Saturday, March 25, 2017

Faces in the Crowd - Valeria Luiselli

The narrator writes a novel based on her years as a translator in NY City. She writes that her younger self became obsessed with the work of early twentieth century poet Gilberto Owen, especially with the brief time Owen lived in NY City. There is a metafictional element to this multilayered story. The woman writing the story within the novel is married with two kids. In brief chapters she comments on her present life and on the process of writing the novel. Occasionally she writes of her husband interrupting her to object to a distortion of the facts. She explains to him that this is a novel therefore it need not be strictly factual. Thus, she also becomes an unreliable narrator. The fiction of ‘Faces in the Crowd’ multiplies several times and comments on its own fictionality. First there is Valeria Luiselli who writes a novel, then the novel’s narrator, a fictional character writing of her youth in NY City, and admitting to fictionalizing this, in the larger sense, already fictional narrative. Then within that framework, the young translator partly invents the story of Gilberto Owen, who unlike the others (excepting Luiselli) was a real person. In later chapters, Owen becomes the narrator, telling his own story, but in doing so this fictionalized Owen tells a semi fiction account of his own life. Gradually these layers of fiction and reality and time and distance converge. Magic Realism is a tradition amoung Latin American writers. They invented it, and they are the best at it. I’ve been a fan of MR since reading Alejo Carpentier, Italo Calvino, and Borges. Miss Luiselli is also very good, as is perhaps expected. To give one example, both the translator and Owen see each other in the subway, first in passing cars, then on the platform, but they never speak. Like ghosts or visions, both living in the same city but decades apart. The novel seems a bit down on Gilberto Owen. He was a successful journalist, poet, and diplomat who may have achieved greater fame had he not died young. These Owen sections are not the novel’s main strength. The story of the translator and her friends is the first and far more interesting section of the book. The best part of the Owen chapters is that even the minor characters are people who existed in real life, and all lived in NY City at the same time as Owen, though their interactions are all invented by the narrator and of course on another level by Luiselli. As the narrator states, that they could have easily met one another is more important (to a story teller) than if they actually did so. Actually, once one realizes that these characters are based on real people, the Owen sections gain more interest, and in fact Luiselli deserves credit for her research and her cleverness in inventing a plausible social circle for these people to inhabit. None of this may have happened, but it all could have happened. Luiselli has a terrific ability to suggest a long stretch of dialogue with just a few lines. She creates a sense of relationship between characters with a casual build up of brief moments. In a series of sections, chapters, paragraphs, constructed like small poems, or prose poems, she creates the lives and adventures of the translator and all her friends and acquaintances, The light touch of Magic Realism and Metafiction in an otherwise realist manner works very well. But in the final sections the Magic becomes too heavy handed whilst the Realism vanishes, and the novel suffers as a result. I found myself missing the earlier sections before I had finished reading the novel. I would have liked to see the translator’s story continue for the length of the novel. And to a slightly lesser extent I would like to see what Luiselli could do with a full length semi-fictional treatment of Owen’s life in NY City. But I know that neither will happen.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson

I've decided to post a few more reviews on this blog. Concise reaction: this is a good book. My favorite sequence was the mystical/spiritual journey in the final third of the novel. The author did a nice job of adapting a chunk of The Inferno, and tying it in with the Niflheim viking section and so on. At times Davidson was guilty of padding of his narrative, especially but not entirely in the first third. The accident and character biography and hospital treatment section was ok, just overdone. He should have moved on to the appearance of Marianne much sooner. Then after her introduction the story needed to move more quickly past the 'getting to know Marianne' hospital visits to their past life together. The attempt to build mystery about Marianne and do a 'gradual reveal', instead threatened to bog down the entire plot. Some of the short tales that lay outside the main plot, though of course meant to connect thematically, were quite good. I especially enjoyed the stories of Galileo and of the dragon. But many were not interesting, or perhaps there were just too many of them. The central plot was ok. And the writing was overall capable, but as stated earlier the writer had a tendency to drag a scene or sequence on too long. And sometimes would add unnecessary information in narrative asides, for example, providing detail on the history of morphine, and pointing out that the character had to be injured before he could learn to feel. Disguising this as narrator thoughts is no excuse, the reader does not need the former and can figure out the later for themselves. The novel could have benefited from being edited down by a third. But overall it was a good book and a decent read.

Monday, May 20, 2013

James - Falling Towards England

Falling Towards England: Unreliable Memoirs Continued, Clive James, Cape, 1985.

