this is worth a view.

The Gate by Soseki Nastume – About a Japanese clerk circa 1910 whose fortunes and mental health have been ruined by a scandalous marriage, living in a small house in Tokyo with his wife. On the one hand, Nastume's style is very deliberately subtle – there is little plot to speak of, the narrative being driven by the protagonist's apathy and inability to affect his circumstance. At the same time, stylistic peculiarities of the novel at the age, in particular the English novel of which Nastume was one of the earliest foreign imitators, insist on fairly elaborate descriptions of the mental state of the protagonist. Between the two I found that Nastume's personal aesthetic was sort of in conflict with the story he was trying to tell – I felt like I knew too much about the protagonist in some ways, was offered insight into his psyche that he himself did not possess. On the other hand the loving, intimate description of post Meiji-Restoration Japan is a delight, and Nastume has a talent for language. I enjoyed this and will keep an eye out for another.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker – The story of a half-mad undergrad attempting to ruin the wedding of her identical twin sister. You can see why this is an acknowledge mid-century classic – Baker's writing is excellent, funny and clever while still remaining the chaacter's distinct voice. Indeed, I enjoyed the first two thirds of the novel so much that I found myself rather keenly disappointed by the ending which is, in the words of a woman who saw me reading it in a restaurant the other day, 'too tidy.' But still it's the sort of disappointment where you feel like the thing goes from being a masterpiece to just super, super good, that is to say, one that I can live with. Strong recommendation.

Oh, yeah, one last note – while I bow to no one in my esteem for the NYRB Classics folk, whoever wrote the back cover for this absolutely fucked a dog. Cassandra's homosexuality is a plot point which shouldn't be revealed in the summary. So, yeah, change that.

The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar – Reading a book by a person you know is a lose/lose proposition. Either you like it, which is damaging to the ego and corrupting to any similar ideas you may have had, or you don't like it, and are forced to mouth lies to them at gatherings. I've known Lavie Tidhar for, I dunno, four or five years now, quite casually, we send each other mean twitter messages and meet for drinks on extremely infrequent occasions. I have a short story in his for-charity anthology Jews Vs. Zombies. I do a really severely good impression of him, it's just savage, ask me at a bar sometime.

Anyway, having never read anything else by the man I still get the sense this is one of his more commercial works, which is to say that it is resolutely noncommercial. The plot itself is relatively simple – a bit of John LeCarre, a pinch of Dashiell Hammet (anyone who has read this and my own Low Town trilogy, please take note that the 'Old Man''s appearance in both is an independent act of appropriation on each of our parts) but mostly just straight up WWII era Marvel Comics, Captain America knocking out Hitler, that sort of thing. But the style is, if not Finnegan's Wake, more dificult (seemingly) than most of what you will see in genre fiction – there are no quotation marks, for instance, and the story breaks with some frequency between descriptions of past events and characters commenting on these events in the present. I say seemingly because, in fact, the style is all cleverly slanted so as to provide the narrative a ferocious momentum, with expository information peppered in between the action. I really devoured this thing over the course of a short bus ride. The point being, I'm glad I didn't have any ideas for writing something about superheroes, because I'd probably have to chuck them. Good on you, Lavie.

A Confederate General From Big Sur – A totally entertaining comic novel, about a couple of Beat-era wastrels in Northern California. Or novella, really, it can't be fifty thousand words. Anyway, I quite enjoyed it, though I'm not sure there I would pretend there was a tremendous amount there. My first Brautigan, I've got two more to go through before I commit to any broader decisions on the man, I know you're all just mad with anticipation but you'll still have to wait.

Lies, First Person by Gail Hareven – A middle-aged Israeli woman becomes obsessed with taking vengeance on her uncle, who molested her sister years earlier as part of an effort to plumb the mind of Adolf Hitler. It's...extremely dark. Ms. Hareven is clearly very talented – the prose itself is uncomplicated, but the moral questions she raises – about guilt, and evil, and the possibility of redemption, are of the highest order. Raised, but never answered. The ending – THIS IS SORT OF SPOILERY, SORRY – seems to so nakedly praise the healing power of vengeance as to suggest that either our unreliable narrator is being unreliable, or the writer is making a broader ironic commentary. And while both of those notions seem possible I confess I struggled to discern strong evidence for either, or at least not significantly stronger than for a blunter reading of the text. Page to page it also drags about, particular during the long third portion during which the (anti-)heroine is talking herself into violence which I found rather tiring. That said, sometimes you can not like a book but still like the writer, if that makes sense, and I'll keep an eye out for something else by Ms. Hareven.