Thursday, March 28, 2013

Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers

Our book club is approaching its seven-year anniversary, with just the sorts of tearful expectations that you'd expect from ten guys who drink beer monthly while working gamely to find something to say about a book only a few of them seriously appreciated. You'd be right to see this as an occasion deserving every bit of your attention, because awesomeness, but actually I mention it only to stress the rarity of what happened last night.


Average member of a men-only book club
Every single one of us gave us the ol' Charlie Sisters thumbs up to Patrick deWitt's nouveau Western The Sisters Brothers. Heck of a book, Brownie, so it wouldn't have surprised any of us to hear that most of us liked it, but all ten members liking the same book? First time ever, among 63 books, and we've read some seriously good stuff over the years.

I loved The Sisters Brothers, I did, and you will too, so stop reading this inane blog and pick up a copy, yet somehow I found myself unable to stop complaining about the novel. In my defense, someone wouldn't leave me alone about it, but still: I had complaints, even if I'm still not sure that I trust them, so rather than rave about the book the way so many reviewers have so sensibly done, I'm going to try to explain them.

Forewarned, as they say, is four-armed.

Caveat: I should confess that I read this book in sustained bursts over three consecutive days, including while walking between my home and my work. Immersiveness always suggests that a book's really worth your time, but it's not a state of mind invariably conducive to careful thinking.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence

It's embarrassing, really, just how affected I can be by flamboyantly gorgeous prose. That's not the only thing that Salman Rushdie has going for him in The Enchantress of Florence (love! death! fame! the exotic East! the (oddly) exotic West!), but in this 2008 novel, Rushdie confirmed his place among the very finest stylists writing in this young century.

He'd rather be one of the finest novelists, I imagine, or at least one of the finest fabulists, and he might be one of those as well, but his reputation in those areas won't be confirmed by the relatively slight Enchantress of Florence. (Yes, yes, I know, I know that you can read all over the intertubes that it's Rushdie's most researched novel: these things are not incompatible.)

The plot really is wonderful, veering in the 16th century between India and Florence, myth-making about the Moghul empire, imagining the personal life of Niccolo Machiavelli, celebrating the power of imagination and pure story. These characters, these plot twists, these images: I'm not going to read this novel again, but I'm going to remember it fondly. Here's a single sentence for you, as a sampler:
The emperor Abul-Fath Jalaluddin Muhammad, king of kings, known since his childhood as Akbar, meaning “the great,” and latterly, in spite of the tautology of it, as Akbar the Great, the great great one, great in his greatness, doubly great, so great that the repetition in his title was not only appropriate but necessary in order to express the gloriousness of his glory — the Grand Mughal, the dusty, battle-weary, victorious, pensive, incipiently overweight, disenchanted, mustachioed, poetic, oversexed, and absolute emperor, who seemed altogether too magnificent, too world-encompassing, and, in sum, too much to be a single human personage — this all-engulfing flood of a ruler, this swallower of worlds, this many-headed monster who referred to himself in the first person plural — had begun to meditate, during his long, tedious journey home, on which he was accompanied by the heads of his defeated enemies bobbing in their sealed earthen pickle-jars, about the disturbing possibilities of the first person singular — the “I.” (p.30)
At bottom, for me, it needed to be longer. The Moghul and Florentine sections of the narrative were complicated and unbearably rich with detail, prose as full of beauty as a great Simpsons' plot is stuffed with superfluous gags, but the resolution ... well, I appreciated it. But I didn't like it.

(Here be spoilers. Arr.)

You see, the first 80% of this novel is shamelessly accomplished, it really is. Every character seems maybe more alive than I am; everyone's smarter and more talented and more tragical and happier. (It's kind of like Twitter that way.) The sentences are astonishing, even when you expect them to keep washing over you. The young blond storyteller, who comes to the emperor with a tale mysterious to tell, makes a wonderful alter-ego for Rushdie himself, and the enchantress Qara Kรถz.

But toward novel's end, the great Akbar rejects Niccolo Vespucci. He denies the power of story, in spite of a life spent among living myths, and in consequence the novel's fabula shrink into exposition. The consequences of Akbar's denial cause his empire to start fading, becoming ephemeral, so it makes sense that when this happens the novel dies a little bit: OK, more than a little bit in my view, but still. There's an artistic purpose behind Rushdie's decision to halt the seduction and hand me a file folder, is what I'm saying.

If you want Rushdie the fabulist, then his best novel is Haroun and the Sea of Stories. If you want Rushdie the novelist, then you want either Midnight's Children or The Satanic Verses. They're gems, all three; you'd love at least one of them, I promise, and when you do, you should read The Enchantress of Florence, because you'll see why there's more to love here than some reviewers thought.

Compare and contrast: Marina DelVecchio's objections to Rushdie's use of women in the novel, and Ursula Le Guin's bombastic celebration.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game

Presumably someone else has made the point already about Orson Scott Card's masterpiece, Ender's Game: currently, America's most ballyhooed high school basketball player is a Canadian named Andrew Wiggins. You ballin punks who haven't heard of this fricking amazing SF novel? The kid who just might save humanity, Ender, is named Andrew Wiggin, and you can't hardly find him on Google anymore.

Strange days, indeed.

My god, but this book tricked me. For so long, so long, it's about the travails of an impossibly young, impossibly talented kid, regularly facing torments and abuse, regularly put into impossible situations. Contented, that's how I felt, contented at the thought I was reading a novel that SF readers appreciated for making sense of their own childhoods: NOT that SF readers' childhoods are worse than those of other kids, though maybe they are, what do I know, but I'm seriously comfortable with the idea that most of us still need to make more sense of our childhoods than we think we do.

In other words, I mean to slight neither the novel nor its readers in making this claim. Adults need books about children, perhaps more than children do, so I was going along happily thinking that this was one of those books, lovely in its pain, freeing in its depiction of Ender's absolute captivity.

And then the book exploded, went three kinds of sideways, ended slowly and remarkably, did things I could not have expected.

Things I'll never tell you about, newbie.

You've read it? You know me personally? Why yes, I just might be prepared to buy you a meal just to get enough time to talk it over properly.

You haven't read it? Well, consider yourself warned. It's past time, and if you read one more breathless Andrew Wiggins column from some corporate shill on Yahoo! Sports before you meet Andrew Wiggin in Ender's Game, don't blame me.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

John Berger, Pig Earth

Is that the last book I'll read purely for fun, before plunging into my four entirely new course preps for the next academic year? Possibly. On the positive side, I find great joy in my teaching, so it's hardly a slog to get through those works -- not that I can speak to my students' experience of them, mind you.

But if it is the last non-work book I read for a while, John Berger's Pig Earth is clearly an excellent place to wrap things up. It's a remarkable book, though strange nearly beyond words, written from and about a recent past that for modern folk like you and me, verged on incomprehensible even when it was occurring.

In brief, Pig Earth (published in 1979) is the first volume of Berger's Into Their Labours trilogy, a series of novels collections multi-genre books depicting and commemorating 20th-century European peasant life and peasant labour. As these books are at pains to argue, "peasant" is fundamentally a separate category of human experience; there is no overlap between a money-system worker and a peasant, what we might provisionally call an object-system worker, so there's no ready insertion point into the book's represented lives that'd allow a contemporary reader to connect with them through any vehicle but nostalgic idealization.