Microviews Vol. 3: Bolano, Moore, Catton

on Saturday, January 23, 2010
January turned out to be a great reading month, both in terms of my 2010 Challenge theme books and the new releases I managed to sneak in between them. Hopefully I've built up sufficient immunity from mindless trash to protect me from February's "Books I Swore I'd Never Read". I'm using Chloe Aridjis's Book of Clouds as a final booster shot before embarking tomorrow on a novel that conquered the world but never graced my bookshelf... Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. Wish me luck...

Until then, here are the last of my January microviews.

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano
Kudos to whoever is responsible for choosing the publication order of Bolano's work in English. After the epic 2666, it would have been tempting to walk away from the great Chilean if faced with a similarly daunting commitment of time and mental space. So it was that we were given the dark crime stylings of The Skating Rink. Now we get another slim volume, Monsieur Pain, in which Bolano puts his signature spin on the hardboiled noir genre with as much owed to Lovecraft as Chandler. It all starts off simply enough. Monsiuer Pierre Pain, a renowned French mesmerist, is approached by the object of his desire, Madame Reynaud to help cure a terminal case of the hiccups. The victim, Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo is at death's door and his wife is desperate enough to try anything that might help. However, the case quickly takes a sinister turn when Pain finds himself being followed by two mysterious Spaniards and sucked into a world of chicanery, cheating hearts and confounding blasts from the past. It is all rather light hearted and fun, though not devoid of Bolano's flashes of cynicism and philosophising. There are clear tips of the hat to Kafka in the last two chapters with a classic parable (though smartly rendered as a movie) and a mind-bendingly frustrating trek through hospital bureaucracy. But it is the final masterstroke, a cacophony of mini-chapters about each of the main characters, that will have you smirking at just how brilliantly sly Bolano was.

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Hype it to the hills, the celebrated scribe of Middle America has returned with another slice of ordinariama. Lorrie Moore is best known for her short stories, which purport to tell us city types how the other three quarters live. Meandering through this perfectly readable but rather unsatisfying tome, it isn't hard to see that the short form is where she feels most comfortable given the episodic nature of this novel. It feels that, having settled upon a workable main character, Moore has strung a series of mostly unrelated stories together in the hope that they may gel to form a convincing whole. Alack! Alack! Tassie is a country girl who moves to the city in an attempt to escape the scripted path laid out before her. To fund her studies she takes a job with aspiring mum Sarah (who wants to get the babysitter in order before the adoption) and her usually absent husband Edward. To the shock of those around, not to mention their own self-satisfied delight, the couple adopt an little African American girl and leave Tassie to pretty much raise her. A nasty episode early in the process awakens the couple to the reality of everyday racism, and causes them to start a support group. Cue the indulgent yammering of the 'racially blind' bourgeoisie. Ho hum. You see, Moore is trying to tackle the 'big' issues: racism, terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But I was never wholly convinced, especially by Tassie's voice. It just didn't ring true for a twenty year old, even one stunted by a small town upbringing. Even less convincing were the other young people. Moore writes iGen characters in the way old people imagine they might speak or behave, not the way in which they actually do. As for the yuppies, I couldn't tell whether Moore was mocking them or really thought her lame pun-trains were witty. Maybe I'm too far up my own city backside to get it, but it was all a little patronising for me. Some people ought probably stick to the short story, where they are clearly most suited.

The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
Unlike Lorrie Moore, Eleanor Catton has no problem with authenticity in this exceptional novel set in the aftermath of a high school sex scandal. The Rehearsal was probably the most hyped debut of 2009 and, as such, sat at the bottom of my "Books I Meant To Read Last Year" pile. Let's face it, how many times can you fall for the hype of "literature's brightest new voice" only to be slapped in the face by a rather ordinary reality? Thankfully, I finished the rest of my January stash early, because had I read it when it first came out, The Rehearsal would easily have made my top books of 2009. Through the prism of the forbidden tryst, Catton explores sexuality in many of its boundary-testing guises; longing, fear, lust, jealousy, anger, insecurity and deceit. Mr. Saladin and his 'victim' Victoria appear only briefly, and it is through the effects on those around them that the action plays out. Victoria's sister Isolde struggles with the whispers that surround her and her budding, confused sexuality. Stanley, an aspiring actor at a nearby drama school, tries to learn his craft while coming to terms with the fragile relationship between him and his father. Parents and teachers alike reel and overreact. The other girls in Victoria's year, particularly those in the school jazz band, suffer through embarrassing and often misguided counselling sessions. And all the while, lurking behind the scenes, watching over and manipulating the various players, is the scheming, mysterious and, at times, downright creepy saxophone teacher. Nameless throughout, she draws the disparate strings together, pushing her pawns to nefarious ends. It all explodes in a symphony of destruction, deftly handled by an astonishingly mature Catton. Far be it from me to buy into, or even on-sell hype, but The Rehearsal is possibly the best book I didn't read last year.


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