Review of The Lucky Star by William T. Vollmann

Another Vollmann mega-tome. Having read Royal Family and Butterfly Stories, I am not sure this volume adds too much to the prostitution-focused body of work. He covers a lot of the same ground, albeit from a different angle.

I’ve reviewed the other 2 works above at length so won’t reiterate the themes and motifs. This is both an alarming and saddening work. It challenges the reader on several fronts. It could be called excessive, but the spirit of its composition is investigative and its characters ring true. You will feel as if you are walking among these unconventional human beings, and will discern beneath their grunged-up facades the frightfully flawed souls scrounging for relevance in a dehumanizing environment. The texture of the book is very readable, with fewer moments of transcendental speculation – the phantasmagoric Vollmann hides in the shadows, going for gritty Realism, lots of dialogue.

The audio version is impressive, and the gender politics can create easily misinterpreted couplings in the mind’s eye. It is a wise and libidinous portrayal of broken and flawed relationships and lives. Unexpurgated raw material for all the frothing Vollmann fans, but likely to arouse deep anxiety in those unfamiliar with his style.

Review of The Great Hunt (The Wheel of Time, #2) by Robert Jordan

Book 2 of the WoT focuses more on characters than plot, compared to the first, and still suffers from #1 New York Times Bestseller prose syndrome, plot conveniences, and a steep learning curve. Nonetheless, it is a closer look at Jordan’s insanely detailed universe, with in-depth character explorations, classic tropes and engaging scenes. A feast for fantasy lovers.

Prose: 2.5/5. Comparable to the better parts of Book 1. Well-dribbled info dumps throughout do not detract. Smooth narration, action and interactions with frequent irksome moments. The author’s major weakness lies in passive verb usage, adverbs, and dialogue tags. For instance, he feels the need to qualify most statements. After an observation by one of the characters I remember reading: “he thought dryly.” The word “dryly” is almost offensive to me in the sense used. How does one think dryly? The dictionary says it means “in an ironically humorous way” but it smacks of Tom Swifty in my mind. Instead of letting the dialogue speak for itself, Jordan felt the need to explain how every line was said. Was it exclaimed hurriedly, whispered slowly, uttered briskly, slathered fondlingly, sputtered inconsequentially, chittered ingratiatingly, groaned spasmodically, or hiccoughed egregiously? Most of the time I really don’t think it matters. However, I could put up with that nonsense in light of the other rewarding aspects of the book, but be warned…

Characters: 5/5. Nynaeve, Rand, and Mat return for an adventure surrounding the Aes Sedai and the Horn of Valere. Many new characters are introduced. I was surprised at the level of violence in this one. All of the characters have multiple sides, motivations, fears, and physical nuances lending depth to their personas. I was impressed and intrigued by Jordan’s juggling of quirky dialogue, surprising twists and his employing of subtle shades of character grayness. Ogier and steddings come more into play along with useful Waygates, and he keeps hinting at the Sea-folk, so I am really hoping to learn more about them soon. Superb, realistic, multi-layered characters.

Atmosphere/ World building: 5/5. Still an extremely elaborate, elegant and expansive world which only grew and deepened in this volume. Book 2 doesn’t cover quite as much territory as book 1 but it added to the history and lore in meaningful ways. Entering into a rich and vast saga is always exciting to me. I’m sensing that the further I delve, the more thrilling the discoveries will become. Thankfully, Jordan leaves behind many of the crutches he had lugged into the first book, like reliance on a Lord of the Rings plot. This is a less cinematic follow up, but more concerned with the feminine powers that interweave with the central conflict. Women play the biggest role in this volume and are given much room to develop our hero’s understanding of himself and his destiny.

Perhaps the best part of this book is the magic system. While it was present in the first installment, here it is more fully explained, qualified and expanded. The reason it works, is it challenges the characters’ morality as well as their physical and emotional capacities. The training montages reminded me of the ones Patrick Rothfuss appropriated for Wise Man’s Fear. Overall, I enjoy how the magic, the characters, the world, and the lore are all expertly intertwined.

Creativity: 5/5, Length: 5/5, Depth: 5/5, Approachability: 3/5, Couldn’t-put-down-ness: 4/5.

I have heard that Book 3 is where Jordan finds his voice. Others have said it is book 4 when The Wheel of Time starts holding its own against the competitors. I believe that Book 2 is enough to qualify it as a great fantasy epic, though it has not yet surpassed Lyonesse, Lord of the Rings, and several others. The potential is there, and I have no doubt that I will revise my ranking of epics in books to come.

Review of Collected Stories by Roald Dahl,

Dahl’s adult stories are not as famous as his children’s books. Taken as a whole, The Collected Stories is as impressive as Saki’s Complete Works if you ask me.

Many of these stories, for me, were the antidote to reality. His characters, their perpetually gleaming eyes, their moist lips, constantly wringing their hands and exclaiming, even cackling demoniacally, might put one in mind of fantasy villains. But they are ordinary people. In most cases, any supernatural element is secondary to the human element, and occasionally altogether absent.

Evil children, vengeful spinsters, mad husbands, conniving wives, the murderous, the cunning, the smarmy, and the grand in every way – no matter his target, Dahl conceals and reveals with equal facility. His sly exuberance is always on display when it comes to the surprise endings. And there are plenty of those to go around.

These are not fairy tales. ‘Parable’ and ‘fable’ might be words which describe the technique he employs here and there but any of his writerly choices are cast in a modern light. Combinations of outrageous description and stellar plots characterize the majority of the tales. Characters who transform into the things they are consumed by reminded me of The Witches and film adaptations of his children’s books.

His sparse, well-chosen, eerie details, provide the texture for his storyteller’s art, which flows masterfully. He possesses specialized knowledge when needed, explaining the intricacies of greyhound racing for instance. Grief, vanity, and an enormous range of other human emotions and experiences are packed into this bulky collection. The whole gamut.

A few have the sensibility and charm of Twain, others are Rube Goldberg-level business schemes. Think of Wodehouse’s cat-ray factory system: (Breed cats and rats in large numbers. You feed the cats to the rats and the rats to the cats. Sell the cat skins for profit.)

Detail is paramount to the success of most stories. But the sales pitch is one of the things at which Dahl excels. His characters, when they’re not selling a product, are peddling an idea.

Figurative language often explicates the position and emotions of the characters and the reader must use their imagination to conceptualize the story’s metaphorical and allegorical significance. Figurative language is just fun too, when used well. Other times it is all too clear what he is getting at and subtlety was not the aim. Nonetheless, he is always extraordinarily vivid.

The collection begins with 10 stories about pilots. The author was a pilot himself, and he presents an intimate examination of many transcendent moments, both real and imagined. They deal with man versus nature, the horrors of war, empathy, tragedy, bomber pilots put into harrowing situations, the veteran’s damaged psyche and even a dreamlike adventure. Lots of death and air battles provide a backdrop of action, desperation, helplessness. Many take place in exotic locales, like Cairo, Greece, and France. The first 140 pages should be enough to draw any serious reader in to the strange world Dahl crafts so meticulously. It will also turn away any people who assume he can only write stuff for children. These are not the most demanding stories you will find, but they are not for youngsters. Actually, the further along you get in the collection, the more adult they get, including a handful of ones sold to Playboy and other magazines, which really ratchet up the sex and grotesquerie.

The second set of stories deal with the art world, of which Dahl was also a part in his time. Eccentric rich people are easy to poke fun at, and he does it very well. “Nunc Dimittis” reveals what Dahl can do with the revenge plot. “The Sound Machine” could have been written by H. G. Wells. When Dahl decides to include science, he is on point. “Mr. Botibol” presents a recurring character at his most self-delusional. It is a charming and heartwarming story. One of the most innocent.

“Vengeance is Mine, Inc.” is the first comedy of the business acumen variety in the book. A harebrained scheme turns out miraculously well, while capturing the spirit of industry which so easily consumes and encapsulates a whole history of human affairs.

He lapses into Wodehousian aplomb, relishing insane levels of detail in one of the masterpieces of the collection, called “Taste.” Other standouts include “The Ratcatcher, Mr. Hoddy, Madame Rosette, Galloping Foxley, William and Mary, Georgy Porgy, Pig, The Landlady, The Visitor, & The Last Act.”
There is just so much variety here. He might discuss bullying, innocence, naiveté, more satires of the rich and fabulous of English and American society, orphan life, pheasant hunting, furniture dealing, being swallowed whole…

The one called “Bitch” features a recurring character, Oswald, whose fictitious memoirs provide a metafictional element. The idea is very similar to Perfume, but the approach and climax is quite unexpected.

His worst story is on the subject of cow-birthing. Occasionally his far-fetched ideas are simply absurd, without being clever enough to propel the reader’s interest. But the vast majority are incredibly satisfying to read.

Perhaps my favorite story was “The Visitor”, about Oswald’s Casanovan adventure in the desert. It features a picaresque element and a shocking ending. Dahl is so good at lulling you into a false sense of security. Grim visions like these, are almost guaranteed to capture the heart of fans of speculative fiction, even if he doesn’t stray far from Realism. He is not afraid to discomfit the reader. I grew nauseous while reading the prolonged description of brain surgery in “William and Mary.” I could see the procedure happening in excruciating detail in my mind’s eye.

Come to Dahl for the extravagant plots, the weird, ghostly surrealism, the cruelty, horror, violence, subtly telling details. The tenuous and artificial connections between human beings are elegantly presented. His rhythm is like a well-composed bar-room style retelling, but add in the uncanny description, and you have his recipe. Levity, amid squalor, provides profound contrast. Lethargic, indulgent, beatific – he was able to capture it all.

What keeps us sane and makes us go insane? Each slanted and skewed perspective was a joy to uncover.

Dahl’s stories are always fascinating, and this is a must-have jumbo collection.

Review of Three by Ann Quin

Composed of alternating styles in the form of a diary, recordings, jottings, and near stream of consciousness, Three will likely be very different from anything you have read before.

Starting with Joshua Cohen’s idiosyncratic introduction, in which he outlines the major conflicts, the love triangle, and overviews the appeal of the interplay of plot and form. The experimental format of the novel proper conveys the interior tensions at play within the central relationships, the cramped emotions of the characters, clustering voices, administrating ablutions, solitary or entwined in subtle psychological tension.

Deliberate ambiguities intrude. Quin is freely dismissive of formal conventions. Her liberated style will appeal to fans of Kavan, Carrington, Emshwiller, and more radical departures from the norm.

Discernible through the exact details are the facets of lives, accumulating into an avalanche of text, interiority sublimating into exteriority. Erratic variations in tone and voice lend it a jazzy, back and forth, improvisational feel. Suggestive onslaughts of narrative are choked off prematurely, leaving the reader aching to grasp at the loose ends. Characters convey ceaseless restless interaction with the environment.

It might put you in mind of W. S. Burroughs’ cut-up method, the scattered collage comprising a coherent fictional space. It describes minutely the accrued actions which constitute living. These everyday images make way for impressionistic stylings in due course, with hints of surrealism, pointillism, narrative poetry, composite conglomerate manipulations of form, suffused with a pleasing, compressed dreamlike aura.

A tad like Molly’s soliloquy if you ask me. Forms of hysteria are subtly infused into the text, as the main characters sort through the literary remains of the absent secondary narrator. The odd approach of the novel works for its drama and elusive, elegiac quality.
It combines strong evocations of the time and place it is meant to capture, expresses a push toward individuality and explores the loyalty inherent in any romantic relationship. The quibbles and accords of realistic, i. e. flawed, individuals, the recurring ways in which we blame the other person in the relationship for momentary unhappiness, the discomfort and miniature betrayals which result, and a pervasive, repressed passion.

Overall, an intriguing experiment.

Review of The Belly of Paris (Les Rougon-Macquart, #3) by Émile Zola

The Belly of Pairs represents a splendid artistic development in the French novel. Combining the down and out urchin tales of Hugo and Sue, with Zola’s own brand of reportage.

It is easy to forget how teeming the streets are throughout history. Especially in Paris at this time. Legions of gossip peddlers, flower sellers, ragamuffins, illicit performers, and an infinite array of characters call the streets their home.

Putting some of the tenants of Impressionism into his work, Zola’s writing is characterized by a high level of detail. He writes with the sensibility of a painter, describing scenes as if he were composing a painting with words, including the tones, color, light, and composition of the scene. It will delight many readers, even today, like a very accurate, meticulous old film.

Zola cultivates a compulsive precision of atmosphere. In terms of his writing ability, one gets the sense he is showing off. What it lacks in lyricism it compensates for with sheer content. He has a remarkable range, and brings the marketplace of Les Halles to life.

The story of Marjolin and Cadine was precious and worthy of Hugo when it finally made its appearance in the second half of the novel. Before these characters arrived there was less focus on story and simply a ceaseless accumulation of nitty-gritty set-pieces. Of course, there are many charming segments of satire and humor throughout the book. Zola finds the joy of discovery in everything. Mixing the charm and grotesquerie of the lives of these poor urchins and the folk on the streets, scraping together a living by haggling over cabbage and pig’s feet, the essence of life is distilled, and the writing flows. It’s easy to get swept away in it.

One cannot ignore the all-pervasive meat-stink, the literal ripeness of this novel. There is an underlying fester, with the swill of blood and the cracking of bones as soundtrack. Fitting for a Post-revolutionary literary landscape, one might suppose.

Cleverly, Zola draws so much attention to butchers and fishwives, the market squabbles, and the struggling working class, it is easy to forget the political backdrop, the threat of another revolution like the one in ’48, and Florent’s unjust imprisonment.

Balzac’s shoes were still warm when Zola already started to fill them. His 20-volume cycle (Les Rougon-Macquart) took up less space than Balzac’s Human Comedy, was more methodical in structure, more researched, and more detailed in certain respects. Political, financial and artistic contexts form a multigenerational saga, and the relish and steamy splendor of the age is palpable, if not as controlled as Balzac’s subdued literary experiments.

Zola’s writing is reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence’s. It is almost teasing, as if the author is baiting you, daring you to call his work obscene. Of course, like Lawrence, Zola was charged with publishing pornography, even though the subjects he describes are merely sensual, and not even provocative by today’s standards. Still, there is a lot of flesh in this novel, most of it animal, and hanging from hooks, dripping blood onto the pavement. There are plenty of women, of course, amply described, who sort of grip the setting of the novel with their blood-doused hands. As Zola contrasts the fat and the thin in his work, most of the females are bulky, and the males tend to be frail, and foolishly ambitious. At least in this novel, the woman are working far more, sweating, putting muscle into the economy, and the men are chasing skirts and getting knocked in the head by the people in the skirts.

Zola is inexhaustible. Bringing to bear the fruit of months of research, observation and the production of his own imagination to conjure the panoply of cabbages, carrots, characters, scoundrels, drayhorses, merchantmen, and the endless catalogue of items, accessories, gewgaws and literary props, which he bandies about and piles up into two-page paragraphs stuffed with adjectives like a Dagwood sandwich. It reads like a Fellini film – if Fellini were given an infinite budget, and the film were six hours long.

Zola gravitates toward what we now call the encyclopedic mode, without quite attaining the excesses we have achieved in today’s monolithic novels. To categorize his excessive inclusions, Zola nonetheless depleted the materials of his time. The central themes of the work only become clear by degrees, concealed as they are by mounds of fleshy tripe and what not.

Less subtle than Balzac, Zola is effusive, exuberant, brazen, but well-equipped for satire and straight-faced storytelling. Why does he spend so much time writing about lard, veal and glistening hare pâté? you might wonder. As a device, as a distraction, and as a mode of communication, this description serves him well. He buries his true intention, and asks that you devour his language in order to uncover the messages lying at the bottom. Zola occupies the opposite end of the spectrum to Proust, who explored interiors and didn’t leave his bedroom for 200 pages. Natural and social history, that is what Zola wrote about. Laying the groundwork for the movement in literature called Naturalism, you cannot ignore Zola’s impressive contribution. How to represent a diseased society, how to depict human behavior as a product of its environment, and how to do it in a way that had never been done – that is the sum of Zola’s achievement. The frantic pursuit of pleasure, the mask of propriety in the empire of ill-gotten freedoms – that is what Zola observed. The voracious appetite that Balzac alluded to is given free reign in the pages of Zola.

Great literature parallels life in some way. It discusses human beings confronting their own messes, both psychological and physical. The social decomposition of Paris in the 19th century is nowhere more evident than in this documentary-esque exploration of the great city, where history bleeds from the stone walls, where the people are encumbered by pounds and layers of heavy adversity.

Review of Death’s End (Remembrance of Earth’s Past #3) by Liu Cixin

1500 pages of successively more impressive sci-fi action. The final volume of the trilogy is more sweeping and panoramic than the other two.

This is one alternate future I never would have anticipated. And thankfully, Cixin Liu does not offer us a trite, Hollywood ending. The ending kept me up thinking the night I finished it. The whole journey set my mind a whirl with the unsettling outcome of a carefully orchestrated series of strategic literary maneuvers. Untangling them is a literary chess game.

The author obviously has a workable command of engineering science, physics and other hard sciences. While those skills are not necessarily pre-requisites for writing good science fiction, they serve him in good stead, elevating the speculation to the believability of Orson Welles’ broadcast of War of the Worlds. In support of the complex set-up running through the first 2 installments, his characters are well-imagined, and their choices, personal or global, are compelling in the extreme.
The author brings the drama down to the human level often enough that lengthy scientific explanations bolster moral ambiguities. Desperate times call for desperate measures. That statement is almost a guiding principle for these novels.

Cixin Liu reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke in the way he integrates his ideas into an imagined society. (The author acknowledges the British author’s influence in interviews.) Cixin Liu relies heavily on summary and narration. The characters make their appearances and are responsible for all of the twists but they are commonly extensions of the scientific principles at work – ie. experts in a certain field – or future technological exploitation on display. Yet, they have a human dimension. They do somehow live beyond the pages. I think he betrays his method in the second book when he describes the writer and her summary of the proper method of developing a character by imagining every detail to the point where they become a real, living person in the writer’s head. The writer character was not the most influential in the narrative sense, but was a wink and a nod perhaps, to the relationship between the writer and reader.

Regardless of any imbalance in the dramatic tension, the last 2 volumes are clearly masterpieces in their genre, rising above nearly every other epic through the sheer number of innovations he introduces. There are possibly an unnecessary number of scientific breakthroughs and cutting edge ideas included, but their strategic deployment make all the difference, guiding the plot in unforeseeable ways. The lengthy series is justified through the exertion of inventive ideas, but it is also riveting to behold the strange contortions of his plot. Sometimes, when a new concept is introduced, it is only possible to understand its purpose by reading on, knowing that the explanation and importance of the plot element will become clear later. This is most prevalent in the three fairy tales, which are inserted into the text, clashing with the overall tone. They serve the plot, but one has to have unshakable faith in the author to endure them. The novels themselves are matters of endurance but are all the more enjoyable for this fact. They each say something profound about the human condition, applicable to anyone, anywhere. The human species has endured through so much, and Cixin Liu is trying to tell us that we must endure through so much more if we want to reach our true potential. Judging from his astute conjectures, we have only scratched the surface of human ingenuity. But we will never escape our true natures. This is a well-formed accomplishment and deserves all of the praise and awards it has garnered.

It is a breathtaking epic, not likely to be superseded in this or the next era.

Review of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is a composed of a multitude of voices, some of which sound like nails on a chalkboard.

The excessive use of portmanteau words weaves a tapestry of anachronistic neologisms and inconsistencies. What separates this novel from ordinary science fiction or magical realism or literary fiction, is the balancing act, tenuous at times, Mitchell undertakes with his world-building. A bold move, but one that often reads like a role-playing scenario meticulously cyphered into Pig Latin.

Far superior to this novel, in my opinion, are the works of Jonathan Lethem. Mitchell straddles genres in the same way, but is so fond of quaint Britishisms and treacly gravitas, that his characters often flounder in the shallows.

My ranking of Mitchell’s novels so far:

1. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (most wearisome title)
2. Slade House (surprisingly ordinary title)
3. Number9Dream (second most unbearable title)
4. Cloud Atlas (Infinitely better title)
5. Bone Clocks (Good title at least)

I don’t know about his 2 other novels. Not sure if I feel any desire to read them. Cloud Atlas made me ask, what is wrong with a clear message? Why cloud the message with a smokescreen of stylistic extravagances? Perhaps, if you are not confident in the story you want to tell or your ability to convey it beautifully, you feel the need to pull cheap gimmicks and use a lot of flash bombs? But Mitchell has solid research and a wealth of details to build on. Rather than focus on sustaining dramatic tension, he seems to have chosen a route of planting seeds in a novelistic foundation to sprout unending interpretations.

Finding the connections between the novella-like segments is a difficult exercise to ask of the reader. It would’ve made more sense to market this book as a series of novellas. There’s nothing wrong with insinuating connections between stories in a collection. Something like Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. But the pieces stringing together this unwieldy book do not belong to the same family. You can blame the non-chronological ordering, or the density of the unanswered questions, but the focus of many scenes seem to me more arbitrary than successful.

I remember a scene of a character standing in line. An obnoxiously abundant use of the euphemism “ruddy,” and a few moments of witty Wodehousian humor. But I failed to discover the relation to his other disparate narratives. Clearly, I missed the point.

The building blocks for this novel were:
New Zealand tribes, a complicated interplay between a popular writer and his publisher, a future fabricant’s, or artificial human’s, societal opinions, a reporter, someone in World War 1, and greed on personal and corporate levels.

However, my reading experience was not a wasted one. There are intriguing moments to be had, and underneath all of the literary fizz, universal themes lie waiting. I am biased toward straightforward plot I suppose. And by reading the other reviews of this book you will see that it contains a lot of food for thought. I’d recommend reading it for the novelty and to form your own opinion.

Review of The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

I don’t feel qualified to give a comprehensive review of this book. It is only the 2nd book of Gene Wolfe’s I’ve read, and the first I’ve come close to understanding. 

 I think this must be a better book to begin with though, than his Book of the New Sun series. I am a big fan of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series and Wolfe’s is similar in setting but not in tone. You get a lot of humor in Vance, and almost no humor in Wolfe – so far. Or at least the humor partakes of the same dense opacities as the rest of the book’s literary ingredients. It is hard to tell what is meant as truth or misconception, and many readers have found this to be part of the fun.

Wolfe ties together many deep themes, wild characters, and disarming alien descriptions alongside droll pseudo-reminiscences. He touches on Imperialism, genetic modification, interplanetary travel, sibling relationships, folklore, shapeshifting creatures, ghosts and many more intriguing elements, but only through hints and by undermining your expectations. The plot is only discoverable beneath a riptide of otherworldly richness, of bizarre, hallucinogenic revelations, and if swallowed half-digested and barely understood, it can still be incredibly interesting.

When the story flips to the perspective of the aborigines, I was treated to an intense array of breathtaking surprises. The reader is left questioning who is the actual protagonist of this story, and who’s version of reality can be believed.

The two nearby planets the author describes each have their own philosophy, anthropology, and history, and in the famous Wolfian fashion, none of it is readily discernible, except through subtle insinuations. This puzzle-narrative technique ceaselessly sabotages the reader’s attempts at interpretation. Like the characters themselves, the reader is forced to undergo an investigation of the facts provided, and is left to draw their own conclusions.

The author might have split up the book into 3 separate novellas, but that would not have aided much in how approachable they are. Taken together they enlarge upon their interior modus operandi in unique ways. This extraordinary interaction within the texts may never have been incorporated into literature before or since. I will have to examine his New Sun series at length to see if it lives up to his layered accomplishment with “Cerberus.”

The intelligence of the structure, the imaginative setting, and the elegant descriptions are enough to impress any fan of science fiction. If you do not mind Wolfe’s trickery, I think that there is a great deal of enjoyment to be gained from this book. Keep in mind this was written very early in his career, and he had only begun to experiment…

Review of Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima

Was Mishima embarrassed by this decidedly quirky, goofy little book?

Worlds away from his other fiction, this posthumous novel reads like a mystery thriller, with a light-hearted tone, dark themes, and represents a gray-area exploration of the human psyche. Is the main character dissatisfied, or simply mad? Are the oddballs he gets entangled with justified, selfish, or reprehensible?

I am no expert in Mishima’s work, but I have read enough of it to notice a preoccupation with death, particularly suicide. This fascination flows through much of his writing, it seems to me, and stems from the fact that he wrote with a purpose, and wished to apply this purpose to his life, to live with meaning, and to stir change in the hearts of people. Death takes on presence in life, stakes a claim, gathers the toil and accumulation of our struggles in order to quantify and weigh our existence. Surely, this is one of the least traditional of his works. Inhabiting the land of Kobo Abe, having departed the safer fictional waters of Tanizaki and Soseki. It was nonetheless an elegant, absurd, enjoyable novel, fanciful in the extreme, dreamlike and memorable. It suffers from deus ex machina and complete randomness at parts, but also acquires quite a bit of charm upon reflection.

The concept of a ‘life for sale’ may never have been taken so literally as in this work. Hanio creates the advertisement and is met with a surprising amount of success in his venture. But what he learns from his experiment differs from his original goal. Formulaic though it is, the episodic nature of the novel is by turns melodramatic and psychedelic, gruesome and pulpy, cheesy, cartoonish, yet always morally significant.

Scholars may be at a loss to explain how imperative Life for Sale is in World Literature, but it will not fail to entertain.

Review of The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov is unapproachable, never ordinary. He is a master and is fundamentally enjoyable to read. This short short novel is elegant in the extreme. 

Nab describes the desire to write Lolita as a throb plaguing him much of his life. It produces a corollary in this work. An offshoot, the proto-Lolita. But be not fooled. This is a polished, pristine, powerful publication.
The same set-up as his great work with all the inbuilt tension. Contemplates the nature of carnality, lechery, love and lust, social strictures, and passion, all in versatile, angelic prose, inducing literary bliss. It is a refined sustained, lucid dream of a novella, another ode to nympholepsy. Vladikov exhibits extreme variation in word choice, as he seeks to express the justification of the guilts of his tortured characters, the sophisticated warring, internal conflicts, the sensuous nature of their artistic souls. His writing is dense with observations, pithy, imagistic, suggestive ethereality, and barbed phrases, a honeydewed style perfectly suited to the descriptions of obsession, psychological clarity versus intense moral confusion, and yearning, amid the empty substitutes provided by propriety, always seeking after ideal beauty, running from mortality, and appreciating the finest cadences of the English language. It is a magnificent evocation of vigorous emotion, blossoming effortlessly in its contained structure, radiant, fraught with complex caricatures, and utterly riveting. He is fond of chess metaphors, and he is a keen player in this game of language. His approach betrays a keen insight into the motives of deception, the vain art of seduction. Somehow it is more daring than Lolita, and just as enchanting.

