"A Hero of France" by Alan Furst

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Hero of France will rank as one of the public’s favorite books by Alan Furst, I’m sure of it. It features Paris, everyone’s favorite destination, and a World War II French resistance cell operator, a protagonist of ready appeal for a large number of readers. And as usual, Mr. Furst does an excellent job of rendering the epoch in his details.


Hero recounts a time early in the War, shortly after Germany began its occupation of the northern portion of France, including Paris. The Gestapo and the SS are not yet in charge of the civilian population - this was still the responsibility of the German military police. This arrangement deteriorated when
Hitler decided the French would never join the Axis, which coincided with Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia.

In this narrow time frame, marginally gentler (if you will permit me) than the regime that followed, Mathieu, the nom de guerre of the Resistance team leader, risks his own life and those of his followers, to rescue and evacuate RAF pilots downed over France. A clever police inspector from Hamburg, recruited into the German occupiers’ security apparatus, becomes his nemesis for a time, and forces him into flight.

This is an atmospheric book; it captures the cracks and deep shadows of wartime Paris very well. It illuminates a hard time for Paris and France, that was about to become a lot harder. I didn’t quite get the depth and intrigue I found in The Night Soldiers, but this is a fun read anyway.

"Submergence" by J.M. Ledgard

Sunday, July 10, 2016

A British spy and a scientist-mathematician fall in love over Christmas at a Ritz in the French countryside, and then must go their separate ways. From there they each submerge into depths beyond their previous experience. In this simple framework bloom meditations of a challenging scientific and philosophical nature, such that they pretty well dominate the narrative. This is a contemplative novel, but it sustains a suspense in which life fences with death; and it is a scientific novel in which nevertheless two souls meet and complete each other. It accomplishes all these ends completely and gratifyingly. Deep, thought-provoking, excellent stuff.

We meet James and Danielle independently as they check into the same exclusive hotel on the Atlantic coast of France. We already know however that later on, James, a British intelligence operative, is captured by jihadists in Somalia, and begins many months of a nightmarish existence. Danielle for her part believes the key to life on the planet, and maybe answers to some of the more intractable social and scientific challenges, lie in the deep ocean, where life is chemosynthetic instead of photosynthetic, and where we, as a world and scientific community, have just now begun to scratch the surface of knowledge.

As the story progresses, James wages a constant private battle to keep his life and his  identity as he’s shoved from place to place, beaten, kicked, poisoned, and alternately hectored and ignored. Danielle prepares for immersion into the depths beneath the Greenland Sea, sending letters - written out in felt tip on pages from her notebook - to her lover James. Along the way each story poses its issues and challenges. For James, the immediate imperative of keeping his life leads to thoughts of faith - he’s a British Catholic - and a modern world where young men and boys are radicalized to jihadism by clerical Muslims. These thoughts find expression in some of the worst
conditions in the world - water-starved wadis in East Africa, ruined Italian villas where the water has stagnated, inhospitable jungles where insects rule.

Danielle’s challenges encompass the broader but no less pressing survival issues for the race as a whole. She believes the deep has lessons for surface-dwelling species that could hold the key to accommodating humanity in the narrow band of the surface biosphere. They - the secrets yet to be discovered - could help humankind build and maintain habitable outposts on other worlds, for example, and may hold clues for next steps in evolution that may have to be hurried along with biotechnological advances.

Mr. Ledgard leaves these questions, particularly the planetary-scope questions, open, as of course he must. But herein lies his agenda: the posing of the day’s most topical and pressing quandaries for consideration. However, I fear I may have sold the visual and fictional effects short here because, make no mistake, each step of the way they impress, convince, and compel. This is exceptional: ambitious, deep, heartfelt, magisterial, accomplished. Take it up by all means!

"Harvest" by Jim Crace

Saturday, July 2, 2016

You learn in the first paragraph of Harvest that Jim Crace will be telling his story of an Old English village in a long series of lovely lilting iambs, a sweet rhythm carrying an ancient Anglo Saxon vocabulary of farm and manor and blood and dirt and death. I found myself reading slowly, enjoying the language as though I were reading a long poem written in feudal England. Surely that was the author’s intent, and he’s brought it off with assurance and style. This is a beautiful book.

