Review of Lila by Marilynne Robinson

While I admire M. Robinson’s writing ability I found the messages in this book plain as day. 

The ideas and character emotions were well-conveyed but did not require much analysis or interpretation. What I’m trying to say is that cut and dry situations, and some repetitive concepts added up to an unimpressive whole.

I don’t fault the author for using compelling language to explicate worthy themes, but I found almost nothing new in the characters, setting, or circumstances described. Nonetheless, I can see that the down-to-earth protagonist and heartfelt moments in this book appeal to a lot of people out there and I respect that. I may read her other novels in the future to see if they strike me more.

Review of The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1) by Rick Riordan

Nothing beats a good adventure story. 

Whether it’s the adventure of discovery like in Ringworld, the adventure of slaying a dragon in The Hero and The Crown, or a hybrid like Brave Story, you can get into these journeys so long as they are done well. Which is why, though the Percy Jackson series is not particularly deep, I still have fun reading it. It is a “slay the dragon” story that knows exactly how to do this sort of thing.

The first book in this series, The Lighting Thief, does exactly what I would want from the first in an epic adventure. It sets-up the general world and story expectations while introducing us to characters and the plot to come.

Character-wise, the main cast is fine. Percy is a good lead who is a mix of flaws and capabilities. He does fail and is not always right, leaving room for the characters surrounding him to show-off their own strengths. This dynamic of character interaction is where the book is at its best. Though none of the characters are brilliant, they play-off each other well and are amusing to follow. This interplay of personalities is pivotal to the longevity of any series like this and is a clear strength, akin to what Rowling did in her series. The character interplay will be what keeps you reading, even if some of the other aspect of this book rust with age.

The set-up is fun, though the world-building is generic at this point. In this world the gods of the Greek pantheon are still alive and living in the West. Along with them comes the whole of Greek mythology and their predilection to make demi-gods. Percy finds himself thrust into this unknown world but soon finds he fits better here than in the mundane world us mortals live in. Again, nothing special, but the mix of the familiar and foreign is as good as any other example I could think of. It is fun to read each chapter waiting for the mythology to sneak in and subvert our expectations. The details are built up constantly though they are never overwhelming, and for any fan of Greek mythology will seem appropriately crafted within the realm of those myths. Rick Riordan does a good job of using these ideas to the fullest while also (usually) knowing how far to take them.

The writing is aimed at a younger audience. It is never challenging, but flows at a steady pace. The tone is similar to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (even though this came first). Even while dire things are happening, the characters make jokes or sarcastic comments and the interplay of Greek mythology and our world can be tongue-in-cheek. The whole book reads fast and kinetically. If you’re wanting a deep plot story this is not for you.

The over-arching story is also well done. It has the right amount of twists and turns to keep you engaged in the unfolding adventure but never feels like its talking down to you or did not set-up a twist. It foreshadows its sequels well. It does not end on a cliff hanger per-se but definitely hints at how this will end and how epic that ending will be.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lighting Thief was more novel of an idea when it first came out. Now it feels more generic, surrounded by a sea of copy-cats. What makes it last is that the adventure and the character who experiences it are memorable and a blast to read. Any fans of adventure or Greek mythology should give this a try. If you don’t like a semi- constant goofy tone that never takes itself too seriously, stay away. This is Neil Gaiman for a younger audience , but I would argue that most adults can enjoy what it has to offer.

Review of A Spy in the Panopticon by Damian Murphy

I wish I could find the edition pictured on Goodreads. I only had access to the first part: Spy in the Panopticon, which by itself is another stunning work of the imagination from Damian Murphy. 

In this one especially, the seed of an obscure metaphysics seems to be present. There is a suggestive association between the female main character, the enigmatic machine, and the spyhole in her room, all of which adjust and skew reality in some way. By controlling perception, creativity, and the muse, she is first inspired and then pursued by the manifestations of her curious investigations.

There are patterns cropping up in the architectural elements, dreamlike aura, and fear-laden recounting of the main character’s descent into this strange internal extension of her craft. Once again dark sides of human nature are subtly revealed through the interpolation of myths and mirrors which reflect an untrue image.

Review of The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George

I admire the author’s boldness. 

There is a lack of restraint in the freewheeling bizarro-ideas. The stories function without character development, plot twists, or reflection. They are fast-paced, bare-bones cobbled-together surrealist evocations of modern day discontent, obsession and sexual fantasy. Shock and awe, surprise and delight, but plainly stated, divested of emotion, coupled with bland imagery and no sense of setting. Reads more like a dream diary, which is fine, but I hoped for more challenging fare, more relatable humor. Tone it down or expand the premise, adding some flesh-out characters and a pervasive setting to get me invested. But not everything has to go through the motions of posing as a traditional fictional product. At least this defies the mold.

Review of Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

The first thing you’ll notice about this book is the unique design. The black-stained page edges and the reflective hardcover. The high-quality paper. These are the things which lend themselves to a unique reading experience, and that is what it is.

Our Tragic Universe contained most of what I love and hate about literary fiction. A writer main character who talks about writing to everyone around her but does very little of it in her somewhat disorganized life. The attendant guilt she feels. The nagging problem of the unfinished novel that most writers understand too well. The broken relationship with no hope because neither party is trying to make the relationship work in any meaningful way. Constantly resuscitated dreams, no loyalty to principles, selfishness driving the decisions she makes, super high maintenance friends with no regard for normal behavior. She is offered a way out but still clings to pieces of her messy existence. She displays an elegant understanding of the art of fiction, but life plays plenty of tricks on her. It could’ve been a slog, but Thomas manages to avoid most of the easy solutions.

The M. C.’s boyfriend, Christopher, is a deadbeat, a leech, a parasitic, personalityless worm. Another man, Rowan, is a flawed, but idolized ordinary fellow. Her female friends are quirky, garrulous, demanding, spastic enablers. All of them are far more articulate than real people.

She spends her time (which she has an unlimited amount of) pretending to be a fictional character, while her friends imitate Anna Karenina, making tragedies of their puny conflicts. A bit of it is hard to believe, but much of it is charming in an obliquely surprising way. Living out and discussing the plot holes in your own life might be fun, but it begs the question of your own silly behavior and motivation. Meg gets paid egregious amounts for her writing, but seems to do far too much knitting. Her useless boyfriend has strict principles related to environmentalism which increase their cost of living, and he never contributes anything except infantile commentary. She gets paid to write book reviews, which is the most unrealistic part of the book.

The author clearly cobbled the book together from profuse notes on topics she found interesting, from wide reading of nonfiction, selecting concepts and unusual phenomena to dress up her skeletal plot with strange arcana and alchemical mixtures of themes and plotless wandering, wrapping it all in suggestions of cosmic significance.

The book goes for it. Embraces the weirdness. Through subtle atmospheric details a mystique accumulates. Using giant leaps of logic in metaphor and imagery, she subverts expectations and falls into the common traps at the same time. There is much figurative language, a weaving of elaborate notes into digressive internal monologue, tangential discussions with friends, a hyperactive frenzy of ideas, which in the end is simply a sharing of wide-ranging conspiracy theories, chance encounters, instigated coincidence, fate’s niggling, a pervasive powerlessness within the grand scheme of the novel, a discussion of pop culture and its definition of the edges of our consciousness, the boundaries it draws around our behavior. It is a mash-up of a ton of plotlines for potential novels, applying an addictive style reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut. It manages to make derelict characters fascinating in a train wreck sort of way. The perspective is relatable, but it is so focused on New Age pseudo-science, philosophical meandering, and loitering literary references, it might drive some readers mad. Meg’s dopey side quests on every page lose their original flair the more she indulges in them. If you can handle obscure ruminations, the fatalistic viewpoint, and a slew of meaningless moments building into a profound summation of life’s haphazard meaning, it should be fun for you.

The concept of the storyless story, the simplicity of life created versus life lived, trying to be somebody you’re not, stressing about your carbon footprint, how we make excuses to live an empty existence, knitting as a metaphor for writing and life, collages, motifs, mosaicked idea-webs, being content with obscurity, seeking out small adventures, fake memories, the question of whether we should believe in magic, alternate breathing techniques, curses, living forever, carpe diem, the value of dying, savoring momentary happiness, infinity, cowardice, doing things halfway, splendid anecdotes about the publishing industry, artificial relationships, image consciousness, virtual eternity, hipster mystic wisdom, Aristotelian poetics, genre techniques, how disasters are built into the system, inevitable loss as a product of gain, defamiliarizing the ordinary, fairy phenomena, success, failure, mass production, the essence of a person’s soul, living out ideals, the small problems which consume us, the absurd lengths to which we will go to seek help, banish emotion or wallow in it. Self-help exploitation, and a rampant beast of Dartmoor (another instance of metafiction impregnating her reality).

Overall, an entrancing read.

Review of Reality Testing (Sundown, #1) by Grant Price

Reality Testing is a colorful novel, generously long, pumped full of so much creativity that the experience of reading it can only be compared to an overdose of science-fiction brand narcotics. 

Blending a complex web of illusion and reality, with prose that is so tight, sleek, polished, and chromium-plated, it can only belong to a talented writer, giving voice to his vision within the peculiar demands of the cyberpunk realm.

I believe the stylings to be the essence of the book. You will notice the dense imagery right off the bat, with its grungy city atmosphere, and lightning-paced, adrenaline-fueled thriller tones, Reality Testing is a true test of fictional constraints. Getting used to the world-building and futuristic jargon can make for a bit of a learning curve, much like in the work of William Gibson, but the words begin to slot into place over time, filling in the blanks in a vast mosaic of author-trademarked background props. The Blade Runner grit and layering of imprints, tech conglomerates, slum dross, high concept drugs, mods, etc. provide profuse atmospheric accoutrements, along with the constant pleasure of discovery, as you navigate the break-neck plot.

The vicious society it depicts, the gritty landscape, flooded with sleazy grime, slime, and dense urban decay, is crowded with seething, plastic-drenched corporations, speedy, neurotic enclosures – conjuring a metropolis which is at once a melange of cultures, influences, languages, product placement, glitz, gliders, and well-sustained tension. Also sustained is the continuous action, like the non-stop gallop of a manufactured dream. Billowing beneath this construct are the dog-eat-dog politics, made-to-order for the chase through streets so teeming with commerce and potential as to embody a circuitboard of virtual lives. The hive-minded individuals hock their wares and enact the subtle subterfuge of a race lobotomized by its own innovations.

Our vibrant main character, via neural instructions, seeks to escape the microcosmic entanglement of her situation, but in a life oozing with so many engineered conveniences and rife with technical splendor, is there any hope but for a replacement peace, a static chaos? like a bridge of dead ants across a stream, sustaining a new army upon the carcasses of the fallen – such is history, our bridge. Luckily, Grant Price balances lengthy descriptions of immense imaginative power with bracing dialogue, cheeky narration and good storytelling. Every page makes consistent use of localized fictional bytes which add up to a convincing fictional software, to be downloaded directly into our collective unconscious. True science fiction establishes the sources of its fantastical elements, explains the unbelievable and renders it uncannily believable. The synthetic lives and overstimulated existence present here illustrate that principle magnificently. I do not think it is possible to rewrite cyberpunk with a more authentic display.

Review of Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara

Unlike Ryu Murakami’s transgressive works, this small book lacks polish. 

It deals with the immature, shallow concerns of its adolescent characters with stark, unapologetic realism. Edgy in the extreme, but lacking depth of any appreciable kind, it reads quickly and has all of the trappings of a bestselling Japanese alternative pop literary prize winner. It is a shame that the Akutagawa Prize is handed out to such amateurish attention-grabbing authors, which make their way into English, but cannot compete with even the common run of American rebellious teen novels.

Review of You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon

So far, I’ve enjoyed the short stories of Chaon more than the novels.

The novels stick with you, though. He might be compared to Lorrie Moore for the crystalline style, but his depiction of American life verges on disturbing at times, and reveals the undercurrent of our repressed age, bringing to mind Brian Evenson. Overall, I look forward to Chaon’s further works, but wish he would stick to original short stories. It could be my jaded mindset, but his novels are only striking at moments, and largely reside in the believable territory of literary fiction’s tested waters. They are not exactly safe, but they do not startle in the way his stories do.

The interwoven storylines in this one are slow-paced, forceful and focused on characters wrestling with familial strain, and ties that link their pasts, towing the significant baggage into the present. There were a few moments when upfront communication would have relieved the aching buried psychological secrets of their weight, but literary characters are usually tight-lipped during those brief chances. I think anyone boasting experience with the foster system will find much to like here, and initiates of this author will gain from the easy and effective style.

Review of The Seducer by Jan Kjærstad

Jonas Swallows the Whale.

This is a cathedral of words.

Cocooned within these pages is a living organism. In preparations for metamorphosis, the encasing structure takes on increasing complexity, immersing the reader in its development, through stages, through time, the creature inside is the main character, Jonas, but he is also the author, and the cocoon is both the world, and this book.

The DNA of causal relationships takes on life while Jonas’ desire to dissect the structure of reality mirrors his subsuming of physical natures. The heated passion for understanding illuminates his carnal quest. The conquering of intellectual forces, merging with physical mastery, as he engages in speed skating, tennis, art, music, or politics, no talent is out of reach, and the value of his own genetic material increases, as if he were reincarnating into his own body as different versions of himself. The ambition to swallow the entire universe, against the threat of invisibility, is inversely proportional to the extent the author buries himself beneath this dramatic persona, this living embodiment of his literary ambition.

“How do the pieces of life fit together?”

They are particles, these human masks, the psychological disguises, the whims of propriety, these densely congregated principles, these guiding facets of our being. The central wheel’s relation to time seductively reaches each corner of this gamopetalous book, wherein deceptively layered complexities of form and rhythm portray profound insight into Jonas’ psyche. Peering in at his escapades at intrinsic viewpoints allows us the same wish fulfillment as the author, who indulges in every excess of accomplishment.

Recursively returning to cause and effect, the interiority of stories bleeds through the framework of the novel. You have the constant contest between Bach and Mozart, Hamsun and Hitler, Ibsen and Shakespeare, and multitudes of others in Jonas’ life. The competition is inherent to the far-reaching initiative of this book. The phallic fixation of his aunt, the willingness of the women to be seduced, while it all defies verisimilitude, reinforce the central career of our hero, the man among men, Jonas, as he fits together the jigsaw puzzle of his life, standing outside of it, at the defining moment, the hub of the wheel, revealed in the first chapter in the form of a dead woman. The author falls back on the 2nd person perspective for these recursive moments, outside of time, at a far remove from the action of discovering Jonas’ modus operandi. Against tradition, casting a male in the role of seducer is not as original as at first glance, but it does raise many questions about the role of women within this novel, and if they are mere objects. The self-indulgence in this regard would merit scorn, if it wasn’t so artfully composed – perhaps.

Several digressions into Norwegian history, politics, science, music, history, and sports, at first seemingly disparate elements, eventually coincide in their focus within the schema of Jonas’ mind.
The search for the self, entailing the architectural symbolism that comprises a human, the myriads we contain, the authenticity and imitation, the layering of memory and the ghosts it paints over our experience, the tapestry radiating outward, of the generations that spawned us, all of these confluent forces charging toward some inevitable conclusion. Luckily, the tone is one of a constant unveiling of intimate secrets. The book is supremely readable. We are allowed to draw our own conclusions about the morality of conquest, and the merit of competition.

The inversion of religious imagery, the transcendence of isolated experience, the references to popular and classical music, and regional artists people the very infrequent landscapes, and inhabit a strictly intellectual panorama instead, navigating a layered political climatology, invoking the great artists of the past in every major discipline, like Mount Rushmore-size affronts to our MC’s immortality.

If none of these themes interest you, how about the exploration of human archetypes? Light: a particle and a wave, representing turbulence and the dual nature of human beings as both divine and animal.

Who or what is a seductress? What seduces the seducer? Can we deduce that that seducer is a medusa?

Secrets triggering memories, many episodes marked by a peculiar odor, rites of passion, sex devoid of lasting love, events spoking out from the central point, the Wheel of Fortune revealing letter by letter the inevitable fate of our Grail-seeker. Recapturing lost childhood, longing for nostalgia, Jonas ventures farther afield in search of consequences, finding only affirmation of the dreaded summation of his career.

Kjærstad also incorporates Norway’s cultural imprint on the world, the art and music scene, fashion, high society, critics, schmoozers, culture, corruption and frailty, Nationalism, in a word, and posits a contention that Jonas is the Everyman his country needs, to pull it out of the small ice cave it has become.

Our myriad selves, the nucleus of human potential – all of the people you might have been, a haunting evaluation of artistic accomplishment as a life’s defining features, are we more than the sum of our works? From one step to the next – from Zambezi river rapids, budding with memento mori, to a garden of gravitas sprouting around the biographical cocoon. There’s always 2 sides to every coin, 2 sides to every mirror. Every mirror has a deceptive silver lining. And the Bergensveien winding serpentine, a silver vein, the silver thread running through it all, from Jonas’ very spine, this same thread, thrummed by the gods. He becomes a divine instrument, the overcomer, the proto-human, Prometheus, resulting in his intuition, or 6th sense for opportunity and conquest and significance that derives from this subtle vibration. And the charging silver train, a forward thrusting movement, until he returns to the polar bear rug and the Antarctic fascination spreading outward from it, an interstitial motif, a preoccupation with snow, death, and the story’s central cavern, relegated to a base level background hum, in an absence of scenery, in the irrelevance of fame, a Faustian accumulation, the prestige, success, like weighty concentric circles, ripples, latitude lines, planetary orbits, causality, the Butterfly Effect, the hurdles he leaps. Each sport he triumphs in is a symbol, becomes part of his DNA, like the women, palimpsests laying on top of one another, like cards in a deck, stacked.

The body, blood, fluids, heart and adrenaline runs through the prose. Once again the book is a living organism, Jonas merging with the other characters, conquering one after another, sexually, physically and intellectually. If he were a chess player, he would be Magnus Carlsen.

The motif of the color silver – Nefertiti’s mouth organ, frozen mammoths, the transmogrification of animals and vehicles, the merging of symbols, alongside the golden luster, the golden opportunity, the golden child, his lust and manhood, like the naked ladies on the highball glasses’ interior, clothed on the outside, the 2-sided mirror, the dimensions of lives, like images trapped in the camera obscura of her dead pupils.

The Lego blocks, mirroring his near death in the fetal ice fortress, the relevance of temperatures, a fear of cold, Norway, if it can be so labeled. This is the reason Jonas’ travels abroad. In order to escape.

P. 499 sums it all up in a vast atemporal vision, encompassing eras in the snapshot of the moment, Jonas sees through time to the various states of the environment as the scene transforms, regresses and progresses. In a way we glimpse our own deaths day after day, in the interrelationship of forces and concrete reality. We relegate this trauma to memory, blurring out time and reimagining ourselves anew. Our malleable clay lives, as much as we would like to mold them, are not in our own hands. Or are they?

Review of The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 1: The Faust Act by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie (Illustrations), Matt Wilson (Colorist), Clayton Cowles

“The Wicked+ The Divine: The Faust Act” is an interesting opening act.

