VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Fake Accounts (2021) by Lauren Oyler

Photo by Pete Voelker
Author Lauren Oyler
Book Review
Fake Accounts (2021)
by Lauren Oyler

   Fake Accounts, written by American author/critic Lauren Oyler has drawn a good amount of attention for a first novel.   Oyler was already on the national radar via her criticism- reflected in some parts of Fake Accounts, such as when the nameless, internet obssessed narrator gets into a digression about the gendered nature of novels with "elliptical" narrative style.  The narrator-protagonist of Fake Accounts is anything but elliptical, with a self-obssessed style she shares in common with several generations of American protagonists in literary fiction.  

   Unlike her predecessors,  the narrator in Fake Accounts is alive in the internet era, and that has led many to dub this part of the first wave of "Internet Novels."   It would lazy in the extreme to judge Fake Accounts a work of auto-fiction, though Oyler has obviously drawn on aspects of her own life.  Oyler edited the Vice "women's" site Broadly, the narrator works at a buzzfeed like website as an editor.  Oyler's own site mentions that she "spends alot of time in Berlin" while living in New York, the narrator lives in New York and moves to Berlin over the course of Fake Accounts.   Yes, she drew on her own life experiences to write a novel, but doesn't everyone.

    Her narrator favors a dense, parenthetical style that I think would remind many of David Foster Wallace, minus the footnotes and metaphysical fuckery.  A better comparison is Thomas Bernhard, who was also a favorite of ole DFW.  I'm assuming that Oyler is well familiar with Bernhard since he was a German language author (though from Austria) and she is American writer of literary fiction who spends time in Berlin. 

   As I listened to the Audiobook version- which was great- and I highly recommend, I was frequently struck by the idea that Oyler had managed to alchemize Bernhard's crabbed appeal and cross it with internet era stream-of-consciousness.   She also has a story- something Bernhard never cared about.  Even if the story isn't the absolute greatest, it has to be added to the fact that as a stylist, Oyler, in managing to write a debut novel that evokes Bernhard as its strongest comparison AND get noticed by the internet era mass media market for literary fiction, has accomplished something I would have personally thought impossible.

   I don't think Fake Accounts is a hit yet- I can see how many people would actively dislike her the style for the exact same reason I like it (similarity to Thomas Bernhard, who is a very off-putting writer), but it suggests that Oyler is just getting started, and I'm interested to see what she does next, and I'm hopeful that Fake Accounts will get a Nation Book Award nomination this year.

   And if the author is out there reading, her mentions in a rss stream, I just want to say I think this is a great novel! The people who don't like it are obviously imbeciles who've probably never heard of Thomas Bernhard. 
   

Holiday (1938) d. George Kukor

Holiday
Cover of the Criterion Collection edition of Holiday d. George Kukor
Movie Review
Holiday (1938)
d. George Kukor

  It's funny, but for all the translated literature and foreign films I take in, it is Hollywood movies from the mid part of the 20th century that often seem the most foreign to me.  Basically, movies, made by Hollywood before the Nouvelle Vague revolution swept through America in the 60's, are as strange to watch as anything.  Who are these people?  Holiday is best known as a foreshadowing of The Philadelphia Story, which was also directed by George Kukor and also starred Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.

  Based on a 1928 play by Philip Barry, Holiday stars Cary Grant as Johnny Case, the fiancĂ© of Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) and sister of Linda Seton (Hepburn), who as luck would have it, are the daughters of insanely wealthy New York plutocrat Edward Seton Sr.  Like every movie based on a play, the whole movie takes places in a series of interiors- mostly the Seton mansion.  The plot is more interesting than you might expect from the set-up, Grant, an up and comer in "business" only wants to work long enough to drop out and smell the roses, which does not play well with Seton Sr.


Monday, February 22, 2021

The Magician of Lublin (1960) by Isaac Bashevis Singer


Book Review
The Magician of Lublin (1960)
by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Replaces: The Collector by John Fowles

   I always had this idea that Isaac Bashevis Singer was a writer of folk tales centering on Jewish shetl (ghetto) live in Eastern Europe, but it turns out that his books are very dark.  He deals frankly with issues related to sex as any 20th century writer- there isn't a huge gap between Singer and Roth when you get down to it, and I say this as a Jewish man- they are both sex obssessed horny Jews.  I've always thought that a great deal of the world- whether it be in business, art, etc, was shaped specifically by men who didn't get laid until they were older- guys who didn't get laid in high school or at university.  It's not just a Jewish thing- horny English guys DOMINATE 19th and 20th century literature.  D.H. Lawrence, for example.  George Orwell- he was a pretty horny cat.  I'm always reminded of an anecdote that Freud grew up in a house with one bathroom for 12 people (ten kids and two adults) and you can understand much of his obsession with going to the bathroom from this one biographical detail.

