Tuesday, December 29, 2009

8. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a novel written by French author and philosophy professor Muriel Barbery in 2006 and translated to English in 2008. It was a very successful book in France, spending almost two years on the best sellers list (That's more than Dan Brown does over here) and it has done pretty well for a work of translated fiction in the US enjoying strong sales and mostly positive reviews. It is a novel of ideas with a focus on cultivating an appreciation of the beauty in the world that goes unnoticed by so many.

The story is told by two narrators, both residents of a luxury Paris apartment building. The principle character is Renée, the building's concierge, and her first person narrative sections make up the majority of the story. Renée spends her days tending to the needs of the wealthy families who live at number 7 Rue de Grenelle. She carefully maintains an outward image of a dull, frumpy, stereotypical Parisian concierge and makes every effort to conceal her true nature from those around her- that she is a passionate autodidact who spends her free time engaged with art and philosophy.

The other narrator is an exceptionally bright 12-year-old girl living the the building named Paloma. Her perspective is relayed entirely in the form of entries in her journal. Paloma has decided that growing up means living a life that is tedious and unhappy, and has therefore decided to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. Her journals are used to record observations about the world as she looks for something with meaning; something worth living for. She keeps two journals, one of "Profound Thoughts" to record observations and insights about human nature and a second of "Movements of the World" where she records particularly beautiful or interesting movements or actions, everything from the elegant movements of football players her Dad watches, to the grace and beauty of a falling rose pedal, or the absurd and sublime incident of two mannered women fighting over the last pair of underwear at an Paris boutique (Ricky Fitts would be proud).

These two character begin the story in their own separate worlds, isolated from almost everyone around them and unaware of each other beyond superficial familiarity. As the story progresses a third character is introduced, a retired Japanese businessman named Kakuro Ozu who moves into the building and manages to see through the facades of both characters and engages them, bringing them out of their respective hiding. These matters of plot, however, are mostly a pretext to allow the characters to muse on philosophy, the meaning of life, the beauty of art, and other ideas. The novel is filled with allusions to Tolstoy, Kant, Husserl and Marx as well as 17th century Dutch painters and Japanese arthouse filmmakers and also films like Blade Runner. It is an interesting and thought-provoking mixture.

It was a different perspective for me to read a novel by an older, female, European author. I enjoyed the characters even if they were a bit thin and unrealistic (Paloma was great, but she did have a tendency to sound like a middle-aged philosophy professor at times.) There was a lot of class-consciousness in the story, especially from Renée, the concierge, who really seemed to be going to extraordinary lengths to ensure that none of the wealthy families she worked for caught on to the fact that she was reading Kant and Husserl in her spare time. I can relate to keeping to yourself and not advertising your intellectual tendencies but the need for being so covert and guarded was hard to understand. Would the residents really care, or pay any mind at all if she was found reading a book instead of watching TV? I also had trouble accepting Palomas haste to chose suicide as the only viable option despite being presented to us as a highly intelligent person who must know that she has only experienced a fraction of what life has to offer at age 12. But it is best to accept these elements and give the story a chance. Themes of class struggle and the idea of suicide are important to the novel for the philosophical concepts they represent. If Camus can state that "there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide" in The Myth of Sisyphus I should accept Paloma's inclination as well.

The real point of the novel is in the constant digressions into observations of human nature and reflections on the beauty of art. Barbery is using a novel to explore ideas about how we live and why we live. The novel is about philosophy, literature, music, art, and how they lend meaning to life. Once you have read it through you can flip through it again at random and any given section you re-read will give you something to consider and reflect on. This alone makes it worthwhile, and accounts for much of the popularity and praise the book has received.

Friday, December 18, 2009

7. The Original of Laura (Dying is Fun) by Vladimir Nabokov

When Vladimir Nabokov died in 1977 at the age of 78 he was working on a novel to be called The Original of Laura. Nabokov is famous as the author of Lolita, Pale Fire, the memoir Speak, Memory and many other novels, essays, and short stories. He left instructions that in the event of his death any unfinished work was to be destroyed. He was known as a perfectionist and has advised that other writers should destroy rough drafts of their work so they won’t be picked over later by scholars (then again, his wife reportedly had to stop him from tossing Lolita into the incinerator at one point, so maybe he isn’t the best arbiter of cultural value).

His wife could not bring herself to destroy this work either and left the manuscript and the responsibility to their son Dmitri when she died. The idea of a latent masterpiece left unfinished and at risk of never being brought to light was the subject of much controversy, speculation and debate in the literary world for thirty years after Nabokov's death. Eventually, Dmitri decided to go against his fathers wishes and have the manuscript published.

To understand this book requires some knowledge of Nabokov's writing process. He has said that he likes to conceive his novels in full before he begins writing. He then writes the novel out on a series of index cards because it gives him the freedom to jump into different sections without being tied to the order of the novel and this also makes it easier to rewrite sections without having to perform major surgery on a typed or hand-written manuscript.

