Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The eternal reality of the exploited

The taller of the two men assures his companion, saying, "The two clocks say different times, but it could be that neither of them is right. Our clock here," he continues, pointing to the one above them with his long, slender and refined index finger, "is very late, while that one there measures not so much time as, well, the eternal reality of the exploited, and we to it are as the bough of a tree to the rain that falls upon it: in other words we are helpless."
— from Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Mad, bad

Jean-Patrick Manchette's The Mad and the Bad is a heart-pumping novel. Extremely violent. Damaged people.

Hartog — architect, businessman, philanthropist — plucks Julie out of an insane asylum to care for his ward, his 12-year-old orphaned nephew, spoiled brat (or worse — things don't seem quite right with the boy) and heir to the family fortune. On her first day of work, Julie and the boy are kidnapped. Once tranquilizers and alcohol aren't available, Julie's forced to rely on her wits to survive, and she has plenty. She escapes death and her captors, with the boy in tow, only to face more dangers.

Here's a passage I quite liked from late in the novel:
Julie poured herself a bowl of coffee, touched it to her lips and burnt herself. She put the vessel down and left the kitchen. She almost lost her way in the web of corridors and rooms. Then she stepped into Fuentes's room. The failed architect was lying on his back in bed, wearing khaki shorts. Empty beer bottles were strewn across a good half of the room. He had dried beer on his chest. His thoracic hair was sticky with it. He was snoring. Julie contemplated him with commiseration and chagrin. She regretted the fact that he was not a handsome young man and that he had not tried to possess her. She would have struggled, scratched his face no doubt, and in any case men did nothing for her, but, all the same, she regretted it.

This is the second Manchette novel I've read (after Fatale). Both have a female protagonist. There are shades of feminist thinking to their motivations and their competence and self-reliance, but some gratuitous objectification as well. I wish I could find a feminist critique so that I'd know what to think. I know one woman who read Fatale, and she was a bit put off by the violence. A scan of the internet suggests that not many women are interested in Manchette.

Check out His Futile Preoccupations for a closer look at Julie's character.

James Sallis writes in the introduction to this editions
There's much that's quintessentially French about Manchette: his political stance, the stylish hard surface of his prose, his adoption of a "low" or demotic art form to embody abstract ideas. Like any great illusionist, he directs our attention one way as the miraculous happens in another. He tells us a simple story. This occurred. That. But there's bone, there's gristle. Floors give way, and wind heaves its shoulder against the door. His stories of cornered individuals become an indictment of capitalism's excesses, its unchallenged power, its reliance on distraction and spectacle.
All true.

Everything happens so fast it's hard to read any of it as social commentary. But it's not much of a stretch to see how Manchette might be considered as a successor to Simenon. In their world, darkness lives in everyone's heart, and everyone is capable of anything. Manchette is credited with launching the neo-polar wave. For me Manchette's style calls to mind Delacorta, who was writing just a few years later (among other things he wrote Diva, which is perhaps better known as a film adaptation).

I am furious with NYRB Classics for divulging a major plot point in the description on the back cover. It's just barely hinted at in the early pages, and not fully confirmed until page 140. I made the mistake of rereading the description a few chapters in — someone had asked me about what I was reading — at which point, all the steam was taken out of the ride, the drive to find out who was behind it all deflated. The novel lost its purpose for me.

Still, something very compelling about Manchette's writing, the feeling that there's more to it than meets the eye. His novels are fully loaded. I'm packing this one away for a reread some day.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The fire of life

How is it that I can claim a familiarity with Stefan Zweig's oeuvre when I've read merely two of his novellas? (And I've seen Wes Anderson's Zweig-inspired Grand Budapest Hotel, but that hardly counts.) I'll try not to make sweeping generalizations about his work, but the temptation is great, owing to the shroud of intimacy with which he encircles the reader. I feel like I have secret knowledge of the workings of Zweig's heart and mind, but I know it is a trick.

Burning Secret, by Stefan Zweig, is a terrific story — intensely, relentlessly, heart-poundingly emotional.

It's established in the opening pages that the Baron is a ladykiller. It's no secret how this will play out...
It was very likely that he wold not pursue his quarry in vain. She was at that crucial age when a woman begins to regret having stayed faithful to a husband she never really loved, when the glowing sunset colours of her beauty offer her one last, urgent choice between maternal and feminine love. At such a moment a life that seemed to have chosen its course long ago is questioned once again, for the last time the magic compass needle of the will hovers between final resignation and the hope of erotic experience. Then a woman is confronted with a dangerous decision: does she live her own life or live for her children? And the Baron, who had a keen eye for these things, thought he saw in her just that dangerous hesitation between the fire of life and self-sacrifice.
There are a few secrets in play that aren't much of a secret to anyone: that the Baron is using 12-year-old Edgar to make a play for his mother; that the Baron and the mother may be about to embark on something illicit (she is quite married, after all); that both of them want Edgar to keep out of the way. But Edgar, "he had a secret of his own now. Its name was hatred, boundless hatred for both of them."

