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Open Book

There's a nice story in today's New York Times on Open Book, the literary arts center in Minneapolis which houses the Loft Literary Center, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and Milkweed Editions, and which has anchored the revitalization of its neighborhood. With old-fashioned, low-tech, supposedly-irrelevant-in-the-fast-paced-modern-age books. Decaying Rust Belt cities, please take note.

April 30, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...eolean harps in which the wind sings..."

Hjalmar Söderberg's 1905 novel Doctor Glas revolves around the inner thoughts of a middle-aged Stockholm doctor who has never truly lived life. Though professionally successful, he has all but sat on the margins of life, with no lovers or even friends, never truly connecting with humanity and in fact mostly showing disdain for others. Yet even as he recognizes this distance and seems to revel in it, he still envies artists who are able to absorb the world into themselves, reflect and interpret their thoughts for the public, even if by doing so they sacrifice their free will and become servants of their muse.

I couldn't become a poet. I see nothing that others haven't already seen and given shape and form. I know a number of writers and artists - strange creatures, in my opinion. They have no will of their own, or if they do, their actions contradict it. They're merely eyes and ears and hands. But I envy them. Not that I would give up my will in exchange for their visions, but I might wish I had their eyes and ears in addition. Sometimes when I see one of them sitting quietly, absently, staring out into space, I think to myself: perhaps at this very moment he sees something no one has seen before, something he will soon compels a thousand others to see, among them me. I don't understand what the youngest of them produce - not yet - but I know and predict that once they are acknowledged and famous, I, too, will understand and admire them...And the poets themselves - do they really dictate the laws of time? Lord knows, though I hardly think they seem capable of it. Instead it seems more likely they are instruments that time plays on, eolean harps in which the wind sings. And what am I? Not even that. I have no eyes of my own...I think of Hans Christian Andersen and his tale of the shadow, and it seems to me that I myself am the shadow who wished to become a man.

Söderberg was a true artist, so in this instance it can hardly be said that the writer was using his narrator as a mouthpiece. Instead, Söderberg was clearly the perceptive aesthete that Doctor Glas so envied. But elsewhere in this mesmerizing book I can't help but hear the writer's opinions and beliefs ringing through, loud and clear.

April 26, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Page 123 Meme - Never Come Morning

Marshall Zeringue at Campaign for the American Reader has tagged with the Page 123 Meme, which requires the following:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

Right now I'm reading Nelson Algren's novel Never Come Morning. (An interesting coincidence, given the fact that I once wrote a Page 69 essay for Marshall on Algren's The Man With the Golden Arm.) In doing this meme, I'm going to take a slight liberty. The last two of the "three sentences" are fragments - the first just an adjective and a noun, the second a proper name (which is followed by four more proper names and then another fragment). The speaker of this passage is reading from a list, and so Algren's structure is faithful to normal human speaking patterns (Algren had a great ear for human dialogue) rather than standard written-word conventions. Because stopping after the third "sentence" (which isn't really a sentence at all) wouldn't make much sense, I've continued on to present the entire "phrase."

Page 123 of Never Come Morning involves one of Algren's favorite settings, the police interrogation. (Despite the fact that Algren wasn't a crime writer per se, many of his stories include scenes in interrogation rooms, police lineups and jail cells.) The protagonist, Lefty Bicek, has been arrested after a botched holdup in which the victim was accidentally shot. The interrogator, Captain Tenczara, couldn't really care less about the victim, but has instead hauled Lefty in to try to get him to implicate himself in a murder which Lefty did indeed commit. Lefty tries to downplay the holdup and shooting, implying that the victim was only slightly wounded and was an old man who didn't really matter anyway. After stringing Lefty along for a while, the Captain bluntly utters the following, implying that the victim was killed and was also a family man:

"Bullet through the groin - zip," he added, his words coming flat and unempathetic, reading from the charge sheet without understanding. "Five children. Stella. Mary. Grosha. Wanda. Vincent. All underage."

