The Title, the Epigraph and the Prelude
Somebody gave me a copy of this book (Charles Baxter, The Feast of Love, Random House, 2000. Vintage paperback edition, 2001, 308 pp.). It lay about my house for a long time, the bright blues of the cover occasionally calling out to me, “Read me.” I resisted, probably because the title put me off. “The Feast of Love” promises a light read, maybe a melodrama, nothing serious. The book, however, turns out to be a wonderful piece of literary fiction.
Here’s the epigraph, from Samuel Beckett’s Molloy: “Yes, there were times when I forgot not only who I was, but that I was, forgot to be.” Is the novel that follows about forgetting to be? Not really. This book as a whole is about being, and all the messiness of being human in flesh. That epigraph misleads the reader into thinking he’s in for something resembling Kafka, and the “Preludes” part that comes next—first subheading under “Beginnings”—reinforces that expectation of the Kafkaesque. In the prelude the writer Charles Baxter—most people call him Charlie—wakes up in the middle of the night and “cannot remember or recognize myself . . . I can’t manage my way through this feeling because my mind isn’t working, and because it, the flesh in which I’m housed, hasn’t yet become me.” Continue reading
With his Loömos book (Laocoön Press, 2021, 128 pp.), the author attempts a presentation of art as an integrated whole. As the subtitle tells us, “Text, drawings, paintings, music and sculpture” are included here. We read the words of the book, but, simultaneously, we interact with everything else. We, of course, do not interact directly with the sculptures by Saint-Denis—here we must be content with their visual representations. Nor do we hear the actual music, as this is not an audiobook. But the final section, “Songs and Laments,”—four separate pieces comprising a total of fourteen pages—consists entirely of musical notations.
Therefore, in order to “hear” the music of the final section you have to be a musician yourself, able to read the notes provided on paper. The author may have considered publishing an audiobook, or including a CD of the final section with this paperback. But then again, given certain unique and avant-garde features of Loömos, he may have deliberately intended the final section not to be played. So as to achieve something like what the composer John Cage created when he wrote his famous composition consisting of silence. All the musicians sit in stillness on the proscenium, holding their instruments, while the conductor stills his baton and all his gesticulations. The “music” consists of isolated coughs and throat-clearings from the audience, plus a few car horns blowing and ambulance sirens from the outside world.
I’ve always been fascinated by stories of doubles, twins, doppelgangers, minds and actions mirrored (perhaps as a reaction against the profound truth that each of us is utterly unique, and therefore alone). Jim Murdoch’s short novel, Milligan and Murphy (Fandango Virtual, 180 pages), is not really one of those stories, but it toys with the trope of twins who together make a single person. The half-brothers Milligan and Murphy (both named John!) are not twins but are enough alike that their non-twinness is just a technicality. Murphy, the firstborn, may be a shade more introspective, and Milligan a trifle more action-oriented, but essentially they are one mind, and the fact that they inhabit separate bodies is primarily a storytelling device. Without it, the extensive dialogues exploring their limited reality would become claustrophobic solipsism. Such is the reason for the respectable literary history of twins, brothers/sisters, bosom buddies, even the hero/sidekick construct: it works. Continue reading
In Brother Carnival (Red Hen Press, 209 pages), a fiercely engaging literary work, Dennis Must plays with time and character, leading the reader into a special world of space and time, almost a quantum universe, where characters can be in two places at the same time–or can they? Laced with an intense investigation into the nature of divinity and deities, Brother Carnival weaves an impressive litany of human weakness into the warp-quest for the divine. These lines point to the nature of Our Problem: Continue reading
I happen to be contemplating these days how Artificial Intelligence (AI) differs from Biological Intelligence (BI), and so I finally took down Galatea 2.2 (FS&G, 329 pages) from my bookshelf where it has stood waiting for me for about fifteen years. I may have belatedly cracked the spine, but the pleasure of reading good science fiction only improves as its predictions either come to pass or not.
The main plot turns on a Turing Test. Can scientists train a neural network to pass a comprehensive literature exam? Continue reading
To describe a book as unclassifiable is, of course, to classify it, but that fact is entirely in keeping with the spirit of Jacob Smullyan’s Errata (Sagging Meniscus, 72 pages). Comprising thirty short chapters of mini-essays, stories and philosophical aperçus, it straddles numerous genres and grapples with the process of making sense.
Readers unfamiliar with Robert Olmstead’s lyrical style will be delighted to discover this prolific and productive midwesterner’s work. In Far Bright Star (Thorndike Press, 279 pages ) the newest tale of the West, Olmstead weaves a minimalistic account of one man’s confrontation with his mortality and the deeper reaches of the human psyche.
Napoleon Childs is a noncommissioned officer in the U. S. Expeditionary Force sent into Mexico to get the sometimes bandit, sometimes revolutionary Pancho Villa. Detailed to scout for signs of the elusive Villistas, Napoleon leads a squad of green recruits and seasoned soldiers into the trackless Sonoran desert, where they are ambushed by a strange and savage band of independent outlaws. Led by a mysterious woman, the renegades are principally interested in Palmer, a trooper who has maimed a prostitute in the village where the army is bivouacked.
Napoleon, captured and tortured, is the lone survivor of the attack, left to make his way back to tell his story. Continue reading
“All were in sorrow, or had been, or soon would be.” (Roger Bevins III, p. 304)
Okay, so what happens when we die? Writers of fiction have been peering across into that unfathomable abyss from time out of mind. You might even say that this is what great fiction writers do: they look at the grand questions, and especially at immortality, or the lack thereof.
George Saunders’ rather ironic take on the afterlife (Lincoln in the Bardo, Random House, 343 pages) goes roughly like this: after death some of us get caught up in the fulgurant thing called “the bone-chilling firesound” of the “matterlightblooming phenomenon.” Amidst lots of explosions and smashing to smithereens—imagine something like the shoot-em-up-blow-em-up special effects of Hollywood—this phenomenon transports us off to . . . well, the author never tells us exactly where. Is it a nice place? That’s a good question. At times there are suggestions that it might be fine, but only for the better-behaved of human beings in their fleshy existence, and not even for all of them. Continue reading
This tale of the inner workings of city politics in Philadelphia, Worthy of This Great City (Jam Publishing, 249 pages), is what you might term an impressionistic novel. Meaning that it consists of a plethora of descriptions of people and scenes with very little progression of plot. The reader steps back from the many colored dots and contemplates the thing as a whole, and that’s when it begins to come into focus.
Teeming with characters who play minor roles, the book has essentially only two main characters. The first of these is Constantine Manos, an investigative journalist, who is doing a feature article on the second, Ruth Askew, a radio personality on a local station and the wife of Councilman Thom Askew. Continue reading
Throughout most of our lives, we can ignore our fears about the threat of non-existence that yawns beyond the casket with as much reality as the non-existence out of which we came into our cradles. But when facing death, our own or that of a loved one, we feel compelled to review the idea of after life. Believers ratchet up their beliefs and atheists, like Hal in Jim Snowden’s Dismantle the Sun (Booktrope, 324 pages), hang tough.
According to conventional wisdom, atheists are imaginary creatures. No one (except other atheists) believes they exist, certainly not in the foxhole of impending death. This is why deathbed conversions are expected, even in the most “literary” of end-of-life novels, despite the fact that one of the accepted roles of a literary fiction author is to question how we make sense of our lives. If most novels have the same after-life-affirming answer, I wonder if these novelists are really asking themselves the question, or merely posing it rhetorically for the sake of a denouement. Every deathbed conversion, it seems to me, is another failure to actually question the meaning of life. Continue reading