Saturday, November 14, 2009

Recent Reading Roundup 23

It's been a long time since I did one of these, so long that some of the books I read in the interim have already faded so much in my memory that I can't comment meaningfully on them.  Here are my thoughts on the ones that have lingered.
  1. Sunnyside by Glen David Gold - Gold's long-awaited follow-up to the enormously enjoyable Carter Beats the Devil features the same careful attention to period detail, and the same seemingly effortless evocation of early 20th century Americana, but it is also so shapeless, so caught up in the desire to make Meaningful Statements, that it becomes the exact opposite of Carter--a genuine chore to read.  Like Carter, Sunnyside is a When It Changed novel, this time focusing on film, and particularly film star celebrity, rather than television.  But whereas Carter made a relatively modest statement--that the invention of television changed the face of public entertainment, in the process putting acts like the superstar magician out of business--Sunnyside tries to tie the growth of Hollywood and the celebrity culture into just about every major event of the beginning of the twentieth century, including World War I, arguing that the emergence of people who are famous simply for being famous was also the death knell of the old, aristocratic world order.  At best, it's an oversimplified argument, and when Gold uses it draw connections between Charlie Chaplin's early film career and World War I, the novel--which starts out with the same verve and sense of fun that made Carter Beats the Devil such a joy to read--collapses in on itself.  It certainly doesn't help that the characters are uniformly unpleasant, most especially Chaplin, the heart of the novel, whom Gold portrays as a narcissistic user.

  2. Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory - Gregory's debut novel, after several years as a well-respected short story writer (his "The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm" was one of my favorite short stories from 2008), takes place in a world in which spirit possession is a fact of life.  With seemingly no rhyme or reason, random people are possessed, not by demons, but by archetypes--The Truth, who punishes liars, The Kamikaze, who possesses Japanese men and compels them to crash planes, The Captain, who appears on battlefields to lead troops to victory.  What's best about this novel is its worldbuilding--Gregory's fashioning of an alternate history influenced by possessions (Eisenhower is killed by The Kamikaze, O.J. Simpson doesn't live to be acquitted) and of the ways in which human society has changed to accommodate the possibility of possession, deal with those who have been possessed, and try to explain the nature and cause of possession.

    Less successful is the novel's plot, which centers around and is narrated by Del Pierce, a thirtyish man still struggling to recover from his possession as a child by The Hellion, a trickster spirit which takes young boys and forces them to commit dangerous and destructive mischief.  After years of shaky mental health, aimless wandering, and a haphazard job history, Del begins to feel genuinely unbalanced, and fears that he has somehow trapped the Hellion, and that the demon is trying to get out and take over him again.  The novel's focus on a mentally unstable main character whose exposure to the supernatural has led to a lifetime of inadequacies and disappointments brings to mind Sean Stewart's Perfect Circle, but Pandemonium lacks that novel's admirable resistance to settling into the thriller plot, and soon introduces a paramilitary group convinced that the possessing entities are aliens, and a secret society trying to understand the demons by studying Jung's Red Book, both of which tend to obscure Del himself.  Not helping matters is the fact that Del's journey throughout the novel consists mainly of learning the truth about his possession as a child, but as I had guessed that truth very early in the novel I quickly grew impatient with the characters and how long they were taking to realize it.  I was much more interested in the questions it raised about personality and personhood and the nature of the possessing demons, which Gregory, by delaying the novel's main revelation, left himself very little time to explore.  This is, obviously, to blame Pandemonium for not being the novel I wanted to read, but that's a risk an author takes when they hinge their entire plot on a single revelation, and in my case that risk didn't pan out.

