Sunday, September 29, 2013

Excavating layers of narrative in search of the elusive truth (Books - The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez)

Themes of truth-telling and father-child relationships were the subject of Juan Gabriel Vasquez's The Informers, which I wrote about here and here.   They are echoed in The Sound of Things Falling (Riverhead Book, 2013), but not in a way that feels either repetitive or formulaic. The narrative voice in this latest novel, translated by Anne McLean, is also that of a literate and cerebral man, Antonio Yammara.  These qualities slow the pace of reading down in a way that initially made me impatient, but allowed reflection as Vasquez's narrator reflects, and ultimately encouraged my becomming enveloped in multiple layers of text.
And that's how this story got under way.  I don't know what good it does us to remember, what benefits or possible penalties it brings, or how what we've lived through can change when we remember it, but remembering Ricardo Laverde well has become an urgent matter for me.  I read somewhere that a man should tell the story of his life at the age of forty, and this deadline is fast approaching: as I write these lines, only a few shot weeks remain before this ominous birthday arrives.  The story of his life.  No, I won't tell my life story, just a few days of it that happened a long time ago, and I'll do so fully aware that this story, as they warn in fairy tales, has happened before and will happen again.
The story here is national as well as personal.  Born in Columbia in the 1970s, it should not be surprising that Vasquez looks to stories to uncover the truth - so embroiled was his country in corruption and drug trade.  Antonio, who uses literature to teach law, begins his story by telling us about telling stories. This self-awareness as artifice is not only revealing of the self-consciousness of the narrator, but is an effective technique for eliciting our belief.  When you reveal the back wall of the theatre, you no longer need to rely on stage tricks or fend off disbelief - all you are asking of your audience is to believe they're in a theatre, which is the truth.  Whatever world you create from there, you create together.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mesmeric healer or spoiled prodigy? (Books - The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood)

Benjamin Wood has written a suspenseful, smart psychological thriller in The Bellwether Revivals (Penguin, 2013).  Working in Cambridge in a nursing home, Oscar Lowe is drawn into a chapel one day by the sound of the organ.  There he meets Iris Bellwether, whose brother Eden plays the organ.
When he asked for her name, she replied: 'It's Iris.  Like the genus.'
And he laughed - just a short vent of air from his nose, but enough for her to step back and say, 'What's so funny?'
'Most people would say like the flower, that's all.'
'Well, I'm not most people.  I'm not going to say it's like the flower when I know perfectly well that it's a genus.  And I'll tell you something else.'  She broike for a gulp of breath.  'I know exactly which variety I am.  Iris milifolia.  The hardest one to look after.'
As they begin a relationship Oscar, a self-educated and independent young man who grew up on a council estate is drawn into the strange circle of Iris, Eden, and their posh coterie of fellow Cambridge students, who all grew up knowing that they are 'not most people.'

Eden, a spoiled mesmeric boy, believes he has the power to cure people of their ailments.  He surrounds himself with people who either believe him or are afraid to disabuse him of this idea, but the evidence is confusing, and this is the crux of the story - is he a healer or does he suffer from delusions of grandeur and a pathological need to control everyone around him?

Wood has created a likeably eccentric cast of characters and draws the reader in with an assured hand. He plays nimbly with the limits of our knowledge of the human mind.  Psychology is a science in that it can measure states of mind and creates lenses to help us visualize the forces that drive human behavior - but it does not predict the behavior of any individual person.  Wood draws a wonderfully compelling character in psychologist Herbert Crest, an expert on Narcissitic Personality Disorder who, when we meet him, is fatally ill and longing for a miracle cure.  His appearance actively embodies the paradoxical terrain explored in the novel without being too explanatory.  It is a pity Wood was tempted to include a piece of writing by the fictional Crest in his epilogue, in which he pits the scientific against the supernatural.  This edged the novel toward an ending that was a trifle big for its britches. I know pitting science against belief is a popular gladiator sport these days, but frankly, it's a false dichotomy and it got close to ruining the book's delightfully modest tone, set by the likeable protagonist.  But this debut novel had too much going for it for that to spoil it.  The suspense drove this novel's with an energetic and urgent rhythm and, in the end, Wood's characters mature in a believable and a satisfying way.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The bookish musings of Dr. bookeywookey

It has been a while, I know.  I had a small matter to attend to - the completion and defense of my dissertation.  Now that I am Dr. Bookeywookey, don't feel intimidated (smile) or obliged to take my posts too seriously.

Despite the preparations, I somehow managed to squeeze a few books in, but I didn't have it in me to write another word or visit many of my fellow bloggers. I don't imagine that I'm going to remember what I've read in any great detail, but let's see what emerges...

 Stephen King's Joyland (Hard Case Crime, 2013) - his take on pulp crime fiction set in the carny scene is firmly planted in time and place.
1973 was the year of the OPEC oil embargo, the year Richard Nixon announced he was not a crook, the year Edward G. Robinson and Noel Coward died.  It was Devin Jones's lost year.  I was a twenty-one year old virgin with literary aspirations.  I possessed three pairs of bluejeans, four pairs of Jockey shorts, a clunker Ford (with a good radio), occasional suicidal ideations, and a broken heart.

