Category Archives: US Literature

She drove to the beach, but there was oil scum on the sand and a red tide in the flaccid surf and mounds of kelp at the waterline.

Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion

When I was preparing to write this piece, I discovered that Play it as it Lays is in Time Magazine’s list of top 100 English language novels published since 1923 (when Time was founded apparently). It’s sandwiched between A Passage to India and Portnoy’s Complaint, because to Time’s absolute credit they don’t rate the top 100 in any attempted order of excellence, but just alphabetically by title.

My end of year list is a bit humbler than that, but it’ll probably make that too. Here’s how Play opens:

WHAT MAKES IAGO EVIL? some people ask. I never ask.

Another example, one which springs to mind because Mrs. Burstein saw a pygmy rattler in the artichoke garden this morning and has been intractable since: I never ask about snakes. Why should Shalimar attract kraits. Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there. You might ask that. I never would, not any more. I recall an incident reported not long ago in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: two honeymooners, natives of Detroit, found dead in their Scout camper near Boca Raton, a coral snake still coiled in the thermal blanket. Why? Unless you are prepared to take the long view, there is no satisfactory “answer” to such questions.

The narrator there is Maria, a Hollywood actress whose career is on indefinite hold. Maria doesn’t believe in answers any more, but even so she has to give them. She’s in some kind of psychiatric institution being questioned by people trying to understand, though understand what exactly isn’t made clear yet. In a sense it doesn’t matter, because we already know they can’t understand.

NOTHING APPLIES, I print with the magnetized IBM pencil. What does apply, they ask later, as if the word “nothing” were ambiguous, open to interpretation, a questionable fragment of an Icelandic rune. There are only certain facts, I say, trying again to be an agreeable player of the game. Certain facts, certain things that happened.

PlayItAsItLays

The first section of Play then is Maria, recounting the facts. There’s then a page giving a perspective from one of Maria’s friends (“She was always a very selfish girl, it was first last and always Maria”) and another from her ex-husband (“Maria has difficulty talking to people with whom she is not sleeping”), and then 84 short chapters from a third person perspective. Didion said once that she wanted “to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all”. She succeeded.

Maria’s ex-husband is a film director, a successful one. They had a daughter together, Kate, who is mentally and possibly physically handicapped and in a long-term treatment facility. Maria lives for Kate, but Kate’s doctors and nurses would prefer Maria didn’t visit, they think it only makes Kate worse.

Maria isn’t working currently, so she goes driving on the freeway. It’s the only thing that gives her any purpose, radio on and no destination in mind. She eats boiled eggs, cracked on the steering wheel and eaten while driving, and drinks coke at filling stations. In the mornings she dresses fast to make sure she’s on the freeway by 10am, once driving she’s unafraid, totally absorbed; she’s in motion, going nowhere.

If I have a mental image of this book it’s of a scene that never actually happens in it; of Maria driving fast down a desert road, radio playing, a rattlesnake uncoiling as she hurtles past it heading into light and nothingness.

This then is a study of a hollow life, one in which things happen but where any attempt to impose causation on them is meaningless. Maria drinks, fucks, in one particularly difficult to read section has an (illegal) abortion. She is driven by fear rather than hope. Fear of losing her looks (not that she takes any pride in them, but as a model-turned-actress they’re her business), fear of not being able to keep it together any more, fear of her own irrelevance. She’s started sleeping into the afternoon, and she knows that’s not a good sign.

Maria sometimes meets up with her ex, but when they get together they just have the same stale old arguments (brilliantly captured by Didion – “Whatever he began by saying he would end by saying nothing. He would say something and she would say something and before either of them knew it they would be playing out a dialogue so familiar that it drained the imagination, blocked the will, allowed them to drop words and whole sentences and still arrive at the cold conclusion.”)

If it weren’t reductionist I’d say that this is a brilliant portrait of someone mired in clinical depression. That’s just giving Maria’s situation a name though, making it tidy. Perhaps rather it’s the novel itself that’s depressed, a statement straight out of emptiness. It’s not one to read when you’re feeling fragile.

Images of snakes permeate the book. At one point Maria tells her ex about a man who went into the desert to try to speak to god, but was bitten by a snake and died. Her ex asks what the punch line is, but there isn’t one. It’s easy to draw significance from snakes: biblical; sexual; all that poison and temptation, but Maria expressly denies the very concept of significance. Maria of course is a character, she focuses on snakes because Didion the writer makes her do so. For me as a reader however that creates a tension, because while Didion is obviously quite aware of how the various potentially symbolic elements in the book can be read (snakes, sex and death; eggs, fertility; gambling, randomness; and so on), the narrative directly undercuts the symbolism.

As a reader I can’t help but search for meaning in a text. I note that besides other empty people snakes seem to be the only life in Maria’s utterly artificial world of anonymous air-conditioned motel rooms and Hollywood parties. I can start seeing them as phallic yet impotent motifs of a poisoned life in which the only love is for a handicapped girl who may not even know who Maria is. All of that is of course there, but it’s perhaps again too easy, creating a story where really there’s just some things that happen. I’ve taken a long time to write about this novel because I find it hard to hold onto, the images of it remain vivid and powerful but the sense of it slips between my fingers. I’m left with nothing.

Naturally this being Didion the prose is tight, effective and frequently beautiful. Lines like “my mother’s yearnings suffused our life like nerve gas” or “bodies gleaming, unlined, as if they had an arrangement with mortality” stand out, but every page has something quotable. I came across one blog review here which simply features a sequence of Chandlerian excerpts from the text. You should check it out, because they do more to sing this novel’s praises than I ever could.

This is an alienated book. Maria is hollowed out, empty save in her love for her daughter Kate. The world around her reflects her own disaffection. I’m going to end with one final extended quote, which for me captured something of the awful sterility at the heart of this effortlessly readable yet still difficult to read novel:

“Let’s fuck,” the actor said from the doorway.

“You mean right here.”

“Not here, in the bed.” He seemed annoyed.

She shook her head.

“Then do it here,” he said. “Do it with the Coke bottle.”

When they finally did it they were on the bed and at the moment before he came he reached under the pillow and pulled out an amyl nitrite popper and broke it under his nose, breathed in rapidly, and closed his eyes.

“Don’t move,” he said. “I said don’t move.”

Maria did not move.

“Terrific,” he said then. His eyes were still closed.

Maria said nothing.

“Wake me up in three hours,” he said. “With your tongue.”

After he had gone to sleep she got dressed very quietly and walked out of the house. She was in the driveway before she remembered that she had no car. The keys were in his Ferrari and she took it, hesitating when she came out to the main canyon road, turning then not toward Beverly Hills but toward the Valley, and the freeway. It was dawn before she reached Vegas and, because she stopped in Vegas to buy cigarettes, eight o’clock before she reached Tonopah. She was not sure what she had meant to do in Tonopah. There was something about seeing her mother’s and father’s graves, but her mother and father were not buried in Tonopah. They were buried in Silver Wells, or what had been Silver Wells. In any case she was stopped for speeding outside Tonopah and when the highway patrolman saw the silver dress and the bare feet and the Ferrari registered to someone else, he checked California to see if the car had been reported stolen, and it had.

While preparing to write this up, I discovered a blog devoted to the book here, which features among other things a summary, a guide to the locations, a road map showing the drives Maria takes along the freeways and more. Here‘s a very different take on the book, a highly negative contemporary review from the 8 August 1970 issue of the New Yorker.

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Filed under California, Didion, Joan, US Literature

memory will cut you off at the knees if you let it

Others of my Kind, by James Sallis

I loved Drive. It’s a great book, well written and atmospheric. When recently I felt like taking another swim in Sallis’s coolly written prose, I chose his Others of my Kind which Guy Savage gave a very favourable review to back in 2013.

Unfortunately, I didn’t particularly like Others. I suspect I’m in a minority in that, so I’ll try to explore below what didn’t work for me and touch on how some seem to have found more in it than I did.

OthersofmyKind

Jenny Rowan is a gifted tv news video editor, unusually skilled at putting together two minute packages of visuals and sound that make sense from a mass of chaotic raw footage. She finds patterns, creates order. She’s so good at what she does that she could easily find a better paid job with a more prestigious network, but she likes the people she works with and she’s more interested in the quality of her work than gaining recognition for it.

