Mathias Énard: Zone
The entire novel takes place on a train, or at least emanates from a train where, as our protagonist travels, his mind travels through the violence of our time and previous times. In fact, he has chained to the rack above him a suitcase filled with accounts and evidence of these horrors which he is on his way to Rome to sell. As a member of French intelligence and a former member of a Croatian militia he has been party to some of the atrocities he hopes to sell, and in selling, to escape. Much has been made of Mathias Énard's decision to eschew conventional punctuation and to write his novel as, more or less, one sentence. The novel reads easily, even lacking full stops; it's hard to put it down. The novels I've read this year confirm that the novel is far from dead.
Vu Tran: Dragonfish: A Novel
I picked this up on a whim at the Halifax airport, and though such whims sometimes pay off, this time I was not so lucky. Although telling a story about Vietnamese refugees in the United States through a hard-boiled noirish lens is potentially interesting, there's no snap to the language, and the meditations on society—and hard-boiled detectives at their best are among our most perceptive and witty observers of society—are banal. Reading the puffery from other readers and critics that adorns this volume it's hard for me to believe I read the same book as those critics.
Arturo Silva: Tokio Whip
Think of all the really great novels about Tokyo by non-Japanese. That's not such an easy task, because when one does start to think about it, it becomes clear that there aren't any. Until, maybe, now. I say "maybe" only because one hesitates to throw around accolades like "great" too cavalierly, but Arturo Silva's Tokio Whip seems to me by far the best work by a non-Japanese about the Japanese capital that I have seen. One reason for this is the form of this novel in which form is very much foregrounded. Silva understands that simple first-this-happened-then-that-happened narratives—and, god forbid, bildungsroman about young people finding themselves in Japan—don't suffice to capture the chaos that overlays the order that conceals more chaos that is Tokyo. There' s a story here, a love story even with a happy ending, but the story is just one thing happening in the city, to Roberta, Lang, and their group of artistic, intellectual friends, and the fragments, the conversations, the descriptions, the guidebook pastiches, and the other goodies of which Tokio Whip is built make for a novel where one doesn't just read about Tokyo, but lives it.
Islands of Protest: Japanese Literature from Okinawa
Japanese literature from Okinawa is literature that most of us who read in English—and, one suspects, many who read in Japanese—know nothing about. For that reason alone this book is essential. That it is largely literature composed of stories, poems, and a play that are clearly littérature engagée also must be essential to virtually any art emerging from a place that has been, and continues to be, exploited and oppressed to the extent that Okinawa has and is; the work collected in Islands of Protest—note the title—is no exception. The prose, poetry, and drama collected here, however, is uniformly strong enough that it will appeal even to those who feel distant from Okinawan history and struggle. Indeed, it is the most openly engaged of all the work, a play that might be described as political burlesque, "The Human Pavilion" by Chinen Seishin, that is also, in its humor, in its horror, in its slapstick and unexpectedness that is among the most engaging. That another stand-out is Toma Hiroko's poem "Backbone" makes one wish that the selection was a bit more balanced between poetry and prose (200+ pages of prose, ten or so of poetry). Still, to reiterate, the collection is essential to anyone interested in literature and Okinawa.
Ross Macdonald: The Chill
Fog is the dominant environmental motif of this Lew Archer outing, and that is not unrelated to the fact that psychology, the human mind, is at the center of the novel. It is interesting to read a novel such as this one from a time before Freudian-inflected psychology was seen, by popular novelists, as something to be made fun of as a matter of course. And the hints that continue to be dropped about Lew Archer's background allow us to continue our ongoing (psycho-?) analysis of the enigmatic detective.
Josephine Tey: The Franchise Affair
A typically adept Josephine Tey novel, but one that is atypical in that her usual hero, Inspector Alan Grant, makes only brief appearances, having been upstaged by a provincial lawyer. Tey seems to me a master stylist. Her novels may be entertainments, but her every sentence drips with intelligence.
Michael Moorcock: The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius: Stories of the Comic Apocalypse
Employing equal parts pulp, high modernism, and wide ranging intellect, Michael Moorcock is a fascinating and refreshingly unpredictable writer. He is one of those writers who one feels one has to learn how to read afresh with each of his books one picks up. This collection of stories featuring Jerry Cornelius is no exception, with its Dos Pasos like newsreel introductions to each tale, and the fluidity with which Cornelius, a sort of time-travelling James Bond, moves from one temporal and geographic location to the next. The humor—this is a comic apocalypse—is sly, dry, and, one is tempted to say, British. The range of references, historical and political, that define the disasters through which Cornelius moves are illuminated by that humor. The low humor and high seriousness meld to great effect in the concluding tale "Firing the Cathedral," a Moorcockian masterpiece.
Ross MacDonald: The Zebra-Striped Hearse: A Lew Archer Novel
Art, Southern California, old money, greed, a creepy father who loves his daughter, and yes, a band of feral surfers in a zebra-striped hearse: there's no better Virgil to guide one through this inferno than Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer, and this is Macdonald at the top of his game
Tom Reiss: The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life
The best biographies are those that illuminate not just a person, but a time, a place, a world. Tom Riess's The Oriientalist is one of those. One reason Riess is able to use his tremendous skill as a writer and researcher to such good effect is that his subject, Lev Nussimbaum, aka Essad Bey, aka Kurban Said, though a prolific and successful writer in the 1920s, '30s, and 40s, has left in his wake, with the possible exception of his novel, Ali and Nino, none of the grand achievements of the sort that usually attract biographers. Thus the book is more about the world through which this Zelig-like chameleon moved than about the man himself. And that world—from Azerbaijan to Turkey to Paris to Berlin to Positano and beyond—is horrible and fascinating, and wonderful.
Off now to find a copy of Ali and Nino.
James Ellroy: Perfidia
The good thing about James Ellroy is that his prose has style, or to be more precise, his prose is other than the approved plain style. The bad thing about Ellroy is that—and this is something that threatens any writer who attempts something other than that safe plain style—his style had become mannered. In the last Ellroy I read, and this was some years ago, it seemed to me that his prose style had become a parody of itself: taut and austere had become all one sentence paragraphs, one word sentences, and I tired of it. Further, since his characters walk the same mean streets as Philip Marlowe, it was hard not to draw comparisons. Ellroy came up short in those comparisons, but to be fair, so does pretty much any other writer of this kind of fiction.
But . . . I decided to give him another try. With Perfidia he's launched a new series of novels set in and around Los Angeles. This one takes place during the days just before and after Pearl Harbor, and if the novel has one great strength it his his demystification of the "greatest generation," those sometimes heroic alcoholic racists and bigots about whom, for our sins, we hear so much. Such demystification is more than welcome, and I was so sucked into the labyrinthine scheming of his characters, some of whom, like Bette Davis and Fletcher Bowron, existed off the page, that the style became a non-issue. When I purposely slowed my pace to have a close look at what Ellroy was doing with words I found that he had drifted toward the safe plain style and away from machine gun bluntness, and this did not seem to me to be a bad thing. His prose will never be literary—thank the GSM for that—but it now seems appropriate for the stories he wants to tell.