Flash Book Reviews Vol. 3

Here are a few more.

Underworld, by Don DeLillo

Prologue: The Triumph of Acclaim

Critical acclaim on a large scale is what makes a work eminent. We judge books by their cover. The cover sets the tone. The granular blue grey monochrome. The twin towers looming indistinct in fog, the foreground bell tower crowned by a cross, the title set across the composition in tired gold. Underworld. A promise of something looming underneath, just below the public consciousness. Drifting customers see the cover and the title and they feel the book’s weight and open its pages. They become aware of a buzzing just below audible frequency. It is the sound of critics lining up for miles, lining up to heap soaring praise upon the volume. The invisible currents of acclaim, pitched waves of positive evaluation, passing through our every encounter with art and expression. The customers hear the buzzing, they feel the weight, and they open the pages. The twin towers and the bell tower and the cross. Students, intellectuals, wives, sons and daughters, all induced, told to burrow in. Underworld. A guided tour of the living systems pulsing just beneath the skin of America.

________

The two meet again, coincidentally, at a baseball game. They spotted each other at the bookstore and offered polite nods, and now the familiarity is implied, assumed valid by both parties. One gazes out at the fields of green. Taking in the action and non-action, the brooding periods of tensed idyll and flurries of activity awakened by each hit. The swarm reactions that quicken our hearts and make us lean in with jaws clenched tight.

The other has his nose buried in a book.

“Whatcha reading there?” asks the fan, his eyes roving the visitors’ dugout.

Underworld, by Don DeLillo,” the reader replies.

“Oh, I’ve read that one.” The fan takes a sip of beer from a plastic cup. “What do you think about it?”

“It insists on itself.”

“It insists on itself how?”

“The techniques. The dialogue. First thing, all of the characters talk past each other.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“All of the characters talk past each other, and they repeat themselves.”

A seagull perches on the back of an empty seat two rows ahead.

“I don’t remember that.”

“The characters talk past each other, and they repeat themselves, and they all sound the same.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“There’s a lot of repetition in the descriptive passages too.”

The fan takes a sip of beer from the plastic cup. His eyes rove the visitors’ dugout. “Underworld. We’re talking about the same.”

“And there are all these clumsy dialects. Like this Bronx wiseguy brogue where the sentences go unfinished and it’s implied that this means that it’s a question.”

“We’re talking about the same book. Because if we’re not talking about the same.”

The fan takes a sip of beer from the plastic cup. The reader has his nose buried in the book.

“And all these forced metaphysical asides. All these contrived connections.” The reader puts the book down and surveys the stadium. From his seat he can see where the twin towers once stood. He squints his eyes and can trace an outline, two verticals wreathed in fog, towering ghosts haunting the city, given form by the collective trauma memory of that innocent Tuesday morning.

“I thought it was a masterpiece,” The reader pronounces, leaning back and crossing his legs.

“Are you a book critic or something?”

A second seagull perches on the empty seat, and the first one flies away.

“I thought it was a masterpiece, and it captured an undercurrent that’s always been there, but hadn’t been articulated in commensurate literary detail until DeLillo chronicled it. The cold war anxieties, the concept of waste, chess, paranoia, everything. Every subject sang with detail.”

“You must be a book critic or something.”

“A masterpiece.” He is leaned back and his legs are crossed in a pose of self-assured finality. He has said the last word on the subject, as far as he is concerned.

Suddenly there is a collective gasp. There has been a hit. Both the reader and the fan scan the air for the ball. When they fail to locate it, they search for meaning in the movements of the players. The infielders are moving to their bases as though executing some well-rehearsed emergency plan. And isn’t it? Every hit a moment of chaos and opportunity, subject to a few essential rules and the whole immutable limiting framework of physics itself.

