Review of Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo

I have read 16 Delillo novels so far. 

His literary cobbling definitely intrigues me. The sense of place, the weird characters saying off-the-wall things. The long, unnecessary, wandering, plotless sections of simply intriguing writing.

My ranking of Delillo so far:

1. Underworld
2. Americana
3. Cosmopolis
4. The Angel Esmeralda
5. The Body Artist
6. White Noise
7. Mao II
8. The Names
9. Zero K
10. Point Omega
11. Great Jones Street
12. Players
13. Libra
14. Falling Man
15. Ratner’s Star
16. The Silence

Most people could disagree and come up with their own rankings. I think the reader brings something to Delillo, interprets his aesthetic and appreciates his writing on different levels.
I’ll be tracking down and completing his final remaining works with trepidation and a touch of sadness. I will have to return to Ratner’s Star, having been disappointed. Then I will return to Underworld, having been enraptured. Is he a genius or a clever collagist?

My guess is he writes sentence by sentence, stringing together thoughts, characters, scenes. The themes bubble beneath the surface, but the subtle dance of his point is often elusive. You can always be assured that he will crisply construct elegant phrases, and incorporate many universal emotions and pointed comments related to the zeitgeist.

This book is only marginally about a rock group, a drug, a commune, writer’s complaints, and many other side topics. There is a near constant refrain of social commentary. Delillo’s books teach us a little bit more about being human, with all of our flaws, misconceptions, and compassion. Taken together, I think his body of work is more compelling than most other American authors, and comparable to Cormac McCarthy’s, or Steinbeck’s.

A true original, like Pynchon, who placed style and sentence precision above plot. Yet, I believe that most of his books fall just short of masterpieces due to their unfocused approach. Occasionally, whole sections fall flat to me, or certain books require an uneven amount of effort, with dense, impenetrable monologues abutting cinematic descriptions. This could be a failing in me as a reader, and proper appreciation of the hidden nuances may come with time.

This is as good a place as any to start with DeLillo. But I think Angel Esmeralda is the more perfect distillation of his powers.

Review of A Cool Million by Nathanael West

Greasy satire of the most malicious kind. 

A rags to rags story about one man’s valiant pursuit of the American nightmare. A surprisingly smooth and cinematic journey through the underbelly of America, which is not an underbelly so much as a carcass here, teeming with greedy maggots. The swindles are clever and the racism is either intentional or very sad indeed. Caricatures that will stick in the mind and slapstick that will make you wince. This mock picturesque ramble through urban squalor will titillate any enthusiast of descriptive prose or moral quandaries. Ask yourself, has anything changed? A poignant classic shedding light on societal struggles often brushed under the rug.

Review of The Anthologist (The Paul Chowder Chronicles #1) by Nicholson Baker

Baker’s deep dive into poetry analysis and history succeeds on every level except for his audiobook narration, which is uneven, ranging from blasting your ear drums out to indecipherable murmurs. The whole book is a poetic interlude about an anthologist failing to write a poetry book introduction. The minutia of his life is cast under starkly touching light in that way only Baker can capture.

Review of Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin

A short, atmospheric novella relating the enigmatic beauty of an unremarkable life. 

A quiet, heartfelt rendering of human beings intertwined in the awkward embrace of modern life in an out of the way place. I really enjoyed the setting. A well-structured short work, but less striking than a more-developed novel would’ve been. It was a tight and smooth read, fraught with elegant expression and straightforward narration, with moments of icy clarity and melancholy meditations. An innkeeper’s life, in a nutshell. She meets a graphic novelist. The relationship is a bit stark and undramatic. Plenty of subtleties. A bit like an old foreign film, grainy, radiating depth of feeling, but nonetheless transitory.

Review of Heaven by Mieko Kawakami

I am cautiously optimistic regarding Mieko Kawakami’s literary future. She is a rising star of popular Japanese fiction, but I see her writing style suffering from common traits plaguing the English translations we are getting within the past several years. 

It is a kind of commercial dumbing down of the prose. Contemporary Japanese books are sliding into the mainstream perhaps, and losing some of that Mishima-level literary refinement. You don’t get anything on the level of Ryu Murakami anymore, and a lot of these super-young, female literary writers are appealing to the same crowd as Haruki Murakami whose pop celebrity status spawned a new generation of imitators.

If the style of this novel resembled her short stories from the publication Monkey Business, it would have easily merited more enthusiasm from me. Yet, it would be easy to slide this into the YA category. Like her recent Breasts and Eggs, she wrestles with important and emotionally trying topics, boasting a wealth of subtext, but employs a utilitarian style I can only describe as bland.

