Thursday, August 28, 2008

City of Thieves by David Benioff

There is a certain magic conjured as one reads David Benioff’s new novel, City of Thieves. Told from the perspective of a young man named Lev Beniov during the German's WWII siege of Leningrad, the prose continually has the character of the Russian language and culture. Though we know that Lev survives the story (how else would he relate it to us), there is a sense of foreboding the entire time, and though a very humorous book, the humor is all of the gallows variety.

I enjoyed the novel for these reasons, and many more, yet what has me filled with a certain glee is the nature of Benioff’s first chapter. The short piece is told from the perspective of Benioff, or at least a fictional version of himself, who is having issues writing a newspaper article about his life. He goes to see his grandparents in Florida and persuades his grandfather to tell him about his experiences in the war, where he killed two German soldiers with a knife. Reluctantly agreeing, he spends the rest of the week filling David’s micro-cassettes with his memories, but when repeatedly asked to clarify minor details, he turns to his grandson and says, ‘You’re a writer. Make it up.’

The second chapter begins with Lev’s recounting the circumstances that led to his killing of the German soldiers and the first meeting between he and his wife. The narrative goes into some improbable territory, and though labeled a novel one still wonders how much of it is true. I can’t believe that these events actually happened, but Benioff’s trickery makes me unable to believe they didn’t either. And somehow this makes it more fun. The wondering, the awe of the perfect execution.

In a day where James Frey is excoriated for fibbing a little is his memoir (as if it was some piece of journalism), it is refreshing to see someone play with those conventions. My first thoughts were of a cautious publisher labeling the narrative as fiction to prevent a similar occurrence, but the more I read the more it felt as though there were all sorts of layers between fiction and nonfiction here. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact I prefer complexity and the refusal to be shoehorned to the ease with which we can catalogue so much these days.

And then I looked up Boris Fishman’s review in the
New York Times. He reports that Benioff has claimed in interviews that the first chapter is pure invention, and that all four of his grandparents were born here in the US. And apparently the galley copies had an acknowledgement thanking his grandfather for the late night calls that is absent from the published version. The truth is more confusing than ever, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

As Fishman says,
City of Thieves becomes ‘a commentary on the literary rigidities of our day.’ By toying with conventions of both the novel and the memoir, Benioff reminds us that fiction is often the truth filtered through a prism, and nonfiction is fictional by the very nature of its retelling. A brilliant effort and highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic

You are not stuck in a traffic jam. You are the traffic jam. Or so says a German advertisement that could easily be the epigraph for Tom Vanderbilt’s celebrated new book, Traffic. By approaching his study with the idea that traffic is a collective human act, with all the complexity that entails, he is able to relate an entertaining narrative that ends up saying a lot more about humans than it does traffic.

Vanderbilt covers just about every aspect of traffic one can imagine. We’ve all seen the two lane road merge into one lane, with a huge line forming in the still open lane while the occasional person speeds up to the front of the closed line only to force himself in. I’ve been that guy, and I’ve cursed at that guy, probably on the same day. If everyone would just get in line this would go faster, right? Actually, Vanderbilt argues the opposite. By cars using 100% of the road’s utility up to the point of merging, traffic will move faster for everyone. It makes sense when you see it form a different perspective.

Another interesting study had two drivers leave on a two-lane highway at the same time. One was in the right lane and stayed there through all the slowdowns one must endure there. The second car began from the left lane and was encouraged to switch lanes as often as possible to get around traffic. At the end of eighty miles, the second car beat the first by only four minutes and lost much more in gas mileage.

Vanderbilt discusses everything from the lack of safety with a proliferation of warning signs, and the idea that drivers will effectively cancel out most safety features by driving more dangerously. If I know the road can stand me going 50mph around curves, why wouldn’t I do that instead of doing the 35mph limit? Only at 50mph, I have little room for error.

More questions are answered. Who are the better drivers, men or women? Why don’t extra lanes on the highway improve congestion? Are you really safer in an SUV than a small car? What is that little rear windshield brake light called?

And unsurprisingly, the biggest problem with traffic is the one we can’t deal with: the individual driver. He rubbernecks, is more concerned with his priorities than those of the greater system, and is just plain unpredictable. What’s to be done about a driver who slams on his brakes in the middle of an intersection causing huge backups?

