Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Reading List: Mason & Dixon

Mason & Dixon
by Thomas Pynchon

I was fortunate enough to stumble across Against the Day when it was released, and found it to be immediately intriguing, and so it become one of the series of long reads that I tackled in the past several years.  Against the Day is Thomas Pynchon's most recent epic novel, and Mason & Dixon is the next most recent one.  I picked it up at a book sale in my home town's annual Moxie Festival (that would be Lisbon, ME, every July), a castoff of the local library that was checked out a few times, probably by the same reader, in 1997, and I probably got it five years later or so.  That's why you never pass up a book sale, because there are always gems waiting to be discovered, and Pynchon is a gem, and I keep waiting for everyone else to realize it.  Against and Mason aren't even the books he's known for by the people who know him, so there you are.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was one of those literary works that proved exceedingly popular with readers last decade.  It's about a boy with autism who sets out to discover the identity of the murderer of his neighbor's dog, which leads into all kinds of unexpected directions.

The main thing that sticks out about Curious Incident is that it is written from the point of view of the autistic boy himself, so it's really a book about an interesting perspective, which on the score makes it more than the sum of its parts, which eventually become about everything but the boy's amateur detecting.  Like the more recent Before I Go to Sleep and The Unnamed, it can either be a good or a bad thing to discover that the author at some point decides the setup needs a conventional resolution.  Sleep is a lot like Memento, the Christopher Nolan movie that features a man with a memory problem trying to seek revenge for his wife's death.  From the start it's clear that the main character will be doing more than just trying to make the reader understand their own curious memory problems.  Unnamed is about a strange illness that causes a man to inexplicably start walking at random moments, and eventually becomes pretty involved in that man's relationship not with the world around him but what he decides the illness actually represents, which the author kind of springs on the reader with little warning.

Curious Incident does a good job of basically turning the story anyone will know about it into the red herring of the story, as the boy's real journey is finally figuring out his place in the world, which begins with resolving his relationship with both parents.  This is both a good and a bad thing because Haddon does a better job than either Joshua Ferris in Unnamed or S.J. Watson in making the setup work entirely of its own accord, and letting the reader believe that this is good enough.  Actually, now that I think of it Everything Matters! is probably as close to Curious Incident as I've come.  You can easily see the effect it's had on literature.

Perhaps Haddon could write his own Sherlock Holmes adventure (the main character's hero and title of Curious Incident are taken from Conan Doyle's famous creation) and we might get what we thought this one was going to be.  Just a thought.

It's one of those quick reads, which another good/bad thing.  Good because quick reads are always good.  Bad because you want perhaps a little more than Haddon has available for you.

It might also be worth noting that in a way Paul Murray's Skippy Dies is almost a version of Curious Incident from a more neutral perspective.  All of this is to say that if you like Curious Incident there's plenty of material to explore.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Reading List: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
by Mark Haddon

The first decade of the new millennium was rich with great literature, which is one reason I've been so disappointed in the last several years, which even in the popular titles that evoke this period still seem like a poor imitation (or perhaps I'm just being too bard on the new guys).  Curious Incident was one of those seminal titles that I'm only now getting around to, but bought for my brother at the time (I have no idea if he actually read it).  It's about a boy with autism who investigates the murder of a neighbor's dog, and as such is at least written in a distinctive way, which is something few authors attempt.  This one will be fun!

Naked Lunch

Along with Jack Kerouac's On the Road and Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs has come to define the Beat generation, the last great literary era in America (at least as has been celebrated).  It's not as iconic to anyone outside of the direct circle of Beat adherents, but Lunch remains iconic, and it still resonates through our culture.

Like Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test seen from the inside, Lunch is all about the emerging culture that gave rise to the popular counterculture that exploded ten years after its release and has still yet to work its way entirely out of our system (in a lot of ways it went completely mainstream).  It's a fever dream of imagery and perversion that Burroughs described as his attempt to update the Swiftian message depicted in A Modest Proposal, trafficking in drugs and sexuality with equal glee.

