Posts Tagged ‘contemporary fiction

04
Jan
16

Book Review: Mumbo Jumbo – Ishmael Reed

Mumbo JumboMumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

A wild, vicious satire about jazz-age America, Mumbo Jumbo is a blast, in more ways than one.

Essentially, it follows PaPa LaBas, a sort of priest who’s looking for the text of a plague sweeping the country: Jes Grew, which makes people dance and create, a kind of spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, if you will. He’s opposed by the Knights Templar, the Wallflower Order, who’s slogan is “Lord, if I can’t dance, no one will,” and various New York heavies who may be gangsters, or immortal and possibly both, but definitely a bunch of white men trying to profit by ripping off black culture. Meanwhile, there’s the militant “Mu’tafikah,” who steal art from the Centre for Art Detention (be sure to look up it’s address) to return it back where it came; a proto-Nation of Islam, led by the cynically clever Abdul Sufi Hamid; spirits and ghosts; not to mention the true story of Osiris, Isis and Set, and where Homer got his stories from.

Really, the most exhilarating thing about this book – and arguably what’ll turn most people off – is it’s free-sampling style of construction. Reed routinely cuts between scenes and time at will, jumping and moving around and incorporating all kinds of found texts into his story: newspaper headlines, radio bulletins, quotes, and photos. People in the 20s make casual references to people living decades later. It gives his book a kinetic kind of punch; just when you think you’re getting the hang of things, along comes a photo of a group of men in suits side by side of a group of men hanging around a giant statue.

As I got there, I kept getting questions: is that Reed in the bottom? Who are those people up above? What’s he saying by placing them, countering not just each other, but the climax of his story itself? And this was literally only one page. There’s a lot to chew on here; this is the kind of book I imagine re-reads will pick up new elements in, particularly as one gets older and can start putting the photos and quotes in a new context.

Not that I expect it in a novel like this, but after I finished I kept thinking about how cool it’d be to have a critical edition of this, annotated with footnotes and smarter readers than I weighing in on it, helping to give it a little more context. At the same time, I think I generally got along without any real trouble and had a blast reading the thing.

It’s a smart, clever and darkly sharp satire, taking on everything from popular music to literary magazines to race relations. It’s a wild ride and I finished the last third in one long sitting. Recommended, especially if you think you’re up for a little challenge.

Rating: 8/10

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13
Jan
15

Odysseus’ Better Half: The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and OdysseusThe Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood

A clever, witty retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey (see my review of Robert Fagles’ translation), Atwood’s slim novel does an interesting job inverting the ancient myth while remaining a breezy, entertaining read.

A few years back, Atwood was part of a group of writers featured in a collection called The Myths. From the copy on the inside pages, she’s featured among writers like Chinua Achebe, A.S. Byatt and Alexander McCall Smith. While the website listed is long gone, some detective work shows writers tackled everything from Scandinavian mythology (Byatt’s Ragnarok) to Christ (Phillip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ) to the Old Testament (David Grossman’s Lion’s Honey).

While I can’t speak to the other volumes in this series – indeed, I have yet to even stumble across one in the wild – I’d bet Atwood’s volume is among it’s best.

In The Penelopiad, Atwood deftly takes apart Homer’s The Odyssey and refashions it as a story told from Penelope’s lonely point of view. Wed at a young age to a trickster, then abandoned for 20 years, her story has all the trappings of melodrama. Indeed, as I remember The Odyssey, she comes off as clever and wily but is never as fleshed out as her husband or son is. But the Ancient Greeks weren’t overly concerned with details, I assume; Homer certainly had a rough go at describing a house.

In Atwood’s telling, Penelope is smart, tricky and witty. She’s dealt a poor hand, but makes what she can of it. Her father doesn’t care for and tries to toss her into the ocean, while her Naiad mother is more interested in “playing tricks on clams.” When she’s wed to Odysseus, she makes what she can of it, spending her time tending to her palace. Eventually, Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War and things get to where we recognize them.

It’s also where Atwood’s angle really takes flight. As the years pass and Odysseus remains at large, Atwood presents different angles in the form of bawdy rumors: was Odysseus really tempted by the bird-like Sirens? Or did he just crash at a whorehouse where the women wear feathers?