Reading that paragraph I’m struck by how rounded a character she already seems there. This is a roughly 150 page novel, but the characters in it are sharply drawn and stand out. Sallis is good on character.

Sallis is good on description too. Here’s the first paragraph:

AS I TURNED INTO MY APARTMENT COMPLEX, sack of Chinese takeout from Hong Kong Garden in hand, Szechuan bean curd, Buddhist Delight, a man stood from where he’d been sitting on the low wall by the bank of flowers and ground out his cigarette underfoot. He wore a cheap navy-blue suit that nonetheless fit him perfectly, gray cotton shirt, maroon tie, oxblood loafers. He had the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.

The man, Jack Collins, is a police officer. He’s there because Jenny has an unusual past. As an eight year-old she was kidnapped, then kept for two years by her kidnapper in a box under his bed, pulled out when from time to time he wanted to abuse her. When she finally escaped him she lived wild in a mall for some time, hiding from security and becoming an urban myth, “mall girl”, that most people believed had no foundation in fact. When finally she was caught, she went into care. It’s a horrific background, but despite her disadvantages she’s gone on to build a good life for herself. She’s valued, has friends and a place in the world.

Jenny’s past matters again because the police have found a young woman named Cheryl who, like Jenny, had been imprisoned by a sexual predator. Cheryl appears to be emotionally shut down and uncommunicative. Collins hopes that Jenny can reach her, that the similarity of experience can bridge the walls built up by trauma.

That sets the novel up with one sort of expectation, but Sallis quickly subverts that and the encounters between Jenny and Cheryl are only a small part of the wider narrative. This really is a story of Jenny reconnecting with the world, engaging with it. A friend at one point says to her that she still lives in a box, though now one of her own creation, content with her work and her neatly contained friends and relationships. Now she is reaching out, helping others.

Jenny tries to help Cheryl reconnect with the world, in the process becoming involved with Collins. She helps too some squatters who become neighbours, giving them gifts of food and medicine. She tracks down her parents, and in a slightly bizarre development reaches out to the vice president when the VP’s son goes missing. I’ll come back to that last relationship in a moment, as it’s where the book fell over for me.

Mostly Sallis develops all this with subtlety and skill, occasionally though I felt he was erring on the side of being perhaps a bit obvious, as here:

Lacking any semblance of childhood, having spent my adolescence in the wild as it were, I could fit in only by a kind of adaptation scarcely known outside the insect world. I mimicked those about me, finally with such vigor that few were able to distinguish conjured image from real. Even I sometimes confused the two.

I’d kind of got all that by the point this quote comes up in the book anyway, and it felt a bit on the nose for Sallis to actually have Jenny explicitly lay it out for me. More problematically though is a distinct lack of subtlety in the book’s politics.

The whole story takes place against a backdrop of news – Jenny works in the news business which conveniently allows Sallis to address contemporary US politics through her interest in it and her editing of it into bite-sized morsels (“I passed my workdays making sense of the world for others, taking up fragments of sensation and information and piecing them together, stitching quilts from leftovers and rag-ends of the world’s fabric.”) The book is set either in a slightly alternate now or in the very near future, the names of the president and vice-president are made up but the world they inhabit is utterly recognisable.

The problem though is that because the world is so recognisable, the political aspects become less a reflection of character or a development of story but rather direct commentary. I felt at times I was being lectured.

Further threats have been made, the White House press secretary states. Our intelligence gives these threats credence. We will keep you informed. Of course they will. Just as they rushed to inform us of actual body counts in Vietnam, U.S.-engineered assassinations in Chile, the systematic closing-down of power plants before the energy crisis of 2002, the cost of the Iraq war, or how deregulation might lead to financial collapse.

I wrote a comment against that paragraph when I read it, which read simply – bit ranty?

Similarly, while I agree with the next quote, I still felt I was being directly addressed rather than experiencing something within the fiction, and because of that it felt like an interruption in the novel (though it isn’t, since it’s in part at least the point of the novel):

Firmly seated at the front of the bus, so utterly accustomed to privilege that its presence has become invisible to them, our horde of senators, congressmen, secretaries-of, advisors, attorneys and lobbyists goes on deciding what is best for us. Little wonder that we feel helpless – ridden. The bureaucracy protects itself; that becomes its purpose. The machine has no off switch. As Bishop used to say: We’re set on SPIN, forever.

I’m not American. Drive is a deeply American novel, tapping into classic US imagery and iconic character types. I loved it. I grew up on Hollywood as much as the next British kid, and that culture while born of America is in part America’s gift to the world (for some a fairly unwelcome gift I admit, like an ill-fitting jumper from a relative you don’t much like, but I’m of the view that any country which gave us jazz, westerns and film noir can’t be all bad).

American myths travel well because they so frequently tap into the universal. Images of the frontier or of the lone figure righting wrongs in an indifferent world are to me deeply American, but they resonate far beyond that country’s shores (even if perhaps with slightly less force than they have locally). American politics though, like politics everywhere, is local politics.

So, if I were American perhaps the political content here would have spoken more to me. As it is though, I frankly don’t feel that strongly about the dysfunction and arrogance of American politics. We have our own dysfunctional and arrogant politics right here in Britain. It’s local not universal.

Even if I did care though, the novel isn’t saying anything interesting about it. Politicians are remote and out of touch. The system rewards itself, not those who vote for it. Is this news? It’s irritating, sure, but it felt at times more like Sallis was letting off steam than saying anything particularly notable.

Where I thought he was on stronger ground was when he drew comparisons between Jenny’s box and the boxes we all inhabit, boxes of our own making. To an extent of course we have to, just to be able to get through the day. We edit the world as Jenny does, making it manageable.

We spooned up dumplings, punctured them with chopsticks and sucked out the broth while all around us there at the mall streamed people whose worlds would never include dinners of insect-riddled, half-rotten rice, helicopters struggling to heave whole families up, up and away out of a ravaged city, or young women living in boxes beneath beds.

Similarly:

So many in the world live this way, of course. They come home to husbands, wives, lovers or family, talk over the day, talk about nothing in particular. Even when everything inside them wants to scream or weep or cry out, they go on talking, voices low, darkness rising like black water at their windows, in their lives.

But then, that first paragraph is true for almost anyone in the developed world; that second for anywhere at all.

The local and the universal continue through the book, until about the 80% mark or so when the narrative takes an odd turn as Jenny reaches out to the VP and the VP responds. What follows was for me just flatly unbelievable. What until then had been a reasonably naturalistic novel became something from an episode of the West Wing, a show that was for me crippled by its unrealistically idealised politicians. Sure, we can dream if we want to of President Bartletts, but they don’t exist any more than dragons or elves do. The West Wing for me was a fantasy show, less realistic in some ways than Game of Thrones, and in its last sections Others of my Kind similarly became for me a fantasy novel, a comforting one in which for once we don’t get the politicians we deserve.

Guy also had some doubts about the final parts of the book, but overall liked it much more than I did. A review in The Independent calls it “exquisitely crafted” and talks of Sallis’s “sublime hands” (which I agree he has actually, but not consistently here in my view). A review on a crime fiction blog here calls it “subtle” and “nuanced” (which it often is, just not always here, I do absolutely though agree with their comment that “the descriptions are tight, yet lucid”).

Sallis is a genuinely good writer, so if the political elements of the book sound to you like they might be interesting the odds are you’ll like this a lot. If however that part sounds less persuasive, this may be one to you’ll want to pass on.

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Filed under Sallis, James, US Literature

the town below looking as hell might with a good electrician

My Face for the World to See, by Alfred Hayes

In a way murder makes things easy. When someone’s been killed, is going to be killed, it creates instant tension. It’s why TV dramas are so full of bodies – tune in after the break to see if the killer can be caught before he strikes again!

What’s trickier is creating that same sort of tension from the everyday. Soaps and potboiler  novels both do it by filling their characters’ lives with furious incident. A woman learns that her husband is sleeping with her sister, while at the same time her daughter has developed a drug habit and her mother dementia.

