Books I Read 8/30/2016

Books and books and books and books. Anyway, here are some.

Neuromancer by William Gibson – I was born in 1984, the same year that Neuromancer dropped, and so for me the future was always going to take place in some Asian-influenced megacity (sidenote: it's a funny 80's holdover that it was supposed to be Japan, with a rapidly declining population of 180 odd million people, and not the billion+ strong PRC), with street samurai roaming the back alleys, corrupt super corporations strangling the planet, wacky computer stuff, and lots of black leather. Sometimes there were even Elves, if memory serves. But still, one can imagine how new and fresh this must have felt upon arrival, coming as it did when most people didn't even own a computer and the internet was still something contained inside of Al Gore's mind. And it mostly holds up, with a rapid-fire pace and a hip sensibility that, unlike pretty much all of it's successors, isn't trying to hard. Of course, the ending doesn't make any sense, but with so much clever stuff in here – the downloaded consciousness of the protagonist's dead mentor, the Rasta space pilots – it seems almost churlish to mention it. Unfortunate that, like Tolkien, it spawned such endless varieties of absolute shit, but you can't hardly hold Gibson responsible for it. All in all a ton of of fun.

Deus Irae by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny – I remember really loving Zelazny when I was a kid, the Amber books are a ton of fun, and what was the one about the demon killing gods, or something? That was cool too. Dick, frankly, I keep reading feeling like I should like, and then finding myself annoyed when I actually stop to look at him. So we'll say this one split the difference – there are some clever throw aways here, in this story about a post-apocalyptic religious cult which is based upon the worship of violence (or something like that: despite a lot of rather sophomoric moralizing, basic tenants of the faith never become clear). But there's a lot more that fails – the plot itself just doesn't hold up at all, the characterization is the sort of thing where you know the authors themselves weren't really all that interested in them, except as interlocutors for some, again, not all that clever discussions about faith, religion, and Christianity. One had the sense that this grew out of a couple of bowls in some late 60's fantasy convention, and bluntly put it would have probably been better if it stayed there.

Farewell Song Rabindranath Tagore – A sweet little tale of romance and the idea of romance. Slight but lovely, and well worth it for this line, which had me howling in bitter agreement on a plane to Toronto – 'all my books attain moksha in single editions, liberated from the cycle of rebirth, never to appear again.

The Drought by J.G. Ballard – Yeah, I mean, basically I have the same review of this as I have of Ballard's other books about the apocalypse being brought about by some human engineered environmental catastrophe, and the mental collapse of the people trying to survive it. The Drought, the general plot of which you can probably put together yourself, is disturbingly prophetic, well-written, and did not work for me quite as well as the other Ballard stuff I've been reading, although that's probably not because it's a step down in quality so much as they're all a bit similar. Still, well-worth a read, if just for the whole wacky water-harvesting sequence, which was dope as all hell.

Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier – So, so good. I've read a lot of the English WWI autobiographies (although this is technically a fiction, it's obviously informed by Chevallier's own experience in the trenches), Goodbye to All That, etc., and I have to say this blows it out of the water. As the title indicates, Chevallier seeks to strip bare the pointless horror of mechanized warfare, and to redefine the doughy infantrymen as one who, with the rarest exceptions, is defined largely if not exclusively by a desperate, all consuming, immediate physical terror. If you've ever wondered about what you would look like if you were forced to grab a rifle and hold a trench at the Somme, pick this one up and feel bad about yourself. Strongly recommended.

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster – So, all in all I liked this. It's readable and melancholic and the notion that the third book in the series if meant to serve as sort of an ur-text for the first two is quite clever. It's my first of Auster's and later this week I went out and bought two more, which, concretely, is as good a recommendation as you could kind of ask for. Admittedly, it manages to do in 350 pages what Borges does better in about 9, but fine, we can't all be Borges, and mostly I enjoyed myself while I was occupied with it. All the same, I'm going to spend a few hundred words trashing it, or, more accurately, trashing the literary establishment which loves it so much.

So, this might reasonably be described as a sort of anti-mystery novel. It takes the tropes of the genre, with which Auster is clearly familiar, and subverts them. There are private detectives and people pretending to be private detectives, there are investigations and there are even (sort of) femme fatales. The set up is familiar enough, but the pay off goes loopy, with each of the first two stories (the third is a bit more complicated) basically mocking the idea that mysteries can be solved, that there is such a thing as identity, etc.

