Two days before my 32nd I decided the thought of facing a birthday in my usual environs was once I couldn't stand, and it turns out flights to Bogota are shockingly cheap, and so I hopped a plane down to Colombia. I have this long-standing policy that when traveling, I try and bring along books I couldn't bring myself to read if I was sitting in one place, so most of the last few weeks were spent walking along the city's and beaches and occasionally mountains of northern South America, eating street food, drinking cocktails, and reading impenetrably dense works of fiction, none of which I really enjoyed. Then I came home and promptly wrote the first half of this blog post, really, sincerely meaning to put it up on my website, because I have a website, goddamn it, and I might as well put something up on it. But things kept getting in the way; very long walks across New York, for instance, and this new book I've been working on, and drinking with friends, and occasionally chatting with a girl. And the list of things I read kept getting longer and I kept feeling less inclined to write these reviews, until there was a big stack of literature waiting to be shelved and I finally bowed to the wait of pressure. Update:: Actually, I didn't post this on time, so it's all about a month late. But then again, who cares.
The Night Manager by John Le Carre – look, you can't blame John le Carre for the Cold War ending, but the fact remains that his brand of endlessly elaborate, shades-of-gray political thrillers worked a lot better before the fall of the Berlin wall. There's nothing wrong about the Night Clerk except that anyone remotely familiar with anything else Lecarre has written can figure out what's going to happen from about 5% of the way in. Amoral politicians, shadowy bureaucrats, femme fatales, action scenes written in a fashion which denudes them entirely of excitement, they're all there. Which isn't to say it's bad, really, it isn't, it's quite readable, I finished it on the flight down to Bogota in pretty much one go. But it isn't exactly good, either, which is why I pretty much immediately forgot everything about it.
Beware of Pity Stefan Zweig – Having read this and the Chess Story, I confess I'm curious as to why this sudden critical rediscovery of Zweig has taken place. He's not bad, exactly, but there's nothing that I've seen in his writing which absolutely demands we all go back and take a look at him. Is it just illegitimate nostalgia for the last days of the Dual Monarchy? If so, I'll take Sandor Marai (read Embers if you haven't, lots of fun.) Anyway-- Beware of Pity of Guilt is aptly named, the story of a young cavalry officer who gets embroiled into a love affair with a crippled girl because he lacks the moral strength to cause her emotional injury, the end result of which is predictably terrible (all of this is revealed in the prologue, so I don't think I'm offering any spoilers). The introduction heralds Zweig for his familiarity with the then little known theories of Sigmund Freud, and for subverting the Christian paradigm of personal sacrifice as being an inevitable good, but that doesn't quite hold water for me. The notion that guilt could be a vice, one that a strong man ought rid himself of, goes back literally to Classical Greece (for Aristotle, the purpose of tragedy was to purge the viewer of their unhealthy inclination towards excessive sympathy), and any early 20th century intellectual worth his salt would have been familiar with Nietzsche and his whole strength through weakness thing. During his life, Zweig was famous mostly for his non-fiction, so maybe I'll pick up one of those before writing him off completely.
Petersburg by Andre Bely – I saw something which called Bely the Russian Joyce, and I was like, yes, sign me up for that one. But after six hundred pages, six hundred pages which went by like a root canal performed by a dentist with delerium tremens, I wish I hadn't. Not that the analogy is entirely inapt – both writers have a fascination with place, and with language at its most basic, that is to say with sound, and both enjoy intertwining earthy, almost silly sorts of humor with immense erudition. But I loved Ulysses and I kind of hated this, and I'm going to try and sort out why in the rest of this review.
Here's the thing about Ulysses, to go on a long digression, and why so few books which are compared to that masterwork actually deserve the analogy. Ulysses is, of course, unimaginably complicated—to understand it in its totality would require months of study, careful research, knowledge of many dozens of other authors, etc. But—and this is what makes the book so exceptional—even a much more casual reading will still reveal essential aspects of Joyce's message, a core understanding which makes you want to go back and put in the immense effort to more fully appreciate the complexities of the work. Fine, only an exceptional genius could easily comprehend (for instance) the night town chapter, but even an individual of my own modest capacity comes away from, say, Mollie's soliloquy in awe of its beauty and profundity. It's like one of those rubbery things you put in a bathtub that expand to a hundred times their own size, except the water is your intellectual effort. I'm not great at metaphors.
Petersburg by contrast, and frankly many other books in the modernist line, fail to accomplish this. I will not second guess Nabakov, who rated the book the 4th best novel of the 20th century, but there is very little to this which a casual reader will enjoy. The language is deliberately stilted to a maddening degree, the characters are not intended to be fully rounded. There is a certain amount of pleasure which can be derived from trying to uncover the little linguistic tricks which Bely incorporates into nearly every paragraph, but if you're anything like me you'll swiftly grow bored of it. I don't doubt that there is a core of brilliance here, but nothing about the book made me want to struggle to uncover it.
