Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Japanese Mystery

(translated by Alexander O. Smith)

I debated with myself for a long while over whether to give this detective novel a 9. I haven't given any book a 9 here yet. I worry that if I start giving out high scores, like a 9, I won't stop. The Blitz Rating system will become diluted. My carefully constructed edifice of infallible book analysis will come crashing down. The Devotion of Suspect X will then have become a Japanese tsunami obliterating this blog. It could happen!-- if I'm not careful about giving out high scores.

Plus, there's a case to be made against the book. Not a strong case, mind you, but it's there.

For one thing, the pacing of the novel is deliberate , even slow. There are two detectives, one official and one unofficial, Kusanagi, veteran detective of the Tokyo Police, and his friend Yukawa, a genius physicist at the local university. It's a classic pairing of professional and amateur. Much of the narrative involves undramatic discussion between Yukawa and Kusanagi, over the case they're pondering, and also the related question of intuition versus logic.

There aren't a lot of fireworks in the book. No car chases or melodrama. I can't say there's no emotion. No, I can't say that, though a good part of the book is almost clinical in tone. Our two analysts spend much time analyzing the case, and their opponent, a mathematics teacher who's something of a genius himself. It's a chess game, with much positioning of pawns.

What else?

Well, the names of the characters can be confusing. Kusanagi and Kishatani. Yasuko and Yukawa. What up with that?

What of the book's strengths?

The novel, and thus the mystery, is written with great clarity. It's right there in front of you. Right there! The language, the description, the narrative-- nothing is hidden. Or if it is, it's hidden in plain sight. I loved the clarity. You feel after awhile that you're looking at a chess board. Keigo Higashino has total control over his material.

That material is in perfect balance. How rare this is! The sections of the book, beginning, middle, and end, are in proportion. No overblown finish with dead bodies everywhere, or five different climaxes. Nothing goofy. No authorial desperation to find a way out. Higashino knows the way out. He understands that less is more.

This is a detective novel, but it's also literature. This is the kind of thing long-ago genre authors like Eric Ambler used to accomplish. The proportion gives the overall work aesthetic impact beyond the mere words of the book.

Two other points should be mentioned. In Agatha Christie fashion, Higashino pulls off an unexpected solution. You can't believe it's coming, but Higashino does it. A genuine surprise, if surprise is the right word. I can't tell you-- or if you're a long-time reader, maybe I can-- how unusual this is. How difficult, at a time when all stories have been written.

Second-- and this is as much of a surprise-- Keigo Higashino approaches Simenon level with his understanding of people, his portrayal of character. He nears the highest level. It's a surprise because for much of the novel the characters don't seem particularly deep at all. Aha! Higashino sneaks up on the reader. And he makes it so believable! This isn't a "psychological" detective novel. It's too smart, too subtle, for that designation. It never hits you over the head. The book's impact sneaks in elsewhere. Maybe into your soul. You're left at the end shaking your head, feeling the impact. How does he do that? There are no over-the-top action sequences, yet the novel closes with an emotional bang. This is fine, fine work.

I believe I'll give it a 9 after all.

PUBLISHER: Minotaur Books
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Why the Short Story Is NOT Dying

Awake Till the End by Alysse Aallyn
"Crime Stories"

No, it's not true that I'm too tough on writers. I'm not tough at all. I'm waiting to be enthusiastic. I ask only, ONLY, that the author meet a few minimum requirements. Such as, that the writing be readable. Don't insult my intelligence with self-indulgent verbiage best meant for yourself. If you do write only for yourself-- or a professor-- with no thought of involving the reader, keep it in a journal.

I'm not talking now about Alysse Aallyn, whose modest volume of stories is surprisingly good.

Fifteen engaging tales that aren't really crime stories, since many of them merely hint at crime, or the crime takes place offstage. They're pop stories, meaning, highly readable. Aallyn adds touches of wry humor. On occasion, surprise and pathos.

Alysse Aallyn shows her characters as human beings, with emphasis on human. She understands their weaknesses and quirks. She presents a parade of unique personalities. Though she can be scathingly cynical-- usually is, come to think of it-- she loves life and enjoys people. Aallyn gives you first herself; her smart and personable voice.

