Saturday, March 30, 2013

How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

An extremely self conscious woman sets about being an artist and living her life.

That description sounds like the last novel in the world I would want to read, but the book was getting such good press I got a copy.  Entranced, I read it in almost one sitting, even though the pacing bogged down at the end.   The stakes seemed exceptionally low at first (pages and pages concerning two friends talking about dresses?) but then suddenly the stakes got extremely high (the struggle to prevent your soul from being extinguished by life, history, memories.) Sheila, the narrator and main character, procrastinates on her stated mission to be an artistic genius; she gets a sensual pleasure from her well suited menial job at a beauty salon; she has abasing exciting sex with a jerk; she meets a compatible new friend Margaux; she feels guilty about not feeling that guilty about ending her marriage. During the course of the novel, Sheila bounces between the deep feelings engendered by two characters -- her good angel, Margaux, and her evil angel, her sexual obsession Israel. 

The prose is funny with deadpan airhead sentences. Heti uses a hodgepodge of styles - traditional scene writing, emails, and theater, to illustrate Sheila’s journey. Is this even a novel? It eschews the David Copperfield stuff like scene setting and description. There is a plot, but it feels inconsequential, obviously silly, involving an ugly painting contest. The contest allows at least the scenes to have some sort of processional order (though not really a tension.) The tension comes from the philosophical questions. How should a person be?

Early on, Sheila relates how a high school lover puts a truly debasing curse on her. At the end of the novel, both her dream of artistic fulfillment comes true, as well as the debasing curse. What she learns is that the fulfillment of the curse wasn’t all that bad. In fact, it was liberating. Perhaps there isn’t an answer to the question, How should a person be? Perhaps the answer is in the contemplation.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes

In WWII Los Angeles, a black man is driven to the brink of madness by racism

This was a spare powerful book. In vivid economical scenes, with no wasted dialogue, Himes paints a picture of working class LA, a book in which the headlong plot supports a social commentary. The entire story takes place over a few days. The angry narrator, Bob Jones, is a black welder in a booming shipyard, where poor Southern whites compete for jobs with poor Southern blacks. Bob, who is always at pains to let people know he’s from Ohio, not the ignorant South, lives each day in a constant state of rage because of the contempt and insults he must swallow if he wants to earn a living. Bob has been promoted to crew chief of an all black crew. When Madge, a racist southern woman, calls him a nigger, he calls her a cracker bitch and gets demoted.  Rounding off his day, the Southern white men beat him for insulting a white woman. The rest of the story is Bob struggling with his desire for murderous revenge (which he knows full well will mean his own extinction), as well as his sexual curiosity about Madge. (He’s right in thinking she’s a little sexually curious about him too.) Meanwhile, Bob (who is not the monogamous type) has a light skinned girlfriend, Alice, from one of the top black families in LA. She urges him to go to law school, to accept the reality of their subordinate situation and have patience that it will eventually improve. But Bob is unable to emotionally accept a second class status, needs his revenge, and therefore the plot comes to an unsurprising head. The ending, where Bob is saved by an implausible twist, felt opportune.

The book asks other questions: Should you fight and go down in flames still retaining your pride or do you submit to injustice and live?  Alice counsels that they will only be happy if they live their lives privately – quietly accept their inferior status in public, but save their real feelings, their real fulfillment, for private. Bob seems to agree with her, but then provocation after provocation cause him to lash out. The most powerful scene in the book was the scene where he humiliates Alice by taking her to the Biltmore only to find out, as Alice knows full well and he suspects, that the Biltmore doesn't want colored patrons.  She prefers to ignore her second class status and he won’t let her.

