Monday, 29 September 2014

Paul Auster- Man in the Dark

Man in the Dark
Faber & Faber

Paul Auster

“Betty died of a broken heart. Some people laugh when they hear that phrase, but that's because they don't know anything about the world. People die of broken hearts. It happens every day, and it will go on happening to the end of time."

Continuing on my rapid exploration of Paul Auster's bibliography, I came to this curious, thoughtful and sometimes bewitching novella, taking a premise featuring an amalgamation of some of Auster's most prevalent ideas from both his earlier and later authorship styles. Weaving in a series of short, tangential stories of varying realism into the framework of one dominating main narrative, Auster was attempting the potentially paradoxical (alliterative mood) goal of fitting a meaningful, multi-layered series of reflective stories into the very limited space of a 180-page (in my Faber & Faber paperback edition) novella. Featuring the strong post-modern styles of Auster's ground-breaking and edgy earlier fiction- like obviously The New York Trilogy, which I think I must have mentioned in every Auster review I've written on this blog and have to re-read one day- mixed in with the more grounded, contemplative character-study-based, magical realism-tinged fiction of his latter days, Man in the Dark  is far from perfect, but overall is a great story containing a nice mixture of drama, suspense, and even a bit of action.

The main plot, from which the narrating lead character inter-weaves a series of other stories, is an intense, realistic human interest drama stylistically most comparable to Auster's later fiction, such as Invisible or Sunset Park. Lead character August Brill is an elderly writer living with both his daughter and granddaughter, all three of them grieving over separate losses that are explored further towards the end of the book. As the unwavering framework of the whole book, grief and the search to overcome it permeates every page, as Auster presents it with the utmost seriousness. So seriously, in fact, that when it came towards the very end, where Brill and his granddaughter face-up to the rather horrific death of her fiance, things had become so serious and straightforward that I started to find it actually a bit silly, which I suppose isn't a great recommendation. Thankfully things are kept from being bogged down in a potential mire of seriousness by the other stories that Brill tells with his own, one in particular.

Auster doesn't do colour.
August Brill, the narrator, changes from the past to the present tense to narrate a story he's composing in his head, a story much different in tone and style from the 'real' main story about his family. In this story a man named Brick goes to bed next to his wife one night and then wakes up in the morning to find himself stuck down in a hole, in the middle of nowhere, in a parallel universe. He soon learns that, in this world, the US is embroiled in a bloody, modern civil war, and that he specifically has been chosen to cross worlds and act as an assassin, one who could end the fighting with a single bullet. I'm refrain from giving many details, since half the pleasure of this side-story is the thrilling suspense- for the first time in a while, possibly since In The Country of Last Things, Auster embraces more contemporary popular storytelling techniques and genres, and it's a lot of fun. I don't think I'd want him to switch to this kind of thing more often, but I do think that he was perhaps making a conscientious effort to catch the eye of new readers, to lure them into his web of postmodernism as he balances the stories of Brick and August Brill.

I have to admit that it disappointed me to discover that Brick's story ends rather abruptly, mid-way through Man in the Dark, since it was very entertaining, but the truth is that Auster's key concern was always with the realistic human drama of his center story; August Brill's grieving widower-hood, and his efforts to connect with his daughter and granddaughter, so the three of them can together overcome the tragic losses they've suffered. Brill ruminates on other short stories and memories, with the cumulative effect all relating to the whole. Auster packs quite a lot into a small book, keeping things constantly fast-paced; something that also might appeal to newbies. The same quickness and short length of the book is in some ways a hindrance to the overall story, since I don't think it allows Auster the space he needs to create enough of an emotional impact; especially in regards to the revelations as to how Brill's granddaughter's fiance was killed, something that was meant to shock and move the reader, but left me feeling somewhat unmoved through its over-the-top nature. Very topical, though.

In conclusion then, Man in the Dark is a very enjoyable, but rather flawed novella that thankfully overcomes its flaws to stand as a notable achievement. Though far from Auster's best work from a critical standpoint, the suspenseful nature and quick pacing make it a very easy read with far more crossover appeal than Auster's typical novels. Cautiously recommended as probably a good introductory novel, with a nice blend of the author's preferred styles from across the years.

