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It’s been months since I posted last. Recently I started a new job. I haven’t written much (or read much) in a long time because I’m always exhausted at the moment. Everything’s a bit overwhelming right now and I really hope that changes soon (it will). I read some wonderful books while I was away and while I don’t have the time to give them the attention they deserve (in the past I might have dedicated a whole post to some of the books listed here) I wanted to write a few brief words on the words I read on the other side of the world.

books

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
The visceral realists are a poetry movement consisting of young idealistic junkie romantics. They are tough and rough yet full of heart and  The journey of Arturo Belano (that’s Bolaño himself) and Ulisses Lima (Bolaño’s friend and fellow poet José Alfredo Zendejas Pineda) as they escape Mexico City to locate a mysterious and elusive poet in the Sonoran desert. The majority of the book consists of interviews and testimonies from dozens of people from Mexico, South America, Europe and beyond, people who saw Belano and Lima and the visceral realists pass through their lives in some vague and spectral capacity. It’s a book about love, the idea and the ideals of love, about the intensity of youth and its brevity, life and its harsh and sad realities, the people who wander into your path, those who settle, those who die, those who change and those who can’t, those who are remembered and those who are forgotten, fond memories and past lovers lost and found. It’s a powerful book. A road trip that spans twenty years, The Savage Detectives is funny, melancholic, beautiful.

Of all the islands he’d visited, two stood out. The island of the past, he said, where the only time was past time and the inhabitants were bored and more or less happy, but where the weight of illusion was so great that the island sank a little deeper into the river every day. And the island of the future, where the only time was the future, and the inhabitants were planners and strivers, such strivers, said Ulises, that they were likely to end up devouring one another.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
A heartwarming little book that champions the human condition. On the surface it may appear simplistic and humdrum but Steinbeck’s descriptions of Cannery Row and its inhabitants reveals a charming set of characters, pimps and whores and homeless drunks, who despite their ordinary lives share wonderful experiences together. You can read this in an afternoon, but it will leave you enchanted for some time afterwards.

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
In just one or two thousand words Denis Johnson can write a vignette that transports you to rural America, puts you into the life of a relapsing drug addict, in the company of other addicts, drunks, petty criminals, burnouts and wasters. The narratives are chaotic and often inconclusive in these interlinked tales but the imagery contained within dimly illuminate this world in a hopeful light.

Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Despite being published back in 1955 Lolita remains a controversial book. And for good reason. What the poor, hopelessly romantic Humbert Humbert would have us understand as a tragic love affair, we know to be the lusting (and ultimately, rape) of an eleven year old girl. Humbert is despicable and depraved, veering from unapologetic manipulation to self disgust at his perversions. Nabokov succeeds in making Humbert both a vile villain and a sympathetic protagonist. And his prose is so playful and deep and full of symmetry. A disturbing book that is at times tough to read, but equally tough to put down.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Absalom, Absalom! and Light in August by William Faulkner
You know, I’ve read essays and critical analyses for both Absalom and Light in August, and it left me feeling inadequate and underprepared. I’m not going to lie to you and say that I find Faulkner easy to read but I enjoyed these two books and I thought I had a good grasp of what occurred within each narrative. Turns out I missed a hell of a lot of symbolism, double meanings and thematic values the first time around. Faulkner’s writing is heavy and severe and his stories sprawl in a nonlinear way. Sometimes I get lost, sometimes I have to turn back and start again. Sometimes it’s the getting there, the way a story unfolds, that makes it a story worth telling.

Dune by Frank Herbert
Dune is considered a sci-fi classic by many, so I was a little disappointed when I finally got around to reading it. Perhaps it hasn’t aged as well as other science fiction? While the desert planet of Arrakis is a fascinating setting and the world building by Herbert is superbly vivid and rich, almost everything else I found to be lacking, the prose, the dialogue, the cliched fantasy characters. I can see the influence Dune has had on the science fiction and fantasy genres but it doesn’t quite hold up to those high standards now.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov
In some ways my criticisms of Foundation are somewhat similar to my criticisms of Dune. Asimov, as he did countless times during his life, created an innovative and original premise. The sense of scope and scale is impressive too. But again, one dimensional characters engage in fairly dry (and sometimes downright dull) discussions of politics and trade negotiations and faith in the Foundation itself. Some of the concepts are interesting, but others really did feel like a slog to get through.

