Saturday, August 16, 2008

Recent Reading Roundup 17

The summer doldrums are hitting me hard--all the interesting movies have been and gone, for one thing, and there's still nothing to watch on TV. So, have some books.
  1. Farthing by Jo Walton - I've resisted Walton's extraordinarily and almost universally liked novel for some time now, having been so singularly unimpressed with previous offering, Tooth and Claw. Tor.com's policy of releasing selected books from their catalogue under CC licenses, however, inspired me to give Farthing a look and, well, it looks like my first instinct was right. The novel suffers, in fact, from much the same flaws as Tooth and Claw. It has an inventive premise--a Christie-esque country house mystery told in an alternate universe in which Britain made peace with Hitler and, in the late forties, is slipping, much like the rest of the world, into fascism and institutionalized xenophobia--and is for a time energetic and enjoyable, but soon begins to flag and drag, giving the impression of a short story stretched out to an unnatural length. Farthing also reminded me very much of Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Like it, it uses a specific and highly stylized type of mystery story--in Chabon's case, the Chandler-esque noir mystery--to describe an alternate universe. And as in The Yiddish Policemen's Union, in Farthing these two different genres end up undermining one another.

    The mystery pastiche keeps rigid control of Farthing's plot and overwhelms the alternate history, but when stripped of its padding it's a very straightforward story that ends up exactly where we expected it to end. The whole novel, in fact, would have wrapped up in less than a hundred pages if only the two main characters--the Scotland Yard detective who arrives at Farthing manor to investigate the murder of a prominent politician, and the family's youngest daughter, a black sheep who, against her parents' wishes, married a Jew who quickly becomes the prime suspect--talked to one another and shared one specific piece of information, which the readers are made privy to almost immediately after the murder but which the detective only learns near its end. Of course, the Farthing mystery ends up where it does because that ending serves the goals of the alternate history--to discuss the lure of fascism, the compromises people make in order to secure their own safety, and the ease with which democracy slides into tyranny. Given this premise, there is only one way for the mystery to unravel--with the discovery of a vast, far-reaching conspiracy whose members have infested every level of society and every institution within it. Farthing, in other words, isn't a whodunnit, because everybody dunnit. Michael Chabon is a good enough writer that, though The Yiddish Policemen's Union suffers from just these flaws, it remains a supremely enjoyable reading experience. His prose, characters, and most of all his irresistible sense of humor smooth over his shaky plotting and construction. Jo Walton, unfortunately, isn't as skilled. Her prose is no more than adequate, her characters somewhat roughly sketched, her political observations are neither sharp nor devastating, and there's very little snap or crackle to the novel. I doubt I'll give her another try.

  2. Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee - I've been reading so much of Wharton's fiction in the last few years that it only made sense to learn a bit more about her life, especially from a biography as well-received as Lee's has been. I don't read a lot of non-fiction, so this may simply be my ignorance talking, but I found Lee's choice of structure a little disorienting. Each of her chapters focuses on a single aspect of Wharton's life--her interest in gardening, or interior design, her affinity with French culture and tireless efforts on behalf of French refugees during the first World War--to the exclusion of all others. So that, for example, in the chapter discussing Wharton's close friendship with Henry James and his circle of friends, Lee might casually mention that, at the same time as the events she's describing, Wharton was also struggling with her disintegrating marriage to Teddy Wharton or her unhappy extramarital affair with Morton Fullerton, but only expand on these matters in their own chapters. It's an approach that takes a bit of getting used to, as does Lee's exhaustiveness, her insistence on describing Wharton's life in minute detail, lingering on the layout of gardens she admired, the itinerary of continental trips she planned, and events in the lives of her casual acquaintances. Some of this information is quite interesting--Edith Wharton is as much as snapshot of Wharton's social set and its transformation over the 75 years of her life as her own novels were--and some of it is extremely tedious, and had me wishing for the end of the chapter so that the next, and hopefully more interesting, topic could be gotten to.

