I’ve guiltily noticed that I haven’t wrote up a book report in almost a year. Obviously, it’s because I’ve dumbed down to a subliterate level. I just watch TV and drool. No, I’ve just been lazy. I’ve read a few books in the past months and I’ve also had some ignominious failures along the way.
Last fall I was keeping up with my reading alright. In October I read Stephen King’s The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three. It was a lot better than the first Dark Tower novel, which I thought hewed too closely to traditional Western tropes - grizzled gunslinger, deadbeat frontier town, strumpet with a heart of gold, etc. The plot of the second Dark Tower is too complicated to lay out, at least not without giving away some key moments the reader should discover for themselves. Let’s just say that King, as usual, takes an idea so fantastical as to be preposterous and through the vividness of his vision makes it thoroughly believable. A random door that allows you to enter the mind of a person in a parallel dimension? Why haven’t I found one yet? It remains my fervent belief that Stephen King will, if not within his own lifetime then at least in mine, be recognized as a master of language on a par with any of the more acclaimed novelists who don’t write about alien invasions and deadly plagues. Anyone can write about monsters who eviscerate people, but not too many monster/horror books (or movies) continue to haunt us years after we’ve put down the book. Besides having an unrivaled imagination for the gruesome, King deserves credit for his characterizations. He may kill off his characters ruthlessly (and disgustingly, as often as not) but he also has great sympathy for even the most unlikable ones. King takes readers inside the mind of both the battered woman and the abusive husband, the cop and the crazy psychopath, even the monster gets his due – he may die but at least we’ve seen his point of view, twisted and wrong as it may be.
After that, there was Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire, best known as the source material of a popular broadway musical. Pretty grim material for a musical, I’d say. Wicked ostensibly takes place in the land of Oz, originally the brainchild of L. Frank Baum. It’s partly a retelling of events that took place at the end of Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, plus a lot of backstory regarding the Witch, whose name, is turns out was Elphaba. Some of you may have read Baum’s book, and maybe even the other Oz books that followed it, but I’d venture that most of you got your images of Oz from the 1939 movie, which has remained a steadfast family favorite through generations. The movie took many liberties with the source material but remained true to the spirit of the original, though I haven’t read the book in decades and never in English. Maguire’s Oz is an unrecognizable place. Baum’s book was aimed at youngsters and had a resounding sense of the whimsical, even though it continues to support various allegorical theories. Maguire’s book is decidedly not for children, rife with violence and graphic sexuality. It’s not a bad book on its own terms, but it probably would have been better if Maguire had scraped away the remaining traces of Ozness and made the effort to fill out a fully original fantasy world. As it is, the only things his book has in common with Baum’s is names, geography and, near the end, a few key events. In addition to the aforementioned sex and violence, the new Oz is also politically fraught – the Wizard in no way benevolent here, but a megalomaniac and dictator in no uncertain terms. It’s dark times for Oz, in a dark book.
And then I spent several months trying and failing to find a book I could actually finish reading. There were several fails, but I’ll leave you with two notable ones. First, I gave something called Paul Is Undead a shot. Written by Alan Goldsher, it’s another chapter in the tired trend of inserting zombies into every available pop culture orefice, in this case, the British Invasion. Such a concept could conceivably fall on either side of the fine line between stupid and clever. To imbue John, Paul, George and Ringo, et al with a superhuman nature is appealing, not least because it did seem, in their heyday, that they were monstrous and supernatural. The problem with Goldsher’s approach is not only that he lewdly and frequently falls on the wrong side of good taste. He flagrantly flouts the conventions of zombie lore – it is a truth universally agreed upon that zombies, being dead as it were, do not age in the conventional manner, do not have the ability to eat human food should they so choose, do not have powers of mass hypnosis, cannot reattach severed body parts, and for God’s sake do NOT ejaculate. There are rules, and Goldsher makes a mess of them, without the benefit of particularly good new ideas to replace the conventional wisdom. The real problem here, though, is embedded in the very concept. If the Beatles were zombies all along, what does that do to the dramatic arc of their story? The familiar and tragic end of the Beatles saga can’t be changed. Everybody knows that John Lennon was no zombie or vampire or ninja master – he was a man and he was murdered. Lennon is dead, as is Brian Epstein, as is Stuart Sutcliffe and as are many others who played a part in the story. To imagine otherwise, however fancifully, is a disrespect to the dead.