London Fields by Martin Amis.
A bit rubbish to be honest. Amis creates a lot of ideas, potentially interesting ones at that, but none of them stick. Unlikeable characters pegged precisely into their social classes do awful things over and over again. It’s all rather aimless. Not too dissimilar to this blog.

Cheers, N.

Discharged from his service during World War II, Hazel Motes returns home to Tennessee in his early twenties, his childhood doubts over salvation, sin and his faith further shattered by the war, to the point he identifies himself an atheist, or anti-religion. A chance meeting in the city with a blind preacher, Asa Hawks, and his daughter Sabbath, exacerbates Motes’ detestation of the Church, and he vows to form his own ministry, The Church Without Christ, and he delivers impassioned sermons from the hood of his dilapidated car. All the while, a teenage boy, Enoch Emery, follows Motes on his blasphemous path, compelled by the ‘wise blood’ that runs in his veins, infatuated with the idea of The Church Without Christ.

wise-blood2Wise Blood is Flannery O’Connor’s first novel. Along with her second, The Violent Bear It Away (a dark and superbly challenging book) and several short story collections, it represents a small but powerful collection of writings of a woman who died tragically young, with an imagination so powerfully vivid she was willing to examine and dissect the ruminations of man’s relationship with God.

I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s, but behind all of them, there’s only one truth and that is that there is no truth… No truth behind all truths is what I and this church preach! Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place… In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.

As to be expected with O’Connor’s work, there are the powerful themes of religion and faith, there are several flawed but deeply fascinating characters, and there are dark, violent, macabare twists and turns. Wise Blood is a simple tale, but O’Connor introduces us to several ignition points and has them dance dangerously close to one another. Motes alternates between an anxious, confused young man and a bitter, violent wretch, cast from the shadow of his preacher grandfather, and as the story progresses we discover Motes cannot completely reject God. False prophets and phoney preachers and corrupted teenage girls are ultimately too much for him to handle. His crisis of faith descent into religious fanaticism and while sad and at times, horrifying, there is black humour throughout. The scene where Enoch stabs a man in order to steal his gorilla suit is deliriously freakish, and just one of many intimate pieces of life and characters that O’Connor exposes to us in this strange city. “Her name was Maude and she drank whisky all day from a fruit jar under the counter.” 

“Do you think, Mr. Motes,” his landlady asked hoarsely, “that when you’re dead you’re blind?”
“I hope so,” he said after a minute.
“Why?” she asked, staring at him.
After a while he said, “If there’s no bottom in your eyes, they hold more.”

At times the narrative doesn’t flow, which I attribute to the fact that several of the scenes were originally released as individual, stand alone stories, but it doesn’t take away from the overall feeling I took from the book. O’Connor is a giant of southern gothic literature, and her stories never fail to shake me. Wise Blood is no different.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly, arguably his most successful novels, Philip K. Dick mastered existential science fiction and the dark and personal hell of addiction and schizophrenia. With Ubik he created a purgatory of uncertainty and horror, and The Man in the High Castle is a spiritual and captivating piece of reimagined history. I’m a huge PKD fan – yet I was indifferent to VALIS. I’m sorry Phil, but for large parts of the book I didn’t really know what the fuck was going on.

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VALIS, which stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, and the titular VALIS, an artificial satellite capable of communicating with humanity and passing on intrinsic knowledge, is drawn from Gnosticism, and is Dick’s vision of an aspect of God. Horselover Fat (a schizophrenic personality of Dick) experiences bizarre visions and with his friends, the sceptic and cynical Kevin, and the Catholic David, they attempt to make sense of the information, in the forms of pink laser beams, Fat seems receptive too.

The distinction between sanity and insanity is narrower than a razor’s edge, sharper than a hound’s tooth, more agile than a mule deer. It is more elusive than the merest phantom. Perhaps it does not even exist; perhaps it is a phantom.

Meandering, ponderous, and at times incoherent and inconsequential, it’s a difficult read. The book is so heavy with Fat’s philosophical and theological musings, various interpretations of religious events and histories, that it can be hard to keep up. But at times, VALIS really shines. When Fat discovers a film (named VALIS) which contains imagery and references to identical revelations Fat has been exposed to, the group are stunned and for a second, the pieces fit. Amongst the thousands of words there is some semblance of shared knowledge. As the group speculate with excitement on every scene in the film, on every possible meaning and theory, it is hard not to share their enthusiasm and disbelief.

