Archive for May, 2013

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2013 by Nick Merrill

Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers begins and ends in medias res. It’s richly written, peppered with lush imagery and delectable storytelling. It’ s a 1970s period piece featuring a young female artist/motorcyclist as its protagonist. Known only as Reno, she witnesses artistic and economic upheavals in America and Italy. Reno’s story is a bildungsroman; she struggles with passivity, continually evaluating her place in a tumultuous world.

Most of the novel centers on Reno’s experience with an artistic social circle in New York. She develops complicated relationships with two men: macho sculptor and industrial heir Sandro Valera and the continually ironic artist Ronnie Fontaine. Sandro crafts aluminum boxes to be appreciated in and of themselves; they aren’t supposed to have symbolic meaning. Ronnie’s art is more diverse and chaotic. At one point, he convinces drunken women to punch themselves so that he can photograph them.

Of the two, Ronnie is the more flamboyant character. Reno’s perception of him is almost larger than life. He’s one of those people whose stories, though often fictitious, always contain some moral or thematic truth. Beneath his pompously sarcastic exterior, there is, of course, a vulnerable, insecure core. Sandro, Reno’s boyfriend, is more serious, but he struggles with issues of class and identity, rejecting his patrician upbringing. He’s willing to be apart from his family, but unwilling to really challenge them. He earns enough to live on, but he won’t turn down the benefits of privilege.

Reno herself takes a backseat to these grander personalities. She rarely takes action; when she first moves to the city, she waits for events to happen to her. When she’s with Sandro, she lets him, 14, years older, be her leader and mentor. Meanwhile, she attempts to align her interests in motorcycles and art, hoping to pioneer a form composed of speed and geometry. Her idea is half-formed; it has potential but lacks some vital ingredient that she hopes to find as she goes speed-racing in the salt flats.

Kushner’s prose is near perfect. Her similes hit that sublime spot between implicit and explicit; they elucidate without over-explaining; they give you the tools to imagine and explore. She demonstrates the irreplaceability of prose as a storytelling medium, how richly it can show while embracing the ambiguities of perception.

Kushner’s characters love to tell stories, especially Ronnie. They’re sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, but often both. This gives the book an episodic nature, though it’s not fragmented or choppy. The narrative is non-linear, but it flows well, taking us from thought to thought, anecdote to anecdote. It’s not fast, but it’s often flashy; Kushner’s imagery oscillates between sexy and grotesque. Neon lights and speed permeate the novel. Reno’s obsessed with time; her velocity-centric art is an attempt to transcend and control it.

Kushner has a rich sense of setting. She deftly transports us to the elite world of 1970s modern art. We get a feel for Sandro’s minimalism and Ronnie’s pop culture observations. When the book shifts to Rome in a time of youth revolt and riot, its frenetic, detailed descriptions of urban chaos are terrifyingly beautiful.

The New York art world’s elitism and exclusivity juxtaposes with the open, disordered rebellion of Italy’s workers, but each share a desire to progress, to overhaul existing modes of thought. If Kushner’s portrayal of counter-culture has a weakness, it’s that she doesn’t spend much time detailing the culture being countered. But this is a minimal flaw; ultimately, Kushner has an enviable ability to immerse us in a movement and its moment.

The novel is interspersed with flashbacks detailing how Sandro’s father came to found the Valera company, which makes motorcycles and tires, among other things. These passages add greater historical dimension to the novel; they add context to the existing state of the Valera company, dominant but plagued by worker unrest. They put an intimate face behind the corporate front.

Kushner’s characterization, though mostly effective, occasionally falters as her creations fall into types. Sandro’s family, in particular, is guilty of this, consisting of his mother, the cold, snobbish matriarch, and his brother, the cold, ruthless business man. These characters feel one dimensional and lazily written.

Fortunately, others like Ronnie, Sandro, and Reno’s friend Giddle truly come alive. Reno herself feels somewhat incomplete, but that’s the point. She’s not a cipher; she has unique hopes and habits, but she’s somewhat adrift, relying on the guidance of others. Her lack of a first name is too symbolically obvious; at one point, Ronnie tells her that he’d like to get to know her because he doesn’t think she knows herself.

Though there’s no overarching plot to conclude, the resolution is satisfying. There’s a thematic finality to the book’s final passages; Reno comes to a realization about her engagement with the world, about the futility of waiting for an answer to the question of self.

The Flamethrowers is a brilliant mix of mood, character, and anecdote. It’s a lovely novel that’s intellectual but not difficult. It’s vivacious and satisfying, best read in the sun, sipping a glass of white wine.

Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2013 by Nick Merrill

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Omon Ra is a short, melancholic story of disillusionment set in Soviet Russia. The protagonist and title character, Omon, starts as a stargazing boy who dreams of becoming a cosmonaut. The book follows him through his childhood and early career as he comes into closer contact with the deception and heartlessness which underlies the Soviet regime and poisons his ambitions.

Omon’s family life is almost nonexistent; he has a drunken father and an indifferent aunt. His one friend, Mitiok, also dreams of becoming a cosmonaut. Though Mitiok is more reckless than Omon, their shared dream creates a strong bond which continues as they attend the same flight school and become part of the same secret space program.

The setup is simple and familiar: a boy from a rural background who dreams of something bigger, something grander. Pelevin never truly transcends the obviousness of Omon’s character, but he partially redeems it through insightful, heartfelt prose and incisive satire.

Pelevin has a talent for depicting the greyness of Soviet life, the drab living conditions and lack of vivacity. Omon recounts one of his childhood memories:

I suddenly felt disgusted to think that I was sitting in this lousy little closet that smelt like a garbage dump, disgusted by the fact that I’d just drunk cheap port from a dirty glass, that the entire immense country in which I lived was made up of lots and lots of these lousy little closets where there was a smell of garbage and people had just been drinking cheap port, and most important of all—it was painful to think that these very same stinking little closets were the settings for those multi-colored arrays of lights that made me catch my breath in the evenings…

The mundanity of Omon’s childhood justifies his desire for escape, not from his hometown or from his country but from Earth itself. He thinks that true freedom can only be found in space, where he’ll be unbound from the restrictions and expectations of his country.

But his yearning is founded on romantic naiveté. Omon gets his first hint of what’s to come at a space camp, where his friend Mitiok disassembles a model spaceship to discover that there’s a door on the outside but not a matching one on the inside. This is a pivotal moment, though Omon might not realize it at the time. The flawed model broaches the possibility that space travel might be a restricting and not at all liberating experience.

As the novel progresses it becomes clear that to the Soviet regime, cosmonauts are merely tools, sacrificial lambs offered up to the state’s glory. Some of them may be presented to the public as heroes worthy of veneration, heroes whom the public can live vicariously through. But when Omon finally reaches the realization of his dream, when the KGB offers him a role on a moon flight, he learns that it’s to be a suicide mission, and that his role up until his death is to consist of drudgery and enslavement.

There’s tragedy here; Omon cannot escape the dehumanization of Soviet society even in space. His dream is perverted, turned inside out so that his greatest desire becomes his downfall. His disillusionment isn’t with the Soviet state, which he never really liked, but with his ambition and the possibilities of space travel. Having defined himself based on his desire to become a cosmonaut, he slides into an identity crisis when his career betrays him.

Though Often heartbreaking, Omon Ra isn’t monotonic; there’s comedy in Omon’s mission. The idea behind it is that to impress the public, the Soviets need to send an unmanned rover to the moon. But they can’t send an unmanned rover, so they staff the space flight with cosmonauts never to be publically acknowledged, never to return to Earth. Omon’s role is to pilot the rover across the moon’s surface by riding a rigged bicycle.

The juxtaposition of the far-flung technological ambition of space flight with the crude mechanisms behind it is funny in that painful way characteristic of incisive satire. Pelevin is highly critical of the Soviet state, which is depicted as manipulative and aloof, spending time and money deceiving people instead of improving their living conditions.

One of Omon’s superiors, Urchagin, delivers a speech in which he says that in the service of a supreme truth, like Marxism, it’s okay to commit a series of untruths. It’s a rationalization which Omon doesn’t accept; he only agrees to the mission out of a sense of nihilistic fatalism and the knowledge that he doesn’t really have a choice.

Omon Ra casually refers to other deceptions committed by the Soviets; it’s implied that they never had any real atomic bombs. Pelevin isn’t making claims of real conspiracy; he’s using exaggeration to illustrate his nation’s tendency towards false grandiosity. He’s showing that the image of the state projected abroad and to its citizens is a lie. Beneath the real Soviet Union’s expansive nuclear program and cosmic ambitions is a society marked by oppression, inefficiency, and poverty.

Even during the book’s most absurd moments, it never loses its sense of humanity. Omon isn’t an original or detailed character, but his emotions are real. His initial hopes and his crushing disappointments ground the book in reality. The most effective satires mix exaggeration and comedy with an examination of how the object satirized affects people on a human level.

