Friday, December 9, 2016

Cormac McCarthy's The Road

Readers perusing reviews of Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 The Road hardly need one more consideration of that mega-hit, but I read it, and’ll have my say. (Perhaps one or two things here have been bypassed by the reviewing community, I couldn’t tell.)

Most will be familiar with the story: post-apocalyptic, (and probable), nuclear winter; man shepherding young son through the horror in a constant search for food, clothing, warmth, and (not least) secrecy to avoid murderers and cannibals.

Two quibbles: there are sporadic sections of writing that strain for the profound. For McCarthy, this comes about through grand abstractions and easy metaphors: i.e., “commissaries of hell”. That’s a pretty good association, but by that slice in the novel, we’ve had “[fill in] of hell” many times. Ditto with “black [fill in].” McCarthy’s powers of description – in vocabulary, in understanding of the (un?)natural world’s flux, and from the narrator’s self-sufficient wisdom – are awesome (I hope that last word still retains, somewhat, the power of its original meaning), and don’t need the buttressing overkill. The other problem has to do with biological and physiological plausibility. It’s hard to credit the father with the energy needed to carry out several of his arduous tasks in the desperate environment he and the boy find themselves in. The intricate (and fast) threading of sutures on his own arrow wound in the cold and dark, covered in dirt, already exhausted; the power needed to wade through ocean waves to scramble onto an ancient, decrepit ship in search for food and other items, therefrom crashing into a locked hold, all while seriously ill; and, (from the grimly amusing points taken from a blogging biologist), the mistakes made by cannibals on caloric comparisons in the two most lurid scenes (which I won’t spoil here for those who haven’t yet read the book).

Those negatives are easily washed away, though, in the hurricane-level strength of sure pacing (drama; narrative and tonal shifts), religious underpinning, philosophical deftness, and, most importantly, rhythmic drive. Some have reacted negatively to the relentless force of the prose, its biblical solemnity. But surely the content deserves the appropriate approach. McCarthy delivers, and the rhythmic intensity, at times, floods into a mystical super-container, no small feat when the narrative dwells on drifting ash, shivering, hunger, and constant fear.

The dialogue between father and son is also handled with great care, and gathers into an emotionally stark resolution. This would be dangerous material for any novelist to negotiate with. How McCarthy avoids mawkishness and unintentional hilarity is a tribute to his dramatic gifts. How he avoids descending into easy messaging on human sin and redemption is also impressive, given the layout.

Yeah, Oprah gave the book a shove. And it’s not a ‘beach read’ (stupid category).But if you haven’t read it, don’t be dissuaded by the synopsis. I’m no fan of genre fic, including the sub-genre of apocalyptic horror, but this has nothing to do with falling into the conventions of a plot on autopilot.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Tom McCarthy's Satin Island

The disorder, distraction, and incomprehension of our accelerated digital age has spawned a warehouse full of fiction dealing with the insanity in either a detached, heavily ironic documentary-style, or as sci-fi, into-the-rabbit-hole thriller. Creating a novel of depth out of the material is harder than writing new string theory postulates that successfully apply to a starburst of new universes. But attempts have been made.

This is to segue into Satin Island, Tom McCarthy’s novel from last year. The narrator is an anthropologist working for a mysterious web-saturated communications-advertising company which tasks U (the narrator) with vague, byzantine projects. At first, U takes to his work with mid-level enthusiasm: “the image of a severed parachute that floated, like some jellyfish or octopus, through the polluted waters of my mind ... I found my focus, my point of identification within it and my attendant sympathy, shifting from the diminutive man to his expanded, if detached, paraphernalia”. Sub-scenes (one can’t call them plots) include a colleague dying of throat cancer, and a girlfriend unforthcoming as to her background and to how she appeared at the airport wherein the two initially met. The former is handled with affecting complexity and association: “He had one [dark lump] just above his ankle; it was more than dark – it was black. The windows of the hospital were smudged and blackened too; his room was on the twenty-first floor and they obviously didn’t bother to clean them that often, or at all.”

McCarthy’s first novel, Remainder, involved a haunting narrator-created world, removed but familiar, ridiculous and terrifying yet possible. Satin Island’s reality, by contrast, mouse-clicks over well-surfed territory. Oil spills exist next to, and with, soccer highlights; mothballed archaeological curios, their use or religious function unknown, are sold to Texas millionaires for vain display, perhaps finding their way as lifestyle images in advertising. McCarthy, however, manages to conjure wit and wisdom at each level of the rabbit hole: after the narrator’s girlfriend is let go from a horrifying experience, post-raid, she tells U “that it was ironic ... That it was my credit card that saved me after I’d been protesting against capitalism”.

