I’m in the middle of the most recent National Book Award winner The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It’s an oppressive book both in style and content. Each description comes with an aside or a qualification. When one character, a young Australian soldier, relieves himself on the side of the road during a break in a drive across the Japanese countryside, Hazzard describes it this way: “The young driver, profiting from the hiatus, had meanwhile peed behind bushes.” Everywhere there are these odd little inclusions like “profiting from the hiatus.” The book is about the occupation of a shattered, destroyed, and conquered place, specifically the Allied occupation of post-war Japan. There is still everywhere the lingering hysteria of war, which Hazzard, like the occupiers she describes, tries to forget or ignore by imposing a false civility on the situation. The interplay of the conquered and the conquerors thus leads to dense language and curious juxtaposition. The Great Fire reminds me a lot of what was probably the first truly difficult book I ever read, Graham Greene‘s, The Power and the Glory. In that book, the “civilized” is a priest and the uncivilized is the tropical criminality of Mexico. Luis Bunuel once suggested to Alvaro Mutis, purveyor of his own brand of magical realism and author of the incomparable The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that it is not possible to write a gothic novel that is set in the tropics. Mutis supposedly refuted this by writing The Mansion & Other Stories, though I can’t comment because (as of yet) I have been unable to lay my hands on that book. So, at this point, I would have to agree with Bunuel. In order to invoke the tropics one must also invoke the oppressiveness of the conditions there; content dictates style, which brings me back to The Great Fire. Though the book is not set in the tropics, its setting is oppressive, and thus so is the writing. And though I’m only a little ways into the book, it doesn’t seem like this is a bad thing.
Today at the bookstore I had the pleasure of meeting a young author named Felicia Luna Lemus. Her debut novel, published by FSG, is titled Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties. This book is about both “princess dykes” and the chicana life, a blend that could only occur in Los Angeles. She seemed almost giddy at seeing her book on the shelves, and understandably so. She is diligently at work on another novel which she foresees finishing in about five years, which is about how long the first one took. In the meantime, she is actively seeking a position teaching creative writing, which should be well within reach considering this first novel and her MFA from Cal Arts. If you want to hear more check out this review at the San Francisco Chronicle and here is a double interview with her and one of the original outlaws of queer fiction, John Rechy (City of Night is the book that made him famous), which appeared in The Advocate magazine.
Brandon, who runs the blog antimodal, has created a little application that “handicaps” the great 20th century novels. It allows you to assign scores for different features, like “stream of consciousness,” and themes, like the “Black experience.” The scores enable you to promote or penalize a book based on these different characteristics. Note that you can add additional categories to the ones already listed by pressing the “Add New Category” button at the top of the page. In Brandon’s words, “The book list is still a work in progress. I am not familiar with many of the books there, so if you have information that would help classify a book, let me know.” Check it out.
My mildly contrarian take on the print version of Watchmen appears today at More Intelligent Life. Name-checked within the piece: Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, Malcolm Lowry, Jean Rhys, Charles Dickens, Georges Eliot and Saunders, Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Herman Hesse, Jack Kerouac, Batman, Art Spiegelman, James Wood, Kenneth Turan,and a couple of guys who worked at a little comic-book shop in North Carolina in the early 1990s.Notwithstanding this cavalcade of stars, I found Watchmen somewhat frustrating, for reasons I attribute to the term “graphic novel.” This may or may not be original and/or provocative. Still, I’m bracing for comments from Watchmen enthusiasts and Comic Book Guys of all stripes…
Not too long ago, on a book finding expedition, I found a whole cache of old Granta magazines. Granta is very cool journal devoted to both short fiction and on the ground reporting of international conflicts and events. It attracts fantastic writers who tend to be relatively unknown to Americans, and so it tends to deliver angles on stories that you don’t see in the American press. Case in point: the other day I was, briefly, between books, and I picked up one of the old Grantas that I have lying around (this one was Autumn 1989). One of the stories I read was a first hand account of the Tiananmen Square massacre by a BBC journalist named John Simpson. I have always found first-hand accounts of these sorts of events to be the most fascinating type of news reporting. (The best I read this year were John Lee Anderson’s “Letters From Baghdad” in the New Yorker.) Simpson’s story on Tiananmen Square was both enthralling and terrifying, he captures a brutality that most of the Western world did not see. Immediately after I finished the article I wondered: is this piece in a book somewhere and has this guy written anything else like this? This answer to both questions is yes. Simpson’s World: Tales from a Veteran War Correspondent came out in August and it’s filled with close encounters with dictators and on the scene dispatches from all the major world conflicts from the last couple of decades.