It’s tough to be famous. I need hardly remind you, my dear avid followers, that on the occasion of our last virtual meeting, I cobbled together a column from my epistolary diaries on books I’ve checked out of the library in the last couple of years. It became possibly my most popular masterpiece. After a week of flurry, it flatlined at 88 “likes” and even got linked on a Facebook page called Tanzania Reads, where it picked up a few more likes. (Thanks, Tanzania.)
So I’m now big in Tanzania. I proved this on my recent whirlwind tour, where I was mobbed at the airport and carried about on people’s shoulders. My money was no good there (although travelers checks worked), and after an exhausting round of interviews and personal appearances, I left groupies weeping on the tarmac as they waved handkerchiefs and articles of clothing and a few firearms at my departing plane. I could get used to this, which is why I’ve here fabricated a sequel from my readings of 2011–or does that make it a prequel? Anyway, my next targets are Peru, Singapore, and Norway. Tomorrow the world! I’m already looking forward to rehab.
As before, these are all books checked out of my local library, and I frequently use the past tense verb “redd”, coined by me long ago. I have tried to corral these ramblings, never intended for publication, into semi-coherent bite-sized categories. Only you, Dear Peruser, can judge of my success. See that “Like” button over there? It’s waiting for you!
One Need “Only Connect”
You’ve heard of Harold Bloom’s “the anxiety of influence”, a phenomenon whereby young writers are inevitably influenced by the classics they absorb, and therefore become cowed by the thought that everything’s already been done better, quite apart from there being nothing new under the sun, and this puts a crimp in, while simultaneously spurring, their attempts to be original. My insight here is that originality is overrated, and I don’t even think that’s my own insight.
Anyway, in his book of essays, Jonathan Lethem dismissed that concept by inverting it as “the ecstasy of influence”, whereby creators wallow in the reflexivity of homage. By sideways reasoning, this point reminds me of E.M. Forster’s famous advice to novelists: Only connect. This advice needn’t only be applied by writers, for there exists a world of curious, infinite possibilities and unintended connections made by readers. Here is an element neither writer nor reader can anticipate, and it’s one of the wild cards that define the joys of reading. I illustrate this notion in the following titles.
1. I love books in which people rave about forgotten favorite books, and recently I got another such fun volume: City Lights Books, put out by a publisher that specializes in little travel guides. One of the books mentioned in it is a four-volume epic by East German Uwe Johnson that’s in the form of a diary over the course of one year (1967-68) by a former GDR resident living in Chicago. Only two abridged volumes have appeared in English. It’s a sequel to his first book, Speculations about Jakob.
So I ordered the two volumes cheaply enough and decided to get Speculations about Jakob through Interlibrary Loan. It’s kind of slow reading, in the form of a collage spoken by a multiplicity of voices in conversation mixed with objective parts. The first page implies that the stolid Jakob, who worked as a railroad dispatcher, was evidently run over by a train, and then the book retraces his steps that month in minute detail, as recalled by various witnesses and the fact that he was under surveillance. This all takes place during the Hungarian uprising of 1956, an uneasy backdrop that East Germans hear about via West German broadcasts.
We learn that Jakob’s mother abruptly moved to the West, as his unrelated “sister” already had. This “sister” is the writer of the yearlong daybook that Johnson wrote later, and in which we learn that she had a kid by Jakob. The value of these books lies in the journalistic, microscopic documentation of things and actions within the mystery of human behavior. Johnson is known as the slightly experimental realist of East German life (though he emigrated, like his heroine, and lived in Chicago during that period). I won’t get to the daybook soon. Now, bearing all this in mind…
2. When I hadn’t quite finished Jakob’s story, I started reading a new book called Funeral for a Dog by German author Thomas Pletzinger. I almost stopped at page 60 because it seemed to be going nowhere in its dual narrative of a freelance journalist who might be leaving his wife (who’s also his editor) while on assignment to interview a reclusive children’s author named Svensson who supposedly lives alone on an island. Alternate chapters are Svensson’s memoir, found in a locked suitcase and telling of being in New York on 9/11.
Without making the German connection, I thought this book is kind of like Speculations about Jakob, and then the journalist makes references to Johnson’s books and says his piece should be called Speculations About Svensson! I was shocked to realize I got the reference. Our freelancer eventually finds out that the children’s author doesn’t live alone but with a family and has lots of connections to people. It still kind of goes nowhere, as though the fragmented “what’s the secret” style props up what would have been duller straightforwardness.
3. Now get this. Then I redd another new library book, Tove Jansson’s Fair Play, 100 pages of minimal, precisely observed vignettes about two old women artists who have lived together on an island for decades. It doesn’t discuss their sex life but we assume they have it. Jansson is a famous children’s author of the charming Moomintroll stories and the brilliant Moomin comic strip, now finally translated into English to the delight of all. The introduction to this volume explains that for years, the author’s biography on her English editions claimed that she was living alone on an island when in fact she was really living with another woman. So this book should be called Speculations about Jansson. And for one more connection see Julian Barnes’ book below at #4.