Picking up where the first volume left off, Clive James arrives in England to make his fortune. Four the next three years he roustabouts around London (mostly), taking a series of odd jobs and generally making a nuisance of himself. Again, we have the exaggerated comic detail, and the reminder that this memoir is unreliable, so not to take any of it too seriously. Likely the series of jobs came and went for the usual mundane reasons, such as being laid off. But mundane is rarely funny in itself, it has to be made funny within the structure of the joke or in the delivery, or both. Clive James knows more about humor than I, he could explain all this much better. The point is that James gives us the essence of his early London experience, but turns the details into a series of comic adventures, Tom Jones style. James' behavior is as bad as in the first volume. He continuously takes advantage of friends and acquaintances and behaves with utter disregard for others. It is odd that James would portray himself in this manner. But he claims his faults were real and that he gradually overcame them, decades later according to his narration. There is sufficient humor and self-deprecation, and remorse over ill-deeds, that we cannot dislike James and continue to turn pages to read more of his antics. Despite his insistence that he did not have many friends, he is never wanting for company in these stories; There is always someone who hands him a job or a place to live. Characters from the first volume reappear in greater or lesser roles. They join others who gain prominence. Part of the fun is trying to guess who these characters are based upon. James moves from job to job, always screwing up in comic or pathetic fashion. He did have a recommendation from his boss at the Australian newspaper(from volume one)which he attempted to use to gain employment with an English paper. The reply was why should they hire him to do a job that an Englishman could do. The answer is because he has experience, and an excellent recommendation from someone this person has reason to respect and listen to. But James claims he did not have an answer and did not get the job. He tells the reader that at one low point in these early London years,he contemplated suicide, or at least a return to Australia. Of course overall there is quite a bit of the tall tale in this book. Despite James' living in near-starvation and near-homelessness for three years, he never suffered either fate, and made several trips to Italy to visit his girlfriend, and made at least the one trip to Paris. He had a second recommendation, this one from a Sydney University Professor to help him apply to enter Oxford University. He was accepted, and when the required waiting period ended (at the end of the three years covered in the book) James entered Pembroke College in Oxford. This next major step in his life is the conclusion of this memoir, and the segue to volume three.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

James - Unreliable Memoirs

Unreliable Memoirs: Always Unreliable, Clive James, Picador, 1980.

This first book of James' memoirs covers his childhood and first go at University.

James calls his memoir 'unreliable', right in the title. James is telling the reader that this is a fictive memoir, a recollection of actual events and people but combined with fiction. True stories may be exaggerated or expanded upon with fiction elements, some tales may be invented, depictions of people may be acurate or partially or entirely fiction. It is assumed though, that even with a generous dose of fiction, the essence, the main body of the tale, gives a genuine insight into the life and character of the person writing the memoir. In fact, the use of fiction is meant not to obfuscate the past, but to help reveal it by providing detail, a focus, a contrast.

Most of the book concerns James'childhood in Australia in the fourties and fifties. Tale after tale recounts James' adventures as a child. They are largley comic, and no doubt exaggerated versions of real events. Many of the stories depict James behaving badly. At times funny, at times irritating, but always readable. The reader continues turning pages to see what happens next even while cursing James the child for being a nasty little shit.

According to these memoirs, James was an unusually self aware child. James tells us that he frequently made deliberate calculations in behavior to ensure acceptance at school. For example, when almost labelled as a 'brain' or even worse, a 'teacher's pet', he set fire to his desk to provoke a beating from the school disciplinarian and thereby ensure his acceptance as one of the bad kids. Other similar calculations follow. In his last years of school, he observed that he was now one of the smaller kids instead of one of the largest. Therefore he reionvented his persona, changing his behaviour from bad kid to class clown, and by making others laugh avoided being bullied.

There is much humor in this book, some of which has not aged well, but that is often the case with humor. There is also pathos in this book, and moments of reflection, and constant apologies from James for being such a rotten kid. He writes that he knew better even then, but did not change his behavior. But he would improve eventually, years later, he assures the reader.

Another interesting characteristic is that of false modesty. James makes a point of telling us his very high IQ score, then self-deprecatingly states that it means nothing. Yet he did make a point of telling us.

The final section of Unreliable Memoirs tells of James' first crack at University. Though the smallest section it is the most interesting. Here we meet characters more realized than the shadowy companions of his childhood. We witness James' attraction to the avant-garde, and to literature and the literary life, all presented in a sequence of amusing tales. He tells of his early love of books, of the counter-culture as it was in the fifites, of his early writing, of his freinds and schoolmates. James writes once or twice that he had few freinds, yet he never lacks for company. Perhaps 'few', like 'some', is a relative term to be taken relatively. All through his schooling James insists he neglected his studies, yet he always has high marks. In University he also neglects his reading, his work, his classes, yet he manages a degree.

Following his degree James quickly finds work at a newspaper. He seems to take to it well. But he abruptly decides that England is the place to be so he loads up his trunk and heads across the sea. He says goodbye to his girlfreind (who along with others reapears in later sequels to this memoir) and boards ship headed for England, circa early 1960's. The bad behavior toward other people and things continues during his University years right to the memoirs end, but, James insists, his behaviur improved, eventually.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Green - Paper Towns

Paper Towns. John Green. Dutton Books. 2008.

Quentin 'Q' Jacobsen and Margo Spiegelman share a wild night of pranks and adventure. The next day, Margo is not at school. She has disapeared. No one knows where she went or why, or whether she is alive or dead. Q and his freinds try to uncover what happened to her. They find what they belive are clues to her disapearance, left by Margo herself for Q.

