Saturday, December 8, 2012

Ungoogleable: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

First to the weaknesses of Robin Sloan's first novel, all of which are ironic:

For a book about books, there's little sense of what it's like to read a book, and little reading of actual books. Most of the books here, all hardbound tomes, are texts to decipher rather than stories to read.   The contents seem to be irrelevant (I may have missed something here) except insofar as they lead to the next book in a cycle. The one book that, as a story, is important (though you know all along that it will factor into the endgame) only becomes crucial when listened to—and although I know the importance of reading aloud, the experience of listening to a book on tape seems mispraised, and the book being listened to isn't well written enough to even be interesting when read aloud.

Additionally, the writing in this novel is . . . brisk. It does what it needs to do, but there's not a single sentence over which one might linger. The writing is clear, but not worth attention as writing.

Finally, the argument in favor of books and bookstores seems built on their accidents rather than their essence (if I may be so Aristotelian). All of us who love books do, in part, love their appeal to the senses, and all of us who love bookstores have attachments both sensual and nostalgic to the experience of bookstores and the books we purchased there. However, that's not quite the same as arguing in favor of books as books or for the continued existence of bookstores (and Mr. Penumbra's is, for much of the book, ill-supplied with good reading material).

Moving on to what I liked . . .

What the book does well is manifold. Though the writing isn't special—and relies on the kind of clichés of suspense you've seen many times before—Sloan does a great job incorporating the latest language of social and online discourse in a way that sounds natural. This, I think, is a major achievement. One reason Stephen King's narrative voice grates so on me is his self-conscious dropping of brand names and working-class codewords; it's an insistent style that's never felt smooth. Sloan manages to pull off something similar, a style that slides high (though not very high) to low smoothly, sounding contemporary without sounding forced.

Sloan clearly loves both the world of Google and the world of "OK," Old Knowledge, the "facts" that will die if we don't save all the books but also the facts that inevitably die with the passing of any one person. People throughout the novel display incredible skill in searching through the power of Google and the massed computing of many countries, but the human element often trumps this great mechanistic might.

Sloan moves between the real world (the Google campus) and invented facts about the world (a fictional ubiquitous font) with slick cleverness. Characters matter-of-factly describe real-world details that aren't at all true, pulling us into the narrative Sloan wants to tell without letting slip how much of it is fantasy. Well played.

The story itself is something of a poor man's Umberto Eco, a bit of Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, but without the density or breadth or on-display literateness. Like both of those books, part of the point is that the solution to huge mysteries is usually less interesting than the search, and that these mysteries we create often miss the greatest mystery, which is ourselves, our own fragile life here. Sloan fashions a quest narrative that raises questions about the value of human endeavor, and it's not a question he raises only to dismiss it. It is, in fact, the true conflict of the novel, as every character is engaged, in one way or another, with making a mark on the world, establishing a name, aiming to endure. These are ideas worth reflecting on, and Sloan studies them from several angles in order to arrive at his conclusion.

And now I must address further my disappointments. The puzzle of the book is fine, and Sloan takes us to fun places to explore that puzzle, but aspects of the solution feel like a cheat, and I'm unconvinced by the final solution, which seems not only muddy but, if I understood correctly, not likely to have been achieved in the century it was set in steel. Also, and more problematic, the protagonist gives a slide show at the end of the novel . . . and only one of the slides is described, and that one as a sort of by-the-way. It's as if Sloan thought his publisher would be putting in some color plates for us to view, but those never made it to the printer. It's one more puzzle in a book filled with them.

In conclusion: I enjoyed it, it reads fast, and the author does some fine work, but in retrospect the book feels thin and not the best way to have spent my time.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Bolaño: Dances with other writers

Two stories in Roberto Bolaño's collection The Insufferable Gaucho (2003; 2010 English trans.) draw directly from major writers who shaped his work, and it's instructive to see how Bolaño manages these dances.

The title story's protagonist, a retired judge, Pereda, knows he's reenacting a Borges story, "The South," a useful bit of intelligence to convey to the reader, who can then find the story on her bookshelf. Though I hadn't read "The South" until after reading "The Insufferable Gaucho," perhaps it's worthwhile to begin with the Borges to best understand how Bolaño uses it. A brief tale, told largely in broad strokes before arriving at the one momentous scene, concerns Dahlmann, an Argentinian with German ancestors, who, after years of a professional life in the city decides to move to a large ranch in the country, an estate he recalls from his youth. Before he can do that, Dahlmann hits his head and endures treatments that seem like Kafkaesque tortures rather than helpful medical treatments. In the end, released from his torment, he arrives in the country, and, through an inadvertent set of actions, finds himself, at the story's end, about to face a drunk in a knife fight he will certainly lose. "Reality is partial to symmetries and slight anachronisms," Borges writes, and the story turns on such elements that seem to carry the protagonist forward toward something ironic and inevitable.

Bolaño's protagonist, aware of how fate can grind you down, in part because he's read Borges, nonetheless embarks on a similar journey, wanting to resurrect the family's rural estate. Though the landscape is surreal, prowled by carnivorous rabbits who race trains and attack travelers, and the judge has to wait for money sent by his former housekeeping staff, Pereda throws himself into the task of reviving the estate, employing, despite their relative uselessness, a host of gauchos and gathering people to himself. Unlike the protagonist of Borges's story, this man pushes back against the direction in which history seems to be moving. By the end, Bolaño has inverted the narrative: Pereda's son is a writer, and when Pereda returns to the city to see young writers gathered in pointless discussion at a familiar café, he challenges one of the men, confident of his success in a knife fight. The stories contain other parallels, but Bolaño's is, I think, both a comment on the different cultural moments out of which the writers emerged as well as a comment on how writers use their materials. Certainly Bolaño constructs more of a "story" rather than a "tale," but he also grants his aged leading man some agency: like Bolaño, he is aware of a literary and iconic past; like Bolaño, he refuses to be helpless in the wake of such a past. Since the gauchos in Bolaño's tale are harmless, the title itself may be a rebuke to the gaucho of the Borges tale, a motionless symbol of a man who, at the crucial moment, tosses Dahlmann a knife he shouldn't pick up.

"Police Rat," another long story in this brief book, has its origins in "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk," Kafka's last completed story. (A line from the Muirs' translation, "So perhaps we shall not miss so very much after all," is the Bolaño collection's epigraph.) Though "Police Rat" doesn't mention Kafka or his story, the narrator, Pepe the Cop, tells us early on that he's one of Josephine the Singer's nephews. Kafka's story—which employs mice rather than rats—is a rumination (perhaps) on the relationships between an artist and her audience. Most mice simply "pipe," but Josephine sings, or at least she tells her fellows that that's what she's doing, or that's what they believe . . . or want to believe. The story, which is more a portrait of this relationship, floats ideas and then backs away from them; describes situations and then cautions the reader about the descriptions; posits motives from which it retreats but then reasserts. Josephine moves from being, at the outset, clearly someone special to, by the end, a shadowy and even unpleasant figure, so that the narrative arc is one of increasing uncertainty by the narrator, who finds he can neither defend her nor the idea of an art form. (Mice, after all, have no sense of music.)

Bolaño expands Kafka's mental circlings by moving to include all of human nature in the dark plot of "Police Rat." Kafka, too, asks why the mice do what they do, but Bolaño's rats, more capable of self-awareness (and more likely projections for human readers), don't simply lie to themselves about the realities of hope; instead, they work to construct the lies that hold society together, and like characters in a '70s police movie, those in charge possess ulterior motives while even the bit players seem to be in on the true nature of the world, leaving Pepe the sole seeker of justice for the innocent. It's a terrific story with far more narrative momentum than Kafka's piece, and it's not at all necessary to have first read "Josephine," or to read it at all. Like "The Insufferable Gaucho," the story not only takes into account a preceding storyteller, it also raises questions about how stories function for us to both reveal and conceal.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Those pesky third acts: MacLeod's NIGHT SESSIONS

A recommendation on the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction forum led me to order from the library Ken MacLeod's science fiction novel Night Sessions. Knowing nothing of the book at the outset, I enjoyed having no clue as to its direction in the early chapters, in which, in the near future, a future of space elevators and sentient robots, a preacher to robots meets with fellow religious conservatives; English police investigate the possible murder (by bomb) of a Catholic priest; and a nature preserve in New Zealand hosts both a creationist dinosaur display and refugee robots.

The book moves pretty quickly, and the writing is smart and interesting, so I flew through it. Though it seemed to have several possible directions it would take, the novel is largely a police procedural; unfortunately, our copper protagonist tends to be a step or two behind the reader at every point, so much of what transpires in the latter half of the book doesn't come as much of a surprise. Still, the plot does pull one along.

More compelling than the plot, though, are the novel's ideas and backstory. Whether you call them the Faith Wars or the Oil Wars, some tremendous conflict, centered at the biblically infamous plains of Megiddo, led to a clamp down on religious intensity in the U.S. and U.K. Churches still exist, but they have no part in public discourse; still, religious fundamentalism (of the Christian kind) continues to thrive in pockets. What MacLeod does well is provide credibility to characters who believe in a young Earth; they don't see themselves as anti-science, but as interpreting scientific data in a way biasing biblical rather than, say, Darwinian (or geologically commonsensical) conclusions. Another huge element in this world is the accidental sentience that's come to some of its robots, a sentience that has not only raised ethical problems but that has resulted in beings with their own existential and theological questions. MacLeod doesn't spend much time on this background material, letting us know what we need to know as the plot maintains pace. It's effectively done and leaves some areas to the imagination while also keeping us informed.

