Month: April 2012

Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending”

Principle character and narrator Tony Webster is in his early sixties. The being British part doesn’t get in the way. We can relate. Tony is a mixed bag of deliberations and compulsions – he buys stuff to descale his tea kettle and, in the spirit of older men with little to lose, is eagerly willing to make a fool of himself over women.

Veronica Ford becomes the object of his obsession, which makes us shake our head with pity because she is such a hollow bitch. It is her mother who proves to be the most interesting female character (wish there had been more of her). Tony’s ex-wife Margaret is portrayed as all-knowing and a bit too precious. If they had ever taken that late-post-divorce romantic weekend together, I would have thrown the book down.

The first part of the book has a prep school feel to it, and the second part zips quickly into middle-age.  Barnes via Tony presents endless observations and little theories about life as an aging idle dude. It is the reader’s task to separate the hoodoo from the chaff…for Tony is far from being a reliable narrator. Tony can be astute and pretty damn dense at the same time.

Interesting and detailed depiction of email as a role player in today’s relationships.

Literary grade A, no wasted words, fast and efficient. I read it in two sittings. Not sure how much of it will stick with me as memorable.

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Jennifer Egan’s “Visit from the Goon Squad”

Never claimed I could write a book review, but I’m only beginning. This book made me want to write something. I can’t say all the good things that well, but this is some book.

One review points out that the novel ends where it begins. And in between, everyone has changed, including you the reader.  True. Another calls it a “art at its best—a bulwark against the goon,” saying it (the book) “embodies everything at once.” True as well.

There are sections that can make you laugh or stun you with the power of the writing. The ending of the Italy chapter had me in sentimental chills on a sunny day by the pool. A girl captures a setting sun in a circle of wire on her window frame, just as Egan captures us.

When I heard the novel had a Powerpoint chapter, I said No Way. But it’s amazing and somehow a perfect fit. Even so, it’s just an added attraction. The guts of the novel are the intertwined series of narratives delivered by Egan’s cast of characters.

Her prose is dialed in perfectly, images abound, and there is a carefully crafted symmetry of events. Unexpected reading treats abound, much more than the hype over the Powerpoint chapter. One of the late chapters offers a glimpse at our digitized future in which we are all self-promotional in order to get by.

The goons are time and circumstance, thugs of chaos or control who we have to strike a deal with. Egan’s characters have their own ways, and some of them triumph, others fail. Marketing, a theme that permeates the book, is not their end-all solution.

I’m tempted to put aside everything else and read it again. (update: no, I’m ordering Jennifer’s “Emerald City” stories, then “Invisible Circus.”)

Elmore Leonard’s “Valdez is Coming” and “Stick”

Elmore Leonard wrote pretty damn well in 1970 when he put out the Western novel Valdez is Coming. You can see some Hemingway influence in it. His style is clean and unaffected and he makes use of interior monolog to let his characters ponder ethical situations. There are honest and deceptively skilled descriptive scenes that take place in plains and forests and mountains. The action involving Valdez and his love interest borrows straight-faced from Roberto and Maria’s sleeping bag sequence in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Leonard doesn’t slow us down with transitions and segues. The narrative string presses forward. Both of these books end with satisfaction, yet the endings are wry and abrupt, minimal without violins or fireworks. (the ending in Stick took me by surprise, assisted by the side-effect of reading it on a Kindle that showed the book 80% complete – turned out the last 20% of the kindle file was promotional copy about Leonard’s other books).

His characters are vivid: some evil, some stupid, some sexy, some heroic. There are loyal madams, allied giants, and converts who back the hero. There is vengeance. Some characters reappear and drift between novels.

These are features he has maintained and perfected decades later in his crime novels.

In Stick, Ernest Stickley is a hybrid good guy-bad guy (he also appears in Swag). On the loose in South Florida, he falls among some rich and fast company. There is no real hero, no girl to hold in veneration. It’s a small study in corruption, men and women alike (the women in this one have appetites while the men are into games). Things move at a good clip, and while some have criticized Stick for being plotless, it has enough action and character study to make it top-shelf stuff.

Writer Mistakes: Inadvertent Creepiness

Writers have to be vigilant about straying into the Land of the Creeps.

