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March 5, 2007 | Comments ()


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What is the What? Eggers, Capote, Lethem, and more ...

What Pajiba's Reading / The Pajiba Staff

Book Reviews | March 5, 2007 | Comments ()


Well, I finally finished The Naked and the Dead, and though it’s not the longest book I’ve ever read, it’s one of the more draining experiences I’ve had in recent memory. And I don’t just mean reading; I mean waiting in traffic, dealing with that weird guy in the online department at work, doing my taxes. Everything. Since I discussed the book last time, I won’t waste too much space on it here other than to say this: It’s a sweeping, at times beautiful story that’s drowned in its own sorrow by the end. I don’t mind a bloodbath when it comes to bumping off main characters, and deaths come with the territory in a war novel. But the characters’ personalities remain rooted in unfortunate stereotype, not to mention that they’re generally dull, unlikable men. The book’s anticlimactic ending would have had more impact if the penultimate scene among the recon squad had been placed at the end, but instead things wrap up in the mind and affairs of an officer back at camp. Sure, Mailer’s point about the plodding inevitably of the soulless war machine is well taken, but if our hearts and minds are supposed to be with recon, he should have honored them and given them the final say.

I was in the mood for something short after that. Short and smart and contemporary. I found all three in The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, a quick read — all of 130 pages — from short story author and Syracuse professor George Saunders. Saunders’ parable deals with the realm of Inner Horner, which is so small that “only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside,” while the rest wait outside in the no man’s land between their own country and the much larger surrounding area of Outer Horner. Annoyed that they keep spilling over into his country, an Outer Hornerite named Phil decides one day to levy a tax against the Inner Hornerites for using his country, enlisting a few of his fellow citizens as a makeshift police force in the process. Saunders chronicles Phil’s despotic rise to power with a quick wit and economy of language that still carries emotional weight. The story can be interpreted several ways, including a sly critique of the United States’ current involvement in Iraq and the trampling of human rights that tends to happen when one nation overtakes another, as well as a look at the current reactions to immigration. The characters are physically indescribable, some hybrid of machine and man, complete with sliding brain racks and blinking blue lights, and they’re all outlandish enough to be eerily recognizable: The president of Outer Horner is an addle-minded leader who tends to ignore the present and fondly talk about the past; the members of the media literally speak out of their asses; etc. Saunders’ story is brilliant and funny and poignant, and a sadly relevant parallel to 21st-century America.

I read Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude on a whim; it was one of those titles that had been floating around my subconscious that I knew for some reason I would have to pick up, so when I found a good copy at a hole-in-the-wall used bookstore near Hollywood and Las Palmas, I nabbed it. It was beautiful and rich and sad and funny and filled with a heady mix of youthful angst and comic-book mentality. That novel convinced me to read more Lethem, so I was excited to jump into Men and Cartoons, a collection of short stories loosely connected by, um, men and cartoons. Lethem’s skill at constructing perfectly realized little worlds didn’t hit me until the final page of the first story, “The Vision,” when I glanced down and saw that stretch of white below the last sentence and felt a sudden pang that the tale would be ending so soon. “Vision” is a wonderful start to the collection, a compelling little story that hints at the larger complexities of its main characters’ relationship while also revolving around Lethem’s favorite subject: grown-up boys who defined themselves as youths via the tortured heroes of Marvel Comics and who now find themselves wandering through a lonely adulthood and trying to fight the same battles. Lethem constantly shifts tone between stories, varying writing style and the narrator’s perspective as he swings from the poignant, reality-based “Vivian Relf” to the surreal quirk of “The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door.” Lethem hits his peak in “Super Goat Man,” an oddly realistic story about a superhero who gives up the rescuing business to teach at a tony private college in New England. It’s smart and sad and wonderfully unique. The only complaint I have about the book is that the trade paperback includes two stories — “This Shape We’re In” and “Interview With the Crab” — not featured in the original hardback, and they’re just tacked onto the end with little thought. They’re serviceable enough, but they’re jarringly different from the rest of the volume, which culminates in the elegiac “The National Anthem,” which is so damn beautiful I slowed down to savor every word. If I was uncertain before, Men and Cartoons sealed it: I loves me some Lethem. — Daniel Carlson

I was blown away by In Cold Blood when I read it many years ago, but I always knew there was another Truman Capote who I was missing — just as impressive a stylist, but cattier and wittier. I found that Capote in Answered Prayers, the novel that was unfinished when he died at the age of 59. He had been working on it in one form or another for more than 25 years, and everything in it had been published in magazines while he was still alive. Many of the characters are thinly veiled representations of his many famous friends, so the public appearance of the material caused a few bridge-burnings. With his flair for summing people up, it’s easy to understand the hurt feelings:

[A]s Kate McCloud has said, ‘A really good lay is worth a trip around the world — in more ways than one.’ And Kate McCloud, as we all know, has earned an opinion: Christ, if Kate had as many pricks sticking out of her as she’s had stuck in her, she’d look like a porcupine.

