booknotes

A Brief Look at “Catch-22”

I was never in the military but I grew up in a military town and knew friends who were directly or indirectly part of it. In the 1970s this was the book of choice for them. They spoke enthusiastically about it, saying it was “so true,” even if they did qualify the statement by labeling it as after all fiction, but a scarily real and funny portrayal of how things are. It’s largely a guy book. One of the last good ones.

War is evil, other novels tell us. Or noble. Or unjust, inevitable and pitiful. Or cruel to the women who lose out because of it. The author and cast of Catch-22 imply that while all of that may be true, we’re not really getting into all that. We’re focusing on the absurdity of war and its horrors and how ridiculously inept and comical the military structure is set up to handle it. Here, the higher ranking officers are the bad guys, the no-good bums who bungle things and are lost in their own vanities. The B-25 flight crews, forced to make an increasing number of combat missions, are the pawns and the victims. Or in some cases accidental heroes.

The book is episodic and relies on an intertwined collection of interactions between various members in the flight squadron. Because these relationships are ultimately one in the face of battling the enemy, Heller repeats and reiterates the factors in these relationships. As pages go by, we learn our level of sympathy or disdain for each character, and there are some gems. Near the end, we see the evil in the high-ranking officers emerge, as the despicable (and morally blind) colonels compromise the hero Yossarian, which pushes him over the edge and sends him packing into the unknown.

Norman Mailer’s “Gospel According to the Son”

Only Mailer had the literary audacity to write a novel that presents the “Greatest Story Ever Told” in 1st person Jesus. We get to read him speaking as a human, this plain carpenter and purported Son of God who broods with anecdotes about his birthright, and ruminates over his own flaws in contrast to the expectations put upon him. This personal narrative voice is distinctly different from the entrenched 3rd person accounts of a perfect and divine Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels according to his top-dog apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Mailer presents the geography and the people with prose mostly free of enigmatic rhetoric. Scenes we all know well, such as conception or manger scene, are easy pickings for Mailer. He brings them alive on the page without flowery verse and stiff vocabulary musty with history and biblical stylistic haze. Even to an agnostic reader, this rendition of the Miracle Story is illuminating, educational, and engaging to read.

With the Devil leading the dialogue department, Mailer portrays Jesus’s meetup with him in the wilderness near the end of J’s 40-day fast. Old Mephisto appears several times, nagging the conscience of The Chosen One.

Mailer creates a heightened role for John the Baptist, who’s a sort of Jesus forerunner, depicting his teachings and influence, his baptism of J in the Jordan, and eventually his imprisonment and death by the hands of the Herod administration. John’s severed head is delivered to the King on a silver platter while Salome dances.

Mailer doesn’t go too far astray in his language. Much is paraphrasing, and he avoids sarcasm and modern lingo.

The first exorcism (vivid) and other various miracles performed are often described in terms of their draining effect on J, who constantly frets over proper appropriation of his super-energies. He tries to protect them, while the mass’s demands and the scribe paparazzi pursue him. A mere unwanted touch of the robe leaves him gassed.

Mailer ratchets up the suspense with a buildup of fear and resentment against J, who flees to hideaways like a shepherd’s shack and then a boat in the Sea of Galilee where he manages to preach in sort of a floating pulpit.

The story picks up pace and intrigue as Jesus selects and grooms his “cabinet” of twelve apostles. He has Personnel problems. Jesus commands them to spread the word and rations them on slivers of bread, so the guys argue about food and develop a “what’s in it for me?” attitude. Finally, Jesus manages to get them under control and on the road to Jerusalem.

There, they display radicalism going into the temple. Defiance of convention. Jesus dresses down the Pharisee moneylenders and wealthy merchants as greedy agents of Mammon. He matches wits with the Master of the Temple, whose name is not provided. There is plenty of angst among the group, as Jesus continues to play things fast and loose with the Romans.

Since Jesus is a clairvoyant at this point and already knows his and others’ fate, the starch comes out of his narration and he hurries toward the crucifixion.

Jesus is humbled by and often at odds with the Father. The question looms as the unhappy ending occurs: Does Jesus eventually fail his Father? Or vice versa? And was the resurrection story a bit of improvised feel-good coverup for a divine tragedy?

“Florida” by Lauren Groff

I’d likely have a more favorable opinion of this book of short stories had she given it a title other than “Florida.” The stories that are actually set in Florida reveal few features of the state that have not been harped on and exploited before, or features that could be anywhere. Maybe the title came from a designated period in her writing life, being a FL resident and teacher and writer up in the northern central part of the state, where perhaps she wrote and bundled these stories and sees them as her “Florida” experience. Which is fine, but is the material representative of the state as a whole? No.

Ubiquitous reptiles, lurking gators, bugs, heat, and lots and lots of snakes. Yes. Stereotypical, but okay.

Hard times, odd characters, crazy-ass rainstorms. Yes. Okay. (although the best storm description occurs in Brazil (in “Salvador”).

Degenerate husbands and other male losers. To the point of grinding an axe. No. Please don’t identify my state with that sort of stuff.

Women being self-reliant and heroic (and adoring of children). Well, okay, but not when it’s excessive and at the price of all those “male losers.”

Mechanically, Lauren Groff writes like a seasoned craftsman. She weaves some great sentences into engaging sequences. She can build a great story. Problem is, some of her FL stories stop cold when they should keep going. Readers are left in the lurch at odd moments. Even so, the book – grim as it is – leaves impressions and causes an imaginative stir, at least in this reader.

Bad title is not a big deal. After all it’s only a book of short stories. Writers can find their fame more often by producing a good novel rather than in placing hyper-realism stories in the New Yorker. Believing this to be true with Groff (and always rooting for writers in Florida), I’m looking forward to reading her newest novel, “Matrix.”

Books About Crazy People

….Some unorganized comments about three or four books I recently read or re-read (maybe the sixth time for Catcher). They came across my nightstand one after another. All of them, coincidentally (or maybe by subconscious choice), portray craziness.

The trend began with Jonathon Franzen’s new novel, Crossroads. By comparison to the other books mentioned here, Crossroads is a very mild trip. The craziness in his cast of Middle American church-going suburbanites is less visible, cloaked by appearances. Being whacked out to one degree or another is typical. As such, one is subject to mistakes and exposure within a close community of other whackos. Franzen’s skill as a writer here is in showing how insidious and damaging hidden problems can be. It’s a systemic sort of craziness.

