The year of reading long, difficult novels

December 31, 2008 § Leave a comment

Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes
The Recognitions by William Gaddis
The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Where the Air is Clear by Carlos Fuentes
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Three Trapped Tigers by Guillermo Cabrera Infante
JR by William Gaddis

#1 Ken Kesey: Sometimes a Great Notion; an astonishing work of art; it must have smashed KK to have it ignored so. The skill with which he jumps around consciousness of characters, impressive. Adept at weaving stories, setting scenes and evoking atmosphere. Why he is held at bay by those who compile lists of Best Novels is beyond me. Same with William Gaddis. You want to see American novelists build on their advances in technique and novel construction. Kesey, ever tuneful, strikes many wonderful notes. Yet the theme of the brother antagonism, at times wanes. One brother so involved in the physical world, observing, watching, wondering – can he be so bound by obsession? OK. Anyway, wonderful to hear West Coast slang: Hey bub, Doohicky, rinkydink. Closing in on the mystery of Ken Kesey, all his themes were there, the nature of men and the nature of nature; he was the first to write about the Pacific Northwest; to make literature about it. He wasn’t sufficiently celebrated for his vision, for his art. His power, the slang, the bringing alive of what was not there before. Who else? Bernard Malamud in his big long Oregon novel, A New Life. But Kesey. Massive, ballsy, wonderful. I’m under the influence. Reading notes to the annotated One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Kesey stresses point of view as essential to the growing of a novel. Where Nest is compact Notion is diffuse. You can practically see KK running – even though many of the themes are the same: strength vs weakness, self-overcoming, west vs east, brothers-in-conflict, etc. You see his seriousness in Notion. Kesey’s artistic seriousness is plain. Strenuous even, maybe?

#2 Carlos Fuentes: Terra Nostra- so damn complicated; he’s got the Faulkner disease: wherein you empty out the thesaurus and the dictionary mix stir blend whip chop grate and hope that something edible comes out. A species of higher ventriloquism. Terra Nostra: Carlos Fuentes is determined to be placed in the Louvre or the Prado or the Madrid Museo de Bellas Artes…you often sense that Fuentes is writing books from inspiration based on his wide reading in history and coffee table art books or from spending time in museums. Where is the life felt, lived, tasted? The details in his novels, however good, seem second hand. But onwards, we go…will I get a masters degree for reading it? I am at 695 pages still at sea with this thing. It’s harder than hell to tell just what he is up to here. The novel seems to be some kind of historical monograph on the Spanish conquest of America and Spain’s failure to take the better of many roads when it seized European ascendancy in the 16th century; AND that Spain’s great writers – Cervantes, Fernando de Rojas – and artists had some idea of the correct road to take. Thus the blending of fictional and historical characters. Even so the book is striking me as monstrous and self-indulgent to a degree not to be believed. The effect is somewhat like looking at Niagara Falls for a year. Torrent of words. Terra Nostra is circles of themes, circular history versus fiction or fable, austerity vs lush tropical abundance, old vs new, ancient vs modern. Also that the thread of Spanish history has followed illusion while Hispanic ficcioners have followed what is reality; also power as the pathway to impotence/madness. However, Fuentes seldom stoops to illustrate those themes in other than chalky, literary inflated literary language. Fuentes tosses out contrasts and circles like so many language frisbees. While Felipe II was building the Escorial in Madrid, America was being discovered. During its Golden Age Spain turned its back on success and hope sacrificed all for gold. Crazy power-mad orthodoxies become prisons, wasting, unhygienic bodies in uncleanliness. The austerity of the Spanish king, Felipe II and the craziness of his wife Juana la Loca (La Dama Loca), ruling narrowly while a new world was being conquered and re-born. Fuentes would assert that the Golden Age fiction writers were writing reality while the living historical personages were living a fiction. And the style; heavy word showers; Faulkner as though the Mississippi had taken a turn into the Rio Grande and then into the Amazon…

#3 El Ontoño del Patriarca, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ powerful and ballsy novel (finally a novel which you can rightly call powerful). I now see it as a natural development from Cien Años de Soledad. Garcia Marquez has boiled off the charm, gotten rid of the cutesy stuff and matched method to theme. Portrait of a gruesome dictator, GGM inhabits his life and brain; it is a vast tidewater of slush and terror; a study of power and loneliness; GGM’s leftist politics aside, he has nailed forever the wimpyness, the smallness of dictators. Castro must read this and weep, as must Pinochet, Rios-Mott and all the bloodthirsty madmen who sick armed forces on their own unarmed civilians. GGM has torn off the mask of terror, the hollowness of the power-mad and given us the insides of these monsters, the puny lonely swamp-messes that they are…

Literary fuses III

December 30, 2008 § Leave a comment

#1 The Figured Wheel Robert Pinsky’s collected poems (bought for a dollar at the ½ Price remainder rack). Again baffled at the whole poetry/publishing/academic matrix. As a book it is a lovely package, cover, layout etc…But not one line jumps out and claims your emotions or love or loyalty. Not a line of risk, of ambition, or daring, let alone savagery. It’s all so safe. Sensitive writing, yes, careful description, yes; but where is the fucking poetry? He uses the word “heart” (that puts anyone on my shitlist) in fact, includes it in the title of his 1984 book: Poets! Remember this was a word Woodrow Wilson used to get American boys to throw their bodies into the breach in 1918! His essay on Psychiatrists is a piece of buffoonery. Lightweight dithering. Who gives a shine about psychiatrists anyway? And then you’re pissed because you want to like this guy…