Review of An Angel of Sodom by David Vardeman

Primarily through comedy, Vardeman’s experimental stories run the gamut of human emotion, from hilarity to harrowing heartbreak.

From page one he offers an unflinching and unflattering view of the human animal’s foolish and various ways of tackling life. It is with a unique literary mastery of his chosen arguments that he depicts the often pathetically inept actions of his characters.

Above all, these are character-driven tales, taken to the very edge of believability. The conversations always take a turn for the bizarre, even as they touch on stunning human truths.

The aplomb on display is equalled on by the control of his gamma-knife-sharp wit. What results, is an utterly devastating circus of dream visions.

The first story forsakes punctuation except full stops, which makes for a learning curve. Force your mind around his rhythmic style and you will likely get addicted to the surprises to be found within and around every unexpected word.

Several of the stories capture convincing perspectives of troubled youth seeking after a place to belong, employing sardonic logical fallacies, coupled with rude, salacious, and satirical narration.
These are characters who take dysfunctionality to an art form, stroking their Godzilla-sized vanity with absurdist fantasies, indulging in their incurable blindness toward common sense and everyday propriety by behaving in shocking and silly ways.

I sensed touches of bizarro-fiction, but this could have only been my perception – a result of the constant fluctuations of bewilderment. You might describe this work as disturbing, twisted, demented, riotous, or profound. Vardeman asks the relatable question: why doesn’t anyone take me seriously as a human being? Am I a joke? Can’t anyone see past my obvious flaws to the brilliant unique individual beautiful person inside? The most commonly posited answer is: No. Or if they can, they don’t care, and are too worried about themselves to listen to your whiny pity party soundtrack/ sob story – like, get over yourself, join the party, get in line, etc.

Flying in the face of society’s strictures, the characters find hope and consolation in resistance to the norm, the safe, and the boring. They seek adventure and excitement as a means to define themselves and assign meaning to their terrifying lives.

“A Young Guy and his Career” is a bizarro detective story. It is unlike anything I have ever read.

“Farm Girl” is an immersive story about a girl growing up on a farm, longing to become a literary immortal, who thinks running away to Paris is sufficient qualification to become the next Proust.

The title story is poignant, and bizarrely descriptive, easy to parse, fast-paced, intuitive, with integrated dialogue and a pervasive sense of grotesque humor. I laughed out loud on almost every page. Utterly ridiculous. But it operates within the confines of its established logical landscape, becoming miraculously readable through rhythmic stylistic thrusts, charming through blasphemy, wrestling with biblical undertones, sliding into the just-plain-weird, until the sheer outrageousness becomes entertaining in a reality TV sort of way, but far more condensed, unrepetitive and deep. Vivid description accompanies sharp dialogue, again, dependent entirely on quirky character facets, often bordering on insanity, full of quips and egregious cleverness, and morbid in the extreme. The commentary on art and idolatry, pop culture, the media, tourists, and the backwater residents of America’s heartland were pointed, affecting, and effective. Its delusional characters shed light on our times and foibles. In complete helplessness, their confrontation with harsh reality cannot but be the anodyne for the oversaturated postmodern literary landscape we face today.

“Perversion is only a lack of acquaintance,” one of the characters says. This is during an exquisite punk rock satire, suffused with a sense of lost youth, spoiled potential, an inescapable dejection, amid moral decay, within a bereavement for the nostalgic pastures of youth, grappling with a sick sort of logic – all of which provide motivations to propel the narrative.

The author’s sophisticated commentary on religion through creative blasphemy lends itself to a range of interpretations. No matter how susceptible you are to the uncanny and the odd, Vardeman’s debut is a forceful example of honed aesthetic principles. For the herniated metaphors, and the stomach-churning detail of a pork-themed restaurant debacle alone, he deserves five stars.

Review of The Mad Patagonian by Javier Pedro Zabala

A flagship shelf-stopper from the stellar River Boat Books.

Is this book for you? At over half a million words, it’s likely to keep you busy for a while. Luckily, the beginning is rhythmic and fast-paced. The layered complexities and dense historical detail comes later, once you get to know some key players, are acclimatized to the atmosphere, and once you revel with these frolicsome rogues for a while. In terms of difficulty, it is about as challenging as Cloud Atlas, but more than twice as long, with similarly strung together novellas, all differing in form and content and characters. It also brings to mind The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll for this reason, but The Mad Patagonian, in the end, is its own chimerical self.

As detailed in the fabulous introduction, there are many affinities between this book and Bolaño’s work, and it is a safe bet that if you enjoyed 2666, you’ll find joy in this expansive new offering. Due to the shifting perspective and kaleidoscopic contexts inherent in the novel, I would call the introduction required reading, if not part of the novel – a tenth layer hidden in plain sight – and it may benefit your reading experience to peruse the articles on the publisher’s website after you have completed the last page, to better untangle the history of the book, its themes and integral motifs.

Rife with references to poetry, philosophy, theology, mysticism, pop culture, conspiracies, history, and much more, it does not often get bogged down by erudition or allusion. From the start, its capacity to engage the reader stems from its creative use of language and characters.

The novel explores, among a vast quantity of other themes, the pursuit of paradise, the possibility of salvation, redemption, and oblivion, and multigenerational connections, vendettas and familial gravitas and the inheritance of culture. Coherence and the malleability of history is one of its main preoccupations, leading to diverging interpretations and recursive speculation by the various narrators, protagonists and bit players.

Partaking of some elements of noir, it also experiments with barroom storytelling, police procedure, the epistolary form, diary entries, historical reportage, journalistic techniques, dream sequences, straight up surrealism and magical realism, hyperrealism (in terms of detail-oriented description), tropes of the bildungsroman, palimpsests and parallel perceptions of metaphysical reality, and a myriad of other belletristic incarnations.

Boiling it all down would never give you, the potential reader, an accurate portrait of this voluminous literary undertaking. But the key components, or driving forces of much of the chronicle are the following: impermanence, inner peace versus outer peace, the political nature of writing and the responsibility of the writer to embody the revolutionary spirit, the ‘fragile mirror of our misplaced aspirations,’ rebirth and renewal of the human spirit beneath the tyranny of history and cultural expectations, disappearance and the anonymity of the struggling artist, solitude versus the sacred ties of family, God’s creation and man’s relationship to Him, the question of whether He needs us or we need Him, a journey through the mythic realms of the past, existentialist crises and the idealist delusions of youth, the power of the imagination, the abyss of the self, the personal interpretations and quest for a satisfactory paradise, paranoia in government and relationships, the destructive and instinctual power of sexuality, religious atonement, dissolution and corruption, the transitory nature of art, the function of UFOs, inescapable uncertainty, despair and ephemeral beauty – but the more I seek to summarize, the more essential content falls by the wayside. A proper study of this book’s inner recesses would necessitate a professional thesis.

Taking place primarily in Florida, Cuba and Spain, it also includes jaunts to other exotic locales, as the outreaching tentacles of war and suffering between disparate factions and progeny converge symbolically while they diversify in personification. We are confronted with unreliable narrators and criminals, along with a varied cast of outcasts, each with their own burden of hang-ups, fears, ambitions, and lusts.

The influences, according to the Introduction, of Salinger, Henry Miller, Borges (including a cameo), Cortázar, Bolaño, de Sade, Vila-Matas, Kafka, Breton, Dante, Foucault, and Nietzsche can be found in the pages to follow. But the tone – what about that? It is reminiscent of nostalgic Hollywood stills, moments in archival film, sepia-tone landscapes peopled primarily by Latin American men and women, wandering a lush, urban apocalypse of cardboard sunsets, dragging behind them like disembodied spirits their multitudinous coping mechanisms, the evidence of their own authenticity, the internal maps of escape to Devilish liaisons, always surrounded by Consumerist empires, haunted by the voices of crushed cultures, desire-laden ghosts, hypocritical tyrants, and festering with metropolitan numbness, they are the boiled beach bums and beached angelic dolphins, epitomizing shame, exasperation, and humiliation in the face of murder, depravity, disenchantment and a strangely symbolic omnipresent man with a metal detector, while their looming innocence and lost opportunities, the radiance of their souls within their bodies, their self-defeating investigations of wrongdoings, allow them to brave the seas of their own mortality, crossing an “ocean of trouble” to “paint their newborn self across the sky.” Amid this crippling self-awareness and shattered faith is a tempest of doubt. Angels constantly dance on the point of a needle, and hallucinogenic, tilted reality reigns until the half-crazed rantings of our subconscious minds smack of prophecy and the ripples of our decisions are cast into the sullied sea of the future. The idea of cellular memory and reincarnation and the alternatives to the Catholic staples of belief are integrated into the legends of downtrodden representatives of the human race in this thorny masterpiece, effectively blurring the edges of its liminal space until the fictive corpus drifts into our cerebral firmament to subsume our simple complacency.

And yet. The chaos within us makes us human.

We must either accept the way the world is, or at least as it appears to be, and so we must buy into the propaganda that imprisons everyone else. Or we must embrace the world as we think it should be, what some would call paradise. But we must choose, and whatever we choose will be considered madness by those who would have made a different choice.

Life is a sort of post-traumatic stress induced by birth, and it only gets more harrowing as you age toward inescapable death. How we deal with this tragedy we call living is either our downfall or legacy.

Now,
I am wondering if I am coming down with some kind of strange Patagonian madness.

Review of Night of the Long Goodbyes by Erik Martiny

Readers’ artistic interpretation of this book may vary. More so than in many other novels I’ve read at least.

On this canvas, the colors are iterations and variations of the same hue. It is patterned expressionism, containing analogues for strange human and psychological dream creatures. The symbolism is associated with blood crafted into Surrealist representative backdrops, with commentary on subjects stretching from the historical, sexual, political, environmental, religious, artistic et al.

In the end, I found it undeniably compelling, even frightening. The author makes harsh demands of the reader at times, but doesn’t underestimate us or talk down to his audience. The precision of the language is on point. The artistic irreverence is best appreciated with a grain of salt. Overall, Night of the Long Goodbyes is nightmarish and uncouth. The more overt racist satire of the beginning acts as gatekeeper to the subsumption and subtle commentary in the later pages, but it is still integral to the story. I would not call the beginning representative of the quality of the whole, nor is it indicative of its readability.

Chapter 6 is an accusatory metafictional interlude, an intermission which deepens the intellectual scope of the haphazard monstrosities that came before. The ending too, like the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, may prompt more questions than resolutions, but also demonstrates the agency of the author and the main character, casts the action of the novel in a new light, and hits the highest notes of comedy between the covers.

Traditional storytelling methods are not frequently relied on, but the text is laced with Noveau Roman set-pieces, political overtones, and creepy, otherworldly dementia. It is propelled forward by an anxious, asthmatic narrator engrossed in the exploration of a hellish world. The soul is harness by technology, and self-regulated. The first-person narrator put me in mind of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Especially in the latter half of the book. When this book jumps the shark, at least it sticks the landing most of the time.

The dignity of struggle is depicted with stark irony. A modern day Sisyphus, through endurance, battles his love affair with the absurd, using it as a balm, embracing escapism, believing in the soul, even as he physically turns it off, then grasps the boulder, which pushes back in the form of hallucination.

Possibly an assault on soullessness, or a deadening of the artistic spirit, the book pulls no punches, and is an exercise in wish fulfillment in more than one sense. The haunting, nagging suggestion of what might have been and what might be hereafter plagues the internal monologues in much the same way it permeates a typically hinged mind. But the slow unhinging offers a fearful solution to our presiding anesthesia. How big a part does agency really play? Too seldom do we ask this question perhaps.

To what extent are we just victims or perpetrators of our environmental conditions?
This near-future, unreliable narrator, slipping in some commentary on recent British political squabbles, gives an overview of developments within genetics, and genealogy within his lifetime, which is, in all honesty, disgusting. At first strained, terse, an awkward, the novel begins as an unappealing setting for an adventure, but this book is anything but coddling. Extremism in myriad forms, and the unsettling racial tension and descriptions of society’s ethnic obsessions only transmogrify into intense body modification later. At times oppressive and bleak, but otherwise sustaining its erratically dissonant atmosphere throughout, The Night of the Long Goodbyes retains poetic sensibility where it lacks subtlety. When it possesses subtlety it puts on layers of complexity and baffling amounts of suggestion. The academic vocabulary on display lends a documentary stratum to the unraveling of events. Whereas the prevalent fantasy elements, such as the physical existence of the soul, lends more dream-aura to the discussion of the abstract concepts tangent to human life. Xenophobia and ethnic cleansing remain in the undercurrent throughout this compulsively transcribed account of disintegration. While it relishes its ambiguities and tackles uncomfortable topics, it’s sometimes difficult to tell when the author is being facetious. Major suspension of disbelief is required at all points, and B-movie convenient explanations for technology and sudden societal changes serve to jutter the plot forward. The depiction of a reality harsher and less tolerant than our own is nothing new, but similarities and analogues can be found scattered throughout history, and the unique approach Mr. Martiny takes is appreciated.

We live in a time when it is not hard to imagine the descent of governments into less logical forms, where emotional panic responses take place with growing frequency. A satire partaking more or horror than humor is warranted in my opinion. Though the humor is absurdist, it is prevalent enough to offset some of the more gruesome aspects of the plot. Some tropes include torture, imprisonment, vagabondage, bondage, spiritual awakenings, drug trips and more. The genocide, mass ethnic relocation, and the hyper-awareness of dysfunction within society lend credibility to some of the self-indulgent developments. The relatively recognizable elements of its dystopia are disconcerting to say the least. Violence, and organically integrated futuristic concepts take center stage, along with subtle world-building disguised as blatant social commentary. The physical ailments resulting from mental aberrations, the pervasive apathy, and the central Blue, which is a tangible manifestation of ever-present, niggling human flaws, condenses the future timeline recap in the first 25 pages to a sidereal role, as facing the possibility of extinction becomes the driving proponent of human endeavor. By degrees, an increasingly haunting allegory unfolds. By interpolating frame devices, playing with the role of the manuscript within the manuscript, and constantly thumbing his self-administered soul dilation, the narrator, author in his own right, is longing for and recapturing sensation in an anhedonic age, irresponsibly casting caution to the wind in his aesthetic pursuits, which are of a very hedonist bent. The impersonal approach to observing and writing the suffering of others is thought-provoking, though whether the author goes too far in some of his perambulations is up for you to decide.

Most disturbing to me was the allegory on the inception of plastic micro-particles into our bodies – a very real threat. Simply visualizing the process of our stupid plastic-centric species slowly incorporating our own filth into our bodies, becoming plastic organisms, devoid of emotion, is devastating to my psyche.

When emotions are meted out like medication, life becomes a constant battle against numbness and rage. The starkness of reportage, the tendency toward absurdity, the leaning toward the dream-state and the comforts thereof, the purpose of art, religious symbology, culture critics, cultural pandemics, the commentary on climate change, fanaticism, stagnation and isolation, all point toward the author’s agendas. Well-versed in world mythology, theology, and history as he must be, and disregarding his biography and relative obscurity, I can tell he is qualified to discuss many of these topics through his elegance and control. The erosion of culture and the blurring of edges between reality and fantasy is all too common nowadays. I just read Kaufman’s Antkind and got enough Philip K. Dickian mind-drenching to satiate me for years to come.

We are all familiar with some urban paradoxes: The invasion of other cultures, the seepage into every sector of life of imagined threats, the collective acceptance of corruption and disturbance, readjustment, accommodation, and how increasing shades of dismaying horror often result from over-reliance on our own comforts and solitude.

The book enters new territory of elegant description, in its slow slide toward undeniable apocalypse, indicated through transition phases. The ludicrous de-humanizing and desensitizing technologies, the reversal of norms, and the tendency toward lack of responsibility and lack of participation all speak volumes to our current state of affairs. Some intriguing mystery in the central concept will either percolate into interest or irritate the average reader. This book is overwhelmingly blue in cast, color and inclination, it is dark, with disturbing levels of irony, and displays a brazen disregard for logical infrastructure, while it takes world-building constraints for granted, is wacky, bizarre, and wallows in vagueness. The vocabulary is either a product of the author’s style or the style is artificially sophisticated for increased similitude or it is a product of the cracked narrator, who’s scattered reminiscences congeals only when convenient. I found myself, eagerly, voraciously interested after about 45 pages, turning pages with a near-constant smirk, guiltily barreling ahead even through unsettled discomfort. Ethno-graphic relationships don’t bother me.“Self-cleaning underpants” do. The goofy portmanteaus, and leakage of the main character’s psyche into the described setting lend elegiac sterility to the fantastical landscape. Boris Vian level styling might be to blame. The asthmatic narrator recognizes the hypnotic effect of the monochrome environment. The novel itself entertains its own form of mesmerism.

Through the permeation of environmental issues into other parts of life, society and reality break down in tandem. Such is the possibly prophetic thesis statement of the novel. If the transmogrified psychedelic body horror lunacy and experiments a la Naked Lunch don’t bother you, enter this realm of Blue to witness the consumption of our poor, ravaged planet, and how humans, given the right conditions, will suddenly become indistinguishable from animals.

Prolonged grotesque ecstasy taken to new heights of Surrealism – trigger warning: the hermaphroditic alien slug sex goddess creature torture scenario might be excessive by some peoples’ standards. But River Boat Books doesn’t publish, safe, easy, forgettable books. The unity between art and creator is always inherent in a work, but there are often many degrees of separation. The soporific, the metamorphic and metaphoric combine in a patented version of an oblivion-seeking society, stemming from the old concept of blue blood, and operating within a structure composed of doubting of the world’s true form. It makes you wonder if artistic interpretations are valid worldviews in and of themselves. Obsession and the pursuit of grandeur and the pure expression of beauty, the idealism and narcissistic downward spiral of an artist or mere keen observer is the label you could slap on most novelists. How accustomed people might become to depraved conditions and customs has already been fleshed out and analyzed throughout history. The very real disappearance of the English countryside is one more disconcerting thought.

Finally, philology takes on physical significance in the novel, language bleeds into the narrative. The layered unrealities, the extrapolation of pleasure, of transgression, the libidinous honesty, the unrepentant descent into the id, extracting and examining consequences of disregard for propriety in the self-righteous pursuit of immortality, make for really quite fascinating final chapters.

Review of SHIKASTA Re: Colonised Planet 5.Canopus In Argos : Archives by Doris Lessing

The full title is Canopus in Argos: Archives Re: Colonized Planet 5: Shikasta: Personal, Psychological, Historical Documents Relating to Visit by JOHOR (George Sherban): Emissary Grade 9: 87th of the Period of the Last Days.

To begin, we receive a Preface from the Nobel-winning author. It contains a brief defense of S-F as a literary form. Lessing’s contribution to S-F is rarely, if ever, mentioned. Totaling over 1100 pages, her 5 novel series constitutes an exhaustive study of a fictionalized galactic civilization.
The alien perspective is intriguing. We hear about negotiated agreements between Sirius and Canopus, after a ruinous war. Some large-scale backstory, non-traditional storytelling, a detached voice, disembodied, disorienting and disarming. I sank into the scientific narrative like I became immersed in Olaf Stapledon’s works. He was an acknowledged influence of Lessing’s and signs of his work are everywhere, down to the skeleton of the novel’s framework.
In what will become dense social commentary, the author introduces by degrees, an astoundingly complex level of world building, a dense architecture of philosophies, and then proceeds in the method established by Stapledon in Last and First Men and Star Maker. At first glance, this book could appear to be a similar masterpiece. The further you read, the more you will realize that is not so.
The subject veers dramatically as Lessing probes the furthest reaches of the human mind, but the message gets clogged with political agendas. The use of an inhuman narrator presents difficulties, easily surmounted by fascinating juxtapositions. Get ready for dry imagery, a large number of fictional facts and abstractions, and a sense of the dangerous scale of the universe. The mode of communication is uneven throughout. Dozens of reports are interpolated from extraterrestrials and humans. At once, a distinctly skewed and innately logical setting makes way for execrations to come. The language employed borrows more from its established backstory than from societal constructs, except for the implementation of pervasive allegory, until the story shifts to modern times.
The most interesting part was the exploration of the catastrophe, which left behind work for the custodians of Shikastan Truth. Through Johor’s contribution to his planet’s experiment, Lessing makes use of allegorical devices, infusing the narrative with the sense of higher powers orchestrating vast reaches of space-time. How much of it is alien technology, and how much faith-based relics is hard to quantify.
The novel takes the form of a note in a bottle, a time capsule, or a testament. This form is broken, irreparably, as the novel progresses.
It speaks of the end of civilizations and of the galactic development of empiricism, it covers the varieties and forms of extraterrestrial life all too briefly. Subtle allegories ensue: consumerism, the food chain, until we begin to see that Shikasta is Earth. With worthy lyricism, Lessing describes this world as an outsider, and her work is surreally fascinating. Her fiercely intelligent prose slides into abstract forms and sensations. The microscopic details are uncanny, but the sweeping, bitter statements undercut what might have been a thought-provoking, instead of a thought-suppressing, conclusion.
The narrator utilizes the sort of foreigners’ bizarre verbal patterns you might expect from a multi-national author. There is an incredible verisimilitude inherent in the sustained stylistic choices. The hallucinogenic descriptions of nature lend to the charm of reading Shikasta, before it betrays your every hope for consistency. I loved the lumbering, slow, aching prose, the giant, gaping palaces and eldritch ruins. I found the accumulation of atmosphere and detail profoundly unsettling. The stark narration, ripe with ordure, was strikingly vivid. Canopus institutes their regime on the vibrant planet of Shikasta, manufacturing giants and conducting sociological studies. Their enemy is Shammat. We know the Canopeans inherit genetic memory. Degeneration does not afflict them. They suffer no death. Their colonization is posited on designed evolution, and we can only assume their space-faring civilization is immense. The main concern of this “study” is the biological experiments on Shikasta and the aftermath, wherein selective breeding leads to unexpected consequences.
The development of sentience and intelligence in the controlled environment is interesting. It is speculative writing of the highest caliber, until it plummets into an abyss of antihumanism. The tension between galactic empires would have been a more stimulating subject, but I gather there will be further developments in that arena later in the series. She regales us with essays on the controlled distribution of wealth. Instead of plausible advanced technologies we get enigmatic magic. In fact, almost no explanation for the Canopeans’ powers intrudes. We must sit through 300 pages recounting the dry history of mankind, a saddening cultural survey, lacking any sign of sophistication. She exits the uncanny valley and only enters into the land of the canny, the trite and the wickedly accusatory.
She takes a scientific view of sex. But the traces of feminism are surprisingly light. Johor can change physical form. He understands acclimatization, but the more sacred knowledge he imparts, the more perverted the Shikastan experiment becomes. The clandestine alien subjugation of a civilization by a higher one is not original, but she started off in a convincing way. The planetary Petri dish, the control group, makes for a fine set-up. Recall that Johor refrains from corrupting society’s innocence with the introduction of advanced tech, but Taufiq becomes almost entirely human. Johor has an affinity with beasts, and uses this to his advantage as he seeks to modernize the brutes. His comrades practice micromanagement of a race already spiraling out of their control. Johor’s tasks and duties are at first vague, and his communication from Canopus is not enlightening, but it becomes clear he is meant to moderate the chaos.
Human symbiosis with the planet has always been tenuous, but Lessing drives home the fact that we have made a fine mess of things.
Luckily, we are given the emissary’s explanation along the way. He is a measurer of vibrations. These vibrations are the invisible forces at work, crafting the environment.
The Shikastan’s are told their function as lesser beings in service to Canopus, he bears the news of their loss of freedom, in one of the most stirring passages, and a fall results.

“A whole race will cease,” he says. This is the destruction of the self through hyper awareness. A competition for survival begins after the reliance of higher powers ceases. However, Johor’s prophetic powers and the development of the telepathic survival trait do little to prevent widespread degradation.
The fates of races are determined by the caprices of stars. Lessing distorts her religious allegory with many misappropriated Biblical references, only to castigate and belittle all organized religions later on.
Determinism and the possibility of anticipating the future follow attempts to placate the disintegration of their evolutionary project. The enemy emerges from their mishaps. Beginning with the Edenic people among which evil does not exist, she depicts society before sin, and Shammat, as sin, is labeled, and makes short work of any sign of Canopean progress. Johor’s immersion in another culture describes this scenario beautifully. He contemplates whether awareness of sin is a weakness. The garden falls through lack of adequate resources in the face of limitless wants. Shammat is syphoning off the life of planets. This is the enigmatic enemy, or the name he has given the force antagonistic to the aims of Canopus. Parasitism as an inevitable variation of progress from symbiots.
Loss of judgement en masse in the face of changing environmental constraints, sin as death, “disobedience to the master plan” causing the fall of Shikasta, and other parabolic constraints sheer away little by little, the fabulous invention Lessing spent 100 pages crafting.
The slow and assured death in the environment without divine intervention goes unchecked for 31 millenia. The plight of mutants and outsiders, those cast off and forsaken cry out from her pages. Possessed of no faith in a higher power, blessed were they in their ignorance, they fail to live up to the standards of the Canopean empire, which are divine in nature. Without religious beliefs they begin preternaturally innocent, but innocence soon falls by the wayside. Discovery that your planet is an artificial construct, would be enough to alter most peoples’ perception. Your society and development from beast hood was unnatural and programmed. The Natives and Giants are the 2 sentient species created by Canopus. The resultant diaspora dissolves the clever societal dichotomies she threatened to enumerate.

The signature is Johor’s distinguishing power. The loss of innocence is described as a descent into fear and dissolution. The rise of prophets as a result of chaos and the birth of religion, the rebellion of the spirit all come to the fore as Johor’s influence wanes. A multitude of afflictions intrude upon disorganized society, the tribes scatter, the disbalance physically manifests as a disease of the flesh. Their faith and awareness brings them torment and destruction. Disorder is measured by permeating vibrations in the environment which the natives misuse for their own pleasure. The destruction of the idealized past occurs repeatedly. They lose immortality and fall into perpetual cycles of death and sin, degenerate back into animals, devolution and reversion.
The intrusion of belief systems and humanity’s reliance on its environmental conditions, segregation and the survivalist mindset, and resistance to higher laws, all erupt from the misuse of Canopean stones. The patterns of stones create vibrations, in the sense that imposed order endows inhabitants with prosperity. The stones possess divine, or Canopean, power. Johor warns inhabitants with prohibitions and pointing out their in-progress destruction. He chooses disciples to spread the Truth from Canopus.
Shammat emanates, sows destruction. Johor tries to establish Laws. He communes with nature as a prophet seeking guidance. We learn of boosters, conductors and planet programming, Sirius, Effluon 3, Puttiora, pollution, abstract corruption, filtering and enhancing brain power, physical manifestations of conceptualizations, and a destructive force as supernatural as the stones. This allegory allows us to contemplate the destructive nature of our technology and our reliance on higher systems to function. Shammat uses Shikastans as transmitters. Out of darkness it came, sapping strength, beauty and intellect, which to Canopus, are measurable resources.
In his marvelous journey of discovery, Johor seeks to limit the spread of Shammat. The first murder occurs in an attempt to communicate divine Truth. Intimations of intoxication, idolatry and addiction are obvious consequences.
Love had been provided and engendered in the genetic make-up of their forebears. They must relearn progress, invention, adaption, intuition. They have to reinvent every basic device, the building blocks of civilization, SOWF (substance-of-we-feeling) = manna – the source of progress and human sentience. It is what separates Shikastans from animals.
Another disciple, Taufiq, is an agent, an instrument of the way toward life and immortal divinity. He espouses idealism. We recognize him amid our wars, government and culture.
An abrupt shift around page 100 brings us to modern Earth, still called Shikasta. The second section of the book is a direct castigation of privileged white society. Pettiness, avarice, socialist spoofs, small and frivolous revolutions, every expression of vanity. Supplemental reports give extraneous detached viewpoints, lassoing in cults and the minutiae of wasted lives, every category of sin is dissected in a discomfiting, clinical way. The writing degrades steadily from logical argument to execrable melodrama. It becomes a searing history text which cultivates a disgusted, ashamed tone of oppressive derogating, recounting all the missteps in human affairs, an endless series of disturbing protests against flawed individuals.