But the cagey Lefty doesn't take the bait, and doesn't let this revelation shock him into confessing to the more serious crime. Blunt, simple and to the point - just like much of Algren's dialogue. Great stuff.

That said, I'm now tagging Ben, Nick, Jason, Brandon and Richard, plus the ever-lovely Julie. You've been memed!

April 23, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

The Humo(u)r of Hunger

Chris Killen is my new hero - a fellow traveler who also appreciates the great humor in Knut Hamsun's otherwise bleak Hunger.

I think comedy often comes from dark places, and I think there's a very fine line between something being funny and something being horrible.

I've read Hunger from many different angles during the past twenty-plus years, humor being just one of them. The fact that the book works so perfectly on so many levels - including being funny and bleak at the same time - is one reason it's still the greatest book I've ever read.

(Via Dogmatika.)

April 23, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)

Replacements Reissued!

Every defunct band seems to be getting the reissue treatment these days, including the great Replacements, whose first four records (Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash; The Replacements Stink; Hootenany; and Let It Be) have been re-released by the ever-wonderful Rhino Records. Pitchfork reviews all four here. Learning that each reissue includes bonus tracks brought a smile to my face, since it brought to mind the following gem from the 1989 edition of the Trouser Press Record Guide (remember that in 1989 the transition from vinyl to CD was still underway):

Although four Replacements albums are out on CD, not one of them includes a bonus track. Bastards.

With passages like that, it's no wonder I've revered that book for so many years. If for some inexplicable reason you've never heard Let It Be, then for heaven's sake snatch up this reissue as fast as humanly possible. Truly one of the greatest rock albums ever made.

April 23, 2008 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

I guess it's only fear-mongering if a non-Clinton is doing it.

"It's the toughest job in the world. You need to be ready for anything - especially now, with two wars, oil prices skyrocketing and an economy in crisis. Harry Truman said it best - if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."
- Hillary Clinton campaign advertisement, 2008, which includes images of Osama bin Laden

"If one candidate's trying to scare you and the other one's trying to get you to think; if one candidate's appealing to your fears and the other one's appealing to your hopes, you better vote for the person who wants you to think and hope."
- Bill Clinton, 2004

Indeed, Bill. I'm going with the "think and hope" guy, and not your wife.

April 22, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sax Man

(Previous installment)

He knew he had to keep playing. For the money, of course, to wring a little more spare change from the commuters before the morning rush ended. The evening rush wasn't quite the same. Unlike the morning, when workers plodded grimly toward their offices and seemed to relish any delay they could find, including a saxophonist playing tunes they had never heard, in the evening they were all in a rush. A rush to make their trains, a rush to get their cars out of the garage and beat the traffic to the expressways, a rush to get home. No time to pause.

(Next installment)

April 21, 2008 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Reading in Public: Adirondack Mountains, New York, 1888

Adirondack


As I curate this little series, I continue to struggle to find old photographs that match my original premise as perfectly as the first one did. For the last few I had to resort to images of newspaper readers, and while for this one I'm back to books, this gentleman is clearly not in public but at home. But still I really like this photograph, both aesthetically and for the concentrated intensity with which he's reading his book. I've never read by firelight myself, but assume it's not at all easy, which lends further credence to his passion for the written word. Good for him. Photograph by S.R. Stoddard. (Full photographic record here.)

(Reading in Public series is indexed here.)

April 20, 2008 in Reading in Public | Permalink | Comments (0)

Writerly Words to Live By

I have absolutely no idea who Nicolas Fargues is, but I like what he has to say.

NOVICE: You have none of Pierre Michon’s magisterial language, Echenoz’s elegant reserve, or Houellebecq’s powers of analysis. But if you take great care not to lose sight of who you are, you just might succeed in finding a way.

