Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hunting the Fairies - Compton Mackenzie
No, it’s not what you’re thinking. Yu-Yu, an American widow of Scottish descent (and inordinately proud of it), visits Scotland with her daughter Deirdre. She hopes to spot the Loch Ness Monster and uncover arcane Celtic lore, but she’s also in quest of fairies and ghosts (which, in her inflamed imagination, abound in every glen in the Highlands). The native Scots are a hard-headed, practical bunch; they’re proud of their history (an intricate and gory one), their traditions and legends, and the Gaelic language (despite the fact that it’s impenetrable even to them). As for fairy music and ghostly apparitions, they indulge their gullible guests. Hugh Cameron of Kilwhillie is stodgy, stolid and somewhat hapless, but he’s endearing. The book is best when dealing with him; it sags when it focuses on the feather-brained pursuits of Yu-Yu and Deirdre. However, when Hugh interacts with the two women the contrast in personalities produces funny results (a plot complication is that Kilwhillie, a fifty-year-old lifelong bachelor, gets the notion of marrying nineteen-year-old Deirdre). This is deadpan humor at its best, though it has Monty Pythonesque undertones.

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ - Jose Saramago (Portuguese)
I was curious as to how an original thinker like Saramago would portray the life of Jesus. In the first chapter Joseph has sex with his sixteen-year-old wife. It’s not a union marked by affection but simply an urge fulfilled. The beginning of the book is very down-to-earth (though the supernatural plays a role, with the appearance of a mysterious angel). The novel is at its strongest in its depiction of how people lived at that time in that part of the world. There was much brutality (the Roman crucifixions, the Jewish practice of sacrificing animals). The graphic descriptions of these atrocities aren’t gratuitous; they’re a lament and an indictment. Saramago’s gospel goes counter to the sanctified version in many ways (his Jesus can be harsh and unforgiving; he has sexual relations with Mary Magdalene). Still, the supernatural element that appeared in the beginning grows in importance as Jesus reaches manhood. More angels arrive with cryptic messages; Jesus suddenly, inexplicably has the power to perform miracles; God appears to tell Jesus of the role he is to fulfill on earth (again, in cryptic terms). As this aspect became dominant Saramago stopped giving care to his craft. The book’s structure waffled, events were confusing and took on a hurried air, some scenes involving spiritual matters came across as ludicrous. I have a theory about what undermined this enterprise. Saramago was an avowed atheist, yet he wound up presenting supernatural happenings as if they actually occurred. He was writing counter to his beliefs, and it shows.

Wilderness Tips - Margaret Atwood
Most stories in this collection are nothing more than attitude and posturing. Atwood presents us with mannequins in bizarre costumes strutting down a runway, giving us knowing looks (or evil leers). A prime example is “Wilderness Tips.” Early on I was aware that I had read it before (no doubt in some “best” anthology). But halfway through – when I abandoned it – I had no inkling of where things were headed. What I had recalled at the outset were the weird or outrageous poses that Atwood has her amoral bunch of preposterous stick figures take. The story is tawdry, empty, and, despite its superficial smartness, stupid – there was nothing of substance to remember. The repugnant “Hairball” was just as bad. In three other stories (four I didn’t read) Atwood tries to do what Alice Munro does so well: start with an event that happened early in a character’s life, then follow its effects over many years, ending in the present. For this to work the ending must resonate, and that will occur only if the reader cares about the people; Atwood’s characters remained flat and underdeveloped. Only the eery “Death by Landscape” was a success; it’s shrouded in an inexplicable mystery, one that lingers. I got this collection because Moral Disorder interested me; but Nell was real. I took a look at the author’s biography. Disorder came out when Atwood was sixty-seven (fifteen years after Wilderness). I also discovered that Atwood’s life closely corresponds to Nell’s. That would account for the depth (and evasiveness) of the more recent work, in which Atwood was writing about herself, not stage props.

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