Perhaps Lessing was so ensconced in the omniscient extraterrestrial perspective, she let pessimism run rampant. She is excessive and obsessive in her portrayal of human folly. It seems to come from a place of anger, is spiteful and mean-spirited.

The repetitions, reinterpretations, and restating her theses statements becomes the modus operandi of the second half of the novel. There is a continual reinforcement of the depressing worthlessness of human beings. The shorter the lifespan, the worse the human maladjustments become, and a vestigial belief in former immunity to death remains as a carry-over to haunt them.

Rachel’s journal presents a stilted human viewpoint, but after all the macrocosmic speculation, her foibles, whining and minuscule troubles appear petty, void and contrived, inserted for a dramatic shift in the scientific tone.

Lessing indulges in bald satire, on the changeable minds of men, makes light of the power struggles during and after the World Wars, progress, justice, vain ambitions, etc. Humans have an innate fear of Canopus, which is dimensionless, reinterpreted through religious agendas, Taufiq assumed human form and diverges from his mission, finds religion to be a tool for ruling castes, espouses pacifism and points out human flaws again.

The book is a survey of human corruption, the death of the spirit, a forecast of the bleak fate awaiting us. Post-human speculation comes singly, much like the new men in Stapledon. We see increased involvement by extraterrestrial agents, decreased population split into giants, little people, hybrids and natives, a mixed species majority, the persistence of evil in human nature (seems unjustly attributed to Shammat) mass extinction due to Shikasta’s axis shift. Canopeans choose strategic, selective incarnations and visibility, and introduce experimental methods to combat the “revolt against the gods.”

The law of inevitable division and subdivision remains, operating through currents carried through stone patterns, Canopean vibrancies are simply eugenics, and even with their civilization-building experiments, they cannot prevent acts of God.

The Shikastans are victims of themselves, Canopeans deliberate and destroy some tribes, their insistence on their own morality becomes questionable. It reminds us in the most unpleasant way of the soulless behavior, cruelty, and small acts of terrorism that pervade our history.

Review of The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas by Rick Harsch

If this book had been published in 1960, we would all know about it by now. “Manifold Destiny” would be a catch-phrase justification for our monstropolis steamroller of a country.

Combining an astonishing range of styles, a magisterial voice, operatic reverence, elegant tone variance, and predominantly satirical, cynical, jaded, darkly comic, acerbic, and comedic characters, this tome draws fair comparisons with David Foster child Wallace.

Composed of shifting viewpoints interwoven with parallel narratives – a rough outline of the riverine vortices you will encounter might look like this:

Hector Robitaille versus Old Ephraim. Approximately 1840 on the American frontier.
Donnie & Drake in Brussels and stateside, their gambols and gambles. 8 generations removed from Hector’s timeline.
Garvin/ Gravel/ Eddie – 1 generation behind the teen pseudo-protags.
Setif’s imperative feminine perspective in a male-dominated society.
Nordgaard’s Vietnam tale within a tale, contemporaneous, but drilling through multiple narratives.
Author’s asides – breaking the 4th wall.

Harsch’s multi-layered language and surgical word choices will constantly outwit you. The prose is peppered with puns and alive with alliteration. This is a no-holds-bard, creme de la crop, onomatopoeic, virtuosic performance. There is no parody or imitation, no reliance on cliche or cheap gimmicks, except perhaps for a single exception in the loving homages to Rabelais in the form of whimsical lists. Not a tired phrase in sight, no strained eloquence, but only practical, improvisational riffing, which in its accumulated convolutions and fluttering depths assumes layers of lyrical immanence.

You get intertextual arrangements, traditional Western songs, and bawdy ramblings, symphonic narration, dreamlike languor, and precise observations, along with sentences as courageous as landslides, and the convincing plot is always marching into vast horizons of meaning, leaving you parched on the precipice of awe.

Not to mention the meta-fictional moments, some of the most creative and elaborate strings of curses I’ve ever encountered, a breadth of erudition to place this book in the first class of American literature, and a lyrical fluency on par with Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Plus, as if that isn’t enough, character descriptions so jaw-dropping, they actually stand out in the constant poetic fireworks display.

Luckily, amid the disenchantment, slaughter and rapine, there is loving humor and spiteful candor. The cruelty of our human frailty leaves little room for solace in the relentlessly advancing, increasingly heartless universe.

Do you like literary puzzle of the level of Infinite Jest’s subliminal world building, but more approachable, horripilating narration, and characters with a wider scope and relation to society? This novel coordinates its intricate, complex, dense, Ivy League prose, infusing it with luscious imagery, lascivious charm, and wry, pithy one-liners and palindromes, luxuriant and serpentine descriptions, compounding philosophies, and atmosphere to stagger the imagination and ensorcel the senses. It is a hallucinogenic tour de force that reinvents language, with inspiring, spiraling irreverence, that encapsulates the bleak aura of our shameful and shameless history, but isn’t devoid of compassion. Beware the seamlessly blent portmanteau words and regional dialect. They require a double-take, but are appreciated upon reflection. It’s a memorable ride, so fast and loose and smooth you’ll feel lashed and used and moved.

Pay particular attention to:
Drake and Donnie’s encounter with Setif’s ex’s gang resulting in a display worthy of their ancestors.

Hector’s encounter with the snake versus Eddie’s encounter with the snake, and what each reveals about the characters.

How the omniscient narrator skip-traces through each generation.

How Hector’s Odyssey is reminiscent of Crusoe’s solo survival. It is a declarative master class on how to describe character interactions with their environment

Don’t miss Easter eggs in the chapter titles and puns in the character names.

Prepare for tall tales, a grizzly affair or two, a very scary midget, multi-generational bloodthirsty feuds, disillusioned gunslingers and rapacious claim-jumpers, landmines and their accompanying human potpourri, and literary devices juggled like a circus performer adding bowling pins until you lose count.

This is Gold Rush country, even in the modern age, full of slurs, slants & baggy pants, home of the free built upon the graves of the braves. What is the expense of our freedoms? What is the cost of its preservation? “Empires carry the seeds of their own destruction.” The mythic force of human desire does not counteract our animalistic nature. Our ancestors are inescapable, no matter how estranged we think we are.

What’s left is clarity and consistent invention, the force of a great raconteur, historical and microcosmic details, bravado, and bold humor around every turn. Some sentences are polished to the atomic level and others erupt like a widening whirlpool of malleable lava.

Desolate and teeming, this book discusses how hardship and struggle echo through time and across landscapes, touches families and dissolve loves. Inhabiting a skewed and tilted reality, it is about fathership above all – of children, of a name, of a nation, of a legend, of a disaster, and of a godless destiny. The steel-girt profunditties, the growling, prowling, scowling, howling, simply lovely writing, the phantasmagloric rabblearousing, un-pandering, double, no triple, entendre-ing, and tongue-in-cheek full-of-our-babies-merry-go-round-on-fire harsch dose of Reality qualify The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas as a bonified masterpiece.

Now to end with a handful of my favorite quotes from the book:

“The land shapes a man’s destiny, however appallingly insignificant.”

“A full fed feller with a full-fledged fire.”

“Solitude maketh of man many an oddity.”

“You just aren’t self-aware enough to be aware of other selves.”

“My decision is flannel.”

“The desert tries to impress it absences on you, but it is full, dry but ripe.”

“On bad days I am at least four decades shabbier than Eastern Europe.”

Review of The Unknown Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac

ISBN 0940322749 (ISBN13: 9780940322745)

Easily the best entry point into Balzac’s impressive oeuvre, these two short novellas display the key features of this literary master’s ability.

The first feature is astounding, complex description, and the second is dramatic, intelligent dialogue. The latter is worthy of a grandiose stage play and the former is often as striking as a prose poem. Combining these approaches, Balzac allows the characters take on intense life during the simple dramatic context he constructs.

“The Unknown Masterpiece” provides the perfect setup for Balzac to discus (or show off) what he knows about artistic form and composition. At the same time, he displays these very architecturally sound qualities in his own writing. The characters are vivid in the extreme and the descriptions are superb. Balzac casually casts aphorisms and pithy pronouncements into intricate tapestries of sentences until it takes effort and concentration to grasp the far-reaching concepts he’s simultaneously lassoing in amid the interplay of ideas. Though he argues there is often an unbridgeable gap between conception and execution, he proves the exception to the rule by expressing with utter perfection lucid concepts and splendid thematic irony. Many artists have few affinity with the historical figures from the 17th century depicted in this story including Picasso and Cézanne.

This edition includes an excellent, if not essential, introduction providing additional historical context.

“Gambara” is the second, longer novella. Its focus pertains to music, though many of the pronouncements made by the eccentric characters echo those of the first piece. Taken together, they are both complementary and contrasting. With playful humor, the author contrives basic scenes to give his disproportionately ingenious characters a soapbox, and it is a joy to read their sinuous arguments and philosophical rants. Balzac is a consummate stylist, who with grand gestures and crystal clarity deepens verisimilitude. In this quick read, the expression of intelligence is everywhere in evidence.

Review of The Wrong Side of Paris by Honoré de Balzac

ISBN 0812966759 (ISBN13: 9780812966756)

This lesser-known, final finished Balzac novel comprises 2 halves and is the concluding segment of the Parisian Life chapter of the Human Comedy. There are 3 translations into English with alternate titles, this one being the most recent.

As in most of the author’s work, there is a display of bottomless wisdom, an assured, master’s touch, and an incredible condensation of narrative and pathos. It is, from the start, a condemnation of refined tastes, a repudiation of vanity and empty boasts, and a charming character study. Balzac acknowledged influence from Dickens’ contemporaneous “The Cricket and the Hearth,” and it is easy to see that he borrowed a bit of his English rival’s whimsicality.

But Balzac delves deeper with his themes, I think, and challenges the reader in different ways. Dickens was also a master of capturing his time, of putting relevant themes to good use, but in much of his work, he wraps the literary innovation into the form of a fable. Some of his novels lack the immediacy of Balzac’s work. Balzac’s Realism feels more real. At least to me.

Here we have our hero putting on a show for propriety, cultivating an impressive reputation, but also failing at managing his finances. Finances are the great obsession of the human race, and Balzac’s Comedy derives its modus operandi from this principle. Our main character must put on a brave face, as he faces ruin. All he wants is to make a splash on the Paris scene, but he is floundering. The inertia of the mediocre life assaults him with its inevitability.

The ruination of business ventures and disenchantment with hopeful works is also explored in the first part of the book. Dissolute children, wayward sons, prodigal offspring, the onslaught of melancholy, advantageous marriages, impending old age, the social plight of the invalid – these concepts are given their turn throughout. Finding success from the strength and works of others, the morality of wealth, making your own luck, society’s inherent flaws, unbridled disdain for the historical precedents of class hierarchies, established orders and moral strictures – Balzac manages to incorporate far more imperatives than I anticipated.

Along with an analysis of ambition, failure, talent, perception, societal duties, expectations, the privileged versus underprivileged roles in their community, the unfair distribution of ability, wealth, fame and hardship, bitter familial relationships, false modesty, dandyism, and the values of the monastic life, envy and self-important rage, the impotent existence of ambitious youth – what, seemingly, has he left out? Godefroid, the drowning man, finds his saviors in an unexpected form. Not surprising, many of these literary views intercept one another. It would be a jumbled concoction, except Balzac is a consummate weaver of tales, and knows how to subtly introduce tributaries of meaning without drawing attention from center stage.

Yet, as side characters rail against the seductions of ordinary Parisian life and overflow with didactic, preachy critiques, Balzac’s unorthodox Catholicism begins to take shape. Balzac has cherrypicked specific principles for a melange of hypothetical Good Samaritans. They pointed claim in the novel they are not Good Samaritans, but for lack of a better comparison, they could be called that for the sake of shorthand. Balzac crafts a compelling narrative around this secret society of charity. It’s a simple formula: have them go out and put their faith into practice, and one wonders if Balzac would have lived longer, if he would have followed the adventures of these fellows for many more volumes. All we know is that this was a definitive end to the Parisian segment of his Comedy and of the 40 or so unfinished works he left behind, these characters did not return for encores.

The question of decency in the world is present throughout the Human Comedy. So far I have not found a better example in his corpus of backstory revealing the characters’ motivations and relationship with society. The backstories were riveting, and served as a counterpoint to the main character’s decision making.

The inevitable disappointment life has in store for the man of means: That sums up Godefroid. This being a reversal of the traditional harrowing upward struggle of rags-to-riches stories. Could this be an answer to Dickens’ idealism?

Balzac lived in the long age of Chauvinism. But his female characters are well-rounded, thick-souled beings, very influential and heartfelt. Patriotism is omni-present – the point of the Human Comedy after all is to measure up to Dante’s Divine Comedy, but to bring it down to the human level. The devotion to a life of goodwill toward men – Dante was familiar with the concept. But in Balzac’s fabulous appraisal of the lives of selfish and selfless saints and sinners, he seems to understand the full impact one soul can have upon another. The subsuming of the baser instincts in Man is a common literary trope, but through obedience, subservience, meekness, the humble joys of service, industry and heartfelt relationships of Platonic love, we can observe a side of humanity we rarely see. This is an exquisite study of religion, which has wider application for its vague precepts. It is hard to live a life in this modern age without either patently ignoring or pursuing the allure of divinity. The only question that remains unanswered is whether or not it is another ambition born from a fear of death, a vain hope indeed. No matter where you find yourself on the question of faith, this book is a pure expression of humanness, and another notch on Balzac’s amble belt.

Review of Séraphita [And Louis Lambert & The Exiles] by Honoré de Balzac

ISBN 1873982410 (ISBN13: 9781873982419)

Rarely have I seen such wise arguments, such logical rhetoric, such splendid lyricism, such sincerity – even within the pages of Balzac

Seraphitaseraphitus is one of the author’s personal favorites, or so he said, and it is clear he had a fascination with the hermaphrodite figure in history. Apply this to a Shakespearean love triangle and you get a very interesting work of fiction. Unfortunately, the plot is of secondary importance. This is more of a philosophic text than anything else.

We are at first presented with a majestic landscape in Norway. Some of the most luscious descriptions in Balzac’s oeuvre. Then the characters come into the scene, displaying as much wit and intelligence as any of his stock geniuses. “Human granite hems in the sea of intellect.” They start sermonizing, and simply following the train of logic from one point to the next makes for a rewarding journey.

Have people really changed at all since the beginning of time? Balzac doubts. This short novel, and the other novella and short story in the collection, cast light on the mystery of sentience, and serve as a contemplation of the Creator’s methodology in man and nature. They are starkly grounded in earlier centuries than our own, but radiate the charm of antiquated argument.

Fantastical though it is, Seraphita proved the exception in Balzac. Strict realism proved the rule, but this delightful tale makes one wonder how much fame he would have attained had he confined himself to supernatural subjects. Balzac was well-informed and well-read in every subject of life, it seems, and brings his knowledge to his characters, who never show but superficial ignorance.
Balzac the historian. Balzac the scientist and mystic. He put on every hat as he struggled to exhaust the forms of life he perceived in the human animal. The dialogue partakes of the same grandiosity as the detailed descriptions. The personalities swell to encompass their times. As is clear within fifty pages, Balzac expressed great confidence in Swedenborg’s theories and proceeds with an extended essay, Swedenborgian in inclination, inspired by that philosopher’s superhuman literary accomplishment. Even if this slide away from his original subject was unwarranted, it offers much historical and lyrical interest to the uninitiated.

Louis Lambert, the second novella, is an enchanting chronicle of a precocious boy of uncommon intelligence in a militaristic, monastic boy’s school, which, we are led to believe, mirrors what we know of Balzac’s strained childhood with a level of detail nothing short of astounding.

Childhood complaints become allegories as manhood’s struggles. It is a comedy fraught with pathos and much memorable Dickensian satire, which further reinforces Balzac’s tendency toward mysticism in its later pages, succumbing to philosophical eccentricities, as Louis Lambert, in a disturbing analog to Balzac’s own questionable beliefs, derails his own genius.

I can see why Balzac’s connection of Mesmer’s theories to the spiritual realm led to critical controversy. Though many of Balzac’s theories appear harebrained from a modern viewpoint – (“perfumes are ideas”) – you can’t fault his logic. Taking up phenomenology and religion, in the loosest sense, his breadth of learning and powers of articulation easily qualify him as a genius. It’s easy for us to scoff at the geniuses who believed the world was flat, but where would we be without them? From our high tower of contemporaneity, we can look down on Isaac Newton if we choose. Balzac’s theories of “Suspense” (potential energy) and electrical impulses in the brain seem old fashioned, absurd and comical – but he took them seriously, he culled them from immense troves of reading, and adapted them for his fiction. Much of the time, he made what he found kosher for his ecclesiastical purposes.

“By trying to create gold the alchemist’s created chemistry.” – By misstepping in many of his theories, he crafted eloquent fiction. In the end, this book reads almost like apologetics and is not a representative work or the best starting point in his corpus. You will still find very glossy prose, of course, but this is a side-story to the Human Comedy.

The germ of inspiration for some of Strindberg’s ideas is evident. That author was just as obsessed by Balzac as he was by Swedenborg. Balzac discusses the separation of the material from the spiritual world at length, as well as the problems of considering eternity in conjunction with man’s mind and co-eternity and anterior eternity and much else which requires deeper familiarity with Swedenborg’s religion.

Balzac posits that in human love there is something of the divine, and that which cannot be understood must be interpreted as witchcraft by men. Sometimes there is poison in the interpretation. Pure love, such as Seraphita engenders, is angelic, but Wilfred’s interpretations, his involuntary participation, lowers it to the human realm. The mystical impressions Balzac depicts are representative of the soul’s flights and descents in response to otherworldly impetuses. He held Seraphita in greater esteem than Goriot, as a character, and sweated over the novel far more than the several other books he wrote simultaneously. Somewhat dated in a few offhand racist and misogynist remarks, the plot and characterization fall by the wayside as 100 pages of philosophical debate ensue. But I still recognized the literary merit.

It also insinuates part of the underlying motive of the Human Comedy: that is, reconciling Spiritualism with Materialism. One finds throughout his work characters wrestling with these 2 forces.

Like his mouthpiece, Louis Lambert, Balzac deviates greatly from religious doctrine and partakes of playful speculation. This is all to say he undertakes serious moral arguments. He is a sound adjudicator and a convincing rebel.

Through his characters, one detects underlying doubt. There would be no need to expound at such length if he were merely novelizing. Moralizing is closer to what he is doing. He is spouting off his bottled up unreconciled anxiety in the guise of artistic experimentation.

His critics said: “His was an untutored, unrestrained intellect, deeply curious about the occult sciences, about mesmerism, astrology, animal magnetism, mysticism, and alchemy, but uncontaminated by science and commonsense.”

The dig about commonsense is false, and he obviously knew his science and mathematics. But that does not mean he did not twist what he read. Just for the inherent romance of wild landscapes, Balzac is a painter with words worthy of esteem.

He pinpoints some excellent juxtapositions: inertia versus motion, granite and the sea, within his lengthy, majestic descriptions which prefigured Naturalism, there are enough verbose and grandiose moments to justify his wild eccentricities. His is always concerned with the fascinating phenomena of human nature, depicting the feeling and intellect of his characters, their earthly pursuits and those of the hereafter. Mingled with the melodrama are universal truths, allegorized with exquisite precision. The tangibility of man’s ideas, our dichotomous natures, the mingling of unlike substances, bring out Balzac’s powers in excess.

In Louis Lambert, the speechifying is reminiscent of Hamlet’s. Man’s constituent propensity to contemplate god more than he contemplates himself echoes throughout literature, and the inspired Lambert internalizes the literary ideals of Balzac. Balzac’s brand of escapism, involves life and imagination proceeding from the power of the word. We draw out its meaning and expand upon it with our interpretations, and through this the evolution of modern languages and symbols took shape, from hieroglyphs to rhetoric. This is the heart of Lambert’s early argument. The imaginations of children in the ability to transport the senses was recognized and exploited by the author as his characters live out the axiom: “Our spirit loves the abyss.”

The abyss of death, the void of the hereafter, the religious ideals and the earthly restraints we feel in our daily existence all contributed to Balzac’s lifelong pursuits.

Review of The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

ISBN 0767902890 (ISBN13: 9780767902892)

The flawless audiobook presentation, read by none other than Bryan Cranston (of Malcolm in the Middle fame) was riveting. This is good storytelling, and a lesson on how to use repetition. It sheds light on nuanced emotions amid the chaos of wartime.

I‘ve always disliked war stories in general. They’re just not my thing. I found The Naked and the Dead difficult. I don’t understand the level of cruelty in these tales. They accomplish the depiction of human strength, endurance, weakness and moral outrage. But how is it possible to justify a bombing, a mine, or the massacres that have occurred in every era of history? I’m always thinking, why is our civilization doing this? I’m no historian. I don’t know a lot about Vietnam. But I believe I can appreciate some of the contradictions, the hypocrisy and the tragedy. Maybe Hollywood has ruined my perception. It is safe to assume that those who had a personal connection with the time and events will get slightly more out of the literature it produced.

Luckily, Tim O’Brien’s book really comes off as authentic. Vietnam was another troubling time in history, and the author has a lot to say about war and the damage it has done on the psyches of the Americans involved. The author’s account at the end added even more food for thought.

This is an affecting, powerful, immersive book. A well-written chronicle, limited in scope, but all the more memorable for the idiosyncratic characters and clear, crystalline voice.

This book does its job. It captures attention, widens understanding, it engages the heart and mind. I doubt I will find a more effective war story anytime soon.

Review of Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen

ISBN 0812996917 (ISBN13: 9780812996913)

A masterpiece. Relentlessly clever. The demented techno wordplay will ripple into the future, endlessly perplexing jaundiced, crusty historians of so-called traditional literature as it astounds and speaks to every savvy and savage child of our screen-dependent age.

A big book of inside jokes, which, in DFW-fashion, elicits a gut-reaction on every page via the reflexive verbal elbowing the reader receives from the author. The biggest workout for my Kindle’s touch-definition function since I-really-don’t-know. After scouring the Internet for obscurities and unearthing passive, yet scathing intellectual personas, Cohen’s abrasive literary gimcracks metamorphose into gymnastic prose, sprinkled – no, lathered with so many jargon-toffees that you will suffer neologistic dry heaves. Get comfortable with your mind’s perpetual reeling so that the momentum it generates can propel you headlong through the novel, barreling out the other side, still insatiably longing for more. However, where does brilliance end and indulgence begin? Haven’t we had enough writers writing about writers resembling themselves, living out their fictional fantasies in scarcely veiled pseudo-fictional accounts? Luckily, Cohen’s voice, while too clever for its own good, is personable to the point of undeniable familiarity, and his satire is aimed at exactly the type of weiners he envies.

Yet, are we supposed to excavate the ironies, searching for a semblance of truth in his account of corporate cesspools, technocracies, etc. or take his power fantasy at face value, his rampant sarcasms and viral wordplay as illusive chimeras of his inner Paul Auster?

Review of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

“To Kill a Mocking Bird” is a masterpiece for a reason: it blends Americana perfectly with a story of growing up and facing monsters. It captures many important modes of thought, and uses representative experiences to tell a concise, elegant tale.

The writing is languid in tone and pacing, perfectly matching the “tired old town” it depicts. It has the power to grab your heart and eases you into the setting. The descriptions are not over-bearing but paint images that stick in the mind. By the end of the first chapter you truly feel Maycomb live and breathe.

But more than tone, the characters bring this slice of America to life. They feel like people we have encountered. From the innocent Scout to the wise Atticus, the dynamics of the townsfolk and the main family are believable. Even when the characters act disagreeably, these moments make sense from their perspective or within the community they live in.

What makes these moments truly memorable is how they are used within the narrative and themes. Even small interactions are a reflection of the idea of growing up and losing innocence. Racism and making uninformed judgments, while taking center stage, never overburden the “fun” aspects of the novel. This book does not shy away from America’s often ugly and skewed historical beliefs and representations. That being said, it shows what a destructive force hate can be.

The other main themes of innocence and belief are expertly woven into familial inhabitants of Maycomb. We watch Scout and Jem go from childhood self-centeredness to realizing the world is a vast and complex place. Judgments they make about certain people are often flipped on their heads when they realize there is always more to the story. And people they would never think capable of certain things are shown to have inner darkness. Their story of growing up together is wonderful by itself, but Harper Lee infused so many more elements together that a staggering number of angles can be drawn from each thematic scene.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a wonderful tale and a lasting favorite. The way the themes of racism feed into belief and belief into innocence and its loss is impressive. It goes to show that the hidden layers of small places contain great meaning. At once heart-breaking, and uplifting, anyone can relate to the narrative presented here.

Review of The Magus by John Fowles

ISBN 0316296198 (ISBN13: 9780316296199)

The Magus began on the level of an Aldous Huxley novel, a book with engrossing prose, an intriguing setting, and some sprinkles of philosophy. It had the atmosphere of Lawrence Durrell, and described parts of Greece well. I would call it immersive. But I soon realized the narrator rubbed me the wrong way. By the midway point, I found the man execrable, almost unendurable.

Old fashioned Anglo-Saxon bestsellers often relied on pathetic, outdated tropes, which is not to say that many bestsellers today don’t also suffer from other tropes. This one depicts women as mere objects. For about 300 pages, the book read like pulp romance, as our anti-hero indulged in one female nonentity after another. I lost all respect for the author. Then at about page 500, the plot kicks into high gear, lots of backstory and a cinematic twist is inserted to make up for lost time, and the odd, creepy reputation of the novel becomes clarified, almost interesting again, but I still felt nothing for our poor, oversexed, aging narrator, who is somehow lonely, but still doesn’t ever have to work or worry about money, and he’s just been dealt another bad card, oh goshdarnit.