Mixed in with Penelope’s retelling is a chorus of maids, the twelve Telemakhos “hung like doves” at the end of book 22. Writing in verse, Atwood has these maids counter Penelope’s story. They turn Odysseus’ travels into a sea shanty, echo Penelope’s privileged upbringing with their dire upbringing, present their hanging as a 20th century murder trial. Just about any time Penelope seems to get a tad too self-serving, they’re there to remind you she’s just as wily as her husband, too!

That said, Penelope is a charming narrator and a witty one, too. Her exchanges with the vain, self-important Helen of Troy are as catty as anything I’ve read this year; her dim view of the afterlife and the people who come knocking about these days, trying to contact the spirit world:

“They want to hear about stock-market prices and world politics and their own health problems and such stupidities… it’s a waste of energy to spend time with these people, and so exasperating.” (pg 186)

Like any retelling of an old story, it’s all the better if you’re familiar with the original. While Atwood never had me running back and forth to Richard Lattimore (or Robert Fagles or EV Rieu, etc), I think a passing familiarity with the Odyssey makes this one an easier read; if you’re familiar with the other stories/myths surrounding Penelope and Odysseus, then all the better, too.

Still, the book works on it’s own. It’s a retelling of, not a commentary on, and it’s an entertaining one at that: witty, lively and clever. It’s certainly a minor Atwood, lacking in the same message or depth as The Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx and Crake, but don’t let that discourage you.

Rating: 7/10. A fun, if quick, read and I’d bet Atwood was enjoying herself, too. I banged through this one in a couple of days, carrying it around and reading in snatches here and there. Recommended!

(Related: MI Finley – The World of Odysseus)

18
Nov
14

Good Tunes and Bad Vibes: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Inherent ViceInherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

At once Thomas Pynchon at his wildest and most accessible, funny and insightful and a mystery novel that isn’t really, Inherent Vice is a wild, great read.

Generally when people think of Pynchon, they think of big doorstopper books, weighty tomes of 800 or more pages. Hell, I read Against the Day earlier this year and the thing clocked in at over 1,000 pages. And even then, I wanted it to go on longer. This wasn’t like that at all.

For one thing, IV is a lot tighter than most of his books: I think only Lot 49 is shorter. But it’s also messy, a mystery that’s at once low-stakes and wide-ranging, impossibly high-reaching but also nicely wrapped up by book’s end with what seems like not a lot of revelation, but a tidy package of police corruption and organized crime.

Maybe its all the pot Doc Sportello smokes, but Pynchon’s circa-1970 Los Angeles exists in a kind of haze. It’s shadowy, maybe a little paranoid and definitely a little hungry: Doc eats everything from Tex-Mex to Greek to, yes, Pizza. Wouldn’t be a Pynchon novel without a slice or two. But it’s also a detailed place, packed with tidy, accurate details he uses to colour his city. One example: not only does he reference Zubin Mehta, then-conductor of the LA Philharmonic, but he casually refers to a show he did with Frank Zappa and the Mothers in yes, mid-1970. It’s impressive stuff.

The plot itself is reminiscent of detective noir, although not entirely of it. Millionare land devloper Mickey Wolfmann has gone missing and so does his mistress. While investigating, Doc is knocked out and a witness dies in front of Doc’s car. Before long, there’s a group of heroin dealers, a mysterious syndicate of dentists and a star LAPD detective named Bigfoot Bjornson are all involved, each after Doc in their own angle.
At times, I was reminded of Raymond Chandler’s fiction (especially The Lady in the Lake which has a similar plot), but as a whole, the mystery doesn’t really seem like the point here. It drives along the plot, but more as a device for Pynchon’s observations on society, where it was headed and where it is now. Mixed between the splashes of smoking and gritty detective work are sly comments on federal funding for police departments, the militarization of small police forces and big money’s influence on the government.

The book’s title comes from an insurance term referring to a hidden defect that destroys a product. In this book, the hidden impact of money and greed is what’s ripping apart the California Doc knows and loves. The police are paying off hippies to rat out their friends with money they get from the government, which only increases as more people inform on others. Landscapers move into communities and rip them apart to make new, more desirable places to live. And the musicians are slowly getting zombified.

But to me, it feels like gentrification is right at the book’s heart. Right at the beginning he opens with a quote on the beach. And more than once Pynchon writes about small neighbourhoods getting gutted and replaced by prefab, drab housing complexes. In one memorable scene, people wander around looking for a place that’s not there anymore:

“Now and then at the edges of the windshield, Doc spotted black pedestrians, bewildered as Tariq must have been, maybe also looking for the old neighborhood, for rooms lived in day after day, solid as the axes of space, now taken away into commotion and ruin.” (pg 19)

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. In some respects, IV is his funniest book. Doc’s stoner friend Denis is a constant supply of hilarious doped-up logic (“why is there chicken of the sea but no tuna of the land?”) and the rest of the cast is no slouch. There’s gambling on police investigations, sly comebacks, silly names and even a few songs here.