The novel – short but dense – has attracted a lot of negative press. Much of it seems to be based on Satin Island’s lack of narrative thrust or direction. (The author, winking, warns of this early in the novel: “events! if you want those, you’d best stop reading now”.) But this, of course, is purposeful, and in line with the thematic concerns. Swamped by information – most of it ephemera, or is it? – all of us have at least a section of our brains available and appreciative of efforts to delineate and synthesize, sort and order. But U gives up. Late in the novel, letters of the eponymous words – appearing in a previous admonitory dream – transpose themselves on a Staten Island ferry before vanishing altogether among the ordinary, weary, down-at-heels passengers. The final image of the homeless man at a pay phone is sublime.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Tom McCarthy's Remainder

A true success story, first published by an art-based micropress, then picked up by a small literary press, then, strictly through word-of-mouth, to Vintage, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is that curious object: a novel with narrative propulsion that soars above the overbaked combat of lyrical realism vs metafictional filtering. It’s easy to see it, as did Zadie Smith’s positive essay on McCarthy (contrasting Remainder with another novel from Joseph O’Neill), as modernism’s new circuitry, but McCarthy has, himself, disavowed the pro forma connections.

The first-person, post-coma, emotionless, instant millionaire (over a million pounds as settlement from a mysterious accident) obsesses on his sense of unreality. McCarthy exquisitely navigates through the exterior dimensions of his madness, covering, in fastidious detail, the narrator’s demands and orders to his new minions – directors, actors, logistics experts, blue-collar contractors – in a desperate attempt to “re-enact” (his insisted-upon term) a previous déja vu moment, that moment filled with fluency, grace, a oneness of being, the memory and manifestation merging in spiritual bliss.

Now this is a terrific premise, and an exciting and timeless one. And it’s terrifically complex. The narrator’s team – at its peak involving over a thousand employee re-enactors – are given no interior detail (the narrator doesn’t care about others, and in any case, McCarthy stays inside this one man’s head), but the narrator, also, has little desire in illuminating the why of his quixotic plans. At just past the two-thirds mark, though, we get this, from a doctor, speaking to, and summoned by, the troubled man’s top director:

“ ‘[t]he body administers its own painkillers – hefty ones. The problem is, these can be rather pleasant – so pleasant, in fact, that the system goes looking for more of them. The stronger the trauma, the stronger the dose, and hence the stronger the compulsion to trigger new releases. Reasonably intelligent laboratory animals will return again and again to the source of their trauma, the electrified button ... although they know they’ll get the shock again.’ “

It’s here (if not before) the book’s biggest problem materializes, as startling in its way as the recreated smells of liver, re-enacted from two floors below the re-enacted building with the re-enacted players, the cats meanwhile falling off the roof, not being able to follow directions. That is, the wish for oneness, glimpsed at in the earlier déja vu vision, somehow merges with the wish for repeating, impulsively, painful behaviour. Philosophically and spiritually, I don’t buy it, unless the reader wants to entertain the possibility that the goal wasn’t spiritual unity, but a desperate bid for time-released soporifics. That said, the novel then faithfully drives the destructive element to its nadir. After the re-enactment of an actual murder and then an imagined bank heist, the narrator conspires with director Naz to attempt an actual bank robbery, with an attendant and absurd spiraling of logistical detail. I thought the novel would surely fall apart here in a ridiculous thriller-based riff, but the writing becomes almost unbearably beautiful, the actions slowed down, the detail relentless and fascinating, and the narrator’s vision morphing into further unexpected territory (“light and blood”). There’s a little too much direct nodding to Camus’ L’Etranger, but its more for emphasis than in homage. And the final scene is perfectly set-up and realized.

Despite its dark narrative and despicable lead character, there are flashes of loud humour throughout – the narrator complaining to his directors that the sun won’t behave, ditto for his doctor (“I’d even have let him stay if he’d only behaved himself and not moved”), and, when going through the rehearsals for the elaborate murder re-enactment after a dizzyingly difficult set-up by his employees, congratulating himself for his supposed largesse (“I thought of asking to try too, but didn’t want to get all self-indulgent”).

