VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Contact (1985) by Carl Sagan

Jody Foster played Dr. Eleanor Arroway in the movie version of Contact by Carl Sagan.
Book Review
Contact (1985)
by Carl Sagan

    Is it possible that Contact, the achingly dull science fiction classic by Carl Sagan, is not just a charter member of the 1001 Books list but also a core title, one that has not been removed at any point?  Yes.  It is more than possible, it is a true fact.   I will grant that it has maintained it's relevant- just take a look at two recent "serious" science fiction films with the same theme: Arrival, starring Amy Adams, and Interstellar, with Matthew McConaughey.   Both films echo important parts of Contact so concretely that it almost seems like an "inspired by" would be required for both films.

   At the same time, it's not exactly a book that people really read anymore.  The Jody Foster starring film version in the 1990's gave it a bump, but as of 2017 Contact, with it's Cold War milieu and pre-Internet technology, seems more like alternate history a la Man in the High Castle than science fiction.

   For those unfamiliar with the basic premise, the Jody Foster character is an astronomer working on the SETI (Search for extraterrestrial intelligence) project when a message is detected.  Much of the novel involves decoding the message, followed by the construction of a machine specified by the decoded message.  As the title promises, Contact ensues, though it is the kind of anti-climax that one might expect from the real world, not science fiction.

   Like many notable science fiction authors, Sagan is no prose stylist. Even judge by those standards, the resulting pages, especially the exposition heavy conversational dialog.  Sagan's obsession with the relationship between science and religion is understandable, but it doesn't make for compelling fiction, in my opinion.   I suppose you could argue that Sagan earns his place by authoring the first "Hard" Science Fiction, a genre which has increasingly led the charge for genre fiction to be taken seriously as literature, or at least as a major inspiration for scientific and popular culture. 

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) by Jeanette Winterson


Book Review
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)
 by Jeanette Winterson

  "Flannery O'Connor if she was a Evangelical Pentecostal from the English Midlands;" is as apt a description as I can imagine for Jeanette Winterson's lesbian coming-of-age novel.  The comparison doesn't track all the way to the station: O'Connor didn't write about herself, and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is about as thinly veiled fiction as I can imagine,  Winterson was actually raised by Evangelical Pentecostal's in the English Midlands (she was adopted.)

  Her coming of age novel has a mix of familiar LGBTQ tropes (now, not in 1985) and outre behavior from Winterson's adoptive Mother, a highly religious woman equally devoted to judging others and her adoptive daughter.  Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit eschews explicit sex, and doesn't contain anything beyond explicit descriptions of hell-fire to trouble sensitive souls.

  Alas, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was a victim of the initial 2008 revision of the 1001 Books list, making Winterson not just a one hit wonder, but also a one and done, for the purposes of the 1001 Books project.

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Maggot (1985) by John Fowles


Book Review
A Maggot (1985)
by John Fowles


 John Fowles really ticks all the boxes of  post modern fiction with broad commercial appeal.  In A Maggot, he brings his bag of post-modernist tricks and applies them to a faux-historical tale, set in the 18th century.  A Maggot pieces together the circumstances behind a mysterious hanging of a servant in remote Western England (near the Welsh border.)  Fowles explicitly places the events in the 18th century, going so far to include faux news broadsheets in between chapters.   The novel itself largely consists of "legal documents" drawn up during the investigation of the mysterious death that opens the novel.  Of course, this is a method of constructing a novel that did not exist in the 19th century, let alone the 18th century, and any versed reader will immediately recognize the "18th century" sounding dialogue as being closer to what you would find in a 19th century novel.  A casual reader, unfamiliar with the difference between 18th and 19th century in English literature, would of course not notice the difference.

   Without dispensing spoilers, Fowles include plot details which span 18th century gothic fiction, 19th century "supernatural" fiction a la Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe, and 20th century speculative fiction.  This material is integrated with the aggregated legal documents so that the reader is left to speculate or look up on Wikipedia what actually happens.

  I was dismissive of the challenge that A Maggot presents to a casual reader (as one might reasonably expect to be when reading a John Fowles novel), but the combination of the pieced together, pastiche narrative technique and a layer of symbolic as well as a meta-symbolic level of narrative proved confusing when I tried to read A Maggot during the opening nights of March Madness.   I can't get into what about A Maggot I actually fully missed while reading it without spoiling major plot developments, but it's significant to understanding both the symbolic and meta-symbolic interpretations.

