Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
overdue book reports still under construction
Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
overdue book reports still under construction
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.
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- You have to work with the English translation a bit on this one. The fact that the translator ends the book with an eight-page explanation of how hard her job was, reinforces how awkward the translation can be in places. Perhaps the Spanish original is highly colloquial with street talk. I have yet to come to terms with “verse” as a frequently employed verb for walking or leaving (is it a chopped street version of “transverse”? But no, that’s not Spanish.) And then the mystical and dire end place where Makina goes is marked at the door with “Verse,” so we are further perplexed.
In 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.
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.”
A 1960s novel, today it reads fresh and powerful. Parts of it describe material that was likely shocking fifty years ago, but now is folded well into our huge complicated mix of what is socially and/or morally acceptable – or more cynically, what isn’t?
Cheever’s narrative about domestic America is like Updike on weed. It’s wild and often sad and then entertaining and always visionary. The glowing introduction by Dave Eggers describes Cheever’s fictional skills and mentions how much humor can be found in his scenes. Any randomly picked Cheever sentence can be a trove of insight, clever turn of phrase, or vivid imagery.
The book calls for a second reading in the future, a writer’s examination of technique. First time around, the read was for story, which seemed like a chain of episodes filled with human error, sexual misdirection, alcoholism, and misery. The events involve characters from the Boston-like suburb of “St. Botolphs.”
The centerline of the narrative is often without clear direction, and what begins as a focused report about this small community later breaks apart and rambles into tangential sub-stories occurring in distant cities and countries. In Chapter 31, the loop comes back to start when a train again arrives. It’s Christmas time and people begin to return home. A central figure is dying. Circles are closing. The sentences are sublime; someone is showing us how to end a novel. Angels come to the gates.
As an aside, I haven’t read (nor plan to) the prequel “Wapshot Chronicle,” which covers the St. Botolphs folks in their earlier years.
This 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.
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.
I 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.
Reading 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.
Directly 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.”
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.
We 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.
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.
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.
(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.
It’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.
Larry McMurtry presents a mixed bag of topics here, essays and personal accounts related to his love of books and writing. He uses a cowboy metaphor, stating his life-work is to corral and tame words and drive them forward to a conclusion. Books are his wide open range where he has spent a lifetime roaming.
He is certainly qualified to talk cowboy, having been one in his youth when he grew up on a ranch in the northern plains of Texas, in Archer City. It’s a real place and also a fictionalized place where movies were shot based on his novels, like “The Last Picture Show” and “Texasville.”
Of more academic substance, McMurtry gives a compelling history of the Texas plains where his family settled and ranched in pioneer days and beyond. It’s also a world he wanted to escape from, going off to urban centers where the supply of books is as abundant as thinking and diversity. So he forsook his father in following a life as rancher and chose to be a bookworm and a novelist. Eventually he came back and and settled.
McMurtry validates his subtitle “reflections at sixty and beyond.” He at times is crotchety and nostalgic over times and customs long since lost. It’s a good read, more complex than it first appears. Some patience is required when he wanders off on side roads. One of the better side roads is his account of heart surgery – how surgery and deep anesthesia can change a person. I know several people, including myself, who will vouch for this….something is lost in that suspended time, and its recovery is doubtful. Larry McMurtry fought back to regain his abilities after surgery when he was unable to read. His eventual long dive into the works of Proust and Woolfe reinvigorated the writer in him, a thankful turn for him and all of us who love his writing.
(The book is entertaining. You can read it like Tolstoy – in parts. A brief update to previous post)
McMurtry’s writing in this one is often like rodeo-talk mixed with the campy voice of “Dodge Ram tough.” Events can sometimes be trifling and sometimes sublime. When the author shifts to events of more substance the writing comes forward with an accomplished ease.
The book’s ending soars above the rest. The Montana chapters and Woodrow Call’s return-to-Texas chapters have their own tone and relentless pace. The writing is clear and unobtrusive and therefore perfect for the action.
McMurtry’s general readership may not know his creative writing credentials. He took his degree in Texas then joined a highly talented class of writers at Stanford University back in the Sixties, including Robert Stone and Ken Kesey. Frank O’Connor was one of his teachers.
