Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Satire of America

All Her Father's Guns by James Warner

Intelligence starts with understanding there are at least two sides to every question. Higher intelligence believes you accept this, but strive to choose between conflicting viewpoints in the pursuit of truth. It means believing there's such a thing as truth, which today requires a leap of faith. Very few writers are able to make that leap, though some approach it partway.

James Warner shows signs of having a first-rate intelligence. The chief sign is the novel's great satirical wit. One reviewer has called the novel "exaggerated." In its depiction of America (specifically, California) it really isn't. America might be the most purely mad Barnum and Bailey civilization that ever existed.

"A transvestite drove past in a classic Bentley, followed by taxis bearing alternating advertisements for Web development tools and downtown strip clubs."

Warner, an expat Brit, sees the madness and nails it in his novel.

"I marveled at California's ability to combine ruthless efficency with fantastic fickleness. They believe in their right to self-discovery, to be their own designer brand-- aren't these the same ideas that make California the most high-tech part of the world? Aren't the entrepreneurship and the craziness two sides of the same coin?"

The story is told through the alternating viewpoints of two characters, bland author stand-in Reid Seyton, and Cal Lyte, the hyper-mad libertarian-conservative father of his girlfriend, Lyllyan. Cal is a rich investor absorbed with an eccentric ladyfriend, Viorela, and a legal dispute with his even more eccentric ex-wife.

Reid, if not a cipher, is a passive actor. Not quite a sponge. Which leaves the book to be dominated by Cal.

The satire is put over by a sharp writing style and quick pace. Warner keeps things fast-moving, his writing always intelligent and clear.

I'm not a fan of dense prose, which I long ago learned is a cover for the writer having few ideas and little intelligence. In these instances the writer gives so many nonessentials that you eventually realize it's all nonessential. Wordiness mistaken for art. The smart writer with something to say knows how to say it, and how to get straight to the point. Communicating that something, those essential ideas, lessons, insights, is the goal. James Warner does this.

Most writers today are plodders. They're sober-serious about every sentence, every word. When they try to communicate a thought, like Jonathan Franzen in his novels, it's done with deliberate sober-serious plodding ploughhorse earnestness, always from one viewpoint, the angle and intensity remaining strictly flat. Not a movie with three dimensions, and scarcely with two. Even this takes an enormous effort, a tremendous expenditure of the author's limited mental capacity to get to that point, then you're hit over the head with the massive unwieldy book.

The best writer of them all, William Shakespeare, stood above all plodders. His brain moved very fast. His characters sparkled with wit. His genius was his ability to shift gears and keep his work in balance; to laugh at his characters one minute and cry with them the next. No easy task.

James Warner has wit. He's a sharp guy. Knows all and sees all. But he allows himself to become trapped by his own ability. By his wit.

It's like reading issue after issue of The Onion newspaper. After awhile the sarcasm becomes spiritually deadening. Stifling. Adopt this attitude full-time and you see the entire world and everyone in it through this cynical prism. A prison. You end up believing in nothing and no one.

Warner's dilemma is that he hands his novel to his most fascinating character, Cal Lyte, a walking and talking cartoonish compendium of mad American flaws. Having given him the book, about halfway through Warner tries to turn Cal into something resembling a real person. It doesn't quite come off. A tricky feat to pull off, no doubt.

I'm reminded of the excitement generated way back when Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City came out. Here seemed to be a writer with the goods. The first two-thirds of the short work had style and verve. Wow! you thought. Knows all and sees all, and describes it with knowing, winking humor. Then the author tries to get serious, to close the game out-- to close the sale with the reader-- and of course he can't do it. McInerney has failed to do it with book after book since, and maybe has given up.

The problem with satire that shows a crazed universe and destroys everything in it is that, in my narrow opinion, you need to provide a way out. This is an insane universe but some of us hope for a hint of a way out, a ray of sanity somewhere.

This is quibbling. James Warner is a talented writer. All Her Father's Guns is a fun read. It's hard to ask for more. Let's hope Warner's next novel tops it.

PUBLISHER: Numina Press
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Strange Religion

The Tehran Initiative by Joel C. Rosenberg

"Dead bodies were all over the scene."

Imagine! A pro-war novel, one of a string of pro-war novels, by self-proclaimed Christian Joel C. Rosenberg. What happened to the Prince of Peace?