I thought about this pitfall today when on a mundane stop at the grocery store. In the produce department my eyes kept going toward a chunky blond woman in a U2 Tshirt who selected ears of fresh Spring corn and shucked them with an artful sort of dexterity. I almost forgot what I came into that section to buy.

Long ago I read a draft chapter in which the author fell into the creepiness. Here’s the example. The scene was supposedly about watercolor painting, and the female character let her mind drift as she painted. Eventually she became hot and bothered, in a sexual way, and was home alone, so you can surmise what came next. The author later talked about the scene with regret and chagrin. She carefully avoided admission of anything in the scene that had to do with herself. Who wants to admit being creepy?

A couple of people suggested that my novel Houston Chemical was a bragging exhibition and nostalgic exercise in repressed sexual desire, or some such thing. That the women were mere bedroom objects (as if women don’t have men as sex objects; in reality we live in a world of sex objects). It wasn’t meant to be any of that. It is a story of one guy’s transition from bad to better to worse; a Byronic hero in search of happiness but foiled by his own indiscretions. I will argue that most characters have some sort of dimension to them other than being bed-hoppers, but that doesn’t mean the Creepiness Factor isn’t there for some readers.

I think the writer’s realization of their own Creepiness is more unsettling than any Creepiness experienced by the reader.  You can have the reader for a while but soon their attention is somewhere else and keeps moving and moving on. The writer is stuck with their own product – at least until they fix it (caught and repaired with relief in draft stage).

Some never fix it.  Seems that would be a detriment, but reactions are unpredictable. Consider Chad Harbach, who wrote lurid, creepy stuff, but the critics (apparently oblivious to situations like Penn State’s locker room, and willing to celebrate the fictional aspects of a college dean gobbling the goop of a student) loved the book anyway.

The realization that one has written oneself into the Land of the Creeps is forgivable, of course, but disturbing. The next time one writes, it’s a bit like driving after getting a speeding ticket.

Enemy of the State

He was leaving when I came in, the Enemy of the State. I didn’t see his face, just his glossy black hair. And he wore a camel-colored sports coat. If I had to guess, he was Italian and about forty. He was on the bulky side like he played football once. I noticed Crissie’s hands were shaking. Her phony welcome smile didn’t hide her anxiety about what just happened when the Enemy of the State visited her clinic. I took my position on the bench, face down, like I do every week. Crissie’s breathing was heavy above me. She put the heel of her palm flat against my lower back and I guess put her other one on top of it and then her weight came next, all five-eight of her. She pushed violently. I heard the grunting noise she always made with the effort, and this one was a little louder. My back popped back into place and I got up and smiled at her with relief. I gave her my usual thirty-dollars. For a second I thought she wasn’t going to take it. There was no time to talk to her. She led me to the door, like she was anxious to have the place empty again. Her tied-up hair had come loose and strands hung in her face in distress. Even so, I remember thinking how pretty she looked as I left. The place closed, and I never went back. A few months later I read in the paper that the clinic was busted. The Enemy of the State was identified and convicted of health insurance fraud. Crissie was found to be complicit and got a sentence as well. They sent her to the Federal Pen in Miami for two years.

Sometime over the holidays in the mid 2000s – I can’t recall exactly, an anonymous phone call came in. A male voice with a thick Long Guyland accent said, “Stay clear of her.”

Three would make her weep

She didn’t know what she was doing. The “CD Hits” jukebox ate her dollars. If a machine could be smug, she thought, this was the one. Her thoughts grew angry. Just like that little chink bitch yesterday at Lucky-Duck 89, she thought. The one who tried to shortchange a twenty for three measly egg rolls.

An adolescent waiter asked if she needed help. She said she was trying to play Best of Bare Naked Ladies. It’s her idea of fine music.

Applebys’ sound system was stuck. Haunting twangy guitars saturated with reverb and Chris Isaak’s plaintive Elvis voice. Endlessly during her solo supper of pasta diablo del mar and brown insta-bread. Toyed-with cellphone, no Incoming’s, spotted with grease marks.

Two glasses of bordeaux. She remembered that three would make her weep.

She paid the tab. Heard Chris still wailing on extended speakers in the bathroom. Saw her moonlike forehead stressed and oily in the mirror, but her eyes cocaine bright. Breasts still right out there, one or two more buttons undone before leaving, the maroon pushup bra doing its best.

Wasn’t sure where to go next, sitting in that new Lexus, not even able to hear it idle.