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Friday, April 22, 2011

Never Let Me Go

Reading Kazuo Ishiguro is like watching those trick-shot pool competitions they used to show around 4pm on ESPN2. Sure, the technical skill on display is impressive, but the sheer pointlessness of the exercise makes it difficult to sustain much interest.

This is the second Ishiguro novel I have read (the other was The Remains of the Day) and in each he has set himself a narrative challenge that would seem insurmountable to many writers. He deliberately obscures the main thrust of his story by utilizing a first-person narrator whose interests are often only tangential to that of the reader. In The Remains of the Day, the narrator is a long-tenured English butler whose discourses on the proper way to serve a distinguished gentleman cloak that same gentleman’s unsavory politics. Here, the narrator is a woman named Kathy, who wants to tell us the story of her and her two best friends from Hailsham, the idyllic boarding school they all attended. While Kathy is intensely interested in rehashing grade-school slights and petty teenage drama, the reader slowly comes to discover the horrifying truth about their lives at Hailsham and after.

At first glance, this seems like an appropriate choice, as Kathy assumes the reader’s familiarity with the rules of her alternate reality. Indeed, it would perhaps be just as tiresome and less realistic if she droned on and on about the way her world worked. The problem though, is that of sustaining reader interest. This is a short novel, but even so I found myself bored with Kathy’s narration, which is often true to life to the point of exhaustion. The way she incessantly reaches a point in her story, only to say that she needs to go back and explain some things first, will drive even patient readers up the wall.

It might be a bold artistic choice, but when you intentionally use a boring person as your narrator I’m going to praise you for how authentically bored I feel reading your novel.

I am going to watch the film version of the novel, which stars Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield, and was released last year. The “surprise” revelation of the novel (which I won’t spoil here even though it is achingly obvious shortly into the plot) seems like a decent presence for a movie. Reading Never Let Me Go reminded me a lot of Children of Men, which was a stuffy, uninteresting novel but a fantastic film.

Monday, April 18, 2011


Tina Fey’s Bossypants is a formless group of uncollected thoughts with little to no narrative momentum. I loved every page of it.

Let’s establish the many things that this book is not. It is not a memoir, not really. It could only charitably be called a “tell-some”. (For instance, Fey brings up her scar and its cause specifically to explain why she will not talk about it any further.) It is not a guide to success, not in general nor for working women, even though at times Fey does sarcastically refer to it as such (“Don’t eat diet meals at meetings,” she says. “If you’re so mad you could cry, go ahead and cry. It terrifies people,” she says.)

I haven’t seen it referred to in this way in other places, but Bossypants is best considered as a collection of essays. Perhaps her publishers, hoping to recoup what has been reported as a $5 million advance, desperately wanted to steer clear of a word that most people associate with academic reporting on topics like the wheat market in Indonesia.

Each chapter of the book deals is a self-contained examination, either of an aspect of Tina Fey’s life or of an issue relevant thereof. Besides biographical examinations of her early friendships with theatrical homosexuals and the general badassery of her father, there are also reflections of the positive aspects of Photoshop, the best way to celebrate Christmas, and why male comedy writers are gross. (It has to do with their habit of peeing in jars.)

The most buzzworthy segments of Bossypants are the parts where Fey deals with feminism and politics. Fey talks at length about the sometimes incredibly unsubtle sexism she has seen in her time in show business, from the Second City director who thought audiences wouldn’t like a sketch featuring two women to the fact that older women comedians seem to become crazy right around the time the men who hire them no longer want to sleep with them. I was a little disappointed that Fey pulls her punches a little by not naming names, but I suppose that there are entirely justifiable reasons for that policy.

As for politics, people hoping for a take-down of Sarah Palin will probably be disappointed, but I was intrigued by the behind the scenes story of how Fey and SNL Producer Lorne Michaels were taken aback by the overpowering popular demand that Fey caricaturize the VP nominee. The tale of the first day of the impression is also of interest.

Throughout Bossypants, Fey comes across as witty, likable, normal and honest. She clearly has very thoughtful opinions on things like balancing motherhood and professional success, but she’s honest enough to admit that she sometimes breaks down crying in her office. These essays have a breezy, light quality that belies the amount of sheer intelligence that went into composing them.

Inherent Vice

Thomas Pynchon’s Doc Sportello stands at the nexus of Philip Marlowe and The Dude, a stoner P.I. with a sense of morality and a devotion to his trade. With the events of the novel taking place in Los Angeles between 1969 and 1970 (the Manson trial is an understated but constant presence in the lives of the characters) Thomas Pynchon has set himself the challenge of evoking a well-worn but endlessly fascinating era, without resorting to hackneyed observations about pot smokers getting the munchies. (Which is not to say that his pot-smokers don’t get the munchies, just that they seem to do so organically.)

Inherent Vice is riddled with improbable coincidences, impossible conspiracies, and people with funny names. (Cf. Puck Beaverton, Trillium Fullbright, Vincent Indelicato, Adrian Prussia, et al.) There’s also quite a lot of sex going on, and not all of it the sort of white-washed “free love” b.s. that so many hazy recollections would have you believe. Pynchon’s characters get down and dirty in many different ways, but the novel never feels lurid or tacky, even when he describes a somewhat polyandrous relationship between a woman, her biker boyfriend who will only penetrate her from behind, and his boyfriend, who likes to sing the Ethel Merman parts in show tunes.

A coherent explanation of the plot would take too long and almost certainly scare more timid readers away from the book, but it really is quite a clever riff on the plots of Chandleresque detective novels. (Chandler is said to have been unable to explain part of the solution of The Big Sleep to the people working on the film adaptation.) There are many crimes in Inherent Vice, and solving them all is sort of an afterthought to merely shining a light on human corruption and venality. Like Philip Marlowe, Doc Sportello is our virtuous guide behind the curtain, he just happens to have both a perpetual buzz and a perpetual hard-on.