Alfred Hayes on the other hand, Alfred Hayes shows the quiet desperation of a life that isn’t quite what you wanted it to be. In the foreword to the NYRB edition of My Face for the World to See film critic David Thomson says that “Hayes is the dry poet of the things we think about while lying in bed, when sleep refuses to carry us off.” It’s an astute observation. My Face is a sort of love story, or a chronicle of a relationship at any event, but it’s one of those relationships you later regret and that really, you never should have started.

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Here’s the opening paragraph:

IT WAS a party that had lasted too long; and tired of the voices, a little too animated, and the liquor, a little too available, and thinking it would be nice to be alone, thinking I’d escape, for a brief interval, those smiles which pinned you against the piano or those questions which trapped you wriggling in a chair, I went out to look at the ocean. There it was, exactly as advertised, a dark and heavy swell, and far out the lights of some delayed ship moving slowly south.

The ocean’s there all right, “exactly as advertised”, but there’s something else too – a girl walking into it wearing a yachting cap and carrying a cocktail glass. He thinks she’s drunk, perhaps cutting a pose for people exactly like him who’re looking on from the house. Then he realises it’s not that at all. She’s committing suicide.

He saves her, and they begin an affair. Hayes doesn’t give either of their names, lending them a sort of anonymity and ubiquity both. The man’s a scriptwriter with a wife back in New York and a stale marriage. He’s a Hollywood insider but he takes no joy in it, describing himself to her at one point as “writhing” not writing. “I was a member, I said, now, of the Screen Writhers Guild.” He spends his evenings at parties filled with “people who were not entirely strangers and not exactly friends”.

She’s no happier, no more fulfilled. She came to Hollywood dreaming of becoming a star, her face on billboards for the world to see. It didn’t work out that way.

Hayes’ Hollywood is a town filled with surface people. Put like that it doesn’t sound too insightful (who ever portrays it as a town filled with great thinkers and warm human beings?), but it’s how he captures it that makes this such a powerful novel. My Face is only around 130 pages long, but it’s so tightly and effectively written that it covers more in that space than many writers do in five times that length.

In a way My Face has an almost noir sensibility. That’s not because there’s any great criminality in the book, but rather it’s that combination of consuming desire with an utter absence of hope.

At this very moment, the town was full of people lying in bed thinking with an intense, an inexhaustible, an almost raging passion of becoming famous if they weren’t already famous, and even more famous if they were; or of becoming wealthy if they weren’t already wealthy, or wealthier if they were; or powerful if they weren’t powerful now, and more powerful if they already were.

What’s the alternative though, to all that frustrated longing?

There seemed to be nothing but marriage, when you thought of it, and when you thought of it, my God, was that all there was? That, and raising a family. That, and earning a living. That, and calling the undertaker.

The protagonist is having an affair because his wife’s away and it passes the time, and perhaps too because that’s the part society has written for him. The woman’s motive isn’t any better. She knows he’s married. She knows it won’t last. There’s a sense that she’s with him because he’s there, because it takes less resistance to be with him than not to be with him.

I just talked about motives, but I’m guessing them. His are easier to guess because the novel’s written from his perspective. Her’s are harder, because he never fully sees her. She’s surfaces, like the whole town, generically pretty and with little to distinguish her in his eyes from a hundred other would-be-stars except this one he knows, this one he saved from drowning. If the novel were written from her perspective I suspect in some ways it might be very different, but then perhaps not because it’s far from clear she sees him any more deeply than he does her.

I’ll end with one final quote. I had more quotes from this novel than I could possibly use in this review, and it was genuinely hard choosing which ones to leave out as Hayes has so many telling asides and observations. This one though I just had to keep, because it’s beautiful and terribly sad, the entire novel therefore in microcosm:

There was a noisy rush of water from the bathroom, and she appeared, ready for the evening, a smile she had chosen, I thought, from a small collection of smiles she kept for occasions like this, fixed upon her face.

This is a brilliant, brilliant book. It’s another great find by NYRB, one of the best publishers out there. It’s an absolute gem. There’s a school of thought that says that reviews shouldn’t express opinion, that they should avoid the thumbs up/thumbs down simplicities. It’s not a school I subscribe to. Thumbs up.

If you’re interested in reading more about this book, I first learned of it fromGuy Savage’s review, here (though if you read my blog the odds are you read his too, and if you don’t you should). As so often I owe Guy for a wonderful find. While writing this up I noticed that Guy had picked almost exactly the same quotes as I had. I try to avoid reading other people’s reviews at the time I’m writing my own, but when I’ve finished mine it’s always a comfort to see that someone else made similar choices. It suggests that if I have missed the point of a book, I have at least missed it in company.

There’s also an excellent review by Nick Lezard at the Guardian, here. Nick’s reviews are always good, particularly given he writes for a newspaper book section. Professional reviewers should of course leave bloggers in the dust in terms of analysis and insight, but sadly they very rarely do. Nick’s one of the exceptions (James Wood is another). 

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Filed under California, US Literature

Kerrigan is a man of quotes. They substitute nicely for thought.

Kerrigan in Copenhagen, by Thomas E. Kennedy

[I’m posting this review before Mr. Norris Changes Trains because I left the Isherwood at work and won’t have access to it for another week or so.]

I’ve said before that whether or not a book has a single sympathetic character is irrelevant to how good the book is. Some books need characters the reader will like, perhaps empathise with. I don’t deny that. A crime series without an interesting central detective is a dry thing. Generally though the idea that a book is flawed merely because it lacks characters the reader might want to be friends with is ludicrous.

All of which is fine, but the truth remains that I abandoned Kerrigan in Copenhagen because I couldn’t stand to share even one more page with its suffocatingly smug protagonist.

Kerrigan

A couple of years back I worked on a deal which involved a fair bit of travel to Copenhagen. I grew to like the city, and returned there on holiday with my wife. We’ve been out a few times now, enough that I feel like I know the place and perhaps have a degree of connection to it. This year we chose it for our wedding anniversary, and what better book to read for a wedding anniversary in Copenhagen than a romance set in that very city?

The short answer is almost any book, since I abandoned this one on page 106 (of 234). I moved on to a James M. Cain and didn’t look back. My only regret is not bailing sooner. So it goes.

Kerrigan is a US academic. He is in Denmark ostensibly to write a guide to Copenhagen’s bars with the help of his (predictably) beautiful research assistant and her “jade-green eyes”. Kerrigan’s recently divorced. His wife, a much younger woman, left him – falsely alleging that Kerrigan mistreated her so as to ensure she has sole custody of their child.

What all this means is that Kerrigan is a man on the rebound. His life has fallen apart, and his project, his work in Copenhagen, is essentially one long pub crawl. There are over 1,500 bars and cafes in the city with new ones opening and old ones closing all the time. If you really wanted to write a guide to them all you could spend the rest of your life doing so. If you’re going to drown your sorrows, you might as well do it in style.

So far so good, and reading that description above I can see why I wanted to read this. Even more so then when I add that Kerrigan’s guide is as much to the literary connections of Copenhagen’s bars as it is to the quality of their beer. He keeps an unfinished copy of Finnegan’s Wake in his pocket and uses each visit as an excuse to regale his assistant with details of the city’s cultural history. A key point here is that you can actually use this novel as a sort of guidebook – it’s quite possible to follow Kerrigan’s path and visit the bars he does.

The problem though is the character of Kerrigan himself. He’s never short of a quote or factoid regarding the history of a person or place. He’s always ready with a relevant anecdote. Too ready. He won’t shut up. I found him exhausting and tedious, Kennedy showing his research all too plainly on Kerrigan’s sleeve.

Here’s an example of Kerrigan’s inner monologue:

Kerrigan lights a cigarillo, thinking of Lotte the eighty-six-year-old executive secretary, wondering if she has ever read Ewald or Wessel both of whom were born in the 1740s and died in the 1780s, who lived in the time of Struensee, middle-aged lover of the teenage Queen Caroline Mathilde, and who were Sturm and Drang contemporaries of Goethe, whose skull was found to contain a small quantity of gray dust by East German bureaucrats one sark November night in 1970.

He considers the overview of history he labors to gather in his own skull and its fate. Gray dust that no one will even bother to peak through his eye sockets at. But just to see history once, almost clearly, before then. A complete history and juxtaposition of everything – or even just a history of the place where he is living – to clothe himself in it would be very fine raiment indeed.

