Monday, June 27, 2011

The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

Wacky book. Little "Blindness" by Jose Saramango, little "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell, a little sprinkling of sci fi. Not sure I get it, but I read it avidly, wonderingly. What I worried was just going to be a runaway case of "magic realism" turned out to be a beautifully-observed, taut series of highly-detailed character sketches.

About the passage of a couple's "love journal" among several disparate people, at a time when the Earth has experienced a strange occurrence, "The Illumination" as it comes to be called, when all human physical pain is accompanied by a bright light shining from the pain's source.

Certainly the novel is about the meaning of pain, the sources of pain, the solution to pain, the differences between private and public pain, and it extends these philosophical questions by erasing the distinction between private and public pain.

A woman keeps a journal where she writes down daily the love notes her husband unfailingly leaves for her. When the wife dies in the hospital after a car accident where her husband also injured, the journal is taken home by the woman in the next hospital bed, who has cut her hand opening a nasty package from her ex-husband containing her alimony check.

The only real "plot" in the novel is the movement of the journal from one character to the next, its effect on each character.

The husband survives his injures, and traces the journals disappearance. He appears at the woman's doorway and demands the journal back. The man, a photojournalist, begins taking pictures of the strange light shows every human's body now makes, shining at the edge of any pain they feel. He photographs a group of high school "cutters," who slice themselves with knives.

Then a little boy, a neighbor of the man's, who suffers from a strange psychological "silence," steals the book, after peeking through the man's window and seeing that for him, an almost-autistic presence who much prefers things to people, the journal itself glows with all the pain of the man's memory of his wife.

The boy passes the journal on to a man who comes to his door to distribute Christian evangelical material. The man carries the journal around the country, and the world, as his mission continues. The novel veers forty years into the future to the man's death. He does observe over that generous span of time that "The Illumination" has done nothing to save or even improve the world: "Still they [children) grew into their destructiveness," he thinks, "and still they learned whose hurt to assuage and whose to disregard, and still there were soldiers enough for all the armies of the world."

Next the journal goes to successful fiction writer, suffering during a speaking tour from an assortment of cancer sores and inner mouth injuries that won't heal. Her son back at home trades for the journal from a street-person bookseller.

She begins communicating with her dead fiancee by leaving notes in cracks in the ground, and eventually tearing pages out of the journal and sticking them in the ground. The fiance replies. In the final chapter, via flashback, the story of how the indigent bookseller got the journal takes place.

Galore by Michael Crummey

There was a man who did Esther wrong. a horny, social-climbing tenor with busy hands who swore his undying love to her. He practiced his scales with his face between her legs, those muffled notes rising through her bones to strike in her head like pleasure's hammer. His father was German, his mother Italian, and he had confused the arts of love and war in his upbringing. He left her for a Frenchwoman with the breasts of a ten-year-old and a five-octave range.

The Canadian One Hundred Years of Solitude, Galore follows two Newfoundland fishing families over 2oo years of their intertwined, combative history, the family of Patick Devine and his wife, "Devine's Widow," and their antagonists, King-Me Sellers and his wife Selina.

The chart of the family tree at the beginning of the book gets as heavily-referenced as the one in Marquez's masterpiece. There is Judah on the Devine side, who is hacked out of a beached whale by Devine's Widow, whom King-Me Sellers believes to be a witch. The novel ends with Judah's great-grandson Abel returning to the inside of a whale.

The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction


What happened to science fiction writing? It got lost when everything turned out to be true.

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler


In which Philip Marlowe gets locked up in a "cure house," strapped to a bed, pumped full of truth serum, and liberates himself by conking his guard on the head with a mattress spring. Among other things.

"You're so marvelous,"
she said. "So brave, so detemined and you work for so little money. Everybody bats you over the head and chokes you and smacks your jaw and fills you with morphine, but you just keep right on hitting between tackled and end until they're all worn out. What makes you so wonderful?"
"Go on,"
I growled. "Spill it."
Ann Riordan said thoughtfully, "I'd like to be kissed, damn you!"