The incomplete manuscript for The Original of Laura consists of Nabokov's own handwriting across 138 index cards. The published book features a reproduction of an index card on each page with a printed version of the text below. It is really more like a roughly sketched out novella. The pages are printed on heavy paper stock and only printed on one side to give the novel more heft and justify the $35 list price. The cards were arranged by Dmitri with a few brief editorial clarifications included where necessary. That, along with Dmitri's introduction, is it.

The story is difficult to piece together. It jumps between short chapters (really just rough drafts of chapters) that tell the story of an overweight academic named Philip Wild who is married to a young, beautiful and promiscuous young woman named Flora. The opening scene describes an affair she has with another man after a party. The story then reaches back to tell stories of her past and her family. At some point a book has been written by one of her former lovers called "My Laura." It is a work of fiction but appears based on an affair the author had with Flora, a fact not lost on friends and acquaintances (one tells her: “And there’s your wonderful death ... You’ll scream with laughter. It’s the craziest death in the world."). Her husband finds it all humiliating, but also regards it as exceptionally well written. He is preoccupied with the idea of his own death and likes spend hours meditating, imagining erasing himself slowly from the toes up and then restoring himself. For about the first half of the novel the narrative holds together and you feel like you are reading a pretty normal, kind of choppy story but after that it begins to fall apart and becomes a series of notes and briefly sketched out scenes. Some cards just feature a quote, definition, or a series of synonyms (the last is: "efface, expunge, erase, delete, rub out, wipe out, obliterate,").

After so much anticipation the response from critics and scholars was one of disappointment. They found fault with the quality of the writing and the incompleteness of the novel, although I think it is unfair to judge this against such expectations. The questions shouldn't be: 'is this as good as other novels?' but rather: 'is this interesting; is it valuable; is it better than nothing?' Because 'nothing' is exactly what we had before, and now we have this glimpse into an idea for a novel from a masterful writer as he neared the end of his life. It's not a candidate for my best of the decade list, but it is a fascinating document. It is an insight into the writing process of a great writer. The incompleteness and obscurity is not intentional, and it is up to the reader to make sense of it without any way of knowing what is right or what was intended.

When I read a book there are usually scenes, moments, and descriptions that really jump out at me as being beautifully written and thought provoking. Usually these scenes occur in the context of a story but here they have to be found lying around on there own amidst the notes. I assure you that there are beautiful ideas and descriptions to be found in this book, but it is hard to really call it a book at all. Imagine a gifted writer leaves his notebook behind at a table in Starbucks and you flipped through it. The Original of Laura was interesting like that.

Monday, December 14, 2009

6. Home Land: A Novel by Sam Lipsyte

Homeland by Sam Lipsyte is one of the funniest books I have read in a while. The novel is written as a series of letters to a high school alumni newsletter from an alum who "didn't pan out." After Lewis “Teabag” Miner somehow winds up on the mailing list for Eastern Valley High's alumni newsletter, Catamount Notes, and suffers through all the updates from all the Catamount doctors, lawyers, bankers, and brokers who are buying houses, having kids and accomplishing all the other milestones of middle class life he decides to write back from the perspective of someone who has gone a different route since graduation.

"We've got a state senator, a government chemist, a gold-glove ballplayer, not to mention, according to the latest issue of Catamount Notes, a major label recording artist in our midst... Is this what Principal Fontana meant by the phrase "well-rounded?"
It's fucking spherical, Catamounts.

Alas, my meager accomplishments appear pale, if not downright pasty, in comparison."

Although the book doesn't aspire to much more than acidic black comedy the writing aims high, giving Lewis an erudite and literary voice which enhances the comedy when juxtaposed with such bleak and disturbing material. The style is similar to that found in McSweeny's where mannered, literary prose is applied tongue-in-cheek to banal subject matter for humorous effect, only here the subject matter is much darker and the satire much more biting.

Each chapter is presented as a letter to the editor of Catamount Notes but the narrative isn't really constrained by this gimmick. Once the story gets going plot events and dialogue are presented just like in any other story. At first the updates are just stream of consciousness rants cataloging the various indignities of Lewis's daily life and everything that is wrong with it. There are many anecdotes from the high school days that inform on the current state of his character, from the lusting over the jazz dance squad that inspired his fetish for knit leggings, to the locker room bullying incident that resulted in his unfortunate nickname and various sordid details of the more successful classmates' past that undermine the careful images they try to present in the Notes. Characters from the past keep popping up in Lewis's daily life as well, including the former principal (now fallen far from grace), and wouldn't you know there is a reunion coming up.

See, here's the problem with these book reviews, especially when it's a good book: I'll spend an hour or more trying to compose a decent introduction to the story (without giving to much away) and try to find new and varied ways of heaping praise on the writer, and I'll search for the perfect lines to include as a quote and I'll struggle for the right conclusion that will leave you curious to read the book for yourself... and all I really want to do is put the book in your hands and let you read it- just the first few pages- and from that you will know everything you need to know much better than I can explain it.

So fuck it, here's 1,000 words from the first few pages of Homeland by Sam Lipsyte. It will be the highlight of your day. I didn't write it, I just found it for you (but I should be getting a commission because if my humble readership doesn't flock to Amazon- or at least their local library- after reading this, I'll be amazed).


It's confession time, Catamounts.