The novel's conclusion ties all the aforementioned elements together, but without the attendant drama the resulting events require. Some of it's exciting, but the truly big moments end up feeling small.

The biggest let-down comes in an area that, for much of the book, is well done: the theology. One of the major players in the tale, a man who preaches to robots, experiences a last-minute realization about the nature of the Bible because another character points out a single biblical contradiction. Given that the guy works at a creationist playland, he'd have to be aware of the obvious contradictions and inherent problems in the two side-by-side Genesis creation accounts and, presumably, have worked out some kind of double-think or intellectually dishonest set of logical steps to deal with those problems—just as every other biblical literalist has to do. That a single contradiction in the texts, undermining the notion of Moses' authorship of the Torah, would have such a devastating effect is an oddly clunky way for MacLeod to overturn this fellow's convictions, and the reversal feels as pat (and flat) as the rest of the conclusion.

Nevertheless, I want to praise what MacLeod has done well (and I understand he has several fine books): the novel contains interesting characters (though the robots tend to have more personality than the humans), the writing is smart and enjoyable, and the tale is built on thoughtful premises. I recommend the writer, and, had the ending felt less rushed, I would heartily recommend the book, which I can only laud in part.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

What makes a short story memorable? (No answer here.)

These days, most short stories, unless I teach them, slide off me. (Whole novels do as well, in truth.) When I consider all the stories I remember well, most of them come from when I was young and, as we say, with literal accuracy, impressionable. I know I read some Bradbury stories only once, but still they left their marks. Most of those that stayed, though, I read more than once. The same is true for the Harlan Ellison read in later high school. And then everything by Flannery O'Connor stuck. Much that I read of Updike.

Was it only the newness of these things as my affection for fiction deepened? So few collections in the years since have had such an effect on me. Chris Offutt's amazing collection, Kentucky Straight, comes to mind, though I don't think, half a dozen years later, I can talk about any individual story. Why is that? I keep hoping I'll come upon such memorable nonfiction again. (I'm sure I'm forgetting, at the moment, some more recent things that have actually clung to my brain. I know I enjoyed James Lasdun's It's Beginning to Hurt, and George Saunders and Jim Shepard have successfully planted flags in my head. Still: Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?)

I'll certainly remember the Harlan Ellison story I just finished. Recently reading about Ellison, I saw that his story "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore" ran in the 1993 edition of Best American Short Stories, edited by Louise Erdrich. Especially since I'm teaching American literature (and one of Erdrich's books is on my curriculum), I was drawn to the story for its title, though the idea that it might connect with my curriculum didn't pay off.

The story, told in brief vignettes, involves a man name Levendis who slips through time taking actions which are alternately brutal, helpful, and timeline-changing. In a device that appears purposeless, each vignette is introduced by "LEVENDIS" and a colon. Almost immediately, I was  reminded of Shirley Jackson's terrific "An Ordinary Day, with Peanuts" (a couple takes turns doing random good and not-so-good acts), and Ellison at one point makes it clear that Levendis has read the story as well. (This contributes not to the tales cleverness but to its clunkiness.) The piece has some nice moments, but there's no synergy to the thing, no sense that it accrues strength as it goes on. It's mostly Ellison riffing on an idea, which, yes, is fun, but left me wanting more. The prose bothers me in the way Stephen King's prose bothers me, in the way the author slips into casual speech—not because it's the best way to get the point across but because, I feel, the writer is trying to establish some down-to-earth cred. This rings false to me. Nevertheless, the story stuck with me (more in its overall idea than its particulars; I think John Kessel's "The Pure Product" gives some of the same idea much more heft and power). Unfortunately, for my money, Ellison ruins what's good about the story—its enigmatic refusal to pin down a predominant purpose—in the author's note at the end of the collection. Ellison talks at length about the recent death of Avram Davidson and of his long desire to get into such a fine literary collection. That's all good stuff. But then he wants to tell us the "point" of the story, undercutting his own work. I often say to students that the author is not always the go-to person when you want to know a story's purpose, and this may be such a case; I think, rather than the "randomness rules" theme Ellison sees, there's much in the story about the nature of the writerly imagination. Whatever Ellison thinks the story is about, he should have avoided saying it.

I read several stories in Jeffrey Ford's acclaimed collection The Drowned Life. Reading the title story late at night did not aid in the appreciation process: I kept nodding off. That wasn't the story's fault, but every time I picked it up again, I found that what had come before had found no traction. That is, I think, the story's fault. It feels aimless, and while I found much of the imagery interesting, the piece didn't seem to accrue meaning as it went forward, nor did its components become more clearly analogous to anything in the real world. As with Ellison's story, the writing had some of that "rough" contemporary phrasing which is an authorial stance I find tiresome. The weight of modernity (or something) makes our hero slip "under," entering a watery world he needs to escape. The best elements—and they're quite memorable—have that quality of the dreams that wake us: the distress of being unable to retain information, unable to reach a destination, unable to back out of a path on which a dream has led us. The piece felt more as if it simply ended rather than resolved, but the later scenes, full of dread, were excellently rendered. "A Few Things About Ants," however, had an even more fragmentary structure that resulted in less synergistic success. I'll have to read more of the stories to see whether the non-story is a standard approach for Ford.

Having heard Donald Ray Pollack, author of the collection Knockemstiff (the actual name of his home town in Ohio), interviewed on Fresh Air, I ordered his collection from the library. A self-taught writer, Pollack spoke of how he learned to write by copying, word for word, stories he liked; he'd carry a copied story around with him for a week, then copy down another one. Assuming one has a good ear and good taste, it's a fine method of instruction. The collection's first story, "Real Life," stars a little boy whose father taught him "how to hurt a man," and on the night in question, the boy receives, from this unpleasant specimen of humanity, something that passes for love. It's an unsurprising turn—we've seen it before—but Pollack is smart enough to make the scenes of brutality feel startlingly real and off-kilter, and he's also smart enough to push the story past the more familiar resolution to involve the mother in a scene that complicates further our understanding of these people. The collection's second story, "Dynamite Hole," takes an unexpected approach to its story of brutality and confusion by refusing to first establish sympathy for its inhumane main character. Not that we dislike him from the outset, but the character pulls us into his visceral responses and unappealing life before we can form any judgment. Then Pollack complicates our horror by making the character human (though not humane) in two moments at the end. I'm looking forward to reading more of this collection.

The only story I've read from Krys Lee's Drifting House is the first one, "A Temporary Marriage," which, though it has interesting characters (a South Korean woman who has, for reasons that are unclear, lost her daughter in a divorce; the odd and awkward man, a divorced Korean living in America, who takes her in so she can hunt for her daughter), proceeds in unsurprising ways for most of its length. But the woman's past is hidden for a reason, and she turns out to be not what we expected, so that the story rewards rereading once we understand that, like Mr. Rhee, we've been living with someone keeping her true self concealed.

Lastly, in my ongoing revisiting of Bradbury, I reread "The Dwarf," from The October Country, a collection I've always loved and made even better through Joe Mugnaini's illustrations (the image for "The Dwarf" looks like something Gahan Wilson might have done). It's hard to read this story now and not feel discomfited by its treatment of the "dwarf" in question. Mostly, it's one character who treats him badly, inverting his hopes after the man's girlfriend tries to do "Mr. Big" a good turn, but the way the story largely reduces the character to a symbol feels, in our more aware times, unpleasant. True, Bradbury grants the man his humanity by the end, but the genre, with the kind of "toughness" you'd see in dime-store fiction, doesn't allow much more.

And so I wonder why some stories work and other don't, why some stay with me and other slip away, even as I'm working on several pieces of my own. "About the Author" has, I'm aware, much of the randomness of the Ellison story: Does it add up to anything? Must it? Must I know exactly what? My next "Old Man" story, which I've set aside while I focus on some shorter, easier (one hopes) things, makes narrative demands on me that other stories haven't, and I want the work that goes into it to pay off for the attentive reader. Then there's "Vox ex Machina," a story that is writing itself (except in how it's going to play out at the end); it seems like the kind of tale people will remember. Isn't that what a writer wants?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Rereading Ray Bradbury (Pt. 3): Melancholy's medicine

The collection A Medicine for Melancholy, first published in 1959, contains a broad range of stories published over the previous ten years in venues from Playboy to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to the Saturday Evening Post. The collection contains some of Bradbury's most-remembered (not just by me) science fiction tales: "The Dragon," "Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed," and "All Summer in a Day." In addition, "The Wonderful Ice-Cream Suit" became a play.

Because the stories were written over the course of more than a decade, you can spot the shifts in Bradbury's style. It's hard to trace precisely, because some of the publication dates are missing, but that tendency to have voluble characters who, like Bradbury himself, go on and on about their big ideas, increases with the years. Earlier, it's the narrative voice that allows itself all that energy, and that works pretty well, and is typically balanced by Bradbury's sense that he should keep the narrative compact. By the end, the narrative voice has largely been shoved out of the way to allow the characters to go on at length, much as Bradbury allowed Faber and Beatty to prattle away in Fahrenheit 451 (an initially shorter piece he'd somewhat awkwardly inflated to novel length).

