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Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2013 by Nick Merrill

Cover of "Middlesex: A Novel"

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There’s an ambitious scope to  Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex which pays off beautifully. The narration is epic and whimsical, the characters are vivid, and the focus is intensely broad. It occasionally falls into repetition, and its historical element can sometimes feel a bit like Forest Gump, but overall, it’s a unique, piercing read which tackles a subject not often dealt with.

The central premise of the novel is that its protagonist narrator, originally a girl named Calliope Stephanides, learns of her hermaphroditism as a teenager and switches her gender identity to male. There’s a lot of context behind this; the first half of the book traces the history of the Stephanides family from its days in Asia minor to its hot dog empire in the United States.

Hermaphroditism can be a hard subject to understand; as humans, liminal spaces can be bothersome. We like definitions. Hermaphrodites, because of their rarity and unique genital status, have always held an interesting position in the cultural imagination. The ancient Greeks often concerned themselves with the idea of that third sex possessing male and female anatomy. That’s why it’s appropriate, and not a little canny, that Cal comes from a Greek family.

Middlesex is an epic. Eugenides’s prose is lyrical and his themes are rooted in the Classics. The original Calliope was, of course, the muse of epic poetry. Fate is integral to the story, though it has a more modern character. The narrator constantly reminds us of a kind of genetic determinism; the Stephanides family possesses a recessive mutation which, when activated, births a girl who later turns out to be a boy. Cal constantly reminds us of the inevitability of this event. Everything that happens to her ancestors leads up to the point of her conception. The novel may not contain the kind of divine fate which plagued Oedipus and so many other tragic heroes, but there is this air of inescapability.

The book isn’t a tragedy because there’s never a serious attempt to escape fate. There is hubris, particularly in Callie’s conception; her parents timed their sex based on erroneous science, hoping to game the system and produce a girl. There’s a consequence in Cal’s suffering, though he eventually comes to terms with who and what he is.

Though Middlesex jumps around in time, its story begins in Asia minor, where the Stephanides family enjoys new freedoms after the British sponsored Greek invasion of Turkey. Cal’s grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, are orphaned siblings who fall in love against the backdrop of the Turkish re-conquest. As the incestuous couple flees Turkey, they witness the burning of the ancient city of Smyrna, one of the novel’s two instances of urban chaos and destruction.

There’s an effective juxtaposition here between the individual struggle and the societal struggle. Thousands of Greeks run for their lives as a bloodthirsty army threatens everything they hold dear; racial tensions and ancient feuds collapse order. But amidst this, Lefty and Desdemona worry about their personal dilemma. They cover up their status as siblings; once they’re on the boat, they put on an elaborate show of pretending to meet as strangers and falling in love. Before they reach America, they get married.

As the years pass, ethnic tensions continue to boil over in different ways, effecting the central characters. After the focus shifts to the next generation, represented by Cal’s mother and father, Milton and Tessie, there’s an intense, devastating depiction of the 1967 Detroit race riots. There’s a rich irony in the effect the riots have on the Stephanides family; its fruition is too perfect to spoil in this review.

Identity is integral to the story. The Stephanides, upon first immigrating, are deeply Greek. Overtime, the family Americanizes. They’re still conditioned to some degree in their inherited values, but, starting with Milton’s generation, they move away from many of their ethnic traditions, adopting a more American mindset. The novel constantly reminds us of humanity’s fear of the other; how gender and racial divisions can fuel tension.

The novel, while not exactly upbeat, isn’t depressing – there’s beauty in resilience and survival. Lefty and Desdemona escape Turkey. Cal learns to accept and embrace his identity.

The latter portion of the story, which deals with Cal’s troubled adolescence, including a consuming infatuation with her female classmate, would seem out of tone with what came before if not for important thematic links. Eugenides concerns himself with collapsible boundaries. As a girl becomes a boy, a Greek becomes an American. Or, to adopt more liminal language: as a girl is a boy, a Greek is an American.