Flunking a dumb zombie book is nothing to be ashamed of. If it’s dumb, it’s dumb and if I don’t like it, fine. To barely be able to make a dent in an acclaimed literary masterwork makes me hang my head in shame. I’m afraid to say, Roberto Bolano’s doorstopper 2666 left me unimpressed. The novel was published to much fanfare after the writer’s death in 2004. The book consists of five loosely related parts, dealing with, among other things, a mysterious fictional German novelist, and a very nonfictional wave of unsolved murders that have taken place in Mexico (the title refers to the number of women killed or vanished.) It was the author’s intent to publish the five parts separately as novellas, but his publishers went against his wishes and released everything in one massive block. I could only force myself to complete the first section, which is about four scholars in laborious pursuit of the elusive German. Perhaps the other parts are different in tone, but the one I read is almost unbearably dull and difficult. Bolano has strengths – he’s a master of poetic descriptiveness, of capturing emotional minutiae, and evoking a heavy pall of sorrow. On the other hand, he has absolutely no grasp of dialogue, so it would appear, because there is barely any, and what speech there is bears no trace of how real live people conduct conversations. This is not a killer in and of itself – Gabriel Garcia Marquez gave us, in One Hundred Years Of Solitude not a line of dialogue, and that work is nevertheless enthralling (if confusing). There’s no magic realism in 2666, however, from what I’ve seen. The characters, middle-aged academics all, move through their romantic permutations without being believable or interesting, and nothing much happens, even when they decamp to Mexico in search of their literary hero. What really bothered me and made the book so very tedious to slog through is Bolano’s habit of filling whole pages with convoluted run-on sentences. A well executed run-0n sentence is powerful trick in a writer’s arsenal, and should be used sparingly. To make nearly every sentence a run-on is a writer flaunting his virtuosity at the expense of clarity and plot development, not to mention a detriment to the reader’s being able to make sense of what the hell is supposed to be going on. What is going on, once the impediment of never-ending sentences is somewhat conquered, is not much, actually. Our heroes read, write, attend conferences, fall in and out of love, and lollygag around a decrepit Mexican hotel for while, then it ends. This was hailed as some kind of modern classic in the making, but I can’t think of much good to say about what I could get from it.
I’m don’t think I’m a total failure at reading books though. It’s no fault of my own I couldn’t handle 2666. It’s not as if I’m not equipped to handle a difficult novel – I’ve read VALIS. I did come back and read something moderately difficult; Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances. I recall being intrigued by Galchen’s write-up in The New Yorker in 2008. The New Yorker placed it in a context of an ’insane narrator’ canon that also includes Pale Fire. In Galchen’s novel, a New York psychiatrist suddenly becomes convinced that his wife has been replaced by a near-identical ‘simulacrum’ and goes in search of his real Rema. Though it’s obvious to the reader that Dr. Liebenstein has gone insane, his conviction that his wife has vanished is moving, as is his hopeless quest to get her back, even as he reluctantly grows to accept the presence of the simulacrum wife. The book does at times get boring, as when Liebenstein, with no clues to follow, muses aimlessly about love, reality and the philosophical ramifications of the Doppler effect. It’s no spoiler to say that nothing supernatural ever reveals itself. It’s not a science-fiction. And though the hero is clearly undergoing a mental-health crisis of some sort, it’s not about the nature of sanity vs. the lack of it, not about the workings of the mind at all. All along, it’s a meditation on love and devotion, with many odes to the sweetness of memory and the value of those tiny moments that make a relationship, and the long journey towards coming to terms with losing love. Even if all those things take place inside the head of an insane man, they’re no less touching.