Reviews Catch-Up

Wow, big surprise, I am way busy in graduate school. That doesn’t mean I haven’t had time to read for pleasure, though.

The New York Trilogy (Paul Auster)

Boy is this a mindtrip of a book! It’s actually three books in one: City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room, all detective stories. City of Glass is about a writer of mystery novels (of course!) who gets mistaken for a detective (who just happens to be called Paul Auster) and gets sucked into a case involving a young man who was locked up as a child by his father for years, the tower of Babel  and the authorship of Don Quixote. WOW. I know. Ghosts sounds like it features the cast from “Reservoir Dogs,” because all of the characters are named after colors. The main character is Blue, a detective who used to work for Brown. Blue is paid to follow a man called Black who seems to do nothing but sit in his apartment, write and read Walden all day, and while watching him Blue graduallygets more obsessed with and sucked into Black’s life. The Locked Room is possibly the most straightforward of all three works: it features a first-person narrator (another writer! only of magazine articles, though) who learns that not only did a childhood friend disappear, but that this friend also produced a mountain of fictional work, apparently with the Kafkaesque intention to never publish it. Under the narrator’s oversight the work is published to great critical acclaim, he starts getting mysterious notes and that’s when things start getting whacky.

Well, I just loved this book. It reminded me of Ricardo Piglia, Bolaño and Onetti, the three literary Latin American greats, thrown into a blender to make a delicious Paul Auster smoothie. Ghosts is especially Onettian, as the main character is someone who “does nothing, who merely sits in his room and writes,” (172) so reminiscent of Brausen in La vida breve. Did Bolaño ever read New York Trilogy? It was published in the 80’s; he must have. I’m just going to pretend like he did because the thought of him doing so makes me really happy.

I liked this book because I wanted to keep reading it, I couldn’t put it down, and it was a fascinating blend of literary criticism, philosophical pondering and good old fashion page-turning. The first story, City of Glass, is probably the work that most thesising graduate students pant over, what with the whole “Paul Auster as a character” thing. As a bonus, it also features a villain who wants to recreate the tower of Babel, in the sense that he wants to restore the original connection of language to God and truth as opposed to arbitrary signs–I mean WOW, how can you be a graduate student and not dig that?

I’m sure that there are lots of ways that these three stories are connected that I didn’t notice on a first reading (this is definitely a book I plan on reading again). All three stories deal with the nature of language, the question of authorship, and the relationship between signs (or clues) to reality. Another link is that the main character in Glass (Daniel Quinn, same initials as Don Quixote) is mentioned in The Locked Room as a detective who was hired to search for the missing childhood friend (he never actually appears as a character). There’s also a little red notebook that tends to travel around. In one particularly real mindtrip of a moment in The Locked Room, the narrator refers “the two books that came before it [this story], City of Glass and Ghosts. These three stories are finally the same story, but each one represents a different stage in my awareness of what it is about.” (294) Wow, when I read this sentence, my little head exploded. So, like, the writer in The Locked Room is the author of City of Glass and Ghosts? Eeeeeee!

I’m really excited to read this book again in a year or so. Check out this Piglian paragraph (what a weird sounding adjective–Pigliaesque? Whatever, reminiscent of Piglia is all I mean):

Every life is inexplicable, I kept telling myself. No matter how many facts are told, no matter how many details are given, the essential thing resists the telling. To say that so and so was born here and went there, that he did this and did that, that he married this woman and had these children, that he lived, that he died, that he left behind these books of this battle or that bridge–none of that tells us very much. We all want to be told stories, and we listen to them in the same way that we did when we were young. We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person in the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. That is a deception. We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another–for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself. (248-249)

The Third Reich (Bolaño)

Wow, imagine my surprise when I learned that The Third Reich is an actual board game. Whodathunk? My brothers only ever played Axis and Allies.

This book was pretty interesting. It’s not Bolaño’s best (how could it be if he left it at the bottom of a desk drawer, where apparently it spent 20 years before being discovered posthumously?). Honestly speaking though? I would be pretty happy if I could eventually write a novel on the level of this one.

This book is about a German named Udo who is obsessed with playing a strategy board game called The Third Reich (the way this obsession affects his relationship and his attitude towards the world reminded me a lot of video games and the Internet in general). Anyway, Udo goes on holiday with his girlfriend at a beachside resort in Spain, where his family used to go when he was a little kid. The atmosphere and events that unfold in the book feel like the descriptive sentences you’d write on the back of a novel to try to get the reader intrigued, full of mystery and foreshadowing. They befriend another German who disappears while windsurfing. They start hanging out with two local louts with the oddly biblical names of the Lamb and the Wolf. Ominous references are made to the husband of the hotel’s owner, sick and never seen. With all this in the foreground, el Quemado then appears, the owner of a pedal boat business, rumored to be Latin American and whose body is covered with mysterious burns that occasionally give off a mossy sheen. Udo and el Quemado start playing the Third Reich together and that’s when **** gets real.

A lot of this book is pure atmosphere. Not that much happens, so that minor incidents (feeling sick from drinking a cup of coffee or calling a friend and receiving no answer) feel monumental. I could have done without the 3+ page descriptions of how the counters were moved around the board but that’s just me; I’m sure any buff of World War II history would have loved it, and those pages were necessary to fully reveal the depth of Udo’s obsession (I just didn’t feel like reading them is all).

I really enjoyed reading this book. Will Bolaño’s 2pac-like output continue after this?! Is this the very last work of his we hope to get? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when that day comes, I’ll be a very sad little reader indeed.

