Archive for the 'History' Category

Tree of Smoke casts spreading shadow

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson shows how great writing can deliver the reader straight into the stinking belly of the whale, largely without the reader realizing they’ve been swallowed.

TreeOfSmokeWinner of the United States’ National Book Award in 2007, this dense, 700-page novel of Vietnam ranges from the war’s most visceral evils, to quiet, human moments of the people caught up in it. Johnson references myth, scripture and history, but also uses a pointillist’s brush to render scenes of striking depth and texture.

The overall effect is harrowing and unforgettable.

Challenging, too. Tree of Smoke isn’t an easy read and the mixed reviews on Amazon reflect that. (There are as many one- and two-star reviews as four- and five-star reviews.) Most of the naysayers invariably begin, “I must not be smart enough for this…” or “I just couldn’t get into this….” or “I picked this up because it won an award but I can’t see why…”

Interesting how books sometimes review readers. Do you really need to be a member of MENSA to appreciate literature? Clearly not. (As this blog and its author attest!) But readers will always be rewarded by a little patience, an openness to different narrative approaches, and a willingness to expend some candle power on what they’re reading.

Movies have trained us to be passive receivers of narrative. We grab our popcorn, strap ourselves in and then the story simply unspools in front of us. It’s no wonder many of us now apply the same strategy to books. We straddle the first sentence and then ride it to its conclusion many pages and chapters later. We notice the surroundings as they pass, but we rarely pause to reflect on the journey while we’re taking it. How many of us routinely go back and re-read something that happened a few chapters previous? How many will read a book twice before passing judgment?

Perhaps readers no longer have the desire to nurture the close collaboration with the writer that a rounded appreciation of fiction requires. The reading public, drunk on books like The Da Vinci Code, has only one demand: “Just tell us what happens next!”

What happens to the various characters in Tree of Smoke is, in a sense, beside the point. What happens is the giant wheel of war, with its iron spokes of history, idealism, hatred, glory, treachery, humanity and hope, grinds through a span between 1963-70. The characters in the novel either have their shoulders to that wheel, are getting ground underneath it, or are hanging on for dear life.

Granted, it takes the first 200 pages to get the wheel turning, and it’s this apparent decoupling from a traditional narrative engine that many readers probably find difficult. But go ahead – live a little. Ask yourself if your inability to enter into anything but the most traditional narrative dream state may be a symptom of an atrophied imagination.

It’s been said that novelists can’t disguise their personal cosmologies. Ian McEwan may claim he’s an atheist, but a book like Atonement suggests at the very least he’s a Church of England atheist. (I wish I could claim ownership of that line — can’t remember where I heard it.)

Johnson, on the other hand, weaves the idea of God into the very warp of his novel. I love how Jim Lewis’s review in the New York Times speculates that his dedication to H.P. stands for Higher Power. (Incidentally, Lewis himself writes the kind of insightful review that makes me want to search out his books.) I’m sure that among the many PhD dissertations ripening at this very moment, at least a few will examine Johnson’s expression of God in Tree of Smoke.

From the trees all around came the waterfall sound of scrabbling claws and the curses of demons driven into the void.

More women screamed. The men howled. The jungle itself screamed like a mosque. Storm lay naked on his back and watched the upward-rushing mist and smoke in the colossal firelight and waited for the clear light, for the peaceful deities, the face of the father-mother, the light from the six worlds, the dawning of hell’s smoky light and the white light of the second god, the hungry ghosts wandering in ravenous desire, the gods of knowledge and the wrathful gods, the judgment of the lord of death before the mirror of karma, the punishments of the demons, and the flight to refuge in the cave of the womb that would bear him back into this world.

His poem whirled upward as an ash…

Tree of Smoke is the best novel I’ve read in a long time. Thank God people still write like this; thank God books like this still get published; and thank God writing like this still gets critical acclaim.

Amen.

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Reading the right road, traveling the right book

By themselves, reading and traveling are two of the greatest pleasures in life; combined, the effect can be, well, transporting.

