Books I Read January 23 2017

The warmest January in recorded history was a mixed bag for yours truly, between general existential despair and my predictably poor slate of decisions. On the other hand, hell if I didn’t read some fire the last three weeks, as detailed below…

Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man by R. Ananthamurthy – Praneshacharyah is a righteous man, by the standard of his caste and creed, a pious Brahmin who’s religious and moral attainments have gained him wide fame. He is the leader of a colony of other Brahmin, mostly rather unlikable people as people tend to be. Far the worst of them is Naranappa, a blasphemer and troublemaker, whose death throws the community into chaos. Though he turned on his caste, violating constantly the tenants of his faith, still Naranappa was a Brahmin, and before his corpse can be immolated it needs to undergo a series of rituals, which only his fellow Brahmin can perform, the execution of which is at once a moral necessity and itself blasphemous in so far as Naranappa had fouled himself with alcohol and unclean living. His struggles to thread this needle drive Praneshacharyah towards madness, forcing him to reconsider essential aspects of his existence, all as the plague begins to ravage the land around him. There are no easy answers here, and while the hypocrisies of the Brahmin colony are cruelly skewered, still Praneshacharyah is a fundamentally sympathetic character, struggling to find clarity in a world which refuses it, seeking after righteousness without success. One can easily see why this is considered a classic of non-Western literature, dealing with particularly Indian concerns in a way that will have universal resonance to any serious reader. Excellent, well worth your time.

The Unknown Masterpiece by Honore de Balzac -- Fascinating, yeah. Two short stories about art, the eponymous of which seems to preface the development of non-representative visual art by about 70 years. Yeah, Balzac, I guess I can see why people keep talking about this guy, apart from the pun.

The Gallery by John Horne Burns -- Interesting. Burns worked in intelligence during WWII, and his job appears largely to have been trying unsuccessfully to keep his fellow soldiers from selling their equipment and rations to the starving Italian population which surrounded them. In this curiously structured novel – consisting mostly of sketches of characters that might have been found in Naples during the US occupation, smugglers, down on their luck GIs, syphilis victims, arrogant officers, club owners, etc. – Burns presents a vision of the war which seems utterly unfamiliar, miserable and resolutely unheroic, the mindless destruction of an ancient civilization by the brute force of modernity, and the human wreckage left behind. A closeted homosexual, Burns also offers a distinct view into the gay subculture which (flourished? Existed?) around the army at that time. His experience provides some really fascinating insights, and he’s a skilled writer, but he was also like 25 when he wrote this, and it reads like it. He tries to do to much, and actually one gets the sense that this would have been more effective if it had eschewed the peculiar format for a straighter narrative. It’s not at all bad, but it’s also pretty miserable and quite difficult, and so I can only offer a sort of mixed-recommendation.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman -- To my mind Gaiman is a talented epigone, reworking the writing of better authors into a package more acceptable to your average reader. This isn’t to say I don’t like him – I do like him, albeit kind of grudgingly. His prose is generally not terrible, and he has an undeniable talent for the sort of throw away fantastical bits which I love (here, for instance, the bucket itself, and the broken toys, that sort of thing). That said, to me there can be no serious comparison between say, Little, Big and American Gods, or for that matter The Jungle Book and The Graveyard Book. Gaiman’s imagination runs within a comfortably modest preserve, never really piercing genre conceits, nor confusing the reader with complex language. Where Gaiman’s genius lies – and it can only be called genius – is in the art of self-promotion. For most of his vast sea of readers, Gaiman has come to be irreparably confused with be Morpheus, Dream Lord etc. of the Sandman (still his best work, IMHO). There is a certain grandeur to this – Gaiman had a dream and made the world believe it. That is no mean feat, and as an honest man I tip my hat to him.

Anyway, on to the book. It’s a work of mediocrity. There’s not much getting around that. Gaiman is in the privileged position of being able to get the market to accept formats which less popular writers would never be able to shove across, in this case passing off a long-ish novella as a full novel, a fairly rare structure for a story and one that is useful in keeping the reader a bit unmoored. The plot is sketch-like in its simplicity -- boy enters wardrobe (or neighbors farm, in our case), endangers himself through foolishness, must be saved – and it moves along at a brisk pace. And although the whole thing is a bit deus ex machina, with each new event, creature, spell and counterspell being revealed more or less at the moment, still I basically felt it was effective enough as an adventure story. But the framing device – about Gaiman going back to his childhood home, and nostalgia, and art, and etc, mostly fell quite flat for me. I kept stopping at lines and thinking, ‘that’s remarkably unclever’, or even, ‘no, that just isn’t true at all.’ There’s just so much Goddamn excess sentimentality, I couldn’t get past it.

On the other hand it’s only like 150 pages, and it wasn’t like an entirely unpleasant go, so if you can snatch it up for not the cover price (which is just unreasonable given the length of the book) you could do worse for a pleasant afternoon idyll.

