Books I Read, September 19 2016

Here in the city the light is fainter and jackets have again become fashionable. The summer seemed like it would go on forever but has not done so. I read the following books while the trees lost their monochrome, on soon-to-be-shuttered patios..

Little Lumpen Novelita by Roberto Bolano – I keep thinking I've read all of Bolano's fiction and then I keep finding little bits I haven't – I hope this trend continues on indefinitely. The recollections of a would be gun moll, though of course Bolano's plots cannot really be reduced to thumbnails, this is one of the best of Bolano's 'lesser' works, here indicating length and not quality, for in fact I think his strengths might be, first and foremost, in the novella and the novelette. In any case, he is is in top form here; his writing is at once brilliant and insightful without ever breaking out of the character's voice. It feels absolutely natural but also terribly, terribly clever, which should be impossible but somehow isn't. Sexy, scary, always vital, a minor masterpiece which once again confirms Bolano's status as one of the greatest writers of the modern age.

The General in His Labryinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – A novelized history of the last days of Simon Bolivar, the Liberator, who freed the entirety of Spanish South America only to see his dreams of a single nation running from the Carribean to Patagonia dashed by his own intransigence and the parochialism of his fellow citizens. Really, you should just know who Simon Bolivar is, I shouldn't need to give you a description. Anyway, it's not bad. Marquez is working in muted colors here (no magic, sorry) and he seems to have largely made up most of the details of Bolivar's exile from Bogota to Santa Cruz, but Bolivar feels richly believable as a great man in the last act of his tragedy.

Motherless Brooklyn By Johnathan Lethem – Look, we all have prejudices, OK? If you think you don't it's because yours are so firmly ingrained that you've ceased to be able to recognize them. Some people hate the Jews, some people hate the gays, some people hate the Inuit. I, personally, have an irrational dislike of hipster fiction. It's foolish, it's straight bigotry, but there it is. I never made an attempt at Infinite Jest, I crinkle up my nose when I hear Franzen's name mentioned, I don't know Dave Eggers from Adam. Lethem has long been on said list, but this was cheap and there was a quote on the front comparing it to Chandler and I figured, what the hell. The story of an orphaned mook from Central Brooklyn with tourette's syndrome, and his attempts to get retribution for the murder of the man who raised/corrupted him. It's totally serviceable elevated noir, the writing is not bad, the hero's illness is portrayed authentically, there is enough action to keep an audience entertained without tipping over into outright absurdity. Crime is, of course, the most absurd of all of the genres, torn as it is between demanding an extreme sharpness of prose (Chekhov's gun is never more in evidence) while also finding some way to mislead an attentive reader as to the culprit. In the hard-boiled American tradition (Chandler, Hammet, etc) the pacing and the excellent prose are meant to distract the reader from any inconsistencies of plot. More modern noir often utilize an unreliable or, in particular, an incompetent narrator, and to describe the mystery itself in such terms that the reader can't jump ahead of the hero. This sometimes gets a little kitschy (Our hero is blind! Our hero is autistic! Our hero drinks lead paint!) but it works well enough here. I'm not, frankly, altogether clear why this has quite so much critical reverence, being enjoyable but to my mind not altogether more than that. Still, I'll keep my eye out for another Lethem next time I'm hanging around the Strand.

Kingdom Come By J.G. Ballard – Sort of a less horrifying High Rise, Ballard's last novel is about a shopping center in the exurbs of London, and also about the horrifying meaningless of modern consumer driven society. Of course, being a Ballard it is beautifully written at parts, but the plot never quite hangs together and it's too similar to his earlier stuff not to invite unfavorable comparison, and I couldn't help but find a lot of the middle-England bashing to be kind of nasty in spirit. Not his best, but not terrible either.

The Hot Kid By Elmore Leonard – The entire time I spent reading this novel (admittedly, only like 4 or 5 hours) I was trying to figure out if I had read it before, but never exactly coming to a conclusion. In and of itself this actually isn't the most terrible thing you could say about a book – Ross McDonald's Lew Archer stuff are one big morass of genius in my mind – but Leonard is, bluntly, not Ross McDonald. The story of a US Marshall in the twenties who's really, really good at shooting people, and of all the people he shoots, it's readable as hell and there are some funny lines, but basically the plot is lazy and doesn't make much sense and the character's are lamentably unformed. Is Leonard actually very good? I sort of don't have the heart to go back and reread him and find out.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – It's really weird that it took me this long to get to this, but here we are. It's probably difficult for a modern reader to appreciate how original and wacky this book must have been when written – it holds such a place in the popular consciousness as to render banal what was once utterly unique. The mad scientist, the creature itself, these things have passed into cliché but of course they've done so because Shelley invented them. Some parts of it, namely the sort of grand guignol elements with the creature hunting down Frankenstein's friends, don't hold up as well. But the sheer imaginative genius of the thing remains potent, as well as the withering critique of human society. The centerpiece of the book, with the creature describing his time spent observing humanity, remains potent, as does Shelley's refusal to depict either creator or child with much affection.

