Novel

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.

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.

Notes from Underground

Notes from Underground represents my transition from the novellas and stories of the heavy-hitter Russians to their longer and more involved work. The first section of Notes is a rebellion against the ideas of utopia and rationalism that were surging in popularity at the time, at least among the Russian intelligentsia. The Underground Man sees rationalism as a force that denies agency, and the strivings toward a utopia as another fall into determinism. An understanding of this part of the text informs one’s reading of the second, more narrative section. But this understanding is going to require at least a perfunctory knowledge of the dominant ideological currents in that time and place, so a few minutes of research is a good and worthwhile thing.

The character of the Underground Man is often read as some kind of existential hero, but this reading seems problematic to me. Dostoevsky is very much aware of the pitiful nature of his narrator and the purposelessness of his railings. While the Underground Man offers plenty of valid criticisms, he does not offer any kind of meaningful alternative, and there is no nobility in his self-imposed suffering, no matter how much he wishes there to be, or wishes to present things as such. He is sometimes brilliant, but also hopelessly dramatic and megalomaniac to the point of solipsism. Any argument for the Underground Man as an existential hero crumbles as soon as we come to the end of the book and follow his interactions with Liza.

But criticism of the character is not a condemnation of the book -some of my favorite heroes are antiheroes. The Underground Man is the perfect narrative device in that he allows Dostoevsky to critiques certain ideological foolishness with vitriolic ardor without getting his hands dirty, then expose and destroy the same agent of vitriol and everything that agent represents, all without damaging the original case made by the Underground Man. Add to this Dostoevsky’s underlauded black humor and the narrative urgency that he seems to be able to conjure out of nothing and you’ve got a damn good read, if you’re willing to put the time and and do a little Googling.

 

Recommendation: Read it, and look shit up! 

Another Straight White Guy Writer-type in New York featuring Cocaine, or Bright Lights, Big City

Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel Bright Lights, Big City has a lot stacked against it. It’s not only a very “New York” story, it’s about a sensitive and artistic yet somehow tragically misunderstood straight white male in the eighties, who behaves badly. It’s a novel about a writer written entirely in the second person present tense. Massive and frenetically flapping red flags abound. These disclaimers aside, Bright Lights is a damn good book.

The humor in this book is it’s single strongest redeeming feature. It’s the kind of humor that produces involuntary and audible laughter, and I had to stop reading in certain situations on account of my inability to contain laughter in a place whose social norms preclude that sort of thing. It’s dark and hyper-critical, but the criticism inherent in the humor is nonselective, meaning that our protagonist is catching more of it than anyone else. This is certainly earned criticism, and it’s the other major redeeming factor -this guy would be completely insufferable, completely miserable to be around if he weren’t so hard on himself for all of his own bullshit. Not to say that he isn’t dishonest and self-deceptive, even patently unlikable at times, but one even feels empathy and connection to a character who, handled less skillfully, would be nothing but an exercises in patience.

The rather novel point of view would seem on the face of it to be a bit of a gimmick, but it all flows together so well that one doesn’t really notice it beyond itself or think of it as an externally forced device. Again, had the writing been handled with any less care, this would be a major irritant, but everything feels so smooth that I can’t imagine this book written any other way. It’s a testament to McInerney’s chops that he is able to pull together so many concerning and often-done-badly elements and produce something that’s not just aesthetically well-done, but compelling in narrative, empathetic, and fun to read.

Recommendation: Give it a go. You’ll find out by the end of the first chapter if this book isn’t for you.

Coin Locker Babies by Ryū Murakami

Ryū Murakami’s novel Coin Locker Babies was published in 1980, a fact that surprised me when I learned it just a few moments ago. It is certainly not timestamped -I would have believed that this book had been published at any time between 1970 and the present. It is also rather surreal (not unlike the works of a certain other Murakami in that regard) but I would have assumed that it pulled quite a bit of its inspiration from the counterculture fiction of the mid-80s and the 90s, from William Gibson, from the splatterpunk movement, and so forth. Maybe Ryū Murakami was synthesizing the same kinds of inspiration in a similar way, or maybe the underground Japanese fiction of this era was a partial influence on the way certain subsets of Western counterculture writing started to go. Having not yet even begun to gestate at the time all this was taking place, and not being especially familiar with the direction of influence, I leave my wondering at that.

Coin Locker Babies is very dark and very strange. It employs both traditional realism and the extreme and surreal in such a way as to leave the reader disoriented and unsure -it’s an unreliable narrative, with no unreliable narrator to fixate on on to contextualize away the uncertainty. This is a powerful narrative technique, although it can sometimes leave the reader feeling a bit at a remove from the narration. The story is also nihilistic to such a degree that the characters, who are well-rounded and interesting, are also set off at a distance. We care what happens to them, but more out of curiosity than anything else. There is no investment and there is no sense of urgency.

While most of what I’ve said above might be construed as negative, the combined effects synthesize well. This book’s component parts fit well together, and the end result is both engrossing and inclined to provoke a deeper examination -a hard marriage to achieve. I blew through the last 180 pages of small, tight typeface in a single sitting, unable to put the thing down, and that doesn’t happen to me often.

Recommendation: Read it, but maybe take a pass if you are squeamish or have a compulsive need to find the people in your books to be “likable” or “relatable”.

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.