Similar to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch in that the characters represent the worst aspects of the author’s conception of certain types of people, but in themselves do not embody any redeeming qualities in my eyes. Like that book I felt much antipathy and boredom, and have decided that the author has indulged in excessive elaboration on tired themes. Human beings can be sad indeed. How many films have I seen wherein someone falls in love instantly, then loses the one they love temporarily, experiences unbelievable sadness, and “grows” after much introspection? Too many.

I will admit I gained enough from this book not to dismiss it entirely, but it was a long way from 4 stars. As a beach read, or with proper blinders on, the book will be enjoyed by many readers. It is also memorable. Clearly defined, even with the plot holes. But for greater literary value, I recommend Huxley or Durrell.

Review of Neuromancer (Sprawl, #1) by William Gibson

There is much to enjoy about Neuromancer, and as we all know, its influence reaches far in film and literature. But there was a lot about it that rubbed me the wrong way.

Its patina gloss shimmers at first, but soon sours, like sleek leather jumpsuits blurred by a g-force simulator. Gibson is a clever writer, and I will read more of his novels in the future. He writes with a stylized fervor that is rarely matched, the obsessive glossolalia of Nabokov and Ballard, but he transmogrifies his vision into a bleak landscape of urban ruin and cyber crime, suffused with the grim infrastructure of petty maliciousness which is all too recognizable in our current age. In a sense, his prophetic dream paved the way for digital expressways of cyber-fiction, and many more squeaking, hulking, derivative dirigibles derived from his well-packaged product. The commercial and critical success of the novel is unquestioned, but now, in our post-modern ennui, we might regard it without a nostalgic lens shading out blasted retinas.

Whether you go for Neal Stephenson’s monoliths or whatever hybrid dystopia you venture into nowadays, the reek of Neuromancer is forever branded in our nostrils.

One of the main issues, I think, were the characters. I didn’t like them. Neither did I appreciate any nuance within their holographic personas Willie might have attempted to convey. Their corny, clipped dialogue could’ve been ripped wholesale for the action film adaptation. It was tailored to suit the erotic, drug-enhanced stupor of his literary purview. What results is a lifeless wreck of Gothic voids, peopled by infantile chatterboxes, scurrying around in gadget-studded hover-toasters. And my God, I hate the word ‘ganja.’ I truly hope he stopped using it by book two.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth

ISBN 0547239696 (ISBN13: 9780547239699)

Upon rereading, I found this book more engrossing than before. Upgraded rating from 3 to 4.

Why? I liked the strong emotional core. There is usually an influx of emotion and logic in Roth’s books. In this one, the emotional fragility of characters is pronounced. The fragility of strained relationships is par for the course for literary fiction of all stripes and this is not the first time I’ve seen the washed-up actor character trope used, but it it fits in well with Roth’s preoccupation with older men sleeping with younger women. It’s got all the grab-bag elements from his oeuvre: sickness, lack of mental stability, people going through the motions, losing the edge, losing the battle against aging, society’s expectations being too high, succumbing to sensual obsessions, art, drama, and a touch of dread.

Our main character, Axler gets locked in his role as an old American male, and is yet unable to act, which had been his calling. Could this be a comment on Roth’s writing and reputation, since this book was written when the author was in his seventies? The difference between living a life and playing a role is not always well-defined.

You have in here the quintessential fears of life: man’s ultimate ineptitude, the ineffectual therapies which are presented to us as ultimate options, and more. Roth can be dramatically persuasive at times. We are reminded how easy it is to slip into self-delusion, and that this is all part of staging the grand performance of “your life.”

Accomplishment and failure, how these define us. Regret and pride. Dignity, or the lack thereof. The precariousness of any of life’s or relationship’s perceived stability. How controllable is one’s trajectory? The marriage of a man to his work, the ups and downs, and the artist’s responsibility to reinvent himself. How the fear of failure in anything can be paralyzing, and persistent denial can get us through tough times, but only provides a temporary reprieve.

Parts of the book resemble a stage play, and the setting is minimal. Also discussed are the politics of maintaining a front, the responsibility of parents toward grown children, confidence, liberty, how easily doubt creeps in and undermines the enactment of a life, the little messes in which we wallow, the twisted relationships that cross our path, and the pursuit of happiness and how it differs from the pursuit of pleasure. Spiraling self-sabotage and of course, the inevitable end. Should we change or compromise ourselves to please the person we love? Good old mortality rears his head at every juncture. It teaches us how to properly disregard the advice of others. The author posits that love requires living in the moment. All relationships carry the risk of pain if they are worth anything. Lastly, gratuitous sex. Or just enough for Philip Roth devotees.

Review of The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time, #1) by Robert Jordan

ISBN 0812511816 (ISBN13: 9780812511819)

Book 1 of 14, read before the Prequel. First published novel of the Wheel of Time Series.
The series totals out at 11,898 pages and over 4 million words. Many might be intimidated by its length. But consider that the Harry Potter series is over 1 million words, and I know a dozen people who read that series multiple times, I’m not worried. The Wheel of Time promises to be one of the most complex and readable fantasy series anywhere.

Worldbuilding – 5 out of 5 – The start of something great. Book one is like a strong river coursing toward a vast ocean. An ambitious addition to the fantasy genre. Way more flawed than the Lord of the Rings, but arguably more rewarding – I hope. Consider that the total series has more than 2000 characters, an endless number of races, histories, place names, artifacts, creatures and multiple forms of magic. Don’t worry about comprehending all of it right away. Appreciation of the crafting of a universe takes time. I recognized most of what the author was doing, and didn’t question when new ideas were introduced. Everything fits together into a cohesive whole, though I had the sense there was a lot more out there waiting to be explored. Much of the exposition does not directly outline the mythical history. Check the ample glossary in the back for help with key terms and historical figures.

Characterization – 4 out of 5 – Mat and Rand were probably my favorite characters in the book. There are many characters to keep track of, some would say too many. But each has his or her own personality. Jordan must have had a clear outline in his head or on paper for all of them. Throughout their long journeys they struggle, against the Dark One. Several of them channel magic at various points, and make definite choices for good or ill. As mouthpieces for the exposition, they come equipped with specific modes of speech, humorous twists to common expressions, and often behave in a charming or quirky way. The author does not go for simple arcs, most of the emotional and psychological change is earned through struggle, bonding, interaction and co-reliance. Subtlety is not always the rule, but regarded in total, the characters, while not terribly unique, are not 100% cliched either.

Atmosphere – 4 out of 5 – rich imagery, a feast for the senses, immersive landscapes. Surprising set-pieces, well-conceived description and a great deal of tension. But it’s not extremely literary or old fashioned. I would liken it to Stephen King, that is, on the lower end of sophisticated, but still effective. The world itself provide enough interest through contextual clues to keep anyone interested.

Pacing – 3 out of 5 – The pacing is not uniform, but there are no long, tedious stretches where nothing happens. At most a slow couple chapters will be followed by an action-filled chapter or two. Trollocs are always waiting around the next corner to attack. The middle can seem a bit repetitive, but I was entertained from start to finish. I enjoyed the chapters where they were just sitting around a fire, chatting. A lot of world building happens in the slow moments. There are a dozen dream sequences or so, but they have a point, are unpredictable, and feed into the plot. They are welcome distractions. Problems arise when lack of explanation saves the day, toward the end of the convoluted plot especially, many conveniences intrude.

Prose Style – 2 out of 5 – The weakest part of the novel. Maybe the reason for most of the low ratings out there. It’s truly sad that such a monumental project as this is marred by amateurish over reliance on adverbs, passive verbs and sentences that hinge on the chewing gum framework provided by ‘as’. A qualified editor would have done a world of good. The story might have needed tightening up too, but once you buy into the fantasy setting and get used to the execrable prose of the first third, the rest of the novel is not a problem. I know I’m no brilliant editor myself, made my fair share of mistakes, but the uneven proportion of cringe-worthy sentences in the first 300 pages will skew a lot of opinions away from an otherwise enjoyable experience. I don’t know if the final draft was rushed or these issues were ingrained in Jordan’s writing by this point, but he improved enough by halfway through that I stopped caring. I would put it on the level of Book 2 of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. If you enjoyed that series, you will likely love this one. Both King and Jordan deserved to have their manuscripts ravaged by a merciless red pen.

Storytelling – 4 out of 5 – Jordan strikes a balance between scene and storytelling. By the end you will know all about gleemen, Trollocs and various agents of the light and the dark. Characters carry stories with them, referring to conflicts near and far, recent and ancient. Well-integrated personal tales provide depth of character and break up the plot-driven pace. Heavy trope usage and a few magical action scenes cheapen the brilliance elsewhere on display.

Dialogue – 4 out of 5 – The dialogue delivers enough info-dumping to satisfy fantasy standards, but does not go too heavy into dialect and made-up languages. The characters come through clear as crystal, sounding like their own person – or Trolloc – whatever race they may belong to. Another product of the masterful world building. I’m not counting the dialogue tags, which marred my enjoyment of the book somewhat, since this belongs in the category of prose style. Everything within the quotation marks was good, necessary, and even witty.

Length – 5 out of 5 – When does length become a positive virtue? When you’re invested in the story, care about the people you’re reading about, and believe in the world. Then it can go on forever.

Potential – 5 out of 5 -It’s wonderful to imagine sitting with this series all the way through. For those of you who watched all the director’s deleted scenes in LOTR, there are plenty of fancy, elaborate side stories to come. Volume one does a fantastic job of suggesting and foreshadowing.

Overall enjoyment – 4 out of 5 – The extreme reliance on established tropes did not bother me. The classic tale of Good versus Evil is not a problem. What matters is how the tale is told. This is a different manner of telling from Lord of the Rings, though the story beats resemble it to an extent which may arouse suspicion. I recommend setting out on this fine adventure with an open mind, disregard the endless see-sawing reviews. Experience it for yourself.

Review of The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe by Edgar Allan Poe

ISBN 0894712330 (ISBN13: 9780894712333)

When choosing which single volume of Poe’s to keep in my collection I settled on this one. 

I decided against the Library of America edition of the tales due to conspicuous absences in the Table of Contents. This one has all of my favorite poems, stories and a few essays. I supplemented this with the LOA edition of his Reviews and the Delphi Complete Works ebook edition, chiefly for the letters. You would be hard-pressed to find a more delightful volume of Poe than this one, even if it is missing a few gems (like Eureka). It has pretty much all of my favorites.
He was the kind of author I will reread for life. I rarely grow tired of his semi-Gothic prose and lyrical poetry. Ever since reading Tell-Tale Heart, Pit and the Pendulum, Cask of Amontillado in middle school, I’ve cherished this large tome for the wealth of memories attached to it. I remember reading Pym and being amazed (in high school) and rereading The Raven a hundred times in an abortive attempt to memorize it. Most charming of all, perhaps, are the illustrations in this omnibus. If only LOA would take their work more seriously, stop leaving out key works from their authors and invest in illustrated pages. These editions from this publisher may be getting hard to find, but I also picked up their first volume of Twain as well.
If you are debating about reading Poe, do yourself the favor of reading his Complete Tales, in any form – even ebook – and if you can afford it, stick this one on your shelf.

Review of In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories by William H. Gass

ISBN 0879233745 (ISBN13: 9780879233747)

I think I am going to like this Gass, I thought, and here I am, at the end of it, hovering between four and five stars, as I so often do, but settling for that generous bedizening – the whole roster of stellar units.

Linked only by nefariously complex sentences, riddled with the kind of chewy phrases boys on the ballpark lawn would work with their chapped lips to pull and prod between clenched teeth, the stories here are fascinating, jewel-like run-on spasms through form and essence, like a sun-drenched day, like houses standing in rows, staring at some horizon you are too short to see, like a moon in the sky at midday, defying reason, but lingering like some pendant over blasted landscapes of ghost-peopled towns, where sunk in lazy fiddling, meandering maws squawk and fingers rummage pocket lint, where schooled but not well-reasoned kids resuscitate Caesar within the abstract labyrinths of their somnambulism. The setting is fashioned after some sort of dioramic blend of gothic minimalism, which somehow isn’t hollow. Like a fruit, well-full of rind and insect-swarming seeds, peeled open to reveal a glint of golden nectar. It’s nostalgic headway into dream. It’s a slow slackening of all the reeled strictures of noveled, inflexible fiction. We’ve walked these roads, met these stunted Shakespeares, but we seldom paid attention to the blinding patter of their paws, to the struggles they wield in their wild tunneling toward death. Little stories come and ungainly go, but certain stories capture in their amber, hallowed moments of crystal life, refracting the essence of that unknowable divine back into our double-mirrored minds. Snatch what you can from Gass’ gaseous brand of madness.

Review of The Body Artist by Don DeLillo

ISBN 074320395X (ISBN13: 9780743203951)

A sensual, hyper-real Delillian song.

Donnie’s poetic prose lilts in sustained focus through ghostly sibilance, sinusoidally evocative and throb-inducing.

A brief encounter and a drawn-out epiphany. An instant under a microscope reveals such texture as the merely human eye cannot perceive.

The hero of this novel is the author. Its heroine a quintessential artistic martyr. The protagonist embodies human transformations, encounters death, stews in it, and with palpable empathy, construes it into art.

Should an artist live in the world of their art? The story might have elapsed forever, unfolding into silent voids. The book is haunted, beware, but its slow regard of human animals will thrill like any previous susurration from the pen of this American maestro.

Review of The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

ISBN 014017821X (ISBN13: 9780140178210)

My first reading of Angela Carter. I can see why she is popular and well-regarded. This book is about as good as retellings of fairy tales could be.

Through rabid exorcisms of imagery mesmerizing moments are born from her disturbing imagination. The dense sentences cluster like a nest of snakes, sniping you from the shadows. Her Baroque stylings are distinctly old-fashioned, but her standpoint and her quirkiness are bold and fresh.

I am easily taken in by the promise of exile in a magic kingdom. I was on guard at first, since I could sense sinister intent in her method. It was a little like the feeling you might have had sitting around a campfire as a child, when some storytelling prodigy joins the circle with the commitment to scar you for life.

Multiple stories deal with captivity, and probably stem from Carter’s dissatisfaction with the outmoded portrayals of women in traditional fairy tales. This is understandable, since they were all conceived in the long age of patriarchal oppression. The Revisionist nature of her composition lends relevance to old stories. She essentially claims them for her own. Aside from her intentions, the craft on display is of the highest caliber. Many descriptions are as poetic as Bradbury’s, but have more bite.

She does not shy away from statutory rape, from sheer carnage. She depicts the confines of poor marriage in a truly frightening manner. Characters seethe with their hideous pasts and dark secrets, concealing the eldritch monsters dwelling in their hearts. Movement and innovation are par for the course for Carter. These are certainly no longer stories for children. They are sophisticated but playful, and the prose is infused with magic. They are suggestive, and mingle the morbid and the beautiful extremely well. Long paragraphs of Gothic and colorful musings, luscious landscapes and boudoirs all contribute to an antiquated rhythm suggestive of Poe.

“The potentiality for corruption,” struck me as a theme. While pessimistic, the stilted perspective is a means by which all things gain shades of sinister meaning. She sustains an effective chilling atmosphere throughout, as the heroes and heroines experience the slick slide into terror, with breathtaking intensity, derailing the Huysmanesque still-life compositions.

Carter lacks innocence, seems to have lost the childish wonder inherent in the original source material. In exchange she brings a wickedness which underlies her charming descriptions. The double meanings of her twisted tales are pretty graphic, and I wonder if we shouldn’t pass them on to our children anyway. The world is a dark place. They will encounter a few monsters in due course. And the monsters were in the original tales in the first place. They just weren’t so heartrendingly deranged.

Review of The Dreamed Part (Trilogía las partes #2) by Rodrigo Fresán

ISBN 1948830051 (ISBN13: 9781948830058)

Fresan’s second part is a dream incarnate.

It contains a plenitude of poetry, mixed similes, mingled metaphors, quirks, smarm, charms, verve, meandering melancholia, free-form, dare-I-say dreamlike anomalies, pop-quoting, trans-textual, atemporal, hallucino-generic, and anti-modern coagulations of language. It quivers; it writhes. What with all the billowing prose exudations, the quavering, stuttering processes of thought, the cathedrals of suggestion, the post-Proustian tight-rope-straddling, the encyclo-mytho-poetic verbivoratious, anecdotal maxims, it swells to the proportions of a particle accelerator of words, of sentences, piled up and paragrabbing, paraglyphing, parachewing, in maximalistical experimenial, penumbral, peripatetic precipitation, a preposterous product of monstrous reprisals, of liter-airy illusions swilling gargantic biblio-gargling mind-wash, all while riffling, rapping, grappling, doubledreaming, sentences experiment on each other, and experience existential crises, until they are forced to cruise over fallen foes and compose footbridges from those floating prose-corpses. His pages are composed of an organic mulch emulsified through ferocious observations bordering on divination. This thing corrupts the DNA of the novel form. It is a formulaic un-novel, birthed from the ur-mind, umbilicaled to the collective (fractal) consciousness, unraveling a consistent accumulation of abstraction, which acquires gravitational pull toward some frightening, undefined singularity. While metamesmeric, tessellated interrelations merge in sybillance (sic.), recalling the elusive phantom of imaginative epiphany, the subversion of pre-packaged cliches, acquiring biological momentum, its very own patented A. I.. It might be self-referential, self-propagating, conjuring thought-polyps, as it posits infinite scenarios of its precognitive dissonance, while dreams are playacted by munchkin homunculi behind our eyelids, and kaleidoscopic menageries, in cinematastic splendor, recount a recursive quest for truth, within an embryonic echo chamber, reenacting the dreamed fiction of human history, with post-hypnotic stress disorder. It relishes its incompleteness, with circumlocuitous convolutions, a slave to the word-smith within us all, a willing tribute to the tribal tribune of writers writing about writers reading about readers. Fresan writes his way out of a box with 15 open sides, and is trapped in an amnesiac loop wherein he pines for the nostalgic afternoons spent in a bookstore which never closes, which contains infinite floors and each floor infinite shelves, each shelf infinite volumes (et chetera ad infinitum), spinning tapestries of delicate cadence, leitmotifs galore, compressed digressions, regressed impressions, conversensational, lexdysic trajectories of dreamscience, oozing dreamessence, in endless variations – the literary equivalent of Groundhog Day on repeat, until it becomes Nidhog Day, in dreams nurtured in coma fugue, in slomo pulp-promo locomotive emotional, talismanic, contexual reflexion, both morphological and serpentine – to put it simply, he never gets to the point, even while his beatific, oneiric reality is extruded from a dream within a dream (ad nauseum), and it becomes less a novel and more a continuous essay on dreamlogic, with so many references and quotes, it’s hard to distinguish what’s appropriated from what’s original – blurring the line – repetitive save-scrubbing and polishing, wear and tear, both of the reader’s attention and the writer’s technique.

It examines how media transposes its layers into real life, how books/ film/ music transform reality for us, so that we can better consume it. Our relationship to other humans is interpreted through these mediums & our celebration of culture is a result of our technological accomplishments, our idolizations and our obsessions. It is at once intimate, irreverent, wily and bloated. The primary discussion moves from the aforementioned into 19th and 20th century literature, the Brontës and Nabokov in particular. Circular digressions ensue. The “radiation of influence” is everywhere apparent.

A discussion, a forum, a panel, for pop culture enthusiasts. More than 1 Twin Peaks reference and innumerable 2001 and Twilight Zone plugs, an accumulation of character biases, the microstories within paragraphs – with all these, Fresan purposely spoils endings – he did it in the last one and he does it here. Alberto Manguel tried to do this in his books on reading, that is to say, to communicate the painful joy of reading certain books. The way they have a powerful effect on sensitive aesthetes and often massage souls into bibliophilic rapture.

If the endless concoction of slipshod biographies of his favorite writers don’t bother you, he still blathers to the point of minute obsession. Fresan is an idol-worshipper of the highest order. The literary giants exert such influence upon him that the intimidation of their lingual prowess prevents him from joining their ranks. He is a fan-boy with consummate ability, down-played into imitative madness. What he manages to communicate is the desperation of the lonely, misunderstood artist, the deception of perception. This is a well-padded goddess-medusa, full of pomp and circumdance. Spoofing, complaining, giddy, fierce ineluctable modalities of the frigid and dead interiors of modern humankind.

Review of Lake of Urine by Guillermo Stitch

ISBN 1944697942 (ISBN13: 9781944697945)

This original work begins as a comedy of sophisticated, staged moments, which appear to be ill-planned mishaps misfiring with intriguing results. It is a distinct and satisfying form of entertainment. Stitch’s novel, however, turns out, by and by, to be much more.

Simple concepts are infused with elaborate invention, complex scenarios are spun out for the sheer novelty of the method, archly described by Señor Stitch. His writing is constantly surprising, and the fecundity of his language deserves all the accolades. Sagging Meniscus publishes unconventional literature, and this fits in with their mystique.

At bottom, amid the multifarious themes tackled in this novel, a few stand-outs are: Domestic violence, tenderness, and family trial. It is cheekily old fashioned and postmodern at the same time. Also more substantial than its slim design would lead you to believe.

The author contemplates human relations with stark and unabashed honesty, sidelong, through the medium of parody, across a wide array of settings, all amply described, immersive, and brutally comic, the pages beset with gestures both lurid and poignant.

The high production quality and elegant design are enough to lure you toward the paperback version as opposed to the ebook, I wager, but the inherent mystery in the setting and the precise narration will likely stick with you.

Noranbole is one of our lenses onto this bizarre version of the world. At first depicted as the ideal feminine alongside Urine, who is seen as trouble and undesirable. Later development’s in the characters’ lives belie these simple categorizations.

The strange relationships to come are explicated through suggestive, experimental, playful dialogue, exquisitely wrought oddness, and bland but multifaceted observations, as imagery and commentary combine to construct an eerie depth of setting.

The mysterious lake, unplumbed, affords the narrator more opportunity to enact his string-based mania for measurement. This is our opening dose of comical, hyperbolic strangeness. More magical realism awaits, as characters discuss such precise aversions and troubles as occur at every juncture, hinting at the underlying mechanisms of their personas. Hapless wannabes, businessmen with quirky agendas, sports commentators with religious commitment all make appearances. All the while, the author is punning, funning, with boisterous improv, raptalk rhythm, rare vocab, as the wolves of his atmospheric suggestion wait in the margins. Some of these portrayals make use of skewed English and malapropisms, mutilating speech for comic effect, with exaggerated wordplay, charming with smarm, often putting things in an off-putting way, until the absurdity is ratcheted up, until miracles occur and are taken at face value. This is all underpinned with exotic and precise details.

Spattered with foreign phrases, colorful sideline characters the exact opposite of clichés, wacky names, impromptu branding, and multicultural spice take us to the midway point in the story, where bureaucratic corporate satire takes over. It is seen as an accumulation of its constituent people, their flaws compounding by virtue of organizing into a larger body. Improvised business jargon provides plentiful chuckles. I was reminded of the Strugatsky Bros. in Monday Begins on Saturday. The vicissitudes of working at an emporium are some of the most enjoyable parts of the novel. Wheedling, ingratiating blowhards and buffoons, corporate double-speak, overreacting caricatures and more, will stick in the memory. It is an extravaganza, with diverse inclusion of foodstuffs, a pleasure-filled romp to delight the senses ensues, utilizing a splendid variety of metafictional devices. The winner for best Pynchonian name in the book is Amerideath.

Some semantics, commentary, and perverse behavior are thrown in allow Stitch to play human follyball with these fictional lives. Meat patty flipping hobbyists? Why not? If that is not enough, with searing intelligence, he pulls off the multi-hundred word sentence. The on-the-nose humor is sustained until it begins to feel like Monty Python with a few steampunk stylings, chock full of morbidity and hilarious hijinks. From Big City to Small Town, we traverse Emma’s section of the novel to be confronted with something entirely different. The book employs a more traditional narrative here, with focus on drama and depth of character. He satirizes small town life as well as city life but through a new lens, displaying a knowledge of etiquette and social mores, through delusions and portmanteaus.

The peculiarities of Emma’s hubbies are anything but ordinary. They are repressed and representative archetypal characters, through which he explores the fears of parenting and marriage, the perils of home life, and familial petulance. These querulous, well-sculpted characters are fodder for his ravening wit, not bereft of poetry or poetic license, and often succumbing to literary tricksterism. Emma’s creative childcare, the novel’s depiction of parental obsolescence, woes, and power struggles, is on point, being a world unto itself. This departure from the absurdities of the satire to enlarge upon pastoral domestics are never mundane. The tribulations of Emma, whose surname changes as regularly as the tides, allows the author to drop all pretense, and lapse into riveting dramatic action, without comedic conveniences, to concoct narrative tension for a high crescendo.

I was delighted by the Rococo furniture descriptions, elaborate visual collage work, even as the tone of the book mellows, matures into solemn, well-paced storytelling, recounting character backstory, and in the final part construes through legalized, parodic language a formal approach, and puts on further sophistication, ornamentation, and vernacular.

All around an impressive and entirely unique work of fiction.

Review of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami,

ISBN 1400044618 (ISBN13: 9781400044610)

What is one to make of Murakami’s short stories?

His translator has stated that his reputation was made by his stories in Japan – apart from his super-successful novels. A brief survey of his total story output reveals that he is not interested in traditional story forms. Though many of his stories remain untranslated, we have so far received 4 volumes of them in English. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is probably my favorite of the lot.

It is a generous collection of 24 bizarre and unconventional tales ranging from subtle surrealism to dreamlike feasts of disorienting magical realism. It is difficult to be objective when it comes to these stories. Formally speaking, many of them violate basic rules of storytelling. Emotionally, they tend to be powerful, evocative and original. What is the purpose of a story if not to prompt strong reactions in the reader. Whether those reactions are good or bad depends on your tolerance for the unexplained, the ambiguous, and the subtle subversions the author employs.

“Man-eating cats” is features in his novel Sputnik Sweetheart. Murakami has a penchant for recasting his stories into novels. Similarly, he usually publishes novel excerpts in the New Yorker as standalone stories. He is able to do this because his legions of fans will devour any nonsense or grocery lists he decides to release to the public. The story in question, though, is magnificent in my opinion. Murakami delights in writing about foreign places – Greece, America, Mongolia and remote corners of Japan. He is no Thoreau, but he brings a unique voice to each locale, observing the environment with wit and addictive, approachable rhythm.

Also featured is the segment from Norwegian Wood, titled “Firefly.” Another breathtaking achievement and memorable moment from one of his greatest novels. Why does he reuse his material this way, you ask? Because he can.