    Nevertheless, Edith Wharton emerges fully formed from this biography, a fascinating, fiercely intelligent, opinionated, frequently overbearing woman whose interests were varied and wide-ranging, from gardening to philosophy to politics to social gossip, and who seems to have had limitless amounts of energy, encompassing in a single life something like half a dozen careers while also battling a mentally ill husband, an untrustworthy lover, a disapproving family and her own self-doubt and neuroses. As Lee describes her, Wharton is larger than life and yet a wholly believable and flawed person (especially when it comes to her conservative, and towards the end of her life disappointingly reactionary, political opinions). Lee interrupts each chapter with a selection from Wharton's bibliography, observing how real-life events influenced the writing of her novels and short stories, how each of them developed from its embryonic form as a sketch in one of her notebooks and then laboriously came to life, often evolving as a result of conversations with Wharton's literary friends or readings in her home. Though it's hard to escape the conclusion that Lee's juxtaposition of fact and fiction is calculated to create a specific impression of Wharton's life and state of mind, these readings do provide insight into Wharton's writing as well as her character. I can't say that reading Edith Wharton was an unalloyed joy--it's at least twice as long as I would have liked it to be, and at points quite tiring--but I walked away from it with a more comprehensive understanding of who Edith Wharton was and what interested her, which is, after all, what I was looking for.

  3. Drown by Junot Díaz - I found this collection of short stories, Díaz's first published work which, more than a decade ago, sparked interest in his writing and had several literary bloggers waiting breathlessly for his first novel, in a used bookstore a few days before purchasing that selfsame novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Given the enthusiasm and awards that surrounded Oscar, I naturally read it first, and was extremely impressed, but though the same ease with language that made Oscar Wao such a delight to read also characterizes Díaz's extraordinarily polished short stories, I can't help but wish that I'd read them first. The stories in Drown feel like rehearsals for Oscar Wao. Like the novel, they take place in the Dominican Republic or among people who have emigrated from it to the US (several of the stories are narrated by Yunior, almost certainly the same character who narrates Oscar Wao and Díaz's alter-ego), and like it they deal with the racism and misogyny that infect Dominican society as well as the limited options that poor, working class immigrants and their children have in American society--all issues which Díaz went on to explore at greater length in his novel, so that at times Drown feels like a tray of excellent hors d'oeuvre served after a lavish and filling meal. My unfortunate timing notwithstanding, Drown is an excellent collection--the title story in particular, in which a young man repeatedly resists all efforts to get him out of his neighborhood and a life heading quickly towards a dead end, is quietly devastating--and worth reading in its own right.

  4. The Orphan's Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice by Catherynne M. Valente - I read In the Night Garden, the first half of Valente's doulogy (really a single novel split in two), in which the titular orphan, an outcast in the garden of the Sultan's palace, spins tales for a curious prince, a couple of months ago, and was very impressed with her intricate layering of stories and eventual creation of a fully-formed and lovingly detailed mythology. For all my enjoyment of the first volume, however, I wasn't entirely eager to read the second. It seemed to me that Valente's point, inasmuch as she had one, had been made in the first volume. She had established that all stories were one story, that no story ever truly ends and that one character's ending merely sparks another character's adventures. And she had given the traditional fairy tale forms her own twist, highlighting the limited roles of women within them, their resistance to anyone different or acting outside their predefined roles, and creating in her own imaginary universe a place for those who are different, damaged, marginalized and monstrous. It seemed unlikely that In the Cities of Coin and Spice would have much to add to any of these themes and concepts.