Eugenides handles Cal’s transition with sensitivity and insight. His awkward teenage years aren’t so far off from everyone else’s; we all struggle as we discover our sexuality and fall in love for the first time. But unlike most of us, Cal discovers something which seriously calls his identity into question. He changes and adopts new habits, yet somehow remains the same person. As the Stephanides family, despite Americanization, retains some of its Greek habits, Cal retains some of his feminine tendencies even as he attempts to compensate by wearing double breasted suits and smoking cigars.

The ornate, lyrical narration suits the story. It is, after all, an epic. The voice is entertaining and unique, but Eugenides does overdo it occasionally. He reminds us constantly of the recessive gene, which is important to the fatalistic concerns of the novel, but he does so too often. Repetition is important to the epic structure, but it is possible to go too far with it. Occasionally, when waxing poetic, Eugenides could’ve simply continued with the story.

Middlesex is an impressive, multifarious creation. Eugenides elegantly realizes his grand ambitions by writing a classical epic which tells the American story in an engaging way. Joyce said that, “In the particular is contained the universal.” I’m not a fan of Joyce, but I love that quote – it’s an accurate descriptor for Middlesex, which succeeds in telling the story of all of us despite the fact that its narrator has a rare and startling genetic condition.

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Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on August 27, 2013 by Nick Merrill

Motherless BrooklynEnglish: Jonathan Lethem at the 2008 Brooklyn ...

I knew I’d like Motherless Brooklyn as soon as its protagonist lost the car he was tailing because he didn’t have an E-Z Pass: a classic noir set piece colliding with modern life. It’s a novel of multifarious identity. Lethem takes a hard-boiled detective story, and casts the tourettic Lionel Essrog as its hero. While paying homage to genre, Motherless Brooklyn manages to be totally unique. As a mystery, it satisfies, but its real strength is in drawing out Lionel’s particularities. He’s a sympathetic and singular protagonist, and watching him operate in Tough-Guy-Brooklyn is fascinating.

It might seem that Lionel’s investigative abilities would be impaired by his tendency to shout nonsense and obscenity. But Lionel is, like Claudius before him, one of those characters whose exterior is at odds with his interior.

Frank Minna, a detective/wiseguy who recruits Lionel and three others from a local orphanage, training them to become the ‘Minna Men,’ is one of the few people who recognizes his intelligence. The entire book is from Lionel’s point of view, so the reader, unlike the other characters, has perfect access to his sharp, insightful mind. But because the world perceives him as stupid, he’s able to be a more competent detective than he might otherwise have been.

The novel begins with the sequence of Minna’s death followed by a flashback which explains Lionel’s troubled childhood and eventual association with the detective agency. When we return the present timeframe, the pace begins to escalate. The ‘Minna Men,’ comprised of Lionel, Daniel, Gilbert, and Tony, scramble pick up the pieces. Lionel jumps right into the case, while Tony seems more concerned with establishing himself as Minna’s successor.

As Lionel follows up leads, he meets the usual assortment of noir characters: wisecracking cops, monstrous brutes, double-crossers, intimidating dons, and corrupt moguls. The Brooklyn of Motherless Brooklyn is a working class, crime-ridden Brooklyn at odds with the surrounding world, and Lethem evokes it beautifully through its characters and its cityscape. He further elucidates its qualities by startling us with descriptions of alternate settings like Manhattan and Maine.

Lethem masterfully layers in rich detail to set the tone. For example, Lionel explains at length why he dines at certain establishments, philosophizing as to the nature of the perfect deli sandwich or hot dog. Lionel has OCD as well as Tourette’s, meaning that he’s always obsessing over detail, but Lethem makes sure that this neurosis is never boring or repetitive. Lionel’s character tics, his constant fear of shouting at inappropriate moments, and his sometimes desire to touch everything in sight, add lovely color to what might have otherwise been a more routine detective story.

Lethem deals with a sensitive issue, and some might accuse him of playing fast-and-loose with the humorous side of Tourette’s. There’s no doubt that Lionel’s symptoms often become punch-lines, but how could they not? He has an absurd disease. The world around him sees him as either an object of humor or annoyance, so while we, the readers, may often laugh at his tendencies, we’re also privy to that sensitive, humanizing side of him which reveals the tragedy of his existence.