The concept might be its strongest selling point. The premise that 12 gods from different pantheons are reincarnated every 90 years can lead to a lot of plot development. These reincarnations will then die 2 years later. I expected interesting interactions and deeply personal decisions. Would it be worth it to have god-like powers but have only a few years to live in return? Many pages rightly concern themselves with this dilemma. Some of the characters accept the trade-off, and others reject it. It is also a good way to reign in potentially overpowered god characters and give them a weakness we can understand. The writer made an excellent decision casting doubt on the true nature of the reincarnation cycle. Though the gods claim to be gods you are not quite sure if that is what’s going on. This mystery at the center of the larger narrative kept me flipping pages even if some of the other elements didn’t astound.

The storytelling and pacing was not as strong as the narrative elements, I felt. Some abruptness and lots of set-up. The unevenness might be balanced by later volumes, but this volume might have stood better on its own with a few tweaks.

The art is great. Good form and color choices. Some of the designs are great but stereotypical. With all of mythology and other cultures at their disposal I would have hoped for more pushing of the design envelope.

The characters have charm or depth overall and really pull the story along. Beware occasional one-dimensional characters, which may be a result of unfocused set up. I hope the important characters will blossom as the story gets more room to breath later.

The Wicked+ The Divine has a great central idea. From this idea interesting stories and characters can be woven into a great narrative. I will have to see what lies in wait with further volumes.

Review of The Magic Kingdom by Stanley Elkin

The Magic Kingdom is bound to arouse mixed feelings from many readers. If you approach it as a playground for linguistic experimentation, it succeeds in entertaining. 

From most other perspectives, I felt, it failed to compel me. The forceful writing Elkin is known for is here in evidence, but the scenario makes for a long, dull ride.

Beginning with a shamefully incompetent, off-putting, regurgitative, slapdash, silly, irrelevant, pathetic, and harrowingly awkward Introduction by Rick Moody, I was immediately put on guard. I’d read Elkin’s book Living End. My opinion of that work plummeted as the page count increased. He seemed, at the time, an inconsistent writer with major talent, who might start a book well, only to go off his rocker midway, as if flipping up his middle finger at the reader who had the gall to enjoy what he had been doing while sane, so he could glory in his own insanity. This novel marks out its course after a short, unrealistic episode, assuming layers of importance and grandeur after the shaggy dog story of its beginning. This is a journalistic look at dying children, but it becomes a grotesque display of exploitive descriptions. It might have been deep, meaningful or heartbreaking. In a sense it is, but you have look past the fireworks. Elkin calls attention to every garish flaw in our troupe of unfortunately doomed children. Not only are they physically appalling when reduced to mere carnival spectacles, but they prove to be morally bankrupt, as if in result of their unfair lot in life. Elkin has no restraint when it comes to casting the black light over his characters’ stained sheets. We are given such details as never vacate the mind of unsuspecting readers till their dying day.

As with other Elkins, humor abounds, but the wit can be mean, in my opinion. Most good satirists give up their compunctions, hang ups, and filters, and delight in exposing the worst blemishes of our nature without batting an eye. I would have appreciated all of the care and delicate nuance that went into the massive, page-sprawling paragraphs of description if I had bought in to the other thin aspects on offer. It lacked exploration, where it might have benefited from tension, emotional investment was wanting, as I perused with a sigh all of the infantile fixations going on within the text. Am I supposed to be impressed that he can shock and awe with his verbose humor, autopsying the characters who might have provided backbone or humanity to his vacuous novel? I get that a potty-mouthed Mickey Mouse figure is bound to crack a few grins in the audience, but what about the rest of the conversations? The personalities of many of the players are touched on here and there, loathe to initiate any attachment, sympathy or comfort. The youngsters are as libidinous as their guide, and in groups only elevate the haphazard enterprise’s goofy futility. I was much saddened by the novel. Not because I contemplated all of the meaningful questions Elkin posits, but because he limited his book to the least amusing observations of a very bright creator.

Review of We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (Bobiverse, #1) by Dennis E. Taylor

It didn’t live up to the hype. For me at least.

Many other people will enjoy this. Every time I was introduced to an interesting, high-brow scientific concept, I was cringing at the corny humor. The main issue is Bob, the narrator/ commentator, giving a peanut gallery run down of events, which are all about himself, in different forms, conquering the galaxy. It would be fine if he didn’t treat the audience like kids, encouraged by a subliminal laugh track.

Starts out pretty geeky: main character going to a convention. Sets up some foreboding points of reference. Then we are treated to a big chunk of time post-mortem, Bob hasn’t really changed, except in his calculating power. You can hear a ‘Wa Wa Waaaaa’ after every one of his snide remarks. The action scenes felt planned throughout the book, and we get our first taste of this in the facility where he is trained for his mission to operate a Von Neumann probe. Much of what happens in the book displays the main character’s astounding luck. However, there are several instances later of his resourcefulness, so the balance is there, if not a little skewed in his favor. There is an instinctual drive to his actions, which made up for some of the Deus Ex Machina.

The anti-religious sentiment was laid on thick.  Spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraph: I would have preferred a less heavy-handed method, since it doesn’t come from our narrator’s beliefs but from the world building. The world is theocratic. Bob’s commentary and reaction are understandable upon waking up in such a world. Yet this doesn’t appear to fit in with the modern trend of society, as in, I don’t see this development as realistic. It’s blatant and quite ‘out there’ in its depiction. I got the feeling that the author didn’t try to understand the religious mentality which would champion such a system. He is rallying for the triumph of science and the extinction of limiting world views. Some of Bob’s actions later label him as another ruthless human being, ruled by survivalism. The hypocrisy is the main driving force of the plot, but it came off as forced, very basic, and grandiose. I suppose it was better than the typical WW III scenario or simple climate change wiping out humanity. I’m split on whether it was compelling or trite. In any case, it felt childish in a way.

Once Bob is finally free to create change in his environment, there are plenty of clever applications of future technology to keep any science fiction fan going. The book has a lot of value, in my opinion, as an extension of the genre’s tropes. The main issue is the main character and that pesky need to make everything into a joke. The cultural references rival Ready Player One. You get Star Trek, Wars, Simpsons, and so on. You don’t have to watch out for them. They’re unmissable. Bob actually rolls his eyes at his own joke more than once. I grow very aggravated by such antics.

Of course other planets are routed out, utilized. There are remnant factions, and a dwindling hope for humanity. Bob becomes the hero through his goofy perseverance and split-second decisions. The investigation of Deltan evolution grew tedious. It was like watching the History Channel for a few hours. Relevant, but you wish they’d simply boiled it all down, gotten to the point faster. What I mean to say is, the book really takes its time. It’s a leisurely ride. This is probably a sign of its widespread appeal. The humor offsets the bleakness. With its flawed everyman character, many people will relate.

Here are a few more sticking points. Bob seems asexual. There was that stuff about his girlfriend in the beginning, but it was glossed over. He becomes detached from meaningful relationships as an AI. I would have loved to see some exploration of male psyche like you get in the film Her. He doesn’t seem to want female companionship, even within the infinite reaches of space and time, instead settling for a holographic butler ripped from pop culture and a pet named Spike. The naming is pretty lame as well. It is clear the author has a knack for many of the demands of science fiction writing. But a more honed sense of maturity, ambition, and pragmatism would have served the book well. In the end, it is a diverting, unique, watered down work of speculative adventure, executed with a wide-brush for the sake of entertainment. Possibly on the level of Hitchhiker’s Guide, which I also had problems with.

Review of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera

I didn’t laugh. And it was quickly forgotten.

Kundera knew how to write. (I speak in the past tense because he is now 90 years old and I wonder how much writing he’s doing nowadays.) But he chose to write about things I find it very hard to care about. In this, more than in Unbearable Lightness, he glorifies sex frequently as a rite of passage, and goes on at great length about its incredible significance. The characters are all so literary. So avant-garde, and in this day and age, cliched. There is a lot of political drama too. But hasn’t everything in the book been done before, and done by Kundera specifically? Yes, the characters were witty, but that was about the extent of their depth in my opinion.

I understand if you enjoy his polished sentences and pithy remarks. There’s satire and humor and possibly some heart. I won’t argue with you about his skill. But I’m usually looking for a different brand of literature.

Review of Vlad by Carlos Fuentes

Fuentes serves up a vampire yarn in a minimalist style. Compared to many of his other works, this one is straightforward, short, and perhaps a departure from his ordinary fare.

What begins as a hilarious and subtly creepy familial tale, complete with comedic and eccentric descriptions of a Count morphs into psychologically disturbing territory. Culminating in a bleak and eerie crescendo of terror, the relentlessness of fate, the literary, utilitarian language and the dark humor will appeal to many brave readers.

The old theme of temptation, and the dread of death, in all of its embodiments drives the narrator. One of the character calls history “a garbage dump of lies.” And one of the short chapters is devoted to criticizing the ill-wrought secrets of human progress.

If you’re not ready for Terra Nostra, come savor the seamy dreamlike imagery of Vlad, nibble on the symbolism, sip at the bloody and noxious fountain of its perversion.

Review of The Other City by Michal Ajvaz

A harmless and creative work, quirky and European in flavor, but lacking the depth of the shameless blurbs hailing Ajvaz as the Czech Kafka

Wait, never mind. This is a dream book, a better than average Surrealist romp. Relatively flat, but well-animated, colorful, goofy, surprising, and atmospheric. Superimposition plays a big part, and the inversion of scale. The interpolation of a microcosm occasionally comes into play. Lustrous and splendid and eldritch, the prose is reminiscent of Ducornet or Angela Carter, without the burden of being about anything. The author performs with abundance and imagination, yet with a directionless approach, such that an inept travelogue comes to predominate the set-pieces. Still, providing about as much entertainment as Calvino’s Invisible Cities with more phosphorescent dream-carnival vibes. A fluctuating, fructose, allegorical, chimerical digression of a book. An unpruned indulgence and an overripe fruit upon Dalkey’s bounteous boughs.

Review of Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu

Monsu held the butterfly uterus in the open palm of his right hand. Its skin fibers gently pulsed. In the end, it took flight, not through the mechanical beating of lepidoptera, but by undulations within the gelatinous medium, the way transparent beings on the bottom of the ocean proceed dreamlike through the abyss. P. 458

This book is nuts. In ways reminiscent of snatches of William S. Burroughs. But Cărtărescu’s approach to the novel appears to stem from a deep appreciation for poetry. His habitual use of arcane scientific terms can only be intentional, geared toward, one would hope, precise observation and the enhancement of photo-realistic depictions alongside the dreamlike, demented transformations and unholy images recorded by the detached narrator. It’s enchanting, unnerving and brilliant. But it would be easy to pick apart his hastily conjured juxtapositions. Death and birth, death and sex, death and lust, death and dreams, and lots of skeletons, both sentient and inanimate, human and animal, all cut a jig through the tormented landscape of post-war Romania. Wallpapered with more butterflies than the books of Nabokov, the texture and tone puts me in mind of a wild Dia de los Muertos procession, an exaggerated show of fanciful horror. Every ingredient under the sun makes it into his witch’s brew, concocted for sheer entertainment. Even the above quotation, while elegant in its imagery, requires a leap of faith. You must suspend your disbelief and turn off your critical faculty. The only way to enjoy this luscious prose is to ‘see it’ rather than ‘read it.’ Flaws of logic make way for jungles of interpretation and labyrinths of the imagination.

Blinding thrives on impressionism. It follows its omniscient eye through uncanny valleys of hospital nightmares and filthy streets, where coupling ghosts wreak havoc alongside childish phantasms. He stirs in helpings of philosophy and sprinkles in holy relics. The author challenges your mind while delighting the senses. Many will be offended, as he does not shirk away from fluids and acts often better left in the dark, but his brand of magical realism casts wide nets, roping in astral projections, macrocosmic wombs, and ending in an unwelcome exegesis. Luckily, Mircea eases the reader into his madness, describing lengthy family and community rituals, focussing his intense author’s lens on the finest of details, tackling every topic you can think of, while descending into moments of traditional coming-of-age narration. Truly this is how I would have liked My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgård to read. This is more imposing, acerbic writing. You can learn from his fantastic gravitas, whereas Realism so often strikes me as pointless reiterations of thoughts and emotions that are all too familiar. If done right, this is not always the case, of course.

Once again, prepare for long descriptions, flights of fancy, and an uncontrolled narrative. This will obviously rub many readers the wrong way. It cannot be called autobiography unless you consider Dante’s Inferno autobiographical as well. Nor is it strictly a dream diary. Much effort went into the craft of the sentences, even if the scattering of the themes and watering down of the plot inevitably followed. It is also a remarkable feat of translation that we can read this in English and still be astounded at the density of invention on display.

This novel is a bold experiment and a delight to read. It sustains a high pitch of aesthetic value and political relevance. It relishes, celebrates and shames human anatomy, religion symbols, and urban squalor. Like Pessoa, Cărtărescu lives vicariously through dreaming. Welcome to his madhouse, watch your step, when you come out the other side, the world may not look quite the same…

Review of Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth

One’s enjoyment of this collection may depend on one’s enthusiasm for wordplay. 

There is a significant amount of utterly clever portmanteuing. Buried beneath the lexical prestidigitation is a penchant for unconventional storytelling. Combining homages to classical mythology with post-modern shenanigans, Barth’s creative use of the English language is a rare confection. Yet, there are points when his esoteric noodling will become inscrutable for Cro-magnon readers like yours truly.

The high-browness of some sections are Rushmore-esque. Experimentation prevails through retellings, reimaginings, and regurgitations of Greek tragedies, pseudo-Arabian tales, and a perplexing ménage a treize of Gulliverian travails.

He admits preference to long-form fiction, though condensed, his voice is richly exuberant. My fave example was the tangled Siamese twin’s illicit and unimaginable tale, told in a slippery and macabre bildungs-Geschichte.

If I had to describe the nested tales in one word it would be: ovoviviparous.

Review of The Book of Human Insects by Osamu Tezuka

With the Book of Human Insects, Tezuka’s appeal is reaches new heights. He compressed an incredibly fascinating character study into a short space.

It is what he did with MW, but you’ll see even more compression here. One eternally gets the sense that Tezuka suffered from too many ideas. He simply could not draw fast enough. In fact, I would have been okay with him just resorting to stick figures or blocking out his stories and allowing apprentices and assistants to finish his works. But no, he chose to work much harder than anyone else and do everything himself.

The Book of Human Insects, with its bleak commentary on art, is actually prophetic. How many artists would discover Tezuka and then copy and reinvent his ideas? He single-handedly created a market for anime with Astro Boy, and revolutionized manga into a legitimate career path. After leaving behind 150,000 pages of drawings in the famous 700 volume Tezuka collection, he still didn’t want to stop at the end of his life. The inspiration he found from Hollywood and Disney is clear in some of his work, but in the end he showcased a capacity to invent ideas at a greater rate than any other creator of his time.

The Book of Human Insects is a good place to enter into Tezuka’s work. Before embarking on Ode to Kirihito or Barbara or MW, this one, solid volume is enough to convince anyone with literary leanings that Tezuka was more than just a serious contender in the medium. He might have been the Mozart of manga. He makes everyone else look like Salieri. Sure, he had his flaws. You can find plenty of jokes that really aren’t funny and plotlines that come out of nowhere only to go nowhere, but you won’t find that kind of thing in this volume.

After reading The Book of Human Insects I needed no more convincing. I wanted to reread it. But I knew there was too much Tezuka left. I couldn’t pause to linger over this fine work of storytelling. I had to move on to his other works. The quality of Tezuka is such that even when he is not at his best, he is still addictive. And even when he was just starting, his brilliance was recognizable. When the medium didn’t allow for much space or experimentation, he still found ways to innovate with works like The Mysterious Underground Men. This work is marked by adult themes, adult atmosphere and a total lack of appeal for children. Tezuka was making an effort to elevate manga above the level of the funny papers and to spread appreciation.

The Book of Human Insects categorizes many typical characters, recognizable in part, from other examples of his work. It contains journalists, writers, actors, assassins, businessmen, lovers, but is devoid of children. It is fairly obvious when Tezuka is trying to be mature. It is a testament to him that he could dash off something like The Book of Human Insects while working on other projects simultaneously.

Tezuka must have internalized the basic themes he wished to explore: the human spirit, sacrifice, religious dogmas, futurism, dystopia, love, jealousy, etc. etc. And he conjures scenes organically, invents plot twists at the drop of a hat, inserts the right amount of conflict, tension, and mixes up the atmosphere as necessary. This book occupies a special place in my mind as one of the most crystallized Tezuka works. It’s hard to beat for sheer intense storytelling. It contains all the drama and comedy and tragedy you could ask for from a graphic work. All he needed to do was dream, and let the characters come to life, and draw them into being in the midst of their frantic worlds.

Review of And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov

There are so many versions of this book on Goodreads because this book has been reprinted so many times. It’s one of those classics, like War and Peace, that endures. 

It is a multi-volume epic, and aside from its intimidating size, how is an American reader supposed to choose an edition? Many of the editions I’ve come across claim to be abridged, and the unabridged novel series goes under varying titles. It’s all rather confusing. Giving up after a while of browsing, I finally read the Signet Classics edition, at just over 500 pages. I’m not worried about how “abridged” it is, because the content of those 500 pages was brimming, bursting at the seams with human endeavor, war set-pieces, nature meditations, tragic and poetic elegance, intense action and a narrative which flowed like a river.

The author was in love with the Don river, one would assume from its presence in all of his titles, but people take center stage in his epic. In fact, the author was concerned with portraying the mountains, fields, farms, and battlegrounds with equal facility – but these reflections are nothing without their inhabitants. The Cossacks who people this landscape are as well-rounded, flawed and “human” as many of the characters from Tolstoy. If I had to pinpoint another author who could compare to Sholokhov, it would have to be Tolstoy. Except there are some fundamental differences. Sholokhov had to stop his education in high school, and worked many years on his 4-volume novel of the Don, which he eventually serialized in a major publication after much hemming and hawing on the part of publishers. After the novel’s merit was recognized universally, it became a bestseller, was condemned by the Soviet authorities, who wanted to cut it down to safer proportions, until it finally won the author a Nobel Prize.

Like Tolstoy’s novels, you will find too many characters to count here. It takes place during the Bolshevik Revolution, mainly out in the fray, against the breathtaking backdrop of the goose-sprinkled countrysides, the cow-studded farms, the poor and downtrodden villages, and always, like a subdued meta-protagonist, the Don river flows through it all, connecting the people to the land and the history to the land. There are many memorable deaths, cinematic triumphs, and intimate familial spats. It possesses a balanced pace and a jam-packed cast of everyday men and women, lost in the harrying tempest of war, and swept up in the history unfolding before their eyes.

The only issue may be that the complexity of the political climate and many historical details may be lost on some contemporary readers. I won’t pretend I remember every last tripartite Russian name and the intricate conflicts of their idiosyncratic domestic and professional bonds. But digging a little deeper will likely reward you, if you’re astute. This is not War and Peace Lite. This is another beast of equal scope and length, equally challenging, fun, and a fundamentally important work of world literature.

Review of The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei

This was one of my favorite modern Chinese novels. Instead of dealing with the horrors of war and destruction of families and bureaucracies, as in Mo Yan and Yan Lianke’s works, this was a breath of fresh air. 