Read to Me (Books on CD)
4. Pulse by Julian Barnes is a collection of British stories about mostly romantic relationships. There are several historical tales, such as “The Limner” about a blind painter, and a few are in essayistic digressive style that flows intelligently. Each story is separated by a multi-part epic of after-dinner conversations among friends that range wittily over various how-we-live-now topics. It’s all the sort of thing reviewers mean by “civilized”.
Particularly interesting is “Sleeping with Updike” (speaking of anxieties or ecstasies of influence!) about two aging authoresses who travel together as a double act and are best friends but don’t live or have sex together (unlike the Jansson book above). The point is that this is their only lasting relationship, and one of them wonders how the other will react when she dies. The writer of Jansson’s intro had observed how rare was the subject of relationships between older creative women, and here’s a story that echoes it after a fashion.
5. Also highly civilized, and specifically and ironically about the civilizing process, is Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing, a novel narrated by a 17-year-old girl living on an island (later called Martha’s Vineyard) with her independent-minded clan, and the last part is told by the woman at 70. She’s recounting her friendship with a real historical figure, the first American Indian boy to graduate from Harvard in 1665.
One trap of historical novels is that they reflect their own time, which is partly why they’re written of course, so there’s a tendency to highlight those conflicts that seem relevant to today’s values (politically correct observations on sexism, racism, religious oppression, etc.) instead of sinking wholly into another set of values more common to the era (as did Naomi Mitchison and Mary Renault, so effective at adopting the alien). Here Brooks uses one disenfranchised figure to view another, and it’s done artfully in a manner not out of keeping with such contemporary radicals as Anne Hutchinson and Anne Bradstreet (both quoted). For a more strange and violent historical piece about the resocializing of “savages” that entirely adopts an alien viewpoint, see the novel by Skip Horack (#38 below).
6. Some of the most pleasurable works I hear while driving are the acknowledged classics, for example Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor’s droll, relentless tale of a would-be iconoclast whose failure is his success (according to the author). The anti-hero is Hazel Motes (presumably named for the color and qualities of his eyes and “vision”), an embittered young WWII veteran who declaims on streetcorners that he’s founding the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ and has various misadventures with Southern Gothic types. This reading is performed by actor Bronson Pinchot, who played a funny foreigner in a witless ’80s sitcom called Perfect Strangers. Here he’s excellent as this very strange native in an estranged land.
7. The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald seems like the work of a gifted undergraduate virgin, as it applies lavish description, half-labored whimsy, and self-mocking cleverness to a romance between a beautiful, hopeful but “poor” and useless couple. The final chapter is good because it rescues the penultimate chapter’s stab at heavily ironic melodrama in favor of a credibility that’s all the more ironic. The result is a clear forerunner to Revolutionary Road.
The postwar sequence where the hero tries a gig as a salesman (hawking “bonds” for a company that publishes a book called “Heart Thoughts”) is very funny and reminded me sharply of when I had a narrow escape from gainful employment. I remember showing up, appropriately white-shirted and tied, in a fly-by-night rented space packed with people, half of whom had brought noisy children, and being called in two at a time with a touchingly clueless young fellow. Our interviewer was a polished specimen who launched into a mechanical spiel about a revolutionary product created by so-and-so. At the end of this speech was tucked the information that the nature of this exciting opportunity was door to door sales of this product, “which is perfume.” At that moment, a profound calm descended upon me.
Our boss asked the other fellow if he had any experience with customer service, and he stumbled about and said “No, not really, well, you’ll train us, right?” Yes, that’s what the little ad said. So the boss gives the once-over to the guy’s T-shirt and says in one breathless monotone that they’ll make their decision by the end of the day after interviewing everybody, and he should go home and wait by the phone, and if he’s called, he should show up at eight in the morning dressed for work. “And you have a fan-TAST-ic day!” he beamed as a signal for my non-colleague to exit. After the lad had shambled out, the boss turned to me with a smile and asked, “Do you prefer Michael or Mike?”
I replied, “Let me help you. I’ve just realized this job would bore me to tears.” He paused in the manner of a hard drive taking a moment to access another disc, and then stuck out his manicured hand and boomed, “You have a fan-TAST-ic day!”
8. A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell is narrated by a hapless Jewish clodhopper-cum-occulist who, in turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna, meets Sigmund Freud and later gets mixed up with the burgeoning Esperanto movement. Oh yes, and is haunted by the dybbuk of his reincarnated wife. Lots of sexual (especially virginal) comedy, vivid characters, and intellectual digressions about the vanity of human illusion, and rather much of it at 18 discs.
A late episode sees his brief ascension to Heaven with Frick and Frack angels for a peek at the heavenly throne, a tour imagined with typical well-dressed vaudeville to explain that God is weeping and that’s why the world is in a mess and children are freezing in the Warsaw Ghetto, which I suppose is meant to console. Reminiscent of the work of Steven Stern, whose terrific collection The Book of Mischief I mentioned in my last column. There I also mentioned Selden Edwards’ time-travel fantasy The Little Book, whose narrator meets Freud around the same time.
