Ilium by Dan Simmons

IliumMars, Homer, Shakespeare, Proust, dinosaurs, the Holocaust. How does one make a coherent, even compelling narrative out of these things? Leave it to Dan Simmons, a writer who, if anything, is generous. He produces roughly a book a year and generally they are big and well-researched and contain more plot than you can shake a stick at. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, and in truth, Simmons’ interests are so far-ranging that I haven’t read all his books, nor do I plan to. But the ones I’ve read I’ve generally enjoyed, despite some shortcomings that this one, ILIUM, suffers from as well.

Reading Dan Simmons, for me, is like eating comfort food. His writing is solid and he knows how to set a plot in motion. Motion, though, is one of the issues that his books tend to suffer from. They start strong and, like many long books, dawdle in the middle. I’ve been trying to imagine how Simmons came up with the idea for ILIUM. There’s the obvious link between Mt. Olympus from Greek mythology and Olympos Mons on Mars. Then as Simmons was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” and started researching and developing the idea of a Trojan War set on Mars, the book bloomed into something involving a little robot and a giant crab meeting some mysterious LGM (Little Green Men), and four rich, entitled, fairly obnoxious men and women meeting an ancient Jewish woman who divulges the lost history of the human race. These added plots are fascinating at first, because of their intriguing ties to the main story line – the Trojan War on Mars – but as they progress they get slower and slower in actually explaining, or even utilizing, those ties. Instead, you’re wading through pages and pages of the robot and the crab having philosophical discussions about Shakespeare and Proust, and more pages about the various ships they travel in and the apparent inconvenience of being a giant crab in space (worse, this crab soon loses his eyes, ears, and legs and becomes a burden to the little robot, as well as to the reader), and even more pages about the entitled rich folk wondering what a Jew even is.

What keeps ILIUM engaging is that main story line, which Simmons gets a lot of mileage out of. The Greek gods are seven, twelve, even twenty feet tall because – duh! – gravity on Mars is lower than on Earth. They ride chariots with holographic horses. They can “freeze” time to adjust the fates of normal human beings. They teleport. They regenerate in giant vats attended by lizard-like creatures. The plot of ILIUM goes something like this. A resurrected twentieth-century scholar, Hockenberry, who is tasked to watch how closely the proceedings on Mars follow Homer’s ILIAD, receives secret orders to kill the goddess Athena. He isn’t up to the task and instead sets of a chain of outlandish events that has him sleeping with Helen – the one the Trojans and the Greeks are fighting over – attempting to kill the goddess Aphrodite, and catalyzing a full-blast rebellion against the gods. Engaging stuff indeed. It’s unfortunate Simmons devotes so much attention – especially in the middle section of the book – to the other story lines, because by the time this rebellion gets underway, you just want the book to end. At least, I did. I actually listened to it on audio and set playback to double speed.

My favorite Simmons novels are HYPERION and DROOD. The latter is particularly long, but somehow I found all the digressions in that book compelling. It could have been the setting (Victorian London and its ghoulish underworld) spoke to me more, or the fact that DROOD had a central mystery awaiting some kind of reveal, whereas ILIUM is more event-driven, and I’ve always been less interested in what-happens-next than in why-does-it-happen.

Final rating for ILIUM: four stars for originality, three for execution.

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

The PrestigeMost of Christopher Priest’s American readers, I suspect, come to him through the movie version of THE PRESTIGE. The book, however, is different enough to be enjoyed on its own terms. The writing is lovely throughout, and the book is structured like a diary in the way that British novels seem to pull off so well (I’m thinking, for instance, of DRACULA).

What in the movie is presented as a big twist at the end in the book is revealed much earlier, then moved beyond in a truly spectacular way. The ending of the book does what it’s supposed to do: it casts new light on everything that went before, while lifting the whole story to new heights. If THE PRESTIGE were a magic trick, which in a lot of ways it is, I would stand up now and applaud.

Big Book Sale

Twice a year, in spring and fall, the San Francisco Public Library holds a big book sale with over 250,000 new and used books. Over the years I’ve found some treasures there, including a signed Larry Brown and Jonathan Safran Foer. Usually, I go home with 20-30 books, which is about half of my total reading for the year. For a $1 a book, what’s not to like?

Here’s this year’s haul:

Big Book Sale

Lots of SF on the right. I’ve been reading SF for years, but still feel that I’m in those early stages of infatuation when there’s so much to discover, so much to love. The writers in the pile on the right I’ve all heard good things about.

On the left, “literary fiction” or whatever you want to call it.

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY: I started listening to this on audio during one of my runs and found the opening chapter so beguiling I decided to read the book instead of listen to it.

A NEW LIFE: I love Philip Roth, I love Saul Bellow, I love Joseph Heller, and I love Bernard Malamud’s short stories. Time to try one of his novels.