It's time you knew the cold soft facts of me. Ever since Principal Fontana found me and commenced to bless my mail slot, monthly, with the Eastern Valley High School Alumni Newsletter, I've been meaning to write my update. Sad to say, vanity slowed my hand. Let a fever for the truth speed it now. Let me stand on the rooftop of my reckoning and shout naught but the indisputable: I did not pan out.

We've got Catamount doctors, after all, Catamount lawyers, brokers, bankers well versed in the Eastern Valley purr. (Okay, maybe it was never quite a purr. Maybe more a surly mewl. But answer me this: Why did we fail so miserably to name this noise with which we spurred out sporting types to conquest? Moreover, why was the mascot of Eastern Valley an animal that prefers elevation? A catamount is a mountain cat, Catamounts!) We've got a state senator, a government chemist, a gold-glove ballplayer, not to mention, according to the latest issue of Catamount Notes, a major label recording artist in our midst.

Yes, fellow alums, we're boasting bright lights aplenty these days, serious comers, future leaders in their fields. Hell, we've even got a fellow who double-majored in philosophy and aquatic life management in college and still found time for a national squash title. Think about it, Catamounts. We didn't have squash at Eastern Valley. We didn't have tennis, either, unless you count that trick with the steel hairbrush and the catgut racquet whereby the butt skin of the weak was flayed. Point being, this boy, Will Paulsen (may he rest in peace), left our New Jersey burg without the faintest notion of squash, yet mastered it enough to beat the pants off every prep school Biff in the land, and still carry a four point zero in the question of Why does the Universe Exist Underwater?

Is this what Principal Fontana meant by the phrase "well-rounded?"

It's fucking spherical, Catamounts.

Alas, my meager accomplishments appear pale, if not downright pasty, in comparison. I shudder at the notion of Doctor Stacy Ryson and State Senator Glen Menninger remarking this update at some fund-raising soiree—oh, the snickers, the chortles, the wine-flushed glances, and later, perhaps, the puppyish sucking of body parts at a nearby motor lodge. Shudder, in fact, is not quite the word for the feeling. Feeling is not quite the word for the feeling. How's bathing at knifepoint in the phlegm of the dead? Is that a feeling?


Here's the latest by me, Valley Kitties: I rent some rooms in a house near the depot. I rarely leave them, too. When you work at home, fellow alums, discipline is the supreme virtue. Suicidal self-loathing lurks behind every coffee break. Activities must be expertly scheduled, from shopping to showers to panic attacks. Meanwhile I must make time to pine for Gwendolyn, decamped three years this June, the month we were to wed. So much for scheduling. Valley Cats who maintained vague contact with me in the midnineties may recall Gwendolyn, that doe-eyed, elklike beauty I met at an aphorism slam in Toronto. What you may not realize is how much I truly loved her, if that's the word for wanting so much to bury your head and weep upon the coppery tufts of a woman's sex while reciting "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," you can hardly sit on the sofa with her.

Gwendolyn's gone now. The sofa's still here. It's deep and velveteen, a goodly nook for napping, or reading in magazines about Gwendolyn and Lenny, her movie star brother, love, and unacknowledged legislator of her life. They take lazy walks along the shoreline, buy antique paper lanterns for their patio. I don't begrudge them their bliss, if it's bliss. Bliss has my blessing. A patio, though, let a quake crack it open. Let the black earth eat them.

Gwendolyn always said I expected too much from the world.

"You wake up every morning like you should get a parade."

I told her I deserved one with the dreams I endure, the kind that find me sobbing myself awake, groping for last night's roach, or else standing at the fridge until dawn sucking on a frozen bagel. I mean dreams where tremendous dragons rear their spiny heads, sink tall teeth in my neck, muss my hair, sign my report card, call me "Darling," "Shmoo-shmoo." Survive that, you should absolutely get a parade, a lavish procession, a town car motorcade through the Canyon of Heroes with our very own Catamount legend Mikey Saladin, who, if you've been following his career, has really blossomed into a fiercesome example of the hulking contemporary shortstop. (Sorry you had to sit out the World Series, Mikey! Good luck in arbitration!)

But I digress from our topic: discipline. You see, good graduates of Eastern Valley, I'm my own boss. I'm also my own sex slave. I'll squander the hours I should be working trolling the Internet for pictures of women whose leg warmers have been spattered with semen. You could call this my kink, Catamounts, and there are more specimens floating about in the ether than you may care to imagine, though not nearly enough for me. Lately I've stumbled across the same photos again and again. I'm beginning to know names, or else bestow them: Jasmine, Loretta, Brie. I'm sure those names will sound familiar to most of you, and as for Jasmine, Loretta, and Brie themselves, immortal lovelies of the Jazz Dancing Club, what can I say but, "Sorry, ladies." I've been beating off to you for half my lifetime, why should I stop now?

But fret not your frittered looks, ex-Eason Valley girls, your time-slung slack and crinkle. When I exercise my right to self-love I run a sort of projected aging program in my mind, picture you vixens in your necessary twilight, your bodies dinged up by babies, gravity, regret. I figure it's only fair. I'm no young buck myself, though, of course, just turn to my "Intimate Portraits" page in the yearbook and you'll see that I was never anything approaching bucklike. Not unless there's such a thing in nature as a buck turtle.

