Books I Read October 14th, 2018

Life tip toes happily towards the apocalypse. I ate a seitan French dip sandwich. I saw Courtney Barnett at the Greek and it was great even though she didn’t play Sunday Roast which I was pretty sad about. It rained the other night, that was exciting for us here in Southern California. I saw a play in a mausoleum in Pasadena but it was pretty terrible—weird theater is something New York does better, credit where due. I wrote and walked and tried my honest best to improve the world in a meager way, or at least not to make it any worse. I also read the following…


Endgame by Ahmet Altan --  A middle aged, not particularly successful writer moves from Instanbul to a small resort town on (presumably) the Black Sea and is destroyed by its erotic secrets and nefarious crime lords. At its core a solid if unspectacular crime novel in the James M Cain vain, its gussyed up with a lot of theological/philosophical ramblings which I confess I couldn’t quite feel were on par with, say, Ecclesiastes. Altan, also a journalist, is currently serving a life sentence basically for pissing off Turkey’s increasingly dictatorial leader, but his personal heroism aside I can’t say I loved this.


The Doomsters by Ross MacDonald – Although I can’t remember anything about the plots of any of the Lew Archer books a week after I’ve read them, they do leave behind a thick residue of noirish good feeling. Truthfully, I’ve never read another series which sustained such an impressive average. MacDonald was a real talent. 


Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo – A monstrous Wall Street big shot takes a limo ride across a future-ish New York. Erotic couplings, murder, and starkly unoriginal satire take place. I’ve read three books by DeLillo and at this point my question is not is he a good writer (he is not) but why do people think he’s a good writer? Rather than engage in cheap Bulverism, however, I’ll point you over to JG Ballard, who did everything in this novel much better and some thirty years earlier.


That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilia Gadda – A sprawling murder investigation highlights the hypocrisy and injustice of Mussolini’s Rome. This is the kind of book where the plot itself takes distinct second seat to the style – Gadda favors page long, enormously complex sentences which resemble elaborate riddles, your enjoyment of which will determine your enjoyment of the book more generally. It was kind of hit or miss for me, frankly, though I gather a lot of the author’s portmanteaus and linguistic jokes are untranslatable.


Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley – The challenge in writing a classic detective novel (part of it, anyway), thrown down by Hammet, carried forth by Chandler, etc. etc., is to create a compelling protagonist through the use of negative space, so to speak; his reactions to the world around him, other character’s reactions towards him. Most readers, I think, don’t actually like this; they prefer their heroes with meaty back stories, lofts of ex lovers and lost friends and bitter enemies, but the aesthetic ideal of the genre is always towards an almost brutal lack of excess. There’s a lot to like in this story of a black ex-soldier in post-war LA who gets embroiled in murder, sex, the usual, but for my money Mosley takes too many narrative shortcuts to call it a classic. I like his Socrates Furlow (SP) stuff more, but this was perfectly serviceable to read in between exhausting foreign tomes and I’d pick up another.


The Cleft by Doris Lessing – A disgraced Roman Senator, working from lost primary documents, retells the origin of the human species as being one of lust and warfare between men and woman, then (and still, the joke runs) foreign tribes. Basically the idea is to replaced Eden with a recapitulation of the youthful sexual explorations of boys and girls. The idea is clever, and Lessing is absolutely savagely mean about it – this is the kind of book which doesn’t hew to any kind of political program, and about which devotees of any school of gender philosophy will find plenty to be annoyed about. The framing story doesn’t really work, and it goes on a lot longer than it should, but still I found the underlying idea to be so potent that it made up for its narrative missteps. This is my second Lessing book and I’m really enjoying here so far; as indisputable original.


Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil – The lives and deaths of a handful of drug users in Bombay, from the 70’s to (I guess?) the 90’s. It’s weird and vibrant and disturbing and set in an unfamiliar environment (for this reader, at least) and if I didn’t find its insights into the human condition to be absolutely heart-rendingly brilliant I didn’t beat my head against the wall in annoyance and it was pretty compellingly readable.


Spoon River Anthology  by Edgar Lee Masters – Epitaph-like poems from the interned ex-citizens of the eponymous midwestern town, whose tragic episodes come together into a larger story about greed and small-town hypocrisy. Structurally this is really innovative, a pre-cursor to Sherwood Anderson/Willam H. Gass. The poems themselves were kind of hit or miss, though, with some really lovely stuff about nature and living life intensely and so forth and then a lot of other less effective ones which were basically ‘everyone thought I was a good church goer and nice to my kids, but / I was drinking a point of moonshine every morning before breakfast’.


In the Cafe of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano – The nostalgia ridden recollections of several people who once spent time in or around a dive bar in Paris in the 50’s. Modiano is a decent enough writer, most of us half-intellectuals enjoy the fantasy of having spent time in a great world metropolis during some or other halcyon period, there’s nothing objectionable about this at all, but for the life of me I can’t understand how it has come to merit the international recognition which it seems to receive. There’s nothing here you won’t find elsewhere.


The Blue Hammer by Ross MacDonald – See my review of the Doomsters, above, or pretty much any other review of a Ross Macdonald book I’ve written, below.