The burning secret is the one kept from Edgar: the mystery of love.

What's most remarkable about this short work is how much psychology is packed into it. The events take place over just a couple days, and Zweig essentially gives a play-by-play of the characters' actions and intentions: why they say and do what they say and do, what they hope to gain, what they stand to lose, what they're hiding from others.

Nicholas Lezard sums this up nicely in "Zweig's Perfect Triangle" (The Guardian):
One wonders what they were putting into the water in Vienna a century or so ago to produce people with such a capacity to enter into the human soul, and then render it into art or analysis. Around the time Zweig published this, Freud was writing On Narcissism, and there are moments here when you marvel at the psychological accuracy and plausibility of Zweig's characters.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A suggestion, and lots of beer

Funny how it takes reading a stylized French crime thriller of another era to learn a little about local history.

The Mad and the Bad, by Jean-Patrick Manchette, was first published in 1972. The protagonist, recently released from an insane asylum and now implicated in a kidnapping and worse, is on the run, literally, across the countryside of France, and in one small village she ducks into a conference hall where some kind of evangelical rally is underway:
"Would you like to know what happens in a big city when there are no more police? That is what occurred in Montreal on October 7, 1969. The police were on strike. Did citizens respect the law once they knew the police were no longer there to make arrests? Not at all! Right away Montreal became the scene of rioting, arson, looting, and fighting among taxi drivers. The rioters armed themselves with clubs and rocks and engaged in an orgy of senseless destruction. They smashed the windows of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel and stole merchandise. They vandalized the fine IBM Building. They plundered the Windsor and Mount Royal hotels. Without police, respect for law and order completely vanished. According to government spokesmen, the city was 'on the verge of anarchy'!"
While the preacher's rhetoric is intended to argue that only God can bring order, the author is no doubt making some kind of commentary on power, authority, and freedom. Meanwhile, I'd never heard of Montreal's night of terror.

Indeed, a taxi driver's union staged a protest regarding unfair competition (a legitimate issue that wasn't resolved till years later). And the police, who were on strike (regarding pay negotiations), weren't around to prevent it from getting out of hand.

(If video does not appear, try Google Chrome.) More facts related to the incident are available in the CBC Digital Archives.
In 1987 Montreal journalist and city councillor Nick Auf der Maur recalled the riot in Saturday Night magazine: "The bunch of us had thrown in our lot with something called the Mouvement de libération de taxi, a group dedicated to ridding the airport of its Murray Hill limousine monopoly... It seems that all it took back then to organize a full-scale riot in Montreal was a suggestion, and lots of beer."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

More Foundation concepts: the Division of Logic and the Church of Science

So I finished reading Asimov's Foundation, and the details have already faded since I closed it about two weeks ago.

I think I kind of get why it's an important book, taking world-building to a new level and elevating the genre of science fiction by a few degrees of respectability. For its relatively low page count, Foundation is big in scope and ideas. But I didn't quite love it.

If you know it only by its reputation, as I did, then you probably don't know much about it at all. Foundation began life as a series of interconnected short stories. The basic premise: it's been foreseen that the Empire is in demise, and a foundation is established to preserve its knowledge. I stand by my initial impressions.

Asimov introduces some terrific concepts: psychohistory and the Encyclopedia Galactica chief among them.

And I love the application of symbolic logic, using it "to prune away all sorts of clogging deadwood that clutters up human language." Upon submitting to symbolic analysis the transcripts of Lord Dorwin's discussions during his diplomatic mission, the Division of Logic
"after two days of steady work, succeeded in eliminating meaningless statements, vague gibberish, useless qualifications — in short, all the goo and dribble — he found he had nothing left. Everything cancelled out."

"Lord Dorwin, gentlemen, in five days of discussion didn't say one damn thing, and said it so you never noticed."
(I wish we could run those analyses on the some of the meetings I'm forced to attend at work.)

And the Church of Science, established by the Foundation in order for the barbarians to more readily accept the science of the Foundation. Hah! Its high priests are in charge of the power plants. This is a wickedly satirical story.

The book reads to me as a cross between The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, for its general tone, humor, and spaciness, and Game of Thrones, for its backroom dealings and back-stabby politics. All of Foundation was narrated to me in my head by the voice of the Guide, giving characters here and there a whiff of Zaphod or Slartibartfast, and adding greatly to my enjoyment.

I should note that the book contains one female character. I was reading some forum or other recently, and someone was criticizing an author for not writing women well and it led to accusations that the author was misogynistic. And so I happened to notice that to that point, I hadn't encountered a woman in Foundation. I don't think Asimov has been accused of these things. However, clearly he is a product of his times. (Possibly there are actually two female characters in Foundation — I can't be sure because my attention foundered toward the end.)