Thompson on Kerouac

For what it's worth, I like both of them.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Jean Cocteau- Les Enfants Terribles

Les Enfants Terribles

Jean Cocteau

“At all costs the true world of childhood must prevail, must be restored; that world whose momentous, heroic, mysterious quality is fed on airy nothings, whose substance is so ill-fitted to withstand the brutal touch of adult inquisition.”

Oh boy, here we go; a new attempt to review a book that, honestly, I don't quite know what to make of. Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed through the quitegoodreads box, hidden somewhere down the right-hand side of this page, that on Goodreads (that ironic bastion of *cough* quality book ratings) I hastily rated Les Enfants Terribles three out of five stars, which is technically above average (if we assume that average should be two-and-a-half stars); but that was almost entirely due to the quality of Jean Cocteau's translated prose. That, by itself, is very, very high in quality, written in the intellectual, vocabular style of prose masters such Joseph Conrad or W. Somerset Maugham- essentially the type of outstanding sentence-structure and word choices that I desperately wish I could emulate, requiring a naturally genius mind that I doubt can ever be taught. A lot of credit must go to translator Rosamond Lehmann for conveying Cocteau's wordy style in a very fluid, natural-sounding manner.

So then, if I respected and enjoyed Cocteau's authorship so much, what's wrong with this book? To be honest, I'm still not quite sure, other than to say that the plot establishment, development and conclusion to this book seemed so very odd to me that it left my critical faculties in turmoil. It didn't help me that, before I started reading and researching, I had no idea whom Jean Cocteau was, nor what this book was about. I bought my copy on a whim (at the same time I purchased Less Than Zero) because it was cheap, published as a Vintage Classic, and undoubtedly French and strange. This latter part was the key, since I've partially explored and enjoyed works by Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, and the admittedly-not-French but very Euro-similar Milan Kundera in the past. I'm by no means an expert in philosophy (barely a novice, in fact), but I do enjoy the vague sensations of existentialism and was hoping for more of that sort of thing.

Cocteau is cool.
What I got with Les Enfants Terribles (which was apparently first released in the US as The Holy Terrors for some reason) was something rather different; essentially a very strange psychological character-based thriller, starring a very small group of characters. The lead characters, and terrible children of the title, are Paul and Elisabeth, a brother and sister with no father, a bed-ridden mother, and exorbitant wealth. The key to the story as it develops is something that Paul and Elisabeth call 'The Game', which is essentially a concentrated mutual effort to annoy and upset each other through any mental games necessary, usually involving innocent, unwitting foil such as their friends Gerard and Agatha. The winner of the game is the sibling able to frustrate the other the most by getting in the last word and presenting themselves as superior, inevitably leading to the tragic ending to the novel (which I won't spoil, but which readers should be able to see coming fairly easily).

Paul and Elisabeth's game becomes more intensely psychological as the book goes on, callously playing with the lives of their friends without much thought. As a result, both of the characters came across as villainous to me, leaving me caring very little about their ultimate fate. To be fair, I think Cocteau's ultimate goal was to leave the lasting impression that all of the children in this story are essentially victims of circumstance, where, despite being granted all of the material wealth they could ever need, the lack of parental love and moral guidance eventually warps them both into irredeemable psychopaths with no understanding of the consequences of their actions. It occurs to me now that it perhaps wasn't coincidence that I found Les Enfants Terribles and Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero on the same shelf.

As I often do when reviewing work by an author whom I'm experiencing for the first time, I feel somewhat inadequate in attempting to properly analyse what Cocteau, an early 20th century renaissance man, was fully trying to achieve. In Cocteau's case that's perhaps going to remain a problem, since Enfants is really his only piece of prose fiction with enough of a reputation to be widely available in English; and I'm not enough of a poetry, theatre, or French cinema fan to search out his other work. In essence, though, Enfants did leave a notable impression on me due to the power of its ideas and quality of its prose, but I can't say I enjoyed it in the way I would've like to. I suppose that might have been the effect Cocteau was looking for with this book; not to be loved as a favourite by anyone, but instead to be remembered for its oddness by everyone, with its key ideas slowly permeating the mind of the reader over time to leave a lasting impression forever.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Charles Bukowski- South of No North

South of No North

Charles Bukowski
1973 (Collected)

“My objection to war was not that I had to kill somebody or be killed senselessly, that hardly mattered. What I objected to was to be denied the right to sit in a small room and starve and drink cheap wine and go crazy in my own way and at my own leisure.”