We’re told in this scop’s tale about an English village so parochial and isolated that no one’s bothered to build a church there - the land has been set aside, but the only thing that’s standing on the site is the cross-shaped pillory. One day as the harvest concludes, strangers arrive, and with them upheaval, never a good thing for country villagers set in their seasonal ways. Once the change starts it rushes to its conclusion, wreaking its paroxysm in the space of only several days. Along the way, we’re treated up close to the ugliness of human nature: greed, jealousy, cruelty, betrayal. A story, no matter where or when its setting, features the fraught interactions of humans, right?

The remoteness of this story in time and place sharpens these interactions and relays their effects through the laconic observations of the Walt the narrator. Mr. Crace does a beautiful job of deploying the Anglo Saxon tongue in his story, but sets one Latinate word out for review, italicizing it when he does so: subterfuge.
It’s a word Walt has recently learned - his literacy matches his lord’s - and he uses it in its fullest sense. For in its roots: subter, meaning beneath, and fugere, to flee, lay its complete meaning: fleeing in secret. People flee in secret and in the open in this story, running before the onslaught of profit and progress, so called.

The charms of Harvest commend it to your attention: the showing-off of Anglo Saxon words to their greatest iambic glory; the glimpses of natures all too human as change sweeps through and destroys a beautiful countryside and a way of life; the homage to English before the Conquest. I don’t mean to harp on the language and diction to the detriment of the story; each of these is reason enough to read Harvest. Recommended in very high terms.


"Native Child" by R.C. Binstock

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Following the dynamic and memorable Swift River, R.C.  Binstock once again demonstrates his gift for capturing little-known and little-explored episodes from America’s past: in Native Child he considers the Orphan Trains, a scheme by reform-minded East Coasters to move purported orphans and street urchins to a “more wholesome” life with families in the Midwest. Along the way he manages an unforgettable and unique family saga, filling it with eloquence, and a deep understanding of human impulse and folly. Native Child is touching, impressive, vivid, and full of soul.

An infant, named Oscar by hospital workers, is found in a grocery in New York, becomes a ward of the state until, aged eight years, he runs away from the latest orphanage and falls in with a street gang. Later that year, 1922, he voluntarily gets on a train with dozens of other children and alights in Nebraska. From there, Mr. Binstock unfolds the multi-generational story, with its loves and pitfalls, its challenges and misunderstandings - those things which make family family.

But there are several unique features to Native Child that separate it from so many other family sagas. Oscar, warily trying to find his life in this alien land, finds speech too challenging and too perilous, and so stops speaking.
Oscar's reticence can stand in for the thousands of other silenced children extirpated from their lives, but I prefer to judge it in the personal, singular effects it has on Oscar and his adoptive family. It’s a distillation of the many instances of failed communication between and among members of these linked families, most tragically between Oscar’s guardian Lillian and her sister Frances.

But the soul of Native Child, the compelling reason to take it up and delight in it: it boasts an eloquence not often found in today’s resolutely workmanlike fictions. As timeless truths occur to the life-weary and regretful characters, you get passages like this:

“The meter of life: not time as we guess, as we mostly suppose, yes time passes and it passes, untiringly, profoundly, but only because you are. The difference in you: between inhale and exhale, between heartbeat and beat, between what you drink at eight and what you expel at ten, the same moisture in and out, passing through you, its atoms unchanged but you are changed and that’s how you know time has passed. How you perceive you are alive, must be alive, must accept the rhythm’s rule.”


Those are Oscar’s words from late in his life, and from Lillian, his beloved adoptive guardian:
 

“… I was startled to recall how we’d all acted as if Oscar’s silence, his refusal to speak, was something provocative, bizarre. We all refuse words, all the time! We do it selectively, is all, under the pretense of being willing when need arises but that’s a lie. We keep to ourselves what we keep to ourselves without review, [and] without approval … Silence is golden or it isn’t, but it’s widespread.”


It’s the silences within families, between foundlings and those who would improve them, between generations, that drive this terrific novel, and also swallow up the love and devotion that people have for one another. Definitely take up Native Child. R.C. Binstock’s already distinguished contributions have grown yet again.

