Friday, December 27, 2013

Chromos - Felipe Alfau
In the midst of the rampant idiosyncracy of Chromos a traditional novel exists in the form of one that the narrator’s friend, Garcia, is writing. Garcia burdens the narrator (Alfau, obviously) by either reading from the manuscript or giving Alfau sections to read; thus we get, in portions, the story of the rise and fall of the Sandoval family. We have a strange – and funny – phenomena here: Alfau is the one who’s writing Garcia’s novel, and it’s he who considers it to be no more than a tawdry melodrama. In Garcia Alfau may be giving us a portrait of the artist as a dedicated, indefatigable hack. The setting for Chromos is New York City, but the characters are Spanish (“Americaniards”). All are colorful, though Don Pedro (the Moor, Don Pedro el Cruel) is fantastical, an intellectual wind-up toy who seldom wears down, spouting far-out ideas and giving a running commentary on the people and events around him. I was simpatico with what the author was doing until one hundred pages from the end, when the scene switches to a party at El Telescopio (a bar the Americaniards frequent). First Don Pedro launches into an incomprehensible philosophical/scientific discourse, then the narrator gives a learned treatise on music and dance; both seemed interminable. Up to this point Alfau had ignored all the novelistic rules except one: entertain the reader. When he broke that rule – when he let his arcane indulgences run unchecked – my attitude changed. The conclusion of Garcia’s novel, in which the Sandoval family descends to a most lurid end, no longer had its naive appeal. Even the colorfulness of the Americaniards took on artificial hues, as if too much makeup had been applied to create them. Feeling that I did not belong and would not be missed, I made a quiet exit from El Telescopio.

The Catherine Wheel - Jean Stafford
The action takes place at Congreve House, a summer estate in Maine. In Chapter One we’re privy to the thoughts of twelve-year-old Andrew as he broods about his friend Victor, who is ignoring him while he tends to his ailing brother. Andrew wants the brother either to get well and go back to sea or, better still, to die – quickly and horribly. In Chapter Two we switch to the mind of serene Aunt Katherine and find that emotionally she’s like a Catherine wheel (a spinning firework that flings out flares in every direction). Her crisis involves a man she was obsessed with in her youth; he married another, but now he wants her to run off with him to the island of Mangareva (he picked it at random from the globe). Next we get a look at the villagers, who range from highly peculiar to grotesque. At this point I began to wonder if there was an insane asylum nearby with lax security. But, no, Stafford was oblivious to the maniacal aspects of her scenario; only complete earnestness could produce prose like this: “The inseparable mind sang in its bone-cell and she was wheeled outward swiftly and the purblind mind nosed like a mole through splendid mansions of ice-white bone and luminous blood, singing with the music of the spheres.” After reading this sentence I felt quite satiated and called it quits. Though I couldn’t resist a peek at the last few pages to see if Katherine dies when set afire by an aberrant Catherine wheel. She is.

A Tour of the Prairies - Washington Irving
In his Introduction Irving states that he has written a “simple narrative of everyday occurrences” in which he has “nothing wonderful or adventurous to offer.” His down-to-earth approach is one of the virtues of this Tour. He embarks onto the prairies as a member of a large contingent, mostly made up of military rangers. In 1832 Oklahoma was the Wild West, where the buffalo roamed and Pawnees were a dangerous foe. Irving gives a vivid picture of what this country was like before the encroachment of civilization. We get a fresh perspective on the Indians and learn about the pleasures and difficulties of living off the land. I was entertained and informed, but eventually my attitude became one of disapproval. Man must kill for food, certainly, but these men have a blood lust for deer, elk and buffalo (in that order of preference). When a wild horse is sighted it’s pursued with the objective of capturing it, methodically breaking its spirit and reducing it to a pack animal. Man is a scourge upon the land; when Irving departs a camp he looks back and sees “Trees felled and partly hewn in pieces, and scattered in huge fragments . . . smouldering fires, with great morsels of venison and buffalo meat, standing in wooden spits before them, hacked and slashed by the knives of hungry hunters . . . around were strewed the hides, the horns, the antlers and the bones of buffalo and deer, with uncooked joints, and unplucked turkeys, left behind with reckless improvidence and wastefulness . . .” The author is sometimes caught up in the spirit of the hunt, but more often he wishes for the magnificent buffalo and the wild horse to escape, so they may continue their lives on the unbounded freedom of the prairie.

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