9. The Vaults by Toby Ball is set in an unnamed American city in 1935, and it’s an odd mix of Dickens and Chandler with mysterious orphans and abandoned warehouses. In over 100 short chapters, it follows three protagonists who independently pursue aspects of a mystery, and only one of whom ever meets the other two. They are a private dick, a reporter, and a stooped aging archivist from a sub-basement who wanders his labyrinth like a Borges figure. We also drop in on the villains, including the corrupt mayor, without their ever explaining themselves. This suspenseful crime narrative joins the recent off-kilter “city” genre like Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, China Mieville’s The City and the City, and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, where the bizarre city is more important than anyone in it.
10. Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales gathers 30 stories newly translated by Tiina Nunnally. Andersen writes with complete liberation, not necessarily for children, and can go from casually absurd violence (the extraordinarily sadistic slapstick of “Big Claus and Little Claus”) and heroes who are far from role models (the soldier who decapitates a witch for three matchboxes and kidnaps a princess) to the agony of the doomed, as in his brilliant masterpiece of “The Little Mermaid” and the gloomy “Steadfast Tin Soldier”. Certain stories transparently reflect the bitter experience of disappointed love.
Some tales feel impromptu, others very planned. I assume the stories are in chronological order, because the later ones are the more elaborate in form, adopting many points of view, becoming more self-conscious and downbeat about the passing of time, the failure of love, the inevitability of death, the self-destructiveness of life and desire. One sour little anecdote of a family’s decline isn’t really a fairy tale yet is narrated by the wind. Yes, a great writer.
A Clutch of Comics (a.k.a. Graphic Novels)
11. Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese is a popular Italian comic book series in Conrad’s South Seas territory. This first epic adventure is set during WWII and concerns a lot of backing and forthing between the title sailor of fortune and the rogue pirates, natives, soldiers and shipwreckees. They have a lot of dialogue amid painted panels showing off what look like light watercolors and occasional abstract line work. I’m guessing it’s influenced by the comic strip Captain Easy (which has a more pell-mell narrative drive) but is more brooding and sunstruck.
12 & 13. Two by French master Jacques Tardi in his distinctively jittery black lines. The Arctic Marauder is a lovely Jules Verne pastiche from 1974. Big black and white panels of lovingly detailed hardware, ships, icebergs, etc. in a breakneck story where much of the explanatory narrative drive occurs offscreen but we see lots of discreet incidents of shipwrecked vessels. New York Mon Amour is several stories of that city, leading with the noir/horror tale of the psychic breakdown of a roach exterminator who goes to the wrong 13th floor and opens up a world of gangster crossfire. The black and white art is based on photos, with the man’s uniform and truck standing out vividly in red.
14. Is That All There Is is a complete collection of Swedish artist Joost Swarte’s comics of the ’70s and ’80s. According to the intro, he coined the term “clear line” to describe the Tintin style in which he draws his own retro ’20s/’30s farragoes of bleak and violent slapstick absurdities, like an anti-social Disney. He belongs to that species of subversive or underground cartoonist who masquerades as clean and presentable — until you take a closer look.
15-ish. I’ll not bother to catalog and distinguish them from each other, but I’ve been reading charming ’50s/’60s wacko surrealism in classic Superman collections, like whimsical stories about The Transformations of Jimmy Olson, or the Bottle City of Kandor, or clashes with Brainiac, etc. They are a bizarre combo of relentlessly expository dialogue (“Nobody knows that my secret identity of Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent conceals my true self as Superman, who came to Earth as a baby when Krypton exploded, so I’ll use my heat-vision to melt this iceberg quicker than it takes to think about it.”) and turn-on-a-dime whimsicality (“By sheer coincidence, his secret formula must have accidentally cured Jimmy’s temporary telepathy!”). At its best, this is heady creativity with an air of making up as it goes along.
What Ever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow contains all four (really three) ’80s Superman stories by British iconoclast Alan Moore, all having to do with his “death” and/or giving up his super-life. One kills off an array of regulars (“This is an imaginary story. Aren’t they all?”), one has him meeting Swamp Thing, and one hypnotizes him with an alternate life in which Krypton never blew up and he became a middle class yegg.
While we’re on the subject of heroes in tights, Interlibrary Loan secured for me some interesting collections of ’60s comic books: Magnus, Robot Fighter (far future, humanity spoiled by robot servants, some uppity ones always trying to take over) and Doctor Solar (radiated scientist can turn into any form of energy), very cleanly and attractively drawn. I also devoured the first couple of years of a great forgotten newspaper strip, Jack Kent’s King Aroo, a whimsical, sophisticated, self-conscious hipster fairy-tale comedy, similar in many ways to Pogo and also to Tove Jansson’s Moomin, all of which are now being steadily reprinted. I hope you’re taking notes.
