VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison


Book Review
The Bluest Eye (1970)
by Toni Morrison

 In 2016 it's hard to imagine a world where Toni Morrison didn't win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, where she isn't the beneficiary of an incredibly productive relationship with Oprah Winfrey, where she isn't synonymous with the elevation of questions surrounding race and gender to the forefront of societal concern.  Approaching The Bluest Eye in 2016 is the experience of reading the first published work of an universally acknowledged master of the form of the novel.   But if you get to the afterword she wrote in the Oprah Book Club version of The Bluest Eye that I read, you learn that The Bluest Eye was ignored when it was published initially.  That's surprising, although Morrison was not the first female African American author, she was just far ahead of the curve to benefit from it when the rest of the world started to catch up a decade later.

   Timing is everything, in life, in art.  Morrison was well situated to reap the benefits of the wider trends society.  The plot of The Bluest Eye deals with a neighborhood of African Americans living amongst a larger white population in Lorian, Ohio, an industrial suburb of Cleveland.  The narrator is Claudia,a young African American neighbor of the Breedlove family, Pauline, the Mom, Cholly, the Father and Pecola, the teen age daughter.  As Morrison reveals on the first page, Pecola is raped and impregnated by her Father.  The rest of The Bluest Eye discusses the personal history of the Breedlove family, showing the childhoods of Cholly and Pauline, in an attempt to give depth to the horrific rape of Pecola at the hands of her own Father.

   The title refers to Pecola's desire to be white, she asks a minor character, operating as a kind of faith healer in their neighborhood, for "the bluest eyes" so that she can be white.  Pecola is awkward, ugly, ignored, the victim of persecution at the hands of other African Americans, and literally ignored by whites.  The Bluest Eye is a startling work of art, and a good illustration of why novels are such an amazing art form.  The novel is flexible enough to accommodate any story- not just those of hyper intellectual English/Western European elites living in the wealthy parts of the great cities of the world.  And by reading these different perspective, the reader gains insight on the lives of people he or she may never encounter in real life. 

Pricksongs and Descants (1969) by Robert Coover

Cover of Ircksongs and Descants, Robert Coover's seminal 1969 collection of short stories that helped define the term "metafiction."
Book Review
Pricksongs and Descants (1969)
 by Robert Coover

   Pricksongs and Descants gets you pretty close to the heart of the secret literary Illuminati that find eventual employment in the academy, teaching or in the culture industry.  Coover's breakthrough collection of meta-fictional stories is best known for the much anthologized The Babysitter.  That story gives the reader a shattered mirror of different possible scenarios that unfold from the conventional "babysitter home alone" trope.  Other, less popular stories pioneer meta-fictional techniques of using fairy tales and comic books to inspire shard-like narratives.

   So deep and profound have Coover's ideas about fiction penetrated subsequent writers efforts that Pricksongs and Descants feels dated and obvious, like a Roy Lichtenstein comic art canvas, or a Warhol Campbell's Tomato Soup Can.  A bit like a museum piece, if you will.   However, there is the graphic sexual parts to keep a contemporary reader interested.  Coover is not exactly transgressive in the vein of a Henry Miller or William Burroughs, he's a more sober writer interested in the fullness of human weirdness. 

    Amazingly, Coover is still publishing novels- he put one out in 2014, but he never achieved the kind of popular attention that the writers he influenced achieved.  It's hard to explain why the 1001 Books series essentially ignores the short story as a genre.  If you were relying on this project for your information, you might think that nobody wrote short stories before the late 1960's.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Book Review: The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) by John Fowles


Meryl Streep memorably portrayed the title character in film version The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
Book Review:
The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969)
 by John Fowles

   English post-modernist/existentialist author John Fowles has three books on the first version of the 1001 Books list.  Two of them, The Collector and The Magus, I read in high school.  I may have actually pulled them off of my parent's book shelf, because I'm not sure how else my 15 year old self could have tracked down John Fowles.  That is proof enough that Fowles was still a popular author widely in circulation circa the mid 1990's in the San Francisco Bay Area.

