Friday, January 04, 2008

Recently read (or reread)

Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee
The Humbugs Diet, Robert Majzels
Exit Ghost, Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth
Bel Canto, Anne Patchett
Night, Elie Wiesel
Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker, ed. David Remnick
Penguin Anthology of Stories by Canadian Women, ed. Denise Chong
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne
Vertigo, WG Sebald

An odd reading list, but indeed the contents of a few leisurely afternoons reading recently. Montreal is winter, and winter is reading. So, much reading ensues as much snow falls. (And falls....and falls.) This is only the fiction portion mind, we are quite taken up with fiction of late, but continuing to read poetry as well. This is a slice of the fiction titles lurking on my desk--more recent publications, and many Canadian titles hover, but the Hound is having trouble with sentences these days. Trouble in that they are tending to bore me... So there are many books I simply can't get past the first few pages of. What a mystery. What frustration!

By now I know better than to think this resistance necessarily has anything to do with the books, or sentences (though I have opinions on the matter of course). More than likely I will pick those books up some time in the future and fall in. That is the problem with the publishing industry: books have their own timelines, and readers too, sometimes a book takes a while, sometimes it's easy as cream. They don't always match up. Sometimes this reader is terribly wrong about a book...but we are never supposed to admit that are we? Or no, wait, perhaps it's only surgeons who are never to admit that?

In any case, of the above list ELIZABETH COSTELLO was far and away the most intense and satisfying read. It's disturbing to say the least, but thought provoking. It provided fuel for several contracted discussions concerning the implications (and rights) of representing evil in art and literature, the mass insanity of our factory farming animals--which leads to a larger discussion regarding the role and responsibility of the writer/artist, and the difficulty of remaining conscious, embodied, present, in a world (and for writers in a role) that becomes increasingly designed (or so it seems) to make one disconnected. Costello would seem to be a stand in for Coetzee given that the book is comprised of eight lectures given on different occasions, known to have been delivered by the author, and in some cases already appearing elsewhere in print...but here we have a wonderfully complex curmudgeonly woman of a certain age, facing death, and afterlife, with a unwaivering sense of authorial purpose and unnerving ability to both ask difficult questions, but not necessarily give satisfying answers...and given to verbosity! I would have loved to see the speeches tightened and sharpened...they rambled, not digression, but ramble.

Robert Majzels' THE HUMBUGS DIET is a fabulous read. Certainly one of the more pleasurable of late which begs the question: why don't more intelligent, experimental and thought provoking writers engage in genre writing? I would love, love, love to see a series of meta-literary mystery novels by a series of literary writers pitched at a general readership. Not written down-to, that's insulting, but playing with and (imagine that, possibly enjoying?) the process, the genre, its history and expectations, and the reader--yes, the reader! But well written, with a way of utilizing plottish elements without making them clunkingly essential to the work... Majzels has fun with this novel, featuring a geriatric failed detective who gets caught up against his own better judgment in a very informal and entertaining murder investigation at a well located retirement home in Yonkers.

Roth is one of those writers the Hound resists. The Human Stain? Couldn't find a rhythm. Didn't care for the narrator. Portnoy's Complaint? Complaining, complaining! But persevere I did, and since others have been talking about EXIT GHOST, it appeared once again on my desk. And lo, it fell into my paw, and lo the pages opened and were alive and it was good. There were several moments when the book found its way back onto the floor, was kicked across and under the sofa, but it was retrieved and given second and third chances.

The problem for this reader is Roth's whole obsessive attraction to young women. It simply's boring. Get over it already. But, but, I see that it's a complex desire, and laced with many other juicy neurosis, and...this should stop here. Ultimately the voice, the intelligent voice got me and so all the Roth books come out of hiding again.

As for Exit Ghost, it's a great read if only for the searing and skewering of the young literary cougar who wants to do the biography of a famous writer, hinging his genius on an incestuous relationship. (Oh the headlines! The chance to talk at length with such authority about a subject! To subsume!) Yes, biography tends to make an aging writer queasy (the young ones are still rosily anticipating their own glory). (For more squeam check out this dialog between Roth and Brit bio Queen Hermione Lee.)
As for Portnoy? What a time capsule! What a moment! All that wanking! All that constipation and flagellation! And perhaps the fact that the Hound survived a few years living in Jersey next to Roth's mother one might guess, who let me help her with the groceries but only to the front door! made this seem nostalgic... No goyum in the house thank you very much...ah, Joisey.

BEL CANTO, Anne Patchett. This is a quick read, and clearly Patchett is a gifted writer. The intensity, the narrative structure are very strong--easy to see why this one did so well. It's quite compelling. But to be honest, there was much about it that could be skipped over, which I did. It won't be a book that stays on my shelf (though perhaps I can replace Atonement with it?), but it holds you the length of a warm bath, and I could easily think of a dozen people I could give this to. It's delightful, just not quite my cup of tea. The new one is on the "to read" list, but it isn't urgent.

Elie Wiesel's NIGHT needs little introduction. It's striking in its simplicity. Such condensed horror with very little sentiment. One of those books that one can't quite put down, even though one's body is saying one must put it down before the nightmares settle into one's body...and they do. They must.