16. Simon and Kirby Crime is a reasonably handsome volume of obscure crime comics by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Some are “true stories” of famous criminals. Early titles are perfunctory, while the later, longer, more interesting examples are romance hybrids narrated by a tough, sadder-but-wiser dame who, in the last panel, is often glad to be where she belongs scrubbing floors or working as a secretary. Only one story promises the heroine a husband waiting when she gets out of stir, so these stories go from the desire for freedom and thrills to a moral education that values properly gender-assigned self-reliance.
17. Unexplored Worlds by Steve Ditko is the second collection of his ’50s material and shows, as the intro says, a quantum leap in visual innovation and narrative flow while drawing these horror and sci-fi parables. Some have political morals, like the one explaining that one planet has peace under an absolute monarch because only his family members live there while everyone else is a robot.
18. Jim Trombetta’s “The Horror! The Horror!” is a beautifully designed showcase of covers and a few stories from the early ’50s horror comics that alarmed America before the industry’s Comics Code crackdown. Not only is this some truly revelatory artwork (despite the fact that you’d think this material has been well-covered — well, it hasn’t), but the brief textual pieces that in another book of this type would be throwaway fannish blather are brilliant. Trombetta combines scholarship, cultural analysis, and insight in a manner any recovering English major can admire. Get this puppy and feast your orbs and synapses!
19. Exit Wounds is by Rutu Modan, an Israeli woman in England. This is impressive: a simple/complex (simplex?) narrative of an Israeli cabbie and a tall rich woman who try to discover if the unidentified victim of a bombing is the cabbie’s estranged father. Lines are clear and almost clumsy or primitive in composition, yet also delicately expressive, all in pastels. A fascinating interview with the artist closes the book.
Then There are Those Begun, but Never Finished
20. The Roving Tree by Elsie Augustave reads like a memoir or family history disguised as fiction (I don’t know that’s what it is, only how it seems). It opens with the heroine dying in childbirth and being informed by a spirit that she has time to write her memoir for her daughter in the afterlife, and that’s supposedly the rest of the book, which skims too fluently through a childhood of being adopted from her Haiti village by white liberal US parents.
Various bits are summarized too neatly instead of experienced, though the basic premise is intrinsically interesting and the italicized flashback chapters to various bits of family history recounted by various people of before she was born, which come together like a collage and explain how voodoo spirits warned of certain events, are also intrinsically interesting. The second half of the book covers getting a job in Zaire with her degree as a dancer, but I skipped it.
21. Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill is another too-breezy, too-casual two-part novel that sometimes reads like it’s all exposition — every other chapter is literally so, being excerpts from guides and histories by fictitious authorities telling us all the background we need on this creature or that. Still, it’s full of imagination and relevant to my own corner of the world, since it sets the worlds of Faerie and all its fantastic creatures in the Texas Hill Country around Austin.
The first half is about two boys who meet in that world, one having been changeling’ed and the other accompanied by a genie or djinn. One rescues the other and they leave for Austin, and the second half skips ahead to pick them up in their adulthood, and by then I was ready to skip, too. So I did.
Coincidentally I’m now reading the much better, slower, more atmospheric turn-of-the-last-century immigrant New York novel The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, which so far braids two narratives of fantastical unwilling arrivals to the New World, one from Jewish and one from Islamic mythology.
22. I redd the first 80 pages of A Million Heavens by John Brandon, which reads like a surreal slice of life of the people in a New Mexico town. Every few pages switches to a new person amid the handful of characters, the strangest of which include a dead man in a mysterious room, a father at the bedside of his son who fell into a coma after spontaneously playing a piece of music, and a wolf who makes his nightly rounds. They’re all spinning or running in place.
I felt no compulsion to continue, perhaps due to lack of plot momentum or character interest, and yet I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with the book. I can see perfectly that it’s well done, and it has the kind of strangeness that often appeals to me. It’s just that life is short and our reading time so limited that if I stop and ask myself whether I wish to keep reading, the answer must be that I probably don’t. The books I finish are usually those that trick me into skipping over that question.
23. Helen Grant moved to Germany and started writing thrillers about foreigners in Germany. At least that’s the thrust of The Glass Demon, which I stopped halfway through. It’s breathless but I lost interest when I realized the narrator’s whole family is a pack of idiots, and that the author’s great device for hooking us from the first paragraph also undermined the story.
It opens when the 17-year-old narrator tells us that her sister died from lack of food. So we’re turning pages through a bunch of stuff about a killer who pretends to be supernatural by using scenes from legendary stained glass windows that secretly exist in a hidden church in the forest (and the identity of said killer doesn’t seem too unclear), and by the time she figures out her sister is starving herself, we’re exasperated at her uncanny ability to make all the wrong decisions. Of course she doesn’t know the future, although her narrating self knows it and can’t make her poor judgment more credible or bearable.
24. The Informationist by Taylor Stevens (a woman) is a thriller in which a surly, alienated, super-heroine in Dragon Tattoo mode takes an assignment to find a missing girl in Africa, where it so happens the heroine was raised by missionary parents before she joined a squad of mercenaries as a teen! Missionary, mercenary, I guess it’s easy to confuse them.
