In Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending (Penguin Random House, 2011), we meet a narrator in the long tradition of the sad-sack loser telling his story. Anthony (Tony) Webster, resident of London, now in his sixties, looks back on his life from present time. The novel begins as Tony recalls his days as a student, a time when his life appeared to have a good deal of promise. We meet him as a teenage schoolboy in a public boys school—“public” being the British for “private”—pondering, along with his best friends Alex and Colin, certain grand philosophical issues, such as What is history?
These boys, it would seem, are budding intellectuals, and when a new boy, Adrian, appears at the school and becomes their friend, he expands the boundaries of their intellectual pursuits. Topics raised in class are “Birth, Copulation and Death,” then “Eros and Thanatos.” Good title for this book: Birth, Copulation, Etc.
And then something happens. As Adrian postulates, when asked to describe the rule of Henry the Eighth, “there is one line of thought according to which all you can say of any historical event—even the outbreak of the First World War, for example—is that ‘something happened.’” Here we have another possible title for the book, Something Happened (although this one has already been taken by Joseph Heller).
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.
In the end, Purity, nicknamed Pip with a nod to Dickens, finds true love, forgives her parents and starts a new life with a true love and lots of wealth.
I kept listening only because I had no other choice and I was slightly interested in finding out what Franzen was trying to do with the Andreas Wolf character, who begins his career exposing Stazi secrets after the fall of the Berlin wall. In The Corrections, Franzen has written about the easy
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.
The experience alters Napoleon’s perception of the worth of human life and his role in the greater scheme of human endeavor. Confronted by his own mortality, he attempts to comprehend the meaning of his existence, and he struggles to connect the tragic events in Mexico with some great cosmic significance. Questions about memory’s role in human awareness and self-definition flit through Napoleon’s mind, making him question the reality of events he has witnessed. Ultimately, he must redefine values such as loyalty, courage and love, and he seeks to find them in here own heart.
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.
Some of the deceased, so we’re told, resist the matterlightblooming, preferring to hang around in a limbo, neither fish nor fowl. Saunders uses the term “bardo” (borrowed, apparently, from Tibetan religious tradition) for that liminal state, although a better title for this book might be something like Lincoln in Liminality. Why? Because the novel is eminently American, it is anchored in American history; therefore, it might be better not to bring in an obscure term from an alien tradition. Sometimes it seems, at any rate, as if we were looking at some standard purgatory, as in the passage where a former hunter is forced to sit before an enormous heap of the animals he had killed over a lifetime, “each of which he must briefly hold, with loving attention, for a period ranging from several hours to several months.”
The Idiot (Penguin Press, 423 pages) is a debut novel by a young writer who promises to do big things in the future. Apparently the title, borrowed from Dostoevsky, refers to the main character and narrator of the story, Selin Karadag (the g is silent), who is a young woman from New Jersey of Turkish background (like the author herself). Far from being an idiot, Selin—in this novel prominently featuring words and languages—is highly intelligent. At age eighteen, as she enters Harvard University, she already speaks English and Turkish fluently, has a passable knowledge of Spanish. Over the course of the book she studies, as well, Russian and Hungarian. Her quest for new words is insatiable.
Furthermore, by the end of the action she appears to have read through practically the whole canon of Western literature. Among the multitude of books she is mentioned to be reading or have read are Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary. Late in the novel she casually picks up the monumental, and very dense Magic Mountain and goes at it in her spare time. Almost as if you could tackle Thomas Mann’s difficult text with an apple in one hand and a Scotch in the other.
This is a tale of adolescence and a kind of Bildungsroman. It features one year (age 18-19) in the life of a future writer. Early on Selin contemplates writing a short story—featuring a courtyard with “a pink hotel, Albinoni, ashes, and being unable to leave.” That same paragraph continues,
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.
The names of the main characters, we presume, are meant to convey information about their personalities. From the early pages Ruth is presented as a woman with brains somewhat askew. Unfortunately, by the end of the novel she appears to have done little to straighten out her skewed take on any number of philosophical and religious issues. Here are a few examples.
I like a book that’s unafraid of big themes, and this one has a beauty: mortality itself, the reality waiting behind our illusions of security. It’s a mythic idea, Orpheus’ descent into the underworld, and Bowie clearly intends us to understand it in terms of the universal as well as the particular.
The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew (Ogee Zakamora, 342 pages) begins rather slowly and at too much length, but pacing is less of an issue once the Palm Sunday riot at the Southwest Ohio Correctional Facility is fully underway and the initial explosion of violence settles into unmitigated tension. Length works then, mimicking the ongoing, endless strain. Personalities emerge, and we begin to hold our breath.
Our Orpheus is Correctional Officer J. D. Hemsler. He’s a stolid soul, apparently satisfied with his sons and wife, his hunting, his town, his Chevy and his coon dog. He walks with a John Wayne stride. Such a figure might easily sink into caricature, but Hemsler is not unintelligent, nor mean, nor unaware. He knows how to listen. He makes an excellent, because unremarkable, hero. And he’s especially fortunate because he’s been trained for exactly this situation:
Don’t bother reading all the blurbs that go with the paperback edition of this book (The Sympathizer, Grove Press, 382 pages). Just read the first page; already you know you are in the presence of a talented writer. Here’s how we begin:
“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”
We are not surprised later to learn that the narrator—never named, known only as the Captain—loves Russian novels, for this first paragraph recalls the beginning of Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground,” featuring one of the most perverse split-personality ironist narrators in the history of world literature: “I’m a sick man . . . I’m a spiteful man. Unpleasant is what I am as a man. I think my liver is diseased. But then, I don’t know jack squat about my illness, and probably don’t even know what hurts where. I don’t seek treatment, and never have, although I respect medicine and doctors.”
I will avoid the absurdity of defending a National Book Award finalist; we can agree that the western can be literature. We have Larry McMurtry and Charles Portis to underline the point. The clean prose of News of the World (William Morrow, 224 pages) similarly explores universal themes of honor, purpose, age, and culture within a detailed period piece, allowing the conventions of bar fights and gunfights, natives and lawless towns, blacksmiths, willing ladies, and Mexican aristocracy to tell a fresh and compelling tale.