VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Moon Palace (1989) by Paul Auster


Book Review
Moon Palace (1989)
 by Paul Auster

  There is no denying that Paul Auster is still read, and that a generation of serious readers (in America, at least) have grown up with Auster's books readily available on the shelves of libraries and book stores everywhere.   Beginning with his existential detective trilogy, Auster seems dedicated to intertwining the tradition of the 20th century European philosophical novel (Novels where nothing much happens) with the active plot mechanic of a writer who is very aware of the "state of the art" of fiction writing.

  In short, he writes savvy, intellectual fiction with some commercial appeal.  His characters very much reflect the dramatic self obsession which has grown to define our American culture, and his presence in the fictional precincts of New York City ensure that even his most failed characters have an aspirational side for readers of contemporary literature.

  Moon Palace has an intricate plot for a 300 page long novel- the narrator, M. F. Fogg, is an orphan, raised by an uncle, an itinerant jazz musician.  He attends Columbia University and descends into a "I would prefer not to" style of genteel poverty.  He is rescued from his plight by Kitty Woo, a "manic pixie dream girl" from before that term was coined.   Perhaps the brilliance of Moon Palace is contained in the fact that this description of the first act of the book provides no clue to the second and final act.

  I'm not sure that Auster's book stand up to much discussion or description- the gossamer strands of his jewel box plotting means that even the barest description of events risks compromising the pleasures of the read.  Not all fiction is like this- you can describe a work of experimental fiction- like Ulysses by James Joyce, without changing the wondrous impact of the prose itself.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Amongst Women (1990) by John McGahern


Book Review
Amongst Women (1990)
 by John McGahern

  John McGahern is another excellent answer to the question, "Why bother with the 1001 Books list?"  There is not doubt that McGahern is an excellent novelist, with a compelling ear for dialogue and superb grasp of the mechanics of the "country novel."  That he could publish such a book in 1990 and have it considered a masterpiece is even more a testament to his skill, since the cool, quiet realism of country life in 20th century Ireland is far, far from the precincts of post-modernism and magical realism.

  Amongst Women is about Michael Moran, an IRA guerrilla turned farmer, living in the middle of the 20th century, out in the country, with his second wife and his children from his first marriage.  Moran and his family live quiet, respectable lives, but Moran also lives with a tightly suppressed anger that occasionally bursts forth in a manner that we today consider border-line domestic abuse.  In the context of the mid 20th century, Irish milleu, Moran is far from being a boundary breaker, and as the novel proceeds, McGahern softens Moran's character over time in a way that will ring familar to anyone with the experience of a stern patriarch.

  What could be a one dimensional tale about an abusive patriarch is instead something far subtler and richer. 

Sexing the Cherry (1989) by Jeanette Winterson


Book Review
Sexing the Cherry (1989)
by Jeanette Winterson

  Jeanette Winterson is both a post-modernist and a Feminist (capital F.)  Sexing the Cherry is her take on the "meta-historical" novel, though in her case it is more of meta-historical work of experimental fiction. Sexing the Cherry is the kind of novel where you feel compelled to say that the author "plays with" various ideas because it is not clear what he/she thinks about the characters, or what the characters think about themselves.

  The fantastical elements of Sexing the Cherry align closely with the "freaks and geeks" sub-genre of 20th century literature. The protagonist is the Dog Woman, a giant freak of hideous visage. Their travels take place across time and space, with no explanations of the how or why.

  

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Billy Bathgate (1989) by E.L. Doctorow

Image result for nicole kidman billy bathgate
Nude Nicole Kidman in the terrible failure movie version of Billy Bathgate, the 1989 novel written by E.L. Doctorow.
Book Review
Billy Bathgate (1989)
 by E.L. Doctorow

  When a good book begets a terrible movie, what influence does that bad film have on the reputation of the book?  Presumably, a terrible movie version will never help the long term reputation of the underlying book, it can only not impact the reputation of the book or negatively impact the reputation of the book.  Billy Bathgate, published in 1989, was out in theaters in November of 1991, where it was a HUGE HUGE bomb:  Budget: 48 million Box Office Revenue: 15 million.