More specifically, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is loaded with personal neurosis and dangerous self-destructive behavior. In his monologue Holden points out many parts of life that he calls phony. He goes crazy trying to deal with phony people and all the harsh and bogus aspects of the world. His diatribes often echo what many of us have also considered true. There is an undercurrent wish of “if only things weren’t this way.” The irony is heavy: how can someone depressed and alienated be such an astute observer and seem so right? He scares the bejeezus out of us with his erratic and risky choices. He encounters what he had hoped to avoid by running loose and leaping recklessly into the very depths of American crazinesss.

Carlos Castaneda’s landmark account Journey to Ixtlan is like a condensed primer to his series of seven books about the narrator’s apprenticeship to the sorcerer Don Juan Matus. Don Juan is a philosophic genius, teacher, magic man, and also flat-out crazy by normal standards. His instructions to disassemble our own conventional lives and put ourselves into some sort of neutral fog require a willingness to be crazy. The narrator begins as a logical research scholar and is inexorably pulled into the exercises and tenets. He questions his own sanity.

Squeeze Me is a contemporary novel by Carl Hiassen, noted for his satiric descriptions of deranged life in Florida. (Florida is likely to never recover from the tag as America’s ultimate haven of crazy people.) The target in Squeeze Me is Palm Beach high society, where the decadent rich exist outside reality and hide behind piles of money. The plot enables Hiassen to take well-deserved potshots at the crass and corrupt, as well as zing the craziest fucker of them all, the ex-POTUS, who operates now out of Casa Bellicosa (aka in the real world as Mar-Lago).

I like all of these books a great deal. But am currently searching for a book that features sane people.

Fall 2021 Blogathon: Franzen’s “Crossroads”

[On-going w/the most recent posts last. Spoiler alerts apply]

Oct. 16

The opening chapter and its slow unraveling of family description brings to mind the novel “The Corrections.” There, Franzen gave each sibling from the Lambert family their own volume within the multi-part novel. There were two sons and a daughter, all young career-working adults. Whereas in “Crossroads,” the siblings of the Hildebrandt clan are teenage and below, growing up in the 1970s, and we are introduced to them in sequential chapters. There is one daughter (homecoming queen-type Becky) and three sons, two of whom are in trouble already with drugs and poor life choices.

A problem right off is they are the children of a pastor, Russ, a strong socially active liberal who has a weak innate sense of guidance and self-control. As the story goes in the early stages, the kids drift away from Dad and his older ways, a human turnoff, and become followers of a progressive church group leader named Ambrose, who practices realism over idealism. It doesn’t take long for conflicts to show up.

The opening chapter’s style is notable in that it’s framed artfully within the context of an oncoming storm. Gray clouds at first then ominous snow falling at the end. The storm keeps brewing into subsequent chapters. Becky is changing her ways, demonstrating how imperfect she is, how possessive and self-centered. Perry is wasting his high IQ and drifting deeper into drugs; and Clem is 18 and headed to the Vietnam war zone, after having been addicted to sex with a “mouse” of a girl who he abandons. The parents are pious on the surface and morally unstable underneath. Mama Marion hovers but tends to overlook. Only young Judson seems safe so far.

Things are about to break apart. Everyone is looking for wrong or right, approaching or in the midst of a crossroads, get it? The sun is ripping red gashes in the sky. The Crossroads church group has a mutiny during an Arizona field trip, and father and son face some truths. Patiently and without a load of purple prose, Franzen has revealed a family slowly becoming embroiled in crisis. Yet it’s early. It’s a long book, and only the first of a projected trilogy covering a generation of Hildebrandts.


Oct. 19

The pastor’s wife’s (Marion) chapter uses the narrative format of a discussion between patient and psychiatrist. Her long, self-pitying accounts are met with a few neutral lines from Sophie, the head doctor. Lots of pain is accounted for, with a hint of even more still under the wraps. The world is tainted by Marion’s desperation and pessimism. There is little humor in the exchange, much less a friendly vibe or even an intimate one, unlike, say, the sexual romp that develops in the patient-pyschologist setup in Larry McMurtry’s novel Duane’s Depressed.

Franzen, God bless him, is hitting his novelist’s stride now, delving into the personal history of one of his main suburban characters, presenting her case and allowing the reader to reach their own judgments. It’s more difficult to do than it sounds. He is a novelist following his heart and gut about these people, baring them rather than drawing and delivering pat, intellectual profiles.

More stabs of pain and misery come again in the subsequent chapter in which Russ, Marion’s husband, finds he can’t cope with the frank revelations by his wannabe mistress. He’s in a game he isn’t equipped for. Hints of more moral catastrophe. The scene becomes hellish. The two are quarreling inside Russ’ sedan, and soon we are half-expecting to see Russ break down and weep. Or will he feign bravado and put on a different kind of act? Yet to be seen. Meanwhile for the two would-be lovers, there’s no convenient means of dodging issues, and beyond the wiper blades the snow continues to fall.

Franzen’s instincts may have told him it’s time for a lighter, sillier chapter. And we get that next with Tanner and Becky giving us a flat and predictably schmaltzy episode of Teenagers Playing Little Games about Love. Snowballs hurled by “juvies” against Tanner’s VW bus don’t add much. The dialog is MST3000 material, ripe for lampooning. Tanner talks big boy garage band talk, and Becky is jealous of their female singer. Zzzz. One wonders if Franzen is going to suddenly go horror movie on us and send in hungry zombies to eat the teenagers and end the scene.

Becky says it herself: “Everything has gone to shit.” Her return to the house (aka “the parsonage”) offers some redemption for the sin of bad editing. She and Perry seem to come to a lukewarm detente in their conflicting sister-brother relationship. Meanwhile, in two days it’ll be Christmas Eve. And Mom (Marion) is late returning from her shrink appointment. Uh-oh. Why?

Visions of this novel as a series on Streaming TV disturbed my fictive dream, at least for a moment. Please God, no, I prayed. Tell us the author is virtuous, if none of his cast are, and he doesn’t care about such commercial notions.


Oct. 20

As expected, the dramatic events intersect, and all sorts of tangled problems occur. We are given a buffet of respect-resentment and love-hate between characters in conflict. People play some dirty games to put down those they don’t like. Our emotional response, the one Franzen artfully evokes, is to feel like we need to choose which side we are on. And, we wonder, does virtue matter or is goodness just plain out of date? Does renunciation equate to evil?

Russ vs. Frances Cottrell. Perry vs. Becky. Then Perry vs. astounded clergymen at a mannered party when he gets teenage drunk on a whisky-laden punchbowl and has a meltdown (a superior Franzen twist, reminding me of the crazy effects of the miracle drug aboard the cruise ship in Corrections.) Then Becky gets stoned, and Laura bullies her. Becky sees the light of heaven when the pot kicks in. Mama Marion changes her ways, smokes Luckies, and toughens up. And so on.

