Tuesday, March 26, 2024

the last book I read

Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

A child is sitting on an exterior step, by the front door of a house, having been banished from the house. It's not clear what relation the people in the house are to her - parents? adoptive family? random strangers? - but she has clearly committed some transgression, probably something as innocuous as crying, or asking for more food.

Her name is Lila, and the woman who comes to collect her is called Doll. They clearly already know each other, and Doll may or may not live in the house, but is Lila being rescued, or abducted? Whichever it is, they're stuck with each other now and, it turns out, for the next few decades, on and off. Doll is a volatile character given to obsessive sharpening of the pocket knife she carries on her at all times and isn't shy about getting all slashy and stabby with, given enough provocation. 

The pair drift apart and back together - Lila spends some time as a prostitute in St. Louis but decides to give up the old whoring game (hardest game in the world, etc etc) and get a regular job as a cleaner in a hotel, which she holds onto until Doll suddenly turns up on her doorstep liberally festooned in her own and someone else's blood, and then subsequently escapes from police custody to presumably die somewhere. 

Lila decides that upping sticks and moving on again might be the thing to do at this point, and after many wanderings finds an abandoned shack near a stream on the outskirts of a remote Iowa town. This town turns out to be Gilead, and on one of her occasional forays into town she takes refuge from a rainstorm in a church and catches the eye of preacher John Ames. Ames is sixty-something (we're invited to infer that Lila is perhaps in her thirties, but with the face and body of someone who's endured a tough life) and a widower since his twenties, but apparently still with enough sap in the veins to be intrigued by Lila, both as a potential soul to be saved and possibly also in, you know, That Way

Their rough and awkward courtship is not without some problems, mainly on Lila's side; a life spent moving from place to place builds a steely self-reliance and a reluctance to form attachments, lest that lead to disappointment, betrayal, or just a sense of obligation that might tie you to a place for longer than you'd otherwise like. There is also some self-doubt: am I allowing myself to be persuaded just because of the prospect of security, protection, food and a long-term roof over my head, rather than the supposed "proper" reasons, like love?

Lila and John Ames are married, to the slight bewilderment of the townsfolk who view her as some sort of strange semi-feral creature, and fairly shortly after that Ames successfully impregnates her, the randy old goat. This puts a new perspective on Lila's situation: sure, she could just up sticks and hoof it into the night even now, either before or after the child is born, but now she has two other people whose feelings she needs to consider. 

This is 1950s rural Iowa, so childbirth and its immediate aftermath isn't a risk-free process, and there are a few bumps in the road: a major snowstorm while Lila is waiting for her labor to start which threatens to cut them off from medical help, and the general scrawniness of the child when he finally arrives, which prompts some concern over whether he'll survive. But he does, and the book ends with Lila contemplating her elderly husband cooing over the new arrival in the kitchen, her contentment tempered with the knowledge that John Ames probably won't live long enough to see him grow up.

That last thought prefigures the events of Gilead, the first novel in this loose series, wherein John Ames, having been given a gloomy prognosis for his heart condition, writes a letter to his seven-year-old son, Robert. Lila is the third novel in the series (Home being the second) and has a different structure from the first two: Gilead was a series of letters, Home had multiple viewpoints, Lila is much more narrowly focused on Lila's own viewpoint, which is an interesting one but makes for a slightly more claustrophobic read. We don't really meet any of the wider cast of characters from the earlier books, John Ames aside - old man Boughton (whose children provide most of the narrative in Home) pops up here and there but that's about it. 

So this is more of a character study than the other two books, its themes being the damage childhood trauma and hardship inflict, and the difficulty of shaking that stuff off later in life, even when fate hands you something on a plate that you ought to view as a good thing. Kick a dog for long enough and even kindness may be repaid with a savage bite on the ankle. To put it another way, they fuck you up, your mum and dad, even if it's just by being entirely absent from your life. 