    And this is, in fact, what I found. There are a few wry meta-observations on the nature of stories in In the Cities of Coin and Spice, which I don't remember from In the Night Garden, but these are a few minor notes in a 500 page novel. More importantly, the orphan's stories, which had already been feeding into each other, so that a character introduced in one would pop up in the next and be mentioned in the one after, turn out to have single, culminating point which feeds back into the frame story about the orphan and her prince. No single climax, however, could measure up to the 1,000+ pages of buildup, chock full of wide-ranging, elaborate high adventure, which Valente has taken us through, and one walks away from In the Cities of Coin and Spice thinking not of that climactic revelation but of all the other interwoved, endlessly recursing, self-referential stories preceding it. In other words, more of the same. That same, however, was supremely enjoyable in In the Night Garden, and no less so here--everything that made the first volume in the duology an irresistible read, most particularly Valente's ability to spin a story that is simultaneously as familiar as our umpteenth reading of Snow White and something all its own, and keep us constantly aching to know what happens next, is still present in its second volume. Valente could have stopped spinning yarns after the first volume and produced a work no less compelling or remarkable, but by the same token she could have kept going for a third and a fourth. And this may very well be her point--after all, the story is never truly over.

5 comments:

Raz Greenberg said...

I had pretty much the same reaction to both "Farthing" and "The Yiddish Policemen's Union". "Farthing" is simply a bad book. I could forgive the cardboard characters and bad dialogue, but for some reason, Wolton must have assumed that her readers never picked a mystery or alternate-history book before. The "mystery" plot is dull and predictable, and the world she describes uses just about every familiar cliche from the "what if the Nazis won the war" sub-genre (and fails to deliver the shock and horror expected from the genre, on pretty much every level).
While "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" was well-written, it also left me with a "so what?" feeling at the end. I just couldn't care enough for the story and characters, perhaps because Chabon neglecting both while trying to prove how clever he is with every second sentence. The book describes an interesting world, but fails to say anything significant about it (or about its relevance to the real world).
In a way, both books complement each other - Wolton was too busy trying to say something substantial, that it took all the fun out of her book. Chabon was too busy having fun with his book, that he failed at saying something substantial.
I'll stick with Roth's "The Plot Against America" as my favorite recent alternate history.

Celestial M Weasel said...

Mere words cannot express my joy to find two people who share my view of Farthing, so many otherwise sensible people have liked it.
Sadly SF fans like their politics knee-jerk, so the ludicrous cartoon fascists have gone down very well.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Perhaps if "sensible people" disagreed with Celestial Weasel, she will have to consider the possibility that they are right. I don't think it's "knee-jerk" to say that fear of terrorism can be invoked to take away civil liberties, as Walton argues; that's exactly what's happened in the U.S., where the Bush administration has used terrorism as an excuse to ransack private phone calls and e-mails without warrants.

As for Abbie Nussbaum's review of "Farthing," I notice that in her post on "The Algebraist" she says "River of Gods" was her favorite for the Hugo that year. I thought it was obviously the worst novel on the ballot, so we seem to have very different literary tastes.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Raz:

I thought that on the level of showing ordinary people learning to accommodate and tolerate racism in their culture, Farthing was quite successful. A little understated, perhaps, but in a way that brought home how mundane these prejudices could become (and hopefully, how mundane they still are in our culture). The rest of the novel's political elements didn't impress me as much.

As I said in my review of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, I couldn't help but feel that Chabon was hobbled by his choice to pile genre atop genre, and, crucially for the novel he was trying to write, failed to imagine how a strictly Yiddish culture would evolve into the 21st century. The result is, as you say, a novel with less to say than it might have, though I liked it a great deal better than you and am quite pleased it won the Nebula and Hugo.

Haven't read The Plot Against America, and can't say it appeals to me.

CMW:

I wouldn't presume to speculate on the reasons for Farthing's popularity, nor do I think it's fair to tar all SF fans with such a broad brush. As I said to Raz, I think the novel does a good job describing ordinary people slipping into fascism, though some of the main antagonists are rather crudely drawn, and though, as I said, I find the plot McGuffin of a far-reaching conspiracy rather tedious.

Tom:

Feel free to disagree with my reviews of Farthing, River of Gods, or any other book, but please note that my name, as listed on this page and every other piece of my writing on- or offline, is Abigail.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Sorry about that. It was a mistake, not an intent to be disrespectful.

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