  It rings true to me- over the years I've had the chance to talk to plenty of succesful artists- musicians mostly, and it always seems like there is some kind of childhood trauma behind the combination of talent and determination which makes it possible to succeed in an artistic endeavor.  Singers magician of Lublin is Yasha Mazur, a half-Jewish performer living in Russian controlled Poland during the 1880's.  Mazur is your classic horny Jew Singer protagonist, he's got a wife in the country, a peasant assistant he schtups on the side and a beautiful, non-Jewish divorcee (who has a teen age daughter no less) who he wants to run away with.

  With this goal he mind, he hatches a plot to gather running away money- an early scene establishing that Mazur faces constant pressure from his criminal brethren to use his skills (lock picking, acrobatics) in the service of crime. This being a work of literary fiction, nothing goes as plan. 

Band of Outsiders (1964) d. Jean Luc Godard

Band of Outsiders
Criterion Collection cover for Band of Outsiders d. Jean-Luc Godard

Movie Review
Band of Outsiders (1964)
d. Jean-Luc Godard
Criterion Collection #174

   It's hard to really get your head around Jean-Luc Godard and his filmography. He was incredibly prolific,  basically averaging a film a year into the 1990's, where he slowed down to a film every three or four  years until 2018.  Many of his films are experimental to the point of unwatchability.   The last film of his I've seen chronologically is Hail Mary (1985) which is frankly unwatchable, or I guess hardly watchable.   I pushed Band of Outsiders to the top of my Criterion Collection queue because it leaves this month- a week left to watch!

  Band of Outsiders is about as straight-forward as Godard ever got, an adaptation of a translated french version of an American crime fiction book.  Highlights include Anna Karina and the famous "Madison" dance sequence- which like many elements of Godard's New Wave period dramatically influenced Quentin Tarantino alongside every other independent filmmaker of the late 20th and early 21st century.  Another fun moment is when the protagonists drive by a shop called "Nouvelle Vague," in neon sign form. 

The Prophets (2021) by Robert Jones Jr.

Robert Jones, Jr. | Penguin Random House
Author Robert Jones Jr.
Book Review
The Prophets (2021)
by Robert Jones Jr.

  An early front runner for the National Book Award longlist, The Prophets is the debut novel by American author Robert Jones Jr., about a forbidden love affair between two slaves on a Mississippi plantation in the early 19th century.   And although the hook should be enough to pique the interest of most fans of American literary fiction, this book is by no means "just" a LGBT love story set in the antebellum south.  Jones abley blends different voices- the white children of the plantation owner,  women slaves on the same plantation as well as voices from Africa- which expand the standard parameters of the American slave narrative across the ocean in time and space.

  Like Marlon James, Jones Jrs' take on the African American LGBT experience is physical and intense.  His two protagonists, Isaiah and Samuel, are nuanced figures, even as their actions become increasingly direct.  Jones deserves plaudits for his frank and direct depiction of the trauma inflicted on the enslaved by their so-called masters, reserving special spite for the "progressive" white children of the planation over class. 

   Although I shouldn't have to say this in 2021, The Prophets is not "just" for people interested in LGBT issues in literary fiction.  It is a broadly appealing work, and it packs a narrative punch that will make you glad you picked it up.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Abstainer (2020) by Ian McGuire


Book Review
The Abstainer (2020)
by Ian McGuire

  I read about this book on the New York Times 2020 Best list and was intrigued by the milieu (mid 19th century Manchester England) and the plot (combination detective/spy procedural about the Fenian/Irish Independence movement).  When I saw the Los Angeles Public Library had an Audiobook edition freely available, I imagined enjoyable Irish/English/Irish-English accents and plenty of murky canals.  I was not dissapointed!

  Half way through I found myself wondering, despite enjoying the proceedings, what elevated this book beyond the usual historical/genre pack, a question that is answered by a dynamic third act involving Joseph O'Connor, the flawed Irish policeman who is at the center of an attempt to thwart the terrorist activities of an Irish-American from New York, sent over to avenge the hanging of three Fenian foot soldiers. 

Friday, February 12, 2021

At Night All Blood is Black (2018) by David Diop

Image result for david diop france
At Night All Blood is Black author David Diop
Book Review
At Night All Blood is Black (2018)
by David Diop

   This World War I novel of the trenches won the Prix Goncourt des Lyceens in 2018.  Late last year, the English translation was published in the United States by FSG.  The author was born is Paris but spent his childhood in Senegal before returning to France as a University Professor.  At Night All Blood is Black was his second novel- his first was also a work of historical fiction.

  The experience of French West African soldiers in World War I is a hugely underrepresented event in 20th century.  Nearly a half million Africans- from North and West Africa, fought on the side of France in World War I.   For the Germans, they were nightmarish figures- though you would be hard pressed to find that attitude documented in canonical World War I German language fiction. Similarly, the experience seems infrequently addressed on the French side of the equation.  I can't, sitting here, think of either reading or hearing about a French language book written from the perspective of an African soldier. 

