Saturday, November 08, 2003

Birds of America, stories by Lorrie Moore

Why is it that mainstream, "literary," New-Yorker type writers are so obsessed with infidelity? It's not just Lorrie Moore, so I apologize for picking on her. There's Jumpa Lahiri, f'r instance. Even Sherman Alexie plays with it. It's like a genre unto itself. There are westerns, there are quest fantasies, and there are infidelity stories. Like any genre, sometimes it can be done well. But it's still subject to Sturgeon's Law; in other words, 90% of infidelity stories are crud.

Which is not to say that 90% of these stories are crud. Moore writes well, even beautifully at times. But her characters are drifting, unfocused and forgettable, and ultimately so are many of these stories. Perhaps, in the case of the infidelity stories, it's my own prejudices that get in the way of enjoyment; I find it difficult to sympathize with the sort of furtive cowardice that would lead someone to cheat, and so I find it boring. Again, as with Colson Whitehead (see below), Moore's book comes highly recommended, so take all this with a grain of salt.

That said, I liked a few of these stories very much. When Moore quits distancing herself (and the reader) from her characters with the good-humored disdain at which she excels, her lyrical prose is put to good use. When she writes about death, for example, as in "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babblings in Peed Onk," she is at her best. There seems to be a tendency in Moore's fiction to distance one's self from what is most human, to look down upon the messy and irrational in us all. I can't get behind that, because messy and irrational is where I live, and where I think most of us live. So while I liked some of these stories, I can't really recommend the collection as a whole.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead

Walter Mosley loved this novel. So did Jonathan Lethem. There are blurbs on my paperback copy from Time, The Village Voice, GQ, and plenty of others. Far be it from me to disagree.

No, on second thought, I disagree.

High-minded is one way to describe this book. Dreary and dull are two others. I was excited by the idea of it, the weirdness of an intrigue between elevator inspectors, and a mystical way that one school of them has of attuning themselves to the machines. What I found was nothing but disappointment. Much as I respect the opinions of Mr. Mosley and Mr. Lethem, I must say that I found this novel formulaic, uninspired, and ultimately--after about 120 pages--unreadable. As racial allegory, it falls far short of, say, Invisible Man. As story, it fell short of a mediocre episode of, say, Law and Order. I'll stop there before I say something I'll regret. An enormous disappointment.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Stupid White Men: and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!, by Michael Moore

Say what you will about Michael Moore, the man knows how to get people riled up. I've heard rumblings about his suspect research and misreadings of facts, and that isn't something to take lightly. But there's something wrong in this country--actually, there are a hell of a lot of things wrong in this country--and Moore has been able to inspire grass-roots action and political involvement. I can forgive a lot of things for that.

One of the best things about Moore is that he's an equal-opportunity pol-basher. Much like Tom Tomorrow, he recognizes that the hypocrisy of the Democrats is in many ways worse than the straightforward pro-big business stance of the Republicans. Clinton and Gore come in for a fair amount of criticism here, and although the biggest targets are Bush and his big money pals, much of what Moore decries is not politicians but the systemic corruption and inefficiency which they maintain. Schools, prisons (take a moment to appreciate the juxtaposition), the EPA and race are launching points for these essays, in which Moore points up, often with alarming statistics, the institutional absurdities of America.

But Moore is most angry, if I may be so bold as to read into this tract, at the American voter. At bottom this book is not reportage, it's a call to action, a cattle prod up the ass of the working class. (Rhyme stolen from The Returnables--hey fellas!) Moore wants people to get involved, to vote, to protest, to run for office. He's evangelizing the best aspects of our political system, namely the fact that every citizen has (in theory; economics tend to get in the way) the same rights and privileges in voting and running. It doesn't get any more American than that. This book will piss you off, but these days that's a good way to be. I recommend it.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Oops. Now that I blurbed this site in my bio for the new Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (note shameless plug), I'd better update. I'm very behind, and most of the magazines I've read since, well, a long time ago will just have to go unremarked-upon. Sad, I know.

First up is Observatory Mansions, by Edward Carey.

Carey is a playwright and illustrator in London. This is his first novel. I stole those two sentences from the book bio. OK, I stole the entire bio, because that's all there was. It doesn't astound me that Carey works in theatre, as there is a certain flair about this novel, a bit of garishness amid the melodrama. (That's not a dis, by the way.) Carey's talents as an illustrator are made use of here as well, with sketches of each of the primary characters. Carey's style is not very like Mervyn Peake's, but the sketches serve much the same function as those in the Gormenghast books, that of pulling the reader further into the moody and gothic world of grotesqueries and dark secrets.

The difference between Observatory Mansions and Gormenghast, however, is that the titular domicile of Carey's novel exists out of context, and thus the absurdity quotient is ratcheted up high. Whereas the lords of Groan and their sprawling estate cast a melancholy shadow over the landscape and people around them, Observatory Mansions has become irrelevant, a moldy relic in a city which has grown up around it and forgotten it. The inhabitants seem both aware of and oblivious to this fact. There could be a lot of pathos here, but Carey is primarily interested in the Byzantine machinations of how the Orme family estate became destitute and was converted to apartments, and in the sagas of its various inhabitants, past and present. They are caricatured to the point of being inhuman. Whereas, for example, Flay in Gormenghast became a sympathetic, even tragic figure, the Porter in Observatory Mansions is made so cartoonish by his plotting--both real and imagined--against the kleptomaniacal, obsessive-compulsive protagonist Francis Orme that it is difficult even to see him as human. The same is true of Francis, for whom I never developed more than the most rudimentary empathy.

I hasten to add that I don't think this is a bad book. There are some interesting vignettes, and the structure of the story is imaginative. But primarily those are technical considerations, and to the casual reader I think this may not be worth the effort.