Thoughts on Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler

Martin DresslerPrior to reading this book my only exposure to Steven Millhauser’s work had been the movie THE ILLUSIONIST with Ed Norton, which was adapted (poorly, I’ve been told) from one of his short stories. I liked THE ILLUSIONIST: it looked great and told a clever story, even though the characters were a bit two-dimensional. I liked MARTIN DRESSLER for (or despite) the same reasons. It’s a fairy tale with a dark glimmer around the edges, that may just be a little heavy on the scenery and light on characterization.

This book is not for everyone. The narration is cool, aloof even. The reader never gets a strong sense of who Martin Dressler is or why he does what he does (Martin amasses a great fortune but doesn’t develop much of a personality). The ending feels rushed and not very dramatic, even though it was foreshadowed on the very first page. And yet, I felt all this suited the dreamlike quality of the story (same as with THE ILLUSIONIST).

I admit it took me years to dig into this book. I could never get past the accumulation of detail on the first few pages. This time around though, for whatever reason, all that detail hypnotized me. It became the book’s greatest strength. Millhauser conjures a kaleidoscopic view of what New York might have been like around the turn of the 19th century, similar to what E.L Doctorow did in RAGTIME.

The End of the Tour

The End of the TourWatched THE END OF THE TOUR last night. Enjoyed it. The fact that it started and ended with the news of DFW’s suicide felt a bit sensationalist but it gave the movie a nice emotional arc. The performances were great: you’re pretty much watching two hours of two guys discussing life and writing, and it’s thrilling the whole way.

I especially liked the growing tension between DFW and Lipsky. Lipsky wanted to be DFW so badly and ultimately became famous (sort of) for a book about DFW rather than for his own work. I wondered how that felt. Would he have preferred to have been known for his own work, or was he happy to be known for a book about a writer he admired?

But did he admire DFW? I got the sense that Lipsky was trying to bring him down a notch. He didn’t want to read INFINITE JEST at first. Then he read the rave reviews and picked up the book and his girlfriend started reading it too, so he wanted to meet the guy and prove to himself that DFW was just a guy, not a genius. And when DFW confirmed this notion, Lipsky got mad – at who exactly? DFW or himself?

It was an interesting balance: DFW who had fame but didn’t want it, and Lipsky who wanted fame for the wrong reasons. What wasn’t mentioned in the movie as much as in DFW’s biography, EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY, is that DFW did want the fame. (It’s briefly mentioned in the movie when DFW says/jokes that he hopes to get laid on his book tour.) DFW craved attention. He could be very narcissistic. So in a way he was just playing the role of the tortured artist, and yet he also wasn’t.

Was it jealousy, then, that led to the argument between DFW and Lipsky toward the end of the movie? Lipsky wanted DFW to be a regular guy and DFW wanted to be a regular guy too, but he wasn’t. To me, that was where a lot of the tension and the sadness came from. Like when Lipsky made a comment to the girls they were riding in the car with and they said it sounded like something DFW might have said and DFW agreed. That was creepy but also sad – sad because Lipsky was so clueless and because it made DFW into some role model he didn’t want to be. Or did DFW simply not want to be compared to Lipsky? Was this his narcissism coming out?

The strange thing about DFW is that it’s almost impossible for me to read him and not read about him – meaning, to not look for traces of his tragic end but to come to his work completely unspoiled. What was it like to read INFINITE JEST when it first came out, like Lipsky and his girlfriend did? I’ve only read THE PALE KING, the biography, and parts of the audio transcript that this movie is based on, and they are all in a way mementos to DFW. The people closest to him didn’t want this movie to be made, but it turned out to be a respectful picture that says some profound things about life and writing, even if it’s tinged with sadness. “This is nice,” DFW says about being on tour. “It isn’t real.”

Meeting Marlon James

Marlon JamesLast Monday, Marlon James was at Greenapple for a reading. The event was booked before he won the Man Booker Prize for A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS, and I think tiny Greenapple wasn’t prepared for the enormous turnout. Neither was I. Normally only a dozen people show up to these readings; this time I think there were close to a hundred. Anyway, I was able to shake his hand, get my copy of ABHOSK signed, and get some tips on how to win the Booker.