The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla – man, I hate writing negative reviews, it's tiring and it makes me feel nasty, even though the last three authors are long dead. Pla, apparently a giant of Catalonian literature, kept an intricate journal of the 22nd year of his life, writing down his experiences when an Influenza plague forced him to leave Barcelona for his small coastal village, as well as his time as a law student once the disease subsided. There is no plot to speak of, and nothing really happens, and that's a tough task to set oneself, and to surmount it one would need to be an excessively brilliant writer, and I didn't quite feel that Pla meets this high bar. For every bit that was funny, or engaging, or lovely sounding, there is a lot of gossip and X and things that I had no particular interest in. In fairness, at one point towards the end of the book Pla goes on a long soliloquy requesting that any theoretical readers consume the Gray Notebook in the same fashion which Pla created it, that is to say, in small bursts and over the course of months and even years. Not having abiding by his request, it may well be illegitimate for me to criticize it. I'd check something else out by him at some point in the future.
Wylder's Hand by J. Sheridan Le Fanu – It's peculiar how badly pulp literature ages. I'm not sure why that is, exactly, but here we go. A hundred and fifty years ago everyone in England had read Walter Scott, he was absolutely ubiquitous, he was more than a writer he was a cultural reference point. If you wanted (so I gather) to make fun of someone's intellectual pretensions you might say of them that they were big Walter Scott fans, that kind of thing. These days, who on Earth has even read the Waverly novels? Anyway, Wylder's Hand – it's a murder mystery, basically, with a touch of the supernatural. If condensed to about half the length—which, actually, wouldn't be all that difficult—it would be entertaining. The writing isn't bad and there's some pathos to it. But it's 500 pages instead of 200, and a lot of them don't add anything to the plot, and I was bored quite a bit, which is acceptable if you're reading, say, a cultural history of Victorian-era Britain but not for pulp. Skip.
The Hustler by Walter Tevis – Loved this. Loved it. The perfect antidote to the last five. The story of Fast Eddie's attempt to become the greatest pool player in America, a hill that he must climb over the corpse of Minnesota Fats (the names, right? The Names!) Fast, sharply written, a meditation on, basically, the Will to Power as expressed over a pool table. The character sketches are divine, I spent a lot of time reading it and laughing loudly in bars. Definitely check this out.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – As a general rule, books which become as popular as Gone Girl became are terrible. There is a simple enough reason for this – most people do not read books, or read very few books, and so those books which become ubiquitous are being consumed by many people who have very little practice in the skill of reading comprehension (and it is a skill), and so require a simplicity of language, character, and plot which mandate the books themselves must be trash. Dan Brown or The Girl Who... books are good example of absolute shit which is being swallowed by huge portions of the populace.
Gone Girl is not a good example of this. Gone Girl is, absolutely and unreservedly, fucking awesome. I would go so far as to say Gone Girl is one of the best noirs that has been written in the last half century, a devastatingly nasty, surprisingly traditional work of jet black pulp. To find something this mean and this good you pretty much need to go back to Jim Thompson, and there isn't much praise I can give higher than that. I won't bother with a discussion of the plot or whatever, since you've probably read it and if you haven't I don't want to spoil anything. But I will say a bit about it; Gone Girl works so well because it is built around archetypes and social dynamics which are familiar to the reader; the type A woman and her loser husband, the attempts of the former to make the latter palatable. It's genius (apart from the writing, and the pacing, and a great number of other things) is that it stretches these cliches to their extreme but still recognizable. It is shocking that Gone Girl became so popular, not only because it is so well-written, but because it's mean as hell, and it's mean in a recognizable way. Excellent, read if you haven't.
The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – My first Ballard! Late to the game, I know. Anyway, it's fabulous. Dreamlike, erotic, exciting, working as an adventure novel and as a philosophical discursion. Strange and sad and melancholic, as soon as I read it I ran out and bought a bunch more. Ballard deserves the accolades he gets.
The Day of Forever by J.G. Ballard – Yeah. Not bad, but actually not nearly as good as the two novels I've read. I did really like the one about the guy who has his town in the box, but a lot of them seem like kind of b-grade Twilight Zone stuff. Is there a stronger collection of short stories than this that someone can recommend?
High Rise by J.G. Ballard – Hahah! Hahah! Jesus, this was mean. Wow. Astonishing that Gone Girl was not the nastiest thing I read this month, but then again not much can rival this minor masterpiece. The story of how the population of a yuppie apartment building descending to unimaginable (though Ballard imagines them) depths of depravity and atavism, immeasurably foul and yet beautifully written, a critique of modernity which is stunning in its brutality. Wait, they made a movie out of this? How the hell could you make a movie out of this? It seems impossible. Anyway, I stayed up all night reading it and then couldn't sleep when I was done. Great stuff.