Friday, March 24, 2017

Tattered like the sieve of some stupid, grinning, sunflower-seed-cracking old woman

Last week's blizzard inspired me to pick up The Blizzard, by Vladimir Sorokin. I recall treating myself to this hardcover, Christmas 2015; I was in D.C., and it was unseasonably warm and the timing wasn't right for it. Last week, however, was perfect.

Fittingly, I write this as it's snowing again. So much snow.

I love this book. It is deeply strange and funny and tragic.

You start off thinking you're reading something old-timey, à la Bulgakov. It's charming, but affected — of another era. But it's so not that.

Platon Ilich Garin is a doctor on a mission to carry a vaccine to a remote village, where an epidemic is wreaking havoc (and it's not the sort of epidemic you might expect). Garin's trying to negotiate fresh horses with the stationmaster but there are none he may be stuck there, till someone remembers Crouper, who didn't do the bread delivery so he might be available. And he has a sled, with fifty horses under the hood; the hood basically a tarp, and the horses are miniature, the size of partridges. (Other technology gets mentioned that jars you out of the mistaken belief that this is ninetennth-century Russia; this is not the world that you know.)

So the doctor and the sled driver set out.

And they encounter delay after obstacle after obstacle after delay. The blizzard itself has them moving slow, cold, blind, often in circles. There are literal obstacles, buried under the snow, like the mysterious transparent pyramid, the size of a hat, hard as steel.
"I said, where's the village?!" the doctor shouted in a voice filled with hatred, for the storm, the cemetery, and that idiot birdbrain Crouper who had led him who knows where. He was angry at his wet toes freezing in his boots; at his heavy, fur-lined, snow-covered coat; at the ridiculous painted sled with its idiotic midget horses inside that idiotic plywood hood; at the blasted epidemic, brought to Russia by some swine from far-off, godforsaken, goddamned Bolivia, which no decent Russian person had any need for at all; at that scientific, pontificating crook Zilberstein, who cared only about his own career and had left earlier on the mail horses without a thought for his colleague, Dr. Garin; at the endless road surrounded by drowsy snowdrifts; at the snakelike, snowy wind whipping ominously above them; at the hopeless gray sky, tattered like the sieve of some stupid, grinning, sunflower-seed-cracking old woman, which kept sowing, sowing, and sowing these accursed snowflakes.
There are Vitaminders. They have a Mongolian-wise-man feel about them, but more than likely they are merely corporate pharmaceutical kingpins, of the crooked variety, whatever they might be doing in the middle of nowhere.

There's a fantastic 8-page drug trip, where Garin understands everything but retains nothing; he's reduced to tears and a state of infancy (but not innocence). I mean, fucking Vitaminders. With product! It's weird.

Garin's nose — the size and the colour of it — is a recurring image; I wonder if this isn't meant to reference Gogol, though I'm not sufficiently well-read to explain the significance of it.

Tragically, Garin himself is often the reason for the delay, and he never takes responsibility for that. He'd hoped to make it by nightfall, but days go by. And sadly, the novel ends before he reaches his destination, so we never learn how that epidemic turns out.

Excerpt.
New York Times review (a bit spoilery).

[I'm thinking it's nigh time I return to Sorokin's Ice Trilogy.]

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

In the evenings I'm truly unfathomable

Of course, everybody thinks I'm no good. Actually, when I'm hung over in the mornings I'm of the same opinion. But really, how can you trust the opinion of a person who hasn't yet had a hair of the dog? Now in the evenings — oh, God, what depths I can reveal! — always assuming, of course, I've had a good skinful during the day — in the evenings I'm truly unfathomable.

Well, okay, so I'm no good, so what? In general terms, I'd say a person who feels lousy in the morning, and who's buzzing with ideas in the evening, full of dreams and schemes, is just no good at all. Rotten mornings, and great evenings, are a sure sign of a bad person. But if it's the other way round — if somebody's bright and cheerful first thing, full of hope, and then totally knackered by evening, they're nothing but garbage, narrow-minded mediocrities. Complete shits, in my view. I don't know about you, but I reckon they're shits.

