Thursday, January 31, 2013

Flight Behavior

I'm pleased to say that I've finally read a Barbara Kingsolver novel that I loved, or at least super-duper liked which is close enough. I've read most of her fiction going back to the start when she was an obscure leftish writer addressing U.S. intervention in Central America, and while I've often admired the effort I've never been knocked out by the execution. Last time around I was quite critical. Now, with Flight Behavior, hooray, she pretty much nailed it.

It, in this case, being climate change and the devastation it's wreaking. It being a vivid, compelling, character-driven story lushly laid out in beautiful language replete with a dazzling mastery of metaphor matched to a sweeping thematic vision. It being a thoroughly winning, complex, conflicted protagonist. All of it adding up to that which we red readers so prize: high quality political fiction.

As such, naturally, this novel has garnered its share of complaints about being "too didactic" and the like. Looking through the reader reviews at Goodreads, you'll find lots of this. What nonsense. Me, I'm all for didacticism in fiction--I love to learn, I love to be shown important stuff, I don't even mind being lectured by a character which is something Kingsolver skillfully pulls off in one or two sharp scenes in Flight Behavior. If anything, she errs too far on the side of the soft stuff--character development/family dynamics/internal monologues, etc.--when I would have happily gone much farther along in the direction of tromping through the woods or bent over lab tables studying the butterflies. For there is story, too, in doing science, which she does convey but mostly not in the foreground. No matter. This here is good work.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Bab al-Shams, the Gate of the Sun

Thank you to Philip Metres at Behind the Lines for posting this piece by Adam Shatz about a powerful, beautiful act of resistance by hundreds of Palestinians and the brutal Israeli military response. I also found this report, and these videos, the first showing the brave young activists setting up Bab al-Shams, the Gate of the Sun, named for Elias Khoury's acclaimed novel about Palestine, and the second showing the vile Israeli police move against it:

I have a copy of The Gate of the Sun, a beautiful edition I might add, but have not yet read it. This moves me to skip it higher up to the top of the to-read pile. The fact that Palestinian freedom fighters named their encampment for this novel is an amazing tribute to Khoury's work.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Naked Singularity

Having finished reading A Naked Singularity I can affirm that (1) it's a very good, sometimes an exciting, book, (2) Sergio de la Pava is a very good writer who might become a great writer, and (3) the fact that I/we almost had no chance to read this book and meet this talented, promising and extraordinarily original writer says a lot about the publishing industry in this country. More on that last later. First, the book.

I don't generally use this space to provide plot synopses, good thing since it would be pretty hard to do with this innovative, often surprising novel. There is a plot, of sorts, having to do with a plan for a perfect heist--so it's a caper, then, but no; having to to do with a death-row appeal case for a poor, mentally disabled inmate doomed to death in Alabama--a legal thriller, then, but no, not at all, this is as far from that genre as it could be; having to do with a young public-defender lawyer's unraveling life or coming of age or personal awakening--a character study, then, but no; having to do with the legal system and its vile brutal racist inequities--a cri de coeur, then, a literary companion to The New Jim Crow, but no; a treatise on the career of Wilfred Benitez with learned exegesis on 1980s-era boxing and its leading lights including Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns--a meditation on the sweet science, then, but no; a screed against television and popular culture featuring a cameo appearance by Ralph Kramden incarnate--it's none of these things, it's all of these things and more, I could go on and on. As de la Pava does in the course of 688 pages. I didn't love every page of it. I could for example have used many fewer or much shorter scenes in the protagonist Casi's neighbors' apartment, scenes that often felt over-pumped and sophomoric. I would also wish that the publisher had made sure of much better proof-reading, as the text is rife with typos, misplaced apostrophes, misspellings, word mistakes (who's for whose, it's for its, etc. ). This sort of thing becomes quite distracting especially in a book like this that is already playing with language and style; you want to be able to get at it cleanly, give yourself over to it, without being repeatedly stopped short by unintended dissonances.

But--see, I'm saying I have my quibbles but they are just that, quibbles, so pay attention to this but--but overall I very much enjoyed the long and usually very stimulating trip that reading this book is. I felt myself in the hands of an extraordinarily interesting mind.