Gabriele D'Annunzio by John Woodhouse -- I’d been doing nothing but fiction for a few weeks, and I wanted to shake it up with something fact based and concrete, and I’ve got this friend talking up D’Annunzio, and I saw this randomly and picked it up. But I never actually read any of D’Annunzio’s writing, which in retrospect is an odd way to be introduced to the life of someone who, despite a vibrant but essentially trivial political existence, was primarily a writer. Anyway, yeah, D’Annunzio was a really, really terrible person, and I came away from this book really wanting to smack him in that fat, bald head of his with a shovel. There seems to be a stronger case than I appreciated for seeing him as the link between actual Nietzschean thought and the fascist gibberish which Mussollini gifted, with such disastrous intent, to Hitler himself. As to the book itself, it’s not great. I gather that these days D’Annunzio is mostly famous for his peculiar sexual appetites, and that there is something of an academic cottage industry in Italy consisting of chronicling his exploits, and that Woodhouse himself is reacting against this by writing a deliberately dry text. The language itself is workmanlike but uninspired, and while I can appreciate a biographer wanting to avoid too much overt moralizing (especially on such a controversial figure), but the result is a text which seems to consist of recitations of concrete facts about D’Annunzio’s life, without much of an effort to tie him to the larger intellectual currents of his age. I’m honestly not exactly sure who this would appeal to, in so far as your average reader will be bored and any D’Annunzio scholars will likely already be familiar with the events herein.

In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami – Ooooh! Ooooh! This was a nasty one, damn. Kenji is an aimless 20 year old who eeks out a living taking foreign tourists on tours of Tokyo’s sex clubs and brothels. Frank is his newest customer, a terrifying, sympathetic American who…well, you can probably put it together by the cover art and the first couple of sentences. This is a brutal existential noir, Kenji as the everyman forced to stare at the bleak heart of modern Japanese society. It is…not for the faint of heart, and even horror fans are likely to find some of this prose too much for them. Recommendation wise, I’ll put it this way – if this is the kind of thing you want to read, I would go ahead and read it. That is to say, it delivers on what it promises.

The Town and The Mansion By William Faulkner – Let me preface this by saying, on the extremely off chance that someone from Vintage International reads this, whoever wrote the back copy of this should be yelled at, fired, and then run out of town on a fucking rail. HOW FUCKING STUPID ARE YOU TO SPOIL THE END OF THIS ENTIRE TRILOGY ON THE BACK COVER OF THE BOOK. Seriously, I want to find this person and beat them upside the head with something (assuming they’re a man of appropriate beating age.)

End of rant. Right. So, I’m going to just review both of these together, since I read them one after the other and my thoughts apply to both. Faulkner’s prose is, for my soon-to-be-rapidly-depreciating-US-dollar, about as good as you’re going to find. It’s like jumping into cold water, painful at first, and then innervating – the compulsive sentences rolling downward, the bits that are deliberately left unsaid, the clever obfuscations, the profane jokes. And his plotting is fiendishly clever, something which you one very rarely finds oneself saying about ‘literary’ writers. In his big reveals, in his nested secrets and sudden murders, there is a whiff of the genre ghetto to Faulkner (no surprise he wrote the screenplay for Big Sleep, even if he kind of fucked the pooch on the ending). And both of these qualities are on display in these two, the second and third books in the Snopes Trilogy, which details the life of one Flem Snopes, an amoral backwoods savage with a genius for a sharp trading and a desire to attain respectability.

I devoured these, laughed loudly at them in bars, kept yelling at acquaintances about it. And yet…well, obviously, when one is reading one of the great writers of the age, as indeed I believe Faulkner to be, one is not just asking ‘is this a good book’, because of course it’s a good book, even the shit Faulkner tossed out just for money (The Reivers, I’m looking at you) are really good. What one is asking is, ‘is this one of the works which cements the authors place in the canon’, and the answer to this trilogy is, no, not quite, not to my mind. The main characters in the book – Lawyer Stevens, Eula and Linda, and of course Flem himself – never quite come together. Various smaller bits, about the rest of the Snopes clan and pitiful folk they abuse, are far stronger, but the motivations for the major characters felt, ultimately, either vague or kind of unconvincing.

Which is to say, I suppose, that if you haven’t read Faulkner, read Faulkner but maybe don’t start here, and if you’ve already read Absalom, Absalom, etc. then you could do a lot worse than counting on with the Snopes trilogy.

My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes -- Yeah, just fabulous. About a middle aged Hollywood hack who makes a bad decision with a young woman. Short, and the plot is simple, but it feels authentic and honest in its despair. Also pretty fabulously written. Reading it, I found myself thinking of Mulholland Drive, the themes of which – innocent woman in trouble, or is she – are on display here. So, yeah, if anyone knows David Lynch, maybe ask him if he’s read this? And if he hasn’t, you know, tell him he should, cause I think he’d like it. You can also read it if you aren’t David Lynch. You don’t have to be David Lynch to read it, obviously.