Microviews Vol. 19: Powers, Danielewski, Olmi

on Wednesday, October 24, 2012
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
It begins with a beautifully brutal line. "The war tried to kill us in the spring." So simple, and yet completely devastating. The riff goes on. "While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire." Holy shit!!! Right? I don't even know how to describe The Yellow Birds in a way that could possibly do it any justice. At its most basic, it is the story of John Bartle, a young soldier stationed in a small Iraqi frontline town who, it becomes apparent, has been complicit in a moment of horror that subsequently destroys him. It is the story of youth betrayed, friendships forged and sorely tested, sacrifices made against one's will. It is an angry prose poem about the way in which war ruins lives, literally and metaphorically. No surprises that Powers himself is a returned soldier, having been stationed in the very town he writes about here. That he also happens to be an accomplished poet won't shock anyone either. Every observation is crisp and original. The tension is almost unbearable. Indeed, there is not a single misstep in the entire book. I expect that The Yellow Birds will go down as the great novel of the Iraq War, and one of the greatest war novels ever written right up there with All Quiet On The Western Front, The Naked and The Dead, For Whom The Bell Tolls and, more recently, Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn. If I'm wrong, court martial me!

The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski
When House of Leaves was unleashed back in 2000, the hipster chorus went into overdrive to herald the coming of the new messiah. Granted, it was a very cool book - absurd, creepy and endlessly inventive - but it set a ridiculously high bar that Danielewski was always going to struggle to meet. His follow-up, Only Revolutions, was a decent effort but, once the smoke had cleared and the mirrors were shattered, it turned out to be little more than a conventional love story. Then there was silence. Long, unremarkable silence. Until now, with the release of The Fifty Year Sword. Oh wait, no, don't be fooled lit-nerds. The Fifty Year Sword was actually first published in 2005, a year before Only Revolutions. You just haven't heard of it (unless you are a total MZD fanatic) because it came out in a tiny print run in the Netherlands, had a second run a year later, and then disappeared. Only now do we 'regular folk' get let in on the whole schtick. And schtick it is. The Fifty Year Sword is another reasonably entertaining work (this time a short fable) scrambled up to resemble a stylistic extravaganza (albeit one already visited in HoL). Purportedly cobbled together from the recollection of five characters, each one adds to the narrative in his or her own voice, indicated by different coloured quotation marks. The wankery gets tiring soon enough, and we learn to just read it straight as if it were a regular story. Lovers of good, old fashioned fables will be glad to hear that what lies behind the facade is actually quite good. Five orphans, drawn in by a story teller, who recounts what eerily resembles Monty Python's Quest for The Holy Grail, with a tinge of Kafka's Before The Law (the hero chooses the sword that has always lain in wait for him) and lashing of Edgar Allan Poe to round it out. It is fun and absurd, presented in a stunning pock-marked package, with gorgeous stitched illustrations to boot. Sure, it ain't no House of Leaves, but as some sorbet between great novels (yeah, I'm still holding out hope) it will do just fine.

Beside The Sea by Veronique Olmi
In all my years of reading I have never come across a book as thoroughly depressing or horrifying as Veronique Olmi's short novel Beside The Sea. Rendered in a voice so convincing, so maudlin, so devoid of hope, it is the confession of a young mother who has taken her two young sons to a seaside town in order to kill them. There are no fancy tricks here, just the crushingly pained words of a woman who has been failed by the system and sees no alternative but to snuff out their little lives. There are moments in which the light creeps in - she wants to make this last trip as much fun as she can for the boys - but they are soon closed off as she struggles to cope with even the most basic of tasks and gets angry at her sons for just being kids. Beside The Sea is a damning indictment on the many facets of a system that can let someone slip through the cracks - from doctors whose incompetence borders on malpractice to child welfare workers who fail to properly identify the glaring risks. The mother herself carries some responsibility too; she stops taking her medicine and refuses to avail herself of the help on offer. Although it is clear from the first page how this book will end, Olmi reserves a small sting in the tail that will break whatever little pieces of your heart are left when you finally get there. Beside The Sea is a magnificent achievement, the likes of which you are unlikely to ever encounter again. And for that you will be very thankful.

Another Booker On The Mantel-piece

on Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, news that Hilary Mantel just won the 2012 Booker Prize for Bring Up The Bodies has reached me as I float 39,000 feet above the sea on my way back home. I can't say the win was a surprise but it most certainly was a relief. For the second year running Team Booker have salvaged the dignity of the prize by plucking the only worthy winner from a very ordinary shortlist (yeah, you heard me, Will Self!). Granted I haven't read Bring Up The Bodies, and I didn't much like Wolf Hall, but I can certainly see why her epic Cromwell series garners such adulation from readers and prize-givers alike. Mantel's Tudor England is brilliantly realised, perhaps better than any other historical period I have ever seen in literary fiction. The spectacular marriage of historical fidelity and imagination is, to my mind, without parallel. That I didn't like the first and probably won't read the second (ah, who am I kidding? I'll fold eventually, just like I did with Wolf Hall three years on) is more just a matter of personal taste. This little bookworm don't dig the Tudors.