It read much more like Japanese fiction in its depiction of an everyday narrator, tasked with his very specific struggles. It was well-polished and informative, as regards the high-end audio business. The author’s style possessed the charm of Murakami’s early works without as many pop references.

This is a short, absorbing tale that could be enjoyed by just about anybody, and a nice departure from the bleak style of a lot of the Chinese translations we are getting recently. There are many clever observations on contemporary frustrations, and it left a bittersweet, lingering aura of unfulfilled dreams in my mind. The blurbs make the work seem far more surreal and magical than it actually is. There are easy comparisons to Murakami, but Ge Fei has his own voice. His only other title in English is a minuscule novella called “Flock of Brown Birds.” I have also found scattered stories in scattered anthologies. They are all good, solid pieces of writing, partaking equally in the realms of pulp and literary fiction.

I believe this author has wide appeal and would be able to capture a large number of readers in America and elsewhere if he were only given the chance. They call him one of the most important writers working in China, but because of his lack of political agendas, hack writers like Yan Lianke get egregious amounts of attention, while his charming gems go unnoticed. Besides Can Xue, he is my favorite living Chinese author.

Review of The Paper Door and Other Stories by Naoya Shiga

Naoya Shiga’s short story collection, translated by Lan Dunlop is a condensation of a career, a well-translated, well-written, well-selected enticing collection.

In Japan, Shiga is hailed as “god of the novel.” His only novel-length work was the morose A Dark Night’s Passing, but in Japanese, apparently, the term ‘novel’ refers to short stories as well.

I would not rate his stories higher than Akutagawa’s, but they are so varied and careful, I am tempted to compare them to the work of Soseki. You get a lot of variety in this small collection, and I only wish the rest of Shiga’s oeuvre would get translated.

I would suggest reading this before attempting his 400-page novel, because you can absorb them more easily and get a feel for his unadorned style. There are traces of brilliance and after reading all the stories I can see why the author inspired a fanatical following. They are distinctly Japanese, and if you are a fan of Chekhov, Maupassant and Akutagawa you will probably enjoy this book. I know I will be adding it to my Japanese Literature shelf. Especially good examples are “Han’s Crime,” and “The Shop Boy’s God.” In these two stories you can see the range he covers in his style. The first is representative of his storytelling art. Simple, straightforward, riveting, old fashioned tale in the fashion of Pu Sungling. The latter is a subtle, indulgent character study, a relatable anecdote with memorable charm.

In short, this is an important piece of J-Lit in translation, which will hopefully, at some point, be made obsolete by a complete collection of the author’s short pieces.

Review of An Evil Guest by Gene Wolfe

“Money is an evil guest.”

Gene Wolfe can write in any genre he desires, I suppose. This book was a noir with subtle science fiction elements. The blurbs and book jacket call it Lovecraftian horror, which is a lie. You can expect 95% dialogue, well-polished, for about 250 pages, and the final 50 pages reward you with a surprising, even shocking, ending.

The best part of the book is the main character, Cassie Casey, who is a well-rounded (voluptuous), smart, funny, charming, likeable, up-and-coming actress, who stumbles into a conspiracy of cosmic significance. Her run-ins with rich bastards and slick sorcerers, and later, vicious islanders, make for an occasionally harrowing drama. But for the bulk of the novel you will be piecing together the plot elements through Wolfe’s effective dialogue, which only reveals enough background to draw you into the tale. What it does on the surface level is establish deep characters, with complex motivations – enough for any fan of pulp noir.

Written with the simplicity and pace of a Philip K. Dick novel, Gene Wolfe afficionados and neophytes alike will appreciate a breather from his near-incomprehensible world-building. This was a refreshing, easy, compelling and surprising read, even if it lacked the abyss-like depth of Wolfe’s masterpieces.

A close examination of his themes and devices reveals far more hidden meanings in the characters’ names and “metamorphoses” than I gathered from my reading – as usual, I had to look them up. Wolfe, the sorcerer himself, doesn’t disappoint on this score. But one can’t help but wonder about Woldercan and many of the unexplored “islands” of this book. How much of the interior and exterior universe do we actually get to see? Very little. He maintains a close perspective, and limits himself to cast an aura of historical nostalgia. It would be a simple matter to dismiss this as a minor work, a mere curiosity in Wolfe’s disturbing cabinet of secrets.

Yet, the dialogue-heavy explication does undermine the author’s typically genius plot cues. We are given an Idiot’s Guide through the characters’s anxious dialogues. Cassie is still figuring out the scenario along with the reader. But I think this is more playful sleight-of-hand on Wolfe’s part. How are you supposed to notice the influences outside the narrator’s field of vision? Luckily, we are presented with a wider view at the end of the book. I think this abrupt shift in perspective saved this book from being ordinary, though it will bother some readers, who were enjoying the simplicity preceding it.

A memorable, exciting and still profound book by a grandmaster of the bizarre.

Review of Literature™ by Guillermo Stitch

Guillermo Stitch is starting off strong. This and his more recent Lake of Urine showcase a singular ability to incorporate dark comedy, magical realism, and slick writing chops.

This short novel is easy to read, but deep enough to keep me thinking about the world and characters afterward. The onset of futurism is rather subtle. Literature has become an illicit thing in the setting provided. Technology is no more explained than it is today, but it has changed – the reader is made to intuit certain inventions from interactions and clever product labels. We rely on gadgets more than ever, and they have infiltrated every facet of our existence.

The commodification of our lives, corporate bureaucracy. The tendency for conformity. A fast-paced satire on these topics emerges amid a fiercely compelling scenario, within a skewed world.

With a gift for dialogue and the quirky turns of phrase, Stitch entertains and simultaneously comments on our dystopian leanings, our social insecurities and the disconcerting aspects of our probable future.

A remarkably compact and thrilling read.

Review of Three Fantasies by John Cowper Powys

In the Afterward, Cavaliero draws a lot of biographical significance out of the farcical improvisation of the juvenilia of Powys in his dotage. This Beckettian collection of three novellas is both saddening and quirky

 At the forefront are confrontations with physical embodiments of Death. The skepticism of an animist, the waning imagination of a latter day Rabelais. These are cold and disconcerting, but readable nursery confabulations.

As in other works, Powys is mainly concerned with discussing the relationship of human beings and the natural world. This intersection of ideas was expanded to the greater universe in his final years. Here you can see how he depicts how history bleeds through time, staining the present. The nature of consciousness within the physical world never leaves his mind. The psychic nature of the wild also impinges on the reality of very two-dimensional characters. This author produced plenty of literary oddities, but even multiple readings of Three Fantasies will probably confound most readers.

Powys elicits a heartwarming nostalgia in some of his works, I think, the aura of abstract uncanniness has the capacity to overwhelm. He excels at portraying quiet, psychologically strained scenes wherein supernatural forces intrude like an impending gloaming, suffusing the whole atmosphere of the story.

The first story in this triumvirate of tales is Topsy Turvy. It contains philosophical discussions by furniture of varying worldviews. The dialogue of personified souls in inanimate objects is merely a stage for an exploration of standard Powysian ideas. It is argued that Powys believed all things to be animate, and he elucidates the manifestations of souls in his household objects, extrapolating their human qualities to an absurd degree. It is both odd and alarming when he suddenly slips into notions of rape which end the story on a note of spiritual significance. I simply shrugged and turned to the next story.

Part of the force of creative energy is imbuing objects with consciousness and perceiving this consciousness throughout one’s experience. I picked that up right away in “Abertackle.” It gets pretty tangled up with procreation, which according to Powys, is the intertwining of souls. His random ramblings take in several literary and historical figures apropos of nothing, and fly quickly off the deep end toward the stars. His eerie pronouncements are at times fascinating and for fans of improvisational writing, this is better than most modern experiments in unplanned, casual automatic writing. Famous writers, angels and demons make their way into the second story, which is the most chaotic. Everyone gets naked in order to inhabit the vague “Fourth Dimension” where they jump back and forth through history, space and time, discussing religion. Spouting off theories about God’s death, man’s creative powers, the reincarnation of Merlin, a lot of speeches made by the Devil. It’s all very uncontrolled.

Overall, I prefer Powys reigning in his creative energy, focusing it on elaborate set-pieces of constrained storytelling. He’s got some incredible books to his name, but this is minor in every way. It showcases none of his genius and only an ounce or two of his personality and charm. It is quite readable, and harmless, if a little unhinged.

Review of The Pleasures of Queuing by Erik Martiny

The second book by Martiny I’ve read. This one was very different from Night of the Long Goodbyes.

Both were singular in their content, and contained a mix of traditional and non-traditional techniques. I would call this a hysterical picaresque novel infused with mesmeric weirdness, peppered with quirky satirical aplomb and sensual, imagistic fabulism.

The sarcastic title is carried into the text, given new weight, and the author leaves very little time for the reader to breathe, since the laughter he induces will be fairly constant.

Frank, polished, memorable, nostalgic, wise and innocent at the same time. A gift for detail marks the first half of the novel. The second half slides into an uncanny valley of sexual frustration and fulfillment.

Extraordinary straight-faced humor draws the reader in to the overabundant Montcocq family, bilious with their modern trappings, but far more unstable than the average 2.5 kid-Lower? middle class fin de Twentieth siècle domestic unit. Martiny charms with multilingual literacy, very rapid jokes in every paragraph, outlining unique family dynamics using sophisticated language while commenting plentifully on religiosity, societal complacence, Irishness and Frenchness, playing with narrative distance, playfully reminding the reader of key details, and addressing them directly with instructions and apologies when necessary. I found this to be the antidote to the tiresome clichés of everyday life. The historical perspectives offered, the sexual revolution enacted on the scale of an individual, the tongue in other cheek feminism, conveys ecstatic enthusiasm for the richness of human life, though it is rife with digressions, with mazelike brambles of commentary. It purports to be a memoir by our first person narrator – every plot development might turn out to be a joke, keep your ears peeled for corny moments, as outrageous, vivid descriptions assail the senses, at times masterfully capturing an absurd but touching moment, in quick-paced, haphazard bildungromanesque fashion.

The author can milk a situation for all it’s worth, and historical recaps provide grandiosity, albeit excessively, while being morbid and hilarious footnotes to the events in the life of our hero. It is also anti-idyllic, a sort of anti-Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, charming childhooddom pervades even the adolescent and pseudo-adult time periods he covers, with impeccable comedic timing, ranging from elevated storytelling from the perspective of an infant, and juxtapositions which are thrillingly relatable. Resistance, repression, not much guilt, familial bureaucracy, eccentricity, overpopulation of the household, deliberately wordy descents into momentary madness, proliferation, excess, overproduction of testosterone, all make for a chockablock barrel of laughs. The lengths his parents go to to live out their ideals is astounding, while the naivete, cruelty, childlike sense of awe and horror, the ridiculous levels of character quirks, the domestic insanity, schoolhood days, and bizarro-lucid maniacal categorization of psychologically disturbed behavior as symptoms of societal conditions, all make more a good read. It is Wodehouse uncensored, Bill Bryson, but unhinged, complete with body horror, male adolescent egregious over-sexualization, and a bulbous, generous, beating heart.

Review of The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson

A passing acquaintance with Samuel Johnson will reveal that the man could write splendidly.

He possessed, by all accounts, an unapproachable intellect. His literary works are reminiscent of Voltaire’s: witty, erudite, vast, and infinitely readable. His travel accounts and the biography by Boswell are considered paragons of their genre.

Sadly, Rasselas is his only true novel, and it is a short one. The rest of his corpulent corpus was composed of a book-length literary evaluation of Shakespeare’s plays, biographies of major poets, an important (in its time) and well-crafted dictionary of the English language, and serial publications, which when compiled, are enjoyable “agony-uncle” style epistolary philosophical tracts. Take almost any sampling of his work, and you are almost guaranteed to be delighted – if you delight in profound insight into the nature of the human soul and its relation to the world. His sentences are complex, daunting, but continually stimulating. Rasselas, more so than The Rambler, is probably the best introduction to his work. It is not exactly a masterpiece, but is is far more interesting, in my opinion, than his plays and poems (the only other things he wrote which can be digested without much effort).

Written for quick money in the space of a week, this charming novella, in the style of Candide or A Voyage to the Moon by Cyrano de Bergerac (if that means anything to you), is nonetheless a brilliant morale tale, both timeless and grounded in the atmosphere of Johnson’s mind (an intellectual Christian moralist, who sympathized with common folk), even if it takes place in Abyssinia, and various points along the map traversed by its sentimental characters. I found it to be a picaresque read, and enjoyed the analysis of the relative merits of different approaches to life – themes later explored at exhaustive length in The Rambler.

You have the prince, who wishes to experience the world, and who must do so at the expense of the luxury he is entitled to. Of course, he travels in style, sampling temples and lively districts, and encountering unexpected wonders, similarly to Gulliver during his sojourn. It is not a scathing critique and contains very little of a risque nature, as in Voltaire, but that makes it all the more approachable in my mind, and enjoyable to casual readers.

Samuel Johnson is a writer to enjoy over a lifetime, one to study. One of the giants of literary history, comparing him to Voltaire and Goethe is only a slight exaggeration of his powers. His strengths lie in the didactic discussion, which will become readily apparent if you embark on his great later works, which I have been doggy-paddling through slowly for some years, since the Rambler, not to mention the Idler, and his seemingly endless, encyclopedic miscellanies is a daunting task indeed.

Review of Vaseline Buddha by Young-moon Jung

What a fascinating read!
I’m going to unpack it, but there’s no way to properly convey the captivating reading experience this author provided me. Undergo the trial of reading it. It’s well worth your time. Dalkey missed their chance at publishing this, and I’m grateful to Deep Vellum for putting it out. I’ll have to get the other 3 books in English by Jung now.

At first, you’ll likely be confused. What you are observing in the initial pages is the discovery of the source of inspiration. Within the limitless capacity of the human mind to create, recreate and abuse reality, the proliferation ideas with hardly an impetus but the mind’s own insatiable curiosity takes place in a realm we can pass through regularly, but so rarely do we appreciate it.

The first forty pages are a thesis statement, used to justify the literary excesses of the rest of the book.

Methods of making the world disappear are known to most of us. Sustaining the hypnotic separation from the moment is how we often cope with the stress of daily life. At its heart, Vaseline Buddha is a game of ideas, used to obviate the difficulty of expressing the difficulty of life.

You’ll notice the author cutting himself off whenever he verges on narrative. Like Pessoa, the narrator travels the world in his mind while sitting at home. The flexibility of time when recounting tales allows for ambiguity in the structure and content of the retellings. The uncertainty of time passing in memories facilitates the analysis by the author’s mouthpiece, whose uncompromising terms of surrender to the compulsion to create manifest in a charming landslide of visions and revisions. He recounts buried tidbits from random encounters and reminiscences, meditation and dreams, including fainting goats, Madagascan baobab trees, ornamental false eyes, bagpipes, the surprising difference between saffrons and crocuses, and an increasing number of tangential morsels.

Our unnamed narrator can be elegant when he wants to be, but he patently avoids elegance most of the time. I was entranced after 40 pages. I enjoyed it far more than my readings of Bernhard. (I have not yet succeeded in finishing a Bernhard novel, but this was a breeze to read.) I could feel Jung taking control of the center in my mind responsible for my imagination with his pointed repetition. It took a while for the novel to win me over, but once it did, I was thoroughly won over. The rhythmic precision as it navigates the vagueness of the vagrant mind was enchanting, its vagaries, its vacancy, and its vaseline, was exquisite. The narrator is not a fan of his native country or language. Though Korea is never mentioned, he is self-described as a foreigner from the East.

On the surface, this is a ceaseless internal monologue. “Maybe” and “I thought” is the compulsive refrain. These words are a continued questioning of the subject and perceptual search for a subject. The reference to the writing of the book within the book betrays a lack of a plan. The improvisation is clear, and the narrator’s deception only compounds as he utilizes his capacity to visualize.

Shades of Kafka and Beckett make their way into the text. The river of memory flows counter to the stream of reality, to the images it produces in the mind. Similar to Beckett’s subtraction of elements of narrative, Jung removes the trappings of the ordinary novel to create something new, molding out of the gray matter of the mind a recognizable form.

I found it far more tangible and readable, than Ellmann’s Ducks… but it is in the same vein. It is far more entertaining, in my opinion, for one thing, though opinions will diverge on that point.

The observation of things being done without rhyme or reason, commenting on those things without purpose, and the self-analysis are all call backs to classic existential philosophy. I admit to being weak in the fields of psychology, Freud, mysticism, and philosophy, but even I noticed some parallels. The free associative filling of a frightening absence, the obscenity of the blank page, and the obscurity of our mind’s own schemata are all enumerated with great aplomb.

Useless speculation on and analysis of an environment which, by definition, defies logic, characterizes a human’s propensity to interpret its relationship to its surroundings. The affliction of sentience in the face of everyday life is combated through the self-imposed mesmerism of fantasy. The attachment to a perceived significance of reality can sometimes get in the way.

Somehow, I was able to process these concepts without being distracted by my own cognition. The repetitive musical rhythm of Jung’s prose lulled me into a false sense of security. It is somehow reminiscent of Tao Lin in the puzzling conscientious usage of dissonant language patterns.

The narrator assigns arbitrary significance to observations, he contradicts his own accounts through rambling explanations and questions the veracity of his memories. By revealing the obscurity of information, his thoughts become more real than reality. Jung brings his translator sensibilities to his fiction, in that his awareness of the inadequacy of words informs his narrator’s choices. The archetypal storyteller this character becomes accuses himself of fabrication, while trying to express the inexpressible, and understand his compulsion to do so.

“There are things in life that can be revealed by shedding darkness, not light, on them.” he says.
Humanity’s animalistic tendency toward constant hunger and ceaseless ambition, the parable of the kea eating the sheep’s kidneys, and the fabulous allegories inserted throughout the book call attention to the fearsome, defiant quality of silence. Simple language, unadorned narration, his comfort in Surrealism, the unrealistic qualities of the physical world, all while making an effort to unsee the troubling inevitability of Death and its infinite incarnations. Surrealism becomes reality “within reality,” for our hero, who is locked inside his own head, but far more free than the close-minded men in the streets.

Wallowing in contradictions and defining his own existence in the rejection of reality, in the de-emphasis of realism, he experiences the numbness caused by experience and the dullness of remembrance, desensitized to reality, but hyper aware of his imagination.

Does questioning his own behavior excuse the unexplainable behaviors he displays, or are they just peculiar fantasies, observing his body from a distance, the balm of literary invention, and the comfort fantasy brings within chaos? The countless stories which make up a human being take on life as we give them form. Yet, how is it possible that the organization of certain words animates the formlessness within us? A “story about the process of writing a story,” is the jumping-off point for a deconstructed travelogue, backtracking a life held captive by wandering thoughts. It is, in a sense, Pessoa’s narrator revived.

The sea of narrative and the infinite, arbitrary meaning ascribed to the creatures within it, is the origin of much of the world’s literature, but the beliefs that derive from this oceanic creativity often seep into historical interpretation and inform our lives. The private ritual of expressing inner thoughts, or journaling, can birth new perspectives. The novel is an amusement at bottom, much like nonfiction, while serving as a vehicle of understanding environments, both farcical and accurate. Whether or not the places and people described are real is a mere technicality. Literature is both a game and an antidote.