Pelevin probably wants Omon to be somewhat archetypal, to stand in for a Soviet populace unable to achieve its ambitions in a restrictive system, but his characterization still comes across as somewhat lazy. At some revelations, Pelevin should have probed more deeply into Omon’s psyche.

Omon Ra is successful in its portrayal of a morally bankrupt state and its tragic effect on the individual. It’s funny in its exaggerated depiction of Soviet absurdities and contradictions. Its philosophical reflections and poetic descriptions create a contemplative atmosphere which mixes surprisingly well with its fast paced story. The characterization, both of the protagonist and the secondary characters, could have been better, but Omon Ra’s positives outweigh its negatives.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on May 4, 2013 by Nick Merrill

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In 1966, Thomas Pynchon had a lot of ideas about paranoia, pop culture, history, and fragmented identity. He stuffed them into his parodic novella/novel The Crying of Lot 49, a cold, clever, innovative, and irritating text. Pynchon’s arsenal is replete with repetition, non-sequitur, and occasionally insightful chunks of dense prose.

Lot 49 tells the story of Oedipa Maas. To say that it’s about Oedipa would be to imply that she’s a well-defined character with a realistic inner struggle grounding the book. She struggles with secrecy, fantasy, confusion, and paranoia, but not in a way which can really resonate with the reader. She’s more of a cipher drifting through and struggling to make sense of a morally bankrupt, increasingly bizarre America.

Lot 49 begins with Oedipa learning of the death of Pierce Inverarity, an ex-flame and real estate tycoon. To her surprise, his will names her as executor. So she travels to San Narciso in Southern California, where she begins to uncover a conspiracy involving a secret mail service known as Trystero.

Pynchon spends much of the novel diagnosing America with paranoia. Characters call each other paranoid with alarming frequency, often questioning their own knowledge and motivations. The recurring question in Oedipa’s search for Trystero is whether the conspiracy is real, all in her head, or all an elaborate prank. Either way, Oedipa is consumed by her quest; she becomes monomaniacal in her pursuit of Trystero’s sigil, the muted trumpet.

Trystero, in its current form, is supposedly a means of correspondence between fringe groups, e.g. an assembly of individuals who’ve disavowed love. The reality or unreality of its existence is almost irrelevant, Oedipa’s paranoia and obsession being more crucial to what Pynchon’s trying to say. Early in the book, Oedipa contemplates her abstract imprisonment by comparing herself to the archetypal maiden in a tower:

What did she so desire to escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all.

The America of Lot 49 is one of right-wing fanatics and amoral hippies, quack psychiatrists and televised lawyers. Its citizens, moreso than ever before, are subject to gargantuan forces beyond their control; the television controls the popular mindset, and the Cold War holds humanity’s fate in its hands. What’s the individual’s role in all of this?

Trystero’s existence would be a double-edged sword. It would represent an escape from modern influence and the public eye – a way for people of unconventional persuasion to find and reassure each other. But it would also represent an ancient, inescapable menace. Communication is a means of power, rebellion, and redemption, according to Lot 49. It connects individuals and supports empires. Most of us take the mail foregranted, but Pynchon places it at the center of conspiracy, reminding us that it’s one of the many forces which affects us in often unseen ways.

Oedipa’s pursuit of Trystero lends some purpose to her life, but it’s unclear if her detective work liberates her from society’s mechanisms or cages her within them. This ambiguity lies at the book’s core; it throws Oedipa into an irresolvable existential crisis as she tries to understand the world’s underlying ‘magic’ which binds her.

“I came,” she said, “hoping you could take me out of a fantasy.”

“Cherish it!” cried Hilarious, fiercely.

Pynchon has a knack for thoughtful, funny passages. One that stands out is a comparison between a view of a suburban town and a view of a circuit, each hinting at some unrevealed meaning or message. Lot 49 is Oedipa’s futile attempt to uncover such a message. Another is the description of Oedipa’s husband Mucho’s job as a used car salesman, his attempts to not conform to stereotype, and his superstitious attribution of life and meaning to the vehicles he buys and sells.

Oedipa’s search for Trystero related clues, which dominates much of the novel, is its least interesting component. Pynchon’s asides are far more interesting. The central plot has thematic purpose, but it fails to engage because it’s neither emotional nor lurid. There’s a mystery without any real stakes, whether personal, local, or global.

That Lot 49 is demonstrative of a weighty, talented intellect is irrefutable. But it’s a cold book. It observes pop culture, it observes secrecy and paranoia and their relationship to identity, but it never truly conveys their effects on human consciousness. Authors often use satire and cynicism as tools to diagnose and criticize society. This isn’t necessary bad, but for social criticism to resonate, it needs to have some grounding in the genuinely human.