When people talk about Charles Bukowski, they almost always only talk about his Henry Chinaski-starring series of novels and about his poetry. His career as a short-story writer unfairly gets overlooked, I feel, though Bukowski was such a prolific author that there are numerous collections available bringing together samples of the many, many articles he wrote for various underground literary magazines throughout the 1960's and beyond. I've quickly looked at a couple of them on this blog, Tales of Ordinary Madness and Notes of a Dirty Old Man, collected in eye-catching new editions by Virgin, and while I enjoyed the material individually I do feel that as collections they're somewhat inconsistent; where the frantic pace and anger of the author's tone combined with the lack of context (for me, anyway) for many of the topics and references ultimately took away some enjoyment when reading them from start to finish as one chronological piece. 

South of No North, however, broke the streak of awkward Bukowski collections by collecting a much more balanced selection of work. Collected early on in Bukowski's career (proceeded by only Post Office in relation to the full-length adventures of Henry Chinaski), the stories collected here are incredibly raw and fresh, lifted of the invisible responsibility of reputation surrounding Bukowski's later work. Initially  collected and published by Bukowski supporters Black Sparrow Press, it's easy to see just how South of No North would've thrown the heavy-drinking, no-care-giving power of Bukowki's evocative and familiar, yet totally unique voice into the American literary conscious, and provided a strong backbone for Bukowski to build his name upon.

Young Charles
 From the very beginning of this collection, Bukowki's voice is in full flow, detailing short stories of low-life hedonism and crime starring ordinary people. You and Your Beer and How Great You Are is an early example of a biting, sardonic narrators voice telling the story of an egotistical boxer and his tired girlfriend. No Way To Paradise is the first story in the book I really loved, partially due to how unexpectedly surreal it is; Hank the narrator (probably Henry Chinaski, but it's not made explicitly clear) is sat in a bar when he meets a woman who has purchased a set of four miniature manufactured people who argue, fight, and sleep together for her amusement. There's a fairly even divide between the semi-autobiographical pieces we're used to from Bukowski as Chinaski and third-person character narratives, such as Love for $17.50, about a man who fills his need for a woman with a shop-bought mannequin. Such stories are strange and compelling, without a clear moral explanation besides the nagging feeling that it's powered by Bukowki's own jet black humour.

Later on in the collection the links between these stories and Bukowki's overarching literary intentions become clearer, as he slips further into the autobiographical fable mode that powered Post Office and would his later novels. The Way the Dead Love and All the Assholes in the World and Mine are great, great reads by themselves, but also seem like prototypes for his next novel Factotum. The longer short-story (nice oxymoron) Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with Beasts is very much an early version of a few chapters from Ham on Rye (released almost ten years later), including the same disturbing hatred of Bukowki's own adolescence. These later stories in this collection are all at least twice the length of the earlier ones, which I felt really added to the balance and variety of this collection, making it easier to read through consecutively.

Easily my favourite of all the Bukowski collections I've read so far, South of No North works on several levels; as a stand-alone collection of ingenious stylistic ideas, as a fascinating curio in relation to his later works, and quite probably as a powerful, undiluted introduction to Bukowki for readers curious about his work. Always powerful, occasionally disturbing, and amusingly poignant, South of No North collects the work of a man forcing himself onto the literary scene.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Haruki Murakami- Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

Haruki Murakami

Other Murakami Reviews- A Wild Sheep Chase - Dance Dance Dance - Sputnik Sweetheart - after the quake - After Dark - What I Talk About When I Talk About Running - 1Q84- Books One & Two - 1Q84: Book Three - Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

“There are three ways you can get along with a girl: one, shut up and listen to what she has to say; two, tell her you like what she's wearing; and three, treat her to really good food...If you do all that and still don't get the results you want, better give up.”