Don’t “make literature.” Don’t write because that’s what people expect of you now that you’re a “writer.” Don’t write for the beauty of the gesture or the love of art. Beware of fine phrases and well-turned maxims: That’s not your thing. Watch out for words that strike a pose. But do let your memory and your instincts flow—let the most apt words, the words that resemble you most closely, come of their own accord. Call a spade a spade (you do it beautifully, sometimes without even being aware of it). Write while it’s still warm, before distance intervenes, before you allow yourself to be corrupted by your desire to please. And don’t let yourself be misled by what editors, journalists, or readers might expect of novelists in general: style, energy, provocation, audacity. Forget all that, even your own recipes. Empty your mind and let come what comes.

Let necessity come and find the courage to drop it if nothing does (and try to persuade yourself that maybe it isn’t so bad, even if you don’t believe a word of it).

Be alone in order to remain free. Alone in order to keep a clear head. What a privilege, what an incomparable stroke of fortune it is, to know how to listen to yourself.

(Hold on, I’ve just cribbed a bit of Pennac.)

I recommend reading the entire Bookforum piece, which collects short essays from various writers on "words they found particularly suited to their ways of thinking about the novel" (trust me, the essays are livelier than that phrase might lead you to believe), in association with the upcoming International Forum on the Novel in Lyons, France.

April 20, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Gender equality has really come a long way.

Sure, inequality still exists, but at least TV housewives no longer think "If I just buy Instant Folgers, my husband will love me again."

(Via Boing Boing.)

April 19, 2008 in Television | Permalink | Comments (1)

Quote

"You're a writer and a financial analyst. I'm calling a mason."
- My wife Julie, after hearing my most recent vow to repair the garden wall that collapsed three years ago and still remains unfixed

April 18, 2008 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sax Man

Few remembered the old songs that Frank played, and fewer still would appreciate them enough to spare any change as they passed by. The saxophone case rested on the sidewalk, opened wide to reveal only a few scattered dollar bills and a handful of small coins. Four or five dollars for several hours of work. Because as much as he loved the music, as much as it satisfied his soul and made him the man he was, it was indeed work. Standing at the railing, hot or cold, rain or shine, the wind from off the river usually whipping at his face, honking out the same standards for hours on end to the mostly indifferent glances of business people hustling to the office. He had been riffing on "Round Midnight" for ten or fifteen minutes and needed a break soon. He had been playing without pause for over an hour and needed a break. Even Coltrane would step away from the stage now and then, he thought to himself, taking a break as the band continued on, settling in at a table filled with well-wishers and enjoying their praise and a cold highball. But on the bridge Frank saw neither praise nor refreshment before him, just a few minutes to rest his mouth before he would continue on.

(Next installment)

April 17, 2008 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

New Hemon novel!

From the new Bookforum I was delighted to learn that not only does Aleksandar Hemon have a new book coming out (The Lazarus Project) but even more so that it's a novel. I knew he had something in the works, but thought it was nonfiction. Not that Hemon's nonfiction would be any less of a pleasure to read, of course - I'd probably enjoy reading his grocery list. But a new novel from him is a very pleasant surprise indeed, and Patrick McGrath's review leads me to believe it's a great one.

Here, Hemon finds a story big enough to contain and structure his extensive repertoire of fiercely held obsessions, which include, in no particular order, Bosnia, America, identity, history, young men’s friendships, death, resurrection, the nature of evil, storytelling, the impossibility of truth, the siege of Sarajevo, old photographs, the absence of God, violence, war, fraud, and espionage.

In other words, most of Hemon's familiar themes, which he has apparently executed extremely well. McGrath clearly thinks the book is great, and considering that this glowing assessment comes from a reviewer who thinks Nowhere Man (one of my favorite novels) "doesn't quite work" makes me even more eager to read the new one. Sounds like a terrific book.

April 15, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"That's a mighty fine Goose."

Well, this news thoroughly blows: Goose Island loses lease, to close its Clybourn spot.

It's truly sad that Goose Island and its landlord can't come to terms on a new lease, especially given the fact the brewpub was a true pioneer for the commercial redevelopment of the Clybourn Corridor area. When Goose Island opened in 1988 (in a former Turtle Wax factory, of all things), the neighborhood was pretty dicey. Now that the area has exploded, Goose Island is on its way out.

