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. 

23 November 2014

Denis Johnson and his new novel

Denis Johnson's The Laughing Monsters is a strange book, a first-person narration of adventures and misadventures in Africa. I suppose it is also about spies and deception, but that is a first impression--First, Second, and Third impressions of anything are usually wrong, common, and stupid.

Half of The Laughing Monsters isn't a very good Denis Johnson novel. One thinks Johnson knows this, because the structure of the short book, over 4 parts, is a story of a story, of how a story is told, and what a narrator of a story, especially an African story, tells. Africa is one of the last places on earth where a story can determine if one lives or dies--stories matter in the bush in ways civilized societies cannot fathom.

Roland Nair is the narrator, a Dutch spy, perhaps, traveling on a US passport. He has contacts he wants to see and those he doesn't care to see. For the first two parts of novel, Nair is one a handful of shady players, along with Michael, an African of dubious origin and intent, and Davidia, Michael's Colorado-born fiancee.

Much happens in the first two parts of The Laughing Monsters and one is uncertain if one is supposed to care. The writing is base-level prose, hardly the Johnson of the brilliant Train Dreams. But then part 3 hits, and a new Nair narration takes over, with paper and pen, as he is held by Congolese army goons, and all becomes right in the world of Johnson's genius. Part 4 continues with half-close, half-distant narration, and it ties back to the first two parts, and illuminates Johnson's design to the novel--he's having us on, showing us a mad Africa in full bloom, as a westerner, as an impostor, sees it.

Part 3 and parts of part 4 are wonderful and contain Johnson at his best. The Laughing Monsters is short but not easy, and later this week I will likely have a fourth and fifth and maybe sixth impression of it.

20 November 2014

A couple Chinese brothers

Brothers by Yu Hua is becoming one of my favorite novels of the recent past. It came out in 2009 in America and it is a monster of a book, but it reads as fast and funny as Yu's previous smaller offerings, To Live and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant. Those short novels were filled with ribald humor, and the massive Brothers has doubled up on both the laughs and the sorrow. This is China we are reading about.

Outside of Yu I know nothing of Chinese authors; I don't know if Chang Rae Lee or Ha Jin--names I've seen on books--are Chinese, Chinese-American, British subjects of Hong Kong, or Alabama natives. Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Lit a couple years back, and I still haven't heard anyone tell me I need to read him, but I know he's Chinese because a bunch of people who hadn't read him got upset that he won the Nobel.

Yu Hua is a terrific novelist. With Brothers he tells a story of two brothers in a fictional Chinese town in the 1960s and 70s where people are named after their occupations--Blacksmith Tong, Poet Zhao, Yanker Yu--he yanks out teeth. A third into the book at page 200, the brothers Baldy Li and Song Gang are 15 and 16 respectively. Adding Brothers to my list of Good Novels About Young People. And here's a good comprehensive review of Brothers from the LA Times in 2009.

27 October 2014

Thomas Hardy describes the Internet

The assemblage—belonging to that class of society which casts its thoughts into the form of feeling, and its feelings into the form of commotion—set to work with a remarkable confusion of purpose.
from Chapter VI of Far from the Madding Crowd