Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

Freud’s repressed realm of bitter little embryos, spying from their natural nooks, upon the love life of their parents. Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

There’s the epigraph to my article, and maybe the spark that later ignited in Ian McEwan’s brain; here’s the epigraph (from Hamlet) to Nutshell: “Oh, God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.”

A Teller of the Tale, Who Is Striving To Be

Ian McEwan specializes in great beginnings and great endings to his fictions. Who has ever written a better bravura opening then this one to Nutshell, Random House, 2016, 197 pp: “So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise. That was in my careless youth. Now, fully inverted, not an inch of space to myself, knees crammed against my belly, my thoughts as well as my head are fully engaged. I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls. I listen, make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.”

Okay, so we have a fetus narrating the story, and this is a fully conscious and articulate fetus, one, furthermore, who has vast knowledge of the world out there before he—if he is a ‘he’—is even in it. His many observations on the twenty-first century realm awaiting his entry are astute, perspicacious, worthy of his creator—who, obviously, has lent his narrator his own perspicacity, education, wit, vocabulary. The fetus is unnamed. For purposes of this review we can call him FN (fetus narrator). FN is very close to full term, about to be born, almost a babe in arms. His parents, father, mother, stepfather (uncle) have apparently given no consideration to what “it” (they call him “it”) will be called. Continue reading

Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan

THE BRAVURA BEGINNING

The beginning of this novel (Random House, 262 pages), pervaded, as one reviewer writes, with “dazzling cinematic bravura,” is worth citing at some length. The protagonist Joe Rose, a science writer, and his wife Clarissa Mellon—a university professor who has just returned to London from the U.S., where she was doing research on the poet John Keats—are about to have a picnic.

“This was the moment, this was the pinprick on the time map: I was stretching out my hand [for the bottle of wine], and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man’s shout. We turned to look across the field and saw the danger. Next thing, I was running toward it. The transformation was absolute: I don’t recall dropping the corkscrew, or getting to my feet, or making a decision, or hearing the caution Clarissa called after me. What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from our happiness among the fresh spring grasses by the oak. There was the shout again, and a child’s cry, enfeebled by the wind that roared in the tall trees along the hedgerows. I ran faster. And there, suddenly, from different points around the field, four other men were converging on the scene, running like me. Continue reading

Night, by Edna O’Brien

IN HONOR OF THE 89TH BIRTHDAY OF EDNA O’BRIEN, DECEMBER 15, 2019

THE CULTURE OF THE ABDOMEN

In her memoir, Country Girl, Edna O’Brien mentions a favorite book of her bilious husband, who was obsessed with poisons in the atmosphere and in food: The Culture of the Abdomen, by F.A. Hornibrook. Here is the sample passage she quotes: “One cannot live over a cesspit in good health. How much more difficult to remain well if we carry our cesspit about inside us . . . . Food is taken several times daily, often too frequently and too freely and of unsuitable quality; but, as a rule, one occasion only is permitted for the ejection of its waste materials. And remember that all the time this lagging tenant of the bowel is retained the conditions favoring evil are at work; heat, moisture, nitrogenous refuse, darkness and micro-organisms. The slow poison factory is in full swing, and its output is turned into the highways and byways of the body.” Continue reading

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

IN SURREAL VIETNAM, AND BACK HOME IN THE UNREALITY OF THE U.S.A.

The title story of The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction (Houghton-Mifflin, 246 pages, from the Series: Looking Back at Literary Classics of the Past) comes first in the collection, a story cataloging all the different things that an American foot soldier, or “grunt,” carried during the Vietnam War. This includes not only entrenching tools, Claymore antipersonnel mines, assault rifles, the M-60 machine gun and grenade launchers, but also pictures of girlfriends, an illustrated New Testament (Kiowa, a native American and devout Baptist), tranquilizers (Ted Lavender, “who was scared, until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe”), the medic Rat Kiley (“a canvas satchel filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books”). The grunts also carry lice, ringworm, and other hazards of the humid climate, along with dreams for the future and fear of death or embarrassment. Continue reading

Sama Seeker in the Time of the End Times: A Spy Novel, by U.R. Bowie

New Book Announcement

The year is 2002, the devastating attack of 911 in New York still reverberates. Osama bin Laden is in hiding. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld says, “If he’s alive, he’s somewhere?” In reply, President Dubya Bush squints and makes threatening gestures. The U.S. government marshals all its forces to find and kill the archenemy of Western Civilization. Urell L. Buies, Ph.D., a college professor with a sideline of decades in low-level intelligence operations, is recruited to work with Russian intelligence in Central Asia. The Russians promise they can find Osama. While in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, doing little more than waiting for something to happen, Buies begins writing a long account of his formative years and his life as a double agent. Or what he terms, ironically, “a double non-agent.” As the story of his life moves closer to present time, the narrative moves to the climactic point: the day the Russian helicopter goes in after Osama.

Once again, using a multiplicity of influences from classical Russian literature, U.R. Bowie creates a fascinating imaginative world. In a novel that looks backward to the nineteen century, backward to a Florida childhood in the forties and fifties of the twentieth century, then forward to events culminating in the assassination of Osama bin Laden in the twenty-first, we are offered wit, intelligence, richness of detail, quirky characters, and an impressive grasp of Russian history, literature, arts and culture. The echoing, overlapping stories—but, more impressively, a large array of characters—draw in the reader and lead gracefully to a powerful crescendo. The author deftly manages the trick of scope, hitting all the right notes to sound out the big picture, while making us hear, feel, and commiserate with the people at the heart of the interwoven tales.

Thoughts on Publishing and the Plight of the Writer of Literary Fiction

Lot of good ideas by V.N. Alexander, in her recent post on publishing; co-op publishing may be the future. For me the great innovation in book publishing is POD. V.N. Alexander’s article makes it crystal clear why pre-printing an entire run of books–I have, largely, literary fiction in mind–makes absolutely no sense anymore.

“Other roles of the traditional publisher have been effectively eliminated by technology.” Right. Then again, the author, through social media, is now expected to do all, or practically all, publicizing of the book. Who needs a publisher, then?

“The two most valuable services that traditional publishers provide are editing and proofreading,” but, as V.N. asserts, finding competent people to proofread or copy edit books is not that difficult.

Actually, there is one big thing that traditional publishers can do for a writer of literary fiction. They can get the writer IN with the literary establishment. This, ultimately, is the only thing that really counts. Once you are IN, your books get reviewed by Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly and Booklist. If you never get IN nobody ever knows you exist. And the huge majority of all writers who publish literary fiction will remain, egregiously, OUT. Continue reading

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford

Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (“Beati Immaculati”), Vintage Paperback, 1989, 278 pp., with an introduction (“An Interpretation”) by Mark Schorer, and the author’s dedicatory letter to his wife Stella Ford (January 9, 1927). The novel was first published in 1915.

 SERIES: LOOKING BACK AT GREAT WORKS OF LITERARY FICTION

The blurb on the front cover is from Graham Greene: “One of the fifteen or twenty greatest novels produced in English in our [20th] century.” Blurbs usually exaggerate. So too does this one, but it exaggerates in the wrong direction. The first time I read this book I thought, “This is the great American novel.” In rereading it again for this review, I have not changed my opinion. Continue reading