The Trick of It, by Michael Frayn

 Two professors of literature, old friends, one in England (RD, our narrator), one having emigrated to Australia (R), are writing letters to each other. This suggests one of the many metaphors in The Trick of It (Viking, 1989, 172 pp.): “Forgotten questions and meaningless answers passing each other somewhere over the Indian Ocean at thirty thousand feet—an image of human communication. Of love and literature and life.” So is this an old-fashioned epistolary novel? Far from it. The Trick of It is a marvelous, sparkling-new one-way-epistolary and modern piece of metafiction. I would rank it right up there with Don DeLillo’s White Noise as one of the great comic novels of the twentieth century. Continue reading

The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandar Hemon

zombiewarsA literary truism: good comic writing, any comic writing that professes to call itself literary fiction, must be undergirded with a firm foundation in seriousness. Nikolai Gogol was/is the greatest comic writer in Russian literature; his works are profound. Vladimir Nabokov wrote the following about Gogol’s long story, “The Overcoat,” widely considered the best story ever written in Russia: “The diver, the seeker for pearls, the man who prefers the monsters of the deep to the sunshades on the beach, will find in ‘The Overcoat’ shadows linking our state of existence to those other states and modes which we dimly apprehend in our rare moments of irrational perception.”

Too many contemporary American writers of literary fiction are under those umbrellas on the beach. If they are swimming at all they are swimming in the shallows. There are depths to be plumbed through the art of writing creative fiction. Why not plumb them? Is it too risky? Is it easier to wade into tepid waters and potter around there? Time to take a deep breath and dive down deep now, modern American author. Time to stop your “shit-swimming” (Hemon’s term, taken out of context) in the literary shallows.

The Making of Zombie Wars (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 307 pages) begins with Hollywood silliness—amateur screenwriters pitching ideas to one another in a Chicago workshop—the idiocy and mindlessness of Hollywood (and of the whole U.S. A.), lurks in the background all the way through to the end. Practically all of Hemon’s books with American characters in a U.S. setting present a picture of our country teeming with idiots. This novel is set in 2003, just as we were embarking on what will surely go down as one of the most idiotic foreign-policy decisions of the twenty-first century: the invasion of Iraq. Continue reading

Isaac: A Modern Fable by Ivan G. Goldman

isaacHow should we suppose poor Isaac felt — son of a father all-too-willing to sacrifice him at the suggestion of some voice in his head? Christians are wont to overlook the obvious horror and absurdity of the Biblical tale. According to some (less awful) Jewish interpretations of events, it was perhaps Satan, as an agent of God, who spoke to Abraham, which would make more sense to those who imagine God to be not quite so sadistic.  Either way though, what kind of man would this traumatized son become?  In Isaac: A Modern Fable (Permanent, 223 pages), Ivan G. Goldman has arranged it so that Isaac, after the mishap at the altar, has been granted the gift of eternal youth. The identity of benefactor is not clear; the gift may be from Satan or from Jehovah. Isaac himself has never been able to decide, as his immortality and eternal youth often seem to him like a curse.

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California Rush by Sherwood Kiraly

californiarushTed Williams once said that the hardest thing in the world was to hit a baseball with a bat. The second hardest thing, he continued, was to throw baseball where a batter couldn’t hit it with a bat.

Williams might have added that the third hardest thing to do is to write an original novel about baseball. Oh, it’s been done. But for every home run such as Ron Hays’ The Dixie Association or Ray Kinsella’s Field of Dreams, for every Bull Durham and The Natural, for every book by Ring Lardner, Jim Bouton and Lawrence Ritter, there are volumes of strikeouts. Continue reading

The Pilgrim of Love: a ludibrium by Charles Davis

pilgrim

“I was pleased to discover in myself an uncanny knack for interpreting the hermetic language of alchemy, as if my book learning had been but a preparation for decrypting enigmatic texts, reading meaning into that which, on the surface, seemed meaningless.”

So says the unnamed narrator of Charles Davis’ The Pilgrim of Love: a ludibrium, an obsessively researched and elaborately plotted parody of an historical romance. (Parody, as I understand the term, is best written by an author who actually loves his target, but who can put some ironic distance between himself and his subject.) The story is set in the abbey of the legendary Mont Michel in 1621, when the absence of roadway access meant visiting pilgrims had to make their way around quicksand between dangerously unpredictable tides. The landscape always plays an important and often symbolic role in Davis’ novels. The pilgrims must interpret the patterns in the sand to avoid sinking in the lise. Continue reading

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

Pnin Vintage

He is not a very nice person but he is fun – Nabokov describing the character of Pnin in a letter to his editor at The New Yorker

Readers of my third novel, The More Things Change, who at the current moment in time comprise a not entirely significant two, my current wife and my only daughter (though not a daughter to my current wife despite the fact she treats her like a second daughter), will recall – Continue reading

Frog City Updike by Arthur Graham

Frog City Updike never would’ve been without Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, the book that showed me just how loose I could get with form. — Arthur Graham, Big Al’s Books and Pals

One of the words I use too often in reviews is “interesting,” but I never really make it clear whether a particular word piques my interest or holds it. It’s the same with “nice,” which I also overuse; nice can have negative connotations; the last thing your wife wants to hear when she walks in wearing a new outfit is, “You look nice, Dear.” Even more confusing I would expect is when something gets referred to as “nice and interesting.” Frog City Updike–the place, not the book–sounds like a nice, interesting place. I’m not sure I’d want to live there but if I did I can see myself running across interesting things and saying, “Oh, that’s nice,” or vice versa. Continue reading