VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Cat's Eye (1988) by Margaret Atwood


Book Review
Cat's Eye (1988)
by Margaret Atwood


   I did not have much appetite for a 400 page story about a (female) painter coming to terms with her past on the eve of her first Toronto area career retrospective.   That said, Atwood won me over with her (stop me if you've heard this before) crisp observations about the relationships between men and women, career and family, art and commerce.  And while the present for painter Elaine Risley is a familiar blend of musings about the art world,ex-husbands and children, the past is a more Gothic place.  Much of the early reminisces of Risley concern her ill treatment by a troika of classmates.  Later, her chief antagonist/tormentor emerges as her high school bff.  After that, she is witness to her friend's long decline and failure as an adult.

  It is far from clear that Cordelia, the tormentor in chief and high school bff will emerge in the later part of Cat's Eye, but I feel it is that relationship, rather than Elaine's emotional/sexual relationships with men, that defines the reader experience.


Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Radiant Way (1983) by Margaret Drabble


Book Review
The Radiant Way (1983)
 by Margaret Drabble

  I found The Radiant Way tedious.  I'm not a huge Margaret Drabble fan, and I don't really care about here milieu-  the lives of upwardly striving working-class born women who were promoted into Cambridge University in England during the 1960's and 1970's.  The introduction of merit scholarships into English higher education was a novelty then, and that gives this tale of three such women some socio-political weight.   So far, so good.  It's more the women themselves- all of whom are unhappy for the entire length of the book, spending their time wondering why they are so unhappy, or knowing why they are so unhappy and simply wallowing in it for chapters at the time.

  Drabble is a keen observer of human nature, I often winced knowingly at her characters observations about their disintegrating/disintegrated marriages and relationships.  At the same time, those aren't really observations I need to enrich my life, and nothing she is has to say feels anything but utterly familiar.   Also, I'm of the firm opinion that England and Britain stopped meaning much after World War II, so the fiction of the this time period seems less relevant than the fiction from the height of the British Empire.  Not better or worse, but less relevant for sure.  The Radiant Way is fiction from drab 1980's England, about the rather drab decades preceding the 1980's, and there is hardly a bit of color or beauty in the whole book.  Mostly just whinging. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

London Fields (1989) by Martin Amis


Image result for london fields movie
Amber Heard plays Nikki Six in the hugely ill fated movie version of London Fields, the 1989 novel written by Martin Amis.

Book Review
London Fields (1989)
 by Martin Amis

 Fair to say the work of Martin Amis evokes both strong positive and negative reaction- then and now.  I have often said- to artists in personal conversation that this is a universal characteristic of great art, art that lasts the decades, stands the test of time- you know GREAT ART.  Love AND Hate,  Beauty AND Squalor.   That's another maxim I mutter- to myself only- walking the streets of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, Orange County and San Bernardino:  The ugliness is a part of beauty.  Beauty contains both attributes- beauty and ugliness, because it is individual to the viewer.  If one person can say something is great, another can say it is terrible, and the observed work is both.

  London Fields is an exemplar of beautifully ugly fiction- another example would be American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis,  Bright Lights, Big City is another example- and Amis' other books.  Billed as a murder mystery written in reverse, Amis indulges in the kind of viruoso post-modern maneuvering that will surely characterize the generation of writers including Amis and those that follow.  The unreliable narrator isn't a technique deployed to generate interest in readers of 19th century periodicals, it is a literary device  that, by 1989, had already been analyzed to death.  The unreliable narrator means something, or maybe it means nothing, but you can see novelists- not just Amis- struggling with the very fibers of what a novel "is' even as they achieve dazzling heights in the field.

  Contrast these post modern antics to the more conventional coming of age type narratives that emerged from new sources: LGBT authors, African and Latin American authors.  At the same time, the mainline of Anglo-American fiction shifted away from more conventional set ups (marriage, relationships, families) and begins to deploy of tool box of tips and tricks developed by successful writers who also became successful teachers and theorists of writing.

  London Fields is also a good early example of another trend of 1980's literature- the emergence of the "Brick" -a 400 to 600 page work of "serious" fiction.  Amis is himself a pioneer of this style of book publication, Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo (not quite there yet in his 80's books), The Bonfire of the Vanities.  As such he is somewhat responsible for a line that runs right up to today.  London Fields, written in 1989, is clearly contemporary fiction- 30 some-odd years on.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

#CHASEME: Danger Mouse, Run the Jewels & Big Boi Tease New Song From Baby Driver

This image was posted by Danger Mouse on Reedit today.