I've got a lot of great memories of that place, most notably:

+ Office Christmas parties in 1988 and 1989, with the second one immortalized when two over-indulged co-workers took a strong liking to a plastic, interior-lighted goose on display on a counter. The goose was spied from the adjacent tap room several times during the evening, prompting one of said individuals to repeat the phrase in quotation marks above. So great was their admiration for this object of dubious aesthetic merit that, at last sufficiently fortfied and emboldened by the tenth or twelfth microbrewed draft of the evening, they finally marched over to the counter, concealed the goose under a coat and snuck it out through the back door. Although I categorically deny any knowledge of who either of these nerfarious individuals might be, I've heard rumors that the goose's residence has alternated between their two homes ever since.

+ My going-away party when I left NBD in 1991 to return to grad school. Highlights were a) a male co-worker drinking out of female co-worker's shoe; and b) the evening ending with that same male carrying that same female out of the building, slung over his shoulder. The male was married, and the female single, and I can only guess what happened after that. Whatever it might have been, it would have occurred in a Toyota Celica. (Ewww.)

+ My wife's going-away party after she quit her job at this horrible equipment leasing company which happened to be in the same neighborhood. She and her soon-to-be-former co-workers arrived in midafternoon, but I only got there after driving back from my job in the suburbs. By the time I got there the only ones left were her and this goofy guy Jim, who was the only other normal person in the company and who quite valiantly kept her sane for the last several months she worked there. The three of us stayed for several more rounds, ruthlessly mocking the other employees.

+ Stopping in with Julie for a quick dinner last summer after my first-ever public reading. The mood was pleasantly celebratory, and the food and drink was as good as ever.

Good times, good times. While I wish Goose Island the best of luck finding a new location in the area, for me it will never be the same.

April 15, 2008 in Chicago Observations, Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Bush approved (and approves of) torture.

And, not at all surprisingly, he doesn't express a single regret. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, the next move is yours.

April 14, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Etgar Keret, "Knockoff Venus"

My review of Etgar Keret's "Knockoff Venus" is now up at The Short Story Reading Challenge. Terrific little story - even if reviews aren't your thing, at least please read the story itself if not the review. I'm running behind on my review quota over there (I've committed to ten for this year but only have two so far) and need to pick up the pace. I haven't read nearly as many short stories this year as I anticipated. But I hope to review Jonathan Messinger and Elizabeth Crane over there soon.

April 12, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Song of the Week: The Feelies

The Feelies: "Dancing Barefoot"

Anybody who's been reading this blog for more than a few days knows I'm a huge fan of the Feelies. My ardor goes back nearly twenty years, from the moment I picked up a budget-priced vinyl copy of Only Life at Record City in Skokie, which is now long gone but where for several years I spent many a lunch hour while working in the area. Then it was their 1986 masterpiece The Good Earth, and lastly their good-but-not-great finale, Time For a Witness. (Oddly enough, I never picked up their debut Crazy Rhythms though I'm fairly familiar with most of it.) I missed the opportunity to see them on their final tour, in 1991, when they played at the Vic the night before I was leaving town on a fishing trip. Looking back, I would gladly have traded the extra exhaustion the next day for seeing this great band in their prime. Regrets.

The Feelies always had impeccable taste in covers, with their albums, EPs and B-sides including their takes on the Beatles' "Everybody's Got Something To Hide (Except For Me and My Monkey)" and "She Said She Said", the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black", the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On" and "White Light White Heat", Neil Young's "Sedan Delivery" and Iggy Pop's "Real Cool Time". (All but one of their albums closed with a cover - and Feelies' frontman Glenn Mercer continued the tradition on his recent solo album, with a medley of two George Harrison-penned tunes, "Within You, Without You" and "Love You To.")

