Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe - Carson McCullers
McCullers assembles a group of grotesques and puts them in deadly conflict in a backward Southern town. We enter a strange, gothic world, one in which things are darker, denser than normal. The prose is as sinuous as the tale it tells. Accompanying this novella are stories, including McCullers’ wonderful “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud.” *

The Man-eater of Malgudi - R. K. Narayan
This book, by an author I greatly admire, was a disappointment. I was surprised at its slapdash quality. The prose was amateurish and the plot trailed about, taking various directions and then abandoning them. The death at the end was gimmicky. There was some sweetness here, a benevolence I like about Narayan, and many parts were appealing – characters, scenes – but it didn’t add up to much. And Narayan’s novels usually do.

The Talented Mr. Ripley - Patricia Highsmith
As a psychological study, this is outstanding. Mr. Ripley is a sick individual, yet Highsmith makes him understandable and even sympathetic; we wind up rooting for this double murderer. Especially impressive is the author’s handling of Ripley’s ambiguous sexuality. His problems are presented subtly, just enough to suggest something really creepy. The intricate plot is handled well – it works on a logical level. The glaring problem was the sloppy prose; did anyone (Highsmith or her editor) care about fixing it up?

In a Free State - V. S. Naipaul
This book takes an unusual form; it’s composed of sections connected only by the theme of cultural alienation. Its main worth is that Naipaul makes us understand that condition. Two of the sections, about an Indian in America and someone (I’m not sure from where) in England, are quite effective at portraying estrangement. Both are told in first person, which gives them a needed liveliness. The longest section, for which the book is titled, is tiresome. If anyone wants an example of the faults of over-description, this is the text to use; it buries Naipaul’s story and characters. The African landscape is described in detail, but try as I might I couldn’t see the places; what it amounts to is a lot of empty, boring words. Authors, please – just create a telling image and be done with it. A tree doesn’t matter to a reader unless it falls on someone’s head.

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