The narrative lures us ahead, episode by episode. Even when we find some of the people loathsome, or the scenes didactic and corny. The novel offers us situations where the message of literature battles with its like-ability. Yet on we go, some Christian chord perhaps struck inside us. But how bogus is it? What is wrong? Is it all so gravity-bound to church camps and horny pastors and earthly fools that we miss the entire point of a God up there in the sky?

________

Oct. 22

3/4 of the way through this heavy tome. In the story there is nearly a foot of snow on the ground. Meaning, I’d lost sense of how compressed the timeline is. Flakes fell in chapter one. There’s been a lot of chapter shifts and overlap of chronological piece parts.

Events are colliding and reaching combustion. Russ, Marion, and Becky have traded their virtues for self-satisfaction. They are clawing against the side of a cliff, trying to hold on.

Instances of Christian fellowship abound, and now Franzen kicks it up another level to moments of bible story parallels. The washing of feet is a big one. The duping of a man by a designing woman, check. Sacrifice of self for another, check. The wages of sin, check. Turn the other cheek, check. Love and forgiveness, check. And so on. It may sound facile, and at times reading it is like a dip into some TV show sanctioned for its wholesomeness and message. But Franzen is up to something else, it seems. Knowing this is part one of a trilogy leads me to suspect we may be left hanging, at least on certain items.

________

Oct. 24

Marion’s new compulsion for Lucky Strikes emulates the self-destructive behavior of her children and signifies her revolt against the twenty conventional and unhappy years she’s spent being married to Russ. Her actions lean toward anger and self-forgiveness rather than liberation. The family is now officially broken. Some friends are going down with it. They turn to prayer for self-therapy. The sense of worship is lacking. God is like a Hotline.

It’s quite a crew. Russ wants to correct or punish everyone else out of line except himself. Clem pretends to go back to college and then decides to take off to New Orleans. Perry breaks his vow of giving up recreational drugs and finds a dealer offering speed. Becky offers herself to an influencer so that Tanner’s band can get a contract. Laura Dobronsky is the only free-spirit hippie-like character Franzen portrays (the other hippies are shown as communal enclave types who are faceless and benign and unaddressed by the narrative). Laura D is a natural talent in the band, but after Tanner betrays her, she’s leaving the hippie house where she is staying and packing to go West to make the Haight-Ashbury scene. A big whoopdedoo ensues about whether or not the band unites for the big show. Meanwhile, Marion is fasting to get thin again, smoking and cursing now, and disses Russ openly every chance she gets. Russ is pitifully head over heels about Frances, but she is toying with him. He is blind. It is possible in a novel loaded with bible lore, someone will make him see. Frances’ motives are as yet unclear. Meanwhile young and innocent Judson (he might be really something in the later books) is locked into his Stratego board game, planning his next moves far in advance.

________

Oct. 25

It’s awkward. About 40 pages of backstory interrupt the narrative train’s immediate journey into the last scenes. I waded through some of Russ’s history then skipped it, in order to get back to the drama. Pastor Russ (emerging now as the protagonist) has Frances alone as his partner, at last. The once-meek Russ develops as a character, we can assume, because he is now more assertive and devil-may-care. The indication is that Marion was a source of serious emasculation all those years, and Frances brings out his manly mojo. Do his actions seem a little too full of bravado? And isn’t he the rare, exceptional male character in novel-land who doesn’t fail and come up short when he finally makes it with the woman of his dreams? Instead, it is her who has problems: she’s too tight to let him in.

As a patient reader since all these 500 pages or so, I’m feeling a bit manipulated. There are still some pages left, but the turn from jerk to macho hero seems too much to readily accept.

_________

Oct. 26

The last section summarizes how family members keep their heads barely above water and find a temporary peace. Knowing there is a sequel (and then a third) influences the way I look at the ending. Setup or wrap? There are loose ends and some gaps I’d guess Franzen will enjoy going back to fill for us (e.g., Russ and Frances’s affair). I was unmoved by the reunion of Becky and her brother Clem. She is married to Tanner and they have little Gracie now. Ho hum. I am not bummed out by the fall of failed drug dealer Perry into detention centers and courtrooms. We see Russ break down again (loses his hero points). He and Marion reconcile (apparently because she gets horny) and move to deeper into middle America suburbia, once again as prayerful pastor hubby and pastor’s wife.

There is for me no wow factor at the end, no strong feeling of anything. The only scene that widened my eyes was Becky being transported in a Benz at warp-Autobahn speeds.

All told, it’s a novel that features characters and family dynamics. Capturing an era is not really the big show here. The backdrop is not sparkling in detail, even if the scenes of drug-partaking are vivid and realistic. There are references to pop songs and products of the times, automobiles and clothing etc., but Crossroads is not a depiction of the early 70s and its on-going cultural revolution with longhairs and hippies. The Hildebrandt kids are suburban-cut blanks that get tainted by the wilder and more sordid world around them. But they are not at heart peaceniks or beatniks or paradigm-changers like so many of the others. They are churchy and square. Vain and begrudging. The parents are hardly role models. They are tired of each other, punitive toward the kids, and in a no-win situation against the Rick Ambroses of the world.

Many will write of the Christianity aspects, and I have only alluded to a few. Is the religious theme a subject of satire, or a warning, or an objective presentation left for us to weigh? A bit of all, I think.

Now it’s over and the dust settles until the second book comes out. My bet is Franzen still has something more sensational up his sleeve. Like many fans, I’ll be there for the next one.

“THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH” by Richard Flanagan

Haibun.

It’s a genre I had never heard of, but the structural soul of this novel. A popular haibun by the revered Japanese poet Matsuo Bashó shares nearly the same exact title.

A haibun, from what I’ve learned so far, is based on the reporting of history. But it also contains imagistic writing, poetic material in some way intensely expressed like haiku yet in prose. It can relate a journey, a life saga, or even minutes, a moment. While Flanagan’s book is kindred in spirit and has these elements, it is first and foremost a novel.

Which includes in this case, a story of war and being a prisoner thereof. Aussie prisoners in WWII are enslaved by the Japanese army and forced to build a railroad through an impossible jungle, all in the name of the Great Emperor. The novel includes accounts from the days both before and after war. Near the climactic end, the protagonist is assumed dead. But no, he has survived his long, grueling trip (Spoiler Alert) and becomes a renowned international physician. Back home in Australia, married and settled, he happens to see the woman he once loved. She has seen him too, we find out later. Neither knows, neither acknowledges. The man’s heart is reaching an end, like Zhivago sighting Lara from a bus. She is ill. The two pass by on a bridge, going in opposite directions. It is all part of the tragedy.