"Blood was everywhere. Khan was writhing and screaming in pain."

Rosenberg presents a distorted, cartoon version of the Christian religion, within a story about an apocalyptic world with insane rulers in Tehran opposed by scarcely less insane rulers in Washington.

"He didn't want to kill them, but they were armed and hostile, and if he had to do it, he wasn't going to feel guilty about it."

This sounds to me more like a Nietzschean than a Christian. Nietzsche mocked Christians for being poor, guilt-ridden, and meek. He never met Joel C. Rosenberg! Jesus himself of course was crucified by the dominant empire of the day. The choice then was: Caesar or Jesus? Power against weakness. The World versus Salvation. It discredits the religion, in my humble opinion, to throw out the religion's message, its spirituality, and its integrity in defense of Caesar, which is what Rosenberg is doing.

"David smashed him over the head with the iron, sending him crashing to the pavement, bleeding and unconscious."

As for the novel itself, it's a grim propaganda piece full of props and puppets. The hero, David Shirazi, is of the Nietzschean superhero variety. Shirazi works for the CIA. The CIA demi-god heroes rescuing American Empire are thoroughly secular, consumed with high-tech weaponry, high-tech toys, pausing to pray every so often to Christ to help them save high-tech civilization as they work within a hysterical narrative for Caesar and his Pilates, their actions accompanied by gallons of blood and numerous flying body parts. The fanatical bad guys, cartoon Islamists, are projections of the author. The protagonist is a sociopathic robot. Rosenberg needs to give him a sliver of humanity, so he has his mother dying. There's only one semi-intriguing character in the entire work: The mad Mahdi, an insane but mysteriously powerful villain. He's no less cardboard than the other characters, but at least it's a colorful cardboard. Meanwhile, hero David Shirazi is busy.

"He righted himself, took aim, and squeezed off two more rounds at the officer's chest, killing him instantly."

Rosenberg's novel is an obscenity, due to its falseness. In an Author's Note, Rosenberg proclaims how Christian he is. Yet his book is one of the more un-Christian books I've read, which says a lot, given the context of today. There's a Christian way to oppose evil, but Joel C. Rosenberg hasn't found it. You'll discover no Alyosha Karamazovs in his unhappy pages.

In its way, The Tehran Initiative is as insane a novel as the one I recently reviewed by Ann Beattie. I have to rate his book higher simply because it is a page-turner. Which is fine. One doesn't need to linger long over those fast-moving pages. Meanwhile, duck your head, because more missiles are flying.

"What David didn't know was that death was already on its way . . . At an altitude of 17,429 feet, the CIA's $4.5 million, state-of-the-art unmanned aerial vehicle known as the MQ-1 Predator had already received its encoded orders . . . Now, a five-and-a-half foot, one-hundred-pound AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missile was sizzling through the crisp morning air at Mach 1.3."

Does this sound like it was written by a Christian? Or by someone consumed with armaments, war, and death?

PUBLISHER: Tyndale House
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

More Is Less

Saints and Sinners by Edna O'Brien

This opening of a story, "Old Wounds," is what passes among the refined literary crowd as good writing:

"In our front garden, there were a few clumps of devil's pokers-- spears of smoldering crimson when in bloom, and milky yellow when not. But my mother's sister and her family, who lived closer to the mountain, had a ravishing garden: tall festoons of pinkish-white roses, a long low border of glorious golden tulips, and red dahlias that, even in the hot sun, exuded the coolness of velvet. When the wind blew in a certain direction, the perfume of the roses vanquished the smell of dung from the yard, where the sow and her young pigs spent their days foraging and snortling. My aunt was so fond of the piglets that she gave each litter pet names, sometimes the same pet names, which she appropriated from. . . ." Etc. etc. etc.


Is this how to open a story?

Has the reader thrown the book across the room?

No writer today can afford to open a short story or even a novel with such dawdling prose. Get to the friggin' point! No one has time today for such shit. This isn't 1835 upper-class England lounging around the estate.

When you the reader after many arduous attempts do make it through a few of the stories, you find the punchlines range from the ordinary to the maudlin. Each is overwritten so as to hinder communication with the reader. We get the idea, Edna. You write very well. Delicately and finely well. Quite impressive. Not compelling. Less is more. Thank you.