I reread the collection's first four stories—"In a Season of Calm Weather" (a man longing to meet Picasso comes upon him making elaborate drawings in beach sand), "The Dragon" (two men from the Middle Ages await a beast that rides through the mist; we learn it's a train crossing the time-twisted moors), "A Medicine for Melancholy" (an 18th-century English lass finds that it's sexual longing that ails her, though Bradbury is marvelously discreet), and "The End of the Beginning" (a man mowing his lawn waits with his wife for the launch of their son's rocket)—as well as "Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed," from later in the book. Each story has its pleasures. Though very little happens in "In a Season of Calm Weather," and I don't think Bradbury does a great job of conjuring the images Picasso etches on the beach, there's a nice sense to it of the fragility of art. "The Dragon," short and to the point, does exactly what it ought to do. "A Medicine for Melancholy" hurries itself along with characters shouting and speaking ridiculously, but it's a good tale with clever turns to it. "The End of the Beginning," like "The Machineries of Joy," is dominated by "philosophical" talk and introspection; brevity of speech and conciseness of prose would have helped enormously.

The best of the bunch, and one of Bradbury's best stories ever, is "Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed," one of his Martian tales. It runs too counter to the predominant narrative of most of his other Martian stories, so it couldn't have fit into The Martian Chronicles. Rather, it's an alternate history of the colonization of Mars, in which everything we take with us to that planet is changed—our plants, our ideas, our bodies. There's a creeping sense from the outset that something terrible is going to happen, and Bradbury both follows that sense to its conclusion while subverting it beautifully. Then he adds one more narrative twist to send us in another direction and comment on what's gone before, planting, too, one more tiny turn at the end. It's a masterful story that avoids the verbal windiness of many of the other pieces. The writing is, like the best of the work in The Martian Chronicles, tight and evocative. He moves the story forward quickly, but pauses to give us haunting moments and disturbing exchanges. The writer of this story is the one to learn from.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Another End of Childhood: Wyndham's THE CHRYSALIDS

Much as in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (and in John Wyndham's own The Midwich Cuckoos), The Chrysalids posits a future transformed by children putting their minds together in ways adults can't.

Following a Tribulation (given the evidence, a nuclear war) that took place possibly thousands of years in the past, life has become simpler and narrower, at least for people living in Labrador. There's government and civil society, and a steam engine appears to be this culture's technological leap. People are aware that there was a former world of great marvels, but these Old People brought ruin upon themselves; the predominant view seems to be that the destruction wrought was ordained by God, and given that the most notable surviving texts from the former time are the Bible and some much later religious text, what has emerged in a culture like that of the Puritans, focused on family, fearful of what might be in violation of the Creator's will.

"The mutant" is the greatest evil: any deviant plant or other lifeform should be destroyed. As even one of the heterodox characters points out, such a position is reasonable given that, in the wilder regions south of our setting, nature has sprouted forms at odds with existing species, and, if you're going to be cultivating plants and practicing animal husbandry, you ought to exercise control over biological developments. But is every new form evil? A breed of giant horses is accepted by the government, and the local leader—and father or David, our protagonist—thinks this represents a moral failing by pragmatic politicians.

The real problem is for humans who don't follow "the true form," a form preached about and sung about, the human form that the Old People and the people of the Bible possessed (though, as is pointed out, the Bible is unclear about how exactly its humans look). David's first best friend, Sophie, has an extra toe, leading to his first rift with his father and his people. But that's just a hint of the larger rift to come, as David, and others, discover telepathic abilities. To say more is to give away too much of the plot, but Wyndham manages to set in motion a host of plot threads that all converge pretty well at the end. It's a satisfying story.

How Wyndham tells the story, however, is a mixed bag. There's nothing special about the voice: it's pretty standard, calm, clear storytelling in the English style, with some dramatic beats tossed in. It reads smoothly. Much of the story is conveyed through summary, as David describes the passage of years or the long development of a relationship. The most important relationship in the novel, David's with his lover, takes place almost entirely in passing, vague references, then in summary, until we finally see the two of them together, which doesn't help us see the relationship in the profound terms David does. There are several good scenes in the novel (though one takes place for which David clearly isn't present), but much more exposition and—because of the central premise of telepathy—dialogue between and among people who can't see each other. Even when people are together, they tend toward lengthy pronouncements and explanations, again undercutting the drama.

A few times, Wyndham seems aware of this problem, as David, stuck "listening" to someone's "thought-shapes," tunes the person out or comments on their problematic tone (since people projecting their thoughts can't read the doubtful reactions of their listeners). Even so, the dialogue is interesting, not as stiff as such a structure might lead you to expect.

An enjoyable book all around. It has elements of the other two Wyndham books I've read (Day of the Triffids contains things that don't grow as they ought), but the story is better. Triffids felt aimless and odd; The Midwich Cuckoos had a narrator watching things at arms-length. David isn't a memorable character, but he has relatable conflicts such as how to take what adults are telling him, and whether to conceal things from his parents. The book also takes a strange philosophical path at the end which may not actually be the writer's point of view, and David questions whether he's going from one autocratic perspective to another, though, by the final scene, he seems to have dropped that question.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


I've often referred to Stewart O'Nan's novel A Prayer for the Dying, telling my students it's the one "serious" book I know that uses second-person narration, the "you" being the novel's major character while also, by implication, the reader. ("Choose Your Own Adventure" stories present us with the "non-serious" example, the "you" there being expressly the reader-as-protagonist.) Students think it would be strange to read such narration for the duration of a novel, but my experience was that, after the initial surprise, you pretty quickly slip into seeing the novel as simply possessing a third-person limited narrator, the "you" being a grammatical hiccup that is actually the equivalent of he/him. I suppose that book's plot twist (the character is lying to himself about something) seems more disturbing because there's the implication that you, not only the protagonist, have failed to perceive something you should have perceived, but I don't know that the surprise would have been less effective in the usual narrative style, and in fact I wouldn't say there's anything thematic or insightful achieved by O'Nan's ploy. Still, I enjoyed the novel and remembered it.

I came to The Night Country because, in the wake of Ray Bradbury's death, it was mentioned as an homage to Bradbury (to whom it's dedicated). For most of the novel, I couldn't see that, but at the end, I suppose one is meant to recognize how the plot is a long-playing variation on Bradbury's classic short story "The Crowd." (A man realizes through newspaper photograph—and later first-hand observation—that accident victims are surrounded by the same people forming an instant crowd; the crowd, it turns out, consists of people who died in previous accidents. Obviously, the protagonist can't be allowed to live with this information.)

The plot of the novel is this: One year ago, on Halloween, five high school kids drove into a tree; three died—Chris called Toe, Danielle, and Marco, who narrates—and two lived—Kyle, whose head injuries have turned him into an infantile version of himself, and Tim. It's clear from early on that Tim means to reenact the events of that day, including the crash, finishing off himself and Kyle. The other major character (Kyle's mother has a minor but important role, but is a bystander to the key events) is Brooks, a police officer who carries around a load of guilt about the events of that day. It's also made clear early on that Brooks's guilt, which has led to the breakup of his marriage and his general uselessness as a police officer, is justified; we're not, at first, told explicitly what he did that makes him culpable, but enough hints are dropped that the type of thing he did—pursuing the kids' vehicle in such a way to cause the accident—is obvious, making the exact details, when they arrive, underwhelming.

Much like A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving, The Night Country intentionally telegraphs its ending and then, largely, doesn't veer from its foreordained outcome. Irving's novel frustrated me for many reasons, but I found the plot structure especially frustrating, as I kept expecting Irving to twist the story in some way that would render the outcome simultaneously inevitable yet surprising, true to what had been predicted while playfully out-of-alignment. Instead, it all occurred just as had been foretold. The Night Country suffers from the same problem, though O'Nan tries to make the journey more suspenseful by withholding the precise details. Less than halfway through the book, I realized it wasn't compounding events and observations in a meaningful way, but I plowed ahead, hopeful for the conclusion.

Irving's novel, though, does give us some engaging characters, even if some of them aren't terribly credible. O'Nan's characters are as jammed into their trajectory as the plot; in fact, saying they have a "trajectory" beyond the plot is misleading. Every character is stuck, the dead as well as the living. No one has any interest or design outside the accident; it has consumed everyone. I suppose that's a point O'Nan wants to make, but reading about characters who can't develop and who seem either planless or locked into plans that rise out of despair is not interesting or moving. This could work for a short story, and in fact the whole plot could have been dispensed with much more quickly, since nothing much happens—which is one of the book's ideas. In The Plague, Camus painted characters who are stuck in repetitious lives, but they don't see themselves that way, and the plot and prose pull us through that novel; O'Nan's novel simply fails to thrive. It's hard to even see what aspect of it was satisfying for the novelist, since, once he's established his characters and their situations, the story is essentially done. After the opening, it's an exercise.

The novel seems to be embarking into interesting storytelling territory by giving us a dead narrator who tends to speak collectively, including his friends in an authorial "we." But that conceit falls away pretty fast once the dead characters differentiate themselves; unfortunately, we learn little about any of these ghosts beyond the first and final facts. The narrator is the least well-defined character in the novel. That's a problem. Why was he chosen to tell this story? All of the ghosts are helpless, unable to truly alter what's going to happen, but they do have some minor talent at redirecting people's attentions or making animals run into their paths. (Mostly they're hauled around by whomever is thinking about them at the time.) There's some panic when they realize that Kyle, who isn't dead, nonetheless has a ghostly, "real" self who shows up but doesn't interact with them. This true Kyle, evidently the aspect of him that has died, evinces the ability to move objects, but this plot element, introduced as possibly altering events, has no payoff. The end, too, which should produce a few more ghosts, seems not to, so the climax doesn't result in much of a denouement. You're just done. Then there's a Slaughterhouse-Five ripoff in which history is made beautiful by being rewound, but it seems tacked on rather than integral.

