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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.

Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969) by Vladimir Nabokov

photograph of a model who looks like Ada is described as a young woman in the book.
Book Review
Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969)
 by Vladimir Nabokov

   Ada is the capstone to Vladimir Nabokov's distinguished career as a novelist, a six hundred fever dream/paean to an incestuous life long relationship between two cousins (who are actually brother and sister) Van, the narrator, and Ada.  The events of Ada take place not on Earth, or "Terra" as it's called, but an "anti-terra" which is exactly like the Earth except all physical locations have different names. Van and Ada come from an impossibly aristocratic family that you would say is Russian-American by way of France, were all the names of places in anti-terra changed.

  Ada is dirty in a way that Lolita is not. Van and Ada are a gleefully depraved pair, and the initiation of their affair when Ada is but 12 years old is beyond the pale of the adolescent Lolita.  The positioning of Ada in Nabokov's parallel universe is disorienting, as is his insistence on utilizing the modernist technique of moving around, backwards and forwards in time, without signaling the reader.   The effect is something akin to either magical realism or post-modernism, although neither term actually describes the impact that Ada has on the reader.

  Their young love is eventually discovered, and they are forced to part.  Ada marries suitably, and Van spends the next half century as a peripatetic professor of psychology.  Like, Lolita, the prurient interest aroused by an illicit love affair between two cousin/siblings is dissipated over the course of 600 pages.  The adult Van bears some resemblance to Lolita's dissipated aristocrat Humbert Humbert, but unlike Humbert, adult Van does not pursue love outside the pale of descent society.  Ada herself disappears almost entirely for the middle 400 pages of the book named after her.

  The ending, while not exactly upbeat, is a happy one in that Ada and Van may or may not die together, after a half century apart.  Ada marks the conclusion of Nabokov's contribution to the 1001 Books project.  The four books included: Ada, Pale Fire (1962), Pnin(1957) and Lolita (1955), followed one another in Nabokov's publication history.  None of his Russian language novels or novellas made it into the 1001 Books, list nor did any of his short story collections or anything published after Ada.  He is certainly a unique figure in 20th century literature, and in my opinion he's one of the top 10 novelists of all time.  Others I would put on that list, roughly half way through the 1001 Books project are Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway and William Burroughs.  I would also want to add Thomas Pynchon, and leave one slot available for unfamiliar authors who published between 1970 and today.

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