Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Exit West (2017) by Mohsin Hamid

Book Revew
Exit West (2017)
 by Mohsin Hamid

  Exit West is currently sitting second on the Ladbrokes 2017 Booker Prize odds list- at 4/1, same as Elmet by Fiona Mozley, both are behind Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders- at 2/1.  Elmet is proving a difficulty to procure- NOT purchased by the LA County Library System.   But if George Saunders makes sense as the favorite, Mohsin Hamid makes sense as a strong second place- more so then Elmet, which is a debut novel by a white, English, female author.  Lincoln in the Bardo may be a debut novel by Saunders, but Saunders is well, well known for his short fiction- even beloved, and Mozley is unknown.

  Hamid, on the other hand, has an impeccable international literary pedigree- Pakistani, educated in England the United States, works out of London, has a prior hit in the category of literary fiction (The Reluctant Fundamentalist- 2007- a prior Booker short list nominee.)  He's creative in terms of his narrative technique and his South Asian background is well under-represented in Western Literary Fiction.

   In Exit West, Hamid introduces an element of what might be called "speculative fiction"- the invention of a multiplicity of "doors" that open up between places in the global south and places in the global north.  In other words, one would be sitting in the middle of a Civil War in sub-Saharan Africa, and then someone would find a door, and anyone could go to wherever that door would take you- Greece, England, America. Nobody knows how the doors work, and no one can do anything to stop people from moving between countries.

  The story is told about Saeed and Nadia- a couple living in an unidentified city in the Middle East- but sounds like someplace in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or Egypt that descends into Civil War.  The doors are introduced after we get a solid 100 pages on life in a contemporary Middle Eastern Civil War.  This portion reads like something you'd read as a New Yorker short story.  Then Hamid introduces the doors, and shit gets weird, though not, it deserves to be said, as weird as one might expect from the set up.  Hamid uses a light touch in terms of introducing polemic  about the global refugee crisis, even though Exit West is directly about this topic.

 Rather, Hamid's views (dreams) about the potential solutions to our current crisis manifest as plot points in the story.  Where one might expect a dark, even dystopian second and third act (based on the reality of how the Western nations treat their CURRENT would-be immigrants who show up without permission), Hamid paints a gently humanistic, even optimistic picture.

  I wouldn't reverse the current odds on the Ladbroke's table-  the use of literary devices derived from science fiction/speculative fiction are certainly no bar to winning a major literary award, but it's hard to see how The Reluctant Fundamentalist- which was a critical success, a popular seller and intensely topical (albeit so is Exit West)- could lose and Exit West would win.   You could also look at Hamid's track record and biography- even without reading all of his works- and surmise that he could well possibly be building up to something truly spectacular. Compared to that hypothetical master work, Exit West seems like a mere appetizer. 

Days Without End (2016) by Sebastian Barry

Book Review
Days Without End (2016)
 by Sebastian Barry

    |Irish author Sebastian Barry had a big miss on the Booker Shortlist announcement this year.  Going in, he had the second best odds against getting shortlisted (behind The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead- another miss.)  Going in Barry had everything trending in his direction: Prior short list presence, a hot genre (historical fiction) and a unique perspective (a gay Irish immigrant soldier.)  Having missed out, it appears that two books set in 19th century American around the time of the Civil War was one too many for the 2017 Booker Shortlist (and The Underground Railroad would have been three.)   Why did Lincoln in the Bardo make it above Days Without End?  If I had to guess, it would be on the basis of originality/creativity- Lincoln in the Bardo is creative both in plot and execution, whereas Days Without End is a pretty straight forward "Cormac McCarthy a la Blood Meridian, except take away the metaphysical hoodoo and instead the narrator is gay."

   Booker Shortlist fail aside, Days Without End is a genuine delight, and squarely within the fictional universe where I would like to spend my days.  I learned from the London Guardian book review that Barry has devoted himself to telling the story of two Irish families, the Dunnes and the  McNulty's, over a series of books (and plays? Barry started as a playwright before focusing more on fiction.)  Here, the narrator is Thomas McNulty, he's left behind his starved-to-death family in Ireland and finds himself wandering mid 19th century America, where he meets his life long companion and enlists in the pre-Civil War United States Army- then in it's "Indian Wars" era.

  Barry crisply narrates several horrific semi-genocidal episodes against Natives in California, before relocating McNulty to the plains, where the Olgala Sioux become their primary "nemesis."  The economy of the narrator- strongly reminiscent of the way Cormac McCarthy writes about 19th century America- is studded with the real life horror of the West.  After that, McNulty and his partner adopt a Native girl, and raise her as their daughter.  From there, it's a brief respite as early drag performers and then enlisting in the Civil War.