Severely disappointing.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

In which I'm interviewed

The sound is punky a few times, but stick with it, as it improves. This is my third time being interviewed by Ric and Art at the Book Cave, who talked to me about each of my previous "Old Man" stories.

That fourth participant is Art's bird, Billy, who clearly wants to contribute to the discussion.

The Book Cave Interview

Right-click on the MP3 (two-finger tap for MacBook users) to download the podcast.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Rereading Ray Bradbury (Pt. 2): "Machineries of Joy"

My earliest exposure to Ray Bradbury was the short story "The Man," a Jesus-in-space tale (to which I'm subtly nodding in my next "Old Man" story) which appeared in an anthology of science fiction stories collected by Boy's Life. After that came "The Chrysalis," which I ran across in R is for Rocket. The first full collection I read was The Illustrated Man, and by then I was going full-bore for Bradbury, buying the Bantam collections with the bust of Bradbury on the covers. (Covers that broke from that imprint style included the all-horror-story October Country and I Sing the Body Electric.) Aside from Bradbury's face, the covers promised science fiction and fantasy scenarios, with odd images and the cover blurbs "A Masterwork of Fantasy" and "The World's Greatest Living Science Fiction Writer."

So what was a Bradbury reader like me to make of the collection Machineries of Joy, of which fewer than half of the stories could be seen as "speculative fiction"? And, as a young reader groomed to have certain expectations of the writer's tendencies (though I'd certainly encountered the occasional non-fantastic piece in the other collections), how was I to understand the subtle, almost plotless first short story in the collection, "The Machineries of Joy"?

Here again were the familiar Bradburian priests (who'd led me to assume for years that Bradbury was Catholic or at least raised Catholic; little did I know that he was using Catholics (in a bizarre turn of events for a once-suspect faith in the U.S.) as a kind of safe, all-American religious default the way Capra and other filmmakers would in the middle of the century). Erudite and theologically relaxed, as always, the characters engaged in discussions that, for me at the time, were elliptical and obscure, with some ill-defined Italian/Irish conflict among this community of men (were they all at the same parish? Not knowing what a rectory was, I thought they were all wandering around some giant house together for unknown purposes), and the occasional mention of outer space and the pope. At the end of the story, the faux conflict resolved, the men sit to watch a space launch, but, since I assumed I'd been reading a work of fantasy and I hadn't been able to grasp the nature of the priests' conflicts, I thought they were in a rocket ship and all being launched into space. This made the story rather more strange and haunting than Bradbury intended.

Rereading the story last night, I found it to be pretty successful. The characters don't all sound like Bradbury, or even entirely like each other (similar-sounding speakers is a problem that would severely harm Bradbury's later work); even the priest who gets to make speeches keeps the ranting reined in. The prose is sharp and clear and economical, and the ending is beautiful. The story first appeared in Playboy, as did a half dozen of the stories in this collection; many of the rest appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. Looking back now on Bradbury's career, a collection like this is evidence that you couldn't pigeonhole Bradbury, who wrote more non–science fiction than otherwise; it's odd to think that, at the time, he was still being marketed as a science fiction writer (and those SF and F stories remain the most resonant for readers), though he was selling diverse, smart middlebrow work on the strength of a reputation as a "genre" writer. Could such a thing ever happen again?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

We All Dunnit: Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow

This one's another from the category of Books It Seems I Should Have Heard of by Authors I've Never Read. I saw mention of this book a week or so ago, ordered it from the library, and read it as soon as I'd finished Birch's new novel. Fiction editor at the New Yorker for 40 years, author of short fiction and novel's, William Maxwell has, till now, evidently slipped below or around my notice. So Long, See You Tomorrow is a short novel (Bless you, Mr. Maxwell!) that reminds me, in its setting, of both Updike's Of the Farm and Capote's In Cold Blood, though the plot takes us more in the direction of Capote. (Did Of the Farm even have a plot? There's a lot of lawn-mowing, I recall.)

The narrator tells us of his boyhood town and a friend (of sorts; Maxwell captures well the uncertainty of a circumstantial male friendship), Cletus, whose father murders another man; this other man had fallen in love with Cletus's mother, and both families had, before the murder, fragmented. Maxwell presents us with the murder immediately, then backs up to give us, for most of the rest of the novel, the context. Our narrator's problem (since a first-person narrator without a problem has no purpose) is that, after his own family moves to Chicago, he passes Cletus in the hall, and struggles to understand whether some gesture was required in recollection of their friendship. It's a subtle issue, but one has to see, I think, the parallels with the other male relationships in the novel: how so much goes unspoken; how men can feel close in a way that's more profound than a man's relationship with his wife; how friendships themselves are built of dependencies we barely understand and are only obviously fragile once they've ended.

Of course, the narrator has no idea what actually went on within the families involved, and he presents several strategies for interpolation and imagination, straining to take in every possible perspective. Late in the novel, Maxwell allows the murderer's dog to become a point of view character. He oversteps the dog's perceptions of things, but, really, the narrator has been overstepping all along. Additionally, the dog becomes an emblem of the once-thriving relationships as well as the children of both families; abused and neglected, she can only wonder at why, for instance, the furniture is on the lawn or the owner is angry again. She moves naturally from the role of witness to the role of victim.

My one complaint about the novel is that, though there aren't a tremendous number of characters, I had a hard time keeping their stories straight. Maxwell provides background on tangential characters (I'm sure he has thematic and mirroring reasons, but they clutter the primary story) and shifts among characters rather frequently late in the novel, weakening the narrative's arc.

Otherwise, it's a carefully rendered portrait of a time and place and how one may feel intimately bound to a time and place despite one's essential incomprehension.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Don't call him Ishmael: Carol Birch's JAMRACH'S MENAGERIE

Call him . . . Jaffy. Like the hero of Moby Dick, he lives to tell his tale. It's a tale that nods toward Melville's great, frustrating work: there's a whaling vessel, a quest for a beast, a disaster at sea, and a shattering sense of human smallness in the face of infinities of distance and time. There's even mention of the whaleship Essex, whose tale informed Melville's work. However, British author Birch is up to more than than tackling themes from a preceding novel.

Jamrach's Menagerie takes its start in history, not fiction, and the true story of a small English boy snatched up by a tiger he aimed to pet; the boy was rescued by Charles Jamrach, a 19th-c. purveyor of rare animals. This much is so, though Birch takes that boy, whom she names Jaffy, and puts him to work for Jamrach, which leads to a mission to locate and bring back a (Komodo) dragon. Birch gives Jaffy a voice that's a long way from Ishmael—who simply sounds like Melville. Jaffy sounds like a working-class lad, rough-edged and full of slang, but he also provides vivid descriptions of his adventures, all with a lyrical, evocative tone that lets us see the lad's developing, wondering soul.

For me, the book is about how we take memories and use them to construct some coherent sense of who we are. Jaffy never truly leaves the mouth of the tiger, and all of us, it seems, live in the tiger's mouth. Jaffy's immersion in that key experience sets the stage for every other experience, as his early encounters with animals, with whom he feels a strange sympathy, mirror his encounters with people, whose images and actions he labors diligently to maintain and honor. Why does he survive the tiger's embrace? Why do any of us survive anything, and why do others not? Though it may all be down to randomness, still, as Dr. Rieux pronounces in Camus's The Plague, all we have in our memories of those we've encountered. For Jaffy, this recollection and reconstruction of the past is a sacred task that allows one to endure and even love the present moment and all those to come.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

"Old Man" update

I've had some early, positive responses to "Unearthed." Having moved on to other projects, I'd forgotten everything that went into that story, so it's gratifying to hear from readers who appreciate the tale. Such reactions provide me with both a sense of a readership (beyond myself) and encouragement to do even better on the next component of the "Old Man" stories.

That next story, "Absolute Zero," follows the events of "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" by several years. I'm hoping to have a complete, if tentative, draft by summer's end.

Here's a wildly glowing review of "Unearthed" by Canadian author (and television extra!) Andrew Salmon:

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Cozying up to Conrad: LORD JIM

One thing I love about a Joseph Conrad tale is that, at the outset, you have no idea where it's headed; every tale that I've read is structured differently than every other, and although each story has something to say about the darkness hidden and revealed in human nature, Conrad always comes at this from a different angle.

Marlow, the same man who narrates "Heart of Darkness," narrates Lord Jim. You thought he was voluble in Darkness? He goes on at such length in Lord Jim, Conrad must, in his introduction to the work, address the issue raised by the book's critics of whether someone could believably talk for so long or do so and still possess any listeners. (Conrad suggests—surely as a kind of "up yours" to his critics—that everyone likely stopped at various points for meal breaks.)

Though the novel begins with anonymous narration, it shifts, after introducing us to the somewhat vacuous Jim, to Marlow's account, jumping ahead in time, past some crucial event which Marlow slowly gets around to revealing. (His listeners must know how the event in question played out, at least at the larger level if not personally for Jim; as such, you can't see Marlow as actually withholding information from his true audience. We alone, the readers, are in the dark.) This shipboard crisis is the strongest section of the novel, with Marlow allowing us Jim's own account of his actions (and inactions). Conrad is always great when dealing with suspenseful marine situations, and there's nothing to match it in the rest of the novel, largely because the rest of the action occurs on land. A late event does involve a split in action between land and water, but we're inland, not in open ocean.