Q&A With Author Tiffany McDaniel

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Tiffany McDaniel has just published a debut novel The Summer that Melted Everything, which I had the pleasure to read and review. (See just below.) She graciously agreed to respond to some questions that occurred to me after reading it. Below are her very interesting and engaging answers:

Basso Profundo:Your first novel The Summer that Melted Everything has some straightforward plot elements, like small-town prejudice, a young boy who yearns for the shy girl from class, family lives fraught with difficult histories. But you overlay these elements with some less-orthodox aspects: your characters’ names; a fiendish character ironically named Elohim, God’s name from the Old Testament; the outlandish belief that Sal’s arrival in town heralds the arrival of the devil. How did you settle on these unusual features? 



Author Tiffany McDaniel:
Well, I didn’t plan to settle on these unusual features.  I never outline before I start a novel.  What you read there on the page is what was in my head the moment I was sitting in front of the laptop typing away.  I do this until I have the entire story there on the page from beginning to end.  Then I draft through and I even surprise myself the way the elements started to fit together in that wild and twisty way with each drafting of the novel.  As far as some of the elements you bring up: I’m from a small town and have always been drawn to the politics and dynamics of that type of living and sense of community.  I know the beauty a small town possesses, but also how easily green grass turns to mud.  Meaning how quick and easy it is for fear and panic to ripen in those close quarters of a small community. 
In my writing I do tend to write about families with difficult histories.  There’s something so fascinating to me about history and how it very much comes into play in our present.  I do try to find that balance of universal normalcy and connect it with less-orthodox aspects.  I’ve always been drawn to the strange things that can come to define the most everyday phases of our lives. And sometimes this strangeness comes out in the characters’ names.  There is so much behind a name.  Elohim’s name fit him perfectly because he’s representing that side of the battle in the novel.  So really I wish I could say I planned on these unusual features, but really it just comes down to opening the faucet in my mind and being ready to catch what comes out. 
BP: Your narrator Fielding ends up a bitter, guilt-ridden old man, living in a ramshackle trailer in the desert. Two questions: was there ever a time when you considered this book a coming-of-age story for Fielding, with a much more limited time frame for the ending? And was a more “life-affirming” ending ever a possibility for this novel?

Tiffany McDaniel:
To answer your first question, Old Fielding did have a much smaller part in the early draft.  But the more I wrote about the events, the more Old Fielding had to have a life after that summer in order to show how those very events had affected him.  He needed to be seen and his life to be had past the coming of age, to the coming to mid-life, and finally coming to age.  To answer your second question, I don’t think a more “life-affirming” ending was ever possible for Fielding.  A happier ending would have been more fictional than the fiction it is allowed to be.  This ending was Fielding’s truth.   
BP: The Bliss family has one quirky mom. The boys, though, including the father Autopsy, are sympathetically and very believably drawn. How did you manage that? Any brothers in your family (not that that would necessarily be a prerequisite)?

Tiffany McDaniel:

I have two older sisters, but no brothers.  I’ve always wanted an older brother.  I think that’s probably why Grand is the way he is to Fielding, because that’s how I would have wanted my older brother to be.  Heroic and kind, intelligent and the boy everyone thought was going to keep soaring to the stars.  With my characters, I very much feel like they are real people.  That I’m merely the vessel through which they pass to get into this world of ours.  While their beginning and end are confined to the pages of the book, I always see my characters outside of those pages.  In moments that no one else will know of.  Dialogue and conversation that doesn’t end when the book does.  So in many ways they manage themselves.     
BP: Any validity to my belief that you chose 1984 as your time frame because of the period’s lack of general understanding or sympathy about AIDS?

Tiffany McDaniel:

Definite validity.  When I was thinking of what time period the novel was going to take place in, I knew it would be the 1980s because (and maybe this is a stereotype) but when I think about the 80s I think of neon colors, big hair, and suntans.  It’s almost like a decade long summer.  I was born in 1985, so I can’t attest to whether this is true of the decade and can only go on how music and TV/movies from the time make me feel about life then.  Having decided on the 1980s, I knew I had also unintentionally decided on writing about AIDS because, whether we like or not, the 1980s and AIDS are irrevocably linked.  It was the moment that changed not just how we have sex, but how we understand sex, and even in some cases, fear it.  This fear is essential to the novel.  And the earlier you are in a new disease, the more fear there is going to be.  So 1984 was early enough for the disease to still not be understood and still early enough to have that innocent 80s summer mentality.   
BP: You tell Summer behind a smoke screen, if you don’t mind my saying. I thought your casting of Elohim as a steeplejack was a stroke of genius. Any specific inspiration for the character?