Haruki Murakami's third short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was one of the first works I ever read by the author; taken out from the library in hardback format not long after it was released, almost ten years ago. In the meantime, despite becoming a massive Murakami fan, I somehow managed to forget all about it and, crucially, failed to notice I didn't own a copy (I think I just subconsciously assumed that I did, my mind playing assumptive tricks). It wasn't until after finishing and reviewing Murakami's latest release, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, that I noticed via a goodreads list that I was missing this book from my collection. Thanks to the magic of Amazon, that was soon rectified, and soon after I was jetting off to Greece with the rather larger story collection in my suitcase. As it turned out, though, I ended up reading the vast majority of it upon my return to England, during an otherwise torturous seven hour wait for a bus from Gatwick Airport, from two o'clock in the morning.
Like his earlier collection The Elephant Vanishes, Blind Willow is comprised of various previously published short stories,  originally published in various Japanese periodicals and a Japanese-only smaller collection (Strange Tales from Tokyo). The big difference between the two collections, however, is that the range of stories in Blind Willow cover Murakami's writing career for over twenty years, from 1981 to 2005. Such a diverse range, then, gives the reader the opportunity to look at how the authors' style changed and hopefully improved over the years, as well as offering a pretty diverse selection of story ideas. From a more negative standpoint though, the sheer comprehensiveness of this collection left plenty of room for a few inclusions that, for me, brought the standards down just a little.

In the introduction to the book, Murakami explains to the reader that he is, at heart, a short-story writer, one who has to work very hard at composing long novels but who loves to sit down and create a brief window into strange and haunting worlds. I can completely understand this; while I love his long-form work, the effort and composure it must take to create and sustain such intensely specific yet ethereal plots, characters and themes must be immense- a novel like Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle can be overwhelming to read in long bursts, I find, thanks to the concentrated intensity, but each one of Murakami's short stories revels in its lack of space; free from the confines of expectation, his words float across the page with as much or as little context as he feels like offering, inevitably leading the overall feeling of unsettling magic- something even more powerful when you're reading at four in the morning in the entrance lobby of a massive airport, for some reason. 

So, the stories themselves then. The book opens with its title story, but I found it to be somewhat of a false start., at least in terms of its quality. Thematically it's very recognisably Murakami; the simple story of a very introspective narrator who tells of his strange companionship with his younger cousin, and compares their trips to hospital together to memories of his own youth. It's initially absorbing, but lacks a strong direction and seemed somewhat bland as a choice for an opener- to the extent where I think a reader checking him out for the first time might find him uninspiring. Thankfully I found the second story, Birthday Girl, to be much more interesting, and probably one of his best stories. It's an almost perfect slice of magical realism, the author at his best as he mixes mundane life with unexplainable surrealism, and crucially doesn't try to explain it. The collection continues on in this vein, with a run of stories that I found to almost all be great.

There were a few notable exceptions that broke up the flow as I read them. A 'Poor Aunt' Story is comfortably the longest in the collection, and the silliest, as an example of Murakami extending his postmodern style a little too far for too long. Crabs was just intentionally disturbing with no good reason. "The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day" was very stereotypical for Murakami, almost a plot someone might use to satirise him. Although maybe my viewpoint on all of these was skewered thanks to the circumstances in which I read them, for better or for worse. It's difficult to judge Blind Willow as a whole thanks to the wide timespan in which its contents were written, I suppose, but it does highlight Murakami's early focus on blatantly strange and unnerving ideas verses his later development into an author with a greater grasp on his characters. Personally I've never had a preference for his earlier or later works, since it really depends on what the reader is looking for; the earlier stories and novels are abrubtly odd and disconcerting, while the later ones far more emotionally resonant.