The plot, such as it is, involves the fallout from this early crisis of Jim's—where does he go and what does he do to redeem himself? Marlow helps him find work, but Jim's past always pursues him. Then, Kurtz-like, he takes charge in a jungle paradise (the politics of his position are confusing, as there are powers within powers at work) until, in ways that are shatteringly unfair, Jim's past returns, along with fellow whites who possess no honor at all. Jim, a "Romantic" soul, is undone and missteps. Marlow seems to take the position that Jim is wrong in his concluding actions, though, as he repeatedly says, Jim is "one of us."

The novel would have been helped by being tighter. Conrad is terribly repetitive at times, saying something three nearly identical ways when one or two would have done. Additionally, Marlow stops after nearly every moment of speech or action to draw our attention past the action to the seemingly cosmic aspect of human behavior against a chaotic backdrop. It becomes ridiculous quickly, with every minor act leading to overwrought, if often lovely, statements.

Nevertheless, Conrad has much to say here about our sense of fairness and honor, what we think the world owes us and what we might owe the world. Jim remains an unclear figure, a man who never becomes fully formed—unless it's in his final, hopeful gesture.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Still brilliant after all these years: Jacob Bronowski

"All those who imagine take parts of the universe which have no been connected hitherto and enlarge the total connectivity of the universe by showing them to be connected."—J. Bronowski

A note to a friend in which I quoted from Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, the book and TV series from the '70s, led me to look up more about the man himself, which took me to a series of Yale lectures from 1967 entitled The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination. It's a library copy, but I may need to purchase the book so I can return to it, so packed is it with insight. In its relative directness yet density of ideas, it resembles Blake, a fitting comparison, since Bronowski was a Blake scholar and refers to him throughout this text.

Bronowski's aim, he announces, is to pursue what Kant started before, as he sees it, Kant was derailed; to wit, he wants to construct a philosophy that takes into account the limitation of human senses. Focusing (no pun intended) on human eyesight (and roping notions of imagination and "insight" into the equation), Bronowski examines how everything we perceive is, rather than directly experienced, interpreted. We know in part, and what partial data we receive, we form into something meaningful. Bronowski moves from there into examining how science itself is an interpretive, imaginative act. Contra the notion of a "theory of everything," Bronowski thinks we can only have theories of particular segments of the universe; in fact, there is no one equation nor one scientific idea that can encompass everything. In this, science is like art, always have limitations, a frame, into which some things, but not all things, can fit.

Bronowski also argues that science itself doesn't teach us how to be good humans, but the act of doing science in the way it's supposed to be done—always saying, "This is the truth as far as I can tell," being humble, sharing information, engaged in dialogue, knowing you can never have a final answer—is itself a model for an ethical existence.

I'd like to know how a scientist of today's generation would read this book. The situation Bronowski describes in the scientific community doesn't seem like what presently exists, though ideally it would. And have later developments in math or science undone any of his metaphors or arguments?

A wonderful book; a marvelous teacher. The text invites rereading.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Coming soon! September 2012 Asimov's Science Fiction!

The dino's not for me, but for Dale Bailey's story. Still, I love a good dino. The first time Asimov's ran a story of mine, the cover featured my name and the story's title ("You Will Go to the Moon") as well as an illustration to fit the story (a painting of an actual moon scenario by Apollo astronaut Alan Bean). Now, for this fifth story, my name and the story title are once again on the cover—and dinosaurs, along with all things astronomical, were fascinations of mine when I was a child (and still, in truth). So I'm pretty pleased to see this charging (non-feathered?!) beast.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Put down, picked up, written

I got 130 pages into Kim Stanley Robinson's latest, 2312, before resignedly setting it down. The story takes place across our solar system, with humans (and altered variants of humans) living on other planets, moons, and asteroids. A death in the family causes our protagonist to be drawn into a tale of interplanetary intrigue . . . which is pretty much all I learned about where the plot was headed. I think the focus was going to turn around the idea of somehow fixing globally warmed Earth. The book reads something like John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (which borrows stylistically from Dos Passos's U.S.A.) in its use of chapters that contain snippets of information that seem to be randomly gathered from various data sources. Other chapters hold straight-out explanations of future scientific achievements, such as terraforming and making livable asteroids. Even the narrative chapters that follow the story shift point of view every time, maintaining a third-person anonymous narrator but varying which character gets the interior attention. The writing was excellent—and I want to especially praise a chapter in which the main character returns to Earth; Robinson captures how that must feel to be an Earthling who has spent a great deal of time away, as there's something unique about being on this world, where humans can breathe and where water runs and the sun isn't too close or far off. Despite the fine writing, the constant interruptions in the narrative flow cost the novel, I think. Are they needed in order to understand the story? I don't know, but the book was going to take too long, it wasn't holding me, and a clumsy character introduction sank it for me.

I also set aside, though with less reluctance, Jess Walter's new novel, Beautiful Ruins. I hadn't read Walter, and the first chapter, taking place in a sad, imaginary town below the line of Italian coastal towns that form the Cinque Terre, was wonderful, introducing an interesting character and demonstrating a witty tone and clever phrasing. Unfortunately, the novel shifts, in its second chapter, from the humble town and protagonist in 1962 to some profoundly unlikable modern folk involved in Hollywood. The tone I'd liked now grated, and the writing felt forced. Why am I reading about these people? I wondered. Well, I would read about them no more.

Perhaps shamefully, I also stopped progress (arguably, the novel itself stopped its progress) on Malcolm Lowry's "classic" (so it is viewed), Under the Volcano. Its story of a besotted and bewildered and cuckolded ex–Mexican consul is minutely told in the style that has its origins in Proust, but the plot, such as it is, proceeds like a tired and meandering burro. One wanted to urge it to "Giddup," but it stuck to its pace—and actually seemed to slowing down the farther it went. I did not want to wait around for it to keel over where it stood. I read about a quarter of the novel, so at least now I know something of it, if not how it ends (though I suspect a sad conclusion for our "hero").

Under the Volcano put me in the mood for denser stuff than Walter's novel, and something more assuredly literary than Robinson's quite literate writing—and so I turned to Conrad's Lord Jim. I'm about a third of the way through and loving it. Conrad is just so much fun, full of marvelous phrasing and wild overstatement and grand moments of physical drama and human suffering. No, the plot doesn't fly along, but there's a sense of movement, and the voice is compelling. Plus, he's already fooled me twice about where the story is going.

I also read the first story in Fred Chappell's new collection, Ancestors and Others. Seeing the list of works by Chappell dismays me: How have I never heard of him? The first story, a five-pager entitled "The Overspill" (I have no idea why the first tale is italicized, both in the title and throughout, unless it's meant to serve as some kind of preface to everything that will follow), tells of a boy and father who build a garden and a bridge during the boy's mother's absence. It's exciting and emotional, and the ending is stunning. It reminds you, after my above disappointments, of what surprises are possible in fiction.

Lastly, as I await publication of and reaction to "Unearthed," forthcoming in the September Asimov's, out in a few weeks, I'm getting a fair amount done on "Absolute Zero," the next Old Man tale. There's a twin-streamed plot, and I'm writing very drafty sections first, mostly (there's one solid scene and much scattered dialogue), in order to make sure the structure is in order. Should be a fun one.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The past as present: Garner's THE OWL SERVICE

Alan Garner's Red Shift was so odd (see here), and the man possessed such a following overseas, I had to see what else he'd done, and so I ordered The Owl Service, a novel more clearly aimed at younger readers (or at least amenable to a younger reader). The book feels familiar, its structure and tropes now thoroughly dispersed into a hundred other fantasy tales in which young people unpack a mystery and find themselves to be the keys to its cause and solution.

I was never quite sure how young these young people were, which connects to my primary complaint about the book, so let's deal with that first. When he can, as evidenced in Red Shift, Garner likes to avoid narrative exposition (though his prose is dense, lovely, and full of unexpected choices). In Red Shift, this led to Garner dropping all transitions that might adequately address the passage of time or characters moving from one place to another, so dialogue chiefly carried one along. The Owl Service is much more accessible in this regard, though Garner does like to have someone react audibly to something before he tells us what it is. Nevertheless, the opening of the book introduces us to three youngish people without making clear their relationship to each other. Eventually, it gets sorted out, but I can't see a good cause for delaying such useful information, information that would provide a context for the conversations we hear.

In short, the novel, which I blew through in one day (not that I skimmed; it was an engaging story), concerns an English family staying at a place in the Welsh countryside, a house and grounds the daughter of the blended family has inherited from her late father. Her mother, often mentioned, is on the premises but does not appear in a single scene—a pleasant enough bit of narrative fun, though I waited in vain for this to figure into the larger plot. Something scratching about in the attic (which no one seems appropriately troubled by) leads the teens—the girl, her step-brother, and the housekeeper's son—to discover a "service," a set of plates decorated in a pattern that the girl traces and turns into owl stencils—which sets in motion a host of supernatural events.

The book strongly reminds me of Red Shift in its connection of landscape with plot. In Red Shift, three sets of characters are linked, across time, by geography; the landscape, one understands, is haunted both forward and backward in time. The Owl Service ties the present events to a tale from the Welsh myth cycle the Mabinogion; a set of mythic events has recurred over the centuries, and it's all happening again as a bound feminine power breaks its shackles. How this manifests itself is, in some moments, frightening and strange, though what exactly has transpired is not terribly clear (and a personal secret that seems to reveal necessary information ends up complicating things, I think).

It's funny that Garner has one of his characters complain about the "elliptical" statements of the mysterious Welsh gardener (the typical fool-who's-truly-wise, though he's portrayed well), since the novel ends up relying for much of its mystery on just such elliptical pronouncements as well as half-explained events. The story comes together quite nicely in its climactic moments, but the absolutely final scene, the true climax, falls flat, as if the narrative were simply switched off; additionally, Garner leaves no aftermath to the tale, so when the storm has passed, as it were, the book abruptly ends.

