Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Information (1995) by Martin Amis

Book Review
The Information (1995)
 by Martin Amis

   Martin Amis famously received a half million pound advance for The Information, one that was given to him because he dumped his old agent (and friend) for someone new, someone who got him a half million dollars. At the time it was reported to be the most money ever paid for a work of literary fiction. It cemented his status as a literary bad boy- the advance- and made him a figure of controversy in the more rarefied circles of literary fiction, the people who hand out the major prizes, the people who write book reviews.  I'm not sure the controversy has ever been resolved- Amis has never won a major literary award, which seems suspicious for a guy who has commanded a popular and critical audience for decades on both sides of the Atlantic.

  The Information is his "mid-life crisis" book about two authors, friends since childhood, who are both forty.  Richard Tull is the main protagonist and narrator- he's the failure. His friend, Gywn Barry has achieved pop culture icon status on the back of his best seller, a work of vaguely spiritual post-apocalyptic fiction that has resonated with a wide segment of the book buying public, despite being crap. Coming so soon after Sabbath's Theater, another book about a failed getting-older artist wreaking his pathetic vengeance on everyone around him, it's hard not to wonder whether the hey-day of this sort of fiction has finally begun to recede.   I believe The Information, like other books with this sort of protagonist is going to have a hard time aging.   Scholars and canonists looking back on the 1990's are going to be looking to include more diverse voices, and sad white guys like Richard Tull will find themsleves on the cutting room floor.

The Unconsoled (1995) by Kazuo Ishiguro

Book Review
The Unconsoled (1995)
by Kazuo Ishiguro

  2017 Nobel Prize for Literature winner Kazuo Ishiguro is not prolific when it comes to his output.  The Unconsoled was published in 1995, more than six years after The Remains of the Day signaled his real arrival on the international literary stage (The Remains of the Day was his third novel, after A Pale View of the Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986).   Upon publication, The Unconsoled was reviewed with bafflement.  View positive reviews were forthcoming, many critics called The Unconsoled incomprehensible.  A decade later, the tide shifted, and The Unconsoled was making it onto many "best of the century" type lists.  Now of course, we have The Nobel Prize for Literature as well as the many stylistic and thematic similarities between The Unconsoled and The Buried Giant, the last novel Ishiguro wrote before he on the Nobel Prize.

  Set in an unnamed Central European city that mostly resembles Vienna, The Unconsoled follows world-renowned pianist Ryder as he arrives into town to give an important performance.  That one sentence is just about the only fact that can be written about the plot of The Unconsoled without discussing Ishiguro's extraordinary use of memory in this book.  Ryder isn't exactly an amnesiac, but he can't remember many, many important facts which confront him as he tries to "Make it the Greek," so to speak.   All of The Unconsoled is shrouded in the same kind of (metaphorical) fog that drapes filmic representations of Vienna in films like The Third Man.   The most amazing aspect of The Unconsoled is that the narrator and reader learn less as the book moves along.  Confusion and disorientation seems to be the avowed goal of Ishiguro, and in that regard he certainly succeeds.

  Connecting it to his other books, a reader can see that Ishiguro is concerned with the unreliability of memory. What are the consequences to our personality when we either specific memories, or even the ability to know that we have lost memories. And whether the reader enjoys the experience or not, it is impossible to argue that The Unconsoled isn't another worthy take on this theme.  Fun reading though, it is not.

Friday, November 24, 2017

When the English Fall (2017)by David Williams

Book Review
When the English Fall  (2017)
by David Williams
Published July 11th, 2017

  I am automatic for any new novel that marries literary fiction with post-apocalyptic themes.  The New York Times review of When the English Fall carried the headline, "The Amish Guide to the Apocalypse."  The title refers to the name that the Amish use for normal Americans.   Every author who seeks to marry post-apocalyptic genre themes with the requirements of literary fiction confronts the problem of a narrator who won't weigh the text down with unnecessary exposition.  For example, if wrote a book about the apocalypse, and your narrator was the President, or a military general, you'd get a lot of talk about the mechanics and details of how it all went down, simply because they would be in a position to know.   Narrators in these sorts of novels are almost inevitably either children or moderately sophisticated urbanites who never carry any insight.  The "why" of the apocalypse, in every post-apocalyptic novel is essentially besides the point.