As I start drastically running out of steam in this review, I suppose it's fair but easy to say that Blind Willow is a book for the converted, one that I wouldn't necessarily recommend for a prospective fan of the author. It's collective nature cares preaches to the converted more than anything, with some of the author's weirdest short pieces. I enjoyed it again, as I knew I would, but I do think it struggles as a single piece when compared with The Elephant Vanishes or after the quake. It's a treat for the completest with some individually outstanding stories though, so if you're already a Murakami fan then there's literally nothing stopping you.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Bret Easton Ellis- Less Than Zero

Less Than Zero
Picador Press

Bret Easton Ellis

“She laughs and looks out the window and I think for a minute that she's going to start to cry. I'm standing by the door and I look over at the Elvis Costello poster, at his eyes, watching her, watching us, and I try to get her away from it, so I tell her to come over here, sit down, and she thinks I want to hug her or something and she comes over to me and puts her arms around my back and says something like 'I think we've all lost some sort of feeling."

When I discovered that Bret Easton Ellis was only a twenty-one year old college student when his debut novel Less Than Zero was published, I found it very, very annoying and didn't want to like it, since I'm twenty-eight and all I do is write a blog. Also, when I bought it (for only £3 from HMV, thanks to their desperation to seem like a cool and alternative shop) the girl at the counter vociferously told me how good she thought it was, and she looked like she was about fifteen so that really annoyed me as well. I'm a very awkward person. Honestly though, prior to reading Less Than Zero I had already become a fan of Easton Ellis through reading- and enjoying- perhaps his most famous work, the graphically disturbing black satire American Psycho. While my memories of that book are admittedly too entwined with the Christian Bale-starring film, and while Ellis gave himself the advantage of coming up with a straight-up winning high concept for it, it was still easy for me to enjoy the bleak, minimalist and satirical prose. 

Less Than Zero doesn't have the same catchy psychopathic hook as American Psycho, so I wouldn't have been surprised if I had found it to be disappointing, particularly thanks to the initially wandering plot. The novel is written in the present-tense from the first person perspective of surname-less college student Clay, during a Winter break from schooling where he returns to his home city of Los Angeles to reunite with his like-minded friends and indulge in more than a little bit of unrestrained hedonism. Clay and his friends all seem to be rich and free of responsibilities; the children of uncaring entertainment moguls who unwittingly finance copious amount of drugs and wild parties. To be honest, the first hundred-or-so pages of this fairly short book didn't particularly grab me since it's fairly repetitive and written in such a style as to promote disinterest.
Ellis' minimalistic narration is designed to constantly reinforce Clay and his friends' disassociation with the real world, where the huge drug intake and random sexual encounters simply exist as something to do to fill the time. The book absolutely turned a corner for me when the authors' true aim became clear in its second half; where the situations Clay finds himself in become increasingly unpleasant and immoral, and his uncaring attitude towards life around him is challenged by the undeniable despair he feels as he witnesses the horrors around him in LA. Most of the criticism I've read of this book seems to revolve around the argument that Clay is such a dispassionate character in a book that would designed to be too cool for school, but I massively disagree with all of that; for me, Clay reads as a character desperately trying to avoid having some sort of mental breakdown through his disassociation, and whom eventually does turn a corner somewhat in his desire to remove himself from this environment and go back to the real world. No, he doesn't step in to directly save some of his friends or other innocents he sees, but at no point is he supposed to be a hero, merely a survivor.

One of the overbearing thoughts I was left with upon finishing Less Than Zero was the relation of Clay to the lead character of American Psycho, Patrick Bateman. Less Than Zero could easily be seen as a prequel to Psycho, as the potential origin story for the latter's charismatic madman, and it's obvious that the themes of each book directly relate to each other- with the key difference being that Less Than Zero is decidedly not a satire. Its topics and incidents are very extreme in places, but crucially also believable to a somewhat disturbing extent. While Ellis' prose is youthful and imperfect, it helps capture the tone it needs, combining with the plot to give the events a sense of gravitas that left me dwelling them for some time. In relation to the roadmap of twentieth century American literature, Less Than Zero follows up on the drugged-up horrors of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch and moves them into the 80's alongside Jay McInery's Bright Lights, Big City to create its own unique and depressing insight into the horrors of human nature.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

A Good Excuse...

I was on holiday in Greece for a week, so I didn't write anything. Got a couple to catch-up on now though. TBC...