   At Night All Blood is Black is a canny work of fiction, well positioned for international/cross-over success, written from the perspective of a Senegalese soldier known for his practice of bringing back the severed hands of German soldiers.  Somewhere between a novel and a novella, I can see why the subject matter and length would both be appealing to the 2000 students who judge this award.  American students would probably pick a science fiction or YA title.  I highly recommend this book.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (1959)by Tadeusz Borowski


Book Review
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (1959)
by Tadeusz Borowski

Replaces: The Poor Mouth by Flann O'Brien

     The corpus of Holocaust lit is mostly written from the perspective of surviving Jews, after that you've got accounts written by non-Jews who wound up there for different reasons- among these the biggest class seems to be "politicals" followed by "social undesirables."  Other groups- the Roma in particular, but also LGBT deportees, are underrepresented or absent.   This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, is written by a Pole who ended up as an orderly in a medical unit at Auschwitz.   His was the uncanny perspective of witnessing the final solution first hand without being directly involved.  Many of the most memorable short stories in this collection involve him recalling the processing of Jewish arrivals at Auschwitz from train to gas chamber.  His stories also talk about the Sonderkommandos- the Jewish inmates who were tasked with cleaning and maintaining the gas chambers.  It honestly sounds like the worst thing that could happen to a human being- I suppose the response is that it is preferable to being gassed but I'm not entirely sure that's true. 

   Borowski was a Pole, and what you might call a premature Communist in that part of the world- his anti-Nazi campaigning got him send to the camps in the first place.  After the war he did ok for himself as an official in the Polish government, but a trip to the decadent west got to him and he ended up committing suicide in 1951.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) d. Charles Laughton

The Night of the Hunter
Criterion Collection cover of The Night of the Hunter (1955) d. Charles Laughton
Movie Review
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
d. Charles Laughton
Criterion Collection #541

   The Night of the Hunter is the most Criterion Collection movie in the Criterion Collection, an initially ignored Hollywood masterpiece, directed as a one off by actor Charles Laughton, featuring an exquisite anti-hero performance by Robert Mitchum, it's inarguably a Southern Gothic Expressionist masterpiece and as I say so often when watching Criterion Collection titles, "How have I managed to live forty plus years without seeing this film?"   After watching it, it's just so obviously a superior film- a classic work of literature.  

   In particular I was drawn to Mitchum- maybe favorite Hollywood leading man of that era and the expressionistic mise-en-scene, the way Laughton shot different buildings in the night and early morning is impossible to forget.   I'm just dissapointed that nobody ever sat me down and said, "Scott, watch this film right away!"

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

The Arrest (2020) by Jonathan Lethem

Book Review
The Arrest (2020)
by Jonathan Lethem

  There are a handful of writers who I consciously ignore-  top of the list, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, David Mitchell and Jonathan Lethem.  As a "hipster"ish white man in my mid 40's, I don't feel obligated to read literary fiction cranked out by authors who generally occupy the same cultural space as myself.  If the point of reading is to take you places and expand horizons, writers like Eggers and Franzen take me to my living room. 

   I read the last Lethem novel- the first of his I've read- The Feral Detective, because it was set in the Inland Empire.  I listened to the Audiobook- annoyingly narrated by Zosia Mamet- one of my least favorite actresses'.    I didn't love The Feral Detective but I liked it.  I enjoyed his take on the high desert.  The Arrest is his take on the post-apocalyptic subgenre exemplified by The Road by Cormac McCarthy.   Books with this subject matter generally divide themselves into hard and soft scenarios.  Lethem, working on a setting in coastal Maine, has the softest of scenarios, a group of organic farmers who were lucky to be ahead of the trend before "the arrest," a time when virtually all technology- especially that based on fossil fuels, suddenly ceased to work. 

  His protagonist and narrator is Alexander Duplessis, an unattached forty-something script doctor from Hollywood, who happened to be visiting his well-situated organic farming older sister.  Her community, post-Arrest, lives in an uneasy equilibrium with the shit-powered, motorcycling bad boys of the cordon.  The plot arrives in the form of Alexander Todbaum, an obscenely wealthy Hollywood mega-producer and former writing partner of Duplessis.  Todbaum is piloting something he calls a super-car.  It sounds like more of a tank, based on the body of the machines they use to bore tunnels underneath the Earth,  Powered by his delusion that current events are tied to a fateful, decades old encounter between himself and Duplessis' organic farming sister, Todbaum deposits his super car in the town park and events unfurl.

   Even though Lethem works at the edges of plot driven genres like detective fiction and sci fi, I have the impression that story is not his primary interest.  Surprise then, that The Arrest features a plot that would, itself, make for a decent Hollywood picture.  Like The Feral Detective, I have been to the place that Lethem is writing about- I could swear that his geography is based on the real life geography of Harpswell in Maine (I'm sure there are other places that fit the bill)

    

Blog Archive