This is one I started to listen to on CD. I heard the first two or three discs, then decided to read the comments on Amazon and confirmed my impressions: everyone praised the local color, found the heroine interesting but farfetched, the other characters undersketched, the plot not so hot. Realizing I wouldn’t fail to concur, I stopped. Here the Amazon reviews were very useful, as they sometimes can be.
The Pleasure Found in Reading Short Stories
25. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis gathers four collections into a handy omnibus. She writes brief anecdotes or insights (sometimes only a paragraph, sometimes one or two sentences), many of which seem autobiographical about a woman’s relationship with various husbands and boyfriends and her minutely analytical self-consciousness that seems circular and paralyzing. Other stories are more “like stories”, about historical figures or disturbing incidents, more or less symbolic.
One is about a man who buys a French estate that’s falling apart and doesn’t do much with it but comes to depend on visits from a local hunter who seems to represent something he’s yearning for. A nightmarish tale is about an old man who travels to a very isolated village near the Arctic Circle in search of his missing brother. These are dry, smart, distant, precise stories, sometimes essayistic, often intellectual, the result of interior journeys undertaken with a pick and a microscope.
These aren’t what I consider post-Carver stories — journalistic and minimalist — but something else almost like exercises. Little fiction bombs. Good bathroom reading, and that’s a compliment.
26. The stories in Tania James’ Aerogrammes are often about people from India who come to the US or England, like the opening tale about famous wrestling brothers who travel to London to find challengers. This is based on a historical incident. There’s one about a girl adopted and raised with a chimp by an angry middle-aged divorcee.
The most fascinating is the self-explanatory whimsy “Girl Marries Ghost” — and this is based on a real practice in some cultures, but James is taking it literally. The relationship turns out not as cracked up to be. This intelligent collection is recommended to fans of Sabina Murray, Joanna Scott, Andrea Barrett, Emma Donoghue.
27. Michael Kimball’s novella Big Ray is one of those bits of contemporary American fiction spiraling around the revelation of a traumatized childhood, told in hiccoughed paragraphs emphasizing disconnection and understatement as the narrator discusses the death of his enormously obese estranged father and how he and sister cope with memories. Kimball dresses a simple idea in odd or grotesque details to help it go down swiftly, also more or less forgettably. But to be fair, I forget most of these things I’m mentioning, which is why I write this stuff down.
28. There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories is a slim volume by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, a Russian woman who wrote from the ’70s until recently and had censorship problems in the Soviet Union for these “romances” that are pitiless catalogs of families at each other’s throats in crowded apartments, and how one misfortune piles on another but the women manage to muddle through.
One woman realizes the man she’s seeing is a colleague’s schizophrenic husband, who is stepping out on her like her own lost husband did. One woman secretly inherits a cottage to which she escapes from her bickering family, and then finds a kind of peace when her husband is so broken down he’s infantilized. In the title story, by the way, it isn’t clear that she “seduced” her brother-in-law. This is a companion volume to a set of this author’s “fairy tales” that I should probably look for.
29. Steampunk Prime: A Vintage Steampunk Reader is a collection of Victorian and Edwardian science fiction going back to the source, as it were, of steampunk. These aren’t well-known writers like H.G. Wells or Jules Verne but forgotten toilers of the illustrated weeklies. Mind you, these folks didn’t call it science fiction, and they certainly never imagined a term like “steampunk”.
Henry Hering writes about an escaped slave-faun, created artificially in a lab, who tells his story to the narrator before being reclaimed by his owner; a light, urbane anecdote with serious undercurrent. Then comes the tale of a chess-playing automaton (based on a real hoax), a crime story with a ghost ending. Then Fred Smale provides an absurdly written, slipshod, rip-roaring adventure of future time when we all have aircars, but the plot is pure two-penny kidnap/chase melodrama. It reads like someone’s arch parody, but truly the whole thing is like the following sample, which I’m not making up:
“Great Heavens! ‘Eagle’ Malvowley, I might have guessed it, the fiend!” Cried Bowden Snell.
“Malvowley! What, he that owns the secret castle in the Balkans?” Queried Arbuthnot, breathlessly.
“The same.” Answered Bowden Snell; “He is bearing her thither, the villain. But where are they? We must follow at once.”
Then comes a French author’s adventure about drilling a Gibraltar tunnel (to go with the Channel tunnel tales), then a story by George Griffith about discovering the tunnel “From Pole to Pole” (Hollow Earth theory), then a story by George Parsons Lathrop that pre-dates Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes about a man put into suspended animation for a couple of centuries (“It is done,” he exclaimed to Gladwin. “I agree to be vivificated!”) and what he finds there (advanced Victorians, a visitor from Mars, and his old girlfriend, who all get in an airboat chase).
These are all somewhat tedious and stiff. One curious element is the laborious labor-saving schemes for things like international communication, as the authors failed to imagine how simple things would be. Then comes one of many mysteries (involving the use of X-rays) by prolific L.T. Meade (a woman) and Robert Eustace.
