Tuesday, February 24, 2009

11. Time and Again by Jack Finney

Meezly recommended this novel to me. It was one of her favourites coming out of university and motivated her to make a trip directly to photograph the Dakota building when she first came to visit me in New York. It's the story of a young man in contemporary New York (contemporary being the '70s as that is when it was written) who gets hired to participate in a scientific experiment to go back in time. Ostensibly, this sounds like a pretty classic science fiction plot, and it is, but the book itself falls mostly outside of the genre. Finney's goal is to capture that feeling you get when you look for a long time at an old photograph, to make the reader feel as if they were actually in the photograph. The experiment itself is very much not hard sci-fi. It is based on the theory that if you can get an individual to convince themselves that they are in another time, they will actually go there. This is done by hiring people who are creative and open-minded. In a giant warehouse in the Bronx, they recreate certain locations and have the subjects spend a lot of time there.

The protagonist turns out to be one of the best-suited for the experiment. His time to go back to is late 19th century New York. They find a room in the Dakota (a beautiful old apartment building on the west side of Central Park; I think John Lennon lived there) which looks out onto a part of Central Park that has no signs of modern times. The room itself is entirely refurnished in the way it would have been in the 1880's. After several months of training, Si Morley, finally is able to go into the room at the Dakota, put himself into a state of hypnosis, go to bed and wake up in the past.

I am trying not to go through the storyline, but it is difficult, because there is no real storyline until this point, and this is a long ways into the book. We spend a lot of time with the protagonist. Finney writes in a pleasant, personable way and it is a pleasant, thoughtful journey. But I'm a man of action, of narrative and I got a bit distracted.

Once in the past, the style remains the same, with a lot more detail. I think Finney's strategy is to lull the reader into his protagonist's world, to really set a convincing foundation so that when he goes into the past, you share his experiences in a deeper way. It's cool. It kind of works. He creates a strong visual, physical and social sense of what it would be like to be living in 19th century New York. Personally, if I were to go to different times, this is not one (nor the place) that would be on the top of my list. I'm pretty much done with New York as a fictional entity. Nevertheless, the execution is quite well done and I felt a sense of immersion in this world of the past. Finney uses photographs and illustrations to augment this.

Eventually, there is a plot and it's quite a good one. It's a decent thriller, a mystery of the present that must be solved by someone going in the past and finding out what happened. There is even some pretty good action and romance. The last third of the book moves fast and it is here that the Finney's themes become apparent. The horrors and excesses of modernity were just finding their footing in the late 19th century. By the '70s, they are full blown and seen in comparison, humanity does not come off well at all. It's a light and enjoyable book, but ultimately has a very dark heart. Kind of like me. Good stuff.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

10. The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat

The Cruel Sea pictureI was given this book by the groom of the wedding we went to in Winnipeg last year. He seemed to have good taste in books, though not prolific. He simply said, "Oh yeah, this is good. You want to read this." It looked a bit daunting at the time (440 pages, small print) and I already had picked up like 25 used books in Winnipeg that weekend. His assuredness and confidence, plus that it was a beautifully aged Penguin paperback, won me over.

I'm glad it did. This is an amazing book. It's ostensibly fictional, but I'm pretty sure it's mostly autobiographical. It's the story of the volunteer navy who manned the corvettes that protected the shipping convoys going across the Atlantic during World War II. Most of it is told from the perspective of the Captain and the First Mate, but there are many other characters and little moments of their existence are displayed as well. It is divided into sections, by year and then into chapters. Each chapter is made up of little snippets, some entire stories, some just little slices of life aboard the ship or on land, some studies of the men as they react and grow to their situation. All of it is well-written and enjoyable, sometimes deliciously so.

The real impact of this book, though, is to remind us modern readers about World War II. We see it today in the gloss of history and myth (and marketing). You almost get the sense compared to the portrayal of the Vietnam War that WW II was somehow cleaner and easier. You also forget that there was a long period, especially in Europe, where there was a real chance that they would lose. The Cruel Sea will re-educate you quickly on these erroneous notions. This was some fucked-up shit! Convoys would go across the ocean, ships of civilians and goods, protected by smaller corvettes with depth charges and one gun. Often there wouldn't be a real battleship with the convoy. They were hunted by "wolf packs" of German U-boats, who would torpedo as much as they could. When a ship was torpedoed, most passengers died and those survivors, who made it out of the wreck without being sucked down, or burnt by the flaming surface oil, would never be rescued. It puts the significance of current U.S. war myths like Blackhawk Down in perspective.

