Sunday, September 28, 2008

God Lives in St. Petersburg by Tom Bissell

I don’t think I’m the only person to be burned out on Dave Eggers and the McSweeney’s crowd, but I do appreciate some of the authors I have read for the first time within the journal’s pages. At the top of the list is Tom Bissell, who in his savage collection of short fiction, God Lives in St. Petersburg, delivers some of the flat out best writing about Americans and the rest of the world that I have ever come across.

Bissell joined the Peace Corps after college, returning how several months early for ‘emotional and complicated’ reasons. His interactions with the culture in Uzbekistan provided him with a lens to view the region and its relation to Americans. In ‘Aral,’ a female scientist goes to Uzbekistan at the request of the United Nations. But rather than following this career academic learn some sort of lesson about humanity, I was surprised when she was abducted by a KGB agent in order that he might show her his children, who have been blinded by the harsh chemical present in the drinking water. This agent’s harsh retorts to her assumptions about his culture, which uncomfortably are our own assumptions as well, are a rude awakening. Though it may be unsurprising to hear that America is exploiting third world labor and is disconnected from much of the world’s populace, Bissell’s writing makes us feel that on a deep, disturbing level.

Many readers may be familiar with his long story ‘Death Defier,’ which was included in The Best American Short Stories 2005, and concerns a photojournalist and his disconnect with his own emotions acting as a metaphor for America’s distance from the horrors that the media covers and covers up simultaneously. The title story concerns an American missionary in central Asia struggling with his inability to feel God’s presence and his sexuality.

In other stories we are witness to relationships that succeed in America being unable to survive another culture. Another story opens with an ambassador’s son having sex with two women when his mom walks in. As he shudders to a climax, the son provides the greatest line of the collection through a sheepish grin: ‘Two chicks at once, Mom,’

Though at times his word choice is a bit perplexing, using big words when short ones would do the same job without calling attention to themselves, Bissell’s prose is forceful and suited well to the confines of the short story. Devastating blows can be rendered and unlikable characters can be tolerated to a much greater degree than would be possible with a long work. His has a travel memoir and a book about his father and Vietnam, both of which I plan on reading in the near future.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

Using a penname when writing in a different genre is nothing new. However, it may be happening less and less because there seems to be a greater acceptance of genre works by so-called literary authors. For example, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is an alternate timeline tale, while Pulitzer winner Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is simultaneously an alternate timeline/mystery story.

So why did John Banville use the nom de plume Benjamin Black for his two mystery novels, especially when he admits it’s really him all along? Probably because it’s fun, not to mention that I gets a lot of press.

Christine Falls concerns the death of the title character as she gives birth. Quirke Griffin, a medical examiner in Ireland, finds his brother-in-law in his office late one night changing the records of Christine’s death. From there we follow not only Quirke as he struggles to unravel an extended mystery that encompasses his family, the Church, and both Ireland and America, but also we are privy to the whereabouts of the infant, known to Quirke to be stillborn.

As mysteries go, not many are better written. Black’s prose is alive, his characters sharply drawn. Though his indulgences into some of the more melodramatic tendencies of the genre are readily apparent, they are h
andled with a skill that draws the reader farther into the narrative. Though I figured out the final revelation a hundred pages before the end, I only felt the book was slightly too long and left one begging for a sequel.

The primary misfire here is with the main antagonist, Andy, whose motivations never seemed fully clear. The dynamic nature of the other main characters only served to highlight this failure, causing this reader to cringe at a stock rendering. Especially as Black avoids the traditional comeuppance that such a character would receive, causing real dissonance between the narrative and genre expectations.

The plot also seemed a bit too complex, squeezing so much in that several plot threads don’t seem to have any real emotional payoff. I had hoped to see one particular angle explored in greater detail in Black’s second book, The Silver Swan, but reading the dust jacket makes me think that likely won’t be the case. Still though, Christine Falls is an entertaining mystery with the electric prose one would expect from a Man Booker winner.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cop Hater by Ed McBain

I spend a lot of time reading litblogs, which essentially means I read a lot about books rather than actually reading books. However, they have turned me onto a lot of new authors that I will be talking about here over the next few days.