—From the book Home Land by Sam Lipsyte; Copyright (c) 2005.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

5. Good Omens by Terry Pratchet and Neil Gaiman

Good Omens is a collaboration between fantasy writers Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet. It's a comedy about the end of the world where anthropomorphic demons, angels, and horsemen of the apocalypse, along with witches, witch-finders, and satanic nuns prepare for the coming of the Anti-Christ and Armageddon. (The catch being that everyone on Earth rather likes it there and doesn't want things to end in a cataclysmic battle-to-end-all-battles and so steps are taken, intentionally and unintentionally, to subvert the master plan and save the world.) If you've seen recent theologically-based comedy adventure stories like Dogma or Little Nicky you know some of what to expect from the characters in Good Omens. The angels are wry and cynical, the demons are sympathetic and likeable, the leadership of both heaven and hell is questionably overzealous and humanity is stuck in the middle, a healthy balance between the two extremes.

As I am writing this I can actually feel the pull towards writing a negative and critical review. I didn't think it was a terrible book. I kind of liked it and I can see why other people would, too. I really like Gaiman (well, I really liked the Sandman comics, I never got into his novels). Maybe this just isn't my style. Comic-fantasy stuff like Douglas Adams has never really clicked with me despite the frequent recommendations from friends. Or maybe it is because I started reading Homeland by Sam Lipsyte while I was still trying to finish Good Omens. I frequently have two books going at once but usually one is a more serious literary novel and the other is a more lighthearted popular work. In this case I had two contemporary humor novels going at the same time and Lipsyte was a much better read. Then again, maybe it's because this is the kind of book I would have abandoned halfway through but now, because of Cannonball read, I feel compelled to finish everything I start so I can keep up my stats.

I know a lot of people who pride themselves on never giving up on a book or always finishing what they start. Personally, I don't get it. This is actually something I do a lot, I jump into a novel for 100 pages or so to get a feel for the writing and the story, then lose interest and jump to something else. I figure I can't possibly read everything I want to in one lifetime so I might as well hook up with Rushdi, Borges, or Garcia-Marquez for a couple days to at least get a feel for them. I promise I'll call, but who knows? Besides, I take enjoyment in the little things when I read, the descriptions and ideas that can be communicated in a page or two. The bite-size morsels that sometimes make you have to lower the book for a minute and think , or jump up and pace around the room. I can usually find enough of those in the first half of the book while momentum is high and the pages are turning easy. Yes, there is something to be said for sticking with a book for the duration and letting character and narrative arcs, themes, and plots run their course- I'm not advocating skipping the back 60% of novels- it's just that, given that you can only read so much in a life time, well, it's better to have read and abandoned than never to have read at all.

But I didn't abandon Good Omens, I stuck it out to the end. At times it dragged for me. Maybe this was a result of the collaborative writing experiment by Pratchet and Gaiman. The story was full of clever bits and indulgent digressions as Gaiman and Pratchet tried to out-cute each other in the writing process. It jumped around constantly to new characters and situations but seemed to lack any discipline or cohesion in the storytelling (I realize everything fits together in the end and therefore everything is included for a reason, but it still seems like sloppy storytelling with an emphasis on incidental character descriptions and asides instead of telling a tight, well-paced and compelling story.) The tone of the writing which was amusing at first really started to wear on me by the end and it felt like things were taking forever to come to a conclusion which I found somewhat unsatisfying. If it sounds like something that appeals to you it probably will. As for me, I won't be concerning myself with Discworld or American Gods anytime soon, but I am interested to read The Graveyard book and Gaiman's recent capstone to the Batman series "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?"

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

4. Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby will be forever defined by High Fidelity. He is known for his ability to write about the modern t-shirt-and-jeans-guy who is obsessive about music and pop culture and generally clueless about relationships and being a serious grown up. In addition to fiction he has written non-fiction collections about books, music, and sports that let you know he most likely is one of those guys himself and speaks from authority.

Juliet, Naked takes a look at characters that embody many of the classic Hornby characteristics but are starting to get a bit older and starting to question the amount of time they have devoted to things that don't really seem to matter in the big picture. While that struggle and growth theme pops up in all his novels, here it seems a bit more melancholy. The novel has a kind of bittersweet tone as characters look for hope and deal with regret. Do you mourn the time you lost and the mistakes you made? Is it too late to change? And if not, how do you find the strength to make that change if your whole life has been defined by doing things that are safe, comfortable and non-challenging?

That last paragraph is going to make this book sound more depressing than it is. There is actually a lot of humor as you would expect from Hornby. This book is filled with careful observations in which we recognize a lot of our own qualities in the characters, like when a particularly moving piece of art coincides with a major life event or decision and takes on a heightened significance. And I was especially self-aware as I read the early sections where characters carefully composed reviews to post on an internet message board and then anxiously awaited the reactions and agonized over them (being that that is essentially what I was doing at the time with these reviews). I also recognize the constant self-doubt that the characters experiences when trying to get a grip on their feelings and communicate them to other people, trying to anticipate reactions and playing out whole conversations mentally before deciding how to act. Hornby is able to incorporate these embarrassingly familiar qualities into his characters and makes them simple and funny at the same time.

