20 July 2006

Foer, Jonathan Safran. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

A Dutchman told me a couple weeks ago that this book was better than Foer's first, Everything is Illuminated. I'm here to tell you this Dutchman was as wrong as he was gorgeous, which by golly....

It's unfair to do this, to take a book and hold it up in judgement next to its predecessor, but this is the curse of the "sophomore effort" isn't it? Doesn't it happen in all areas of existence? The closely scrutinized capability of the relief pitcher to finish up a game made close and spectacular by the opener? The shameful behavior of the daughter who refuses to follow her older brother's noble example? No?

This book ends very rapidly and also very harrowingly. What is safety? When and under what tricky conditions are we, or do we feel, safe? What I love most about Foer is how sad he is, or seems to be. It is very hard to tell a good, sad story, and the stories I like best are sad ones, for whatever reason. This is Foer's 9/11 novel; his first one was his Holocaust novel. Is the ability to write successfully about such historical tragedies directly proportionate to the chances your work will be lauded and admired due simply to the topics you've had the courage to address?

Why am I coming across so cynically? There were times that I really loved this book, particularly those when its central character, Oskar, a boy who's a little big for his britches, a little too precocious at times, finds the aching, hazy pain inside himself and just owns it, just expresses his loss and sadness in plain, honest words. But I think I'm a little restless as a reader. I want something very different from Foer next, both in form and content. If he needs a good model he can go take a look at Zadie Smith, who seems to be doing very different things at every turn. God, I love her.

Lennon, J. Robert. "Happyland: A Novel." Harper's. Jul., Aug. 2006: var.

I'm cheating, here, in that technically I haven't Finished! this text, because it's still being published, serially, in the coming months. I just wanted to call it to folks' attentions, so that they can find issues and pick it up. It's very good, and yet very plain and straightforward, in that the story is something we've all seen a dozen times before—a stranger comes to a small town and everything starts changing—but there's something incredibly thrilling about reading a novel in monthly chunks. Isn't it like so weird that this is how people used to do it all the time? Like Dickens' readers and all them?

I first came across Lennon in McSweeney's issue 5, with his piece called "The Accursed Items", which is a kind of list piece of a bunch of well detailed objects that have bad mojo atached to them for whatever reasons. It's a piece full of spooky mystery and wonder. The exact kind of thing I like to do, or would like to do:
SHOULDER PADS her mother tore from an otherwise stylish dress, recovered from the garbage and employed to fill out her training bra while she dances to pop music in front of the mirror

TRIPLE-WASHED MIXED GREENS in a plastic bag, on a shelf with others like it

THE TEST RESULTS from the genetics lab that his hands are shaking too hard to open (194-5)
(Those page numbers are in reference to the McSwy's issue and not to the Harper's issues, of course.)

At any rate, I offer you these as a way to entice you, and then to give you a brief precis of the novel so far, in which a woman named Happy Masters has overcome a very abusive girlhood to become the head of a huge multinational corporation that makes dolls packaged with historical novels telling their own stories. Happy arrives one day in a small town in upstate New York and begins to take over, buying everything and turning this tiny world upside down.

The novel puts my liberal and conservative sides at war within my tired little mind. Hooray for her initiative to give girls jobs and business opportunities! Boo to her for tearing down old, storied landmarks just because she has the money to! Is she a hero or not? Is she literature or is she theatre?

Basically I want someone to talk about the book with. Read quickly and comment, like, say right here, just at the end of this.

O'Neill, Eugene. "A Long Day's Journey into Night." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym, et al. New York: Norton, 2003.

I'm teaching this play for an Introduction to Literature class I start in a matter of days. One thing much underread (if not flat-out unread) in English departments, or at least mine, is plays, and sometimes I think this is right. It would be absurd to read screenplays in a class, particularly one taught in a room with a working VCR/DVD player. Isn't it then absurd also to read a play in a class where all you've got in front of you is the script, with no actors, no stage, no scenery? But we do this, or, at least, certain anthologies continue to include plays, and certain playwrights are continually regarded as VIPs in the realm of literature, or, like letters. Is it that the percentage of the final work that is taken up by the script of the play is a lot greater than the percentage taken up by a screenplay, or, in other words, that the playwright is the play?

Are plays literature, or are they theatre?

At any rate, this one's good because it's so goddamn bleak. I don't have much more to say about the thing—which is frightening given the fact that I'll soon be teaching it to a roomful of teens—but few works of literature are better ended.
"I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time. [She stares before her in a sad dream. TYRONE stirs in his chair. EDMUND and JAMIE remain motionless.]"