  The French Lieutenant's Woman was a hit on it's own merit and also popular in the 1981 movie version, which actually featured a script written by playwright Harold Pinter.   I guess the association with my high school taste (which also included Ayn Rand, in addition to the usual Beat/Existentialist/Russian suspects) and my parent's bookshelf has prejudiced my present self against him, but it's hard to dislike The French Lieutenant's Woman, which, I think, is probably the first full-blown post-modernist work of historical fiction.  The combination of post-modern technique and the conventions of the 19th century novel has proved to be an enduring formula for both popular and critical success.  The Wikipedia page is called "Historiographic metafiction" and it's worth listing some of the well known examples:

E.L Doctorow's Ragtime (1975)
Salman Rushdie Midnight's Children (1981)
A.S Byatt Possession (1990)
Michael Ondaatje The English Patient (1992)
Thomas Pynchon Mason & Dixon (1997)

  That makes The French Lieutenant's Woman first by half a decade. Fowles achievement is to write a mid 19th century novel from the perspective of a contemporary narrator.  Thus, the book both addresses the concerns of a 19th century novel as well as the concerns of the contemporary reader of upscale popular fiction.  The plot of The French Lieutenant's Woman blends heavy elements of  Thomas Hardy- acknowledged repeatedly by the narrator by having character's reference Hardy during the action- with the Dickensian all-knowing narrator, who also happens to be a time traveler, in that he is narrating a tale set in the 19th century.  Fowles goes so far as to introduce himself as a character in the third act.

 In 2016 all the post-modern chicanery is  a little much, but I can imagine it was quite the revelation in 1969, and it certainly stands up as a worthwhile read today.

 

Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965) by Flannery O'Connor

Author Flannery O'Connor
Book Review
Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965)
by Flannery O'Connor

    The genre of literature known as "Southern Gothic" is essentially William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor.   A major difference between Southern and other iterations of literature known as Gothic is the absence of the supernatural as a major motif.  Instead, "Gothic" in the context of southern literature refers to quirky characters and dark plots.   Everything That Rises Must Converge was the last book published by O'Connor before she died of Lupus at 46.

  Everything That Rises Must Converge is a group of short stories, nine in total, six of which were published in various publications prior to their collection.  The characters and themes are familiar: racist mother's, religious fanatics, disappointing sons, class and race conflict.  The pairing of a disaffected, failed, intellectual son and an elderly, widowed mother reoccurs in multiple stories.  This is also a frequent dynamic in the work of William Faulkner, and it is a combination that foreshadows the dynamic between conservative parents and their more liberal offspring for decades to come.

  Flannery O'Connor was herself no hipster, she was a practicing Catholic and remained so until her untimely death.  Her appeal to hipsters is a combination of a little bit of the dead-before-their-time rock-star, a little bit of the consanguinity between her concerns and the concerns of 1960's youth culture and a little bit of the darkness and weirdness of her vision, which spread so far, particularly in the worlds of film and tv to the point where her influence isn't cited.   Whether cited or not, her influence on the artistic concept of "weird small town America" can be traced back to her work.  For example, it's hard to imagine David Lynch or Tom Waits without Flannery O'Connor.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1970) by Peter Handke

Still from the movie version of The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke.  Wim Wenders made the film.
Book Review
The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1970)
by Peter Handke

  Welcome to the 1970's!!!  This 1001 Books Project has been a decade long odyssey, but now that I'm well into the 20th century it feels less like a project and more just like catching up on books I've always meant to read.  And catching up on books I never would have read without the 1001 Books project to spur me on.  Peter Handke is one of the most well known German authors of his generation, and he placed three books on the first version of the 1001 Books list.  In 2008, he was reduced to two titles, and The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick was the book that got cut.  The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is like a mixture of The Stranger and mid period Beckett, though Handke's Austrian nationality and tonal similarity makes comparisons to Kafka inevitable.

  In recent years, Handke's reputation has suffered due to his high spirited support for the war-criminal heavy Serbian government during their disastrous series of regional wars in the past decade.   He spoke at the funeral of Milosevic, in Serbian, and praised his regime.  Handke was and is extremely prolific, with dozens of books and plays, many of which been translated into English.  The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick was made into a film by Wim Wenders, and Handke later worked on the script for Wenders classic film, Wings of Desire.

   This all goes to explain why Peter Handke is on the 1001 Books list in the first place, and with three titles he's in Thomas Mann or Gunter Grass territory for a German writer on this list.  The 1001 Books editorial staff has certainly demonstrated that a support for fascist or totalitarian politics is no bar to inclusion on the list.