Then we come to a series of rather better tales, all visions of disaster that reveal the flipside anxiety of the previous jolly-good-progress stories. Editor Mike Ashley says Owen Oliver wrote several disaster/invasion tales, and “The Plague of Lights” is perhaps the most original. It’s certainly strange and in a way metaphysical as people are taken over by alien love-lights. Then Ernest Favenc briskly recounts a deadly plague that hit Australia in “What the Rats Brought”.
These tales are recalled afterwards by survivors, as is George Davey’s “The Great Catastrophe” about a mysterious explosion of electricity that destroys London, and perhaps best of all, Robert Barr’s “Within an Ace of the End of World” which kills everyone on Earth but 14 people due to a scheme that depletes nitrogen from the air and makes the oxygen too rich. Everyone gets air-drunk and dies! This one is told by a descendant who isn’t clear about all the details of that distant time.
Frank L. Packard (one of my dad’s favorite adventure writers) does a straightforward war story in which the war is with Mercury; it’s possibly inspired by the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, the year it was published, but in this case the smaller power loses. The last story by George Allen England is about a zeppelin disaster (hit by a comet) that jars two jaded people who are sick of this dull world in which all problems have been solved.
Possibly the best story in the book is the penultimate, which Ashley says he had most in mind for this anthology: “The Last Days of Earth” by George C. Wallis. It’s an elegiac tale of a man and woman waiting for the Earth to freeze, and their frail contingency for continuing the race. There’s a thorny subtext about rationality and desire, not unlike the love-lights story. Actually Lathrop’s story about the vindicated man also hinges on romantic thwartings as the motive for everyone, with nobody getting what they want.
30. I’m not a dog person but I enjoyed Dog Stories edited by Diana Secker Tesdell. Some stories are told by the dog: O. Henry’s “Memoirs of a Yellow Dog” (one of several about a yellow dog, including Bret Harte’s engaging first-person-plural “A Yellow Dog”, narrated collectively by a California mining community), P.G. Wodehouse’s “The Mixer” (about a dog trained for burglary), and Mark Twain’s “A Dog’s Tale”, which ends in sentimental tragedy that belies anger at man’s inhumanity to dog. This is the story that begins “My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian.”
Patricia Highsmith’s story is also told from the dog’s POV but indirectly, and Anton Chekhov’s “Kashtanka” follows the dog’s POV more objectively (with dog’s dreams and thoughts) and therefore less fancifully, though this anecdote about training circus animals turns on an existential brush with the awareness of death.
There are several examples of the Symbolic Dog, esp. Penelope Lively’s lightly Twilight Zonish “A Black Dog” and James Salter’s “My Lord You” (the title is an Ezra Pound reference), both about middle class vacuum. Thomas McGuane’s “Flight” includes the symbol in the title of this species of masculine sentimentality about taciturn buddies hunting and being one with nature in the face of death.
Madison Smartt Bell’s “Barking Man” is the only story not to have a literal dog (except glancingly), and one of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Browns turns on an incidental dog. Ray Bradbury’s “The Emissary” is a childhood ghost story, although the dog isn’t a ghost. Jonathan Lethem’s story, though from the New Yorker, is actually an excerpt from his novel Chronic City. Doris Lessing’s “The Story of Two Dogs” is a good epic South African childhood memoir via dogs.
Brad Watson and Tobias Wolff do New Yorker-ish anecdotes about epiphanies while dog-walking, the latter ending with an imaginary conversation with a dog about human vs. dog love, but the best example of the breed by far is Lydia Millet’s “Sir Henry”, a strong contender for Best in Show. It’s a perfectly poised, witty, sharp, stylish construction from the indirect POV of a nameless dogwalker, leading to a beautiful ending. Very Manhattan.
Another strong contender: “The Hermit’s Story” by Rick Bass–just beautiful, graceful, imagistic prose in Jack London-ish episode of winter survival.
Then There’s the Really Weird Stuff
31. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray is a long, often very funny Irish novel about a Catholic boys’ school (what else?) with many characters and elements. You read it without knowing where it’s going or even really what kind of book it is. Is it going to cross into sci-fi with its weird string-theory eleven-dimensional physics? Or its Celtic White Goddess fairy lore?
For a few pages there in the middle, I was disappointed to think it was succumbing to the convention of all modern fiction of using child abuse as the key to the universe, but that’s just one possible topic churned up in its ambiguous wake (and I guess it couldn’t be avoided in the setting). Like the best comedy and satire, it’s about serious topics and feelings and heartbreak. I’d call it bawdy, sprawling, farcical realism. I must emphasize that I laughed frequently.
I think Skippy at least makes feints in the tendency of a recent trend I’ve noticed, unless I’m making it up. Stop me if you’ve heard this. “Mainstream” novels (also called audaciously and redundantly “Literary Fiction”) increasingly blur generic lines. Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem are examples. Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates are forerunners. Paul Auster too. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a benchmark, since this most acclaimed American novel of the last 30 years is a frankly a ghost story and horror novel, although we’re not supposed to tell anyone! Of course we can always trace this cross-pollination through the decades, but I think it’s more noticeable in last 20 years. I cite three reasons:
1. Reaction to minimalist “write what you know” realism. Writers/readers want something else (what they don’t know!), hunger for story. It’s post-New Romanticism.
