Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

4 3 2 1 (2017) by Paul Auster

Book Review
4 3 2 1 (2017)
by Paul Auster

    Is Paul Auster a great American novelist?  Sure, that is a loaded question in 2017, does such a thing even exist in 2017?  Isn't the whole idea of the great American novelist and the great American novel itself problematic in so much as it invokes the specter of white male class and privilege? Up until the publication of 4 3 2 1 in January of this year, you could argue that Auster himself agreed that there was no point in writing the great American novel- simply judging by his books, which are typically short and elliptical, consciously eschewing the kind of length and solidity that typically coincide with books judged to have a shot at fulfilling the manifest destiny of the great American novel.

    If you look at Auster's career up to this point- what have you got?  Does he have an Audience- certainly, popular and critical.  He's had best sellers, all his books get the full review treatment and he's dabbled in successful films. On the other hand, he's near 30 years into his career as a well regarded novelist and he has yet to back a first level literary prize- No Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, no National Book Award (that seems pretty amazing considering some of the books which have won in the past 30 years).   He doesn't even appear in the long odds section of the Ladbrook's 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature betting table.

   He's also got a reputation for writing literary genre fiction and a thematic obsession with the vagaries of fate and existentialism- all traits that have helped secure book sales in the English speaking world, but neither of those characteristics have endeared him to the people who hand out major literary prizes. 

  And as I was saying earlier, before the publication of 4 3 2 1 you could say that Paul Auster hasn't won a major literary award because he isn't trying to win a major award.  He just didn't give a fuck, wasn't trying, and was content with his lot as a top selling "serious" author in late 20th and early 21st century America.  After all, that's not a bad place to be for a writer of serious fiction.

   But 4 3 2 1 changes that analysis, because here he has a written a book that begs to be considered for major literary prizes, and in fact, it has made the 2017 Booker Prize short-list.  The current Ladbrook's betting chart has him second to last place at 5/1.  The inclusion of 4 3 2 1 on the shortlist was itself the biggest surprise of the 2017 shortlist announcement.   It was a surprise because 4 3 2 1 hasn't been particularly well received by critics, and at a very solid 850 pages it is not a light read. It's hard to imagine any casual readers dipping into 4 3 2 1 unless they are die hard Auster fans or they've been told that this is "the" book of the season/year, or a contender for that status.   Before the Booker Shortlist announcement, I was of the opinion that 4 3 2 1 was a ridiculously self-indulgent flop by an author who has blown his chance at long-term canonical status.

  After reading 4 3 2 1, I want to hail it as a major work- partially because I read the damn 850 pages and saying it is a great book justifies the investment of time.  I think an aspect of this book which makes it difficult to judge is the unabashedly retro bildungsroman story of a non-religious  male Jew growing up in the New York City in the mid to late 20th century.   The meta fictional device that somewhat obscures the retro feel is that Auster tells four different versions of the same life, from birth through young adulthood.  Each version is different as it relates the narrator and his personal life, but the "outside world" remains the same in each version.  For example, the student unrest at Columbia around the time of the Vietnam War, and the Vietnam War itself, and all major historical events from the time period depicted remain true to "life."

  Any cursory survey of the reviews of 4 3 2 1 make it clear that the narrator is a stand in for Auster himself.  One important plot point, the sudden death of a friend at summer camp when he was a young adolescent- occurs both in the real life of Paul Auster and in 4 3 2 1.   Auster manages to spell the overwhelming white/maleness by making his narrator gay/bisexual in some of his timelines.  But still- 4 3 2 1 bears a strong resemblance to the work of Phillip Roth and Saul Bellow.  He's moved forward a few decades in time (from Saul Bellow, at least), but the story of a hyper-literate Jewish American growing up in the New York area in the mid to late 20th century is one of the most traversed literary pathways of 20th century literature.

  4 3 2 1 is a book written to win literary prizes, so it's ultimate value is likely to be judged by it's ability to bring home said prizes.  At least a National Book Award.

Friday, September 29, 2017

On Love (1993) by Alain de Botton

Book Review
On Love (1993)
by Alain de Botton

  Alain de Botton is a oddity- a French style "public intellectual" of a type almost unknown in America for the past half century- a writer with opinions, based on philosophy, about how one might live in the modern world.   To a cynical eye, you might say he is a high falutin lifestyle guru- and the fact that his "Ted Talk" is on the first page of his Google search return is telling.  For those reasons, I like but don't love Botton. Even though I don't know anyone outside of my current partner who has one of his books on the shelve, I would be vaguely embarrassed to admit that I was a fan.

  That said, I find myself quietly nodding my head every two to three pages of any Botton written work I dig into.  His brand of philosophy leans heavy on classical Stoicism and his methods and style hearken back to the tradition of  Plato and Aristotle. Adapted for the 20th and 21st century literary marketplace, of course.  This background is clear even in On Love- his first, and basically (barring a sequel) only novel- and his biggest hit- a book that sold hundreds of thousands of copies across the world and gave him the audience for his true calling of life as a public intellectual/pop philosopher.