Writing words down gives them power. We realize this. Ideas give birth to other ideas. That much is clear. The proliferation of words can go on forever, the mind is a breeding ground. But when is it appropriate to draw the line? When is it finally time to stop making stuff up?

The temptation of experimentation is inherent in the human spirit. It allows us to progress, through stages toward greater levels of awareness and compassion. In this way language bears the responsibility to communicate relevance, and has its limitations. There is an immeasurable disconnect between words and thought. With deceptive intelligence Jung plays with these concepts, and even touches on different aphasias and their effects on meaning, through automatic writing, and uses his arguments to bolster his antipathy toward straightforward narrative.

Realism is full of plotholes, he claims, and communication through abstraction, allows us to ascribe meaning to the chaos, which is the “greatest constituent of life.”

The narrative of life is contrived. Life is fragmentary. The removal of traditional story elements, the removal of substance, and the prevention of the development of story chokes out the mind’s ability to surrender to fantasy. The author is hiding behind the narration and questioning his own authorship. He becomes author as arbiter, and then lets his ideas degenerate into narrative, while sustaining the cognitive dissonance of aborted literary scenarios.

Finally, death and doubt personified make appearances throughout as the abstraction of concepts, the breaking down of the inevitable abstractions of words counteract the flow of time, until the author’s motifs are pointed out by the narrator and begin to leak into the narrator’s personality.

Dodging existentialist quandaries at every turn, haunted by a failure to communicate concepts, the main character drowns in the bottomless well of his own psyche. Propelled by poisonous banality, while imagining the sentiments of great men facing death and the conscious thoughts of animals placed in bizarre situations, is a way of constructing mental labyrinths for himself, all to avoid the inevitable conclusion that reality is an illusion.

Despite his logically invalidated writing, intentionally including mistakes and second-guessing everything, his metaphysical journey in the second half of the book, comprised of memories contorted through creative interpretation, blurring the border between truth and fiction, his artificial confessions, false details inserted seemingly without motive, the deviation, interpolation, reiteration, eternal returns, resistance, entropy, detours, endless insertion of random anecdotes which are far more interesting than the author’s thoughts, all serve to anchor him as the embodiment of the banality he despises.

Sprinkled with romantic wishful thinking, indulgence in playful fantasy, entertaining surrealist set-pieces, insignificant facts, cameos by Napoleon, van Gogh, Chirico, Nietszche, Vermeer, Chekhov, Dali, and others, the intentional sloppiness of the sentences, the clumsy recountings, and wacky outrageous humor, all add up to a riveting conglomeration. Add to this the subtle inclusion of the absurdity of war, the absurdity of human behavior in contrast to the exactitude of certain historical details that cast light on the folly of Man through the ages, and display how “treating ideas as objects and objects as ideas,” can invade every sector of our lives.

The difference between poetry and fiction, Nature contemplating itself, how to seduce a cow, the comparison of Buddhist monks to hippies, superstition, alien invasion, Venice, Paris and the Amazon, the initial spark and germination of stories, the virtue of self-reliance, loneliness, desensitization and human agency, and a lot more is to be found in Vaseline Buddha. It is once and for all a demonstration of free will and a masterpiece masquerading as a free associative rant.

Read it.

Review of Lord Valentine’s Castle (Lord Valentine, #1) by Robert Silverberg

A grand and imaginative adventure on an alien planet.

Our prototypical hero has been transplanted from his rightful throne, and he must rise from rags to power through the sheer will contained in his magical dream-enhancing powers and his innate juggling ability. He will gather a band of weird followers, and inspire all those around him with his glorious destiny. If this sounds corny, it is. Silverberg has produced some questionable literary material in his time, but this is good, relatively clean fun. Unlike the other science fiction novels of his I’ve read, he seems to have put a great deal of effort into designing a complex system of well-realized constraints.

All told, it is an effective novel or journeying, with danger around every corner and never enough tension to make you gasp. You get the pulp-novel jokes that fail to make you laugh, the slyly inserted sexual encounters, the tentacled beasts wrapping their tentacles over peoples’ faces, tentacle-tickling them into submission, the psychedelic undertones reverberating through almost every chapter, pretending at mysticism, the labyrinth wandering, ornate architectural descriptions worthy of Lovecraft, the tricksters appearing out of the woodwork to impede and cajole our band of misfits, the segment at sea, with its predictable outcome. How could you not have fun in such a well-realized fictional set-up? The world building really elevates this book out of the crowded realm of its fantasy trappings. Majipoor is a memorable, colorful planet, chock full of strange islands, allegorical chimeras and inhabited by a dozen alien races, each with their own history, relation to the hierarchies ruling the bureaucratic government and an endless wilderness, as treacherous as any intelligent adversary.

The stakes are fairly low, when you consider that Lord Valentine is really the only one who needs to take back his rights. In the grand scheme of things, Majipoor was not in shambles as a result of his usurpation. He could have lived a merry life among the entertainers. But he chose to forsake simplicity and pleasure for the mighty calling of Fate. He makes for a silly protagonist, another product of wish-fulfillment. But seldom have I ever encountered another world I would have liked to explore more. The reward is in the discovery, and there is a magnificent treasure-trove of fantastical elements to unearth, even if the book is none too deep.

Review of The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

I could try to compose a lengthy review, but the essential points are in the product description. You don’t need to know more than that to determine if this book is for you. Combined with the page count, it shouldn’t be a difficult decision.

I will just say that it could have been better. Disc 29 was simply bad. I’m not sure if he was going for a William S. Burroughs homage. The historical details are startling, as expected. Length is a positive virtue in historical novels in some instances. The main character recounts a large variety of relevant experiences, but the many side characters are not developed. Not to mention there were dozens too many hook ups for the scenes to be aesthetic or important. In essence, the author was attempting, I think, to desensitize the reader, and the accumulation of atrocities was astounding. It has the major advantage over Chuck Palahniuk of being of historical interest, instead of an excessive display of bodily functions dissected and put on display for shock value.

Review of Dragonflight (Dragonriders of Pern, #1) by Anne McCaffrey

The start of a well-known series. While the writing was on par with many fantasies I’ve read, the characters and setting did not amaze me. 

It is dragon-centric, so heavy with dragon-lore and dragon-activities and dragon-relationships and dragony stuff that it left me curious about the characters.

For all of its world building, threads and mind-tapping, and so forth, it fell rather flat for me. I can see how plenty of people will enjoy the series. It has the right tropes, and it is competently written, but the power and majesty of the author’s fictional universe did not come through. While reading more compelling series at the moment, I was less than impressed by this one.

Review of Eggs, Beans And Crumpets by P.G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse may be the most comic writer from his time. This book, in a consummately British, very moist audiobook reading, was constantly hilarious.

This author’s use of similes might be unequaled. The wordy acrobatics he pulls off juxtaposes a mundane setting for bumbling characters. The prevalent theme is money, and how it is variously lost and gained, in relatively trifling amounts by people who just can’t resist themselves. Featuring lost Pekinese, stamp collections and top hats. Don’t expect earth-shattering dramatic panoplies but endlessly entertaining small-time antics. Even if many situations are interchangeable, they are wonderfully wild.

Review of Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami

I have trouble motivating myself to write about the works of Haruki Murakami. The fact of the matter is, I have read all of his work in English, I love it, I know it has flaws, and I don’t care.

He has a legion of followers, rivaling Neil Gaiman, but I believe, at least in my eyes, his literature has lasting value, and literary merit in its own right. His work poses as pulp, lite magical realism, but it touches something deep. It is at times incongruous, dreamlike and silly, but it is always readable.

H. M. is an unexplainable phenomenon. Imagine a batter that gets called in out of nowhere late in the game, during the last inning. No one has ever heard of him before. He is about two feet tall, a hundred pounds overweight and has one eye. The whole crowd laughs him off in the stands. The pitcher shrugs. The game is already in the bag, he thinks. Then this little batter stands at the plate, wears this incredibly serious look on his face, and waits. The pitcher tosses him a defiant pitch and the guy knocks it out of the park. The ball heads straight for the Jumbotron, pierces it like a comet, and shatters it with a huge explosion. Then the batter snaps the bat over his knee and strolls around the plates without a care in the world.

This strained analogy reminds me the career of Haruki Murakami. In his own words he has dug down deep into himself and written about what he found there. What an interesting guy, I keep finding myself saying. What makes his scenes feel so real, so memorable? What gives his characters such wacky charm? Why do I not care that what I am reading hardly makes sense? I think some of the answer lies in the author’s inability to hide his personality in his writing. His heart is revealed often, and it communicates messages most people can relate to.

I think Dance Dance Dance is a good book, but if it were rewritten by someone else, in any other voice but the inimitable Murakami’s it would have been, simply, bad. Like Rodrigo Fresan, Murakami does not put on a show when he writes. It is unfiltered, unplanned, jazzy improvisation. But what he writes is still a spectacular show. In all of his interviews, he comes off as someone who cares little about public opinion. Nonetheless the populace has largely been on his side. How is it possible for him to be so unpretentious? He either does not provide an explanation for his works or genuinely doesn’t know how he writes them. Philip K. Dick blamed an alternate consciousness invading his own for the insane ideas he had, at least toward the end of his life. Murakami seems to believe there is an abyss of dreams within us, which he needs merely to siphon off in order to produce literature.

Only after thirty years has the Japanese literary society begun to take him seriously. In more time, probably, his goofy body of work may attain the status of “classic.” Does it deserve that status? Who can really say? If he wins the Nobel Prize, perhaps. This impending event is a source of constant annoyance to him, like every time the possibility is mentioned, he throws a temper tantrum and withdraws from the public eye.

If there is one sense I get from reading this and other books by him, it is that he is largely solitary. Sometimes, Murakami describes people like animals, pacing their cages, interacting and coupling like insensate entities. Other times they are communicating spirits, intertwining in physical and mental synchronization.

As a translator of Carver, you can see subtle and not-so-subtle influences. Murakami has resisted the pull of influence from his homeland endlessly, only to dawdle overlong in American easy-reads, and stake a claim for himself as a competent, and even brilliant translator into Japanese. In his introductions, novels and statements, he has admitted to having read Faulkner, Dickens, Salinger, John Irving, Dag Solstad, Agota Kristof, Kafka, Carver, Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Chekhov, Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, Brautigan, Stephen King, Kerouac, and then he skimmed the Japanese classics when he was bored one day.

He has embodied some antiestablishment principles in regards to the Japanese literary climate, and since the beginning, always done his own thing, an outsider who draws a crowd. Someone who might gain some respect from and be compared to other writers like Banana Yoshimoto, but if you start talking about Tanizaki or even Ryu Murakami, you are talking about a different thing – that is, actual literature.

Which brings me to the book Dance Dance Dance, which I have obviously avoided mentioning. The politics spouted off by the characters is straightforward anti-Consumerism, and not exactly central to the plot. There are so many tangents and asides by the narrator that it is a miracle the novel stays relevant to its own narrator. The plot is a cooked up caper involving confusing characters acting out random conflicts and interests, all the while charming the pants off you, the reader, with their witty, blasé, selfish attitudes. The prose glows with sappy, effortless nostalgia. Murakami is a genius with an average IQ. I think he has admitted to being ‘average’ in more than one interview, but his ability to zero in on people is remarkable. They take on full-blooded life, even when they are caricatures. The bottom line is, this book is a convincing distraction, with a lot of satisfying moments. While the real meat of themes and subtleties are forsaken for mysterious, ominous presences, unexplained emotional outbursts, and truly affecting, beautiful atmosphere.

You can love and hate this book at the same time. It is the second book by the author I read. The first was Wind-Up Bird. This book, more than the first, cemented my love for his writing style. I have read it twice. The second time I was examining it, mainly to see if it was actually as good as I thought. It has undeniable mesmeric power, at least to me. It would be easy to point out things that just don’t work in the novelistic sense, but they work for Murakami’s skewed, dislocated reality.

By this time, Murakami was feeling the pressures of, what was to him, celebrity status, and it caused him to speak out against celebs, to lampoon them in a way, and like all of his opinions, he is completely transparent about it. Everywhere there is the same existentialist dread you should get comfortable with, the discombobulation and the “obsession with music to the point of insanity” as Seiji Ozawa remarked.

Does it really matter if elements of the plot are advanced by a man wearing a sheep costume? What about fetishization of ears? Random portals popping up leading to localized, video game like debug rooms? This is an ecstatic work of fiction. A breathtaking accomplishment in absurdist folly, a hairy dog joke carried to the heights of Mount Everest, and then whispered into a whistling cave never plumbed by the tread of Man.

If you are anything like me, you will finish this book thinking: “where can I find me more of this stuff?”

Review of Great Short Works Of Henry James by Henry James

Without further reading, a comprehensive view of James cannot be gained from 6 of his short novels. He is one of those authors: namely, no matter how many of his books you power through, there is always an infinite amount of reading left to do, like Trollope and Dickens. Your shelves will collapse if you try to collect it all.

I took this compendium to be a good place to start, though I battled my way through Watch and Ward years ago, only to discover that James swore on a stack of bibles he never wrote it in later life. What you get here are: Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers, Beast in the Jungle, Turn of the Screw, The Pupil, and Washington Square. I don’t care if James called these nouvelles, Washington Square is a full-length novel. The others are still long. He was incapable of writing short short stories, it seems.

Tempting as it is to call James old fashioned with his two first names and tireless scribbling, I will do my best to outline the pluses and minuses of embarking on the endless journey of reading him.

Starting with the minuses:
His literary texture is too stiff.
Too many adverbs, subordinate clauses, way too much use of passive voice, weak verbs, unspecific words like “thing” cropping up with high frequency, too loquacious. He describes around subjects, instead of nailing them to the page with any sort of precision. Use of filler words, like I tend, sometimes, I think, perhaps, to do, occasionally, one might say, in some of my typical, so-called, reviews. Reading him can be like drinking diluted tea, if you get out of bed in the morning craving the rare lightning strikes of mot juste. The dialogue is grossly inefficient, and he can take things a little slow, plodding around the fancy garden of his subject matter, never calling a spade a spade. Too many similes, repetition, and so forth. His choice of subject is rather safe, rather too polite, as if he were writing with his pinkie extended. He is careful only to insinuate, instead of telling it to you straight, and why would he risk doing anything wild, like that foolhardy bloke D. H. Lawrence? Finally, the dialogue for different characters contain the same diction – they all sound like H. James.

There are pluses, in case you were wondering. In fact, there are many reasons to read James.
His style creates cumulative force and inescapable tension. He is not limited to one style. The stories do not read the same. They build into their own consistency, constructing a world out of ornate language. Washington Square, for instance, is a powerful romance, a heartfelt character study, and much more. The narration can be forceful, and he achieves massive character depths with ample, weighty, dense cumulonimbi of descriptive paragraphs, looming over the atmospheric setting. This descriptive power is masterful, immersive and accounts for much of the nuance and sophistication of the tales.

The dialogue might take a little getting used to for modern readers. It seems to rely on revealing meaning gradually through the stressed elocutions of distressed minds, of suggestive minds. He explores the vulnerability of innocence, the stubbornness of old people, the toll of experience, is concerned chiefly with the privileged classes and enchanted by Europe’s locales: London, Paris, Italy, etc., probably since he spent most of his life abroad.

Let’s not beat around the bush any longer. Henry James was a towering genius. So what if he liked to dress up his stories with eccentric, absurd levels of detail? Maybe he is long-winded, but he had things to say – not all at once, mind you – but plenty of grand statements in the offing. Both a pioneer and an old school automaton, James will challenge and enlighten you.

Washington Square and Daisy Miller were my favorites from this collection. Essentially explications of the relationships between men and women, the courting period of life, and extending these verbal jousting matches into maturity, and spinsterhood. There is some groveling, and a character even raises his voice once or twice. These two stories were brilliant for many reasons, and did not rely on plot to carry them to moving conclusions.

The remainder of the stories require much unpacking. They were dense, vaguely unpleasant, ripe with the same tension I felt while reading “Heart of Darkness” but not nearly as interesting to me. Perhaps I’ll reread them after a few thousand pages of James have passed before my jaded eyes.

Review of Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Earthling is a very absorbing and unconventional coming-of-age story. It is told from the perspective of an eleven year-old girl and then shifts to later in her life. Broken up into two perspectives, they are both profoundly effective and deeply disturbing. 

I found the novel to be an exploration of the rippling effect of abuse in myriad forms, and includes many outlying themes centered around social isolation, regret, misplaced love, and subtle questions of what it means to be human. The themes are woven beautifully, displaying a full range of emotion as they echo through the characters’ lives and relationships. It contains some of the most graphic and disturbing moments of child abuse and sexual abuse I have seen in literature, as well as an ending that will never be expunged from my mind. But it also contains a playful escapist, magical realist motif. The coping mechanisms used by the main character define the quirky relationships she maintains with her group of outcasts throughout her troubled life.

I was swept away by the straightforward, bold narration and the Murakami-esque magical intrusions. There was a dislocation of reality skewing the perspective, since the main character believes herself to be from another planet. It was harrowing and sad and I had to read the whole thing in one day. One of the best Japanese novels I have read in years, a must buy, and confirmation that Murata is a brilliant novelist, capable of more than the mundane brilliance that she showcased with her first English title, Convenience Store Woman. Earthlings expands upon many of the social concerns Murata brought up in her earlier novel. While that one was based on real-life experiences, I can only guess that some of the anger and detachment in this one comes from some level of real-life discontent. Her artistic achievement is remarkable though, and this book was better than the majority of Murakami’s novels and better than the recently translated Breasts and Eggs by Kawakami. With it, Murata joins the foremost ranks of Japanese novelists in my mind. This was a heartbreaking work, both memorable, terrifying and mesmerizing. You will probably never read anything like it again.

A lot of the reviews I’m glancing at on Goodreads are spoiling all of the surprises and taboos in the book. That’s why I’m not going to read them. I formed my own opinion and read it blindly, actually expecting another melancholy, droll, slightly comedic slice-of-life like her prior novel. I was bowled over. I’d recommend jumping into it blindly if you’re a brave reader, a fan of horror or psychological horror. You should trust that the author knows how to handle difficult material. Even if you disagree with how she handles it, you will still learn a lot by reading the book.

The character development, description and action all flow well and, while it is not the most literary of novels, it is polished and emotionally charged. The discussion of taboos and behavior by the character named Tomoya was a bit stilted or contrived, but otherwise, the juxtaposition of internal justifications and the surprising response we get to the narrator’s early life is utterly engrossing. It is not easy to predict where the story was headed but I found myself glued to the page.

Make no mistake. You could approach this as a horror novel in the same way you might cautiously approach the darker work of Ryu Murakami. But it has a distinctly feminine viewpoint, including an in depth allegory on Japanese traditions, touching on wifely duties, the concept of acting as a tool for society, brainwashing, and boldly assesses the loss of identity as part of a herd mentality, casting it as the death of individualism in traditional Japanese familial traditions. The inheritance of a patriarchal system creates an oppressive atmosphere, which may come off as forced, but which is really quite necessary for the plot. The plight of the outsider who chooses not to participate in the soul-crushing rat race is something I hope many of us can relate to on some level.

