Archive for the 'Novel' Category

Over the top in Under the Dome

Late in the novel Under the Dome, Stephen King’s new thousand-pager, a character muses about the roads not taken: “Before these last few days, Carolyn would have said she had no interest in having children, that what she wanted was a career as a teacher and a writer. Maybe a novelist, although it seemed to her that writing novels was pretty risky; what if you spent all that time, wrote a thousand-pager, and it sucked?”

Well, if you’re Stephen King, the one-man deforestation juggernaut with something like 47 novels to your credit, it probably doesn’t much matter at all. Which isn’t to say Under the Dome sucks, per se, but if King’s place in pop literature wasn’t already cemented, this one might do little to help.

Storytelling can be described as putting characters in a crucible and turning up the heat. It’s a strategy that King explores literally in Under the Dome, where the small town of Chester’s Mill in the American northeast finds itself closed off from the rest of the world when a mostly impenetrable dome descends on it. (Air and water can still permeate, but barely.) The folks in Chester’s Mill do as characters usually do in Stephen King novels: if they’re decent, they band together and survive; if not, their more primitive natures run amok and things get nasty.

If they’re really bad, they become the uppercase ‘V’ Villain, like Big Jim Rennie, a car dealer, town selectman and clandestine crystal meth magnate who manipulates the dome to his advantage. King’s strength as a writer, however, is more in his finely turned minor characters and not the over-the-top baddies. As rotten as he is, Rennie is less interesting and not as well drawn as, for example, a throwaway character like Samantha Bushey, a slacker, teenaged mum and drug user who endures some of the novel’s most disturbing violence. Bushey’s victimization comes not at the hands of the alien forces controlling the dome (do they even have hands?), but a posse of thugs deputized into Rennie’s police force. (“Yes, Pogo, we has seen the true horror and it is us!”)

King deftly keeps the pages turning, but I can’t help but think back with nostalgia and a twinge of sadness to the more suspenseful reading experiences he provided in his early books. I can still remember white-knuckling my way through The Shining on my breaks on some forgotten nightshift. That novel remains for me one of the most memorable and amazing reading experiences ever; who knew books could do that?

I can’t claim to have followed the King oeuvre with much consistency over the years but Under the Dome for me represents a coarsening of his craft. There is more hamfisted thuggery and brute violence than goose pimply creepiness here. Too often the simple gross-out, which King has never been too proud to deploy, stands in for genuine tension and fright. For example, these characters are all really, really scared, or just generally, er, losing it:

The crotch of her gardening jeans darkened as her urine let go.

She was having a goddam seizure. “Stop it!” he shouted. Then, as she voided herself: “Stop it! Stop doing that, you bitch!”

Janelle, eyes open but showing only whites, wasn’t convulsing—thank God for that—but she was trembling all over. She had pushed the covers down with her feet, probably at onset, and in the double flashlight beams he could see a damp patch on her pajama bottoms.

There was a dark spot spreading on his shorts.

She saw the wetness spreading around the crotch of her jeans and thought, Yep—I’ll have to change again, all right. If I live through this, that is.

But then he observed that the kid’s pajama pants were soaked. Junior had pissed himself.

He remembered connecting with one Abdul’s bony, shit-speckled ass, and the red mark his combat boot had left there.

His father had combed his hair, but as he lay dying he had, like his late wife, pissed his pants.

His specialties in these latter days included eating Jell-O pudding without getting it up his nose and occasionally making it to the toilet before releasing half a dozen blood-streaked pebbles into the commode.

And of course…

She was scared shitless.

So it goes. The novel eventually dribbles to a less-than-satisfying resolution and [SPOILER ALERT] Chester’s Mill is once again free — but of course not until there’s a huge spike in the body count.

Stephen King has single-handedly reinvented the horror genre and established a place (albeit often contested) in American letters. Even when he’s average he’s way above a lot of what passes for popular literature. If he reveals encroaching infirmities in Under the Dome, I, for one, am willing to hang in there anyway – given his lifetime achievement, I figure I owe him at least that much.

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Epic fantasy a near epic surprise

I don’t often pick up epic fantasy doorstops like A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, which is the first novel in a projected seven-volume series called A Song of Fire and Ice. The cover art alone on these things usually looks hopelessly adolescent. And pages of maps and schematics of tangled family trees makes a vein in my neck start to throb.

But when you can get it on the Kindle for $3.90, it might be worth a surreptitious look. After all, the first four novels of A Song of Fire and Ice have been translated into 18 languages (thank you Wikipedia) and an HBO television series is currently in production.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Well, in a sentence, the fuss about skillful plotting, imaginative world-building and serviceable characterization anchored by prose that’s well above what you can sometimes find when you go slumming in the genres. (Hey! Who says it’s slumming!?) Here’s an evocative example, just one sentence, that deftly sketches a throwaway character: “This Mycah was the worst; a butcher’s boy, thirteen and wild, he slept in the meat wagon and smelled of the slaughtering block.”

Not bad. Who would expect such concision in a hulking book like this? Martin never comes close to reaching the poetic heights of Mervyn Peake in Gormenghast (who does?), but there were times I thought his ear for English was so finely tuned, and his flair for Age of Chivalry-type phrasings so apt, that he must certainly hail from the land of King Arthur himself.

His actual place of birth? New Jersey.