  Every literary apocalypse has the same impact, lowering the number of people that the narrator comes into contact with during the course of the book.  Either the book is set during/in the immediate aftermath, and the characters are hiding, fighting or fleeing, limiting their chances for dinner parties and going to the mall, or its in the far aftermath, and there are just fewer people around \to talk to..

  Thus, in my mind, the extent to which a work that attempts to combine post-apocalyptic themes with literary fiction is successful depends on the ability of the author to either escape these parameters (and I haven't even found a one of those up to no) or to simply execute them at the highest level.  When the English Fall, with its unexpectedly unsophisticated Amish narrator who isn't a child, but rather a highly respected head of household, scores a point there because it relieves the author from writing from the perspective of a child (who really just aren't that interesting as narrators, let's be honest.)  The other elevating aspect of When the English Fall is that the Amish were survivalists before survivalism was invented, totally ready to operate outside modern society because they do that shit every day.

    Thus, When the English Fall is a kind of "bunker" novel, except the bunker is a community of well run farms.  And although things get tight, nothing gets scarier than hanging a bunch of outside looters.  The horrors of cannibalism and mass suicide don't play a part here.   Like many novels of the post-apocalypse, a strong ending is nowhere in sight.  In literary fiction finding some place that has escaped destruction is not an option, and ending it with the death of the protagonist is obviously cliche.  To Williams' credit, he does come up with AN ending, not a great one, but something.

Sabbath's Theater (1995) by Philip Roth

Book Revie
Sabbath's Theater (1995)
 by Philip Roth

  In 1960, Philip Roth's debut novel, Goodbye Columbus, won the National Book Award. In 1995, 35 years after that win, he won for Sabbath's Theater.  It demonstrates amazing longevity, and a continued popular and critical audience over the course of his entire professional career.   I think it is far and in no way disrespectful to call Roth "the last of the (20th century) dinosaurs," in the sense that all of his books- and Sabbath's Theater is a particularly acerbic example, feature privileged white men abusing and harassing everyone around them.  He was able to smoothly adapt the arrival of post-modernism without missing a beat, but he didn't start writing books about oppressed third world natives fighting faceless corporations, or underprivileged groups in the United States, he simply incorporated the technique to make his reoccurring themes more powerful.

  Mickey Sabbath is the protagonist and narrator of Sabbath's Theater, he's a falstaffian figure who achieved brief notoriety in the 1960's when he was arrested in New York City for an "obscene puppet show,"  failed to live up to his early promise, then devoted the rest of his life to womanizing and making the women in his life miserable with his behavior.  Whooo de doo, am I right?  Reading Sabbath's Theater in the aftermath of the recent dialogue over sexual harassment/abuse by men of power carries with it some uncomfortable moments.  Even after finishing the book it was unclear to me whether Roth meant us to hate Sabbath or empathize with him.  He seemed pretty despicable to me.   The ability to carry the book on the back of such a jerk is one of the characteristics of Roth's fiction which sets him apart.  

A Fine Balance (1995) by Rohinton Mistry

Book Review
A Fine Balance (1995)
by Rohinton Mistry

   I'm sure that when Salman Rushdie burst onto the international literary scene with his second novel, Midnight's Children, there were readers who were disappointed with the type of book that brought South Asia to the prominent attention of the Western literary world.   Midnight's Children, was, by all accounts, event to detractors, an amazing book, but it was also very Western, what with the post modernism and magical realism, a book about South Asia written by an Author who understood Western literary culture very well.   For these people, A Fine Balance, by Canadian-Indian author Rohinto Mistry, is probably closer to what they had in mind a sprawling (can there be any other book about South Asia) saga that evoked Dickens and Emile Zola.

  A Fine Balance also squarely address the caste system, and the place of untouchables in Indian society, something that, to my knowledge Rushdie has never addressed directly in any of his fiction.  A Fine Balance made a huge splash- only the second Canadian book to be a selection for Oprah's Book Club, and it got a Booker Prize nomination.   I think simply the fact that it is the first book in the 1001 Books project to feature characters from the untouchable/dalit social class in India justifies it's canonical status.   At close to 600 pages, the reader needs to treat A Fine Balance as one would a Dickens novel- you aren't just going to sit down and read it in a couple of sittings.

  Personally though, I don't believe you can understand India without understanding untouchables, and their history and experience, and this is the only book I've found in my life that does it in the context of literary fiction, so there you go.

Blog Archive