Month: January 2014

“Subtraction” by Mary Robison

subtrThis is a dialog-heavy novel based on a group of down and out characters who have drifted from the academic Northeast and find themselves miserable in Houston. It was published in 1991. Author Mary Robison has taught English at several universities, including the University of Houston. Her artistic kinship with Barthelme is evident in this book: concise style, irreverent cast, modern pathos storyline, and liberal use of imagery.  Her command of words ascends into realms of poetry. Her images describing rough and tumble Houston (especially to those of us who have lived there) are extraordinary. In the latter part of the book, the snowstorm descriptions in coastal MA are also vivid.  We’re right there with the narrator.

The novel’s most interesting characters are the narrator Paige (the intelligent artist whose progress in life is seized by loyalty to the wayward Raf) and her erstwhile friend Pru (the stripper who uses her perfect body as a machine to survive). None of the characters are admirable. Paige’s husband Raf and  his pal Raymond, both of whom dominate the pages, are almost indistinguishable.Most of the cast are well-educated derelicts with a fixation about getting drunk and getting laid.  Paige’s mom Dottie is a senior citizen stoner. Paige puts up with Raf because of his intense vitality. He’s a Neal Cassady type who draws people in and is moral after all, despite his profligate ways.

We are given a heaping of overheated foul Houston air, low rent squalor, sterile hotels, infidelity, warm beer, a kept woman’s fancy loft, male chauvinism, and Texas-Southern bible-beating right-wing despicableness.

Eventually things cool off as the cast moves back to the coastal Northeast. We go from the indifferent totalitarian to the caring communal.

The effect is like reading Beckett, as suggested in the book:  the vivid imagery might stick around and carry into your dreams at night.

FWIW, I keep thinking…this book struck me as a piece of art that’s ahead of its time. I recommend reading it.

“Anna Karenina” by Tolstoy

anna-karenina-book-cover-011I gave it up once. This time, taking a patient approach, I read from November and finished by the end of the year. The chapters are short, so you can get a few in during the myriad commercials courtesy of the NFL or on trips to the “library” down the hall. At some points the narrative kept me engaged late in the evenings for hours straight. It’s not a fast read by any means, but it is easier to read than War and Peace (something I may never finish). The chapters clip right along and things drag only at the end, in my opinion, after Anna’s fateful day.

Notes & Observations:

As for format, the Modern Library edition (left) proved a good choice. The translation is by Constance Garnett, certainly not the latest, but it’s pleasant, consistent, and has no tricks forcing the language to be over-contemporary. Any footnotes are conveniently included on the same page where a symbol is placed.

Unlike War and Peace, there’s little difficulty remembering who’s who. The major figures are more distinctly drawn. And more empathetic. Basically, the book jumps back and forth between three sets of lovers:  Stepan and Darya, Levin and Kitty, and Vronosky/Aleksey and Anna.  It offers a a contrast between love with abandon (Anna and Vronosky) and traditional hung-up love (Levin and Kitty) and honor (Aleksey).  Russian love can get so all-absorbing and maddening that it’s fatal to some of the cast. It is a subject Tolstoy knew well and wrote about prolifically.

As one of the commenting authors in the afterword section says, Anna K is a novel of manners, or a novel of society. Plot is secondary to the display of characters and their behavior within the milieu of social class structure. 

It’s an instructive book for writers. Tolstoy was at his best here, and could write equally well in any scene, about hunting, farming, politics, or courting. He can surprise us too, when in the midst of his straight-forward functional narrative he throws in some sort of colorful bonus section.  In War and Peace, I was taken unexpectedly by the frank revelations and level of detail in the chapter in which Pierre joins the Masons.  As an example in Anna K, the author gives us an amusing account of Stepan’s journeys and adventures with a visiting Prince, who he is charged with entertaining. Among their late night adventures they reportedly go to a sex show in which “Russian prowess” is displayed. Meanwhile, the landholder and stifled lover Levin works off his frustration when he goes on a grass-mowing binge, swinging a scythe out there with the serfs for three chapters.

The episodes are short and they go on and on like endless cars attached in a long train. The action is greatest within the characters’ hearts and souls, where changes are always happening. It’s deceptively simple, how we read this and get it. But it’s highly artful and a technical magic act on Tolstoy’s part.