All of this is a long-winded way of pointing to the tune I've linked to above, the band's cover of Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot", with bassist Brenda Sauter taking a rare lead vocal. I'm mostly familiar with Smith's song from the U2 version that saturated alternative rock radio in the early 1990s, but I'm quite pleased to realize that the Feelies did it even better. What I love about their version is that while it's unmistakably the Patti Smith classic, it's also pure, quintessential Feelies - the strummed rhythm guitar, the rich lead guitar, the crisp percussion, the subdued vocal delivery. The band took a very familiar tune and made it their own, which is how all great covers are. Terrific.

April 12, 2008 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...I belong to those convicts and prostitutes myself..."

Nelson Algren's 1941 novel Never Come Morning was the second of his career, and the first to garner establishment backlash for his audacity at realistically characterizing the underclass and the ways they struggled in their daily lives. Specifically, the Polish establishment of Chicago's Northwest Side was particularly incensed that the underclass that Algren depicted included characters named Benkowski, Konstantine and Bicek. That politically influential bloc eventually succeeded in getting Algren's book banned from the Chicago Public Library for many years, before Algren's renown in the rest of the world (particularly Europe) helped correct the travesty and put the reactionaries in their place. Today Algren is widely celebrated in his former home city, even by the establishment, but it wasn't at all that way during the prime years of his writing career.

Algren understandably took issue with the censorship of his book, but reserved even more venom for the well-heeled and self-righteous community leaders who not only failed to identify with the underclass but condemned the poor for "immorality" or, even worse, refused to admit they existed at all. Throughout Algren's career he held as a credo Walt Whitman's moving phrase, "I feel I am of them - I belong to those convicts and prostitutes myself, And henceforth I will not deny them - for how can I deny myself?", which he used as the epigraph for Never Come Morning. In his preface to the 1963 edition of the book, Algren quite memorably expounds on Whitman's theme:

The source of the criminal act, I believed twenty years and ago and believe yet, is not in the criminal but in the righteous man: the man too complacent to feel that he - even he - belongs to those convicts and prostitutes himself.

And how completely the righteous have failed here is plain enough when we recall that the greatest change that twenty years have brought in our police work is that, while police were then splitting fifty-fifty with ex-cons for whom they set up scores, today they do the stealing themselves.

Nor all your piety nor all your preaching, nor all your crusades nor all your threats can stop one girl from going on the turf, can stop one mugging, can keep one promising youth from becoming a drug addict, so long as the force that drives the owners of our civilization is away from those who own nothing at all.

It's that very empathy and compassion that Algren shows - in all of his writings - to the unfortunate and forgotten members of society which makes him my favorite writer.

April 11, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Just A Few Rogue Cabinet Members

I think there is justification for the impeachment of George Bush, and I don't mean the lies that lead to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. (There's just enough vagueness there to give him an out.) Instead, impeachment is clearly warranted on two counts: first, the Administration's willfull violation of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act, which forbids spying on U.S. citizens except under strict court-supervised requirements which Bush chose to ignore; and more importantly by the Administration's eager approval of the use of torture of suspected terrorists and enemy combatants at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, in clear violation of international law.

On the one hand, the Administration says it doesn't torture, while admittedly engaging in extreme coercive tactics such as waterboarding that it insists don't qualify as "torture" but which numerous respected authorities, including the U.S. Army itself, say are indeed torture. (The U.S. Army Field Manual, in fact, expressly forbids the use of many of the interrogation tactics which the Bush Administration condones.) But on the other hand, when graphic examples of blatant torture, such as the infamous Abu Ghraib photos, do surface, the Administration dismisses the scandal as the work of just a few low-level "rogue soldiers."

Not that I ever believed those claims, of course. It's never been just rogue soldiers acting on their own. The self-serving justifications for torture set forth by high-level Administration advisers, from Antonio Gonzales to John Yoo, have already been public knowledge for some time. And now comes this:

ABC News reported tonight that President Bush’s most senior and trusted advisers met in “dozens of top-secret talks and meetings in the White House” beginning in 2002 to approve the use of “combined” interrogation techniques (the joint use of harsh interrogation techniques). Those tactics included whether detainees “would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subjected to simulated drowning, called waterboarding.”