I realize this book takes place from the perspective of a 14 year old, but I would’ve liked to read something more developed than straightforward, childish thoughts and internal argument. The conversations are surface level, and the atmosphere is poorly established. The syntax is so literal, unadorned, sloppy, straightforward and fast-paced it felt like reading a newspaper. I would have to put this in the same category as Snakes and Earrings, which is pulp, adolescent fiction, not challenging in any way. This is simply my opinion, and I will read anything Kawakami puts out into English. She is certainly capable of establishing a similar output to Banana Yoshimoto or even Dazai, but not if she chooses to continue taking the easy route to popularity. I would like to see her recapture the bent toward magical realism you’ll find in her short stories, and strive toward producing complex portrayals of modern life.

To bolster my argument, I’ll have to look at the book’s interior logistics. You get a few main characters. The bullied kid with a mild deformity, a visibly poor friend, and the self-justified douche of the school bully. Nothing revolutionary in this set up. The kids confront one another. There are graphic scenes of creepily sadistic bullying and one or two scenes utterly inappropriate for children. I wouldn’t care, except who exactly, is the audience for this novel? If it is really YA why does she include the graphic sexuality – especially when it is not relevant to the story, and if it is for adults, why is it so simplistic and forced, so underwritten?

I wish I could say it was more than a disposable read, but I have seen all of these themes explored elsewhere with more lyricism and depth. You get plenty of examples and moral arguments here, but their context is so very contrived. A confounding mixture of heartstring manipulation and weak writing.

Review of Dancing With Disorder by Andrew Lawes

When I picked up this book, I knew it would map out the plight of the mentally ill in some form or another, but I did not expect the intimate perspective, which delves deep into psychology and the emotions incumbent in major life changes, without losing the focus on character and dialogue.

The way it explores the interiority of fear and societal pressures with descriptive scenes and quick pacing made for an intriguing and mature look at the topic. The interior monologue is balanced with straightforward narration, which depicts a rich variety of experiences, along with an open-hearted attitude and graciousness. It communicates a deep understanding of troubled individuals who suffer from the challenges of mental disorders. Add to this figurative language and colorful interactions, and you have a very readable product. While the flights of fancy can get rather grandiose, the narrator is not without charm. It offers a valuable glimpse into institutions and the minds of those unfortunates who find themselves therein. Courageous, wise, humorous, and thought-provoking by turns. We’re introduced to quirky characters and shown a variety of believable attitudes. It reminded me in places of David Foster Wallace’s kooky institutionalized characters, though the comparison is one of atmosphere and tone. At bottom, the author managed to convey the originality of these people; no matter what situations they were in, they remain themselves. I could only conclude that it was written by someone who was at one point close to his subject matter.

The realistic, idiosyncratic dialogue contains local flavor and provides an immersive quality to the streamlined prose. Amid all of these techniques, the author manages to tell a good story, which is really one composed of many small interlocking pieces, as in real life. It goes into how to navigate relationships and stressors, pursue recovery and harmony with one’s fellow sufferers, channeling nostalgia to inject life’s rough patches with a hypo of hope. An easy-to-read, surprising, and subtly moving chronicle, that charts social dynamics and private growth through characters you can grow to love.

Review of Mimi by Lucy Ellmann

Mimi is not Lucy Ellmann’s best work, but this book was still intelligent and more entertaining than 99% of inanimate objects on this planet.

Ellmann’s acerbic brand of feminism doesn’t really work with the goofy male narrator, as other reviewers have pointed out. You most certainly won’t like this plastic surgeon guy, but again, entertainment is the name of the game. If I can be intellectually engaged with and laugh at a novel, it has done its job. I don’t ask it to be balanced, tonally perfect, or unbiased in order to earn 4 stars. Lucy Ellmann knows how to write well. Every book of hers I’ve tried so far has been good to stellar.

This, like her upcoming Ducks, Newburyport, will likely polarize readers. I would not call this vintage Ellmann, but it is welcome padding to her modest body of work. Calling her work modest is completely inaccurate though. There always seems to be one person, male or female, at a party or event – think of your wedding – who just cannot behave themselves. Ellmann relishes these moments of misbehavior and delves deeply into the troubling psyches of her characters at the same time. The plots are typically simple, where they exist at all, because her focus is internal monologue, which she could write a whole book using – oh wait, DUCKS, NEWBURYPORT!

Don’t begin your foray into her oeuvre with Mimi. Likely, you’ll laugh, but the literary experiments toward the back of the book (extra padding on an already padded book) will just confuse you. Her use of musical sheets and pictures doesn’t get on my nerves. It’s a little distracting but I’m there for the writing. I’m not averse to long lists and tables, if used in service of character, though I wish the overt comments were kept to the sidelines, or used more subtly.

Subtlety is used more effectively in her other works, and it is a poignant spice missing from this particular concoction.

Interview in The Collidescope

Thank you to The Collidescope for the interview. Check out this fascinating literary publication for informative and brilliant content.

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