Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

The brother of a murdered fictional character finds his life stunted by that murder

Harun was just an Arab boy in colonial Algeria, the abandoned son of a night watchman, when for no reason his brother was murdered by an enervated French colonist. The boiling desire of his illiterate mother for revenge deformed Harun’s life. Now old, a heavy drinker, he lives in the devoutly Muslim village as an outcast, never having married, never having been with a woman. Eventually the reader learns, however, that Harun's mother got her revenge.

Ultimately this was a sad book, in a way The Stranger was not sad. Harun has wasted his life. Also, could it also be that maybe Algeria has wasted her revolution?  Harun is haunted not only by his murdered brother, whom he barely remembers, but by the expectations of his tough ignorant mother who will not let the murder go.  What the mother and most of the Arabs want is revenge on the French. And when they get their revenge, at last they get some relief.

I like the way Daoud, right from the very beginning, enters into the outright comparison with Camus. There are two conceits here – first that The Stranger is a non fiction book, the testimony of a real life man. Emotional truth meets fictional lies. Also, that this book is narrated to a young student. Can this novel stand on its own? Can you read it without having read The Stranger? I don’t think so.

I also not this novel began with more than a whiff of misogyny. When your central metaphor is that Algiers is an old whore’s vagina, there's going to be a lot of negative references to whores and also to vaginas. The misogyny faded away as we got closer to the end, and realize Harun is a pathetic loser.   A loser who learned to love the French language.  Also, at the end, we get an obligatory iman scene to match the famous scene with the priest in The Stranger. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Stranger by Albert Camus

A man is indifferent to society’s rules, even those rules concerning murder

In the French colonial city of Algiers, a young man’s mother dies, inconveniencing him as he must leave town to sit vigil and attend the funeral. When he returns, he meets a woman at the beach and begins an affair. A rough man in his apartment building has girlfriend troubles and Meursault is asked to help. When he and the man go to the beach, they get involved in a brawl with some Arabs. Afterwards, in the hot sun, Meursault walks up the beach to find one of the Arabs. The man draws his knife, Meursault kills him. Somewhat to his surprise, Meaursault is imprisoned. Also to his surprise, at the trial Meursault is found guilty and sentenced to death. When a priest tries to comfort him, Meursault lets him know he doesn’t care about any of the priest’s (or society’s) values.

This is a comedy, right? It definitely starts off that way: “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday…” I’m not completely sure what all the hoopla is about - a callow youth kills an Arab for no reason, gets locked up, and is perturbed when the prosecutor paints him out to be a murderer. Meursault has no opinion on anything. On the other hand, the colonists are so certain and self satisfied about their own little society, all their strictures and judicial institutions that are basically meaningless because Meursault doesn’t buy into them. But how would life be in a Meursault run world? There would be no strictures or institutions. We would all be sitting around waiting for the strong man to tell us what to do.

The prose and metaphors were beautiful and flowed like water. The novel was short but I was sucked in and deeply interested in the mundane things that made up this young man’s life. He has no strong feelings or attachments to things. Nonetheless, he cold-bloodedly kills the guy on the beach, supposedly because it’s really hot out. Perhaps the very aimlessness of his life made him do something drastic.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Odyssey by Homer

Odysseus encounters many obstacles on his way back to Ithaca

Odysseus, King of Ithaca, wily hero of the Trojan war, sets out for home with twelve ships laden with booty. Ten years later he washes up naked on a beach, resorting to burrowing into a pile of olive leaves for warmth. In the interim, he has experienced many adventures, seen many wondrous things and even bedded two goddesses. However, the kingdom of Ithaca lies neglected and his wealth is being depleted by the 108 suitors come to court his presumed widow Penelope. Penelope, still in love with Odysseus, and needing to preserve the kingdom for their son Telemachus, has delayed and delayed her choice of a husband, but can delay no more. Odysseus, disguised as an old beggar, finally arrives, and with the help of the goddess Athena, wreaks a terrible revenge.

The Odyssey seemed far more “narratively constructed” than the Iliad. In every scene, the hero has an unstoppable motivation – I want to go home. The use of secrets (and secret scars) combine to support gripping scenes of high emotional intensity. What Odysseus longs for is what we all long for: home. Perhaps this was the original video game: surprises and monsters, capped with an orgiastic mass murder. The meeting of Penelope and the disguised Odysseus is masterfully told.

Women play an important role here, starting with Athena. They want to protect the hero yet they also want to contain and maybe even imprison him. Women are both a source of emotional longing, and what is harder for the modern person to understand, a source of currency or wealth and property. I’m not sure if I completely understood that. Everyone deeply respects Penelope, yet Penelope must be married.

Both kings and swineherds provide hospitality, even though Odysseus is not that nice. He certainly lies a lot.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Brink by Austin Bunn

Stories about people at a turning point

In the world of “The Brink,” diverse characters across history discover themselves embroiled in spectacular predicaments. From nuclear war to the sex lives of the disfigured to a conquistador’s ship at the edge of the world to a group of cultists preparing for their imminent exit on the Hale Bopp Comet, the main characters wrestle with a profoundly changed world. In every story, the prose was pyrotechnic and perfectly calibrated.

I have mixed feelings about this collection. The stories reminded me of Karen Russell’s: technically proficient, and yet, with a coldness at their core. My preference is for something hot. These stories were glib, about possibly tired subjects: The children of divorce. The video game world. Some of them I really enjoyed: The End of the Age is Upon Us: written in a sprightly compound sentences, about one of the residents in San Diego’s Hale Bopp cult. I also loved Ledge, about the explorers in their ship encountering the monstrous end of the world. The display of writerly“chops” was amazing. Also I was totally into “Griefer,” about the end of a virtual world. He breathed life into it.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Square Wave by Mark de Silva

An overeducated security guard searches for a sociopath compelled to beat up prostitutes

Stories alternate then start to merge: The ubiquity and manufacture of porn; the weaponizing of rain clouds, ostensibly under the guise of conquering drought; the terroristic destruction of municipal landmarks; the origin of modern music; the messy European conquest of Ceylon. The desultoriness of an uncertain relationship. Over many pages of dialogue, characters discuss their situations.  The night watchman's search for the sociopath leads him to encounter many other phenomena.

After a rough start, not helped by forced prose that at times lacked clarity, I started to get into the erudite rhythms of this longish novel. The historical fiction sections were the best, about the colonists trying to get home and the wily Emperor trying to preserve his kingdom. There the varied characters felt truly three dimensional. In the rest of the book the characters toted explanatory billboards on their backs, even though, for the most part, these billboards were pleasantly interesting. Sometimes a unsettling whiff of misogyny rose from the pages, and I’m not sure if the stories ever truly climaxed or combined. Nevertheless, the book held my interest.