Tiffany McDaniel:

When I was thinking about who Elohim would be, and what he would do, I immediately thought of something reaching.  He’s a very short man, as you know.  He seems to always be reaching in life.  Reaching for relationships.  Reaching for significance.  Reaching for the cereal on the top shelf.  I also very much saw him as a builder.  The one constructing.  As he comes to construct those in his group during that summer.  Building his followers and their emotions up, building, building, like a steeple, until in the end, that steeple collapses.  The builder buried under the very bricks he thought were so neatly, and godly, stacked.  As far as inspiration goes, I always say the characters themselves inspire me.  They really are their own people and these are their truths.  I only hope I tell their truths as honestly as I can.
 BP: Old man Fielding is extremely mean to his young neighbor, in an effort to scare him off. Why? I don’t think Fielding has the energy or the inclination to actually hurt the boy. Does he just want to be left alone?

Tiffany McDaniel:
As Fielding says, he scares off the boy not really because he wants to be alone, but because he feels like he’s saving the boy.  Fielding very much thinks himself to be like a poison in this boy’s life, and no matter how much Fielding wants to be friends with the boy, he can’t do that to the boy.  Use him like some sort of ‘ladder out of hell’ as Fielding says, because by being that ladder, the boy has a very good chance of getting burned by the flames himself. 

BP: What are you working on now? What can we expect next?

Tiffany McDaniel:

I’m hoping to follow The Summer that Melted Everything up with my newest novel, When Lions Stood as Men.  It’s an unusual take on a Jewish brother and sister who escape Nazi Germany and survive the Holocaust.  With this guilt of surviving, they cross the Atlantic and end up in my land, Ohio.  While here they construct their own camp of judgment, where their freedom is punished and through that their guilt is relieved, somewhat.  But soon they realize guilt isn’t the only thing they need to survive.  It’s each other, and the old lions that once stood as men. 

 




"The Summer that Melted Everything" by Tiffany McDaniel

Sunday, June 19, 2016

During the impossibly hot Ohio summer of 1984, a young boy’s presence in a small town catalyzes horrific events which result in splintered families, mob violence, arson, and murder. Debut author Tiffany McDaniel handles all this with assurance and aplomb, such that I’m quite taken aback at the powers displayed in her first attempt. Her very true-to-life first person narrator is a thirteen year-old boy about to grow up in a major hurry, and she places stunning, gratifying eloquence in the voice of another boy who seems to know way too much about God and the world. It’s a remarkable achievement.

We learn at the outset that prosecuting attorney (named, curiously enough, Autopsy Bliss) has published a letter inviting the devil to his small town so he can see it for himself.  And as suddenly as a pre-adolescent black boy, Sal, shows up, that’s how quickly the summer starts to sizzle and oppress the town. I’m generally put off by parables when reading and the beginning of The Summer that Melted Everything made me cautious. Soon enough, however, the very human events and emotions take over, and any discomfort I’d been feeling melted away. It’s a rich novel, very well conceived, but stunningly well executed.

The setting here reminds one of Faulkner - the small town with its dusty lanes, the idiosyncratic characters, the timeless human traits of prejudice, ignorance, and hatred. The author bolsters and enriches her story by grounding it firmly in the here and now, its murderous horrors all too real and familiar. The emblematic character names and
chilling events take on a fuller, heavier significance once the true events are known. And Ms. McDaniel deftly upends our beliefs and expectations for these characters.

I urge you to take up The Summer that Melted Everything from a pure reading enjoyment standpoint. But there’s another good reason: you’ll want to make Tiffany McDaniel’s acquaintance as soon as possible. I can reassure you of this new novelist’s talent and vision.

“The Infatuations” by Javier Marías

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

At page 302 of the 338-page The Infatuations author Javier Marías begins a new section this way: “In the end, everything tends toward attenuation …” As characters try to navigate the thorny issues arising when life and love intersect with self-interest and betrayal, they attenuate their guilt and downplay their responsibilities as a way of going on with their lives. With the help of an endlessly speculating and imaginative first person narrator, the author delivers a tour de force on the very unusual agenda he set for himself. It’s amazingly well done.