#2 Don DeLillo: you read his depictions, his observations funny finely honed finalities of observation; they are often brutal often brilliant, e.g., the way technology changes us, e.g. “we don’t pick up” (the answering machine) not “we’re not home.” The concept of not being home is destroyed. His observations are like glass: beautiful to look at but will shatter if you handle them too roughly. You sense that he tries too hard, sees too much. DeLillo stares at the picture of the boat on the water so long, so hard that the boat in the picture starts to move. Things become sinister, while he offers up too much of the private self to the storms of public madness. For DD a cigar is never just a cigar. It’s a conspiracy, a symbol, a plan – BUT human beings are weirder bouncier more supple than he gives us credit for. Slavery has to qualify as about the most degraded institution that good ol’ demonic human mind could devise; but how did blacks deal with it? What tools did they use to get over? They didn’t all commit mass suicide. They talked to themselves, sang to themselves, came up with new and weird ways of being…there’s more bounce to us to humans than writers give us credit for…

Literary fuses II

December 27, 2008 § Leave a comment

#1 Stanley Crouch’s Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome
It’s a book I wanted to like. I like his total perspective that doesn’t cave in to unscientific race babble. He wants to dig at the sore pick the wound. Even though the book is here with me I feel it chained to the author’s mind. The feeling that he is still writing it. It is a composition of arias. Strung together. Deep conversations keep popping out of nowhere to analyze the black white situation in America. Some of this material has been done over via Baldwin in Another Country.
SC takes the amateur techniques
a) interior monologue
b) meaningful exposition
…vices of young writers…I agree with so much of what he says about race but he drops into essays….insistence on the middle class as the breeding ground of all civilized things. He despises, rightly, the fake gangsta chic that has taken hold among black kids.He was not inventive enough. He stuck to the old interior monologue scheme and failed. I submit that we – the mind – never says “however” to itself while thinking. So many false notes wrong notes of tone of carriage (my literary term as in “no carriage”). You can see that he lacks the gift of dramatization. This does not have to be a total defect. He should have done like Manuel Puig and written a dialogue novel – or La Celestina – a novel in dramatic dialogue. But some of his arias and catching the black idiom are simply grand – the frank discussion of bodies, that no area of life, of body, goes unchecked.

#2 T.C. Boyle is content to run a highlighter pen across social and journalistic situations. Gone the sense of discovery in his fiction; it is all rendering, expertly done of course, but full of cheap shots and pandering to our recognition. We’ve done Dickens for god’s sake. Enough already.

#3 Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ true model is Pliny the Elder. He – Pliny – recounts fabulous tales and “facts” with a deadpan objectivity, wild tales and bogus illustrations of animal lore and far off countries and customs…

#4 If I taught poetry class I would set up a few rules:
a. Down with Pathetic Fallicy- no more sensitive waves or happy clouds. Nature ain’t us or ain’t about us. The “ambivalent” surf, surely the “indifferent” surf is meant here.
b. Don’t make things do what they don’t do: the pinecones rang in the green steeples on the hillside (when describing a stand of pines). There are no bell like sounds coming from trees and esp not from pine cones. They may look like bells but they are non-ringing-quiet bells…
c. Watch your verbs…”doused” with flour? (after frolicking in a bakery); sorry, douse is to extinguish with liquid or plunge a thing into liquid. i suppose you can use powder to de-louse but not douse. Or how about screeching sun? Does the sun make noise? Small shards of rock…aren’t shards usually already small…on and on…
d. Poetry is not an excuse to be poetic. No adjectives as nouns: Coins of perfect clear appear under my feet: clear what? I want to ask…
e. Poetry is not an excuse to wax poetic.

#5 It is unreasonable to expect Americans to be interested in novels or poetry. We do not possess the extended sympathy required to share what the aims of a novel are. We do not know how to ask questions or carry on conversations. It is a tall order to ask Americans to get involved with imaginary characters unless those characters reflect themselves or echo their own mundane and cliché ridden selves. We do not have sufficient civilization to extend ourselves beyond kids and jobs into the imaginative worlds that novels offer. Forget character. Unless that character is outstanding…Remember: everyone thinks about himself first and foremost.

#6 Reading Rick DeMarinis’ short stories: lively, funny, poignant, clever, vivid. Then, you get restless; that sense that the author knows his characters too well which leads to stage management; sins I include here:
a) What he does for a living (info dumps: you try the reader’s patience; the set up; very few of these set ups are intrinsic to the story; mostly they just succeed in showing the author’s intelligence before a broad range of data – about work, life, school, psychology; the rush to inform is a sign of weakness, or nerves such as at a cocktail party: “and what do you do?” think of Chekov; he disposes of information as an aside to get you into the story not to show off his cleverness. This is so hard to do it even fouls an expert like RD.
b) What he looks like (looking in the mirror) more manipulative information;
c) Setting boundaries of character early on and knocking them over (the conservative man whose life is turned topsy turvy by a cad).
d) The basic problem of the short story as practiced in America; since there is no hook or strong conceit then the writer has to perform in a vacuum; if you do without conceit you must be subtle; RD is so smart and there is so much going on that you can only think: this writer is smart ; and the first person preclude the necessary oxygen of other perspectives that make a short story happen.
e) This is my impatience with the short story;
f) But then; he puts one right in your head between your eyes: Novias the guy can write and here is proof;
g) The problem of fiction is the problem of knowledge; how do you get to know things? You learn things along with the narrator or does he feed you as you go?

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