30 October 2010

"Royal Tenebaums meets Watchmen."

OK, I'm not done with All Clear yet, though I just checked and I'm only 100 pages from the end--OH NOEZ!! THEN IT WILL BE OVER!! It's an absolute masterpiece of plot construction, juggling points of view, piecing out information slyly, until you see things you should have seen all along--like the Agatha Christie mysteries one of the characters reads for research (Ms. Christie also makes a tiny, not-annoying cameo).

But I did finish a book this week, on three 15-minute breaks at work, actually: Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá's lovely comic The Umbrella Academy, Vol. 1: Apocalypse Suite. I don't have anything better to say about it than already said in this post's title, a quote from a fellow Goodreads denizen: a perfect encapsulation of what makes it great (except I liked it way better than Watchmen, but I'm of a distinctly minority opinion about said comic). It's about a septet of super-powered orphans adopted by a monocled, mysterious inventor--in the first issue, they save Paris from a marauding Eiffel Tower driven by a zombie robot Gustave Eiffel himself. Naturally! Then it jumps forward twenty years to the regathering of the children after their "father"'s death, filling in bits of the ensuing embitterment along the way.

There's a second trade, called Dallas, which I'm hoping turns up at the Strand soon so I can peruse it over a few more breaks. Lord knows I can't afford to actually buy it.

26 October 2010

Elevator operators.

(OK, The Intuitionist is actually about elevator inspectors, but who can resist the classic example of dactylic hexameter [the Homeric cadence]. Certainly not me!!)

So yeah, elevator inspectors, with the upward movement of elevators as a metaphor for African-American racial uplift, told through the downfall and increasing disillusionment of an unnamed-but-obviously-New-York-but-not-real-New-York-the-New-York-of-noir-city's first black female inspector, Lila Mae Watson. This just-slightly-off-kilter world is hilariously obsessed with elevators--vast amounts of political power are wielded by rival corporations and diametrically opposed factions with the Department itself, Empiricism and Intuitionism. There is, as I said, a noirishness to the story, with a stubborn, principled, but ultimately naive protagonist peeling back layers of corruption and cold-heartedness. And there's a humor running throughout, a kind of knowing "yeah, this is totally a novel about elevators" shrug that provided a much-needed counterpoint to Lila Mae's rather dour character. And yes, Whitehead's beautiful prose imbues the taken-for-granted elevator with a wonder and mysticism that would be impossible for a lesser writer to pull off--yesterday I saw an elevator inspection van on the street, and my heart leapt.

But I don't think he quite pulls off an even trickier feat: deploying a huge central metaphor/allegory without it sometimes becoming too pat, too obvious. OK, elevators go up, like African-American social mobility through the mechanism of the civil rights movement; OK, Empiricism is based on surface details (like segregating people based on appearance) and Intuitionism a holistic, internal approach (we're all brothers and sisters under the skin!). When this shoe drops fairly explicitly, quite late in the novel, I was a bit embarrassed for the book, because I feel like it's suddenly selling itself short. So many marvelous, intricate details (the collegial haircut sported by the male elevator inspectors, for instance; Lila Mae's only ally and his dogged determination to raise the profile of escalators) are unnecessary to the ultimately simple Empiricist=White=Bad, Intuitionist=Black=Good that if you decide it's all a racial allegory you lose a lot of the delight of the book--the speculative-fiction aspects of Whitehead having thought long and hard (and brought his ferocious talent to bear) on the idea of an elevator-mad universe. I feel like, in a way, viewing it as a Race Relations Novel is a way of side-stepping the world-building here, a way for critics to ensconce themselves squarely in the Literature purview without having to worry about having accidentally read something closer to sci-fi. I only blame Whitehead himself a little for this, really, because it's his flair for language and specifics that make it a great novel; but his critic-aided attempts to define the underlying abstractions keep it from being Great.

23 October 2010

An Internet pinky-swear.

I make a contract with you, my ten-and-possibly-more readers: for as long as my days off are Tuesdays and Saturdays, I’ll meet you here, to talk about books, as I read them and immediately after, before I forget all I wanted to say about them, and have to reel off another apologetic, amateurish, “in brief” post like, uh, this one. I know I can do it: just look back at the sometimes 1000-word+ reviews I wrote for Watermark’s weekly newsletter. Of course, for those I had free sandwiches as incentive. SAAAANDWICHES.

The Scar, China Mieville: the second novel set in the Bas-Lag world of Perdido Street Station; this one's set in a floating outlaw city called Armada. If you don't count Moby-Dick, which of course you should, it's the best sea-quest novel I've ever read...once I get a hold of Iron Council, I promise you a lengthy essay about Mieville's evolving use of the city--with every novel I've read fictional metropolises (Perdido's New Crobuzon, Scar's Armada, The City & the City's Beszel/Ul Quoma) close in on "real' ones, with the shadow-London of Un Lun Dun a crucial link to Kraken's setting in a richly reimagined London proper. (Although I hear Iron Council's a Western, so it may throw a wrench in the works--if so, like all good critics, I shall simply ignore it.)

Zofloya, or The Moor, Charlotte Dacre: I'm fascinated by old-timey popular literature, especially the high-strung gothic novel, but this one was just OK. Not sure how it would have come off had Oxford World Classics not made the stupendous blunder of giving away the huge twist on the second-to-last page on the back of the book. SERIOUSLY.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller & Jamestown, Matthew Sharpe: Dystopia ahoy! I might owe myself an essay on why I find these so fascinating, but I think it's just that I love thought-experiments in general and have a generally fatalistic view of the world. Of these two, Canticle was much, much better, using the throughline of the Catholic Church (speaking of generally fatalistic) to link three novellas through a millennium, **SPOILER ALERT FOR A 50-YEAR-BOOK** (mouseover for details, since if you're like me you can never successfully skip text without reading it). Jamestown, a near-future retelling of the founding of the titular settlement, was less successful (to me at least)--I can't quite put my finger on why, but I think it has to do with the too-similar idiolect of the many different POVs (the narrative switches with each chapter). Usually I can deal with stylistic repetition (especially if I like said style, and I liked Sharpe's quite a lot), and I rarely care about "believability" in terms of characters' thoughts and words, and in a book that's all about communication and its breakdowns, it actually makes sense for what should be wildly disparate to converge. So I've really no excuse but "I just did, OK" for coming away less than impressed. Please don't revoke my intellectual credentials.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman: Loved it--loved the premise (all the various multicultural lares and penates brought over by centuries of immigrants to the U.S., squaring up for a war with the new deities of Internet and Media), loved the execution. Once you've read it, head over to this great wiki of all the gods mentioned!

I also recently read Colson Whitehead's first novel, The Intuitionist, which deals with racism and elevator inspection--no, really. Stepped it up out of the random-roll sched because it was this month's pick on The A.V. Club's book club (Wrapped Up in Books). Coming up in Tuesday's post: I actually read the A.V. Clubbers' essays, and try to make sense of the book myself!

(BTW: currently re-reading Connie Willis' Blackout, which ended cliffhangingly, since All Clear FINALLY came out this week!!! Will talk about both together, as they're really one v. long book, but it'll take me a while to get through. And then I'll be sad they're over.)
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