This narrator becomes aware that someone she knew by sight is murdered in the street. Committed by an addled and aggressive homeless man, it seems a random, senseless crime. Almost by chance she meets and gets involved with a friend of the murdered man’s family, but overhears a highly incriminating conversation between this man and an apparent co-conspirator. Explanations (and attenuations) aside, she must weigh what she thinks she knows (but has no proof of) against her conscience. Her line of reasoning features doubt, a sense of powerlessness, and a tinge of fear. This story manages a measure of suspense for our protagonist, because this man she came to love is involved in a grisly crime and she may know too much.

Sr Marías cites some high-end literary antecedents in his discussion of death. MacBeth complains about the timing of his wife’s death; Balzac’s Colonel Chabert returns home an apparent Lazarus to consternation and rejection; Athos summarily executes his new bride in The Three Musketeers, only to have her return from the dead. In each case the timing of the death remains arbitrary and independent, outside
the control of the living.  The death in The Infatuations, although set in motion by a conspiracy, won’t result in a return for the corpse, and the crime’s chief instigator will not face justice for it. It’s a chilling proposition, one that hits close to home.

The author treads extremely carefully with his plot. He makes rather obvious that a murder conspiracy has succeeded, but that everyone’s involvement in it, including the narrator’s, has been extenuated, temporized, and attenuated, until at last no one suffers any consequences. It’s an exact, careful job of setting up and executing this narrative: it’s powerful because of the skill displayed. As a statement on modern public morals, it’s chillingly to the point, and devastating.

"Duplex" by Kathryn Davis

Friday, May 13, 2016

Kathryn Davis wrote the multilevel and arresting Duplex in a feminine palette, by which I mean the chief characters, the main driving focus, and the lens through which life is viewed, are all female. And on this palette she has loosed an array of forces and fictional effects, which readers (like me) will struggle to come to grips with. She tells a story of shifts in the fabric of space and time, of robot guides to eternity, which features a sorcerer who takes souls. I find it quite the challenge to pin down and evaluate.

The main plot, if there is one, concerns a woman who, as a young girl, falls in love with a neighbor boy. A sorcerer in a metallic gray car steals the boy’s soul, however, and in a Faustian transaction the boy becomes a famous baseball player. This girl, Mary, later marries the sorcerer, perhaps while hypnotized (so little of this episode is rendered in the story). Mary then becomes the mother of Blue-Eyes, a machine-daughter who started life as a yellow Teddy Bear. Mary leaves the sorcerer late in life, is transported through a wormhole, and performs admirably with poorly identified but heavy cosmic stakes on the line.

Obviously I’m having a hard time prioritizing plot elements. I only want to give the potential reader a flavor of what’s on offer.

Most clearly, however, this book contains a series of lovely chapters each of which stands as a memorable short piece, particularly “The Four Horsewomen,” “The Rain of Beads,” and “Descent of the Aquanauts.” The clear theme carried by these pieces is the murderous mistreatment of girls and women, and the need such mistreatment engenders for escape. But girls and women own these themes; Ms. Davis expresses them through their voices and points of view. An oracle of dubious trustworthiness enraptures the girls as they reach puberty, and continues to lecture them through their lives into advanced middle age. We learn a substantial amount from this irascible know-it-all, much of it told in dreamy monologue, as though she were talking to herself.

One striking element: grade-school girls experience
a large portion of the angst and express many of the opinions and instruct a considerable number of the lessons here. Time shifts backward and forward with startling ease, so this is readily possible in Ms. Davis’s plot. However delightful the author’s skill in rendering the shifting universe in vivid visuals, there are so many elements that no single one dominates. Robots inhabit homes and look like people and can see infinitely forward and back in time. The sorcerer steals souls, but getting rich from shady real estate deals can’t be the reason he does it, can it? Who is Downie, and how does he know the robots so well? Why does the grade school teacher figure so prominently before utterly disappearing? How come there are overgrown rabbits in the countryside?

I ask too many questions, I know, and perhaps it proves I’m missing the point. This is a highly diverting read from a very inventive author. It takes an unorthodox (to say the least) approach to explore essential human themes, and recondite cosmic themes as well. Unfortunately I find myself nonplussed. If these treatments and tropes interest you, by all means take it up. Ms. Davis’s talent for invention speaks for itself.