If I were to try to craft a real chapter-by-chapter synopsis you'd probably conclude that, jeez, this thing is all over the map, and superficially you'd be right, but big-picture-wise you'd be wrong, you'd have missed the point. Ultimately this big sprawling mess works. Wherever the words went, I happily followed. Most of the time I was mesmerized. Much of the time I was moved, as well, especially in any and all scenes having to do with the actual workings of the criminal justice system, which de la Pava depicts very well in all its horrific depraved injustice. The opening sequence is a tour-de-force tour of the hell that is the route between the Tombs and night court. The last two pages are a sweeping culmination that left me breathless, stunned.

Randall Jarrell famously defined a novel as "a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it." Well yeah. This one fits the bill. Sometimes I wasn't moved. Sometimes there was a show-offiness to the cascade of words and ideas, the rat-a-tat dialogues that went on for page after page, that was off-putting. But only sometimes, and even then I'd soon get pulled right back in by something amazing, thought-provoking, challenging, sad or hilarious. By de la Pava's gimlet eye on the shape of things.

Let me take my stand on something much commented on among readers and reviewers: this author's similarity to David Foster Wallace. Me? I don't see it. Yes, a lot of words, well lots of writers use a lot of words, so OK yes de la Pava is in the putter-inner group not the taker-outer. The similarity, in my view, ends there. I loathed Infinite Jest. Forced myself to read the whole damn thing to see what all the fuss was about, and felt not one tingle of feeling, was not moved to one shadow of human emotion in the course of all its thousand-plus pages. Nor stimulated to think one interesting thought. Infinite Jest lives in my reading memory as all artifice, all look-at-me-I'm-so-clever privileged-straight-white-male wordplay to no purpose. There's no there there. No resonance, no connection to life. Nothing to touch my heart or awaken my mind, both of which de la Pava does. Look, sure, Wallace deserves our human compassion for the personal pain that killed him, but he was a Reaganite so the disconnect of his big fat book full of nothing shouldn't surprise. In contrast, A Naked Singularity is bursting with connections, not artificial connections, but visceral, real, substantive, the, pardon my excess, stuff of life, and in particular the struggles of the poor, left out, oppressed. De la Pava may be a polymath, as his novel suggests, but his wide-ranging mind is socially engaged a way that strikes me as important for the creation of art that matters.

De la Pava himself was almost left out. His book nearly didn't make it into my or anyone else's hands. It was rejected by something over 70 agents and so finally he self-published it. Which usually means death. I don't understand the part of the story where the novel somehow drew someone's attention, started getting read, and finally found its way to an actual publisher, the University of Chicago Press, which actually published it so people can now buy it, take it out of libraries, read it. I'd like to understand it, partly out of curiosity and partly because my novel too has been widely spurned and so this unknown-author-who-could-and-did story is nice to hear. More important, it makes me think again about all the unheard voices. All the art that never makes its way to us because the artists--driving buses, cleaning hospitals, teaching, ringing up groceries, typing, or, like de la Pava, public defending--have no route to recognition, no way to get anyone to consider let alone take on their work. That it happened this time is a lucky fluke that you should take advantage of as I did. Read this novel.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Teju Cole on drones: brilliant!

Well if I've ever grimaced at a phrase like "Twitter literature" I grimace no more. This is brilliant! From Teju Cole, "Seven short stories about drones." Concision perfection, aka this says it all.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Banishing the blahs

Almost as soon as I growled about all the bad reading I'd been doing, things started looking up. I used a couple gift certificates I got over the holidays and got a couple exciting books into my hands. One that I'm already some 200 pages into is, while yes uneven, no not utter pure genius as some of the raves have claimed, still overall an enthralling, even exhilarating read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio de la Pava. I will probably post more about this book once I've finished it, but for now I'll just say hallelujah something new, something different, original creative innovative and not just all that good artistic stuff, but, equally important to me, something full of thematic meat, political-cultural heft, and heart.