Sweet, huh?

The Heartbreaker was Wendy Keegan, and she didn't deserve me.
This quick piece of entertainment explicitly doesn't aspire to high literary art, but that doesn't mean it is not deftly, assuredly crafted.  The writing is clean, atmospheric, and nostalgic, but the time is less the 1970s that it is the narrator's youth.  Although the mystery plot yanks you through the pages with purpose, this is an excavation of innocence and its loss.  Why, the writer wants to know with a backward look from his 60s, wasn't he good enough for old Wendy?  Despite the vintage pulp book cover, the artistry here is the layering of the younger character's insecurity mixed with the narrator's mature persepctive - one that is both knowledgeable and yet still smarts with the legacy of that old wound.

I have not read Dr. Hosseini's other blockbusters.  I read And the Mountains Echoed (Riverhead, 2013) for book club and it really made me want to know what the fuss was all about. I found two strengths in this novel - the creation of memorable characters and a mission-driven impulse to present Afghani culture as hetererogeneous, humanizing it for the "Western" reader.  I respect that.  But I found the story telling, except for a few flashes of true inspiration, undisciplined, and the writing lazy.  There were anachronisms, confusing use of pronouns, and repetitiveness in descriptive phrasing that made me wonder how carefully the book had been edited.  More than  ten principle characters' were introduced in this novel, but in 300-odd pages, they could hardly be developed.  That left some to be summed up with cliche and others feeling like props that had been picked up by an actor, but never used.  Paragraphs describing one character's illness employed medical jargon and details about medication that seemed ripped directly from a clinical patient report.  Knowing absolutely nothing of Hosseini's bio, I stopped reading and thought - he must be a doctor.  I checked his bio out on Google and, sure enough, he is.  Despite the more richly drawn characters, whom I came to know deeply enough so that I can visualize them, I finished this book feeling the author should have taken more care.  Perhaps the publisher knew they could get a movie deal based on his previous sales and just didn't give a hoot. 

 I read Christopher Priest's The Adjacent (Gollancz, 2013) based on John Self's recommendation, and found it involving and clever. He mixes a dystopian future rendering of our world devastated by extreme weather and attacks using a weapon that scarily changes the physical structure of the world (the adjacency), a wonderful yarn set during World War II in England, and the story of an illusionist (well actually two illusionists), one living during World War I and the other in an imagined archipelago in some hard-to-be-determined, perhaps adjacent, time.
Another kind of misdirection is in the use of adjacency.  The magician places two objects close together, or connects them in some way, but one is made to be more interesting (or intriguing, or amusing) to the audience. It might have an odd or suggestive shape, or it appears to have something inside it, or it suddenly starts doing something the magician seems not to have noticed.  The actual set-up is unimportant - what matters is that the audience, however briefly, should become interested and look away in the wrong direction.

An adept conjuror knows exactly how to create an adjacet distraction, and also knows when to make use of the invisibility it temporarily creates.  
This engaging book is unselfconsciously written.  It mixes wartime romance and adventure, a scary imagining of our future, and a recognizable story of loss in the context of attack.  Its originality is that, by incorporating an idea that straddles modern physics and magic, it makes what could just be a clever sci-fi idea, a touching story.

Regrettably, I am not going to remember where I read in the last two months that Jo Ann Beard's autobiographical essay The Fourth State of Matter is a model of non fiction writing.  I'm thinking it might have been in a piece by Phillip Lopate. Anyway, the essay is in the collection The Boys of my Youth (Back Bay Books, 1999), but the book is full of one marvelous essay after another - about her poor father's drinking, about her mother and aunt fishing, about a terrible event Beard experienced while working at the University of Iowa.  Why should I care about this stranger's life, you may ask?  But her sentences lend the boredome, deep pleasures, longings, and misgivings of ordinary life true grace.  She fashions sentences so deft you want to live in them.
It is five A.M.  A duck stands up, shakes out its feathers, and peers above the still grass at the edge of the water.  The skin of the lake twitches suddenly and a fish springs loose into the air, drops back down with a flat splash.  Ripples move across the surface like radio waves.  The sun hoists itself up and gets busy, laying a sparkling rug across the water, burning the beads of dew off the reeds, baking the tops of our mothers' heads.  One puts on sunglasses and the other a plaid fishing cap with a wide brim.  
This is the kind of writing I envy.  It makes the reader feel that this person has lived these real moments in her life and is writing from them, and at the same time she is an artist working in a medium called language, and another medium called story, and she has created something with her will, and with experience of her tools, that has its own integrity.  She has made something more real and more true than just what happened. Something loving, unsentimental, whose resonance is eternal.  And you can watch her doing it, and, aware of the craft, you can believe the events all the more.  Damn, she's good.  If you love what good writing can do - read this.  I plan to come back to it several times.