Archive for March, 2013

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , on March 28, 2013 by Nick Merrill

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Eli and Charlie Sisters are traveling hitmen. They work for the Commodore, a thinly characterized, ever distant symbol of oppression and cruelty. At the start of The Sisters Brothers, the Commodore hires his angels of death to hunt down and kill Edward Kermit Warm for the crime of theft.

The Sisters Brothers is, aesthetically, a Western. It takes place in Oregon and California in the mid nineteenth century, during the California Gold Rush. Through much of the novel, Eli and Charlie simply travel; they go from place to place, meeting an assortment of strange and interesting characters. There’s an undertrained dentist. There’s an irresponsible gangster looking for a red bear pelt. This part of the book, more episodic than that which comes later, is quite well done. DeWitt paints an interesting, varied portrait of the American frontier, filled with personality, wit, stupidity, and cruelty. The novel moves very quickly; chapters are very short and DeWitt spends little time on description. The result is that this portion of the novel, which could have felt like a plodding travelogue, clips along well as DeWitt introduces us to his world and its personas. The prose is neither austere nor flashy. DeWitt’s long sentences, brought to us by Eli’s narration, flow rather well.

Along the way, we learn much about these two men: their differing personalities, their strained relationship, and their hopes for the future. Eli is, as is perfunctory in most hitman stories, tired of being a hitman. Early in the novel, it’s easy to wonder why he’s in this business in the first place. He comes across as an empathetic, conscientious individual.  But eventually we learn more of his backstory, such as the cause of his ongoing closeness with his brother. DeWitt paces this characterization well, slowly filling us in on why Eli is a good killer and why he still kills. The book is told from Eli’s first person point of view, so we always know him better than we do Charlie. Nevertheless, DeWitt handle’s Charlie well, humanizing him later in the novel, smoothing out some of his roguish characteristics.

Though DeWitt does a fine job defining and fleshing out the Sisters brothers, these personalities are hardly breaking literary ground. As alluded to before, the hitman with a heart of gold is a fairly tired trope. It’s obvious and predictable. But looked at in a vacuum, The Sisters Brothers fares well. The brothers aren’t terribly complex, but they do feel like real people with real anxieties and real thoughts.

Because we spend so much time with Eli and Charlie, much of the novel’s quality hinges on the efficacy of their relationship. They feel like convincing brothers in their oscillating treatment of one another. Eli and Charlie want different things. The former dreams of retiring and living a simple life, possibly as a shop clerk. The latter is more ambitious, hoping to one day be a man of power and status, similar to the Commodore. Understandably, they butt heads repeatedly. Their evolving relationship is the book’s real story. The quest to kill Warm is an excuse to put these brothers in uncomfortable territory that will force them to question their lifestyles and their relationship with each other.

When the brothers do reach San Francisco, the plot shifts gears. They resolve to find Warm and to find out why the Commodore wants him dead. It turns out that Warm, a resourceful scientist, has hit upon a money-making scheme. This means that the brothers are faced with an interesting decision. Should they kill him as the Commodore ordered? Should they kill him and steal his get-rich-quick scheme? Or should they join up with him? Up until this point, the Gold Rush exists in the novel’s background. Once they reach San Francisco, it becomes vital to the plot. The Gold Rush is appealing because it’s such a distillation of the American dream. Come to America and join the middle class after putting in hard work. Come to San Francisco and join the upper class after putting in very little work. Of course, both dreams are too good to be true, and DeWitt would be remiss were he not to demonstrate that. Warm is a fascinating character. In one of the novel’s lengthier episodes, we learn his eccentric backstory. Like Eli and Charlie, he also fits an archetype, that of the mad scientist. But presented with both his flaws and his virtues, he’s a believable part of this universe. His honest nature presents a good counterpart to the brothers. Interacting with him forces them into new territory, putting their lives in a different perspective.