A few of the stories border on excellent.

"Scathed," about secrets between a mother and daughter, is painfully knowing about men and women.

Alysse Aallyn is best at depicting children. She makes them thoroughly believable, as in "Cold Huntsman," about a sensitive girl and her flaky aunt, and most of all, "Violet," which at the end delivers a kick.

A few of the endings are too hurried, too abrupt. One or two of the works seem like fragments more than stories. But hey, she keeps you wanting more.

PUBLISHER: The Midnight Reader
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

Monday, December 12, 2011

Why the Short Story Is Dying

THE SPOT by David Means

David Means learned his creative writing class lessons too well. This book is the literary standard. Finely-crafted sentences, long paragraphs of them, sentence after sentence without a break, like a salesman who gets you on the phone and keeps talking without pause and it's all babble. It's not scene. It's not really narrative. It's just writing.

From "Reading Chekhov":

"Behind them the office building, with its reflective glass, collected and cubed the vista. The terminus of parting; the deep, elegaic tragedy of it."

There's scarcely a sentence in the entire book that's not this kind of pretentious shit. But then, when the title of a story has "Chekhov" in it, you know it's literary output intended to be pretentious. Someone is sucking up to someone. The objective is to impress. Not to entertain, not to move or thrill, not to enlighten. Impress-- and not the general reader either.

This book is literary writing at its worst.

The characters are interchangeable. They run together even within the bounds of a single tale, as in the title story, "The Spot." Every character is soulless. Every one is stupidly violent or apathetic, without conscience and barely conscious. Organisms helplessly caught in a flow of nature or a flow of stupidity. It's not that Means doesn't like people. His characters aren't people. They're not even caricatures.

The settings are uniformly grim. The sentences run together and the paragraphs run together. The characters and situations run together as the words run together. The plots are buried under sheer wordiness.

One of the stories lists three ways someone copes. Here's one of the ways:

"Assume a protoplasmic mobility; the creep of the protozoan, one-celled hydra, primal and original and eager to consume itself for lunch."

Sounds great. Not exactly positive. What does it mean?

It's bullshit writing. Means is basically just shitting the reader.

Since I can't quote the entire book, it's impossible to convey here how bad it is.

Yet pillars of the literary establishment love it! The back cover contains flatulent blurbs by The New York Times, London Review of Books, Jeffrey Eugenides and James Wood. On the dust jacket right inside the back cover is the author photo, which makes David Means resemble his characters. He appears to have all the intelligence of a ripe squash.

For a minute, looking at the photo and reading the book, I wondered if the thing was one big put-on. A mock collection. A satirical joke. But no, they've been charging $23 for it, and the blurb writers are serious. They truly believe it's good. Which says a lot about the higher levels of the literary world.

The New Yorker, flagship publication of that world, originally published the title story with its depiction of rural Neanderthals stumbling vacantly about middle America. Likely because the story confirms a Manhattan stereotype.

David Means anyway, within the open spout of words, briefly becomes honest about what he does:
"--we'd meet just as we're meeting now. Except it would go on forever. The story would end and then it would just keep going, the way this one does. That's what it's about. It would keep going onward, like the light from a star. We know they're not going to find a way out, around it, and we know they're just going to continue--"

You've been warned.

PUBLISHER: Faber and Faber, Inc.
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

Monday, December 5, 2011

Psychotherapy Insanity

NETSUKE by Rikki Ducornet

My actual at-the-moment thoughts about the author's viewpoint while I was reading this novel:

"I'm a very talented whacked-out man-hating obsessed-with-sex but very talented bourgeois woman writer with a lot of time on her hands to ponder/wonder/worry about sexual relationships while writing with sparkling prose this obsession about men as sexist self-involved manipulative monsters expressed through the character and voice of a smug smiling well-depicted self-destructive psychotherapist dominating others victims hapless naive putty-in-his-hands sheep including his wife plus a transvestite it's not general truth it's my truth at least it's art at least arty at least it's readable and not too long you may enjoy it."

