Sunday, July 29, 2012

Dead Boys by Richard Lange

Confused passionate guys stumble around LA.

I really enjoyed these stories – they were full of life.  I never got bored, although the set up was always the same– first person narration, a tough guy, kind of a fuck up, a loyal woman by his side as he confronts life in this sunny uncaring city. The sameness of the technique risked monotony, though I didn’t find these stories monotonous at all. I was completely sucked into the characters, their desperate drunken need to make things right. The writing was perfect for the subject matter – not overwritten, but lively.

Although I wasn’t crazy about the title story, “Dead Boys”. Perhaps it was a little too gritty. I liked “Bank of America”. The tension was real and very effective.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

A madman can be who he wants

Await Your Reply left me cold. Maybe after J.M. Coetzee, my standards are too high. This is a well crafted earnest novel addressing the issue of fluid identity in modern America culture, and there was much beautiful inventive imagery: a drained dam, Nunavut, orphans galore and magic tricks. But for me the novel was like a puzzle made of ice. I just didn’t care about any of the characters – they were selfish and unpleasant, but selfishness and unpleasantness hasn’t stopped me before. I think I didn’t care about the characters because the characters didn’t care about anything. Not really.

The novel consists of three stories which come together at the end (unsurprisingly in my opinion). A brother searches for his insane twin, a girl realizes her boyfriend is not what he seems, a college kid gets involved in a life of crime.

The only story I was interested in was that of the sane brother searching for his twin because he was the only one with any feelings. I definitely wanted more of him and his relationships. He really wanted to save his brother. He wanted to recreate the innocent past. He was interesting.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Do you only see clearly once all is lost?

This beautiful novel profoundly moved me.  Disgrace had much in common with the classic novels I have been recently been reading: a powerful, elegant style, complexity of theme, and a social/anthropological glimpse into an interesting country. Finally, this novel grappled with moral questions, though the answers were ambiguous, if not pessimistic.

The setting of South Africa and its social and racial pressures are key. Disgrace is about David Lurie, a onetime professor of classical literature currently right sized into a professor of  Communications.  Outwardly respectable, but sexually creepy, he presses himself onto a beautiful young student, is denounced and fired. David retreats to his daughter’s far off farm, quietly sneering at her slow paced unattractive lifestyle. One afternoon he and his daughter have visitors who use violence make him understand his helplessness, his daughter’s helplessness, and how Western Civilization, his fancy words, his Byron or Wordsworth, can’t protect him or his family any more. If they ever did. At the end of the story, he finds some solace in taking care of diseased and dying animals at the animal shelter.

The novel is about many things, but one of the things is lust. It reminded me a little of Lolita and Tolstoy’s Resurrection, which are both about a man looking back with unwilling regret at the woman he crushed with his lust. Because women are two things at once – they are persons, of course, and they are also blank canvases that men project their values and desires.  Women can be possessed.

It’s a disgrace to rape, but it’s also a disgrace to be raped. And both father and daughter have to hide out, accept their disgrace, accept the path society offers as the way out, though it may be a humiliating path. The daughter, to continue the way she’s been living, agrees to an arrangement I thought no woman on earth would agree to. No person would. But then, on further reflection, haven’t humiliating arrangements been the way all subjugated women and people have had to live? Most recently perhaps in South Africa? But still, it doesn’t make it right.

There’s a lot going on here with the dogs. People behaving like dogs, people being cruel to dogs, people sacrificing all their time to be compassionate to abandoned dogs. Why does David Lurie only feel a sense of love (for the dogs only) after losing everything? Though the ultimate image here is bleak. Is Coetzee saying there’s no point?

All I know is that I must immediately read more JM Coetzee.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Best American Short Stories 2011

A look at what’s obsessing America

Enough already with the dead babies. They featured in every other story.  Relying on the dead child as a mechanism to move the plot forward, or to wrap things up is weak.  Surely there are other ways to drum up emotion in the reader.

The introduction by Geraldine Brooks was insightful. I learned that most stories written are adultery stories, therefore, for her, those stories started running together. The subject is cliche. And I agree that the stories I liked best, that were the most insightful about America, that drew the most blood, were the stories that had a fantastical element. Caitlin Horrocks, “The Sleep”, in which an entire Midwest town, a family at a time, decides to hibernate. What does that say about our society? “Phantoms” by Stephen Millhauser, is a quasi scientific look at fleeting ghosts who haunt a small town, yet seemed highly annoyed by its flesh and blood inhabitants. Finally, my favorite story was George Saunders’s “Escape from Spiderhead,” in which convicts agree to mood altering medical experiments. The plots are fantastical, but these stories address the human heart and memory.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

Be careful of what you want for you might get it.

This is the story of Gina Moynihan and Sean Vallely, residents of modern day booming Dublin, who are married to other people, but see each other sexually, until things come to a head and they end up living together. (But do they?) It’s also about Sean’s upsettingly concrete epileptic daughter Evie and how she cannot be willed away. Gina is the first person narrator, with a unique voice; casual and comic and unsentimental and cutting like a diamond. Although Gina is blind about a few things – herself, for starters, and the true nature of her boyfriend.

A few pages in, I thought oh dear; this will be dull if it’s just her going on about the man. Will the stakes be high enough? But in a short while, I got it – this novel starts off by being about adultery, but the adultery is merely the light to see things more clearly; that is, modern Irish society, the family, marriage, children, promises. The book examines people’s capacity for self deception, hubris, greed and the consumerist lifestyle. It’s one long story of beautiful excuses.

This not about the Ireland of culchies and lambing but of high powered European consumerism, although there remains quite a bit of drunkenness. Somewhere in the middle of the book, the Irish real estate bubble pops, and the characters are left with houses they can’t sell and loans they can’t pay back. The question might be, what’s it all worth anyway?