  Do I give a shit that I missed something in a John Fowles novel? No. John Fowles is, above all, a fun author, easy to read.  Maybe complicated to fully understand because of all the meta-fictional asshattery, but easy to read.  A Maggot is NOT easy to read, even if you are comfortable with 18th and 19th century fiction.   You could call it tedious.  There can be not surprise that A Maggot was one of two (out of four) titles dropped in the first revision of the 1001 Books list.  You could make the argument that he only deserves one: The French Lieutenant's Woman or The Magus, pick one.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Cider House Rules (1985) by John Irving

Naked Charlize Theron playing Candy in the movie version of The Cider House Rules
Book Review
The Cider House Rules (1985)
 by John Irving

   Reading John Irving is fine enough, but like his mentor Kurt Vonnegut, I don't trust him- his sentiment or his prose.  I'm sure his presence in the 1001 Books list stems from his ability to achieved critical and popular success while grappling with the sort of tough themes that are often absent from popular fiction, but in the end, it all seems too calculated and upbeat to really ascend to the upper echelons of the literary canon.

  Case in point is The Cider House Rules, a well received best-seller, adapted by the author himself into a big budget Miramax production (starring Tobey Maguire at his hottest, a young Charlize Theron and Paul Rudd, of all people.)  The film itself was successful, nominated for seven Oscars in 1999 and winning two (best adapted screenplay, best supporting actor Michael Caine.)  I'm not saying that middle-brow fiction can't also be high art, but I am saying that John Irving, serious themes aside, is inescapably middle brow, and that his books aren't first-rate works of literature.

  To take one example, there is the incest sub-plot of The Cider House Rules, which comes as part of the otherwise strong third act.  The victim is the African-American daughter of the African-American foreman of an apple picking crew that handles work at the Apple farm where most of the action takes place.   It bother me that Irving, writing in 1985, thought it was cool to use African American character to enact an incest driven plot point in a book set almost entirely in rural Maine.  Is that John Irving's story to tell?  No it is not.  He doesn't do a good job telling it, and it ends up making his African American characters seem less human.

  The same could be said for many of Vonnegut's characters, that they are simply transparent vehicles for the author's high-falutin' ideas about humanity.  And I suppose you could make the same claim for every successful author, but not really, since so often what we respond to in fiction are finely drawn characters who draw us into their world.  The Cider House Rules is about abortion as much as it is about anything, so get ready of 560 pages of opinions about abortion from an old white guy.  That he is sympathetic does little to disguise what to me read as really tone-deaf takes on the abortion experience.

Old Masters (1985) by Thomas Bernhard

File:Jacopo Tintoretto 090.jpg
White Bearded Man, by Jacobo Tinoretto, from the  Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna


Book Review
Old Masters (1985)
 by Thomas Bernhard

   After reading one book by Thomas Bernhard, you largely know what to expect from the others:  A narrator who 1) hates and misunderstands humanity 2) is obsessed with some sort of intellectual pursuit with no real world value 3) hates Austria and Austrian culture.   So obsessed, misanthropic characters are Bernhard's stock in trade, and it is no wonder that he has managed to establish an international reputation, because, really, he's talking about serious readers.

  Authors and novels which obliquely (or overtly) critique the culture of seirous readers are to the novel what knowing books about the movie industry are to Hollywood: popular enough with intensive consumers of the resulting cultural product to establish a distinct creative space, but not something that extends out into the wider world of the general, popular, audience.   Put another way, Bernhard might be described as an "authors author."   I think his nearest American analog would be Nicholson Baker but there is no doubt that the intensity of his hatred for modern life marks him apart, and that extremity is, again, probably why he has successfully found an international audience for his German language fiction.