PUBLISHER: Coffee House Press
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Lethally Bleak


Many writers try to be bleak. Joyce Carol Oates, for instance, authoress of bleakness, recent recipient here of a Blitz Rating, tries hard to be bleak. Not all who try to be bleak achieve it.

Jim Nisbet has been hyped as the bleakest and darkest-- most "noir"-- of all noir writers. It's not an exaggeration.

This is a problem from the reader's standpoint. Lethal Injection is an unrelieved depiction of a crude world populated by assholes. It's bleak.

There are four chief characters.

The ultra-violent black prisoner on death row in Texas is a heavily idealized homoerotic projection of the author's liberal ideology. The doctor who injects the prisoner is impressed by the condemned man's Nietzschean violence. He seeks to discover if the man was in fact innocent. This path leads the doctor to two depraved druggies, rounding out the quartet.

The doctor is so weak, characterless, and stupid, he gives the two druggies more power than they would otherwise have. This is the crux of the plot. Doctor or no, he's inferior in body, intelligence, and will even to them. They use that power.

Nisbet does this kind of thing very well, creating a world without hope-- an environment without humanity, only animalistic warped misfires of human beings operating across an inescapably ugly landscape.

At bleakness combined with violence, Nisbet has no peer. The noir experts are right. In the entire book there's not a single ray of light.

Lethal Injection is the kind of fiction Joyce Carol Oates wishes she could write!

PUBLISHER: The Overlook Press
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Completely Different Kind of Detective Novel

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

With this novel I sprinted through chapter after chapter of seeming idiocy, thinking this was the dumbest detective novel ever written, the author hustling crackpot dope-smoke drenched California New Age philosophy and illogical notions about the methodically logical work of detection while not knowing the most basic things about the craft (how to aim and shoot a pistol, say)-- the detective side of the novel merely a framework for Sara Gran to write about the inner city in the tragic city of New Orleans.

Then, at page 171, I was brought up short by the sudden entrance, into Gran's dilapidated tale, of the Jerry Sandusky (Penn State) matter. I'm not making this up! Unbelievable. Her book was published prior to the revelations, mind you. Synchronicity in the universe indeed. You have to give Sara Gran points for timing.

I began to look at the narrative of Claire DeWitt in a different light.

Within the bounds of time and space-- going outside them actually-- Gran seems to prove her philosophy. None of the fragmented pieces fit, but then, they might. "There are more things in heaven and earth. . . ."

Does Sara Gran's detective, Claire DeWitt, solve the grim mystery?

DeWitt, like all detectives, at least the fictional variety, believes in the search for truth. She just happens to have a roundabout way of getting to it.

This novel may not be for the traditional detective reader-- or it may overturn the traditional thinking of that traditional reader, as happened to me. Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is highly creative, with strong characterization, a dense sense of New Orleans life, and even a book within a book. For all her quirkiness, as well as her alternate detective universe, Sara Gran gives you your money's worth.

PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Quest for an Angel

The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo's writing style is controlled and bloodless. Clear, with a slow pace. In an enervated tone DeLillo examines, through most of the collection, delicate Princess-and-the-Pea persons in controlled situations. Even when presenting what are in effect stalkers-- he does this often-- the moments are careful. Unlike Joyce Carol Oates stories (reviewed below) Don DeLillo's tales take no chances, make no mistakes.

This guy takes baby steps. Picture Mr. DeLillo shuffling slowly along a sidewalk. DeLillo's a commodity trader jumping in and out of a market, taking quick small profits, never going for the big score.

Two points about the DeLillo approach.

1.) He has a one-note technique. The first story in the book dates from 1979, the last from 2011, yet they could've been written on the same day. Status quo writing. The frozen Ice Man seen in the National Geographic.

2.) Like all literary writers, DeLillo's narratives exist mainly inside his head, which gets tedious.