Recently, I came across Stuart Evers’s cry for fans of the greatest TV show ever, The Wire, to take a look at Ed M
cBain’s 87th Precinct books. Here’s a sample:
These tales – short, violent, meticulously plotted – show the police as more than just an ace detective surrounded by stooges and sidekicks. Here was a company of men and women trying to make it through each shift, through each case, with their humour and their lives intact. The series' brevity, wit and ear for the vernacular of both the tough and the weak are as cracking in their understatements as Chandler and Hammett were with their wise-acre shtick.
So I decided to give it a try. I liked Chandler, though not as much as James M. Cain, and I’m always chastising myself for not broadening my horizons with new genres of literature. Being the orderly sort of person I am, I went with McBain’s first novel, Cop Hater.

I’ll give Evers this: it was short and violent. I have doubts that it was actually meticulously plotted. The 87th Precinct’s main character is Detective Steve Carella, a man with a deaf girlfriend he wants to marry. He also wears a hat. Other than that, we don’t find out all that much about him. We find out a lot about three other cops, their backstories well thought out and interesting. Unfortunately, they all end up dead by the end of the book.

It’s not much of a mystery either. I mean, you don’t know who’s doing the killing, but neither do the cops. The reader follows through about eighty pages (of 150) of false leads that really go nowhere. There was a crazy lady who claimed cockroaches were behind the murders. A local gang was established, though not much came of that either. This is the complete opposite of TheWire, which was so meticulously plotted that if someone sneezed in episode 4, another guy got sick in episode 8.

It’s just not a mystery you can figure out. The ending doesn’t really gibe with what’s come before. I guess nothing made me think that couldn’t have happened, but aren’t surprise endings supposed to make you slap your forehead and say, 'Why didn’t I see that coming?’ McBain left me not wondering what I missed, but why he didn’t hint at this along the way.

But this may not be an entirely fair review. Cop Hater felt like a pilot episode, something that gets all the characters introduced and the overall situation established so more stories can be told. If this is the case, I’ll probably like the second book, The Mugger, quite a bit more. If I don’t, I’ll eventually skip to his so-called best novel, Sadie When She Died.

McBain’s novel wasn’t The Wire, nor was it Chandler or Cain. But it was a decent police procedural that makes me miss all those hours I spent as a kid watching Dragnet.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Consensus on Time Travel

Who hasn’t wanted to change the past at some point? Whether it be opting for a different investment option five years ago or ducking under that tree branch in sixth grade, it isn’t difficult to see the appeal of time travel. I’ve long been a fan, probably starting with Back to the Future and various episodes of Star Trek, and moving into more complex storytelling with Quantum Leap and David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself.

And as I’ve gotten older, this device never fails to intrigue me. Perhaps there’s nothing much new
about the time travel mechanics in Futurama, but it makes for some pretty entertaining stuff. This evening I barely talked myself out of buying The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century, edited by Harry Turtledove. The author lineup is enough to make me pick it up eventually, once the transition to a new job is complete, but pondering the collection made me realize something a bit surprising.

Despite the entertainment value, I don’t think too many of us actually believe that time travel is possible. Yet there are complex rules governing the science behind this fictional idea that we all pretty much agree on. Tampering with the past can have unforeseen consequences, whether you kill a butterfly in prehistoric times or take a sports almanac from the future and use it to make bets. Chances are pretty good that you will still exist even if you go back and kill your grandfather, because you will somehow end up in bed with your grandmother.

I can’t think of any other fictional idea that has such agreed upon functionality. When I get around to reading Turtledove’s compilation, I’ll be pretty surprised to find anything truly new there, though I have little doubt that I will nevertheless enjoy the ride.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

David Foster Wallace committed suicide by hanging on Friday. He’s probably best known for his immense, heavily footnoted novel, Infinite Jest, which I relished over the Christmas break of 1999-2000. But the most profound influence his work had for me was in his essays, full of humor and insight. His reporting was what all good reporting should be: riveting, impartial, cerebral.

As a sophomore in college, I read an article about the blurry line between literary fiction and science fic
tion by Lance Olsen. Among those cited were Wallace and Jonathan Lethem, two authors whose novels would help reshape the way I thought about fiction, and this the way I thought about life. I picked up IJ on a whim one evening, and had to keep a journal of who was who for the first two hundred pages or so. It had everything: an intriguing (if incredibly complex) plot, fascinating characters, hilarity and horror, and a short essay about Hawaii Five-O and Hill Street Blues. I quickly picked up the rest of his published material and burned through it over the next year.

Lying across my bed in the spring of 2000, I slowly read Wallace’s report from the campaign trail with John McCain. His analysis was intelligent and amusing, yet it wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized what was so fantastic about it. It was actual reporting. In a time where most people writing about politics are participating in the practice with the very things they write, it is refreshing to see that a person can give a prosaic and honest report that stands apart from the game they are reporting. I’ve seen it many times in other arenas, yet in politics it seems to be dwindling into nothingness.