OLIVER TWIST and DAVID COPPERFIELD: I was anti-Dickens for years after being told by a professor at the University of Amsterdam that one (in this case, me) couldn’t possibly prefer ROBINSON CRUSOE over GREAT EXPECTATIONS because the former was cold and impersonal and the latter was rich and abundant. I’m only now getting over my strong reaction to this one teacher’s insistence on absolutes over personal taste.

A MULTITUDE OF SINS: Ford’s Bascombe books are pure magic. This is a short story collection from 2002.

HENDERSON THE RAIN KING: This was the first or second Bellow I ever read. I didn’t much care for it at the time for reasons I don’t remember, but the book stuck with me all these years. Above the desk where I write I even have the following quote from the book: “We are funny creatures. We don’t see the stars as they are, so why do we love them? They are not small gold objects, but endless fire.”

MISS LONELYHEARTS: Unfortunately, this turned out to have yellow highlighting inside. Usually I look for this before putting a book in my bag. I’ll be getting rid of this one.

SABBATH’S THEATER: This is my favorite book by my favorite writer, which, I suppose, makes it a strong contender for being my favorite book. Over the years I have owned and lost and gifted many copies of this book, so I couldn’t resist picking up this pristine hardcover.

Goodbye, Jim Harrison

When you read a good book, its author for a little while becomes your friend. Jim Harrison was my friend since 2007, when I first read RETURNING TO EARTH. He published a book every year, and I read them all. His writing informed my writing, his thinking my thinking. His constant amazement and terror at the natural world resonated with mine, particularly in the novels DALVA, THE ROAD HOME, TRUE NORTH, and RETURNING TO EARTH. He died on Saturday, 78 years old. It’s said he died in his study, laboring over a poem. That’s an ending he would’ve preferred, I think, besides from maybe drifting away under the stars. What do you say when a friend dies? As recently as a few weeks ago I’d dreamed of visiting him at his ranch in Montana, or writing him a letter. Goodbye, Jim Harrison.

The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer

The Spooky ArtTHE SPOOKY ART is classic Mailer, meaning, if you take what he says with a grain of salt you’ll have a great time reading this book. He veers from cockiness to humility, from misogyny to pride, regret, bitterness, and nearly incomprehensible mysticism, all the while ragging on journalists, poets, and his fellow writers. He’s also critical of his own work. The prevailing mood, in fact, of this book is regretful: Mailer believes his generation failed to produce a great novel that defined America. There are favorable mentions of Steinbeck, Faulkner, Roth, and Updike (he’s not so sure about Hemingway), but where was that big novel that would be the final say on what it was like to be an American after WW2? It wasn’t HARLOT’S GHOST or ANCIENT EVENINGS, Mailer’s own biggest books, both of which he believes came out at the wrong time and were unjustly overlooked. It wasn’t THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG or ARMIES OF THE NIGHT either, the books that won him two Pulitzers, which were journalistic efforts and, he claims, easier to write than true fiction. He admits he had a hard time finding the story in his novels and wasted too much time on writing journalism instead. He also regrets debasing himself in the media, the lowest form of entertainment. His “wild man” persona, he claims, was only “5 to 10 percent” of him, the rest was work. Still, this persona looms large in the public’s mind.

I enjoyed the first part of this book the best. Mailer writes about the success of his first novel, THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, and how he struggled with his next two books. The remainder of THE SPOOKY ART consists mostly of old interviews, articles, forewords, reviews, and speeches he’s given, patched together into a disjointed, bewildering, and increasingly bitter narrative. In the penultimate chapter, Mailer briefly discusses a dozen or so writers (including Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, and Jonathan Franzen), finding fault with all of them.

Mailer warns that this is not a how-to guide on writing. It certainly isn’t a how-to guide on making friends in the writing business either. But then Mailer was a rabble-rouser, in his writing as much as in the media. Of his last book published during his lifetime, A CASTLE IN THE FOREST, he predicted people would be “livid,” and he was looking forward to the storm it would create.

In THE SPOOKY ART Mailer knows his best work is behind him. He predicts that some day a writer will appear who will be better than everyone who’s gone before him and who will write that elusive Great American Novel. Based on Mailer’s low opinion of other writers in general, he probably believes this person to be himself, reincarnated by way of the Egyptian ritual he describes so vividly in what he considered his magnum opus, ANCIENT EVENINGS.

Thank You, David Bowie

We didn’t listen to much music at home when I was a kid, so I had to venture out on my own. This was in the pre-internet days — at least, we didn’t have a computer with internet access at home. I did my research at the library, in hopelessly outdated issues of Rolling Stone and a Dutch magazine called OOR.

In town there were three record stores that sold CDs for today’s equivalent of $40. There was no Spotify, no Soundcloud. The only way to hear an album before shelling out $40 was to stand at the counter and listen on a pair of headphones while the store clerks stared at you with either impatience or total boredom.

