Monday, July 29, 2013

Summertime by J.M. Coetzee

An awkward young writer returns home to South Africa

Like Coetzee's previous work Elizabeth Costello, which made no effort towards a plot and consisted mostly of lectures, Summertime begs the question, “Is this even a novel?” Nominally, the book is an autobiography/memoir, presented as a series of interviews with key people (primarily women) in awkward young John Coetzee’s life. In the 1970’s, John has returned to South Africa, to live with his father in a small house, in a cloud of unnamed disgrace, after his career is cut short in America by a scandal not to be discussed. Meanwhile, South Africa his country is falling apart. The social experiment of apartheid has failed. The ambitious whites are getting passports to sunny different lands. Meanwhile, what is to become of the “unambitious” ones, the people of the land?

This is a novel because it presents a pattern of imagined characters, characters who yearn. The character of John Coetzee is not the centerpiece.   John is a puzzling monosyllabic eccentric, a more than a little creepy young man who passes through these fully imagined women’s lives. The women are the striking ones here – John’s cousin Margot, loyal to the land, her husband and the workers on the farm. She is a hero. There are also “interviews” with a younger woman his lover, and a ballet teacher he gets obsessed with. The novel is the stories of these strong women, and their stories have very little to do with John Coetzee. So maybe the whole “autobiography” thing is a joke. (Also, as a matter of fact, one of the conceits of the book is that John has died.) In some ways, this is a portrait of South African womanhood (whites only). From time to time in their stories, these women encountered apartheid, the separation of the races, and the humiliation of the Colored as well as the embarrassment of the whites. The women are the ones with the deep feelings here. John Coetzee’s chronology is just the excuse for them to tell their compelling stories.

Although you have to be a brilliant writer to get away with this patently gimmicky a structure. And I think Coetzee is.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

An innocent races through the Seventies

Wow. I guess this is what is meant by a tour de force.  The Flamethrowers was very good.   "Reno," the young narrator, likes motorcycles, skiing, making art of lines, making art of her life. She works as a “China girl” at a film store, her anonymous image used as a test of Caucasian skin tones. After moving to New York, lonely "Reno" is spotted by Sandro, an older Italian artist, heir to a rubber and motorcycle fortune, who selects her to be his lover. Through Sandro, she is introduced to the heart of the art world, first class motorcycle racing, and excellent hand jobs. When she accompanies a reluctant Sandro back to Italy, back to the family estate, she meets his dreadful mother and brother and witnesses the labor unrest of Italy of the Seventies. Later, “Reno” gets involved in shady violent anti-capitalist actions. She returns to New York, older and wiser.

The Flamethrowers is, among other things, a novel of ideas. The main one being: Rubber + sweat = tires; Tires + war = money; money + leisure = art. Secondly, it is a historical fiction, recreating a time and place filled with fully imagined eccentric characters. And finally, the book is a demonstration of bravura writing. The novel is filled with brilliantly executed set pieces. The races at Bonneville, the numerous bar scenes with the voluble artists and their illuminating stories, the riot in Rome. I kept having to stop and reread passages.  Also, I enjoyed the thoughtful architectural use of imagery. Images are repeated throughout the book – flamethrowers, motorcycles, a hat. A snow covered mountain. A snow covered mountain at night. One of the themes is women trying to figure out men, figure out the world. In this story, all the characters tell stories. Very entertaining pretty much unbelievable stories.

One quibble: The plot requires that “Reno” understand Italian and I didn’t buy that this working class girl spent junior year abroad in Firenze. But it took me quite a while to come up with that.  Overall, a really stellar novel.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle

Two families, one white, one brown, one rich, one poor, live parallel lives in Topanga Canyon.

 The Mossbachers, Delaney and Kyra, live in a new exurban development in one of the rugged canyons northwest of Los Angeles. Desperately poor illegal immigrants Candido and America Rincon camp under a tree near the same development. The novel opens with a car accident, Candido bouncing off the hood of Delaney’s luxury vehicle. Things go downhill for Candido after that. Way downhill. But he still keeps a strong optimism in the idea of America (the country and his wife).

This was a well crafted socially conscious book that I found dull. Possibly because all characters behaved completely as expected, clicking like the gears of a clock. Every single one of them had a placard around their neck. Delaney was an environmentally responsible chardonnay sipping type, Kyra was an ambitious real estate agent, Candido an optimistic immigrant, America was a beautiful earth mother (literally). I wanted to be surprised. I wanted the Mexicans to have some shading, and for the most part they were oppressed saints. However, I admire the ambition and the execution of the novel – many characters, well delineated from all classes of society. And very tactile descriptions of both the bad things that the Mexican family endures and the consumerist overload the white family experiences. The novel does confront a social question, but there wasn’t a lot of rage here. And I think rage is called for.

Also, I love flood scenes in books and this one had a great one.


Saturday, July 6, 2013

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

Story of a life

This short novel describes Elsa Emerson’s life journey: from starring in her father’s Wisconsin barn theater to struggling as an actor in Hollywood to changing her name to Laura Lamont to becoming a movie star to working as a lowly assistant in a hat shop. My initial impression was that the characterization was simplistic and the pacing dragged, despite the injected Tinsletown glamour, but as I started to recognize the scope and breadth of the story (it’s not just about glamour), it became apparent that the story was a little deeper, a little more unsettling than the one advertised on the book jacket. There is not a traditional plot. Events transpire, but those events didn’t build to a thematic or emotional conclusion. Typical obstacles – such as how do you go from being an unknown actress to a world famous movie star were solved like magic – simply go to a studio party. A powerful producer sees you across a crowded room, and despite your extreme pregnancy immediately makes you a movie star. Then marries you.

However, deep quirkiness lurked here, as well as random tragedies: a suicide, a mental breakdown, alcoholism. Things aren’t so hunky dory in Laura Lamont land, if they ever were. Bad things happen, and the bad things are as undeserved as the good things. Much like real life.

Although the tragedies never dig deep, never quite draw blood. They are described, but I really didn’t feel them, and the painful events seem to glance off Laura Lamont’s psyche. The style is somewhat offputting – we never really dig into anyone’s motivations, though I did feel that the Wisconsin sections are more alive than the Hollywood sections. Laura Lamont only feels like a real person back in the Midwest. Perhaps because she is always playing a role in Hollywood. Ultimately this book felt slight.