29 August 2006

Forster, E.M. Maurice (1971). New York: Signet, 1973.

Forster Finished! this novel in 1914 but didn’t allow its publication until after his death, and he lived a very long time. It’s fortunate that he lived after Stonewall, and so this book was able to get read at a time that gays and lesbians were actively fighting for equal rights. Playboy of all people called the book “The literary sensation of the year!” Or at least so the back cover of my supercrappy Signet edition (not pictured left) says.

At the center of the novel are three figures: Maurice (say /MOR-ris/) is a handsome and athletic young man who meets Clive—richer, smarter, though less healthy—at Cambridge. Clive professes his love to Maurice and Maurice says “Oh, rot!” and is scandalized. But then he realizes that he, too, loves Clive, and that this quality of difference he’s always felt is in fact gayness.

Well. So Clive and Maurice finally get it together and have a nice, though by all signs chaste, romance for three years. (I think they kiss once.) Then Clive changes, and decides he loves women, or at least wants to love women. Maurice is heartbroken, tries to change as wel, fails despite repeated visits to a hypnotherapist, and eventually falls in love with Clive’s gameskeeper, Alec, who is cockney and brawny and, I imagine, hot-with-two-T’s. (These two actually sleep together in beds.) They live happily ever after.

I’m strill trying to get my head around the Clive/Maurice duo; why Forster decided to put the closeted man who refuses love at the center of the book. Why Maurice wasn’t the seducer. I imagine we’re able “to relate” more to him the way Forster did it. That is, as Maurice gradually enters the adult world, where men can love men and it’s shocking and wonderful, those shocks are delivered through us to him, in a way. (By “us” I mean the majority of Forster’s reader who themselves aren’t accustomed to this world.) Because this is new to us, because we are shocked by it, that all must happen to/with Maurice, so that as he changes we change in turn.

It’s nice (and of course vital to Forster’s project) that this novel ends with two men in love. Forster says in his end note that this is what made the novel unpublishable for so long. “If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well,” he writes. Eighty years later, enter Annie Proulx and Ang Lee.

28 August 2006

Austen, Jane. Emma (1816). New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004.

I began with Austen, and now I've read her again. Let me declare with perhaps too much naive hope that, in the parlance of her characters, "I have done with Austen."

It's not that there are no joys in reading Austen, it's just that the joys are so rare and when they come are so helplessly buried amid such rubbish of unecessary propietary dialogue and meandering discursive sections of deep thought and rumination. See? See what she's done to my style?

The joys of Austen are these:
  • moderate turns of plot, crafted pretty effectively, if not that efficiently;
  • silly, old, angry, codgery fathers, always there to disagree with the general scheme of things regarding society,
  • the use of health as a plot device; always there's a sickly person "off stage" demanding something or other from the characters.
There's a paper to be written on Austen and medicine, if one doesn't already exist.

Upon my word, I sha'n't be the one to write such a paper.

25 August 2006

Crace, Jim. Being Dead. New York: Picador, 1999.

Jim Crace is one of the most amazing writers living today. Where's his Booker? I first fell in love with his The Devil's Larder after reading excerpts in Harper's, I think. The book is a long series of shorts about food, much of them eerie or even evil in tone and subject matter. One piece is about that unlabeled can in the back of your cupboard, imploring "you" to leave it there, unopened and unlabeled, as a way to live with mystery in your life. Another piece is obsessed with colon polyps.

This book is a "tour de force" which I don't think I've ever said in this forum. It begins with the deaths of a couple of married zoologists, murdered on the beach. Then the narrative shatters and goes off in three directions. One heads backwards from the moment of death, hour by hour until the morning of the last day of this couple's lives. Another heads forward, getting into incredibly close detail about what's happening to the corpses as they rot and fester on the beach. A third shoots back to the past, telling (forward) the story of the week this couple first met, at the very same beach where they've died. Crace braids these three together into a completely coherent narrative. It's as fun to watch as I imagine weaving on a loom would be.

The other great thing about Crace (at least, from the two books of his I've read) is/are his narrators. It's third-person omniscient the whole way through, and what it enables him to do is not be comprehensive and exhaustive like some 19th-century one (but even some times he goes into this role; he's a journalist by trade and seems to thrive off research and knowing), but rather he achieves this fantastic distance from his characters, where he (and so we) can assess them in full.

