Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

The hardest part of quitting [cigarettes] would be the loss of narrative function...
 
I am torn about this novel, as it's a perfectly-pitched first person story of a young poet on a fellowship in Spain.  Lerner's sentences are flawless.  He creates a diamond-sharp interior consciousness for his narrator, Adam, who is at once intellectually brilliant and social moronic, intensely perceptive and cruel, profound, petty, loathesome and compelling.

If I was a poet, I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgment of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak.

Could be sub-titled, A Self-Conscious Portrait of the Self-Conscious Artist as a Self-Conscious Young Man.  In Spain.  On Hash.

The prose is mesmerizing, and is all about distance from experience and the problem of language, and the problem of translation, and about the insecurities and indecisions of an artist, and all of this adds to a fairly astonishingly large achievement of poetic voice and diction.

But is this a confessional masked as an aesthetic treatise?  Will we ever know?  Does it even matter?  When I read this:  I opened my eyes a little more widely than normal, opened them to a very specific point, raising my eyebrows and also allowing my mouth to curl up into the implication of a smile.  I held this look steady once it had obtained, a look that communicated incredulity cut with familiarity, a boredom arrested only by a vaguely anthropological interest in my surroundings, a look that contained a dose of contempt I hoped could be read as political...

and then see the author's picture on the right, I become confused and it agitates my reading.


cowardice of your convictions

...that nothing was more American, whatever that means, then fleeing the American...


But my research had taught me that the tissue of contradictions that was my personality was itself, at best, a poem, where "poem" is understood as referring to a failure of language to be equal to the possibilities it figures;...





Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle

An unusual, ungainly novel about mental illness and human solidarity that gathers force in its powerful conclusion.

"the devil in silver" (which we learn, late in the game, and awkwardly via exposition from a minor, is a term for an chemical poisoning affliction silver miners suffered from in the late 19th century) here is a half-mythological, half-real resident of a mental hospital in Queens, NY which other patients have witnessed and been attacked by over many years.

Pepper, a 42 year old neer-do-well gets unjustly committed to the hospital for threatening his girlfiend's ex.  a strapping 6 foot three, large and powerful man, he is quickly unhinged and diminished by the hospital's heavy prescription of haldol and lithium.

other patients -- the elderly Dorry, the "mother" of the ward, the teenaged Loochie, Pepper's roommate Coffee, and a well-sketched cast of more minor character patients -- band with Pepper in a demented, helpless, hopeless and eventually successful attempt to subdue "the devil in silver."

Certainly there are elements to the "horror" genre to the story, since "the devil" is literarlly a demented isolated mental patient hiding in the ceiling tours, who looks alternately like a bison and a crazy old man, but Lavalle's book is just to multi-dimensional and culturally alert and busts right out the schlock horror conventions.  Lavalle revistits the desitution and failure of the American mental health treatment of the poor and forgotten -- his gentle, ribald and clever attention to a host of patients (and the pathetic staff of the hospita) make a much larger accomplishment here.

Despite some awkwardness in the prose, including occasional jarring shifts in the point of view, which is chiefly Pepper throughout, the novel has a wonderful idiomatic control and depth to it.  I found it amazing, in the end.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Carry The One by Carol Anshaw.

A novel that, after several brief initial chapters on a wedding and a tragic car accident following, follows the lives of the occupants of the car that kills a 10 year old girl, including the life of the drunken driver.

Very strong.  At times over the years the guilty connection between the car occupants and the increasingly-distant catastrophe victim grow tenuous, but Anshaw completes each of the five lives she follows so densely one begins to forget the accident itself.

Anshaw is witty and has a compelling eye for detail.  Mostly set in Chicago, the narrative covers 30 years, from the early 80s until shortly after 9/11.