We all have our favourite passages. I once spent an idyllic afternoon on the train from Copenhagen to Stockholm, amiably accompanied by Henning Mankell, the great Swedish mystery writer.

Pierre Berton and his fine book Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, kept me company while I toured Alaska. Charles Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities illuminated my vacationing footsteps to London and Paris, and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea struck the perfect note for an afternoon at the beach in Cuba. 

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

Books can do what no tour guide can – by providing resonating detail and bringing different times, places and people to life. You can’t look out on the Cape of Good Hope without thinking about its mythical place in the briny literature of sea-faring adventure – that is, as long as you’ve dipped your oar in that particular writing current.

I also take great delight in purchasing books – good, bad or otherwise – in the places in which they are rooted. I’ve picked up A Town Called Alice, by Nevil Shute, in Alice Springs, while cruising through the Australian Outback; I bought Sarum, by Edward Rutherford, in the little gift shop set up near the site of the ancient settlement near Salisbury; and most recently, I risked missing a ferry ride to buy Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela, at Robben Island, the former South African prison turned museum.

Maybe I’m alone in this. Maybe for other people it doesn’t matter what sort of reading material they pile into their carry-on, or what sorts of books they cart back home. But such indifference will never work for me. It’s been said there are really only two rules of the open road: make sure you have good shoes on your feet, and keep your bowels open. To those I’d add a third: make sure you’re packing a book that tells you something interesting about the place and its people.

What are your most memorable passages?

Happy trails; happy reading.

Time-traveling with Harlan Ellison

When you return to a writer you loved in your youth, it is also in some sense to return to the person you once were. If you’re lucky, the cringe factor will be slight in both cases.

I’ve had the opportunity to do a little literary time-traveling with the recent release of the bio-doc Dreams With Sharp Teeth, which is an entertaining look at the life and world of science fiction author Harlan Ellison. Has there ever lived a more pugnacious, irascible writer? ‘Prickly’ would be another apt word. (The film’s trailer is embedded below — you’ll get a pretty good sense of the type of guy he is in two-and-a-half minutes.)

It’s been said that if we’re really lucky, not only do the books from which we will most benefit find their way into our hands, they’ll do so at exactly the most opportune moments of our lives. I’ve always thought Ellison had pretty good timing that way. I was a geeky, outsider adolescent in the 1970s when I first stumbled on his work and I was immediately transfixed by that voice: clear, angry, fearless, smart — and with a conscience.

Here was another apparent outsider who felt the same way about many of the things I did. I nibbled at his short fiction but positively devoured his essays and other non-fiction, such as his scathing indictments of ’60s and ’70s television, The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat. I can remember buying his short story anthologies just so I could read his introductions; now and then I’d finish one of the stories, too, but more often than not I’d put them away until the next impassioned diatribe came along.

After watching Dreams With Sharp Teeth I thought I’d dip back into his work and see how it’s held up. Tellingly, despite the many culls my book collection has undergone over the years (seven boxes punted before the last move), I’ve never quite managed to let go of the handful of Ellison books I own. These now have faded, creased covers, missing dust jackets and some with a shaky name inscribed by a 14- or 15-year-old mini me.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction to the short story collection Approaching Oblivion, which encapsulates both Ellison’s tone and worldview. He refers to a letter he received from a James Chambers, who has described the four Kent State university students who were killed when the National Guard opened fire at a demonstration as “communist-led revolutionaries, hooligans and anarchists.”

Now that scares the piss out of me.