  Old Masters concerns two old men, Atzbacher and Reger, who have spent five hours, every other day for 30 years (Reger has, anyway) sitting in front of White Bearded Man, a painting by Italian artist Jacobo Tinoretto that is displayed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.   Atzbacher narrates Old Masters, which largely consists of Atzbacher remembering important events from Reger's life, notably the death of his wife.  Interspersed with those musings are lengthy fulminations against "the modern state"  and the "state sponsored artist." Both elements are well developed, as you would expect from Bernhard, but I found his material about the role of the state and the state-artist to be particularly clever.  It's not a foreign subject for him.  For example, Wittgenstein's Nephew considers a lengthy chapter involving the Bernhard/narrator figure disastrously receiving a state sponsored artistic prize, insulting the audience in his acceptance speech and causing the austrian arts minister to go storming out of the building.

Monday, March 13, 2017

LaBrava (1983) by Elmore Leonard


Book Review
LaBrava (1983)
 by Elmore Leonard

  Is Elmore Leonard genre fiction or literature: discuss.  On the one hand, Leonard was published in a manner consistent with the conventions of genre fiction: gaudy neon cover paperback books with his name splashed above the title, high budget Hollywood adaptations starring John Travolta.   On the other hand, he only died in 2013, and any author with a huge popular audience and debatable literary merit is going to have to wait until after death to obtain a fear hearing by critical audiences   Leonard is distinguishable from other genre writers in that he does possess a serious literary following, and that it is at least a 50/50 bet that anyone who considers the question closely is likly to agree, in 2017, that Elmore Leonard is the canonical writer of detective fiction in the US during the period when he was writing.

  If you are someone seriously considering Elmore Leonard as a canonical writer, it's worth taking a look at his work in the form of a Google timeline (if you search his name in Google and then arrange his works in chronological order, you will see what I'm talking about.)  He started out as a writer of Western Fiction- including the recently filmed version of 3:10 To Yuma.  

 Then he went into his first canonical period, when he was writing Detroit area Police procedural/Detective Fiction. This period is represented in the 1001 Books list by City Primeval (1980).  Leonard's fiction followed his own travels, and LaBrava represents the start of his second period- which is more thematically sophisticated.  Leonard never abandoned Detroit- you can consider the 1999 novel Out of Sight, which was made into a well received film by Steven Soderbergh.

  I would argue that Leonard's canonical status ultimately rests on his merit as a "Florida" author, and that Florida is a culture that deserves the most sophisticated level of literary treatment.  Elmore Leonard's Florida noir isn't quite that- he never was seriously considered for major literary prizes during his lifetime, which complicates any posthumous rehabilitation.  I mean, Leonard got a "career achievment" award from the National Book Award a year before he died.  

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985) by Patrick Susskind


Book Review
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985)
 by Patrick Susskind


       Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is what you call an international hit, written in German, set in 18th century France with an entirely French speaking cast of characters, and made into a feature film by Dreamworks, directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run).  Unfortunately, the last and most important piece of that combination- the film by Dreamworks, was a huge bomb, and so Perfume: The Story of a Murderer has been denied the kind of eternal after life claimed by books made into hit films like the English Patient or Remains of the Day.

    Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is a foundling, abandoned in 18th century Paris by a mother who is quickly executed for the infanticide of Jean's older siblings.  He is raised in a tannery, where he survives against all odds and comes into possession of his greatest gift, a preternatural sense of smell.  He escapes the tannery for an apprenticeship with a declining Parisian Perfumery, and the story really takes off from there.  Oh- and also- Grenouille is also a murderer, fond of strangling nubile red heads.

  You can't be accused of revealing that fact- since the novel does in the subtitle. The story is compelling enough, with a twist at the end, but the real attractions are the portions describing the 18th century perfume industry in France.  Personally, I found this description more compelling than the story of Juan-Baptiste Grenouille, who, after all, is a murderer, and hardly a wit besides that.
     

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Wittgenstein's Nephew (1988) by Thomas Bernhard


Book Review
Wittgenstein's Nephew (1988) 
by Thomas Bernhard

   German author Thomas Bernhard isn't a household name in America, but the editors of the 1001 Books list sure were big fans- five titles on the first edition, trimmed to three in the next.  Wittgenstein's Nephew is one of the three keepers, probably because it's the only Bernhard novel where he displays anything like recognizable human emotion.

