Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

Four horse races and their stakes

This is all about the dialogue. A no doubt about it American dialogue. This novel reminds me of two I’ve read recently – Fat City by Leonard Gardner and Galveston by Nic Pizzolato.  Fat City because of its plunge into the life of a bunch of losers soldiering on only through their love of a dirty sport, and Galveston because of its hard eyed view of American losers, though I think Galveston had, in retrospect, a phony marshmallow heart and Lord of Misrule has a legitimate heart.

The prose was ornate and hard and poetic and enjoyable to read. The only problem was that about 15% of the time the explaining got over convoluted and I had to go back and reread to figure out what was going on. But when the prose was good it was very very good.

The characters were extremely colorful losers and racetrack hangers on - a shared sense of fate, and luck and a sacred love of horses. The plotting was seamless, but then sort of fell apart and the book ended like an episode of Charlie’s Angels from 1976.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Health and Happiness by Diane Johnson

Doctors are only human

A hospital is its own little world, filled with greed or lust or petty malice. At the same time, hospitals and Western medicine are pinnacles of our civilization because they halt death and restore patients to life.   Sort of like Jesus.  A hospital can also kill patients, which is one of the subplots in this novel. Once again, as I read my way through her collected fiction, I was very impressed by Diane Johnson's world creation skills.

The story begins a little stiffly, then I was immediately sucked in. The major characters are Philip Watts, senior professor of medicine, an excellent thoughtful doctor, though also something of a goody two shoes martinet; Ivy Tarro, a slightly dippy flower child who comes to the hospital with a minor ailment and is almost killed; and Mimi Franklin, the slightly pitiful divorcee who is head of Volunteers.

This book is as elaborately plotted and as filled with characters as a tv show’s bible - - and yet this is not cliché genre fiction – real things are happening inside the walls of this building. I think Diane Johnson’s approach is to use a comic vision to observe many things, including tragedies, such as the gifted young man with sickle cell anemia, the thoughtful old lady who is being kept alive by artificial measures, the brain dead meathead who overdosed on cocaine. Much of the book is not politically correct, but it’s inherently interesting. A glimpse into a San Francisco hospital is a look at the cultural mish mash that is America.

I learned something about modern medicine and something about plotting, the way the minor characters are used as plot points. Also there’s sort of a quiet political commentary on the high cost of health care, the inability of seemingly rational people to pull the plug on a near death loved one, and the hardly suppressed materialism of most doctors.  Excellent writing.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Girl Factory by Jim Krusoe

A nerd tries to rescue naked women held in suspended animation

My final conclusion is that this weird novel is subversive, though it started slowly with a boring chessplaying dog. The story got better once our very literal minded lonely hero Jonathan discovers the naked ladies suspended in giant tanks downstairs of the frozen yogurt shop where he clerks. Jonathan has had bad luck with women in the past – his two prior loves dropped him with zero explanation. And one of the tank ladies strongly resembles an old girlfriend. The plot then takes over and the story becomes gripping as Jonathan tries to figure out a way to revive the ladies. I don’t want to give away the surprise, but huge chunks consist of Jonathan dragging bodies to the Dumpster. And it is very funny, but you feel you shouldn’t laugh at dead women being tossed in the dumpster. That’s probably where the subversion comes in.

The story is set in the here and now except it’s really not. The world of Girl Factory is completely imagined but feels like a candy colored version of our own. I loved the dialogue, though overall I think this novel is not making a bold statement about American society, but a well crafted humorous statement about life extending machines in the basement of a suburban frozen yogurt shop.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

My Hollywood by Mona Simpson

Nannies and mommies are wary of each other in affluent West LA

I enjoyed this absorbing old fashioned novel addressing two traditional subjects – love and money. Not the love of a man  – but the love of a Baby. The novel is about Claire, a composer in her late thirties who is overwhelmed by caring for her infant, as well as baffled by her husband, who suddenly wants to change careers and coasts to become a comedy writer with ungodly work hours. They decide to hire a nanny and luckily end up with Lola, a fiftyish down to earth Filipina. The novel switches between their narrative voices. Lola has the much more powerful and distinctive voice. Claire is passive and sometimes you feel like she’s whining about being rich – but that’s part of the satire, I think. All of the American mothers depicted here come off as shallow materialistic commodities.

The world of wives and nannies are shown with small cutting little scenes – the two worlds are completely different. One group drives BMW’s, one takes endless bus lines. The nannies’ world is harrowing and tragic – and yet the women, all recent immigrants, really strive together and protect each other from the various degrees of exploitation. The American women are competitive about their producer husbands, mansions, kids and pools. (Pools play an important thematic and plot point.)

The book’s not perfect. If I was complaining last week about Philip Roth’s characterization of women, then I must point out the tissue thin characterization of men. These sex avoiding women aren't in thrall to their men the way they are to their babies – Guys only contribute $ and an X or Y chromosome. And the ending of the novel is rather dubious.

But overall a really valuable look at LA.  America need more novels like this.