PUBLISHER: Back Bay Books
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

Friday, January 13, 2012

Ms. Beattie

Mrs. Nixon by Ann Beattie
("A Novelist Imagines a Life")

"You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore," Richard Nixon famously said at one point during his long political career. Little did he know that his critics would still be savaging him-- and his wife-- almost 40 years after he left office. Little did Richard Nixon allow for Ms. Beattie.

There aren't enough adjectives in the English language to adequately describe Ms. Beattie's book, but I'll try.

"Cruel," "bizarre," "obsessive," "regrettable," "embarrassing," "snide," "shallow," "hatchet job," "sneering," "smug," "superior," "scornful," "contemptuous," "sheer petty meanness," "40 year-old grievances," "insufferably condescending," "literary stalking," "third-rate insights of a high-schooler," "the most superficial of superficial writing," "272 pages of thinly-disguised hatred," "a terrible idea for a terrible book."

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Half of the book is Ms. Beattie trying to explain why she's writing about Mrs. Nixon. She never does explain. She's incapable of explaining.

"She may well have been unknowable even by her family," Ms. Beattie tells us.

Ms. Beattie does nothing to find out, to get behind the surface of Pat Nixon. Her sources, like Joe McGinniss, Jonathan Schell, and Albert Goldman, aren't exactly objective or reliable. Other than a stray quote or two used to show Pat Nixon in the worst possible light, Ms. Beattie doesn't dig up the perspectives of those who actually knew the former First Lady. Certainly not anyone who'd be sympathetic to her. Her family loved her. Her daughters turned out fine. There might be more to the story.

Ms. Beattie spends her entire 272 pages dealing with her constructed stereotype of Mrs. Nixon, a personality as one-dimensional as Ms. Beattie's Nixon paper dolls, the weirdest moment in a weird book.

Ms. Beattie tells us nothing about Mrs. Nixon not already known or believed, and which could've been encapsulated in a page, if not a paragraph. But Ms. Beattie does tell us a lot about Ms. Beattie.

The first question is, Why did Ms. Beattie write this book? A floundering writing career? A need to settle ideological scores from 40 years ago? Nothing else to write about?

There's not a hint of objectivity from Ms. Beattie. For instance, she contrasts John F. Kennedy, Camelot's golden knight, the attractively glowing icon of virtue, against scowling jowly dark-bearded bad guy Dick Nixon, embodiment of evil. Can we admit this is a stereotype? One that stems most from the legendary 1960 debate between the two men.

There's much to like about the JFK myth-- every nation requires myths-- but a writer of Ms. Beattie's reputation should be able to give us something more than the most superficial of contrasts. In actuality, Kennedy and Nixon were more alike than they were different. Both had great talents and enormous weaknesses. Both could be opportunistic and devious. Both engaged in actions that were dangerous and corrupt. Their ideologies were remarkably similar. (Lukewarm liberalism; intense anti-Communism.) They were creatures of the political system, and the milieus from which they sprung. Complex individuals. Curiously, or not, JFK and RN were also fairly good friends.

Ms. Beattie's view of the two men reveals to us how she views the world. The need for the appearance of virtue, for affirmation that her affluent class of well-bred liberals are virtuous. They need evildoers in order to accomplish this, someone to act as grimy backdrop so They, the Clean and the Saved, can gleam with virtuous light.

Much of the outsized hatred of Richard Nixon by the affluent Liberal class was caused not by what he did, but by what he was-- those aspects of his personality and background he was unable to hide. Awkward, striving, square, sweaty, transparent, social climber, nakedly ambitious-- the classic example of the self-made person who doesn't belong.

Ms. Beattie remains captive of the snobberies of high school. (Or prep school, whichever it was.) Ms. Beattie grew up in chic circles and has moved her entire life in chic circles. For such people, Image and Manners are All. Mr. and Mrs. Nixon lacked the superficial qualities which Ms. Beattie most values-- and which Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy, by contrast, had by the truckload.

A sadder tragedy about Ms. Beattie is what's revealed about Ms. Beattie the writer. She intersperses the thin narrative with her opinions and advice about writing-- what she no doubt inflicts upon her captive writing students. Her perspective makes her appear stuck in a time warp. Most of the names she drops, such as Raymond Carver, were big literary names at the same time Ms. Beattie was a big literary name-- 25 years ago. Not just in the subject of the book is Ann Beattie a living and breathing anachronism.

