Fiction

Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones is the second mythology-soaked literary account of Hurricane Katrina I’ve read in the last few months, which is odd, and completely unintentional, as I picked this book up only because of good things I’d heard about its author, Jesmyn Ward. The narrative presence of the storm doesn’t even present itself until nearly a quarter of the way through, but the intertextual dependence the narrative has on the many different incarnations that the story of Jason and Medea has taken is quickly realized. The lack of any single authoritative plot with regard to that epic makes it an incredibly nimble framing device, as the reader not only can call on many shapes of the same story, but has no idea just exactly where the novel’s narrative might be compelled to go. Nifty.

 

Ward has studied with some literary heavy hitters, including my guy Tobias Wolff, and it shows in her prose. The novel is told from the perspective of a young black teen, and while there is nothing so flashy or ostentatious that it rings false, the voice is beautiful, observant and descriptive in metaphor and allusion. It’s quiet and well-paced, building up a narrative and a  linguistic weight as the novel draws closer to its conclusion. There is no flab, no unnecessary sections or lines of thought or plot.

 

Continuing the theme of coincidence, I came across an essay on the debate about cultural ephemera in fiction, an essay that referenced both David Foster Wallace’s essay “e unibus pluram” -an essay that I had read perhaps a week prior- and this book, a novel that is directly time-stamped as it literally counts the days to Katrina, yet lacks virtually all reference to any work outside of the classics (a mention of Outkast playing on a car radio is the only thing I noticed). While there is plenty of opportunity to isolate the work in time and place, Ward chooses not to, chooses instead to tie it intractability to an ancient epic of no canonically defined narrative. While I must confess to be a bit standoffish with regard to an over-generous seasoning of pop culture references and the like, I think even a more objective reader would agree with me that these choices make Salvage the Bones an even stronger piece.

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Purple Hibiscus

Purple Hibiscus is a novel in three parts, a very common and standard thing with regard to form and execution. It is a story of adolescence and a trouble family, a story where a father’s religious zeal and hypocrisy. It’s a story about abuse and familial schism. None of these things are especially uncommon, but this story is set in postcolonial Nigeria and depicts an Igbo family defined by their father’s abusive imitations and worship of all things European. This is, needless to say, a hard break from the kind of “novel of ideas” that are so often the first things that come to mind when one hears of this narrative arc.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel isn’t worth reading on account of its novelty –Purple Hibiscus is objectively well-written and possess one of the most engaging narratives I’ve encountered since the thematically pulpy but equally prose-driven The Twelve trilogy. The further into this book you get, the more invested you become. That’s almost always the goal of good novel-length fiction, but it’s hard to pull of as completely as Adichie has here.

A bit of time has passed between my reading of this novel and my writing of this reading log, as I try to do. The neurological digestion of Adichie’s characters and narratives, her prose and her ideas, has produced nothing but further positive descriptions. The novel is a bit slow to start, but that’s all a part of the things’s intrinsic pacing, and only adds to my appreciation. This is a fantastic book, and I intend to seek out more of Adichie’s writing as soon as I can -check out her Amazon Single “We Should All Be Feminists” for a quick and easy-reading essay on her own experiences with the label.

Swamplandia!

So this is a book that got a lot of buzz a few years back. It took me a while to get to it. It took me a while to get through it. I probably took a break from this book four or five times, often for longer than a month. It’s a bit on the longer side, but much so than many other books that took far less time and featured far fewer interruptions.

Russel’s prose writing chops are more than up to the task she sets herself, and the narrative arc provides plenty of juicy plot and well-executed character development. Nonetheless, this book doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. The somewhat fantastical narrative voice means the reader isn’t really sure what the rules of this universe are until the very end of the book, and the conclusion doesn’t mitigate, resolve, or make worthwhile this awkwardness. The shifting perspectives -first person for one character, a close third for another, and perhaps an omniscient third?- are far too similar in voice for their intended effect. It all gets far too messy.

There is some impressive prose writing on display here, and Russel has created a fascinating collection of characters, but the execution, for me, falls flat. I don’t regret reading this book, but I’m not going to go back to it, and I’m not likely to recommend it. I’d certainly be interested in reading other work by the author, however.

Blood Meridian

I read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian about a month ago, and then went back and listened to the audiobook -the Richard Poe/Recorded Books 2007 version. This was definitely a very good idea, and something I intend to repeat in the future. Blood Meridian is easily the best novel I’ve read this year, and it’s the sort of book that is going to require you to give it a slow and studious read. There’s lots of archaic vocabulary that will need looking up, and a fair bit of untranslated and colloquial Spanish that will need translating (my very limited Spanish got me through about 40% of the non-English dialog in this book, so if you’re a casual speaker or have a bit of a background in the language you’ll probably be fine). This is all on top of McCarthy’s typical absence of conventional punctuation and the distinctive voice that some people have a hard time with. On that subject, Blood Meridian is very violent and very gruesome, so if you are inclined to having a hard time with that kind of thing this is really not a book you’ll want to read.

Blood Meridian is sometimes classified as historical fiction, and while there’s certainly a fair bit of real history going on, that history is more a means to an end than anything in and of itself -this period of violent history is just a very bloody sandbox for McCarthy to play in. It’s far bigger than the historical context in which it is set, and deals with some very fundamental questions in a much more intricate and profound scope than I can communicate well in one of these three-paragraph reading logs. Suffice it to say, the violence and the monologues that define this book are interdependent and intractable, and most important, gorgeously depicted. McCarthy’s prose is always the main selling point, but here it isn’t just the whole show, but defining and working in service of the central ideology of the thing. Blood Meridian isn’t a Novel of Ideas, but its powerful immorality falls neatly in line with Garner’s oft-misunderstood ideas on moral fiction. An aside -this book has been criticized for its depiction of Native Americans and, yeah, certain passages read out of context do look pretty bad, but when read within their context and against the same sorts of passages describing the alleged protagonists, a careful reader will find that McCarthy is very much not taking sides with those advocates of Anglo-Saxon/Western European cultural superiority.