Nevertheless, there are many reasons to be excited about the outcome. Mantel is the first woman to win the prize twice, rounding out Booker's Holy Trinity alongside the very worthy J. M. Coetzee and the rather flukey Peter Carey. She is also the first person to win it for consecutive books, an especially noteworthy achievement given the short time between the wins. Take into account the gargantuan size of the both Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies and your jaw should be copping a few grazes as it drags along the floor. Of course there is still one more instalment to come so you might want to head down to your local bookie and place a few bucks on the hatrick today before they suspend all bets on a near certainty.

Kafka and Cat Piss: The Suit-Case Closes (See What I Did There?)

Never before has so much legal wrangling been done over something so comprehensively soaked in cat piss. Then again, never before has the holy grail smelled so damn awful. But this ain't any ol' grail we're talking about here folks. This is Franz Kafka's suitcase (well, Max Brod's to be precise, but you get my drift); the one stuffed full of notes and manuscripts including, one would hope, lost novels and stories. The one left to languish in the Tel Aviv apartment of some crazy cat lady. The one caught up in the biggest Jewish custody battle since Kramer vs Kramer.

Almost three years after I first blogged about it (and five years since the fight actually began), the Israeli Supreme Court has handed down a definitive verdict in the tussle between Israel's National Library and the two daughters of Max Brod's secretary, Esther Hoffe who, you might recall, claimed that it was given to their mother as a gift to dispose of as she desired. Apparently, that included being allowed to sell the original manuscript of The Trial for personal gain to the German Literature Archive in Marbach. Shit, if I knew it was going to go for a mere $2 million, I would have sold all my organs to science and snapped it up myself!

Anyway, back in February 2010, the court ordered that the two parties come to an arrangement so that the contents could be made available to scholars and rabid fans alike. I was excited. I waited. And I waited. And I waited. Nada. The legal mud wrestle continued in earnest. Now, thank God, sanity has prevailed. Eva Hoffe, the one surviving daughter, has had the thing forcibly snatched away and been slapped with a $25,000-odd bill for legal costs. Ironically, she will likely have to dip into her pool of blood money (or ink money, as it were) to pay it. I'll leave the last word to Judge Kupelman:

"This case, complicated by passions, was argued in court for quite a long time across seas, lands, and times. Not every day, and most definitely not as a matter of routine, does the opportunity befall a judge to delve into the depth of history as it unfolds before him in piecemeal fashion... [This trial has provided] a window into the lives, desires, frustrations and the souls of two of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century.... Due to the strict requirements of proof required, I do not believe that the plaintiffs have met the requirements... the gift was never carried out to completion... One can determine that the Kafka manuscripts, like the Brod estate, were not given to the plaintiffs as gifts... I hope that the inheritance of the late Brod will finally find its place according to the wishes of the deceased."

Which just goes to show, where there's a forged will there still might be a way.

Nobel Prize 2012: Mo Yan (About 30 Puns Resisted)

on Friday, October 12, 2012
Well, the bookies weren't too far off.

This year's Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to the chinese writer Mo Yan for his "hallucinatory realism [that] merges folk tales, history and the contemporary." In other words, the guy is pretty much everything I love in a writer. No rant from me on this one. The committee got it right.

If you're wondering where to start, check out the short story collection Shifu, You'll Do Anything For a Laugh or, if you want to plunge in the deep end, hit up Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out. Either way, you won't be disappointed. Nobody dissects the absurdities of Chinese society better than this guy.

In the meantime, I guess Bob Dylan and Phillip Roth will have to commiserate together over a few cold ones at the local sports bar...

Kurt Vonnegut's Armageddon Bookend Begin-Again

on Wednesday, October 10, 2012
If the five or so books that have been published since he kicked the bucket are anything to go by, Kurt Vonnegut's death in 2007 was only a minor inconvenience. While other dead writers have been happy to rest on their celestial laurels, the great crackpot-with-a-conscience has managed to remain timely, exciting and very, very funny.

Now Vanguard Press has brought us a glorious little tome that bookends his career and proves that from beginning to end he was almost without peer. We Are What We Pretend To Be contains two previously unpublished short works: Vonnegut's first novella that was turned down for publication in 1950, and the first few chapters of a novel he was working on at the time of his death.

The novella, Basic Training, tells the story of Haley Brandon, a young man sent to work on the decaying farm owned by his uncle, an authoritarian ex-army man known only as The General. The farm is run like a training camp, heavily regimented and unforgivingly brutal. Haley falls in with The General's daughters and another farmhand, Mr. Banghart who, it soon becomes clear, is absolutely nuts. When Haley and the farmhand accidentally blow up The General's car, they flee to the city where things take a turn for the worse. Banghart finally loses it, kills someone, and swears to return to the farm to kill The General. Haley runs back to try to stop him. What follows is a tense, tautly rendered game of cat and mouse. Don't be fooled, however, into thinking that Basic Training is some kind of thriller. It may be thrilling, but it is a dark, bleak tale of desperation that unsettles just as much as it excites. Even the love story subplot is cold and unrequited.

