Saturday, April 28, 2012

Damascus Gate by Robert Stone

In Jerusalem, you can’t stand on the side; you must claim your tribe.

I was both disappointed by and fascinated by this book. I couldn’t put it down, though I kept wondering – is this genre fiction or is this literary fiction? Unlike the Dennis Lehane novel which I now believe falls squarely into the genre camp, the story of Damascus Gate and especially its setting of Jerusalem, was compelling and deeply interesting. Robert Stone grapples with essential questions about history, spirituality and identity. On every page, I learned something, though I didn’t get a lot of aesthetic pleasure from the read, because the characterization and the dialogue fell below acceptable standards.

The characterization is sketchy, unless we want to consider the city of Jerusalem as a character.   This might be connected to the dialogue scenes going on too long and not illuminating character but rather conveying information in a way in which if the information wasn't so interesting would be highly monotonous. Also, there feels like there are hundreds of similarly obsessed characters and I got confused. And not one of these hundreds possesses a sense of humor.

Part of the reason I wasn’t fully engaged is that the primary character or narrative conscious, Christopher Lucas, is extremely passive. At every turn, he is being acted upon, beaten up as a child because he is a Jew, abandoned by his girlfriend, unable to get an erection, beaten up as an adult for being a Jew, beaten up as an adult for not being a Jew. I didn’t feel his pain, and couldn’t root for him as he was starting to annoy me. And then the love of his life, Sonia Barnes, a half black, half Jewish Sufi, came across as really dull. I didn’t understand why these people were attracted to each other. The best characters are the evil ones, I think, the end-of-timers, the cynics, the ones creating the mischief. The various subplots had more appeal than Christopher's search for identity. Unfortunately the engine of the plot was a very “genre-y” hidden bomb search, which got silly at the end. (But don’t they always get silly at the end?)

The most striking thing about this book was its strong sense of place – Jerusalem – a unique city claimed by three major religions, a cauldron of bloody hatreds. Finally, despite the boring central characters, there are beautiful passages of description.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Lying Low by Diane Johnson

You can’t hide forever.

A lightly fictionalized Davis, California in the early 70’s is the setting for this wonderful novel, with its colorful food coops, Photophobia “chicks” and bomb making anarchists. The story is about four scarred (and scared) people living in an old Victorian, hiding out from full participation in life, in some cases because of a quite legitimate fear. Theo and Anton, brother and sister, own the historical home. Theo is a retired ballet dancer, bossy and frightened. They have two boarders, two young women; the secretive leaving no fingerprints Lynn, distracted by lust, and the immigrant fiercely optimistic Ouida, who is determined to participate fully in America. There are mysteries from the past and dangerous secrets to be confronted.

I loved the way the fully realized characters intermeshed and the way the sentences were thoughtful and beautifully written. The satirical plotting went down easily and inevitably. One of Diane Johnson’s trademarks, (or narrative weaknesses perhaps) is the gigantic set piece to close the novel, which sometimes clanks too loudly with a farcical heavy handedness. This novel definitely contains a set piece at the end, though this time it felt more realistic, sadder. This novel ended on a note of sharp melancholy. But optimistic. Yes.

The three primary female characters are completely developed and motivated—the men, not so much. They are a little bit like one note plot points.  Overall, the book is a commentary on America, and on not wasting your life because of fear.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Great House by Nicole Krauss

What is the response when someone tries to erase not only you, but your identity?

I had bailed early on Krauss’s earlier book, The History of Love, thinking it too saccharine, but Great House for some reason I kept checking out of the library, never actually getting around to starting it. But I’m so glad I finally did. Krauss is a beautiful prose stylist. This is the proper way to do the linked short story structure, I think, not some heap of prose huts around a campfire, but interconnected parts that build and rise to a towering insight. And I think the insight is, Keep the faith.

The somewhat flimsy plotting relies on an old desk which moves among generations and continents and characters, touching the lives of four families. Characters either borrow the desk, or give away the desk or pine for the desk. What does it mean to hold something in safekeeping? What are the responsibilities? Is anything ever really yours?