Oedipa, along with every other character, never gels as person. Her crisis is supposed to resonate but it doesn’t. Though her formlessness is indubitably deliberate, it hurts Pynchon’s thesis because it distances the reader from his observations. Lot 49 feels like a trip through abstract theory. There’s nothing wrong with abstract theory, but for an author to make a compelling argument about the current human condition, it needs to be balanced with earnest depictions of humans and their conditions. Parody is a well and good – it’s an incredibly useful tool – but it’s insufficient for a novel which is trying to achieve depth in the way this one is.

Books can be absurd or set in a heightened reality while still fulfilling my criteria. DeLillo’s White Noise is a great example of a satire with human tragedy at its core. Its descriptions of love and family ring true, even as DeLillo flexes his postmodern muscles by writing monotonic dialogue and engaging in digressive yet thoughtful philosophical indulgence. Infinite Jest also does this successfully. Lot 49 doesn’t.

There’s a lot to admire in Lot 49. I can’t help but enjoy some of Pynchon’s gags and clusters of elegantly descriptive prose. A memorable passage describes, in parodic detail, the plot of a Jacobean revenge play titled The Courier’s Tragedy. This bit is funny and artfully constructed, but it can’t redeem the novel. Nor can humorous observations about, among other things, the relationship between real and TV lawyers.

Lot 49, though sometimes funny and insightful, fails to find a human core and thus fails in its message.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2013 by Nick Merrill

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When I first sat down to read Infinite Jest, having found a suitably comfortable chair on the first floor of Colby’s Miller Library, I was approached by a friend who asked, “Have you started yet?” From across the room, he’d seen me pick up the massive tome with its sky blue cover. He explained that he’d attempted to start it but gotten no further than page fifteen; he thought David Foster Wallace to be highly descriptive and difficult to understand.

I read fifty pages in that sitting. I can see why my friend quit after fifteen; the opening chapter is the book’s hardest section. It’s situated at the book’s chronological end, and even after finishing all 1,079 pages, it’s not entirely clear what happened and why. There are numerous fan theories, some more logical than others, but no absolute truth.

The other random encounter I had while reading Infinite Jest also occurred in Colby’s library. While on page 200ish, a girl walked by me and remarked, “Best book ever.” During our conversation, she revealed an obsession with David Foster Wallace, manifested by her wrist tattoo of ‘This is Water,’ the title of Wallace’s famous Kenyon College commencement speech.

As I became increasingly immersed in the book, I began to understand her obsession. Wallace’s long sentences, words, and paragraphs all take some getting used to, but once you adapt to his style, reading his prose is exhilarating. His characters, even the most pathetic, are drawn so vividly that they take on an epic quality in your mind. Wallace hits you with so much breathtaking detail that his world, no matter how absurd, becomes startlingly real; you can’t help but compare it to your own.

Some authors narrate their plot in detail while leaving theme open to interpretation. Wallace does it the other way; his plot is disjointed and sometimes non-existent, major dramatic details occurring off-screen or after the ending, while he explicitly spells out his moral and philosophical themes. This could have been a weakness, but Wallace pulls it off. Every lesson he spells out is supported by the stories and digressions of multiple characters whose neuroses are often relatable and universal.

Infinite Jest  revolves around two locations, the Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA) and the Ennet Halfway House.

The ETA was founded by James Orin Incandenza, whose family dominates much of the book. They’re an odd bunch, plagued by numerous psychological disorders and united in their inability to effectively communicate with one another. The Incandenzas, despite their extreme eccentricity, are relatable; their struggles with depression, addiction, and obsession aren’t unique. But they’re particularly volatile, singularly dense in neurosis and emotional estrangement.

James Incandenza, referred to as ‘Himself’ or ‘The Mad Stork’ by his children, has been long dead throughout most of the book’s narrative. But through memory, he’s brilliantly characterized to the point where he feels as defined and distinct as any of the characters alive during the book’s main action. He’s an obscenely competent man, excelling in everything from optics to nuclear fusion to tennis to obscure avant-garde filmmaking. But he’s also an alcoholic who struggles to relate and talk to his children. His final pursuit, filmmaking, which comes to define his final years, makes for one of the book’s best recurring jokes. Himself’s films are so technical, oddly constructed, and pretentious that they’re hilarious. His most hated film, ‘The Joke,’ merely consists of live audiences sitting in a movie theater watching themselves on the big screen.

