Monday, May 6, 2013

Cheating at Canasta - William Trevor
Two stories are excellent: “The Dressmaker’s Daughter” and “Bravado.” Two others are good, but eight are no more than fair. Those aren’t stats to be proud of (even though the fair ones got published in The New Yorker). Trevor is in his eighties; it may be significant that his weakest stories – somber mood pieces that meander around an idea but never develop into anything of substance – deal with the elderly, while the two excellent ones are about people in their teens. In “Bravado” a young girl is attracted to a boy who has a reckless swagger. But does her admiration spur him on to impress her? When his actions have tragic consequences, a moral question arises for her: must she bear part of the responsibility? The fact that we never anticipate this specter of guilt gives it impact. Guilt is also at the core of “The Dressmaker’s Daughter.” The capacity to feel guilt can be redeeming, but often it’s a burden one must live with – somehow. In these two stories – in which Trevor is at his best – an emotion lingers on long after the final word.

The Girls of Slender Means - Muriel Spark
I almost abandoned this novel thirty pages from the end. It struck me as a thin enterprise in every way. The disjointed snippets seem carelessly patched together, and Spark’s attitude toward her characters is cold, even disdainful. Of the girls living in the May of Tech Club (just after WW II), three stand out. Selina is a sexually adventurous beauty, Jane does what she calls “brain work,” Joanna gives elocution lessons in which she recites poetry and has her students recite it back (the book contains long stretches of poetry and psalms, which the other-worldly Joanna knows by heart). Only Nicholas Farrington interested me (his death is announced on page four, though he appears, quite alive, from start to finish). For him the girls of slender means embody some ideal of young womanhood; his longing for the ineffable kept me reading, and those last thirty pages (which I almost skipped) added dimension to the novel. A bomb – a remnant of the war – goes off in the garden of the Club, starting a fire that traps some girls on the top floor. Nicholas tries, with the firemen, to rescue them; he’s acquainted with the roof of the adjoining building, for he’s been sleeping there with Selina. All the girls escape – except one. We know that Nicholas will, in the indeterminate future, be killed in Haiti, where he was a religious missionary; what caused him to take that path in life is never explained, but it seems somehow connected with the death at the Club. On the last page, in an evocative passage, he gazes at a May of Tech girl as she pins up her hair – an image he will recall “years later, in the country of his death.”

Murder by the Book - Rex Stout
It’s hit or miss with Stout, and this is a solid single. Archie takes center stage, the cast of suspects is manageable, and when Nero Wolfe unveils the identity of the murderer it made sense. I missed an inconsistency that Wolfe spotted, and felt my inadequacy as a private eye. The fact that three people are murdered for an inconsequential reason is no huge deal; Stout isn’t trying to be Dostoevski. The writing – Archie’s voice – is snappy and bright: “She was the kind you look at and think she should take off just one or two pounds, and then you ask where from and end by voting for the status quo.”

The Name of the World - Denis Johnson
Beware of novels with titles like this one. The first-person narrator has a lot of Zen-like thoughts but no vitality. He sleepwalks through a series of episodes that lead nowhere. When we learn that he’s actually mute with grief (his wife and daughter had been killed in a car accident) I didn’t respond because nothing about the guy rang true, including this tragedy. Then, while at the art department of the university where he teaches, Mike blunders onto a “Cannon Performance”: students are watching a young woman “engaged in shaving her lathered mons veneris.” Her name is Flower Cannon. Mike is roused out of his dormancy; he’s even inspired to this lofty thought: he would have loved for his daughter, if she had lived, to have turned out to be like Flower. The plot is headed toward a relationship between the two (Flower pops up wherever Mike goes), but I wanted no part of the impending nonsense, so I bailed out on page 62, which was the halfway point. I hope that my description of the Cannon Performance hasn’t misled you. Even with the sex thrown in, this book is as drab an old brown suit.

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