Oy. That A Song of Fire and Ice has been dubbed “the Sopranos in Middle Earth” is purely coincidental, I am sure.

A Game of Thrones is an engaging enough hero’s journey that will provide hours of enjoyment (think also, “Diana Gabaldon for guys”) but be warned: it is long. There are more characters in it than you can waggle a piece of Valerian steel at. And if you can’t stand the thought of all the trees being sacrificed to produce nearly cube-shaped paperbacks like these, you can always read it on the Kindle.

Or wait for the HBO series on TV.

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.

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.

Can you ever read too many novels?

A while ago I wrote a blog post about research published in the May Scientific American touting the therapeutic value of writing. Now, research published in the June issue of New Scientist says longtime readers are more empathetic and have better social skills than their less well-read peers.

Interesting. Describing someone as being well-read connotes a certain worldliness that may well encompass social graces that are above average. It’s curious that even though film and television have been around so long, we never refer to people as being well-viewed. Despite its immediacy, film still can’t show us the hearts, minds and souls of others as effectively as fiction.

On the other hand, why do so many bookworms sometimes seem nerdy and maladjusted? I guess this particular research assumed a broad reading base and not an exclusive diet of SF or fantasy.

Here is a link to an interview with one of the researchers; the article on the New Scientist site is not available for free. For other interesting psychological research on reading and writing, check out the researchers’ blog On Fiction.

Photo credit: Moriza, Creative Commons

It’s hard not to gush about Price’s Lush Life

Lush Life by Richard Price is flat out one of the best books I’ve read. I’ve always loved his novels for the windows they open on urban life, for their rich portrayals of people caught in awful events, and for their sheer propulsive drive. Clockers, Samaritan, Freedomland — these are books one can’t help but guzzle in a few long, greedy gulps; Lush Life is no different.

But calling it a page-turner or crime novel devalues its abundant artistry, and there is much here to admire. I’m painfully aware that trying to tease apart all the different strands that go into fine writing is a difficult and clumsy business. Focusing on narrative pacing leads to a discussion of scene construction and before you know it, to plot, with several branching threads like tone and setting emerging at the same time. And can you really separate character development from dialogue, description and plot? The sum is definitely greater than the parts.

Nevertheless, Price’s greatest gifts may be with dialogue and in rendering character in a few deft strokes. Here’s his introduction of one of the main characters, Eric Cash, 35, who runs the front of the house at a restaurant called Berkmann’s:

He had no particular talent or skill, or what was worse, he had a little talent, some skill: playing the lead in a basement-theater production of The Dybbuk sponsored by 88 Forsyth House two years ago, his third small role since college, having a short story published in a now-defunct Alphabet City literary rag last year, his fourth in a decade, neither accomplishment leading to anything; and this unsatisfied yearning for validation was starting to make it near impossible for him to sit through a movie or read a book or even case out a new restaurant, all pulled off increasingly by those his age or younger, without wanting to run face-first into a wall

Why is it so many writers still insist on providing physical details like hair or eye colour? Are those details ever important? Price, in just one sentence, situates his character within the arc of his own life — and then gives us the character’s response to that.

Even the relatively minor characters in Lush Life have lives that are rich and textured. Making the most of  the walk-ons gives a novel heft and authenticity; it makes the world being created seem deeper and therefore more believable.

Realistic dialogue is another technique that aids in the portrayal of character, but also keeps the narrative humming along.

“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.”

“Maquetbumba?”…

“Dominican dude. Dead now. My brother told me him and his crew had the Lemlichs sewed tight.”

“What kind of name is that.”

“I just said. Dominican.”

“What’s it mean, though.”

“Maquetumba? Man, you should know, you Dominican.”

“Puerto Rican.”

“Same shit, ain’t it?”

Tristan shrugged.

“Sss,” Little Dap sucked his teeth. “Like, ‘he who drops the most,’ some shit like that.”

“Drops what?”

Little Dap just stared at him.

And so on. I love the omission of question marks in some of those questions — it’s pitch perfect. Price manages to capture the speech sounds of these two without resorting to an overabundance of annoying word contortions. He gives us one “din’t” for didn’t, but doesn’t overdo it. “My brother told me him and his crew had the Lemlichs sewed tight,” is just as strong and less distracting than something like, “Ma brother tol’ me him ‘n’ ‘is crew had the Lemlichs sewed tight.” Our ears are already filling in the speech patterns by that point.

Lastly, Price’s lower eastside Manhattan also figures as a character. Here’s a nice bit of rendered setting — a description of a desanctified synagogue that now serves as a condo — which also gives us some detail about the main character:

“But for all this reborn carriage house’s ingenuity, its artful attempt at appeasing its own history while declaring itself the newest of the new, it was the double layer of evicted ghosts — pauperish tenants, greenhorn parishioners — that still held sway for him, Matty having always been afflicted with Cop’s Eyes; the compulsion to imagine the overlay of the dead wherever he went.”

One of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing is to leave out the boring bits that readers tend to skip over. There’s nothing boring here; this is a riveting account of what happens after a routine mugging turns fatal when a twitchy teen holding the gun overreacts at a victim’s bravado. So rich. So believable. I recommend it without reservation.

Incidentally, there’s an interesting interview with Price about Lush Life at Amazon, here, and another from NPR’s Fresh Air, here.

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.