Wallace published a story in Harper’s earlier this year, and it seemed to be part of a novel in the making. I’ve been anticipating news of a new publication ever since. Perhaps something is nevertheless still in the pipeline, but tonight I can’t do anything but futilely try to wrap my mind around how someone whose work has been so influential in my life isn’t around anymore.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster

Should I crown a novel as successful even if I felt that one needed to read all (or at least most) of the author's previous novels to make any real sense of it? Paul Auster's Travels in the Scriptorium is vintage Auster, with the bewildered protagonist, the stark and nearly emotionless narration, and the metafictional aspects. But as one moves towards the end of the novel, they begin to realize that this novel doesn't live alone, but incorporates all of Auster's previous work in some manner.

To me, it almost reads like the final episode of a television show, a good ending where they pull out all the stops and wow you. Like a last hurrah. But Auster isn't done writing, he just put out a new novel in the past month and I can't imagine that he's much older than 60. Therefore, I doubt he envisioned this as a sort of coda to his work. I haven't read the new Man in the Dark, but the reviews I've seen lead me to believe that it treads a lot of familiar Austerian territory. I plan on picking it up soon and writing a more academic piece on Auster at some point in the future (put that on the seemingly neverending list).

I'd read only eight of Auster's previous work before I began Travels in the Scriptorium, so I am sure that I missed some references, but it doesn't take long to realize characters and names from other works. The references to Fanshawe and Marco Fogg made me almost get up and try to construct some sort of chart that would explain how this novel is at the center of the world of Auster, if you will. I truly enjoyed the way the story was presented; I really had the same blending in my gut of confusion and anticipation that I had when making my way through The New York Trilogy.

Without spoiling the ending, I will say that the actual plot, once played out, was weak and predictable. And without knowing the allusions to his other novels, not to mention characters walking into Mr. Blank's room, I can't imagine that a reader could make much sense of the narrative at all. I would imagine that is why so many reviewers have panned it. Yet the style won me over, so I suppose that I would cautiously recommend Travels, though with the amendment that one read at least a half dozen of his earlier novels first.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Reading List: August 2008

I have been foolish enough to subject myself to a couple of undergraduate fiction workshops in the past. One of the things I learned is the ease with which one can discuss a work with obvious flaws, and the reality that when something is really good there doesn't seem to be all that much to say about it.

This past month I read some very good books, like Joseph O'Neill's Netherland and Lauren Groff's The Mons
ters of Templeton. Yet, I just don't have it in me this month to write a reaction to everything I've read. I liked most of it, didn't some of it, and hated one particular book. Some of those thoughts are detailed in other posts, but some aren't, and should anyone (of the 3 people that maybe read this) want me to comment on something specific they need only ask.

Last month I finished 28 books and graphic novels. Here is what they were:

  • Bill Willingham, et al. Fables: Homelands
  • Christopher L. Bennett Greater than the Sum
  • Stephen King On Writing
  • Bill Willingham, et al. Fables: Arabian Nights (And Days)
  • Joan Didion Play It As It Lays
  • Bill Willingham, et al. Fables: Wolves
  • Steve Gerber, et al. Essential Howard the Duck
  • Thomas M. Disch The Man Who Had No Idea
  • Lauren Groff The Monsters of Templeton
  • Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra Ring of Truth
  • Philip Roth Indignation
  • Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra Girl on Girl
  • Joseph O’Neill Netherland
  • Chris Offutt The Good Brother
  • Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra Paper Dolls
  • Vali Nasr The Shia Revival
  • Joe Sacco Notes from a Defeatist
  • Tom Vanderbilt Traffic
  • Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra Kimono Dragons
  • James Wood How Fiction Works
  • Heidi Julavits The Effect of Living Backwards
  • Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra Motherland
  • Geoff Trowbridge The Chimes at Midnight
  • Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra Whys and Wherefores
  • David Benioff City of Thieves
  • Keith R.A. DeCandido A Gutted World
  • Charles Palliser The Sensationist
  • Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming Powers: Who Killed Retro Girl?
The plan is to post more often this month, but we'll see how that goes.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Myriad Universes: Echoes and Refractions

Echoes and Refractions is the second collection of three short novels focusing on some aspect of an alternate Star Trek universe. As with most collections, it’s a mixed bag, but I did enjoy it more than the first one.