The Commodore has an interesting function within the novel. Eli hates him. Charlie kind of likes him. We never learn much about him; he’s a distant symbol of tyranny. His lack of characterization was clearly deliberate, though I wouldn’t have minded learning more about the particulars of his relationship with the brothers. This would have made an important climactic moment near the end much more emotional.

The Sisters Brothers loses much of its footing during its final chapters. The events which close out the book are a little too neat, a little too moralizing, a little too obvious. A book which felt grounded in reality gains a spiritual pulse. Yes, the brothers encounter and fear a possible witch’s ‘curse’ early in the novel, but the ending’s tone is still an unwelcome departure from the rest of the book. It betrays the book’s chance at thematic complexity.

The Sisters Brothers is, for the most part, an enjoyable, nuanced read. It’s a convincing ride through the American West as seen by regretful hitman Eli Sisters. The novel is often funny, often suspenseful, and always easy to read. The ending was a disappointment, but it shouldn’t discourage anyone from reading the book.

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Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Posted in Book Reviews on March 14, 2013 by Nick Merrill

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Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station is a quick, sometimes repetitive read. Its protagonist is unsympathetic if sometimes disturbingly relatable. It documents a year in the life of Adam Gordon, an aloof poet who conned his way into a Madrid fellowship. Gordon’s distaste for poetry is a recurring gag; he derives more pathos from a poem’s failure to achieve its goals than from its actual content. This alienation, the inability to appreciate his art on anything other than a meta level, extends to every facet of Gordon’s life. He’s detached and myopic; he’s a disingenuous loner in a constant state of crisis. He’s frustrating. He’s fascinating. He’s hilarious.

It’s hard to disentangle Gordon from Lerner, himself a poet who spent a year in Madrid. My American Lit professor last year loved the refrain that an author should, “Disappear, disappear, disappear.” But it’s so common for writers to invest their work with their own anxieties and personalities, from Woody Allen to Charlie Kaufman to Lena Dunham. In a memorable scene from Kaufman’s Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman tells his brother Donald that he’s written himself into his screenplay, referring to his action as “Self-indulgent, narcissistic, solipsistic.” Such descriptors are perfect for Adam Gordon, whose world is rocked when he discovers that his lover Isabel has a life separate from his own. Similarly, he’s confused to find that his translator and friend Theresa is also a poet and distinguished intellectual in her own right. Gordon’s character development is ambiguous; he meets new people, adopts new habits, and engages with the world a little bit more. But it’s unclear whether this is indicative of a permanent change in temperament.

Leaving the Atocha Station begins with Gordon describing his morning routine, which consist of smoking hash, drinking coffee, showering, and staring at a painting of Jesus descending the cross. But on this particular day, the routine, the ritual, is disturbed – Gordon’s favorite bench is occupied by a weeping stranger, experiencing what Gordon repeatedly describes as a profound experience of art. Gordon has never had a profound experience of art; he seems incapable. He’s too removed from the world, too incapable of dealing with art in a way that’s not stiflingly self-conscious. He follows the stranger around, marveling at him as he profoundly experiences every painting he engages with. Since finishing the book, I’ve been thinking about my own profound experience of art. You don’t need this kind of tear-inducing experience to enjoy and/or love something, but it does seem to be desirable, to be indicative of some human tendency. I’ve found it in books, music, and movies; I’ve never had a painting bring me to tears.

Gordon is a fraud. Or at least he views himself as one. “When are you going to stop pretending you’re pretending to be a poet?” asks Theresa. Theresa may understand Gordon more than he does himself; she sees through him at their first meeting, when he lies to her, telling her that his mother has recently died. His engagement with his friends is as conscious and detached as his relationship with art. He comes to rely on what he perceives as his bad Spanish, hoping that Isabel and Theresa will project artistic intellectualism behind his inability to communicate in their native language. The very process by which he makes friends is based on constructed misconceptions; he hangs on to a group in a bar, hoping that each member will assume that he was invited by one of their own. This works. Arturo talks to him because he thinks everyone else talks to him. Everyone else talks to him because they think Arturo talks to him.