Wallace uses Himself’s filmography to comment and mock some of his own tendencies. Himself’s approach to film, in its technical specificity and anticonfluential (lack of narrative convergence) tendencies, is seen by many to be audience hostile and emotionally distant. While Infinite Jest shares the anticonfluentialism of Incandenza’s films, it succeeds where he failed by having a very strong and very sincere emotional center.

The other Incandenzas include Hal, a lexical and tennis genius who struggles with expectation, anhedonia, and marijuana dependency, Orin, a pro football player with a bundle of Oedipal conflicts which manifest as sociopathic attempts to seduce married young mothers, Mario, a disabled, heartbreakingly kind and earnest filmmaker, and Avril, the mother, whose obsessive compulsions extend to cleanliness, grammar, and enclosure.

One of the book’s great strategies is its characters’ failure to communicate and understand each other. Orin comments that he never knows what to say or how to act in his father’s presence. His father comments that he never knows what to say or how to act in Orin’s presence. During his final years, Himself imagines that Hal is unable to speak. Himself is somewhat delusional because he’s confusing Hal’s emotional detachment and loneliness with a literal inability to talk. At one point Wallace uses the Hollywood extra as a metaphor for all who feel powerless and unable to get their voice across.

Wallace’s characters are either numb or in pain. Infinite Jests’s great observation is the way we escape from pain brought on by a combination of fundamental loneliness and existential fear. Hal Incandenza, Himself’s youngest son, muses, “We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately – the object seemed incidental to this will to give ourselves away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into.”

Wallace’s three greatest examples of our worshipful tendencies are tennis, addiction, entertainment, and nationalism. ETA’s chief coach Schtitt trains students to see tennis as a form of self-transcendence. Drugs, though less useful than competitive sport, also represent an escape from self, a surrender of free will. Entertainment is more passive than the other two categories, but it’s just as important. The central plot device in Infinite Jest is Himself’s lethally pleasurable final film, ‘Infinite Jest.’ The Quebecois wheelchair assassins embody nationalism as they attempt to acquire ‘Infinite Jest,’ referred to as ‘the Entertainment,’ to use for terrorist purposes.

Much of the book is interspersed with conversations between Marathe and Steeply, the former a wheelerchair assassin betraying his brothers for love of his wife, the latter an agent of O.N.AN., the megastate of Canada, America, and Mexico. They talk about issues of free will and devotion. Marathe argues that to be free is know how to choose a cause, a path that gives your life enriching meaning. Steeply sees fascism in Marathe’s argument as he defends America’ s conception of freedom while acknowledging that an unwelcome byproduct is the shallow pursuit of pleasure at all costs. The two act as a kind of chorus, not commenting on the action so much as commenting of the themes illustrated by the action.

Wallace portrays addiction via the Ennet Halfway House, whose central character is Demoral addict/burglar turned AA attendee and house staffer Don Gately. Gately, in spite of a violent past, is the book’s most sympathetic character. He honestly and sincerely struggles to be a better person. His final chapters in the book, as he struggles with temptation, lack of communication, and painful memories, are shocking, heartbreaking, and oddly climactic.

The book’s thin central plot involving the Entertainment isn’t as important as the Entertainment’s existence. Wallace observes an America obsessed with instant gratification and the selfish pursuit of pleasure. What matters is the way his characters feel about the Entertainment, not whether or not the terrorists eventually do succeed.

Infinite Jest is so packed with too many characters and stories to possibly cover in this review, which is probably a good thing, as so much of the joy of reading the book is discovering Wallace’s creations, from the drug-addled, brilliant schemer Michael Pemulis to the gloomy yet irresistibly beautiful Joelle aka Madame Psychosis. The book is bursting with humanity from every social strata and every moral persuasion, but all of its characters grapple with similar dilemmas of alienation, freedom, sadness, and devotion.

The novel isn’t perfect. Wallace’s inclusion of detail is part of what makes the book impressive, but he goes slightly overboard. Many of his 388 footnotes cleverly elucidate character or plot detail, but some of them just add unnecessary information which might be mathematical, scientific, or linguistic. Such gusts of data aren’t limited to the footnotes. Wallace knows a lot, and he wants you to know that he knows a lot, which sometimes gets in the way of his characterization.

But what Wallace does well, he does with such virtuoso skill that his sins become forgivable. Infinite Jest is such an all-encompassing novel; it’s so sad and funny and intellectually stimulating that it’s impossible to read in totality without being consumed by its lessons and its quandaries.