Flanagan’s account is wrapped around, no – it features, such an extraordinary love story. It’s delivered to us in unapproachably vivid scenes with simple yet complex writing (like a haiku). It is the best writing of a love affair written by a male author that I can recall in a very long time.

Last Notes: Richard Flanagan’s “Gould’s Book of Fish”

Dec. 5, 2020

Now that I finished it, I can say that what comes first later comes last. Throughout the book, the narrator speaks of time being more circular than linear and demonstrates it when all is said and done.

My conclusion is at the end of the post.

The opening chapter’s skillful language drew me right in. I wanted to find out about the narrator’s mind-altering and enthusiastic reaction over a book on fish, which he plans to duly explain to us. It’s apparent we are in for something out of the ordinary.

Syd Barrett (one of many aliases for the narrator) is a huckster antique dealer who happens on a magical book on fish and becomes obsessed with it. After making serious inquiries of its origin and shopping it to the experts, he is discouraged by their disinterested reaction and ends up hanging around a bar where he loses the book when he steps away to take a leak. Immediately he compares the loss to the desertion of a lover: the one that ripped your heart out, leaving a contagion to find her again. Our narrator seems a sensible sort, however, and eventually attempts to overcome the loss by re-creating the book, using the pictures of a second similar book, which he happened upon but which has no prose.

The story has a sudden section shift, and there’s a new narrator. Now, apparently, the Fish book will be given its full history, as narrated by the author/artist William “Billy” Gould. He’s held prisoner in a coastal cave that fills with sea water to near ceiling level when the tide comes in. During the day when he’s not being abused by the guard, Gould draws and paints all the marine life around him. That much is sanctioned by his captors, but he is forbidden from writing text of any sort. He does so on the sly, using any colored substance including blood and octopus goo that functions as ink.

Continued 11/18/20

Various despots come in and out of Billy’s life on the island. He is only too glad to consent to do painting at their bidding, thereby avoiding the worst of prison life. By far the strangest character who orders him around is the Commandant, a shipwrecked pretender to his role as grand master of the island. His minions build a locomotive from shipped parts and lays out a railway that runs in one small circle, then commissions a grand MahJong Hall as the national palace, where Billy Gould paints the walls with the words from the Commandant’s unseen love and pen pal, Anne.

Eventually Billy’s painting and labors of mural art in both the train station and the Mah Jong Hall fall to ruin, as nature takes over during a lull in construction. An outside nation comes in to buy the guano deposits.

He goes back to painting fish, fretful of their future existence. Billy Gould is a visionary of the sterile and loveless world we are all heading into (though he sees it from the 19th century, and we see it likely too late).

Continued 11/29/20

Over the next hundred pages, we see Gould’s exciting discoveries of a secret room holding an enormous library of documentation, tirelessly hand-written and assembled by Jorgensen, the island clerk. Billy Gould eventually kills him by pushing over a bookcase. He is stuck in his cell with the decaying body until he escapes (thanks to robbing Jorgensen’s corpse of its money) the Sarah Island colony and journeys alone into the interior, pulling the island’s volumes of history in a sled behind him. So we see poor Gould bearing the brunt of history and all its human indignities. He retains hope that all their truths will fall into the right hands, and the scandals of the island revealed for posterity. He travels relentlessly to seek out the Tasmanian territory’s rebel liberator, Matt Brady.

In the novel’s most vivid scene, Gould is sleeping in the wilderness with aborigines, two of whom he knows from the past. The man is dying of wounds and disease, and the woman is “Two Penny Sal,” a striking mulatto who was once his (and many others’) courtesan. When the man, Tracker John, dies in his sleep in the middle of the night, the woman builds a bonfire fueled largely by Gould’s sled-full of history books. Much to Gould’s shock, the past and its pages of history he dragged cross-country are quickly destroyed. Sparks of dust and nothingness rise into the desert skies, while the woman and Gould strip naked, apply ochre paint, and dance like savages well into the night.

They separate, and Gould finds shelter in a hut, where (as it turns out) Brady once lived. He is disappointed on finding Brady’s journal, as to its shallow content and trifling concerns. It is a hollowing out of his soul, and he feels as if he has nothing left to live for.

In Conclusion

I realize I have repeated too much of the storyline rather than commenting on it, so will not get into the ending which comes in one stunning revelation after another and is best left unsaid.

In sum, Richard Flanagan has written a masterpiece. Who would think that from an Aussie author from Tasmania? It’s a mix of all sorts of influences from Vonnegut to Sterne to Dickens to Pliny and DeQuincey and Voltaire and Fielding. It is as unrelentingly violent as the film “The Revenant’ but with a humorous filter. It is part Gabriel Garcia-Marquez in that reality ventures off into the impossible and fantastic. It is philosophy and comedy, tragedy and history.

Submicroscopic Reading Material

During my career I wrote many procedure manuals, and ever since have noticed how small or non-existent they are. I’m always on the lookout for the “The World’s Smallest Printed Procedure Manual.”  

The text and diagrams inside this one are unreadable without a magnifying glass, which of course is not supplied by the product owner, ANKER. The product is an emergency iphone charger.

Running Commentary, Reading Arundhati Roy

Notes from my slow, on-going read of Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things.”

  1. So far, the book is showing signs of time-skipping. Events move backwards in the chronology from effect to cause. As with the twins, once separated and now united, then nope, they’re actually not–we’re going back to when they were kids next.  Roy used some non-sequential sections to great effect in “The Ultimate Ministry of Happiness,” a novel I’ve labeled as my favorite read in the past year.
  2. TGST is filled with family characters, and though their names are odd and distinctive, I still get them confused, and this is a big distraction when reading.  Much of this is cultural unfamiliarity: to me, the name Estha sounds like it should be a female, and Rahel male; I don’t get the “baby” nametag; I don’t get the “chi” added to Pappa and Mamma. Chacko sounds like a cartoon character. And, to add to the confusion, there are often too many characters jammed into a scene or expository section.
  3. I sensed (and was enchanted by) the poetic and/or lyrical bent of Roy’s prose on page one. As the pages move on, the quips and images become a little edgier, not so cozy. Sometimes the lines are satiric or bumbling Indian humorous, I suppose. I fear slapstick, but know there is seriousness at the underbelly. Indians have a complex caste system and a Whitman’s Sampler of religious and political persuasions. Certain behaviors are expected. Are readers in store for random dysfunction and microscopic accounts of trifling occurrences? What is the Indian way of writing, the posture, in this book? I have many pages left to learn more. The UMH novel, if I were running a comparative poll, is still way ahead in my estimation as the better novel. Early factors why:  readability and sophistication of subject matter and poetic ingredients.
  4. Almost a third in, and for the first time my attention is held for several pages. There is momentum and conflict. It happens when the family at last gets to the cinema to see (once again) “The Sound of Music.” They set out to do this many days ago, and ever since I had been reading and reading, trudging through some digressive if not inane sections. Roy’s clever weave of movie scenes into the character’s adventures at the theater, however sordid with urination, child molestation, and  a hint of twins incest, keeps me actively engaged.
  5. The family’s meet-up with Chacko’s ex and the bratty daughter at the airport. Class warfare is evident. Kids behaving badly, their evasive instincts correct. Hints of tragedy and irreconcilable facts. The presence of concrete kangaroo-shaped trash receptacles.  The Bluer Plymouth and all its tail-finned glory awaits in the parking lot.  Every sentence pregnant with meaning, the thematic texture of the book compounding  and taking on more weight of meaning, and we’re only at the halfway point.  It seems God the Lyrical Prose Writer is looking after Roy’s choice of words.