Following my close reading of the novel with an extended listening-to of the excellently produced audiobook was a great way to experience this thing. The feeling of listening and knowing when a spectacular piece of prose is coming your way is great, and having already done my research allowed me to easily follow and immerse myself in both the narrative and the sentence-by-sentence writing, a luxury that also offered me a greater sense of the ideological complexity the book offers its more attentive and obsessive readers. I plan to come back to this book. I’ve found its mythological essence sneaking into some of my own work of late, and that’s a good feeling.

The Passage/The Twelve/City of Mirrors

So… I read a post-apocalyptic trilogy. It’s got vampires in it, or at least an entity similar enough to warrant the nomenclature. I have no regrets. It was fucking fantastic, and a hell of a lot of fun to read. Justin Cronin’s pre-apocalypse-vampire credits include an undergrad education at Harvard, an Iowa Writer’s Workshop MFA, a couple of your standard-fair lit-fic novels, and some serious writing prizes. All of the chops that one would expect to go along with that biography are certainly present -the guy writes fucking well. He just seems to have decided to point those chops at telling a very long-form (total page count of the trilogy approaches two thousand) fantasy, all couched in a plausible reality. This isn’t quite fantasy, it isn’t quite science fiction. The narrative will get these books classified as “genre” but there’s none of the rapid-output verbal paunch that seems endemic to even “good” genre fiction.

There are a lot of Steven King comparisons being made, and this is absolutely true. Cronin has created a series with the kind of epic scale and horror elements that King is known for, and a host of minor similarities are present, too. But I would argue that Cronin does King far better than King does. Both the writing and the narrative are tight and seem obsessively polished and worked over. These books fit together perfectly, a self-contained narrative that delivers on all the grandiose promises it makes.

Most impressive to me is the diversity of this series. There are a good dozen different books distilled into these three -your University Memoir, short story sketches of minor players, a technological survivalist adventure, and, of course the horror. All of this praise for thematic diversity has failed to touch on the most impressive aspect: the religious and downright Biblical. This angle gets woven into everything deftly, and the reader isn’t quite sure how much of it ought to be taken at face value -but that’s clearly Cronin’s goal.

Recommendation: Read it. Goddamn. So much fucking fun, so well done.

Emma Straub’s Other People We Married

Emma Straub is best known for her novels, but I came to her by way of this short story collection, as is my preference with new-to-me authors that I’ve discovered by chance as much as anything. She seems to have received the most attention for her novels -in interviews, this collection is treated more like a footnote than a full-fleshed part of her body of work. Regardless, I enjoyed it. I had some concerns, do to the way some of her books seem to be marketed, that the book would be a bit fluffy. Fortunately, this is not the case.

The “literary” label is a frustrating one. How does one define literary fiction? Is it “moral” in the John Gardner sense, or an existential striving? Is it defined by its removal from sparkling vampires, mommy-porn BDSM Lite, swords and sorcery, or spaceships? I’d like to think it’s a qualitative determination based on the prose itself, but there’s some bad writing that is proclaimed “literary”. I think, unfortunately, it has more to do with the kinds of publishing imprints that take on a piece and the way it’s marketed than anything else. Thus, the definition becomes rather literally useless.

Bringing things back to Straub, her stories are defined by very good sentence-level writing, compelling characters with interesting thoughts expressed well. The stories are ordinary and focus on human interaction, on documenting it and making sense of it. It’s a good read -nothing that’s a revelation, just good writing. But I feel like I don’t have much to say about it beyond “it’s good, I guess”. There’s nothing that transcends. Straub is a very good writer, but I’m not finding myself especially engaged with this particular work.

Recommendation: Give it a shot, or at least pick one or two stories and see what you think.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

David Foster Wallace is best known for Infinite Jest, but secondarily for his magazine and nonfiction writing. This collection of short stories is neither but is certainly worth the read, especially if you enjoyed his most popular novel. There is a reoccurring format here in which many stories (all of which share their title with the book) are presented as transcriptions of interviews with a variety of distasteful males. The interviewer’s questions are omitted, and both specific questions and the larger structure must be inferred only from the answers given, a technique that was also well-employed in Infinite Jest. In this story collection, standing on their own, these “interviews” are even better -hilarious and fucked up little vignettes that you don’t want to come to the end of.

The other stories here are thematically linked, even if their structure is radically different -although DFW does really gravity to the kinds of postmodern structures that depart radically from those employed in conventional narratives, so expect stories in the form of essay questions, lots of fourth-wall busting, and other assorted hand-waving. While sometimes irritated by the author’s drive for architectural novelty, I can’t help but admire his implementation. These stories are very, very good, and they stick well in the brain. And as to the thematic links, we find the staples of DFW: horrible people behaving badly while still somehow (sometimes) sympathetic, obsessively wrought recursions, B-list sexual deviancy, depression, and alienation.

Most of this book was written after Wallace had received a fair bit of critical success and approval, and it’s tempting to dismiss some of the more obsessively backflipping stuff as show-off literary masturbation -and I have to confess to being extremely dismissive of his work for a few years for this exact reason- it’s going to be a loss. This book is good, and it’s fucked up in the kind of ways that lead to productive thinking about upsetting shit, and it’s an example of a very difficult form of writing done very well. It might not be for everyone, and if it isn’t for you, you’ll know pretty quick.

Recommendation: Read it! Or at least try.