The outfielders are drifting toward the section where the fan and the reader are now standing. The outfielders are running and looking up, and before either fan or reader can complete the thought, the ball lands. There is a human shockwave of reaction. The ball has become a totem of some unique and unreproducible moment. The sphere of cork and rubber and scuffed leather has become the locus of a rich sentimentality blossoming at this instant into full maturity. The reader and fan both scramble for the object. The plastic cup of beer is spilled and the book is thrown aside and kicked under a seat as both men look for an opening in the scrum, the fraught and urgent scramble of individualism laid bare.

The first seagull returns and both seagulls remain perched on the empty seat, preening their feathers.

The fans fight and scrabble, not caring who is watching, whether their selfish feeding frenzy is being transcribed into electronic signals, broadcast out to millions of spectators near and far via television and the internet. The ball is everything and they will sacrifice their dignity in the scramble for the chance to be the lucky one. They continue to clamber for ground zero, even as the game resumes and proceeds. The men fight and claw while behind them the dance of rules and physics proceeds leisurely on the emerald green grass and almond-brown diamond. The crowd stands and stamps and sips and claps and hopes in the intermittent brightness of the clouded blue day.

Disappointment in Hardcover:

Summer 2014

I bought Underworld at a library book sale. At the time I was living alone in a big house and hoping to become a writer. I was hoping to understand postmodern fiction and the minds and methods of eminent writers, so that I could become one myself. I saw Underworld at a library book sale and I bought it for three dollars. Ephemeral critical voices told me the book was DeLillo’s postmodern masterpiece. When I saw the cover, the twin towers shrouded in blue-grey fog, foregrounded by the bell tower and cross, foregrounded by Underworld, I knew I had to purchase it.

I was in search of a new beginning. I had spent roughly the last four years sitting in a cubicle staring at spreadsheets and I wanted a more creative way to live. I was in search of a new beginning and I hoped to understand DeLillo so I cracked open Underworld. I was told the book was a masterpiece and it turned out to be one of the most disappointing literary experiences of my life.

I carried Underworld everywhere. People asked me what it was about and I echoed what was on the inside of the jacket. I didn’t know what the book was about. I don’t know if DeLillo knew what the book was about. I carried Underworld everywhere and I told people about it and every time I started reading it I would roll my eyes.

The book became a manual of things I wanted to avoid in my own writing. The repetition in the dialogue and descriptions annoyed me. The book would be three hundred pages shorter if DeLillo didn’t repeat himself so often. The philosophical asides mostly seemed contrived. It’s tempting to just allow these, these thoughtful passages that can tell a reader exactly what they are thinking. The metaphysics that make authors and their readers feel important. I could not allow them. They were mostly crap.

The characters were underdeveloped. There was nothing special about Nick Shay or Marian or Klara Sax or Manx Martin or Arthur Bronzini. The subplots were anti-climactic. There was no humor in Underworld, and no joy. The recursive writing annoyed me and the tangents made me roll my eyes and the characters were undercooked. The book became a manual for things to avoid, indulgences to steer clear of and stubborn things to relent on, and yet, somehow, it is considered DeLillo’s masterpiece.

I am a student of style. Style is open terrain. I am a new writer and the field is wide because I don’t have ingrained habits or preferences. I want to create worlds and breathe characters to life and make people think in unexpected ways. I carried Underworld around for two-thirds of the summer and all I saw were things I didn’t want in my writing, even though critics apparently ate these techniques up and lavished Underworld with praise.

I did enjoy the prologue and the epilogue. I enjoyed J. Edgar Hoover and Lenny Bruce. These portions had an energy and a feeling that approached fun. They had the tinge of a cultural happening to be remembered and held safe. These portions did not meander around the lives of boring, mopey characters whose mundane times served as the strands that made up an ultimately large and boring tapestry. Cotter Martin and Jackie Gleason and Viktor Maltsev felt like characters worth following around, but otherwise Underworld was a slog and an anthology of maudlin somberness and self-importance.

