Books I Read November 7th, 2016

Right. The last week! It was Halloween, that was fun, I stuck to my usual Halloween tradition of going to Dive Bar in park slope and drinking something seasonal and watching ninja turtles etc. strut down the avenue in search of chocolate. Working like a dog, but towards something, you know? Or don't we all think. I had a friend from out of town visit over the Weekend, and got to do that thing where you walk around your neighborhood and go, 'oh, this old place? Yes, we do have a Korean-Fusion restaurant.' So that was fun. Is something going on tomorrow? Gosh, I can hardly remember.. No, you're the one checking 538 twice-hourly. Shut up, no one even likes you.

Peace by Gene Wolfe – Yeah, so I re-read this over Halloween, and I've got thoughts. I'm going to type them up and see if I can't get someone to publish them. In the meantime, read my first review of it, here...

Speed Boat by Renata Adler – Wow. Holy shit. Woo-hoo. Similar expressions of enthusiastic delight which don't translate as well read as they do spoken. I loved, loved this book, even slightly more I think then I did Pitch Dark, which I would also very highly recommend. There is no narrative to speak of, the text consisting of very brief stories, observations and one-liners, provided courtesy of our loosely drawn protagonist, a reporter and jet setter pushing towards middle age in the early 1970's, trying to make sense of the wreckage of her youth. The disparate passages collectively offer a vivid view of the (admittedly narrow) world of the highly educated, culturally sophisticated, faintly progressive east coast bourgeoisie, and they do so with the most masterful comic touch. In her deftness and rhythm, as well as her general savagery of tone, Adler reminds one of of Kingsley Amis and even, bear with us kids cause the praise doesn't get much higher, Waugh himself. Sentences veers back and forth against themselves, an anarchic mess of sustained hilarity but with the most admirable precision of language. Adler is unsparing in the pretensions of her set, but not embittered or hateful – they are silly, arrogant, sad, clever, funny, slightly more decent than you might expect. It's not really like I keep a running list of these things but I have to say with this book Adler has entered the tiniest inner circle of my favorite authors.

Dreaming of Babylon By Richard Brautigan – Brautigan's gonzo comic voice over with the bare bones of a classic Hammet/Chandler PI plot. If I don't write much about it that's because there's not a ton to write, other than that Brautigan is laugh out loud funny, and this was a delight.

Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson – A nemesis is someone whose funeral you would attend in a black suit with red hands, mourning quietly and without histrionics, tossing your handful of dirt upon the coffin, offering honest condolences to the bereaved. In that spirit, and with his blessing, I will hereby offer an honest review of Rjurik Davidson's Unwrapped Sky (my second, in fact, though the first was tendered without having actually read the book.) Doing so goes against my own instincts and the code of our shared guild, one of the tenants of which is, to my mind at least, that a non-professional review ought to be entirely and unequivocally positive. In an age where novels are rated along side coffee machines the slightest expression of dislike echoes loud as a thunderclap, and it is a cruel bastard indeed who would do anything to lessen the likelihood of a sale.

I suppose I am that cruel bastard.

To mention all of the ways in which Davidson eschews standard fantasy tropes is to damn the novel with faint praise; at the same time, they deserve a brief mention, if only because it is sadly still so rare. Here you will find no golden children, no forgotten sons of gods, no magic swords, no Tolkien-inspired races, and no satanic analogues. The themes being handled are of weight and import, are more than the standard sad masculine power fantasies which tend to define most of the other books being shelved in next to his, 'what if I could shoot fire out of my hands!?! Everyone would have to listen to me then!'

Knowing Rjurik, I expected all of this going in, and so accord him no particular points for not putting out drivel. Where I do credit the man, where the book does deserve praise, is first and foremost in its lively and original world building. Davidson has a fertile if rococo imagination, and innumerable small bits of Caeli-Amur proved memorable to me – the watery wonderland in which an aristocrat takes his siren ingenue, the endless shifting castle of the House of Technic. The minotaurs were were cool. The magic system is likewise deftly sketched, believable without being intrusively elaborate, and from one specialist to another, I tip my hat. Within the framework of a relatively traditional narrative, Davidson likewise manages to juke left a couple of times when I figured he was moving right. The secret plan of the demonic overlords (I'm not going to look up the real names of these, he is my enemy after all) was weird and cool and different, and so was the resolution of the Boris storyline.

Davidson is, of course, an unreconstructed Marxist (isn't that adorable! It's like someone wearing a cowboy outfit, I want to take a selfie to chronicle the anachronism) and there are points in the novel which will seem, shall we say, over-familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the Russian revolution. But Davidson's politics, though informing his world, do not become didactic or deform the story. His revolutionaries are flawed, imperfect figures – they would not make it past the scrutiny of the Politburo without serious revision.

Enough with the kindnesses, lets make with the knives. When I told Rjurik I was reading his book he suggested I read his second. This is a common reaction among clever people to their first book (Get me drunk some time and ask me to name all the things wrong with A Straight Razor Cure, I could write a book of all but equal length). I felt at times that he relied too much on inner monologues to express the point of view of his characters, rather than revealing it in some subtler fashion. His scenes of physical violence did not thrill me, though it must be said that scenes of physical violence very rarely do.

On balance, the pros far outweighed the cons, from my POV at least, though it's only fair to point out that I am more or less the exact target audience for this, as someone who has read Victor Serge and also knows the feel of a D20. Rjurik and I hold quite similar slates of obsession –can a person truly be called free, given the historic circumstances which limit our choices? What is personal morality in a world going rapidly off a cliff? Are human relationships defined exclusively by power?

It's worth your time to ask these questions in the company of Maxamillian, Kata et al. I guess what I'm saying is this – if you were to read one pasty, bald-faced Marxist, you would be better off picking this up than say, Perdido Street Station.

Your move, Rjurik.

Conversations with Beethoven by Sanford Friedman – Yeah...not bad. The conceit itself is clever enough – the collected jottings of the relatives, friends and acquaintances of Beethoven in the year before his death, after his hearing had depreciated to the point where all communication needed to be written down and passed to him. As Beethoven mostly spoke his responses, our picture of the maestro is drawn largely in negative space, that is to say, from the way the other characters interact with him. What develops is a portrait of an irascible, tormented genius, in whom kindness, wit and self-sacrifice are intermingled with hypocrisy, misogyny, and bitterness. The nuanced depiction of the characters, each offering a contrary perspective on each other and on the maestro himself, works excellently, but the individual personalities do not sparkle particularly. I couldn't help but compare it to other polyphonic novels I've read, in which I felt the individual perspectives to be more captivating.