Monday, May 28, 2012
Saturday, May 26, 2012
"words which are but breath to me will last into eternity"--a paraphrase of Sappho Before I decided to become a certified public school teacher I was accepted into the graduate English program at College Park. I'd intended to get a PhD in literature, and had proposed a thesis idea about the paranoid authorial consciousness in Henry James, particularly in works like The Turn of the Screw and The Sacred Fount. Ramsey Campbell's latest takes a similar track, but in reverse. I shan't explain further for fear of wrecking the surprise premise. Seven Days of Cain combines the psychedelic prose and unreliable nature of perception found in his earliest, best work with elements of Pygmalion and Frankenstein. The result is a mostly satisfying novel. Andy is a photographer working for his folk's portrait studio. He and his wife Claire are trying and failing to conceive. As the novel progresses we find out that Andy was once an aspiring writer and that his imagined characters may be haunting more than their author. Occasionally the book gets bogged down in Campbell's late-phase tomfoolery with awful puns and exchanges of misperceived dialogue, but I enjoyed it. The opening half is the strongest work he's done in some time. If you want a thoughtful, moody horror novel, give it a try.
Sunday, May 20, 2012
Nobel Laureate for Physics Michael Beard is one of the least pleasant protagonists I've encountered. He's a glutton, he's self-centered, he's arrogant, he's devious. He rides on an early achievement and uses it to move from sinecure to sinecure, enjoying a rather lavish life style. He cheats on his spouses and on his lovers. He covers up a murder and steals the work of a colleague in order to get wealthy from patents involving synthetic photosynthesis--while all along caring not a whit for the environment. The novel is peculiarly episodic, and feels more like three novellas stitched together than a cohesive fiction. As always, McKewan's prose is gorgeous and pulls you along even though the work is not up to the standard of Atonement. I thought the same thing about Saturday. McKewan must have read (re-read) Confederacy of Dunces recently--this is the same type of satire, minus the belly laughs. But Beard gets his comeuppance, which provides a measure of satisfaction. I'm a bit puzzled as to what McKewan hopes to skewer in this satire. Environmental scientists? Complacent bastards coasting through life? The current state of Western civilization? The biggest point of Solar seems to be that assholes are a clean, renewable resource.
Tuesday, May 08, 2012
One of my very favorite voices! Stanley Elkin goes off on wild riffs and when he gets rolling it's a prose thrill-ride. This one ain't a top-notch Elkin like The Dick Gibson Show or The Magic Kingdom, but Ben Flesh is a captivating narrator who criss-crosses the country checking up on his numerous franchises, hustling all types of people and dealing with his own deteriorating physical condition and a strange assortment of god-sisters and god-brothers who are all triplets or twins. Yeah, the Flesh is weak, but he's successful nonetheless in this fraudulent facade of a culture where the closest thing to home is a double in the Holiday Inn and your best friend ever is an asshole Brit occupying the same room in the ICU.
Friday, May 04, 2012
About 19 years ago I took a short story course with Phil Stevick at Temple University. I was getting my first Master's--it was a peculiar hybrid of academic MA and fiction MFA. Stevick's class was centered on the modern short story, particularly inovators of the 20th century. I was turned on to Calvino, Garcia-Marquez, Borges, Gordimer, Coetzee; this was a mesmerizing course. We were tasked with finding a new potentially important writer who might make a mark on the pantheon some day. I found, via a brief NPR story, a young Native American named Sherman Alexie. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven had just come out. I read it and critiqued it for the class. I don't recall what I said, and likely could no longer even use that jargon any more. I know I panned the book a bit. It was too precious, too contrived, too redolent of "writer's workshop"--whatever.But there was a spark, an appealing potential... So nearly 20 years later I find The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in the latest Donor's Choose addition to my classroom library. Home run! I love the voice, the authenticity, the portrait of a young man going through his early teens with all the requisite suffering that age entails, coupled with all the requisite suffering that age entails growing up on the rez. It's funny and sad and full of touching flourishes. I already know which students I'm going to recommend read it.