Beneath his impulsively obnoxious exterior, Lionel is a smart, normal man. His tics can be satiated if he finds something to immerse himself in. Sex is one activity which allows him to step outside himself and calm down, but due to his nature, he rarely hooks up with anyone.

Frank Minna was a father figure and professional mentor to Lionel, so his death sets off an inevitable transformation. He made Lionel feel competent and useful. Though Lionel’s life under Minna was far better than it had been at the orphanage, he wasn’t self-sufficient. He lived above Minna’s shop, and relied on him and the other ‘Men’ for just about everything. But with Minna dead, he needs to move on and establish himself as an independent force. He needs to prove his capability, and he knows he can do that by finding Minna’s murderer.

Lethem’s prose is clean and effective; it puts us into Lionel’s head and effectively sets the hybrid mood of a comedic noir with an extremely neurotic protagonist. The melding of tone couldn’t have been an easy task, and Motherless Brooklyn convinces; its elements never feel disjointed or schizophrenic.

The book is short and economical. It’s surprising that Lionel’s tics never grate in spite of their potential for repetition. Instead, they simply become a part of the rhythm, while Lionel’s evolving maturity puts them into a continually different light. Almost every element present helps to flesh out Lionel’s character, contributing to a complex, tragic, and humorous portrait.

The character development in Motherless Brooklyn is impressive. It would’ve been so easy and so tempting for Lethem to go for the sentimental, optimistic, overcoming-the-demons ending. But he avoids that, instead showing a mixture of growth and stagnation in his main character, demonstrating life’s mixture of flux and stasis.

As is expected, most of the book’s characters aren’t as complex as Lionel. The other Minna Men could’ve done with more development, especially Tony, whose machinations prove important to the book’s climax. Interestingly, Minna himself, who’s dead throughout most of the novel, comes across as an engaging, three dimensional character: a scheming wiseguy with an unexpected soft side for misfits.

Motherless Brooklyn’s basic plot might not set it apart from other detective novels, but its brilliantly realized protagonist and its artful use of detail does. It’s a comedy which excites, stimulates, and compels.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , on July 26, 2013 by Nick Merrill

The particular aesthetic of On The Road – that vagaband wanderlust infused with sex and alcohol – will always retain a certain appeal as it diverts us from the bureaucratic banalities of day-to-day existence in America. But the book is too laden with repetition to stand out as truly great literature. It’s striking in its first 100 pages, right up until the point where Kerouac continues hitting the same notes for the rest of his story.

I read the ‘Original Scroll’ of On the Road. Unlike the version first published, it’s a memoir, not a novel. The Original Scroll uses the characters’ real names, whereas the novel uses substitutes, e.g. Neal Cassady becomes Dean Moriarty. The Original Scroll is also one long paragraph. This would’ve been more jarring had I not read Infinite Jest this year, which inoculated me to walls of text. The style actually complements the book fairly well, giving it the feeling of that long, winding, endless road which its characters live to traverse.

The book begins in New York, where Kerouac, living with his grandmother and intermittently working on a novel, first meets Neal Cassady, a voraciously curious juvenile delinquent. Kerouac surrounds himself with a group of like-minded individuals who live to create art, party, and soak up the world around them. The most notable member of his clique is eccentric poet Allen Ginsberg. They’re all in awe of Neal Cassady, whose inexhaustible appetite for sex, conversation, and adventure drives much of the story.

The book is at its most dynamic in its early sections, when Kerouac first travels westward to meet his friends in Denver. He hitchhikes much of the way, meeting an assortment of strange characters and witnessing America from an intriguingly lopsided angle. There are a few passages where Kerouac, considering the vastness of America, strikes a somewhat evocative and mystical note, passing on his joy and sorrow.

