Friday, September 17, 2010

Fun with Problems - Robert Stone
This short story collection should have been called Drunks, Druggies, Nut-Cases. But it’s a literary work by a National Book Award winner, so the title can’t be blatantly lurid. It has to have class (albeit of the quirky variety). Still, the book is far from a class act; I won’t attempt to do justice to its many failings. If you’re at the library, read the four page “Honeymoon” and tell me why an author with discernment or self-respect – if they wrote such nonsense in the first place – wouldn’t have tossed it in the wastebasket. Granted, the prose throughout is fine and the title story is good, in a slummy way (it’s the only story that can be called “good”; most are bad, and the two long ones are so tediously bad that I couldn’t complete them). The problem with Problems – a huge one, endemic in today’s literary world – is content. Pandering is the name of the game. Freakiness, outrageous behavior, violence, obscenity – these make up the content of work by many young writers and some elder statesmen (like Stone). No person I can relate to appears on these pages because no real humans are depicted. Real people in real situations, though a subject of vast potential, have been largely abandoned. So why did I read the book? I heard Alan Cheuse, on NPR, highly recommend it, and I liked Stone’s Dog Soldiers (written in 1973 and also containing the content I’m condemning here); but twenty-seven years ago I was young, and the novel was fresh and had vitality and drive; now I’ve matured, but Stone, though he’s seventy, hasn’t; he’s just gotten angrier – the prevailing attitude in these stories is a mean and abusive one. In the blurb on the back cover Madison Smartt Bell writes “American fiction has no greater master than Robert Stone.” What hope is there if Cheuse and Bell (and many others who heap praise on this dismal book) can’t recognize its faults and emphatically condemn them? A last comment, regarding Stone’s anger. He heavy-handily bludgeons caricatures: an insane Secretary of Defense, a rich Silicon Valley entrepreneur; and, in a broader sense, he attacks an American society phony to its diseased core. But if he wants to see, up close, the disease that’s killing literary fiction, he simply needs to look in a mirror.

All the Days and Nights - William Maxwell
Since this story collection is the last work of fiction that I’ll read by Maxwell, a summing up (and a tribute) is in order. His difficulty with plot persists in the short form; he’s great at capturing an isolated moment or feeling, but he can’t tell a story; often he doesn’t try. In “The Front and Back Parts of the House” he describes the writing of his first novel; beyond the initial idea he hadn’t a clue where events were headed (the results of such lack of direction can be found in Time Will Darken It). He’s a strongly autobiographical author. When he didn’t have a close emotional involvement with his subject the results lack depth and resonance. His best work concerns people he cared deeply about – wife, father, brother. He doesn’t give himself a major role, nor does he overtly express his feelings, but we come to know Maxwell in how he presents others. What shines through is his empathy and compassion. Some stories are grim, but no villains are to be found. He shows anger only once. When he and his wife revisit “The Gardens of Mont-Saint-Michel,” where they had spent a cherished evening, they find that the beautiful, ancient and irreplaceable gardens are gone, a victim of Progress and the Almighty Dollar. My favorite in the collection is “The Thistles of Sweden,” about the early years of Maxwell’s marriage, when the couple were living in a brownstone walk-up in New York; it’s poignant and evocative. “Over by the River,” which takes place later in their lives, has a suggestion of something dark and disturbing at prowl in the world (and in the hearts of Maxwell and his wife and children); that the book begins with this atypical piece is perplexing and intriguing. As for his prose – it’s beautiful; Maxwell can make the act of reading words pleasurable. And he has such mastery that he’s able to accomplish with ease whatever he attempts. In “The Lily-White Boys” he lets the “material witnesses” of a robbery – the carpet, phone directory, wall clock, a Sheraton sideboard, a bottle of Elizabeth Arden perfume – have a conversation in which each plays a crucial role or has a bit of wisdom to offer. What other author could do this so charmingly? A description of the clothes someone is wearing is interesting because Maxwell is primarily concerned with the person inside those clothes. The collection ends with “twenty-one improvisations.” In his introduction Maxwell states that he wrote these short pieces to please his wife. Only a few are good, but I forgive him for this indulgence. Fittingly, the best of the lot is “A Love Story,” about two moles whose lives are disrupted by the coming of bulldozers. It ends happily. Madame Mole shows affection for her husband by chewing on his ear. *