#CHASEME:
Danger Mouse, Run the Jewels & Big Boi Tease New Song From Baby Driver

   Danger Mouse and Run the Jewels are teasing Chase Me, their new song from Baby Driver, a new movie directed by Edgar Wright.  I've heard this song, and it is, let me tell you, fucking amazing. I have not seen the film but I have heard that it, too, is amazing.  (REEDIT #CHASEME)

The Sea (2005) by John Banville



Book Review
The Sea (2005)
by John Banville

  A plot description, which I have cribbed from the post-Booker prize win London Guardian review below, does not do The Sea justice:

The story, such as it is, is narrated by one Max Morden (not quite, we are told quite late on, the name he was christened with), a widowed art historian, who is returning to a seaside boarding-house he once knew as a child on the cusp of adolescence. He has arrived there in order to deal with, in some roundabout way, the death of his wife from cancer. But the reason he lodges at Miss Vavasour's comically moribund guest-house is also because, when he was young, Something Happened there, and the novel only reveals what that was at the end.  - London Guardian 2006
  It's not even entirely clear that "Something Happened" there until the last 10 or 20 pages.  For example, myself, not having read any summaries, was legitimately surprised at the revelation.  That The Sea won the Booker Prize was itself- beating Zadie Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro- surprising.   I think you can fairly ascribe the success of The Sea to Banville's ability to evoke the sparse prose of Samuel Beckett while developing a conventional narrative with a "twist" type ending.   That is a winning formula, evidently.  

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Life & Times of Michael K (1983) by J.M. Coeteze


Book Review
Life & Times of Michael K. (1983)
 by J.M. Coeteze

  Life & Times of Michael K. was the first Booker Prize winning book written by South African turned Australian author J.M. Coeteze.  His other Booker Prize winner was Disgrace, in 1999.  He followed that with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.  Since he 2003 he's published four more novels and some short story collections.   He stays out of the spotlight.   I'm a fan of Coeteze.  I'm not sure he deserves 10 titles in the 1001 Books list.  Does any author deserve that many entries?

  His ten titles from 2006 was cut to five in the first revision.  You'd expect a Booker Prize winning book to make the cut into the core 700 titles, and it does.  Like all of Coeteze's books, Life & Times of Michael K. is both deeply satisfying and disturbing at the same time.   Likewise, his South African landscapes are both familiar and alien.  Like Foe, another Coeteze written 1001 Books entry, Michael K. draws on the conventions of Robinson Crusoe- Michael K. isn't marooned on an island, he's isolated in a society at war, friend and family-less, desiring only his freedom.

   Descriptions of Michael K. often bring up the theme of human dignity, the will of the protagonist for freedom even at the cost of his own life.   He wants to sit quietly, not work for money so he can eat, and not, in fact, eat.  It is his failure to properly feed himself that for me was the enduring image of Michael K.   Although set in a civil war in South Africa, it might as well be a post-apocalyptic scenario.  South Africa, even at the best of times, always seems to be hovering at the edge of catastrophe.  Coeteze, writing before the collapse of the apartheid regime is careful to omit explicit references to race.  I had to resort to the Wikipedia page to discover that Michael K. is classified as "colored" or mixed-race, under the scheme of the apartheid regime.


The Book of Evidence (1989) by John Banville


Book Review
The Book of Evidence  (1989)
 by John Banville


   I would hope, by the time I made into the 1980's section of the 1001 Books list, that I would have at least heard of all of the major authors.  He actually won the Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea, which is the year before I started this project.   So here I am, 2017, learning about Irish author for the first time, via an Everyman's Library dual publication of The Book of Evidence and The Sea.   It's embarrassing, but it probably is evidence that Banville hasn't really crossed the Atlantic ocean in any substantial way.   I can understand it- the authors that John Banville draws comparisons to:  Nabokov, Proust and James Joyce, all come from the stylish/experimental side of the novel family tree.

  Banville is on record saying he wants to bring the same depth of experience to prose that one experiences from reading poetry.    The Book of Evidence, which itself was short-listed for the Booker Prize, is a dark tale featuring a highly unreliable narrator, Freddy Montgomery, a classic existential anti-hero who narrates The Book of Evidence from an Irish prison cell, where he awaits sentencing for his senseless murder of a house maid in the course of even more senseless attempt to steal a 16th century painting from the estate of some family friends.