  The narrative moves quickly, there is no time to be bored, and the incident and resolution are satisfying. Days Without End is under 300 pages, and although the narrator is an illiterate 19th century Irish immigrant, the prose remains very readable.  No problems with jargon or argot here.   Can't wait for the movie (television?) version, which is sure to come. Are those movie rights still available?  Literally The Reverent meets Brokeback Moutnain here.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Operation Shylock (1993) by Philip Roth

Book Review
Operation Shylock (1993)
by Philip Roth

    The case for Roth as an all-time great, vs. a "great in his time" is based on his late career productivity, which was singled out by the Booker Prize when they gave him an International Prize in 2011.    Ultimately, though, Roth is perhaps the premier non winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in the 20th and, indeed, 21st century, a status which spawns it's own cottage industry almost every year when the new winner is announced.  Bob Dylan winning last year was a particular high point for the "Philip Roth didn't win again" school.  This discussion inevitably tracks with a corresponding complaint that the Nobel Committee is somehow "biased" against English language writers.

  The idea is that Philip Roth is the best American writer of his generation to NOT win the award, and since the Nobel Prize for Literature is only awarded to living (and active) authors, Philip Roth, in his 80's and retired, is missing, or has already missed his chance.  Personally, I'm more interested in the prospects of the still writing Thomas Pynchon when it comes to American authors and the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I am beginning to really appreciate Roth, despite him being underrepresented in the 1001 Books project.

  Operation Shylock is another strong mid-late career Philip Roth title.  It is a meta-fictional lark about a character Philip Roth, the author, confronting his doppelganger over his dissemination of a "reverse Zionism" involving the re-distribution of Israeli Ashkenazi Jews back to Europe.   While in Israel, he is drawn into the Operation Shylock of the title, a trip to Greece to meet with a shadowy cabal who may or may not be Jews who are secretly funding the PLO.

  Shylock has action, comedy and lengthy soliloquy's by almost all of the characters.  Roth, the author/narrator and Roth the impostor are both obsessed with the then current John Demjanjuk Nazi war criminal trial.  Roth raises many interesting questions about Judaism, anti-antisemitism and the Israeli-Palestinian problem, while also writing an interesting plot and creating compelling, if familiar, characters.  In short, as one of his characters might say, "What is there to complain about?"  Only that Philip Roth, an older, white Jewish, Prize winning author has nothing interesting left to observe about the human condition, but this is plainly not the case.



Tuesday, September 19, 2017

American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street (2014) by Paula Rabinowitz

Book Review
American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street (2014)
 by Paula Rabinowitz
Princeton University Press/ Princeton and Oxford

   If you wanted a capsule summary of 20th century aesthetics, you'd start with the pre-modern "high vs. low culture," where "high culture" is "good" and "low culture is "bad."  From there you move into Modernism- High Modernism- in the early 20th century.  Modernism had a deep impact on 20th century life and it was a movement driven by artists, rather than academics.  Modernism was subject to a virulent critique by artists and academics, particularly in Germany and France, who produced dueling schools of what might be considered "post-modern" aesthetics- the Germans, with the Frankfurt School, produced a critique of the "culture industry" and the resulting products, while the French produced a critique that called into question the ideas at the heart of aesthetics- what is an artist? what is art? who does art serve?  These two dueling philosophies fought it out in American Philosophy and Literature departments all over the Western world, where the French wing dominated academic discourse for decades.  Most recently however, the highly specialized French vocabulary used to describe art has been largely deposed by fans of the Frankfurt School, and this shift has meant that specialist literature in the fields of art, literature and philosophy have become more accessible to a general audience, because it's just easier to understand.

   Rabinowitz persuasively argues her position that the ideas of Modernism were largely introduced to a popular American audience via the medium of of pulp paperbacks- not just via genre fiction, but also through literary fiction and non-fiction.  She explores these subjects, as well as the way that pulp indiscriminately mingled high and low culture- which is certainly a point that was largely missed both at the time discussed- early to mid 20th century, and by the French post-modernists, who were largely uninterested in actually, like, doing research instead of making air castles of theory.   There are numerous high points, but American Pulp reads more like a bunch of papers grouped together than a stand alone work.   She comes close, at times, to articulating a kind of unified field theory of pulp and pulping, but like a good Academic, she stops short of making bold and outrageous claims. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) by George Saunders

Book Review
Lincoln in the Bardo (2017)
by George Saunders

  So here I am, more or less caught up with contemporary fiction.  The 1001 Books Project originally ended in 2006, so "the present" means the period between then and 2017.  Reviews of contemporary books will focus on their potential for canonical status, with the understanding that it is unknowable whether I am correct or not.   Unfortunately, the single best indicator would seem to be those books that either win major literary prizes or are nominated for such.  This criterion will take into account the sales record of each title, since simply looking at the best seller for canon candidates (while efficient) is simply too depressing to contemplate.

  Lincoln in the Bardo is the second 2017 book I've read in this category- the first being Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad.  Both books were selected based on their low odds on the Ladbrook's table for Booker Prize shortlist nominees.  Lincoln in the Bardo DID make the short list, The Underground Railroad did not.   Lincoln in the Bardo also has the top odds to win the prize- currently at 2/1.  Author  George Saunders is well known as a short-story writer and an essayist- I actually saw him speak last year in Los Angeles because my girlfriend is a fan and I left saying, "Well, he should write a novel." (He alluded to the fact that he was doing so during his talk.)

