Saturday, December 06, 2003

The Toughest Indian in the World, by Sherman Alexie

The first thing you need to know about Sherman Alexie is that he's the best reader I've ever seen, bar none. If you have the chance to see him on a book tour or a speaking engagement, go. He could make a laugh riot out of the proverbial phone book. (And if you're not sure to what proverb I'm referring, ask a James Marsters fan.)

At its best, Alexie's fiction reflects his highly refined sense of the ridiculous and his love for people in tragicomic circumstances. This collection isn't across-the-board wonderful; at times things are a bit mundane for my taste, but then my taste is prejudiced towards the whacked-out and fantastic. (Which is perhaps ironic, since my least favorite story in this collection, "The Sin Eaters," is probably the most fantastic.) With titles like "Assimilation" and "Class," many of these stories are concerned with Native Americans of the middle class, and there's nothing wrong with that. The only problem is that red angst is just as dull as white angst. The best story here is probably "Dear John Wayne," which plays with the titular icon in fascinating and hilarious ways, and it's not as though there aren't other great stories here. But I have the fear that Sherman is going in a direction that may leave me behind in the not-too-distant future; either that, or I've just got some catching up to do.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon

I know that some people think Pynchon is too much work, and if that's the way they feel it makes little sense for me to argue with them. It's true that about half the time he fails to construct a true overarching narrative in his novels, preferring instead to tell the tangential tales that take place through the course of the book. Which would be a problem if Pynchon's tangents weren't so damned interesting. Mechanical ducks, conspiratorial Jesuits, globe-trotting courtesans and evangelical farmers are among the digressions he takes while telling a story of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, the men who surveyed and plotted the eponymous line which was used to demarcate the boundaries of the slave trade in the United States. I say "a" story because this is not historical fiction; written in archaic English with a modern sensibility, Pynchon's narrative is both metaficional and metaphysical while never losing a romantic/pulp sensibility. It took a while for the 18th Century punctuation and capitalization to become friendly to the eye, and there were parts of the novel that I had to gloss over lest I glaze over with incomprehension. And though I've nothing against long books, I think this one could have used a gutsy editor to tell T.P. to cut about a hundred pages out of the front. But I'm glad I plowed through, because there are moments of giddy storytelling along the way here, of fantasy, satire and ridiculousness that still manage to ring true. If you don't like Pynchon, nothing I say will convince you to pick up one of his books, but if you're one of the uninitiated, you could do worse than to start with this one.