The judgement of others, the overreaction to the transgressions of childhood, the distrust children must endure as parasites to their parents all struck a chord with me. the way society guards normalcy and condemns the individual were all utilized in a thought-provoking argument. A quest, a searching, and the troubling prospect of getting by in a demanding society underlie the final, mind-boggling passages.

The sad reality of loss of innocence, the need to grow up forcefully, imposed on youth even when your childhood is stolen from you – those themes are all well-crafted here. The unrealistic expectations, the differing notions of love, the unpleasant need to keep up appearances, and the notion that human civilization is nothing but a baby-making factory, a gene reproducing mechanism with many moving parts, all combine into a solid backdrop for our eccentric narrator.

Mixing the societal expectations with the internal family pressure to preform, to have children, to fall in love, and to live the kind of existence that other people can accept, lend the tale great relevance. Really, a massive departure from her earlier novel, but I can’t think of another writer with this much courage working right now.

Thanks go to the publisher for the ARC via Netgalley.

Review of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife by William H. Gass

Reads like an appendix to The Tunnel.

For Gass enthusiasts, it represents a departure into more experimentation than is really useful. Plenty of meaning can be drawn out of his alliterative sentences, but untangling the twelve fonts and piecing together the abstruse suggestions takes work. The entertainment value is limited. Luckily, it’s short enough and peppered with distracting pictures. A one-of-a-kind, crude, somewhat overwrought novella. The mind as a sexual organ, the body as text, the invasion of literary techniques. Prose poetry. But you have to turn multiple pages to connect the narrative dots due to constant interruptions mid-sentence.

Review of Collected Early Stories by John Updike

This one surprised me. It is a luxurious and splendid collection. Well worth the money. My first Updike. Reading it resulted in me buying 12 of his books.

For some reason, he has acquired a reputation recently, and most of the chatter about his work takes the form of complaints. This might therefore be the best place to start with his oeuvre.

Listing off major themes and my emotional responses to the stories:

Fatherhood’s and husbandhood’s sinuous triumphs and challenges. Nice mix of life stages represented. Though women are always secondary characters. Many main characters resemble one another or are simply cut and paste versions of Updike – or they come off that way.

Death contemplated from the perspective of youth as a discovery of mortality arrived at abruptly. Sort of a universal feeling, portrayed with startling elegance. The lyrical brilliance is everywhere, as are the scintillating similes. Updike is at times reminiscent of Bradbury, but in this volume, he is devoted to Realism, and can be quite boring. He relies on plot very rarely.

Men shoved along the march toward death, assembling in their persons various paraphernalia of dignity. The mysteries of unassuming men – the men who uncomplainingly hoist the world upon their shoulder, only to expire pitifully in the next instant. Updike’s observational facility is construed through poetic juxtapositions.

Some of the stories are short sketches, exquisitely rendered snapshots, even, on occasion, still-lifes.
Updike is well-practiced in the art of literary allusion, as well as imagistic illusions. His command of description is magisterial.

DFW lumped him in with Mailer and Roth as GAMN (Great American Male Narcissi). This proclivity is not evident in this collection of his work. I’m assuming in later books, Updike turns into a sex-crazed dirty old man Narcissist. I’m basing this on how other people have described him. His language strikes a chord. The words are always brave, stating with poignant fierceness, never hiding behind safer, cliched lines. They have the spontaneous quality of free verse.

It would be hard to believe that the eight or nine thousand pages of writing he produced are all so inspired, uniformly pleasant to read, or infused with such radiance.

Pointing out the differences between Brits and Americans, rich and poor, young and old, never gets old with him, at least not yet.

Homely stories, in that the home is the theater of the drama, played out in unflattering starkness.
Visions of Christian life and Atheistic death. Some of the proclivities of Thomas Wolfe, but with a more honed style, no nonsense, a storytelling agenda unclouded by aesthetic bravado. Snow-covered parking lots, and equipment crowded back rooms, offices and book-lined studies. The quietude of Sunday afternoons; such pleasantries as make us thankful for our uneventful lives.

They possess the blandness of daytime television, how a lot of life is wasted between conversations, which are hardly ever thrilling. American ennui, childhood angst, prim and well-educated, privileged, sniveling. The dawning of maturity, nostalgia’s blush upon a quaint memory. The tales don’t require analysis, they yield to light, casual, leisurely reading. They are deceptive, glowing with inner warmth.

The stories are very tame, cool, refulgent, quiet, you can get the sense of relaxing into them.
Slow and methodical, employing straightforward 3rd person unvarying perspective. Sometimes it is only a lucid expression of palpable tension between characters. His stories seem ideally suited for the New Yorker, that is to say, they are inconsequential. The connective tissue of ordinary lives.

Flowing consistency, humdrum existence, everyday life, ie. strong emotions are often absent from the stories or are merely implied. Many of them rely on ephemeral epiphanies. Cool detachment, affected attitudes, hipness. The skill lies in the minute observations. The tales are easy to grasp, addictive, do not suffer from accumulation, are riddled with pop references, but just superb precision, fabulous word choice, blossoming prose cataracts, pervasive humor, implicit loneliness, the evocation of being young, naive, full of one’s self to the brim, the lives of unproductive, idle lounge lizards, in often entrancing descriptive prose.

American life, freedom, a certain type of indulgent selfish boorishness, middle class woes. Caring, and knowing it, is enough, feeling it in your bones, for these characters. Even when his storytelling ceases to be relevant and interesting, his sentences sustain themselves. Allusions to Joyce, Plato, Wodehouse, W. H. Hudson, philosophers, psychologists, etc. Speckled with memorabilia from the 50s and 60s. The utopian era of American ennui. He settles into a more utilitarian style toward the latter half, Sherwood Anderson-esque, accompanied by youthful moments of clarity. Dark moments are few and far between.

Couples and young men, never too poor, never quite happy, nor overwhelmed with despair.
Beautiful flora, elegant rooms, charming furniture, clean shops and safe streets, streetcars, smoke-filled sitting rooms, the mesmeric melody of words, intricately assembling crystalline images.
And the persistence of morality: how over time, a person, when interacting with others, begins to sense something in themselves called a soul. Some stories are meditations, solitary recordings of daily details, and associations, impressions, dusty photographs, sepia-toned reminiscences.

Some stand-outs include a bedtime story about a wizard. “The Persistence of Desire,” contains a brilliant episode at the eye doctor. A lot of husband-wife spats, children making mischief.

Evocations of childhood so convincing and effervescent as to be awe-inspiring. Dinosaurs at a dinner party – the mingling of surrealism into later stories. In some he begins to depart from Realism in favor of satire, but only in brief experiments, all of which prove to be magnificent departures. Makes me wish he would have stuck to satirical fantasy. There is a conversation with a Baluchiterium. (Throughout, his vocabulary is immense.) “The Pro” draws parallels which boil down to “Golf is life, life is lessons.” The interactions of paramecium, more dinosaurs, extinct animals reverberating into the consciousness of bored narrators. After 800 pages of 19th-century meekness we are treated to a 25-page sex scene in “Transaction” – showcasing another side of Updike’s talent.

All 102 stories are richly resplendent with the potential of artful language. “The Chaste Planet” is one of his most fascinating stories, in that it is satirical speculative story about the musical mating rituals of pickeloid Jovians.

Let your troubles melt away, live in the moment. Read rippling character intentions in his ripe dialogue, where cigarettes serve stylistic purposes. He is an expert at picking key quirks out of gestures. These slices of life are full of wonder, tender moments, and a strained self-conscious judgement of the world. Even a story about nothing is fascinating, containing many remarkable turns of phrase. With pithy sentences aplenty, Updike presents a thrilling panorama of descriptive detail through aptly chosen images, showcasing holistic human beings depicted in unflattering lighting, effortlessly smooth, moody, in displays of the pleasures of exercising the imagination. Pining after a vanished ideal, the disillusion that comes with growing up, and much, much more.

Review of The Melancholy of Anatomy by Shelley Jackson

Like Gogol’s “The Nose,” but extrapolated, updated, crafted in a deliberately daring manner, modernized, and covering eggs, spermatozoan, blood, milk, fat, nerves, and more.

Casting off abstract concepts like character, dialogue, and plot, S. J. focuses on the human body as an object of dream, fetish, and fascination. Implementing her vast imagination, she swells her subjects to uncontainable proportions. They become palaces, cathedrals, and labyrinths. If Borges dwelt in morbid alleyways, peddled grotesque poetry for psychedelic sustenance, his snippet productions would bring to mind this enigmatic short story collection. A thrilling emanation of ideas, and a visceral ride through gristly viscera, inhabited by the piquant ghosts of our primal fears, our soul-encasing frames expanding to encompass tantalizing visions. Beautiful, excessive, absurd, and unutterably strange.

Review of The Tunnel by William H. Gass

What is this monstrous thing in the shape of a novel? this corpulent, unkind, savage, lexical anomaly? Maybe not a good gift for your grandmother for Hanukkah.

The first thing you might notice, if you’re paying attention, is Gass’s sentence architecture: most of his prose waterfalls are extended metaphors woven through elaborate sentence jazz sessions, hinging on portmanteau-ed verbs, vividly surrounding an image without precisely touching it, m-dashes prancing haphazardly, splashing interpolated questions at the reader, commas like ants, fluid, rhythmic, incantatory monologuing, mingled with short sentence fragments, snippets, wrapping around heady themes, and wildly weird moments peeking inappropriately from behind the curtain mid-sentence.

Many performances flabbily luxuriate across multipage beds. He constructs defensive bulwarks from brick-like metaphors, voyaging across time and perspective, acquiring layers of dense blubber and baroque barnacles along the way, manacled by the belligerent narrator, who is buried in deep piles of suspicion and guilt. The narrator sees himself in his work, becoming a work of fiction in turn. His body of work is propelled corpseward, a body already corpselike, like his own physical body, and yet his mind keeps his corpseworthy self in the self-composed loop of renewable decay.

It continues on at great length, fractally expanding from its origin. Language is the vehicle with which the narrator travels, while chairbound, hidebound, within his tenement of uncomfortably moist clay, his thoughts shimmer, elegiac, uncontainable, craggy, scintillating with love, but much more hate, and all related crenelations of despair, cruelty, obsession, strained analysis, and terror, partaking of spite in form & style, inflicting the mental acrobatics of referential mania upon the reader. Subsiding over this accumulating mess is a dense shadow, crystallizing the experiences of his youth and professional mistakes, his humiliations and family trouble. The descending darkness takes on abyssal depths, dawning, breaking, frothing, molting, assuming wing-like protuberances, hovering, sucking in with maw-like apertures all hope and joy from front and center, the here and now, and that vain contemplation of the future. He relates the grievous chronicle of his growing up, the heinous history of disdain which ploughs over sympathy and modesty and good sense, leaving pummeled and flattened any shriveled shred of innocence, while the ripe, musty, and brackish stench of his tainted presence stains the pages. The weight of the book increases as the reader proceeds, taking on teetering bastions and ramparts of lingual innovation, slime-castles, gluttonous rage, ruthless, grim, determined, sustained, abstract loathing, and many poetic, sublime and pasty comparisons, all transmogrified into indictments, glued together with bubble gum and band-aids, threatening to collapse from a stray breath.

Kohler’s life is not without tragedy. With each baroque sentence, he fingerpaints himself into a gilded cage. His bawdy, infantile ramblings are textbook Freudian diarrhea. Listening to him creates a lack of envy toward any psychoanalyst currently on the beat. It makes for nerve-fraying reading, comparable to letting a donkey bray in your ear for hours on end. It is an endless barrage of apt metaphors and carousing similes, which always and forever hesitate to shamble meaningward, but limp toward nirvana in their protracted, spasmodic swagger. The vagaries of pantomiming dilly-dallying are distracting, like the quasi-experimental breakdance of his typographical schizophrenia.

Pervading the entirety of the novel is the humid presence of the main characters’ engorged personality, percolating sweat and salacious innuendoes into every line, adding racy description into every profound passing thought.

Our narrator does not believe in the inner goodness of human beings, does not believe in beauty as an internal thing. His thesis would seem to be: Unhappy people like to blame others for their unhappiness. As such, he would like to list off all of the people who make him unhappy.

And he goes on furious 15-page bigoted rants, skewering other cultures for humor and laughs and giggles, following up the long paragraphs of vituperation with “my father said,” and thereby absolving himself. Bigotry may be a symptom of unhappiness, he posits, and he distinguishes it from racism. (The whole theory is wack if you ask me.)

This book is a monstrosity. A monolith of self-indulgence. Gass has his cake and eats it too. He regurgitates it and masticates anew. He does things with the cake which will make you blush.

This book is a vomitorium of mundane human details. Much of it is unnecessary. The intimate details of baking, driving, shitting, bathing, and that traumatizing doctor scene. The obsession with chocolate and poop – the main and central subjects of the book – the quirky pages about cake, lathering textures into skyscrapers of imagery, investing meaningless drivel with inherent significance. For the benefit of whom? Toward what end? Just why?

Is there an upward limit to introspection? This novel exemplifies why so many mega-novels are not written in the 1st person. I’m reminded of Auster’s similar literary debacle – they are merely a thick gruel of mental effluence.

The sad, nauseating bathroom rituals, obscene details, intensely self-focused categorization. The tunnel-vision of this novel is astounding. Kohler almost never mentions his children, as if they are off limits. But he decimates his wife with diatribes, jibes, cruel, sick, and horrifying descriptions. Gass never bothers to explain how a character so physically and mentally repulsive could seduce young students into twisted relationships – are they all in his head?

Thankfully, he provides a few astute observations on the ruinous effects of history resonating through modern culture.

In the end, there was far too much navel-gazing. If you’re a fan of all the goofing off in Philip Roth’s less relevant novels, you’ll have plenty to chew on here. Gass records enough aberration to fill every confession box in the Vatican. The frank and libidinous memories will wear and tear your peace of mind, but some of the nostalgic childhood woes may touch you in a special place, which you may have to indicate on a chart later for the law enforcement professional. The self-pity, the verbal virtuosity, the ranting, raving, and savage gallivanting toward aesthetic interpretation is a stylized descent into Hell, a reminder that we decorate our own prisons in life, and that the search for peace or culpability will often lead to cobbling together meaning out of the junkyard baubles of the past, discerning glorious veracity in reflective pools of toilet water. We frame the world in words, only so we can gaze at the incomprehensible artistry of it.

Passing comets of ideas illuminate an otherwise bleak and unendurable novel, happy accidents abound beneath the pun-piles. All in all, you have a punhill to look forward to, Gass is a pun-beetle, equipped with an inward-diving plumb-bob for the universe. He does a bang up job bounding a loathsome man in a nutshell. Flashes of erudition occur like intermittent lightning. The literary creation of history offers food for thought, and Gass bears out his ideas in exhaustive ways – does writing absolve or incriminate, and what better way to focus these concerns than through a writer narrator?

Besides the swarming ranthills, the gross meditation, the jingles and limericks galore, the illustrations, digressions, double coding, the bad breath, the propaganda, quips and unfortunate stereotypes, this rantfarm abounds with echoes of Homer, Oedipus, Joycean mumble jumble, and frequently channels Whitman’s Song of Myself, in a “sordid sado mado” catalog of maximinimalism.

Everything from the: “eggplant, marveling at the beauty of the soft glossy fruit, at its obvious inedibility, its incomprehensible name,” to the terror and inconvenience within the sphere of marriage. Blake’s Songs of Innocence & Experience might come to mind. If you are not bothered by the mist of a prolapsed soul jettisoning out of the pages when you crack the book open, feel free to freefall into this book, go ahead and contemplate the abyss. Maybe this cathedral in a snowglobe will ring your bell. It is an elaborate building indeed, tenanted and fully reticulated, etched into white soapstone, with microscopic precision, with the fidelity of a St. Peter’s or Notre Dame, but constantly battered with fake snow, concealed by that artifice, making a mound out of motes, blinding in its simplicity, muddled by the never-invisible pudgy hands of the author, smudging any obscure definitions of self-perpetuating chaos you might read between the flurries. This is dredged pond scum, silt and sputum of the mind,

Despite all of the jokes, it is not funny at all. It is quite deeply sad.

Review of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

** spoiler alert ** This book is an experience. It is also a comment on society. I will try and outline some of the value I have found in this book. Consider giving it multiple readings.

What is most striking about the main character is that his self, often formless, subject to dramatic changes and abuses, stands in for the entire race; is, in a sense, an universal man.

His shoes could be filled by countless others – and this is the reason he makes such a compelling impression, even with his ‘invisibility’ which is both an amorphousness of his physical appearance and a undefined self. His journey and distinctive personality, anger and dreams, embody the cultural atmosphere in which he is embroiled: that of the South, and eventually that of Harlem. By examining his actions throughout the novel, it is possible to gain a chilling perspective of the African American’s historical struggle for recognition and equality. What becomes apparent from looking closely at his actions and reactions within the framework of the novel is that his Fate is not random, the disasters he continually comes up against are not mere accidents, but he is in fact towed forward by a purpose. I challenge you to find another character like the Invisible Man in a book today, whose journey unfolds like a dream, only after it has expired does it make any sense. It is a unique work in that way, because it is just a nightmare. A very meaningful nightmare full of the types of impressions we are wont to forget.
Since his dreams epitomize the dreams of the Common Man, his struggle is no different than the Union workers he tries to avoid; his position is the same as the frantic street preachers chanting jeremiads that he shuns in the beginning. It is only after the loss of faith in his idol, Dr. Bledsoe, and his immersion in the backward North, that he assumes an attitude of disgust for the system of inequality imposed on his people and finds courage within himself to enact change.

Since Ellison meant the Invisible Man to be the figurehead of a social movement, he placed his narrator’s final destination underground such that the revolution he seeks be of an underground nature. If you are thinking of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground you are on the right track. Essentially, the only effective revolution must take place under the controllers’ noses, under the cover of darkness, making use of the handicap and the advantage of invisibility inflicted upon them through the twisted psychological blindness of the oppressive white society. – This is one of the fundamental conclusions, one of the most thoroughly employed themes in the novel. Locating the narrator underground furnishes an additional advantage to his situation as an invisible citizen, becoming separated by the flawed social system, detached from the world of the upper crust further accentuates the observation that progress comes only with sacrifice and through suffering. The narrator’s perspective, though subject to vast changes throughout the length of the novel, finally settles on the supposition that his numerous misfortunes were the result of his vital progress as a reasoning individual and as an experienced observer of the warped mores and inherent flaws of American culture, that without his inevitable surrenders, unendurable agonies, and countless humiliations, he would have been able to achieve nothing.

Thus, the Invisible Man comes to realize that no other method exists to reach his goal, that his developing tendencies for violence are a result of his punishments, and that the only surefire path to freedom, equality and the fruit of his work lies in a self-destructive affinity of sacrificing for the greater good of the downtrodden members of his race, of standing in for those that refuse to fight for themselves.