2. From the High End of the literary continuum: Assimilation of Latin American “magic realism” and Kafka-esque Eastern European paranoid fantasias, as gleaned from literature classes.
3. From the Pop End: A younger generation (Chabon/Lethem) grew up swallowing genres like potato chips before they got into college writing programs (popping up like weeds) and were told they should have been reading The New Yorker all this time. And over time, Stephen King is now practically a dean of American letters while Shirley Jackson, H.P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick and hardboiled crime are all being published by Library of America.
Since the aforementioned youngsters are comfortable with all this, they have no problem integrating between genres whose readership were once separated by bunkers. And after all, they watch “serious” movies that are full of ghosts and aliens and stuff, so they’re like “I can do that!” They pick without shame from Column A and Column B. They melange. They sauté. And that’s how we have become inundated with the kind of inter-sidereal writers I’ve written about here and in my last column.
By the way, I approve of this trend, even if I imagine it (especially so). America-wise, it’s our reconnection with the 19th Century tradition of Charles Brockden Brown : Poe : Hawthorne : Melville : Twain : James. Now James was a straddler, and he decisively triggered the counter-tradition of Wharton : Naturalists : Hemingway (by way of reaction, in style not content) : Postwar Muscularity : Carver : Minimal Realists. It was in the first half of the 20th Century that the major genres were invented (marketed) by branching off from the main line into their profitable ghettos. They ran parallel and developed their own alternate universes. Now they’re hitching back up. All aboard.
32. By sheer inertia, I finished a breezy fantasy that’s longer than necessary for such a light meal, The Rook by Daniel O’Malley, much influenced by Douglas Adams and Red Dwarf and other projects of relentless bright facetious sarcasm where everyone speaks with understated archness. Like the Cargill book I decided not to finish (#21 above), it’s got barrels of imagination (and loads of exposition in the form of letters and files in which the heroine explains things to her future amnesiac self), but O’Malley’s tone is gratingly casual and tongue in cheek about all the wacky carnage.
Great beginning: addressing You as you try to figure out who you are and what’s just happened (the first letter, found in your pocket), and then our heroine finds out she’s a bureaucrat in a British supernatural X-Files equivalent of MI-5 and she has the power to control people’s nervous systems. Some mole has tried to kill her and blotted her memories, but she had some warning it would happen, so it’s like John Le Carré ground through that shiny humor. Charles Stross has also written about a supernatural secret service, but I actually own those books so of course I haven’t redd them.
33. Ryu Mitsuse’s Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights is blurbed as Japan’s most admired sci-fi novel and dates from 1967, so I had to check it out. It unfolds in seemingly unrelated sections in different eons, starting from the creation of the universe to the far ruined future, and then jumps to another planet where the various characters come together. These include Plato (visiting Atlantis in a dream), Siddhartha, and Jesus (an extraterrestrial Shiva-destroyer figure).
Since it seems to involve Earth’s evolution determined by aliens, it might have something to do with the same year’s release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and its tricky Manichean drive may owe something to early Philip K. Dick. Existential as hell and ends in bafflement, perhaps for the author, as well. This comes fairly close to the novel-as-peyote, not that I’d know.
34. Speaking of mind- and civilization-altering substances, Christopher Sherwood’s Tea of Ulaanbataar is told from the interior POV of a disaffected Bret Easton Ellis/Jay McInerny type of protagonist, a young Peace Corps English teacher in Mongolia. This is depicted as a cold, poor, violent hell but preferable to being an over-educated drone in the USA. He moons about his old girlfriend and then finds a deadly addictive “blood tea” that gives him visions of how it will take over the world and destroy it.
Like Goodfellas, it opens with a violent “grabber” from late in the story and then flashes back so we won’t give up reading the drained bite-size descriptions of a dismal hopeless world. The prose sticks to the shoes and hands a bit. The author eschews quotation marks, which cements the flattening of everything — people, dialogue, objects — into one tonally grey landscape. Makes me wonder how this would be translated into those languages that never use quotation marks; would the French translation dispense with dashes?
Here’s a good place to mention the new strand of semi-autobiographical surrealism. Sherwood is, guess what, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia. I was also reading something called Zazen by one Vanessa Veselka (great name) that’s told by a disaffected waitress with an anthropology degree who turns in false bomb threats while real bombs start going off as some kind of war or collapse is happening, and guess what, this author has an anthropology degree and worked as a waitress. You can find several other examples in these last two columns. “Writing what you know” is becoming strange, indeed.
35. Speaking of odd trips through former Soviet landscapes, Strange Telescopes is wacky journalism by Daniel Kalder, a Scot who lives in Austin, Texas. He lived for ten years intermittently in Russia and this is an account of people he sought out in his last year. He foregrounds his lost-slacker persona too much via his speculations and observations, but he knows he’s got interesting people to write about.