Of course, there are people to whom morning and evening are all the same, sunrise and sunset equally pleasing — people like that are straightforward bastards, it disgusts me even to talk about them. Then again, if somebody feels lousy morning and evening alike, well, I just don't know what to say, that's the last word in scum, a complete dickhead. I mean, the off-licenses stay open till nine at night, and the Yeliseev's open till eleven, for God's sake, and if you're not a scumbag, you can always manage lift-off to somewhere by evening, you can surely reach some sort of shallow depths...
— from Moscow Stations, by Venedikt Yerefeev.

So are you a morning person or an evening person?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

She had reduced the uneasiness of bodies to paper and fabric

I found Troubling Love, by Elena Ferrante, to be something of a troubling novel, on several levels.

It's Ferrante's first novel. Perhaps it shows; maybe it lacks fluidity, or something like that — it's jarring. I would not recommend this book as a way into Ferrante. It's narratively less compelling than her other novels. Maybe my hesitation in endorsing it lies simply in that it's so troubling (which, of course, may be the point). This is not an easy book.

Then there's the novels subjects and themes. Also troubling.

This is about Delia, a 40-ish-year-old woman coming to terms with her mother's death. There's the problem of the nature of the death, accidental or deliberate — could it really have been suicide? There's the problem of the circumstances of the death — where she was and with whom, and dressed like that? There's the problem of the relationship of the mother, long ago separated from Delia's father, with another man, whom Delia recalls from her childhood.
It occurred to me that ever since she was a girl Amalia had thought of hands as gloves, silhouettes first of paper, then of leather. She had sewed and sewed. Then, moving on, she had reduced widows of generals, wives of dentists, sisters of magistrates to measurements of bust and hips. Those measurements, taken by discreetly embracing, with her seamstress's tape, female bodies of all ages, became paper patterns that, fastened to the fabric with pins, portrayed on it the shadows of breasts and hips. Now, intently, she cut the material, stretched tight, following the outline imposed by the pattern. For all the days of her life she had reduced the uneasiness of bodies to paper and fabric, and perhaps it had become a habit, and so, out of habit, she tacitly rethought what was out of proportion, giving it the proper measure. I had never thought about this, and now that I had I couldn't ask her if it really had been like that. Everything was lost. But, in front of Signora De Riso as she ate cherries, I found that that final game of fabrics between her and Caserta, that reduction of their underground history to a conventional exchange of old garments for new, was a sort of ironic fulfillment. My mood abruptly changed. I was suddenly content to believe that her carelessness had been thought out. Unexpectedly, surprisingly, I liked that woman who in some way had completely invented her story, playing on her own with empty fabrics. I imagined that she hadn't died unsatisfied, and I sighed with unexpected satisfaction.
There's the problem of love. Is the title referencing the mother's relationships? Delia's relationship with her mother (not exactly loving, yet somehow fraught with love)? Delia's love life (perhaps troublingly absent)?

There's the problem of memory. How Delia remembers her childhood, and the people and events of her childhood, and the hazy reality of it. The past is quite troubling, and she must finally confront it.

There's Delia's relationship to her own body. Her aging body. Clothes and appearances figure prominently.

The most troubling thing of all: she is becoming her mother.

See also
New York Times: Return to Naples
The Iowa Review

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The only map we have is woefully lacking

"You used a map to get to this inn yesterday, did you not? Because of that map, you are able to find our way up the road without getting lost. Likewise, in order for us as a species to walk the correct path in life, we need a very detailed map that will tell us what the world is like. Except our map in incomplete, almost entirely useless. Which is why, even now, in the twenty-first century, people are still making mistakes. War and the destruction of the environment and countless other things persist because the only map we have is woefully lacking. It's the mission of scientists to fill in those missing pieces."
A Midsummer's Equation, by Keigo Higashino, is a perfectly delightful old-school mystery story. By which I mean, no hi-tech pyrotechnics, no weird sex, no ultra violence, no obscure specialists in esoteric fields of study you've never heard of. Just a suspicious death, some good old police work, and a fairly innocuous nest of family secrets.