That is approaching oblivion. It is reaping the whirlwind of half a decade of Nixon/Agnew brainwashing and paranoia. It is a perfectly apocryphal example of the reconditeness to which The Common Man in our time clings with such suicidal ferocity. I won’t go into my little dance about the loathesomeness of The Common Man, nor even flay again the body of stupidity to which “commonness” speaks. I’ll merely point out that the Ellison who believed in the revolutionary Movement of the young and the frustrated and the angry in the Sixties, is not the Ellison of the Seventies who has seen students sink back into a charming Fifties apathy (with a simultaneous totemization of the banalities and mannerisms of those McCarthy Witch-Hunt Fifties), who has listened long and hard to the Chambers letter and hears in it a tone wholly in tune with the voice of the turtle heard in the land, who — when the defenses are down in the tiny hours after The Late Late Show — laments for all the martyrs who packed it in, in the name of “change,” only to turn around a mere five years later and see the status returned to quo.

I still find that compelling, but maybe not quite as much as I once did. Can any indignation burn as hot or self-righteously as adolescent indignation? And the angry writer, angry Jew schtick in Dreams With Sharp Teeth strikes me at times as simply wearisome. OK — everyone in the world has their heads up their butts except him. Whatever.

The short stories in Approaching Oblivion are uneven. (Yes, all these years later I’ve managed to read all 11.) Despite the strange and bleak futures they depict, they serve as strong indicators of the age in which they were written. Many carry the burdensome freight of a really important MESSAGE. Some show signs of quaintness, a susceptibility to which science fiction, as it ages, seems particularly prone. For example, in “Hindsight: 480 Seconds,” one man is left alone on earth to record for posterity the death of the earth when an asteroid hits. And what does he record his thoughts on? “Memory cassettes.” I guess at least they weren’t “Memory Eight-tracks.”

In “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty,” a successful man travels back in time to visit the persecuted boy he once was. Like re-reading Ellison, the experience is tinged with various parts excitement, nostalgia and sadness. You really can’t go back again. Sometimes it’s the memories of things that are best savoured, and not the thing itself.

But I’m still not getting rid of his books.

Zombies: at last lurching into the limelight?

If we can say Bram Stoker’s Vampire, Count Dracula, personified fears of unknown perils and unchecked appetites when if was written in 1897, then the Zombie seems to be a fitting trope for our Wal-Mart world of rampant globalization fostered by sociopathic corporations. The Vampire mesmerizes, plays on repressed sexuality, and “vants to drink your blood.” The relentless Zombie, together with gazillions of his friends, just keeps coming at you — “brains…brains,” he moans.

Zombies have pursued the living up on the silver screen since the 1950s, well before George A. Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Since then, comic books, video games, many more movies — and novelizations of movies — have followed. But the Zombies have never quite cottoned to the printed page like the vampire. A Google search for “Zombie fiction” yields 18,400 matches, while “Vampire fiction” delivers 155,000. The difference in the number of fictional titles at my local library is even greater: Zombies – 15, Vampires – 301.

There could be many reasons for that. Books were the dominant entertainment medium when Stoker popularized his Vampire, while the Zombie is very much the child of cinema. (Even so, numbers from the Internet Movie Database also indicate Z. has a long stagger to catch up to V.) Zombies have little, if any, personality, intelligence or sex appeal, so it’s pretty much impossible to create an engaging character out of one. Reanimated decaying corpses are just too conceptual and machinelike and can’t capture the imagination like those charming, shape-shifting vampires can.

But perhaps a new day dawns for the dead with the publication of World War Zby Max Brooks. And yes, I freely concede I’m betraying a certain snobbery by suggesting Zombies haven’t fully arrived until they’ve broken into the bookstore and mainstream bestseller lists. So go ahead — bite me. I mean, as long as you’re not a Zombie or anything.

Brooks gives us a future history describing the global conflagration known as “The Crisis,” “The Dark Years,” “The Walking Plague,” or simply “World War Z.” The real genius of his novel is to appropriate the journalistic technique pioneered by Studs Terkel, in which the event is told from a multitude of different voices and perspectives. Just as Terkel’s war reporting ranged across time, rank and theatre of operation, Brooks covers the progress of World War Z from Sydney to Jerusalem, Manitoba to Tokyo. And then some.

Through more than 50 different voices we learn about the early days of the conflict, The Great Panic, pivotal battles like Yonkers, cleaning up frozen Zombies in the north and the rationale for key decisions by world leaders.