  The Goalie mentioned in the title is an ex-goalie, recently unemployed, who drifts through small town Germany, near the border of then East and West Germany.  He murders a woman after they have sex, for no reason at all.  Later he murders a clerk for similarly vague reasons and maintains an affect that could charitably be described as "blank" and uncharitably as psychotic.  The goalie isn't necessarily a bad guy, he just happens to murder two people as he is slowly losing his mind.  In one memorable scene, the goalie is reduced to thinking in symbols, unable to summon the words to describe his simple hotel room-dwelling.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Chocky (1968) by John Wyndham

Cover art from the 2015 re-issue of Chocky by John Wyndham, with a new foreword by Margaret Atwood
Book Review
Chocky (1968)
by John Wyndham

   John Wyndham occupies a solid third place on any list of mid 20th century English/British science fiction writers, firmly ensconced behind Arthur C. Clarke and J.G. Ballard.  If Clarke is the prophet of the future, and Ballard is the master of the alternative dystopian present, then Wyndham is the link to the past, the bridge between the proto-science fiction of H.G. Wells in War of the Worlds and Arthur C. Clarke in 2001.

  Like his other entry on the 1001 Books list, Day of the Triffids, Chocky is a short story lengthened out make a thin novel or novella.  Both books had their work in Wyndham's work as a writer of genre science fiction, and like the plant terrorized world of Triffids, Chocky features a memorable set up: A little boy visited by an imaginary friend who is apparently visiting from a highly advanced civilization in another galaxy.

    Wyndham elaborates this scenario with a minimum of fuss and bother- it's all very English of him, and this English-ness might just explain why he is so neglected compared to Clarke and Ballard.  Unlike those two, Wyndham doesn't have a modern day cult keeping his memory alive.  I can see where the editorial staff of 1001 Books would want him represented, but in the American market his popularity hovers between "out of print" and "recently reprinted but in a New York review of books paperback edition."   The New York Review of Books paperback reissue is a good guide to when a book is hovering at the margin of commercial viability, and also makes a prima facie case that the author in question is overlooked by big publishing.

   Like the book itself, the ending of Chocky is tied up in a neat, question answering bow, and in this regard it's a departure from the question provoking endings of other 60's English sci-fi classics.  I'm thinking of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001, but also of Ballard's 60's stories.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Portnoy's Complaint (1969) by Philip Roth

Author Philip Roth
Book Review
Portnoy's Complaint (1969)
 by Philip Roth

   One major difference between 20th century literature in the United States and 20th century literature in England is the role of the Jewish protagonist.   Largely absent in England, America saw a stream of critically approved, popular writers, beginning with Henry Roth, then Saul Bellow(Canadian by birth, but still) and Philip Roth, who was first received wide spread public attention when Portnoy's Complaint was published in 1969.  

  Portnoy's Complaint is two hundred odd pages taking the form of the protagonist/narrator monologing to his Freud-style psychotherapist.  His major topics are 1) his mother/family, 2) his fondness for masturbation 3) his defunct relationship with a shiska girl who he calls "Monkey."  I think the argument could be made that even more than Woody Allen, Roth bears responsibility for the neurotic, sex-obsessed urban Jewish male stereotype taking root in popular western culture.  

    The sexual description in Portnoy's Complaint are noteworthy.  It was published a few years too late to really evoke the ire of censors, but it does have minor claims in that regard, such.  In 2016, Alexander Portnoy seems intimately familiar, another archetype that has inspired a generation of writers, actors and film makers.   You can probably also attribute the topic of masturbation as a subject of popular humor to the influence of Portnoy's Complaint, or rather the idea that smart people would find jokes about masturbation funny.   Roth's Alexander Portnoy is a virtuoso of masturbation, and he is not afraid to let his therapist hear about it.