Joy Williams: “The Visiting Privilege”

joy(updated October 20, 2019)

It’s a big collection of her stories, old and new. When I first wrote this book report, I’d checked out the book from the library. This time, after reading a recent New Yorker that featured a new Joy Williams story, I bought the book.

As I wrote previously: How did I miss out on her all this time?  Who do I read that does short stories any better?

Williams can place characters inside a crucible in a story without us even noticing. Often the situations are odd and disturbing. Morals are stripped bare for examination. Sometimes there’s a whiff of Flannery O’Connor in the air. The stories also include many animals, who are equally random and resident on earth.

As I go down the Contents list, adding checkmarks by the ones I read, I find that each story reveals her mastery of the form. Each has its own set of themes, mysteries, and nuance. Unlike many of today’s hailed and awarded stories that are too often cleverly phrased throwaways, Joy Williams’ collected stories are solid and invite being re-visited.

Her writing is a reflection of our privilege to be cogent, alive visitors on Earth. Her book allows us the privilege to share in her observations, many of which are poetic and visionary. Her work should reside permanently in the study books for classes of American Literature: Modern Short Story.

“Signs Preceding the End of the World” by Yuri Herrera

It is sort of a puzzle and also a lyrical piece. In the sense of world statement, it’s a dark, futuristic view of an immigration apocalypse.

Unlike a lot of fiction here in the American Age of Super Realism, it does not make things so abundantly clear and  in your face. Instead the story coaxes the reader and invites involvement, as a poem does.

The main character is a brave woman named Makina, who is sent to carry an underworld package in exchange for finding her brother.  She is brave and lusty and intuitive and at the same time green and naive for never having traveled.

“When she reached the top of the saddle between the two mountains it began to snow. Makina had never seen snow before and the first thing that struck her as she stopped to watch the weightless crystals raining down was that something was burning.”

The tightly written novella describes her journey into the land of Anglos and how alien the world appears to her. She has trepidatious episodes, and in the end we are left to figure what has exactly happened to her.  No place names are used, which makes the reading minimal and fresh.

PS- update: my latest take on the Spanish word “verse” as used in the book is “to be seen” or a reflexive verb using se, as in “to see oneself.”  Call it an educated guess.

“Guermantes Way” – Proust

9789176053393_200In 2016, after stalling out in Chapter 1 of novel 3 (of In Search of Lost Times), I came back to re-visit and am getting into it again.  I’ll need to go back and re-read that first chapter. Sometime.

But for now, I started where my bookmark was, and that’s Chapter 2. Young man Marcel is now out on his own in Paris, mostly in pursuit of young women. He has enough status and station to arrange to see women by formal letter and then sends for a carriage to bring them to his room. Or in Albertine’s case, he’s around when she pops in unexpectedly. The liaisons are described in slow, tedious actions. We are to assume that Marcel is still green and tentative.  His romantic interactions with Albertine (the boisterous girl from Balbec in beachy novel 2), despite the eloquence of his accounts, seem childish. While she is frank and forthcoming, he lacks the confidence and candor to be an effective lover.

We see a repeating syndrome. Marcel has a thing for an older female aristocrat, as he did as a boy with Swann’s wife the courtesan Odette (and later her daughter Gilberte too). This time his object of desire is the Duchess Guermantes, who as depicted, is a powerful and beautiful woman who could drink a man’s blood like wine. She is separating from her husband and at long last returns some attention to the once-adoring Marcel. He now, and this may change in later pages,  apparently has other conquests on his mind. His numb reactions to her invitations are pitiful and cringe-worthy.  He doesn’t seem to have his values in order. Hovering around him as a reminder of his impetuous behavior is the omnipresent moral enforcer the housekeeper Francoise.  As yet, I am not understanding his friendships with pals Bloch, Robert, and Charlus.

Stay tuned for more of this report.  Novel 4, Cities of the Plain, is under the same book cover. That should be fun,  Only a few hundred more pages to go.

“Lake Success” by Gary Shteyngart

 

At the turning point in his journey of misery and discovery, protagonist Barry Cohen daydreams of Lake Success, NY. It’s like looking for a rope when drowning. A Manhattan mega-capitalist who has spun out of the fast lane, he imagines it’s a safe landing spot, a more peaceful suburban life, replete with healthy sons and matching sinks and domestic bliss. Lake Success is a place of zero madness, he seems to believe, a nostalgic town of anonymity and normalcy.  It is perhaps no ironic accident on the author’s part that this real town was once the location of the United Nations HQ (the book is an international POC extravaganza, most of whom get along) and Sperry-Rand’s gyroscope engineering center (stability, anyone?)

“Lake Success” is an intelligent, piercing, and often humorous look at the Manhattan rich and the American not-so-rich and all the woes befallen to both. It’s set in 2016, the advent of the surprising and, to many, nauseating era of Donald Trump.

We get the added benefit of Shteyngart’s’s ability to write travelog, as he takes his main character by bus from NYC to Richmond to Atlanta to El Paso-Juarez (the author nails the fear of the place perfectly), and at last to San Diego to see his father’s grave.

For all the trouble Barry Cohen creates for himself, he comes out at the end, escaping ignominy and insolvency (he has 35 million left). He re-gathers accomplices in the land of ruthless hedge-fund players and goes on with his life, now single. It couldn’t be any other way. He is an unlikeable character from the start, and often his failures are well deserved. Only his magnetic charm and deep pockets save the day.

He does have a certain Holden Caulfield innocence once away from the trappings of Wall Street, and for this we can say he’s a likable jerk. He loves kids and passionately tries to change the lives of two of them. He dislikes phoniness, begins to realize the danger of designing women. He seeks the heart of the world, stripped down and pitiful, having run away from The Top – and at considerable risk to family and self. Sometimes we worry more about his black Mastercard or his prized watch collection.