"We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think" by Shirley Hazzard

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Shirley Hazzard, author of two magnificent novels I have read, The Great Fire and The Transit of Venus, collected a series of lectures and reviews in a slim volume, called We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think. It concludes with a series of reviews of novels, only one of which I had read. I found her review of that book unfortunately too brief to do more than touch on some basic points.

Ms. Hazzard brings up some edifying insights in a series of lectures called “The Lonely Word.” They serve as a fairly straightforward observations about fiction that clearly bear repeating. She establishes early on that the narrative art dealt originally with the large-scale undertaking by larger-than-life actors: war, challenging the gods, going on great quests. She says the First World War made it impossible to ever focus on the grand canvas again. The actions of rulers during that great and tragically shortsighted conflict proved wasteful and idiotic. As T.S Eliot said, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”

Narrative art has focused on the personal ever since. Inward journeys, the overheard dialogue with oneself, invented by Shakespeare and not improved upon since, form the basis for the bulk of current fiction, and is part of the reason we find it so compelling. As a follow-on concept, Ms. Hazzard avers, 

"Articulation is an aspect of human survival, not only in its commemorative and descriptive function, but in relieving the human soul of incoherence. In so far as expression can be matched to sensation and event, human nature seems to retain consciousness.”


How much more rudimentary, or more persuasive, can a statement be? As a reason for writing, and a bald formula for it, Ms. Hazzard
cannot have said it any better. She cites Yeats, who said he wrote to give emotions expressions for his own pleasure: otherwise 

“all would be oratorical and insincere. If we understand our own minds, and the things that are striving to utter themselves through our minds, we move others, not because we have understood or thought about those others, but because all life has the same root.”


These bracing and simple statements about writing provide an antidote to some of the more arcane thoughts about narrative expressed by Derrida and Bakhtin, for example. I want to thank the author for her perspective and her thoughts and recommend this collection to anyone caught up in recondite language concepts and struggling to see the bigger picture.

"Beautiful to the Bone" by PG Lengsfelder

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Eunis is born with unique genetic markers: she’s albino, and has a very prominent brown birthmark on her face that runs down to her neck. Unfortunately her mother is a superstitious bumpkin who convinces Eunis that she’s some kind of ugly freak, not to be trusted, a bringer of bad luck.

Much of the energy of this book derives from this conflict. Eunis accepts this verdict at a basic level, even as she resents and rebels against her mother. Additionally, she finds she has perceptions and powers which she struggles to understand. Harnessing them remains out of the question. The plot follows this unique being through a difficult solitude in school, in her brief marriage, and later in her lonely quest to define beauty through some objective criteria.

And in this, Mr. Lengsfelder has built the most interesting feature of this rather patchy work. His heroine, however convinced she is of her own ugliness, nevertheless attracts a series of others, some of whom find her irresistible. He sets his lead character on a lifelong quest to define beauty: she studies genetics, works in a lab that tests various genetic properties, and keeps measuring and analyzing her own attraction to others.

Beyond this potentially interesting setup, the book struggles to find a pace or a compelling principle upon which to build its narrative. We travel along with Eunis, and we cringe when she inadvertently hurts or insults people, or damages their careers, or pushes potentially appealing partners away. We wonder at the import of her visions and voices. Things happen to her because of her good intentions, but mostly her focus is herself, and protecting her privacy, which she values so highly because
of her disgust with her own looks.

And given the way her mother treated her when she was young, I cannot accept her move back home to help this vituperative, toxic creature. There is also a quick, befuddling murder mystery at the end of the book, and we end up with very little idea of the motivation for the killing, and only slightly more of an idea who did it.

I found Eunis moderately appealing at times, but very, very inconsistent in her decisions, and downright annoying most of the time. It could be that Eunis is meant to put the reader off, or to make the reader ponder the principles of physical attraction, but I did not find her an overall success. And that’s the same way I view this book.

"The Idea of Perfection" by Kate Grenville

Saturday, April 9, 2016

In The Idea of Perfection we experience very closely the inner dialogues of three major players who proceed with varying degrees of self-consciousness. Two of them are painfully self-aware; they concern themselves deeply with how others view them, and assume the worst. The third navigates her life as though she’s a spectator in it: she nearly dissociates herself from her less desirable acts, while trying, perhaps subconsciously, to atone for them in her more-aware moments. This brilliant book won the 2000 Orange Prize for fiction and completely deserves it.

