Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

I first read Nobel winner Coetzee when Waiting for the Barbarians was assigned in a freshman comparative literature class I took with Victor Brombert, who forever set in my mind a vision of the ideal scholar of literature (foreign-accented, dapper, bit old, erudite, charming, and very very smart--a vision neither I nor any scholar I know can match). And the fact of reading an author in a class like that--big lecture, serious books, serious treatment of those books--forever shades how you approach that author's work--with a bit of trembling and awe. But Coetzee seems compellingly human and flawed in this novel. Both Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello were novels I greatly admired in the way that you admire an idealized mentor (say Professor Brombert) but Slow Man is not quite so grand a work and yet a likeable effort--a weird experiment on the part of the great author (like Brombert in shorts, shall we say).

Slow Man starts off quite conventionally with a catastrophic event for the main character--amputation of one leg after a bicycle accident--but about a quarter of the way through Elizabeth Costello, the title character of Coetzee's previous novel who is widely believed to be a stand-in for Coetzee himself since she gives lectures he gave and espouses things he espouses, walks in, quite literarally, on the protagonist. And by all appearances she is the one actually writing his story (she quotes the opening lines to him). This prompted me to consider how when an author steps into their own work ironically they become the fantastic element. The fictional characters seem real and the author seems like a break from that reality. The protagonist, Rayment, seems quite believable and regular, and Costello is mystifying and strange. In the end, she seems to exist in the novel to demonstrate how much authors don't know about their own story. She prompts Rayment into actions, into scenes and confrontations, but then it is seemingly up to him and the other characters to determine the events and effects of those scenes. In this way, it seems to be a novel about the process of writing rather than the product--and how the process of writing--one of discovery--actually mirrors much of the process of life (we obviously live without knowing what the result will be). An interesting effort.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Rabbit at Rest by John Updike

Rabbit is not, by any means, the kind of character or the kind of person I would choose to spend much time with, but this was a book club book, so I was obligated. And it was time usefully spent. I wasn't sad to see Rabbit go (this is a compliment to Updike not a criticism; he must know that his character is a jerk and he did a good job of creating said jerk), but I was struck by just how good many of Updike's observations were. The novel is third person, mostly limited to Rabbit's point of view though there are occasional, half-hearted forays into that of his wife, and one necessary foray into that of the kid who watches Rabbit collapse in the end. And despite or perhaps because of, Rabbit's bad habits, he is a very good point of view character. Especially in older age his observations on the United States, pop culture, parade crowds, all of it... are poignant and compelling. I've been thinking lately about distinctions between what third person narrators say versus what the characters think, and in this case, there is no sense that the narrator is anybody but Rabbit. There's no stepping away to judge Rabbit from an outside objective perspective and that's probably necessary with a character like Rabbit who would be so easy to judge (he cheats on his wife with his daughter-in-law!). It's more interesting, I guess, to have to form my own judgements and in the end, to perhaps give him some forgiveness.

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

McEwan is in the book news lately for three passages in his novel, Atonement, which have some resemblance to a wartime nurse's memoir he openly acknowleged using for research. Atonement is one of my favorite novels of recent years and for the record, it wasn't those three passages that put it at the top of my list. The question of plagiarism in fiction is sometimes an interesting one--but in this case, it seems to be too much ado about too little.

For awhile, I avoided reading this earlier novel, The Comfort of Strangers, partly because I wasn't too excited by my other McEwan reading, Amsterdam, and a brief foray into The Cement Garden didn't grab me either, not to mention I was traumatized by a teenage viewing of the movie adaptation (Christopher Walken plays the villain--need I say more?) but actually this short novel is compelling for a lot of the reasons Atonement is--it takes you in very very close to another person's experience. McEwan is a master of taking his time in scene, observing setting, action and thoughts at a pace slower than which most of us actually live. And so as a reader you're forced tightly inside of the point of view character's experience. In the case of Comfort of Strangers, it is a nightmare travel experience that made me unlikely to ever set foot in Venice. A colleague and I recently decided that the tourist literature of Italy can be split into two camps--the romantic dream (say Room with a View) or the deadly.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


Yesterday I read Anderson Cooper's autobiography and then saw the movie Stranger Than Fiction and I really liked both. Think what you will.