My harsh critical judgment here is that Lila probably isn't quite as good as the other two books in the series, but that it's very good nonetheless. As with the other two books, both of which feature a religious minister as a major character, there a strong religious thread here, and Robinson's opinion on the subject is pretty clear, but it stops just short of being an irritant for the godless reader. The fourth book in the series, Jack, features (as its title suggests) Jack Boughton, a major character in each of the first two books and as a flawed and godless type himself by far the most interesting character in the series. I assume that the fourth book will be the final one, but I guess I only do that by drawing a subconscious parallel with the Alexandria Quartet (featured on this blog here, here, here and here) whose structure the Gilead books echo, in a broad sense anyway, by having the same series of events described from multiple viewpoints. Another consideration here is that Robinson is 80 and has averaged four to six years between books in the series, so, you know, Just Saying

Anyway, Lila won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 2014, just as Gilead did in 2004. My list here goes: 1975, 1991, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2009, 2014.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

the last book I read

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell.

Our un-named narrator is a young boy on the cusp of his teens living with his father and siblings in Lincoln, Illinois, his mother having been a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Her death has had a quietly shattering effect on the family, his father in particular, thrown into having to care for three children on his own while struggling to process his own grief. 

Eventually he starts to emerge back into normal life, re-marries and decides to make a fresh start in a new house, built to his and his new bride's design. Our narrator spends some happy hours playing in the dangerous and half-finished house, climbing on high narrow roof timbers and the like, some of it in the company of Cletus Smith, son of a tenant farmer on a nearby farm. The two boys' tentative and monosyllabic friendship is soon shattered by events outside of their control and understanding.

Cletus' father, Clarence Smith, rents and farms a plot of land next to a similar plot of land rented and farmed by Lloyd Wilson. Both men have wives and children to support, but also strike up a gruff and monosyllabic friendship with an unspoken level of understanding about help being freely available when required, be it with milking cows, gathering harvests, getting a chicken out of a threshing machine, you name it.

All of this goes to shit in a rapidly unravelling spiral when Lloyd falls in love with, and starts an affair with, Clarence's wife, Fern. However discreet you are - and Fern is not especially discreet - it's almost impossible to keep this sort of thing a secret, not in rural Illinois in the 1920s anyway, well before the availability of end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp messaging. Lloyd's wife gets wind of it first and leaves him, taking their daughters with her, and Fern soon spills the beans to Clarence. Given the literal impossibility of two men having a conversation about this kind of stuff, Clarence and Lloyd just start to avoid each other. 

This uneasy truce can't last, especially as Fern and Lloyd are still managing to meet up occasionally in the barn for a speedy and teeth-rattling seeing-to. Fern decides to twist the knife by suing Clarence for divorce, and succeeds in doing so, thanks to some smart lawyering. This results in Clarence having to relinquish the farm and prompts a swift descent into drinking and despair. Things clearly can't get any worse for him, so why not just perform a cathartic act of revenge and then remove yourself from the world?

And so we arrive back at where the novel started, with the sound of a pistol shot in the early hours of the morning, and the subsequent discovery of Lloyd's body by his young son, and of Clarence's body by the police when they drag a local lake. One obvious consequence of all this is a number of youngish children losing a father, and more particularly Cletus being moved away with his mother, who (probably wisely) feels that a completely new start somewhere else would be in order. Other than one random unspoken encounter in a school corridor in Chicago some years later our narrator never sees him again. 

You'll recall I read Maxwell's much earlier novel They Came Like Swallows a few years ago (five, now that I check) - by "much earlier" here I mean much earlier; that book was published in 1937, So Long, See You Tomorrow was published in 1980. It was the sixth and last novel of Maxwell's long but intermittent career - he published short stories as well and had a prolific day job as fiction editor of the New Yorker for nearly forty years. Despite the 43 years of separation the two novels have lots in common, most notably the fact that their narrator appears to be the same person: mother lost to flu in 1918, tick, big brother missing a leg, check, father stricken by grief, yep. Given the close parallels with Maxwell's own life it's not certain to me whether it's meant to be literally the same character (called Bunny Morison in the earlier novel, unnamed in the later one), two separate characters who happen to have been given the same back-story (largely adapted from Maxwell's own), or whether the later novel is an attempt to rewrite and refine the earlier one. This seems unlikely given the differences in the stories they tell - They Came Like Swallows is very claustrophobic and takes place almost entirely in the family home, whereas So Long, See You Tomorrow just uses that stuff as a framing device and most of its narrative takes place on the neighbouring farms. 