Well and good—but it leaves one wondering, why is this considered superior to the classic formula? Even the biggest Auster fan could not, in good consciousness, pretend that this is a work of profound human insight. If pressed, one would say that it was about identity, and obsession, and the way in which our creations usurp us, and the unknowable quality of existence, but, I mean, honestly, so what? This is not the sort of book which enlightens some corner of our shared experience, which redefines our self-conception—it is essentially a form of entertainment, not, in the last gasp, much different from Hammet or Chandler. Why, then, is Auster considered a genius and the aforementioned writers talented hacks? Is not providing a pay-off evidence of brilliance? Let me tell you something, friends, as a writer, endings are hard as shit. Making things wrap up in a coherent or even semi-coherent way, that's a lot of work. Far easier to just kind of trail off at the end there, a few notes about walking down a dark alley and never returning, and who are you to say to that you aren't the person you're chasing, and blah blah. Honestly I'm less taking aim at Auster here, cause I actually liked this, then I am someone like, for instance, Murakami, who has essentially made a career writing mediocre pulp which gets elevated to high literature because it doesn't have an ending.

The 47 Ronin Story by John Allyn – I picked this up because it was by the same publisher as the really, really, really excellent The Ronin, which I can't highly enough recommend, but it was terrible and not worth reading. It's not well written and it's not interesting and these two sentences were more time than it probably warrants.

Timbuktu by Paul Auster – Uhhhh...not good. Kind of a pretentious Marley and Me. I mean I didn't actually read Marley and Me but that's the sense I get of the thing. It's about a dog in search of an owner. I kept waiting for it to get way more clever but it never actually did. Avoid.


Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant – this is someone's favorite book, I'm sure, but it wasn't mine. Ms. Gallant is a talented writer of prose but, except for a few exceptions (the late returner and the couple of ones about the aging French novelist, the titles of which I find I can't be bothered to go back and look up) I was left cold at her work. They're skilled but bloodless, and I kept getting to the end of each and being glad I was done and faintly annoyed with the effort it took to get there.

The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell – very, very peculiar, and not altogether excellent, though interesting just to see Woodrell's development. These three very early books detail (sort of) the life of Rene Shade, a Cajun police detective in a corrupt, slightly fantastical version of Baton Rouge. The first of the three is a straight police thriller, competent but utterly rote. Rene is a two-fisted, hard-drinking investigator who straddles the line between cop and crook, trying to do the right thing in a world which so manifestly does not reward the righteous. All of the usual cliches are here, and the writing is a long way from the excellence Woodrell shows in the vastly superior Winter's Bone. The second in the trilogy is a step up from the first, has some well-written scenes of violence and a meaner, tighter ending, but is likewise essentially unmemorable. Shade himself is just not interesting; we've seen him too many times in too many other stories, it's a struggle to give a shit about what happens to him.

Which, perhaps Woodrell knew, which is why he is, unexpectedly and inexplicably, relegating to a minor participant in the third book, replaced by his previously mentioned but never seen father, John X. Shade, a pool-player and general scum bag, who is forced to return to the bosom of his family while escaping a sociopath whose money he sort of stole. Gone are the conventional mysteries of the first two books in the trilogy, and the various hooks which are raised—the corrupt mayor, a crime boss against whom Rene had sworn vengeance, etc. – are never answered. It's a very peculiar narrative decision, frankly, and one which comes completely out of left field. One wonders how Woodrell's editors felt about him handing in a book which only very tangentially relates to the other two. In any event, it is objectively much better than the first two; weirder, better written, more in the 'southern Gothic' style than the classic detective mode. A one-off episode in which the pursuing sociopath gets entangled with a pair of milk-fed cornhuskers with less than savory motivations is particularly fun. Still, it's got a lot of flaws. Too much is happening too quickly, and while I didn't care particularly for the first two books it was still annoying not to have some sort of resolution for the narrative questions which were raised. Probably only interesting to a Woodrell completist, and even then barely.

The Book of Illusions By Paul Auster – This sucked. Sucked sucked sucked sucked sucked. Utterly mediocre. Shoddily written, never pretty and often not even competent (a rough third of the book consists of the narrator describing movies which don't exist). The characters are paper thin, their motivations largely nonsensical. Its got Auster's usual obsessions about identity, and writing as a form of creation, and blah blah blah, but it doesn't lead into anything meaningful. This was my third Auster book, as mentioned, and I feel confident it's going to be my last. One more exhibit that the modern critical establishment just doesn't have a goddamn idea what they're doing.