Still, I doubt a famous writer is going to find me by way of Pajiba and open up a dialogue in which we share intimate details of our lives within days of knowing each other- the plot of this books requires a healthy suspension of disbelief. Things also tended to work out a little too perfectly sometimes. I hate it when characters in a romantic comedy meet cute while currently in relationships with other people and then get conveniently dumped or cheated on right away so that they can continue to pursue the new relationship and still be a sympathetic character in our eyes. Events seemed to occur just when they needed to for a larger point to be made and it can be disruptive as a reader if you are constantly taking your eyes off the page in order to roll them. But I tried not to be too distracted by my nagging inner skeptic because this was, after all, just a novel, and once I started getting into the story I really couldn't wait to see where it was going next. I got swept away, and even when I thought I knew where it was going there were enough twists and turns that I was sufficiently engaged to the end.

This was a good book. Light and entertaining, but also provides a lot to think about afterward.

Monday, November 23, 2009

3. The Fermata by Nicholson Baker

Have you ever daydreamed that you could pause time and wander around fully conscious and aware while everything and everyone around you was frozen still (like Zack Morris in Saved by the Bell)? What if someone were were opposed to unduly profiting from this gift and had no ambition to exploit it for personal gain but felt there was no harm in using it to freeze time and undress random women on the street and masturbate? Can you imagine this crude adolescent fantasy as the subject of a serious novel?

I have been meaning to read Nicholson Baker for a while now. I'll let Wikipedia provide a brief introduction of his writing style:
"[Baker] often focuses on minute inspection of his characters' and narrators' stream of consciousness, and has written about such provocative topics as voyeurism and planned assassination. His fiction generally de-emphasizes narrative in favor of careful description and characterization. Baker's enthusiasts appreciate his ability to candidly explore the human psyche, while critics have charged that his subject matter is trivial."
Wikipedia does not mean this lightly. His first novel, The Mezzanine, "presents the thoughts and memories of a young office worker as he ascends an escalator to the mezzanine of the office building where he is employed." That's it: simply a stream of ideas, memories, and impressions triggered by a ride up the escalator in 144 pages. His second novel, Room Temperature, is a similar series of random thoughts and observations as a man feeds his infant daughter a bottle one morning (despite the lack of action I assure you the writing can still be interesting). Another novel, Vox, consists entirely of an erotically charged phone conversation between a man and a woman on a phone sex chat line.

Well, based on the sheer audacity of it's premise I decided to start with The Fermata. It is written in the first person as an autobiography by a narrator with the ability to stop time at will. The whole world around him freezes but he can move around and interact with the frozen people (who are completely unaware anything that happened when time resumes provided he puts everything back the way it was). As I mentioned above he does not chose to rob banks, cheat at cards, or try to become a superhero. Instead, his primary use of the ability is to undress random women he encounters for his own personal sexual gratification. He almost never seeks any interaction with them in the real world, content to limit himself to brief sexual experiences while time is stopped. He goes out of his way to explain that he has no intention of hurting anyone, that he loves and admires each woman he does this to (of course he rationalizes that they wouldn't mind being undressed by him since it doesn't harm them in any way, and he is appalled by the idea of rape but justifies his groping and voyeurism as harmless). If nothing else this is a very interesting character to get to know.

The book acknowledges some of the practical implications of this gift, too. He continues to age normally while time is stopped, so if he stays "in the fold" for a few hours he will have a sensation similar to 'jet lag' when he emerges with his body feeling like it is four hours later than it actually is. (Baker doesn't extrapolate the premise as far out as David Foster Wallace does in Brief Interviews with hideous Men: if time stops locally, it must stop for the whole planet, and then also for the whole solar system, and what of the infinite universe?) But the logic of how and why it works and the implications it has on time and space aren't really the point here.

At times this is a fascinating novel. Baker's powers of observation are impressive and some of the insights and descriptions make for very compelling reading. It is also very provocative and sexually explicit. In addition to the primary subject matter being a man who undresses and admires nude women we are also treated to several detailed sexual fantasies and, since he occasionally writes pornography and leaves it for a stranger to find, we get a few chapters of his pornographic stories as well.

I don't read a lot of erotica but I don't think I have ever been more aware of and disrupted by the language used in such scenes (and that's especially an issue with this book where 'those scenes' make up 80% of the novel) The adjectives weren't so bad, it was the nouns that were the problem. I suppose all authors who write about sex have to struggle with it. Some words are too clinical, others too crude, and everyone has their own personal list of words that hey just hate to encounter. It's like a minefield for writers- use the wrong words and you can spoil the scene for your readers. The narrator of this novel is particularly bad at it and frequently makes things even worse by employing hokey euphemisms for body parts, which was especially jarring.