Many Vonnegut devotees will be surprised by Basic Training. Surprised that it was written by Vonnegut at all - it shares a lot more with the harsh realism of Steinbeck, or even Cormac McCarthy, than anything else he went on to write. Surprised with the quality of the writing so early in his career. But, most of all, surprised that it was turned down for publication. Even putting my Vonnegut sycophancy aside, it is one of the best short works that I have ever read. The redemptive ending might be a little clumsy, but it does not diminish the work as a whole. Any author would be happy to have just written this and then been hit by a train.

Fans will be a lot more familiar with the vibe of the novel-in-progress If God Were Alive Today. It is a fun park ride of linguistic verve, full of wacky gags and cultural jabs, with Vonnegut using his washed-up comedian protagonist Gil Berman as a conduit to stick it to pretty much anything he goddamned wants to. If God Were Alive Today is presented here as a novella, but it is clearly unfinished and no doubt would have been a great full length novel had Vonnegut lived a bit longer. Berman's total meltdown and pathetic attempts to get his life back on track must have really resonated with a writer feeling his own physical decline and i would have loved to see how Vonnegut resolved it. It is sad, it is angry and it is funny (though often in an embarrassing Dad joke kind of way). In other words, it is crazy Kurt as his absolute best.

Leonard Cohen Was Right!

on Sunday, October 7, 2012
Rejoice, fellow booknerds. My whingefest is over!

Just when I was ready to give up on this city, I happened upon the one crack that, to borrow from my favourite troubadour, lets the light in. Sure, I had to drive forty minutes to get there. And it is a second hand bookstore not a cool indie that peddles new, exciting literature. But salvation is salvation and I, for one, am damn happy about it.

Motte & Bailey in Ann Arbor is the kind of place that makes you believe in the magic of labyrinths. The sheer magnitude of the collection and the way it is 'organised' is enough to make the Collyer brothers seem like minimalists. Books occupy every conceivable space, including the cashier island in the middle. Walk one way, trip over books. Walk the other, they fall on your head. This was true heavenly clutter.

To add to my joy, the owner is a burly grizzly bear who knows every single item in his stock. He loves to chat books and was pleased to find this customer starving for such reparte. We bonded over our mutual love for E. L. Doctorow, laughed with disdain at Chuck Palahniuk and hedged our collective bets on David Foster Wallace.

I walked out totally reinvigorated, with a signed first addition of Doctorow's Book of Daniel to boot. It even steeled me up to visit a Barnes & Noble the next day where they didn't have a single book on my shopping list but did have a new Kurt Vonnegut book containing the late, great madman's first and last works. It is one of the best things I've read all year. All of this thanks to Motte & Bailey.

This is the sound of elation...

Nobel 2012: A Harpoon to Murakami's Heart

on Saturday, October 6, 2012
Step aside Murakami, there's a new (old) horse in town.

Seems Japan's best export since whaling has fallen from favour with the Nobel punters after leading the race for the past few months. We're only a week away from the big announcement and craggy Irish master (not to mention perennial Booker bridesmaid) William Trevor has firmed up as the new favourite. I hadn't considered him before - usually I'm waving the flag for either Ismail Kadare, Lazlo Krasznahorkai, Margaret Atwood or William H. Gass - but Trevor would be a very worthy winner. His short stories are stunning, and his longer works are always compelling and beautifully rendered.

As I went to write this I was surprised to find that betting has been suspended on the Ladbrokes site. However, the list still stands so you haven't missed out on seeing who sits near the top. Unsurprising Spoiler Alert!!! It includes Mo Yan, Cees Nootebom, Adonis, Tom Stoppard and, of course, Bob Dylan. From this we can learn only one thing: there is almost no chance of the prize going to any of them. Oh yeah, and don't hold your breath for Philip Roth either.

So who will it be? I'm putting some sly bucks on E. L. James... That'd give the prize a good rogering. Or were they reserving the Peace Prize for her?

A Postcard From Purgatory

on Thursday, October 4, 2012
The abandoned husk of a Borders megastore languishes beside the highway, a sad portent of things once to come, now a grim reality.

Wait, let me start again.

It has been six days, four hours and twenty eight minutes since I last visited a bookstore; the longest I have ever gone without. My worst nightmare has come true. I am in a city with no literary soul. If once there was one, it has long since been exorcised. For this weary traveller, Detroit exemplifies the worst possible outcome of late 90s scorched earth commercial expansion - the establishment of huge barns that crushed the small indie sellers and then, when economic clouds began to stir, closed down leaving entire areas bereft of books. It's quite astounding. There are pretty much no bookstores to be found unless you are willing to turn to one of the great "white knights" of middle America, Barnes & Noble (which still has a strong, albeit soulless presence) or just give up altogether and hit Amazon. It is a sad, sad state of affairs.

Yet a bit of research suggests that all is not completely lost. There are a couple around if I'm willing to drive for a while. I guess I have no choice. But I won't have the joy of walking along any random street and stumbling upon a trove of hidden bookish treasure. God I love Melbourne.

This is the sound of a reader in despair.