  3. Warlock by Oakley Hall - Perhaps the simplest way to describe Hall's 1958 Western is that it is Deadwood in book form--a sprawling, beautifully written, unflinching examination of the myths and realities of the American West.  The town of Warlock has been plagued by outlaws and ruffians, who have repeatedly driven out or killed the representatives of the law provided by a distant and uncaring territorial government.  The town's merchants and prominent citizens decide to hire a gunslinger, Clay Blaisedell, to act as Marshall and bring order to Warlock.  From this simple and familiar premise Hall crafts an enormous and complicated tapestry of characters and points of view, all chewing on and providing different perspective on the novel's central question--what, if anything, gives Blaisedell the right to kill?  It would be a vast oversimplification to say that good and evil are not clearly delineated in Warlock.  Rather, Hall turns a searching but sympathetic eye on each and every one of his characters--Blaisedell, the town's deputy John Gannon, a former member of the gang menacing the town, the merchants who hired Blaisedell in an attempt to bring Warlock into the civilized world, the local judge, who rants and raves that Blaisedell's presence represents a refutation of civilization and the rule of law, and yet has no effective law to offer in his stead, Blaisedell's friend, the cynical, dangerous saloon owner Tom Morgan, Kate Dollar, a former prostitute who blames Morgan for pitting Blaisedell against her lover, the local miners, who are striking for safer conditions (and whose leaders the merchants try to persuade Blaisedell to run out of town), and even the outlaws themselves.  Warlock is about many things, but perhaps most importantly, it is about the allure and horror of violence and bloodshed, the way that the gunslinger, be he Marshall or outlaw, is simultaneously a hero and a villain, and the near impossible complexity of the attempt to craft a peaceful, lawful society through force of arms.  But this is only one of its many themes and pleasures.  If you're feeling Deadwood withdrawal, or just in the market for an engrossing read, I highly recommend Warlock.

  4. Just After Sunset by Stephen King - In the introduction to his most recent short story collection, King talks about falling out of the habit of writing short fiction, and becoming reacquainted with the form during his stint as guest editor for Best American Short Stories, in the wake of which he decided to try his hand at writing them again.  Which leaves me with two possible explanations for how disappointed I was by Just After Sunset, despite being a fan of King's, and particularly of his short fiction, for many years: either King still hasn't gotten back into the short story groove (and is still so famous and bankable that no one is willing to force him back into it) or I've outgrown his writerly ticks.  Most of the stories in this collection are slow and familiar, but what manages to obscure even the occasional successful moment in an otherwise failed story--the central romance in "Willa," in which the main characters have been waiting for what seems like forever for a train to replace their stalled one; the apocalyptics ending of the vignette "Graduation Afternoon," in which a townie girl grits her teeth through her upper class boyfriend's graduation party--is King's reliance on folksy speech patterns.  It used to be that, if nothing else, you could count on a Stephen King story to sound real, as if an actual person was talking to you (or to someone else), their every word choice a reflection of their personality and a reason to keep reading.  In Just After Sunset, King seems to have lost his voice(s).  His narrators and protagonists sound contrived, even fake--aiming at the folksiness of his previous novels and short stories, and failing so badly at the attempt that they sound ridiculous.  Only two stories manage to survive this failure of voice--"Mute," which veers away from the something-nasty-in-the-woodshed template that seems to underly most of the stories in the collection, and delivers a magnificently nasty punch in its final revelation, and "A Very Tight Place," in which King gets, quite literally, down in the dirt when he traps his protagonist inside an abandoned port-a-potty and describes, with obvious relish, the visceral horror of his attempts to escape.