Is my life changed for having read Foundation? No. Am I dying to read the rest of the series? Not particularly. Am I glad to have read Foundation? Sure, but more for its historical significance than for the actual story. I wasn't quite in the perfect headspace for it, but I'll give the rest of the series a chance someday.

Have you read Foundation? How does it rank in your personal sci-fi pantheon?

Check out io9's chapter-by-chapter discussion of Foundation, its strengths and weaknesses and its big ideas.

Monday, October 13, 2014

How literature helps us live


As much as I dislike Alain de Botton, every now and then his projects demonstrate a glimmer of right and good.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Why is this a book?

I'm mildly obsessed with Consumed, a new novel by David Cronenberg. I haven't actually read it yet — I'm still hoping someone will think to buy it for me for my birthday next month — but I'm reading every review I can find.

I'm not even that big of a Cronenberg fan (excepting Naked Lunch, which is one of my favourite films ever). I just feel compelled to watch his films, and now read his novel, even though I fully expect it to be an unpleasant experience.

According to Jason Sheehan on NPR (In Cronenberg's 'Consumed,' An Appetite For Sex, Death And The Latest Gear):
Here's everything you need to know about Consumed in one sentence: This is a book that is unmistakably written by David Cronenberg.

Not so much the newer, grayer Cronenberg either. Not Eastern Promises Cronenberg or A History Of Violence Cronenberg. No, this is something that feels more like the young, perverse, freakishly laser-beam-obsessive and deeply, deeply strange Cronenberg.
But what I desperately want to know, and which no reviews that I've found address, is, why is this book? Did this need to be a book? Is it better as a book than it would be as a movie? What is it about the narrative that makes it better suited to this medium?

David Cronenberg’s consuming obsession, by Geoff Pevere in Quill & Quire:
"I really wanted to become an obscure novelist."

And I come to understand that Cronenberg's influences are more literary than filmic, which may explain my interest in him.

What Cronenberg says
Virtual Reality, Corporeality Collide In Cronenberg's First Novel, NPR:
"I always thought I'd be a novelist. I never thought I'd be a filmmaker."

Flavorwire Interview: David Cronenberg on Body Horror, Dick Pics, and His First Novel, Consumed:
"Movies, in some way, are very restrictive — compared to what you can do in a novel."

It came from within, The National Post:
"Seduction of the reader is definitely where it’s at. In a novel it’s much more intimate, because you can be in the interior of these characters."

About the book
David Cronenberg’s debut novel, Consumed, is one of the strangest books you’ll encounter all year, by Pasha Malla in the Globe and Mail:
It’s really, really weird.

All Atwitter, by Jonathan Lethem in The New York Times:
The book presents a locked-room mystery of sorts: Can it be possible that a woman said to be dying of cancer, and whose philosopher-cannibal-husband left a record of her ­dismemberment, is still alive? Or was she a consensual accomplice to her own murder? This core plot is elaborated in a highly traditional (and satisfying) way: twin investigations, apparently unrelated, which gradually entwine. Amateur detectives who become complicit — and, of course, involved sexually — with their suspects.
These passages are typical of the book's descriptive exactitude and flatness, its use of banal signifiers like "GarageBand," and the constant germane ­citations of psychoanalytic or philosophical brands. The book seems to desublimate itself for you: No sooner does the reader think, "This is like the case of Louis Althusser's murder of his wife," than some character makes the comparison for you. The result is provocatively comic, and surreal in the manner of a Max Ernst collage.

The Strange and the Familiar: David Cronenberg's Consumed, by Karin L Kross at Tor.com:
So much of it exactly what you would expect from him — especially if your ideas of his films are shaped largely by his earlier work; pre-M. Butterfly, to put an arbitrary stake in the ground — that you occasionally wonder if he's not deliberately sending himself up.

[...] In its energy and content, Consumed feels like a younger man's work — specifically, a younger David Cronenberg's, though with the confidence of someone who has been telling stories for decades.

Body horror and techno lust in director's debut novel, by Steven Poole in The Guardian:
The 21st century's version of the hall of mirrors is the infinite regress of embedded recording devices. Naomi and Nathan are always stealthily recording their conversations with other characters by means of some hidden app on a MacBook Air or iPhone, when they are not overtly putting obscenely expensive Swiss voice recorders on glass coffee tables. Cronenberg's fiction is one of omnipresent multimedia surveillance and retention, though we never witness the heroes performing the subsquent grunt work of transcription and editing. Perhaps deliberately, because a major plot question becomes what one can trust of electronic recording, and what was only cleverly fabricated using Photoshop or its video equivalents.


David Cronenberg becomes novelist; other directors decide to pull a Cronenberg, by Mark Krotov at MobyLives:
A connoisseur of violence, brutality, and grotesquerie — all of which are banned in Canada, where he was born — David Cronenberg has been making dark and weird masterpieces since the late 1960s. And while he has directed films based on novels — including such conventional, mainstream, user-friendly books as William Burroughs's Naked Lunch, J.G. Ballard's Crash, and Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis — he had never actually written one himself until Consumed.