Friday, September 12, 2008

The Barracks Thief - Tobias Wolff
The excellent title story, almost a novella, is a study of three men. What makes it different from most such studies is that Wolff focuses on their humanity and does it with compassion; no male stereotypes, no cliches. The varying points of view are perplexing in that one wonders why they’re necessary; but only in passing, because ultimately they work. The other stories are all good, but only in “The Barracks Thief” does Wolff set the stakes high enough to evoke pity and dismay.

The Paper Door - Shiga Naoya (Japanese)
A story collection coming from a different sensibility. The mood is one of pristine stillness, but the raggedness and ugliness of life are also present. Shiga is an introspective writer – this is thinly veiled autobiography. Some stories are mere incidents, but they have an admirable “moment frozen in time” quality. The resonance and ambiguity of “The Shopboy’s God” make it stand out from the others – it’s a remarkable work.

After Many a Summer - Aldous Huxley
In the pages of this “novel” we find an author who had lost interest in writing novels. This is more of a philosophical discourse – for many pages it’s only that. Huxley had a theory about Life that he urgently wished to impart. I believe his ideas are worth thinking about. As for the novel part, it’s bizarre, wild, provocative, peopled by characters who are exaggerated representations of types. It’s also awkward, static, offhand and pedantic. The result is a stew thrown together by someone who’d reached the point where he didn’t give a damn about the conventionalities of novel writing.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline - George Saunders
Odd – plot, setting, style of humor, perspective, characters, etc. Oddity is Saunders’ shtick. But the oddity is predictable; he uses the same basic formula in story after story. Even the underlying view of human nature and the moral point of the stories is the same: the world, on the brink of apocalypse, is mad, we need to show compassion (which most can’t). Everything is entertaining, but I suggest you read the best of the lot – “Bounty” – and skip the others. Of course, after you read one of these stories you won’t take my advice; you’ll read them all. And therein lies Saunders’ ticket to success.

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