Today I can make honest claim on 35 years of life, during which I have never lied to a friend, broken faith with a lover, or cheated anyone who didn't really, really deserve it. In the first half of May, I read the following...
Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene – A vacuum cleaner salesman becomes embroiled with British intelligence, discovers a genius for dishonesty in Greene's just beloved parodical (isn't a word, should be) spy novel. Somehow I'd kind of forgotten I'd already reda this, which ending up OK because by the time I realized it I was having so much fun I couldn't stop. The writing glitters, and it has that feature of the best satire, in which the absurdity of the premise showcases the absurdity of the institution being mocked. I read a lot of people trying to be Grahame Greene, but none of them ever are.
The Secret Agent by Josef Conrad – The misfortunes of an agent provocateur, his wife, mother-in-law, allies, handlers, etc. I am on record as generally not having a lot of fondness for pre-20th century novels (except for the Russians) but Conrad is really very good, and apart from describing rooms in too much detail mostly avoids what I consider to be the stylistic failures of his age. The language is penetrating and insightful, and his cynicism bleak but thoughtful. Strong stuff.
Evil Eyes: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong by Joyce Carol Oates – Four novellas about love and death. Predictable and flat, this should have been better than it was.
Starwater Strains by Gene Wolfe – I confess to finding a lot of Wolfe's later novels not to my taste, but his short fiction remains a clear cut above his competitors. 'The Pope's Head' is as nightmarish a 5 pages as you'll ever read, and there's this one about a guy locked in jail/exploring a pulp fantasy world which I likewise loved, though I guess not so much that the name stuck in my head.
Free Live Free by Gene Wolfe – Nil nisi bonum.
The Heavens by Sandra Newman – A boy and girl fall in love in a magical New York, except then everything gets really sad, but I can't explain anything else without ruining the plot. This is a very good book that I would have liked if it didn't despair for the future in exactly the way that I despair for the future, leaving me in a deep state of melancholy forty-five minutes before I was set to answer calls on the suicide hotline. I also didn’t think the internal mechanics of the thing worked as neatly as they might have, there’s some unnecessary explanation. Still, it is strong, and I gather other readers don't find it quite so terribly harrowing.
The Traitor's Niche by Ismail Kadare – Albanian magical realism – a kaleidoscopic depiction of the late Ottoman empire mourns the corrupting effect of totalitarianism on ruler and ruled. Kadare is a real talent, his stories are evocative and awful, and he manages in a few hundred pages what less talented writers fail to complete in five times the space. Good stuff.
The Investigations of Avram Davidson by Avram Davidson – Stories of wonder from a largely forgotten mid-century fantasist. I picked this up on a recommendation from Gene Wolfe (not a personal one, sadly) and there's something interesting to the construction (particularly the one about the dad picking his son up from boarding school) but mostly they left me a little cold.
Judgment on Deltchev by Eric Ambler – An English playwright covers a show trial – or is it?? – in Bulgaria during the opening days of the cold war. Ambler is about as good at this as anybody not named Graham Greene. He has a real talent for misdirection, and obscuring the motivations of his characters without drifting into outright narrative dishonesty, as well as a deeper feel for the human condition than these sorts of cheap novelettes generally offer. God stuff.
Twenty-One Stories by Graham Greene – Early works from a master. 'I Spy' is very strong, and a few of the others likewise merit recognition, but probably there are about 15 Greene books you should read before this one.
Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – An old man finds love, meaning, in the catatonic arms of an underage prostitute. If that description doesn't turn you off immediately, have at it! It's beautifully written, generally charming, and quite short! The characters are all sufficiently fantastically drawn that you know you're never really supporting pederasty, but it's still a little queasy. The accompanying text compares it to Lolita, but there's not really any evidence of ironic intent. One does sort of wonder when the inevitable backlash against Marquez is going to arise, and why it hasn't already—is it just that he didn't write in English?
Flood by Andrew Vachss – A superman beats up child molesters in an unrecognizable New York. I was skeptical of the premise on principal, but I really liked Vachss The Getaway Man, and thought I'd give it a shot. My optimism offered slim return, alas, and while I could write a lot here about the stylistic deficiencies of action novels, and also why we should really all stop using evil pedophiles as character tropes, it's my birthday (as I mentioned) and frankly I don't really have the energy.
Oxygen by Andrew Miller – A pair of adult sons return home to tend to their dying mother; a Hungarian playwright hopes to redeem himself for a youthful moment of weakness. Very good. High literature without a cheap hook, sincerely written, thoughtful, sad, hopeful. A serious man trying to grapple honestly with the terrible despair and occasional joy of human existence. Very good.
Chronicles of Bustos Domecq by Jorge Louis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Cesares – A pedant reviews a series of imaginary (though plausible) artistic trends; unreadable books, indigestible food, uninhabitable buildings. Basically a series of clever jabs at post-modernism, the sort of conceptual art which imagines itself superior to form and has been turning out clones of DuChamp's fountain for going on a century. It's a little one note, but then again I can get down with anyone taking a fat crap on Le Corbusier. Fuck that dude. The poor citizens of Brasilia, forced to grapple forever with the conceptual monstrosities of an aesthetic cripple. I'm getting off topic.
The Innocent by Ian McEwan – A British technician works for Allied intelligence in postwar Berlin, falls in love. I disliked this less than other Ian McEwan books I've read. If that sounds like damnation by faint praise, you get an A on today's reading comprehension quiz.
The Malady of Death by Marguerite Duras – A man and a woman in a hotel room; it might be me, but I've never enjoyed any explicitly erotic writing, or none created for public consumption. It seems a form of art which suffers the further it passes from a lovers lips.