The first entry is The Chimes at Midnight by Geoff Trowbridge, whose work is fairly unfamiliar to me. I believe that he had a nice story about Picard delivering the letter Admiral Jarok wrote to his family at the end of ‘The Defect
or.’ Anyway, the premise here is pretty straightforward. The TAS episode ‘Yesteryear’ depicted a timeline in which Spock died as a boy and was replaced on the Enterprise by an Andorian commander named Thelin. Trowbridge follows this universe from the end of The Wrath of Khan along through the rest of the movie timelines.

While it is certainly an interesting premise, I think it was flawed. Rather than reading the story and j
udging it on its own merits, it felt like Trowbridge just wanted to show how fucked up the Federation might become because Spock wasn’t there; Thelin was. Kind of like It’s a Wonderful Life, where the reader sees how fucked up the universe would be had Spock not reached adulthood.

There is some nice character work done, especially with David Marcus, who survives his encounter with Klingons on Genesis, and Saavik. Their burgeoning relationship in The Search for Spock is now able to be explored in more depth, and I found this Saavik, as depicted within the relationship, to be much more interesting than the ‘actual’ Saavik. Sarek’s grief for his own lost son is truly moving, yet this subtle work is not apparent at the novel’s conclusion, when the standard noble sacrifice proved to be more laughable than affecting.

One final note, on the title cribbed from Shakespeare. It has been a while since I read Henry IV, Part II, but I didn’t find the situation presented in this novel, nor the scene near the end with characters parrying each other by quoting the Bard, to have any greater relevance to the play. It’s an allusion that didn’t work for me b/c I immediately thought of the play and could rationalize what the author was expecting me to see. I’ll admit that I could be compl
etely wrong about this and totally have missed the point, but it has been bothering me ever since I finished the story.

Keith R.A. DeCandido provides a refreshing change of pace with A Gutted World. At first it appeared that there was no single divergent point, but as my friend Steve Mollmann pointed out, everything before the Cardassian withdrawal from Bajor is pretty much the same. Though not much attention is called to it, this must be the turning point. Kira Nerys is forced to escape from her labor camp to bring vital information to the Federation. A war concerning the large Alpha Quadrant powers in unleashed within the opening chapters, and as always DeCandido presents scenes from all sides of the conflict, be they Romulan, Human, or Klingon. I hesitate to reveal anymore of the plot lest I spoil it, but the story moves in an entertaining if predictable manner. DeCandido as always has competent prose and nails the characterizations, but the novel didn’t resonate with me, didn’t say anything broader about the Star Trek universe, merely provided an hour and a half of diversion. Not bad, but at least entries like Leisner’s made me question how well I actually knew characters as prominent as Kirk.

In a story like this it seems like a requirement to squeeze as many alternate versions of people into the narrative just to remark on how different they are, so perhaps I shouldn’t chastise DeCandido for indulging. But most of these cameos were unnecessary and distracting for me. And with the more obscure characters comes explanations about why they are relevant to be seen here. Plus, I can’t keep Romulan politics straight, so dropping in Narviat and Charv
anek just confused the hell out of me. I’d like to see the ‘less is more’ approach taken in the future.

Chris Roberson finishes the collection with Brave New World, a novel revolving around how different the universe would have been if Soong had created many more androids than merely Data. Many of these androids were conscripted into Starfleet, where they had little rights. After being granted second-class citizenship, Data and man
y other androids just disappear and aren’t heard from until ten years later, where our story begins. Also, Ira Graves in this universe was able to successfully upload his consciousness into a positronic brain, and now it is commonplace for Federation citizens to do the same as they near death.

The plot of Brave New World is nothing spectacular, and ends with an unbelievable call for brinksmanship between the various empires. But where Roberson excels is in the presentation of the ethical quandaries artificial life would have in these circumstances. One character is an incredibly old man who uploaded himself into a positronic body, but mourns the loss of his wife of many years, for she passed away just before the technology was introduced. The restrictions placed on the citizenship of androids have their roots in good intentions; it is easy to see why Starfleet wouldn’t want to lose control of the production of further artificial life. And the way other civilizations use their less advanced android life as slavery makes for easy ethical critique.

What we have here is what science fiction can sometimes do best: have an easier conversation about something of primal importance by making the conversation metaphorical. Brave New World allows us to explore the ethics of creating artificial sentient life in our own universe by telling a story set in a completely fictional one. Easily the most satisfying of the six short novels.

I look forward to the next collection in the series, currently set for November of next year.