There are many suggestions throughout the book as to how to process the information, the “materiality” of the novel, how to integrate that with possible meanings and to what purpose any conclusions may point to. But I haven’t yet seen the rather obvious one mentioned. That the superstructure may suggest the problems a novelist may (will) have in writing his or her work – how to move characters around seamlessly and believably, how to demand certain actions from those characters without caring about their own projected wishes, and, certainly not least, how porous are the borders between reality and fiction.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Mordecai Richler's Cocksure

Hard to believe this pervasively nasty short novel was published just three years before St. Urbain’s Horseman. It seems to have served the author as a purgative for the recent (1968) sins – newly, bureaucratically entrenched – flowering like psychedelic sun blisters throughout journalism, the movie industry, literary magazines, education, and (broadly) civic society. It’s not hard to believe, however, that Cocksure would have, today, been dead in the water during a first editorial pass if its author submitted it under a pseudonym.

Values are inverted, not in a simple reversal, but as sarcastic, scabrous commentary on the inanities of the ‘free’ society, so that egalitarianism, bizarre and plotted ‘gotcha’ racial accusations, bizarre child-rearing practises, sexual attitudes, and ideologically created and technologically dumbed-down movie images conjoin with criminality and moral bankruptcy to squash ‘square’ social norms. But Richler, an across-the-board equal-opportunity satirist, lampoons, also, prigs and tight-asses, the cuckold as well as the bull.

“ ‘God damn it, Miss Ryerson, you can’t go around blowing school kids. It isn’t done.’
‘Don’t you dare,’ Miss Ryerson said evenly, ‘take the Lord’s name in vain in my presence.’
‘Are you dead set against blowing, Mortimer?’
‘I wouldn’t know how to answer that, Miss Ryerson. We’ve never discussed, well, sex– ‘
Put out that cigarette immediately.’
‘Yes.’ ”

Shocking, yes. Offensive, certainly. But it’s in reaction to the toothless, whimsical literature that passes for satire, then and—as it turns out—now. To paraphrase Robert Altman on the TV version of MASH: the updated take wasn’t funny (compared to his original vision) because the stinger was pulled out; the show didn’t earn its laughs.

That this novel came out during the peak of the counter-culture shows Richler’s bravery. (One idiotic blurb, on its original Bantam Book cover, praised its “anti-establishment” stance.) And it’s fun, a great exercise, to draw parallels between political positions then and now. The names of movements and causes change, but the attitudes just circle out and back.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Gabriel Josipovici's Everything Passes

This episodic novelette from 2006 underscores several problems meta-fiction has found itself backed into. Ostensibly about an asshole who’s alienated his wife (now ex), daughter, son, and literary friends, these segments serve only as set-up to the book’s main focus: asshole creator shirking familial and literary duties in order to turn the tap of existential angst to ten, tricking himself with that faint hope of literary self-worth. But even that faint hope can never be realized, of course, because, as the narrator/Josipovici has it, the creator, post-Rabelais, is speaking to an invisible audience. The sections of meta-assertion, a historical critique much more fully positioned and developed in the author’s What Ever Happened To Modernism?, slams the brakes on whatever enchantment, interest, or intrigue his clipped narrative may have achieved, but there’s a more serious, more fundamental problem in the meta-critique.

Josipovici is, of course, right to point out the long history of novelist as self-conscious navigator in bellwether works . But Cervantes, Sterne, and others, used that awareness in the service of the author/narrator voice as fictional and imaginative hijinks largely separate from the transparent worries of the author over his or her own creative process. The reader of many late-postmodern works is often left with a solipsistic defense of the writing process, interesting, even fascinating, no doubt, to the author and (similarly) philosophically inclined writers, but of limited (and redundant when scrolling through book promos) appeal to those wanting to get out of the overseeing, stifling, never-ending loop.

The book is sixty pages, with plenty of white space. Most poetry collections contain more words. Despite that, Everything Passes isn’t compressed or concise. The refrain, some variation of, “He stands at the window./Cracked pane./His face at the window./Greyness. Silence.”, gathers irritation, rather than profundity, by repetition. The protagonist (if that’s the appropriate word) reminisces. Those thoughts aren’t interesting, and can’t be improved by pleading for a multiple suggestiveness from other characters or the reader her- or himself. The meta-commentary was philosophically problematic, but it was also problematic structurally. The bridge between glum remembrance and meta-aspiration was poorly synthesized, and the latter focus ended in a terribly overwrought ecstasy of creative explosion (however ironically one wants to take it) that reminded me of that ridiculous cliché to be found in the movie Amadeus, where the effervescent hero pens a new score in dramatic frenzy.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Joe Queenan's One for the Books

