Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Man Who Fell to Earth - Walter Tevis
This book seems to have fallen by good fortune into my hands. I pulled it from the library shelf because I recognized the title – a movie had been made of it (one I hadn’t seen and knew nothing about). I read the opening paragraph and admired its unadorned precision, so I took it home. I suppose it belongs in the category of science fiction (a genre I have little patience with), and its overly-familiar message has to do with the threat of annihilation by nuclear war. This novel, however, is something different; it’s an example of how intelligence and insight can generate a bright, crackling freshness. Tevis makes it entirely logical why an Anthean (who’s just able to pass as a human) has come to Earth, what his goal is, and how he goes about trying to achieve it. As I followed T. J. Newton’s story I shared the burden of his undertaking, respected his abilities, and admired his resolve and courage. That he winds up disillusioned and lonelier than one can imagine is a tragedy, and I was moved. I was moved by an alien! – when so many human characters in fiction fail to elicit that emotion in me. *

The Earthly Paradise - Robert Thom
From beginning to end, without respite, this novel’s intensity level is set too high. This applies to thoughts and feelings, events and dialogue, and even to the prose: “The words cut into him. He felt it at the base of his skull and in his spine.” Though the particular emotions people feel are on full display, they become suspect because of huge and unsupported about-faces; I didn’t believe in any character (the saintly and wise deaf mute was preposterous). Still, despite its strident, garish and silly aspects, the novel has momentum. The author could probably do good work if he gave up his pretensions. Thom tries to delve deep into the tortured human heart, but he needs to simply portray people as they are.

A Summons to Memphis - Peter Taylor
The book’s premise, which emerged early on, intrigued me: a father prevents all three of his children from marrying the people they love, and in doing so derails their lives. I wanted to find out what made this tyrannical figure tick. I can tell you now that nothing is revealed. One example: the narrator, Phillip, tells about the great love in his life. Though the girl he wants to marry seems satisfactory in every way, his father travels to Chattanooga to talk to her parents; after his visit the girl is shipped off to South America. What did he say to them? And why? These and other crucial questions remain a mystery. Not helping matters is the way the story is told; the narrator uses stilted language, he’s repetitive, he’s circuitous, he goes into long, dry digressions on clothes and society and manners. This novella is filled with five page stretches where nothing of substance happens. As for the main character, did Taylor intend for him to be sympathetic? If so, he failed dismally; I developed a strong aversion for Phillip. He insulates himself from any responsibility and hardly any contact with his family. When he’s summoned to Memphis by his sisters – who stayed and dealt with their father – he describes the experience as “hellish” and after one day he flees back to New York. He depicts his sisters as grotesques, but how did they get this way? They deserve compassion and insight; instead they’re ridiculed. To top it all off, Phillip winds up being a cheerleader for the old man, promoting him as a figure to be respected. I made it to this inane ending only because annoyance can propel along (at least if the book is very short).

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