  Like his other books, Wittgenstein's Nephew is a novella, not a novel- barely a hundred pages long.  It tells the story of Bernhard himself, and his friendship with Paul Wittgenstein, nephew of the philosopher, both descended from the same Viennese industrialist family.  Bernhard and Wittgenstein because both endure lengthy hospitalizations, Bernhard for a lung condition, and Wittgenstein for his madness.  A major theme in Wittgenstein's Nephew is Bernhard's contention that Paul Wittgenstein's madness has a genius/artistic quality that elevates him among his wealthy kin. His book charts Wittgenstein's decline as he gives away his fortune and then faces repeated commitments for his outrageous public behavior. 

  Of course, Bernhard is a trenchant critic of bourgeois society, and his exaltation of Paul Wittgenstein is also his contempt for respectable Austrian society.

Monday, March 06, 2017

The Crying of Lot 49 (1965) by Thomas Pynchon

Image result for the crying of lot 49
The muted trumpet symbol from The Crying of Lot 49 is a recognizable calling card for Pynchon fans and their progeny.
Book Review
The Crying of Lot 49 (1965)
 by Thomas Pynchon

  The Crying of Lot 49 is usually the only Thomas Pynchon book that a college undergraduate is likely to come across during survey level literature classes.  That is because, unlike all other of Pynchon's books, it is brief- a novella, not a novel.  It's not exactly a puzzling or unjustified selection, but it seems strange to include Pynchon's second published work when his first book, V, published in 1963, is pretty much a sprawling masterpiece.   Perhaps the choice is a nod to the truth that no normal reader is going to read anything Pynchon wrote except The Crying of Lot 49.

  The Crying of Lot 49 is often described as an early post-modern masterpiece AND a knowing parody of post-modernism, and both descriptions reflect that is hard to say, what, exactly, is going on in The Crying of Lot 49- both on the surface and underneath.  On the surface, The Crying of Lot 49 is the story of Oedipus Maas, who is appointed executor of her mysterious ex-boy friend's sprawling estate.  The estate includes an enormous stamp collection which features the only known evidence of two ultra secret private postal services that flourished in the early modern period.   Maas travels a very recognizable early 1960's California, encountering Beatles-style rock bands and Kesey style new-age gurus.

  Pynchon's accurate characterization of the psychedelic 1960's as it was happening is the most astonishing part of The Crying of Lot 49.  It's hard to believe that it was written in 1965, rather than 1985.  

Dictionary of the Khazars (1984) by Milorad Pavić


Book Review
Dictionary of the Khazars (1984)
 by  Milorad Pavić

  Producing a novel by blending source materials which combine facts with fiction to create a fictitious narrative of real history has become a well-established rode to both critical and popular success.   Most recently, this vibrant genre has been highlighted by English author Hilary Mantel, who became the first woman to win the Booker Prize twice, both for works which fit within this description. Dictionary of the Khazars was an early success in this area, the work of Serbian author and Nobel Prize for Literature-also ran Milorad Pavic.   His success with Dictionary of the Khazars is attributable both to the book itself and for the market in fiction translated into English.  The development of popular and critical audience for fiction translated into English is as old as those audiences themselves, but certainly the sprawling international publishing industry of the 1980's and 1990's, together with similarly international film studios, elevated the area of translated fiction from a backwater to a major player at the intersection of popular and serious fiction.

 Dictionary of the Khazars revolves around the historical but poorly understood Khazar polity of the early middle ages.  Located on the plains north of the Black Sea, their leader famously converted to Judaism for reasons which remain obscure.   Dictionary of the Khazars takes the form of three overlapping but conflicting encyclopedias referencing the (fictional) historical event of the Khazar Polemics, where a Christian, Muslim and Jewish wise man debated the interpreted a dream for the leader of the Khazars. with the winner being allowed to convert the entire Khazar people.

  Not surprisingly, the three different encyclopedia's differ substantially, beginning with each claiming victory for their particularly faith and obscuring the existence of the other participants in the Khazar polemic.  Certain figures, notably the Princess Ateh, recur, others are specific to one of the three books.  Pavic provides academic annotation in the true style of high post-modernism, to the point where historically attested "fact" are interchangeable with authorial created fiction.

  Certain descriptions extend into the procedurally generated fantastic realism of Italo Calvino.  Particularly, some of the broader descriptions of "Khazar" society echo certain portions of Calvino's Invisible Cities (1972).

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