The library had CDs I copied onto cassettes I bought at the drugstore. They didn’t have much of a selection, though, beyond what was popular in those days: Madonna, George Michael, Paul Young (that all-but-forgotten Michael Keaton lookalike not to be confused with Paul Simon or Neil Young). So one day I rode my bike to the next biggest town and there at the library stumbled upon ChangesOneBowie, an 11-track compilation of David Bowie songs from 1969 to 1976. It didn’t contain the only two Bowie songs I knew at the time — Let’s Dance and Magic Dance from the movie Labyrinth — but it did have Space Oddity, Changes, Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, and Golden Years.

That album became my constant companion, my north star, my bible. Was it that, as a lonely kid in a small town I was dying to leave, I connected with Bowie’s outsider persona — his Major Tom, his starman waiting in the sky? Was it simply that his music was so heart-piercingly good?

My father didn’t approve of rock music, so I had to listen in my bedroom with the door closed and the volume turned down. Buying rock music was even worse: a crime equivalent to murdering your grandmother. In later years I collected all of Bowie’s work on CD and vinyl, but I never bought ChangesOneBowie. The cassette I lost somewhere along the way. I didn’t need it anymore. I was sold for life.

Trying to explain why you like a certain artist is like trying to explain why you prefer a certain kind of ice cream — it’s a nebulous, magical thing. Let it suffice that Sunday’s news of Bowie having died at the age of 69 was a tremendous shock. Just the Friday before I’d sat spellbound on the floor listening to Blackstar, his new album, letting my one-year-old daughter fend for herself for about 40 minutes.

I’m sad and shocked Bowie’s gone, but I’m also grateful he was here at all: to show a loner kid like me the way.

Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

Mr MercedesStephen King is an institution. I know it, you know it, and he knows it. As far back as THE TOMMYKNOCKERS his novels have referenced his own work as though, in the fictional worlds he’s creating, there’s another bestseller author of scary novels named Stephen King who lives in Maine. THE TOMMYKNOCKERS referenced IT, THE SHINING, and THE DEAD ZONE. MR. MERCEDES also mentions IT, as well as Judas Coyne, the hero of his son Joe Hill’s debut novel, HEART-SHAPED BOX. (Hill included several nods to his father’s work – including IT – in his third book, NOS4A2.) And why not? You can’t dispute King’s prodigious output or sales figures. What’s more, you can’t dispute that he’s an engaging storyteller. This, more than anything, is why readers keep coming back to him.

I’ve recently been on somewhat of a Stephen King kick, having read 11/22/63, REVIVAL, and THE TOMMYKNOCKERS in quick succession. And now MR. MERCEDES. I had my doubts about this one. The story didn’t sound that interesting and I tend to not care for police procedurals, detective novels, or whatever you want to call them (a notable exception being LUSH LIFE by Richard Price). But the audiobook was read by Will Patton, who did some of my favorite audiobooks (LIGHT IN AUGUST, JESUS’ SON, TRAIN DREAMS) and whose performance proved once again to be masterful.

Did the story grip me? Not really. Did the characters? Not really. They included a typical sexually confused villain, a typical retired suicidal cop, and one of King’s favorites: a magical black person (see also: THE TALISMAN and THE STAND). Yet, I kept listening. King’s prose is so smooth and his pacing so clever that you want to know what happens next, even if none of it is particularly exciting. By the end, I was happy to be done with this particular story, but also eager enough to spend more time in Uncle Steve’s company to pick up the sequel, FINDERS KEEPERS.

The Tommyknockers by Stephen King

TommyknockersThis used to be one of my favorite Stephen King books, along with Pet Sematary, The Shining, and Salem’s Lot. Those last two I reread in 2014 and didn’t like them as much as I remembered – I found them unnecessarily digressive and adverb-heavy. Yet, there’s something about reading an old Stephen King book… maybe it’s because I grew up on them, or because his post-1990s output has been so uneven (although he’s recently been on something of a roll: 11/22/63 is one of my all-time favorite King novels; Duma Key is great; Revival is perfectly enjoyable)… So I figured I’d try this one again.

In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, King called The Tommyknockers “an awful book.” It’s too long, too weird, too derivative, too… not good. But it starts off surprisingly strong. Sure, 200 pages in, King loses himself (or his plot) in a long section concerning the town’s history and its inhabitants, but he quickly regains his footing until suddenly, 300 pages in, he has the entire town of Haven under his spell… as well as the reader.

There is something urgent about his writing here, something dreamlike and primeval. This was the last book he wrote before kicking his drug and alcohol habit, and addiction is what this story is about: an entire town locked into the paranoid, self-destructive clutches of addiction. But it’s also about cancer, and nuclear weapons, and zealotry, and Native American curses, and – yikes! – menstrual blood. Derry makes an appearance. So does Pennywise. And Johnny Smith from The Dead Zone. And King himself.