Plus you get incredible images and language:
She had, she thought, taken her still-burning cigarette with her into the common room. It was just possible that she had left it standing on its end on the veranda floor. That was her habit, balancing a narrow cigarette to knit its thinning scarf of smoke while she was busy doing something else (107, italics added).
There are dozens of these turns of phrase filling the book, tossed off as if they were the most natural, normal way to describe something. And maybe you can argue a first-person narrator can do this, but mine can't.

These days, the first person seems too limiting. It's like the third person is a documentary film shot with multiple handheld video cameras, and the first person is nothing but a talking head. Or, like, the third person is an exhibit of paintings done in various media by various artists, and the first person is your bathroom mirror.

16 August 2006

Murakami, Haruki. Kafka on the Shore. New York: Knopf, 2005.

Haruki Murakami’s language never shines or stuns. He drives his scenes, and thus his plot, too much with dialogue. The villain, in this novel at least, never comes across as a real danger after the first act. He thinks, and thus writes, too much about sex.

Okay well that last part isn’t exactly true, but despite all of the above this is an incredible book. I picked it up with the intention of reading the first chapter to see if I wanted to continue with the rest. I read 200 pages before I put it down to find something to eat.

I think why I like Murakami is that he tells me stories no one else can. Actually, the only American writer (or writer of any nationality, really) that comes to mind as comparible is Stephen King. I’m surprised too, but much of Kafka on the Shore—perhaps its 15-year-old hero and its seductive creation of another world parallel to or like contained within this one—reminded me of The Talisman, which is my favorite King novel of the half-dozen I’ve read.

The end falters, but don’t we all when we’ve reached our inevitable conclusions? I think everyone’s let off too easily. It’s strange but essential, I think, that we demand that our fictional characters be pushed to the limits of their capabilities, to the points where we very well might lose them. This doesn’t mean they all have to be dropped into lions’ dens with only a strip of gauze to save them. They don’t all need to be frantically chased. But in staying with them and watching them “overcome adversity” we feel like we’ve accomplished some kind of heroism ourselves. It’s the great naivete that novels give us.

This is maybe neither here nor there but I hate people who tell me I’m deluding myself when I think of characters as people and not as words on a page. F you John Barth. We may share the same birthday but we’ll never share a repast.

10 August 2006

Boxall, Peter. 1001 Books You Must Read before You Die. New York?: Universe, 2006.

I haven't finished! this book, but I finished! reading the list of the 1001 books which I found here. I've read 98 of the 1001, and some of those are short stories that Boxall (who's nothing more than a senior lecturer, turns out) decided to call "books." If I get to live to be 200, perhaps I'll squeeze them all in.

I imagine most people don't read 1001 books in their lives, much less the "right" books.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1925.

Where do Virginia Woolf’s novels happen? I suppose they take place in England, sure, but thinking back, a day later, on this book I can’t quite connect the wheres of the novel into a design. A wise writer once told me that if poems are built line by line, novels are built scene by scene. (This isn’t the mot that made her wise, okay? but just trust me.) And while I can think of scenes in the novel—the party scene, the scene where Richard delivers flowers, the death scene—the whole word scene feels like a slur against them. They don’t demarcate themselves as such. We move from scene to scene not as if taken from one and delivered to the other. It’s like we keep falling, like Alice in her rabbithole, or Sarah in her scary tube of Helping Hands, forced to grasp onto what we think we know about reading fiction.

Woolf’s novels, maybe, happen in a small pouch of space directly behind the eyeballs of her characters.

Boastingly, I read this novel, which comprises a day, morning to night, in a day. No it’s not that long, but still, it’s Virginia Woolf. At any rate, I think To the Lighthouse is a finer book. Or, at least, I imagine it’ll stay longer with me, if only for the suddenness of its middle.

09 August 2006

Juster, Norton. The Phantom Tollbooth. New York: Scholastic, 1961.

A classic from my boyhood. I don’t recall exactly when I read this book, but I’m quite certain I borrowed it from Joann up the street. Let’s say around age eleven. I adored it then, and still do, but reading it now I see right through its blatant agenda.