Gordon is an atypical protagonist. Lerner writes in first-person, so his protagonist’s voice dominates the book. Thankfully, Gordon isn’t as unsympathetic as he could be. He’s a liar, a fraud, and possibly a sociopath. But his voice carries the book, taking us to unexpected places. It’s intellectual, self-aware, and sardonically funny. The book’s central irony, the poet skeptical of poetry, never ceases to be funny. Lerner hammers us with instances of Gordon’s disingenuousness, repeatedly reminding us of his linguistic stratagems, and his fear that fluency will bring discovery of his falseness. He understands his flaws, but is often uninterested in seriously dealing with them.

The book has little in the way of plot, but there is somewhat of a climax in the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which shock Gordon into an awareness of the world around him. Here, the story turns. Gordon’s Spanish gets better and better, and his relationship with Theresa is on a path to uncomfortable honesty. Don’t expect suspense or a rich range of developed characters. This is Gordon’s story, and your ability to appreciate his intellect and humor determines your ability to enjoy the book.

At one point, Gordon gets lost in Barcelona while going for coffee to bring back for him and Theresa. He loses a day in the city, aware of how pathetic his situation is, how it will be perceived. At this moment, Gordon is at his most relatable. He’s powerless – unable to control his engagements. He panics. We’ve all been lost before; Lerner expertly captures this feeling and the self-loathing which accompanies it.

Lerner honestly and convincingly relates Gordon’s struggles with myopia and alienation. The book is repetitive, though not necessarily to its detriment. Gordon’s routine, his repeated habits and thoughts, are reflected by the book’s plot. The plot gains more flux towards the end as Gordon is truly forced out of his comfort zone. The book could have been shorter, but it didn’t need to be. Lerner knows how to keep our minds active, how to tickle our amusement with an ironic detail. Leaving the Atocha Station is unlike any book I’ve read. Lerner took a risk in writing about a protagonist which zero redeemable qualities. But Gordon is a wonderful object for our curiosity; his relationships with art and people cause us to think about our own. I’ve been thinking about this book a lot since I finished it. It’s esoteric and pretentious, but it works – it’s easy to read, it’s funny, and it’s criminally clever.

Manifesto

Posted in Info on March 14, 2013 by Nick Merrill

I’m a twenty year old history major at Colby College. I’ve read intermittently throughout most of my life, but I’ve only been passionate about it for the past few years. At four or five I grew jealous of my parents’ ability to read. I wanted to be on that level; I wanted to understand the world around me, the sooner the better. I learned quickly. Once I grew bored of ‘See Spot Run,’ I moved onto novels. My dad used to read a lot Roald Dahl books to me, so it makes sense that when I first deigned to pick up a book for myself, it was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I began participating in those Pizza Hut reading competitions, taking great pride in constantly winning. I was a smug little kid.

I read more in elementary and middle school than I did in high school, when my interest inexplicably fell. I enjoyed the usual torrent of adolescent worries, ignoring literature’s mountain of unread brilliance. I did some assigned reading, and occasionally I’d pick up a book for pleasure, but that was rare. This changed in college, when I realized guiltily that I’d never read many of the books given to me by my brother. I corrected this by burning through reads like Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s When Skateboards Will be Free. The floodgates were open.

Over the past few years, my passion for reading has escalated to the point where I wonder why I’ve taken so few English courses. I’ve tried to be inclusive in my reading habits, going between literary and genre fiction, recognizing that each has artistic merit. I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about what I’m reading. I even dabble in fiction writing. I’m starting this blog in order to apply some discipline to my engagement with literature, to force myself to structure and articulate my thoughts. In writing reviews, I want to combine some degree of analysis with my own personal engagement with a work. Besides reviews, I hope to offer commentary on other literature related topics. Because I’m also somewhat of a film geek/snob, I don’t intent to limit myself to writing about the written word; film reviews may pop up occasionally. For the time being, I don’t intend to use ratings, because I have trouble distilling a book’s quality down to a number. This might change.