I'm not sure that this wasn't in some ways intentional since the entire story is being told in the voice of a character who is a bit awkward and and a bit weird to begin with. It's entirely possible that Baker is not intending to be titillating and is using the cringeworthy descriptions to disrupt the eroticism and make a larger point about the main character. Or maybe I'm just being too generous, but I'm willing to read another Baker novel to find out. Sometimes his ideas sound like they come from the imagination of a 15-year-old kid (what if the whole story had no plot and was just an elevator ride? What if you could pause time and look at naked chicks) but that's not all he has going on. Except for some of the longwinded fantasy scenes the novel was very interesting. It's a novel of ideas and careful insights about the way we live and the little details of life the frequently get ignored or overlooked. It was funny, thought provoking, shocking, and I think it's impressive that a book like this exists at all.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Movie Review: Mulholland Drive

I originally wrote this up for the Pajiba Movie Club discussion of Mulholland Drive (here) but after spending so much time on it I wanted to keep a copy on my own blog. Since the only people who read this already know me from Pajiba this is pretty much a re-post, but, oh well. As the movie club discussion makes clear there is no one way to interpret the events in this movie and my interpretation is far from complete (I've never even given that much thought to the neighbor...) but I think it is a pretty good framework for understanding the movie and making sense of it all (Spoilers, obviously).


Basically, the whole movie is a dream that Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) has shortly before killing herself. Everything that comes before the Club Silencio/opening of the blue box/"hey pretty girl, time to wake up" part is her dream. Everything that comes after is the "real world" although most of it takes place in flashbacks. In the flashbacks we finally learn who Naomi Watts character really is (a struggling actress getting chewed up by Hollywood, recently left by her lesbian lover who is now dating a big director) and what she's done (hired someone to kill her former lover). These events and the resulting guilt take their psychological toll on Diane. They inspire her dream and then lead her to suicide.

It only adds to the confusion that Lynch decides to fuck with us in dream world and rotate names and identities. For example: The Naomi Watts character is named Diane. When she is at Winkies hiring a hit man she is served by a waitress named Betty. Then in her dream she adopts the name Betty when she reinvents herself as a fresh-faced and naturally talented ingenue. At one point in the dream she is at that diner where the waitress now has her name, Diane, which looks familiar(obviously) and therefore gets absorbed into the amnesia investigation as they search for the identity of Rita. This search eventually leads them to Diane Selwyn's apartment where they find the dead body that foreshadows Diane's eventual suicide (lying in the same position that sleeping Diane is in when she wakes up). But you don't have access to any of this information until the end of the movie and by then you are so confused and frustrated that you don't even want to try to understand what is going on.

It actually makes a lot more sense to watch the last half hour first, which is what I finally did last week. The last half hour is mostly flash back to the events leading up to her dream and suicide.

Here is a synopsis of the events that actually happen in the "real-world": (feel free to skip this part)

Diane wakes up looking like hell with her neighbor pounding on the door wanting her stuff back [also, notice there is a blue key on the coffee table in this scene, this is a sign that the hit man has completed the job she hired him for: that her ex-girlfriend is already dead] She is very emotional, and appears to hallucinate her (dead) ex-girlfriend Camilla Rhodes (Laura Harring). Then she starts flashing back to some topless lesbian play on the couch, when Camilla started to break up with her. "It's him, isn't it." Diane says, and then we flash back further to Diane and Camilla on the set of some 50's movie. Justin Theroux is the director and apparently the "him" in Camilla's life. Camilla is the star of the film and Diane is on the sidelines with a smaller part.

The flashback continues to Camilla inviting Diane to some sort of party at the director's house on Mulholland Drive. She arrives in a car, "we aren't supposed to stop here" but it is just some back way to the house where we see a lot of other familiar faces (familiar because this party occurred in the past and the people at the party were incorporated into her dream). At the party Diane tells us a little bit more about herself: She came to LA from Deep River, Ontario after winning a dance contest and inheriting some money from her aunt. She met Camilla on the set of a movie called "the Sylvia North Story". Daine wanted the lead but it went to Camilla. They became friends (and, we presume, lovers) and Camilla, the more successful actress, continued to help Diane get parts in some of her other films. We can assume that this is all the true back story of these characters in the real-world.

Diane grows more agitated as the party progresses. A strange woman comes over and kisses Camilla. The director guy and Camilla start to make an announcement (are they engaged?) but can't stop laughing. Note: Since this part of the movie is a flashback that Diane is having from her apartment (after she wakes from the dream, before she kills herself) we can question the reliability of her memories (were they really laughing uncontrollably and shooting her weird looks or is this just the way that Diane remembers the betrayal and humiliation of being invited to their party?)

And then, still in flashback, we jump to a Winkie's Diner where Diane is talking to a hit man. She is going to use the money she inherited from her aunt to have Camilla killed. She shows him a picture: "this is the girl." The hit man tells her that once she pays him, it is done. He shows her a blue key which is going to be used to signify to her when the job is done (which we saw on her coffee table before this extended flashback). Then things get a little surreal as Diane's deteriorating psychological state starts to intrude on the flashback. There is the demon/homeless person behind the diner and the crazy miniature old people who come after her- this seems to be somehow a manifestation of her guilt over having Camilla murdered- and then the flashback ends and we return to real-world, real-time Diane in her apartment at the breaking point.

