Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Reading List: Supergods

by Grant Morrison

I love reading Grant Morrison comic books.  I love their complexities and simplicities.  And I love that he wrote a book detailing his perspective on why comic books should be taken seriously, or at least why superhero movies are suddenly all the rage, what these so-called supergods tell us about ourselves.  Morrison has sometimes crafted a very bizarre image for himself, but in my mind's eye I've always seen someone who's far more sober about his interests than he lets on.  This book is a testament to that belief, and I'm glad that I'm finally getting around to reading it.

How I Became Stupid

Usually when I think about filmed material, it's from an amateur writer who has obviously used it as the entire basis for their fiction.  How I Became Stupid, a book written by Martin Page that was all the rage in Europe about a decade back, evokes filmed material for me, but in a good way.

Okay, some of the filmed material is based on printed material.  I'll start with Scott Pilgrim, who was originally the subject of a series of graphic novels, but also became a film a few years back.  Page evokes the cleverness and flippant nature of the real truths being explored in the material embodied by Scott Pilgrim.  That's all well and good.  Then there's How I Met Your Mother, an American sitcom that is also very similar, heartbreaking and thought-provoking and hilarious all at the same time.

It's also like A Christmas Carol.

How I Became Stupid is a title that is all but self-explanatory.  The main character believes that he's cursed by his own intelligence, unable to enjoy his life because he doesn't have the advantages traditionally associated with success.  So he undertakes a journey to undo everything that defines him.  he attempts to become an alcoholic, he considers suicide, and yes, he tries to become stupid, which is to say extremely superficial.  All of it addresses real concerns in an exaggerated manner, and yes, is heartbreaking and thought-provoking and hilarious all at the same time.  Actually, another bit of filmed material I can reference is (500) Days of Summer.

A few years back I read a similar book, Hector and the Search for Happiness, a European book of the same pedigree as How I Became Stupid.  I bought Stupid because I wanted to see if Page could in fact help me with a similar situation. That's why the good readers read what they read, because they want to have a little solace in their lives.  Stupid settles for affirmative adventures, but as a part of the tapestry telling me that all my troubles are not the end-all and be-all of my life, I guess I can still appreciate the message.

...Still, I wish Page didn't have to suggest like everyone else that happiness and success are things that you just stumble into, because there really is the possibility that they really aren't.  Is there a depressing version of this narrative that still gives hope?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Reading List: How I Became Stupid

How I Became Stupid
by Martin Page

I confess that I added this one to the List in a blatant effort to learn exactly how the title is achieved.  For much of my life I've been living in despair, and the back cover to How I Became Stupid promises a kindred spirit.  It's often suggested that the reason some people read is to find individuals with whom they share a life experience, because in real life this can prove exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.  And really, I suppose this is not so surprising.  As the population increases, greater conformity rather than diversity becomes evident.  The more people there are the easier it is to latch onto common themes.  When someone discovers that their themes are less common, it becomes that much harder to find those who share them.  These individuals are dispersed in the large population in a random pattern, and the language they share is found in books.  I used to believe that the majority of writers shared this language, but I've gradually been disabused of this notion.  So it's always nice to discover the exceptions.  I hope to learn something useful from Mr. Page.

The Final Solution

I've only read a few mystery books in my time.  Of course as a kid I read the Hardy Boys, but I couldn't tell you now what they were like.  I imagine that they were rudimentary, which is funny, because the featured character of any good mystery ought to be able to make anything rudimentary.  That's the whole point, right?

Well, the central character of Michael Chabon's The Final Solution is an old man who's good at making things rudimentary.  Perhaps elementary.  He's never named, but the strong implication is that the old man is in fact Sherlock Holmes, still the most famous investigator in fiction after more than a hundred years, currently enjoying a screen renaissance both in film and television.  The setting is 1944 England, and the old man in question spies a curious boy and his parrot outside his window.  It's the parrot the old man is most curious about, which is appropriate, because in the midst of this short novel a murder is committed and the old man deduces that the real interest in this game is the parrot and not the victim.

What Chabon never does is make anything explicit.  He follows the old man around and explains the perspective of a few of the key players (in a later chapter and in fact the most memorable one from the parrot itself), but leaves the bigger picture up to the imagination of the reader.  A lot of writers when they're trying to impress the reader spend the early pages of their story overwriting with copious amounts of details.  That was my first impression of Solution, since indeed the whole of the literary community seems to have decided that Chabon in the wake of his great success with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay has let his reputation go to his head.  Instead of being a good little American writer bound to the things he knows he's gone off and become expansive.  He begun to examine the greater world and wider patterns, which of course began in Kavalier & Clay, which was as much about the creation of comic books as the lives of a couple of Jewish boys.