I have to read such books with an eye and ear toward what a middle-school-aged American reader might take from them. Assuming someone gets past the frustrating elisions of the opening section, the story should pull them along. Better readers, especially those who've read other English novels (The Secret Garden will utterly prepare them, given its reliance on the relationship between social class and dialect, a theme foregrounded here as well), should be able to navigate the non-American elements and language, but plenty of other readers will find themselves at a loss long before the somewhat unsatisfying end.

ADDENDUM: A friend's comment that I missed the clash of cultures and class—which I didn't—leads me to think I need to say more along those lines than that anyone who's read The Secret Garden (or Lady Chatterly's Lover) will recognize the particularly English social-sexual tensions. Once Garner makes it clear that the household contains the working-class housekeeper and her son, both of whom are Welsh, he foregrounds those issues of social division, and I think those elements are the most coherent and successful elements of the novel. The relationship between the family's daughter, Alison, and the housekeeper's son, Gwyn, which is meant to parallel the Mabinogion tale (though I thought that fit awkwardly), generates much of the book's tension. No one wants these two to be together, and it's implied that the concerns are sexual as well as social. Gwyn is trying to rescue Alison from the kind of powers he knows reside in this myth-laden landscape, but he's often prevented from doing her any good. As it turns out, the sexual history of the region is itself complicated and a source of all these unchecked (female) energies. Language, too, is a major concern, loaded as it is with social weight, and it's another check against Gwyn, who aims to speak like a non-Welsh. These elements of the narrative are so strong, the supernatural aspects get underplayed for a fair portion of the novel, but Garner does well when he makes the landscape and people conspire to keep young Gwyn from forsaking his culture and destiny.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Avengers and Shakespeare: The screen as stage

Anyone following Avengers star Tom Hiddleston's remarks on comic-book movies knows the respect he has for these films as a genre as well as his deep immersion in Shakespeare. Hiddleston has played Hal/Henry V in Shakespeare's sequence of Henry plays, which is fitting, because the summoning to an imaginary experience that Shakespeare implicitly—and, in one case, explicitly—engages in can be found again in modern movie-making.

Henry V famously opens with a "chorus"—a single actor who provides occasional narration—asking the audience to overlook the limitations of the Elizabethan stage: there will be no armies, no horses, nor any set to indicate whether one is in England or France. Rather, the audience itself must summon the various imaginary elements necessary to make the tale convincing. It's a clever device, with Shakespeare simultaneously acknowledging the labors of the actors, encouraging the audience to be engaged in the entertainment, and providing, through the narration, a vivid, thrilling description of the images he wants the viewer to have in mind.

How distant this is, seemingly, from the (most) popular entertainments of our day, the increasingly realistic dramas in video games and the CGI-dominated action movies such as The Avengers. Nothing, now, can be left to the imagination. Whereas a few decades ago, films still had to rely on an audience's forgiveness and willingness to accept what was clearly not real, now realism dominates, and so we've reached an age of cinematic literalism, in which fiction on film requires less and less of the viewer.

And yet. What of what's required of the actors? I recently saw, online, stills from various Avengers scenes, and what struck me is how little of what I saw on the film captured what the actors experienced. New York itself was digitally added to the film (as no actual filming took place there), and action scenes that appeared to be outdoors were instead shot on a huge sound stage, green screens backing every shot. I hadn't grasped the extent of what had been added post-production to the filming, and it made me realize that the actors, like the performers of the Elizabethan age, largely had to construct from their imaginations the scenes that audience would, later, directly behold. I think Scarlett Johansson was most effective in this, which is why director Whedon often went to her face for reaction shots: she excelled at looking completely undone by whatever she viewed, be it Banner's first transformation into the Hulk or hordes of aliens roaring from a hole in the sky. Despite the ingenuity of the people constructing a believable digital reality, were it not for the actors behaving as if they truly were these characters within these situations, the audience would not have fallen for the cinematic deceit. All the actors had to go on was what Shakespeare's troupe possessed: elaborate costumes, an entertaining script, and each other's shared imaginative enthusiasm.

The audience may no longer deserve exhortation and credit, as in Shakespeare's time, but we still rely on that "muse of fire" to enflame the actors, who must "ascend the brightest heaven of invention" to provide us with our play.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


In his brief and strange Nobel acceptance speech, William Faulkner said that humans would "endure" not simply because they wouldn't shut up (his image of a "puny inexhaustible voice" going on and on even as daylight sets forever on this world) but because they have "a soul," by which he meant something that suffered and struggled and showed compassion. Those "eternal verities," said Faulkner, gave meaning to what was otherwise a formless babble. Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris have accomplished, in Standard Operating Procedure, a virtuous act that emphasizes those same verities, by taking more than 200 hours of human talk—the interviews that form the basis of this book and the spine of Morris's film of the same name—and locating within them something like a human soul, a flawed and temporary beast that labors to know itself through its speaking.

I came to the book because of a short story I'm working on, part of my "Old Man" sequence, and the book did give me material to use (as well as a better understanding of how the terrorist prison in my fiction will not resemble the prison at Abu Ghraib). The bookflap oversells the text: "In a tradition of moral and political reckoning, and all-powerful storytelling, that runs from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Fyodor Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor to Normal Mailer's Executioner's Song . . . " Setting aside that Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor scene, part of The Brother's Karamazov, is largely about the failure of institutional Christianity, I don't think you can compare what Gourevitch has done, in distilling Morris's interviews, to the work of Conrad and Dostoevsky. But it's instructive that the publisher makes that comparison, because while the Mailer work is based on real events, the other two are fictional narratives, using broad social contexts as canvasses for imaginary tales. Gourevitch isn't building an imaginary narrative, but each person interviewed provides a different interpretive slant on what was popularly understood to be a set of incontrovertible facts. Not Gourevitch, but each soldier who entered Abu Ghraib is Marlow, the distorting witness, and our unnamed narrator, who sets the darkening scene for Marlow's account, and Conrad, a witness to a chaotic reality that he's attempting to shape into something meaningful.

Gourevitch and Morris provide the context in which these events occur, a horror for prisoner and soldier alike. Everyone is displaced from what they know, reliant on strangers, and living in unfit conditions. Even those who have power know that, in the words of Jesus, that power is given to them from above—yet what exactly that power consists of, they are uncertain, even as they wield it. It's a universe of competing moral systems, the fragile ones the soldiers have brought with them from their former lives, the supposedly rigid one the military gave them but that seems to have been voided, and the new one built of desperation and circumstance and the constant presence of death. Then the writers take us into the events themselves, the events within—and outside the frame of—the infamous photographs; they use the interviews to unpack multiple significant events, giving us, Rashomon-like, different angles from which to understand the meaning of what we've seen. No one has uncomplicated motives; no one is simply doing the wrong thing or the right thing. The soldiers know they've crossed lines, but no one corrects them, and often they're urged by military intelligence to continue or even amplify their questionable actions.

As has been often commented on, the people in the photographs, the people we can see in contact with the prisoners, were prosecuted, but higher-ups largely avoided consequence, and, most horribly, for me, the architects of the Iraq invasion—Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, many others—have gone not only unpunished for the unnecessary and ill-prosecuted war that created these scenarios, they remain, near as I can tell, unrepentant.

The book is an outstanding account of an individual, collective, and national descent into hell. Read it and be enlightened about what it really means to "endure."

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Rereading Ray Bradbury (Pt. 1)

It had been too long. Once a year, at most, I read a Bradbury story aloud to a class of students. Aside  from that, I rarely read him, the later story collections being comprised of uncollected tales left uncollected for good reason and thin sketches that didn't pass muster as full stories. Setting aside Bradbury was one of the steps that moved me from childhood to adulthood: partly because I moved on to the "serious" writers Bradbury himself admired, partly because I gained that adult sense that the things we loved in our youth no longer sustain us. I could look back fondly on the stories that had made me buy everything the man wrote (as some early Marvel comics led me to collect nearly everything Marvel published), and what he did well had a lasting effect on me—but I could no longer pick up a new book by him in the sure and certain hope of recapturing that excitement. (The last solid collection was 1976's Long After Midnight, though it's a mix of good and bad, and contains some stories that were decades old at the time.)

When Bradbury died, my unacted-on dream of someday contacting him dying too, I wanted to return to his stories to identify just what was so fine about the best of them.

In reading Bradbury's obituary, I came across mention of "Homecoming," which I hadn't read for more than 30 years. The story is notable for being Bradbury's first sale to a "mainstream" magazine; before this, everything had run in the various genre mags, and, in fact, "Homecoming" had been rejected by a pulp mag that wanted something more horrific than what he'd produced. The story additionally appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories collection of that year. I had the story in two collections, the large Stories of Ray Bradbury that came out in 1980 and the collection October Country, which contained revised versions of some very early work from his first and eeriest collection, Dark Carnival, along with some newer stories from the early 1950s.

Drawing heavily on the work of Charles Addams (who provided the story's illustration for Mademoiselle), "Homecoming" involves a family of vampires and ghouls who would reappear in a handful of other Bradbury stories. (All of the stories would be collected years later into a fix-up novel entitled From the Dust Returned.) In this tale, the extended family is gathering for Hallowe'en, a favored Bradbury holiday; waiting anxiously throughout the tale is our point of view character, Timothy, who is decidedly unvampiric, a normal human boy in a family of supernaturally powerful people. Timothy is an outsider, unable to fly or transform himself; he's aware of his limitations, and the story ends with him unchanged, reminded of his differences. The one bright moment for Timothy comes with the arrival of his favorite relative, Uncle Einar (the title figure in another story in the collection), who loves the boy—as do all the relatives—despite his  . . . disability. (Even as Bradbury draws on Addams, the normal child who is viewed as a freak is the model for another ghoulish family, the Munsters, with their one disturbingly blond-haired daughter.)

