Sunday, October 21, 2012

Reading List: Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend
by Charles Dickens

One of the hallmarks of the 2004-2010 TV series Lost was its willingness to incorporate literature in the backdrop of its tapestry.  Perhaps one of the more visible examples of this trend was Our Mutual Friend, which was famously the "sodding book" Desmond Hume kept with him in the event of his imminent demise, as he'd read everything else Charles Dickens had ever read, and was saving it for last.  I haven't made too fine a point of reading much of what is considered classic literature from among these Lost books, but I figured this one would be worth it.  Desmond was a favorite character.  I would never share his particular neuroses concerning Mutual Friend (partly because I have decidedly not read all of its author's books), but I've had it waiting for several years now, and am happy to finally be reaching it.

(There is no picture of Penny in mine.  Shame.  Also no key for a fail-safe to implode a hatch.)

Thoughts on The Green Lantern

Jerome Charyn spent a great deal of time studying Russian literature.  My experience is more limited.  Aside from the recent Ice Trilogy (perhaps the most notable recent example?), I've read Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov is a favorite of all possible books) and the collected works of Isaac Babel (who is likely a favorite of Charyn's), though his famous Red Cavalry/Benya Krik tales remain his best.  In style, Charyn's The Green Lantern is very similar to Russian literature.  It is also an affirmation of his distinctive style.

Set in Russia in the years leading up to the invasion of Moscow during WWII as Stalin seeks to solidify his place in Soviet history by a systematic purge of his critics, the book follows the unlikely rise of a stagehand who becomes King Lear and then the darling of an entire country.  This foundling is an archetype in Charyn books, usually thrust into a pack of wolves representing a much larger institution.  In Johnny One-Eye, for instance, the stage was the American Revolution while in The Tar Baby the staff of a literary journal that dominates a small California town (at least in its own imagining).

Another hallmark of Charyn's work in his ability to accept sexuality as a necessary element of human affairs.  He usually employs the least savory aspects of this basic biological urge, the ones society will tend to judge, which is to say his women tend to be whores.  In The Green Lantern the biggest whores are no different from anyone else, simply trying to survive (which is true in any of Charyn's books), but this time there's a more subtle explanation given.  The lead whore is a world famous actress who made the mistake of traveling to Hollywood and then returning home.  The idea of home for Charyn is always a complicated one.  He likely subscribes to Thomas Wolfe's adage, "You can't go home again."

Stalin's Russia is a unique literary stage for me.  As was the case in Johnny One-Eye, Charyn's depictions of historical figures prove to be a revelation.  Stalin himself is a human monster, but more often human than monster, a classic trickster in the author's eye, able to contradict and remain faithful to himself.  At the start of the narrative he is mourning the death of his wife, which like all the deaths in the book is actually an execution, and appears to be a tragic figure.  Yet every time we see him he appears vital, impotent only when called to public appearances.  (The title of the book comes from a fictional novel based on a character originally created by Maxim Gorky that plays Stalin for a fool, using the signature green lamp that hangs outside his window at all hours as its symbol, a work redeemed only by the onset of WWII.)

Stalin is surrounded by real and imagined celebrities.  It's the march of these celebrities, their rise and fall, that informs the urgency of the book.  In a lot of ways, The Green Lantern is the necessary piece of Russian literature that explains a problematic period of the country's history, the Tale of Two Cities for the Soviet revolution.  I'd previously read the excellent Archivist's Tale that recounts Babel's final days, and reading Babel's own stories and about his life put new shape to a time that for many Americans was simply a precursor to the Cold War.

If you need another reason to read the book, consider it a cousin to the more famous Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which details the human fallout of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, with Shakespeare taking Balzac's place.  It's also striking that Charyn continues to evoke a previous era in literature altogether, even in so Russian a novel, what might be familiar to readers of Melville's Israel Potter, the story of a tramp who stumbles through history (many years before Forrest Gump or Zelig).  As Joseph Ellis relates in After the Revolution, this was exactly the kind of material Americans were writing before anyone thought Americans had anything worth saying, borrowing from the work of Swift and Sterne, farces that shed light on life through the most esoteric means possible.  That Charyn is still doing this today, and that he has worthy contemporaries like Thomas Pynchon sharing his efforts, speaks to the enduring strength of the genre.  Yet Charyn is distinctively his own, creating an ever-shifting landscape where good frequently inhabits a coat of gray, like everything around it.