It continues in that vein for quite some time, Kerrigan’s goal of course being to clothe himself in wider history so as to cover the nakedity of his own immediate past. His conversations aren’t that different. Largely they consist of him showing off his considerable knowledge to his assistant while she queries why he needs her when he already knows so much. Naturally there’s a spark of romance between them.

Not just with her though. Kerrigan’s an attractive man, with his “Montblanc pen, pleasingly weighted in his hand” and his designer Italian jeans which he rather fancies himself in:

He stands to fetch another beer. Blurrily he sees a woman with a coarse nose sitting by herself nursing a small glass of beer at the next table from his own.

“Hello,” says Kerrigan.

“Hello, then,” she says in British. “I like your Italian jeans. Can see the label. Not that I was looking at your bottom or anything.” Her accent makes him think of Basil Fawlty’s wife in Fawlty Towers: I kno-ow, I kno-ow.

Kerrigan asks her, :Why are women so beautiful?” and she says , “Aren’t you the sweet talker?”

I am deeply suspicious of novels where middle-aged writers are found attractive by a range of women for no reason particularly evident within the text. It always smacks of wish fulfilment. Kerrigan’s pretty proud of how he looks which is fine but I didn’t buy anyone in Copenhagen actually agreeing. He’s a middle-aged American wearing the classic American-academic-abroad uniform of jeans and sports jacket. As for “I like your Italian jeans”, does anyone actually talk like that?

The descriptions of Copenhagen and its bars are pretty good. Otherwise though I found Kerrigan unconvincing and worse uninteresting, and I profoundly didn’t care whether he got into his assistant’s bed or not. I felt like a pedantic drunk had sat at my table in a bar, blocking my easy exit, and was lecturing me at numbing length about Hans Christian Andersen and Kierkegaard and jazz and several other topics that I might well have found interesting if I wasn’t constantly being beaten over the head with it.

Kerrigan in Copenhagen has generally received good reviews. Here‘s one from the Guardian and here‘s Guy’s from His Futile Preoccupations. Guy had some reservations, but overall liked it much more than I did (not hard, I admit). Guy’s reviews are always worth reading so I do recommend you take a look at his for a second opinion.

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Filed under Copenhagen, US Literature

Los Angeles, give me some of you!

Ask the Dust, by John Fante

I was a young man, starving and drinking and trying to be a writer. I did most of my reading at the downtown L.A. Public Library, and nothing that I read related to me or to the streets or to the people about me. It seemed as if everybody was playing word-tricks, that those who said almost nothing at all were considered excellent writers. Their writing was an admixture of subtlety, craft and form, and it was read and it was taught and it was ingested and it was passed on. It was a comfortable contrivance, a very slick and careful Word-Culture.

That’s Charles Bukowski. This is the book he discovered in that library, the one that excited him as nothing else had managed. He was right to be excited.

Ask the Dust

Ask the Dust is the third in John Fante’s Bandini quartet; the second though to be published. I read the first, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, back in 2009. In my review at the time I talked about Wait’s emotional intensity and called it a triumph,  and I was particularly impressed with its depiction of the fetid inner experience of adolescence (something the Adrian Mole books got terribly, terribly wrong and that my current read, Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything, also captures well).

As a rule I’m not a fan of coming-of-age stories. It’s one reason I don’t read any YA fiction. I’m even less of a fan though of stories about the difficulty of being a writer. Yes, being a writer is hard. So is being a checkout assistant at Tesco.

If there’s any rule I do believe about fiction though it’s that with enough talent the topic doesn’t really matter. Danilo Kiš wrote a superb book about being a young writer – so well written that I didn’t just forgive the hackneyed subject matter, I embraced it. John Fante does the same thing with Ask the Dust.

Arturo Bandini is living dirt poor in Los Angeles. He survives by eating oranges, so cheap he buys them by the sackful and eats almost nothing else. He knows he’s a great writer – he’s had a short story published and he keeps a suitcase full of copies of the magazine it was published in so that he can hand them out when needed.

Fante captures the sheer exhilaration of youth – your whole future before you, laid out and glittering. Arturo veers between grandiose hope and utter despair, wracked by hunger and unfulfilled lust. His head is filled with fantasies of his name on the library shelves next to Dreiser and Mencken, of his future fame and the respect it will bring:

Bandini (being interviewed prior to departure for Sweden): “My advice to all young writers is quite simple. I would caution them never to evade a new experience. I would urge them to live life in the raw, to grapple with it bravely, to attack it with naked fists.” Reporter: “Mr. Bandini, how did you come to write this book which won you the Nobel Award?” Bandini: “The book is based on a true experience which happened to me one night in Los Angeles. Every word of that book is true. I lived that book, I experienced it.”

Right now though, right now he’s a nobody and copies of his story gather dust on the desks and tables of the people he gives them to, unasked for and unwanted. He has his face pressed against the glass of the window of the world, hungry and intent.

I was passing the doorman of the Biltmore, and I hated him at once, with his yellow braids and six feet of height and all that dignity, and now a black automobile drove to the curb, and a man got out. He looked rich; and then a woman got out, and she was beautiful, her fur was silver fox, and she was a song across the sidewalk and inside the swinging doors, and I thought oh boy for a little of that, just a day and a night of that, and she was a dream as I walked along, her perfume still in the wet morning air.

Later:

Yes, it’s true: but I have seen houses in Bel-Air with cool lawns and green swimming pools. I have wanted women whose very shoes are worth all I have ever possessed. I have seen golf clubs on Sixth Street in the Spalding window that make me hungry just to grip them. I have grieved for a necktie like a holy man for indulgences. I have admired hats in Robinson’s the way critics gasp at Michelangelo.

Isn’t that beautiful? In his foreword Bukowski talks about how with Fante each line has its own energy, each page a feeling of something carved into it. That’s what I see in that prose too. Sentence after sentence laid down like careful brickwork, or like a drystone wall where a single badly placed piece could bring down the whole. I read this book and I almost feel love for it.

Arturo finds himself attracted to a Mexican-American waitress. He’s drawn to her, but she brings out his own self-loathing and his shame at being Italian-American. He thinks of her as not really American, not like he is, drowning his doubts about his own status by showing his disdain for hers.

She’s more experienced than he is and more confident, all of which makes it vital that he shows his own superiority. He courts her with copies of his story, with poetry plagiarised from another  writer. He’s crushed when she laughs about it with her workmates. Desire and incomprehension wash between them.

Meanwhile, back at his apartments, his neighbour borrows money from him and then grills steaks the smell of which makes Arturo drool but which the neighbour won’t share. It’s life in other words – messy, selfish, strange and compromised.

It’s perhaps not a surprise that Bukowski loved Fante. Both of them write about ordinary things with extraordinary passion. Both of them write without blinking, showing the glory and ugliness in what they see. There’s an interesting chain of influence here. Ask the Dust is hugely influenced by Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (not that I noticed until Emma of bookaroundthecorner pointed it out to me, it is pretty obvious though once you think about it). Fante in turn influences Bukowski. Hunger. Ask the Dust. Post Office. It’s a triptych of excellence.

I’m going to wrap up by bringing out one last focus of the book, and that’s LA itself. I can’t actually improve on what Emma wrote about this part of the novel on her own blog, here, so I urge you to read her review if you haven’t already. Fante’s California is a physical place. I could smell it; feel its heat, the dampness of its fog and the grit of the sand blown in off the desert.

Kevin of kevinfromcanada first introduced me to John Fante, with his overview post of the Bandini quartet here. I owe Kevin thanks for quite a few literary introductions over the years, as do most readers of his blog. That’s part of course of what these blogs are for. Mostly they’re a conversation that bloggers and commenters have with each other, a leisurely discussion of what works for us, what doesn’t. They’re also though sometimes a chance to say hey, here it is, this is the good stuff. This is what you were looking for. Fante is the good stuff.

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Filed under California, Fante, John, US Literature

So we drove on towards death through the cooling twilight.

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I reread The Great Gatsby because of the Baz Luhrmann film. Sometimes I find films can affect how I read books – a film’s interpretation can overwhelm the text stripping a myriad possible interpretations down to just one. I didn’t want when next I read the book to see Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy. The danger seemed all the greater given I like both actors and both seem to me quite astute choices for their respective parts.