The first clue the reader might receive that the Invisible Man may suffer from a self-destructive personality is in the prologue, wherein he brutally beats and nearly kills a man for calling him a derogatory term. However, he realizes that he had actually been completely invisible to the man – or so we are led to believe – and so the man had only been cursing an entity he could not understand or distinguish. Therefore, the narrator takes the slur as a personal affront, and is apparently looking for any excuse at all to act out his frustration against the people he sees as blind. It is only after the terrible forces of fate have changed him that we come to understand that the narrator is capable of true violence in the name of his purpose. At first he is not willing to take the risks, in fact does everything he can to avoid possible mishaps. However, in reality the true spirit of the Invisible Man lies buried beneath the comfort afforded by assurance in the benevolence of Fate, in the plausibility of his dreams.

His desire to speak his mind is the critical exponent of the danger he must face. No matter how often he flies in the face of the oppressors the ramifications of his actions will send him reeling back to his place. Yet the desire to act on his impulses, to not accept his situation is what propels the Invisible Man forward. Despite his many compromises and the unforeseen consequences, he is continually impelled forward by the knowledge that the state of affairs is entirely wrong and he seems to be the only one capable of initiating change.

Yet, often the narrator’s inability to cause the necessary ripples, to garner assistance or to coddle a sense of familiarity and conspiracy with those like him, and the constant pressure exerted upon him by the external forces of the tyrannical society of which he is a part accelerates his blossoming disloyalty and simmering resentment. He simply cannot resign himself. The Invisible Man’s final decision to go into exile beneath the streets of the city is a result of his inability to relate to his fellow man. In a sense he seems to have lost faith in the capacity of our culture to change. Still, the reader cannot help but feel that he has not rolled over to die. Ellison’s message seems to be to act underneath the radar, or in the words of the narrator’s grandfather: ‘overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.’

One facet of the narrator’s invisibility involves his voice. He is not allowed to defend himself, and his inability to take control of hazardous situations is largely the result of his vocal impotence. The narrator’s tone throughout the course of the novel reflects the pent up frustration caused by this lack of acknowledgement – equivalent to a lack of respect. The Invisible Man’s yearning for visibility and his penchant for speechmaking equate to the proponents of jazz, the symbols of positive contemporaneous African American influence. Ostensibly, the concept of jazz has always evolved as a subdued form of resistance in the African American community, paralleling the Invisible Man’s philosophy.

The Invisible Man’s every action and every word involves a risk. Slowly, however, he gains some measure of confidence in his dealings with others. At first he watches how he addresses whites. When he arrives in the North he knows that to show his education in his speech could be fatal. It is only after he has been crushed by the weight of Northern racial oppression that he speaks his mind. Directly antagonistic comments begin to become more and more frequent in the novel, as the narrator becomes more and more willing to take the risk of raising his voice. The Invisible Man himself senses the change– ‘I had been talking beyond myself, had used words and expressed attitudes not my own… I was in the grip of some alien personality lodged deep within me,’ he says.
Seemingly, the Invisible Man is finding his voice. He is finding the power within himself as it begins to dawn on him that he has no identity. The emptiness inside him becomes the source of his power and the impetus of his striving.

Almost all the intrinsic conflicts in this novel are working beneath the surface, like the sizzling discontentment and rage within the narrator’s psyche. There is everywhere something written between the lines. The first chapters of his life that he had spent as a servile African American youth with glowing prospects he ultimately begins to see as wasted years, naïve indulgence of the worst kind. Had he been searching for a purpose for his life from the very beginning, things would have gone differently.

In a sense, Ellison’s main character is trapped in an insufficient society, where men cannot live with dignity or attain their dreams. Therefore, the only choice for him is to die in pursuit of the cause. The Invisible Man gives up his life to ‘hibernate,’ as he calls it, and wait until the right moment to act, when the political and social climate suits his purpose. But what the Invisible Man forfeits is not the life he wants. What use it is to live in a world where nothing is available to you, and you are reduced to a ghost?

It does not take a keen observer to conclude that Ellison’s treatment of his main character is borderline sadistic. In a sense, the hand he drew over the keys when he typed out the Invisible Man’s life is the hand that wracked and ruined him; the hand is the synecdoche for the social structure that makes men invisible or enacts their doom. It could be deduced then, that the Invisible Man’s self-destructive, stop-at-nothing mindset is produced for him by his surroundings. It is an evolutionary trait in a world in which he is not acknowledged. In order to become the necessary part of the revolution in civil liberties, he must be the catalyst for violent change; it must become his elemental existence.

Dostoyevsky does the same thing with his protagonists. They go through the torture of scandal and humiliation, believing all the time that they are right, and society mocks them, beats them, or locks them up until they either admit they are wrong or die. The era Dostoyevsky knew was not all that different in some ways from the place described in Ellison’s novel.

Many critics have indicated that each obstacle the Invisible Man staggers over represents the death of a former self. Each time he reawakens from the chaos that has torn his former self down he awakens as a new man. This intrinsic quality is analogous to the continuous strain of African American culture, lurching forward through history, through slavery and violence, always coming through changed but never satisfied… This is the characteristic most clearly defined by the narrator’s journey. Each episode of the novel allows the Invisible Man to surmount another demon inherent in the system he is fighting against. Each trial allows the narrator to take another step toward discovery, to inch deeper within himself, to access more aggressive solutions to the problems he faces.

His struggle for meaning symbolizes the untapped potential in every human being and pierces to the core of the eternal human endeavor. And despite its disturbing tone, its overarching theme is one of optimism, looking forward to a peaceful future for all Mankind. Ellison’s masterful weaving of an identity shaped by anger and discontentment shines light on the predicament of a nation suffering from psychological civil war. Invisible Man represents the pinnacle of expressing through satirical exaggeration with terrifying power the disgusting nature of our own Humanity. This revisionist narrative seeks to iron out the creases still left in American society as the lingering effects of ill-resolved racial tensions finally float to the surface. However, the most astonishing aspect of Ellison’s novel will always be the narrator, a latter-day African American Odysseus, simultaneously the most vital individual of his time, as well as a nonentity. The Invisible Man works as a scarcely perceived force in Ellison’s nightmare allegory, even as he takes up permanent residence in our minds. His character gains momentum and self-worth while at the same time losing everything. It is only when you have nothing to lose can you show true bravery, and make the necessary sacrifices. You may be distressed by the unresolved issues of the novel, but what has happened is enough to show progress, what has been gained is a foothold: even within hibernation there is the seed of a revolution. Even the Invisible Man does not know if all he has done was worth it, if he is any better off than if he would have just submitted to the way things stood – ‘I do not know if accepting the lesson has placed me in the rear or in the avant-garde,’ he says. As the Invisible Man is tucked away in his bright manhole, impotent with rage, we are left with his tale, and can only wonder if his struggle will ever end.

Review of Opalescence: The Middle Miocene Play of Color by Ron Rayborne

In movies, you normally get a nerd protagonist traveling through time to figure out if he can change some insignificant facet of his own life

In reality, if we ever get time travel, it will be scientists who utilize it for the purpose of saving our species from extinction, or some other worthy purpose. Yet scientists are only human. R. R. understands this, and depicts the conflicts of realistic characters in a dystopian future, marching to the beat of their drums. Is the planet doomed? If it is not already, the future this book depicts is startling for its feasibility, if not inevitable.

Opalescence is meticulously researched, that much is clear from the get-go. There is a persistent sense of dread inherent in the trajectory of human progress, and a consistent mourning for the lost potential offered by the distant past. Crushing and mutilating the Natural world in our ceaseless march forward, what humans have accomplished is surpassed only by the baffling immensity of the cosmos and time itself. In our Imperialism, we have unwittingly backed ourselves into a small corner. Enlisting the input of a team of subject matter experts, our author has compiled an impressive amount of technical expertise within the confines of his absorbing story, roping in every discipline from botany to volcanism.

In a government run by clones, scientists serve as secret operatives in a journey farther than any human has gone before. The pacing is conducive to page-turning, and the subject matter is fitting for a vivid evocation of the vanished past. Julie’s intricate backstories serve as an anchor for our dangerously curious characters. The tyranny of man over the natural world is merely the prologue to an exploration of a shimmering pre-historical odyssey. The protagonist possesses an advanced knowledge of extinct fauna, and the author uses a lot of specialized vocabulary, which may lead some readers running for the dictionary. I didn’t let it bother me. You don’t need to understand every single scientific reference, unless you are reading this document to compose your thesis. He communicates the vast importance of the mission and provides tangible motivations for the risks involved. Reminds me of the story by Bradbury called “The Sound of Thunder.”

Who would not want to leave behind a society illustrating various dimensions of anarchy, for a favorite period of prolegomenous beauty? Progress is at war with human needs and the downward spiral of genetic engineering, the conquering of unruly weather patterns, etc., incites an inherent need for an alternative comparison. While maintaining lighthearted detachment to the straightforward world-building, the author’s examination of futurist theories, and conjectures of his chosen narrative destination lead to many an informative catalogue of pre-historical data, dramatized elegantly. At bottom, it contemplates how intimate is our connection with our planet. How much of a shadow is our current understanding of the world as opposed to the planet’s prehistorical foundations? Grand in scope, human nature remains constant, even in various forms of survivalism, which by the way, is ecstatically detailed. One of these books could theoretically be written for every previous era in Earth’s untrammeled pre-human history: Ice Age, Jurassic, etc. How tiny is our sliver of the inhospitable cosmic scale pertaining to the functioning of our lives. The immense diversity of extinct creatures to be found in his version of the Miocene illustrates that beautifully. The author takes his time to demonstrate his ideas, incorporating countless S-f tropes.

Perhaps the best reason to read Opalescence is to get a non-Hollywood survey of pre-history, without the dryness of a textbook, in the form of a well-told story, offering far more knowledge than your average Crichton novel. A fitting epitaph for a probably unreachable wilderness, of which our present is a mere echo.

Review of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

Recommended for hardcore DFW fans. This collection is a deeply personal, scattered exhibit of loneliness, a harrowing, sad, and convincing portrayal of damaged psyches. Wit, brilliance, and exuberance are all evident in Wallace’s oeuvre, but here, must be discerned through strata of mimesis.

Listening to the audiobook reading by the author this time around allowed me to feel landscapes of hurt and brokenness within its multitudes of layers of densely packed, heady elegance. Its psychological abysses yawned before me, its desolate precision etched indelible fingerprints of gracious remembrance into my mind.

Elevating this story-jumble are the author’s tangentially related interviews with fictitious personalities, wherein elaborate thought-salads congeal into heartbreaking, cohesive episodes of disturbing humanness.

Unlike his other 2 story collections, untamed libidos and feverish perversity reign here – hence the title – along with truly awe-inspiring prose-segments, interspersed in a confusing and disorienting package, where every page yields meteoric surprises, hand-in-hand with sweaty frustrations, culled from the unhallowed interior corridors of bed-sheet-twisting angst. Especially notable are the longer pieces, the meditations on violence, where Wallace proves his mastery of voice and imitative dialogue. He somehow renders incomprehensible concepts digestible, and translates his polymathic cogitations for the layman reader.

My second reading enlarged upon my first, and no doubt a third review of his complete works would uncover further joys. His contribution to American letters is astounding, and though divisive, these fragmentary stories depict an oft-forgotten side of Wallace, who had a tendency to tiptoe around his own insecurities, except when he dramatized them, when, carried away by the slippery slope of his magnificent intellect, he connects the dots for us, that we might better come to terms with the hidden maps of the mind and heart.

Review of The Inverted World by Christopher Priest

This was like China Mieville, but without the Baroque prose indulgence.

Christopher Priest wrote it in an unadorned style, and the characters and world are not as unbounded by mundane constraints as the forward led me to believe. Too straightforward and not surprising enough to engage me all the way through. A slow-crawling novel, which slithers like the Leviathan city-snail at its heart. The imperceptible character development was stunted and bland. As a metaphorical concept, there was a lot to like about the set-up for this novel. However, the storytelling did not elevate the concept to a viable level of vividness. Until I finish all of Mieville, I see no need to return to Priest’s work.

Review of Chinese Letter by Svetislav Basara

Hear me out.
I realize Dalkey publishes challenging, subversive, and often experimental titles. I collect them. But I will be donating this one. I am sure many others will get more out of it than I.

I’ve listed some observations for your deeper consideration:

Basara’s existential experiment may appeal to some. The amount of assumptions a reader could draw from the text might take up more pages than the text itself. Unearthing authorial intent is not the only way enjoyment is gained from reading though. In summation, Beckett and Gombrowicz engaged in more engaging experiments, wrote with far more lucidity on similar subjects, and constructed more artful expressions of their solitudinous mental wanderings.

A few pluses and minuses for your consideration:

The author, narrator, character or whoever says: “I could write about my trousers for hours.” The existence of this book proves that fact. At least once he says “I don’t know what I’m writing.” There are many versions of: “I don’t know what to write. I have to write, I am writing [this], [that], and [the other].” Repetition, static tone, absurd humor, signs of automatic writing, directionless wandering, etc. all visit and linger upon the page, staking claims, but ultimately, floundering amid drivel and quick, cryptic pseudo-scenes.

In a sense, Fritz’s writing is a pathetic attempt to ward off death. A ghost hovers over him. It plagues him. The self-referential text is purposely structured and detailed in a sloppy, unaesthetic way. He writes like a man stumbling through the darkness of his own mind. The central conceit institutes a challenge to the narrator, to utilize 100 pages to free associate. The motivating factors are so random that one can only apply dream-logic to justify their propulsive force.

Though occasionally amusing results are yielded, it appears to me to be a fairly purposeless experiment, an incantation against emptiness.

The absence of narrative, plot, realistic characters, common sense, the subtraction of purpose, outline, moral. That’s what it comes down to. The writer is writing to validate his own existence. The consciousness is in a state of constant existential crisis. The suicidal thoughts are not comical in my opinion, though there are many attempts at quirky humor. Much of which elicited a distasteful frown from me.

His life reflects the randomness of his thoughts, and absurdist paranoia. Also notice an obnoxious tendency to disregard what he has just written, to dismiss it at every turn, shirking responsibility for writing it, claiming he was forced to produce it.

At one point he is paranoid that he is only dreaming he is writing, and not in actuality fulfilling his commitment to fill 100 pages. There is no real explanation for his behavior except for a panicky writing compulsion, which most serious writers should probably feel at some point.

While endlessly fretting about what he should write he invents his own false backstory, progressing in reverse chronological order till he reaches the stage of a spermatozoa and encounters a previous reincarnation. Nice touch, but too little, too late.

Many other things happen, or threaten to occur at various stages of this metaphysical struggle. I am at a loss to explain most of them, except from a Dadaist perspective. If you are a fan of David Markson or Beckett’s drier stuff, I’m sure your rating will differ from mine.

Review of Outlaws of the Marsh (4-Volume Boxed Set) by Shi Nai’an

I have long wanted to reread this established classic. The most complete edition I could find in print was the Chinese Classics 4-volume Edition from Foreign Language Press, weighing in at a slim 2,149 pages. Nonetheless, I would call this an un-put-downable page-turner. One of the original Proto-Wuxia novels from Ancient China, which was rich in both history and literary mystique.

Far superior, in my opinion to the other lengthy “Great Works” of Classical Chinese, namely The Story of the Stone (Dream of the Red Chamber), Golden Lotus, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and The Journey to the West, although everyone seems to have their personal favorite. The mixture of historical narratives with myths and legends is a phenomenon seen the world over, but hardly ever do we find a personal and epic masterpiece to rival this one. Sure, you can find any number of recountings of legends and mysteries, ghost stories and battles throughout Asian and European literature, but not until you fast forward to Lord of the Rings, will you find such a magical, and intimate journey of struggles, and tales within tales, and influential themes, seamlessly woven throughout the breathless adventure.

I imagine listening to these tales in their original language on a street corner, in the fourteenth century, as people once might have listened to Homer and Virgil recite their own vast creations, and the long-lost world comes more alive. Within a modest 100 chapters, averaging 20 pages in length, with constant cliffhangers at the end of each chapter, you follow the story of heroes and villains, conquerors and families, and brothers-in-arms and murderers, for lack of a better term. The violence and torture is often cruel and brutal, but I assume, perfectly accurate for the time it depicted (12th century). The purported author Shi Nai’an (with a credit to the master Luo Guanzhong) was telling these tales at a remove of a few centuries, while at the same time clearly passing comment on his own corrupt and traditional society mores.

The richness of invention and superb and often humorous character detail is priceless beyond words, and I was enraptured throughout the entire book, which took me only 2 weeks to read. Granted, the print is not as small as some paperbacks and the pages almost turn themselves during many of the riveting chapters. The fact that I am seriously considering rereading it after a few years, and remember many of the events it describes (except for the impossible-to-remember-for-a-Westerner names) is an indication of its staying power. Not to mention that the approach and conflicts have been reworked into literature, Chinese and otherwise, countless times. We got a Christianized translation from Peal S. Buck, at least one manga/ anime based on it, and arguably, several scenes/ themes from the films of Akira Kurosawa.

Also translated as Water Margin, with some translations available online, I would recommend buying this 4-volume edition before it disappears completely. You cannot seriously read Chinese literature without running into references to this epic. It would be like diving into Italian literature and trying to avoid Dante and Boccaccio.

Put down Game of Thrones and pick up this book which has endured for 7 centuries.

Review of The Sea Lady by H.G. Wells

A skippable, unnecessary, and nonetheless pleasant-to-dip-into novel from Mr. Wells, who felt compulsed to reach triple digits with his belletristic novelizing. 

Sure, he dashed off a few masterpieces in his day, but this is not one of them. I doubt he could even recall writing it a few years later. It’s sort of about a mermaid, but more about the bickering about the mermaid, with social commentary tossed into the mix. It reads like a series of notes between cardboard cut-out characters cobbled together from one of his loose notebooks of pseudo-ideas. Yet, Wellsie manages a few dashes of genuine absurd humor, and a touch or two of surreal speculative description. A diverting, extremely minor short novel-thing I only read so I could add a check mark to my completionist charts. How many more of these grade-school-exercise-esque books wait to be discovered in the dusty heap of Wellisana?

Review of The Translator’s Bride by João Reis

In prose which demands to be read quickly, the text of this novel is in constant motion.

The first person narrator’s brain never stops churning. Language is the malleable medium illustrating his ecstatic imagination and superimposing it on his luscious environment. Strange observations gallop one after another in a stream of intriguing imagery, stitching together a skewed world of humorous satire, pathos, and rich literary description, while also giving us a glimpse into the narrator’s psyche.

Each sentence is a large, symphonic accumulation, composed of staccato strings, swallowing environmental details into the interior monologue, and it does not collapse into a full stop until it has consumed all of the prevalent features of its surroundings. This method works not only to keep the locale in focus, but to create an intimate connection with the translator (the narrator). Recursive objects emerge in the boiling accretion of language, which flows onward unabated as our main character encounters a plethora of well-spoofed personages.

These liberated, grasping sentences are somehow addictive. They convey the difficulty of modern existence in the face of such diverse sources of modern aggravation as constantly barrage the observant mind. There is a medieval quality to the narrator’s perambulations, imparted by the Mythic influences acting on his psyche.

