Microviews 15: Vann, Rhodes, Binet

on Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Still hiding in a dank corner attempting to be productive, but the pull of enticing literary treats has drawn me out once again and forced, yes forced, me to show my face back here for a minute.

Dirt by David Vann
It is a testament to just how high on the DEAR list David Vann has risen, that I dropped two other books I was reading - one of which was by a lesser (arguably former) DEAR author - the moment Dirt arrived in my mailbox. Comparisons are often made with Cormac McCarthy and while they might have rung true for his first two books, Dirt owes more to William Golding or JG Ballard than the literary Lone Ranger. Opening with the most sexually-tense, oddly-erotic series of incest scenes I think I've ever read, it follows young mama's boy Galen in his search for deep transcendence (with some help from Herman Hesse and Richard Bach) on a remote Californian walnut farm. The first third of the book is taken up with the strained relationship between Galen, his mother, aunt, cousin and rapidly-deteriorating grandmother. When the family head up to a cabin for some family time (read: to confront their demons), the entire structure falls apart. Galen gets his wish of bedding young Jennifer, but it is to predictably catastrophic ends. For the rest of the book it is just Galen and his mother in slow, torturous decline. Having threatened to report Galen to the police for statutory rape, the mother is locked in the farm shed and essentially left to die while Galen goes all primal, rubbing himself in dirt and destroying all the family mementos. As she fades, he finds transcendence. Needless to say, Dirt is a disturbing, often callous book. And while it does not quite reach the heights of Vann's previous work it is still an excellent read by a bona fide "One To Watch".

This Is Life by Dan Rhodes
Ever since I first read Timoleon Vieta Come Home, I've had a major soft spot for Dan Rhodes. Consistently funny and seriously warped, he has continued to deliver without ever really writing a "conventional" novel. Until now. This Is Life is a meditation on the wankiness of art, much like Kevin Wilson's wonderful 2011 novel, The Family Fang. But whereas Wilson's book dealt with a series of absurd performance pieces perpetrated by parents on their poor kids, this centres around one act - a totally shaved man called The Machine shitting on stage. To be fair that isn't Rhodes's whole schtick here; the main narrative concerns Aurelie, a young art student left caring for a baby after accidentally hitting it in the face with a rock. As her final school project she had planned to throw said rock in the air and then follow whoever it hit for a week to document their life. When it hits the kid, its mother foists it in her hand and says she is now responsible for its welfare. Implausible, sure, but a fun setup for the ensuing hijinks. A number of other absurd threads are woven in to the story and, as one might predict, coincidence piles upon coincidence until they are all drawn together. Many have compared this book to the film Amelie and it is not hard to see why. It too raises a glass in celebration of serendipity. And it is almost cringe-worthily cute. Thank the literary gods for the guy shitting on stage or I'd be knee deep in saccharine puke. Despite its general cutesiness, and even though it doesn't possess the delicious nastiness of Rhodes's last book Little Hands Clapping, This Is Life is still wonderful.

HHhH by Laurent Binet
The assassination of Reinhard Heydrich is one of the great resistance stories of the Second World War - a team of parachutists dropped in to occupied Prague with a mission to kill Hitler's favourite, most vicious lapdog; a comedy of errors leading to the botching of the attack; the fluke death of the target due to blood poisoning; and the remarkable, heroic siege in the crypt of the Church of St. Cyril and St. Methodius where a handful of resistance fighters held off swarms of Nazis before opting to take their own lives before falling into enemy hands. In his Prix Goncourt-winning debut, Binet doesn't just recount the story but attempts something far more ambitious - he tackles the whole question of writing historical fiction, asking what limits fidelity to history must necessarily place on a writer's imagination. The result is a complex, troubling work that I'm not certain quite succeeds but is well worth your attention anyway. Binet intersperses the assassination narrative with personal asides, reflections and anecdotes about the writing process and his struggle with the material. Throughout he is firing on all cylinders, often taking nasty swipes at others who have undertaken similar tasks (a particularly humorous broadside is saved for fellow Prix Goncourt winner Jonathan Littel). To his credit he saves some of his harshest criticism for himself, attacking many of his own devices. All this makes for a compelling, albeit disjointed read. I never quite got swept up in the story of Kubis and Gabcik because Binet's absolute adherence to verifiable historical evidence doesn't allow him to flesh them (and most of the other major players) out as characters. Furthermore, I was troubled with his calling the book a "novel" when it was more the literary equivalent of a documentary with the director's commentary switched on. Presenting strict historical fact as fiction poses all sorts of problems, not the least of which is setting a precedent for others to do likewise and, in the foreseeable future, make fact and fiction indistinguishable. That said, HHhH remains an important book; one that ought to be read and discussed in detail.


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