Monday, March 29, 2010

Some Buried Caesar - Rex Stout
Another excellent Nero Wolfe mystery. The breezy and amusing Archie is more interesting than the one-dimensional Wolfe, and it was wise of Stout to make him the first person narrator. Unlike many whodunits, no information is withheld from the reader and no improbable plot twists pop up at the end. Stout plays fair by providing us with the clues we need to solve the crime. The writing has a light, casual touch; Stout didn’t labor over these books, but Archie wouldn’t either. The rustic setting works nicely, the varied cast of characters come to life. Stout is especially good in his portrayals of women (Lily Rowan is a treat, sexy and fun). Though dealing with murder, Stout avoids gore and sleaziness. What we get in the Nero Wolfe series is sheer enjoyment. Of what worth is sheer enjoyment? I don’t believe a novel must aspire to greatness to have value. If it succeeds in what it sets out to do, it’s a success; if it fails, it’s a failure. Rex Stout – like Ian Fleming – succeeded to a high degree in what he attempted. Sometimes we simply need to be entertained.

Double Indemnity - James M. Cain
This was Cain’s second novel. Like The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of its virtues is sparseness (was Cain our first minimalist?). There are no long descriptions of people and places. And, really, do detailed descriptions matter to a reader? Don’t we simply forget them? Cain uses dialogue to move his plots along; emotions are conveyed with the fewest words possible. These two novels offer lessons in how to engage and hold a reader’s attention. Postman is better by far; it’s more visceral, the story line more efficient, the feelings of the two characters more convincing. In Indemnity I didn’t understand what motivated the narrator to embark on the murder scheme; I didn’t believe in his pure love for the daughter; the twists at the end were improbable. As for the last chapter – it goes beyond the unexpected into the truly weird; I wanted to reject it but found that the lunacy of the situation – in which Cain posits a fatal bond between the damned – had a perverse power.

The Defense - Vladimir Nabokov (Russian)
I previously wrote that “plot obfuscation and stylistic ornamentation are mostly just clutter.” When I used the qualifier “mostly” I was thinking of Nabokov. His plot twists are intriguing, his ornamentation is brilliant; they enrich his work. But he has to enrich a discernible plot and comprehensible characters. The Defense was a tricky undertaking, and that’s because the protagonist, who we first meet as a boy, is severely autistic (this was written in 1930, when autism was not widely recognized, yet Luzhin has all the symptoms). How far can you go in exploring the inner life of such a person? Luzhin is a chess genius; but chess, for him, leads to a destructive obsession. The novel shifts away from the black and white squares and delves into Luzhin’s relationship with a young woman. This woman is endowed (or burdened) with a hyper-compassionate nature. She initially displays a lighthearted interest in this very unusual man, but she inspires in him a blind devotion. It’s not blind in its completeness, but in its incomprehension; Luzhin cannot understand or even relate to another person. She, in turn, cannot leave someone so in need of her. The ending, in which madness prevails with a vengeance, flounders badly. This supports my belief that Nabokov didn’t know what to do with his peculiar character. Ornamentation and obfuscation are this novel’s main features, and they’re not enough.

Confessions of an Advertising Man - David Ogilvy
This is a book about business. It’s practical, thorough, well-organized, honest and intelligent. Ogilvy takes pride in producing work of superior quality, but his primary goal is the making of money, both for the clients he represents and for himself. He doesn’t shy away from depicting the ruthlessness of the world he operates in. He’s a taskmaster who expects much of his employees; if they don’t meet his standards, out they go. There’s a photograph of him on the front cover; his eyes are cold and hard. Young people considering a career in business should contemplate that gimlet gaze. His prose is clear, concise and lively, as would be expected of a good copywriter. He reveals, with surprising frankness, how advertisers go about persuading the public (or, put more bluntly, how they manipulate us); this is instructive – and cautionary. The book was written in 1963, and Ogilvy is prescient when he looks to the future. He finds the over-saturation of ads on TV to be objectionable and suggests government regulation. He sees danger in the unrestrained promotion of materialistic goods and values. He also believes that advertising should not be used in political campaigns. He would no doubt be appalled at the state of affairs today.

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