Look at the Harlequins! by Vladimir Nabokov

Beginning with a list of the author’s “other” books, which don’t exist outside the distorted mirror world of what Nabokov calls “LATH” (as he acronymically pegs Look At The Harlequins! [Vintage, 272 pages] within that book’s own text) is a wildly inventive metafiction in the bilingually verbose hyper-alliterative Nabokovian mold. We get splendid sentences here on the jeweled gift of selfhood giving reason to resist suicide from whatever facet, cranky meditations on the author’s pederastic proclivities and ego, and, most brilliantly, strange slips down the semiotic slope into madness. In two or three places in this book we find ourselves in a meticulously rendered literary reality and then, through a process of what one might call Continue reading

Hollywood by Charles Bukowski

Although far from Bukowski’s best, Hollywood (Ecco, 248 pages) is a revealing send-up of what happens when brutal honesty (Buk) interacts with the California entertainment industry. A roman a clef about the making of the independent film Barfly based on Bukowski’s life and some of his earlier stories,the book shows Bukowski finally gaining some recognition and acceptance near the end of his career. The movie stars Faye Dunnaway and Hollywood badboy Mickey Rourke who does a good job slurring and walking about with hemorrhoids. Yet it appears from the text that Bukowski would have preferred Sean Penn, who was originally cast in the part, to play him in the film–Penn had more heart. As always Continue reading

The Fermata by Nicholson Baker

The Fermata (Vintage, 330 pages). This erotic or “rot” (as the intellectual hero who can stop time by pushing up his glasses likes to call it) work by Nicholson Baker (author of the earlier Vox, about phone sex) is a wonderful literary experiment–a blend of wordplay, and slightly self-conscious and deliciously quasi-guilty fantasies come true (at least in the literary frame) due to the protagonist’s ability to dip into what he calls the Fold, or the Drop–the time-stopped world where women can not only be undressed, playing with their bodies, but also subliminally seduced–by stopping time and arranging things along the periphery of their vision–or along their Mons veneris. In an acrobatic bit of literary legerdemain Baker straddles, if Continue reading

Ravelstein by Saul Bellow

Ravelstein (Penguin 233 pages) is based on intellectual and historian of ideas Allan Bloom, whose Closing of the American Mind stands as the meat to this ultimately gossipy, but not unrevealing, portrait of the man (closet gay, incorrigibly sloppy, resolutely positive, a big cigarette-smoking pizza-eating exquisite furniture-buying Saint Bernard of a man who plays Platonic soulmate matchmaker for his students, and gives his Chinese helpmate a car when he finally makes it big). Bellow apparently urged Bloom to write the book (which despite its reputation as a narrow conservative tract is actually a brilliant example of applied Platonism) which became a huge best seller, and for which the novelist wrote the introduction. Continue reading

South of the Border, West of the Sun: A Novel by Haruki Murakami

South of the Border, West of the Sun (Vintage, 224 pages). This book (my first exposure) to Murakami starts off slow and mundane to the point of boredom, but before long you realize you are in the hands of a master. Like a marathon versus a sprint, the mundane realism allows Murakami to unveil with perfect pitch and timing the story of an only child and his long-lost childhood girlfriend (also an only child) who now, still beautiful in her late thirties, lives under mysterious circumstances and comes to see him in his upscale bar. Murakami reportedly translated into Japanese Raymond Carver, who never wrote a novel. It shows. Less is more here, and each revelation at the level of plot conceals something deeper about life. I loved the subtlety of the ending that brings to a naturalistic crescendo the novel-long tropes of walking, rainfall, and the curious Continue reading

Someone to Watch Over Me: Stories by Richard Bausch

In Someone to Watch Over Me (Harper Perennial, 224 pages), with stories about older men with younger women, a woman recovering from a dysfunctional relationship who hooks up with a horrible golfer who persuades himself he is good, a man with low self-esteem who stumbles out of a bar drunk one morning to save a busload of children, a man who wins the lottery only to face the final anomie of life as loss, Richard Bausch takes somewhat downtrodden and mundane middle-to-lower class characters and reveals them in their secret glory. He has a way of fully seizing an everyday situation and revealing to us its depths, sometimes switching character point of view within the same story. The stories have the opposite effect of Continue reading

Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison

I believe Ernest Hemmingway said “All you have to do to be a writer is write one honest sentence.” Well by that definition, and although this slim book with its refrains of the title in different contexts reads almost like a performance piece between two covers–it is in fact reconstructed from texts used in performances used to publicize 1993’s Bastard Out of Carolina–Dorothy Allison is certainly a writer. And yet curiously, and at times almost bewitchingly, Allison plays with and cozies up to the notion of story in its ability not just to tell the truth but to conceal it–here, in the simplest possible language, and using her own experiences as a child abuse victim by her stepfather in the American South, she psychoanalyzes the nature of story and story-telling as a means of healing the ego and reinventing the self. The book is integrated with Continue reading

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: Stories by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace is clearly an accomplished and, at times, brilliant writer. If it were only a matter of judging his playfulness, innovation, and enthusiasm-sheer energy-it would be hard to imagine him scoring higher. For example, one of his conceits, Datum Centurio, features a hard copy version of a future (2096) dictionary which defines “date.” In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (Little, Brown and Company, 288 pages) the innovative “story” mimics the complete typographical layout of a real dictionary and notes to the effect that with “compatible hardware” (e.g., a neural plug) we could get the entire “pentasensory” (i.e., virtual reality) illustrative support. The dictionary definition traces the ancestral origins of date to earlier in the century (i.e., our time) when the term was Continue reading

Bob the Gambler by Frederick Barthelme

The night after I finished this book I found myself before a slot machine in a small casino. I had a feeling and put a quarter in. I won and won again. I stuffed the quarters in my pockets but there were no buckets available. When I lost two quarters in a row I left. Unfortunately this was a dream and I awoke empty handed. Bob the Gambler (Mariner Books, 224) is a beautifully observed, enviably perfect novel by a master who doesn’t seem flashy because he stays within his means. It is also a surprisingly, even surreally loving story. The novel centers around the fissioned nuclear family of down-on-his luck Biloxi architect Ray Kaiser, a plump transplant moved by the Mississippi coastal decay before it was invaded by “gussied-up Motel 6 hotel Continue reading

The Law of Averages: New and Selected Stories by Frederick Barthelme

Although seemingly simply written, these are some of the most sophisticated stories I have ever read. Barthelme is so even tempered, so subtly loving, and so good at fixing upon key details that bring a scene to life that his work is both a joy to read and a reward to study. His subject, the “New South,” with its strip malls and pierced adolescents, is much less differentiated than Faulkner’s, and much less expansive than Hemingway’s grandiose global stage of writerly operations. Yet Barthelme’s prose is more than up to Continue reading