Dedicated to classics and hits.

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.  

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