15 January 2012


My Christmas present to myself this year was oh-so-cheap and deeply appreciated: the guilt-over-taking-my-finger-off-the-pulse-free rereading of three wonderful books.

First, an upscale airplane read (which carried me through all my holiday-trip flights): Foucault's Pendulum (Umberto Eco), the labyrinthine, loopy tale of three editors who set out to create the ultimate conspiracy theory and succeed behind their wildest dreams. (Wow, is that the blurbiest sentence I've ever written?) It's a thriller by way of Rupert Giles' library, and the source of everything I know about kabbalah, the Templars, the Rosicrucians, folk religions of South America, etc., etc. for gobs of medievalist esoterica. And it's erudite in the way only the most formidable erudition can be, in that it's glorying goofily in the whole enterprise, playing fast and loose with logic in the name of narrative. So much fun!!

Then, brought down the room with Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. Good grief, this book is a punch to the gut, but such a beautiful, elegant, necessary one, an indictment of a whole society by an insider. If you haven't read it--and you should, and you should also watch the movie with Gillian Anderson, because she nails it--it follows lovely Lily Bart, brought up to crave opulence and to live beyond her means, through her slow downward spiral out of society and into failure. She's an amazing, conflicted character. There's this core to her that wants something--anything--more than what the turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York deems appropriate for a beautiful woman. She longs for love yet can't accept a marriage without money, knowing her luxurious tastes would cause her to resent a man who couldn't indulge them. A part of her, though, chafes at the idea of marriage without love. Trapped between the two, she can only flounder, and a series of poor decisions ruins her chances for even a comfortable life. Her gradual failure is heartbreaking, because she's so likeable--and yet when she realizes she's a "useless person," she's absolutely right. She has no skills, no real talents. She is merely decorative--and once she ceases to serve that purpose, she's thrown out like a Christmas tree after New Year's. (For the other side of the coin, read Wharton's uproarious The Custom of the Country, which chronicles the meteoric rise in the same social milieu of scheming-to-the-point-of-sociopathic Undine Spragg. Ooh, look, come March you can get both with The Age of Innocence in a sexily-illustrated omnibus edition! Penguin Classics, I love you.)

And even though I first read it less than a year and a half ago, I fell madly in love with Skippy Dies all over again. Like I wrote previously, it "hits the sweet spot for me between bleak and hilarious, between epic and hopelessly mundane." Paul Murray evokes both pubescent coming-of-age and the modern second attempt at maturity that (in a First World-y way) occurs in our late twenties with such pathos, such brutal precision, it would be unbearable if he weren't also so freakin' funny. I'd forgotten the variety of narration he uses, sometimes subtle ones, as when conversation is sometimes set off with quotation marks and sometimes only with commas--and second person present, the trickiest, weirdest POV, makes frequent and effective appearances. His sentences swell and ebb expertly, punchily short following protracted ones, comma-strewn but carefully constructed. Oh, and this time I actually marked a few particularly gorgeous passages, so you don't have to just trust me when I enthuse about the glory of the prose! Here ya go:
  • "[An elderly priest] in his black raiment looking like a single downward stroke of the pen, a peremptory, unforgiving slash through the error-strewn copybook that is the world."
  • "[Ruprecht] gently lowers Optimus Prime into a kind of metallic crib [part of a machine intended to bridge eleven-dimensional space]. And there, for a moment, on his knees by the foil-lined pod, he bides--like Moses's mother, perhaps, with her bulrush basket on the banks of the Nile--gazing reflectively at the robot's painted eyes, thinking that to do anything, epic or mundane, bound for glory or doomed to failure, is in its way to say goodbye to a world; that the greatest victories are therefore never without the shadow of loss; that every path you take, no matter how lofty or effulgent, aches not only with the memory of what you left behind, but with the ghosts of all the untaken paths, now never to be taken, running parallel . . . "
  • "You know, you spend your childhood watching TV, assuming that at some point in the future everything you see there will one day happen to you: that you too will win a Formula One race, hop a train, foil a group of terrorists, tell someone 'Give me the gun', etc. . . . Gradually the awful truth dawns on you: that Santa Claus was just the tip of the iceberg--that your future will not be the rollercoaster ride you'd imagined, that the world occupied by your parents, the world of washing the dishes, going to the dentist, weekend trips to the DIY superstore to buy floor-tiles, is actually largely what people mean when they speak of  'life'. Now, with every day that passes, another door seems to close, the one marked PROFESSIONAL STUNTMAN, or FIGHT EVIL ROBOT, until as the weeks go by and the doors--GET BITTEN BY SNAKE, SAVE WORLD FROM ASTEROID, DISMANTLE BOMB WITH SECONDS TO SPARE--keep closing, you begin to hear the sound as a good thing, and start closing some yourself, even ones that didn't necessarily need to be closed . . ."

I really can't wait to read everything Murray writes for the rest of his career--I won't be able to think of Irish literature without calling up his name.

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