Thursday, July 28, 2005

Thomas Pynchon: Reigning Emperor of Smart-Ass Lit

I'm not sure why this appreciation of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is being re-packaged and re-sold as a "Summer Issue" - seems to me Bookninja linked to the same essay last fall. But it's a good essay, and a very provocative one for those of us who read GR in our twenties and treated it like The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

In the early 90s I was yet another scrawny, scruffy acolyte in the Cult of Pynchon. Like most of the other smart-asses in these twitching lower ranks, I eschewed biblical commentaries (A Gravity's Rainbow Companion, etc.) in favor of uninformed Reader Response, thinking the free-associative synapses in my young brain could intuitively connect all the dots for me. I dived into this fray of words, and came out the other end with vague notions of what I'd spent the last month doing. Clearly I'd have to read every word the man had published.

I went back to his earlier stuff - The Crying of Lot 49, Slow Learner, V. - and bought Vineland hot-off-the-press. By the time Mason & Dixon came into being, I'd read enough Pynchon to last the rest of my life. Gravity's Rainbow is the author's "inescapable" book - everything prior to it reads as if it is leading up to it; everything after reads like a baffled act of recovery.

I have a mild hunch that the act of becoming a parent quickly reduces the appeal to such darkly luminescent works as GR. GR explores, among other things, the weight of war. What is the value of family, economy, any perceived social safety-net, in the face of random obliteration? Pynchon asks these questions with the bravura of a young man too intelligent for his own good. He risks all, and discovers ... well, it's been 15 years since I last read the book. I've forgotten just what he discovers, and I'm not at all sure I ever knew.

Did Pynchon become a father after he wrote GR? Vineland ("For my mother and father") is enough of a meditation on the the sunnier (and predictably crazy) hopes and dreams of the American Family to pose the question. I could almost posit that the novel's opening scene as a metaphor of the author's life: protagonist Zoyd Wheeler, preparing to do his yearly public dumb-ass stunt to qualify for mental-disability benefits.

Whatever. All I know is, since I've become a father I've become disinclined to read Pynchon. For one thing, his books demand too much; if I'm irritable with my kids after reading a few pages, that's not a good thing. I still have his books on the shelf, however, and reading this essay gets me thinking a re-visit of Gravity's Rainbow might just be in order. In small doses, of course.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Cormac McCarthy, Untouchable?

Mmm, not quite. And yet ...?

Here we have a case where I'm the die-hard fan, watching a literary hero being fed to the critical fire, feet-first. Granted, there are some giving him a pass: once again The Globe & Mail backs off, letting Rick Moody voice exuberant praise for McCarthy's inescapable Blood Meridian, and quietly admit that while No Country For Old Men doesn't reach the same lofty peak, it's hardly cause for disappointment. I expect that will likely fall close to my own call, but I'm loathe to see such sentiment in print.

James Wood, meanwhile, carefully and I think accurately assesses the appeal to McCarthy's prose, then neatly drives home the critical lance on behalf of The New Yorker. Then there's this guy, quibbling over the enormity of McCarthy's philosophical contradictions - sheesh!

My virtual buddy Philip Christman gave me forwarning of his negative McCarthy review for Paste. I'll probably send an angry letter to the editors, just to let 'em know there's someone reading their "books" page, but I'm not really bothered by Mr. C's "thumbs-down". McCarthy has made himself into an enormous and easily parodied target, as evidenced by B.R. Myers' withering Reader's Manifesto. You'd think such a total evisceration would at least give a McCarthy reader pause before he purchases the next book, but nope - not me. The way I see it, McCarthy's prose is like Frank Miller's comic books: his outrageousness is on a level that makes whatever outrage you muster look meagre by comparison.

In this case I will keep my eyes peeled for a discounted (or remaindered) copy of No Country, and stick close to Walter Kirn's praise in the NYTBR. He praises the novel as a worthy addition to America's genre of crime fiction, and says:

Like classic French cooking, the best American crime fiction relies on a limited number of simple ingredients (which may be why it's so popular in France). Too much temptation. Too little wisdom. Too many weak, bad men. Too few strong, good ones. And spread over everything, freedom. Freedom and space. The freedom (perhaps illusory) to make poor choices and the space (as real as the highways) to flee their consequences -- temporarily, at least. Corny and crude in the way of all great folk art, the intrinsically pessimistic crime novel -- as opposed to the basically optimistic detective novel -- is not about the workings of human justice but the dominion of inhuman time. As devised and refined by James M. Cain, Jim Thompson and their gloomy paperback peers, the crime novel aimed its cheap handgun at the heart of America's most prized beliefs about its destiny: that the loot we've scooped up will belong to us forever and that history allows clean getaways.

I guess that's money I'll be withdrawing from the bank.

Update: Looks like Metacritic is scoring this a 67%, or "Generally Favorable". And Kirkus wants to put McCarthy "on a pedestal just below the one occupied by William Faulkner."

Saturday, July 23, 2005

John Irving, Untouchable?

I know people who are unshakeable John Irving fanatics. I sort of understand where they're coming from. I've heard him interviewed several times; he's always forthright and well-spoken. I liked what I heard, so I read A Prayer For Owen Meany. I loved it.