It’s all very richly imagined and capably told. Although the narrative structure precludes the development of any genuine suspense, Brooks does register a reasonable creepiness quotient. Consider this scene told by a Japanese man about how, as a teenager, he managed to flee his infested apartment building by climbing down the outside, balcony by balcony. (Note: he uses the Japanese word for Zombie, siafu.)

I looked up at my balcony and saw a head, the one-eyed siafu was squeezing himself through the opening between the rail and the balcony floor. It hung there for a moment, half out, half in, then gave another lurch toward me and slid over the side. I’ll never forget that it was still reaching for me as it fell, this nightmare flash of it suspended in midair, arms out, hanging eyeball now flying upward against its forehead.

It takes a very special ear to be able to particularize the speech of more than 50 different speakers and if I have a quibble with World War Z it’s that many of the accounts wind up sounding much the same in tone and diction. Brooks sets himself a formidable challenge and does succeed admirably with several memorable accounts — but one wonders what might have been achieved by a more gifted ventriloquist. For example, here is an excerpt from a novel I’m reading now, Lush Life, by Richard Price:

See you din’t live round here back in the heyday, so no way you’d know, but about ten, twelve years ago? […] Man, it was, there was some bad dudes up in here. The Purples on Avenue C, Hernandez brothers on A and B, Delta Force in the Cahans, nigger name Maquetumba right in the Lemlichs. Half a them got snatched up by RICO for long bids, the other half is dead, all the hardcores, so now it’s like just the Old Heads out there sippin’ forties and telling stories about yesteryear, them and a bunch of Similac niggers, stoop boys, everybody out for themselves with their itty-bitty eight balls, nobody runnin’ the show.

I didn’t tell you anything about who was talking or where, but I bet the dialect and detail helped you form a pretty reasonable picture. Although I know nothing about this milieu, it sounds pretty authentic to me. And I guess that’s the trick – capturing the specific cadences, slang, attitude and character-appropriate imagery to create a believable portrayal.

Those misgivings about World War Z aside, there is still much to enjoy and shudder about. On the macro level it attains resonating plausibility. We’ve already got a brimming Pandora’s box with global warming, illnesses hopping species to species, and humanity’s clumsy and dangerous interference in so many areas. Is a Zombie-like plague really so farfetched?

So if you want to see how it all might go down, check out World War Z. If nothing else, you’ll know what supplies you might want to think about laying in….

Incidentally, if you care about this sort of thing, Brooks is a former Saturday Night Live writer and the son of filmmaker Mel Brooks and actor Anne Bancroft, according to the World Wide Web, which is never wrong. A movie based on the novel is in production for a 2010 release by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment.

There Will Be Sex; or, How Not to Write a Title

One thing’s clear 125 pages into Upton Sinclair’s novel of the California oil boom of the early 1900s: both it and the 2007 film version are atrociously titled.

sinclair.jpegSinclair called his work Oil!, complete with the perky exclamation point, which conjures up the idea of a broadway musical featuring singing toolpushers and dancing roughnecks.

Paul Thomas Anderson, in his screen adaptation of the novel, renamed it There Will Be Blood. If you overlook the adolescent portentousness, as well as the fact it serves as an annoying spoiler, you still get an undeniable suggestion of either horror or gang warfare. When I saw the gothic font promoting the film I thought – “Transylvania.”

twbb.jpegIt’s a shame – I can’t remember the last time I’ve enjoyed a book quite as much, and the film, by all accounts, is excellent – it’s in the running for a Best Picture Oscar.

Perhaps Sinclair (or his publishers) can be forgiven for reflecting some of the conventions of his day, and who knows? In 1926 maybe a one-word noun — emphatically punctuated — was even avant garde.