   Huge bomb. If the file came out in November of 1991, and the book was published in 1989, the film rights had either been pre-sold or were sold immediately after it was published.  Billy Bathgate the book was a price winner, so it is fair to say that in November of 1991, it was still in paperback- in fact- it's safe to say that a "movie edition" of the paperback was in stores.  So the movie comes out, and it's terrible- that surely must hurt the reputation of the book- because the film is named the same as the book, and many people who never heard of the book now know ONLY that it is a terrible movie.

  Billy Bathgate is a fun, but by no means world-beating piece of historical fiction, about the titular character, who is a young boy coming of age in picturesque early twentieth century New York City.  It's often categorized as a "post modern historical novel" (by Wikipedia, no less.)  I have no idea why this book would be called post modern.  What Billy Bathgate is, is a historical novel, written in 1989, by an author with two decade long track record of matching critical with popular success.  Does that combination somehow render him post-modern?  Honestly, I asked google about it, but couldn't come up with an easy answer.

    

Thursday, June 08, 2017

A disaffection (1989) by James Kelman



A disaffection (1989)
by James Kelman


   It's almost like a joke to complain about the over-representation of sexless white males in the precincts of "serious" literature.  This book is one example.  A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, featuring a literal 40 year old virgin as a narrator, is another recent title which fits this description.   I'm not a reader obsessed or repressed with sexual matter, but it seems to me that these sexless, white-male narrators are the fore-runners of the "Beta Male."

   Scottish author James Kelman represents Glasgow on the world literary scene, and Glasgow stands for post-industrial urban decline (see the Glasgow Effect).  He write in Glaswegian brogue, not as hard to understand as the dialect of Irving Welch, but noticeable.  Patrick Doyle narrates A disaffection, he is a school teacher from a working class family, and the guy can not get laid.  CAN NOT get laid.  The book is about that problem, and Doyle's (sad) efforts to end it.

  Sad 40 year old virgin, that is A disaffection by James Kelman.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Like Life (1990) by Lorrie Moore


Book Review
Like Life (1990)
by Lorrie Moore

  It's the 90's, people!  I was born in 1976, and by 1990 I was starting high school and reading the kind of books you would expect a precocious teenager in the Bay Area to read:  Mostly the Beats, the French existentialists,  Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson and "new" journalism.  I read... the New Yorker, my parents had a subscription. I never read the fiction in the New Yorker- I still don't- I'm just not a huge short story guy (Like Life is a collection of short stories) and it appears that my sentiments were shared by the editors of the 1001 Books project.  Fewer than ten titles in the 1001 Books list to date have been short story collections.   Lorrie Moore may be it, now that I think about it.

  I think, personally, that people are going to be revisiting the time immediately before the digital/computer/cell phone revolution of the past decade.  In Like Life, Moore is writing about "now" (several of her stories appear to be set in the near future, where global warming and climate change lurk in the back ground.  But, I can already say that I am tired of sad white folks.  Whether they be English, American or Australian, Scottish, Irish, Canadian or South African.  Rich or poor, living now or in the past, I am tired of them and their problems.   Boo hoo, I say.

  In a sense, that is also my demographic, but it's like, I don't want to read endless fiction about sad yuppies (or sad working class) Americans living in LA or New York, or, as some of the characters in this book are, the Midwest.  In fact, I think Moore is here as a representative of fiction written by Midwestern authors, so in that sense, maybe she is someone I should be reading carefully.  Perhaps she is a muse of the Reagan Democrats and Trump voters of Wisconsin and Michigan. 

Saturday, June 03, 2017

The Busconductor Hines (1984) by James Kelman


Book Review
The Busconductor Hines (1984)
 by James Kelman

  The Busconductor Hines is what you might call "Scottish kitchen sink realism," about said Busconductor (as supposed to Bus Driver) working on the Glasgow city bus system.  For those who don't know the "Glasgow Effect" is the unexplained phenomenon by which the life expectancy of people from Glasgow is ten years lower than for those living outside of Glasgow.

  The events take place over a few days,  Hines loses his job, and gets it back at the end... I think.  He's got an unhappy wife, a young baby (or Bairn as he calls it) and a shitty bedsit in Glaswegian slum.  Hines needs to wake up super early to get the work, except when he has a super late shift.  For whatever reason, he has trouble getting up on time.  That was a personal trait I've never understood, like, either you need to get up and you do, or you don't need to get up, and you don't, but Hines is very much a connoisseur of the alarm clock, and Kelman treats the reader to an "Eskimo words for snow" situation describing the various ways Hines fails with his alarm clock.

