25 February 2015

Bashevis Singer's "The Magician of Lublin"

Digging Singer's The Magician of Lublin, a precursor to his Enemies, A Love Story. Magician is more folksy, more humane so far; it takes place in Poland before the wars, and Yasha seems less conflicted than Herman Broder.

Singer is a natural writer, and his prose never feels forced or put-on. He breaks a bunch of silly narrative "rules" that bad writers tend to adhere to, he is never boring, his sentences are never dull. Small and fleeting characters are robust; Singer gives them interesting things to say and do.

The novel first appeared in English in 1960 and the Times reviewed it. Adam Kirsch wrote about Magician in The New Republic five years ago, its 50th anniversary.

19 February 2015

James Ellroy

James Ellroy has written a couple memoirs, a couple screenplays, but for the most part he writes novels. Not essays, poems, plays, tweets, blogs or travel books. He writes novels. Big messy novels about America.

The jacket copy of Ellroy's 2014 novel Perfidia humbly states "It is a great American novel" and so far I agree. Perfidia isn't a masterpiece or a must-read or a whatever one calls a good book these days. Like Ellroy's best books it is wild, fast, jumped up, fifth-gear, and jazzy.

Ellroy's novel The Black Dahlia from 1987 is still his masterpiece, and one of the great books set in California.  I've got hundreds of pages to go before I finish Perfidia and look forward to every last one.

Here are 3 random paragraphs from the first 300 pages:

Dudley said, “I believe that the entire Jap population of our city will be interned within sixty days’ time. This provides us with an opportunity to implement your own grand notion to provide them with room and board in your tunnels and coerce them into performing in naughty films. It had occurred to me that the Japs would feel better if they actually looked Chinese, and that you know a morally sketchy plastic surgeon named Lin Chung. He’s no Terry Lux, but he’s a competent man.”

I put out my cigarette and laced my hands behind my head. I said, “Five men from my life pass through my dreams, interchangeably. I’ve given them archetypal names, based on my survey of Jung. There’s ‘the Chaste Lover,’ ‘the Boxer,’ ‘the Unruly Boy,’ ‘the Authoritarian’ and ‘the Japanese.’ I live with ‘the Chaste Lover.’ We’ve had a few dashed sexual encounters and have settled into an arid domesticity. The Chaste Lover is a policeman, and I’m incongruously very much a part of his world. The Unruly Boy is a recent conquest, who may be going off to the war. The Boxer is a local celebrity, and a man I’ve been drawn to for some time. The Authoritarian and the Japanese are men I am in no way sexually compelled by, but they are the most gifted of the men, and gifted men compel me more than any other male type.”

Dudley said, “Rita Hayworth is playing hide the ham with a heroically hung drifter named Sailor Jack Woods. Barbara Stanwyck remains butch. She’s known as ‘Steamy Stanny’ in all the lez hot spots. Carole Lombard has been palling around with District Attorney Bill McPherson, who has been spotted dozing at official confabs pertaining to the detention of subversive Japs. DA McPherson is covertly known as ‘Darktown Bill,’ a nod to his penchant for jungle-bred trim. DA McPherson has been frequently spotted at Minnie Roberts’ Casbah, a noted coon whorehouse. Miss Lombard, a mud shark herself, accompanies him and enjoys Zulu warriors while the DA enjoys dark girls.”

04 February 2015

Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family

Of course Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family. She had no choice. She enjoyed it, truth be told. There's a tape recording of her killing the Coverdales, not a bit of remorse recorded.

A Judgement in Stone is a terrific crime novel, a novel of suspense and terror and neglect, of madness (secular and religious) and of class, the stuffy upper middle class of Britain, and its low class of shiftless laborers, the class of one Eunice Parchman, perhaps the greatest illiterate character in all of literature. 

Eunice can't read or write, but she's crafty enough to blackmail other timid sorts in her world to provide her what she needs, and what she needs at the start of A Judgement in Stone is a letter of reference. A family in the country needs a maid, and Eunice wants the job. The family is called Coverdale.