As it happens, I still haven’t seen the film. That’s ok though, because any reason to reread a book as good as The Great Gatsby is a good reason.

Gatsby

That’s the original cover, so loved by Fitzgerald that he wrote it into the book “I had no girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs,”.

First off, The Great Gatsby isn’t about any one thing. Ten bloggers could write ten pieces about it, each with their own take, and what’s more they could all be right. That’s part of why this is genuinely a great book. In under 200 pages it contains multitudes. For me, on this reading, the key themes were mortality and money, but on another reading I could well come back with something quite different.

Nick Carraway is a comfortably off young man just starting to make his way in the world. He’s a veteran of the Great War, now working in bonds in New York. He lives on Long Island in a small house next door to a vast mansion which hosts extraordinary parties to which much of fashionable New York and the eastern seaboard appear to be invited. His place isn’t much to speak of, but it does have “the consoling proximity of millionaires”.

Nick’s the narrator, but here’s the thing – he doesn’t narrate events as they happen. He narrates in hindsight, everything he speaks of is already gone. Everything that follows needs to be read in that light, as something past and receding into memory.

Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

Over the water live Nick’s old college friends, his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan. It’s because of them that he meets his neighbour, Gatsby, who loved Daisy years past and has kept her image inside him. Gatsby has only built his huge mansion so that he can live opposite Daisy. He only throws his parties in the hope that she might come to one. Gatsby is enthralled to a love that’s long since slipped from his grasp.

Soon Nick is part of their charmed circle, a friend to Gatsby because Nick is a route back to Daisy. Nick though is an outsider in their world, present only by chance. Gatsby and Tom Buchanan are both extraordinarily rich. Daisy grew up with money and has since married it, she knows Tom has affairs but she doesn’t leave him. Daisy and  Tom are insulated from the world by Tom’s money, settled now in Long Island but with no great attachment to it or any other place.

They had spent a year in France for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together.

The other member of their little group is Jordan Baker, a professional golfer, Daisy’s friend and for a while Nick’s girlfriend. Jordan doesn’t have the money that Gatsby or Tom do, but she has celebrity. Nick merely has a job. If it weren’t for his connection to Daisy these people wouldn’t look twice at him. 

Few authors capture the allure of money quite so well as Fitzgerald. Here’s Daisy and Jordan at dinner:

Sometimes she and Miss Baker talked at once, unobtrusively and with a bantering inconsequence that was never quite chatter, that was as cool as their white dresses and their impersonal eyes in the absence of all desire. They were here, and they accepted Tom and me, making only a polite pleasant effort to entertain or to be entertained. They knew that presently dinner would be over and a little later the evening, too, would be over and casually put away.

There’s a tendency for people to assume that Daisy is a great beauty, a stunning creature who inspires overwhelming passions. The text though doesn’t support that. She’s certainly pretty, but so are a great many women of her set. She is a bright and attractive young woman of the upper middle classes who married well. Her charm is in part born of the utter confidence of never having to work, never having the slightest financial concern. Her voice is perhaps her best feature. Nick tries to work out quite what makes her voice so special, then it finally clicks – ‘Her voice is full of money’.

Fitzgerald captures here a truth of the jazz age. Most people never lived it. This is lifestyles of the rich and famous, 1920s style. It’s a collision of money and celebrity, washed down with champagne and soundtracked by the hottest acts of the age. Even as it’s lived it’s fleeting, and that’s part of what makes it wild because everyone knows the parties can’t last forever.

Daisy is drawn back to Gatsby, now as rich if not richer than Tom. She’s discontented, bored, and Gatsby returned is something new. The summer accelerates into disaster, Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, Tom’s affair, all an onrushing car crash that leaves shattered lives in its path.

I talked above of how Nick is an outsider, but Gatsby is too of course. The book is full of people hinting as to how he made his money, but in 1920s America the truth is it doesn’t need spelling out how a man comes from nowhere to a vast fortune. Nick describes Gatsby as “an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.” Gatsby is a showman, an imitation of a man from Daisy’s world. It’s not for nothing the book’s titled “The Great Gatsby”, with the impression that carries of Gatsby as a circus act.

Gatsby is also a gangster, an oligarch, a man of great fortune whose origins don’t bear examination. He’s obsessed with Daisy, but Daisy is in some ways more than a person to him, she’s a symbol. Daisy was the first rich girl he ever dated. That’s what made her so special. She was an ice cream on a hot day, and an emblem of an America beyond his grasp that yet he did briefly hold in holding her. That’s why it’s a mistake to think that Daisy is especially desirable. She’s vital to Gatsby because of what she was to Gatsby, money and class in a summer dress.

Gatsby is driven by nostalgia. He’s chasing a dream which he’s clothed in Daisy’s flesh but it’s not truly Daisy, and she’s not really the girl he remembers. If Gatsby were poor Daisy would never consider preferring him to Tom. Gatsby knows that, it’s partly why he’s not poor any more.

In the classic Anglo-American 19th century novel money dominates all. This is a pre-social security world, one with no safety net. The concept of ruin is often interpreted morally, and that’s part of it, but it was also profoundly fiscal. A family that fell into ruin could no longer support itself. That’s why 19th century fiction is so obsessed with incomes and dowries.

Gatsby’s world is one in transition. The Great War has swept away the old order, but the new one isn’t yet clear.At one of Gatsby’s parties Nick observes:

I was immediately struck by the number of young Englishmen dotted about; all well dressed, all looking a little hungry, and all talking in low, earnest voices to solid and prosperous Americans. I was sure that they were selling something: bonds or insurance or automobiles. They were at least agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity and convinced that it was theirs for a few words in the right key.

That captures in a paragraph the decline of the UK and the rise of the US. The sweeping away isn’t complete though. There have always been Toms and Daisys, securely wealthy and sailing above change (just as their descendants continue to sail above it near a century later). Gatsby’s emerge, they occasionally manage to join the elite, but whatever happens to the new pretenders the old elite never entirely seems to fade away.

The Great Gatsby becomes then an almost forensic examination of new and old money, and of the extraordinary power of money. Tom and Daisy are rich enough to buy off consequence. They harm each other in part because nothing else can harm them. Us against the world only makes sense when the world isn’t already set up to your benefit.

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.…

Above all else, The Great Gatsby is a superbly written book. I could easily fill this piece with quotes, and what’s more with incredibly relevant quotes like the one above, which is the book in miniature. As an exercise in prose this is high art, and made all the higher by its richness in themes (most of which I haven’t even touched on) and the strength of the characters. At the same time, it’s acutely well observed, with a sharp sense of the physical and capturing small details that other novelists wouldn’t even think of let alone describe (I particularly liked how in one tense scene Nick is distracted by his underwear “cimbing like a damp snake around my legs” and of how “intermittent beads of sweat raced cool across my back” – that’s the kind of absurd detail that intrudes all the time in real life but very rarely in fiction).

I’m going to end on one final image, one that captures for me the book’s fascination with wealth. The word glamour used to mean a form of magic, a sort of illusion which seemed more real than reality itself. A glamour was a vision put by a faery or magician upon a thing to make it seem beautiful, desirable, better than muddy reality. The green light is a glamour. Daisy too is glamorous in this sense,  made magical by Gatsby’s memories of her but all the more by her husband’s wealth which keeps her free from the world and her own part in it. A belle dame sans merci.

Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.

I’ve avoided reading other reviews while writing this, as I wanted to first get my own thoughts down. Here though is a piece by Sam Jordison of the Guardian about the role of mortality and the fleeting nature of experience in the novel. Here‘s another excellent piece on what makes Gatsby great, by Sarah Churchwell who recently wrote a well-received book on the Fitzgeralds, and here‘s the first of two tremendous pieces by Lorinda J. Taylor about metaphor and symbolism in the novel (a subject she’s much stronger on as a rule than I ever am). Lorinda’s pieces are quite long, but I do urge you to read them anyway – they more than repay the time required.

Finally, here is a link to one of the odder things on the internet, an NES computer game based on The Great Gatsby. You can play it directly online at this link, and you too can see if Nick can survive Gatsby’s party and the threat of newspaper boys and charlston-dancing flappers. Seriously, follow the link, it’s deeply strange.