Ultimately it comes to nothing. Maybe it never was anything. Schizophrenic hallucinations or visions from a damaging addiction. As a novel it is disappointing. As a series of ideas and beliefs, as a window to Philip K. Dick’s brilliant brain, it is fevered and frenzied and strange.

While hunting deer in the Texan desert Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam war veteran, stumbles upon a drug deal gone south, with bullet ridden corpses and abandoned vehicles and a satchel containing two million dollars. In deciding to take the money he knows he has sealed an uncertain fate and changed his life forever. What follows is a cat-and-mouse chase as the county police department and drug dealers desperate for their money race to get to Moss first, while Moss himself desperately tries to stay one step ahead of an unfathomable and malevolent hitman who kills mercilessly to get what he needs.

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Stills taken from the theatrical adaptation of McCarthy’s novel.

I mentioned a cat-and-mouse chase, somewhat of a cliched description, but the plot of No Country For Old Men has been done hundreds of times before. Any originality to be found comes instead from the portrayal and viewpoint of the two central characters, and Llewyln Moss is not one of them. This book is about Ed Tom Bell, an ageing county sheriff who struggles to adapt and comprehend to the new brand of violence encroaching on the old West, and Anton Chigurh, a cold blooded and murderous entity whose nihilistic views on fate and choice are terrifyingly final and not up for dispute. The book contains several internal monologues from the point of view of Ed Tom, as he recalls law stories of days past and how it compares to what he sees and hears today. His clear romanticism of the past (Ed Tom recalls an older generation sheriff who never felt the need to even carry a weapon while on duty) and a fear of what he will have to do, and become, to continue to uphold the law in this turbulent and unforgiving climate, becomes all the more powerful when reading about the actions and mindset of Chigurh.

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Javier Bardem as the terrifying Anton Chigurh.

Chigurh is an incredible villain, up there with Judge Holden as an almost demonic entity completely incomprehensible to the poor men and women that find themselves in their path. Chigurh is a hitman, or a bounty hunter, and in No Country For Old Men his role is to reclaim the satchel stolen by Llewyln Moss. Little is known of his origins, his background, his nationality. What makes him terrifying is the way he views himself as a deliverer of fate. Chigurh kills with little remorse but will often deliberate before doing so. After inconsequential small talk with the owner of a gas station, he implores the owner to call on a coin toss, presumably for his life.

You’re asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to live. It doesn’t allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to small purpose. Most people don’t believe that there can be such a person. You see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of. Do you understand? When I came into your life your life was over. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the end. You can say that things could have turned out differently. That there could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way. You’re asking that I second say the world. Do you see?

I actually saw the film adaptation (superbly directed by the Coen Brothers) before I read McCarthy’s novel. While extremely faithful to the source material, Ed Tom, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is very much a backing character. The film focuses far more on Chigurh and his relentless pursuit of Moss, which works fantastically well. The film is tense but moments of action are generally few and far between. Yet it remains gripping due to haunting, menacing and inherently violent performance by Javier Bardem as Chigurh.

Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him. I know he’s real. I have seen his work. I walked in front of those eyes once. I wont do it again. I wont push my chips forward and stand up and go out to meet him. It aint just bein older. I wish that it was. I cant say that it’s even what you are willin to do. Because I always knew that you had to be willin to die to even do this job. That was always true. Not to sound glorious about it or nothin but you do. If you aint they’ll know it. They’ll see it in a heartbeat. I think it is more like what you are willin to become. And I think a man would have to put his soul at hazard. And I wont do that.

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Tommy Lee Jones as the overwhelmed Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.

No Country For Old Men is a compelling, disturbing thriller, and yet some distance from the peak of McCarthy’s works. I see it as the perfect book to introduce yourself to McCarthy – hidden from the bleak nihilism of The Road, the rambling auto-bio-tragedy of Suttree and the brutal savagery of Blood Meridian.

TheOutsider

Albert Camus was a French writer and philosopher whose principal school of philosophy was absurdism, and the study of the Absurd. From my very basic understanding* the main conflict posed by absurdism was the human mind’s tendency to rationalise and assign meaning and value to the meaning of life, and the inability to do so. His works often explored man’s desire for significance and meaning in the face of the silent and cold existence of the universe. While many of his works and essays are linked to existentialism, Camus was always keen to point out that he was not an existentialist.

*Having only read Camus’s The Plague and The Outsider, I am keen to pick up The Myth of Sisyphus next, in which Camus explains his understanding of the absurd in more detail. From the little I’ve read on the subject it seems fascinating.