Bradbury's work here is masterful. The story is full of images freshly described, and the whole tale, in which rather little happens, is propelled forward by metaphor and a restrained power in the writing. It's Bradbury at his peak.

"The Lake" is the first story in my collected Bradbury tales; it's also in The October Country. This is one of Bradbury's pared-down stories that uses simple language and a few haunting scenes to achieve its aims. A boy loses the female companion of his youth to the lake where they both played. He revisits the scene as an adult, and we're given an inexplicable yet beautiful repetition of that loss. Bradbury could easily have ended the story with a ghostly conclusion, but he adds a physical element that makes the story more disturbing, then adds depth to the story by allowing how the power of this childhood attachment diminishes his current (married) relationship. Bradbury's using different effects here than in "Homecoming," but suffusing both stories is a sense of nostalgia and loss and how childhood necessarily involves suffering from which we never recover, another Bradbury theme that would surface throughout his work.

I'm not sure I previously read "The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone," the final story in October Country. A vanished author is located, and our protagonist seeks him out to learn why he stopped writing. It's a story you can see someone imagining after the events surrounding J.D. Salinger's depature from the public eye, but Bradbury wrote this story in the '50s. It's something of a mystery, but has the tone of a tall tale, as our raconteur author regales the protagonist with the story of his non-demise, and as such, it feels less credible than the supernatural stories. The piece is further hurt by what had by then become Bradbury's standard character voice: over-excited, wordy, full of itself. It's Bradbury's own voice, and it grates, as it does when Bradbury gives it to several characters in Fahrenheit 451. That permanent-exclamation-point tone is something that drove me away from Bradbury eventually, that and the way the intelligent prose was replaced by rococo writing and a rushed approach to storytelling. I've long said, and this story reinforced, that Bradbury took the wrong lessons from his own work, that he misidentified some of its strengths, undercutting exactly what led to his best early work earning such strong accolades.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

"Old Man" stories now for B&N's Nook as well!

Yeah, I used an exclamation point.

"Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" and "Clockworks," now formatted for the Nook (I hope), are available via the link below; any buyers (or samplers), let me know if the text looks right, because there were some funky things in the process:

And both stories are still available at Amazon for Kindle and the Kindle app:

Such a deal!

"Unearthed," the next chapter, will appear in September's Asimov's, which comes out in about a month.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I see you . . .

Whoever you are, trying to find a free copy of "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" . . . you can stop searching my website. Just buy the story (along with "Clockworks"!) at Amazon.

Sheesh. Like a buck-fifty for each story is just soooo much money.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

My stories on Amazon

If you're looking for "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" or "Clockworks," you can now get them bundled together for one low low price ($2.99) at Amazon:

I made a few (inevitable) minor changes—a word here and there—as I went through the formatting process, but with those exceptions, the stories are identical to how they appeared when they ran in Asimov's. If you've already read the stories and opt to not purchase them, please say a few words of review at the link.

I don't have a Kindle, but I do have the Kindle app for Mac, which I recommend. On a fully keyboarded computer, the Kindle app allows for great ease in annotation (the kind of thing an English teacher appreciates).

Saturday, June 9, 2012

"Clockworks" gets an honorable mention

"Clockworks" (Asimov's, April/May 2011) earned an honorable mention in Gardner Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection. Yeah, a few hundred other stories also received honorable mentions. Still, it's nice.

As the new story, "Unearthed," is about to come out (Asimov's, September 2012), I probably should prepare to make the other stories available as a package through Amazon. That'd be good, right? I welcome suggestions.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

All Bad Things Must Come to An End: Alan Garner's RED SHIFT

Alan Garner's oeuvre, according to various sources, is young adult literature (though he doesn't especially target such readers, he says), and Red Shift seems to be lumped, by these sources, with his other works of fantasy for younger readers. This is baffling. Given the sexual themes, which are quite adult, even if dealt with elliptically most of the time, the book seems more for mature readers. Additionally, there isn't a clear fantastic element in this novel. One set of murders is unexplained, but I'm not sure Garner wants us to provide a supernatural explanation; also, the faint connection between the novel's three timelines is arguably a fantastic or science fictional element, but it plays, rather, as a tying together of motifs rather than some actual connection.

The book seems to earn the appellation tour de force; like anything that gets called a tour de force, it is single-minded, single-toned, sustained . . . and, if it's like the author's other novels, not really a tour de force but just "the way this writer does things." Since I haven't read Garner's other works, I can't judge whether he's achieved something unique here or whether I'm just seeing a slice of his much larger pie. I have ordered another book of his from the library, so I'll have a better sense of where this fits in Garner's corpus later. For now, I'm also ignorant of the novel's historical placement; there's probably something online about the novel's timelines, but I'm going to review it while still steeped in ignorance.

We follow a modern couple, separated by distance for weeks at a time and, when not, given some hassles by his caravan-dwelling parents; in the distant past, maybe the fifth or sixth century, in the same English location, we come upon Roman soldiers trying to survive in the hostile country; a third narrative takes place somewhen in between—Irish invaders are approaching the church where our protagonists wait in fear. Aside from location—and geography is central to the book's structure, as well as an ancient ax-head binding the three timelines—what holds the three tales together is a focus on male-female couples. In the ancient past, the former soldiers slaughter a village but keep a woman who is some sort of goddess-conduit. Or something. In the, um, middle past, one of our hapless English folk is deeply in love with a woman who previously had a relationship with one of the invading Irish rogues. I think. Each relationship (the goddess-woman ends up connecting with the soldier who tends to flip out into a psychotic rage) takes an unexpected turn. And a graffito reminds us that this too shall pass and most of our protagonists are long dead. Despite one (and-a-half?) not-completely-tragic tale-endings, the book is pretty grim, making one feel as positive about human love  as if one had instead read Chesil Beach.

However, some of the book's effectiveness is undercut by the very style that makes it compelling. There's little description, and the writer collapses the space between events, as if, until someone speaks again, nothing has happened. Dialogue drives the narrative, but it's often unattributed dialogue. This is fine on occasion, but quite often the same person speaks twice in a row in two disconnected paragraphs, and you haven't been warned; more often, more than two people are speaking, and it's impossible to tell who is who (especially, I felt, in that confounding middle time period, when a scene gets repeated and there's even less context than in the other times). The style gives the novel a propulsive quality, but it also means you miss a fair amount of what you likely aren't supposed to miss.

I enjoyed much of the novel. It largely achieved that aim that Poe pushed for, the "single effect"; additionally, while I couldn't follow events as well as I'd have liked, the emotional turn of each story was effective. I can't quite recommend the book, since I'm not sure who would enjoy it, but the novel certainly possesses power and, since it's fairly short, might be worth a look by someone who appreciates a challenging text.

Thank you, Ray Bradbury

His stories, the ones I first encountered in middle school, the ones that made me read more and then read everything of his over the next few years, more than any stories I read before or after, made me want to write. Later, I would find other writers who affected my sensibilities about fiction more and who stretched my ideas about what fiction could achieve, but the intensity, joyous and horrifying, with which Bradbury infused his best stories, formed the foundation for my understanding of how fiction could both capture the attention of a reader and express the personality of the writer.

It's those first writers we discover, those early encounters, that provide the primary sense of what fiction can and must do, just as our families provide the template for how we think human interactions function and what they can mean. For being a part of the family that formed me, thank you, Ray. You marked me.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Sex-Singer Chokes: John Hawkes's THE BLOOD ORANGES

Having abandoned books on which I was getting no traction, I turned to John Hawkes's The Blood Oranges—which may seem like a perverse choice, given Hawkes's famous insistence that plot, character, setting, and theme are elements he'd like to eradicate. Setting, in fact, is central for every Hawkes novel I've read, as is character, as is theme; plots tend to be pointillistically constructed, but they're still plots. (So much for relying on the writer to describe his own work, a problem I point out in my AP Literature class.)

In the mythical (Mediterranean?) town of Ilyria, Cyril, our "sex-singer" narrator, and wife Fiona construct an erotic eight-hander with another couple (who, somewhat inconveniently, have three daughters). The novel begins after everything has collapsed: the other man, Hugh, is dead, Fiona has run off with the other couple's daughters, and Cyril lives platonically with a native woman while trying to win back the affections of the traumatized Catherine, Hugh's wife. Though little happens—and, a problem for the climax, when things do happen, Hawkes has a way of writing around them, a kind of Stealth Bomber form of writing that bends light around the very object on which you're trying to focus—the prose does have a propulsive energy, partly because that's how Hawkes always writes, but partly because Cyril is so fully of positive (and broadly directed) sexual energy. Over the course of the book, we see how the couples navigate the complicated relationship, and, towards the end, we're shown, the one scene hard upon the other, the crucial moment when Hugh finally commits himself to a relationship with Fiona and the moment when Hugh's body is discovered.

