Friday, October 30, 2009

Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser

My adaptation class recently read Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist" and that prompted me to finally read this Pulitzer prize-winning novel. I'm a big fan of Millhauser's first novel Edwin Mullhouse and of his recent short story collection that I'm suddenly forgetting the name of, but I knew my feelings wouldn't be so strong for this novel which I had started in the past and never finished. Yet I admired it in the end.

Two interesting things: first, the novel has a subtitle (as does Edwin Mullhouse), in this case, "The Tale of an American Dreamer" and that does a lot to point the reader to an interpretation of the novel that goes beyond the character-plot stuff on the surface and second, it starts off as a very realistic piece of historical fiction but turns into a more speculative piece of alternative history. And the turn works partly because it's a Millhauser novel and so anybody who's read his work before is comfortable with his inventive imaginings and because the style from the start of the novel always feels a little unreal, fable-ish. Readers of "Eisenheim the Illusionist" will recognize a similar thing at play--he creates a very real sense of history through known facts and convincing detail, but simultaneously creates a sense of fantasy through style, metaphor, and a near absence of direct dialogue (so that the characters feel a little unreal). So when he wants to move away from history to his own alternative, it doesn't feel out of nowhere--the shift still feels of his world.

While what makes Millhauser unusual is his ability to invent really original stuff, I think what I admire most is his use of imagery. Whether describing something real or something imagined his ability to create an atmospheric photograph (it's often a frozen moment) is really top notch. It's what makes both the historical and the speculative storylines believable. And it's a good reminder that realism and fantasy require the same attention to detail to be effective.

Monday, October 26, 2009

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I always love a good Big House novel and especially a good British Big House novel with a little Comedy and a little Romance thrown in. And this novel from the 40s fits that bill. Eccentric family living in poverty in a run-down castle (no I didn't mean a jailhouse, I meant an enormous house), all narrated from the point of view of the clever sixteen year old daughter. I can kind of see how it fell out of print--eccentric Brits living in diminished circumstances is not an unheard tale--but I also see why it came back. It's compulsively readable. And what I noticed was the basic structure--we start with one family and another family moves in nearby. The various members of the two families intersect in a variety of changing relationships. And so a novel structure is born. By bringing two whole sets of characters together enough complications ensue to cover hundreds of pages.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin

I was really excited to discover this story collection which a colleague recommended. I confess lately fiction about children of immigrants has started to blend for me into one big story of one big generation gap. But these stories are a new take, both fresh content and a fresh style, and--added bonus--they are really funny. The collection, largely centered on twin Chinese sisters, Moonie and Mei Ling, and their feisty ninja grandmother, uses folk tales, fables, manja, Buddhist parables and all kinds of other forms as its stylistic base, but what makes it feel so fresh to me is the way both the older generation and the younger generation have become this mix of old and new ways.

Another fresh aspect: Chin doesn't ignore the bawdiness of folk tales the way most contemporary re-writers of the form do--she really embraces it (Let's just say Hello Kitty has some new connotations) and lets the twins, or at least one of them, be odd sexual adventurers, ultimately creating female characters who are unabashedly strange and audacious not just in their sexual behavior but all around.

I'm not really conveying the spirit of the collection which moves quickly from episode to episode and style to style...but it's funny and fun while being political and sophisticated. The tone is antic but there's a lot under the surface. Probably the most original story collection I've read since George Saunders came on the scene. (though admittedly I haven't been reading that many story collections in the past few years)(I'm happy to hear any recommendations).

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk (trans. Maureen Freely)

I'll say up front that a lot of my interest in this novel came from its Turkishness, and there are aspects of it that I forgave because of that. My colleague who lent it to me was perhaps less forgiving, so you can take this with a grain of salt.

The novel is about a man who has an affair with a younger woman while he's engaged. Both the affair and the engagement end badly, and the man spends the rest of his life obsessed with the younger woman. Now having just read, about a month ago, the Ottoman tale of Leyla and Mejnun, I was both quick and proud to recognize this novel is in many ways a rewriting of that tale. And so I was also quick to forgive or at least believe in much of the ridiculous behavior that the narrator engages in. Because he's following in the steps of Mejnun there isn't the same need to justify his actions. Except maybe there is... not just because as a Nobel Prize winner Pamuk has many Western readers who won't get the reference, but because shouldn't a fiction always stand on its own? Well, maybe not. I'm on the fence. Pamuk makes the reference pretty clear, so maybe he is fairly saying if you want to get the most out of my novel you need to understand the literature it has grown out of and if you don't, well, that's your own fault. Or maybe he's not even thinking of his Western readers--after all, you wouldn't worry too much about making sure your rewrite of Little Red Riding Hood would stand alone, would you?

But just so you know, Mejnun is famously crazy. He falls for Leyla, goes mad, runs off into the desert, and eventually enters a love so deep that he's one with the universe and therefore one with Leyla and doesn't even really want her anymore (in the physical sense) because he's got her (she's part of him spiritually). And Pamuk's narrator is a version of Mejnun. But what's interesting about the narrator (except that he's only kind of the narrator--a gimmicky thing I won't even bother to explain) is he doesn't sound in the least bit crazy. It's pretty common to write madmen stories in which they rant or speak in heightened voices or say things that are obviously off. But the narrator here sounds at all times quite rational and calm--his actions are not at all rational, but he hasn't lost his ability to have a conversation, to explain his own thinking--it all feels much closer to mental illness as I've witnessed it--and makes for a more sophisticated character (not an over-the-top, hair-tearing lunatic).

Also, Pamuk makes good use of first person here--writers are always aware that there are limitations to what a first person narrator can know but usually it's just a matter of making sure you don't violate the rules. But in this case, the fact that the reader can't know what Fusun (the young woman) is thinking makes a huge difference. It's not just that the narrator doesn't know what she's thinking, it's that we can't tell if his interpretations of her thoughts/actions are rational or crazy. She might still be in love with him; she might not be.

And lastly, the title comes from a museum the narrator sets up in honor of his lost love. It's small stuff like her hair pins and cigarette stubs, but it's a museum modelled after the small museums of the world--like the homes of authors which then put on display their typewriters and old cans of uneaten food. It's an addition to the novel that has nothing to do with the plot--I mean it's easily dropped--but it's the kind fo thing that declares this as a more ambitious, literary novel than most. It's sort of Kundera-ish in the way that it adds a layer to the narrative by commenting not just on the characters but on the ways of the world, the things we treasure, and the ways we store our memories. It was probably my favorite aspect of the novel. And while it's not the kind of thing you can add to say a realist novel (probably), it's worth considering: what if you took your imagining one step further into the unexpected...