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L’Étranger was published in France in 1942, and was later translated into English in 1946, published as The Outsider (or The Stranger in the US). A philosophical novel, its outlook centres on the Absurd, and an odd character named Mersault, the narrator of the book and the titular ‘outsider’. The very first line reads “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.” Immediately Camus introduces us to a protagonist who is distant and does not conform to the same emotions one would expect a man in society to do.

The first part of the book details the funeral of Mersault’s mother, and Mersault’s general indifference and lack of grief is noted by several characters. Just days after the funeral he meets with a female colleague, Marie, who he begins a sexual relationship with, as well as becoming acquaintances with his volatile neighbour. On a weekend at another friends beach hut, Mersault carries out a spontaneous act of violence and shoots a man dead. The reasoning for this is never explained in certain terms by Mersault. The second half focuses on Mersault in prison and standing trial for his crimes. To his surprise the prosecutor focuses not on the murder itself but Mersault’s lack of empathy, his quietness, his passiveness. He believes this points to his guilt, and through further trials, accuses the defendant of lacking remorse. As such, he believes the only appropriate punishment is death.

Mostly, I could tell, I made him feel uncomfortable. He didn’t understand me, and he was sort of holding it against me. I felt the urge to reassure him that I was like everybody else, just like everybody else. But really there wasn’t much point, and I gave up the idea out of laziness.

Mersault is described in sparse detail. If he has opinions he keeps them to himself. His actions and the consequences of those actions have little affect on him. The overall plot is simplistic and at around 150 pages The Outsider isn’t a difficult read, but this gives the reader a canvas upon which to prescribe their own ideals. Depending on your morals and understandings of human nature, this book could disturb you, it could anger you, it could depress you. At times I was sympathising with Mersault, at others I despised him.

Less of a story and more of a fascinating character study, The Outsider is an interesting introduction into the philosophical dilemmas that Camus and the Absurd pose. If you have any interest in the Absurd and existentialism, take a look.

suttree

While not composed of the intense chases (No Country For Old Men), brutalistic violence (Blood Meridian) or nihilistic bleakness (The Road) of some of his other works, Suttree is arguably McCarthy’s most ambitious, sprawling novel; a tale of a man’s abandonment of clean living and a rebuttal to his former life of privilege. For the most part any semblance of plot is absent in Suttree. And while vivid, rich descriptions in McCarthy’s And so I can’t really describe what the book is about, other than detailing the titular protagonist, Cornelius Suttree.

Suttree describes the life and times of Cornelius Suttree, in particular the events taking place in and around Knoxville, 1951. We are introduced to a setting of a post-war city, growing quickly while leaving its poor and injured to survive and attempt to co-exist on the periphery. Suttree lives on the banks of the Tennessee River, aboard a listing houseboat slowly disintegrating and sinking out of existence. Suttree has rejected a life of privilege, leaving a wife (a girl he met in college) and their son, to catch the occasional catfish in his fishing skiff. Suttree is an alcoholic, a lowlife, and yet he is not a psychopath or murderer. He rejects society like Ballard does in McCarthy’s earlier work Child of God, but he is nothing like Ballard; Suttree attempts to have a code. He has friends and while he doesn’t see them all that often, he cares for them. He helps them where he can. Suttree’s decision to dissociate himself from the normal path of a man is done in an almost noble way.

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Once or twice the narrative might skip to an acquaintance of Suttree, the most notable being the young Gene Harrogate, a naive and misguided man child who first meets Suttree in jail, or work camp, having been caught violating a local farmer’s melons (and subsequently nicknamed the ‘moonlight melonmounter’). Suttree attempts to help Harrogate settle down after his release, but Harrogate’s boyish ambitions are far higher (and a great deal more stupid, although involving a certain strand of ingenuity) than a lot of the elder men he surrounds himself with. Some of his foiled and hair-brained schemes include mass poisoning bats to collect a bounty on them, stealing coins out of pay-phones and tunneling under the city using dynamite to find hidden and forgotten treasures.