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Filed under Fitzgerald, F. Scott, Modernist Fiction, US Literature

I don’t have a gun, a badge, or even a working stapler.

Watch Me Die, by Lee Goldberg

Sometimes you just plain need something fun to read. When I want a break from more serious reading, I turn to crime. Crime fiction that is. I might also turn to actual crime, but if I do I’m not admitting it on a publicly posted blog.

I heard about Lee Goldberg’s Watch Me Die from reading Guy Savage’s review, here. Guy reveals that the novel’s original title was The Man with the Iron-On Badge, which is a much better title than Watch Me Die and a vastly better fit to the tone of the book.

WatchMeDie

Harvey Mapes is a 29 year old security guard who sits nights in a little booth at the entrance to a gated community. I’d call him underachieving, but that would imply he’d achieved something sometime. As it is Harvey spends his time reading and watching private detective stories and fantasising about being the hero of one. His sex life consists of occasional encounters with one of his neighbours, when she’s feeling particularly desperate. His social life is drinking on the sofa with the same woman and sitting alone watching TV.

Then, one night, one of the residents drives up to the booth and stops.

Even just sitting in that car, Parkus exuded the kind of laid-back, relaxed charm that says to me: look how easy-going I am, it’s because I’m rich and damn happy about it. He was in his mid-thirties, the kind of tanned, well-built, tennis-playing guy who subscribes to Esquire because he sees himself in every advertisement and it makes him feel good.

Parkus wants his wife followed, and he wants Harvey to do the following. Out of nowhere Harvey’s getting to be exactly what he always wanted to be, and if it comes with some ugly deaths, brutal beatings, and secrets that would have been much better left buried then that’s all to be expected.

Someone finally needs Harvey, and as he reflects:

It’s nice to be needed, especially at one hundred fifty dollars a day plus expenses.

I loved this. The plot is absolutely standard detective novel stuff. It has to be, because that’s Harvey’s dream. What makes it work then isn’t what happens, it’s about seeing Harvey finally get his chance. As a general rule I couldn’t care less whether the characters in a novel are sympathetic or not. What makes this book work though is that as it went on I really did start wanting things to turn out ok for Harvey.

A huge part of why Harvey makes for a good character is that while he may not have done anything with his life,  he’s not an idiot. The book is full of his dryly astute observations on his dingy world of cheap diners and lousy motels, and the mismatch between these and the glamorous lives of the detectives who inspire him. Here’s a couple of examples:

I live in the Caribbean. I love saying that, and I knew that I would, which is the only reason why I chose to live in that stucco box instead of the Manor, the Palms, or the Meadows. All the buildings in that area charged the same rent for a one-bedroom with a “kitchenette,” which is French for a crappy Formica counter and a strip of linoleum on the floor.

There were also plug-in air fresheners in every electrical outlet, which made the whole apartment smell so strongly of pine sap, I felt like I was visiting an upscale tree house.

I could open near any page at random though, and find a usable quote for this review. 

Goldberg apparently wrote the Monk series, which I’ve not seen but on the strength of this might start watching. He knows his genre, he knows how silly it can be and he’s fine with that. This is satire, but deeply affectionate satire born out of love, not disdain. It reminded me a bit of Donald Westlake’s wonderful Somebody Owes Me Money, and as I think Goldberg would know being compared to Westlake is high praise. As Westlake’s protagonist says “… there’s a touch of Robert Mitchum in all of us, or anyway the desire to be Robert Mitchum in all of us.” This is Harvey’s chance to be Robert Mitchum.

I’ll end on one final quote, from this hugely quotable book. Here Harvey finds the trail has led him to Seattle:

I discovered I could tell the tourists from the locals pretty easily. The tourists were the ones hiding from the drizzle under umbrellas. The locals were the ones who only needed a lid for their espressos. Just about everybody, except the obvious tourists, seemed to have a cup of coffee in one hand and a novel in the other. Apparently, there was a city ordinance that required everybody to join Oprah’s book club and declare a favorite coffee blend. Even the bums were sipping Starbucks and reading Barbara Kingsolver.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, Goldberg, Lee, US Literature

He was the kind of puppy that would lick any hand that he was afraid to bite.

The Way Some People Die by Ross MacDonald

The Way Some People Die is where MacDonald stops imitating Chandler and Hammet and becomes his own writer. It’s the best of the Lew Archer series so far (it’s number three) and it’s as twisted a piece of classic hardboiled as you could wish to read.

The cover above is the one I have, from Black Lizard which is a Vintage Crime imprint. It’s a great cover, and physically a nice book, but I couldn’t resist sharing this older cover with you which I also love.

Lew Archer is hired by a concerned mother to find her wayward daughter., Galatea. The daughter is “crazy for men”, and now she’s disappeared with one leaving a good job as a nurse behind and with the only news being a postcard from San Francisco. It’s not much of a case, girls leave home all the time, but Archer agrees to make some easy inquiries. Before he leaves the mother’s house he takes a look at a photo of Galatea:

Pretty was hardly the word. With her fierce curled lips, black eyes and clean angry bones she must have stood out in her graduating class like a chicken hawk in a flock of pullets.

As you’d expect, it’s not as simple as a young woman who’s grown up and left home. Archer isn’t the only person looking for Galatea and the man she ran away with may be as much a danger to her as the people she’s hiding from. All this and somewhere out there is a package that people are prepared to kill to find (yup, there’s a MacGuffin).

What follows is a byzantine web of greed, double-cross and murder with Archer painstakingly working his way through to unravel just what it is that Galatea has got herself mixed up in. Finding Galatea isn’t Archer’s problem, it’s keeping her alive once he’s found her. All that and Galatea herself is no maiden waiting to be rescued, she’s as hardboiled as the rest of them.

On the level of a detective story The Way Some People Die works extremely well. Archer’s methods make sense (mostly he talks to people, follows up connections, occasionally circles around to talk to someone again once he has new info, it’s dogged detective work). The plot though complicated isn’t needlessly so, by the end you can see why things played out as they did.

All the elements of a great hardboiled novel are present and correct. To actually be a great hardboiled novel though you need more than stock ingredients and snappy dialogue. You need to do something that others aren’t doing, or at least aren’t doing as well. You need to reach beyond the genre.

What raises this novel beyond just being solid genre work is MacDonald’s eye for psychological depth, mood, and description. The Way Some People Die is suffused with a pervasive sense of weariness and sadness.At one point Archer observes of Galatea’s mother:

She lived in a world where people did this or that because they were good or evil. In my world people acted because they had to.

Later, Archer finds himself in a motel room with a pretty girl turned junkie who makes a living conning out-of-towners into thinking they’re going to get lucky:

It was an ugly little room, walled and ceiled with cheap green plaster that reminded me of public locker rooms, furnished with one bed, one chair, one peeling veneer dresser and a rug the moths had been at. It was a hutch for quick rabbit-matings, a cell where lonely men could beat themselves to sleep with a dark brown bottle. The girl looked too good for the room, though I knew she wasn’t.

That’s great description, and it’s not the only example I could have used (there’s a brilliant blow-by-blow account of a fixed fight at one point). Good as it is though it isn’t where MacDonald becomes his own writer. It’s his characterisation that does that.

Take the character of Dowser. Dowser is a racketeer, a mobster, a rich man who lives  in a gated house surrounded by bought women and hired men. So far so standard, but as Archer comes to know Dowser he sees a pathetic and empty man terrified of his own extinction.

Dowser is short, so short that even when he wears sandals by the pool he wears ones with two-inch heels. He can’t bear to be left alone, when his men leave the room he insists Archer stays until one of them returns. He can’t live without the validation of an audience, someone to talk to, to talk at. His real communication is in money, he can’t trust anyone he isn’t paying because he doesn’t know what they want.

It’s an extraordinary portrait. Dowser is humanised, but never ceases to be terrifying. He’s a monster, a hateful creation, and  MacDonald brings out how pitiful Dowser is without the reader ever forgetting quite how dangerous Dowser is too and so without ever actually making him pitiable.

Dowser isn’t the only great character here. MacDonald is forensic, but also compassionate and in contrast to Dowser is Keith Dalloway. Dalloway is a failed actor, a man too good looking for his own good and a drunk. MacDonald takes what with most writers would be a minor supporting character and gives him humanity. What in a film would be almost a walk-on part becomes something much more here, a study of missed chances and a reminder of human frailty.