I liked the doubling, the tripling of characters and themes. Three writers, three baby boys. Three people who look disconcertingly like the tortured to death Daniel Varsky. I liked the mystery – why does the book open with a woman confessing to “Your Honor”? Although, in retrospect, perhaps it got a bit too mysterious, as not all the references and hints were neatly wrapped up by the final page.

Most of all I liked the writing.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

A French housewife seeks happiness in all the wrong places

Madame Bovary is the story of Emma Bovary, a French housewife, deeply dissatisfied with her life.  She perceives the root of her unhappiness to be her stolid mildly incompetent husband, Charles. He spoils her, turns the household and his life upside down to bring her happiness, to no avail. Emma Bovary seeks a transformational passion, finding it briefly in the arms of two successive lovers. Later, her deceptions grow bolder.  Eventually she financially and emotionally ruins her loving husband. As the hour of reckoning nears, she kills herself.

This book was hard to read at times because the story is such a downer, but the writing was tremendous. The tawdry or sickening plot is propelled by a number of exquisite set pieces, using detailed language to evoke all the senses. Bovary's visit to the farm, the wedding procession, the party at the nobleman's house, Emma running through the fields to Rodolphe’s house, the endless taxi ride with Leon. And finally, the incredibly written death scene. The end is spectacular, like the end of Moby Dick.  The reader is fascinated, unable to put down the book.  Majestic. Each one of the extremely memorable scenes felt like it was cut with a diamond. The details were perhaps just as important as the passion propelling the story. It’s all about the sadness and the futility of life and the beauty of the sadness and the futility of life.

It's just that Emma Bovary is silly. She longs for vulgar things and thinks they will make her happy and seems stupidly surprised when they don’t. In the end, she destroys her life, which is fine with me, but she also destroys the lives of her husband and daughter, as well. Hands down, Emma Bovary has to be one of the worst mothers in literature.  And yet, I kept thinking, Emma Bovary and I have lots in common. Lots. It’s human nature to be dissatisfied.

Also, it’s not like she gleefully leaps into the abyss. She tries to be good, obviously suffers from incapacitating depressions, and in addition to the admiration of men, attempts to seek solace from the all too practical Church. And does her problem stem from reading too many novels? Perhaps. Perhaps it stems from the leisure time to read so many novels. I don’t think Emma Bovary was hurt by cultural female subjugation as much as she was hurt by the lack of consumer financial protection. The money lender, Lheureux, is the engine of the plot and one of the villains. She is taken advantage of by the handsome rogue and by the money lender, unscrupulous people. The scrupulous people she despises.

The actual reading of the book was sort of a chore – was it because it was a translation? Also, I need chuckles and I need uplift and this had chuckles (although rather tedious nineteenth century chuckles) but it completely lacked up uplift. What does it mean that in the last sentence the mendacious pharmacist gets the Legion of Honor? I read that, and I thought, Flaubert must have hated France.

This was the eighth novel in my project, Re-reading the Classics. So far, a worthwhile endeavor.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

A nervous young poet is paralyzed by self consciousness

I was disappointed in this short novel, although I thought the sentences were beautifully crafted and that I really felt and understood the narrator’s emotions. The story is about Adam Gordon, a young award winning poet, who helplessly fritters away the precious months of his highly prized fellowship by wandering around Madrid, smoking hash and feeling self conscious. Incredibly self conscious. He falls into perhaps one sided relationships with two nearly interchangeable Spanish women. In a way, it’s a story of not exactly knowing what is going on since Adam is not quite fluent in Spanish and is unsure most of the time what people are saying (about him). Then a real thing happens, a tragic thing – the 2004 Madrid train bombings. But the bombings are for Adam merely another excuse to feel self conscious and wonder about his chances of landing the girl(s). Increased? Diminished? This tale of yet another over entitled American never takes that sharp leftward turn into transcendence that would make its reading worthwhile. The stakes remain low throughout.  Adam and the reader remain neurosis bound on earth.