19 August 2008

Tóibín, Colm. Love in a Dark Time and Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature. New York: Scribner, 2001.

More of a series of profiles and reviews of gay male and female authors than a cohesive study of gay literature, this collection of essays is still a nice work of queer canon formation. Sure, Wilde, Mann, and Baldwin are already at the forefront of this canon, but Tóibín (is it fun typing out that name precisely with those finicky diacriticals? it is not) also includes such figures as Elizabeth Bishop, Francis Bacon, Thom Gunn, and Pedro Almodóvar in his study. His point is to call attention to certain writers and artists because they were homosexual, but not necessarily to dwell on their homosexuality. In other words, it's about finding and naming gay heroes, an interesting project for a writer who never wrote about homosexuality in general or his own in specific until he had ten books under his belt.

As I said it's not a very rich critical or theoretical work. Definitely the most enlightening thing I came across was his defense of the love between Wilde and Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, who everyone understands as having ruined the great Irish writer with his selfishness and cruelty. Why did Wilde put up with it? Tóibín writes:
In most societies, most gay people go through adolescence believing that the fulfillment of physical desire would not be matched by emotional attachment. For straight people, the eventual matching of the two is part of the deal, a happy aspect of normality. But if this occurs for gay people, it is capable of taking on an extraordinarily powerful emotional force, and the resulting attachment, even if the physical part fizzles out, or even if the relationship makes no sense to the outside world, is likely to be fierce and enduring. [. . .] This, more likely, was the stamp and seal of the love between Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas.
It almost made me not loathe the boy. Almost.

17 August 2008

Harrison, Colin. "Mrs. Corbett's Request". The New York Times Magazine. 17 Aug 2008, 22-25.

I don't have much to say about this one, just that it's the first time I've received the Sunday Times for enough of a stretch that I've been able to read one of its new Funny Pages serials every step of the way. And it was awesome. The story itself was no great wonder—a guy who works in some investigative capacity (for money managers?) in some large company in New York is asked to find some answers surrounding the sudden death of the late owner's middle-aged son—but the experience of reading it was rewarding in some easy, weird way.

Clearly, reading what may have amounted to a novel (how many words altogether, I wonder?) over the course of several months doesn't lead to a lot of retention. I remember that one guy who was a real private investigator, and the other guy who had a ton of money and lived under some kind of cloak of privacy out in the country, but their names? No clue. And how neatly did these weird characters fit into the central story, in the end? Not very well.

But it's a mystery, so who cares? I've expressed before how much I like reading longer fiction in serial format, and decried how rarely we get to do it. What other formats out there exist, anyone know? I've run across Five Chapters once or twice before, but haven't ever spent time with a story.

If I didn't have a string of Mad Men episodes to watch, I might take more time to talk about the Web as an incredible tool for the proliferation of serial fiction, and then some more time with some shallow ideas on how serialization can let a writer get away with more spottiness, or maybe even sloppiness, because of the way it gives us periods of time between episodes to forget everything other than the essentials. What are those essentials, though? I might answer this question, or try to. Instead: TV!

(Discuss: anyone know anything about this writer, Colin Harrison? I wonder, among avid fans of mystery fiction, whether this one holds up as a good one. He sure as hell beats dull Patricia Cornwell.)

15 August 2008

DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin, 1986.

I put this on my comps list. It's another Important Novel. But this time I read it like a bitch, and found it a lot less unbearable than I used to. White Noise is best read as an historical farce, like The Country Wife or The Taming of the Shrew. It's an anatomy in the Northrop Frye sense, where characters announce in dialogue all the clear ideas they're meant to embody. Which of course is classic DeLillo; it's a mistake to write this guy off because his characters don't speak realistically.

It's not a mistake to write him off entirely, though. I've prattled on about DeLillo here before (and in fact, after rereading that post, just deleting the opening paragraph to this one, which repeated almost word for word the opening paragraphs of the first one...now who's unoriginal?), how tired he makes me. All of his standard faults are here, and for fun I will lay them out.

Fault the First: the obviousness of his seemingly pop-mystic ideas
Shall I give him a break and admit he was writing in 1984? Given what he had to say about "the last techno rave" in 2003, I will not. Here's Don on the modern supermarket:
Apples and lemons tumbled in twos and threes to the floor when someone took a fruit from certain places in the stacked array. There were six kinds of apples, there were exotic melons in several pastels. Everything seemed to be in season, sprayed, burnished, bright. People tore filmy bags off racks and tried to figure out which end opened. I realized the place was awash in noise. The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension. (36)
It's called an industrial-sized air-conditioning unit, Don, and it's as boring as a baseball game. Passages like this are just so old-fashioned. Try getting away with this in your fiction. I know this is meant to be poetic. Ironically poetic, but can it these days be read as anything other than overwritten, amateur-hour horsecrap?