This is the guy who evoked sympathy for Benedict Arnold, after all.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Reading List: The Green Lantern

The Green Lantern
by Jerome Charyn

After being amazed by the author through his Johnny One-Eye, I chose to hunt down earlier works, and one of my selections, was The Tar Baby, the previous book in the List, and the other was this one, which I will admit was chosen because it shares (coincidentally or not) the name of a favorite comic book character.  There are not superheroes as far as I know in The Green Lantern, but it does take place in Soviet Russia and otherwise seems very similar in plot to what Peter Ackroyd (The Lambs of London) usually does.  In fact, that's part of why I'm interested in Charyn, because he reminds me of Ackroyd as well as David Maine, a writer who appreciates history and culture and what they both can mean in vital fiction.

Thoughts on The Tar Baby

The term "tar baby" has many meanings, and one of them is racially offensive.  Perhaps that's something to keep in mind.

The book The Tar Baby is Jerome Charyn lampooning of academic pretensions.  It takes the form of a literary journal whose latest issue is a tribute to a recently deceased contributor.  The lampooning takes the shape of the many different opinions and stories about this dead man, the squabbles that arise between contributors and the conflicting interpretations they hold of local lore.

A lot of what fills in the weird shape of Tar Baby will be familiar to Charyn fans who have at least read Johnny One-Eye, set during the Revolutionary War and featuring a central figure who ends up caught between large egos and the home setting of a brothel.  It would not be a stretch to assume Charyn had Tar Baby in mind when he wrote Johnny, disentangling one narrative to form another.  That's a part of the author's genius.

I haven't read too much of Charyn, but at this point I can now with some additional confidence state that he's among our most vital novelists, a sort of more vulgar version of Thomas Pynchon.  Like the sad subject of Tar Baby, however, his legacy has been obscured by the peculiar means in which he has chosen to express himself.  Perhaps Tar Baby itself has played a part in the lack of popular momentum he's met, critics who saw too much of themselves in the skewered blowhards who inhabit the landscape of Galapagos (a name that resonates to Darwin and Vonnegut, though any significance is downplayed).

Part of the phantom in the middle's tale revolves around the famed philosopher Wittgenstein, an interpretation that seems to leave out any historical accuracy for the sake of fictional expediency, which causes its own tizzy, naturally a reflection of the many mirrors within the book.

If you're a fussy reader who needs a lot of convention, think of Tar Baby as a collection of inter-related short stories.  Even if you have trouble swallowing one installment, there are plenty of others to choose from, and parts of Charyn's work summarizes helpfully anything that might have slipped your attention.

It's a wonderful exercise, though perhaps best understood as an ancestor of the more successful Johnny One-Eye.  That would make sense in the world of The Tar Baby, too.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Reading List: The Tar Baby

The Tar Baby
by Jerome Charyn

Charyn is a writer that I completely stumbled into discovering.  One of his most recent books, Johnny One-Eye, provoked an irresistible interest as an irreverent look at the Revolutionary War, and it was with some surprise on my part that I discovered that I would soon be reading another of his, a biography of Quentin Tarantino.  if chance had guided me toward two Jerome Charyn books, what else might he have that would prove of interest?  So I had a look and found that he has quite a few books and a long history, and yet I've only just learned of his existence!  Johnny One-Eye proved to be a brilliant piece of fiction.  I quickly selected a few more of his novels for future reading, anticipating the day I would get back to reading him.  And now having barely begun Tar Baby, which is a satirical look at pretensions of the literary set (something I just read about from another era with Jonathan Swift), I believe I can say with growing confidence that Jerome Charyn is yet another writer that deserves to be elevated far above his current reputation.  

Thoughts on The Preservationist

David Maine's first book tackles the story of Noah's Ark.  Like a few of his subsequent novels, The Preservationist is an irreverent though ultimately piercing look at a familiar biblical tale.