Almost every tale is a winner in my memory, and I have revisited most of the stories in this collection several times. “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day” is haunting. The complete lack of a satisfying ending often lends his stories a provocative vivacity, as if his characters’ lives continue along the trajectory he plotted far beyond where the artificially imposed stopping point leaves them.

“Hanalei Bay” strikes me as a realistic tale, possibly based off similar real events, but with a Murakami twist of course. “The Ice Man” was included in Vandermeer’s Weird Compendium, but I would not call it weird fiction. It is about the lapse of identity, a common motif in the author’s oeuvre, but extrapolated to the realm of speculative fiction. “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes” is a simple encounter, recounted with stark straightforwardness, seemingly a fable of the Japanese literary establishment – but can one ever be sure what Murakami is doing in these cases? Since he claims to write without outlines, one can only assume he makes it up as he goes along. It is a testament to his imagination that he can be so often captivating in the same way that dreams are engrossing, even if they make no sense. “Crabs” is a memorable story, if inconsequential. “Chance Traveler” is classic Murakami. At times his style is right in line with Carver’s. As Carver’s translator, Murakami wears this influence on his sleeve. “A Poor Aunt Story” was less successful at engaging my interest, but it showcases daring experimentation. “Airplane: Or, How He Talked to Himself as If Reciting Poetry,” is a peculiar conversation, Murakami-style, which nonetheless intrigued and beguiled me. “New York Mining Disaster” was completely incomprehensible.

“The Mirror” and “Hunting Knife” were 2 of my favorite pieces from the collection. They operated off simple premises and are somewhat open-ended. Yet, their power and creativity are undeniable in my mind. It wasn’t until I reread “Hunting Knife” that this collection became one of my all time favorites. It is a one-of-a-kind, mind-bending story. “Tony Takitani” is yet another strong piece, which was made into a film. Pure, elegant, and meaningful.

With “A Perfect Day for Kangaroos,” Murakami turns on the charm. An uninitiated reader might wonder if Murakami deserves all the praise and condemnation. If you read this story and feel absolutely nothing you can bet Murakami’s work, as a whole, is not for you. You have to be alright with the liberties he takes. For me, I never had to try to like this author. It came perfectly naturally, and for better or worse, he remains one of my favorites.

There are a dozen other gems in this stellar collection. They are guaranteed to satisfy Murakami devotees and baffle his detractors. This is the good stuff. This is why I read fiction. These are challenging, but easy reading. They stick with you and represent the best examples of what has become Murakami’s distinct brand of madness.

Review of A Harlot High and Low by Honoré de Balzac

ISBN 0140442324 (ISBN13: 9780140442328)

There is a singular “textual pleasure” in reading Balzac, once you’ve acquired the taste. It’s decadent.

In this unofficial sequel to Lost Illusions, Balzac exercises his capacity to depict psychological tortures. Though I have not read the first novel in this sequence, the four parts of Harlot High and Low vary in quality. There are 43 characters in this volume, many of whom appear elsewhere in the Comedy under other aliases or simply the same name. It is a crucial work in the body of Balzac’s writings, but probably not as important as Lost Illusions, which is his longest single book.

Has there ever been a time when the justice system was not in need of reform? Reading this got me thinking back to other books. People have a habit of writing about all the harm the prison system does to a person, rather than any good it might have ever accomplished. This has been true, seemingly to a greater degree, since Balzac’s France.

How dismaying it is to see everyone, time after time, looking out for themselves in exclusion to everyone else. The author has cast light on the ugly bits of the human psyche before, but in this iteration, human vice is the modus operandi of the novel.

The ins and outs of financial corruption are also reminiscent of our own time. Have our human flaws remained consistent since 4000 BC? Balzac posits it is so. Every form of bribe, fudging the accounts, graft, and other financial trickery is represented here in spades.

The common subjects to be found in Balzac include: finance, business, history, fashion, drama, religion, ideal love, familial relations, and social hierarchies.

As usual, he is waxing poetic on every other page. His languorous prose, deep in pathos, gravitas, and dependably deep themes, is rapturous. Can a person be purified? We have been asking this question for millennia. Harlot High and Low explores the reasons why people fall into sin, despair, depravity, or how in turn they might ascend to the ideal, the divine, attain man’s higher nature, the angelic, and what part, if any, money plays in the equation. Man’s material obsession is inescapable, his lust for power and satiation, mingled with the chimerical forms of love correspond to our darkest discontents and our holiest dreams. The methodology of the devil, in human form, is expounded in the well-rounded characters, each of whom have their own stakes and motives for seeking to control others.

The very clear references and connections to Romeo and Juliet may seem trite nowadays, but there is also the oft-used archetype of Mephistopheles and Faust. This book is not simple enough to be summed up as a retelling of anything. It is in fact, quite convoluted. The structure of Balzac’s human labyrinth fits in well with the style of what he calls the “severe luxury” of the aristocrats he satirizes.

The flitting play of vanity is occasionally amusing to watch, but after a while, the joke grows stale. Various incarnations of greed in endless forms, make their appearance throughout literature, and they must be expressed through interesting characters in order to be relevant. Most of the time, this book accomplishes that. These scandalous characters cultivate scandal like some people raise tomatoes.

Part of the author’s method is contrast and juxtaposition: Sin and baptism, prostitution and marriage, crime and charity, often mingling virtue with vice in the same character. There is a prevalent double-standard, wicked dames and masters of disguise, to add intrigue and Dumas-ian grandiosity.

The male characters have a very serious weakness for women. No surprise there. And most of the women have a weakness for Lucien. This felt odd to me. Probably because I have not yet read Lost Illusions. Anyone who is human has a weakness for money, except for the Baron, for whom money is a defining character trait, a strength, mere bird seed to be distributed liberally to the flocking hordes.

The book also contains rich interpretation of Rabelais, mentions of Moliere, Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes. In these we can detect some of Balzac’s literary idols. Then there is the satire on police, politicians, aristocrats, prostitutes, priests, and bankers.

Subtlety, where warranted, and ever-present humor of the dry, witty variety. The powerful men are in thrall to the women whose only source of power is their beauty. They wield it with the same ruthlessness as the men wield their inherited powers. It was nice to see the character of Asia play a major part. Her manipulations resulted in much of the novel’s powerful interactions.

In Balzac’s time, social status came with proscribed behavior. Etiquette was paramount. Class, wealth, position: these were the pursuits of men and “great” ladies, and so often led to a lack of virtue, sympathy, a dearth of wisdom and inflexible greed.

The obsession with money and beauty can only go so far in a novel. Luckily, there is charm and tension to spare. I won’t lie and claim that parts of it did not bore me. It is a long book, and requires analysis to best be appreciated. One of the challenges is the fact that the 4 parts do not sync up perfectly. Balzac did not write them all at once, and their focus, where they do not intersect, can swerve far afield.

There are plenty of fancy dress balls and snooty operas if that’s what you were hoping for. I preferred Part 3. It was both morbid and mundane.

Part 4 went on an interesting tangent about argot and its uses. This part either inspired a little of Les Miserables, or borrowed from the same sources. Mesmerism makes another appearance. Aliases come into play heavily in the latter part of the book. It was nice to finally leave the character of the Baron behind. His excessive display of groveling was unbearable. I greatly disliked this character and and hold him solely responsible for what might be considered the flaws in this near masterpiece.

Some police procedural segments occupy the second half as well. It relies more on Lucien and Herrera than our titular harlot. I plan to read Lost Illusions, to get a glimpse of some of these characters at earlier stages in their tragic careers.

The trope of the great police inspector was just emerging. Les Miserables made use of the same real life examples as did Balzac, as the translator claims. I would however, recommend Hugo’s book over this one.

The unintelligible accent of the Baron, which the translator assures us, is just as execrable in French was the defining unpleasantness of my reading experience. It was the bird poop in the soup, the anchovies on the pizza. I consider it a flaw in translation. Even if Balzac made a mess of the Alsatian accent, the same accent can be approximated with verisimilitude and still be readable. It is not necessary to switch around the letters of every word to give the sense of an accent. Dickens offers many examples of how to switch a couple words in a sentence to convey just the right amount of accent.

As another examination of the animal in man, of the concept of the clothes make the man, there are few examples which shine as brightly as Balzac’s. However, I would by no means consider this a must-read, even within the Human Comedy. I think he touches on most of these themes elsewhere more succinctly. Chivalry is not exactly thriving in Paris at this time. I felt the same sickness of boredom as his characters on occasion, but it was nonetheless pleasant to luxuriate in the atmosphere he flawlessly conjures in his fiction. The Torpedo is an entertaining character and her rippling affect on the men around her is highly amusing. This is, at bottom, an unconventional portrayal of prostitution for its time, which has been superseded by other novels which trade classical tropes for accuracy.

Men of action incline toward Fatalism, Balzac warns us. Watching Nucingen being bled dry was disheartening, considering how many of the upper-class elderly are so often preyed upon by the younger generation. But how much of his situation was his own fault, resulting from his petty animal instincts? “Prettiness conceals horror.” This line stands out as representative of his plight, which he chooses over his own security.

“A bit of morality does nobody any harm. It’s the salt of life to people like me, just as vice is to the pious.” Lines like this make up the bulk of Balzac’s dialogue. As impossible as it is to imagine real people speaking so eloquently, the conciseness adds to the rhythm. You can easily see the havoc a properly worded letter can wreak on a person’s life in this book. It makes it easier to reflect on our own time, having perused the accounts from previous centuries. With our faces glued to our phones and screens, sending thousands of messages per day, receiving information from all sources like living computers, yet preserving many of our basic functions, our changing family structures, the differences in lifestyle, art and how we distribute our wealth. These comparisons keep Balzac relevant.

Review of Laura Warholic; or, The Sexual Intellectual by Alexander Theroux

ISBN 1560977981 (ISBN13: 9781560977988)

Rollicking Lowra Roarholic is a book in which a massive quantity of wisdom may be gleaned between the lines, through oblique interpretations of satirical storytelling.

The author employs a wide range of styles, some of which I’ll describe. Ultimately, it is a harrowing, difficult, exasperating, and tremendously meaningful book. A few isolated scores elaborate various strengths and weaknesses according to the questionable opinion of yours truly:

Prose depth: 5/5 Pynchon, Gass, Nabokov, Gaddis, DFW, Barth, Rabelais all come to mind. A worthy master of style.
Character depth: 4/5 Mieville-level cartoonish, grotesque descriptions, but purposeful, consistent and magnificent in their exactitude. However, side characters are often 2-dimensional mouthpieces, albeit rendered into 8k hi def.
Character Development: 3/5: the 2 principle characters have arcs, though their actions are not surprising due to the telegraphing interior monologues. The purpose of the characters, and the book in large part, is satire. Very little growth for the first 500 pages or so. The travel section was quite absorbing.
Proofreading: 2/5. A very noticeable flaw. Perhaps 200+ typos total. It’s clear something happened in production or during the final draft. An unfortunate result for such a work of genius.
Satire: 5/5. Memorability: 5/5. Length: 4/5 Enjoyment: 4/5. Deliberate craft: 5/5. Intelligence: 5/5. Overall a feast for the literary-minded. Lists that go on for 40+ pgs were only occasionally interesting, and bogged me down. An overwhelmingly negative viewpoint is expressed until the latter half of the book. Swiftian, pessimistic, misanthropic, but remember that novelists have the right to write saddening and maddening things so that we might see with eyes not our own a world often invisible to our clouded minds, to plumb untouched depths of our drifting souls and anchor our hearts to the passing comets of universal ideas.

This is a cinderblock-sized shag rug, an egregious, corpulent, passionate, jeering, incantatory, hermetically coherent, garish, blatant, encyclopedic, infinitely playful, pure literary orgy.

The evidence presented in E. E.’s “Controversial Essay,” which defines psychological inequalities between genders embedded in societal and biological patterns, is one of a few interpolated, formal examinations of culture and history. Theroux brings impressive skill (and research) to bear without a care toward fiction’s tropes or to whatever political arena the reader subscribes. He speaks to purely analytical readers, and challenges us to pursue meaning amid the posture, argument and representation. How much to take literally? That is up to us. E. E. possesses a diamond-hard mind, but it is still quite flawed.

The tone of the novel grows closer to Joseph Heller’s Something Happened as you progress, but it employs a more virtuosic voice, taking every category of human to the cleaners with digressive, transgressive lampoons. A disheartening catalog of human foibles ensues. The mountain of corpses skewered by the author’s wit is admirable, if heartbreaking.

With help from the self-destructive heroine, who is skilled at every form of pitiful underhandedness, this over-muscled and bold and stylistic mess of querulous rants morphs into a novel of manners, of errors and of love. It is by turns Mailer-esque, sinusoidal, schizoid, with cycloning paragraph-spasms meriting comparison with Roth’s scalpel-juggling narration. The characters are under the microscope, and in Maximalist fashion every zit is chiseled as immaculately as a newly christened Mount Rushmore.

The closed-minded reader will easily misconstrue the endless jibes, but will likely be swept up in the addictive rhythm, stunned by caverns of crystalline images, and dazed by the shamanistic conjuring of hideous forms. Witness the walking palimpsests, cavorting protohumans, pun-generating automatons, glorious Pantagruelian endomorphs, and don’t forget that it is a critique of popular culture, conveyed through a ceaseless inundation of farcical examples in the realms of music, movies, bumper stickers and every conceivable quote, relevant and amusing, employing the extensive purview of subcultures, amid plaintive word games and zany brainy weirdness. Eyestones, a protagonist of sorts, is a self-isolating writer of unsexy, clinical (advice?) columns on the topic of, you guessed it, Sex. Laura Woah-holic is his stand-out pseudo-GF, with, we are reminded endlessly, a multitude of physical “flaws”. Both are hyperaware, paranoid, and I could sit here listing off a hundred adjectives, but suffice it to say they are about as indescribable as any real human being might be.

Have fun with the slang-jangling hipster jive, the menageries of bellicose lyrical jubilation. By and by it remains an attack on platitudinous hacks, an argument for non-censorship and a thought-provoking, atom bomb of a book. If you are afraid of the desolation of Modern Men and Women, of their moral doom, of tradition, of non-tradition, of Joycean cathedrals of diction, and our dark interiors, unhallowed, anti-authoritarian anti-sermons, if you are intimidated by outrage or disdain, but most of all the glorification of eccentricity, then go seek out the cardboard bound books in the waist-high bookshop shelves with lots of pictures and big font with the full spoiler synopsis on the back cover. This is something else. It is a beast which will stand in the corner of the room when you try to close your eyes. It will be there in your dreams. It is the terror of your own humanity. Courage to those who enter. But don’t abandon all hope.

Review of The Invented Part (Trilogía las partes #1) by Rodrigo Fresán

ISBN 1940953561 (ISBN13: 9781940953564)

As much as I would like to rate this book 4 stars, I cannot. It was too clever, too deep, too fluid, too geometric, too weird. I devoured portions of it, and felt myself drowning during other portions. It took me quite a while to finish. I had to rent it from the library 4 times, and finally bought it.

Fresan’s writing is unlike anything else I’ve read. At times he reads as polished as Bolano, and other times he examines minute concepts from multiple dimensions at once, and in a way entirely his own. I was reminded of Javier Marias, but Marias would never indulge in this kind of well-rounded discussion of modern culture. Marias is a great writer, but the subject matter he chooses is limited compared to the wide territory Fresan covers. The flow of the narrative caused my mind to manufacture its own momentum, to galavant over terrain it rarely traversed. I rarely lose sleep over books, but I had to keep flipping the light back on, picking this one back up, and reading just a few more pages. Like Marquez, there is hardly anywhere to stop a reading session. You are always, perpetually in the middle of an endless paragraph, usually lost in a sentence you think you should restart. Therefore, it encourages you continually, goads you forward, and maddens you all the while.
The ideas come at you like stars after someone has engaged hyperdrive.

Remarkably, it is only part one. The Dreaming Part will be hitting retailers soon.
It is an incredibly long, intricate, dense construction of pop culture references, random characters engaged in unlikely meditative, encyclopedic monologues, and there is an extreme over-reliance on similes. So, it is not hard to believe that the author went on with this mode, or that he is sitting in his room right now, adding to the stream of thoughts and impressions, and that he will continue to do so for all eternity, into the afterlife, inexhaustible. The purpose of the thing is the style. The pleasure of it comes from the impressive accumulation. Fresan does what László Krasznahorkai does, but does it more superbly, without boring you on every page. It is an exhausting read, but you will chuckle and grin through most of it.

What might have started as a gimmicky stream of writerly rap sessions morphed into scene and setting, travelled through minds peopled by celebrated personalities, literary memorabilia, trivia, movieland, and rose to unexpected heights, attaining the breadth of great literature, all the while perplexing with its vicissitudes, defying your ludicrous attempts at judging his blustery sentences. This is a book to experience, and one to revisit. And the book goes on living, even after you have finished it…

Review of Phosphor in Dreamland by Rikki Ducornet

ISBN 1564780848 (ISBN13: 9781564780843)

Extravagant!
Like Nabokov, Rikki Ducornet delights in the use of vibrant language. Unlike Nabokov, she has been hiding in plain sight for years. I had to ask myself why I haven’t read her work before. What took me so long?

Segments of this novel reminded me of the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Especially the use of inventions as a source of wonder, i. e. the juxtaposition of science and magic). The world the author invents is full of surprise and delight, myths and images that linger in the mind. The atmosphere is masterfully conjured and book is short and poetic: as digestible as one of Marquez’s shorter works. Its characters exist in a mystic alternate reality, where Jonathan Swift existed, but the trappings of the every day world have fallen away. Like Gulliver’s Travels, this book engages the reader’s imagination in a discussion of the outer limits of animal and botanical diversity, presenting us with variance and variety until our senses are awash. At the same time it hints with a subtle comment or two that society’s strictures and mankind’s foolish confidence are not as foolproof as we might imagine.

This book is more about texture, language, imagery, symbols and theme than it is about character. The caricatures within it are more vehicles for the colors and erotic underpinnings than typical people. Ducornet casts the spell of an enchantress with her intense evocations of island life, and I wanted the book to go on longer. Luckily, her other works are supposedly a treasure trove of similar delectations.

Lush imagery, man versus the animal kingdom, man versus man, historical aura, and finally, shamelessness!

Read something different for once, try out this novel!

Review of The Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen

ISBN 1587155303 (ISBN13: 9781587155307)

Arthur Machen is, along with Blackwood and Bierce and Clark Ashton Smith, an early proponent of weird/ supernatural horror fantasy. Whereas Lovecraft seemed to revere Dunsany, Machen’s influence is not as apparent. He seems to inhabit the outskirts of literature, as no one’s favorite.

From the get-go The Hill of Dreams radiates an aura of ‘masterpiece.’ In my opinion, there are only a few books so polished, so evocative, and so articulate in the English language. It is so precise in its description, that its surreal landscapes and Lovecraftian visions are truly bone-chilling. The narrator, while cliched in some ways by today’s standards, is incredibly rigorous in his intellectual pursuits. More so than Machen’s other works, this one is the quintessential suggestively occult work of genius.

Like Clark Ashton Smith, Machen had some roots and understanding of poetry. The poetic sensibility is clear and resonating throughout this work. In some ways, the publishing details and coming-of-age revelations serve to ground the magic and dream aspects well, while giving the reader a break from the heady mixture of logic-defying structures of imagery.

I can’t think of any novels where the scenery is whipped up into a literary froth as well as in this one. There is a depth of emotion alongside a continually surprising atmosphere of longing and subtle perversions. It is the story of an artist, who changes his perception to better suit his ideals. This idealism is endearing, and we are given over to his delight and maddening setbacks because he is enchanted by a majestic muse.

Prose so rich you have to sip it. And, incredibly, the best Librivox recording I have ever found.

Review of Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

ISBN 446969249 (ISBN13: 9780446969246)

I found this novel, above all, to be exuberant, ambitious, bold, and extremely readable.

JCO has wrung all the suggestion and menace she could from her sumptuous setting. Not familiar with the author’s infinite body of work – I have only stumbled across a few short stories, liked them, and never sought out any of the novels before recently – I was genuinely surprised. The structure of the novel may be disorienting for some, and the elevated style is extremely old fashioned, and includes the extensive use of parenthetical statements, as well as a dangerous number of adverbs. But as a historical novel, and one intended for entertainment, it is very effective. Plus, these “flaws” are mere stylistic choices, and I am sure the author has mastered any number of styles, judging by the variety of genres and modes she has dipped into during her Methuselah-esque career.

An artful storyteller, she quickly establishes the Gothic dimensions of her project, sets down roots in the territory of nightmare and the macabre, amplifies the atmosphere and aesthetic to be found in Hawthorne and Poe, and infuses the manor at the heart of the book with an astonishing level of detail, while managing to sustain a menacing tension throughout.

It culminates into a sprawling, violent, exuberant masterpiece of sorts. She might have chosen to focus on fewer characters, to tell a seamless, chronological tale, but she deviates, streaks wildly through time and dramatic scenes, only to twist her storytelling into contortions of the odd and grotesque. Some pieces of the resultant mosaic are elegant in excess, reverence-inducing, heart-stopping, guttural, and others are irreverent, almost silly, charming and straightforward accounts of character pratfalls and baboonery.

Dealing with 6 generations, all equally eccentric, of an impressively dysfunctional family, it is a chronicle, but not in the traditional sense. I knew I was in the hands of a gifted storyteller from the start, because I didn’t care about the artful jumps through time, the skipping around, the seemingly random characters introduced and reintroduced at different stages. The whole thing was good, and of course, the pieces begin to fit together by and by. JCO is a literary giantess, and I will have to begin reading the rest of her oeuvre, over the inevitable decades it will take to do so, especially since she keeps adding on new, lengthy, breathless masterpieces year by year, as if she were writing them in her sleep. Someone, probably, will ghost-write her future novels via Ouija board. This is the first in a vast Gothic saga of historical monoliths, and a thrilling entry into her world. Any story including bears and haunting entities, malevolent cats and declining aristocracy is bound to be interesting. The characters must deal with acts of God, malingering psychic children, and worst of all, each other.

The novel is also pervaded by Biblical language and Biblical fear, trembling, uncertainty, and shadows in human shape sleepwalking through immense hallways, closed off rooms, and across the eternally frozen lake. These landscapes and interiors are no less dark and foreboding than the corridors of their minds.

Some sinister repeated refrains remind us of the fates of previous Bellefleurs echoing through the ages. With intellectual daring, the author explores the dark secrets, the bizarre aberrations, and the obscene lusts and fascinating horrors lurking in the well-to-do manor-dwellers’ hearts. With an endless array of historical details, the interconnected web of stir-crazy, passionate humanity will stick with me. It’s splendidly perverse in parts, particularly the supernatural deaths, which are morbid but somehow fitting

“The dark, chaotic, unfathomable pool of time,” she mentions is of course, Lake Noir. The complex quilts woven by Mathilde symbolize the patchwork family and its incomprehensible disintegrations through time. Their family fortune does not make them immune to misfortune. The infidelity, the hatred, the pettiness, the irresponsible philandering! Those qualities propel them toward inevitably doomed ends.

Occasionally excessive, frenzied, ornate, or melodramatic, but usually mesmeric, rhythmic, and harrowing, I can’t recommend the book enough. Its great moments of unexpected horror intrude, entice, and punctuate the well-conceived tragedies. At the very least, you will witness a huge range of character emotions and viewpoints.

My favorite chapter recounts Nightshade’s solution to the Bellefleur rat infestation. It’s an example of her humor in a dark, and provocative light. Vanity, dissolution, antisocial behavior, anxious, ignorant fear of outsiders, bloody vengeance, and any number of other distinctly human flaws present themselves throughout. For some of the 49 principles characters, their injuries define their behavior in unexpected ways. Wounds, both physical and psychological, contribute to their growth and descent.

JCO reminds us of the riches to be found in literature. Her opulent output, her boldness, her bravado, all reinforce her fiction’s ability to move us. I know my image of the author will evolve as I delve deep into her novels, stories, journals and that notorious biography. All in good time.

Review of Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah

ISBN 1419744380 (ISBN13: 9781419744389)

What starts as a quiet tale of a struggling middle class youth in Korea becomes a disorienting and surreal fable of identity, love, and art.

At the intersection of Murakami and Kafka, Bae Suah occupies her own corner of contemporary literature. At times as light and charming as Banana Yoshimoto or Hiromi Kawakami, she also possesses highly literary powers comparable to Marquez. It is impossible to pin down exactly how she manages to convey rich detail, elegant economy, vivid characterization, and dream-like magic all at once.

Several recurrent images pervade the novel, which is organized like a piece of music. The refrains remind us of certain memories, but they also establish specific symbols. The effect of these interesting moments shed light on the passage of time in the world of the novel. It is clever in the extreme how Suah manages to weave together disparate occurrences in intriguing ways – whether it is an encounter in a theater or a magical bus ride through downtown, each wave of surrealism serves to construct a heartfelt nuance of youthful regret, love-lorn solitude, or the existential dilemma of a dreaming poet. Temperature crops up frequently in the book, enhancing the characters’ skewed perspective with irony, hyperbole, and sympathy.

Bae Suah has said in interviews, that she did not choose Korea, as one does not choose one’s name, but it is hers all the same. This uncertain commitment to national identity may be seen in some of her works dealing with outsiders, foreigners, and dispossessed Koreans. Here she describes South Korea as an island, surrounded on 3 sides by water, and on the fourth by an uncrossable border.

Transportation is another underlying theme of the novel – trains, planes, taxis and buses. A fair portion of the action takes place while the characters are standing still, but movement continues in their interactions, as they often recount journeys and far-removed events. I got the impression that the interstices of life, the introspective moments, intruded in unexpected ways, to punctuate the impressionistic qualities the author was going for. If you are not familiar with her style, the aimlessness or “random” aspect may trick you into believing this masterful novel is sloppy. In fact, it is a honed, enchanting, mesmeric experience, a dream of life, wherein emotion and memory collide.

I’m astounded by what this author has managed to do in the 4 books of hers I’ve read. The last one in English is called Recitation, and I will not be able to resist reading it for long.

Thanks go to the publisher who provided an ARC through Netgalley.

Review of No Longer Human by Junji Ito, Osamu Dazai

ISBN 1974707091 (ISBN13: 9781974707096)

Oddly, this is not the only manga adaptation of Osamu Dazai’s novel. It is the only adaptation you will need, but it is not necessarily easier to read than the original. 

It is 600 pages of interrelated scenes, and masterful, atmospheric artwork, which require just as much concentration as any piece of Japanese literature. Junji Ito tackled heavy, mature themes for this one, and departed from his usual scare tactics to introduce us to the deep storytelling and psychological strain characteristic of the important novelist.