Then I read a few more Irving offerings. With every new title, my opinion of his prosaic choices soured.

Finally, I was given a galley proof of A Widow For One Year. I'm a sucker for novels about novelists, and this whopper offered me an intertwined narrative that followed the lives of four novelists. I got started. The first 100 pages were irredeemably boring, but Irving's prose is easily digested, so I stuck with it. Scenes that should have been funny, or cringe-inducing, were simply long and drawn-out, leeching the material of tension and interest. The characters swung from gormless horn-dogs, to cunningly cruel schemers, to witlessly cruel sadists.

I would get completely pissed-off with Widow, then Irving would lure me on further with the Lifestyles of the Rich & Literary. Only to piss me off again. The only character I had any sympathy for was a detective, who lost me when he married one of the writers. I seethed. I seeth still.

Worse, Canada's The Globe & Mail is among the literary reviewers to continually give this guy a "Get Out Of Jail, Collect $200" card, every single time! They assigned Carol Shields to Widow, which spelled immediate trouble: the woman, a marvelous encourager of talent on every tier, was unfailingly kind in her appraisal. Today we have Robert J. Wiersema gushing, "Until I Find You, the long-awaited new novel from Irving, is perhaps his finest book. The novel stands on its own as powerfully intimate, epic storytelling, but serves also as a summation, and a re-evaluation, of Irving's canon." A generous re-evaluation, I'd assume.

I'm not especially prone to conspiracy theorizing - until it comes to book reviews. The book biz is not at all disimilar to the movie biz: the players struggle to make the scene, then glad-hand and crow-for-pay to stay there. So the paperback of UIFY will wear "HIS FINEST BOOK - THE GLOBE & MAIL", roughly around the time Mr. Wiersema's forthcoming novel Before I Wake makes its appearance. Be sure to check Wiersema's cover for Irving's impramatur.

I bear no malice to either Wiersema or Irving, but I'm getting a bit peeved with The Globe. Click Metacritic, and you'll see why. UIFY scores 41% approval - "mixed or average." Scroll down. A friend in the biz has said to me that nobody bats 1.000, but that Kirkus Reviews comes pretty close. The Kirkus prognosis: "Is this Irving's worst novel? No doubt about it."

Readers can take that to the bank.

Friday, July 22, 2005

The Artist

When I was a kid, I had a friend whose father was an artist. His trade was sign-painting, and his neat, competent work provided his family with a comfortable living. I don't remember his commercial work as having much by way of flair, but this could well have been a preference on the part of his mostly Mennonite clients. His house and workshop, however, were a very different story.

Childhood memories have a size and scope all their own, of course. The interiors to these buildings seemed enormous and infinite, as did their detailing. Entering them was like exploring a fractal pattern, or living out the benign confusion of Little, Big. Pretty much everything the Mennonite Code had been set to deny was on intimate display. The shop contained the skeletal workings of a Piper two-seater; the shelves were cluttered with military models painted with painstaking attention to detail. Rock & Roll wasn't an issue in this household: when I explored the stereo cabinet, I beheld the howling grandeur of Meatloaf's Bat Out Of Hell album cover for the first time. Then, of course, there were the naked ladies - while he took care not to be ostentatious about it, his appreciation for cheesecake was undeniable and tastefully set out for all to see. Naturally, his wife was a real ball of fire.

For all that, he was also a pious man and a good friend to my father. After researching the art of bookbinding, he bound my father's master's thesis. When my parents announced their move to California, he presented them with a framed bit of scripture - plaut-dietsch in ornate calligraphy. He and his wife also did a "missionary" stint on foreign shores when midlife set in with its varieties of grinding impatience.

I didn't really get to know him, but of the various adults I've watched and absorbed as role models, he sits close to the center. In my own modest way I try to keep our home open to influences of exotic origin. I have my own measured piety, but I greatly dislike being directed to shun the cultural whoops, sighs, and howls that claim antipathy to religious devotion. And while I'd never tackle the reconstruction of a lawn-mower, nevermind an airplane, his enduring fascination with models stuck with me - they are my first resource when I get to feeling emotionally adrift.

I think of him whenever I check out Drawn!, but this entry was particularly evocative. Not only would a paper reconstruction of Howl's Moving Castle be right up his alley, but the castle itself is evocative of my childhood experience of the artist's home - a moving castle in the clouds of my memory. If I could get my hands on it, I'd take two copies of this beauty: one as a gift to the man, the other as a personal totem to his mystical influence.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Aaah ... home.

What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country (a French newspaper acquires incalculable value. And those evenings when, in cafes, you try to get close to other men just to touch them with your elbow), we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits. This is the most obvious benefit of travel. At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being. We come across a cascade of light, and there is eternity. This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure. There is no pleasure in traveling, and I look upon it more as an occasion for spiritual testing. If we understand by culture the exercise of our most intimate sense - that of eternity - then we travel for culture. Pleasure takes us away from ourselves in the same way as distraction, in Pascal's use of the word, takes us away from God. Travel, which is like a greater and a graver science, brings us back to ourselves. Albert Camus, Notebooks.