Thoughts on William Gay’s Little Sister Death

Little Sister DeathWilliam Gay left us too soon. Or started publishing too late. Or both. The first book of his I read was I HATE TO SEE THAT EVENING SUN GO DOWN. This was in 2002, the year it came out. I seem to recall reading a recommendation by Tom Franklin, whose POACHERS is very similar to EVENING SUN in style and content. Both books have since become two of my all-time favorites. Now, thirteen years later, I’ve just finished reading Gay’s posthumous novel LITTLE SISTER DEATH.

First off, that title! And it’s a horror novel to boot! With a heartfelt introduction by Tom Franklin that sheds light on Gay’s career and person and on his death, while setting the stage for what’s the come.

LITTLE SISTER DEATH is a haunted book. It’s possessed by the “real” spirits of the Beale property and, inevitably, Gay’s spirit. It’s hard not to wonder what else he might have done with this story. After a breathtaking opening the book has a tough time getting going. Only when Gay has installed his main characters on the Beale property in backwoods Tennessee and the hauntings begin does he hit his stride. Lush sentences, gorgeous landscapes, ominous presences, dark urges – prime Gay material. There are some sloppy edits – annoying repetitions that could have easily been fixed – but with a posthumous book you tend to overlook those because you’re happy to be reading the book at all.

Supposedly there are at least two more “lost” books coming out: THE LOST COUNTRY and STONEBURNER. One wonders if they were “lost” because Gay didn’t want to publish them or if he simply didn’t have time to finish them. LITTLE SISTER DEATH feels unfinished, but I’m happy to take some roughness, some sloppiness, because the core of this book is classic Gay. One of my favorite reads of the year.

Thoughts on Stephen King’s Revival

RevivalI really enjoyed 11/22/63 recently and was inspired to pick up REVIVAL. But even though REVIVAL is significantly shorter than 11/22/63, it feels much baggier. King’s recent books have been less about jump scares and more about the horrors of everyday life: aging, addiction, losing one’s loved ones (see also Dr. Sleep). As an adult, I find these things are scarier than the moving hedge animals from The Shining or the killer refrigerator from The Tommyknockers (which I loved as a kid). Case in point: I thought the love story in 11/22/63 was truly moving and heartbreaking. The opening chapters of REVIVAL have a similar wistful, nostalgic tone and set up another a loving family for tragedy (two families in fact). But soon King loses track of the plot in favor of his characters. By this time you care enough about those characters to keep reading, but in the end, nothing much happens to them. I was reminded of the horror movie The Innkeepers, where it’s all about the tension, the what-will-happen-next. Once you get to the end and realize the answer is “Nothing,” you’ve spent a pleasant enough 90 minutes (or 400 pages in the case of REVIVAL), but you also feel slightly… not let down, but underwhelmed. Tricked into thinking there would be more.

REVIVAL supposedly has one of King’s creepiest endings. Sure enough, the last chapter is great, even if it feels rather slight compared to the 12 chapters that came before it. You can guess from the very first page (or even from the title, or the cover design, or the motto) where the story is headed and finally – finally! – it goes there and it’s great, so you can’t help but wish it had come sooner or stayed longer. I wonder if REVIVAL started out as a short story or a novella that grew out of proportion. King once called himself the literary equivalent of a Big Mac. REVIVAL is a Big Mac with a LOT of fries on the side.

Thoughts on Stephen King’s 11/22/63

11-22-63-1This is the best Stephen King book I’ve read in years. I reread THE SHINING and SALEM’S LOT recently and didn’t like them as much as I did when I was a teenager. I found them adverb-heavy and unnecessarily digressive, especially SALEM’S LOT. In contrast, 11/22/63 is tightly plotted despite its length and a lot less hokey, with characters you care for not just because they’re the good guys battling evil but because they feel like real people with real hopes and dreams.

I was a Stephen King junkie for years, starting with SILVER BULLET at age ten, but I stopped reading him in my 20s, in part because I was underwhelmed by much of King’s recent output: DESPERATION, ROSE MADDER, THE REGULATORS (I didn’t even make it through INSOMNIA, DREAMCATCHER, CELL, LISEY’S STORY, or FROM A BUICK 8). But then I picked up DUMA KEY on a whim and was pleasantly surprised. So 11/22/63, along with DUMA KEY, are the only King novels since 2001 that I’ve read, but based on how much I enjoyed them, I’m now tempted to read that other recent doorstopper of his: UNDER THE DOME.

