Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

Communication is poisonous

Sam and his wife Claire are getting sick. Their faces are "shrinking" and their bodies are wasting away. The voices of children seem to be poisonous, in particular, the malicious responses of their angry adolescent daughter Esther. Some combination of language or communication or comprehension is releasing a noxious chemical. Like a mad scientist, or homeopath, Sam tinkers in the basement, searching for a cure. Things change for the increasingly desperate Sam when he meets the red headed Murphy, a neighborhood loiterer who takes a suspicious interest in the Jewish families in the neighborhood.

The novel begins somewhat realistically, then the reader gradually discover that Sam and Claire are "forest Jews", who visit a shack deep in the woods to listen to fairy tales and nursery songs from a "Jew hole" buried in the floor. The revelation of this extremely odd world was wonderfully done.  The sentences are beautifully carved and the strange imagery is fully imagined. Mountains of salt drift across America.

The novel is well balanced, with a Part I and a Part II, and a short little Part III. However, overall, this one might have been a little too cerebral for my taste. In the middle, Sam's attempts to develop an antidote to the wasting disease got repetitive and boring and I very nearly gave up. It was lots of pages about some guy sitting at a desk fiddling with homemade machines and letters and script and I grew tired of him. Can't we have a sense of beauty or joy or a laugh or two?

There is an uneasy mismatch between the essential silliness of the thriller plot, such as the cackling dialogue of the super villainous villain, and the extreme seriousness of every character we encounter. Although I am glad I didn't bail on the book because the last part became emotionally moving as we returned to the family story. Sam's hope is the only thing that sustains him at the end. But hope is there.



Thursday, October 18, 2012

Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee

What is the right way to live?

Well, she's always stepping in it, isn't she, Elizabeth Costello.  She is unable not to intrude on other people's comforting illusions and must always speak the truth.

Elizabeth Costello is a cranky old Australian writer who travels the world, speaking at various conferences, and always on topics she feels strongly about. This is a novel of ideas which gives extremely short shrift to the novel part.   Reading the book was an intense emotional experience, but is it even a novel? Yes, I believe it is, for even though there is a very sketchy plot (basically an extended travel itinerary -- final destination Limbo), there is in fact one key novelistic element. That is, a main character. Elizabeth Costello is depicted as a passionate hurting human being. A person who keeps screwing up but keeps charging into battle. The square peg in the round hole. You root for her. She is just trying to do the right thing, even as she accepts the freebie cruise and the rubber chicken and the big check.

The structure of the book is a series of lectures, lectures which apparently Coetzee has in fact given. (Again, is this a novel?)  The lectures are highly interesting and I had to keep putting the book down, not because I was bored, but because I was overwhelmed and had to keep putting it down to think. What is evil? Is it the mindless munching on other sentient beings, their cruel profitable industrialized transformation into protein? Is it a novelist exploiting humans' intrinsic desire to witness depravity, or should a respectful curtain be drawn over literary depictions of evil and suffering? Should life be approached in a religious posture or a humanist posture? They both are a "quest for salvation."

Is the novelist an entertainer for the wealthy rich, or a moral teacher? (Hint - you make more money as an entertainer.)

The book did stop me from eating meat, at least for a day or two.



Sunday, October 14, 2012

Slow Burn by Sabina Murray

Party girl resists her fate 

I wasn't particularly interested in this story of a rich promiscuous young woman's nightly drinking binges, but once I started reading I was immediately sucked into the narrator's very concrete sense of unhappiness and was compelled to find out what happened next. The main character is Isobel, a rich girl from the Manila upper class, who will not be controlled by her society's rigid rules about class and gender. The scenes are mostly set in affluent bars, restaurants and the opera hall. In some ways, the story progressed like a Jane Austen novel.

Isobel doesn't play nicely with the other girls, or even with the other guys. She lets herself be used by men. To get something or feel something. She likes outraging people, and in fact there is another kind of outrage here simmering underneath. An outrage at a deeply macho, deeply corrupt society.

At the end, a supernatural element enters the story with a fortune teller and a curse and a madman with a gun. I enjoyed it.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

What is honor?  

I had no idea this book was so good.   I thought it would be stupid.  The first chapter was amazing, establishing the impressive Sternwood mansion, the suffocating hothouse preserving the decrepit old man, the two corrupt girls. The hero, Philip Marlowe, educated private detective, is hired by General Sternwood, the dying oil magnate, to discover who's been blackmailing him on account of his two beautiful wayward daughters. Carmen, the younger, clearly has a screw loose, and Vivian, the older smarter one, seems to be hiding something. Numerous shootings and car chases follow.  Nearly every woman he encounters has a soft spot for tall dark Marlowe.

Chandler's strength is description, and it was entertaining reading about LA and Hollywood in the 1940's. Rialto is farmland here, orange groves, not acres of housing like it is now. The writing is deadpan and funny and even though the dialogue is sometimes hampered by obsolete slang it moves the story along and is witty. The book is a very easy read.

Philip Marlowe is still a little shocked at how fallen the world is. What are principles? Some low down people seem to have them, and some high class people definitely don't. The family story provides the motivations here. The Sternwoods are trying to protect each other and Marlowe is trying to protect the Sternwoods. To a degree.

Certain elements haven't stood the test of time. The porn library on Hollywood Boulevard is funny now - the criminalization of stuff available immediately on the Internet. Also, a key part of the plot reminded me of The Sound and The Fury, in that the premise rests on a nutty concept of female sexuality. About a third of the way through, the story degenerates into a welter of dames shooting guns and having fits, and the novel stopped making narrative sense. Also, I am stumped by Marlowe falling in love with Mona Mars who he has apparently known for two minutes.

But I will definitely read more Chandler.