It can get ugly.  Barry huffs crack and gets pathetically physical with a man behind a bus station. On another occasion he hooks up with a beautiful black girl seated next to him on the bus. After they have sex in a hotel room, Barry thinks she has stolen his things (she actually put them in the room safe). Both events are gratuitous and kind of creepy. Characters eat each other in this book like cannibals, capitalist ones.

In the Big Ending, we are preconditioned to feel warm and take out our hankies over his autistic son’s dramatic bar mitzvah. It’s difficult to feel much empathy or joy, considering the place of wealth and privilege Barry rented out so the kid can become a man.  Yet one concludes this too is consistent with the story.  Money is what he ultimately knows. Barry Cohen is, after all, still a  very rich asshole who can buy and settle for another kind of “Success.”

Lucia Berlin

luica berlinThis is a collection of short stories I was led to by a comment from Thomas McGuane on NewYorker.com, who names her as his favorite short story writer. I’d never heard of her (she is gone now, 1936- 2004). I wonder again, as with Joy Williams, how I ever missed her stories.

She was writing back in the Sixties and is a child of the Sixties and the Seventies and Eighties as well. She was a visionary, writing into the early 21st century, who never compromised her simple and realistic phrasing and eye for character detail.

Her picaresque life took her all over the world, though most of her sensibilities are primarily Southwest USA with a tablespoon of Mexico and Chile. She flew under the radar until finally getting published in national magazines. She was a sensation and a confirmation of what could be called honest art. In her lifetime, her reputation soared only among those in the know. So it’s good to see her books re-released so all readers can enjoy, as I have, the amazement of discovering terrific, unsung writers of our time.

 

Proust’s “Within a Budding Grove”

The second novel in the series of seven has plenty of slog areas – tedious sections of rumination and digression. In automotive terms, the dwell angle – the delay between firing points – is immense at times. We pause and deliberate, feeling the delay and the opposing expectation of our own reader habit to keep moving on with the story. I felt a sense of repetition, of being caught in a day-after-day loop. Meanwhile Marcel dishes on the aristocrats and has muted experiences at a beachside hotel in Balbec. The effect, likely intentional, is almost as if I too were staying there, alienated and unhappy over the duration of my visit.

I am not sure we can say this lengthy book is all about seeking young girls in flower or budding romance. It’s more about Marcel’s previous big romantic flop in Paris with his first love Gilberte and his subsequent train & beach trip with grandmama to the Normandy coast. There’s a lot of description about isolation, discomfort, and other complaints. As is the tendency with Proust, we are given golden gifts of insight and wisdom amidst the unhappiness, as if that is the prime circumstance for producing such reflections.

Best early section is the actual train trip to Balbec. Best late section is the last block of a hundred pages that include Marcel’s encounters with Albertine and the “gang.”  The last fifty pages are thematically strong (pastries, memory, love, hawthorn leaves). The writing is genius.

At the seaside hotel (which takes up the middle book) the narrative is largely about society – see and be seen. The In-Crowd is often on display at dress-up time in the dining room, a room the narrator depicts as a giant fish tank. Inside they act out their privileged games while everyday folk pass by outside, pause and look in blank wonder through the glass.

Things are not always so stuffy. In the peak of summer, the hotel opens its windows and the guests step in and out on way to the terrace or beach. Marcel does not do the beach. His grandma places him on an upper floor VIP suite lined with glass bookcases that reflect the sunny sea. Marcel dislikes it. He is sickly and cautious.

Eventually some friends (Bloch, Robert, and Charlus) stir him loose. Marcel’s instinctive yearning for romance and sex gets him on the prowl. The object of his affection turns out to be Albertine, who he spots on the boardwalk. We only see her in the last hundred pages or so.

Proust ups the tempo. Things get interesting when our narrator befriends painter Elistir and finally hooks up with the girl he’s been obsessed with, the one from the cadre of girls cruising the beach boulevard. Albertine proves to be outspoken, charming and frank. Her middle-class dialog is a long-awaited breath of fresh air to an otherwise stultifying cast of aristocrats. We get a detailed examination of the games young lovers play, and the turn of Marcel from naive admirer (in the past with Gilberte) to male predator (of Albertine), still holding to childish love fantasies but acting (often not so subtly) with cunning and manipulation. As it develops, she is not that different, just more honest.

proustbook1I switched midbook from the newer Penguin translation to the older 1982 Vintage Press volume (the silver and black set by Moncrief and Kilmartin). Larry McMurtry’s use of this older set led me to it. It reads more majestically and to me sounds better tonally. It is not plagued by 21st century colloquials and clipped phrases. The print and typesetting is far easier on the eyes.

The McMurtry formula for reading Proust: ten pages a day for a year equals over 3500 pages, the approximate total length of all seven novels. I read at a slower pace.

Number three is next: the Guermantes novel.  Meanwhile, I got a copy of the movie “Time Regained,” which is summary-like and weird, but a nice visual accompaniment. It’s based on the book of the same name, the last novel in the series. Not all parts are understandable at this point. There is a powerful scene of Marcel recalling his memories of Swann’s wife Odette when a certain piano concerto is performed.

*My modest report on the first novel “Swann’s Way” is here.

McMurtry’s “Rhino Ranch”

rhinoReading the last installment of our hero’s late-life adventures, I began to wonder if Duane should have been named Randy. Even in his sixties, the guy seems overrun with carnal needs and therefore has instant relations with horny nymphs and errant lesbians and other fantasy girls.

He’s some sort of graying chick magnet who manages to connect with women even randier than himself. They all talk a good game then tend to become servile to him and romantically turn him lose in all directions. If one leaves, another pops up. He’s bewildered.

Duane’s last hurrah is a deceptive porn star who somehow works in the oil business. She will do anything and everything in explicit detail but no penetration with Duane until he has a vasectomy. Guess what our randy hero does.

Along comes a modest, handy-with-dinner Thai girl who (like Annie in the last book) gets to Duane’s heart through his stomach. And then there is leggy K.K. the ball-busting organizer behind the “save the rhinos” organization. And toward book’s end it’s another pretty young thing in cutoffs who wants to serve him, too. Surprisingly, by this time Duane begins to turn them down. He’s cooked. Put a fork in him.

“Rhino’s” last few pages speed through a series of untimely deaths, depleting the cast. What has seemed like a screenplay is over. We will no longer see Duane. To do so would mean to go back and re-read “Texasville,” the four-inch one I started but skipped past.