Helena, his muse, gets him through the day. Thoughts of her bring him out of the depths of despond. The scenery and the inanimate objects and caricatures that compose his existence inspire him with dread: The daily tribulations of a translator, a nobody by his own admission, skirting the edge of a Kafkaesque society, but in truth, the breathless, all-encompassing, vivid evocations of his world provide a modus operandi, a method of living and creating out of the greasy gears of the exterior world. With this constant internalization, the translator imposes judgement with his gaze, and we see the world through his mental “translation.” We are given a luscious interpretation of the perpetually discomfiting nameless city.

The level of detail conveys an uncanny darker version of reality. The world presents grotesqueries in an unending parade. Nonetheless, confronting these obstacles represents a post-modern mini-odyssey.

I look forward to the author’s next work to appear in English.

Review of A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

You will notice right away Defoe’s journalistic approach, rife with supporting statistics. His powers as a writer and boldness of presentation are clearly beyond the pale. As was the case with Robinson Crusoe, he was not forthright with sources or veracity in the tale. It is often impossible to tell where he obtained his facts, and how much was mere invention.

A Journal of the Plague year is a vast catalogue of deaths, in all manners of protracted agonies, distempers, including plenty of “murthering” crazed wives fraught with frantic squalor. He adds sensational moments of street nudity, boiling underwear, and displays everywhere the distress and agony, heartache and sorrow to be found. He is not loathe to describe the ungodly boils, blisters and sacs, running with pus of myriad colours. But what is most intriguing is often the instigation of further hazards, posed by human beings in the thrall of distress. They are hazards of economy, selfishness, & prurience, born from their inelegant, uncontrollable dying. The fury of the contagion is not only crystal clear from the onset, it is obnoxiously apparent.

As usual, Defoe employs 17th-century nonstandarized spellings. His articulate wordiness is beguiling. The London plague was of topical interest, his belletristic swagger was prominent, and as a commercial, professional author of more than 500 works, as vague as that accomplishment is – he knows what he’s bloody doing. Defoe sought to dispel suspicious superstitions. Journalistic writing was his mode, but his style becomes almost legalistic. It’s less readable than it is a defense of readability.

What is called the Great Plague went by many names, including the Visitation, and Defoe inserts all the monickers, with his characteristic remarkable verisimilitude. He is one of the authors responsible for bringing the English novel out of its infancy. Is this an essential “classic”? I personally don’t believe so. You might summarize the book as: Various divers tales about the Distemper and how it carried away man, woman, and childe.

As was the case for Robinson Crusoe, many readers believed the Journal to be an eyewitness account in its time. Defoe omitted his name from the original publication and would have been 5 years old when the book takes place. He describes in his roundabout way a natural machine or mortality, coupled with the creaking of death carts, the reek of rotting piles of rats along the trenches, and an endless number of atmospheric set-pieces.

I found the work, on the whole, very tedious. The minutiae it describes was by turns fascinating, but the accumulation, while probably fairly true, strains believability in more than one way. Defoe had to have invented parts of it – which parts though, are well-hid. I’ve read 4 of his other novels, and greatly enjoyed them all. This was his driest, the most disturbing, and also his most journalistic work of the bunch. I will never revisit this incessantly brooding, grim, tragic, historical document. On the other hand, I greatly look forward to reading his other novels. He is a keen observer of the human animal. Many of his literary documentaries are creative masterpieces, but I found this one overlong and essentially the same experience as reading 300 pages of reportage.

It is worth perusing if you are curious about old fashioned regulations and customs. There is no plot or character development. The main character is a generic upstanding citizen, a moral, unpanicked, detached surveyor amid chaos.

By this point, if we are at all literate, we have seen these images elsewhere – Holocausts, genocides, pandemics. The fear-imagery associated with them should be familiar to us. This does not immunize us to their power, but we are not as shocked as most people were centuries ago by the thought of mountains of human corpses. What also renders the text difficult is the wandering method Defoe employs. He foregoes chapter breaks for a “realistic” scrawl of data, theses, and key details. It was as if he boiled down 3000 pages of notes to the most essential, most alarming facts and speculations, and then summarized them one after another after another until he reached the requisite length. I believe he wrote another piece on plagues, but searching his immense bibliography is likely to arouse confusion. He was a great, influential and interesting writer, but this resembles his nonfiction more than his fiction.

Review of Mythago Wood (Mythago Wood, #1) by Robert Holdstock

Mythago Wood’s strength was its intense atmosphere, and the author’s use of language to build a forest in the reader’s mind. The setting is convincing, though there were distracting missteps and aggravations that had me rolling my eyes

One example should suffice to make my point: One of the characters receives an arrow in the shoulder. A little while later, the first person narrator feels the need to explain that if this character decided to strap on his pack with the strap across that very shoulder, it would cause him great discomfort and possibly harm. (Really? I never would have guessed.)

To be fair, there are many enchanting set-pieces, and a lot of action to keep the book from being too droll. The author’s priority is exploring his mythologies. While fascinating in healthy doses, the indulgence in historicity creates a lack of character development. Guiwen isn’t a real character. You could argue that mythagos are created out of the minds of men, but that also makes it more difficult to sympathize with them. Steven and Christian’s relationship plays out like a see-saw, and the other characters are very one-note, in my opinion. Their decisions rarely extend beyond bestial desire or morbid fascination. Acting irrationally and in an unmotivated manner is par for the course. As fantasy goes, Holdstock delivers on enough levels to satisfy most peoples’ tastes. However, I am not in agreement with the blurbs that make use of the terms “genius” and “masterpiece.”

Selfish love, the possession of the love object, the damsel in distress are the disappointing propulsive factors. Pagan freedom versus Christian Western societal and historical constraints is the prevailing theme. By cavorting with nymphs the narrator begins to transgress, blaspheme and in the weakness of human nature, sins and enters into a complicated existence, fraught with danger that reaches beyond his ken. Allegorical but not the most original.

The seduction of the woods is the seduction of myths. Our ancestors were more connected to the primeval wilds than are we, and we are called to explore that past. Mythago Wood posits a fascinating scenario revolving around the creation of popular myths, their incarnations, change, and reincarnations throughout history, and uses alluring mysteries to tempt the reader forward. It is full of enticing shadows, and reminiscent of the dream-like aura we fondly remember in childhood confrontations in the face of incomprehensible Nature. It is the urge to return to the Idyllic past.

The romance was tedious, but central to the plot and pacing. I found it trite. The author is trying to express a form of forbidden love, I thought, But the logistics of the relationship were silly, and were utilized deceptively in service to advancing the plotless exploration.

Thankfully, the book is saved by exquisite trees, vines, roots, creatures, crumbling towers, and a virulent whirlpool of intoxicating imagery.

Review of Penguin Island by Anatole France

A surprisingly lackluster fantastical satire from Anatole France, the Nobel winner who brought us dozens of French classics. Of the books of his which I’ve read, this might be the weakest in my opinion. 

Whereas Thais’s prose sparkled like Flaubert’s, the writing here is safer. There are moments of great philosophical insight, but it is difficult to take the subject matter seriously. France does not commit fully to fantasy or to Realism and straddles the two awkwardly. He is not really talking about penguins, just humans. They don’t act or look like penguins, he is just calling them penguins.

In the small realm of anthropomorphic literature this still serves a purpose, I suppose. It illustrates many of humanity’s flaws, but even France has done better elsewhere in his oeuvre. You might look at the discussion between saints on the question of the baptism of inanimate objects and the consecration of animals – the old question of ‘will my dog go to heaven?’ – as the main thrust of the action in the book, but the developments of the penguinian society requires so much suspension of disbelief that I found myself more annoyed than invested. Dragons? Penguin philosophers, the descent into hell of mythic heroes? Either the author could not decide where he wanted to take his story or he was okay with wandering through every disparate topic that interested him at the time.

Of course, every sentence Anatole ever wrote was well-crafted and intelligent. He’s still a great author, but Thais, The Gods Are Athirst, Honey Bee, and any other one of his novels will offer a more interesting display of his storytelling abilities in my opinion.

Review of Cowboy Graves: Three Novellas by Roberto Bolaño

Bolaño releases another posthumous book from beyond the grave. More Bolaño is welcome in this day and age, but each time it happens I recall that 2666 was his crowning achievement.

How many more manuscripts did he leave in the desk drawers? This book, along with the Spirit of Science Fiction, and Woes of the True Policeman are satellites orbiting his deathbed opus. All entertaining, but not riveting.

In these novellas, Bolaño discusses poets and the lifestyles of poets. He has done this before, but I somehow don’t tire of it. Whether his mainstay character Arturo Bolano is just sitting around gabbing, drinking, or shoplifting books, it tends to make for nostalgic and bittersweet reading.

There is one really interesting science fiction idea inserted haphazardly. One of those patented Bolaño surprises. An alien invasion scenario. As in much of the author’s work, there is not a clear drive toward a moral or a particular interpretation. He writes seemingly at random, jumping around from subject to subject, but his style is addictive. It is not frilly, but rather gritty, if that makes sense. Old pals like Parra and Carrington show up again, along with Mistral and the other badasses he liked to namedrop.

Sink your teeth into this brief Bolaño sandwich of tales, even if it has fake meat, it is well-seasoned.

Review of Insatiability by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz

A challenging, vengeful, manic, weird, gloriously random, obscure panegyric. A dystopian, war-like, anti-war novel. The Polish Gravity’s Rainbow, rendered less comprehensible via translation. There is still a lot to gain, absorb and relish about this book, even if every other sentence goes in one ear and out the other.

The punning goes on and on an on, and examine the evidence of hundreds of notes before deciding whether your efforts to understand this book in its entirety are worthwhile. Self-references abound, along with comments on war, personal hygiene, lots of phallocentric jokes, goofy asides, well-formed rational arguments alongside pure, indulgent sexual fantasy.

Like Wyndham Lewis’ The Apes of God, this is a book adored by other writers (among them Gombrowicz) but difficult for readers of our age to appreciate. A profusion of characters carry on conversations containing so many scattered references of the early Twentieth Century European variety, that you will undoubtedly feel mind-boggled at some point, unless you are an expert in that slice of political history.

The anti-imperialism undercurrent is a little distracting, but so is everything else. This is a big book of distractions. A high-brow, low-brow grimacing anomaly.

I much prefer Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and the aforementioned work of Wyndham Lewis. But Genezip feels akin to Pynchon’s protagonists in that we rarely get the chance to form a picture of his adventures because so many contradictions and accusations and thoughts and digressions interpolate the flow of narrative, but his charm and obvious intelligence inspire confidence, and keep us turning pages (hopefully). Brilliantly witty in parts, abstruse and variable in its literary delivery of straight-faced fecal humor, Insatiability is a way-ahead-of-its-time tome.

It will superimpose a unique frame of mind upon your own. Some call it an experimental masterpiece. I call it a guaranteed amusing, re-readable puzzle, that is both tiresome and impenetrable, while never ceasing to enjoy it out of the crevices of my squinting-with-consternation eyes.

Review of Tales by H.P. Lovecraft

I read this volume long ago. I have since replaced it with a more comprehensive collection of Lovecraft’s works. This seems like a cash-grab by Library of America, rather than a proper treatment of this writer’s stories. 

You can find a cheaper, larger complete tales edition by Chartwell classics. It’s 1112 massive pages compared to the 800 here. It claims completeness but contains fewer than 60 works. If you’re like me, and feel the need to really read all of this man’s unsettling stories, you will need to look elsewhere – there are many ebook editions with rare stories, letters and collaborations. In truth, Lovecraft wrote many thousands of letters and too many stories to bind in one volume, though his fame increases with time, his talent can be gleaned from a few clever and disturbing examples. You don’t really need to worry about the clunkier, earlier tales.

Examining his sentences, dialogue or character choices are not necessarily a productive or enlightening exercise. But letting the stories wash over your unprepared mind, sinking into the whirling storm of imagery he conjures, and dreaming and revisiting the haunting, unimaginable dilemmas his stories continually present, is well worth the headache of trying to understand him as a writer, which very few probably ever will.

Like Poe, and Blackwood, Lovecraft is occasionally genuinely frightening. The uniquely thrilling aspects of his supernatural storytelling are often imitated but rarely equaled. Once you have savored the wonder and elegance of his most famous works, check out Clark Ashton Smith, who was a poet through and through and Arthur Machen, who took on the same subjects, but wrote more for aesthetic appreciation. There are a lot of purveyors of the weird these days, but Lovecraft may forever remain the king on the ‘mountain of madness.’

Review of The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem

After Lethem’s recent novel The Feral Detective, I didn’t know what to expect. This is an unconventional post-apocalyptic novel. Contrary to the blurb, I would not call it dystopian.

Apart from the metafictional antics of its screenwriter main character, it comes alive with humorous anachronisms, some subtle social commentary, stock characters, witty repartee, and most of all, luscious descriptions of a monolithic “supercar” steampunk vehicle, which actually takes up most of the “screen time” of this cinematic book. Notably it has a desolate, and (for me) surprising ending.

I would call the outlook of most of the characters bleak, but Lethem imbued his parable with enough playful language to enthuse me throughout. Definitely not a complex work like his three big novels, this falls more in line with his shorter, quirkier novels – Girl in Landscape more than As She Climbed Across the Table. He seems like a multi-layered novelist, and I am curious what he has in store for us next time. His retro-futurism works better here than elsewhere, though I think I liked Gambler’s Anatomy more. The quality of the narration was as unpredictable as the world building. Most of the cataclysmic event preceding the novel’s events are merely hinted at, instead of explicated.

I thought the book could have gone on longer, could have turned into an interesting road novel aboard a pynchonian retro-fitted future craft, but the characters mostly sat around and philosophized. A missed opportunity, since this was the perfect set up for a truly epic novel. Why doesn’t Lethem take his time, really pull out the stops and give us a work that can rival Pynchon, Philip K. Dick and other big names? Mostly, he imitates the big boys. And he does it well. Still, he has the ability and popularity to write a monolithic masterpiece – I’m still waiting, Lethem.

Review of The Girl I Left Behind by Shūsaku Endō

This was a devastating novel.

Not only was the female character a good character, but the way she is portrayed did not seem as unrealistic as it might have played out in a film or more conventional novel. The way Endo described the novel in his Afterward as a youthful effort was nothing more than modesty, I thought, since the emotions in the novel were so raw and real. His writing is precise and effective. More to the point than Mishima.

The main character was full of faults and even if you don’t take him as a veiled autobiographical character, he is a bold portrayal of a human being. The sacrifice that the female character makes is well prepared, and as the author admits, taken from real life situations. The minor incidents in the novel serve to build up the characters but they also give the reader the feel of the time and place recounted. There is in it the struggle both inner and outer that many of us face at some point in our lives, of leaving people and things behind, and the sadness that comes with moving on through life’s phases. Endo’s message is universal, and I hope this book will still be read 500 years from now.

The struggle is affecting and powerful and unexpected at times. We are in the hands of Fate or God, and what we choose to do with our short lives is up to us. We have an effect on every single person we meet. That is the inherent message and it is well conveyed and beautifully depicted. The prose is startlingly simple and powerful and the straightforward plot is memorable. No matter what you believe, the themes the author weaves into his narrative are not overbearing or preachy, they are contemplative and will lead you to ask questions no matter which side you’re on.

I felt a note of nostalgia in it as well. Doesn’t everyone meet a girl (or a boy) in their youth, who they never really stop thinking about, but who does not end up playing a huge part in our lives, who was just there for a brief moment, burning brightly, and whom we can never truly let go?

We always want what we cannot have. This is part of life’s beauty and struggle. Even when the main character gains a semblance of a successful life, there is inevitably something missing.

This is a good place to start for readers of Endo, and I greatly look forward to discovering the mysteries of existence in his other works.

Review of Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth

Should Roth’s novels be lumped together with other transgressive works such as Vollmann’s Royal Family or anything by the Marquise de Sade? Most often they are not.

Frequently, they are labeled as masterpieces, or literary fiction of the award-winning variety. Whereas, Vollmann’s far superior novel abovementioned is regarded by some as an eccentric display of scarcely fictionalized, dirty journalism.

Simply stated, about 80% of the content of this novel could be labeled as transgressive. A preoccupation with sexual mores, scatological humor, and phallocentric obsessive-compulsive mania are other descriptive terms I would use. But they are also reductive. It has been hailed as a comic epic. Comic, it is, at times, though also overwhelmingly pessimistic, sad, and impolite in the way desensitized five-year-old boys are impolite. Epic in the sense that Harold and Kumar is epic, if you are in the right mindset.

Roth excels at depicting the resonating effects of grief, betrayal and lust in many instances, but when combined with psychological transparency and fringe narrators with few, if any, redeeming qualities, it becomes necessary to define the novel by other means, lest it be consigned to the merely literal erotica section of the bookstore. Instead, let us consider how this novel, regardless of any other work he might have produced, constitutes a worthy achievement in the realm of satire, representation and the analysis of human beings.

The mental and societal situations alluded to include: madness, sexual frenzy, cartoonish seduction sequences, moving intimacy, grossly inappropriate discussions in the workplace, suggestion of far deeper corruption and crime, grief (of course), incestuous considerations, the pluses and minuses of marriage, the responsibility between lovers, spouses and professors toward those they violate, the purpose and power of art, and more. Overall, the main character represents, in my mind, a product of wish fulfilment, accomplishing in reality what could normally (and so often) only occur in the modern indelicate imagination.

Through a range of literary techniques Roth presents conflicts of varying depth and complexity, but never strays far from his central theme of the satisfaction of desires. Many farcical aspects intrude upon the serious tone it often assumes. Has anyone ever made money performing with finger puppets? Also, the ghost was an interesting way to conduct discussions and deliver character development. The dialogue can be witty, but it verges on shallow when entrenched in the single-track minds of the main characters.

I could go on extolling the great and execrable components of this multifaceted work, but I do not believe it is worth more than a modicum of my time. On to the next Roth book, to see what he can cook up with the same old ingredients.

Review of Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

I’m surprised that Viking listed this as a children’s literature. There’s nothing risque in it of course, and it is structured a little like Alice in Wonderland, but I think it will appeal to both children and adults with its playful style and malleable language. There are a lot of puns, rhymes and plentiful wordplay.

Rushdie is ceaselessly inventive, and his stories within stories are both traditionally complex, and compulsively readable. I quite like the central symbol of the source for all the world’s stories. It is a thought-provoking concept. Where do our stories really come from? I think humans have a propensity for storytelling, that it is a social act. Yet it lives deeper in us as well, stemming from our beliefs in myths throughout history. Our reliance on stories is endless. Similarly, this book captures the fascination children have with stories and how this curiosity draws them to more deeply understand the world.

Readers will catch many literary references. Anyone who likes a fantastical tale will appreciate his dreamlike whimsy. What’s more, this novel was in the same vein as Grace Lin’s fantasy series. They both played with mythic concepts and applied the tropes to a nostalgic setting. Apparently, Haroun has a sequel. I will likely check it out, along with Rushdie’s other, more intimidating novels.

I always took Rushdie for a serious fellow for some reason. I probably shouldn’t lump him in with other award winners like Kundera, Eco or Pamuk. The more I learn about him the more unique his work appears. But this book proved to me that he has a sense of humor. That discovery will likely be reinforced in my later exploration of his oeuvre.