Thoughts on George R.R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows

A Feast for CrowsThis is my least favorite of the Song of Ice and Fire series so far. What got me through these 900-some pages was the strength of Martin’s writing. The major events (SPOILER warning: Arya goes blind and Samwell loses his virginity) both happen in a span of about 50 pages somewhere in the middle, and the rest of this book is taken up with a lot of strategizing – Martin moving his chess pieces into place for what I’m hoping will be a more exciting fifth book. The previous volume, A Storm of Swords, was so jam-packed with plot that combining it with this one would’ve made for two more even-handed books. But that’s hindsight talking, and besides, these are GRRM’s books, not mine. So, onward and upward.

Thoughts on D.T. Max’s Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story

DFWThis book is heartbreaking – for obvious reasons, but also because DFW barely allowed himself to enjoy his accomplishments. Which, in some ways, is inspiring. Here’s a young writer who was heralded as a major new talent, eagerly sought after by colleges and magazines (and women apparently), but who felt his major work (Infinite Jest) was misunderstood and tried to best it, maybe not by writing a better or bigger book, but giving the effort (The Pale King) his all. For me, that’s the main takeaway from this book. DFW set an exceedingly high standard for his writing which, despite the turmoil this created in his life, was a necessary antidote to the type of lazy, ironic writing he saw around him.

The other takeaway I got from this book seems unintended. DT Max spends nearly two-thirds of the book working up to Infinite Jest, then devotes a mere 70 pages to the next 10+ years of DFW’s life and work, leaving the reader with the impression that nothing DFW did during that time matched the accomplishment of Infinite Jest. Once we get to DFW’s suicide in the last couple pages, it reads like a sad coda to a career that was already in decline, which one hopes is not what DT Max intended, nor is it how the reader should be remembering DFW.

Thoughts on George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords

ASOSTrying to summarize this book would result in a review the length of Infinite Jest, so instead I’m putting down some random thoughts:

1) This is my second-favorite of the series so far. The first book still strikes me as tighter and more controlled. The second contained a lot of setup for events that came to a head in book 3.
2) George RR Martin has an incredible imagination (duh) and his plotting is superb. ASOS contained so much plot in fact I’m wondering how there can be anything left for books 4 and 5.
3) I liked all the songs and how GRRM gives an everyday word like “turncoat” a Westerosi flavor by making it “turncloak.”
4) Roy Dotrice, who reads the audiobooks of A Song of Ice and Fire, is superb. I watched Amadeus the other night and was surprised to see Dotrice play Mozart’s dad.

(MINOR SPOILERS to follow)

5) Wow, this book contains a lot of plot twists! So many in fact I was a bit overwhelmed. The book could have ended after the Red Wedding, or the Purple Wedding, or after the Mountain defeat the Viper, or after Jon Snow became commander of the Night’s Watch… but it just kept on going. So while I enjoyed everything that happened, the book felt very long.
6) The fact that it’s the biggest book in the series so far also didn’t help. There’s an edition that splits the book in two, which might have helped. Book 1 ends with a clear climax and a setup for the rest of the series, but books 2 and 3 feel like one long narrative that can pretty much end or begin anywhere.
7) So far, the HBO show mirrors the events in the book pretty faithfully, with only a few major exceptions (like the introduction of Lady Stoneheart and the Arya lookalike marrying Ramsay Bolton). But the sequence of events is different.

NRC Review: Turtleface and Beyond – Arthur Bradford

I reviewed Arthur Bradford’s latest short story collection Turtleface and Beyond for the Dutch newspaper NRC and gave it 4/5 stars. The review that follows is in Dutch.

De onderstaande recensie verscheen op 18 juni 2015 in NRC:

Doe goed, en u staat steviger in de wereld

4 sterren

Arthur Bradford debuteerde in 2001 met de verhalenbundel Dogwalker. Voor het openingsverhaal, ‘Catface’, kreeg hij de O. Henryprijs. Grote namen als Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith en David Foster Wallace liepen met hem weg. Aangemoedigd door dit succes kocht Bradford (1969) een hut in de bergen in Vermont, waar hij hoopte een roman te schrijven op zijn bijna honderd jaar oude typemachine. Maar het was winter, en hij stak meer tijd in houthakken, kaarsen branden en sneeuw van het dak vegen – alles om maar warm te blijven – dan in schrijven.

