“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
“Someone had to die for Hal Nickerson to live in the house that he and his wife Jodie bought for a song seven years ago.” So begins this dry-toned, cool, and detached novel Dismantle The Sun (Booktrope Editions, 324 pages) with a line and a sentiment that prove to be something of a mantra for its main protagonist and a lynchpin refrain for the narrative arc. In the world of nature — in the world of man — something has to die for something else to live. Some persons — the Nickersons — include this in their ample proof of the non-existence of a beneficent Creator, while others — the fundamentalists — attribute the state of the cosmos to original and ongoing sin. Both take it all very personally. Hal Nickerson’s atheism in conjunction with that of his wife informs all of his sensibility while providing a certain distance from the most basic issues of life and death, love and hatred. Continue reading
Tokyo, 1994. Japan is now well into what observers will later call the “lost decade,” a downward spiral triggered by the Japanese central bank’s bursting the speculative bubble of the 1980s. The seemingly inviolable climb of the Japanese economy—and society—has reversed.
Triangle, the 2001 novel by the respected Japanese writer Hisaki Matsuura released in its first English edition by Dalkey Archive Press (233 pages) this month, is an attempt to transform the Japanese downward spiral into a metaphysical thriller. But novels—even literary ones—based on conceptual ideas rarely work. Continue reading
Liam Howley opens The Absurd Demise of Poulnabrone (Jagged C Press, 344 pages) with an introduction to Cornelius Solitude Conlon, an aging man who, I assumed, was the primary protagonist. In fact, my assumption continued throughout a good portion of the novel, even though the narrative shifted to various other characters as I read along. Nevertheless, as the story progressed, Cornelius became but one piece in the game board that is Poulnabrone.
It is, in fact, Poulnabrone that is the centerpiece of this story. Primary and secondary characters appear on the scene, make an impact, and leave. Some return later on, some never appear again, yet others remain present to weave the fabric of the tale as it is spun along, carrying with them the thread of continuity without overshadowing the main premise.
It starts in adolescence. The questions come to you while lying in bed (certainly now with a growing awareness of your sexuality), the walls of your room expanding into endless grainy darkness, as if the room itself could encompass the entire world: why am I here, why is there anything at all?
The questions may haunt you at age 13 or 15 or 17, but by adulthood they tend to feel banal. Unanswerable, impossible, if taken seriously debilitating, they are in a word blinding, and so you tend to avert your gaze. But suppose you can’t, suppose the inviolable white light only draws you closer, to madness possibly, to paint or write or drink or pray (to what God, tell me?) almost certainly. And so perhaps you scribble, the pages of your notebooks filling with furious script, like eons of sediment piling into sad mute mountains no one else will ever excavate or carve or climb. Continue reading
As Ivan Goldman’s Isaac: A Modern Fable (The Permanent Press, 222 pages) nears its conclusion, one of the novel’s narrators makes a telling observation: “Whatever we think we know, we’re just guessing, like everyone else.” In context, the narrator, Ruth, is commenting on her familiarity with a slippery and sinister academician named Borges, but the line also captures the essence of the novel itself. Drawing heavily on the Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, this “modern fable” serves as a telling commentary on humanity’s ongoing struggle with questions of religion and our intimations of the divine. To wit: What’s the difference between those who claim to hear the voice of God and those who are just plain crazy? Continue reading
Italo Calvino opens up his masterpiece, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (HBJ, 260 pages), in the second person, addressing and engaging the reader in a very direct way; a powerful, uncompromising way: Here you are – the reader; and here I am – the protagonist; the author is somewhere else, as impertinent to the story as is his publisher. It is what it is, and you, the reader, are here with me, sucked into the depths of my mind, where you’ll trip over threads that are seemingly random, unrelated and without ends, yet serve a purpose that you may or may not grasp unless you persist until the closing lines fade away as you turn the last page over and walk away, pensive, wondering whether you can make any sense of this work at all. Continue reading
Warning: This review is long, has an excessive amount of quotes, and does not reach much of a conclusion. If you have a short attention span, this may not be for you. However, if you appreciate Henry Miller, one of the finest writers America has produced in the last century, I encourage you to read on.
When his name comes up, most readers associate Miller with sex, scandals, pornography. This is mostly due to the press attention given to his two books, The Tropic of Cancer, and The Tropic of Capricorn. Continue reading
You pass adolescence and enter the world of adult literature. At first, you read anything and everything that found its way to your hands; then, slowly you begin discovering your own, unique literary taste, and you become selective. The more you read, the more selective you become. Your list of favorite authors and genres grows; you find literary voices that speak directly to your soul. By now, you have reached mid age, and you have over two decades of serious reading under your belt. Any new book that you open, any new author that you discover is judged against your favorites, against the voices that stimulated your mind over the years. Words and phrases are judged against those that provided comfort when you felt down; ideas and executions are compared against the benchmarks established over the years. You think you know what you like; you think you know what to expect. Well, perhaps you do. New books come along, and some attempt to quietly sneak in to your consciousness, while others attempt to shatter your world. Most, if not all, pale with your favorites, do not fit with your ideas, or leave you cold. Continue reading
Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot (Picador 2002, 190 pages) is the story of one man’s quest, his “project” to find the writer outside his writings, despite Flaubert’s insistence that the books should be enough, the writer should disappear and be left alone. Geoffrey Braithwaite, this amusing novel’s British protagonist, is a medical doctor about sixty. He pursues museums, letters, literary works, criticism, and Flaubert the person in a long quest as unofficial biographer and tireless seeker. Continue reading