Two lives converge in the bush country of New South Wales as the book begins. Two strangers arrive independently in Karakarook from Sydney, one a government engineer who will manage the destruction and replacement of an out-of-date bridge, and the other a specialist in heritage and culture who will assist in establishing a museum. He, the gawky engineer with the jug-handle ears and a crippling lack of confidence, and she, the tall, heavyset, and irascible curator, encounter each other. They do not hit if off immediately, to say the least, and the unlikely first date (a delightfully comic stretch of writing) doesn’t help.

But Ms. Grenville, one of my favorites since I encountered The Secret River, has set up the lovely, elegant narrative construct of the crumbling bridge. This simple, past-its-prime span, built from timber and intended to last, has
suffered from the effects of a flood some years ago. Certain townsfolk protest the decision to replace it, citing it as one of the chief historical attractions of the backwater town.

All these facts serve the author’s conceit of building bridges, of spanning obstacles, between people. However effectively this framework is established, though, its resolution rises solely from human action - thought, reflection, intention, and deed. And herein lies Ms. Grenville’s greatest feat. The principals themselves must come to terms with their habitual isolation, and decide whether the opportunity before them  offers sufficient potential for them to change. There are many touches here - too many to mention - that certify the author’s great skill and award-winning vision. Cover to cover this is a great, a masterful performance.

"The Laughing Monsters" by Denis Johnson

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Denis Johnson obviously has a thing for espionage as it’s supposedly practiced today. Although it’s set a few decades in the past, Tree of Smoke centered on the gathering, use, and misuse of intelligence, in particular military intelligence. In The Laughing Monsters we get spies plying their trade again, although in this case the misbehavior seems to drown out the good behavior. The Laughing Monsters features Denis Johnson’s unvarnished prose in the service of a seemingly random plot - there’s no reason a spy caper should follow logic, is there? - and a venal, unstable, impossible-to-predict first person narrator. It’s engaging as hell.

The height of Mr. Johnson’s powers comes into play here: we accompany a presumably competent narrator through a halting, lurching reality, some of it built on a seeming sense, the rest on lunatic delusion, or maybe hallucination. This presentation challenges the reader to keep her balance as best she can, because she’s going to need it to weather the storms of apparent betrayal, incarceration, near-death from thirst, and the constant - and not always successful - running from the authorities.

On the face of the narrative, we have Nair, a captain in the Danish army and spy for an arm of NATO. In Sierra Leone he meets up with a friend, a black man, Michael Adriko, from an African tribe, who has lived in the US for some time. Michael is “attached” as a trainer to the US Army but might be AWOL. Michael has cooked up a harebrained scheme to sting some very shady characters out of millions by selling them fake enriched uranium. Nair has an equally underhanded scheme afoot when the two team up. While trailing along with him, Nair helps Micheal defy death in a couple of frightening scrapes, while trying to steal his fiancée, who for some reason is with Michael in Africa.

Yes, it’s a screwy plot, delightfully so; rather simple on the surface, but full of convolutions underneath. I found the most entertaining prose written in the dialog. Nair’s interrogation by an American intelligence official is supreme.  I wanted to put in a sample, but there’s just too much. The verbal sparring between the spy and the counterspy, often in sentences of three or fewer words, is priceless. I laughed, I reread it,
and I laughed all over again. Conversations among Nair, Michael, and the fiancée Davidia, are almost as funny.

The Laughing Monsters is a slim, entertaining spy caper, where spies use their knowledge and skills to reach for ill-gotten gains. We don’t know for most of the book whether Nair and Michael are friends or enemies. There is certainly no giveaway or hint of how the thing will turn out, so no spoilers here, either.

The monsters of the title are many: there is a mountain range called that, the ubiquitous armed bands of looters and rapists that populate parts of Africa are certainly monsters, and the U.S., which displays its monstrousness through military assets and its use of law for convenience. I compare this to Nobody Move, Johnson’s celebrated short piece, for its focus on the moral shadows, for its brand of action, and for its injection of delightful dialog.

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