Far denser and more consistent than Ito’s other long works (Tomie, Uzumaki, and Gyo) it resembles his adaptation of Frankenstein in some ways. It is of course dark and somber, creepy and lurid, demented and nightmarish. Only by reading thousands of pages of his work was I able to come to a decision on how I felt about Junji Ito’s method. In short, I grew to love it over time. The subject matter of No Longer Human is some of the most difficult imaginable. We are faced with the demons of the human heart over and over, through the reprehensible actions of one of the least likable main characters of all time. I’ve read other Dazai works, and from what I can tell, his themes are not always quite this pessimistic. It is about the loss of what makes us human – our compassion for others. Only by subsuming the selfish urge to constantly fulfill our unreasonable desires can we become truly human. It takes effort to look past the horrid behavior of the characters and see the underlying message.

Using the text from the translation of the novel by Donald Richie, this is a fairly faithful adaptation. And a literary one. Junji Ito appears to have taken the subject seriously and set out to craft a nuanced, complex portrait of a man, surrounded by the mostly well-meaning women, through which he discovers the appetites and weaknesses in himself, that lead to his ruin. It is a painful story at times, but human weakness, death, anger and jealousy are all profoundly important aspects of our species. Dazai posits that humans cannot define themselves except in relation to other people. Many of his views might be considered old-fashioned today, but the deep understanding of some of the fundamental aspects of humanity can still be widely appreciated. This is not a work for children, and perhaps young adults will also have to struggle to detach themselves from the surface level lust, grit and angst of the graphic novel. Being an adult offers experience, in my opinion, which at least in my case, allows me to regard a work of art as a product of a life lived and transposed. It wasn’t until I aged that I felt experience entering into art. Talent is one thing, experience is another. There is a wide range of experience here, even if the emotions verge on the animalistic.

Review of My Back Pages: Reviews and Essays by Steven Moore

ISBN 1557134375 (ISBN13: 9781557134370)

This is a book of professional book reviews, about 780 tall pages. All about writers from the 20th Century, with maybe a few exceptions for writers from the late 19th and early 21st.

As explained in a closing essay, this is the pseudo-third volume of his Alternate History of the Novel series. The total page count of about 2700 pages comprises a more inclusive survey of literature than Harold Bloom’s canon books, and more specialized information on hard-to-find, less-famous, unconventional, and just-plain-interesting books. They are less didactic than Bloom and written in a very readable, yet polished style.

List of books I bought after reading this book:
Graves – The White Goddess
Coover – Public Burning
Stephen Wright – Meditation in Green.
Lawrence Norfolk – Pope’s Rhinoceros
All of Lawrence Durrell
Books I still plan to buy: Kathy Acker, Karen Elizabeth Gordon, Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter, more Djuna Barnes, Mary Butts, Elizabeth Smart, Ronald Firbank, Frederick Rolfe, Will Self, Mary Camponegro, Jeanette Winterson.

All of the other big names Moore discusses at length I already owned or disagreed with. Even books I didn’t love were still given fair, well-rounded examinations.

Authors discussed at great length:
William Gaddis (Moore is the world authority).
William Gass
Thomas Pynchon
William T. Vollmann
Joseph McElroy
Alexander Theroux
David Foster Wallace
Paul West

Some surprises:
Moore really liked Kafka on the Shore. I’ve read it twice and I missed half of the things he picked up on. His 2-page essay is illuminating and provides many compelling arguments in defense of the bizarre novel.
He mentions Graves’ White Goddess, Gaddis’ The Recognitions and other favorite works constantly. After years of studying these texts, he could not help but name-drop them. Even if you haven’t read half the books he mentions, you can use the evidence he provides to make the all the necessary reading choices of your foreseeable future. After purchasing all three volumes, I will probably never need a book recommendation again. Oddly, he neglects Italian and German literature, as well as all of the novelists from Liechtenstein, but I doubt anyone can expect to outdo Moore’s accomplishment. He has clearly read thousands of books, most of them with the attention of a professional reviewer, if not a scholar.

I was already a fan of Wallace, Gass, Gaddis, Theroux, McElroy, Vollmann, Pynchon, Joyce, Antunes, and dozens of others, but he managed to teach me a surprising amount about books and writers I thought I knew well. It was nice to see someone finally tear Mailer to shreds and stomp and spit on the shreds. Junk Mailer deserves its own book, and people need to stop ignoring his atrocious mistakes.

So far my reading experience has taught me I hate David Peace and simply fail to enjoy most of Danielewski. Moore defends them with much empirical, aesthetic analysis. Ducornet, Delillo, Elkin, Lowry, Barthelme, Barth all get loving treatments. If I’m speaking your language, definitely pick up this book.

Special warning about the 2 volume Alternate History of the Novel. It is a masterpiece. However, are you the type of reader who is interested in Tibetan literature? Do you see yourself reading Ancient Chinese epics? Since I am obsessed with books like Honoré d’Urfé’s and proto-novels of Japan and China, these histories were godsends. But consider where your interests lie. My Back Pages suggests enough delectable reading material for a decade.

Review of The Golden Lotus Volume 1: Jin Ping Mei by Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng

ISBN 0804841705 (ISBN13: 9780804841702)

Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng was the author of one of the 5 Great Chinese novels. This is his contribution to immortal letters.

There are many English versions of Jin Ping Mei. The five volume edition, which is more than 2000 pages in length, suffers from hundreds of pages of notes. If you are interested in all the minutiae of Ming Era Chinese aristocracy – like what four hundred different varieties of flowers symbolized, that is the version for you. I chose the 2 volume version by Clement Egerton, weighing in at over 1300 pages. I really don’t need more detail than this translation has. It is already about on the level of Virginia Woolf. Elevating the prose even more with detail and poetic imagery would slow me down. The translator mentioned that he left out a great number of poems. That being said, the extra poems are almost incomprehensible without contextual explanations, from what I’ve read. The insertion of poetry did not add very much in volume one, where it appears, but you can tell the author was going for some lewd puns. Good for him. The other notable fact is that this translation is based off the one from centuries earlier, where the dirty parts had been rendered into Latin. This humorous obscurantism only created more work for the gutter-minded readers. Honestly, who would pick up this book nowadays, unless they had a particular interest in Chinese literature? That was my thought. There are far more sensual and erotic things to read than this out there, and far easier to come by. You should cast aside all your assumptions and read this near-masterpiece as a superb example of storytelling – of proof that Chinese literature was far more developed than the European equivalent before 1600.

Overall, this was an engrossing read, if a little repetitive. It speaks a lot to the same class dysfunctions you will find in Story of the Stone. But the relationships here are all interesting and meaningful. The treatment of servants is very brutal. Ximen is the foremost figure of the novel, and his abuse of the women surrounding him is telling. For centuries this was condemned and printed in secret throughout China, like all those “dirty” French novels were throughout Europe. The difference here is that by today’s standards, this is almost PG-13. There are a few mentions of sex and anatomy, but this work is characterized far more by its psychological portrayals, its world of corrupt bureaucracy and obsession with money. That it is still thought-provoking today shows that it is a wise and timeless tale, with some love and spice, a little conflict here and there, and a lot of atmosphere. It is a luxurious read for the serious culturally minded reader. I look forward to continuing this intricate, lengthy study of Ming decadence with volume 2.

Review of Selected Short Stories by Honoré de Balzac

Balzac, I have found, is one of those authors you can read for your whole like, like Dickens, spreading out the oeuvre as necessary

Balzac’s books, in my opinion, are not to be consumed like snacks or junk food. They are hearty vegetables, often not terribly exciting, but vigorous and nourishing. One can become enamored with his style or one can become distracted, depending on one’s enthusiasm for the everyday lives of 19th century people.

Balzac died at 51, after working 20 years on his Human Comedy, comprising 90 works, and rising to the rank of greatest French author in many critical opinions. For much of his life he was fighting off debt, and 2 months before his untimely death due to overconsumption of coffee, he married a rich Polish countess. He produced 50 short stories, and we have 12 selected here. At first this selection appeared meager and insignificant, but further along in the slim volume the value compounded.

In summation, this is a fabulous depiction of the discrete charm of the bourgeoisie. Balzac drops aphorisms and well-sprinkled witticisms throughout his calm, collected recounting of lives. He is a vastly intelligent writer, on the level of Chekhov, with a subtle wit rarely equalled. He captured the people and key details of his time astutely. Unlike Anatole France, Balzac confined his subject to a set period, wishing to give the fullest picture of a slice of history, concerning almost entirely the French characters he was familiar with, picking and choosing from real life and his imagination as necessary, conjuring perfect examples with precision. He could discern a person’s key attributes from a single glance, seemingly, and could draw out descriptions for pages where a lesser writer would have dashed off a few nondescript lines.

His stories are often simple. 10 sous can mark the border between life and death. Money and ambition take center stage, as does the honest work of the poor. He describes abject poverty like a pro, and the many guises it takes, its resonating affects upon families and great geniuses, for, as has been said, most everyone in Balzac is a genius. He utilizes melodramatic displays of charity and good will worthy of Dickens. There is much sacrifice, injustice and sorrow mingled with the surprisingly uncommon instances of romance.

There is only one decapitation in the whole collection, which is to say that Balzac is no Dumas. Dumas relied on cinematic gestures, grand statements, and a flair akin to the stage plays I imagine he devoured. Balzac rather, reveled in the tiny tragedies, the heartwarming moments, without entirely neglecting the grand episodes of the climaxes of his novels and the occasional “pulp” story. There is to be found the attendant troubles which come from the sudden acquisition of wealth, and much more in several entertaining stories in the second half of the book. The first half is rather droll, though it contains deep irony and brilliant characters. My rating verged on 5 stars after the final story – an amusing satire on the life of a painter. In short, these stories will not satisfy everyone, but if you are an appreciator of delicate sensibilities, prose which moves elegantly and logically through crystalline storytelling, it is hard to do better than Balzac. Take, for instance this quote:

“…creditors being today the most real shape assumed by the ancient Furies. He wore his poverty with a gaiety which is perhaps one of the greatest elements of courage, and like all those who have nothing, he contracted few debts.”

Much meaning in a tight package. Look to Balzac for both distraction and enlightenment.

Review of The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories

ISBN 0141395621 (ISBN13: 9780141395623)

Since I’ve read every word Haruki Murakami has published in English I felt obligated to read his introduction once it showed up in the preview on Amazon. People saying “Haruki Murakami is my favorite author” has now become a cliche. But cliches can sometimes be true.

His introduction was nice and long and juicy. My impression of the collection of stories was that they were chosen, as Mr. Rubin explains, for the casual reader. Maybe it’s pretentious but I consider myself more than a casual reader of Japanese fiction. I have an entire bookcase devoted to Japanese literature.
I like to imagine what stories I would have picked if I had the opportunity to compile an anthology of this kind.
There are new translations, which are sorely needed in this day and age. Akutagawa’s previously untranslated short story “General Kim” was my favorite inclusion. Out of Akutagawa’s 300+ works only 77 have thus far been translated into English. Since he’s one of my other favorite authors I’ve actually gone to extremely nerdy lengths to read them all. I wish Rubin would just translate all of Akutagawa already. And maybe Bakin while he’s at it.
I am glad that he put a lot of translating into this volume, but why include “Patriotism” and the first chapter of Sanshiro? Not only do they take up valuable space but they are available almost anywhere. I buy anthologies because they contain stories on the brink of obscurity. Where are all the translations of Hiromi Kawakami or Junnosuke Yoshiyuki? I would have liked to see something new from Ryu Murakami, who never gets anthologized but is one of the best Japanese writers of all time.
I gave this book four stars because it was excellent, but it really could’ve gotten five. The two stories by Haruki are previously available, but luckily we get something new by Banana Yoshimoto and Akutagawa which save this collection, in my opinion, from being a rehashing. It’s hard to find Kenji Nakagami and we are treated to a new story by Mieko Kawakami, which was appreciated, so while I would not recommend this for your shelf if you can only have one Japanese literature anthology – it’s hard to beat the two volume Columbia anthology – I’d put it in my top 5 Japanese literature anthologies. Yes, I am that much of a geek that I would create a top five.
Though this is a step in the right direction there’s about 3000 miles of stepping left to do if we are ever going to get the most out of J. Lit. I keep asking myself, why can’t I just read Japanese? Oh yeah, it’s insanely difficult. Anyway, check it out if you are a fan.

Review of Peace by Gene Wolfe

ISBN 0312890338 (ISBN13: 9780312890339)

I never expected so much depth. While it is barely Science Fiction, it is most certainly literature of the highest caliber.

Like Faulkner, Wolfe constantly cripples the reader’s understanding with his obscure perspectives and elegant suggestion. Chronology and irony are never explicit, and characters are always hiding pieces of their personalities. In a way entirely unique to his oeuvre, Wolfe invents layers beneath the surface narratives – stories surrounding an enigmatic core, like onion-skin.

After finishing Fifth Head of Cerberus, I was already convinced that he had deliberately designed a multi-dimensional masterpiece. Possibly even more thoroughly with Peace, he manages to make good on his techniques, and to deepen the modus operandi. We are forced to dig to uncover the rippling insinuations of his world.

A second or third reading will likely reveal more puzzles and subtexts to the seemingly innocuous, and tenuously connected stories of fragmented memories, contradictory doctor visits, Midwestern town life, the nearly Victorian tale of a porcelain egg, an homage to the Arabian Nights and the undercurrent of human deception cutting through it all.

Structured like a memoir, Wolfe’s style is never forced, and is always confidently stringing the reader along, no matter how thoroughly razzled your flailing body becomes. It is nonetheless a fascinating joyride, an imaginative dream, half-remembered but sprinkled with divine joy and profound sadness. Witness his use of playful fairy tale, and his staggering ability to engross and entertain you. His voices will haunt you, like the ghosts and banshees in his books, because of the uncanny magic of ‘what they know.’ Wolfe excels at dangling the forbidden fruit of knowledge before the reader. All you are allowed is a taste, but it is enough to realize the breadth of mystery inherent in any imperfect being’s conception of the universe.

Review of Fado Alexandrino by António Lobo Antunes

ISBN 0802134211 (ISBN13: 9780802134219)

Grandmaster of Metaphor

Trying to come up with the right word to describe Antunes’ prose is difficult. Any comparisons are superficial, but I’ll mention all the writers he resembles in minor ways. The best single word I could find was “tintinnabulation.” That’s what his words do. They rattle around in your head, slide around like unsecured luggage on a freighter, jostle and chortle, and crowd one another out, the images swarm, magnify and recede, searing your mind, and continually, and over and again, tintinnabulating until you’re terrorized, barreling forward into Surreal, fractured heavens and hells.

At times I was lost, groping through the text, wall-eyed with indefinable sensations. The difficulty level bordered on Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom! at first, but I could feel the blockage loosening up. The dams eventually burst and the rollicking, hedonistic, rambling, phantasmagoric words flooded in with Biblical insistence. The author’s intrinsic reliance on crunchy, noodling metaphors within metaphors sold me on the style, but it took practice to acclimatize myself to the hailstorm of his method. Having read The Land at the End of the World, I immediately bought all 13 volumes of Antunes currently available in English. Fado Alexandrino is a doubly forceful encore to that book, vaster and braver and more insane in every way. His prophetic images, nuanced through bodies and minds, his visionary texturing of layer upon layer of perspective, the imagination, the absurdist comedy, the deep pathos, the bloody violence, all congealed into a twisted nightmare. It took me far too long to read. At times I recoiled, gasping, but I always dove in for more.

The book takes place in a restaurant so splattered that the colors all run together. The men who tell their stories here are tied together by the tragedies of war and the semblance of lives they lead afterward, some politics intrude, reality blends seamlessly with their words – it is sometimes impossible to tell if a line is spoken aloud by a character or not, since quotation marks were missing from Antunes’ typewriter. There is an astounding richness of diction, an abundance of syntax that is most inspiring, a Nabokovian variety of descriptions, endless clarifications, and haunting, Kafkaesaue flights of fancy all intricately interwoven with contra-textual interpolations, until it becomes a fabric of dispossessed, roiling, shamanistic visions, belligerent speculations, Borgesian depths of irony and allusion, an ever-deepening darkness, a whirlpool, spewed out by the most expressive, articulate of cynics, amid the most entertaining and gruesome business of warfare, as he warps mentally between Mozambique and Lisbon, cradled by his whores, the narrator, abysmally in his cups, indulges in luscious flashbacks, which layer the novel with a hazy filter.

It is a book to be treasured, devoured, regurgitated, and savored repeatedly. It is sustained dementia, a mesmerizing panoply of humanity’s willy-nilly selfishness. It’s mind-boggling to conceive how Antunes’ brain concocted all of this controlled chaos. The riveting imagery makes for an immersive experience, as crowded as an Altman film, with “the strange toothache of nostalgia,” fading in and out, coupled with effective motifs and repetitions, as the characters “vomit out the sea.”
It is an interior sea, as detailed and manic as Javier Marias at his best. The sea of human emotion and strife, language as a liquid, solidifying around them. The narrative flows. The chapter divisions become almost meaningless, but stopping reading is like coming up for air before plunging back down into an ocean of grease. It meanders, digresses, diverges, submerges you. You have to succumb to the galloping rhythm if you are going to make it all the way through this monumental work.

Schizo-phrenetic, with constant interruptions, confusing jump cuts and scene changes, often mid-sentence – just roll with it. It’s a sophisticated form of impressionistic storytelling. The environment is constantly personified, wilderness mingles with urban settings, nurses become creatures, and the wildest illusions intrude into the mundane conversations of night club drifters. Get used to the feel of mud, insects, rot, destruction, toads, make way for sex, murder, strangulation, erotic fixations, bursting pustules everywhere, simply everywhere, war-torn landscapes of the mind, stumbling, delirious soldiers, and obviously, death as a hovering omniscience. Antunes is as acerbic as Céline, but somehow dignified in his irreverence. His prose is always biting, pissing and scratching as it scrambles through labyrinthine paragraphs, you are grabbed, manhandled and left in a slowly drying pool of excrement. The book is truly fecal in texture, with elephantine horrors sliding across the page, dwelling too long under your nose, dribbling over your mind, leaving a definitive, tongue-shriveling aftertaste, at times deliciously repulsive. Reminiscences manifesting with lucid detail, scenes morphing into still-lives, memories metamorphosed into fossilized hangover hallucinations – these are the corridors of this literary convolution. Remarkably, it is crystalline in structure, and gem-like metaphors sprout in abundance: “The washing machine was sobbing away at its work.” – Hundreds of profound observations about the state and nature of objects and environments parade through the narrative, every character is caught with their pants perpetually down, trailing afterbirths, or excrement, like baffled fish in the grit-smeared tank of Antunes’ mind.

The squelching, magnificent simile-metaphor sandwiches are to be re-read endlessly, like the following – “Madam Simone, hand-in-hand with the fellow in a red jacket, came back on stage rolling her ancient body with all the grace of a locomotive, and bending over in an awkward bow that made the vast withered mass of her mammaries pop out like cartilagenous heads of twins peeping out and hanging down in the course of a birth.”

How could you not read this?

Review of The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu

ISBN 1982134038 (ISBN13: 9781982134037)

Ken Liu is one of my top five favorite short story writers working today. And he is really the only one of the bunch being prolific. 

I believe he has published over 80 stories in most reputable speculative fiction magazines over the past 10 years. He attained the remarkable feat of gaining popularity in the supersaturated medium of speculative fiction magazines. The reason he was able to rise above the rest, I believe, was his storytelling ability, which often combines traditional Chinese storytelling tropes with razor-edged scientific knowledge. Along with Ted Chiang, I think it is safe to assume that Liu’s intelligence is much higher than the average purveyor of science fiction these days. Borderline, if not certified, genius.

The Paper Managerie and Other Stories, Ken Liu’s rock-solid debut collection, was a masterpiece. The finest collection of short stories to come out of the speculative genre in recent decades. It can hold its own against The Martian Chronicles, Endangered Species, and other must-reads in my opinion. It is not likely to be equaled or surpassed anytime soon. It is very likely to be reread, by me, and very soon. It is an emotionally charged, politically relevant, and breathtaking summation of his career thus far. His silk-punk novel series is still unknown to me. I know I will have to set aside a significant amount of time to read it. I have dabbled in the first volume, but I know I will come back to it when I’m ready. I cannot help but think that that project will be overshadowed by Liu’s short story collections to come. It may be wishful thinking, but he was born to write short stories imho. Maybe he will be regarded as another Bradbury one day.

This second collection, despite the glowing accolades it has already garnered, is not as perfect as his previous effort. It could still be called a masterpiece, perhaps, but I had several gripes with it. Several stories were a slight chore to get through, it pains me to say. Luckily, the collection is well-rounded and the best stories toward the end of the collection, leaving me with a satiated aftertaste.

Taken together the stories become less than the sum of their parts in one distinct way, by virtue of repetition – first of the distracting inclusions of dozens of emojis and the reused character tropes exploring father-daughter and daughter-mother relationships. The family ties in all of Ken Liu’s short fiction are critical to the functioning of plot. Here, they are bittersweet and forced. The patterns grated on me, almost as if he recast the same characters in the same roles with slightly differing world building constraints.

Taken separately the stories are all pretty strong and engaging. Many themes stand out in this volume including: post human scenarios, virtual reality, AI, mega corporate corruption, environmental activism, post apocalyptic landscapes, uninhabitable earths, atemporal existence, multi dimensional family dynamics, ethics, the troubles of old age, infirmity, and fear of death, war and slavery, extra-terrestrial archaeology, and much more. That sentence right there should give you enough reason to read the collection.

“The Hidden Girl” was a nice, representative story, an impressive piece of storytelling, combining his trademark Chinese cultural references with his trademark brilliant s-f ideas.

Ken Liu remains an incredible writer. His talent is undeniable. He should also be commended for bringing us several volumes of Chinese science fiction in translation. It is hard to know which contribution is more valuable. We are sitting on a veritable treasure trove of untranslated literature, and heroes like Ken Liu are brave enough, and generous enough, to set aside their fame and risk exposing new talent to the masses. I appreciate what you do, Sir.

Review of Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

ISBN 1609455878 (ISBN13: 9781609455873)

Mieko Kawakami’s novel Breasts and Eggs is a bold literary statement and another first person, modern, feminist novel from Japan.

Staking a claim among literary celebrities like Banana Yoshimoto, Hiromi Kawakami, Natsuo Kirino, and Yoko Ogawa, it would almost appear that the future of Japanese Literature is female. It would make sense, in a way, since its past was male though and through with the notable exception of Murasaki’s monumental Tale of Genji. I first heard of M. Kawakami when I read her short stories in Monkey Business and various anthologies. All of the stories were good. Her first novel in English, called Ms. Ice Sandwich, was disappointingly simple, unmemorable, and almost unmentionable. This work is far more complex, substantial and controversial.

Mieko Kawakami is one of the few Japanese authors I know of who has been granted interview time with the reclusive Haruki Murakami. In fact, Murakami was so taken by this book, that he announced his new favorite Japanese author, namely, Mieko Kawakami. She then went on to do a book length interview with the literary superstar. Hopefully we will get this interview in English soon.

The novel was quite uneven in my opinion. The first 40% I would rate 5 stars, the last 30% would get 4 stars and the middle 30% would earn 2 stars. The voice took on entrancing rhythm from the start, as intimate and easy to read as I had hoped. An absorbing, fast-paced chronicle involving complicated family issues ensued, including the ramifications of plastic surgery and some relatively common concerns and reminiscences of a young girl in the modern age. A very readable and rewarding first part overall. The second part falls into many tedious repetitions on the theme of fertility and the morality of artificial insemination. If you can get through it you will be rewarded by a satisfactory ending. The main character is a writer who offers us another cliched and idealistic view of the writerly life. Do writers really spend 90% of their time in restaurants discussing their meals and their work with literati? Hemingway would have you think so. Kawakami loads her novel with table conversations, and wastes our time with the inaccurate writer’s complaints. Do writers really have to fend off their editors in person with clever dog-ate-my-manuscript excuses? Of course, she has writer’s block – almost never touches the keyboard, yet still embodies all of the qualities we have come to associate with the ideal writer figure. She is an artist, who can’t be rushed. You might begin to notice the influence of Haruki Murakami at this point. Yet, the protagonist’s fixation with childbirth, its unfeasible application to her own ambition, and the relationships, hardships and sacrifices involved paint the picture of a self-absorbed artist on an existential ego trip. The character mentions this in the book, pointing out her own flaws. I commend the author for her well-rounded exploration, but the obsession infiltrates the plot so heavily that it weighs the book down for a large part.

Toward the end of the novel, many moral issues are explored with erudition and insight. Kawakami is an astute observer, and very confident in her ability to wrangle emotion out of the reader. She doesn’t shirk or bow politely, she cooks up charm and smarm and really goes for broke sometimes. There is a scene detailing a meeting with a potential sperm donor that had me laughing out loud. It was the kind of masterful confrontation Murakami could have written. I was highly intrigued by Kawakami’s stance or explanation of the value and demerits of sexual relationships. How they stand in stark contrast to Murakami’s portrayal of sex in his novels was fascinating. It is not always productive to assume that just because a writer’s main character is a writer who treats women like objects, that the writer treats women like objects. Or is it? Does writing about mistreating women constitute mistreating women? Kawakami faces off with Murakami’s controversial female characters by lambasting male character tropes. She bashes men throughout the novel and takes a firm moral stance on women rights while exploring the emotional content of fertility choices. It is a vast and moving essay on the matter and an entertaining coming of age story.

The painful flaw of this novel lies in the repetition, which Murakami’s style suffers from as well. It is a sort of dumbing down of the themes. But the themes are still there. The characters, their voices, and the strangled atmosphere of Japanese polite educated class strugglers tugged at my nostalgic love for Japan’s literary past. I really adored parts of Breasts and Eggs, and you should give it a read.

Thanks to NetGalley for the free ARC.

Review of Crash by J.G. Ballard

ISBN 0312420331 (ISBN13: 9780312420338)

A 2008 interview with Vice quoted infamous mangaka, Shintaro Kago, saying: “Shit and sex are merely the starting points, and unless you can tick those off you can’t even begin thinking about a narrative.”

Grotesque literature has its paramours, and Ballard sits in the ranks of William S. Burroughs and Georges Bataille. Examining Ballard’s literary output, you have to wonder what this unbashful bloke was thinking behind those puffy, doughy features. His innocuous, austere sci-fi worlds glisten with post-human despair. His crystal alligators frozen in time are reminiscent of hard-edged fantasy, and the dozen novels about urban ennui amid thinly veiled warlike conditions read like historical poetry from the amber-thick mind of a slathering autocrat.

In Crash, Ballard occupies the headspace of an obsessive narrator, inconsequentially, also named James Ballard. This is not an autobiography, neither is it autofiction. It is a novel about automobiles having sex with people, or is it the other way around?