Maine tends to look at his characters from cynically hopeful perspectives.  He views them as fallible human beings, even if most of them have a relationship with a being some of his readers may not believe in.  I say that because you don't need to be religious to enjoy this author, even if he keeps drawing inspiration from stories most people will associate with faith, in this instance that time God sent a flood to wipe out the entire population of the earth, except for whatever could be crammed into one massive boat.

As usual for Maine, there are alternate spellings for familiar names, so there may even be some disassociative elements to help some skeptics swallow events.  Noah becomes Noe, for instance.  Unlike the later Fallen, which chronicles the first humans (Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel), extreme old age comes in hundreds of years, so that there is indeed a mystique that cannot be explained by ordinary science.  God still appears in his typical obtuse ways, which is typical for Maine, who likes to keep everyone on their toes.  That Noe is very old doesn't help the rest of the cast appreciate what's going on, and even Noe has his moments.  The cast includes his three sons and their three curious brides, whose perspectives gently probe the limits of just what it meant when God said he was starting over and saving only the good ones, which seems to mean only Noe and his immediate family.  Being relative outsiders, were they saved only by proxy?

In Fallen character arcs were very specifically split into sections.  In this perhaps more nebulous incarnation, Maine alternates between his cast.  The three sons are distinctive, though two of the wives are somewhat similar, so it's the events they experience that tends to differentiate them, while the third is an innocent whose musings are almost an ironic statement on the whole affair.  Taken as a whole, it's a tapestry that supports the original story while also raising new questions about it.

Being the first of anything, you can either support pretty well what comes later because it becomes a template, or demonstrate an evolution.  In some degrees Preservationist is exactly what Maine does with his later books, but it's also clearly a learning curve, figuring out what works, something Fallen demonstrates and The Book of Samson all but deconstructs, while Monster 1959 takes in an entirely new direction, perhaps the book Maine always wanted to write about God, or perhaps nature, directly but could never bring himself to do.  He knows he walks a very fine line between irritating religious readers and those who don't believe a word of it.  Readers who can follow that line will adore him.  His success at unifying all three readers will always be Maine's biggest challenge.  The prominent blurb on the cover of the book pointedly attempts to sidestep any such controversy by referencing Life of Pi, though the two stories really have nothing in common except taking place on water.

The Preservationist marks Maine as one of the most vital writers of his time from the outset.  The inscrutable wife of Noe, who dies as inexplicably as she supports a husband who barely seems to acknowledge her, may as well be the unifying guide in the narrative.  As in religion, life is constantly presenting you with challenges you may never understand.  This is a book that tries to help you feel better about that.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

More Thoughts on Fallen

I don't normally do this, but I'm double-dipping on David Maine's Fallen.  In my last round of thoughts, I focused on the fact that it's a book based on a biblical story that called to my mind professional wrestling.  A few things still need to be made clear.  One of those is that Maine does not approach this story (or any of his similarly-themed books) from a devout attitude.  He's not trying to convert anyone.  He's simply trying to make biblical characters more human.  Sometimes that means that he's closer to Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses than, say, VeggieTales.

As far as pop culture goes, it may help to have Mel Gibson in mind while reading Fallen, specifically his performance in The Patriot, where he plays a father struggling how to respond to the Revolutionary War coming to his home territory.  Gibson frequently portrays desperate men, but in this film much of his desperation comes from the relationships he has with his children, many of whom don't understand what's going on, or are making decisions that exasperate him.  That's the relationship between Adam and Cain exactly, and Cain and Abel, and Adam and Eve.  Imagine Gibson's desperation on a biblical level, if he'd ever made that Judas Maccabee movie following The Passion of the Christ.  Many people now only see Gibson for the endless series of controversies that have followed him for a decade, but I think a certain amount of that follows the kind of life he projects into his films.  As I've said, that's straight desperation.  He's played very few calm men.  No matter what you think of Gibson now, keeping him in mind while reading Fallen would be a good thing.

Another obvious pop culture reference turned out in later seasons of Lost when the story of Jacob began to unfold.  In this TV series, a mysterious island with strange properties causes a lot of people to experience a lot of weird things.  We learn that the man with the earliest experience in this regard is Jacob, who became responsible for the island after his brother chose to reject it and their adoptive mother.  This is another relationship that's very similar.  Jacob's brother and mother were originally introduced in the show as corpses referred to as Adam and Eve, so the connection can be that simple if you want.  The point is, the simplicity and complexity is right there.  Maine has approached what characters who can sometimes be reduced to "the first man," "the first sinner," "the first murderer," "the first victim" and turned them into thinking individuals whose relationships are endlessly complicated.