Because of his lengthy, densely allusive novels like Gravity’s Rainbow (which, in full disclosure, I have not read) Pynchon is a name that tends to scare off readers, but Inherent Vice, which seemed to puzzle many critics due to its seeming simplicity, is really quite a joyful look at a bygone time and place. Though the prose occasionally drifts into odd constructions (the author has this way of steering his sentences so that they intentionally end in prepositions, even when they would sound better the other way) the novel zips along from thrill to thrill. I don’t think the novel would be out of place in your beach bag.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Herzog and Abandoned Novels

Something about the haziness induced by seasonal allergies made it easier to see certain things more clearly. Being sick meant that I was in no mood to put up with anyone's bullshit, let alone that of an arrogant male author like Saul Bellow, who'd probably erect a statue to his own libido if he wasn't a talented writer.

That's the frustrating thing about Bellow, he's obviously talented. His prose is written with an enthusiasm that carries it past the thin premises of his books. But instead of writing a story, Bellow cares too much about dropping the names of obscure foreign authors and philosophers and stating outright his positions on high-minded topics of debate. In Herzog, these authorial discourses are considered excusable because the protagonist is himself a learned professor, but there incomprehensibility renders the whole book (or at least the 200 pages I managed to get through) a joyless slog.

Perhaps more offensive to the reader than the alienating superiority the author feels toward his intellect is his apparently amoral brand of mysogyny. Herzog was apparently written after the author's contentuous divorce, and the hatred Bellow feels toward his ex-wife is wholly represented in the novel, as Herzog's ex-wife is portrayed as so comically manipulative as to provoke incredulity. I detest novel's written to prove points, political or otherwise, and it seem to me that the lowest sort of this kind is to write a book essentially arguing that your ex-wife is a bitch. This is more common than you might think, and absolutely ruined Philip Roth's "I Married a Communist" for me.

Anyway, Saul Bellow's Herzog is a contemptible, vile piece of personal propaganda which gives voice to some of the most disgusting mysogyny I've ever seen represented in a supposed work of art. I can't think of one person I respect who could find anything to like about it. Life is too short to read the rantings of a bitter man wasting his talent. Stay away.

HIMYM-"The Exploding Meatball Sub"

My goodness, that was a brutally bad episode of television. I think that about covers my thoughts, really, but just for kicks:

-Sometimes a childish and petty Barney can be funny, theoretically, but just a week after meeting his father he's resorting to something so idiotic and juvenile? Disappointing to say the least.

-I didn't care for the "graduation goggles" bit, which seemed both extremely obvious and poorly executed to boot.

-Totally don't care whether Marshall ever gets a job where he can help the environment, since it's never really seemed like an important part of his characterization. I do wish they'd just resolve this plotline once and for all.

-This was just a poorly conceived and illogical script, with shockingly few laughs and nothing interesting to see.

For comparison, I arguably enjoyed last night's Mad Love more than HIMYM, even though Mad Love, as is its custom, was shoddily constructed and hackneyed. Seriously, the episode featured one character dog-sitting her boss's incorrigible terrier. (Oh no! If she messes up her boss will totally fire her for something non-work related!)

You can do better, HIMYM.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Killing: "Pilot" and "The Cage"

Presented together, the first two episodes of AMC’s The Killing, a long-form mystery adapted from the Danish Forbrydelsen, make for an intriguing premise with the capacity to become a fascinating work of television. However, the main selling point of the series, that it tracks a single murder case in nearly real time (each episode is meant to represent one day of the investigation) renders it difficult to really review these early episodes. So much of the success of The Killing will depend on how the mystery progresses, and of course on how it is solved.

The strength of the show’s format is that it allows the tension of the case to mount tremendously. Unlike a serial like CSI or Bones or the like, the victim and her loved ones aren’t just necessary inconveniences getting in the way of the main characters. The episode doesn’t even begin with the finding of the body, the way most such shows would. Instead that takes almost the whole hour, and the scene where it is discovered becomes all the more wrenching because of the delay.

Thus, the pilot seems to serve as an instruction on how to watch the series. There are several fake-outs, such as a supposed body discovery revealed to be a set-up for a going away party, or a wife’s panicked phone call to her husband revealed to be about a leaky sink. Though their repetition might be wearing, it is a useful reminder not to expect anything too soon. This case will take some time to crack.

The Killing’s star detective is tough, inscrutable Sarah Linden, who keeps fighting against herself to stay on the case of a young high school girl found dead in the trunk of a sunken car. The case begins on Linden’s supposed last day with the Seattle PD. She and her son are set to move to Sonoma, CA with her fiancĂ©.

Linden is accompanied on the case by her replacement, Stephen Holder, a former undercover narcotics agent whose creepy persona eventually reveals itself to be a cagy way of getting information from unlikely sources. It’s delightfully uncomfortable to watch him interact with the other characters, as in an early scene where he asks Rosie’s high school teacher if he had slept with his student, calling her a “hot piece of ass.”

The Killing also follows Darren Richmond, a candidate seeking to displace the incumbent mayor. The sunken car turns out to have belonged to his campaign, placing him and his staffers in an awkward position. There seem to be other secrets within the candidate and his campaign, which I’m sure will be explored throughout the season.

Whether or not it concludes satisfactorily, The Killing looks like it will be an entertaining ride while it lasts. The show has borrowed its source’s Scandinavian broodiness and cynicism well, and the Seattle setting allows for outrageously poor weather to set the scene. I’m looking forward to trying to figure out who did it.