Stoner

I read John Williams’ Stoner after learning of it from a nook in the web I’ve since forgotten. Like many of the New York Review of Books Press editions, it has a small, ardent following that I don’t care to join. Only The Dud Avocado is so marvelous that I need to frequently remind others of its virtues.

Now Stephen Elliott writes the post on Stoner that I considered writing, although I didn’t love Stoner as Elliott does. But I respect and admire it, especially because of the love it inspires from the people who show how much passion they, like the protagonist, have for literature. Check out this summary for more examples. I don’t perceive the redemptive aspects of Stoner some critics have observed, yet it was also clear and cold and strong, like vodka from the freezer, and there is no mistaking the sensation of having experienced a book. Distinct memories of the sensation it inspired remain with me when other works I remembering liking better have become fuzzy and gray over time.

Children of Men

P.D. James’ The Children of Men is a beautiful novel that never quite lives, much like the dying society it describes. Many of its adroit phrases freshen well-tread subjects: “Like all religious evangelists, [Rosie] realizes that there is little satisfaction in the contemplation of heaven for oneself if one cannot simultaneously contemplate the horrors of hell for others” or “‘Generosity is a virtue for individuals, not governments. When governments are generous it is with other people’s money, other people’s safety, other people’s future.'” The last one might be ironic, as it comes from Xan, a government power trying to justify his own cruel policies. Heinlein could’ve given the government quip without the irony, but James is a subtler writer than he was. Still, despite nice passages, Children of Men never came together for me: perhaps I was distracted while reading it, or perhaps I heard too clearly the distant engines of its precedents: Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Zamyatin’s We, and a host of others not so memorable. I wanted to like Children of Men more than I did—it’s that good—but couldn’t.

Life

“Thus the poets were quite familiar with the questions audiences posted, they knew that they were repeated with the stupefying regularity of statistical probability. They knew that someone was certainly going to ask: Comrade, how did you first start to write? They knew that someone else would ask: How old were you when you wrote you[r] first poem?”

—Milan Kundera, Life is Elsewhere

Night Soldiers

I heard about Alan Furst’s Night Soldiers from Book/Daddy, whose comparisons between a writer as bad as the 1940 Russian winter like Tom Clancy and a much better, though not perfect, writer like Furst are accurate. For some still-inchoate reason I decided to read Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, whose style I called “straight from a poorly written technical manual on human emotion” and about “idiocy in war.”

Furst, in contrast, follows the John le Carré mold of thrillers with some thought. I’m not a reader of the genre, but I’ve hit some of the big posts: Raymond Chandler, who was a predecessor to many spy stories, and most of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, which I read in old paperback copies bought for $5 each from a small used bookstore in Oregon before they were reissued. Graham Greene is a favorite, although he is not a genre writer in the pejorative sense of the term.

I’ve only read le Carré where he was meant to be read: in airports, on planes, and in the other dead zones of time created by modern bureaucracies, during periods when I can ponder his easy “trust no one and everyone, including you, is guilty of something, or would be in the right situation” mantra until I’m interrupted by someone asking if I’d like a complementary beverage or cocktail ($5, $10 for a double). The message, if there is one, in Night Soldiers is closer to “once you start a thing, you may not be able to control it or what it does to you.” Or, as Tolkien said in The Two Towers, “[...] their coming was like the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche in the mountains.” In Night Soldiers the stone is Nikko Stoianev mocking local fascists in a Bulgarian village, who beat him to death and ultimately cause his brother, Khristo to flee with his helper or guardian (in the sense of Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces), who is a communist. The cast rapidly expands and remembering people can become confusing as you try to remember who’s who of villains, potential villains, and friends, but the story is satisfying and brisk without losing its sense of place.

Sometimes Furst descends into cliche, but at other points he rings the bells of the time and the language he used to express it: “This might have been a deception, meant to sow suspicion among allies of wildly different passions: Basques and Catalans seeking their own nationhood, communists of several disciplines, anarchists, democrats, idealists, poets, mercenaries, and those moths who were forever seeking the flame of the hour in which to immolate themselves” (emphasis mine). The first the alliterative cliche “sow suspicion” caused me to suspect Furst’s skill, but it mirrors well enough the sound of forever [...] flame, and that last metaphor is so wonderful that I’d forgive “sow suspicion” even were it not echoed later in the sentence. Yet then Goldman, a character about whom the group’s voice says “Give him an inch and he took a mile!” Three pages later, a steal from Orwell: “[...] they had discovered that in this egalitarian society some were decidedly more equal than others.” Another character has “thick sensual lips,” and I’d like to never again hear about a character’s lips or eyes. Khristo is compared to a pawn. The good writing outweighs the bad but also makes the bad more noticeable. Some characters also have a tendency to pontificate in a way more suited to a political tract than a conversation, but this too is forgivable, like the ceaseless pointing to the idiocies of Communists and Fascists ideology and results.

Book/Daddy says Furst is aiming for the movies with Night Soldiers, and if I was inclined to doubt that judgment the ending made me a believer. In addition, the byzantine characters, situations, and places melted together in the novel’s last section, such that I lost track of who was doing what and why and how they knew Khristo from hundreds of pages and ten years earlier in the Soviet Union. (Give me a break with that last sentence: it’s supposed to mimic the book’s structure.) Book/Daddy also says Furst has improved with time, and next time I have the misfortune of being on a plane for ten hours at a stretch, I’m going to skip le Carré’s airport paperback if I see Furst nearby.

The Book Against God

The Book Against God starts with a great sentence—”I denied my father three times, twice before he died, once afterwards”—and a great first chapter that tells enough to intrigue without launching an information barrage. From there it’s a long downhill to the end, with too many strained passages, like one that goes, “Three drawers of the desk were sticking out, panting to spit their contents onto the floor. The only surfaces unmolested by anarchy were the books on the man bookshelves, whose clean rounded spines were as ordered as organ pipes.” Panting? I’ve never seen a drawer pant, and someone who is panting is breathing hard, not spitting, and even then, someone panting would be too tired to hock a really nice one. I’m willing to let surfaces be molested by an abstract idea like anarchy, but not right after panting drawers. Yes, I want original writing, but not at the expense of truth.

Those two quoted sentences are also symptomatic of a novel that veers too close to an essay; Wood’s grand The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief is just an essay collection, and better for it. Not having to attempt making people allows those ideas to flow much more easily.

Despite misgivings about the sometimes awkward language and weak characters, I respect all the raw skill demonstrated in The Book Against God and hope Wood tries again. A few times I laughed, like this section on the page after the panting one: “For instance, [his father] wrote book reviews for a journal of theology in London, which sent him advance copies of the books. He had removed a sticker from one of these and glued it to the favourite of his six different bibles. It read: ‘This is an advance copy sent in lieu of a proof.'” Lovely. If only more descriptions like those came together to make characters.

It’s unusual for me to read a first novel I dislike and still want a second. If I do see another Wood novel you’ll read about it in this space, and with luck he’ll have funneled his aforementioned skill in the right direction.

Life

“Cass Mastern lived for a few years and in that time he learned that the world is all of one piece. He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether you meant to brush the web of things. Your happy foot or your gay wing may have brushed it ever so lightly, but what happens always happens and there is the spider, bearded black and with his great faceted eyes glittering like mirrors in the sun, or like God’s eye, and the fangs dripping.”

—Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men

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