  The Busconductor Hines was Scottish writer James Kelman's first novel.  He would go on to win the Booker Prize in 1994, and Hines is, I think, the only novel on the list that captures the (now familiar, to me, I think) Glasgow patter/slang.   Kelman also throws in a hefty gob of graphic sex and enough swearing to bring down the wrath of effete English literary critics.  In this way, he is a clear antecedent of Irving Welsh.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

The Temple of My Familiar (1989) by Alice Walker


Book Review
The Temple of My Familiar (1989)
by Alice Walker

    There is a fairly typical, pan-artistic discipline career path followed by artists who achieve a significant combination of critical and popular success in the mid to late 20th century:  The breakthrough work is typically conventional, but something that brings new life to the form.  After that, the artist rebels against the early success.  Musicians start side projects, or change their sound.  Authors create pseudonyms or publish works that radically push against what is "acceptable" within the form at the time.  Studio artists switch art forms or abandon successful themes.  Continuing to mine the veins that brought you initial success is frowned upon among communities of successful artists.

  The Temple of My Familiar is a good example of an author taking flight after publishing a career defining hit.  The Temple of My Familiar contains a multitude of plots and characters, and delves deeply into past life and recovered memory theory, while containing characters of (almost) all races and genders.  I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, but it is a very interesting book for those interested in the mind of Alice Walker.  Walker was never "just" a novelist- her career spanned journalism and academia.  Before she struck gold with The Color Purple, she almost single-handedly revived the memory of early African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston (she literally uncovered her unmarked grave in Florida.)

   Walker also directly addresses the irrational hatred of whites by African Americans, though she attempts to explain it away by using recovered memory instead of copping to what is essentially a rational attitude for any African American (I don't agree with it, I just understand the why.)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Melancholy Resistance (1989) by László Krasznahorkai


Book Review
The Melancholy Resistance (1989)
 by László Krasznahorkai

   Krasznahorkai is the second Hungarian language author to make the 1001 Books list.  The other author is Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz, so that makes Krasznahorkai the SECOND most famous Hungarian language novelist in English.   Unlike Fatelessness, Kerteszs' straight forward Holocaust memoir, The Melancholy of Resistance is an avant-garde, paragraph-less fantasia about a nameless town plagued by a mysterious circus, a dead whale and a shadowy mob of hooligans.  Did I mention that this book has no paragraphs?

  Aside from the total lack of paragraphs- there are chapters, thank god, The Melancholy Resistance avoids any kind of signaling to the reader so that the story unspools "in real time."


An Artist of the Floating World (1986) by Kazuo Ishiguro


Book Review
An Artist of the Floating World (1986)
by Kazuo Ishiguro

   Kazuo Ishiguro's career is a testament to the strength of the novel as an art form.  He was the child of Japanese emigrants to England, grew up in England, never went to Japan, wrote books written in English, set in Japan, then wrote books about England- won a Booker Award for Remains of the Day.  Remains of the Day got made into a movie that turned into a world beater, both critically and in terms of box office receipts.  

    The extent to which An Artist of the Floating World is "about" an actual historical Japan- it is set in an unidentified Japanese city during the American occupation period after World War II- is a matter of some debate.  Ishiguro grew up in post War England- not Japan.  Floating World is written in English. Masuji Ono- the aging painter who narrates Floating World, is coming to terms with his ill-fated participation in the Japanese war effort via his propaganda posters- the Shep Fairey of his day, as it were.

   In the present, he grapples which arise as a result of his un-analyzed role in Japan's disastrous experiment with totalitarianism.  One of his daughters is on the eve of marriage, and he worries that his history will destroy the match.  He makes his way to his former compatriots- including one who was actually imprisoned directly as a result of his denunciation, and eventually acknowledges moral culpability in a very, very, very, Japanese way.

  The question of "authenticity" as it relates to an obviously good novel written by an English language author of Japanese ancestry who was raised in England is a curious one.  I would argue that Floating World demonstrates that the novel- either written in English or translated into English- becomes, in the late 20th century, an art form which transcends the original language. 

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