My Vintage paperback copy has a foreword by Ann Patchett, whose previous appearance on this list in her own right (Bel Canto was the book) puts this book in a group with Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry, LanarkTrue Grit, Stoner and The Queen's Gambit. It also includes this paragraph:

I think I probably agree that the later book is better, but I very much enjoyed them both and recommend them highly. The contrast with a book like Foucault's Pendulum couldn't be more stark (and their juxtaposition is not a complete coincidence; I often like to follow a long book with a short one) - this is short, completely serious, acutely insightful into how people are and how they behave, and pared of all but the most essential words. 

So Long, See You Tomorrow won the National Book Award in 1982, so you can add that year to the ones listed here

Monday, March 11, 2024

the last book I read

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

Meet our narrator, Casaubon. Why is he called Casaubon? Or, more accurately, why has the author decided to give him that name, and what did he expect the reader to take from it? Well, briefly, Isaac Casaubon was a classical scholar and philologist in the 16th and 17th centuries (his son Meric studied in similar areas) and there is also a character of the same name in George Eliot's Middlemarch (a book I have not read, I should point out, and am 99% sure I never will).

Bloody hell, you might be thinking at this point, I'm only on page one of a 600+-page book and already I need to have access to an online encyclopaedia to keep up with all the meta-textual references and stuff. How am I going to cope for the rest of the six freakin' years it's going to take me to finish it?

Well, you'll have to find your own coping strategy, but what I would offer is that you should probably come to a Zen-like acceptance that your level of unassisted erudition is almost certainly not equal to Umberto Eco's and that you're probably going to miss the significance of a reference here or there. By all means look something up if it piques your interest, but don't spend months and years looking up every single name; in any case some of them will be made up. To put it another way, get over yourself and just read the freakin' book already.

So: when we first meet Casaubon he is in the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, looking at the eponymous pendulum and musing on the physical laws that govern its motion. It turns out he's not just there to have a look at that, though, as Mysterious Shit is afoot which necessitates him secreting himself in the museum after closing time and awaiting the arrival of a group of people to carry out some arcane ritual. What ritual? How does Casaubon know about it? Why does he care? That will take a 500-page flashback to explain.

Some years previously, Casaubon, a devotee of arcane lore about secret societies and the Knights Templar in particular, is living in Milan when he meets Belbo and Diotallevi, who work for a publisher called Garamond and want to make use of his particular area of knowledge to review a manuscript that's come into their possession. Garamond, it turns out, is a serious publishing house but also operates a separate arm which does vanity publishing for nutters with enough money to self-finance their crackpot books. This is all a lot of fun, but the guy who submitted the original manuscript, Colonel Ardenti, suddenly disappears in mysterious circumstances. Could there be something in his conspiratorial ravings after all?

Casaubon spends some time living with a woman in Brazil and while he's there meets an elderly man called Agliè who introduces him to various local voodoo rituals, suggests that these and the whole Templar thing are all interconnected in some way, and hints that he may in fact be the near-immortal Comte de Saint Germain. Casaubon's relationship eventually goes to shit and he returns to Italy, where he discovers that Garamond have taken on Agliè as some sort of consultant and that Belpo and Diotallevi have really ramped up the Templar conspiracy angle. Belpo has acquired an early home computer and is experimenting with feeding in all sorts of stuff and having the computer spit out plausible links: the Templars, the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Jews, the Nazis, you name it. 

