Saturday, March 24, 2012

Time well spent with Graham Greene (and others)

The last Graham Greene novel I read, back in 2008, was The Heart of the Matter; featuring one of Greene's insistently dejected characters, it's saturated with sorrowful observations—to the point, I thought, of being rather absurd and self-parodying. How many ways could the character express his misery? I can't locate any notes I made on the book, so the plot is a blur. Though I've heard the novel called one of Greene's best, Orwell ripped it apart in his 1948 New Yorker review, finding the character's motivations illogical and the Catholic angle frustrating (Orwell locates in the English Catholic novelists of the time a snobbishness, a way of writing about their sins as if those, too, made them superior).

The Comedians, which I just read, is better; you still have the sense, to borrow the observation John Gardner made of Protestant John Updike, that "you know who's buttering his bread," but unlike The Heart of the Matter's Scobie, the protagonist of The Comedians, the accidental hôtelier Brown, doesn't struggle so explicitly with his faith. A rootless man, he makes Haiti, under Pap Doc Duvalier, his home because his long-absent mother bequeaths him a stake in her hotel. He prospers for a time, but by the start of the novel, Haiti has become a complete horror, there are no tourists who might stay at his hotel, and he has spent months away from his lover, a South American ambassador's wife. There's little to like about him. Every choice he makes is tainted by selfish motives. Distanced from himself, he often reflects on how his rearing by the Visitation Fathers affects his judgment and views, but he sees religious faith in much the same he views the vegetarian "programme" of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, visiting Americans: an ineffectual worldview that fails to take into account the worst of reality. While Greene doesn't give this character a crisis of faith, he makes it clear that every other character not aligned with Duvalier is Christ-like (though he avoids such description), sacrificing something, believing in the possibility of things beyond themselves or even in false ideas of themselves (the nature of being a "comedian," a performer), while Brown never locates a belief worth dying for.

Greene's writing in this one is terrific, the sardonic and weary voice of a man who observes everything as if he were, at the same time, holding a glass he's just emptied of the last of the world's whiskey. Only rather late in the novel does his affair seem to provide him with any pleasure beyond the immediately physical, and even then, it's at a point when the affair is full of arguments and sour intimations. The woman of the piece, Martha, never quite comes to life, which I think is a common problem for Greene. She's an excellent foil, tossing out the proper bits of dialogue to challenge our protagonist on a host of matters, but as a human being, she doesn't entirely emerge. I suppose one could blame the narrator rather than the author . . .  As a novel, it builds slowly, but its concluding act works well, trying together the many strands effectively and dramatically.

Fables: Legends in Exile, by Bill Willingham and Lan Medina, is the first book in a lengthy, still-going series of graphic novels (well . . . comic books). Whether it inspired the current TV series Once Upon a Time, I don't know, but it shares some commonalities. Chased from the many lands of legend and fable (from every culture and time period), the survivors of a great purge now live among us, disguised as humans. The first story arc involves the disappearance and possible murder of Rose Red; Snow White, the icily tough public face of government (King Cole actually runs things), hired the Big Bad Wolf, a shabby shamus, to find out what happened. The goings-on are not for kids. The story features strong characterizations and sharp dialogue, and it has the feel of a long-running TV show.

For all the blood and violence of Fables, however, The Stuff of Legend (Book 1: The Dark), written by Mike Raicht and Brian Smith and illustrated (beautifully, and all in sepia tones) by Charles Paul Wilson III, is the more serious book, even though the protagonists are children's toys (and a dog . . . and the Boogeyman). Daring to venture where Toy Story has gone, the story spends little time on its trope of "toys talk to each other when the humans are looking" before going to far darker places. The human child has been drawn by black tentacles into his closet, and a troupe of toys, plus the boy's dog, go after him. While the dog remains himself, the toys are transformed into life-sized versions of themselves. Never was there a scarier Jack-in-the-Box; this one grows legs and evinces a fondness for hatchets in dispensing with his enemies. The story feels harrowing; the writing and art work together to create a suspenseful environment in which real pain and suffering is possible.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Books that could have been better

Both were quickly dispensed with, so even though I realized early on that they weren't especially good, I didn't feel like I'd wasted my time.

On Conan Doyle, by Michael Dirda, does have the benefit of being well written. The book's major problem is how little of it is truly "about" Arthur Conan Doyle. The book tangentially discusses works by other writers Conan Doyle appreciated; this goes on much longer than seems reasonable for such a short book. A large chunk of the text is about people who enjoy Conan Doyle (the author among them) and where this takes them: into collecting (in various oft-redundant forms) his works; or in joining that select group, the Baker Street Irregulars. Dirda talks at length about meetings of the Irregulars and his own involvement with the group, finally providing for us the complete text of an essay he wrote for the organization's journal. By this time we've strayed far afield from writing "about" Conan Doyle. Though it's a slim volume, I skimmed when I felt the author filling space with things that weren't, in my mind, needed.

Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, by Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon, is an attempt to provide a chronology of comic books' presence on the American landscape, using Lee as the figure through which much of this development might be viewed, but the book isn't terribly satisfying and seems amateurish. I enjoyed the long historical view of how comics arrived and how they were perceived, both inside and outside the industry, and there's some fun anecdotal material that's a pleasure for those of us who came of age during "the Marvel Age of Comics"; however, when Lee absents himself from the writing of comics around 1970, the narrative loses track of how to proceed. The story lurches forward and back confusingly, circling around the same bracket of years again and again. Lee remains the focus even when he's clearly flailing (and failing) in various ventures. There's an arbitrariness to the book's structure—"A chapter break might look good here" appears to be a driving force in its construction—that suggests the writers couldn't find a coherent way to break up the material. Subjects are revisited, and actual lines are reproduced, sometimes more than once. The issue of "what did Lee actually do" threatens to swamp the entire project: To wit, did Lee come up with the ideas for the seminal Marvel characters? How much was contributed by artists Kirby and Ditko? How much control did Lee even have over the plots of the comics? Who wrote the dialogue? (Jack Kirby somewhat unbelievably says at one point that he wrote issues of the Fantastic Four.) The authors do take their time with this issue, since it goes to the question of Lee's credibility, and there's some excellent material both in that discussion and in the connected discussion of a creator's rights, but it's a book within a book, derailing what had seemed to be the book's project. The material about Lee that follows is interesting if you care about Stan Lee, but not so useful at saying something coherent about comic books.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Mr. Ripley and I

According to one contemporary reviewer of Patricia Highsmith's 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, the novel's early plot about Americans overseas is a nod to Henry James's The Ambassadors, but I think the truer reference is Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," whose homicidal narrator asks readers, "But why do you call me mad?" No, Tom Ripley, the anti-hero protagonist of Highsmith's book, never asks that of us, but the arm's-length perspective on the character, the way the omniscient narrator presents us with the facts of the plot as if, laid end to end, they'll explain themselves away through logic, provides a similar defense of a character for whom a moral defense is impossible.

The book's strengths are its weaknesses. For the first good piece of the novel, it seems to be a Waughian character study of someone stumbling (though less humorously) through interactions with people; that makes the story's turn (and it's a sudden turn, though the author has dropped hints that something is seriously wrong with Tom Ripley) effective, but, as a character study, it's thin, as we never delve deeeper—and, in fairness, there may be nowhere deeper to delve. Ripley, it seems, is a sociopath. The latter part of the book, though it  takes too long to tell its tale, is suspenseful, but the author maintains the suspense by constructing unrealistic occurrences which keep our protagonist safe long after his ruse should have been discovered. So: the character study makes you forget about the "mystery," which doesn't quite work; the mystery and suspense make you forget that, for a character study, it's less literary and thoughtful than it might have been.

I enjoyed the book; now I'm curious about her earlier success, Strangers on a Train.


My story "Unearthed," the next prequel in my "Old Man" sequence, will be published by Asimov's Science Fiction, home to the other Old Man tales. It should appear late this summer.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk

Like Eco's The Name of the Rose, Pamuk's novel, about 16th-century illustrators ("miniaturists") in Istanbul working on a semi-secret project for the Ottoman sultan, uses a murder mystery and art to explore how religious belief shapes one's view of the world and one's role in the world—and, most importantly, how we tell stories about ourselves and others. Told in (mostly brief) first-person chapters that, like Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, even include the voices of the dead, the novel starts with a murder motivated by fear and envy. Though the murderer speaks, he doesn't identify himself; later, when he's given chapters from an identified point of view, he taunts us, afterwards, by how cleverly he's managed, even when providing his name, to conceal himself. Often, narrators directly address the reader, and the novel itself becomes a parallel to the illustrated book being constructed for the Sultan: it, too, has multiple artists; these artists, too, both conceal and reveal; the characters within are sometimes historical and sometimes invented; and perhaps the novel's actual author, too, has painted his own portrait within these pages as some sly illustrator seems to have done.

The Muslim world of the time is in a period of transition: though artists have been trained to see the world "as Allah sees it," not as they see it, the new "Frankish" style has begun to infect them, the style which is distinctly personal, which draws attention to the artist, and which incorporates, rather than established templates of portrayal, actual portraiture by which one may recognize living human beings. The issues surrounding this change drive most of the drama in the novel, though the book has another major plot that's related to all this: the return of Black, our presumptive hero, to his native city, where he hopes to finally marry the possibly widowed cousin who was, when last he was here, too young to wed. This romance, too, takes place in terms of the traditions of Islamic art, as it was initially sparked by reference to a famous tale and illustration—that of the lovely (and beloved by two men) Shirin. The twin plots of murder and marriage intertwine suspensefully, even though Pamuk often allows his characters to digress on religious and artistic matters (repetitively, it must be said). The book requires some work, but it's narratively and intellectually engaging, a great novel that raises questions any artist can appreciate, especially in our own era when one can sense the possible fading of written narrative to be replaced by the visual and filmic.