Traffic is like running water through a big funnel. The small hole is your bottleneck, and while you can expand the hole to let more water through, you keep having more and more water coming along backing the whole process up further. The steadier the water comes the easier it will be, but traffic has a way of coming in waves.

Vanderbilt’s Traffic has changed the way I drive; it’s gotten into my head. Tonight I had to drive all the way through Austin in the late rush hour and it was amazing how much I remembered from the book. I stayed in my lane, getting there perhaps slightly slower, but with better gas mileage and a much calmer passenger. The book changed the way I think about driving, and in some ways it is changing the way I think about being a person. What more could you ask from such an entertaining

Monday, August 25, 2008

James Wood's How Fiction Works

Claimed by many to be the best literary critic working in the English language today, a review by James Wood is the first thing I turn to whenever I get a new issue of The New Yorker. He has the ability to easily analyze a work, place it within its current and historical context, and provide a reader with more than enough information to determine whether or not to pick up the work. The internet has been salivating for the release of his new book, a brief study on the art of the novel in the tradition of Kundera and E.M. Forster called How Fiction Works.

Broken into small, numbered sections, Wood provides a wealth of information on topics ranging fr
om narration to characterization. I was especially intrigued by his study of the reliability of different forms of narration, and his christening of third person limited point of view ‘free indirect style.’ He returns to this again and again, doing what any good writer can do: make you se something familiar in a new and exciting way.

Yet at times I found Wood’s arguments difficult to penetrate. At the bottom of my stomach I had that rumble of anxiety one gets when they feel they are the dumbest person in the room. Armed with such overwhelming evidence for his points, I never felt like I could make a decent argument in opposition when I disagreed with him, even as I had the inclination that he was cherry-picking his sources, so to speak. He often uses works such as Nabakov’s Pnin and anything by Proust to make his points, works that the average reader likely hasn’t tackled (I haven’t).

I fail to understand why one who possesses such insight into the workings of contemporary literature relied so much early modern works to make his points. I suppose his arguments are a bit more convincing when he refers to Madame Bovary on every third page, but using a fairly recent novel as a primary example once in a while made have made the book more accessible to those not heavily schooled in literature.

There is a reason that most of us haven't read the complete works of George Eliot and other such books: they are a bit dense and hard to get into. By using such examples throughout his text, Wood has made his own study hard to penetrate as well. How Fiction Works can be a fascinating study, but only if you have the knowledge and wherewithal to soldier through.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Mr. Magoo Shills for Beer

My how things change. Another night cursed with the dreaded insomnia saw me aimlessly looking over the Internet for some sort of entertainment. Eventually, I found myself watching these:

Apparently, Mr. Magoo was the spokesman for Stag Beer in the 60s. Can you imagine something like this ever happening now? A cartoon character with a specific appeal to children, whose farsightedness causes other drivers to abandon the road at their peril, is the spokesman for a major beer company.

Just imagine him in the drunk tank: ‘Oh Magoo, you’ve done it again!’

Friday, August 15, 2008

Philip Roth's Indignation

I just can’t decide whether or not I liked Philip Roth’s upcoming novel, Indignation. As always, Roth is a master in narrative voice, and this predominantly first-person approach recalls some of his best work, notably The Ghost Writer and Operation Shylock. This book isn’t as good as those, but it is demonstrably better than last year’s Exit Ghost.

Marcus Messner is a college sophomore who has moved from Newark (where else?) during the second year of the Korean War to Winesburg College in the middle of Ohio to escape the father who is so consumed
with worry that it is negatively impacting the entire family. Like most new adults away from home for the first time, or at least me, Marcus is very angry and negative. Though his beefs are often legitimate, his inability yield to discretion in any conflict makes him a very unhappy person. He is stuck in a spiral of becoming more indignant because his indignation increases when he witnesses the response of others.

The heart of this book is a simple one, at least it seems to me. The narrative makes clear that one should manage one’s indignation so that it doesn’t weight them down. As the later chapters reveal, one can be right and still be a loser. It’s a theme that we’ve all seen a dozen times, but it is handled well here.

Marcus is narrating the story from beyond the grave, where he resides in a timeless place that allows him to repeat and focus on any moments of his life. He claims that this first year at Winesburg College is the most memorable, much like the last year if his life. It isn’t the focus of the story, yet as Roth often does, several philosophical asides discuss what death after life must be. With Roth’s last three novels all focusing around old age and death, it shouldn’t be surprising to see a story centered around a young man be possessed by similar themes.