The novel develops the main cast through events in and around the last three months of their final year of High School. In the time off from school they follow the clues. Margo had been the most popular girl in High School. But as Q and his freinds dig, they discover that no one really knew Margo. Each person who knew her had a different idea of her personality. She was a reflection of their own ideas, their own biases and assumptions, and on her part Margo played the role she was given. But her own personality remained seperate and hidden form everyone. An irony here is that enough is given about Margo for each reader to make their own idea of who Margo is, based on their own reactions to the story and their own biases and personalities and past histories. Thus one of Green's themes extends beyond the page into the reader's world.

As the young characters search they learn more about the real Margo. Q in particular is obsessed with knowing the truth and with finding her or what happened to her. The novel ends with a furious race against time across the country to where they believe they will find Margo. What they discover you need to read the book to find out.

Of all the Green teen books, this is possibly the best, and the most accesible to an adult audience. The themes of identity, friendship, and so on resonate with all readers.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Hay - Late Nights on Air

Late Nights on Air, Elizabeth Hay, McClelland and Stewart, 2007.

A group of characters work together at a radio station in the summer of 1975. Harry Boyd, Dido, Eddy, Eleanor, Gwen, Ralph.

These are the main five characters, but others appear occasionally, each crisply drawn and given life. The book chronicles story of their lives together working at the station over a year. The reader experiences their shifting friendships and loyalties. Each major character is given time as the viewpoint character. Their personalities and motives are explored, their feelings toward the world around them and of the other characters is revealed. But little is certain. Feelings grow between some characters and then fade, or emotion lurks beneath the surface then grows as the year or years pass. The interplay between these characters shifts and remains complex. Even among friends an opinion, a judgement, may differ on a third character. This richness and variability are the novels strengths. The characters seem real, nothing between them is pat or too easy.

The main characters are arguably Gwen and Harry. Gwen is a rookie in the radio business who drove to Yellowknife alone. Harry is a former radio star who bombed in a try at television and took the radio job as a sort mutual favor slash exile. But arguments could be made that Dido and Eleanor, and in the final part of the book Ralph are equal characters. Yet the view point we see more often is either Harry or Gwen.

Eddy is present throughout much of the novel and is given a brief time as the view-point character, letting us only briefly inside his head. His personality does not travel much beyond the belligerent, ambitious, and talented character he appears to be at the novel's beginning. We do not learn why he is so relentlessly hostile to Harry. That Harry has failed at tv and is back where his career began is part of it. Perhaps that is all the explanation the author intended. But it is insufficient.

Dido is described as broad shouldered, with narrow hips and big hands. In short, she is described as a man. Why the author has done this is a mystery. All the men find her irresistible, yet in real life they would not. Her physical description is not an attractive one. Is there meant to be a hint ofe form the book's beginning. She is said to have a attractive voice, and that is something, but not enough given her mannish appearance and unlikeable personality. Still, in real life a woman friend said she thought Dido 'sensual'.

Another character is the land itself. Hay writes as someone intimately familiar with Yellowknife and the northern landscape. The land's smells, its sights, its feel. All come alive in careful evocative detail. The presence of the land is a force, a living character, throughout the book. The second to last section concerns a long trip into the back country by four of the characters. It sets up like the novel's pentultimate section, but it is not. There are important developments on that trip, it changes several lives, but more story remains. The book continues to follow and develop several characters, and leads finally to a (too long to be believable) long-delayed realization for two of them.

Death pervades the book. Not always on stage but as a lurking presence. A few of the characters die. But beyond that, death is always referred to. Either offstage deaths of relatives, or the repeated theme of a long lost, long dead, arctic explorer and his entire party. It could be argued that death is another central character. Though not always center stage, it or its possibility is ever present, a part of the landscape, a part of life in the north country, as envisioned by the author.

Harry takes the job as a temporary position. This gives him leeway to experiment and try anything he likes since he doesn't expect the job to last anyway. In radio he has great confidence. Remember first, this is the seventies. He gives increased responsibility to women as radio personalities, reporters, newsreaders. Some of the men are angry. Harry experiments in other ways. Some things work, some do not. Many of his staff become angry and plan rebellion. This portrayal of seventies society is yet another well-drawn and interesting part of this excellent novel.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Harris - You Comma Idiot

You comma Idiot, Doug Harris.

You Comma Idiot is a comedic novel about a directionless guy drifting through life who suddenly has several problems hit him at once, disrupting the rut his life had become. It is written in the second person, which isn't used often. The book isn't hilarious, but it is amusing. And yes it does take place in Montreal, so you Montrealers out there will recognize the locales portrayed in the story.

The narrator is the idiot of the title, but after a few pages of self-deprecation reveals that he considers himself more intelligent than those around him. His actions do not back that up however, and often his much-maligned side-kick demonstrates more sense.

The narrator does show some growth by book's end, but very little,extremely little, probably less than the author intended. That is, my impression is that the author thought his main character was much more impressive in those final scenes than he actually is. But it is after all a set of character types set in a Montreal milieu the author is very familiar with, for comic effect. I would suggest that the city of Montreal is actually the main and best - developed character.