The mini old people come in under her door and grow to full size but there is still knocking at the door (maybe the police, the two officers who were looking for her?) Diane is being chased around the room, tormented by her demons and her guilt (are these manifestations of her parents? Her aunt? Just some couple she met at the airport that represent her break from innocence on her arrival in LA?) and she runs screaming into her bedroom, pulls a gun out of the end table and shoots herself in the head. There are a few superimposed images of Diane and Camilla together, ghostly remnants of her dream as the last few synapses fire before fade out. The whole film (real-world, real-time) takes place entirely in the apartment. First she has the dream, then she wakes and has the flashbacks, then she commits suicide.

/ boring Summary

The structure of the movie is difficult of follow but it does make sense. The primary story being told in the film is the dream-story, not the actual one (like the Wizard of Oz). We get the dream first, which is disorienting because it follows a kind of dream-logic that never gives you a firm hold on what is going on. It is filled with vague illusions, symbols, and references to real-world events (that haven't been revealed to us yet) and introduces a lot of mysteries that don't get resolved (these are dream mysteries, dead ends that don't have any resolution).

After waking from the dream we get the flashbacks to the "real-word" events that lead to the dream. This provides us with a context to understand the dream and Diane's fragile mental state (it's also a hell of a performance by Naomi Watts, who wasn't even nominated for an Academy Award, but Bridget Jones was, and Halle Berry won). Once we know the real-world story we see how the dream is Diane's idealized and stylized fantasy of Hollywood, the movies, herself, and her lover... And all the while the darker side of things, the jealousy, the guilt over what she's done, the power and corruption that control the industry and the evil that lurks around corners or within herself continually intrudes on that dream world and eventually tears it apart.

Watching it again (and again and again) we see how artifacts from the real-world and flashback scenes at the end of the film keep turning up in bizarre places in the dream world (stack of money the purse, blue key, black & white head shot, espresso). And how people from the real world were repurposed for the dream. Aside from the idealized version of herself there is the director who gets emasculated, thrown out of his house, loses control of his movie, and basically has his life torn apart until he is put in his place. Camilla/Rita is now dependent on her for help and support, and part of a sexual fantasy as well. The hit man she hired is a bumbling idiot (the assignment to kill Camilla/Rita obviously failing) and goes through the darkly comic scene in the office building. Even small characters who appear in the background at the party get incorporated into her dream as powerful and shady figures. Coco, the director's mother, becomes the landlady at her apartment. The Castigliane brother with the espresso can be seen at the party, and a strange man in cowboy clothes passes out of the room at one point. It is reminiscent of the ending of The Wizard of Oz ("And you and you and you...and you were there.") where it is revealed that the main events of the film were a dream populated by familiar people and events in different roles.

Even bits of dialogue from her real-world memories were turning up in the dream most notably "this is the girl" which we learn was something actually said by Diane as she paid to have Camilla killed and gets repeated in the dream by the powerful and unnerving men in suits who seem to be controlling events from behind the scenes. It was actually Diane that set these events in motion (that's her phone by the red lampshade and the ashtray that rings at one point).

But I've gone on long enough and still barely covered the surface-level understanding. What does all of it mean? There are so many great scenes, so much symbolism and complex layers to unravel...

Monday, November 16, 2009

2. White Noise by Don Delillo

This is the first novel I have read by Don Delillo. I didn't really know what to expect but I was anticipating a challenging read and a potentially unpleasant, depressing story with some heavy-handed satire of modern society (television, shopping malls, adultery, etc.). I was surprised at how funny it actually was, and how genuine

There is satire of academic and family life but it is not nearly as shallow or malicious as I assumed when I read in a book summary that the main character is head of the department of Hitler studies and on his fifth marriage. I was bracing for a series of unlikeable characters engaging in petty selfishness and an exaggeration of the emptiness of middle class existence. Instead I found the family relationships were actually rather touching. The love and inclusiveness of the bonds formed in the blended family, the overactive concern of the children for their parent's health (informed by media reports of what is and is not healthy, like sugar-free gum), the married couple's pre-coital dialogue in which each is more concerned with accommodating for the pleasure of the other than in their own pleasure, a parent's wonder in observing the type of person their child is growing up to be, or simply the unconditional love manifest in observing your sleeping child. None of the cynicism I had anticipated.

The characters weren't very real, however. They had personalities but they didn't develop much over the course of the novel and there was a tendency for dialogue to slip from the character's voice into the voice of Delillo trying to make some grander point and using their dialogue to do it. As a result various characters would at different times adopt this very similar didactic style, parsing their subject through question and answer and trying to break it down for us. Delillo is obviously after deeper truths than realistic small talk between his characters, and many of the digressions are rather interesting and insightful. These conversations are used to delve deeper into topics of family, technology, information, media, consumerism and intellectualism which are explored throughout the novel.

White Noise is about the way information permeates our society, both figuratively (in the sense of constant exposure to media, advertising, cultural information) and literally (in the form of television and radio waves that are all around us and even traveling through us at all times). The way we are the sum total of our data (medical files, marketing demographics, tastes and preferences, taxonomical groupings). The nature and integrity of this data, if it is reliable, and if truth even matters or if false information affects us just the same. And the way academic parsing of this data can become infinitely digressive and absurd.