The Coverdales are George and Jackie, and their children Giles (George's son) and Melinda (Jackie's daughter); there are other Coverdales from previous marriages, but the four at the heart of the book are each described robust and full; George is an elegant businessman, Jackie his foxy youngish wife, Giles the sullen teen experimenting with angst and religion, and pretty Melinda as the co-ed, falling in love for the first time. 

Joan Smith is the other central character to the novel, and she is as perfectly created as Eunice. Joan is tied up with a religious sect, preaching on doorsteps and judging harshly the heathens in town. She's a misfit, and her and Eunice form a unique bond (not a friendship) based on little more than accident and mental deficiency.

Rendell throughout the book explains how close the Coverdales came to avoiding their deaths; it's a cheap trick but like everything else in A Judgement in Stone it works damn well. 

26 January 2015

Bleeding Edge

Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge is a wild messy book, a riot of puns and silly-sinister event and place names and odd and odderball people up to half or no good, all bunched together on the island of Manhattan, whose most active, vibrant, inquisitive, and gutsy citizen is one Maxine Tarnow, fraud investigator, a single-ish mother of two and an NYC native, a pioneer woman of the 1990s, wise and alert and armed (when she remembers) with a Beretta.

Bleeding Edge starts in spring 2001--we all know what's coming in late summer--and Maxine finds herself up to her eyebrows in just about every bit of shenanigans New York can throw her way. Like a pair of her Pynchon-predecessors--Oedipa Maas and Frenesi Gates--Maxine is smart and resourceful and caught up in events she can't walk away from, curious to a fault, wary but never afraid of the dark ends of an unknown passage, alert to the mental fortitude of whomever she is chatting up for information or propulsion to the next level of her excellent adventure.

So what's Bleeding Edge all about? Trails, conspiracies, connections--lots of connections, all leading up to the fateful day. But it's mostly about Maxine, her fortitude, her empathy and desires, her flighty friendships and strange attractions. And Bleeding Edge is about Pynchon and his brand of relentless fun, which makes a reader guffaw and grin, as the turning and twisting of the plot and prose never stops, never hesitates, never lets up.

Pynchon's a genius, smart and wicked funny, probably the best at the writes novels for a living racket. Bleeding Edge came out in 2013, fifty years after V., his debut, and if this is how he ends his run, well done.

01 January 2015

The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

Calendar celebrations are for children and dopes; I join the dopey ranks with pride as I congratulate myself on reading the best novel of 2014 in the last two days of 2014. The novel, The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis, is everything one wants in a novel, and in an impulse purchase. 

The half-dozen reviews of The Betrayers from the usual suspect publications offer up plot points and complaint--Boris Fishman in the NY Times wrote a weak piece on it, while David Ulin in the LA Times raised legitimate issues--but few mentioned the great comedy of The Betrayers. Yes, Kotler himself is a comic sort, joking and jiving in his assured manner amid absurd circumstances, but there are terrific scenes of high comedy that deserve attention.

One standout scene features a Jewish fixer named Nina Semonovna haranguing the hapless Tankilevich as he pleads for a mercy from his sentence of servitude. It is a great scene of humiliation and resolve, of competence lording over incompetence. Semonovna's monologues are brutal and cutting, and would likely get one arrested were they to be voiced in a contemporary American workplace. 

The other scene, in Tankilevich's home, takes place after Kotler has confronted his tormentor Tankilevich, and Tankilevich suffers a mini-stroke/panic attack. Mute and unable to speak beyond grunting and other barnyard noises, Tankilevich thrashes about on a sofa as his wife Svetlana converses with Kotler and his mistress Leora regarding making things right between them. It is a riot of a scene, a model for sustained hilarity. 

The somber notes in the novel are sung well--I'm thinking of the email from Kotler's wife Miriam, and the warm but firm conversation between Kotler and his son Benzion, who faces a moral predicament in Israel while his father flits around Crimea--and it would be disingenuous to call The Betrayers a comic novel. But comedy happens to us all the time, in sickness, trauma, war, flight, cowardice, and in lots of other uncomfortable scenarios where comedy is not welcome. Graham Greene knew this (recall the joking Fowler does at Pyle's expense upon learning of his death) and Bezmozgis has that same rare gift of making a reader simultaneously uncomfortable and ravenous for more.

