Purity by Jonathan Franzen

I listened to the audiobook of Purity (FSG, 576 pages) as I was held captive on a thirty-five hour road trip. Although the first fifty pages or so had some wit and interesting characters, such as Andreas Wolf, a Julian Assange persona, Purity soon devolved into stylistically bland chicklit. Jenna Lamia narrates the part of the twenty-something title character, with, appropriately for the writing style, that special millennial lilt that seems to run out of energy at the end of every sentence. The remaining 526 pages were concerned with relationship negotiations between men and women, children and parents. People complain, worry about their self-image, elaborate the details of “he said, she said” and, instead of having interests in the world, all the characters try to control and manage how other people feel about them. The characters are pure self-interest without any self-reflection. Worse yet, the plot is straight about of a women’s drug store novel: Purity’s love relationships fail as she seeks a father figure, having grown up without one. Confronting hard economic times and suffering through dead-end jobs, she finally stumbles upon her father and discovers that she is an heiress.

Seriously. An heiress. Continue reading

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

marriageplotAs the title confesses right up front, The Marriage Plot (FSG, 416 pages) is all plot, all 19th-century-style plot, with full biographical sketches and family histories for everyone who walks onstage for more than a few paragraphs to alter the action.  Which of the two men will Madeleine, English major and lover of Jane Austen and George Eliot,  end up with? Will it be Leonard, the big, broody sex-crazed boyfriend, a biology/philosophy double major? Or will it be Mitchell, the worshiping-from-afar religious studies student, whom Madeleine’s parents prefer? 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

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Americans have always had, in addition to wide-spread arrogance in imagining that their current literature is the best, the inferiority complex for not producing the Great Novel, nothing that could be compared with War and Peace and Brothers Karamazov or David Copperfield and Vanity Fair or Remembrance of the Things Past and Lost Illusions or The Magic Mountain and Tin Drum, or Don Quixote, or One Hundred Years of Solitude. Of course, it could be argued that Moby Dick, Invisible Man, Grapes of Wrath, The American Pastoral (Roth addresses terrorism before it became the central American problem) or Continental Drift by Russell Banks are great American novels, but somehow the critics and reviewers are still dreaming of The Great American Novel. And this novel has been anointed as such by many. 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

Because They Wanted to: Stories by Mary Gaitskill

Because They Wanted to (Scribner, 256 pages).  Mary Gaitskill is the real thing, as Hem said about F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Coke says about itself. She is one of those writers you feel writes in black blood, and only tells lies to clarify the truth. Like Bukowski, she is attracted to the ugly truth far more than representation of the beautiful or the good. Her detailed descriptions of female pixies and the inexorable pivots on which their love lives slip into what would be despair if they were not so inured to pain from its constant presence, her often seamless use of flashbacks in narrators or protagonists chaotically attracted Continue reading

The Thin Wall by Cheryl Anne Gardner

This is probably the hardest review I have had to do yet. Prior to The Thin Wall (Twisted Knickers, 124 pages), I had read two previous books by Cheryl Anne Gardner, The Splendor of Antiquity, and Logos, and The Thin Wall is a radical departure from Gardner’s romantic roots into the realms of darker, subconscious psychology and individual philosophies she masterfully delves into in this work.

One word to describe this book for me? Drastic. Continue reading