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Wayfarer - Natsume Soseki (Japanese)
I have high regard for three Soseki novels – and then this. The plot makes no sense. Do the characters and events in the first section, “Friend,” exist simply to be dropped? Increasingly the book concerns Ichiro, the narrator’s brother; at first the issue is Ichiro’s unhappy marriage (with his wife playing a major role), but the marriage (and the wife) are dropped too. Supposedly Ichiro’s problem is very, very deep, and involves existential matters. What’s the meaning of life? – that type of thing. Ichiro is supposedly brilliant and as a result he’s unable to live simply, unquestioningly, happily. The book ends (the last section is entitled “Anguish,” and it was, for me) with a long letter which supposedly sheds light on the enigmatic and tortured Ichiro. I’m overusing “supposedly,” right? I didn’t buy any of it. Ichiro is an ugly-tempered, self-centered bore. He wasn’t worth my time. But he was worth Soseki’s time. Why? Could he be the author’s alter ego? I don’t know. But I do know that a major peril in writing about oneself is that you reveal yourself without even knowing it.

The Vicar of Bullhampton - Anthony Trollope
This novel is earthy (who could be more down-to-earth than the miller?). I believe that common people, rendered honestly and without condescension, are of great interest; so did Trollope. The novel’s central issue is “The Woman Question,”and it’s presented through two very different characters. Mary Lowther’s dilemma has to do with whether she should marry a man she doesn’t love. He’s an excellent match and various forces push her towards the marriage. Her struggle in making this decision is depicted with all the doubts and conflicts she feels. Then there’s the miller’s daughter, Carrie Brattle, who’s a “fallen woman.” Her predicament is hard for a modern reader to comprehend. Because of one misstep this unmarried girl becomes an outcast from society; even her father disowns her. I had a problem with how Trollope handled both women. Mary is given an easy way out: she meets a man who stirs real love in her. Okay, but why the Perils of Pauline-type obstacles thrown in her way (and then conveniently removed)? We’re constantly left hanging with the question of “What happens next?” (wait for the next installment to find out). As for Carrie, she clearly had Trollope’s sympathy, and he shows the hypocrisy and insensitivity of the so-called upstanding, moral people who find her soiled beyond redemption. But his portrayal of her is so flat! She’s often referred to as “poor Carrie” and she’s little more than an abjectly sad victim. Still, these problems don’t sink the ship. There’s much about the novel that makes it a success. It’s emotionally rich, engrossing and written in a smooth, reader-friendly style. Trollope shows compassion for all his many characters, even the deeply flawed. The eponymous Vicar is someone of importance: a good man who diligently tries to do the right thing. His efforts sometimes fail to achieve their goals; but he, like all the people of Bullhampton, is merely human.

Hemlock and After - Angus Wilson
I had mixed feelings as I was reading this; admiration was offset by fault-finding. Wilson is intelligent (he makes sure you know it) and his prose is graceful and inventive (though its intricacies serve mainly to impress). Then there were the people he assembles. The book is under 150 pages, but it has a list – one I had to constantly refer to – of twenty-five characters. Many are homosexual; almost all, of whatever sexual persuasion, are distasteful. Some only indulge in backbiting, but one woman is outrageously evil. Wilson has a cultured taste for the kinky, and he displays a cynicism that’s downright acidic. Kinkiness and cynicism can be entertaining – they are entertaining as presented here –but they can turn rancid. Perhaps Wilson realized this was happening to his wicked brew, because near the end he tries to impart a higher purpose to the proceedings; I was unconvinced by the sudden emphasis on self-revelation and compassion. Hemlock is a poison, and this book has a poisonous heart. Though Angus Wilson is surely an artist, is he a person whose work I want to spend more time with?