In that same Rolling Stone interview mentioned above, King speculates there’s probably a good 350-page novel hidden inside the current 700+ version of The Tommyknockers. That novel would probably be a lot saner, but also safer. And part of the joy of The Tommyknockers — for me at least — is the mad mess it is.

My Reading Year – 2015

My goal this year was to read at least 50 books. I keep a journal of the books I read and average about 35 books a year, so 50 was ambitious — especially considering I’m working on a book of my own and have a family and a full-time job. But I ended the year at 53 books total. Here are some of my favorites I read this year:

Little Sister Death – William Gay (review)
Tree of Smoke – Denis Johnson
The Laughing Monsters – Denis Johnson (review)
Nobody Move – Denis Johnson
Already Dead – Denis Johnson
11/22/63 – Stephen King (review)
1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus – Charles C. Mann
The Eerie Silence – Paul Davies
The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu
The Dark Forest – Cixin Liu
Loitering – Charles D’Ambrosio
Martin Dressler – Steven Millhauser (review)
Let Me Be Frank with You – Richard Ford
The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro (review)
Wylding Hall – Elizabeth Hand

NRC Review: Know Your Beholder – Adam Rapp

I had not heard of Adam Rapp before reviewing his latest, Know Your Beholder, for the Dutch newspaper NRC, but I enjoyed this book immensely. The 4-star review that follows is in Dutch.

De onderstaande recensie verscheen op 11 december 2015 in NRC:

4 sterren

‘Wanneer je van jezelf een wetenschappelijk experiment maakt, is het moeilijk om de andere kant op te kijken.’ Dit zegt Francis Falbo, de agorafobische dertiger in Know Your Beholder, de nieuwe roman van Adam Rapp (1968). Falbo is al weken de deur niet uitgeweest. Hij gaat gekleed in een pyjama en een badjas en zijn baard ruikt naar ‘natte eekhoorn’. Hij woont op de zolder van het grote huis waarin hij is opgegroeid, dat is omgebouwd tot een verzameling woningen die hij verhuurt.

Terwijl de fictieve stad Pollard, in de staat Illinois, geteisterd wordt door de ergste sneeuwstorm in jaren, dompelt Falbo zich onder in het leven van zijn excentrieke huurders. Zoals het circusechtpaar wiens dochter spoorloos is verdwenen of een schilderes die Falbo overhaalt naakt te poseren. Wat klinkt als de set-up voor een melige sitcom, bewijst zich als een diepgaand relaas over hoe het leven uit elkaar kan vallen en weer opgebouwd kan worden. Wanneer de politie Falbo inschakelt om de ouders van het verdwenen meisje te bespioneren, ontdekt hij dat zij bijna alle sporen van hun dochter hebben gewist.

Falbo probeert zich te verstoppen achter de verhalen van zijn huurders, maar ontkomt niet aan zijn eigen verhaal: dat van een man die niet weet om te gaan met zijn verleden, zoals blijkt bij een pijnlijk bezoek van zijn ex-vrouw.

Know Your Beholder is een dagboek over, in Falbo’s woorden, ‘alle dingen die we moeten overleven. De lijst gaat maar door’. Doodgaan, scheiding, eenzaamheid, verdwijningen. Falbo noemt zichzelf ‘het equivalent van een koude, regenachtige dag’. Toch is dit geen zwartgallig boek. Adam Rapp schrijft vol gevoel over Falbo en zijn huurders, een groep lovable fuckups. ‘De maan is vol vanavond. Ik heb zitten kijken door mijn zolderraam. Zo helder dat je de schimmige depressies en breuklijnen kan zien. Haar spookachtige zeebodems en fantoomcontinenten. De wolkenloze, ijskoude lucht. Bevroren wintersterren. Astrale halfschaduw. Eindeloze, schitterende ruimte.’

Het sitcom-gevoel ontbreekt ook niet helemaal aan dit boek. Wanneer Falbo belooft naakt te zullen poseren, bestelt hij pillen die zijn penis groter moeten maken. Hij schakelt een professionele kidnapper in om een huurder uit huis te krijgen.

Dat Falbo op zolder woont is een metafoor: hij leeft in zijn hoofd. Maar als de sneeuwstorm voorbij is, moet hij weer naar buiten. In zijn huwelijk is hij ten prooi gevallen aan de ‘valse ether van het getrouwde leven’. Hij werd te huiselijk en durfde geen risico’s meer te nemen. Maar in de loop van Know Your Beholder brengen zijn ervaringen met zijn huurders – waar ook vandalisme, diefstal, inbraak en een sneeuwpop die zich op mysterieuze wijze verplaatst aan te pas komen – hem weer tot leven.