  On Love shows some of that philosophical heritage- writing a novel in numbered paragraphs strikes me as something only a classically trained philosopher would do (though that particular tradition dates to 19th century analytic philosophy.)  I'm sure On Love made the 1001 Books list simply because it is his only novel, not his best work.  For my money, that would be the Consolations of Philosophy, which I've kept on the shelf for two decades.  The idea of prostituting philosophy for the marketplace is controversial.  Really the only people in this country who care about philosophy are academics, so Botton took this leap of popularizing philosophy, but I think he deserved to be acclaimed, not criticized.  Better Botton than nothing at all, that's what I say.

The Fall of the Roman Empire (2006) by Peter Heather

Book Review
The Fall of the Roman Empire (2006)
 by Peter Heather
Oxford University Press

   The Fall of the Roman Empire is the book that historian Peter Heather wrote before his wider ranging book, Empires and Barbarians (2010).  Both books seek to up end the conventional (circa 18th century) explanation that the Roman Empire fell because of the failure of its leading citizens and a descent into decadence.   This explanation, promulgated by Edward Gibbons in his famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,  was so compelling that it continues to hold sway, and variations on his 18th century themes are frequently recycled today in the context of the "Decline and Fall of the American Empire."

  Not surprising is that Peter Heather vociferously disagrees with this 300 year old explanation.   Less surprising is that it literally took over 300 years for Gibbon to get his full come uppance.  Heather is both imaginative and creative in drawing on resources to elaborate his account, which squarely blames the fall of Rome on barbarian outsiders.   He draws from the familiar written (i.e. Roman) resources, but also incorporates archaeological findings- much of them from the period after World War II, to support his argument.

  That argument is this:   In the third century AD, the Sassanian Empire united the Near East and, after delivering a crushing defeat to the Roman Army (and actually capturing a Roman Emperor), became the foreign affairs obsession of the Roman elite.  From the 300's through the end of the Western Empire, Rome devoted a substantial amount of it's very finite resources to creating a strategic stale mate with the Persians, and this reality limited the ability of Rome to defend the West.

  Meanwhile, in the West, Barbarians tribes had been drawn into the orbit of the Western Roman Empire.  These Barbarians got the short end of the stick from the Romans for centuries, but they also learned about the Roman Empire, and many emigrated into the Empire and joined the Roman Army.  The bottom line is that when events between the Romans and western barbarians came to a head, Rome didn't have the resources to do much except fight the Barbarian armies that made their way onto Roman soil.

  This dynamic resulted in several Barbarian incursions into the West, culminating in the attacks of Attila the Hun, which devastated the Western Empire and created a diminished level of tax revenue, which further lessened the ability of the Western Empire to handle the increasing barbarian problem.  The Roman Empire was huge, but from a governance perspective it was very unsophisticated- basically- they taxed agricultural produce and used the money to pay the army.  Wealth was in land, so when things started to fall apart, Roman elites basically had to deal with it, or lose the source of their wealth.

  This prevented elites from mounting any sort of resistance- and unlike feudal Europe, Roman land holding elites did not maintain their own armies.  In the end, Rome kind of faded away, leaving behind elites that still considered themselves Roman, and barbarians who were mostly influenced by the Roman example.


Thursday, September 28, 2017

Complicity (1993) by Iain Banks

Book Review
Complicity (1993)
by Iain Banks

  Four titles from Scottish author Iain Banks in the 2006 edition of the 1001 Books list!  That is a lot of representation from a non-canon author of  what is essentially high-brow/regional genre fiction.  He is squarely in the heartland of the renaissance of Scottish literature from the late 20th century.  Complicity is basically a serial-killer story, about a guy who goes around killing Thatcher-era Captains of Industry and other emblems of Thatcher era authority in prosaic fashion- again, the relationship of the killee to their perceived moral failing is made part of the method of dispatch (cut off the arms of an arms dealer, sodomize a rapist sympathizing high court judge.   Complicity immediately brings to mind What a Carve Up!, by English author Jonathan Coe, which employs the same bag of tricks in a "country house" novel setting

  Clearly, the English intelligentsia had murder on the mind in the early 1990's, although you could also read the introduction of such graphically violent stuff into the 1001 Books list from England and Scotland as a reaction to the influence of American and Hollywood- and the penchant for both to make canon works which include graphic sex and violence.   In Complicity, Cameron Colley is a serious journalist- covering politics and current events for a Scottish broadsheet.  He enjoys playing computer games, smoking and drinking, crystal meth and fucking an old college classmate (who is married to another college classmate).  He's on the trail of a hot story involving the illicit sale of arms during the Iran-Iraq war (specifically, the mysterious deaths of several of those involved from "natural causes") when new bodies start piling up.

  Banks also narrates chapters from the perspective of the unknown serial killer.  I suppose those chapters are shocking, but not really, for an era where Silence of the Lambs qualifies as a golden oldie. Maybe in 1993, in Great Britain, sodomizing a rapist-positive High Court Judge was something at the edge of imagination but not today.

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