There Will be Blood, by comparison, bears the sticky fingerprints of Hollywood marketing winkies. You can almost hear the conversation:

“OK. Audiences aren’t going to be much drawn to a detailed historical account of an old-time oil boom. And they especially aren’t interested in any of the moral implications inherent in big concepts like capitalism or class structure or religion.”

“You got that right. Any car chases in this flick?”

“Nope.”

“Any sex?”

“Not really.”

“Any violence?”

“Well, a few people do get hurt.”

“How hurt?”

“Let’s just say, there will be blood.”

Alas, if only it were that easy.

Coming up with a good title may be one of the most overlooked and difficult elements of the fiction-writing process. In his book The Art of Fiction, David Lodge observes: “The title of a novel is part of the text — the first part of it, in fact, that we encounter — and therefore has considerable power to attract and condition the reader’s attention.” It must serve several purposes — descriptor, teaser, emblem.

David Madden, in Revising Fiction, quotes Walker Percy: “A good title should be like a metaphor: It should intrigue without being too baffling or too obvious.” Madden continues: “Titles have a runic, iconic, talismanic, touchstone, charged-image effect.”

There Will Be Blood, however, seems to me less iconic charged-image, and more crass, cynical attention-grabber. Top of mind for the title creators, in fact, may have been the notion, There Will Be Profits.

Baby, it’s c-c-c-c-cold outside!

winter.jpgWe’ve been enduring a prolonged cold snap here in the heart of the bleak Canadian winter, complete with frozen water pipes and killing wind chills.

Things break down or just get sluggish in these conditions, including cars, snowblowers and bloggers. Lassitude creeps in; maybe it’s brought on by having to wear long underwear much of the time, or twice daily blow-drying the ice out of a pipe in the basement. We scurry from house to bus to work, heads bent earthward to escape the searing cold. Where has the horizon gone? Is it still there?

Then there’s been news of an absolutely stupefying sort. Two little girls, ages 3 and 15 months, froze to death on a Saskatchewan native reserve earlier this week; details are still emerging, but it appears to be a case of neglectful parenting.

The heart breaks; the blood runs cold. Man versus nature, man versus man, or man versus self?

It’s gotten me thinking about quite a few things, but among them, winter. And I mean the good old-fashioned it’s-so-cold-it-hurts-to-breathe Prairie winter.

There is some great cold weather writing out there, which surely begins with Jack London and “To Build a Fire.” For many of us this is an early reading favourite straight out of grade school. Here is a description of the story’s main character:

The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.

Oh dear. You can see what’s coming next, can’t you? Still, after all these years, a gripping read…

Another personal favourite is The Last Place on Earth by Roland Huntford, which aside from being great adventure/biography, is also a terrific book on leadership. It’s about the race for the South Pole between Britain’s Robert Scott and Norway’s Roald Amundsen. Here’s a passage about Scott’s attempted return from the pole after finding Amundsen had already beaten him there.

The five men were crammed into a tent made for four. It was an eerie experience to live cheek by jowl with one of the number losing his reason. They could not know if Evans would turn violent, but most of the time he seemed sunk in a stupor, scarcely conscious of what was happening around him. In any case, they were all tired, hungry, weak and sluggish with cold and malnutrition. Nobody — least of all Wilson, the doctor — had any desire to face mental derangement at close quarters, when they could not bear to look too deeply into their own minds.

Maybe we’re all nursing a mild stir-crazy depression in conditions like these. I’m sure it probably taxes us more than we care to admit.

I’m going to keep looking for a few more passages about the cold, but now that it’s warmed up to minus 20 celsius, my interest is waning. Maybe you can help me fill out the list. The pipes, the pipes are calling….

Stay warm. Hug somebody. Don’t put your tongue on a lamppost.

It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country

world-war-i.jpg

 

It’s called Prose Parsed, I realize, not Poetry Parsed. But then there are times when only poetry will do. Like today. Here is a famous one by Wilfred Owen about a First World War gas attack. The Latin bit at the end translates roughly to the title of this post.

 

 

Dulce Et Decorum Est

 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

 

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

 

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

 

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.