In the whole eastern dark wall of the Divide this night there was silence and the whisper of the wind, except in the ravine where we roared; and on the other side of the Divide was the great western slope, and the big plateau that went to Steamboat Springs, and dropped, and led you to the Eastern Colorado desert and the Utah desert; all in darkness now as we fumed and screamed in our mountain nook, mad drunken Americans in the mighty land. And beyond, beyond, over the Sierras the other side of Carson sink was bejeweled bay-encircled nightlike old Frisco of my dreams. We were situated on the roof of America and all we could do was yell, I guess–across the night, eastward over the plains where somewhere an old man with white hair was probably walking towards us with the Word and would arrive any minute and make us silent.

There’s a definite religious edge to the text – Kerouac was a Catholic, and his time on the road was in many ways a spiritual journey. But On the Road isn’t dogmatic, and its brand of faith has little to do with the puritanical morality that many associate with organized religion. The book’s prophet, Neal Cassady, preaches a wild lust for life. His catchphrase might as well be, “Dig _______.” He takes an interest in almost everything around: houses, people, etc.  Neal’s not a typical prophet in that he doesn’t sacrifice; he pursues his selfish pleasure with an almost overwhelming vigor. But he brings joy and ‘kicks’ to those he spends time with.

The religion of On the Road has to do with universality; Kerouac searches for God in jazz clubs, cars, women, art, etc. He hurtles across America, ever eager for the next new experience that’ll bring him closer into contact with the great organism of existence. The book’s argument is appealing if not entirely convincing. Kerouac lives his life with an enviable abandon, but his moments of spiritual epiphany sometimes feel a bit arbitrary. His writing fails to entirely convey the correlation between his overlapping tangible and ethereal experiences.

This failure is in part due to the writing’s repetitious nature. Descriptions of jazz clubs and wildly fast car rides become a bit too similar to remain engaging. Neal Cassady, whose absurd zeal starts off fresh, quickly becomes a bit one-note. There are exceptions: a few passages towards the end convey a weary, tragic aspect to Neal. But too many of his monologues sound too similar. Ultimately, he ends up sounding a bit too much like that annoying, over-excitable, cliche-spewing guy we all know.

Neal, the book’s  driving force and personality, is most palatable in small doses. He features less in Kerouac’s early travels, which is probably why I enjoyed the book’s first section more. The book quickly reaches a point where it stops surprising. I acknowledge that in 2013, the text will of course seem less shocking and inventive than it did when first published. But Kerouac’s bag of tricks is limited, and he runs out of fresh ideas quickly. The story would have been better served as a 100-150 page novella, instead of as a 300 page novel.

Kerouac’s prose has a nice, stream-of consciousness rhythm. The effect is like listening to your eloquent, slightly drunk friend rattle off an overly long but ultimately interesting story. From what I’ve read, the normal version of On the Road contains more literary digressions than the Original Scroll first draft. I took a risk reading the latter first, but it’s what we had lying around the house. And though I haven’t read the standard copy, I get the sense that the unpolished, rambling nature of the first draft might fit the story better.

On the Road is an important memoir, or roman a clef, depending on which version you’re reading. It’s comprehensive in its description of Kerouac’s wandering, but in being so it fails to be a truly great book, as it succumbs to repetition and becomes a bit monotonic. Its rhythmic style makes it easy and often fun to read throughout, even if it fails to live up to its initial promise.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on June 11, 2013 by Nick Merrill

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The Secret History is a powerful, immensely atmospheric novel. It’s a story of corruption in paradise, of intellectualized debauchery. It’s set in Bennington facsimile Hampden college, where narrator Richard Papen hopes to transcend his mundane, middle class childhood. He meets, and slowly joins, a group of elitist classics students. They dress well, spurn the college’s general culture, and study almost exclusively under the charismatic Julian.

Though lengthy and descriptive, The Secret History is thoroughly compelling. Tartt’s prose is lush but not overly ornate. Her details never feel extraneous; she says what she needs to set the mood or convey a particular emotion. The novel begins with a flashfoward; we learn that the classics cabal murders Bunny Corcoran, one of their own. From then on, the book follows a linear narrative, though there’s an omnipresent sense of doom established by opening. The central conflict erupts when the group attempts to stage a Bacchanal.

