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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