Eva Trout (1968) by Elizabeth Bowen

Cover Art for the original hard back edition of Eva Trout (1968) by Elizabeth Bowen
Book Review
Eva Trout (1968)
by Elizabeth Bowen

    Eva Trout is the fifth of sixth books, in chronological order, which she placed in the initial edition of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.  In the 2008 edition, she was reduced to three entries, reflecting the general trend of reduction for any Author with three or more titles in the first edition.   Eva Trout is one of the three keepers, and that probably comes from it's status as the best version of "late Bowen."  Eva Trout is nothing more or less than a serious literary novel about an awkward young heiress and her convoluted effort to purchase and raise a disabled child.  That one sentence plot summary does a gross disservice to the complex way in which Bowen develops the plot.  Instead of using the conventional modernist technique of moving back and forth in time without signaling the reader, she structures Eva Trout as a series of episodes separated in time and space, without any connective tissue to tell you what has happened in the interim.

  Mostly, the reader is left to guess at the motives of Trout and the other characters- calling them friends does not do justice to the complexity of the relationship between Eva Trout, the parent-less heiress, and the various parties who have been recruited to raise her in the absence of either parent.  Trout is a cipher, and Bowen explains nothing to the reader, leaving us to speculate at her poorly explained motives, and, what, in fact, is going one.


Thursday, June 02, 2016

The Green Man (1969) by Kingsley Amis


The Green Man was made into a mini-series with Albert Finney in the early 1990's.
Book Review
The Green Man (1969)
 by Kingsley Amis

  Kingsley Amis is a kind of English Norman Mailer figure, hard drinking and hard loving, but in a uniquely English way.  In between Lucky Jim, his break-out novel, published in 1954, and The Green Man, published in 1969, Amis published nine other full length novels, so the The Green Man is an example of "middle Amis" in the same way that Lucky Jim is the book to read for "early Amis."  "middle Amis" was known for combining his indelible English protagonist, drunken, philandering men like Amis himself, with genre fiction.  Science fiction was a favorite of his, but The Green Man is a straight-forward ghost story, like a Washington Irving story blended with the comic social novel tradition.

   The Green Man got dropped from the 2008 revision of the 1001 Books list, leaving Lucky Jim and the "late Amis" example of The Old Devils as his two representative works in the list.  This makes sense, since genre work, or books that cross genre themes with literary themes are often disfavored compared to "pure" works of literature by the same author (different considerations when the author is primarily an author of genre work.)

  It's hard to feel remorse for Amis losing a place on any canonical list of literature, since he is literally the epitome of the privileged, white, male novelist.  Surely, if you are going to make room for new voices, Amis pere is top of the list to be cut down a notch.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

them (1969) by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates
Book Review
them (1969)
by Joyce Carol Oates

  Making it Joyce Carol Oates feel like a milestone of sorts.  You'd be hard pressed to name an author who has combined literary prestige with a work ethic that would make a Harelquin romance author blush.   Wikipedia puts her at "over 40 novels, plus plays, novellas, volumes of short stories, non-fiction and poetry.  Perhaps she's not quite as cool as, say, Joan Didion, but she's hard to match in terms of that combination of market place presence and liteary credibility.  them, which won the National Book award in 1969, is her single best known work, a stark piece of realism depicting the intertwined lives of a nuclear family: mother, son and daughter, over the course of the 1950s through the riots of 1967.

  It's hard not to compare them to to the slightly earlier books of Saul Bellow.  Oates' Detroit it a parallel to Bellow's Chicago.  Jules, the son and primary male protagonist in a novel otherwise dominated by female narrators (his Mother and sister) is a more disreputable version of Bellow's Augie March.  But Oates is raw where Bellow is mannered.

   them is above all a portrait of post-war white, working class instability.  Her characters have nothing to do with the Beats or Hippies.  Maureen, the sister, spends a good page or so puzzling over the emotional reaction to the death of John F. Kennedy, "People die all the time, here, in Detroit;" she says.   The subject matter of them includes whoring (a lot of whoring), drugs, rape, robbery and murder, committed by various of the narrators, but mostly by Jules, who is shown descending into a life of criminal misery.

  Calling them a downer doesn't really do it justice.   It's as bad as a Zola novel from the 19th century.  Whether Oates is actually sympathetic to her characters is open to debate.  First of all, there's the title "them" distinguishing the family as an other.  There is also her use of a fake "Based on reality" framing device, featuring Oates herself as a character, teaching the sister at a community college.  All three of the family members do things that are best characterized as "immoral."  It's a wild ride, something like a limited HBO series about urban life in America.

  The ending chapters, depicting the Detroit riots of 1967 are a very good description of that place and time, and one of the earlier actual literary depictions of those important events.

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