I also got an old book, originally published in 1944, Freedom Road by Howard Fast. For some reason several people lately have mentioned this novel about Reconstruction to me and I'd found that the edition currently in print has a foreword by W.E.B. DuBois, which seemed in itself one hell of an endorsement, so I'd decided I've got to read it. Now I soon shall.

Meanwhile, I hope to soon fill another gap in my literary education. Until today, I admit, I'd never heard of J.G. Farrell. Now, thanks to my web meanderings, I know that he was a highly political writer whose greatest work is The Empire Trilogy, which consists of three novels that expose the depredations of British colonialism, in Ireland, India and Singapore. This from the Wikipedia entry on Farrell of course made me feverish to start reading his work: "When The Siege of Krishnapur won the Booker Prize in 1973, Farrell used his acceptance speech to attack the sponsors, the Booker Group, for their business involvement in the agricultural sector in the Third World. In this vein, some readers have found Farrell's critique of colonialism and capitalism in his subsequent novel The Singapore Grip to be heavy-handed ... ." Sounds fabulous, right? I ran right over to the university library and checked out The Siege of Krishnapur.

I'd been meaning for quite a while to, and now I finally ordered and have received the poet Daljit Nagra's book Tippoo Sultan's Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy Machine!!! (exclamations are part of the title, not my comment). I'm working my way through it slowly, one poem at a time, but, as expected, it's amazing. Deep, funny, harsh, cutting.

Finally, I've got a great date for this coming Monday evening. A friend and I are going to the Schomburg Center in Harlem for a reading and signing by Ayana Mathis, where I'll get her novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. Last week it was reviewed by Isabel Wilkerson, whose brilliant The Warmth of Other Suns was the best book I read in 2010. Wilkerson as reviewer struck me as apt since from previous reviews I had drawn the conclusion that Mathis's novel is in a way the fictive counterpart to Wilkerson's history. Anyway, I'm looking forward to this event, and then to reading the book.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The blahs

The end of 2012 and start of 2013 has been a blah bleh meh time for me reading-wise. I got stuck in one of those Mobius strip type of loops where each new book I'd start turned out to be as bad or worse than the one I'd just given up on and I felt a panicky desperate sense that I would never escape to a good book. I must have started and stopped four or five books. And read through to the finish several that were at least unmemorable (go ahead, ask me their titles--I don't remember!) plus at least two that were big disappointments.

Those two were disappointing because they fell far short of the excellence I'd expected because of the blurbs, reviews and awards, which excellence, all this commentary had led me to believe, included some political shading that would please me. It did not come to pass, not in my read of either The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst or Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt. From the first, nearly 10 years old now and widely acclaimed, I'd expected a sharp takedown of Thatcherism served up with literary beauty. I found it neither beautiful nor sharp. An exercise in neurasthenic ennui more like it. From the second, which I think just came out in 2012, I'd looked for a pithy satire on workplace sexism or something along those lines. I'm sorry to say (and can I really be the only one who feels this way?) I found this book to be very low level, almost startlingly so, as any sort of satire or critique, and way too long to boot. It neither made me laugh--and really, it's not hard to make me laugh--nor delivered a punch to my gut. All it did was make me sad for how low the bar is or, rather, how stunted any effort at this sort of thing almost necessarily is at this point in this debased culture that can't even spawn any first-rate literary savagery against the endless horrors of U.S. society.

Necessarily? No, I can't believe it's not possible for somebody to do it right. It is done right elsewhere. The best counter-example that comes to mind is from France. I'm talking about the work of Lydie Salvayre and Marie Darrieussecq. I haven't read all their books but I have read four--The LectureEveryday Life, and The Award by Salvayre and Pig Tales by Darrieussecq--and wow they pack precisely the punch Lightning Rods is apparently meant to but doesn't. At, might I add, half the length or less. Kudos to the translators--Linda Coverdale, Jane Kuntz and Jane Davey--for managing the tricky task of conveying Salvayre's and Darrieussecq's deep-funny-horrifying-demented digs at work and sex roles and family life, at society, that is, under late-stage capitalism. I guess we'll just have to keep waiting and hoping for such a writer to turn up hereabouts.