In a gallery of fractured dreams, Ballard immortalizes the destruction of innocence, the disharmony of vehicular manslaughter recast as moral epiphany, the elegance of chrome fixtures reflecting dark insecurities, the cruel inhumanity of inflatable HOV-lane partners, the fallacy of the crosswalk’s imagined, scintillating security blanket, the tragicomic splendor of careening into a parked ice-cream vendor with your head jutting from the window, jowls jostling like a jolly St. Bernard, the salacious out-of-body experience of Cro-magnon-level rutting in apocalyptic parking lot Twilight zones, the tabloid-fumes wafting through the hot, sticky ventilator, the secret pock-marked underbelly of the depraved masses spasming toward the perfect societal thousand-car-pile-up of a newly evolved symphonic mutilation of the planet.

I was reminded of two unassuming short stories, one by Vonnegut, the other by Bradbury. The first depicts Earth as a world inhabited by cars. People are mere organs within these mechanical beasts as they roam endlessly and without purpose, toward their ultimate disintegration. The second tells of car-crash enthusiasts, gathering around the bloody craters of crash-sites, always the same eerie faces, staring down, gaping into the maw of the twisted, excruciating pleasures of death. The group gathers innately, like an atmospheric anomaly.

The “formula of death” prescribed by Ballard in what some have called his greatest work is a pure expression of mankind’s technological dependencies, which taps into our mental gas-holes to inject them with sugary, straight-faced dementia. It is an examination of the fascinating nature of accidents, the unexplainable collision of particles, the spontaneous idol-worship that occurs on the side of the freeway four to eight times per day along your routine commute. What you think about on your daily drive, the perverse morbidity that comes bubbling out of your psyche as you stroke the worn leather of the grease-imbued steering wheel. There is of course an obsession with wounds, as separate from the death fixation, but involved with the involuntary compulsion lurking in every passenger’s mind, that sick daydream crash that always happens between meaningless conversations, if only subconsciously. Not to mention the animalistic instincts, the macabre voyeurism of driving by those apartment complexes at night, slowing down, turning off the headlights, sinking deeply into the well-stained driver’s seat…

Love, in this novel, is ungendered. Vaughn’s masculinity is supplanted by other factors – the presence of forehead grease for one, or the sickly sweet odors secreted by the human body, and much, much more. He is the accomplice lover, a being composed of concrete, asphalt, tar, heat and smoke, grit and slime, the personification of the machineries of joy, connoisseur of the soul-enlivening destruction of binge-frolics in the multi-story car-parks, the seedy airport terminals, erecting frozen testaments to forbidden pleasures, tweaking out psychotic musings mid-sentence, obscene snapshots tumbling out of his day-planner, erotic tenderness oozing from his pores. Get ready for discomfiting juxtapositions, deliberate, depraved behavior, and a flaunting of the artistry of fate. Ballard’s creepy poetic sensibilities have their roots in Nabokovian lyricism. He paints a “lacework of blood,” mosaics of shattered bone, all while preserving an awkward confessional quality. What could be misplaced desires leads to rehearsals of death, strange coagulations of reality and imagination, superimpositions, mythic ur-lusts, unparalleled vanity, palimpsest upon palimpsest, dripping with blood and sex, and endlessly beguiling repetition. What are the correct symbols of violence? Could not a surgery be a warzone? What clinical thrills go unacknowledged amid the reeking bedpans and crusty sheets? Sociopathic neuroses manifest like tummy aches. The savors of slo-mo, heart-stopping artistic doom punctuate this egotistical monstrosity.

Imagine what this character would say in the confessional. Would any number of Hail Marys absolve his behavior? Instead we are given a sodium-lit romance of twisted steel, Polaroid pornography, freaks courting disaster, children lost in the wild foreplay of undiscovered vistas of lust and ecstasy, head-on, roll-over, whiplash, pulsing horrid, motorized phalanxes distilled from the marriage of sexuality and a satirical hellscape. The sweet tingle of tinkling glass, the glorification of scars as status symbols, those quiet gas puddle rainbows gleaming in the driveway. What are our bodily fluids but gas driving us toward the various fender-benders of fate?

We are desensitized crash test dummies, which objects, Ballard believes, were originally designed as sex toys. Our recalibrated brains are nightmare-machines, our lives are described as serene sculptures in motion, awaiting the beautification of death, corpse-painted traffic lines, jewel-studded windshield-powder pavements are the backdrops of our carefully controlled environments. The petrol-explosions, the geometric, weaponized pleasure, the psychological horror of transcendental spectatorship, the poetry of excess, the charnel-house back room discussions, the taboo fatuations of inveterate recluses, the relentless rhythm of our boring-as-parked-cars lives, all add up to a pulsing hamburger meat roadkill-fest, a maiming mad scientist, Ballard deploys the stylized assassinations of propriety and our hallowed securities beneath the insensate heavy mass of molded plastic that is our cloistered civilization, with cinematic exuberance, and not sparing us the intricate descriptions of vomit clotted between the seats – in this, Ballard has not been equalled.

Lastly I am reminded of the odd film by Shin’ya Tsukamoto titled Tetsuo, The Iron Man, which I watched at 1 AM one night years ago on a fuzzy, miniature television – I never bothered with the Cronenberg adaptation. This transgressive s-f may be an untapped literary grove. This is not Grimdark, it can only be called Kago or Ballard. Even Burroughs never fully concentrated his literary pretensions. These works speak of our aimless destinations as a surrogate for our purposeless existences and the unrestrained attractions and misconstrued emotions inherent in our lives lived in cars, between places, the car as a second body and the total prosthetic, our true bodies in which our souls are no more tangible than the wings of angels. This book is a celebration of human frailty, a lucid rite of passage, haunted by the pressures of our impending demise, a cathedral composed of smegma and mucosa, the ultimate expression of anthropomorphic literature, which reveals the true purpose of car magazines. Even with its ceaseless, Sysiphean copulation, its hollywoodized disregard for sacred human rights and logic, its anarchism and religious imagery, the fossilized rictuses of weird WASP botox-faces, the absurd accumulation of details, and the immense stark, uncompromising vision all combine to provide a salacious and enigmatic masterwork.

I appreciated the parallels with bullfighting, probably misinterpreted the ritualized cruelty, the executions, but feasted on the meditation these pages offered, pervaded by euphoria, a pervasive unease, and improvisational streamlined distortions of reality, immense cerebral dislocation, immeasurable cognitive dissonance, found in the Darwinian confidence of these theatric method actors. Is it possible to go too far in consumerist desecration, in recording the private, unspeakable thoughts bred in solo exertion of literotic muscular spasms, in partaking in arousal prolonged to torturous heights, in self-immolating furies, in feverish, palpitating prose-serenades, in gory frenzies of flesh-toned bumper cars? As all this percolates uncomfortably into your brain, ask yourself if this soiled purity, these syphoned veins, this chaotic exhausting manifold transliteration of homo erectus prutid journalism is what you actually wish to read.

Will you share in the gross weight of secret knowledge, will you also come to regard car dealerships as brothels? A collide-o-scope of horror, for the most jaded literary enthusiasts, who don’t mind a page-by-page instant replay of the suggestions of coitus in the mere act of driving with the main character’s automobile mistresses. Anatomical contortions, lacerations, toxic relationships, the significance of partnership, illicit amatory forceful enemas, viscerally uncouth seduction, trance-like precision, squealing tyres, infinite corruption, mannequin-like waxy uncanny valley characters all sliding down the greased slope of post-modern wingeing, toward a pallid, comatose climax. If you were not bothered by Burroughs’ fictive suicidal asphyxiations, witness the driver’s seat become Ballard’s orgone accumulator. I have not used the word ‘fetishistic,’ but don’t forget ‘brave, bold, and un-subtle.’ It is a waterfall of metamorphic imagery, a scatological haunted house pantomime, a pareidoliac encyclopedia of orifices and mechanical architecture. Reckless but not wreckless. Also, the fictions imposed on reality by television should not go without mentioning, and cinema’s effect on our perception of reality seeps into the thin plot. The synthetic narrative distance it provides is paramount to nurturing the transgressive nature of the animals we have become. If the vivid vortex of exterior description is not too repetitive for you, the melancholy people in their nakedness will leave your tank on E.

Review of The Land at the End of the World by António Lobo Antunes

ISBN 0393077764 (ISBN13: 9780393077766)

Antunes tunes into vivid illusions. Had I known of his work, I wouldn’t have bothered reading László Krasznahorkai.

Mr. Lobo’s work has the same breathless fluidity, but the imagery is stronger, the dramatic pulse is quicker, and it appears far more inclusive, as opposed to the Hungarian’s stark Beckett-like isolationism.

This great Portuguese war surgeon turned writer utilizes warlike tangles of symbolism to tango with heartache and human futility. Within nested imagery and dense, coupling metaphors, he explores multilayered settings with floral sentences, replete with luscious detail, free associating between dreamlike war reminiscences and enigmatic conquests. His haunting, serpentine, grisly prose, is both harrowing and alluring to behold. His seamless narration passes from atmospheric locales like a disembodied spirit of defiance, blending poetry and terror in a grueling alphabet soup of evanescent verbal eruptions. Since this is an anguished monologue, it dehumanizes with its existential horror and paints rich pastiches of a war-torn Angola from the desperate exile of Lisbon.

Baring his soul, the narrator conjures famous artists: Rembrandt, Dali, Bosch – overlaying their immortal scenes with his own shattered memory – “Cézanne’s card players” appear before his beleaguered eyes, and so do “El Greco’s greyhounds” and Magritte’s skies. There are many integrated literary references and a tone reminiscent of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, about men forgotten in far corners of the world, struggling to undo the incomprehensible atrocities of well-fed, demonic leaders. An uncomfortably profound read. A lucid nightmare of knotted analogies. And some of the most enlightening rants I’ve ever encountered.

Review of Parade by Shūichi Yoshida

ISBN 0307454932 (ISBN13: 9780307454935)

Parade is a seamy novel by a Japanese novelist. 

It does not fit nicely into the “crime novel” formula. Its characters do not care if you are staring at them in horror and fascination. Its plot is not concerned with your level of patience. Though it has a similar texture to Natsuo Kirino’s gritty murder books, it is quieter, and couldn’t have made less noise as it slid into English translation. Where are all the other translations of Yoshida? There is also a book called Villain. But Parade was my introduction to his work. Villain was a nice after dinner snack. It was damn good, but it did not keep me thinking about it for days afterward, as did this little gem.

I do not feel the need to analyze the character motivations, the atmosphere, the literary style or the intense disturbing quality of this book. (I do feel the need to reread it.) I would rather encourage you to discover it yourself. It is one of my favorite novels from Japan – and I’ve read a fair amount of them. But picking it apart would ruin the point. I didn’t feel like examining Ryu Murakami’s literary intentions when I read In the Miso Soup. I just wanted to witness a breathtaking cinematic gore-infused nightmare. This one beats Kirino hands down. It throws down the gauntlet when set beside bad-boy Ryu. But who ever talks about Shuichi Yoshida? The writing is not as polished as Ryu Murakami’s but the atmospheric conditions of the novel are comparable. Yoshida has the casual, almost careless style of a crime writer, but somehow manages to wipe the floor with Seichō Matsumoto. If you liked Matsumoto’s A Quiet Place, this will also tickle your fancy, but it’ll be more of a deep-tissue massage, maybe blunt force trauma. Expect the unexpected in the third act. Try to be bored; I dare you. This is another Japanese writer writing whatever the hell he wants, and my eyes are begging for more.

The only other things of his in English I’ve found is obviously Villain and a beautiful short story in The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction If you know of any other English stories in existence please let me know. I can tell Yoshida has what it takes to give Murakami a run for his money as my favorite novel-producing machine currently in Japan. I’m sorry, Keigo Higashino, but I’m just not that into you. Can we get some translations over here?

I admire when a writer deviates boldly. Subversion. Scare tactics. All the required ingredients of escapism are present here. Like Murakami’s work, it is super easy to relate to these characters. They are young, of course, bored, dissatisfied, opinionated, ever so slightly witty, libidinous, angst-ridden – apply whatever adjective you will. In the end, there is plot, there is character development, but the intricacies congeal into an amorphous whole. I could live in this novel for a while. And I know I will revisit it. Slip into the shady, retro, bleak and quirky Tokyo Yoshida provides. Dark secrets abound in this singular work of subtle and not-so subtle inter-character relations. See if it haunts you like it does me.

Review of The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

ISBN 0141183047 (ISBN13: 9780141183046)

A very interesting book. No plot, no realistic characters, no dialogue. It’s not strictly philosophy, or poetry, or a diary. It is a mixture, a concoction. Aside from a few topical details, it might have been written by a Chinese, or an American, or anyone.

Did you ever have a thought, during your droll daily life, which at the time seemed to sum up your state of affairs perfectly. These flitting thoughts, so profound and appropriate, occasionally visit us, and then disappear. We can never remember them, and never write them down. Pessoa conjured those contemplative miracles seemingly at will, and compiled them on scraps of paper, hidden in a trunk, like notes he was leaving for future archaeologists.

Through aphorisms and abstract reflections, Pessoa plumbed the depths of the human psyche, explored relationships between his fellow men (and only occasionally mentioning women) and the Creator, whom he does not call by name or put all of his confidence in. He discusses the Portuguese poetry he peruses with the detached air of a casual reader, though one can only assume he has read much more widely than he lets on. It is necessary to remember that Pessoa always wrote under different pseudonyms, or heteronyms, as he called them, which proliferated in his mind like real personalities, and who were responsible for the other prose poetry he produced during his odd career.

Pessoa is not partial toward humanity or the cosmos. His attitude is difficult to pin down, but the ease with which he communicates deep subtleties is continually startling. You can revisit this book endlessly, I think, as I’m sure I will. It has a way of reminding you of the power within us to create. It is a balm and a pat on the back, when the plague-sores of life get you down, when you are under the pressures imposed by laws and conventions, the freedom Pessoa strives for, the freedom of the thinking man, giving his thoughts free reign, is invaluable. This applies to everyone, because in some circumstances, this freedom is the only freedom left to us.

As haphazard as this book appears on the surface, it is a finely polished work. Wandering thoughts were never so interesting as when they touch lightly on physical objects. The narrator regards the physical world like a composition of artistic set-pieces, endless in variety, and full of meaning. The simplest moments in this book can be the most moving, can keep you up at night, regarding your past like a series of visions.

I don’t think it’s possible to read this book without feeling something. Pessoa’s words slip in through the cracks, lodge themselves in your heart. There is treasure everywhere, he seems to tell us, in everything.

One of the most quotable books of all time, encompassing oceans of loneliness and love into one-page capsules. If anyone ever doubted the value of dreaming, look no further than this book. Communicated in spine-tingling whispers, messages you have always felt but never expressed, this book is a friend, an ally, and a light in the darkness.

Review of The Miner by Natsume Sōseki,

ISBN 0804714606 (ISBN13: 9780804714600)

I didn’t expect this novel to leave such a big impression on me. It seemed like a throwaway novel in Soseki’s oeuvre, with hardly any character development, almost no plot and little adornment. But it is a subtle exploration of character, theme and atmosphere. It’s an adventure novel disguised as fictitious reportage. It’s falsely autobiographical, it’s heart-breaking by accident and it managed to worm its way into my psyche.

Soseki wrote it for a fan, based on a scattered retelling of a juvenile anecdote. But he simply couldn’t help but live up to his own standards.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Soseki’s work. Uneven novels like I Am a Cat and unmemorable ones like the Wayfarer are balanced out by amazing experiences like Kokoro and masterful evocations like Three-Cornered World. Sometimes, I’ll reread a passage from a sloppier work and realize my initial reaction was too harsh. You get the sense that Soseki never knew what he was writing about, never really had more than a vague plan. But at other times, he writes with the assured confidence of a literary genius. Too much is made of his experience in London I think. It is treated like a defining moment in his career. Soseki is credited largely with bringing together Eastern and Western literature, but I would argue that Toson did a fine job of it as well. And Lafcadio Hearn understood better than either of those writers the extent and impact of culture clash. Whereas Abe was more readable and experimental, Soseki’s experimentation is always praised, and his mundane repetitions are hardly ever criticized. He wrote from the heart though, and his heart was not always sincere. His characters are always himself, even when they are in the form of a cat, and they are extremely easy to identify with. His women characters are not the best, but his novels are a criticism of his own traditional trappings even as he puts on Western clothes. He explored the mindset of an artist with a hasty, desperate thoroughness. He never had a chance in London – that much is clear from his reportage, and I think he largely wasted his time there. Writers like Nagai Kafu wrote about experiences abroad too, and I believe, brought back more objective observations.

Though it is clear Soseki used a lot of the experience to focus his own responsibility as a spokesperson of the Japanese Everyman, the Miner is an unassuming novel. Like something he wrote against his will. Like a kid’s homework assignment that the student writes with gritted teeth and many resentful tears but the teacher ends up framing. The Miner might be my favorite Soseki novel, though it’s impossible to pin down what makes each novel so good and memorable. One day I side with Botchan, and on other days I remember Ten Nights’ Dreams more fondly. The plots of The Gate, The Wayfarer, And Then, and Sanshiro can blend together, like segments of a single narrative, but The Miner certainly stands apart. It takes place mainly in darkness, mostly within the psyche. In many ways, it reminded me of Kobo Abe’s Ark Sakura. Soseki can be incredibly prolix (as in Light and Darkness) but one of his great strengths is his seemingly accidental insights into people during periods of subtle psychological strains, and just putting that on the page can make for a compelling narrative. It doesn’t have to be something colorful. It’s completely monochrome actually, but it contains a quiet mystery I will never forget.

Haruki Murakami’s personal thoughts are laid out in the Introduction of the 2015 translation. In many respects I agree that this novel changed how I regarded Soseki. It may be difficult to rate his works above Tanizaki’s or Toson’s but I can’t deny that the consistency of his writing and the Everyman narratives give his books a timeless charm.

Review of 2666 (2666 #1-5) by Roberto Bolaño

ISBN 0312429215 (ISBN13: 9780312429218)

Read on a cruise ship. And I remember very little else about the cruise itself. This was eight years ago, but the book stands out in my mind, murky but stamped among the convolutions of my hippocampus.

This book reaffirmed why I love reading. It is a book of literary mysteries. First, the structure of 5 intertwined novels, its unfinished nature and the unexplained title lend to its mystique, and combine to baffle as they entertain. Beyond all this intrigue and amid the sinusoid life of its obliquely likable author, the book reads like a dream, one with shades of nightmare and joy. A slow-paced thrill, a force of heated literary dopamine to be swallowed in a few sittings with a slavering mind, but lingered over in remembrance. There is a 2666-shaped lump of putty in my chest to this day.

The heart of the book lies in a complex network of murder and obsession. It is a celebration of expression and devotion. Any interpretation is inevitably flawed because any answers it offers do not quite congeal around the unknowns. You have the naive but determined linguists, on the chase for their Pynchonian prey, reporters and detectives, and a jaunt across continents, to keep your blood pumping. If Bolaño never would have written this masterpiece he would still be pretty high up there in my author pantheon. I raced through his oeuvre and revisit the smaller novels and story collections from time to time. He shares a shelf with Antunes and Cortazar. To read Bolaño is to feel him in your presence. But because this book exists, any distaste that might have lingered in my mind relating to The Savage Detectives or his strange and unappealing poetry, has evaporated. I glimpsed the hidden depths. I caught sight of the monster he spent the latter part of his life chasing. Subtly, Bolaño’s opus explores the possibility of mastering the art of the novel. In the end, my appreciation of his value as a writer only grows the more I delve into and reread his work. I do not dissect his stories or critique his novels, I simply keep reading them for pleasure.

From the crystalline first pages to the bittersweet final chapter there is enough plot and character in the book to satisfy any reader. Whether you go for pulp or poetry, contemporary or classics, 2666 fits between the interstices of genre, unwieldy but unignorable.

In a brilliant cascade of stylistic techniques, 2666 delivers near-constant engagement with fictional precedents, bearing up against comparisons with Don Quixote, 100 Years of Solitude, Hopscotch, and any other of those hefty tomes spawned in the cultural Euro-Latin collision built into the music of the Spanish language. I do not think it is possible to remain unmoved by the end of this book. It is scattered, deviating into labyrinths of love and hate, but consistently interesting, harrowing, surprising and alive. It breathes as you clutch it in your hands, and blinks back at you as you stare in wonder.

Like its competitors, Underworld, The Tunnel, The Recognitions, and Gravity’s Rainbow, 2666 is another concrete-dense pleasure-dome, decreeing freedom from mediocrity. It is a building block of imaginative ore to be sequestered for the construction of the cosmological shelf of human artifacts, a stone in the pillar of our civilization.

Review of The Royal Family by William T. Vollmann

ISBN 014100200X (ISBN13: 9780141002002)

Swept away by the alternately sensuous and utilitarian prose, the incredible diversity of emotions I encountered while reading this book defied strict categorization and boggled my mind. 

It felt like my brain had tipped sideways and any trite notions of innocence I might have held in reserve in the untouched corners came tumbling out.

Through the course of these 780 closely packed pages we are made to witness strange intimacies and acts which at first seem unnatural, but upon closer inspection, reveal incredible human depth. The Royal Family is a portrayal of flawed loves, damaged souls, and transgression as a form of mourning. The medication of human contact is everywhere in evidence, as is the deep-seated need for love, which we bear like a curse – the “mark of Cain”. Dan Smooth’s religious dogma and hypocritical proclivities are among the most disturbing aspects of this very incendiary text. For instance, the parody of scriptural language most evident in chapter 476. One aspect of Vollmann’s trickery, aplomb, dexterity and blasé scribblings are that they are preternaturally sublime.

If the many quotes from scripture do not distract, along with the inclusion of Buddhist and Gnostic texts, the Book of Mormon, Zoroastrianism and other sects, flit through the pages with varying degrees of appreciation and misappropriation. The direct blasphemies are another form of psychological distress manifested throughout. The pleasure of self-destruction infuses the book with a dark, heady intoxication. In the end it proves to be a genuinely moving, massively detailed epic of limited scope that penetrates deeply into a closely related set of realistic characters. Clearly an outrageous masterpiece orchestrated for the precious few brave enough to drown in its effluence.

The vast majority of its action is contained in the Tenderloin district like an eternally boiling pot of cast-off unsavories. Through realistic dialogue, and an unbelievable variety and richness of slang, Vollmann’s journalistic investigation of broken lives and lives glued together with Elmer’s is by turns touching and memorable. Perhaps we all know at least one person who took a turn that led them down into dark days, someone cracked or cracking up, or virulent with amoral or physical diseases, or who somehow, in their wandering, began to resemble what we would normally dub “inhuman.” But in their wretchedness, they are often far more human than their soft-cheeked, pale, freshly laundered counterparts in their air-conditioned ranch style homes. The concept of disease in all of its forms infiltrates each layer of the district described until our notion of disease is turned on its head. Humanness is not an easily defined term. But it is easily defied, constantly on the stand, and the jury is out for most of our existence. Desperation and dependence are the bricks and mortar of these lives, as they cascade from one high to the next, skirting the law, hiking the skirt, and drawing down one John after another into the whirlpool of vice, where they might have belonged, if circumstances had been different, or their pleasure prolonged…

It takes place in the off hours, in a cacophony of haggard voices on which the city feeds. Vollmann takes his subject very seriously, as seriously as his other historical contexts in the Seven Dreams series. This is the fruit of research, not some quirky self-indulgent fantasy ego-trip. This is a magnificent display of the condensation of life. But it could very easily be labeled by some as obscene, and relishes the contradictory definitions of obscenity. Is there any way to separate the obscene from literature, and does doing so protect or harm our sensibilities? History might have settled these questions for the time being. But in the book’s defense, its intentions may not be as complex as its execution.

The tiniest details emerge as telling character facets. This is a character-driven novel, slow-moving and methodical in its unflinching examinations of the minutest qualities of human beings. Does this book’s impetus and execution stem from a fascination with transgressive individuals or an obsession with perceived injustice? Vollmann was very familiar with the real-life people on which these characters were based. He interviewed them. But how much deeper did his involvement go? How did he get some of this insight? How much is simply made-up or extrapolated scene by scene into the deep ravines of dark, unaerated rooms? As far as the interpretation of firsthand accounts go, the verisimilitude on display is astounding.

Adultery, and the art of bringing off the tacit affair is a tired trope, but Vollmann gives it life so it may function as a backdrop to his main character’s motivations. But of course, the possibility of idealized love goads our anti-hero forward. His selfish desires propel him into the heart of the district and leads him to become an adopted member of this “family.” But underlying his indulgence is a concern for the other players. The repetitive street life, and the bar-room anecdotes are his antidote, his coping mechanisms.

The novel functions through strong character development: Tyler, the Queen, Domino, Dan Smooth, Irene, Chocolate and others. Grief, aimlessness, self-abasement, the saturation of the body and the mind with need, want, love, psychological torment, the people sitting around in a bar talking, are all seminal (pun intended) glue reinforcing the moral ambiguities and lovely, simply lovely immersion the novel affords. It epitomizes the sought-after emptiness, the eager, underachieving human soul, grafted onto chaos, spurned by our own, fallen, and continually falling into the state of spiritual death.

The transgression becomes so familiar you will become inured. Not one single line of the book might be expected to cause arousal, rather, the language is designed to suggest poetic forms, to coalesce into abstract wonders of dream sensations, resulting in a miasmic seething, and you are forced to wallow in a dense accumulation of disgust until Stockholm syndrome sets in – we are captives of our own fascination. Shrouded in a fogged hyperawareness, innocence is lost, desensitization is incurred, and anhedonia blossoms. But with it comes a slew of other emotions, the depression, the isolation, the cool slide into ghostliness. And the fact that aging is sort of an embarrassing, humiliating descent into uselessness and dependence and death.

It juxtaposes the sacred and profane and on at least one occasion directly equates prostitutes to saints and specific religious personas to prostitutes, weighing moral standpoints and building a case. Vollmann’s sympathies are clear straight off the bat.


Perhaps every city is diseased, and feeds on its own desires. In “obsidian darkness” families are born. The Tenderloin morphs into a surreal landscape, at times nightmarish, but beautiful in its rich perversity, luscious, hollow skyscraper cliffs hem the reader in, dripping seedy joints crowd the well-trodden streets, and sagging shadow people haunt passersby at the mouths of abyssal alleyways, against the car horn white noise and screeching cats, one can almost hear the underground seething potential energy, the sizzling beneath the grungy pavements, the potential for corruption about to burst forth and flood the leaning high-rises, which will come toppling down in a rush of bank notes and bathwater, mingling into the gutter-moat leading into that vast uncharted territory called “Otherness.”

The troubles of Cain, the life led by a modern Cain, an essay on authority and power, how “many follow one,” the concept of secular divinity in the titular Royal Family of the book, the meaning of non-blood relations’ inherently familial bonds, and how families are forged in hardship and love all occupy the central force of the novel. Many brilliant scenes make use of the same patterns of sudden, impulsive delights wrought into sad, withering despair, with a recurrent tone of heartbreaking loss, sadness and oppression hanging over it all.