C'est moi, Albert. C'est moi. Of course, not everyone need subscribe to this particular point of view. Here's hoping my friend Darko (self-professed reformed Eeyore) travels in a sublime absence of fear.

(And for those too busy to bother with an on-line translator, the above postcard translates to, "There is no shame in preferring happiness.")

Did you raise your hand?

"I can't help but note that it might have been better had (Adam & Eve) eaten the fruit of the Tree of Life before snacking on fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil."

Ronald Bailey, reporting from the 2005 Creation Mega-Conference.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Winnipeg Folk Festival

Some quick Winnipeg Folk Festival impressions:

Jason Ringenberg - the chief reason why I drove 22 hours through the Canadian Shield. I fell hard for his music with The Scorchers, back in the late 80s. They gave honky-tonk country a lethal injection of punk sensibility, which hit me right where I lived. This was a sensibility Hank Williams (I) would have appreciated, I think. Listening to Williams sing "Lost Highway" and "I Saw The Light" leaves you with the impression that the latter only increased his conviction about the former. This was the road Jason & The Scorchers were travelling, at perilous speed. With each new album, their music upped the sin-and-salvation stakes until by Thunder & Fire they were courting nihilistic thrills. It didn't surprise fans when they broke up shortly thereafter, to check into various rehab outfits.

Although I've seen a couple of Scorchers shows in Toronto, I'd not yet seen Jason solo, and wasn't sure what to expect. When the show was done, and we were all catching our breath, I turned to my friend and said, "I don't know why I didn't expect the show he gave!"

He ripped open the concert with "Honky-Tonk Maniac From Mars", then stomped and whirled his way through a dozen choice selections from over 20 years of songwriting, before unplugging his guitar, and strumming and wandering his way amongst the audience, singing "Lonesome Valley" ("For you Catholics in the audience, this does not count as Mass!"). He even queried the audience for Scorcher favorites ("Broken Whisky Glass" and "Hot Nights In Georgia" - neither of which was requested by Yours Truly because I get tongue-tied when asked for a Scorchers fave. I loves 'em all!), and closed the show with a raucous sing-along to the Ramones' anthem, "I Wanna Be Sedated".

My wife was in attendance, and said she finally "got" Jason now. I have to admit - I like the recorded Jason well enough, but the man is one of those performers who has to be seen to be believed.

College Girls - back in my college days, the girls I approached would, to a person, berate me for calling them "girls" (a surprisingly effective conversation starter, actually). But let's face it: at that precious age, there's still a great deal of maturity to be earned - for both genders.

The girls of my day were also less prone to the sort of extreme skin exposure I witnessed this weekend. (Long pause as I consider my next words.) I was going to say, "I wasn't exactly disconcerted by this sea of skin," except that I was. Or rather, I was disconcerted by how un-disconcerting this sea of skin proved to be. When you have over 11,000 people milling about you, nearly half of whom are young women in the bloom of their youth, the law of diminishing returns swings into full effect. Of course, being the father of two girls makes a difference, too. My oldest is 10 years away from being one of these folk attendees, and I can't help seeing these girls as being ... well, in some ethereal capacity, "daughters". Among my various mid-life puzzlements lies the libido: I expected to be hit with the tedious "sagging old duff seeks vigorous young bunny" bug, but if this weekend is an accurate indicator, that particular scenario does not seem to be among my scheduled torments. Hmm.

The Music - excellent, as expected. The usual suspects were all in good form. People outside of Winnipeg should be on the lookout for The Weakerthans, and The Be Good Tanyas. And I was smitten by Martha Wainwright, and blown out of the water by the Campbell Brothers (their recent CD manages to capture their on-stage sound - a remarkable feat for producer and famed performer John Medeski).

Mosquitoes and Mud - mosquitoes were rare; the mud was inescapable and stinky. Winnipeg has been under continuous deluge since May, which made the Festival grounds less than pleasant, but not unnavigable.

Alcohol, and other Medicinals - Mary Jane was to be had, but nowhere near in the abundant quantities of previous years. Weird. The beer tent was a popular destination, but people behaved themselves. In one of my earlier conversations with Jason, he talked about his experience of European festivals (he'd just completed a circuit) and said, "Out there, they get really drunk - and not in a good way, either!" Kids wandered the Winnipeg site unchaperoned, without fear. Nice.

Monday, July 04, 2005

On Vacation

I'm about to step into our car and drive the girls and a friend to Manitoba. Barring the unforeseen (last time we tried this, we made an unplanned stop in Sarnia while Eastern North America figured out how to turn the lights back on), we should arrive in Winnipeg roughly the same time as my wife.

A good deal of my extended family resides there. I'll also be attending the Winnipeg Folk Festival, the better to stalk musical heroes Jason Ringenberg (cow-punk godfather, currently having fun as "Farmer Jason"), Daniel Lanois and EmmyLou Harris. I'll also be bringing my notorious book suitcase to stock up on unexpected finds in some of Wpg's finer used bookstores. I'll do what I can to update my sites, but for the next two weeks postings could be sporadic.