Members of the National Security Council’s Principals Committee — Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, George Tenet, and John Ashcroft — approved the use of these techniques. “Sources said that at each discussion, all the Principals present approved.”

Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Powell, Tenet, Ashcroft...proof of the Administration's explicit approval of the reprehensible practice of torture just keeps inching higher, and is now just one step from the top. It's only a matter of time before proof of Bush's approval finally surfaces.

If Bush had several years remaining on his term, instead of just nine months, and if the Democrats in Congress had more spine than they've shown during the past seven years (hell, make that ANY spine), I'd fully expect impeachment. But, sadly, I suspect he'll just be allowed to quietly leave office and go off on his merry way.

April 10, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Cartier-Bresson in Lego-Land

Bressonlego Bressonbehind

Maybe I'm just imagining things, but lately there seems to be a huge number of Lego re-creations of fine art and pop-culture icons on the Internets. Most of them breeze right past me, but I really like this one, based on one of my favorite photographs, Henri Cartier-Bresson's "Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare". Very nice work.

(Via Coudal.)

April 9, 2008 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Chabon's Beautiful Book

Chabon


Lately I've found myself increasingly interested in book design. Maybe I'm just more aware of it these days (especially since I've been contemplating launching my own press of handcrafted limited editions) or maybe because publishers are making more of an effort to make their physical product more distinctive. Probably both.

Anyway, I was at the bookstore today and was delighted to come across Michael Chabon's latest, Maps and Legends, which is a truly beautiful physical object. (Admittedly, that title alone - a subtle nod to early-period R.E.M. - was already enough of a grabber for me.) That's a picture of it above. The dust jacket is constructed of three irregularly-shaped, layered pieces - the blue ocean at the bottom, the green forest at the middle and the brown mountains above that - and the black portion at the top (with the author name) is part of the (hard) cover itself. The title is also imprinted directly onto the cover, and is visible through the jacket via a die-cut window at the center. I admired the book for quite some time before finally wondering who the publisher was. I flipped open the cover and found it's - no surprise - McSweeney's. Regardless of where you stand on McSweeney's literary or attitudinal merits, you have to admit that their books are almost always aesthetically beautiful. They always seem to put a lot of attention and imagination into their book designs, and for that they should be applauded.

I really can't do justice in words to the physical beauty and artistic ingenuity of Chabon's book design. Next time you're in the bookstore, I strongly encourage you to seek out the book yourself. You won't be disappointed.

April 6, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Local Linking Love

My fellow Chicago writer and RAGAD contributor Spencer Dew gets the hallowed Book Notes treatment at Largehearted Boy, and displays his staggeringly diverse musical tastes. (Johnny Cash! The Clash! Shakira!) I've done a few readings with Spencer, and the antic energy of his performance simply has to be seen to be believed. Check him out, and the book (Songs of Insurgency) too.

At CCLaP, Jason Pettus raves about Joe Meno's The Boy Detective Fails, repeatedly invoking Haruki Murakami as he does so. Pettus' praise is even more impressive given the very lukewarm review he previously gave to Meno's much-loved Hairstyles of the Damned. (I had a few issues myself with that book, but really enjoyed it overall. I guess I'll add Boy Detective to my list.)

And on a non-literary note: Chicago, from 36,000 feet at night. Stunning. (Via Coudal.)

April 2, 2008 in Books, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman

On the subject of including only the essentials in a story, John Self recently quoted Anton Chekhov: "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” It's a familiar conceit, but one which I hadn't realized went back to Chekhov. (As I commented on Self's blog, the version that I'm most familiar with is that of songwriter Peter Case, who once sang "A gun in the first act always goes off in the third.") I happened to come across the quote while halfway through Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, and I was struck by the ways O'Brien violates Chekhov's wise dictum.

