grist

 

Friday, November 28, 2003
With the end of one book and the start of the next, a new pattern from within my own reading: novels set in cities where I lived. I just finished Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, although it hasn't settled into its final shape in my mind yet (most likely 4 stars, regardless). The first section, covering Dylan Ebdus' childhood in Brooklyn, is spectacular--the language is rich, surprising and precise (anger like "a cloud of hammers"). The flow of events is seamless and engaging and the progression is rich with possibilities. I actually started listening to the book, but switched over to the paper book because I liked it so much.

The book veered sharply in the second half, as the grown Dylan works through what he is and looks at the gap, and back to his childhood to figure it out. This became more of a muddle, but I have yet to see what of the muddle is part of the being-an-adult muddle, of depicting and working through the complexity of his world (which is still very well done, though it offers few of the consolatory joys of his childhood). But there were elements that I haven't gotten around yet--a deep well of anger, and stagnation, that is tied to the childhood, but does not seem driven by the major events--the shooting, for example--but by the minor ones--all the yoking. When Lethem drops into Mingus Rude, and you see his progress and descent, it is, again, spectacular. And yet, and yet--something in the structure of the second half of the book was unsatisfying, and it has not resolved into either a disappointing element of the book, or some finely crafted and intentional communication that I have been too dense to receive. So we wait...

And then I started Hopscotch, which may have gotten the most gushing reviews/endorsements of any book ever in history. The initial portion is set in Paris, and the familiar street names have caused a rush of desire to be back--to move back and never leave, to smoke cigarettes and sketch and drink too much--I feel woefully locked in my child-rearing, and workaday schedules, and the limits of my walks to the limited Vermont woods--where that kind of managing a life feels like cowardice, like holding the world at a distance rather than waging war with it.

The book is lovely and difficult so far, and mature in way that suddenly makes the rash of recent American books I have been reading seem like the work of precocious adolescents--like the suddenly simple (and easy-to-cliche) idea of sex as a pleasure. I can't think of an American book where people have sex but do not love each other and it is not some form of clandestine rape, or the sign of deep wounding, or submerged struggles for power--just pleasure. It is too easy to say Americans are all priggish children and the Europeans grown up, but still.

The diffilcult reminds me of other books in translation--and I'm trying to gauge whether it is mostly difficult books get translated, or the translation makes them more difficult than they otherwise would be, or those are the works I am drawn to in translation. It reminds me (so far--40 of almost 600 dense pages) of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony--another enjoyable struggle in translation. I had a moment of happy dread as I looked at the 600 pages-ness of it and thought about how much of it was going to lead to hard-won understandings, and how much was going to be dust-gathering on the nightstand, and then a girding and soldiering on.

In thinking about this, I also thought some about flash of light novels--I am thinking of Life of Pi here, but also The Red and The Black--long books where events pile up, moving ahead to be sure, but not in any revelatory way, until a singular shift--the flash of light--that casts the shadows in a completely different direction, and raises an entirely new book from the familiar material. This is a risky structure and (I'll confess) while I admire some of these (those two, certainly), I do not find them as great as others. I suspect this may have something to do with the actual less-than-enjoyable hours spent digesting the events so that the light can flash and the new shape be revealed. Hopscotch has not shown its colors yet, though some of the writing is lovely:

I never took you to have Madame Leonie read your palm, probably because I was afraid that she would read some truth about me in your hand, because you have always been a frightful mirror, a monstrous instrument of repetitions, and what had been called loving was perhaps my standing in front of you holding a yellow flower while you held two green candles and a slow rain of renunciations and farewells and Metro tickets blew into our faces.



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