Bezmozgis writes effortless prose which likely takes a lot of work. His vocabulary is sharp and his characters posses unique voices and insights. His metaphors are cool and unobtrusive, even heavy ones like the broken plates. None of the worthless contemporary trends apparent in novels by his peers are in him. The Betrayers is his second novel and I can't wait for the third.

Here are some favorite lines from The Betrayers:

While they were speaking, Kotler noticed that some of the people had taken a keener interest in them, as if having picked up the scent.  
Kotler had in fact been part of a UN-sponsored mission to see how deeply the Cypriot Turks and Greeks had buried their hatreds. Deep enough for radishes, Kotler had felt. In a generation or two, maybe deep enough for olives.
Tankilevich received this speech as if it were a clobbering, and he slumped down accordingly. And yet, he thought: Clobbered yes, but not beaten. In his life he had known real terrors, real bloodlettings, so this was nothing new. Unpleasant, yes, but it would take more that that to make him fold. 
What place did the world reserve for the discarded mistresses of powerful men?
Now, after speaking to Benzion, he saw his mistake, he had engaged in games. Coming to Yalta had been a game. And staying to confront Tankilevich to satisfy his curiosity? Also a game. Well, he had played games for one day, and one day was enough.
But then, after his ordeal, he was exposed to people in positions of power and saw how many of them were inadequate, even mentally and morally deficient. Little more than noise and plumage. 

21 December 2014

1980 Naipaul interview

Love this BBC interview with VS Naipaul from 1980. A bit about music, but mostly about Naipaul and his work.

02 December 2014

Best books of 2014

These are the 11 best books I read in 2014. None were published in 2014. That is not 2014's fault--I will probably read a great 2014 novel in 2019.

Fawn Brodie  No Man Knows My History (1945)
Eleanor Catton  The Luminaries (2013)
Jim Harrison  Farmer (1976)
Patricia Highsmith  The Tremor of Forgery (1969)
Thomas Mann  Buddenbrooks (1901)
Rick Perlstein  Nixonland (2008)
Isaac Bashevis Singer  Enemies, A Love Story (1972)
Paul Theroux  The Lower River (2012)
Leo Tolstoy  Hadji Murat (1912)
Sarah Waters  The Little Stranger (2009)
Yu Hua  Brothers (2009)

01 December 2014

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 'Enemies, A Love Story'

One hears today of novels “about memory” or “of memory” and whenever I hear a contemporary American novelist talk about memory I look for the nearest open window to leap from. Nostalgia is an artist’s curse, and yet many middle-aged novelists wallow in it, name dropping events and trends and fashion and music in simple stories that go nowhere and move nobody.  
Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies, A Love Story is a novel of memory, of the many memories of a single man, an inveterate liar and crafty survivor named Herman Broder, late of Poland, currently of Coney Island. He’s a hustler who earns his living ghostwriting for a lazy rabbi, and his mind wanders between the big ideas of philosophers he has read or misread, and a fear of impending doom, that Nazis might be around every corner, waiting to do to him in America what they couldn't do to him in Europe.

Herman Broder has three real world problems, his three wives. Yadwiga is a dim peasant from Poland—she hid Herman from the Nazis, they became lovers and moved to America, but she is a “right shoe left foot” simpleton. Masha, Herman’s mistress, is wild and beautiful, satisfying Herman’s primitive urges like no other—but Masha has issues with herself, her mother, God, and more than a few men in her past. Then there is Tamara, Herman’s dead wife, mother of his two sons, all killed by the Nazis—but Tamara didn't die, and now she is in New York, seeking Herman, and perhaps some of the back and forth arguments that made her and Herman an intellectual match.

It is difficult to separate the plot from the prose in Enemies, A Love Story but they both work well, as Herman is engaged in a fight-or-flee staring match with upheaval—he worries that his lies will be found out, and of course they are, but the reactions aren’t what a reader expects; to Singer’s credit no conflict is resolved easily. 

One can read a good novel like Enemies, A Love Story many ways; it occurred to me late last night that it is a near perfect thriller parody, a dumb Lee Child novel transformed into a great work of art. It is a novel of constant action and activity, and it allows Herman and a reader little rest. It is also a tough hilarious comedy.