Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Wise Children (1991) by Angela Carter

The complicated family tree from Wise Children by Angela Carter

Book Review
Wise Children (1991)
by Angela Carter

 Angela Carter died of cancer shortly after Wise Children was published.  It was an early death, she was only 51.  We don't know what else she would have written, but fair to say that it was a premature loss.  Carter was not only a novelist, she wrote poetry, short fiction, translated works from French and a wide variety of anthologized non-fiction.

   Her novels are therefore only one aspect of her contribution to the republic of letters, but I'm sure it's fair to say she has a higher profile in England then she does over here.  Like Nights at the Circus, her 1984 publication that ranks as her top book, Wise Children features non-conventional families immersed in the world of early 20th century musical theater and vaudeville.  Unlike Nights at the Circus, Wise Children is firmly rooted in the real, and abandons the flights into surrealism and magical realism which characterized Nights at the Circus.

  Wise Children largely consists of the reminiscences Dora and Nora Chance, the illegitimate twin daughters of theater impresario Melchior Hazard.  Set in an unspecified "present," much of Wise Children takes place in flashback form, as Dora and Nora go through all the different permutations suggested by the flow chart above.

Gravity's Rainbow (1973) by Thomas Pynchon

Gravity's Rainbow
by Thomas Pynchon

  I would argue that Gravity's Rainbow is the second best novel of the 20th century (Ulysses by James Joyce).   No author has more directly influenced by cultural development than Pynchon, from roughly college, when I read Gravity's Rainbow for the first time, to today.  The reading I did for this post was, I think, the third time I've read Gravity's Rainbow, but it was the first time I bought a "reading copy" and sat there with a pen in hand, making notes page-by-page, so that I could delve deeper into the mysteries presented.

    What I was discovered was more linkages between Pynchon's books, details of the intricacies of the plotting that had previously escaped my notice, and observations about Pynchon's influences.   Starting with the last first, I was very much struck by the similarities between large swathes of Gravity's Rainbow and the writing of William Burroughs circa Naked Lunch.   A critical character in Gravity's Rainbow is Doctor Weissman/Captain Blicero, a German army officer with a fondness for BDSM and gay sex.  The chapters involving Blicero and his proclivities seem like they were almost imported from the Burroughsian fantasies of Naked Lunch.   These heavy s&m sequences, which I basically didn't even remember reading about the first two times through, are likely the reason that Pynchon hasn't won the Nobel Prize for Literature- too dirty for the Nobel committee!

  Blicero, as it turns out, spent his formative years in the German Southwest, where he served in the aftermath of the Herrero massacre- itself a reoccurring theme in the work of Thomas Pynchon.   It is in the character of Blicero-Weissman that Pynchon really connects the idea of the exercise of power upon the body to his shaggy-dog rocket man plot.   One aspect that becomes very clear is that for Thomas Pynchon, the idea of "plot" has a double meaning- the first is the typically literary meaning, the plot of the novel.  It is the second aspect- that Gravity' Rainbow works out if you look at it in the sense of an x/y axis, where one plots points of data onto a map or graph.

   This theme is woven throughout many of the sub-plots of Gravity's Rainbow, and embodied by the closest thing this book has to a central character, Tyrone Slothrop, who has an uncanny ability to predict an imminent rocket attack via an erection.   The unraveling of this atttribute- with Slothrop seeking his own answers and a variety of world power trailing in his wake,  is the main plot point, and the easiest way to describe the plot of Gravity's Rainbow.  The title itself actually refers to the geometric space under the parabola of a rocket's trajectory, if I have that right- Gravity's Rainbow literally refers to the space one would describe under the arc of a rainbow.  Thus, geometry, and geometric space, the plotting of points on an x and y axis, and the sciences they have been inspired seem to be THE central theme of this book.

  The linkages between books are obvious, with reoccurring, tailismanic characters and shared narratives- the German extinction of the Herrero people in German Southwest Africa in the early 20th century being central to any attempt at a pan-Pynchon narrative of 20th century history.  

   I could go on.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Possession (1990) by A.S. Byatt

Book Review
Possession (1990)
 by A.S. Byatt

  Possession is another excellent example of a book that made "historical metafiction" one of the hottest genres in literary fiction, a trend that continues today.  Historical metafiction can be viewed through a variety of lenses, but  I think the easiest perspective takes into account that practitioners of historical metafiction tend to be well versed in literary theory as well as literature itself, that, like all genres that combine sales with critical acclaim, it strikes a resonant chord with prospective readers.  A.S. Byatt meets all those criterion, and the forward to the Modern Library edition also makes it clear that she was directly inspired by the success of Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose.

  Clearly for me though, the element which elevates Possession beyond turgid high concept post modern historical fiction is the author's ability to describe action, albeit the kind of action that collectors and professor of literature get up to in 1990's England when a career making discovery is at hand. 

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