The rich imagery and the character studies in the midst of life’s tragedies feed into the plot of a tired detective, seeking after the lost loves that lives on in his fantasy-world, while he further retreats into the heart of his own troubles. The humor, pathos, atmosphere, lyricism, and historical details are all on point. Vollmann is an overachiever. The language of nostalgia pervades the whole. The skittering wreckage of damaged lives are too alluring – you can’t look away. The beating pulse of city life, its ways and means and blood and marrow definitely echoes with his other illuminating novel, Butterfly Stories. I am as yet a Vollmann neophyte, but know I will traverse the rest of his oeuvre.

Abuse, deformity, pedophilia, the transgressive essence of erotic literacy, wrought out with demented surrealism, rife with innovation and condemnation, the animal in man, and the mental inertia, all point toward the sadness inherent in any examination of collective humanity. Everyone is unfaithful to something or someone. Even if only themselves.

The prolix familial squabbles add another layer of captivating cohesion, as do the casual drug deals, the professional jargon, the shifts in stresses and pleasures, the motif of royalty as a perceived allocation, the moments of twisted spirituality, the balm of charity, how kindness can relieve briefly the day-by-day despair of powerlessness. These are the domains Vollmann weaves together. Figurative language is used to communicate understated emotion. Everywhere, he is always improvising, concocting significance out of the insignificant. Life happens in the interstices, and his characters inhabit the interstices of society. Obsolescence weighs them down. Life passes by like an impressionistic blur, while the dreams the characters hold dear display photographic vividness. Shamanistic influences pervade the text, but the sources are often mysterious.

Tyler’s brooding, his surrogate love objects, his incapacitation, all lead to the conclusion that his love is his disease. Addiction is a powerful force in society, and it comes in myriad forms. But this book also touches on the justice and injustice of the System, and how people make use of harmful antisocial delusions, and get caught up in obsession, until Vollmann’s consistent moral calculus slowly clarifies and justifies the excessive inclusions, the twisted worldview of the brutally honest novel.

We all belong to mythological families, whether online or in person. We join “clubs,” which, broadly defined, are social groups, and cultivate an image for the benefit of ourselves and anyone in our circles. Sources of love and its purpose are sometimes unknown, but TRF posits many interesting theories about how such a culture of prostitution could survive.

Vollmann also inserts a dramatization of the pluses and minuses of the commercialization of sex – the oldest profession. How it is combined with corporate greed is not the most compelling statement of the novel, but it does lend a Hollywood-esque component, an inflation of grandiosity.

The marital strife, hypocrisy, octopus-minded overanalysis, the Narcisissm and social performance, the spirit of exploitation, all converge in Brady’s pet business, which is just the commodification of women. Loneliness, the power of money and memory, and the uncomforted dispossessed occupy most of the novel’s run-time. There is not as much instant gratification as you might expect, but it is ever-present in the characters’ psyches. When stated so bluntly, the almost mythic proportions of stereotypical male erotic fantasies are slightly hilarious.

In summary, Vollman doesn’t coddle you. He sticks you with the hypo of his intellectual daring. If you can pry your fingers from the covers by the end and pull yourself out of the vortex of his creation you will feel a heavy nuance of appreciation for his accomplishment forevermore.

Review of Unbabbling by REYoung

ISBN 156478164X (ISBN13: 9781564781642)

This Dalkey Archive discovery is deceptive in its approach but memorable in the extreme.

The prose is packed with slapstick, imagery and song, an equal ratio of panic and satire, passion and heartache, while it bubbles over with bombast, belligerence and, after acclimatization, brilliance. Truth be told, it took about a hundred pages to convince me, but after that I became a REYoung reader for the foreseeable future. Now out to purchase the other books, before they disappear…

What is an Unbabbling? After finishing the novel, I can only guess: an unrivaled unraveling, a midsummer night’s Babel. Like one of the narrators, I drank long and deep, but from the book’s intoxicating style. The plot is marked by simplicity, but it is also rich with experience. The value lies in the language, the luscious, exuberant, frolicsome wordplay, and the lucid undercurrent of anger, terror and hedonism.

The first part’s forward-slashing prose deluges verge on delusional, while REYoung introduces the reader to a hoarse, slavering, wage-slave schmooze, a deadbeat, a deadened, heartless Bukowskian complainer, whose days and nights blur like a grainy tape on fast forward, until the sick joy of haggard reminiscence instills a palpable dread. The pages drip with ecstatic sweaty spasms of laboring paragraphs, wherein images swarm like the cross-section of a beehive.

The impact of real life can often be moving, and the horrid prospect of merely living is disturbing when described in the gritty, greasy manner here employed. Our main character reaches for the bottle, murders a part of himself every night when he comes home, gets back up in the morning, and that weight gets heavier and heavier all the time. A Sisyphean accumulation. I, for one, sympathized with the amassing burden experience imparts.

The unhinged descriptions continue in part 2, as the context shifts. The unremitting anger is reminiscent of Ellison’s underground man – a scenario which occurs in Part 3 to full Dostoyevskian effect. Here, cynicism, is a form of wisdom. Interior monologues merge with dialogues – yet which pieces are pretend, which manifestations are real versus imagined? The monster of self-loathing morphs into a universal loathing, but it is somehow crystalline, even amid the frazzled, frenetic, hectic burping prose avalanches, which gurgle forth in volcanic bursts. It is perhaps because of the marvels of compression the author pulls off, that his hypnotic storytelling takes on such depths.

In Unbabbling, REYoung tunnels straight through the heart of America, down into its rotting belly, excavating the fear and disgust which has piled up for centuries like the bedrock holding up the guv’na’s house.

Review of Sea Above, Sun Below by George Salis

Sea Above, Sun Below by George Salis is a rich and masterful novel. While reading it, from the beginning to end, I never doubted I would rate it five stars. It is a balanced reading experience, told from differing perspectives, chockablock with symbolism and allusion and wordplay.

The descriptions of people, the universe and abstract concepts, are always lyrical and moving. The characters, though isolated in their narrative spheres from other characters, all relate in symbolic ways, interacting like entangled particles.

This is a tale about skydiving, and the brave divers through the sky, and the diverse revelations they encounter, on land and in the arms of God, up in the air, floating like angels, hovering above the ball and chain of their earth, which to some is an Eden, and to others, an egg, flush with history, pregnant with myth.

It is also about childhood, and escape, tragedy and the infinite potential of the future, told in convincing voices, with heart and love and joy. I was enchanted by the realistic characters, the effortless flow of the evocative language, the precise word choice, effective dialogue and seamless storytelling. The novel works on muliple levels at once, guiding the reader through layers of meaning. It does not engage in hand-holding, nor is it like wandering a lanyrinth. Reading it is like falling, which is a metaphor the novel makes ample use of, falling into a magical realm. The picture widens as you proceed, and the sky behind you is full of Halley’s comets, decaying gods, and past memories discarded like ballast.

This is a truly great novel that does not rely on literary crutches. It shirks influences and finds a style all its own. If you write, you will likely be envious of his accomplishment. If you had handed me this book and said it was a lost novel by an early J. G. Ballard I would have told you Ballard didn’t write this well. I’m being serious.

There are many brilliant moments of interstitial congruency. Like the following quote:

“With the advancement of technology, he knew the future, however distant, would reveal the reality of alchemy.”

Sea Above, Sun Below is literary alchemy.
I encourage you to savour the complex fascinations to be found in this expertly crafted book. I hope the author continues to pursue his creative ideals. A magnificent novel.

Review of Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier

ISBN 038554572X (ISBN13: 9780385545723)

I devoured this scrumptious coming-of-age novel in two sittings. 

On the level of voice, character development, and humor it struck all the right chords. It’s Catcher in the Rye with a female lead, more modern, more swear words, and just more adult. Easily a cult classic, it was one of the most memorable and enjoyable books I read all year.

I will gladly read anything else the author puts out. For a first novel, it sizzles. It never stumbles, falters or cowers. From the gorgeous cover to the immersive rhythm, the pages flew by. Who doesn’t love a saucy narrator? Taking the first person internal monologue to new heights, JKF lathers each chapter with alluring, intimate details, enough to overwhelm anyone’s emotional arteries. The novel explores love, in all of its myriad forms, friendship, commitment, lassitude, drudgery, modern ennui, and the angst that has become inescapable in our culture.

A thrilling, bold, timeless literary statement, not a junk food entertainment.

Review of The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe

ISBN 0679733787 (ISBN13: 9780679733782)

One of my favorite books of all time. One of the best film adaptations of a book as well, done by Hiroshi Teshigahara in collaboration with Abe. Both are equally mesmeric.

Kobo Abe’s well-honed, surreal worlds became etched permanently in my mind, and this novel more than his others. Even after reading some of his less intense, and less masterful novels, I still retained a deep appreciation for his bizarre aesthetic. You will discover a similar texture and attitude as in Poe or Baudelaire. Though he is not often discussed in the same circles as Kenzaburo Oe or Haruki Murakami, his influence has become far-reaching, and is more singular in its approach.

This is Abe’s finest work, in my opinion, far-surpassing Box-Man, Ruined Map, Ark Sakura and Kangaroo Notebook. However, almost everything he wrote affected me in one way or another. This could have been because I read most of his oeuvre in college, impressionable as I was.

It wasn’t until I also read Quicksand, by Tanizaki, that I realized that both novels were about on the same level in my mind. Tanizaki’s masterpiece, less about sand, and more about love, felt like a parry to Abe’s, even though Abe’s came later. Both are existential. Abe’s is more mythic, and Tanizaki’s more grounded. I was socked in the gut by both. There is an essence of self-sabotage to the characters’ psyches and an inescapable passion consumes them, leading inevitably toward a void. I was enraptured by Abe first, and will likely return to this novel far more often.

Entomology exists on the fringes of Woman in the Dunes, as it does in Ark Sakura. Insects crawl through the novels, but they also make for a nice comparison to the main characters, who are trapped in an environment, where their humanity wears away, kept in a terrarium of sorts, and we, the readers, are studying them, fascinated. The film captures the voyeuristic quality of the narration incredibly well.

The shifting psychological portraits that Abe presents to us, are reminiscent of his experimental plays. I believe he was concerned with the human being as an object among disorienting constraints. As in Box Man, the most intriguing aspects of the plot arise from the juxtaposition of humanity with the absurdity of their own weakness, their limitations define them, and allow them to discover hidden potentialities, often as disturbing as they are enlightening. He explores humanity’s survival instinct in Beasts Head for Home, and much of the same sentiment can be found here.

As dark and brooding as Kafka, but pure, simple, yet beguilingly complex, this novel rewards those who seek to dwell in the liminal spaces between reality and dream. The burden of understanding ourselves is an illustration of perpetual motion. Humanity’s protean heart is contained in us all, vaguely buried beneath layers of propriety, comfort and self-denial. If all the world were sand, if it was all we knew, how would our minds conform to the contours of our flat horizon? Would the solitary figures of other minds, blasted smooth and coppery, sink into our anima?

Enmesh yourself in this softly distressing masterpiece.

Review of If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

Intrigued by the title, one day I opened this book, didn’t get it, put it back, saw it again years later, did the same thing, stumbled upon it again years later with a sense of déjà vu, read no more than a few pages. 

For some reason, it seemed as impenetrable as Hegel. But the title was stuck in my head like a pop song. That unfinished sentence bothered me, yet I would not play into the gimmick and read it just to find out what the fragment meant. I determined to put it off forever. This was before I realized Calvino had written Cosmicomics. Another title I adored by accident, fancied the title again, stumbled upon it years later, but I still resisted his quirky cheekiness. Almost broke down and read this one then. But didn’t.

A decade passed, I was sitting in a rental car office. It would be a few hours. There was a bookstore down the street. I walked there, found this book within thirty seconds on the shelf for 2$, purchased it. Read it within 3 hours like a person possessed. Part of that time I was sitting in the rental car. Inhaling the ineptly concealed lingering scent of tobacco smoke. Reclining in the vaguely stained cloth seat. I felt like a slice of toast left in the toaster for three weeks. Somehow drove home, stumbled inside. I couldn’t shake the surreal, otherworldly daze with which I was plagued.

Calvino, sitting in a room, typing the segments separately, shuffling papers, retyping, rearranging. Writing a novel like this should not result in a readable conglomeration. But it does. Crafting, playing games with the reader, goofing off. That was my first impression. But I kept coming back to it. Flipping it open, mulling over the elegant, irreverent quirkiness. I sympathized with the character’s search for a haunting book. Its atmosphere of heady grief infected me. It was the principal of the thing. The search for a title was the search for a book, which became more books. Doesn’t the author’s duty include closure, explanation, justification? Can an author really just write whatever they want, without regard to the reader’s puny intellect? Unless I approach it as a study, a departure, an experiment. I wasn’t used to thinking this way back then. Each book within the book was composed of sections of dissimilar books, but when put together you had the story of a book, of an adventure in textual manipulation, and a novelistic tongue-twister. It was as precise as the Golden Ratio. I had been manipulated, tricked. Calvino had planted a seed of carnivalesque whirlpools in my mind, thoughts invoking memories, spiraling into a labyrinth. It is eerily geometric, and reading the partial interludes is like dividing segments of a ruler in half, until you reach the Planck scale and your phantom ruler phases out of existence. You never reach the conclusion, but you enter into each layer Inception-wise, with the hope and joy of discovering a book, its world, its philosophy, which is normally gift-wrapped between two covers. Calvino offers up a Chinese finger-trap, where on the inside of the trap you feel other, tiny, stroking fingers. At least, I felt trapped by If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler… A traveler you become, and like his knights and cities, this novel reveals hidden isles, provokes the unlikely kinds of thoughts you only encounter in fleeting corridors of strained meditation, pathological tightrope walking between the abysses of insanity and genius.

Calvino proves that traditional structure is only a limitation. Beginning, middle and end are repellent concepts, false securities. He channels Borges, who was afraid to write a novel, because of the can of worms such bold experiment unleashes. To find out if you are a Calvino fan peel back the pages and slowly wrap your head around his whimsical conceptual design, if you can, if you have enough wrapping, and if you find yourself lacking, try his meteoric Comics, his stellar stories. He is dungeon master, professor, and explorer of lost dimensions. This book is a floating waterfall. A spectacle, a bottomless well, a specter and a…

Review of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

ISBN: 0316921173 (ISBN13: 9780316921176)

Infinite Jest – the kind of book that, when it is mentioned, creates a hushed silence of mingled awe and fear in the room. 

A brick of a tome of a journey of a boy and his harried growth in spurts of tennis-fueled tragedy. An obsessive, compulsively readable, unreadable contradiction. A hyperbolic time chamber of thrilling literary filibusters. Read it, sink into the groove of D. F. Wallace’s intricately patterned brain. The most addictive textbook you will ever encounter, and a world unto itself. Slide into conundrums of gorgeous prose, wander insensate through grungy halls of psychological torment. Love and hate it, and be healed.

Truly, Wallace performs heroic feats of coddling, pampering our desensitized temperaments, spoon-feeding our barely discernible IQs with his intellectual manna. A challenging, riotous, quietly menacing book, this is, and haunted as I am by its immense fortitude and undying spirit, I crack open the covers again and again, because no semblance of life, scrawled on paper, nudging aside other swan songs, has ever etched its penumbra on my psyche so deeply. What is the cherished meaning at its heart? What does it say, with a voice so loud, that our blasted ears frequently must mishear?

Discoveries abound within the wall-to-wall text prison of this book, hemming you in like the dripping bathroom stall. A search for sanity always starts beneath layers of hypocrisy, doubt and denial. It is a carnival of tortured souls inside a kaleidoscope of condensed American dreams. Are we, in fact, peering inside the unquestionably troubled author’s mentality, perceiving untrammeled vistas of psychological sewage, or is the vision skewed by infinite strata of posture, mimesis, synecdoche, and [insert 438 literary devices here]?

It is the hopeless descent into oblivion of a perpetual motion automaton, excavating the amorphous entertainments, unhallowed relationships, and self-deceptions which proliferate in every id.

The desiderata of our questing bodies, unmoored from familial bulwarks, magnetize us toward the nightmares we dread. Jest with me, you hideous Gargantua, infect me with your awful questions, delve out with speculative pick my slumbering and half-hidden dementia. Keep on commenting on the commentary of the narrative of the dream of the tennis match, which is simply a symbol, a corrupt government, an impotent conspiracy of avant-garde slackers, and a recursive, molten war memorial against the interior civil unrest we were all born with.

Read it, form an opinion, and if it still calls you, read it again, because it is worth your time, your patience and your money. For me, it is one of the endpoints of literature. For, what more do you need?

Review of Antkind by Charlie Kaufman

ISBN: 0399589686 (ISBN13: 9780399589683)

A literary apocalypse of compulsive cinematic ungendering.

More Kafkaesque than Kafka. More borgesian than Borges. Less Shakespearean than Homer. These accolades mean everything and nothing. Because accolades, in any form, tell partial half-truths, like any communicable piece of information, as Kaufman shows us ad nauseam, in this Rabelaisian charade of a novel of a singularity, of a Big Bang, of a black hole. Or is it a white hole?

Hilariously obscure references and arcane film and literature shaggy dog jokes were a few of the defining moments. Let me clarify: This is about the hollywoodization of real life. It is about externalizing the internal. The fetishization of film. Bringing filmic techniques into fiction, then bringing mental puzzles into fiction and merging the two. Atemporality, non linear time. Non linear narrative. It is about chronology and human relationships to time and other humans. Each human has their own point of access and mental timeline. The possibility of living in a film. Or never escaping it. The possibility that life is film and film is life, and vice versa. Visa versa.

It is a novel about film. Obviously.
The plight of the unseen. Also obvious. The unfilmed actors, not the extras. The ones who weren’t in the film. Those are the people who people this novel.

Literal manifestations of psychological aberrations and metaphorical concepts. The nature of genius, the excuses of the brilliant. The selfish pursuit of art. Gender, class, race. The macrocosm within the microcosm within the macrocosm. Hazy definitions of reality, blurring those edges, and crossing the line so many times the line takes on new dimensions.

An exploration of Outsider art, which is a pet obsession of many artists. The Darger-esque character, Ingo, is fascinating, even though characters in this novel are all reflected through the narrator’s lens. Rosenberger, the narrator, as separate from the character, Charlie Kaufman, who is also in the book, as a lampooned filmmaker, who made the exact films the real Kaufman made.

This book is Hyper-metafictional, as any Kaufman fan probably expected. Similar in spirit to Synecdoche, New York. But more far-reaching, dense, and neurotic than any other book I’ve read. It’s narrator shares many similarities with that in Adam Levin’s Bubblegum, but Kaufman’s fictitious persona is more readable and not simultaneously. He embodies countless dichotomies.
What allows me to control my annoyance at the constant backtracking, second-guessing, triple-guessing, and justification, qualification and inquisitive mania of Rosenberger is an appreciation for the style of excess, and a high tolerance for meta-fictional bullshit. It’s taken to an art form and then it’s overanalyzed on the page. Which is all fine, once you see how he does it.

The ideal love illusion. How characters constantly fall in love at the drop of a hat. This is a plot device in Rosenberg’s own life. Non binary double binds – there are so many of them that it goes far past political correctness into obnoxious self-reference. The sad lonely inevitability of aging, the so-described irreducible tragedy of old age and attendant biases. The symphonic loneliness and depression of Rosenberg is both poetic and infinitely self-inflicted. The recursive propagation of further complexities, the consistent appearance of competitors, the dramatic and cinematic tropes of rivalries, foils, and predictable outcomes. Character non-development. Rebels and conformists. The evolution of cinema. The evolution of inclusivity. Fascinating sub cultures which respond to social injustice and become cults. (These were extremely interesting, but will get on some peoples’ nerves, I expect – but if you have any functioning nerves left after finishing this book, they will be frayed.) The social justice inquisition. That is also what this book is about. The crusade of artistic abasement. Clandestine and overt pandering, pondering, wandering, intellectual masturbation, onanistic romance, infatuation both with art and unattainable true molecule-to-molecule contact. Social contracts, pet peeves, insurmountable personal obstacles.
Rosenberg succumbs to the same biases he abhors. The abhorrence of bias are everywhere, the inevitability of bias is omnipresent, the infinitude of biases… the differences between cultures around the world and their various standards. The all-encompassing impossibility of an inclusive America. Of course, it’s about that too.

The ethnic and economic injustice inherent in our culture. Exploring derangement and infinite regress. Social politics. The end and means and the never-ending, always mean suffering of any possible minority.

The only way it could be more meta would be if they made a film of the novel and then novelization of the film and then a film of the novelization and so on and so on, which Kaufman includes as a possibility, of course. This book contains its own macrocosmic universe, as I said. The whole universe can be extrapolated from its first few pages. The skeleton housing the set-pieces are all expertly in place from Kaufman’s inconspicuous method. With enough suspension of disbelief you can get away with just about anything. Keep increasing that suspension. Dangle unbelievable things in front of the reader long enough, and in the right way, and it’s almost brainwashing.

A dream within a dream under hypnosis inside a remembered film that could be a figment of his imagination. Are you bothered by dream sequences? Well, there are a lot of them.

Pointing out continuity errors in a film can be fun, Rosenberg does this but with his real life, and there are so many continuity errors that the director must have put them there on purpose. He knows this. He knows he is a fictional character. And it shows.

The function of memory. How many functions does it actually have? The function of false memories. The fallacy of memory authenticity. The curse of eidetic memory. The possibility of Total Recall. And not just the remake. The concept. Buried memories, Freud, Jung and the sub sub sub sub sub sub “et chetera” conscious and conscience and nescience and the aesthetics of neuroscience, neuroses, and the art of forgetting.

There are built-in excuses for anything which might be considered a flaw in this novel. Everything I could say about it could easily be refuted by a super-defensive ultra-qualified Inner Kaufman. It creates recursive intentionality. Everything is intentional because it can be explained within context, no matter how insanely absurd it is. Every. Word.


Escapism. The novel functions within its constraints and without them. The novel escapes. The characters are escaping, and so is the reader. They merge and then propagate downwardly.

The Deterioration of Reality. Capitalized. That is a big theme. Maybe The Theme.

Every film technique Kaufman ever used, he uses again in this book. He invents new ones. He even invents many film ideas he may or may not make.
All of Kaufman’s films are contained in this book in one form or another.

I read the screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for film class. At least that had human limitations. The limitations of this novel are almost superhuman. A proper analysis would requires theses. The thesis is contained in the novel, though. So no one will write it, except maybe Kaufman at a later date. And he will do so in the form of a film. Probably.

No one could have written this book except Charlie Kaufman. If I were given it without the author revealed I think I would’ve guessed even before the self references occurred.

This book has the capacity to take the pleasure out of reading.

Like, have a cup of tea. Settle down man. Super analysis of the environment is a rabbit hole we don’t need to always follow down. It’s rabbit holes all the way down to the edge of the universe. There are always more sub-atomic particles. I’m sorry. Our puny lifetimes are too short to maintain the hope that we can learn everything there is to know.

Polymathic. Maybe. Monomaniacal. Definitely. Maximalist. In extremis. Pynchonian. Sure. DFW-esque. Obviously.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind within eternal sunshine of the spotless mind etc. He constantly lampoons his own films. Which was appreciated. Eternal darkness of the clouded psyche.
Excess in a void. He lampoons other films too, which will be great for film buffs. You probably won’t get much enjoyment out of the book if you aren’t to some extent a film buff. Or at least film conversant. If not buff then built, or chiseled or comfortable with your self-image, I guess.

Obsessive compulsive disorder combined with molecular Legos in a sandbox of infinite dimensions. That’s Kaufman.
The book appeals to ocd if you have it and you likely won’t be physically able to stop reading because you will need to see what happens. But isn’t any good book putting you in the same boat?

The hilarious digs at Nolan and Inception. Well done.

Time reversal. Time extension, dissension, dissection, and general clowning. The literal clowns. Are they supposed to be symbolic? Everything is symbolic. That’s the first assumption you should have made. Time malleability, the marketability of memories, the market value of genius. The perception of genius. The mind-f– shenanigans are unconscionable as they pile up. And they keep going on long after you want them to stop. Kaufman is that kid in the back of the interminable car ride signing 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall, and he always starts over when he gets to zero and he has perfect pitch and tremolo and a megaphone, and you are too polite or considerate to ask him to stop, not that he would listen anyway.

I am disillusioned or heavily influenced or intoxicated. Yes there is a toxic quality to his brand of semantic overload. Over capacity synaptic sputtering. Shock treatment for your humor glands. Over medication, the book rewards binge reading and rereading and memorization. It is a perpetual positive feedback loop. A negative one as well. A heady doctoral thesis on human madness, on mad humanness. It contains our multitudes and eludes your grasp, it hinges on fringes of acceptability and outrage. It is prescient and analog. It is insensate and utterly nonsensical. It is uberdescript.

This book ruined Kaufman movies for me. At least until I recover a little of my sanity. The inevitability that art will always surpass itself. If it does not surpass its predecessors, is it real art? Is this a 720-page ruler by which all metafictional novels must be measured? Is it a ruler by which Kaufman is measuring his intellectual qualifications? Or is it a simple artistic experiment?

I think it’s more accurate to say that this is the absolute or near absolute expression of the genre, that the human heart, spirit, and mind can only tolerate so much meta before it projectile vomits miniature selves projectile vomiting miniature selves. See Kaufman, anyone can write weird metafiction. I just did. Metafiction for Kaufman may be a form of medication and he is most certainly addicted to it.

Fiction bleeding into reality in every conceivable way. This happens all the time in movies. It happens here too. A lot. I caught the subliminal Philip k. Dick reference. He put it in the book for me. I just know he did. As I am a PKD fan. He also put other things about paranoia in the book for me too. Because I have thought those things previously, and now I’m reading them in a book. I think.
I’ll leave it to you to find the reference. The constant contradictions between Rosenberg’s memories and factual accounts and reality. This is another Dickian trait. I’m assuming Kaufman read Dick, instead of just watching Blade Runner, like most people.

Philosophical conceptions of comedy and human dimensions of history. It’s nice that he decided to include those too. What didn’t he include? Humility? Humbleness. No that’s in there alright. I can’t think of anything actually. It does contain everything. One of the footnotes contains Infinite Jest. Wait that was a mismemory. All it needs is 800 footnotes to contain Infinite Jest.

Harlan Ellison or Descartes would say: I have a mouth, therefore I am a scream.
I have a brain, therefore I am a stream of consciousness.
Kaufman you should either be incredibly ashamed of yourself or incredibly proud. I’m not sure which.

Thank you to the publisher who provided an advanced copy through NetGalley.