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
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
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
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.
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
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
There’s Gogol, and Then Again, There’s Gogol
Among others, Ivan Turgenev could not believe that The Inspector General, the greatest play in Russian literature and “one of the most subversive comedies ever to appear on stage,” was written by the same man who wrote the bloated and ingenuous sentences of the essays in Arabesques—and, later, the moralizing and preachy epistles, coruscating with derangement, in Selected Passages from Letters to Friends.
Of course, it was not the same man. The Gogol writing fiction was a genius, and that glorious fiction welled up from some genius of a neuron deep in his brain. The Gogol writing nonfiction was a sententious fool. As Karlinsky writes, “nonfictional Gogol is hard going: verbose, rhetorical, convoluted, and all too often beside the point.”
Gogol lived and wrote in the nineteenth century, but the most prominent theme of his fiction is a twentieth century theme: the illusory nature of all human identity. The man who wrote Gogol’s fiction is a twentieth century writer.
“Every time the flight I’m on takes off. Or if I can hear a flight take off.” – From “Come As You Are,” in Harper’s “Readings,” April, 2019. From accounts of nonsexual orgasms documented in “Orgasm Range and Variability in Humans: A Content Analysis.” Study published in The International Journal of Sexual Health, November, 2018
Flights (Riverhead Books, 403 pages) is a fascinating, while quirky, eccentric book, often factual, non-fictional, often clearly fictional. The fiction is mixed in with the fact to the point that you sometimes cannot tell which is which. The ‘I’ narrator informs us early on that she
“started writing a book. It was a story for travelers, meant to be read on the train—what I would write for myself to read.” She continues as follows: “I was able to concentrate and became for some time a sort of gargantuan ear that listened to murmurs and echoes and whispers, far-off voices that filtered through the walls. But I never became a real writer . . . . In my writing, life would turn into incomplete stories, dreamlike tales, would show up from afar in odd dislocated panoramas, or in cross sections—and so it would be almost impossible to reach any conclusions as to the whole.” Continue reading
CARICATURES BY DAVID LEVINE
“Writing shows its influences by the contagion of rhythm and pacing more often than by exact imitation or ideas. We know that Updike read Nabokov in the nineteen-sixties by the sudden license Updike claims to unsubdue his prose, to make his sentences self-consciously exclamatory, rather than by an onset of chess playing or butterfly collecting.”
Fifty years after its publication Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood is still quite the bizarre little book. “Its parts seem not to fit together. For a book about the defiance of God it is strangely sportive, at once seedy and shiny bright.”
Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage
That “strangely sportive” can be applied to nearly all of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. It lends to her stories their special little gleam.
“Good Country People”
O’Connor wrote one of her most famous and memorable tales, “Good Country People,” in only four days. The story practically wrote itself. A quote from O’Connor: “I didn’t know he [the bible salesman Manley Pointer] was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized that it was inevitable.”
O’Connor read Nikolai Gogol while she was a grad student in Iowa and admits to being influenced by him. You wonder how aware or unaware she was of the similarity between Manley Pointer, her gatherer of human dead souls, and Pavel Chichikov, wholesale buyer of dead souls in Gogol’s novel Dead Souls. Both characters are traveling rogues, in the employ of Satan. Manley is Chichikov’s little brother.