Compared to his other novels, IV initially seems like a departure, but quickly settles alongside his other books. He has the same vague paranoia and quick sense of humor he showed in Vineland, but here the cast is more human and has more of a spark to their lives. Likewise, it’s not as sprawling as Against the Day or Mason and Dixon, but even within it’s confines still ranges along the California/Nevada border.

If I had to compare this to his other novels I’ve read, I’d probably slot it ahead of Vineland and behind M&D and AtD. It’s a quick, fun ride and his observations into society are fascinating. He wrote this one over a half-decade ago, but we’re still having discussions about some of the points he slyly raises. Overall, IV is good and a good starting place for Pynchon newbies, but I’d halt before calling it his most successful novel, either. And if you’re looking for something up the noir genre, you’re bound to be a little disappointed, too.

08
Jul
14

Jungles, Oceans, and the Lookout: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Álvaro Mutis

The Adventures and Misadventures of MaqrollThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Álvaro Mutis

He travels with a shady Cypriot passport, takes odd jobs at sea and travels with almost nothing but the clothes on his back and a hardcover book or two. Money, friends, adventure all slip through his fingers. He’s known throughout the world, but his full name never gets mentioned. He’s just Maqroll or The Gaverio: the lookout.

Throughout this book the Gaverio gets involved in arm smuggling, gold mines, a brothel and sawmills, often barely escaping with his life. Yet the stories are never as action-driven as you’d think: Maqroll drifts along, like a boat travelling with the current, getting himself wrapped up with a weary resignation. He doesn’t impose himself on his surrounding, but before long, he’s impossible to miss.

Maqroll’s not a person who elicits an easy description. There are shades of Conrad’s Marlow, but unlike him, the Gaviero retains his wits even as his adventures descend into chaos. Don Quixote also comes to mind: like Maqroll, he roams the world for adventure. But unlike Cervantes’ book, this is neither a satire nor a cruel joke. It’s more melancholy (although I should note, it’s never sad. It’s often quite fun, actually). Maqroll stands alone, an attitude I think he’d agree with; he certainly seems to prefer his own company.

The one person who kept coming to mind is German director Werner Herzog, who seems to share similar opinions on humanity and the jungle. It’s not hard to imagine him reading some of Maqroll’s lines:

“Sometimes I think this land is so good it makes certain people angry… They shoot, they burn and they leave. They’re all the same. Things are quiet now. Who knows how long it’ll last.”

But he’s not the only compelling character here. He’s often accompanied by Abdul Bashur, a merchant who dreams of finding the perfect tramp steamship, or Ilona, an Italian woman who comes up with the ideas. Their schemes often run just a shade to the illegal– they range from running a brothel where the women dress like stewardesses to making signal flags for smugglers – but they’re not bad people, just ones with a sliding sense of morality.

For me, the most striking section of the book comes with that brothel, an idea born of a desperate need for money and a sudden insight, but quickly spirals out of control and ends in disaster. But there are others: a visit to a drug kingpin in the jungle, multiple run-ins with guerrillas and military intelligence, even an attempt as babysitting. And even at 700 pages, I was left wanting more.

By book’s end, you feel like you know the Gaviero intimately. His loves, his losses, his taste in books (and booze, especially; he loves his drinks and especially to experiment for the perfect martini) and why he has such a melancholy outlook on people.

Before he turned to writing novels, Mutis was a poet. His prose retains shades of that: it has a flowing feel, which carries the reader along without them noticing they’re reading page-long paragraphs. Maqroll likes to speak in images and fragments, making book occasionally spiky and illusionary with flashes of insight: lines painted on the wall, conversations where people are really speaking about something else, etc. Kudos to Edith Grossman’s translation, which never lags or feels like it’s trying to compensate for something missing. Given the varying ways Mutis narrates his action – sometimes in the first person, other times as a diary or epistolary – this was no easy task.

Rating: 8/10. Mutis died a little less than a year ago, leaving behind a long legacy as a poet and novelist. I’m not as familiar with the poetry (it looks a little hard to come by in english), but this weighty volume is an ideal a way to honour the man’s work and a great read to boot.