In conventional mysteries, the final revelation ties everything together. But in The Secret History, which Tartt calls a ‘whydunit,’ there isn’t a central question to be answered. There’s the motivation behind Bunny’s murder, but it’s not particularly surprising. What makes the book a mystery is the way Tartt cultivates a delicious sense of ambiguity, making us continually aware, both implicitly and explicitly, of all that we don’t know. When Richard first learns of the classics students, he begins to study them from afar. They appear aloof and intelligent, but above all, enigmatic. Even once he joins their ranks, that sense of mystery remains. In slowly revealing their secrets, Tartt reveals the possibility of further unknown plots and demons. Richard is always in the dark; each of his answered questions pose at least two more.

Tartt’s characterization is the book’s weak link. Her prose is deftly evocative and her plot is meticulously controlled, but some of her characters lack definition. Richard is well drawn, but because he’s a passive, easily manipulated personality, he doesn’t stand out. The book’s centerpiece is Henry, the quiet, brilliant rich kid whose idea of a good time is translating Milton into Latin. Henry, despite his ordinary appearance, is a powerful, commanding presence. Tartt makes us feel his silences as well as his sentences. He’s coldly logical to a fault; naturally, he orchestrates the murder. The aforementioned ambiguity is most relevant concerning Henry. He’s often kind and charitable to Henry, but there’s always the possibility of an ulterior motive.

Bunny himself is an affable blowhard. He’s a selfish, impulsive racist and bully. But he’s not one-dimensional. As detestable as he becomes, there’s a hint of something soft in him, something sensitive which may be lacking in the rest of the gang. Alongside Richard and Henry, he’s one of the book’s three complete characters. Debonair Francis and the twins Charles and Camilla, who complete the gang, never truly come alive as unique personalities.

Julian, whose charm creates the classics clique, is absent throughout most of the narrative. An early classroom scene establishes his whit and seductive philosophy, but mostly he’s a character who’s spoken of and rarely seen. When Henry describes him as a ‘divinity,’ we can’t fully understand his opinion because we’ve gotten so little exposure to the supposed deity. All of the book’s characters have unique appearances, but they’re not all easily distinguishable in terms of tendencies.

Despite the vagueness surrounding some of the book’s characters, Tartt does a brilliant job portraying the group as a unit. The classics students are tightly knit and exclusive. They occasionally interact with the broader campus culture, defined by raucous partying and drug use, but they mostly remain aloof, spending weekend’s in Francis’s country mansion. They drink excessively, they smoke excessively, and, with the exception of Henry, they work less than you’d expect. Many students view them as perverse. One states that they’re devil worshipers. But Richard’s initial attitude of fascination is transferred to the reader. Their unique, classy way of life has a definite appeal.

Tartt effortlessly describes the beauty of Hampden’s campus. Richard chooses to go there bases on its brochure. Early on, he confesses that his fatal flaw may be, “A morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.” The unstable relationship between the aesthetic and the moral is one of the book’s primary themes. Julian believes that true beauty is inherently terrifying. By his criteria, Bunny’s murder, expertly staged and set on a cliff, is beautiful. But it’s a disgusting act. Tartt succeeds in making us sympathetic towards her characters even as they delve further into heinousness, but she drives home the reprehensibility of their deed during the lengthy sequence where they go South for Bunny’s funeral and are forced to confront the emotional cost of what they’ve done.

Julian asks, “What could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely.” The Bacchanal itself, which precipitates the book’s most dramatic events,  is an effort to do exactly that. Most Hampden students, in getting riotously drunk on the weekends, are also attempting to lose control, to escape the confines of their conscious minds. But they’re doing it in a much cruder way, without bothering to intellectualize it with Greek philosophy.

The Secret History is a powerful book which never feels as lengthy as it is. It’s tragic and suspenseful. It transports you to a world you’d like to escape to, but only via fiction. The reality of it would be rather gloomy. But as captured by Tartt, it’s delicious. I realize that poor characterization is a recurring criticism in my reviews, but it’s once again relevant here. Perhaps it’s just such a hard thing to get right. But overall, Tartt’s prose and plotting make The Secret History a remarkable read.

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.