One guy, living with his mom, spouts stories about Moscow’s hidden underground world of tunnels and finally, after much prodding, takes Kalder on a short trip down a manhole. A filmmaker obsessed with demonic possession goes around filming Orthodox exorcisms in Ukraine; Kalder speaks to a few priests and victims, finds they take it all much more mundanely than the filmmaker. A guy in Siberia has set up a community of villages with himself as the living Christ; this is quite a fascinating tour of a cult that appeals to intellectuals and professionals.
Last, a gangster lives in an unfinished tower, the tallest wooden structure in the world. The theme is that the fall of the USSR allowed a window for dreamers to make up their own doomed alternate realities in response to the doomed real reality.
36. Other Kingdoms is the final (?) novel by master fantasist Richard Matheson, who recently passed away. I’m sorry to report it’s a breezy yet irritating tale narrated by an aged writer of horror stories recalling his service in WWI and how it led to his spending several months in love with a faerie lass in the English woods, after having a bad romance with a witch.
The problem is the self-consciousness of the narrative voice. The old duffer, who constantly makes fun of his typical purple prose, thinks he’s being cute with his constant asides and jokes in a meandering personal style that doesn’t belong to a professional writer. He cannot stay on track for three sentences running. Mind you, there really are people like this, and therein lies the paradox. As an act of adopting a voice, this becomes so credible as to be intrusive. And now for a striking example where the same type of digressive, self-conscious, “unprofessional” voice isn’t at all intrusive:
37. Stone Upon Stone by Wieslaw Mysliwski is a very long Polish novel from the late ’90s. It’s about life in a farm village before, during and after WWII, as narrated inside the head of one of four brothers. Long chapters are organized loosely by theme as he rambles like the old man he is, one remark or incident reminding him of another, interrupting himself to digress, then one character or another launches into an epic monologue until eventually we get the whole picture.
A blurb on the cover describes it quite well as being like a rural Beckett, if more concrete. The only flaw to my reckoning is that he several times mentions the Jew who ran the inn before the war (not very kindly, which seems perfectly in character for this problematic narrator), but there’s never any allusion to what might have become of him. I’m not even sure if this is a flaw or a telling detail of how certain people avoid such topics even though he dilates exhaustively on everything else.
38. The Eden Hunter by Skip Horack uses austere, dry, hard-baked language to describe a tough, strange picaresque of an African Pygmy who becomes an American slave in early 1800s and runs away to Florida. We stay with his POV throughout, and he’s an inscrutable little Other who doesn’t welcome his own emotions and thoughts in the midst of his actions but reveals himself anyway through dreams and memories, including one mystic vision near the end. This character is quite an act of creation, both in physical details and psychological reveals.
For a while the story features at least one casually brutal death per chapter, though this slows for a while when he gets to a fort commanded by runaway slaves. The book opens with a Herman Melville epigraph about allegory. I find I must recommend it.
39. Hygiene and the Assassin by French writer Amélie Nothomb is short dialogue novel about a bloated Nobel novelist dying of an obscure cancer, whose novels are apparently indebted to Celine. The first four sections are interviews with journalists whom he browbeats superciliously, the last half is his confrontation with a female interviewer who matches him in contempt and rhetoric and exposes his secret history. Several funny lines in this metaphorical metatextual grotesquery that could only come from a literary tradition crippled by existentialism. So novels really are written for critics now.
Yes, but why did I read it? The literary disquisitions only reminded me that there are more significant writers.
40. Molly Fox’s Birthday, by Irish novelist Deirdre Madden, is narrated by a woman who wakes up in Dublin on the longest day of the year, but the book is more Proustian than Joycean. She’s a playwright who switched houses with a great and famous actress for a month. Over the course of the day, she recalls highlights of their friendship and also her friendship with an art historian and all their family relationships.
The actress is Molly Fox, one name for Joyce and one for a trickster animal, and there’s a hedgehog in her garden that bears the symbolic burden of Otherness, and the writer is trying to write a play about a man with a hare. Molly is never on stage, as it were, though she suffuses the book via memories and her objects. The fact that it’s the actress’ birthday effectively triggers several incidents and character insights. Very simple really, not that anyone could pull it off. I didn’t know if I’d be interested but it redd so smoothly that it was soon over.
Whereas many works stop at being about the impossibility of knowing the self or others, as if this is a sufficiently fresh and important revelation, Madden’s novel acknowledges that point, then suggests it might be a good thing (people tell lies, some things are private, people don’t understand their own process and motivation), and also focuses warmly on the bridges people create as well as the gaps.
Further, it’s refreshing to read about basically happy, successful, arty people who have earned some wisdom and aren’t currently enduring a physical or existential crisis just to get the narrative ball rolling — as convention tells us is so necessary and art may tell us isn’t. Which brings us around to something, for this doesn’t qualify as a “weird book” at all but a perfectly ordinary and sensible slice of character-building, and one which concentrates on that rare topic alluded to above: the long, sometimes prickly, basically rewarding friendship between women who are also artists.