Capote, even more ambitious than he was talented — and he was very talented — wanted Answered Prayers to be his In Search of Lost Time. It doesn’t approach that level, which is an obvious assessment, and maybe unfair, too, since he never had the chance to make it what he had envisioned. It’s filled with name-dropping that occasionally feels dull, but there are several brilliant extended passages that make up for that.

In addition to picking up the rest of his work, I’m also about 200 pages into Capote, a biography written by Gerald Clarke. I’m lucky to have the original version, borrowed from Mom, with Capote himself on the cover, rather than the new version, graced by Philip Seymour Hoffman. After the recent movies that focused on the dreary years of In Cold Blood, the book is a sweeping romp — Capote’s childhood was a somewhat troubled one, but his early career in New York is dramatic, dazzling, and proof that the Age of Gawker is a pale, pale copy of past gossip and glamour. — John Williams

After a long, multi-month struggle, I’ve finally given it up. It wasn’t an easy decision, nor was it one I don’t feel guilty about. Indeed, it comes with a heavy, aching heart. I don’t normally have issues with prematurely retiring novels, of course, but it’s different when the author is one of my favorites, when the novel is so noble and well-intentioned, and when the story is so weighty and imperative. And now, sadly, 250 pages in, I have resigned myself to the knowledge that I will never fully understand What the What is. I recognize that there are folks out there who are diametrically opposed to Dave Eggers, for reasons I don’t quite understand. AHWoSG is one of the best books of the last 25 years, and its stylistic elements were generationally defining, while You Shall Know My Velocity/Sacrament was the sort of smart, not entirely successful novel one might expect from a guy trying to relieve some of the guilt he must have felt for capitalizing on the death of both his parents (and God — Beth, too). And yeah, he’s the poster boy for the sudden derogatory nature of the hipster label, but whatever. Few hate Salinger for half the shitty novels we’ve had to endure the last 50 years, so there’s no reason to hate Eggers for my contemporaries’ and my fourth-rate hackery.

For me, unfortunately, the conceit in What is the What was both its genius and its undoing: A fictional memoir based on the real life of one Darfur’s Lost Boys, Valentino Achek Deng, written in Deng’s voice. And it’s a voice that he absolutely nails. And the novel (or the half I read) is a harrowing, brilliantly written account of the horrors of genocide, life as a refugee, and dealing with the experience of living in the United States. But because it was written in Deng’s voice, What is the What lacked the Eggers whimsy that I’m so ridiculously fond of, as well as his ability to work a keen sense of humor into otherwise weighty stories. And even though you know that Deng will ultimately survive, his story and the plight of the Sudanese is so bleak and depressing that simply picking up the book overwhelmed me with a sense of dread. After 250 pages, I simply couldn’t stomach reading about his life any longer. I wussed out. So, sadly, What is the What will now have to join a shelf with 21 McSweeney’s journals that I haven’t really bothered to read, either (McSweeneys, to me, is like shopping in the natural foods section at the local grocery story: You know it’s not going to taste as good as the additive-heavy foods and, ultimately, you may not eat it at all, but it sure feels good to buy it).

Fortunately, I was able to offset some of that guilt by reading the latest from Dave Eggers’ wife, Vendela Vida: Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. In fact, I met Vida, briefly, a few years back in Harvard Square, when she was doing a book tour for her first novel, And Now You Can Go, which turned out to be a somewhat awkward experience when only a handful of people arrived — it was akin to being the first to show up at a party, only to realize half an hour later that no one else was coming. At any rate, Northern Lights is a carefully written novel about a woman named Clarissa who discovers, after her father dies, that he wasn’t actually her biological Dad, so she leaves her fiancĂ© to search for both her real father and her mother’s whereabouts in Lapland (northern Finland). The scenery is gorgeous, the writing is crisp and taut, and the narrative is compelling enough, if not occasionally powerful. Still, while it’s certainly not as bleak as What is the What, it ain’t exactly beach reading, either, though Vida does have a dark wit that surfaces occasionally to add some levity to themes of violence, identity, and discovering ourselves through the past. It’s moving, but it’s a bit too meticulous and thought-out to really tug at the heartstrings.

And I realize this sort of idle speculation is silly, but reading What is the What and Northern Lights back to back, it’s hard not to wonder if Vida has been a sobering influence on Eggers. Judging from Velocity, it’s likely he was already veering toward more serious-minded, somewhat humorless literature anyway, but don’t you just imagine she steered him toward the cliff and pushed him off the precipice? — Dustin Rowles


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