McMurtry gives us honest prose using the omniscient voice of a skilled novelist. There is no short-changing, plenty of patience. In such a lengthy book, enormous writing energy is required to create scene after scene, weaving the motives and desires of characters, making them vivid, and placing them in an action-packed milieu that we can see and experience. Larry McMurty is a treasure in American fiction.
As if a traditional narrative novel had been mined, and material of value retained and all non-essentials ejected. The remaining ore was enhanced, polished and modularized, then shuffled into a sequence. Each part of the 500+parts has its own impact, its own exhibit or event or revelation.
It makes for disarming reading at first, then one gets into the mood of the narrator, a wry-humored woman teetering on the edge. Our narrator/heroine negotiates a family crisis, drugs, promiscuity, and ADD, and more than a fair share of lousy men in her life (who she relentlessly disses). Much of the comedy derives from her shakey job writing an insipid screenplay, working for an impossible boss in a movie industry for “stupid people.”
I admire and enjoy Mary Robison’s writing (cf. my review of Subtraction). She’s cut her own path in prose. She has the rare combination I like: a poet’s command of words and a cynic’s keen eye directed on America. A Univ. Southern Mississippi and U of H product (and among other places JHU as well) she has been writing and teaching since the early 80s. I wonder if I may have met her in my Houston days, maybe at Rice when Donald Barthelme did a visit-lecture there, and many of us back then hung out in Chaucer’s basement bar inside the old Plaza Hotel.
There’s a good interview with Mary Robison in The Bomb.
The translator Laura Dail must know her verb conjugations well. That’s extra important in a book written with a Spanish ojalá premise: if only detective Hector Shayne Belascoaran hadn’t died in the previous book. And you may believe the story that’s about to unfold, even to the climax when mariachi bands are employed as frontline troops.
Taibo brings Hector back to Mexico City for one more show, teasing with us about his right to create character immortality. We readers move up another notch in the suspension of disbelief scale, and we do so gladly because we are aficionados.
In many parts of the book the story is related in a variant of subjunctive mode with what if’s, and it would be nice that’s, and it could have happened like this’s. Owing to a good translation job and the brilliance of Taibo as a writer, the narrative is well-presented with a mix of voices from the humorous author and beleaguered heroic Hector. We buy in and feel assured of entertainment with plenty of human truths added.
During the series we sense that Paco and his character are one and the same soul.
This is likely it for one-eyed Hector and his pony-tail girlfriend. That’s okay, we can go back and re-read and enjoy the five other ones (plus there’s the untranslated “Días de Combate” to delve into).
By way of contrast Hotchner’s 1970s biography “Papa” is a great read, as close a look as we can get to Hemingway the man. It’s a good book for two reasons: one, Hotchner is a terrific writer, concise and communicative without being fancy; and two, he and Papa were truly good friends. The candor and respect shown between author and subject creates an eager reader interest and provides veracity to the accounts. Unlike other bio’s I’ve read, I never felt I was getting any bogus or skewed information in “Papa.”
This new one (dated October 20, 2015) was also produced by Hotchner, who’s now in his 90s. Most all of the Paris players and the last wife are gone. Hotch admits in his intro that he waited in order to not step on any toes, or risk hurting Mary Hemingway’s feelings. We see Hemingway as a changed person, closer to mortality after his two near-death Africa airplane crashes. Often he is drinking wine in a series of hotel room meetings with his pal Hotch. These were occasions when Papa was either in ostensibly high spirits or he was blue, expressing regret and spilling over with irony and self-effacement.
As good as Hotchner’s writing remains – and despite an unflagging interest and admiration of Hemingway and his circle – I don’t have the same sense of complete trust with this little book. It’s not a matter of doubt about the authenticity of the information, most of which is already known, or the personal portrayals of Hemingway.
Instead it’s a matter of how Hemingway’s dialog is captured in the text. There’s a license to fudge in a memoir, but long sections of Papa’s conversations sound too pat, too prosaic and laden with facts. The author has Papa describe events or people he knew and books they wrote with Wikipedian detail. Not so sure I buy the Midgetape recordings claim.