An easy start to an author I hope I will grow to love.

Review of The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

No matter how unfinished this may be, it is nonetheless a book DFW spent years on.

How much vaster, greater, or more polished it might have become had he seen it to completion is inestimable. But as it stands, it is impressive in a number of ways. At bottom a challenging document, not quite on the level of I. J., but still worthy of the man, the myth, the one and only DFW.

One notices a lot of “titty-pinching,” “shoe-squeezing,” footnote indulgence, sweating, examining, and people who are “primed.” The repetitions appear blatant at first glance, but deeper resonances emerge toward the thrilling closing, albeit inconclusive chapters.

A main thrust of the work is: Our interaction with the world is in large part an effort to understand ourselves. A commonality in much of his oeuvre.

Many parallels with I. J. draw attention to themselves, in terms of motifs, themes, and stylistic choices, such as the coping mechanisms we contrive to deal with modern life’s challenges, the psyche’s games and gymnastics in service to our perilous mental heath, the inevitability of pain, discomfort, and the fear of said states. – We are all tragically mortal, the world is much larger than our dreams – all dramatized in scenes which will accompany you in memory for a long time.

It could be that the source of DFW’s mental aberrations were traced throughout the course of his writing in the form of his characters, detailed and scrutinized and thinly disguised, but one cannot know the full extent of this theory unless one were inside his head at the time.

It can be a difficult task indeed to separate the author from his work. His presence as a character does not aid you in this. His authority is always difficult to ignore, and wondering how much of the amplified social anxiety, paranoia, crippling doubt, OCD, overanalysis, etc. was a direct reflection of his typical thoughts and how much was put on, exaggerated, etc. is another futile speculation. The “demons of ordinary life” are nonignorable in his estimation. They are the whole of life.

Most sections of the novel could be viewed as successful short stories, which, when united, form a cohesive collage, a dense, rich, enigmatic, immersive, elaborate, unpredictable and not quite perfect whole. The poignancy of boredom is a central gravity well, drawing in and trapping the characters. The inescapable sadness of modern existence patterns the fabric of the pages. The myriad things we do to deal with stress take up so much of this liminal space that they define the boundaries of this vision.

Key players are Claude Sylvanshine (the fact psychic), Stecyk (the courteous), Cusk (the sweaty), the 2 David Wallaces (the pseudo-doppelganger), Drinion (the levitator), Toni Ware (the unblinking), and several more minor individuals, who drag along half-concealed heartbreaks and tragic flaws.

Society’s tendency to cater to the lowest common denominator runs through the whole. The official obligations which arise as a result lead to no end of tributaries. The author exerts effort to bore the reader on almost every page. For some this will mark a major downfall. But note, this should not be read as an anodyne to I. J. It is a complementary corollary of well-expressed meta-narrative. Much more symbolism and satire than I detail below could be derived from a careful chapter guide, which I almost composed in the margins but gave up eventually in the process of doing.

There are also these things to look out for: Status as a determination of self-worth, recognition, validation, being a cog in the system, cognitive systems, the unintended betrayal of true intentions through benignity, many breeches of propriety, the stress-inducing backlog of work as this looming prefiguration of Death, the remedies which must be devised for combatting the physical and mental demands of bureaucratic existence, the obsessions everywhere rampant in our day-to-day grind, the routines, the little pleasures, the tics, how we are plagued by a sense of failure, and one’s efforts suggest progress in one direction while necessitating lack of progress in another, this always running to catch up and yet falling so many steps behind, in multiform personification of failure and hopelessness, while subliminal cues trigger knee-jerk reactions, and the analysis of scrum principles can be a creative form of procrastination, how we bury the unfaceable truths of our unfinished lives, how the recurring images life composes during our attentive efforts, applied to constituent activities result in insecurities manifesting along the way, even given our weary stoicism, the trudge-factor, the essential powerlessness, the illusion of movement, progress, the thought of failure which leads to stress, which creates the anticipation of failure, the meticulous internalization of exterior observation, the ceaseless double binds, inevitable hypochondria, information overload, until he discusses the techniques to regulate harmful thoughts and unproductive methodologies ad nauseum and you begin to feel the tarnish on this man’s soul. Extract from this what meaning you will.

Perception in terms of the all-consuming microcosm of accounting terminology, the entropic details unraveling a lack of connection with others – with no soul-entaglement what are we but isolated animals scrounging in the wild? hunting for importance in a sea of data, which is the analogue of life, in the form of the archetypal businessman, how the lack of variance in successful human beings, the constraints, restrictions, codes, and the dependable fear of wrongness within people leads us down the rabbit hole. How indulgence in nostalgic reminiscence by proxy constitutes this storytelling mania, this water cooler gossip craving, how observation often allays anxiety, and wild extrapolations of conceivable complications arising from our imagination’s proposed alternative propositions slowly console us into acceptance. These are a series of improbable events in the form of cogwheels cyconling out of control in the mind, and somehow assembling into the jetplane of reality.

Some chapters have a more universal quality, and he employs unassigned pronouns. Later, we might infer which characters are speaking, but direct handholding does not exist in this book. Comedy abounds if you read between the lines. He every so often pinpoints a precise sensation so well: such as the uncomfortable sensation which arises when a complete stranger violates social etiquette, crosses the line, and provokes our disgust.

Not to mention the threat of death from exhaustion, burn out, the fanatical devotion to work, the disturbing lack of humanity in the workplace, the human automatons, amid the surprising humbleness, the humility, the meekness of those specific characters who manage to come out the other side, turning the other cheek, yet burdened with the servile mentality, believing kindness is its own reward, drowning in mindless obedience – an astute use of maximalism is everywhere in evidence – all the while insinuating, ingratiating, until dark fantasies inspired by twisted perception consume their puerile efforts.

The disturbing undercurrent of disappointment inherent in all forms of good intentions is all too clear. The startling effect aberrant behavior has on those nearby. (I’m just rattling off my notes at this point, self-aware, and not even believing any of you have read this far – but if you give up on endless sentences and paragraphs before they resolve, you are bound to founder in this books tangled Charybdis.) Where was I? Doubt, the precipice of emerging adulthood, the slide from safe, mundane, and clean life to darker living, into tense atmosphere encumbered by moral obligations. He builds tension in these relationships, subtly portrayed with heartbreaking elegance. The conformity and the accumulating guilt and adversity, the hell on earth crafted by the human mind, the intimacy, the sincerity. Deciding between fear and responsibility, young love’s complications, so much subtext in all this, even though a lot of it is simply stated, right up front. Hyperbolic literary descriptions as good as anything else he wrote, plenty of wild, figurative language, jargon-heavy musings, crucial metaphorical concepts are bandied about, bizarro-absurdity situations compound into goofy, surreal commentary. Quite a few factoids like: Remaindered ice cream trucks were used to transport IRS personnel – to the point where you can’t tell when he is making shit up. Malleable time and constant smirk-worthy details, free associative reminiscence, sentences encompassing several molten layers of description, through osmosis absorbing psychic scenery, inner landscapes. Virtuosic prose, warped syntax, self-referential deceptive intermissions, service speak, the internalized lingo of the Service as its own language leaking into the narrative.
DFW’s backstory offered as an explanation for some of the manuscript decisions, as a digressive essay on institutional hypocrisy, telling us escapism is necessary in a life rife with painful, irrelevant complexity. All of this parallels the overwrought sophistication of DFW’s style, the judgmental gaze, the repetitive double-bind mentality, how we are always trying to understand our personal compulsions, in many pieces hearkening back to sections in Brief Interviews. The art of mimesis and spoof, mixing up rhetorical approaches constantly, he brings down his institutional study to the personal level, trying the reader’s patience by minutely describing the inflexible rules of life which engender madness.

Magical realism intrudes, so does dry meaningless prattle, white noise conversations, hyperrealism, contemplation of abstract freedom, American paradoxes, autonomy, perception of civic responsibilities, governmental interference, corporate zombieism, Nationalistic fervor, by turns didactic, scholarly, civics-minded, historical, philosophical, psychological, economical, consumerist, but always maximalist. The obsession with productivity, the politics of change management, how to outrace insignificance, the ins and outs of groupthink, sickening family dynamics, a satire of period clothing and mores, recreational drug use, catalogues of character quirks, cultural references passing into obsolescence, conjuring that demon of nostalgia. Self-analyzing through reflection on the past, regret at time lost and relationships destroyed, desk life, being a tax auditor as an allegory to being a writer, the state of hyper awareness also described in I. J., i. e. “doubling,” several convoluted backstories about love, death, solitude, powerlessness, meditations on familial damage, divorce, litigation, madness, aging, wisdom, nihilism, maturity, locating realistic expectations, disappointment, self-delusion, narcissism, compassion, faith, directionlessness, apathy, “wastoid” existence, choosing to use one’s time well, television addiction, discernible epiphanies, respect for authority, and finally, the interminable bus ride chapter mirroring the bus ride itself, the minutiae of traffic logistics, slowly bringing isolated characters together, but ending like a choked off climax, just when it was nearing incredible heights of insanity. The grueling and breathtaking chapter which is meant to catch you off guard by inserting a sexual encounter into footnote 67 was amusing. But we have to sit through the IRS Training course chapter thereafter. The accumulation of irrelevant data becomes necessary to create holistic value, as info acquires significance in combo with other info.

Chapter 46 might be my favorite. It depicts the stunted sexual development of yes-men males, within complex social hierarchies and the intricacies of teenage development. The pseudo-intimate undercurrent of the unromantic conversation is relaxing, the analysis of conventions and behavior within the tete-a-tete, all of the desperate, crazy things we do in life are loneliness avoidance tactics. Meredith (the ephemeral beauty) expresses her inner desire to be recognized for something other than her prettiness. Drinion’ s inhuman aspect facilitates this. Above all it startles through the elaborate defense networks constructed within the human mind, toward the discovery of the abyssal self, and how in this instance body image bias in a tavern confessional setting can be as moving as the greater part of life. As a summation, it stands out as the one irreplaceable moment in the whole unforgettable book.

Review of Interlibrary Loan by Gene Wolfe

Sequel to Wolfe’s bizarre The Borrowed Man. Both orchestrated typical sleights of hand on my psyche. 

It is possible to get immersed in the surface-level narrative of a man who gets checked out from the library which is his institution of residence as a re-cloned mystery writer. Adventure ensures. But it is also possible you will fail to care for the seemingly inconsequential universe Wolfe has crafted in this one. However, the subtext, occasionally impenetrable, is strangely lacking in epic scale here. This side effect has occurred in me before, and the only remedy is rereading the book.

When Faulkner was asked what someone should do if they read his book twice and didn’t understand it, that author replied they should read it a third time. I would advise most people to practice the same exercise upon Wolfe’s books, if they have the patience. Nonetheless, there was a mythic quality to the latter part of the Borrowed Man not quite present here – perhaps merely suggested, like background radiation – and though it is entertaining to follow the quirky characters, the world they inhabit is a tad colder, less infused with the sinister undercurrent of a science fiction mythos. Any addition to the Wolfe canon is invaluable, so I was pleased to read this book, even if it could have gone further and done more. I still recommend it over Pandora. I’m glad Wolfe didn’t dabble too much in Noir, though to say he dabbled at all is grossly incorrect. I’m forever an incurable, raving fan of the author. You may want to consider checking this one out (pun intended) instead of buying. Since I have 35 books in my Gene Wolfe collection I’m tempted to get it for closure. Let us all mourn the passing of S-f’s grandmaster of dense world building and architecturally stunning storytelling.

Review of The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

It is very unlikely that anyone would be able to articulate as well as Henry James himself did his intentions and method of writing The Portrait of a Lady in his New York Edition Preface, which was included in my Penguin edition. For this reason I recommend the edition over the Library of America version, or any other which lacks the Preface. 

He describes the building of his novel-cathedral as an effort of placing brick upon brick. Truly, each brick is well-moulded, carven with impressions of great interest to the reader of 19th-Century fiction. Henry James is very much of that particular century a paramour, if not the Demi-god, who employed all known instruments of the human intellect to construct a virtual portrait of several character archetypes in prose which seems in itself alive, even as it confounds with its arabesques, its circumlocutions, and its encumbrances. That there is any question whether it is relevant or readable is a testament to the author’s inscrutable style – an acquired taste if there ever was one. Insinuating that he utilized a large number of superfluous words is unnecessary. One acquainted with James should know that words were more of a malleable clay, the mere molecules of the organisms he crafted.

The Portrait of a Lady is as overwrought and sumptuous as anything else he wrote – a judgement based solely on the 1500 pages from his oeuvre I’ve thus far read. It is simple of plot and complex of texture. It is a potent and aromatic tincture. Only a refined connoisseur might pick out all its manifold emanations and insinuations. ****Trigger Warning **** There is quite a lot of gratuitous syntax in this book – but mentioning this again is extraneous. Furthermore, he is fond of the emdash. —As am I. I might also warn the reader that the level of obsession with the institution of marriage goes beyond unhealthy into the territory of the uncanny, even – dare-I-say – into the obscene. It was a common practice around this time for pudgy, well-leisured, stocky, balding, over-educated men to write of nothing else. James was perhaps leader and prime advocate for this cause. In fact the subtleties of his fictional universe might all trace their gravitational attraction to this central source. Put simply, this is a book about marriage. Women, according to the characters in this novel, had a duty to marry, and above all, to marry well. She, as a species, was capable of little else, one might gather from James’s theories. Isabel, our central character, throws a wrench into this mechanistic worldview – at least for a good half of the novel. She remains a captivating character nonetheless, as do even the least woke of James’s brainchildren.

Of course, the characters have no day jobs to trouble them. Not a single one of them has worked a day in his or her life. Their time is amply consumed sniveling and braying, offering a grotesque variety of overarching societal observations. The commentary is in large part as spinsterish as was James. The discussions are speculations and measurements upon the manifestations of propriety, also stipulating upon the various measures of men and women within the household – which in itself is a vehicle of procreation – and yet this facet of human existence, i.e. sex, was apparently a vast, unknowable mystery to our poor author. All of this immanent melodrama is inflicted unfairly upon the unsuspecting natives of the trendy European locales frequented by our players. They cannot spend their money fast enough. It flows like manna. Nor can they hope to inherit enough for their needs. James is so phobic of bachelorhood, so consumed with the importance of marriage, one wonders if he was at all a fisherman of eligible women, if he was not the most eligible of them all.

Furthermore, the story is not of much concern here, but the people are. James is capable of tenderness, as well as a lot of snideness. His powers of dialogue are only equalled by his extraordinary description. This novel offers ample prestidigitation in that regard. You will not tire of viewing the landscape he has painted, if you can stand the people in the foreground. Above all, this is a masterpiece of elocution, enlarging upon the above-mentioned questions and tensions, arising from quite natural human associations. The verisimilitude is a superstructure upon the underlying themes. The flabby sentences take on weight as they accumulate, barreling forward in that Jamesian snowball, until they finally hit home, touching upon the elusive natures of our fellow sufferers, gracing that beautiful pinnacle of textual refinement, sought after by such purveyors of the experimental mode as David Foster Wallace. No one else approaches James in my opinion when it comes to thick and rich adornment. The superhuman powers of articulation were possibly James’s forte, if not his charm.

Look for the clear signs of faith in the study of physiognomy. Bask in the splendor of the author’s rhetorical aplomb as his inexhaustible sea of atmospheric minutiae congregates into a finely stippled rendering of moral ambiguities. Relish the witty banter, envy the swaggering Lord Warburton as he fulfills what you suspect will be a major role in the heroine’s life. This is an idyllic document of great power, if one can weather the grueling mental maneuvers required to keep pace. At bottom, it asks whether marriage is a prison or the relief from a meaningless existence. It would be a pity if James never defined the answer in his own case.

Review of Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

Beginning a series of reviews I will do for Murakami, though I’m arriving late to the party, what with the plethora of reviews out there.

I’ve been a fan since high school and through college. His short stories have a very different feel than his novels in my opinion. With his stories, it is best to “feel” them, rather than to analyze them. Often, they are puzzling, eccentric, funny, and almost always enjoyable in some fashion. His 4 collections of stories in English so far, this being the latest, are all more than worth the read. You could argue that After the Quake, with its deep and unsettling themes, might be the best collection, but it is the shortest and most unified. Blind Willow and Elephant also deserve their own reviews, where I might touch on theme, motif, and other facets to be found in his writing. At bottom, most attempts at interpretation of his work will be deeply personal. That is, people either love it or hate it. Most critics don’t know what to make of his vast popularity.

Murakami’s obsession with Kafka and The Beatles is evident in this slim volume, which bears the same English name as one of Hemingway’s short story collections (intentionally?) You get a decent amount of variety in this one, though I wish it had been much longer. It is a well-dressed selection of his recent work, nearly all of which I had read in the New Yorker online prior to this book’s publication. If you don’t know, Murakami consistently publishes stories in The New Yorker before releasing a book of them. Don’t ask me why he does this. I imagine a lot of money is changing hands in the process.

The recent stories, post-Killing Commendatore have not been up to par if you ask me. I am predicting he will release a music-centric collection in the future, since the sneak peaks are steering steadily in that direction. His entire oeuvre is music-focused in one way or another. It pervades his whole spirit and creative mind. His prose rhythm is also jazzy, rhythmic and pretty addictive. Yet, the few instances where he elevates his storytelling to sublime heights are the moments I look for in his writing, where so much of it speaks of everyday, ennui-laced, nostalgic people and mundane, melodramatic conflicts. He slides into the weird inevitably, into Lynchian territory, without a word or excuse. But this collection focusses more on the real. In the end I was not fully satisfied with it, only because he has pulled these tricks before, in some cases with more success. My favorite story was “Drive My Car,” though that is likely to change. Every time I reread one of the collections I discover new likes, dislikes and uncertainties. My rabid enthusiasm has been subsiding with each subsequent publication after 1Q84, which I am afraid to reread or review, for fear of what it will do to my tarnishing view of his greater works.

Murakami has a way of being effortlessly thought-provoking, even when he’s pulling your chain.

Review of The Gray Prince by Jack Vance

The Gray Prince is not advanced Vance, but it fulfills many of the checklist items one comes to expect from the GM of fantasy: weird creatures, oddball characters, absurd names, made-up vocabulary, un-subtle satire, hilarious high jinx, and luscious alien scenery.

One of the most inventive pulp writers around, Vance’s slim space novels leave many of his competitors in the astral dust.

Witty dialogue, unexpected, quirky vehicles, and little to no sciency explanation for technology are all par for the course. Where this iteration lacks in plot or depth, it makes it up with gorgeous imagery and action-packed adventure. Its characters speak our language, and live lifestyles not remote from our own with the conveniences of futuristic luxury, but still hold onto the backward morality of imperialism. A few surprises are in store for the uninitiated reader, but Vance has reworked these themes elsewhere. One or another of his books are not necessary to start with. Even his series can be digested in isolated parts. Being in the company of this writer is always a singular pleasure. His concern is usually entertainment, and if he added a few political undercurrents here and there, it was only to lend his work relevance. He might have survived as a purist writer, consumed with mere aesthetic, but he triumphs as a storyteller and left behind a massive oeuvre of gemlike dream-worlds.

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.