Again, this is all tremendous fun and generates a series of increasingly outlandish, wide-ranging, interlinked theories which Belpo, Diotallevi and Casaubon call "the Plan". It's all just a lot of imaginative weaving together of disparate conspiracy elements with no basis in reality, though, isn't it? OR IS IT? Easy to dismiss the cancer that ravages Diotallevi as just a coincidence, rather than some sort of karmic retribution for meddling with things that should not be meddled with; not so easy for Belpo to dismiss the feeling that he's being followed and perhaps manipulated by sinister forces, especially Agliè who seems very interested in knowing everything that Belpo knows about the Plan. 

Eventually Belpo is blackmailed into travelling to Paris to meet with Agliè and his associates at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, which you'll recall is where we came in. Once the shady group has convened and Casaubon has extricated himself from his cramped hiding-place to observe their nefarious activities, a bizarre ritual ensues involving much in the way of voodoo incantations, ectoplasm, speaking in tongues and the like and culminating in Belbo's death. Casaubon, while escaping unseen, nonetheless feels certain that They, whoever They actually are, are Onto Him, and flees to the country, abandoning his wife and young child, to await them inevitably catching up with him.

So *cracks knuckles* what the hell is going on there then? Well, lots of different things, some of which almost certainly went over your humble blogger's head entirely unnoticed. There's obviously some satire on people exploiting the lucrative market for the sort of Grail/Templar hokum put about by books like The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail (published six years before Foucault's Pendulum, in 1982) and, many years later, The Da Vinci Code, some further satire on vanity publishing in general and still further satire on the sort of post-modern school of criticism and philosophy that completely unhitches itself from any necessity to check in with the real world to see if what you're saying actually makes any sense. The Foucault of the book's title is obviously the pendulum's inventor Léon Foucault, but also quite probably Michel Foucault, philosopher, activist, and slightly queasy advocate of underage sex.

But what are we to make of the intersections with the real world, in particular the Night At The Museum interlude at the end where Belpo and his girlfriend Lorenza appear to be actually killed? There's no mention of the police arriving either on the night or the following morning when the museum opens and various murder victims are presumably found cluttering up the exhibits. Did any of it actually happen? 

Trying to apply any sort of gritty real-world seriousness here is probably a mistake, though, as it's all just a fabulously droll and playful post-modern joke, albeit one that in my view drags a bit in the telling. Some of the passages where Belpo, Diotallevi and Casaubon expound at great length on increasingly convoluted iterations of the Plan really start to go on a bit and have the feel of authorial showing-off. None of the characters here really give off any feel of behaving like actual humans; the closest is probably Casaubon's wife Lia, but even she displays implausible levels of arcane knowledge while trying to debunk the wilder excesses of the Plan, and is in any case roundly ignored for her trouble. 

So it's all tremendously clever, and generally pretty easy to read, though some will find the lumpiness of the structure and the length of some of the more treacly expository passages off-putting, or at least frustrating. For what it's worth I enjoyed The Name Of The Rose quite a lot more. 

Monday, March 04, 2024

celebrity lookeylikeys of the day

I have two for you today - now in theory I could parlay that into two posts in a pathetic and transparent bid to bump the blog stats up, post frequency and aggregate numbers not being what they once were back in the pre-marriage, pre-kids glory glory days of 2008, but you know and I know that that would be a shameful and hollow sham and a travesty and I respect you (yes, even you) too much to do it.

So here's Dan Hartman, successful songwriter of the 1970s and 1980s and occasional solo artist in his own right (1985's I Can Dream About You is probably the one you remember if you're of a similar age to me), and Kim Hughes, Australian batsman of the late 1970s and early 1980s, most remembered - rather unjustly - for his luckless stint as captain during the 1981 Ashes series when he was on the wrong end of Ian Botham's various legendary deeds, and for resigning the captaincy in a tearful hot mess in 1984. 

Secondly, Huwie recently got Neil Gaiman's Pirate Stew out of the library, and among Chris Riddell's many splendid illustrations of the motley piratical crew is this flamboyant chap, who, I'm sure you'll agree, closely resembles Dave Navarro, guitarist with Jane's Addiction since their formation in the mid-1980s and with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers for quite LIDDERALLY One Hot Minute in the mid-1990s.