With Duane gone, the family future is left to grandson Willy, the only one who has made it in the world of successful and intellectual people, who are oft-alluded to by Honor and K.K. as players in a sort of privileged and venal playground that exists outside the simple limitations of the one blinking traffic light in Thalia, Texas.

McMurtry’s “When the Light Goes”

lmcDirectly following the chronology in “Duane’s Depressed,” this short novel is the Thalia series’ statement book on intimacy. Events are centered on protagonist Duane Moore and extend to all the other characters. By book’s end we know how most of them get along with their mates. The dusty town of Thalia, a place where bed-hopping has long been an accepted sport, is facing obsolescence, as are the sex lives of the aging cast.

The story is slow to launch, like Duane’s middle leg. By the late chapters he is taking the magic blue V pills.The reader wonders why he didn’t think about them earlier.

No matter the storyline, it’s McMurtry on display once again, and he delivers with seamless narrative and superb characterization. We are welcomed and drawn in. Some readers may be repelled by the explicit sex and language.  I think McMurtry’s blue prose is under control: vivid and sensory but not sensational or fantasy-driven in a cheapened way.

Sixty-ish oilman and amateur Thoreau Duane Moore is still in love with his psychiatrist. Dr. Honor Carmichael is a fiftyish lesbian who despite her frosty front seems to be more than clinically interested in him. The book is engaging enough (and short with a building sharp pace, as in novella length) to push the reader ahead quickly, providing a few unexpected twists in how that situation between doc and patient works out. That’s the by far best part of the novel.

Unfortunately the story loses this interesting dynamic when Honor vanishes again and McMurtry brings young oil surveyor Anne into the action. Annie is a precocious and improbable Texas brat who is, as they say, all hat and no cattle – she’s sexually hung-up and can’t back up her flirty ways.  Nevertheless our hero gets entangled with her, and (even if the author wishes us to feel otherwise) their encounters are insipid and sad. Anne is no Karla and definitely no Honor. They don’t seem to go together. We are left with a dumbed-down Duane & Annie romance that seems to exist by default.

The town of Thalia is fading fast and has no purpose, giving way to a cluster of WalMarts and Targets. Its local fixture convenience store and Dairy Queen are now run by Sri Lankans. Duane sells his house, abandons his cabin, and relocates to Arizona with Annie. Their relationship continues apparently on the mythical premise of “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”

Which leads to his long-postponed coronary bypass surgery. Duane sits on the veranda and looks out on the desert landscape to ponder what may be next in his life. We’ll find out in the next book, “Rhino Ranch.”

Larry McMurtry’s Thalia series: “Duane’s Depresssed”

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In the original Thalia trilogy sequence, this is novel 3, released after “Texasville” and “The Last Picture Show.”

This is the story of Duane Moore at 60-something and how he steps away from his traditional life, en route to self-discovery and potentially a nervous breakdown as well.  It’s a quest and at the same time an abandonment. It’s a rarity in popular fiction books these days: a thorough examination of how an aging male tends to think, change, shed, yearn. The novel has aspects similar to Updike’s later-years “Rabbit,” but the angst and manners are Southern.

Despite occasional scenes of tedium and redundancy, the narrative is enjoyable and well presented. McMurtry’s perceptions and humor are always cooking underneath. In novel series mode, there are a lot of accumulative characterizations and brief summaries of history.  It’s all concise and good  – we are kept in the loop with longtime Thalia cast members Bobby Lee, Jacy, Sonny, Ruth, and Lester.

When McMurtry brings what is pertinent  to the foreground, it is all the more amplified by the generous existence in his narrative of what is not pertinent. This is a key element in his writing style.

Duane looks for some way to see the world other than from the cab of a pickup truck and becomes a dedicated walker and bicyclist. In between he experiences the difficulties of  busting loose, the joys and challenges of solitude, new ways to regard the world, and so on. By book’s end he has lost his wife, given away his dog, built a garden, and fallen in love with a lesbian psychologist. Eventually he is broken down emotionally and collapses. He hastily regroups and in his last act of escape, he hurriedly enlists a travel agent and flies away to exotic places abroad.

McMurtry is never better. Actions are emblematic and open to interpretation. In the novel’s final chapters, he weaves in elements of his own experience with reading Proust (the author read the volumes during recovery from heart surgery). Duane’s psychologist, a sophisticated woman named Honor, asks him by way of a prescription to read the Vintage three- volume set (about 3,000 pages)  of “In Search of Lost Times.” Duane, who is a simple yet smarter-than-most Texas dude, works his way through it over a year’s time. Honor invites him to a book discussion, and McMurtry creates an electrifying chapter where surprises abound. In his subsequent next-day session at Honor’s office, the book’s climax takes place.

 

Barthelme’s “There Must Be Some Mistake”

books54We see some familiar touches here: the divorced aging male, his loyal friends and still-attached relatives, his exotic lovers, and an exurbian condo setting replete with nearby secret forts, i.e., the Velodrome and its tiny Airstream trailer section, reminiscent of the getaway airplane cabin wreckage in the woods in his novel Tracer.

It’s a cozy read, never strident and true to the world we live in. Well, maybe the plot and its neighbors falling like flies is a stretch, but that doesn’t matter. At the core, it’s a novel about community and one man’s place smack dab in the middle of one. That sounding board being Wallace Webster, who works for an ad firm and prefers the simple life where one draws wider focus from a narrower view. Wallace seems a level-headed dude with lots of sexual prowess. The other guys in the neighborhood are flawed and bumbling men, several of whom die. Ok, so Wallace is the community’s fiftyish years-old chick magnet.

We get interesting characters. A girlfriend (Jilly) who cracks lines like a female Morey Amsterdam;  a couple of spooky female survivor types from Jerry Springer land (Chantal and her daughter); some nosy HOA type people, a fluffy-brained police investigator with a cozy name (as in “Detective Darling”), and so on. There is an air of female veneration.

Included are lots of everyday trifling details that draw our interest, like the guilty pleasure of late-night Saltines and butter. Barthelme does not shy away from today’s world of iPads and Facebook (in a direct hit on modern American behavior, Wallace says when a question comes up, “I can Google it. Right now.”). He includes tech culture and its niggling devices and sites, alluding to their complications and influences in our life but not to the point of admitting dominance. It’s good to see, and as many writers know, not that easy to do (it’s easier for many writers to move back the clock).

The dialog features a boundless supply of erudite cleverness coming from the mouths of all the major players, despite their unpretentious existence (with meals at Wendy’s and the Olive Garden). The community described is out in the bleak coastal plain community of Kemah, sort of rural east Houston (if I recall, there was a beer joint in that area back in the 80s called Maribelle’s which Velodrome somehow dredged from my memory). It must be exhausting for Wallace and his lady friends to constantly address every little aspect of life in such cute terms. The go-for-a-quick-ha-ha aspect of some of the dialog can ring false sometimes.