It does strike me that the more emphasis Chabon puts on his Jewish heritage the more suspect he becomes as a talent.  In 1944, it wasn't a great time to be Jewish, certainly in the boy's experience just outside of the story in Solution.  "Final Solution" itself is the phrase the Nazis used in their bid to solve their scapegoat dilemma.  In the years since Jews have become famous for two fairly diametric developments, the founding of the modern Israeli state and the rise of Hollywood as purveyor of the popular imagination.  Where they were once pariahs, they have since become tyrants (if you still believe in the independent existence of Palestine) and titans (if you believe they control the movies with an iron grip).  Certainly they've given us a good number of comedic individuals to enjoy (Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld).

The boy, who is to all appearances (except the parrot) a mute, survived Nazi Germany and can only be described as remarkable in his proximity to his curious pet, who does all his speaking, although even that appears to be riddles, repeating things Bruno (the parrot) has learned in all the places he has lived.  It's the old man who realizes that the parrot ultimately prevents all manner of explanations from being discovered.  Our culture's love of mysteries is a strange one, because we're taught that every mystery has a solution, and that it's easy if you know how to look at the problem.  I assume that the real point of mysteries is to help people figure out how to do this for themselves, but as with every such attempt to improve ourselves we're taught how to trivialize it rather than take it seriously.  Chabon takes the form so seriously that he discovers the solution isn't the answer itself, but rather the journey, the method, an old message worth repeating since it's so hard to learn.

Michael Chabon is indeed a treasure.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Reading List: The Final Solution

The Final Solution
by Michael Chabon

The last time I read Chabon I was burning away the last embers of one particular earthly purgatory, a terrible job that kept me in a constant state of misery, and my only reprieve was when I could steal some reading.  The book was Gentlemen of the Road, which was like Chabon's version of Salman Rushdie, and I'm amazed and grateful that I remember the book at all, and that's the grace of good reading.  The first time I read Chabon was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the love letter to the Golden Age of superheroes (and their creators) that geeks fell in love with at the start of the new millennium.  Along with a few other books (Wonder Boys, which was also an acclaimed movie, and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh), Kavalier & Clay had made Chabon a beloved literary figure.  Amazingly, though, he quickly lost most of that support, both from critics and readers, the more he explored new territory, which included Gentlemen, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, and The Final Solution.  This may explain what happens to great writers like Rushdie and Pynchon and Charyn.  They write the vital works that fewer people are willing to champion, because they present challenges rather than simple narratives.  The Final Solution is a short work, and its name evokes the worst tragedy of the 20th century, and I think that may be why it was more or less the final nail in Chabon's coffin.  When you do what others are afraid of, you risk alienation.  But it doesn't mean you aren't doing great things.  And besides, this is what Melville experienced, and look where he is today.

The March

The process of reading a book, no matter how long it takes you to read one, is a different kind of commitment than any other entertainment medium can give you, even if you're sitting down to a marathon session with your favorite movies or TV series.  With a book, it's a matter of following another person's imagination.  Since reading is as much about imagination as writing, when you're in that kind of conflux, it can sometimes prove more interesting than you might have thought at the start of the book.

E.L. Doctorow's The March is about Sherman's march through the South during the Civil War.  The way I learned it, this was a bloody rampage.  It's a good subject to explore in a novel, then, the various perspectives that can arise from examining it on a more intimate level.  Doctorow is an acclaimed and accomplished and awarded writer, and yet I found that I began to question his choices.  Mostly he ignores the Southern perspective, even though many of his characters come from the region Sherman leads Union forces through in his campaign.  One of them is a deranged maniac who doesn't represent anyone.  Another is a white-skinned black woman.  There's also the daughter of a respected citizen, realizing that his death took her former life away from her.  Each of them gets caught up in the march, folded into its narrative while losing their own.  In a way, it's supposed to be a metaphor about how we lose ourselves in the grip of a bigger story, but I kept hoping that Doctorow would acknowledge some of the subtleties rather than generalizing everything.

All of his characters are marginalized individuals.  They really don't represent anyone but themselves.  Even William Tecumseh Sherman himself is lost in the Doctorow shuffle.  He becomes a depressed strategist, who's surviving his own march, a duty that doesn't seem like warfare so much as continuous occupation.  In a lot of ways, it feels like Doctorow was really writing about the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts that were underway while he wrote this book, though he never gets around to making that obvious.  He doesn't make anything obvious, and yet instead of being profound it just comes off as lazy, the way some of his sentences come off seeming like they were written by an amateur, not someone of his stature.  This isn't a style.  The way Thomas Pynchon writes is a deliberate style, so too with Cormac McCarthy.