Furthermore, until the U.S. joined the war and the British had gotten their war production properly amped up, the British ships were pretty threadbare. They were uncomfortable and crowded, with minimal safety equipment. Riding through storms that lasted days, they would just lash all the furniture in the wardroom to one side and eat standing up when they could. Men would learn to sleep with one arm wrapped around the bedpost. The depictions of these storms sound almost worse than getting blown up.

In the last third of the book, the tone changes, as did the war. The tide is finally turned against the Germans in the Atlantic in late 1943 and more U-boats start to go down than convoy ships. The equpment gets better. The main characters move to a frigate. The war becomes more professional, less human. It's a bittersweet development, because you know the good guys are going to win, but something is lost in the process. There is a real camarederie in the old corvettes, a family atmosphere despite the strict formality. The management of the war became a game of numbers and production and this is reflected in the culture of the ships in the last two years of the war.

There is a final coda where the ship takes a two-month leave in New York City. The sailors are surprised by both the abundance of goods and the relaxed, but welcoming attitudes of the Americans. There is certainly some resentment there, as their efforts are dismissed offhand (though not totally unappreciated). Reading this book, you get a powerful sense of the difference the 3 years it took the U.S. to join the fight made. You also get a sense that American self-importance and media exaggeration are nothing new:
"The newspapers play it up of course, now that America's started fighting: everything's a disaster, everything's the biggest victory since Bunker Hill, everyone's a hero, even if he just puts on a dirty-looking pink uniform and bullies a lot of mess-waiters at the nearest canteen. I wonder what would happen if they had a real air raid on New York? All the reserves of bravery have been expended already on waving goodbye to Joe when he leaves for basic training; and as for the papers, they haven't any adjectives left to use... They're not a great nation at all. There are just a lot of them."
Prescient words.

We've lived in relative peace and military dominance for so long that it has become almost impossible to imagine what it would be like to live without constant material and psychological suasion, impossible to imagine total individual sacrifice for a greater social cause. The Cruel Sea will remind you a little bit. It's also an excellent read. Strongly recommended.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

9. Valdez is Coming by Elmore Leonard

This is the second Elmore Leonard western I have read and was the original one I was looking for after reading about it in Vintage Hardboiled Reads (come back, August!). I'll quote the synopsis here and you should go over and read his review, because it's quite good, though I disagree with him somewhat about the ending.
Powerful Frank Tanner and his men have a suspected Army deserter and his Apache wife trapped in a shack. Seems this deserter killed a friend of Tanner's six months earlier, and he wants him dead. It's turning into a big spectacle as humble Bob Valdez, a part-time constable from the Mexican side of town, arrives at the scene. Valdez goes down to talk the man into giving himself up. Tanner's men start firing and Valdez is forced to kill the man to protect himself. The man turns out not to be the one Tanner was after. Later, Valdez wants to take up a collection for the widowed Apache wife, but gets plenty of hostility from Frank Tanner on that idea. On one trip to see Tanner about the money, Valdez is ridiculed, humiliated, and left to wander and die bound to a wooden crosspole. But Valdez survives, and when he comes back he comes back as a different Bob Valdez. A Valdez from the past...

Valdez is Coming has a similar intensity to The Hunter, but it suffers being read right after it. It's laden with a strong morality (the simple, honest man who does good against all odds) and though compelling, it burdens the read a bit. Though I think this morality stands out more when put up against the starkness of Richard Stark's world. I think it's also a question of taste. Because it really is a great read. It's smoldering the whole way through and you get caught up in it.

The main character and his slowly revealed backstory is excellent as well. In both of the novels that I read there is a strong underdog theme, where the natives and Mexicans are portrayed as good, strong and silent victims whose moral and practical superiority ends up winning the day. I see what Lantzvillager was talking about when he said that Leonard's westerns are "a re-imagining of the style". These books seem a little '70s PC. It's not a bad thing, since kickass mexicans with apache blood and training are pretty fucking cool, whether they really one out against the white man or not!

I did have some trouble with the ending. As a participant in the story, I was psyched about how it turned out, but as a critical reader it seemed a bit pat and easy, though I did appreciate that he eschewed a certain, obvious climax.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

8. The Hunter by Richard Stark (Parker #1)

When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.

And so begins the best series of crime novels ever written. In honour of Donald Westlake's recent passing and to support the re-release of the Parker series by the University of Chicago Press, I'll be re-reading and reviewing each of these as they come out, in order. The first three were released at the end of last year (pure coincidence that it happened so close to Westlake's death) and Meezly gave them to me for my birthday.