DeLillo's not as observant about people as Oates. He doesn't see through them. DeLillo portrays characters as blank walls, then searches for flickers of personality behind the walls. People as mysteries. Only the situations change, whether on a university campus ("Midnight in Dostoevsky") in a museum ("Baader-Meinhof") or at a movie house ("Starveling").

The title story, "The Angel Esmeralda," begins the same way, DeLillo examining the lower class from a detached perspective. An onlooker contemplating the Other. An intermediary is brought in: Ismael. (Do we assume literary significance?) The setting is the South Bronx. The environment takes on realistic shape, until it reminds me of the last time I lived in Detroit, three years ago. This surprises me.

DeLillo steps cautiously outside his usual bounds as the reality, the risks, the emotion and the meaning become tangible. The story is about the forays of a small group of liberal nuns (nuns by definition are liberal) into a harsh and chaotic world. The nuns, by their determined commitment and their selflessness, become heroes. Excellent stuff.

The difference between this story by Don DeLillo, and everything Joyce Carol Oates has ever written, is each author's different view of humanity and the universe. "The Angel Esmeralda" has soul.

"--does the power of transcendence linger?" At its best, art is transcendence.

Reading the stories in this volume is like a nun waiting for the face of Esmeralda to appear. It does appear.

REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wasted Talent

Give Me Your Heart by Joyce Carol Oates
("Tales of Mystery and Suspense")

Joyce Carol Oates has as much pure writing talent as any American writer going. Oates is a master with words. She's observant. She comes up with the occasional surprising insight, expressed in a perfectly concise way. Her problem is the "More Is Less" syndrome, which we see in the rock n' roll field with Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Paul McCartney, Bono, and, well, everybody except Neil Young and rock artists who conveniently died.

They should have all retired the moment they began recycling themselves. Quit when their best work was out there, it couldn't be topped, they'd said all they had to say.

With Joyce Carol Oates the point may have been reached after the Upon the Sweeping Flood stories in the 1960's.

This current story collection provides little mystery and no suspense, but it does offer competent prose and a lot of laughs. One story, "Smother," is fairly good. Some are passable. Others are ridiculous. I laughed out loud during every story, either when Oates pushes the writing style too far ("pushes" "the" "writing" "style"), or at the ridiculous characters, situations, and expected "unexpected" moments of violence.

Sorry, Ms. Oates, but the "second husband" picking up that pitchfork-- ain't gonna happen. Not minutely believable. Anyone who understands people knows this. He'll think it, sure-- Oates's characters live intense lives inside their heads. But hey, it's only entertainment, right?

Mary Roberts Rinehart hysteria combined with cranky misanthropy and comedic violence-- this book is more cartoonish than my Crime City USA!

PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

Reading as Masochism

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
(With Intro by David Foster Wallace acolyte Michael Pietsch, who also edited the monstrous thing.)

This never-finished novel is 547 pages. The novel's theme, as far as I can determine, is madness. Highly recommended if you wish to go insane.

The Pale King comprises in one novel everything wrong with literary postmodernism. The story is about the Internal Revenue Service. Slogging through the novel is like trying to read IRS regulations. Wordiness and pointless complexity. Also much self-involvement. Very much self-involvement. I gave up at page 159.

Wallace's kind of writing is A.) Showing off. B.) Solipsism squared. C.) An extended creative writing assignment. D.) Literary fireworks and footnotes masking a core of stupidity.

I'm not simply name-calling. David Foster Wallace presents a nihilistic state of mind. The first paragraph is a word-clotted description of a field of weeds and insects which ends with the pretentious line: "We are all of us brothers."

Are we? Really? If so, what does that say? Brother to a weed? Communicant with a fly?

You know you're in trouble in Chapter 2 when you encounter a long paragraph which continues without break for many pages. Verbiage. No, not verbiage. Vomitry.

The sadly deceased author David Foster Wallace is, sadly, the highest value in the literary world today. Establishment literary critics love his books. ("--the greatest writer of my generation" -Benjamin Alsup, Esquire magazine.) Someone will have to explain it to me.

PUBLISHER: Little, Brown
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

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Blitzing the book world with reviews of excitement. SEND books to be praised or destroyed to (new address pending).