It's the perfect example of David Maine's instincts as a writer, his ability to craft a story that attempts to explain the human condition in one of the oldest stories we have by making it new again.  Some of it would seem to alienate potential readers, and every best analogy I can make only seems to further complicate that potential, but these are challenges that present themselves, much like life itself.  If you want to accept this particular challenge, it's a rewarding experience.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Reading List: The Preservationist

The Preservationist
by David Maine

With this book, I'm finally closing a loop.  Back in college I read Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage, a modern interpretation of the classic Noah's Ark episode from the Bible.  Some years later I read about the release of another such book, which is this one.  I started to feel as if I was destined to read this curious genre.  I didn't read Preservationist right away, however.  It was released in 2004, but I didn't read David Maine until last year, two of his more recent books, which prompted me to get his older ones, including Preservationist, which ended up being the last in my reading cycle from the author.  It's only appropriate.

Thoughts on Fallen

David Maine has written the majority of his fiction based on classic biblical episodes.  The last one I read was The Book of Samson, and there are a lot of similarities to be found in Fallen, and I'm going to take an unorthodox approach to explain the appeal.

Professional wrestling.  Yeah, so I'm making it ten times more difficult to explain David Maine by using this particular analogy, but it's what came to me as I was reading Fallen.

In professional wrestling, the object of creating a successful persona that fans will care about is exaggerating a personality so that it's clear and identifiable.  The paradox is that most wrestlers are giant meatheads, so attempting to imagine that they have anything approaching intelligent thought is the one thing most outside observers always have a problem grasping.  They think of wrestling as mindless, stupid entertainment.  Actually, the Bible today is not so different.  We've managed to so thoroughly deconstruct the object of religion that the Bible no longer means anything but a bunch of mindless, stupid stories supporting something that only simpletons could possibly appreciate.

So, professional wrestling.  Samson featured the biggest meathead in the Bible.  Not coincidentally perhaps, Maine begins Fallen with Cain's son, who is also a giant meathead.  But remarkably, the story delves into the mind of this meathead, via his father, the first murderer in recorded history, on his way to tracing all the odd developments of early mankind backward to the moment we lost the one thing we've been trying to figure out ever since: perfection.  From Cain we go inside the head of Abel, and then to Adam, and then to Eve.  We begin with the first murderer, and work our way to the first sinner.  You may find Eve to be thoroughly unredemptive, but Maine's genius is that he both allows that judgment and works his way into figuring out how she got that way.  That's the whole point.  It's her reactions, and the reactions of everyone else, that gets us to the point where even someone like Cain has been able to redeem himself.

Structured like Christopher Nolan's film Memento (in other words backward), these are characters will little to say to each other but great emotions.  It's not hard to see this unfold in a wrestling ring.  It's not hard at all.  Most writers prefer to make things much easier.  Then again, most writers don't tackle the tough subjects, the ones that matter to everyone.  A lot of the more literary types do write about miserable family experiences, but they don't get very far because they don't really know where they're going.  Maine gets around that by showing the end point first and then revealing how it happened, through the most extraordinary means possible.

It's a depressing read, but it's a little of what life must seem like to someone who doesn't experience it the way we do, always going forward.  It's structured in a way that fits the elusive fifth member of the narrative into the story without actually giving him a part (that would be God).  Adam is always saying to trust God.  Why?  Where's the plan?  It's Hell getting back to Heaven.  This is exactly how (and why).

A writer like David Maine is capable of using familiar elements in unfamiliar ways, and for those who aren't ready for such things (the copy I read was very quickly weeded out of a library), it's startling.  It takes time to process, too, much like the life it's attempting to explain.  Does it make anything easier?  Maybe more than other books, like a friend who knows what kind of life you've had, what kind of troubles.  Everyone has led this kind of life.  Most of them don't know it.

Best of the David Maine books I've read so far.
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