The prose was great, all always; so was the sparkling dialogue. In my opinion, no one writes dialogue like Roth. I appreciated the unconventional narrative angle, and even though I didn’t really like Marcus all that much, I wanted to know what was going to happen to him, his family, and his friends next and so I read the entire novel in one sitting. I know I am missing any allusions to Sherwood Anderson’s novel as I’ve not read it (too boring, even for a classic), but the Indignation seemed a bit shallow to me.

Kind of like the supposed 'beach read.' Entertaining, but you aren't really supposed to think much about it when you're done.

On a related note, there are only eight scheduled editions of the Library of America's complete works of Philip Roth (even though they did leave out a published but uncollected story), five of which have been or will soon be released. I'm going to be interested to see what LoA decides if Roth keeps writing a book a year for the next decade.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bill Willingham's Fables

Every so often an idea comes along that you should have thought of first. After the fact, it just seems so obvious that you’ll spend weeks wondering why it hadn’t ever crossed your mind. When I first began to read Bill Willingham’s Fables when it debuted several years ago, these were my exact thoughts. The concept itself is simple: figures from fairy tales, whether they be Grimm or Anderson or Collodi, are all forced to flee their kingdoms, moving into our world where they live among the streets of NYC, and of course keep a low profile. The twist? All the characters have very adult and unique personalities.

There is a lot to like about the series up through issue 51, where I stopped reading for a while. Snow White is deputy mayor of Fabletown, the community in which many fables reside. She is no nonsense, and now single after divorcing Prince Charming after he caught her cheating with Snow’s sister, Rose Red. Charming is a cad, using his ability to woo the fair sex into a life freeloading (he’s also the ex-husband of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella). Bigby Wolf, the Big Bad Wolf guised in human form, is Fabletown’s sheriff, and his gruff and direct methods of getting to the things ruffles a few feathers. He and Snow are able to keep the community running fairly smoothly, as well as make sure that the Farm upstate, where all the nonhuman looking fables must live, maintain the ideals and goals of the larger Fable community.

Even characters that are secondary are often well done. Boy Blue plays jazz on his trumpet and has a lot more to his background than one nursery rhyme would indicate. Flycatcher, the Frog Prince, is the janitor, continually penalized for his inability to stop eating flies. Old King Cole is the mayor, balancing the more ceremonial and diplomatic issues in the city government, at least for a while.

Rather than discussing separate plots, I would summarize by saying the narration is effective and the art, mostly by Mark Buckingham, is fantastic. There is a real gift for pacing, especially hard when all one has to do is glance downward and to the right to know what will happen. But Buckingham is able to keep you focusing on what you are reading, adding so much information with his art that I found myself pausing and perusing each panel before moving on, even in scenes of heightened suspense. In later issues, a frame of sorts surrounds the panels on each page, usually thematically linked to the page at hand. It reminds me quite a bit of a stained glass window or a book from the 16th century, which of course is likely the point.

One question that seemingly comes up is what fables are used, who’s actually there? Well, Willingham isn’t afraid to use anyone who vaguely might be considered a fable and is in the public domain. We all can buy that Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty & the Beast, etc., should be there, but the men and women of Lilliput also live there, as does Pinocchio. At one time Robin Hood is shown. I suppose Pinocchio isn’t so bad, for I believe Collodi was a contemporary of the Grimm Brothers, but Robin Hood isn’t a fable.

Fables does however suffer from being a bit shallow. I remember reading fairy tales and such as a child and it seemed that most had some sort of lesson to impart. Little Red Riding Hood explained the dangers of wandering off through the woods, as did Hansel and Gretel. Pinocchio showed the benefits of following your conscience, not lying, and avoiding people who can turn you into a donkey. But the namesakes of the fables do not have the corresponding morals in Willingham’s Fables. For all the praise the book has received over the past few years, I just wanted a little more depth to go along wit a very entertaining story.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that while Fables is a well-done story that is quite enjoyable to read, that is all that it is. Though there has been some movement over the last few issues I read toward drawing a parallel between Fabletown and Israel, it is an analogy that doesn’t hold up very well for me and shows, at least at this point, a lack of knowledge about the real regional political struggle than Israel is in.