Seek: Reports from the Edge of America & Beyond (Denis Johnson)

Boy, did I like this book a whole lot. Boy, am I really getting into Denis Johnson. He takes you on a helluva ride throughout this book: Liberia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Montana, Alaska. My personal favorite is the piece on the hippie festival in Oregon, which also coincidentally contains my three favorite sentences in the book:

– I’ve brought a couple hundred dollars in my pocket because . . . I don’t care what they say, I’ve never seen anybody trade dope for anything except sex or cash.

– I who have had so much of peace and so much of love, I have never really believed in either one.

– I said I’d split it, but I only gave him about a quarter. Less than a quarter. Yeah. I never quite became a hippie. And I’ll never stop being a junkie.

Yeah. The opening and closing pieces on Liberia are also extremely strong and the main reason for reading this book. I’ll never forget the first time I read the closing piece on Liberia, “The Small Boys’ Unit,” in my non-fiction class in 2008. I don’t know if I’ll ever read anything again in my life that more closely resembles a descent into complete and utter hell.

My favorite thing about this book is how completely unafraid Johnson is to reveal himself as this less than perfect person. At one point in regards to Liberia, he makes the following confession (which almost sounds like an understatement in light of everything that came before): “My assignment in Liberia was over. As far as I could see at the time and as far as I can see now, I accomplished nothing… I’d come to this place and I was not whole enough or real enough to accept its terms.” Another similarly, unforgettable moment of candor takes place when Johnson comes thisclose to screaming racially charged epitaphs at the Liberians around him, despite the fact that “my parents raised me to love all the earth’s people.” It’s moments like this one in which Johnson achieves an Orwellian level of brutal, unflinching honesty. It’s hard to read, but it’s even harder to look away.

The Hour of the Star (Clarice Lispector)

Well, this was one of the strangest and most interesting books I’ve ever read. And I like to think that I’ve read my fair share, ya know what I’m sayin’?

Ali Smith quoted the opening paragraph of this book at the beginning of one of her short story collections, and now that I’ve read Star I can definitely see why Smith found this book so appealing. It plays with language, the role of the narrator and reader in that innovative, unexpected and utterly delightful way I’ve come to expect from Smith, in which you are consistently surprised and never sure where you are going or what’s going to happen next.

This book is a story-within-a-story: our narrator is Rodrigo S.M., a somewhat bougie, overtly self-conscious tormented artist who wouldn’t be super out of place with the young crowd in The Savage Detectives. He’s attempting to write a story about Macabea, a poor girl from an urban neighborhood in Brazil. The details Rodrigo provides us about her are select and few: she’s a virgin, she likes Coca-Cola, she’s ugly and often ill, she’s a terrible typist. Argh, now that I’m trying to do it, I realize how difficult this book is to summarize. I think this is a work where its greatness and intrigue comes primarily from HOW it treats its subject matter, rather than WHAT it’s about (if that makes any sense). I am definitely going to have to read this again (it’s very short, 86 pages in my edition!).

This book (similarly to Bartleby & Co.) made me very interested in how the figure of the AUTHOR is depicted in fiction. I’m sure there are many masters theses out there about how the structure of the narrative is paralleled with the creative process in Lispector herself. The contrast between Rodrigo and his invented character of Macabea is fascinating, not just because he’s rich and male and she’s poor and female (though that’s a big part of it). Just like in the works of Ali Smith, the words on the pages of this novel aren’t just words; they’re living, breathing people; they’re universes, they’re worlds. By figuring out how to write a story, are we attempting to figure out how to live our lives? How do we deal with the ultimately ineffable mysteries about our characters and ourselves? Does writing (and living) lead to breathtaking awe or heart-sinking despair? These are just some of the questions this book left me with.

Also, maybe this is cheating, but this book felt all the more poignant to me when I learned that it was the last book Lispector wrote before her death from cancer. Apparently she didn’t know she was sick at the time that she wrote it, but it still made the book’s last sentences all the more beautiful and moving to me (in the same way I feel moved by Mrs. Dalloway’s celebrations of life and being alive):

Dear God, only now am I remembering that people die. Does that include me?
Don’t forget, in the meantime, that this is the season for strawberries. Yes.

Bartleby & Co (Enrique Vila-Matas)

This was another interesting book that is hard to summarize. Again, the narrator is a writer, but one who doesn’t write. Instead of writing he obsessively catalogs and researches what he calls “writers of the no,” or writers who (for whatever reason) started writing and then stopped (like Rulfo and Rimbaud), or in some cases never wrote at all.

I honestly couldn’t tell which books in this novel really exist and which ones don’t. I don’t really want to know. This book is more like literary criticism or an essay than a novel (there’s not really a plot to speak of)–it reminded me of Bolaño’s Nazi Literature of the Americas or Ricardo Piglia. I can definitely understand why some people wouldn’t be into this, but I totally dug it (admittedly I am a giant nerd). Just like The Hour of the Star, this book seems to be an essay and exploration about the creative process and the nature of writing, via an examination of the act of NOT writing. Fascinating!

My one comment is that I wish SOMETHING had happened to the narrator. There are little hints of plot development throughout the text: we learn he’s a hunchback, he loses his job, a homoerotic relationship is implied, there’s always the question of his own writing hanging over the text… and then the book just ends. Which is OK. I still think it’s very clever and fascinating. I just wanted a leetle eensy-weensy bit more. Otherwise I don’t really understand why all those little hints of info and character/plot development were included in the first place… I guess it did keep me interested and made it easier to read, so I didn’t feel like I was reading a bunch of footnotes or flash mini-essays by Mr. Vila-Matas.

Irreguardless this is definitely another book I would like to read again, along with other works by the same author. Here’s to pleasure reading!

I live like an explorer. The more I advance in the search for the labyrinth’s centre, the further away I am from it. I am like the explorer in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony who does not understand the meaning of the designs the officer shows him: “It’s very clever, but I can’t work it out.” (147)

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