To be quick: TPT is about “a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself—not just sometimes, but always” (9). Milo comes home from school and finds a package in his room, which turns out to be a car and tollbooth that carry him to the Lands Beyond, where he runs into a kooky kast of krazy karacters, including King Azaz of Dictionopolis and the Mathemagician of Digitopolis. Turn out the Lands Beyond are all out of sorts ever since the twin princesses Rhyme and Reason were banished. It quickly becomes Milo’s mission to rescue them and restore order.

I’d loathe this book if I were an ignoramus, the way I imagine I, as I am now, would loathe any kind of Christian allegory, like Everyman or something. This novel’s a very transparent Rationalist allegory. You get a lot of passages where things like this happen:
“You know something, Tock?” he said as he wound up the dog. “You can get in a lot of trouble mixing up words or just not knowing how to spell them. If we ever get out of here, I’m going to make sure to learn all about them” (65).
A line that makes even me cringe. I read that and I immediately think of its parochial analogue: “You know something, Myrrh?” he said, rubbing the silky hide of the dog. “Sinning leads people into very bad places. If we ever get out of Sodom, I’ll be sure to confess every one I can think of.”

You do, though, get lines like this as well:
“A slavish concern for the composition of words is the sign of a bankrupt intellect,” roared the Humbug, waving his cane furiously (54).
Yes, it’s spoken by a character called the Humbug, who, yes, is a large beetle-like insect in fancy gentlemen’s garb, but I imagine it’s a sentiment not entirely at odds with Milo’s, above.

I wonder if I should quote this Humbug at the beginning of my next comp-class syllabus.

07 August 2006

Narayan, R.K. The Man-Eater of Malgudi. London: Heinemann, 1961.

This novel was recommended to me by one of the authors reviewed below, who said it was a great book and that one of the central characters was a taxidermist. It’s true, or, at least the second half of the assertion is. The book starts off fascinatingly enough: Vasu, this taxidermist, appears one day in the shop of a small press operator (Nataraj, who narrates our tale) and uses weird persuasion and logic to practically force his way into living in the upstairs room. He’s a weird bully who never lays a hand on anyone, except of course the animals he kills.

But then much of this close-living, internal domestic conflict on a personal level turns into this grander-scale conflict on a societal level and I lost a lot of interest. Also, I’m teaching an intensive class these days, which left me with only twenty minutes here and there to read the book.

At any rate, two things were great. One is that Nataraj’s main friends are a poet and a journalist, who spend time in his parlor talking about the world they live in and what to write about it. The poet writes exclusively in monosyllables, which seems like an impossible thing to do, though I’m sure some Oulipo fancypants tackled it decades ago. I want desperately to read a lot of this. Nataraj says he “was thrilled to hear such clear lines as ‘Girls with girls did dance in trance’,” and I think this line roolz it, too. But what I especially like about all this is the dichotomy of poet and journalist. It’s better, somehow, than the poet/novelist one I used to spend time thinking about. They seem at such harsher odds with one another regarding what words should do.

The other great thing is this paragraph of Vasu’s:
‘Has it occurred to you how much more an elephant is worth dead? You don’t have to feed it in the first place. I can make ten thousand out of the parts of this elephant—the tusks, if my calculation is right, must weigh forty pounds, that’s eight hundred rupees. I have already an order for the legs, mounted as umbrella stands, and each hair on its tail can be sold for twelve annnas for rings and bangles; most women fancy them and it’s not for us to question their taste [ha! -ed.]. My first business will be to take out the hairs and keep them apart, while the blood is still hot; trunk, legs, even that nails—it’s a perfect animal in that way. Every bit of it is valuable. I’ve already several inquiries from France and Germany and from Hong Kong. What more can a man want? I could retire for a year on the proceeds of one elephant’ (132-3).
Taxidermists turn animals into commodities, but then again, so very few hunt for the purposes of selling the mount. And even if they turn animals into commodities, aren’t the consumers, those people willing to buy any present-day equivalents of umbrella stands, also to blame? Do taxidermists (or did they) supply a demand that was already present, or did they create the demand for stuffed animals? I imagine the former; that post-Darwin, when natural history museums were booming and exhibiting specimens from around the world, people (men, really) decided, “Oh, well, I want that then, too.”

“Carcass” is like a portmanteau of “art” and “commerce”.