There's a giant thug named Moose Malloy. There's a massive Hollywood Indian named Second Planting. There's a naive Bay City detective Marlowe renames "Hemingway" --"it's because you keep saying the same thing over and over." There's another giant, this time a gentle good guy, named Red Norgaard who takes Marlowe out to a gambling ship in the harbor.

From The Big Sleep: Marlowe's office suite contains "five green filing cases, three of them full of California climate."

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The King is Alive


Fascinating "version" of Shakespeare, suggested to me by a friend when I trumpeted that Throne of Blood by Kurosawa was the best non-Shakespeare Shakespeare play I'd ever seen. A group of tourists on a safari bus in Africa decide to stage a version of King Lear as they wait for rescue. Relationships break down, adultery and violence rages, all against a bleak Saharan backdrop and "narrated" by an elderly African man who watches the tourists disintegrate and comments on them. Jennifer Jason Leigh appears, among others.

Part of the Dogme 95 avant-garde filmmaking movement, whose rules known as the Vow of of Chastity are:
  1. Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.
  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed, i.e., diegetic.
  3. The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.
  4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable (if there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  6. The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say that the film takes place here and now).
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  10. The director must not be credited.
Trailer is here.

The thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell

Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

His unfinished final novel. Sad, depressing, brilliant. Endlessly self-conscious (even about self-consciousness), one feels Wallace creating an unfinishable tapestry that he's not able to complete. "I'm not putting this very well" is one narrator's ("Irrelevant" Chris Fagle) repeated motif.

The afterword and Notes sections give more plot information than one gets in the entire novel, so he was not very far along, 500+ pages notwithstanding. In the Notes, one finds out Wallace's plan for a Pynchon Gravity's Rainbow-like twist, where the IRS plans to gather a group of unusual workers -- some with psychic powers, some with bloodless staggering logical and intellectual abilities -- in order to maximize revenue.

It's sad because it's clearly unfinished. The organization of the material was largely done by the editor, and it's raggedy in places and too thick in others.

The several extended pieces all point to different hefts the novel might have fulfilled had Wallace finished it: the chapter that appeared in The New Yorker as the story "Backbone," about a boy training himself to lick his entire body, the 100 page high school/college memoir by "Irrelevant" Chris Fagle," the brutal 60-page late chapter IRS staff Happy Hour conversation between emotionless and uber-logical Drinian and foxy former-cutter Rand, where she opens up to him about falling in love with her husband.

Along the way, there's detailed history of the IRS, a lush, brand-named 1970s setting that sets the decade in stone, another paen to Pynchon in a capsule history of 1960s drug use, and several mesmerizing IRS worker characters who are brilliantly sketched but who never quite assume their rightful place in the narrative thrust: Steyck, the manger who as a boy is so nice and kind and fairminded he literally drives those around him to violence, Cusk, who in high school develops an unusually heavy sweating problem, Sylvanshire, a "fact psychic" who infers facts out of thin air about the history and background of people he meets, a lonely mistreated girl with psychotic tendences who has been brought up by her mother in a series of trailer parks, the author/narrator "David Foster Wallace" who is constantly arriving for his first day at the IRS Examining Center in Peoria, IL.

"The Pale King" is mentioned briefly as one of the IRS examiners' "desk names," where they have the option of a nameplate for their desks that is not their real name.

"It is the key to modern life: If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish."

"Enduring tedium over real time in a confined place is what real courage is."

"Squeezing my shoes."

The Art of Recklessness by Dean Young


A manifesto on poetry and art by one of my favorite recent poets.

Friday, June 03, 2011

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power by Robert A. Caro




The caption for the photo to the left (third in a series) is: Johnson at the depot to return to Washington as a Congressman. A poignant scene, given the father-son relationship. He walked alongside his mother, ahead of his father, who could not keep up, and was aboard before his father arrived. Sam started to climb up, Lyndon bent down: father and son kissed.









The Empty Family by Colm Toibin