The autobiography Dispatches from the Edge is interesting not because of Cooper's (the rather attractive prematurely gray CNN newsman and son of Gloria Vanderbilt) views on current events but because of his experience of them. He gets to do things I don't get to do and he writes about them pretty well. In the reverse of what memoirs tend to do--draw global meaning out of personal events--he draws personal meaning out of global events. I liked it.

Stranger Than Fiction is the rare movie that poses the question of whether a work of art (a great work of art according to the Dustin Hoffman character but then his bookshelf contains a lot of Robert Parker and Sue Grafton) is worth even one human life. The movie has lots of meta qualities, including a nod to the fact that it's sometimes hard to end a work of fiction without killing somebody off, an argument for literary theoriests as the arbiters of life (and as faculty lifeguards) and an argument for the hero over the anti-hero. If you liked Adaptation then this is that movie's answer. I loved it.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Ssh, Reading in Progress

I'm currently reading a biography of Peggy Guggenheim, a short story collection by Turkish writer Aziz Nesin, and Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles. I've also been reading Tristam Shandy for about two months and War and Peace for about two years but they probably don't count. So far, Bowles wins:

"As a grown woman, Miss Goering was no better liked than she had been as a child."

Monday, November 13, 2006

Frances Johnson by Stacey Levine

In an interesting contrast to American Genius by Lynne Tillman, this novel is almost entirely in scene. I can count the number of times the narrator intrudes to tell the reader something outside of scene on my fingers. And the small intrusions are all echoes of each other along the lines of p.201, "For how long would Frances Johnson go in circles?"

Let me backtrack and say first, I was completely charmed by this novel. As in put-under-its- spell charmed. The whole thing was like an intense immersion into someone's totally believable dream world. And the way that the third person narrator relays events and settings and characters in such a matter-of-fact, sensory, I'm-watching-it-myself way without narrative commentary (or less than ten sentences worth of narrative commentary) probably helped to create that. The novel has fairy tale qualities--a strange, isolated town, a dreamy girl, a mission to retrieve some potionesque ingredients--but doesn't have a once-upon-a-time voice. It has a realism-Raymond Carver (or per the publisher, Jane Bowles, who now moves up the reading list to "next, please") voice. And I loved that combination.

The novel is anchored by two things--the strange town it takes place in and Frances Johnson, an immensely likeable character who never leaves town and kisses men in caves and may or may not go to the town dance. Actually the novel is not so much anchored as encapsulated by the town, the character, and the very tight (a matter of days?) chronology. And so it's a small novel in certain ways, but immensely felt, because of Frances Johnson, who's made both real and dreamy (which I think is how many of us feel --all weighty body and floaty mind) by the combo of realistic detail (a weird scar on her leg, a funny scene involving putting her legs on top of another character's) and emotional response (Frances wants desperately to leave town and the whole town seems to be offering their opinions on her life).

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Ssh, Reading in Progress

I've begun Frances Johnson, a novel by Stacey Levine. A delight so far:

"Frances did not care about Ray's childhood or his life before they were together. She did not bother to inquire about his former girlfriends, though sometimes she saw Ray gazing at a wallet photograph of a girl sitting on the lap of a tough-looking older man: the girl's father, who had been prominent in a long-ago war. The girl was Fluff Davis, with whom Ray had spent a year or so. He doted on the old picture, even kissed it once, Frances observed, perhaps in admiration for the soldier father."

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Half Life by Shelley Jackson

A novel in which our own nuclear testing has created a population of conjoined twins who then are taken on as a minority cause politically. It's actually less of a political novel then it sounds and is much more about identity and memory and dollhouses. There are some astonishingly good descriptions and moments and an extraordinary extended metaphor of the fake houses set up by the bomb testers as life-size dollhouses. What I found interesting to think about as a writer was the way Jackson uses texts--The Siamese Twin Reference Manual among other things--as interruptions to the two main narratives (one in the present, one in the past). Now the idea of found texts helping to create the sense that this world is real is not unusual, but it seems to be becoming more common to use these texts separated out and alongside the narrative (as Jackson does) instead of incorporating them into the narrative (say as in Atwood's Handmaid's Tale-- that's not the best example, but it's what I could think of). The choice is neither good nor bad, though I found myself increasingly skipping the text sections to head back to the story. It just seems that if they're not going to be embedded in the narrative, they need to hold the reader's attention just as much as the narrative does.