The reason great crime,  more than any other genre, overlaps with literary fiction is that great crime doesn’t just ask what, it asks why too. MacDonald could have just made Dowser another mob boss from central casting, and if he had this would still have been a very solid novel. He could have made Dalling another good-looking act0r-wannabee, and the plot wouldn’t have suffered any.

MacDonald though asks why. He makes Dowser, Dalloway, Galatea, into real people who become more than just a mob boss, a patsy and a damsel in distress/femme fatale. The result is a book that’s no longer merely influenced by Hammet and Chandler but, that stands alongside them.

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Filed under California, Crime Fiction, Hardboiled, Macdonald, Ross, US Literature

the sweep of predication was more compelling than the predicated

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

I bought a copy of Prufrock and Other Observations recently. It’s a tiny book, containing one famous poem taught in schools throughout the English speaking world and a number of other poems that few of those schoolchildren will ever read. That’s the thing with poetry, most of us if we ever read it at all read it at school and never again. If we do read any later, we mostly read poets we already know (so only reading poems recognised as classics). The world of contemporary poetry is a tiny one, obscure to the point that by contrast translated literary fiction looks as popular as Fifty Shades of Grey. I’ve said this before I think.

Ben Lerner is a US contemporary poet. Leaving the Atocha Station is his first novel, and it’s a novel about poetry. It’s also almost certainly going to be in my end of year list as one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s extremely funny, beautifully written and unlike many novels written by poets it works as well at the level of the entire book as it does at the level of the sentence.

Adam Gordon is an American poet living in Madrid. He’s on scholarship, supposedly researching links between poetry and the Spanish Civil War (links he suspects don’t really exist). In reality he spends his days on an extended slacker holiday, drinking coffee and getting stoned, each day much the same as the last.

As part of his daily morning ritual he goes to the Prado, to stand before Rogier Van der Weyden’s Descent of the Cross:

A turning point in my project: I arrived one morning at the Van der Weyden to find someone had taken my place. He was standing exactly where I normally stood, and for a moment I was startled, as if beholding myself beholding the painting, although he was thinner and darker than I. I waited for him to move on, but he didn’t. I wondered if he had observed me in front of the Descent and if he was now standing before int in the hope of seeing whatever it was I must have seen. I was irritated and tried to find another canvas for my morning ritual, but was too accustomed to the painting’s dimension ans and blues to accept a substitute. I was about to abandon room 58 when the man suddenly broke into tears, convulsively catching his breath. Was he, I wondered, just facing the wall to hide his face as he dealt with whatever grief he’d brought into the museum? Or was he having a profound experience of art?

Adam has never had a “profound experience of art”. He’s not entirely persuaded they exist, and if they do he’s jealous of those who have them. What follows is a lovely comic sequence as Adam follows the man and observes the guards’ reaction to him. The man is overcome in the next room too, leaving the guards with a quandary. Is the man having a profound experience of art, which is ostensibly why the paintings are there and what the gallery is for, or is he crazy in which case should they eject him before he damages something? If they do eject him and he was just being moved by the power of the art, have they just defeated the entire point of the gallery and their place in it?

Uncertainty is central here. Adam’s Spanish is terrible, he’s made almost no efforts to learn the language and can’t read the poets he claims to be researching.

But I couldn’t bring myself to work at prose in Spanish, in part because I had to look up so many words that I was never able to experience the motion of a sentence; it remained so many particles; never a wave; I didn’t have the patience to reread the same passage again and again until the words ceased to be mere points and became a line.

His conversations with the locals become comedies of part-understanding. A woman talks to him of home “but whether she meant a household or the literal structure, I couldn’t tell”. She says something about swimming in a lake as a child, or perhaps that lakes reminded her of being a child, or asks if Adam had enjoyed swimming as a child, or says that that something else she’d said had been childish. Adam catches words, but behind them spin penumbras of meaning, ripples cast outwards by fragments of language.

For much of the book then the bulk of Adam’s conversations are notional. Things are said to him, but whether what he understands is what was meant is far from clear. That sounds potentially annoying but instead it’s very funny, and something more than that – it’s a metaphor for poetry itself. Adam understands Spanish as a reader understands a poem. Sensed meanings, which may or may not be intended. Multiplicities of interpretations, those chosen coming as much from what Adam brings to the conversation as to what was actually said. Adam’s conversations exist in the space between him and the words he understands, like poetry exists in the gap between the reader and the words on the page.

Adam falls in with a group of Madrileños who introduce him to the Madrid art scene. One of them begins translating his poems, which he thinks are essentially fake works of no real merit (but he still becomes passionate when someone misunderstands what he’s doing with them). He starts to attend readings, including of his own works, and has to face his own disassociation and the feeling that at any moment he’ll be caught out as the charlatan he feels he is. Again there’s a mismatch of understanding, not now of language but of how others clearly view Adam and how he views himself.

Later, after the first reading of his work, he reflects on his poetry and on the relationship between poetry generally with Franco and to fascism, with the world:

I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen, changing the government or the economy or even their language, the body or its sensorium, but I could not imagine this, could not even imagine imagining it. And yet when I imagined the total victory of those other things over poetry, when I imagined, with a sinking feeling, a world without  even the terrible excuses for poems that kept faith with the virtual possibilities of the medium, without the sort of absurd ritual I’d participated in that evening, then I intuited an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual, and I realized that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills.

When the Madrid bombings occur Adam finds himself present at history. He wants to be part of it, but really he’s at best an observer. He’s not a Madrileño, he’s just a guy who was in town when the bombings happened. What do his shards of poetry mean against dead bodies, shattered limbs? Nothing of course, they’re perfectly useless.

At risk of being political that’s what those who speak of cultural dividends, of the creative industries, of the commercial benefits to a thriving art scene all utterly miss. Art is useless. It doesn’t feed us, it doesn’t help keep the elderly warm or teach children employable skills or keep us safe from criminals or rogue regimes. Good art often isn’t even entertaining. If we try to justify art by reference to utility we always fail. Art is beyond utility, which is a problem for technocratic politicians who to a one cannot understand anything that cannot be monetised.

Ahem. Possibly I digress. Leaving the Atocha Station clocks in at under 200 pages. It’s full of tremendously written lines (Adam finds himself able to follow a bad Spanish poem because it is “an Esperanto of cliches”, visiting an apartment he notes “… against one of the walls a low, Japanese looking-bed that was probably Swedish.”). It’s more though than just a collection of great sentences; it’s a comic novel that’s utterly serious.

Leaving the Atocha Station is as light or dense as you wish it to be, and while Adam may be one of the less sympathetic protagonists I’ve encountered in a while (steeped as he is in privilege and self-absorption) that in itself just becomes a reflection of the class that he, and of course Ben Lerner form part of. If art is useless, and it is, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s dominated by the children of the well-off and by people convinced of the absolute value of their own introspection. Thankfully, they’re occasionally right about that value.

Leaving the Atocha Station has been very widely reviewed in the US, but less so in the UK. I learned about it through Just William’s Luck here (thanks Will). There’s another great review by the Guardian’s Jenny Turner here, a glowing Jeff Dyer review here and a depressingly skilled review by James Wood here (though I’m not persuaded of his Lermontov comparison). By way of contrast it’s worth reading this Amazon review by Paul Bowes, a Guardian book pages regular that I hold in huge regard (even if I do disagree with him on this occasion). In addition to all that, here‘s Tao Lin interviewing Ben Lerner (including a lovely exchange where it turns out that the art gallery passage, which was suggested to be essentially lifted from Bernhard, is actually from Lerner’s own experience making his life is an act of plagiarism).

On a final note, the title is a reference to a John Ashbery poem of the same name. The poem can be read here. Were I familiar with Ashbery’s work I could no doubt draw out some interesting conclusions about how the book relates to the poem (Adam, within the book, talks about Ashbery’s work). Since however I had to be told that’s what the title meant, I’ll have to leave that to others (Will makes some good points on that front). As Adam only speaks so much Spanish, I only speak so much poetry.