I bought Underworld at a library book sale. Now I’ve read it and I don’t know what to do with it. I am a student of style and I spent at least the last four years in an office learning the things I don’t want to do. Well, what’s two more months, but I wish I had been warned. The critics failed me and I don’t understand DeLillo or Nick Shay or how to become a great writer any better than I did before. I carried Underworld to band practice and on car trips and to the beach. I told people it was about the cold war when they asked me, and if they asked if it was good I said “not really.” I carried the book around for two months and now I understand why people generalize postmodern fiction and brush it away dismissively. They are hiding in plain sight, those leaden tomes of self-important pretention that insist on themselves until they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Those critically acclaimed volumes that pull the wool over the critics’ eyes and leave the rest of us rolling ours.

Not Recommended

I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai

It surprised me how much Malala Yousafzai comes off as a cipher in her own book. I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense, but more in that after several hundred pages, it’s hard to say what really motivates Malala, what she really believes in besides the obvious – education, freedom, peace, girls’ & women’s rights. One could also argue that most of her principles come from her father Ziauddin (who is a courageous, admirable man). As far as who Malala is, the question and the answer are both somewhat vague, as far as I Am Malala goes.

I suppose that’s the peril of having a young kid write a memoir, with the help of a journalist, after suffering a major trauma, after becoming famous, but before really having come to terms with that fame. Some have bemoaned the touch of co-author Christina Lamb, but I think what’s being expressed is a sort of general confusion about how to really engage with this book, as it has such an odd role to play in terms of activism, sales and approachability. Look at the subtitle for goodness sake, it sounds like something you’d see in line at the grocery store: “THE GIRL WHO WAS SHOT BY THE TALIBAN.” (right next to “BAT BOY LEAKS SECRET NSA PROGRAMS.”) The issue is that Malala’s book has to appeal to both the informed idealist and to Joe Boarding-Pass. A cynic might say that Christina Lamb was probably made to understand this, but then, I wonder if Malala was really planning to write a Pashtun Das Kapital anyway.

As for actual content, I Am Malala is good. There is a great deal of information about Pakistan’s history, Islam, and Pashtun culture, which should be required reading for anyone who has lived through the Global War on Terror. Malala provides lots and lots of context, because in reality, her life has been short, and does not really have the makings of a robust memoir yet. There is a lot to learn about Jinnah, Fazlullah, Bhutto, Liaquat, Zia and other players in Pakistan’s unhappy history (there has never been a golden era in Pakistan at large, as Malala laments).

And let’s be frank – Pakistan comes off as infuriatingly fucking backwards and corrupt in Malala’s tale. Then again, so does the USA, but at least our women only get stoned publicly in Colorado and Washington (*ba dum CRASH*). But seriously, the transparent corruption of the government and the religious insanity of the Taliban form the rock and the hard place that continually crush the people, who seem incapable of forcing either group to change for the better.

It’s just that Malala’s reactions to horrific events and oppressive ideas always align with the right thing. Credit Ziauddin and Tor Pekai for raising their child well, but it’s just hard to see exactly where Malala builds or realizes her personality independently. Perhaps this void results because Malala does not make any significant, lasting mistakes in the book, and therefore does not have to process them within its pages. To be fair, Malala does write about her nearly obsessive competitive streak, and is also more personally conservative than one might expect (she freaks out over partial nudity in Bend it Like Beckham). Malala is different from her mom and her brothers in significant ways, which are elucidated pretty well.

As far as style, Malala’s writing is adequate. Nothing really jumped out at me in terms of lyricism, humor or poignancy. But one should remember, she is a youngster, it’s her first book, she wrote it pretty soon after a near death experience – aaaand therefore I’m not really in any position to criticize.

In the end (or rather, in the beginning of the book) Malala is shot in the face at fifteen by a would-be Taliban assassin. It’s an awful crime, and it has the effect of both cementing Malala’s already nascent fame, and driving her into a sort of exile. I Am Malala seems somehow to make Malala seem more inscrutable. She is an international public figure now, and as such, she will be harder and harder to know as time goes on. She is also a beneficent figure, and as such, is carving out an existence on the cusp edge of infallibility. Any real revelations can only result in a damaging of her image and of her noble work. We may have to wait another thirty years for Malala to write a book as honest as I Am Malala, and another thirty after that for a truly incisive memoir from The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.