Donald Westlake wrote the 20 Parker books under the pseudonym Richard Stark, starting with The Hunter in 1962 and culminating in the ferocious masterpiece Butcher's Moon in 1973. He picked the series up again in the late '90s writing 6 more before he died.

The story goes that Westlake presented the manuscript of The Hunter to the editor Bucklyn Moon. In this iteration, Parker dies at the end.

I liked him, but I killed him off. He was, after all, a villain, and he killed people, and I wanted somebody to publish the book. In 1962, Hayes office mentality was still very strong throughout the popular arts; bad guys didn’t get away with it. The most one could hope for was an “ironic” comeuppance. So at the end of the book, Parker got shot down by the cops.

(From the Gregg Press edition, copyright 1981 -- read the full interview here)

Moon told him that he liked the book, but he requested that he would only publish if Westlake would keep Parker alive at the end and be able to write a series, continuing the existence of the character, at the rate of 3 books a year. If you ever wonder about the role editors play in the publishing process, remember this anecdote and be grateful! Thanks to this collaboration, Parker is born. (In another interview, Westlake mentions that Bucklyn Moon also discovered Chester Himes; he is an unsung hero of crime fiction for sure if that is the case.)

The Parker books have a consistent structure and theme. A heist is planned and executed. At some point, something goes sour, always as a result of human flaws. The narrative stops and jumps back in time, switching perspective to one of the side characters, usually the ones responsible for the screw-up. We meet back up at the point of error, with a fully understanding of everything that was going on in the background. Conflicts ensue and Parker has to clean up the mess and try and get away with the money and his freedom.

The Hunter is slightly different, in that it is a revenge story. Parker has come back from the dead to hunt down his wife and the man who betrayed him in his last heist. I don't know if Westlake went back and re-wrote these parts after he knew the book was going to be a series, but he remarks several times that this situation was an aberration from Parker's normal routine and his main goal, once the revenge is complete, is to return to his practice of knocking off a bank, payroll or armoured car once or twice a year and then spend the rest of his life living in hotels in warm climates, taking it easy.

Despite the different goal, The Hunter establishes the elements that make the series so powerful. I had forgotten how hard this novel was. I'd had the sense, in my memory, that it was slightly more florid than the later novels, with Parker being a bit more human and emotional. Barely. Even the fury of his revenge is more about setting things right than actual sense of betrayal. A deal was set and things were supposed to be arranged in a certain way. They weren't and Parker works to put things back into the place they should be, particularly the money that should be back in his hands. His logic is impenetrable, relentless, as is he as he drives to his goal.

It's interesting that Parker is motivated by such order, because it is a certain kind of authoritarian order that he targets with particular zest. This takes the form of the syndicate. The man who betrayed Parker works for them now, having used his take from the heist to pay his way into a middle-ranking position in the mob. To get to his target, he must get through them. Westlake's portrayal of the mob is a brilliant invention, a perfect combination of immorality and bland bureaucracy. They are organized, hierarchical and infinitely confident in their own power. Not unlike the phone company. And that is why it is such a pleasure to read about one ruthless, unstoppable man taking them down.

Ultimately, personal liberty is what the Parker books are about. Parker is an individual, a free radical, attached to no institution, organization, woman or job. The bulk of the series focuses on the individual jobs, the complications therein and the work that Parker needs to do to maintain such an idiosyncratic lifestyle. But the overarching theme of the entire series is what happens when institutions try to restrict Parker's freedom. The Hunter sets the stage for this conflict and it is revisited directly in several of the future books and finally comes to an ultimate conclusion in Butcher's Moon.

I realize I have talked more about the series than this book specifically. Really, you either read it or you don't. I can tell you this that I haven't read a harder, tougher book in a long time. I was shocked at some of the scenes, to the point where I would definitely not recommend this book for someone who hasn't been exposed a bit already to some of the darker aspects of our human existence. There is no fluff here, no moralizing, no glee, no pornographic satisfaction in the revenge. It's like a short, direct punch to the gut that nobody else in the crowd notices until the guy crumples to his knees, gasping for breath.

The office women looked at him and shivered. They knew he was a bastard, they knew his big hands were born to slap with, they knew his face would never break into a smile when he looked at a woman. They knew what he was, they thanked God for their husbands, and still they shivered. Because they knew how he would fall on a woman in the night. Like a tree.

[The Violent World of Parker, a site that was the only place on the net representing Parker back in the day, has a great cover gallery of all the various editions of The Hunter.]

Monday, February 02, 2009

7. A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith

Ah, Patricia Highsmith, does she ever fail to deliver? I have to pace myself with her for two reasons. One is that she is so precise and cold in the way she views humans that it could make you a little crazy if you read too much of her (or at least depressed). Two is just that they are each so good and there are a finite amount of them, so I like to savour them.