06
Aug
13

Spaceships, CIA plots and trashy novels: Gore Vidal’s Duluth

Duluth

A wild, reckless read, Gore Vidal’s Duluth is a complete takedown of American pop culture, c. 1980. In just over 200 pages, Vidal spoofs everything from Ronald Reagan to conspiracy theories to romantic fiction to pulpy sci-fi. His novel is a jumpy ride through genres, styles and form, often moving between stories within stories, often with a sense of how reckless the plot can get.

Basically, this is a novel about a mayoral election in Duluth, a city just south the Canadian border. It’s also a story about a crime lord in Duluth, a city just north of New Orleans. It’s about warring Betty Grable biographers in Duluth, a city just removed from a vast desert and about a spaceship landing in Duluth, a city just outside a swamp. Vidal’s Duluth is everything and nothing, changing as he needs it to represent some other part of America. It can be a bit jarring if taken literally, but when he pokes fun at everything on every page, it’s a bit hard to.

Vidal’s satire knows no bounds here. For example, there’s policewoman Darlene Ecks, the star detective on the city’s homicide squad. A model cop, she’s constantly on the prowl for illegal aliens while wearing a designer uniform. When confronted by a wide-ranging conspiracy in the city’s mayor election, she’s shocked:

“But that’s illegal,” says Darlene. But she is a true-blue policeperson and she knows the word illegal means nothing in Duluth, where only law and order reign.”

Other times, it’s more pointed: here, there’s a revolving door of Presidents, but the only one anyone sees is the old, ex-actor one, who drones on and on, in a pseudo-folksy, vaguely-Cold War tinged and mostly inane language remarkably familiar to anyone who can remember the last time an old actor was elected President:

The old television president welcomes the strangers from another world to the United States, telling them that “the latch string always hangs outside,” a sentence no one has been able to figure out. At least one pundit thinks this is a message in code to the Russians, who are still the enemy of every single peace-loving United Statesperson.

Still, Vidal’s satire is a little heavy-handed at times and I often found it a little too on-the-nose.; the stuff surrounding Ecks comes to mind. And while it’s a little dated in some ways, but in others, it’s remarkably ahead of it’s time: Dallas, after all, just returned to the airwaves and the media’s barely changed in the 30 years since Vidal wrote this.

As of this writing, Duluth seems like it’s out of print. It’s unfortunate, but it’s still cheaply had on the second-hand market; Amazon has copies going for a penny. Hopefully, it and some of Vidal’s other late novels (Kalki and the two-fer of Myra Breckinridge/Myron come to mind) will get re-released sometime soon.

Rating: 7/10. All in all, it’s a funny read. Recommended for readers who don’t mind an absurd plot, especially if they’ll get the jokes about Pynchon or Kosinski.

17
Jun
13

America, highly caffeinated: Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon

Mason and Dixon

Last year, one of the last holdouts against eBooks finally relented as Thomas Pynchon let Penguin publish his novels in a digital format. It was an interesting holdout, in the sense that Pynchon seems like an unchanging figure: he’s elusive, avoids the media and, I’d imagine, prefer to never own a Kindle.

But it’s a good thing for the masses and makes his books all that much easier to discover: I know more people who take their readers to the beach than I know people who read physical books at the beach. And while I think Pynchon makes for a good beach read (or bedside, fireside or just in general), it also helps that his books look less imposing in this format. After all, the man’s best books – Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, Against the Day – are doorstoppers of books.

Still, even if it’s a large and imposing looking novel, there might not be a better place to start with Pynchon than Mason & Dixon. On one level, it’s a great, long and really detailed read about the two men whose names lent themselves to one of the more infamous parts of America. On another, it’s about how American might have been doomed from the get-go. On any level, it’s enjoyable and readable as hell, no matter the format.

Pynchon’s novel follows Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason as they travel across the world and the US, in locales as distant as the Cape of Good Hope and as well known as Philadelphia, charting transits of planets and laying the infamous Mason/Dixon line. Along the way, the duo get involved in everything from Jesuit conspiracies to a love affair between a French chef and a mechanical duck. They chart eclipses, just rip through the woods and drink prodigious amounts of coffee. This isn’t a straightforward novel of cartographers. It’s a wild ride, filled with memorable scenes and a look at pre-revolution America, not to mention England and South Africa.