But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop reading necessarily, just that I feel the book is falling short of its potential.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Greater than the Sum by Christopher L. Bennett

I didn’t have high hopes for Christopher L. Bennett’s new novel, Greater than the Sum. I’ve written earlier about his seeming inability to generate genuine characterization and emotion, and Margaret Clark’s attempt to carry on with Enterprise adventures post-Nemesis has been, quite frankly, a debacle. Unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised by what I found when I sat down a couple of days ago to read the book.

That’s not to say that no good ideas were present. For one, the idea of a Vulcan/human hybrid being raised away from the Vulcan culture is interesting, as is the explanation that with her intense emotions she might very well be prone to uncontrolled outbursts. A crystalline multi-planet organism is another concept that one can easily identify as Bennett’s: his conceptions of an even odder alien universe than we are used to in ST is a huge strength, evidenced by his cosmozoan lifeforms in Orion’s Hounds. But it’s not so much the conceptions that fail, it is the execution.

Once again, the biggest flaw is the completely unbelievable emotions characters go through. As my friend Brendan Moody has said, Character A has an issue that Character B quickly identifies and informs Character A about, then with that knowledge in hand, Character A is instantly better and adapted. I’m not sure who said this first, but identifying a problem is the first step to solving it, not the only one.

For example, as newlyweds Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher talk about conceiving a child, the issue of his lifetime as Kamin, granted by a probe where he experienced 50 years in about twenty minutes, is raised. He quickly breaks down realizing for the first time in fifteen years that he has never dealt with the loss of his children from that timeline, and that has been what has been affecting him up to this point in the novel. Over the course of literally two sentences, he is able to process all these emotions and move on.

Let’s get past the fact that Starfleet never made him go to counseling sessions after such a traumatic event. Something like this would take years to fully understand and incorporate into one’s life. Not minutes or hours or days. Years. But we get two sentences. Not only is it unbelievable, it is just one of many such conversations that happen throughout the novel.

I know this was planned as a lead-in to David Mack’s Destiny trilogy, which promises to be earth-shattering (maybe literally) and set the course for most of the ST fiction for the next few years. Therefore, I think it is safe to assume that Bennett had a certain endpoint that he had reach at the end of his manuscript.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Bennett’s work this afternoon, trying to understand how someone who could write a brilliant novel like Ex Machina could go downhill with each later project, and now I think it is this endpoint scenario. What makes for a good story doesn’t start with a plot, it starts with a situation. Writing is the process of watching what happens in that situation and writing it down. But with a fixed endpoint, writing becomes getting from Point A to B, ad that doesn’t leave a lot of room for real development.

Ex Machina was a novel that put the Enterprise into a crisis involving Yonada, and was set in a time that was largely unexplored by others. Obviously killing Captain Kirk wasn’t an option, but there was sufficient latitude to allow the situation to develop pretty much on its own. But with Orion’s Hounds and Greater than the Sum, the stories take place in a much more restricted time and are constrained by later novels that are being written simultaneously by others. Therefore, the situation isn’t really allowed to develop, but forced to follow a certain path that gets it where outside forces say it needs to go. And the problem here is the forced path, disingenuous by nature, is unbelievable to a reader.

How much of this is Bennett’s fault? He’s obviously not being given assignments that are suited to his talents, though I am unsure if the novels produced by his talents would be all that marketable. He also could do some modeling, reading fiction that has genuine characterization and learning from it. But I think the overall problem may be much broader, and may be a problem for every ST book equally, though of course some authors adapt better to the situation than others.

We aren’t seeing individual novels anymore. Each book is set in the aftermath of some other book, to one degree or another. And quite often, the editorial staff is looking several books ahead. Therefore, just about everything has a fixed endpoint now, and that makes the authors begin their outlines with plotting a story rather than starting with a situation and developing it. And bending everything in a work to fit the plot makes for weak narratives.

As a mature reader, I think plot should always come second to good narrative and strong characters. The opposite is true in current ST fiction. Rather than reading about bold characters like Jean-Luc Picard, we get flaccid cardboard figures with the same name. Perhaps this has always been the case to some degree, maybe my tastes have matured along with me. Regardless, I think I’m done with the line for now. I’m sure I’ll read something every now and then, but ST fiction seems to be appealing to the lowest common denominator, and I’m really not interested in that.