A Suspension of Mercy is about a young couple living in the British countryside. He is a struggling writer. She paints, but not professionally. They each get a little bit of money monthly from inheritances, she a bit more than he. They seem to have a pleasant, bohemian existence, counting their pennies, having friends from London over from time to time. There are hints of tension. He broods about his lack of success at writing. She snipes at him from time to time, offhand remarks but quite cutting. Highsmith is a master at slowly peeling away the layers so that by the time the wife decides to take some days off and go to Brighton by herself, the reader is well aware that there is a lot of trouble in this marriage.

Another thing that Highsmith is a master of is making a totally banal situation seem full of dread and mystery and then of having the flaws of her characters turn the situation into a truly frightening one. The basic plot is that the wife takes off again for a second time, this time for longer. She really wants to get away and asks her husband to tell her friends she is staying with her parents. She has done this several times before and he respects her wishes. He is a writer of crime television scripts and takes advantage of the situation to pretend what it would be like if he had actually murdered her. He even goes so far as to take an old carpet out before dawn, load it rolled up into his truck, drive to the woods and bury it there. The nice old lady across the lane, up early birdwatching, sees this.

The wife stays away longer for this time and soon her family, then her friends, then the police start getting worried. The husband is very blasé the whole time, not realizing or deliberately ignoring that he is looking more and more like a true crime suspect. The wife, now shown to lack some serious sense, keeps hidden, not realizing or deliberately ignoring the stress she is causing everyone. There is a very real plot reason for this that I don't want to give away, but more importantly it is really her lack of judgment and egotism that motivates her.

The situation gets worse and worse, crazier and crazier. It moves forward in Highsmith's deliberate, constant pace, viewed through her cold, objective lens. You really have to take a step back to realize how nuts the situation has become because you get so caught up in the minutiae of the situation and she does such a good job of thinking like the characters.

And while their behaviour is frustrating at times, it's never unrealistic. The woman in particular is a cruelly accurate portrayal of a certain slightly artistic, emotionally unrealistic young woman. She reminded me so much of an ex of mine, who flew to Canada to meet me during vacation once carrying $30 and a voter registration card (in a lunch pail). She was held over at customs and we had to come and claim her. As much as I hate the extortionists at Canada Customs, I had to agree with their actions in this case and was really astounded that she had managed to survive this long in the world.

A tense, entertaining read, uncluttered by false morality yet somehow morally very satisfying.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

6. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita Everyman's Library edition pictureWhew! Made the deadline! And let me tell you this was a bit tight. Some of the other 50 bookers thought it might be fun to all try and read a single book at the same time so we could discuss it together. Jarret suggested Lolita and we all agreed.

The deadline was set for Sunday, February 1st. I was caught up in other books and I couldn't get my hands on a copy of Lolita until last Wednesday. Well, what actually happened is that Meezly had a copy, but it was an old paperback in very frail condition and we had both sort of agreed that we didn't want to read that copy for fear of ruining it further. But I finished the Caves of Night on Tuesday night and had a few hours to kill. Meezly was sick so I was on the sofa bed. I didn't want to start a new book when I knew I had Lolita with a deadline, so I took Meezly's copy and carefully tried to read it. I did okay, really, keeping the book mostly intact, though the glue is basically gone. I got to the part where Charlotte reads Humbert's diary and runs out into the road before I went to bed. However, I left the book on the side of the bed and first thing in the morning, Meezly walks in saying "do you want some tea—hey! Why are you reading my copy of Lolita!" A scene ensued. It all felt eerily parallel to the part I had just finished reading in Lolita, except fortunately Meezly didn't go running out into the street (it was -15º) to post letters condemning me and then get hit by the car, followed by me taking the paperback on a year-long drive across the country.

No, I put the book back and made the trip to la Bibliothèque Nationale and took out a lovely, sturdy, hardbound Everyman's Library edition and read it steadily until finishing it this morning.

I'll skip any kind of general analysis or introduction as I assume everybody knows what this book is about and we are far beyond censorship arguments. I will say, though, that I, quite frankly, embarrassed myself over in the comments section of Crumbolst's blog when I wrongly accused him of being overly moralistic in his review. I read his passionate analysis as passionate moralizing, a tendency he has never before displayed, and for that I apologize. At that point, I hadn't read the book in over 15 years and based my response on a vague pastiche of the movie and my faded memory of the book.