Moderately Recommended

 

 

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

I was recommended The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by a stranger on the internet, who I never ended up meeting. When I finished the book I messaged them saying I liked it. I was lying through my keyboard. Boy what a whopper.

Well to be fair, I kind of liked Kavalier & Clay, especially while I was reading it, toward the end of the book and afterward I felt sort of cheated, suckered in the same way you feel suckered when you experience a cultural work that you only kind of liked and everybody else loved. You can’t tell anyone you didn’t think it was that great without ruffling a bunch of feathers and ruining the collective buzz. People will think you’re shitting on someone’s courageous and heartfelt art because you are bitter you didn’t get enough love as a child, or enough sex as a college student. Yep, you speak up and you are the bad guy, the Grinch, the contrarian. Well if the work was really that unimpeachable, why should people who supposedly loved this thing with all their hearts get upset about your little opinions!?!

Am I right?!?

Kavalier & Clay had a number of problems that kept me from really getting behind it. First of all, the prose had no rhythm. The sentences were so constructed. The angles and sharp corners and predicates and subjects and adverbs were sticking out all over the place. The punctuation was rigid and utilitarian, and I spent many a confused moment reading and rereading a sentence like I would a line of code or a calculus equation just to confirm the syntax. The shit just doesn’t fucking flow. I’m not saying Chabon doesn’t have reach, it’s just that he doesn’t use punctuation and word choice rhythmically enough to support his run on sentences. I don’t understand how critics and contemporaries are all over Chabon’s dick about his “lyrical” craft. You read his prose and you can tell that he learned how to write at some stuffy college and is probably a really poor dancer and probably goes to bed at ten every night, even on the weekends.

There was also a really crummy denouement. The last part of the book is anticlimactic to say the least, with most of the conclusions foregone and only a patina of suspense. There is a subplot about Sammy Clay’s sex life that could have been mined for some really uncomfortable, forceful drama. I wanted to go cruising with Sammy Clay, frankly, and come home with him to his sham marriage and sham son, but Chabon refused to hand over the car keys. He tries to play Sammy’s double life as understated and subtle, but instead of coming off wistful, it just never really happens.

On the positive side, the first two thirds of the book are great fun to read. Kavalier & Klay is a sort of meta-superhero narrative, following the “amazing” “adventures” of Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay as they become wunderkinds in the blossoming American comic book revolution of the early 1940’s. Like so many superhero stories (at least in recent incarnations) all the fun is in the upswing – the somehow deficient or frustrated nobody discovering fantastic powers and nurturing them into bloom. Crises along the way force them to step outside themselves and learn that confidence, ethics and integrity are just as important as the superpowers themselves. Joe Kavalier is an interesting guy, and Chabon does cool stuff to bring out his character, including examining him from different perspectives for a fuller portrait. Sammy Clay is interesting as well, and his arc from unfulfilled dreamer to creative force is fun to watch, even if it is very predictable.

The way in which the fictional “Escapist” character acts as a synecdoche (1st time using this word, by the way) for the characters, WWII, the holocaust and more is an interesting literary device, although it is not reeeeallllly stretched to the point of post-modernism. Chabon is at least good at describing Kavalier’s artistic style, which makes the comics “leap off the page” as it were. The Escapist storylines themselves are okay, but I guess they actually published some real The Escapist comics after the book came out, so maybe they were better than I thought.

What else can I say? When I was reading Kavalier and Clay, I didn’t want to put it down. Now that I’m finished with it, I can’t stop putting it down! *ba dum CRASH* But seriously, the chances are that you’ll probably like the book better than I did. There’s a lot of good stuff going on here. It just confuses me when people – including Bret Fucking Easton Ellis – attribute style, grace, humor and EMINENCE to Chabon for Kavalier & Clay, as he is one of THE STIFFEST, MOST BY-THE-BOOKS WRITERS I’VE READ IN A LONG TIME.