The book is also about death, circling this theme closer and closer as it progresses. Personally, I prefer the first part of the novel where it was more light--hearted and observational. Delillo packs the novel with detailed observations about contemporary American life, human behavior, and even the form and function of household appliances that all serve to reinforce the above-noted themes. As we progress through the story death and fear of death begin to dominate the conversations, actions, and musings of everyone in the story. Where it was fun to read scenes in which a group of American Studies professors sit around discussing where they were and what they were doing when various pop-culture icons died (a not-so-subtle competition emerging as they try to stump each other or compete to name more obscure celebrity deaths that left such an impression "Ask me Gable, ask me Monroe.") it grows weary when chapter after chapter gets devoted to contemplating the idea of death, what it says about life, and what it says about humans that our defining characteristic is that we alone know we are going to eventually die and are able to imagine it, etc.

Overall, I enjoyed White Noise. It isn't something I would not emphatically recommend to everyone but if it sounds appealing to you than I think it's worth your time. It is very well-written and packed with ideas. I can already feel this review extending on and on as I try to cram in as many of my reactions and observations in as possible. I could keep going but I don't want this to turn into a term paper or give too much away. Besides, there is already a wealth of criticism and analysis out there about White Noise and Delillo's work, he's one of the Big Dogs of late 20th century American literature. On the strength of this novel I plan to read more Delillo in the future. Maybe Mao II and I definitely want to read Underworld (although at 800+ pages probably not this year).

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

1. Ask the Dust by John Fante

"One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out. that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed."

- opening paragraph of
Ask the Dust by John Fante

A review of Ask the Dust has to begin and end talking about the writing. The spare, well-crafted prose really brings you into the story and makes the people and places being described come to life. It's one of those books where you marvel at the way the words are put together and what such simple compositions can evoke.

The novel is told through the first-person voice of Arturo Bandini (a semi-autobiographical stand-in for Fante), a young aspiring writer recently arrived in depression-era Los Angeles with a battered typewriter, the clothes on his back, and one published short story to his name. We follow Bandini around the city as he scrounges to survive with no money (and spends it wildly and recklessly when he gets any), lusts after the Mexican girls (who intimidate him when he gets near any), and tries to find success as a writer.

The pleasure of this novel is in the voice of the narrator and the terse, vivid descriptions of the city and the people around him in lines like "Then I went down the hill on Olive Street, past the horrible frame houses reeking with murder stories" and "I was down on Fifth and Olive, where the big street cars chewed your ears with their noise." It is fitting for Bandini the writer-as-narrator to always be reaching for a good metaphor to describe the scenes and people around him. The descriptions can be almost poetic, and it's worth noting that Charles Bukowski cites Fante as an inspiration and was instrumental in getting Fante's out-of-print work re-issued in the late 70's. Bukowski even wrote the Introduction for the this edition of Ask the Dust.

There is a love story as well, if you can call it that, between Bandina and a Mexican waitress named Camilla. Their relationship is tempestuous and volatile. Bandini can be caring but he can also be cruel when Camilla taunts and teases him, or when his insecurities get the best of him. Over the course of the novel Bandini swings wildly from confidence and arrogance to insecurity and despair. During interactions with Camilla he can flip between the two in an instant. He is flawed and immature, but these insecurities are part of his charm. The one consistency is that Bandini is passionate and earnest throughout.
"Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town."
I realize I've included a lot of quotes from the novel- there's almost more of Fante's writing then my own in this review- but I felt it was a necessary and more effective way of conveying the distinctive voice this novel has than just me groping for different adjectives to describe it. And I could have included more, all these quotes are from just the first chapter of Ask The Dust. There are many memorable scenes in the novel I wouldn't want to spoil for you even though there aren't really any plot twists to give away.

It is a good book, good writing, and it gets a lot of praise from people who have read it, myself included. If you can find a copy is worth adding to your reading lists.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

____Taking the plunge...

Ladies and gentlemen, can I please have your attention. I’ve just been handed an urgent and horrifying news story. I need all of you, to stop what you’re doing and listen . . .

But this is not a blog. This is an online space to host book reviews which I will be writing in order to meet the requirements of Pajiba's 2nd annual Cannonball Read challenge. I, along with literally dozens of other book and movie loving imaginary internet friends will engage in a quixotic attempt to read 52 books in one year, starting officially on November 1, 2009.

And while I still maintain some personal reservations over Cannonball's emphasis on quantity over quality (as well as some serious doubts about my ability to actually finish 52 of the books that I will start over the next year) I can't resist the opportunity to engage other readers, show off my bookshelf, and maybe turn a few people on to some really good contemporary literature. Plus, the back door opportunity to be a de facto contributor to my favorite film criticism site on the web, well, it's just way too cool to pass up.

So that's the story (and yes, I did start three straight paragraphs with conjunctions. It's the internet; there is no grammar here). I will be laboring under the assumption that no one is actually reading any of this (unless I make the Big Time and get posted on Pajiba!!) but if anyone is out there you can let me know with a comment. I promise that questions will be answered, book recommendations will be considered, and that nice warm feeling of validation will be experience by yours truly. When I show up in the comments section of Pajiba I post under the name Yossarian. Out here in the real world, it's Jon-Paul.