Along the way they meet people like George Washington, Dr. Johnson, a talking dog and a guy who travels everywhere with his pet electric eel. One thing that surprised me was how many of these people (and events!) actually happened: for example, Nevil Maskelyne was a real person and was related to Robert Clive, who’s name is dropped whenever someone speaks of obscene wealth. No word on if he was this offbeat, though: here he’s a guy who means well, but is completely out to sea.

There’s so, so much here to chew on. The tragic love story of Charles and his late wife Rebekah; the stir-crazy people in South Africa, who’s underlying guilt is slowly driving them insane as they wander out into the desert; the dissertations on feng shui; hallow Earth theories and alien abductions and secret transmissions across the planet by the Jesuits. There’s the workings of Pynchon’s writing: the way it’s narrator changes up depending on the audience, the way his plot slowly works out of focus (how could one man know so much?). It’s enough that one could take all summer to read this book and still be thinking about it come Christmas (It was vice versa for me).

Rating: 9/10. Mason and Dixon’s a hilarious and occasionally moving read that’s one of the best things I’ve read in a while. I found it pretty easy to read too: it’s dense and Pynchon used a pseudo-18th century kind of syntax, but it’s worth sticking with; after 50 or so pages I barely even noticed anymore. Highly recommended, folks. With a new Pynchon on the way this fall, this is the best way to get into his works.

22
Apr
13

In the Penal Country: Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son

The Orphan Master's Son

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this beast. It’s an interesting novel with one of the more fascinating characters since Mike Schwartz. But how much of this novel’s interest is from it’s wrapping? It’s set in a strange, unfamiliar place, but how accurate is this this novel’s setting? Or, more importantly, how much does author Adam Johnson want us to think how accurate it is?

The Orphan Master’s Son is a story about a nameless man, living in a country where the rules are all inverted and everything is part of some Byzantine puzzle. Orphans are raised by the state for the jobs nobody else wants and take the names of state martyrs. Workers are told about the glorious life of retirees, who are shipped off to a sea-side retirement village that nobody’s ever seen. It’s the DPRK, where the story is more important than the truth and whatever the state tells you is true becomes so.

We follow the nameless man through various incarnations of his life: living with orphans, working in the tunnels under the DMZ, getting recruited into a a squad of kidnappers, then travelling with a group of fisherman. We see everything from the DPRK from his side: he’s not so much a pawn as someone who’s grown up under strange rules and can’t see things any other way. But he’s a good and loyal worker, so soon, he’s sucked into the elite cadre at the top of North Korea and spends time with Kim Jong Il. Before long, he’s on an important international mission.

On that level, its sounds like a spy novel, but it never reads like that. Instead, it’s all very Kafka-like: nobody ever has names and the narration is detached and impersonal. I kept thinking about The Trial and especially In the Penal Colony while reading this, which was maybe the point. Indeed, this is less a novel about politics than one about identity and truth. It’s split into two parts and almost doesn’t begin properly until the second; the first half is a necessary prologue, but the plot doesn’t kick into gear until maybe halfway through.

But this novel sometimes spells out what Kafka infers. It’s almost trying too hard to show how distorted this country can be: Johnson sometimes all but yells “Things are backwards here!” and hammers at a few things (like how they eat dogs, which seems awfully close to indulging in stereotypes sometimes). At times like these, one can really see his influences: Kafka, the Laura Ling and Euna Lee story, Casablanca.

To be fair, Johnson’s created a fully-formed North Korea, a spooky place where the subways don’t work, animals live on top of apartment buildings and the secret police are always lurking. I’m not sure how accurate it is – and especially the attitudes of the army brass – but it’s a living, breathing place. Like all despotic states, nobody has their own identity; I didn’t realize it until I finished, but nobody here goes by their real name. Or, in most cases, a name at all. Everyone just goes by what the state tells them they are.

It took a while – until the second half, really – for me to really get into this book, but once it got going, I didn’t put it down, banging out the last two thirds in one afternoon. And it’s a good read, but it’s so impersonal I found myself detached from it all. When something happens, there’s no connection, even when the characters finally act like real people. It’s too bad: the DPRK setting is likely the big draw to this book, but it honestly feels like smoke and mirrors covering and distorting a enjoyable, if routine, love story.

Rating: 7/10. If you’re interested in the DPRK, it’s an interesting read and it’s not an entirely bad love story, but in both cases there’s books I’d recommend over this: Bradley Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, Kang Chol-hwan’s The Aquariums of Pyongyang or Kapuscinski’s The Emperor (previously reviewed here).




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