The narrator is so angry (at whites and at women) that it’s amazing that the book is filled with insights, about men and women, about anger, about sex, and about the different levels of Los Angeles society. Despite his intellectual knowledge, Bob still walks right into the traps laid for him.  At the end of the book, things feel truly hopeless.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins

Stories from the American desert

I was impressed by the thoughtfulness, the strategy, and the ambition that went into structuring this diverse collection. The unifying element was Nevada – that is, the tension between the lethal desert wilderness and the neon lit Vegas world of whores and gamblers and phony good times. At times there was the occasional hiccup of the cutesy or overly sentimental but most of the time the stories aimed high and delivered high. The cumulative effect was strong, and I liked the collection more as I read through the book. The overall quality of the prose was excellent, and at times extremely powerful.

The best story is “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past,” which is about a bunny ranch and an Italian kid who’s looking (or not) for his friend who probably died of thirst while the two of them went hiking in the desert. The story proceeded in an unexpected way and I was completely along for the ride wanting to see what happened next.

I wasn’t crazy about the epistolary story or the one about the young mother in “Wish You Were Here.” Those stories didn't surprise me. I liked “Man of War” which was set in the extreme desert and told the story of an old eccentric guy who liked lighting firecrackers and who meets a desperate pregnant teenage girl. There’s a long historical story about the Gold Rush which was a total change of pace. It was well executed, absorbing, although again nothing in it was surprising. The final story, “Graceland,” I found very moving, even though it is not set in Nevada but in San Francisco (another gold rush town).

Eagerly I await the novel.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Accordion Crimes by E. Annie Proulx

Over a century, a small green button accordion makes it way around America

This book had no unifying plot apart from the accordion changing hands from one despised ethnic immigrant culture to another. The accordion is created by an Italian dock worker in New Orleans, and the accordion is destroyed a hundred years later by a tractor trailer in, where else, but Louisiana. In between, we visit backwaters such as Quebec, Texas, Chicago, and Wyoming. Each section also features a new more technologically advanced type of accordion, though the little green one always tags along. I learned a lot about accordions, as well as about working class America, since the accordion is a working class instrument. Ultimately, though I coldly admired the ambition, Accordion Crimes went on far too long. Some sections were delightful (Wyoming) and some were a chore (the Germans).

Because there really wasn’t a main character, the tension didn’t build. E. Annie Proulx takes an unseemly glee in dispatching her characters. In addition to being an encyclopedia of accordions, this book is also a glib accounting of all the crazy ways to die. I dreaded the next time somebody was about to walk into a chain saw. Also, there were a lot of premonitory narrative intrusions informing the reader of the horrific yet comical fashion some minor character would meet his Maker.

This novel reminded me of Great House, which also structures its plot around an object (an ornate desk), but Great House built to something, felt like an emotional totality, with the emotions building with each successive character that owned the desk. Any emotions that built up here were frittered away mechanically.  The book felt sort of tricksy. The prose was highly polished and energetic but didn’t move me.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Best American Short Stories 2010

A peek into the literary zeitgeist

The edition seemed to have more of a bent towards sentimental claptrap than usual, earnest stories that ended with a lyrical overbaked image. The stories I preferred evidenced the heavy lifting of imagining a world down to the last detail and the stories I remembered were the politically provocative ones, so my favorite story of the bunch was Jim Shepard’s “The Netherland Lives with Water.” On one hand, it was a warning shot about global warming, on the other, a fully imagined look at Dutch life, and Dutch history. It’s hard to do political/social theme without coming across as heavy handed, but this story was entertaining.  

Other stories I liked: Charles Baxter, “The Cousins.” Again, the completely imagined world, the frightening void beneath. “The Cousins” was about repressed WASPS in Manhattan who have no idea what they’re doing. “Safari” by Jennifer Egan, I thought, worked much better as a short story than as a chapter in a novel. I also appreciated the working class grit of “Least Resistance” by Wayne Harrison. I liked the lively prose in “My Last Attempt to Explain To You What Happened with the Lion Tamer” by Brendan Matthews. And “PS” by Jill McCorkle was truly funny and illustrates her skill as a writer. Another feat of magnificent world creation was Karen Russell’s “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach.”