Then there are those longer discussions, the All About Me background ones, in which a character talks about himself in interview fashion while the avid listener adds prompts and queries and then responds like a chorus with affirmations and touchés. Barthelme has also drawn some from his personal and family past in portraying Wallace as son of an architect and as someone who was involved in painting. In one section I had the sensation of reading the author’s memoir notes.

Webster has a tendency to tell people everything. He’s about involvement and even confession rather than detachment and reticence.  That’s good for making fiction.

 

Luke Mogelson’s Stories

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This is my update from February.

“Total Solar” appeared in the New Yorker earlier this year, inspiring me to mark the calendar for the release of the first published collection of Luke Mogelson’s stories.

I ordered it but didn’t read right away. This summer I’ve stubbornly stuck to short fiction’s best of breed, the tried and true Hemingway’s Finca Vigia Collection. Then I took a break and stepped back briefly into modern writers’ time. I’m glad, for it’s quality stuff.

I figured I would fly through Mogelson’s book but his stories have a richness and layering of intent that makes a reader slow down, even go back and re-read, which in my view is a sign of a  well-done short story: one that asks to be re-examined.

Mogelson is not hesitant to deliver narrative in strings of expository sentences rather than scene. He can do both, and he can cut the fat and expose the iceberg with the best of them.

Were they all war stories? No, not completely. Two vivid accounts from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are “Kids” and “Total Solar.” The latter is exemplary in construction. Other stories involve veterans struggling to find their way with physical disabilities or mental disorders. I got the impression that perhaps the author was at times channeling Hemingway’s “A Soldier Home” which doesn’t describe war at all but instead focuses on its personal aftermath. These are not cheerful stories.

“The Port is Near” was gloomy too but had some humor, and we half-expected to see a happier ending to this one. The protagonist’s only direct allusion to service is a 9-11 reference describing when he lived in San Francisco “before they attacked us and I volunteered.” The rest is about his post-tour job aboard a net-fishing boat with a psycho captain (jobs for vets are hard to come by, that implies). Mogelson delivers an engrossing sea adventure scaled to short story size. Being on the fishing boat is in itself  a battle of sorts and one that also ends with madness and loss.

“Some Clouds” by Paco Taibo II

clouds

The symbolic clouds are puffy white and filled with promise as the story opens in a tropical paradise where independent detective Hector, now with a limp and minus an eye, is recharging after his wounds suffered in “No Easy Thing.” His retreat is cut short, and he re-enters a crime world far beyond his ability. By the end of this book, the clouds are dark and foreboding over the evil in Mexico City — Hector will describe them as “clouds of shit.”

In a masterful and imaginative mood, Taibo writes himself into this book as a writer. The character is named Paco Ignacio. The chapter in which Hector and Paco meet is like an interview between the author and his protagonist. Ignacio later plays a surprisingly important role in the story and becomes a deux ex machina figure.

Hector’s sister Elisa reappears from the previous book and talks Hector into looking into a friend’s murder case. She later regrets that she led her brother into such danger. We get the feeling at the end (it is only about 130 pages, perfect for a Hector novel) that our hero is not out of the woods. He won’t flee the country and hide however. He will remain in Mexico and face even more trouble in the next novel, “No Happy Ending.”

Each of Taibo’s Hector Belascoaran novels can stand on its own. Yet without reading them collectively and in sequence, the reader may be unaware of Hector’s past, and thereby miss some nuances. They’re also likely to miss how the next book picks up a thread or mood and continues it.

Eggers’ “A Hologram for the King”

(originally posted August 10, 2012 and updated April 29, 2016) – The movie version is out, a sleek ninety-minutes featuring Tom Hanks and some stunning photography from the fictional and troubled megaplex being built by the Red Sea, and from a homogenized Jeddah hotel (where the concierge repeatedly recites “Welcome to the Hyatt”in an Arab accent). There is a scene with some great footage shot in Mecca, where Alan Clay (Hanks) nervously hides in the car as a non-Moslem.

It’s an important movie, a tale of love and redemption that informs us about international relations, specifically with the Arab world. In these times perhaps some will find it increases understanding and peels away blind hate.

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 11.02.01 PMIt’s also a take on how it can be sometimes to work in IT. You get sent on a boondoggle, the conditions suck, the network is down, you’re hungry, and no one pays attention to you unless you complain enough or do something outside the rules (like Alan sneaking upstairs without a badge).

In the novel, Eggers’ writing style is clean and direct, similar to the clipped style he used in “Zeitoun.” The book’s print job has illogical spacing. In some instances a gap is put between sentences obviously belonging to the same paragraph. Without the random spacing, and with some merciful reduction of a few scenes here and there, this thing could be close to novella land.

The story moves well, conventionally, and slows down in the middle. It is loaded with humor: the character Yousef is an instant hit, Westernized and corrupted by two cultures. The novel gives a rare look inside the unknown world of the UAE.  It’s a dual world, orderly on the surface, yet disordered on the underside. The work ethic is amorphous. Imports do much of it (“We don’t have unions. We have Fillpinos”). The orgiastic scene at the Danish embassy pretty well sums up the conflicting “moral guidelines” of compound residents vs. citizens.

The protagonist (Alan Clay) suffers a frustrating impasse inside the King’s new business complex, as he and his IT team wait for a chance to make their big pitch to sell the Arabs a holographic teleconferencing product. Meanwhile they’re stuck in a tent, largely ignored, without food and without wi-fi.  During this seemingly endless delay, Alan begins to fall apart. We are privy to flashback after flashback of guilt, shame, and failure.

He’s not a happy guy. And neither are we, suffering along with him. Along the way, we are reminded of the disembowelment of our economy by handing over all our work to cheap labor outside the country. There is a strong section about PPG Glass losing the new Freedom Tower contract to China, who manages to get the work Alan and his crew were after, too. Eggers manages to fit this into the story without making it shout editorial interruption.

Alan’s history of failure with the dying American bike company, Schwinn, is put in contrast to his new dreams as an IT salesman who helps wire the New Arabia. So we have mechanical vs. electronic, the tangible vs. ethereal.

Alan can’t seem to do much right. Two seductive ladies fall for him (we don’t know why), and he can’t handle that either. Can’t perform. One of them is a doctor who surgically excavates the cyst on his spine. Little goes right for them. As she eventually says, “it’s all very sad.”

At the end where we are dropped off, it appears as if finagling a job with the King’s “start-up” business will be his last chance saloon. His last chance to build something to save himself. He’s a man without a country. With a hole in his back.

The movie, however, has things end on a happier note.