There are some hilarious capers, mainly observed from Suttree’s wry, understated viewpoint. I’ve seen Suttree described as a twisted, debauche version of Huckleberry Finn, and the similarities are there. It’s one ‘adventure’ to the next. There doesn’t seem to be an endgame, but a succession of conversations and experiences that lead Suttree to where? It is clear that at times, he himself does not know. Suttree often finds himself waking up in fields or on the floors of brothels or unrecognised surroundings, with the sole purpose of getting himself back to his boat, away from the hand of the law. And while his relatively decent nature (in comparison to the ensemble cast of criminals, drunks, perverts and reprobates) earns him an unspoken respect among Knoxville’s delinquents, it also puts him at the mercy of friends, or attached friends. A personal highlight was when Suttree is roped into the dumping of the body of an old man in the river with Leonard – the poor old man who had been rotting in his home for months, and never moved so the family could continue to collect welfare.

So there is humour in Suttree, more so than in any other McCarthy novel (which in their bleakness can often contain small portions of dark gallows humour), but Suttree as a character holds immense sadness, and as comic as the book is, there at times it is heartbreakingly sad too. Such is the desperate struggle of Suttree and his associates with poverty that a scene in a bar or a cafe, where the men collect their coins and pass them across the counter for a coffee and a grilled cheese and cuss and swear at one another with affection, is genuinely warming.

I never did blame ye for leavin out. Poor luck as we had. I reckon ye’d of done better never to of took up with us to start. Did you ever know anybody to be so bad about luck?
Suttree said he had. He said that things would get better.
The old man shook his head doubtfully, paying the band of his cap through his fingers. I’m satisfied they caint get no worse, he said.
But there are no absolutes in human misery and things can always get worse, only Suttree didnt say so.

At over 20 years in the making Suttree is not only McCarthy’s longest novel at nearly 500 pages but also his most personal. Autobiographical or not, Cornelius Suttree’s understated nature and descent into squalor is a fascinating character study. We understand his want to shy from the restraints society once held on him. And there is hope by the end of the novel, where is considers his stance that has removed him from a normal life, with wife and child, to leave Knoxville, and find some kind of happy medium. Suttree is not my favourite McCarthy book but I will say it is his most enjoyable, and an American classic.

pedro paramo

At times during Pedro Páramo it is difficult to know if the person to which Juan Preciado is speaking is alive or dead. Or at which point the story is being told from Preciado’s point of view, or from one of the many ghosts that still haunt the town of Comala. Or, whether the characters in this book know they are dead or alive, or that they still exist in the present, or if they are in some kind of  purgatory resigned to retell their tragic and mythical pasts.

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Published in 1955 Pedro Páramo is written by Mexican writer Juan Rulfo and remained his only true novel. Yet its impact and legacy on literature, particularly the magical realism movement often associated with Latin America, is clear to this day. Gabriel García Márquez, renown Colombian novelist (and author of one of my favourite books of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude) famously said of Pedro Páramo that he could recite the whole book, forwards and backwards. And in my copy of Pedro Páramo (1994, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden) is a foreword by García Márquez, a sincere and adoring homage to Rulfo and his novel, in which he writes “That night I couldn’t sleep until I had read it twice. Not since Kafka’s Metamorphosis in a down-at-the-heels student boarding house in Bogotá – almost ten years earlier – had I been so overcome.” High praise indeed, even more so that he so openly admits that “my profound exploration of Juan Rulfo’s work was what finally showed me the way to continue with my writing”.

This town is filled with echoes. It’s like they were trapped behind the walls, or beneath the cobblestones. When you walk you feel like someone’s behind you, stepping in your footsteps. You hear rustling. And people laughing. Laughter that sounds used up. And voices worn away by the years. Sounds like that. But I think the day will come when those sounds fade away.

The premise is simple enough; to fulfil his mother’s dying wish, Juan Preciado sets off to Comala to meet his father, a certain Pedro Páramo, of whom he has never met. But upon arriving across the barren Mexican plains, Preciado discovers a ghost town ruined by the reign of his infamous father, hearing whispered tales of the past and present between the worlds of the living and the dead. In all honesty the novel did not seem to have a plot to me, or at least not in a traditional sense. Pedro Páramo is more a series of memories, experiences and streams of consciousness. On first read (at least I found so) it may be difficult to place who is speaking, and at what time, but once adjusted to the dream-like flow of Rulfo’s story-telling Pedro Páramo becomes a beautiful, mysterious nightmare. A short tale that will not take long to read but its haunting ideals will linger with you with its profound messages from the dead. A wonderful little book.

The sky was filled with fat stars, swollen from the long night. The moon had risen briefly and then slipped out of sight. It was one of those sad moons that no one looks at or pays attention to. It had hung there a while, misshapen, not shedding any light, and then gone to hide behind the hills.