Month: June 2016

Mother Night -yes, more Vonnegut…

Mother Night is one of Vonnegut’s minor novels, but still a strong entry. With my goal of reading all of his novels, (as well as Palm Sunday and Man Without a Country) I feel like I’m getting an interesting perspective of the man as a producer of writing. There’s something always recognizably consistent in the tone and in the themes, but each book is unmistakably it’s own thing. While not as strong as Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five, Mother Night still hits all of the Vonnegut high points: a painfully aware protagonist looking back on things, a subversive view of normative values, and an always slightly askew perspective on human interactions.

The protagonist in this book is an American propaganda officer for Nazi Germany, a man who did his job so well that even though he was a double agent relaying messages for the US, his rhetoric may have been more damaging than his counterintelligence was redeeming. This central conflict allows Vonnegut to explore the gradations of morality in such an ambiguous situation, complicated dramatically by the fact that Howard is narrating this story, and is almost certainly very, very unreliable. Who is Howard writing this for, and to what end?

It’s a damn good book that forces some great questions, but it doesn’t go deeper than that. Like a lot of his work, this is a book that would have knocked me on my ass if I’d read it twelve or thirteen years ago. That’s not to call the thing juvenile, since these are serious and adult concerns, but it does lack the layers and nuance of Faulkner or Kundera. But, man, it’s hard to find anything as much fun and as easy to read as Vonnegut, and the fact that he manages to balance that with the moral ideas and quandaries in a book like Mother Night is pretty impressive.

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A Canticle for Leibowitz

This is a book I would have really loved in high school. That’s not a criticism per se, but, damn, I wish I’d read this when I was younger. A Canticle for Leibowitz is the kind of genre fiction that reaches beyond genre -it’s very much still anchored by the tropes and conventions of good science fiction, but it’s reaching beyond the boundary that even very good genre fiction is closed in by.

Central to this book is the ideal of the preservation of knowledge. Set in a post-nuclear holocaust, Miller’s book, published in 1960, follows the return of civilization through the preservation efforts of an abbey dedicated to that work. Miller’s role in the bombing of a cathedral in WWII played a large part in his obsession with both religious orders and the preservation of knowledge, and this fixation found its best completion in A Canticle for Leibowitz. The book makes heavy use of Latin phrases and cyclical motifs in its narrative, giving it both a strong Christian structure and content. The heroes here are all monastic, and their faith is central to their work, but the focus isn’t primarily doctrinal, but historical.

This is a solid book, well deserving of its cult classic status. There’s a lot of looking down on genre fiction in literary circles -especially with sci-fi and fantasy stuff. While there’s often good reason for that, it’s best not to throw out the wheat with the chaff. There’s plenty good in genre. A Canticle for Leibowitz brings together the best of that with religious and mythological themes, a cyclical narrative structure, good prose, and very good story telling.

Recommendation: Give it a read. Quick, before Trump gets elected and we all perish in a nuclear maelstrom!

Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior

Mary Gaitskill’s debut story collection is definitely one of the best collections I’ve read this year. It’s a wide range of stories -male and female protagonists, 1st and 3rd person narration, and while there are some strongly connected themes running through this collection -love and romance, sex work, drug use, writing and living in New York, and BDSM- these stories are diverse and unique. Any of these stories would stand up well all it’s own merit, but they make an especially good read when grouped together. I love me a good collection of strong and different stories with a unifying voice behind them all.

One aspects of Gaitskill’s writing that I find especially impressive is her effortless androgyny. Stories written from a male character’s perspective are unmistakably male -a hard thing to pull off with a light touch. Gaitskill’s characterization seems effortless and authentic. Perhaps some of the male characters in these stories are especially nasty, but never in a way that seems like a straw man, just an unfortunately common example of a very believable and very shitty person. None of her gendered perspectives in Bad Behavior fall into an objective voice or a sense of authorial remove -they are simply extensions of her gendered characters, expressing the biases and perspectives of those characters alone in a masterful use of free indirect narration.