What Crumbolt's review points to is how Lolita demands the reader to come up with a response to Humbert Humbert. Do you hate him? Do you ultimately sympathize with him? I think the general line is that he is portrayed as a horrible figure, but he portrays himself so sympathetically, and is so aware of his monstrousness, that by the end of the novel, you do tend to sympathize with him. There is a very lyrical passage at the very end where he relates a moment when he is on the side of the highway and hears the sound of all the children in a small town he can see below him.

I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.

He feels remorse at Dolores' loss of childhood. Several other times in the text, he explicitly takes himself to task for being the person who deprives her of her childhood.

Now I agree with all this reasoning in general. He steals her childhood, he recognizes it and feels bad for it but he also recognizes that he can't control himself. That contradiction is made plain to see for the reader and it does engender some sympathy for him. Nabokov even takes his crime a bit further and you could argue that Humbert Humbert ultimately murdered Dolores Haze. In the false introduction, she is noted to have died in childbirth, which one could extrapolate happened as a result of all the sexual abuse she suffered at such a young age.

But I think this debate, of Humbert's crime and whether or not he deserves any absolution, sidesteps what for me was the more disturbing and impactful character flaw. He never treates Dolores Haze as a human being. Everything she is interested in, everything that makes her come alive as a person he discounts with educated snobbery or masculine jealousy. He is utterly disdainful of comic books, american movies, sundaes, her non-sexualized friends. He is utterly frightened of other boys, her participation in the theatre, her having any dialogue with her female friends. He actively works to suppress all that stuff in a being who started out as a lively, spirited and headstrong individual.

The contradiction is that despite his utter negation of anything unique in her personality, he falls deeply in love with her. So much so that even after she has passed her nymphet peak, he is obsessed with protecting her from Quilty and keeping her for his own. Even when he sees her years later as a pregnant 17-year old, he still wants her to come away with him, to live with him. But why? He doesn't even know her. He never did. His love is the obsessive, empty love of a high school student but it is all-consuming. He loves this woman to the point where he would ruin his life for her, but he has no idea who she is and won't allow her to develop an identity. The best he gets is a vague fantasy of her as a succesful tennis pro, her least favorite activity.

Part of me wants to say that I don't get it and that it rings false. Unfortunately, love behaves like this all the time. These obsessed losers or jilted FaceBook lovers who have this burning emotion in them towards a person who actually has nothing to offer them. I don't want to use the words "sin" or "crime", because Humbert's crime was that he raped and confined a minor, but ultimately for me, Humbert's greatest flaw is that he is one of these losers, a snobby, bourgeouis, European-mongrel, remittance man who comes to America, falls hopelessly in love with a girl that he doesn't even know and then runs around all over the country behaving like a giant asshole.

Perhaps it is this that makes him ultimately sympathetic. Where he is explicitly aware of his crime against Lolita, he is utterly oblivious to the falsity of his love. When you compare him to Quilty, who has the same moral fibre, the same intellectual superiority, Humbert comes off as being more sympathetic. Quilty knows what he is doing and revels in it. He doesn't fall in love. Quilty has taken his sins and turned them into mechanisms for financial, artistic and social success. Humbert has fallen under the control of his sins and is a pathetic failure because of that. Do we sympathize with Humbert more becuase of this? Possibly.

I would like to add, that despite my condemnation of Humbert's flaws, I quite like him. He's funny. He's snobby and removed, but participates. He gets in trouble. He parties a lot. I think the period after he loses Lolita and is just kind of a crazy, alcoholic is when I realized he could be one of those weird guys you might meet in a bar who are just living life. They are smart and interesting and great conversationalists and there is no mention of career or family in their dialogue. There is no longer much of a place for people like that in this modern world and I kind of miss them. Nabokov captures that insane freedom perfectly in the character of Humbert Humbert.

That's the main thrust (dear god, it's hard to write after reading Nabokov's english and not start second-guessing of choice of word, turn of phrase, le mot juste, that one uses) of my analysis, but I'd like to add two side points:

1) the ending dialogue between Quilty and Humbert is amazing. It's the only time that Humbert meets his intellectual match, but he's so wound up and unfun at that point that he can't appreciate it. Quilty is the rye, self-deprecating, hyper-intelligent and learned critic that Humbert is at the beginning. You wish they could just make up and party together for a while, because it would be hilarious.

2) I really want to see the movie again, mainly for Peter Seller's performance as Quilty. I suspect the movie may be pretty good but may not truly capture the essence of the book. It'sjust not nasty enough and probably couldn't be. But I still remember all of Seller's scenes and they were the height of frightening, comic genius.

We will be discussing this book in the comments section over at Jarrett's blog.