That's a good thing.

It also makes the "Japanese Steig Larsson" proclamation stamped across the front cover silly, though I won't dispute that Higashino deserves to be better known. I loved The Devotion of Suspect X. A Midsummer's Equation is not as innovative a puzzle, but it confirms Higashino as a reliable writer to fall back on when I'm in the mood for a mystery.

Despite physicist Yukawas's insistence on the pursuit of pure truth and knowledge for its own sake, he seems very much concerned with moral truths. It is clear that for him the right path is the one leading to the greatest benefit for humanity. While logical, it may not be strictly legal. And that makes it quite different from many of the mysteries I've read in recent years in which legal justice tends to prevail.

This novel is not thriller. It's a tearjerker.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sending out coded signals

Why do people whose existence you are unaware of, whom you meet once and will never see again, come to play, behind the scenes, an important role in your life?
So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood was originally published in French just the week before Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. No doubt this speeded along its translation.

I've read a few Modiano novels now, enough to confidently say this one is typical, if slighter.

This can easily be read in one sitting, if you don't count my getting up to fix myself a cocktail.

This book is all mood, and great to get lost in, but if you're looking to get from point A to B via a traditional story, with, you know, an ending, this book won't get you anywhere.

So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood starts in the Paris apartment of Jean Daragane, an aging novelist, who receives a mysterious phonecall, which leads to a meeting with a mysterious couple and further meetings with the young woman (with a mysterious dress), and a mysterious file folder containing a mysterious yet familiar passport photo, and from there it meanders down mysterious memory lane.

The couple had asked Daragane about a specific man, but his memories of him are vague and convoluted and intertwined with equally fuzzy memories of other figures from his past. He'd used the name of that man in one of his novels, and a few episodes also had basis in his memory of his reality.
He had written this book only in the hope that she might get in touch with him. Writing a book, for him, was also a way of beaming a searchlight or sending out coded signals to certain people with whom he had lost touch. It was enough to scatter their names at random through the pages and wait until they finally produced news of themselves.[...] He had never understood why anyone should want to put someone who had mattered to them into a novel. Once that person had drifted into a novel in much the same way as one might walk through a mirror, he escaped from you forever. He had never existed in real life. He had been reduced to nothingness...
So were they important names, or weren't they?

We never learn what really became of the figures from the past, we never learn much about the murder beyond the fact that there was one (and it's mentioned barely as much as I mention it here), we never know where the dress came from and the young woman never comes back for it. Most puzzling of all to me, we never know what happened to Jean's mother, or why he was temporarily in the care of others.

Tellingly, when Daragane goes to investigate the house of his memories, the local doctor suggests the best informant might be the little boy who was present — but this of course is Daragane himself. I mean, there are episodes from my childhood that, weirdly, my mother knows nothing about. But I know I don't understand them fully because I processed them the way a 7-year-old would.
Many years afterwards, we attempt to solve puzzles that were not mysteries at the time and we try to decipher half-obliterated letters from a language that is too old and whose alphabet we don't even know.
It's very Paul Auster, City of Glass, only more realistic. All very fuzzy and mind-bendy. The mood, and the way Daragane processes his memories, is very much exacerbated by the unseasonable heat — it makes everything urgent, sexual, restless, confused.

Reviews
LA Times, Patrick Modiano's many detours into echoes, longings and tension:
It also has to do with how the past appears to rise up from the streets around us, mingling with the present until we are no longer sure where (or when) we are.
The Northwest Review of Books:
As we age, our brains accept and absorb events differently, and thus our perception of the importance of these events changes too. Storytelling often suggests clean causality, but that, for Daragane, is a youthful interpretation. For him, older and more isolated, the sheer vastness of his memory makes these connections nearly impossible to make.
The New Yorker, The Mysteries of Patrick Modiano

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

He died in the hall with the radio on

I've been working my way through a collection of short stories, Tenth of December, by George Saunders.