Gaitskill is known for her frequent depictions of the stereotypically taboo -sex work, drugs, sado-masochism, and the dom/sub paradigm as expressed in human sexuality. Many writers who traffic in these taboos are often painfully aware of the response of the more buttoned-up among us, and use these subjects more as a way to establish alternative cred or a sense of being edgy than as narrative elements (this tends to seem especially foolish as sexual mores change over time). Gaitskill is certainly not one of those writers. Her stories rely on these themes to do a lot of the heavy lifting, but never in a voyeuristic way. The kink in here is real and matter-of-fact, and that’s a welcome change from much of the lesser writing on the subject -as well as considerably ahead of it’s time, considering how many people have read books about multiple variations on the color grey over the last few years.

Recommendation: Read it! Unless you have a stick up your ass about kinky shit (but if the stick up your ass is in your ass in a sexy way, you are exempted from the stick-up-your-ass modifier above).

Speedboat

Speedboat is a tough book to write about. It’s been written about quite a bit of late -the recent attention drawn by the novel, long out of print, making it back into publication and back on the reading lists of many lit classes. It’s a very 70s novel, very much set in the contemporary world of its writing, but, in the manner of all good books that emphasize the times in which they are written, Adler writes at a bit of a remove from her own time, an observer just distant enough from her contemporary reality to make the thing hold up exceptionally well.

Speedboat is fragmentary and highly experimental, especially for its day, but remains very much a unified novel. It’s preoccupied with the issues that have come to define our conception of the intellectual culture of the 70’s -the remove from and the discomfort with the perceived failures of the 60s, the sense of aimlessness, the lack of identity. These themes would be far less interesting and compelling (except of course as a cultural time capsule) were it not for the powerful use of an arresting form and the unmistakable sense of craft that Adler’s prose radiates. This is a well worked-over novel.

And, in spite of that intractable Marxist chip on my shoulder, I’m not going to fault this book for its preoccupation with high society, wealth, connections, and culture. These things are obsessed over in Speedboat, but they’re also put on blast. Adler displays none of the frustrating toady-ness that has fueled my frustrations with other authors whose “critiques” of the elite were obscured by their simpering aspirations. Speedboat’s distance from its time and culture might be read by less charitable readers as an affected nonchalance, a need to be cool and above it all, but it’s essential. Without it, Adler’s narrator would be far too close to what is being described, and this project would be a hell of a lot less interesting.

Recommendation: Give it a read, unless you like your novels especially traditional.

The Shipping News

-If you have not yet read The Shipping News and you wish to remain ignorant of key plot points, stop reading. You’ve been warned.-

I had read Close Range (Proulx’s collection of short stories set in Wyoming -which contains the infamous “Brokeback Mountain”) a few years ago, but The Shipping News had been sitting in my to-read pile for a long time before I finally got to it. Keeping it in that pile, getting kicked down by new book purchases, was a bad idea. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Proulx is incredibly good at crafting very rounded characters within a literary work, providing the reader with a skeletal frame immediately and then fleshing the person out throughout the book in a very satisfying way. The kind of person Quoyle is is made known from the first few pages, a powerfully concise framing that reminded me of Updike’s story “Oliver’s Evolution”. Having an entire novel at her disposal, rather than the five paragraphs of Updike’s story, Proulx continues to build surprising nuance into a character that had seemed sympathetic from the first, but hardly as deep as we come to see him to be. The novel also makes use of a structural element involving an old books of knots that really, well, ties everything together, and well.

And, for a novel that kicks of with an abusive spouse selling her daughters into sex slavery and child pornography before being killed in a car with her lover, and more than one narrative element involving child abuse and incest, The Shipping News presents that rare incarnation in literary fiction, the happy narrative and the happy conclusion. This book has the most satisfying resolution of anything I’ve read in recent memory. Like another recent read, st. Aubyn’s On the Edge, Proulx balances a cynical and condemning evaluation of a subculture with warmth and pathos. Lots of the characters in this book are terrible, or miserable, or simply so far removed from a normal middle-class American existence as to be intractably strange, and this is often fodder for critique or comedy. But again, you have the warmth. It’s a testament to her writing that Proulx can not only create a compelling story that resolves misery into real happiness without it seeming trite or saccharine, she can write these characters with love and humor balancing the cutting examination.

Recommendation: Read it. It didn’t win her the Pulitzer, the Irish Times Fiction Prize, and the National Book Award just to sit in your to-read pile. For shame.