Moderately Recommended

 

 

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar chronicles many of Sylvia Plath’s own experiences through the eyes of Esther Greenwood. The tale begins with an emotionally disastrous internship at a fashion magazine in New York City and memorializes a subsequent psychological breakdown in Massachusetts. The book is narrated in the first-person, casting an unsparing eye on the people in Esther’s life, and offering an un-romanticized, untidy glimpse into the indescribable experience of mental illness.

Of the four books reviewed here, The Bell Jar is the only one that made me jump up and say “Wow, there goes a writer!” Maybe it was Sylvia Plath’s background in poetry, or maybe she was just better than the rest of these chumps (sorry Malala). Either way, Plath’s prose jumped off the page. Her sentences echoed with depth and meaning, and her story captivated. Of particular interest was the way she narrated from the depths of her mental illness. It was often clear that our heroine Esther Greenwood was not thinking in a normal way, but Plath played it straight, writing Greenwood’s illogical decisions, strange conclusions and bizarre social interactions as normal story elements, without going meta or coloring events with the brushes of outside knowledge and hindsight (I’m looking at you, David Foster Wallace).

However, Greenwood is by no means neutral. Her acerbic wit is what makes The Bell Jar so engaging. The characters around Greenwood are presented in various unflattering ways, often appearing as hapless caricatures, buffooning around with little more sense than the mentally ill Greenwood herself. Greenwood is particularly hard on her mother, who is really Plath’s mother, and who remained angry about her portrayal in The Bell Jar for years after Sylvia Plath’s suicide. Lord knows how the real Buddy Willard felt about the whole thing. However, the meanness is usually in support of some very incisive, dark, almost Todd Solondz-esque humor. Consider the following passage:

My mother came smiling round the foot of the bed. She was wearing a dress with purple cartwheels on it and she looked awful.

A big tall boy followed her. At first I couldn’t make out who it was, because my eye only opened a short way, but then I saw it was my brother.

“They said you wanted to see me.”

My mother perched on the edge of the bed and laid a hand on my leg. She looked loving and reproachful, and I wanted her to go away.

“I didn’t think I said anything.”

“They said you called for me.” She seemed ready to cry. Her face puckered up and quivered like a pale jelly.

“How are you?” my brother said.

I looked my mother in the eye.

“The same,” I said.

How awful……ly funny! Take that – mother! The many dishes in the book may seem catty and small at times, but in context, many of the characters deserve the drubbings they receive, particularly that Dr. Gordon creep and to some extent, the aforementioned Buddy Willard.

There is also a good deal of trauma in the book. Many like to point out the feminist undercurrents in the novel, based on Plath’s struggles with various glass ceilings (different ones, or the same rounded one???). There are also various awful men and sexual traumas in the book, including a violent would-be rapist and a generally unfortunate loss of virginity. What’s more shocking is how much of a mental block and general frightening mystery sex represents for Greenwood in the novel. She comes across as so sharp, jaded and worldy in other arenas that her sexual “innocence” seems totally out of place. The weird enforced prudishness that permeates the novel makes for a somewhat congruous ground level description of Betty Friedan’s assessment of the housewife 1950s in The Feminine Mystique.

The Bell Jar is an excellent book. It is far more than a morbid artifact of a tortured artist. The novel would be just as interesting had Sylvia Plath lived to eighty and written several others. I can’t overstate how good the writing is, and how well Plath wrings big meaning and ominous mood out of spare, poetic sentences. “My flesh winced, in cowardice, from such a death.” Goes one such gem, which remained stuck in my head for weeks after I returned the book. The Bell Jar is redolent of Catcher in the Rye – in a good, non-reductive way – and even seems to anticipate other lost-narrator novels like Less Than Zero. But mostly it stands as its own great achievement – a book that says more with less, and tells a strange, interesting story without presuming to tell us what it means.

Highly Recommended

 

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