PUBLISHER: Scribners (a once-great company)
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

Monday, January 9, 2012

Upcoming Reviews

Reviews of the following are upcoming, in no particular order:

Mrs. Nixon by Ann Beattie.

Saints and Sinners by Edna O'Brien.

City of Ghosts by Stacia Kane.

All Her Father's Guns by James Warner.

The Tehran Initiative by Joel C. Rosenberg.

AND an appraisal/reappraisal of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

Some diversity in that line-up. Now all I have to do is write the reviews! Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Genre Novel

Trader of Secrets by Steve Martini

What makes a great novel? British critic F. R. Leavis believed that a great work of fiction was both morally significant and artistically accomplished. By "moral" he didn't mean ideology, but a larger knowledge about character and humanity.

The major problem with genre novels is that most of the characters are pawns who can easily be disposed of at any time without thought or regret. The genre novelist is a sociopath almost by definition. This was not the case with forerunners of genre fiction like Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells, and Somerset Maughm. Or even Raymond Chandler, who disdained the fictional puppets of other detective writers. But it's the case in novel after novel today.

Every death is a tragedy. Particularly when the bodies pile up (as they seem to do in my Crime City USA), you need to express a sense of the tragic; profound regret at the nature of the world.

At the end of the classic western movie "Shane," for instance, the hero expresses regret-- deep regret-- at killing the villain, for he knows that in so doing he's killed part of himself.

Unfortunately, this isn't the kind of regret one feels at the conclusion of Steve Martini's Trader of Secrets, but instead, regret that a skilled writer who's displayed the tools needed to write a very good novel has wasted his talents in conforming to the generic genre style.

Trader of Secrets is a spy/detective story in which hero Paul Madriani and friends travel the globe tracking down a supervillain named Liquida who's being used by a collection of terrorists bent on creating a device which could destroy much of the planet. The plot has obvious potential for melodrama, which would be fun, but Martini takes the scenario seriously, and makes it believable. Martini lays down his plot threads expertly. His characters are well drawn. One of them, a NASA scientist who's fallen in with the bad guys, is sympathetic. The villain Liquida is often fascinating.

The problem is with the heroes, who, in order to combat Liquida, become-- or always were-- as soulless as he is. Someone could argue that this is necessary to defeat villainy-- except that the AUTHOR at least needs to stand above this, needs in some way to convey the balancing morality of F.R. Leavis. Otherwise the novel degrades us more than improves or enlightens us as human beings.

There's nothing original in this novel, other than the technological premise. It's been done before, by Ludlum and countless others. Cookie-cutter stuff. Airplane-riding fare. Time filler. Martini is cranking out product, deliberately limiting his vision, in so doing saying, "I'm not an artist," because he doesn't push himself to be as good a writer as he could be.

I can pick out the exact moment when the author lost me, after hooking me for page after page. It occurs during the climax sequence, which is a small war. Martini's once in-control attorneys, Madriani and company, and his daughter Sarah, are suddenly in the middle of horror. It's not portrayed as horror, isn't shown as a nightmare, but as an everyday happening, after which the heroes will take a shower, brush their teeth, and go watch a football game. Another day at the office. Bodies everyplace.

Is America ancient Rome? Does the bloodlust appetite of the reading public demand to be satiated with dead bodies as if spectators at the Colosseum? Are we sociopaths?

Martini lost me when his hero-- the hero, not the bad guy-- with bullets flying everywhere, begins killing people (just the enemy) with his car. They're mowed down like store dummies. The tone is gleeful. I guess it's war. Undeclared, illegal, but still. If you're on the right side all is allowed. I'm sure Martini's heroes slaughter people in book after book and are never the worse for it. This is how the genre works.

(Study, by contrast, the outsized grief of barbaric Achilles and Priam in The Iliad.)

The moral failure of Trader of Secrets is also artistic failure. Any promise the novel gave of greater emotion and meaning isn't realized. Not that Steve Martini would care in the slightest.

PUBLISHER: HarperCollins
REVIEWED BY: King Wenclas

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

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