Sunday, May 26, 2013

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

Teen depravity in LA

Clay, an 18 year old on his Christmas break from a New England college, revisits his Beverly Hills haunts with his high school friends, witnessing excessive materiality and blatant soullessness. This was a close cousin, an echo even, of Play It As It Lays, both in lyrical prose style, and shell shocked attitude, but the stakes in this particular story were minuscule. In Play It As It Lays, Maria is dealing with a mentally ill child, a botched abortion and truly evil people. Eighteen year old Clay is dealing with too many toys and the sentimental memory of Granma’s cancer. Scenes grew boring, ripe for parody. The little jerks his friends are ridiculous, though I kept reading, compelled because this was the rare novel, debut novel especially, that got better as it went on. Clay’s adventures around West LA built to a climax. A climax of horror, really. However, ultimately the stakes may have been too low. The writing is assured and clever, but I had trouble telling all the characters (the little brats especially) apart.  I will read more of Ellis, however.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Restoration by Rose Tremain

Robert Merivel grows up

Robert Merivel, a mediocre medical student, accidentally cures King Charles’ beloved dog, and endears himself to the King with his goofball “Foolish” behavior. Merivel's friendship with the monarch comes in handy when the King's primary mistress becomes jealous of his secondary mistress, young Celia, so he has need of an amiable cuckold to make it appear Celia is out of his hands. Ah, Merivel. The king gives Merivel a beautiful estate in the country, which Merivel then redecorates in gaudy colors, spending money with abandon, and beginning an affair with the noble wife across the way. Then a complication. Celia has been too demanding of the King, making ultimatums, forgetting the hierarchy, and she is punished by an exile to her “husband.” Merivel is delighted, but makes a key mistake. He falls in love/lust with her, attempting to kiss her. The king becomes enraged, Merivel is kicked out of his estate, exiled from London, and must do penance as a doctor at his friend Pearce’s insane asylum, while plague is raging outside the walls. Once again, at the asylum, even after many months of good behavior, Merivel makes a lustful misjudgment, knocking up a comely madwoman. This time the penance is to marry her. Merivel and his wife return to London where he witnesses the Great Fire of London.

As usual with Rose Tremain’s books, this was an excellent novel that worked on many levels – a morality tale, a historical fiction, a story of self awareness. Each character, even the numerous minor ones, are quirkily and completely imagined, their motivations entirely believable. The King, a thoughtful monarch and libertine, is motivated by divine order (lucky for him). Merivel is motivated by lust. Pearce is motivated by Jesus. Celia is motivated by love of the King.  

It reminded me very much of Samuel Pepys' diary, that is, the story of a curious lustful young man, who just happens to witness the great events of his day, the return of Charles the Second, the Plague, the Great Fire of London. Yet given equal weight in the entries are his constant interest in screwing chambermaids and his deep love for his devout little French wife. Merivel’s joy in living is what gets the reader involved, rooting for him, because he’s something of a careless dope. I wasn’t quite sure what happened at the end – it seems that Merivel is restored to the beautiful estate after his wandering penance and taking responsibility for his red headed child.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Familiar by J. Robert Lennon


A woman starts living a new life, familiar but not quite

Elisa/Lisa is driving home from a visit to her son’s grave when suddenly her car is a different model, she’s gained weight, and there's gum in her mouth when there wasn't before. What just happened? She takes the transformation in stride (pretty much), rummaging through her familiar purse for clues to her new unfamiliar life. She becomes a detective at that point and much of the story momentum comes her figuring out her new job, her new/old husband who seems to be much more sexually in love with her, and the new marital therapist fond of culty aphorisms. Most importantly, Elisa must come to terms with the fact that, in this universe, her dead son is alive, but estranged from her. Her mildly unhappy life has been traded for another mildly unhappy life – same Elisa, same town, same family, but the configuration of elements is different. Secretly she begins investigating what might have happened – a wormhole to a parallel universe perhaps. Meanwhile, her therapist reveals that the Elisa in the parallel universe is also an Elisa prone to psychotic breaks. (Is that what happened then?) Her search brings her into the company of unconventional conspiracy sci-fi types, oddballs. After a while, she realizes she may not want to go back.

The novel was very gripping for the first three fourths or so, hard to put down. The prose style was plain, but evocative and powerful. No literary metaphors, no imagery. But the for the most part realistic story raised a number of important questions, about identity, about marriage, about family. About reality.  The tension in the plot reminded me of Ben Marcus, although there is a smidgen more humor here, especially in the descriptions of the nerds and geeks. A video game plays a prominent role in the novel, and many times, the novel feels like a video game. Things can be rebooted. Who are you? It makes you think – that could be me.

The story is unsettling here, perhaps too unsettling. Only near the end did I start to feel a hint of pretentiousness – when it felt that an entertaining Twilight Zone episode was being forcibly bent to have a much deeper sociological meaning.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Post Office by Charles Bukowski

A drunk bucks the system for as long as he can stand

This book was hilarious. Henry Chinaski is a heroic parasite, a real man who won't take any bullshit and lives life the way he wants. Chinaski’s ethics are entirely self serving but honest and the book is a giant fuck you to middle class values, as well as to the entire capitalist system. On the other hand, a steady paycheck comes in handy, especially because Chinaski likes drinking so much.  Therefore he takes the postal service test, and is not at all surprised when he is the one of one hundred who survives the difficult address memorization portion. Chinaski gets the steady paycheck, but the tougher challenge is submitting to the massive soul crushing bureaucracy.  The rebel manages to outfox them for several years before finally surrendering. Was this is the first literary example of “going postal”?  

Our hero Chinaski rejects every value that made America great and has zero intention of bettering himself. What he does when he’s not sorting mail is to drink to a stupor and gamble on horseraces. There are two moments of tenderness in the entire (short) novel; the first when he attends the deathbed and funeral of a former lover who dies of alcoholism, and the other when he gaze on his very unlikely daughter.  But there's something admirable in his uncompromising path, however degrading it is.

Like other LA novels, torrential downpours play a part, as delivering rain in the mail is a lot harder than in the sunshine. The book is also a romance to getting drunk – although how much of a derelict can one be while holding a civil service job?  Eventually, his misbehaviors and disrespectful attitude catches up with him and he is hounded into quitting. In order to write a novel. But is Post Office even a novel? After only a little research it sounds like it was practically a memoir.