Hij verhuisde naar New York en vervolgens naar Portland, in de staat Oregon. Hij werkte bij een zomerkamp, kreeg twee dochters en maakte een documentaire die genomineerd werd voor een Emmy. De jaren verstreken, maar de roman bleef uit. Soms zocht hij verwoed door de mappen op zijn computer naar het manuscript waarvan hij zeker wist dat het moest bestaan.

Nu, veertien jaar later, is er dan eindelijk Turtleface and Beyond. Geen roman, maar een bundel losjes met elkaar verbonden verhalen. De hoofdfiguur in deze verhalen is Georgie, een jongeman wiens goede bedoelingen onvoorziene, vaak absurde gevolgen hebben. ‘Het was een onbezonnen actie. Ik wist het voor ik het deed en toch deed ik het.’ Zo begint ‘Orderly’ en dit blijkt Georgies motto te zijn. In het titelverhaal, ‘Turtleface’, spoort hij zijn vriend Otto aan om van een klif in een rivier te springen. Otto landt met zijn gezicht op een schildpad en wordt opgenomen in het ziekenhuis. George neemt de gewonde schildpad mee naar huis en noemt haar Charlotte, en keert daarmee onverhoeds zijn omgeving tegen zich. ‘Soms kwam ik thuis in mijn appartement en vond ik Otto diep in gesprek met Charlotte […] Soms voelde het alsof ze een bond tegen mij vormden, ondanks alles wat ik voor ze had gedaan.’ In ‘Lost Limbs’ bevindt Georgie zich in een nog vreemdere situatie. ‘Pas tijdens mijn tweede afspraakje met Lenore ontdekte ik dat ze een ledemaat kwijt was.’ Kort daarop verliest Georgie bij een ongeluk zelf een been.

Wat deze verhalen geloofwaardig maakt is Georgies laconieke vertelstem, die doet denken aan Kurt Vonnegut, nog zo’n meester in het creëren van bizarre situaties die het dagelijks leven overhoop gooien. Georgie accepteert het onverwachte, waardoor zelfs de meest absurde momenten als normaal worden gezien. Dit houdt ook de donkere ondertoon in balans, want vaak is de grens tussen tragiek en komedie in deze verhalen erg dun. In het voorgenoemde verhaal ‘Orderly’ wordt Georgie verliefd op een patiënte in een psychiatrische inrichting. ‘Ze leek niet gek. Ze leek alleen nerveus.’ De patiënte raakt zwanger, maar krijgt een miskraam. Georgie, die eerst nog een abortus voorstelde, is nu terneergeslagen. ‘Ik geloof dat kinderen de som van hun ouders kunnen ontstijgen. Misschien dat er in hun genen lessen verborgen zitten over alle fouten die wij hebben gemaakt.’

Nergens velt Bradford een oordeel over Georgie of de reeks kneuzen met wie hij in aanraking komt. In dat opzicht doet Turtleface denken aan Jesus’ Son van Denis Johnson, die meesterlijke verhalenbundel over Fuckhead, die ook in allerlei bizarre situaties belandt. Waar Fuckheads perikelen voornamelijk veroorzaakt werden door drugs, is de wereld die Bradford aan de lezer presenteert, van nature bizar. Maar wat deze boeken met elkaar delen is barmhartigheid. Georgie en Fuckhead zijn geen rolmodellen, maar ze doen hun best voor anderen, waardoor ze zich, in Georgies woorden, ‘minder nutteloos en los van de wereld’ voelen.

Daarin schuilt de kern van Turtleface. In tegenstelling tot Fuckhead leert Georgie weinig van zijn perikelen, maar dat wil hij ook niet. Hij wil anderen helpen. In ‘Snakebite’ komt hij onderweg naar een bruiloft een man tegen die door een slang in zijn been is gebeten. Georgies vrienden willen doorrijden, maar Georgie besluit de man te helpen door het gif uit de wond te zuigen. De gevolgen van dit soort morele problemen zijn zelden aangenaam voor Georgie, maar voor de lezer levert het pareltjes van verhalen op.

Want als Georgie in het laatste verhaal eindelijk eens besluit iemand niet te helpen – in dit geval met het vervoeren van een meer dan honderd kilo wegende hond over de grens met Mexico – en zegt: ‘Ik besloot zijn aanbod niet te accepteren’, is de lezer nog lang niet uitgekeken op Georgies avonturen.