  5. Eclipse 3, edited by Jonathan Strahan - The third installment in the controversy-ridden original story anthology series represents a departure from the previous two volumes on almost every level--the tenor of the stories, the authors, even the (quite lovely) cover design.  In his introduction, Strahan explains the shift, in a rather roundabout way, by describing Eclipse 2 as science fiction oriented.  The implication, one takes it, is that Eclipse 3 is fantasy oriented, but both characterizations strike me as inaccurate.  There are science fiction stories in Eclipse 3 just as there were fantasy stories in Eclipse 2, and the difference between the two volumes seems to have more to do with the type of genre story they feature.  If Eclipse 2 leaned towards the purely generic, pulp-inspired end of both genres, the stories in Eclipse 3 are more literary (the significance of the fact that Eclipse 2 was dominated by male writers whereas 3's table of contents is dominated by women is left as an exercise for the reader).  I was underwhelmed by Eclipse 2, and Eclipse 3 reveals that it's not the type of stories that was my problem so much as Strahan's editorial taste.  My reaction to both volumes is, in fact, almost identical--there are a few stories I like very much, one or two decent ones, and a whole mass of pieces I genuinely disliked.  The standouts are Karen Joy Fowler's "The Pelican Bar," which very nearly outdoes "What I Didn't See" for flimsy generic connections, but is nevertheless quite harrowing in its descriptions of the protagonist's hellish experiences in a reeducation camp for wayward teens, and Maureen F. McHugh's "Useless Things," a stately, plotless but evocative piece about life in the wake of economic and environmental collapse.  The best story in the anthology is Nicola Griffith's "It Takes Two," in which a female executive for a high tech company struggling to overcome the boys' club atmosphere in her profession ends up hacking her brain to get ahead in business.  Despite a shaky premise, "It Takes Two" is a meaty story that comments intelligently on several thorny issues.  The remaining stories, however, are so disappointing, veering too often towards tweeness and sentimentalism, that I'm genuinely torn about whether to continue with this series, which for the second time around has delivered much too low a ratio of good stories to bad ones, but also includes what I suspect will be a couple of my favorite stories of the year.  I guess we'll have to see how the Eclipse 4 table of contents shapes up.

  6. The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt - We end as we began, with a historical novel about America the first half of the twentieth century.  Hunt's slim, dreamy novel about the last days in the life of the inventor Nikola Tesla seems like the polar opposite of Gold's Sunnyside.  Instead of a sprawling cast and huge stakes this is a very intimate story, with only a few characters--Tesla himself, Louisa, a young chambermaid in his hotel, and her immediate family--and hardly a plot in sight.  Instead, Hunt moves back and forth between the major events of Tesla's life--his arrival in America, his adversarial relationship with Thomas Edison, fading into obscurity even as his greatest invention, alternating current, becomes the industry standard, consumed with obsessions both fantastical and merely too forward-thinking for their time--and intersperses them with Louisa's personal crises.  For all their differences, however, The Invention of Everything Else is ultimately as shapeless and unsatisfying as Sunnyside.  Hunt seems to have done her research, but her overwhelming focus on her characters' interiority leaves her with hardly any space to develop a sense of period--1943 reads just like 1893, and given the non-linearity of Tesla's narrative I was often at a loss to guess when a particular scene was set.  This might not have been a problem if the characters themselves weren't so unbelievable, but I struggled to accept any of them--not just Tesla, who in Hunt's hands is literally a mad scientist who concocts plans to talk to Mars and resurrect the dead, but also Louisa--as actual people rather than mouthpieces for a rather stultifying melange of cod-philosophy and surrealist images.  There are a few moments of genuine emotion in the novel--a short interlude describing Louisa's parents' courtship and her father's experiences during World War I, a trip to the beach Louisa takes with a suitor--but for the most part The Invention of Everything Else gave me nothing to grab onto.

3 comments:

N. K. Jemisin said...

Thanks for the comments on Eclipse 3; I'd been trying to decide whether to give the series another chance. I quite liked the first volume, but 2 left a bad taste in my mouth (though some of that might have been due to the controversy), and I wasn't willing to give the third a chance 'til I heard from some folks about it.

And I felt the same way about JUST AFTER SUNSET. I used to love King's shorts; they weren't always great, but they were usually good. I did like "N", though -- didn't really do anything different in the Lovecraftian sense, but still held me riveted.

Raz Greenberg said...

"Just After Sunset" should have been named "Just Before Falling Asleep". The stories in it were so boring. I just gave up on the book two or three stories before the end.

Chuk said...

I picked up Pandemonium after reading your comments about it. I'm very glad I did -- excellent stuff. Yes, you could see some of the plot coming before it got there, but I enjoyed the ride. Plus the pop culture references were lots of fun and games.

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