19 March 2011


Finished Anna K. ten days ago--I've read six books since then. Several of them in 24 hours (A Visit from the Goon  Squad, Other People We Married, Antonya Nelson's Bound, of which more below). Twin forces of unemployment-induced free time and relief at making it through that Russian brick, I suppose.

Took me a couple of days to read Margaret Atwood's latest, The Year of the Flood, a woman-centered dystopian novel (for Freebird's Post-Apocalyptic Book Club next week, though I'll actually miss the meeting) which I quite liked--although the last fourth was haunted by my friend Noah's comment that he threw Oryx and Crake (set in the same world, shortly previous to Flood) across the room, because he hates the anti-humanist tone of contemporary dystopia. He's got a point--there are aspects of the modern environmental movement that resemble a secular apocalypse cult (which in Flood becomes a quasi-Christian sect, the homesteading, recycling God's Gardeners), in that the upcoming doom is about humanity's errant behavior--the sins are different, but the disapproval of the elect feels the same, doesn't it? I'm fascinated to know whether the current future visions of a climate-changed wasteland will seem as dated in fifty years as nuclear-winter novels do now.

I liked Year of the Flood a lot, though, and Noah's irritation helped me clarify my own thinking about dystopian fiction: I don't really care what brought about the catastrophe. Human action, unforeseeable act of nature, magic, fine--what interests me is the aftermath, the scrabble for survival and cobbling together of new societies with the detritus of the old. Improvised lives and operatic emotions. I've ordered Oryx and Crake from the library as well--see how the pandemic whose survivors populate Flood came about!

Next I read Bound, which was only OK. Antonya Nelson is a fellow Wichitan, and Sarah Bagby, who owns Watermark Books where I used to work, was a big fan--and most of this novel takes place there, during the surreal period when BTK, a serial killer active in the city during the 70s (right after my parents moved to Kansas from Wisconsin, so my dad could go to grad school), resurfaced, sending taunting notes to the media as he'd done 25 years before, and linking himself to two previously unsolved murders. As it turned out, he hadn't died, or been incarcerated--he actually went dormant, throwing a lot of serial-killer psychology out the window. There's a line a few pages in about a character "feeling a prickling pride in being from the city where he'd killed people, the curious emotion of by-proxy notoriety."

By-proxy pride is all I could really get from the novel, though, just the "Hey, I went to East High too!" experience that must happen to New Yorkers all the time. The story was all right (two-sentence summary? A woman's high school best friend dies in a car accident, and after years of silence, she discovers the woman had long ago named her as guardian to her now 15-year-old daughter. Also, her much-older husband is cheating on her with a much-younger-than-her woman, because he is just a total asshole), but I couldn't stand the paragraphs...the complicated, list-heavy, often verbless sentences were quite lovely on their own, but then the next sentence would also be complicated, list-heavy, and verbless--and the next one too. Just too much--nowhere to breathe, no rhythm. Or maybe too much of a rhythm, so little variation? It just did not taste good. Example? OK:
"He was attracted to the old-fashioned sign, the black and white tipped top hat, the unrenovated sleazy aspect that said the motel proprietor would rent by the hour, would take cash, would understand the idea of parking in the back. Like Joyland [hey, I've been to Joyland!!! awesome amusement park, now sadly closed and increasingly like a horror-movie set], the motel was a fading piece of the former city. For Oliver, this imagined seedy locale was part and parcel of his second life, that simultaneous existence that was a lurid undercurrent beneath the one on top, the nocturnal answer to the broad and reputable daylight."
Do you see? Three sentences, three lists, all simply repeating the same idea without adding to it or deepening it. Don't they teach you not to do that in MFA programs? Am I taking crazy pills?!?!

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