Saturday, May 7, 2011

Talking vs. writing; recent reading

Writing as a physical act—by which I mean typing—feels uninviting to me right now. Not sure why. If I had the place to myself, I'd try composing by recording myself, see if that got me somewhere.

I'm perhaps coming to associate typing with all of the tasks I do for work (I even type the comments for major student papers); speech, however, is where I find myself being most convincing. In class, I can spontaneously ramp up the level of rhetoric with such ease, typing/writing consequently feels like it taps a duller part of my brain.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, by Barry Deutsch
A delightful and clever graphic novel that ends too soon. Mirka's an Orthodox Jewish girl from a small village, and she wants to fight a dragon. Instead, she encounters a witch, a curse, and a troll. (I was disappointed that the dragon never entered the narrative.) Yiddish words abound (and are defined in footnotes), and the book is saturated with the culture of a particular (albeit indefinite) time and place that's tied with the plot. The visuals are terrific, very much in comic book mode but inventive nonetheless, with a clean, sharp style. Excellent.

Incognegro, by Mat Johnson
Speaking of graphic novels: Incognegro is a great story from the era of the Harlem Renaissance and Jim Crow. The protagonist, a black man pale enough to pass (like the author), has made a career of covertly reporting on Southern lynchings for his New York newspaper, but he'd like to retire his "Incognegro" byline and get some personal recognition for his work. One last story that he must cover—for personal reasons—comes his way, and he heads southward again with a naive friend in tow. There's humor, violence, fear, suspense, mystery and sharp observations about the era. Great, gripping book with fine artwork.

Pym, by Mat Johnson
And as long as I'm on the subject of Mat Johnson: Pym is among the strangest novels I've read, largely because the type of book it is, exactly what kind of story it's telling, shifts from chapter to chapter. This, like everything else int he work, is intended as a nod toward Poe's original story, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Johnson takes the herky-jerky, abruptly concluded and casually bigoted tale and flips it, repeatedly, as he dissects race relations, blackness, whiteness, politics, genocide, junk food, kitsch (nice to see someone so directly take a whack at what exactly is so wrong with Thomas Kinkade) and the age-old question of why six black people on a boat just can't get along. Some lines are laugh-out-loud funny, and the plot is increasingly goofy and harrowing at the same time. An enjoyable work that doesn't quite exceed the sum of its parts (I wasn't surprised to see Johnson say in his acknowledgements that he'd considered abandoning the book several years into it), Pym nevertheless has plenty of fine moments and twists to remember.

Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, by David Lipsky
I love Wallace's essay on David Lynch, but his fiction puts me off and other essays of his bog down for me. The late writer has been in the news recently because his editor put together an unfinished novel of Wallace's—an idea that seems, to me, lacking in merit. In addition, Jonathan Franzen's essay in a recent New Yorker dealt with Wallace (and Robinson Crusoe and rarely seen birds), so Wallace is in the air, which led to begin reading a road trip/interview book about a writer I don't typically enjoy reading. (I also watched on youtube Wallace's last appearance on the Charlie Rose show; I liked it, though the voice of that man doesn't seem like the voice of the interviewee in this book, leading one to ask which pose is closer to the actual person.) I got about a third of the way into the book before feeling I'd taken from it much of what it would likely offer in its remaining two thirds. Problematizing the text was that, though the author used it as the basis of an old article for Rolling Stone, this raw version is peppered throughout with references to Wallace's suicide, so that every grim moment becomes an omen. We know Wallace lost his struggle with depression, and hearing him in this book seems less a glimpse of a man burning brightly than a man inhabiting the valley of the shadow.

All Quiet on the Orient Express, by Magnus Mills
I loved two other Mills novels; Explorers of the New Century is shockingly good (and good 'n' shocking) and Three to See the King is stunningly strange. Like those novels, this one is parabolically told, the narrator's flat affect unable to conceal with the world is somehow bent even more than usual. The title doesn't do much—I get it, but it's not particularly clever—and the devices by which the story proceeds are somewhat too familiar by this point (though this is his second novel, after The Restraint of Beasts; I'm not reading his work in sequence), and it's somewhat less successful because, unlike the others I read, it doesn't take you to a new world. Instead, it takes you to rural England, which already seems creepy if you've watched the old TV show The Avengers or seen any British horror from the 20th century. We know what these people are capable of, we know little towns have secrets, we know the traps in place for a man alone. Mills's contribution to this narrative of British complicity and passivity (these seem to be the traits he's attacking) is different, though: the thing that entices our traveler from elsewhere to stay is useful work accomplished with some handiness. Planning only a holiday, he instead becomes, through his unpaid (or is it?) labor, integral to the town and a participant in an economy of clutching dependence. Enjoyable and disturbing.


Calvin said...

I just finished "Pym" myself, and although I wouldn't have been able to say it as coherently as you did, I agree with your assessment. A hilarious satire that nearly falls apart at the end (although I think he was trying to get to the very last line, which sums up the novel nicely). I admit I was distracted by the thinly-veiled Kinkade--who was so thinly veiled that I kept stopping to wonder, 'Could Kinkade sue him for this?' Probably not, but it illustrates what a delicate dance satire is. And overall one of the more enjoyable reads I've had in a while.

Joey said...

One minor thing that threw me off near the end of Pym was the repeated misuse of physiognomy to mean physiology. You'd think the editor would have caught that.

The Karvel character made me wonder whether Kinkade is even a Republican. A capitalist, sure, but a Fox News fan?

William Preston said...

Calvin, I agree that it was an incredibly bald-faced take on Kinkade. And while I was taken with his critique of Kinkade's painting, his use of it in the context of racial politics--or, really, as a particularly disturbing aspect of "whiteness," a kitschy white nostalgia--seemed shoehorned into the book.

Joey, I saw a few startling errors. Given that the narrator was supposed to be an academic, the level of the prose generally didn't fit, but mistakes like what you noticed I blame on sloppy editing. It seems to be more the rule than the exception in novels these days. And again on Karvel/Kinkade: I'm not clear on why the novel conflated so many weird white tropes in one character . . . except as a attack on Poe's tendency to do the same with black characters (though I thought the white monsters managed that).