The novel is an overwrought love story presented to us in a most literate and poetic way. It rolls out [twice] the truths and deceptions of a complex relationship between two exceptionally strong personalities. The his and her views are revealed under the watchful microscopic eye of the knowing author, the voyeuristic reader, and some snoopy secondary characters as well (e.g. Antoinette, Chollie, Rachel, and old ESP Bette).
Among the appositional statements the author throws into the mix, one of the most interesting appears when Shakespeare’s Volumnia is used as a point of comparison. Volumnia is the bad-ass mother figure in Coriolanus, who controls her son and rants obsessively, guarding him like a lover (her likeness is Antoinette). Coriolanus is maybe the most down and dirty play the Bard ever produced.
I think it’s safe to say Groff’s novel has more than its share of down and dirty: including cruel mothers, pandering perverts, drunk abusers, sleaze bags, con artists, dangerous neurotics, and lots of porn. Plus deceit, extortion, suicide, self-sterilization, betrayal, and vengeance.
Groff writes in language that is powerful and orchestrated with her content. Her imagery is raw and fresh, often hypnotic. Too often the aesthetic is dumbed down with a sudden sex act. The carnal imagery can go too far (or linger in a frat room somewhere) with lingo like, “and he shucked her right there.” When that happens, the narrative trance is interrupted.
Groff can do the atmospheric magic. She offers a fine portayal of caring artists and creativity in the colony-retreat section. The trap is set. Against idyllic venues on the beach and in the countryside or in the Big City and even Paris, she sets down a chilling collection of conniving, cold-hearted types fucking and vomiting and bickering their way through the pedestrian world. The characters wheel about. Back and forth we go: gifts and denials, triumphs and disappointments, comedy and tragedy.
Smelling the worst is the aroma of extortion.
In the long run, beauty and light edges out sordid darkness. The ending is sad and not as tidy as it could be. It meanders too much in time. It tries to offer redemption that seems too late. The dog named God is lost and then found. Conclusions are delivered before we can arrive at them.
As Orwell reminds us, a literary novel brings with it a wave of anarchy, and Groff is not afraid to shake things up, reach for the moon and take chances.
Taibo uses a tidy 12-chapter mystery format in this one. Other than a single chapter dedicated to the backstories of each of Hector’s office mates (for entertainment purposes, we suppose, not storyline), hardly a single word is wasted. Mexico City is laid out before us in gritty detail. It’s shown as a city beyond order and hope, held together by the remaining good-natured fabric of most of its natives. It’s a land of sugary soda pops, dangerous streets, venal policemen, gangsters, whores, and sometimes humorous and endearing characters, like the office crew and Hector’s elusive love interest, the girl with the pony tail.
Since authors can do such things, Taibo brings his hero back by popular demand in a subsequent novel “Return to the Same City,” subject of a future book report.
The other – the real first book, is “Días de Combate” which Taibo published for Spanish-speaking readers only. I bought a copy and will give it my best shot translating/reading and reporting on it this winter.
As any review out there will tell you about “Easy Thing” (there is no article una in the Spanish title), the book’s made up of three cases that Hector has taken on at once. As he madly juggles the various events, we learn the most about him in the interim scenes when he’s with family, lovers, or his eclectic office mates (a sewer engineer, an upholsterer and a plumber). As in many American hardboiled crime stories, we are more entertained by the hero himself and his interplay and commentary on the world around him than by the actual plotlines.
Similar to his later novel “Frontera Dreams” (review), Taibo gives us realistic observations about the condition of Mexico, its inherent corruption, and the people’s low-key angst. “An Easy Thing” is longer than most Taibo novels and doesn’t exhibit the same kind of streamlined potency that “Frontera Dreams” has. But the gems within the story are well worth slogging through the most tedious of the three cases, the one about factory union murders. The other two cases, one about a porn star and her daughter involved in extortion, and the other a search to see if Mexican hero Emiliano Zapata is still alive, are less political and more entertaining.