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Filed under Lerner, Ben, Poetry, US Literature

a rat became the unit of currency

Cosmopolis, by Don DeLillo

Cosmopolis is a deeply quotable novel. Perhaps that’s its biggest flaw. It’s full of beautifully realised sentences, arresting slabs of prose, but taken as a whole it’s alienating and distant. It prefers idea to character, concept to situation. It has no interest in realism. It’s my first DeLillo, and apparently one of his weaker novels. If it is a lesser DeLillo that’s impressive, because even flawed it’s more interesting than many author’s at their peak.

The story, such as there is, is wildly improbable both in its overall scope and in its particular details. Eric Packer, software entrepeneur and billionaire, wants to take his limo across town for a haircut. He’s advised that the president’s in town and traffic is expected to be gridlocked. He insists though, and is carried glacially across Manhattan as around him whirl anti-capitalist riots, a Sufi hip-hop star’s funeral and what his security people tell him is a credible threat to his own life.

Packer’s limo is where most of the novel’s action takes place. The year is ostensibly 2000, but it isn’t really. It’s the future, the near future, just around the corner. The future that’s always just around the corner so close that we can see its outlines but not yet quite in view.

Packer’s limo is filled with screens, information, the highest of high technology. When asked why he’s not working in his office it’s evident that the question is a non-sequitur. His office is wherever he is; the concept of office is no longer meaningful. His staff come to him through the day, Packer receiving them like the contemporary royalty that he is. Sherman McCoy has been replaced by the new masters of the universe, born of internet IPOs and pure market speculation.

Packer has bet heavily against the Yen. It should be a good bet, because the Yen is at an unsustainable high. The Yen though, against all expectations, continues to rise. Packer is losing millions, tens of millions, more, amounts so vast they become meaningless. His wealth is beyond spending. It’s virtual, imaginary yet very real. 

I read an article once about the interest Bill Gates earns on his fortune and what he would need to do to spend faster than it accumulates. The answer was that practically he couldn’t. His wealth is now so vast it’s independent of him. It increases regardless of what he does. He is no longer necessary to it.

Conversations in the novel are far from naturalistic; thick with flat statements and answerless questions. This is a novel where the characters largely speak in monologues.

“There’s a rumor it seems involving the finance minister. He’s supposed to resign any time now,” she said. “Some kind of scandal about a misconstrued comment. He made a comment about the economy that may have been misconstrued. The whole country is analyzing the grammar and syntax of this comment. Or it wasn’t even what he said. It was when he paused. They are trying to construe the meaning of the pause. It could be deeper, even, than grammar. It could be breathing.”

Nobody of course speaks like that. That’s really not the point though. This is language as poetry, language as vehicle. Cosmopolis here is capturing that sense of a system become greater than its parts. Vast currents of capital and information eddy and flow around us, shaping our lives in ways that no single person is equipped to comprehend. Capital here is abstract, no longer a factory or farm but an algorithm spitting out trading strategies from a black box (and that’s not hyperbole, google black box trading).

By way of example, a scant few years ago I received an email at work that I didn’t understand. It talked about problems in the money markets, a sector I don’t personally work in and so only have a passing familiarity with. What it meant was unclear, but the sense of panic was palpable. I wouldn’t normally have received emails from that team, we did no business together, but this was firmwide.

Soon after the world faced fiscal armageddon. Five years on economies remain mired in recession. Youth unemployment in  Greece and Spain exceeds 50%. What happened? No factories burned down (except in riots, but they were an effect, not a cause). There were no unexpected wars. Instead vast abstract forces failed to operate as they had been expected to, and millions of lives came crashing down.

Returning to Cosmopolis (not that I’ve actually left it of course), it’s noticeable that DeLillo doesn’t care to give Packer much by way of inner life, nor to make him remotely sympathetic. Packer is an emblem, a vision of distant corporate elites, a fantasy rather than a person.  Packer lives in abstracts, reads Einstein’s Special Theory in English and German and poems composed mostly of spaces between the words. “He liked paintings that his guests did not know how to look at. The white paintings were unknowable to many, knife-applied slabs of mucoid color. The work was all the more dangerous for not being new. There’s no more danger in the new.”

Packer leaves the car mostly for sex, with his art-dealer lover, with one of his security team. Through the day he keeps coincidentally encountering his wife, equally rich but of old money (another strand of our new aristocracy, which has subsumed the old aristocracy).

She was in her mid-twenties, with an etched delicacy of feature and large and artless eyes. Her beauty had an element of remoteness. This was intriguing but maybe not. Her head rode slightly forward on a slender length of neck. She had an unexpected laugh, a little weary and experienced, and he liked the way she put a finger to her lips when she wanted to be thoughtful. Her poetry was shit.

Cosmopolis isn’t all high concept. There’s a comic strand running through it where after each of Packer’s extra-marital flings he runs by chance into his wife and has to explain why he smells as if he’s just had sex. The prose is frequently quite lovely as you’d expect of DeLillo,  and while it’s not a true representation of what the world of finance is actually like nor does it set out to be. Like Ballard, DeLillo isn’t trying here to show how things actually are, but rather to show what the experience of them is like.

The concept though is never far away. Cosmopolis is, in a very real sense, a science fiction novel. Not just because it contains items of technology that don’t actually exist yet (a gun with built in voice operated security system is the most obvious example, or Packer’s screens which start showing events before they happen), but because of it’s desire to explore not who but where we are. If only though more science fiction had prose like this:

He saw a police lieutenant carrying a walkie-talkie. What entered his mind when he saw this? He wanted to ask the man why he was still using such a contraption, still calling it what he called it, carrying the nitwit rhyme out of the age of industrial glut into smart spaces built on beams of light.

In the end it’s the traditional elements of Cosmopolis that are it’s weakest (a point made by John Updike in his NYT review, which mostly I think misses the point of the book, but which does have the unnerringly accurate summation of Cosmopolis as “Nouveau roman meets Manhattan geography, under sci-fi moonlight.”).  As the novel draws to its close Packer’s encounter with his would-be assassin gains importance, but of course I don’t care. Packer’s not real, what does it matter if he lives or dies? The book comes to focus on an existential sense of becoming oneself through a flensing away of the extraneous, but other books have said that and said it better. Here it risks becoming trite (“Now he could begin the business of living.”)

Pacing becomes a problem. For such a short novel this is a very slow book, and that’s fine until it comes near its destination. As Packer’s day begins to close there’s a sense that the novel’s already done. A violent encounter between Packer and one of his guards feels almost tacked on, physical violence almost tasteless in this context or in any event irrelevant. The action is abstract, the descent into the real almost trivial (which is likely the point, but even if it is that doesn’t mean it works).

The end result is a book that doesn’t entirely succeed, but one which despite its failures has stuck with me after reading it. It’s provocative not in a cheap way, but because it forces the reader to think. When Packer contemplates the foreign exchange markets he finds “… beauty and precision here, hidden rhythms in the fluctuations of a given currency.” 

There’s a truth in that line about beauty and precision, because in a way the markets are beautiful in their summation of so many patterns of human effort and desire into a number or set of numbers, elegantly expressed. At the same time, it is not a human beauty. DeLillo shows us the language of the markets, which is the language of our time, and if it is alienating it is because the world it depicts is alienated.

“You know what anarchists have always believed.” “Yes.” “Tell me,” she said. “The urge to destroy is a creative urge.” “This is also the hallmark of capitalist thought. Enforced destruction. Old industries have to be harshly eliminated. New markets have to be forcibly claimed. Old markets have to be re-exploited. Destroy the past, make the future.”

I mentioned a John Updike review above, which I didn’t personally particularly like (criticising Cosmopolis for implausibility is a bit like criticising Revolutionary Road for not being funnier, it’s missing the point). A better review to my mind is Blake Morrison’s at The Guardian, which can be found here. I’ve not found reviews of this at my usual blog haunts, but if I’ve missed one please do let me know in the comments. Also, prior to this post I wrote a post about the state of contemporary Anglo-American literature. That post was inspired in part by my thoughts on Cosmopolis, and is here.

Finally, for the curious, the flaws of the film are the flaws of the book. It changes a few details, but by and large it’s incredibly faithful. Perhaps too much so. Robert Pattinson is actually very good as Eric Packer.

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Filed under Delillo, Don, Science Fiction, US Literature