Fault the Second: his swooning love for the deadpan non sequitur
It's just everywhere in this novel:
[S]he wants to be the first to go. She sounds almost eager. She is afraid I will die unexpectedly, sneakily, slipping away in the night. It isn't that she doesn't cherish life; it's being left alone that frightens her. The emptiness, the sense of cosmic darkness.

MasterCard, Visa, American Express.

I tell her I want to die first. (100)
Ha! This is such dorky, ridiculous writing!

Fault the Third: his boomer sanctimony
This novel is by needs obsessed with consumerist spaces. Malls, supermarkets, etc. And J.A.K. Gladney, the Hitler studies chair who narrates the book, spends much time on how adept he and his family are at traversing these mystical consumerist spaces. It gets pretty self-congratulatory, but as I can't find a passage you'll have to take my word for it. At any rate, at some point near the opening of the novel, the old blind man Gladney's wife reads to gets lost with his sister in the mall. Here's what Gladney has to say about it:
It was probably just the vastness and strangeness of the place and their own advanced age that made them feel helpless and adrift in a landscape of remote and menacing figures. The Treadwells didn't get out much. (59 emphasis added).
It's here (in the book, and it's here in my post now that I feel I should turn to "serious study," as something legible has to go in my final, proper annotated bibliography) that I found it easy to dismiss most of the things Gladney has to say. Here's where the farce came in. Because is a man so hypersensitive to everything happening to him and around him so unable to utter lines like those above and not realize their easy application to his own self, his own place in the world? Gladney likes to think he gets out much, but other than the supermarket and the campus, he spends all his time at home. Even that trip to the mall is rendered as a kind of special treat for the family. And if there's anything clearly the matter with Gladney it's that his own "advanced age" has made him fall adrift within his landscape. He may be another sanctimonious prick (there's a bit of a glut of them in this novel), but his son Heinrich's deftness in this world is far greater in relation to Gladney's than Gladney's is in relation to the Treadwells. Doesn't he see this? Doesn't DeLillo?

Probably not. I imagine DeLillo doesn't get out much, either. And when he does I'm sure he's armed with a pencil and pad, boring the shit out of all of his "friends".

12 August 2008

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight's Children. London: Pan Books, 1982.

An important novel. Rushdie's narcissistic narrator, Saleem Sinai, achieves this narcissism from being the first child born on the day India won its independence from Britain. He got a letter from the prime minister making it official, and from this momentous, synchronous birth, the history of Saleem is twinned step-by-step to the history of India. This is what makes it An Important Novel, and I don't much care for Important Novels.

Saleem's point of view is a slippery, deceptive thing throughout the book. He and all the other titular children born between 12:00am and 12:59am that first day of India's nationhood all grow up to have X-Men-like powers. One can change its sex, one can warp between bodies of water. Saleem gets telepathy, and what this enables him to do is act in a classic 19th-century omniscient way in his narration, dipping right into other characters' heads at moments when its convenient for him and his narrative. At other times he likes to refer to himself in the third person. This becomes particularly interesting in the years he spends in the Pakistani army, when an accident causes him to forget his own name and answer only to the nickname "the buddha." For a hundred pages or so we hear Saleem tell the story of "the buddha" and only through certain physical details (Saleem was born with an extremely large nose) do we connect it with our narrator.

Oh, it's all too much. Saleem has telepathy for a while, and then he's able to smell so well he can smell people's fears and secrets. There are surely other superhuman powers I've forgotten by now. Reading Rushdie's big novel made me think a lot of Nabokov's great small one, Pale Fire. Mostly because I kept wishing I could put Rushdie down and go back to something entertaining and not so overwrought and self-important. But really it's this idea of the narcissism of first-person narrators. All first-person narrators are narcissists on some level—here, listen, I have this story I have to tell you, even if I don't want to, and I'm the best person to tell it, so listen. And I don't have the answers here, not yet. But one thing I can't figure out is why the glorious, ridiculous self-absorption on the part of Nabokov's Kinbote is so glorious and ridiculous and engaging and genuinely funny, and why that of Rushdie's Saleem is so off-putting and grating and onanistic.

I think Rushdie intends for us to roll our eyes comically at his narrator, at least at times, and I'm sure many readers who love this book (which is like everyone alive) did as intended. And I'm sure when Saleem's aunt says he "[a]lways thought [he was] growing up to be God or what. And why? Some stupid letter the P.M.'s fifteenth assistant under-secretary must have sent [him]" (390-91), we're meant to dig in to such a passage as evidence that Saleem isn't the most reliable narrator he likes to pretend he thinks he isn't. But I don't buy it. Something about the politics behind the books shows otherwise.

Kimbote is from Zembla, a silly made-up place, and so he's easy to write off. But Saleem isn't just from India, he is India, and so we have to honor him, and it's exhausting work. It's like going to a family reunion, and that jackass cousin who always beat up on you and called you a faggot is now a disabled war veteran.

That's what reading this book was like.