The Graces by Laure Eve – (Full disclosure, Laure is a friend, in so far as we get a drink on those rare occasions when we're in the same city, and tweet mean things at each other. This was why I bought the book, but it isn't why I'm reviewing it, if I didn't like it I'd just wouldn't have said anything.)

The story of a new girl moving to a new town and becoming embroiled in the lives of a crew of beautiful, fabulous strangers is one familiar to me as even an infrequent reader of young adult fiction, but in the Graces Ms. Eve cleverly the Mary Sure archetype in a variety of clever ways the enumeration of which would constitute a spoiler. Suffice to say that it is the sort of book that functions simultaneously as an excellent example of a particular sub genre and of a meta-critique of that genre. It's fun, its surprising, pick it up.

By Mark Helprin – Ugh. Reading was like eating an entire meal made our of marzipan, and a very large meal at that. Helprin's heroic paen to the greatest generation, about a love affair between a returning serviceman and a rich socialite, and the evil men who seek to destroy them, this is 700 pages of treacle. In his immensely superior Winter's Tale (my affection for which is the reason I picked this up) Helprin's moralizing tendencies are rendered more forgivable by the fairy tale like nature of the narrative, but without that crutch to lean on it becomes tedious in the extreme. This is the sort of book in which characters are constantly agreeing with one another, in which one hero (they are mostly heroes) will give a speech and a second hero will say, “yes, I agree” and then the first hero will talk a lot more. For a man so obsessed with his racial identity Helprin seems never to have actually met a Jew, and the wit and irony for which we are justly famed are nowhere to be found in his paladin protagonist, the most tiring, didactic, exhausting moralizing hero to be found outside of a golden age comic book. Helprin has talent, obviously, and there are plenty of excellent lines to be found, excellent lines which are, sadly but inevitably, surrounded by half a dozen other, less excellent lines, saying exactly the same thing. Helprin likes good things and dislikes bad things. He likes his men heroic and his woman heroic but in a more feminine matter. He dislikes racism and rape. Who could quibble with a moral view so starkly black and white? Who, likewise, gains any benefit from a morality expressed in such juvenile terms? Avoid.

The Other by Thomas Tryon – That I figured out the twist more or less immediately did not remove the stark thrills of this novel, about an innocent thirteen year old and his sociopathic twin. Fun, creepy, generally well written, NYRB classics edition killing it as ever.

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor – Again, really, really weird that I haven't read this yet. O'Connor is justly revered for her prose, which is at once simple enough for a an adolescent to grasp (there is a reason we teach A Good Man Is Hard to Find in high school) and evocative and strange enough to leave one in modest awe. There is something very Slavic about O'Connor, a thick vein of Dostoevsky in her holy fools and desperate atheists. This was funny and disturbing and humanistic in its deepest sense. It reaffirms one's sense of the justice of human existence (a dubious premise, but still) to discover that a revered literary genius is deserving of such acclaim.

Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette – Ha! Ha! Sort of a crueler Red Harvest, about a woman who makes her living going from town to town and discovering a prominent citizen willing to pay her to kill another prominent citizen. Bloody, funny, richly and joyously amoral, a bright and thrilling read.

Mehmed, My Hawk by Yasar Kemal – Basically a Turkish adventure novel, about a Robin Hood sort of character who's mistreatment at the hands of an evil land owner leads him to become a mountain brigand, struggling with his desire for vengeance and his moral concerns. Kemal seems revered both in his native land and abroad, but I confess that apart from an authentic feeling of experience (Kemal grew up in the area the novel takes place in, and supposedly all of his uncles were bandits) there really isn't a ton here that impressed me. Can someone help me out? Is there something better of his that I should be reading?

The Outward Room by Millen Brand– Small and lovely. At the height of the great depression, a woman escapes from an insane asylum and makes a life with a laborer in the city, their quiet love proving to be more recuperative than Freudian therapy. Writing it out like that, this seems like really bad advice, but it works in the context of the story. Uplifting without being cloying, worth your time.