Absence – 4/5 Stars
I started reading this one for a few different reasons. One, Peter Handke is often in the conversation for the Nobel Prize. In these conversations the general thread is that his work should be considered along the lines of a combination of his novels and fiction and also his screenwriting. I am not sure how I feel about that and I also feel like there’s a kind of gray area in terms of how many different forms/ how much of a writer’s career is to be considered. Bob Dylan, for example, was cited for his “song book” and not actually his songs. Tagore was cited for his lyrics, but not really his fiction. And Thomas Mann and Knut Hamsun were specifically cited for single novels in their very long careers (Mann for Buddenbrooks and Hamsun for Growth of the Soil).
The other reason I chose this book was that it was the only one my library had.
Anyway, this novel is set in a kind of urban void, where there’s maybe no people left and we have an expedition formed and sent out to explore it. The novel then relates this voyage, almost without character names and very little dialog. It’s a kind arctic exploration. To me it felt like the novelization of the movie “Stalker” as opposed to reading the novel that “Stalker” is based on, “Roadside Picnic”. It also felt like what if Samuel Beckett wrote The Polar Express or some other Chris van Allsburg children’s book — bleak and empty and thought-provoking. Anyway, I actually really liked it.
The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick – 3/5
This is an odd novel that I initially wanted to read for a handful of reasons. As I stated above, I wanted to check out Peter Handke’s writing because he’s always in the mix for potential Nobel Prize winners, and I am thinking he’s an interesting choice, but not a likely one. Also, I find Central/Western European novels like this one to be curious, because they seem so far off from the kinds of novels I am used to reading. The title appealed to me mainly because I have been playing goalie in an adult league recently.
So this novel reads like a film, and that makes a lot of sense given Handke is a screenwriter. But what I mean by that specifically is that there’s a lot of visual description happening in this novel and very little dialog, at least for the first 50 pages or so. Also, if you were to write a screenplay that closely follows this novel, it might not even cover the bulk of what a film contains time-wise. So the visual qualities plus the overall terseness in language allowed me to think about this way. As a novel though, I found it fairly lacking. Curious, interesting — yes all that, but ultimately a kind of void.
Here’s a quotation:
“These “so thats,” “becauses,” and “whens” were like regulations; in decided to avoid them in order not to–”
Zeppelin’s West – 2/5
Here’s a novel I didn’t like and one that I didn’t like well enough to probably not read any more from this novelist. I know of Joe R Lansdale initially because of the movie “Bubba Hotep” where an elderly Elvis fights a mummy in a old folk’s home. It’s a charming movie made real through it starring Bruce Campbell.
This novel is a kind of Wild Wild West steampunk tale, written only a few years after the Wild Wild West movie with Will Smith, so in some ways it feels like a rip-off, but it also borrows heavily from pulp books from the actual Wild Wild West and a few other sources.
Ultimately it felt quite empty and repeatedly misogynistic and gross in ways that did nothing to build the world, create characters, or move the plot in any meaningful way.
So the other influences: this book feels a lot like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which I also don’t really like, but with historical figures (mainly) instead of fictional ones. It’s a ragtage group of blah blah blah. But what it ultimately felt like was: emptiness.
“If viewed from below, the twelve of them appeared to be brightly colored cigar. It seemed God had clumsily dropped them from his humidor. But fall they didn’t. They hung in the sky, floated on, and from time to time, as if smoked by invisible lips, they puffed steam.
If you listened carefully, and they weren’t too high, you could hear motors hum, and if it were high noon and the weather was good, you could hear the John Philip Sousa band out on the promenade, blowing and beating to knock down the heavens or raise up the devil.
Inside the main cabin of the lead zeppelin, called Old Paint due to its spotted canvas, Buffalo Bill Cody, or what was left of him, resided in his liquid-filled jar, long gray hair drifting about his head. He waited for Buntline to turn the crank and juice him up. He certainly needed it. His head felt as if it were stuffed with cotton.”
Utz – 4/5 Stars
Another book that I happened to enjoy quite a bit. This book came out in the 80s and was nominated alongside The Satanic Verse by Salman Rushdie for the Booker Prize, ultimately losing to Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. This book is a short novella about a Czech man named Kaspar Utz, locally renowned for his collection of Meissner porcelain, elaborately decorated and ornately designed. This collection is also remarkable because Czechoslovakia, being an Eastern Bloc country, adhered to a ban on personal property (including art pieces), but because of his insistence on this being a household good, he was able to keep it.