  Calling ole Freddy an "unreliable narrator" gets to the heart of what The Book of Evidence is "about" in a serious-critical sense.  Montgomery is writing out what he imagines to be his testimony in his upcoming trial- a trial that will never occur.  He addresses the Judge of his case and repeatedly observes that it is unclear which parts of his tale are true and un-true.  Since one imagines that untruth in this context would involve making one look better in front of the Court, it comes as surprise that Montgomery's own recollections could hardly be less flattering.

  The portrait that emerges is a man who is as close to unredeemable as exists in modern literature.  That his redemption never arrives won't surprise anyone familiar with serious literature.  At the same time, The Book of Evidence is a beautiful book, and Banville is an excellent writer.  He's worth looking up.

  

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Radiant Way (1987) by Margaret Drabble


Book Review
The Radiant Way (1987)
 by Margaret Drabble

  Margaret Drabble is one of he most intelligent chroniclers of educated, upper-middle class women living in 1980's England, for better or for worse.  She writes squarely within the mainstream of 20th century English fiction:  characters are highly educated, articulate and unhappy with their marital status.  The main difference between the character of The Radiant Way and any set of characters from a 19th century English novel is the absence of of an obsessive concern with the inheritance of property and the legitimacy of birth in The Radiant Way.

  Basically, what the women- three friends from "scholarship" backgrounds who meet while attending Cambridge University in the late 1970's, do is complain. Not without reason, of course.  And of course, the story of the English novel is the story about men and women complaining about their spouses, so Drabble is hardly unique.   I would argue though, that by the late 1980's, none of these type of novels- be they about Americans or Brits are really necessary.  As far as these talky, self-obsessed protagonists go, you might as well stop at D.H. Lawrence in terms of the way this genre of novel is interesting to an audience beyond the people portrayed (which presumably includes the England based editorial staff of the 1001 Books project.)

  It's hard to make the case that any mainline English novel written after World War II deserves inclusion.  That may be an exaggeration, but it's true that there is little exciting happening in the English novel after World War II.

Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988) by David Markson


Book Review
Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988)
by David Markson


  Two things you need to know about Wittgenstein's Mistress:

1.  It is an experimental novel, in exactly the same way as many of Samuel Beckett's novels.
2.  David Foster Wallace was a huge fan, and an essay he wrote on the genius of Wittgenstein's Mistress is appended to the 2012 paperback edition.

    Kate, the narrator, claims to be the last person on earth, and Wittgenstein's Mistress consists of her disconnected ruminations on a variety of subjects related to her personal history and art.  As DFW points out, repeatedly, in his essay, Wittgenstein's Mistress is like a literary representation of Wittgenstein's early philosophy, as expressed in his later disavowed, Tractaus Logico-Philosophicus
   At this point, it would be appropriate to maybe get into some of the analysis that DFW provides regarding the relationship between Wittgenstein, his Tractaus Logico-Philosphicus and the text of Wittgenstein's Mistress, but I think it would all be tedious, and I simply can't imagine a reader who would be interested, except the person who +1's all of the experimental fiction reviews on the Google Plus network.  Shout out to that person! Or bot! I'm fine if bots want to read this blog as well.  All hail our robot overlords, that's what I say.

Concrete (1982) by Thomas Bernhard


Book Review
Concrete (1982)
 by Thomas Bernhard

   There are so many Thomas Bernhard novels in the 1001 Books project between 1975 and 1990 that I missed Concrete, published in 1982, in all the hub-bub.   The editorial essay which accompanies the listing for Concrete in the 2006 edition of the 1001 Books project says that Concrete is in fact a "parody" of Bernhard's obsessive-compulsive style.  I would be hard pressed to agree with that assesment.  Like all other of Bernhard's novels, Concrete features a protagonist who speaks in a paragraph-less monologue, and shares all the common obsessions of all of the protagonists from all of Bernhard's novels on the 1001 Books list. To whit:

1.  Hate-loves his family.
2.  Hates Austria.
3.  Hates Austrians.
4.  Hates people.
5. Hates the modern world.

  That is Thomas Bernhard for you.  He hates modern life.  He hates modern society.  He hates the people around him.  He can't actually accomplish anything because he spends all his time indulging his peculiar obsessions  In Concrete, the protagonist is a wealthy heir who has spent a decade attempting to begin a monograph on an obscure composer.  This fact is essentially the only plot-like device in the entire book.  Other than the unwritten monograph, see above for the contents.

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