   So here is that novel, and yes, he did do an amazing job writing his first novel, with critical plaudits and an appearance at the top of the New York Times best-seller list.   It is a very appealing package: First time novel by a known quantity, combines historical fiction and the supernatural, popular United States President (Abraham Lincoln) appears as a major character (though not the Lincoln of the title.) AND- AND- it's is very, very easy to read, written in a format where each statement is written in citation format, whether or not it takes the form of actual dialogue or a quote from a historic text about the Lincoln administration.

  The Bardo of the title refers to the Tibetan spiritual concept which roughly equates to "purgatory"- neither heaven nor hell but a kind of supernatural waiting room, where unresolved issues may cause spirits to linger in the corporeal world as spirits, their issues reflected in their "physical" demeanor.  The Lincoln of the title is the President's son, William "Willie" Lincoln.  He died at the very beginning of the Civil War, and the story is "based" on two subsequent visits that the President made to Willie's tomb.

  Saunders manages to pack an astonishing number of voices into the 300 pages- over 100 by most accounts.  The other voices are other left behind spirits, and each of them adds some value to Saunders vision of Civil War era America. The grave yard in which Willie is laid to rest stands next to a paupers grave where African-Americans and vagrants were unceremoniously dumped, and thus Saunders is able to inject more social concern into a novel about ghosts and Abraham Lincoln than one might initially consider possible.

  It is this extra level of plot- the white graveyard next to the black graveyard, which I think really pushes Bardo into canonical territory.  Also, the fact that is both clearly a work of "experimental" fiction AND fast/easy to read and understand- that is a rare quality, and a canonical quality.   I think, weighing against it is the fact that it lacks the "weight" that often marks a canonical novel.  The technique of writing an entire book as a series of quotes from other sources detracts from the over-all impact, and may directly alienate less serious readers- a key component of the audience for a newly canonical text.

   Surely, the winning or losing of the Booker Prize will be a huge factor. The prize, like the winnowing of the long list to a short list is notoriously unpredictable, but with 2/1 odds, Lincoln in the Bardo is the odds on favorite.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Robber Bride (1993) by Margaret Atwood

Book Review
The Robber Bride (1993)
by Margaret Atwood

  Oh man, rich white English-speaking people and their fucking problems.  I could write a book.  OH WAIT EVERYONE ALREADY HAS.  Add The Robber Bride to that shelf.  It shows Atwood doing her best Doris Lessing/Nadine Gordimer take, dressing up standard white-lady personal issues with a noirish/mystery angle.  As you would expect from a Canadian author, nothing is genuinely shocking in these pages, even though she tries- comically- in my mind- to inject a frisson of drugs and Bohemian low life to the proceedings.  The story of three female college friends:  A wealthy business lady, a college history professor and a ditzy hippie- and their encounters with the outrageous Zenia- a woman of no known origins, who lies and fucks her way through their lives, before dying- in Lebanon- in the first chapter of the book.

  Atwood takes up backwards in time for each of the three main characters- giving each a different backstory with various levels of trauma- the mother of the history professor just walks out one day, the mother of the hippie goes insane and dies, and she is molested by her adoptive father (her uncle). Each also gets to tell the story of their traumatic encounter with Zenia- all involving stolen money and sexual betrayal.

   Like the characters in a Doris Lessing novel, you get the firm impression that Atwood does not like her own characters very much.  Each of them is played like a fiddle by Zenia in their turn and when it turns out that Zenia is not, in fact, dead, they allow her to manipulate them all AGAIN.    Being generally familiar with the Canadian national character, such a plot isn't wholly surprising, but if she tried that shit in a major United States city she would be dead or in jail.

The Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt

Book Review
The Secret History (1992)
 by Donna Tartt

    The Secret History is one of those exception that proves the rule(s) of the marketplace for late 20th century literary fiction.  It was a debut novel (!) by a woman(!) written about an esoteric intellectual subject (the study of ancient greece)  featuring unlikable characters (a group of elite college students who kill a couple people)  that was immediately recognized as a potential hit (initial printing of 75,000 instead of 10,000) and was a sales success (best-seller.)

  I'll admit that it does make an enjoyable, quick read,  Almost every major theme in the book relates not necessarily to the study of ancient Greece, bur the ideas of philosopher Nietzche's ideas about ancient Greece in his very well known The Birth of Tragedy- nowhere mentioned in The Secret History despite having character espouse ideas taken directly from it's pages in almost every chapter.  Tartt, a Bennington College graduate, bases The Secret History in a thinly veiled Bennington stand-in called Hampden.  I'm certainly no stranger to the particular literary appeal of Bennington- Less Than Zero- probably my favorite novel is written by another Bennington grad and partially set there.  Last year, while in New Hampshire, I drove to Bennington and spent the weekend just to get the vibe.

  That said, I don't think The Secret History is canon- particularly after The Goldfinch, written eight years after the first edition of 1001 Books was published, won the Pultizer Prize.   The Secret History is a fun read and the themes revolving around esoteric knowledge and privilege are ever-green, but everything else, including the murders at the heart of The Secret History (and revealed to the reader in the prologue, so calm down if you are somehow reading this before you read the book.) were firmly in the "who gives a fuck what happens to these people."


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