All that would be well and good if it weren't so episodic (although in all fairness it was never meant to be a traditional novel) and random.  It's exactly what you find in a typical Jerome Charyn novel, but without the structure the latter borrows from every conceivable genre, or Salman Rushdie completely unfiltered, or Thomas Pynchon with more restraint (and thus, apparently, less to say).  It's also like reading the secret origin of comic book writer Grant Morrison, who like Charyn and the others has taken the essence of Burroughs and exploded into onto deeper canvases (most evident on his Invisibles saga, which he contends was stolen by the Wachowskis to create The Matrix).  It's also worth noting that Philip K. Dick made a career out of writing material fans of Lunch would recognize, both in conception and execution.

There are moments where Burroughs is so scattershot that you wonder if he's simply being sensational for the sake of shocking the reader, or if he's accurately depicting the scene he was a part of.  What's most disappointing is that he's never interested in explaining how anyone falls into the circumstances he describes, even though with very little knowledge you can eventually hazard out that he and the other Beats were all from fairly privileged families.  A more introspective work might have produced more interesting results, although something that's equally scattershot, Tristram Shandy, may suggest otherwise.  Sometimes it's just the style of the writer, and from the first page Naked Lunch is clearly representative of the Beats, without or without the context.

Going forward Lunch may be the member of the Beat trinity that has the hardest time being remembered, for exactly the reasons that frustrated me while reading it.  Burroughs does a thorough job of providing period color, but his lack of insight will prevent it from becoming the Beat version of The Jungle, because all while condemning it Burroughs is also celebrating it, perhaps perfectly subconsciously, which is perhaps why he has to confess to several relapses from detox efforts.  Even while appearing to be above it all, a dispassionate observer on the road to recovery (and the hazy idea of the interzone), he justifies addiction by trying to qualify it, perhaps completely unaware that as bad as it seemed at the time it would only get worse.

This is why there's a futile war on drugs, because no one who's involved understands what a folly it really is, on either side.  Naked Lunch is not bound to be A Modest Proposal for exactly that reason.  And that's where the drummer of this Beat marks the punchline.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Reading List: Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch
by William S. Burroughs

Literature was hijacked along with everything else in the middle of the twentieth century by mavericks who were convinced they could do everything better.  William S. Burroughs was one of them, and while he remains a famous name his work is more anonymous than what was produced by his contemporaries.  Naked Lunch will be my attempt to see if this makes any sense.  I can't remember who was ultimately responsible for my adding this to my library and subsequently Reading List, but it occurred while I was working at a bookstore, and that just figures.  If nothing else that's what Burroughs is all about.

If on a winter's night a traveler

I went through a gamut of emotions reading Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, which is in some ways a love letter to reading, and in others a convoluted and compromised writer's exercise.

Both Calvino and traveler are beloved in reading circles.  The author is one of those writers who engaged his fans in a classical sense of literature, updating it in a postmodern setting.  This is the second book I've read from him, after Mr. Palomar, and like Cormac McCarthy, after two books and including one that has to be considered a definitive work (in McCarthy's case Blood Meridian) I'm confident in declaring I never need to read Calvino again.  He's shown me all his tricks, and traveler is a story about tricks.

It's the reader's version of Swift's Gulliver's Travels, a satire of reading itself that seeks to explore what reading is like, and even how Calvino viewed the state of publishing, which in the years since traveler was published has only become more troublesome.  It takes the shape of a reader whose reading is continually interrupted in publishing errors, and the more he attempts to understand what's happened the deeper he goes down the rabbit hole, first in discovering another reader who shares his perspective, and then the complicated reasons why the particular books he's been attempting to read have been printed with such error.  There's a certain point where the cleverness of it gives way to Calvino's inability to advance the story further without altering it, and not in the good way where the movie Adaptation becomes a movie that was described in its beginning, but where the author has simply tried to be more expansive than he's truly capable of being.

It becomes clear that half of what Calvino wanted to do was to create a series of hooks that his lead character couldn't resist, and yet the more this basic premise is repeated the more aware the reader becomes that traveler is simply a collection of short stories, not like Arabian Nights but rather Calvino stringing the reader along with an ongoing narrative that becomes increasingly loopy, As I Lay Dying interpreted by an attempt to write different narratives but sticking inconveniently in the same voice each time, Calvino's eccentric viewpoint.  The more he tries to create true variations the less successful he is.

Fun reading for the most part, with some very amusing episodes and scenarios, but played out before it plays all the way out.
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