A cantankerous, half tongue-in-cheek provocation of bibliophilic obsession, Joe Queenan’s eight essays, gathered from previously published newspaper and magazine columns, ruminate on the author’s book reading habits (he’s polished off over six thousand fiction tomes, and, averaging out his actuarial lifespan probability, expects to read 2,132 more), library experiences and thoughts (“[p]utting James Patterson next to Proust is like displaying Babe Ruth’s uniform alongside Three Finger Brown’s” – [must be a small library]), bookstores (“[s]pindly boys with thick Clark Kent glasses wearing ill-advised polo shirts and unpersuasive facial hair routinely come up to me and say, ‘Can I help you with anything?’ as if I were a disoriented extraterrestrial or the last man to straggle home from Gettysburg”), personal reading resolutions (always different – one year it’s a deliriously happy and exclusive concentration on novellas, reading almost one a day; the next it’s books picked out blindly from the library shelves, not such a great idea), and book-related experiences on his travels (a “gaunt, humorless widow”, as landlord in Paris when Queenan was twenty-one, let him off the hook for unbecoming living habits after she discovered he was a rabid fan of Henry de Motherlant), among other thoughtful anecdotes, uproarious buffoonery, and shiv-like satire.

I’ll let Queenan do the rest of the talking:

“In the case of The House of the Seven Gables, I know perfectly well why I have never read it – I hate people from Massachusetts, and I know the book is going to give me a headache”.

“I read [Bear, by Marian Engel] as soon as I got back to the States and loved [it], though I was somewhat surprised that this straightlaced Canadian would recommend a book about a lonely female historian who treats herself to a short, ergonomically implausible love affair with a bear. The bear was a bit surprised, too.”

“For decades well-meaning pedagogues have been sabotaging summer vacations ... One reason the average American reads no more than four books a year may be the emotional trauma suffered while trying to hack his way through Wuthering Heights at age fourteen.”

“It’s possible that minor books can lure readers to major ones, functioning as a cultural Venus flytrap, but crummy books only lead to more crummy books.”

“Reading books may make you smarter than other people. It does not make you better. I know things about the Vietnam War because I read them in books. My friend Richie, a nonreader, knows things about the Vietnam War because he went to Vietnam.”

“A few years ago, several people in my town asked if I would like to join a book discussion club ... I left town for about six weeks, disconnected the phone, stopped answering e-mails, and told people that I had a weird retinal pigmentation disease that made it impossible for me to read books. Especially books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.”

“I have come to believe that people who get dressed up in period costume, with three-cornered hats and high-buckle shoes, and who speak in archaic English, suffer from Reenactor’s Autism, a malady that renders victims incapable of detecting otherwise unmistakable visual cues indicating that most of the people in the room would like to see them disemboweled.”

“[My father’s] books allowed him to cling to dreams that would never materialize. Books had not enabled him to succeed. But they had mitigated the pain of failure.”

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Gabrielle Roy's The Tin Flute

A CanCon classic, and Gabrielle Roy’s first novel, The Tin Flute, first out in 1945, follows the fate of feisty Florentine, Montreal waitress during WWII, as she fights family poverty and relationship neglect. There’s your boilerplate plot synopsis, and if that were all the novel offered as thematic thrust and narrative line, it would be boilerplate to potboiler. Fortunately, there are sub-plots (or, more accurately, interior interludes) that make up the heart of the structure: father Azarius fighting his own lassitude and lack of purpose; mother Rose-Anna trying to keep her brood alive; Florentine’s shy second suitor, Emmanuel, infatuated, pursuing his desire with a painful mix of courageous persistence and hangdog passivity; and the snowblown streets and windowpanes themselves as (obvious yet lyrically well-handled) symbolic back-up to the shifting tonal state of the characters.

Fortunate, too, that the plot scaffolding covers little of the roof, because the Florentine-Jean will-he-won’t-he romance is pure melodrama. When the weather fails to make a point artfully, Roy dips into Florentine and Jean’s skulls with the stock groaners, “with her whole being” and “he shook his head emphatically”.

Still, the author’s grasp of psychological understanding is often acute, wise, and convincing across multiple characters in the same scene. And she gives an honest sense of perplexity without mawkish exclamation, in many instances, when dealing with the motivations and decisions of Florentine, Emmanuel and Azarius, (not so much with Jean or some of the minor personages).

Intermittently affecting, the novel is too uneven, yet its worth seems pressed in canonical cement, and after modernism’s earlier upheaval, there’s little excuse for the faded Victorianism. SPOILER! (The sex scene and subsequent pregnancy are alluded to in the airiest of hints, a quaint and amusing hunt for today’s reader.) Yet there’s a courageous honesty that lingers underneath the often ramped-up emotion, and I’d recommend the book mildly because of it.