WONDERFUL TOWN: NEW YORK STORIES FROM THE NEW YORKER, ed. David Remnick. Nothing comes close to the consistently good fiction found in the New Yorker. The latter isn't my favorite anthology but despite the occasional snoring piece the percentage of hits is unbelievable. The only thing that could improve this institution is more daring editorial selections: Diane Williams, Dave Eggers, Lydia Davis, Lynn Tillman, William Gass, or Sheila Heti for example. But one must ask why does avant-garde fiction writing seem to be so focussed on the novel rather than the short story??

This reader has been looking for strong alternative short fiction for over a decade and there is little to show for that long search--the authors above being a magnificent sampling of the potential for alterna-fiction... Still looking, and appreciating things such as McSweeney's and The Believer (interview with Gass here), but meanwhile week after week it's the New Yorker that keeps publishing some of the best fiction of our time.

Over in the magazine, this week's Updike is a tight little knot of a tale. Last week's section on the Carver/Gish exchange was illuminating. The degree to which Gish seemed comfortable slashing is disconcerting, and many of the edits were gratuitous, concerned with peevish stylistic turns rather than content, clarity, or integrity of story. On the other hand, how many preferred the longer version of the tale? A few weeks ago a very strange little offering from Jonathan Lethem. I'm a fan of Junot Diaz, but last week's wasn't a favorite, and there is often a sameness of content and tone. The target audience is the Upper East Side I once read, so much of the work reflects's shockingly, decidedly, not diverse.

But who, aside from Granta (though lets NOT discuss the list of nominations for their best new US fiction writers...), is even coming close to challenging the New Yorker for quality let alone consistency and volume?? Not the Paris Review. The Believer could be a contender, though they don't publish enough fiction...but what if they did? And what if they paid really well? Is the New Yorker buying a literary team here? (Yes, why not?) Are they creating a market need that they are then fulfilling? (Yes, again, why not?) I've read the anti-New Yorker fiction literature...I get it. But I also get it.

I loaned the Penguin Anthology of Stories by Canadian Women, edited by Denise Chong, to a few American friends over the years and the response was always the same: why are Canadians so depressed?? Doesn't anything good happen up there? There are great pieces in here by Mavis Gallant, Linda Svendsen, Bronwen Wallace, Ethel Wilson, Barbara Gowdy, Holley Rubinsky, but they're right....most of this stuff is bleak. As bleak as Flannery O'Connor? As bleak as the anthology of American fiction Richard Ford edited for Granta a few years ago? (Can anything be?) There is a new anthology of Canadian fiction edited by Jane Urquhart which needs to be included here...soon....but it's on the list of those the Hound resists for some odd reason. Probably because just looking at the list evoked dread in the sameness of the names...risk! Why won't people (editors!) take risks!

As for Canadian fiction in magazines? Where would that be? An overview of the magazine scene north of the border should be a task for the new year (note to self), but here's a start. Alberta Views out of Calgary is one smart magazine. They publish investigative features focusing on Alberta issues and include opinion arts and letters from local talent. This out of Toronto is also very smart, very timely. Vancouver's Geist is a perennial favorite (still not enough fiction but great photography and miscellany). Maisonneuve is getting better and better (but layout can't be enough people!), and The Walrus--well as someone said when they spied the cover on my coffee table in Brooklyn, "that's the New Yorker font, and lay out...". Maybe, but no fiction. Or no regular support of it. On the other hand, Taddle Creek jumped out at me while perusing a Toronto bookstore last week. It also resembles the New Yorker, but it has lots of fiction and poetry including a piece by recently interviewed Stuart Ross.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne. Every once in a while you just need to pick this up and marvel at it:

The Mortgager and Mortgagee differ the one from the other, not more in length of purse, than the Jester and Jestee do, in that of memory. But in this the comparison between them runs, as the scholiasts call it, upon all- four; which, by the bye, is upon one or two legs more than some of the best of Homer’s can pretend to;—namely, That the one raises a sum, and the other a laugh at your expence, and thinks no more about it. Interest, however, still runs on in both cases;—the periodical or accidental payments of it, just serving to keep the memory of the affair alive; till, at length, in some evil hour, pop comes the creditor upon each, and by demanding principal upon the spot, together with full interest to the very day, makes them both feel the full extent of their obligations.

As the reader (for I hate your ifs) has a thorough knowledge of human nature, I need not say more to satisfy him, that my Hero could not go on at this rate without some slight experience of these incidental mementos. To speak the truth, he had wantonly involved himself in a multitude of small book-debts of this stamp, which, notwithstanding Eugenius’s frequent advice, he too much disregarded; thinking, that as not one of them was contracted thro’ any malignancy;—but, on the contrary, from an honesty of mind, and a mere jocundity of humour, they would all of them be cross’d out in course.

WG Sebald's VERTIGO, is in the marvel category too, but difficult to read cover to cover. More on that later.

Meanwhile, if you want your magazine to be included in the future rundown of magazines best send it on.

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