From the very first words of the book - in fact, the title itself - O'Brien is at odds with Chekhov. The "third policeman" of the narrative doesn't make his first appearance in the book until twenty pages from the end, and though his presence is somewhat memorable, it hardly seems consequential enough to warrant naming the book after him. Referencing a character in a book's title and never having that character play a vital role in the narrative goes even further than Chekhov's unfired rifle in terms of introducing extraneous detail, and is the most obvious example of the numerous misplaced or unnecessary story elements which O'Brien can't seem to resist including. Another "unfired rifle" is the narrator's obsession with the fictional physicist/philosopher de Selby. I never really figured out what the philosopher had to do with the rest of the story, other than perhaps serving as the brunt of O'Brien's satirical take on the ridiculousness and borderline lunacy of abstract philosophical thought. (As an aside, I think Swift handled this idea much better, in describing Gulliver's travels amongst the Laputians, as I mentioned here yesterday.)

O'Brien's book is undeniably entertaining, often in a woozy, funhouse-mirror sort of way, but I doubt if it will stay with me for more than a week or two. The biggest problem for me is that I never believed, not even for a minute, that any of these characters were real. Instead I get the feeling that every one of them is a metaphor, some big symbol whose meaning I can only vaguely comprehend. The narrative also has, particularly at the beginning, a picaresque feel to it, a somewhat disjointed series of scenes that perhaps O'Brien couldn't quite figure out how to synthesize. And some of it just doesn't ring true. The narrator's premise in seeking out the police barracks in the first place - that the police would somehow assist him in finding the strongbox of the man he just murdered - is so ludicrous that the premise seems like nothing more than a lame excuse for his subsequent encounter with all the wacky and surreal goings-on at the barracks and all the entertainment value therein. And when key plot elements like that don't ring true, a book faces an almost insurmountable barrier to winning my heart.

I really wanted to love this book, having heard such great things about O'Brien and being such a fan of both satire and Irish fiction. But I just never figured out the point of it all, and that lack of meaning prevented me from ever being fully engaged, which means the book was a failure for me.

April 2, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

Gulliver Among the Laputians

Reading Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman has lead me to think about, for lack of a better term, fabulist satire. A major narrative element of O'Brien's book is the narrator's lengthy discourses (most of them in footnotes) on the theories of the fictional physicist/philosopher de Selby, who all but defines the term eccentric genius. The descriptions of de Selby's highminded but reality-detached scientific theories and philosophical musings immediately reminded me of the Laputians from Swift's Gulliver's Travels.

Of the four sections of Swift's masterpiece, the section which includes the voyage to Laputa is probably the least well-remembered, coming in far behind the voyages to Lilliput (little people) and Brobdingnag (giants), and probably even behind the Country of the Houynhyms (horses), but it's probably my favorite. This description of the Laputians' daily lives is particularly delicious:

I observed, here and there, many in the habit of servants, with a blown bladder, fastened like a flail to the end of a stick, which they carried in their hands. In each bladder was a small quantity of dried peas, or little pebbles, as I was afterwards informed. With these bladders, they now and then flapped the mouths and ears of those who stood near them, of which practice I could not then conceive the meaning. It seems the minds of these people are so taken up with intense speculations, that they neither can speak, nor attend to the discourses of others, without being roused by some external taction upon the organs of speech and hearing; for which reason, those persons who are able to afford it always keep a flapper in their family, as one of their domestics; nor ever walk abroad, or make visits, without him. And the business of this officer is, when two, three, or more persons are in company, gently to strike with his bladder the mouth of him who is to speak, and the right ear of him or them to whom the speaker addresses himself. This flapper is likewise employed diligently to attend his master in his walks, and upon occasion to give him a soft flap on his eyes; because he is always so wrapped up in cogitation, that he is in manifest danger of falling down every precipice, and bouncing his head against every post; and in the streets, of justling others, or being justled himself into the kennel.

Intellectuals who are so distracted that they would regularly fall off cliffs were it not for servants who slap them back into consciousness. Perfect.

April 1, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)