Yet it is fascinating.  It's the story of the realities of war, even if doesn't accomplish what I hoped it would.  These marginalized figures are all opportunists, even when they don't realize that this is exactly what they are.  The war is pretty much beside the point.  These are characters who are just making the best of a bad situation.  If the book loses a specific relevance to the Civil War while it attempts to explain how slaves can transition to a different kind of existence, if it loses its sense of time and place as Doctorow fails to convince the reader that they're following what the majority of people would have experienced at that time, then it becomes a different kind of story entirely.  If it's not about the war, then it's Doctorow telling us a traditional Southern narrative of a different kind, his version of Mark Twain.  That's what The March boils down to.

It could have been so much better.  Suppose that Doctorow kept these characters and these stories, but expanded them, added more, written more.  This could have easily been his opus.  Instead at times it just feels as if he were writing from history notes.  It's like a sketch of something greater.  Still, a sketch worth reading.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Reading List: The March

The March
by E.L. Doctorow

In the first decade of the new millennium, readers were blessed knee-deep with new literary treasures, and they were a steady presence on the bestseller lists.  One of them was The March, released in 2005, written by E.L. Doctorow, one of the noted but relatively minor writers of the past fifty years.  Ragtime was an acclaimed Broadway musical, Billy Bathgate another fairly familiar title.  Yet everyone was abuzz about The March, possibly because it centers on the Civil War, which remains a topic of great fascination (Cold Mountain was another of these success stories from the decade, and it's also centered on the conflict).  I maintain an amateur interest in American military history, so on that score I would have been interested in The March, and yet it also serves as a gateway to Doctorow.  Maybe I'm characterizing his profile unfairly in this preview.  Then again, we seem to have a problem identifying any truly universally acclaimed authors, let alone books, these days.  I don't think I'm so far from the mark.  But hopefully this book will help me identify my own opinion of one or the other of this particular subject.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

I certainly didn't mean to become a fan of Umberto Eco.  It seems most Americans are mostly interested in reading either the classics, genre fiction, or whatever the bestseller is at the moment.  There's very little room for anything else, although of course there's so much else.  Eco is a name to a certain extent that has pedigree, but you have to be a fan or at least be familiar with him to know anything that he's written.

Well, now I've read two of his books.  The first was The Island of the Day Before, a book I found at a library sale area.  I scour this particular library's sale area every time I visit, but rarely are there truly interesting literary finds.  Most of it is the kind of genre/bestseller fiction you'll find anywhere, which is kind of depressing if you think about it.  All this pressure to make sure people think reading is important and no thought to admit that some reading is more important than others, more vital, more relevant to the form and the social contract we all share.  It's not just about entertainment, but discovering ourselves through the words of someone else.

The last time I found a truly great book at a library sale was Mason & Dixon, which is the second book I've read from Thomas Pynchon.  Either there are readers who have truly come to appreciate these books and have set them free back into the world awaiting discovery by others...or they were found perhaps too challenging from their original owners.  Day Before was fascinating, a story about the age of exploration that made it vital in the same way as the fiction of Pynchon and others.

Eco remains fascinating in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, a book I picked up in a bargain sale at a bookstore.  It's equally uncommon to find literary treasure in bargain sales at bookstores, because again the going rate is genre/bestseller fiction and various nonfiction oddities.  I suppose I'm speaking of the act of discovery, because that's Eco's subject in Queen Loana.

The book reminds me a great deal of Javier Marias' Your Face Tomorrow cycle, originally released in three volumes.  Marias meditated on the concept of narrative horror, what a cumulative life experience is ultimately worth.  I also think of Ron Currie Jr.'s Everything Matters!, in which the main character is confronted with the end of the world and grapples with this idea his whole life.

Eco's story is about someone who has a particular form of amnesia that causes him to forget all his personal details.  He regains his life but not himself, and engages in a process of uncovering his memories by pouring over the artifacts of his existence, the books and other readings that he and his grandfather amassed over the years.

A great deal of it isn't really about the character at all but his perspective on the Italian experience of WWII.  It can sometimes be forgotten that besides the Germans and the Japanese, there were others who fought on the losing end of this conflict.  We all remember Mussolini, but he's more a phantom figure, a ghost in the fog, than representative of history that seems significant.  The more Eco meditates on this, the more fascinating his story becomes.  When substitute obsessions like a first love or the very concept of God are introduced, they seem mere diversions.  The more the character remembers, the less vibrant his thoughts become.  He finds himself but loses the cutting edge of his discoveries.

It's all incredibly interesting.  If there was any criticism of Day Before, it's that Eco tended to ramble in that one.  Here he retains a razor focus, even in the final pages, which echo the main character's delirium when he at last succumbs to the inevitability of death, something that whole story has been suggesting subtly.

Chances are I'll be reading Eco again.
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