Hawkes causes problems for himself, though I wasn't aware fully of the interpretive problems until I read "Who Put the Blood in the Oranges," an essay by Bertrand Gervais and Anick Bergeron. First, my own thinking prior to reading that essay: Hawkes's description of how Hugh dies is awkwardly done, though that's in large measure to, again, the standard Hawkes approach to anything you'd like to see more clearly. However, I felt clear about what Hawkes meant to say about the character's death. However, Hawkes undercuts the elements of the plot that seem pretty clear because of how he's structured the novel and because the narrator is Cyril. Though Cyril disclaims responsibility for Hugh's death, Hawkes's placement of the scene in which Cyril convinces Hugh to commit sexually to Cyril's wife makes that a hard argument to swallow. Also, given Cyril's evident narcissism and his need to see everything as part of some "tapestry" of sexual joy forces the reader to question Cyril's insistence that Hugh's death is an accident, the result of Hugh's masturbatory practices.

Still, I'm okay with that tension. The novel's seeming ambiguity as to how the events should be interpreted is no more surprising or problematic than the ambiguity we often run into when having to push past the insistences of a first-person narrator. I think that Hawkes wants us to trust Cyril and, too, wants us to find Cyril's moral code meaningful and coherent, even if it runs utterly counter to our own. But it's also easy to see that Cyril is imposing his code on others, and that the novel's disastrous setting and dark imagery indicate that, in fact, Cyril's way of life is ultimately destructive and self-serving.

The essay by Gervais and Bergeron takes the view that Hawkes has contaminated readers' and reviewers' understanding of the novel; evidently (if their facts are right), reviewers and readers missed the accidental nature of Hugh's death and thought it was a suicide, a suicide in response to Hugh's having to live like Cyril—missed, that is, until Hawkes, in interviews, explained the death scene, after which everyone saw the novel differently. Whether everyone really misread the novel initially, I don't know; I certainly can't be the first person who understood what Hawkes was getting at. However, Hawkes's approach to the death is vague as well as flawed in its details, and given that the method of death would be, for many readers, obscure, it's easy to see how people would end up concluding that Hugh's death is intentional. The essay's argument regarding how the author's "non-death" and actual interference in the reading of his text has led people to rethink the novel is, I think, not the crucial problem; rather, it's that the novel is flawed, and the writer's mistakes make it difficult for any reader to get even the literal events right.

I enjoyed the novel, but Cyril does wear out his welcome, and Hawkes's refusal to let the character slip into doubt gives us a guy with whom it's hard to sympathize. The novel could certainly be tighter, and many scenes feel redundant, especially since the back-and-forth chronology resists narrative momentum.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Ungripped: Eco's PRAGUE CEMETERY and Groff's ARCADIA

I've set down two books that failed to grab me.

Umberto Eco's latest, The Prague Cemetery, drew me in via the jacket description, though its tale of conspiracy theories made real rang of his earlier Foucault's Pendulum (which I loved). I never had the chance to find out whether this novel followed much of the other's approach, as the endless listing of materials, a drawn-out mise-en-scène (similar to his equally unapproachable The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana), kept me at arm's length. Glancing ahead in the novel, I saw what appeared to be a narrative that would not easily admit me, and so I gave up. Really, I gave it very little chance.

I don't know why I picked up Lauren Groff's new novel, Arcadia; perhaps the praise on the jacket and its placement on the new book shelf at the library. (So many other things—that I own—that I should be reading . . . ) Told via anonymous narration through the perspective of "Bit," a little kid (early in the novel) growing up in a commune, the novel certainly contains lovely writing, even if every scent the child detects is broken down into multiple constituent parts (heck of an olfactory set on that wee one). It's an evocative style, and Groff captures the scene (and "the scene") well but, 60 pages in, that's all I'm getting from the novel, a lovely style. The story isn't gaining traction, and I feel, instead, that much of what I've read could be trimmed away with little loss. Evidently, I'd like to see more story than this novel wants to provide (at least in the early going). I will move on to something else.

I'm still reading, slowly, day-by-day, Jeffrey Cramer's annotated edition of Thoreau's Walden. I'll likely start two things, one of which will be John Hawkes's The Blood Oranges.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

North Korea in fiction and fact

Just after I'd signed out The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson, I heard a piece on NPR about Blaine Harden's Escape from Camp 14; I signed that out as well, thinking the two books might complement each other, and the fictions of the one might be given grounding in the facts of the other.

The Orphan Master's Son feels like a combination of 1984 and Kafka's The Trial . . . and maybe some George Saunders and Jim Shepard thrown in for good measure. As a result of this reliance on absurdity-tinged satire, the kind of seriousness of purpose and historical horrors that ground a satire like 1984 get pushed to the background. Though Johnson uses real places and realistic actions, everything seems unreal, and even the utterly fact-based events—such as the random abductions of Japanese citizens—seem unbelievable. (In his non-fiction work, Harden mentions, in passing, these abductions, but so flatly that the air of absurdity which likely should accompany such actions is lost.)

This reader operated with the assumption that even the strangest things described were likely based in some reality, but Johnson provides no notes at the end to reinforce (or undo) such assumptions. I see that the reviewer for the NYTimes felt the absurdity undercut the book's horrors, but I understood that I'm seeing all events through the eyes of our poor maybe-not-an-orphan protagonist, who lives in a world in which he's pushed from one task to another without being consulted, and whose identity is the result of immediate external circumstances rather than an internally formed sense of oneself. Ironically, once he takes on the identity of a man he's murdered (it's like The Return of Martin Guerre, except it's clear that no one believes he's actually someone else), he begins to function with greater personal agency and find more ways to take control of his life.

The novel's structure is odd, in part because some of the novel is built of independently published shorter fiction. The seams show, but that works: the character doesn't have a traditional arc of development, but nevertheless, by the end, he has imposed a kind of continuity on his experiences and become more than the sum of what's befallen him. The sections in which the story seems to be narrated by the state radio network are the most awkward fit, as they turn the tale metafictional, but they're useful in giving the reader the sense that anyone's personal story in North Korea is merely fodder for whatever story the government wants to tell.

Toward the end—as the novel's linearity is turned inside out, the metanarrative becomes insistent, coincidences abound, and we meet a new protagonist—the story's drive becomes diffuse, and my interest lessened. But the book is quite successful, and I recommend it.

Escape from Camp 14, on the other hand, isn't terribly interesting. It's not the fault of the raw material—we're talking about a man born in a labor camp, knowing nothing of the outside world, and trained to betray everyone to the authorities, who manages to, through luck and perseverance, make an escape—but the writing, which is flat and unenergetic. Perhaps that's a consequence of dealing with the mundane, tedious nature of human evil, but the craziness of North Korean society and the Kim family in particular should have shaped this into a stranger tale than it allows itself to be. Partly it's a result of the prison-born Shin's constraints: he knows only his narrow world, which forces Harden to constantly step away from Shin's story to provide context and history. The book is pretty thin, and would have been better as a long piece in the New Yorker or The Atlantic, though the prose would have been ill-suited to either of those publications.

Johnson's novel, unlike Harden's book, manages to give one a richer sense of the madness of the Kims while also letting us enter more fully the mental processes of someone who is a victim of that madness—but then, that's in the nature of fiction, to give us access to what is otherwise inaccessible.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Posted fiction

I've restored "A Crisis for Mr. Lion," the corrected version of my award-winning story from Zoetrope: All-Story, to the links at right. For now, I'm keeping my published science fiction offline.

If you enjoy "Mr. Lion," a story that's done well for me, let me know.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Strangeness: Erpenbeck's VISITATION; Barrie's stage directions

First things first: I received today, from Asimov's, the galleys for "Unearthed." Good to see. I've got a week to return them.

Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck (trans. from the German by Bernofsky)
I picked this up from the library due to (I think) a recommendation in the Guardian. It has some stunning moments, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts. The novel, in short chapters alternating between tales of individual (typically unnamed) characters and a mysterious "gardener" who tends a lakeside German property, centers around a house and grounds; while the sections on the gardener don't advance a larger narrative, are sometimes bluntly repetitive, and become increasingly fanciful, the chapters on the people who live on the property are mostly tragic or just deeply sad, the sadness heightened by the arms-length narrative, the relative absence of dialogue, the lack of names, and the blurry, run-on writing style which, at moments, is evocative and elevating but which often sets up a kind of droning noise, producing a sameness of tone. I enjoyed some sections, appreciated the idea behind the novel's structure, and was impressed by the audacity of approach, but the overall effect left me disappointed and weary.

Mary Rose, J.M. Barrie 
I looked into this play while on a trope-finding mission: I'm investigating stories in which people vanish. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, tells a circular story about a young woman who, twice, mysteriously disappears while on a small island in the Hebrides. Unhelpfully (for my purposes), the story gives no explanation, though clearly some supernatural forces are at work in all this (and a ghost appears in order to emphasize this element). Much of the play is taken up with pleasant dialogue between characters who have little of consequence to say, and the drama lacks both tension and satisfying resolution. Oddest are the stage directions, which provide most of the narrative content regarding the character's interior lives (the dialogue doing little work in this regard); I can't imagine how this play looked when it was staged.

Some sample stage directions/commentary:

The room is in a tremble of desire to gt started upon that nightly travail which can never be completed till this man is here to provide the end

Followed immediately by:

The figure of Harry becomes indistinct and fades from sight. 

This is good:

These sounds increase rapidly until the mere loudness of them is horrible. They are not without an opponent. Struggling through them, and also calling her name, is to be heard music of an unearthly sweetness that is seeking perhaps to beat them back and put a girdle of safety round her.

How did anyone direct this play? 'Tis a puzzlement. There's also the expectation that an actor will demonstrate some accomplished knife-throwing at one point. Good luck with that.