The book is written from the perspective of someone researching and interviewing Utz, probably a fictionalized Bruce Chatwin, who is also well know as a travel writer. This perspective puts Utz into the role of object of curiosity alongside his porcelain collection. Together the two voices help to pound out the details of Utz’s life — Utz providing the narrative and the narrator providing the research and historical detail. The result is an interesting results — a British anti-communist (but more so anti-authoritarian) novel very much like pre-war anti-Fascist novels. This felt a lot like one of several Stefan Zweig short stories I have read.
“One year, he went to Paris for the week-end: but that completely upset his equilibrium.”
“Anything was better than to be loved for one’s things.”
Friday Black – 4/5 Stars
This is a collection of short stories that was published in the last few months and it feels very much like it was published in the last few months. There’s a range of different kinds of stories here, and there’s one or two not so great ones, but the over all collection is very good.
I was a little suspicious for a few reasons. One, I don’t trust all of the people who blurbed this book. That’s a shallow reason to not trust a book, but it’s not one without fruit. When it became clear that the main thrust of readers and commenters came from the author’s MFA program, I was less suspicious.
Anyway! The opening story is likely the best one, and it’s also the most challenging one. In this story, a Black man is trying to process his reactions and grief to a not guilty verdict of a white man accused of killing several Black children outside of a library. It’s a national story localized on this one character, and his grief and anger manifest in a desire to want to commit his own kinds of violence kind of out of revenge but more so out of a kind of survival mechanism, as if lashing out and inflicting acts of violence would help to create a threatening, but protective layer around Black people around the country. And he is not alone; in fact there’s a rash of similar acts happening, which as the story admit perpetuates acts of violence toward Black people. But the most important quality of this story, and most of the stories in this collection is the tone of detached irony and absurdity that characterizes the voice in this story. This story is written as a kind of absurdist story, which of course we recognize that the content is not THAT absurd, and so it works on that kind of taking things to their logical conclusion, pointing at the absurdities within and challenging anyone to comment: well of course it’s very very very bad, but it’s not very very very VERY bad!
The blurbs that seem right to me on the book make this connection too.
It’s a timely book that’s elevated by the strong narrative voice.
Erasure – 4/5 Stars
I don’t know if I can completely capture what this is book is but I will try and then add some context.
This book is kind of angry satire and parody of the publishing world surrounding African American fiction and scholarship in the early 2000s. That this novel came out about the same time of Spike Lee’s movie Bamboozled is not suprising, because they share some real similarities. But the themes here go back at least 100 years in Black arts, and much farther if we expand our thinking a little.
In the novel we meet Thelonious Ellison, maybe a stand-in for Everett, but clearly a kind of work up of Ralph Ellison and probably some Richard Wright. He is an “avant garde” novelist reeling from the recent moderate success of a more straight forward “contemporary Black novel” that he hated writing. He’s back home for a reading/conference in Washington DC and while there he avoids sleeping with a white contemporary who wishes to debase herself with him (shades of Invisible Man here) and visits his mother, slowing falling into dementia or perhaps Alzheimer’s and meets up with his sister a doctor in a women’s health clinic (and abortion provider). He is working on a novel based on the Roland Barthes book S/Z, which is itself a reaction to a Flaubert novel. He also has recently written a novel based on Greek drama. All of this setup is to show that he’s facing some pressure to be a more financial success, stemmed in part from the blockbuster new novel “We’s Lives in the Ghetto” a depraved depiction of Black urban life through the extremely limited lens of a middle-class Black woman receiving a lot of positive attention for her work.
And so, because he’s getting pressure and also needs to take care of his mother, he writes two novels in farcical and extremely uncomfortable “Black vernacular” under the pseudonym “Stag R Leigh” and like other songs about Stagger Lee—well, let’s say as a white dude in his 30s, I won’t be quoting anything from the novels. And of course the novels are a success, leading to some mixed feelings on his part.
This novel reads in the same tradition as Ishmael Reed and George Schuyler.