I have the impression that Saunders is a big deal. (I read and loved The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip a long time ago.)

The thing is, I don't get on well with short stories in general. I don't know why. Too short to connect, to develop a relationship with? But then there are several specific short stories that I have actually liked. It's the idea of short stories I don't like. That is, I like the idea of reading a story that's short. I just don't like them. Most of them are forgettable, they don't stay with me. I generally don't choose to read short stories.

With that massive disclaimer out of the way, I'll say these stories were quite all right. In fact they were just the thing, the right kind of bedtime reading this past week. I will consider reading more Saunders. The stories are very human and tragic, and several of them have a futuristic or science fiction-y aspect that while not central is essential to the backdrop of the story. Or maybe it is central. That is, the stories start off being very familiar, until suddenly they're really not.

One of the stories ("The Semplica Girl Diaries") I would've loved to experience at novel length.

Another story I loved is shorter than short. (I like really short short stories like this one; I like them better than short stories. They have a meditative aspect like poetry. All that's inessential has been stripped away.) I give it to you here in its entirety.
Sticks

Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he'd built out of metal pole in the yard. Super Bowl week the pole was dressed in a jersey and Rod's helmet and Rod had to clear it with Dad if he wanted to take the helmet off. On the Fourth of July the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veteran’s Day a soldier, on Halloween a ghost. The pole was Dad's only concession to glee. We were allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time. One Christmas Eve he shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup saying: good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream. The first time I brought a date over she said: what's with your dad and that pole? and I sat there blinking.

We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic. He draped some kind of fur over it on Groundhog Day and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow. When an earthquake struck Chile he lay the pole on its side and spray painted a rift in the earth. Mom died and he dressed the pole as Death and hung from the crossbar photos of Mom as a baby. We'd stop by and find odd talismans from his youth arranged around the base: army medals, theater tickets, old sweatshirts, tubes of Mom's makeup. One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He covered it with cotton swabs that winter for warmth and provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards. He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and the sticks and left them by the road on garbage day.
That's it. That's the whole gut-wrenching story. Doesn't it make you just — ?

All of the stories in this collection are available online:

Victory Lap
Sticks
Puppy
Escape from Spiderhead
Exhortation
Al Roosten
The Semplica Girl Diaries
Home
My Chivalric Fiasco
Tenth of December

Sunday, March 05, 2017

The forgetfulness of sugar

Edgar felt confused. He wanted a cookie, the forgetfulness of sugar. [...] Life was complicated, and dangerous. Edgar needed a teacher. Someone, like the aliens, who could extend long fingers into his brain and adjust the dials, rearrange the chaos of dots until the picture was marvelous and clear, and with no effort at all you would understand why you'd been born in a place where the rain of information never ceased, and where every person was a baffling conceit.
I'm not sure why I accepted a review copy of Edgar and Lucy, by Victor Lodato.

If I'd known more about what it was about, I might not have picked it up. (I remember thinking something similar about Lodato's first novel, Mathilda Savitch.) I don't naturally gravitate toward books that deal explicitly with grief, childhood trauma, family secrets, tragedy. (I don't seem to mind when those themes are implicit, subtly woven into the fabric of a story, but when a book is about overcoming a challenge, I tend to look elsewhere.)

Edgar is an eight-year-old albino boy, Lucy's his mom, his father's gone, dead, suicide. Lucy's got a limp and she drinks too much. They live with Edgar's grandmother, who has her own ghosts to deal with, until she dies. And then Edgar goes missing.

Upon starting in, I wasn't convinced I was prepared to invest my time in 500+ pages, but Lodato's writing is hugely compelling, and comes a point you have to know how it ends. I would've cut a few pages, but in the end I was quite satisfied to have spent a rainy day last weekend blanketed with this book.

Excerpt.