12 July 2006

Lipsyte, Sam. Home Land. New York: Picador, 2004.

Don't bother reading this entry, because what all could I say about this book that hasn't already been said, according to the back-cover blurb copy, by something called LADS? (A, like, 20-second search on the Web for such a magazine turned up fruitless...could this be a manufactured blurb, or are we to just write it off to one of the dozens of lads-mags that are blossoming in the U.K. like so many shameful rashes?)
Sam Lipsyte has got balls the size of watermelons. He's ripped the piss out of his Yank countrymen so much that he gets published here in the UK first. He's one wicked sod. You'll love it.
Normally, I wouldn't touch a book with this kind of blurb on it, because I'm a snob and think that reported ball-size is in inverse proportion to talent and interest (imagine the size of Jonathan Safran Foer's or Sufjan Stevens's testes...marbles, surely, and isn't that so much better?), but I've liked Lipsyte ever since my pal Jim turned me on to his stuff back in Pittsburgh. He's got a brilliant story in Marcus's Anchor Book of New American Short Stories called "I'm Slavering," the title coming from a line of dialogue in which one character tells the central narrator/protagonist, "Look at you, you're slavering."

The conceit of this book is that the whole thing is written in the form of updates to a high-school alumni magazine. "Greetings, Catamounts!" is a common opener. It seems like one couldn't take a whole novel in this format, but one takes it pretty good. LADS would say one takes it like a man, right up the bleedin' arse, or some such. Lewis Miner, the narrator, is going nowhere in life and he's bitter toward the successes of his former classmates in an almost sweet-natured way, if bitterness can in fact also be sweet.

But Lipsyte allows Miner these moments (often toward the end of his chapters, which have titles, which seems rare these days) where he rises above his classmates, like, morally, and condemns them in the ways of some caped avenger. Let's see if I can find one of these.... Okay well here's one. Stacy Ryson was the class president and is editor of the Catamount Notes to which Lewis sends his updates, and after receiving the first few (each chapter, it seems is a separate update that Lewis sends, making the novel written in past tense, but unfolding much like a present-tense story, in that the narrator at the beginning of the book doesn't know how his tale will end), Stacy writes him a letter asking if he's ever loved, if he's ever been human, because he seems so bitter. It also turns out that she doesn't remember Lewis, despite his asking her to the Halloween dance. So there's a part where he's telling about the last time he saw his true love, Gwendolyn:
It wasn't a very heroic note to end things on, Catamounts. Here I was, ditched on the cobbles of a dead empire. Those squat rovers had ruled half the Pope-split world. I'd had the love of a goddess and relatively low upkeep. Now look at us.

Does all of this answer your query, Stacy?

Do I qualify as human, yet?

It was just a goddamn Halloween Dance.
The plot of the book is very steady and right on, but the whole thing is driven by the voice. Those squat rovers have ruled half the Pop-split world? No, I don't know what it means, but F, what a sentence.

04 July 2006

Burns, Charles. Black Hole. New York: Pantheon, 2005.

Finished on the Fourth of July. An odd choice for patriotism.

Q: How do you ruin a story about a "bug" that's affecting only teens and turning them into various kinds of monsters and mutants?

A: You include as characters in that story two, maybe four, teenagers, and spend much of the rest of the time looking at cops and politicians and news reporters who are trying to "get to the bottom of this" and "stop whatever it is from spreading before the shit really hits the fan."

Burns doesn't do this, thank god. He saves his story from ruin by making adults virtually absent (like Peanuts) and filling his story with about a dozen teen characters. So it's not really about this bug/virus thing, it's about being a teenager and wanting to spend as little time away from yer folks as posible.

That said, the book remains very flat throughout. There are new turns of the plot as certain characters are shot or disappear or whatever, but there aren't any kinds of emotional swells, along the lines of Jimmy Corrigan, say. I didn't ever feel driven toward a kind of visual poetics or a grand, complex insight that could only be delivered through image. (Another comic read this weekend, by David Heatley, did this in surprising ways even though it's drawn pretty roughly.)

But that said, the art here is incredible. Burns, btw, is the cover artist for The Believer mag, and he does a great job of using only white-on-black (like those Sin City comics) to get at a range of settings and moods. Light. Shadow. And particularly in drawing characters when they were younger, like in an old photo they might be looking at. I imagine this would be extraordinarily difficult—getting the face to look younger (and like, six years younger, not forty) and still making the character recognizable—but maybe I'm wrong. Or maybe Burns is just incredible, and a better drawer than you.

Which reminds me of a great Paul Lynde joke:
Q: Paul, is Henry Kissinger a good dresser?

A: No, but he makes a fabulous end table.