Wednesday, August 25, 2010

#37: Super Sad True Love Story

There are many aspects of a book, aside from the text itself, that effectively preclude it from being taken seriously. It would seem that a title like Super Sad True Love Story falls squarely into this arena. Safe to say, in any case, that Gary Shteyngart is lucky to have been a known commodity before he burdened libraries and bookstores worldwide with his latest effort.

I say "burdened" not because the novel is so hard to read. If anything, the prose is easy on the eyes, and the brain. An average Shteyngartian observation is, "I just wanted to hold her. She was wearing an oatmeal sweatshirt, beneath which I could espy the twin straps of a bra she did not need." This is actually a perfect microcosmic sentence in a way, since it also illustrates the author's frustrating (and all-too-frequent) displays of paternalism. Time and again, Lenny Abramov, the thirty-nine-year-old love-tortured protagonist, finds himself involuntarily expressing his infatuation with Eunice Park, his twenty-something muse, through a decidedly condescending lens. "A child, just a child," he muses as he watches her shiver from alcoholic over-consumption. Elsewhere, Lenny makes an effort to convey this thought to Eunice: "Soon you will be home and in my arms and the world will reconfigure itself around you and there will be enough compassion for you to feel scared by how much I care for you."

What say ye? Shteyngart is too self-aware as a writer to commit to such indulgent (not to mention italicized) sentences without at least the light sauté of irony thrown in. This is a man who casually remarks that "Dr. Park was landing the plane of his soliloquy," or that "I prepared myself to become Chekhov's ugly merchant Laptev again." Shteyngart's transparent ease with language renders his patriarchal episodes all the more confusing, and I'm not persuaded this ambiguity benefits anyone.

As the critical praise splotched onto the book's back cover makes abundantly clear, Super Sad True Love Story is a satire -- of contemporary American culture, our youth-obsessed society, and the vapidity of unchecked materialism. I usually stumble over faux-prophetical gazes into the future, precisely because these hypothetical apocalypses nearly always go too far. So hypnotized are many authors, by the creative license afforded them by the fiction/sci-fi genre, that they fail to pump the brakes on the less accessible elements of their vivid imaginations.

Nevertheless, in this particular case, resistance, as they say, was futile. Shteyngart's American dystopia is littered with such head-scratchers as Credit Poles (containing "little LED counters at eye level that registered your Credit ranking as you walked by"), Onionskins (entirely see-through jeans worn by fashionable women), and the ubiquitous äppäräti, high-tech portable devices that seem to straddle the line between a camcorder and the iPhone. And yet, the ugly shades of gray that comprise Lenny Abramov's values-depraved universe remain strikingly, even maddeningly, believable. Chalk it up to Shteyngart's installment of the Chinese as the ascending global hegemon, or perhaps the futile American war in Venezuela that practically begs for the reference to our contemporary military expeditions in the Middle East. Whatever the reasons, the depressing world of Super Sad True Love Story retains more than enough real-life potentiality to prevent itself from being dismissed out of hand. Whether this is sufficient for it to be included in the pantheon of classic contemporary literature may, however, require a slightly further suspension of disbelief.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

#36: The Mystery Guest

Grégoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest brings to life the despair of the disconsolate. Throughout the book, it was difficult to keep myself convinced that this was indeed a true story, a memoir of sorts, perhaps even a mini-autobiography. Grégoire Bouillier telling the story of Grégoire Bouillier.

And yet there he is, rudely awakened by the sound of the ringing telephone, knowing, as he says, "even before I was conscious of knowing," that it was her. "It was her voice, her breath, it was practically her face, and along with her face came a thousand moments of happiness rising from the past, gilded with sunlight, caressing my own face and licking at my fingers while a thousand more like them swung at the other end of a wire."

Lorin Stein's translation from French serves the story well; I do not speak French, but Stein clearly captures the searing, emotive intensity emanating from Bouillier's writing. The "her" of whom he writes is his ex-girlfriend, although subjecting her to that most mundane of labels really obfuscates the relationship's emotional resonance. The phone is ringing, Grégoire is certain, because "she felt guilty all the time -- I'd never know how guilty she felt -- and maybe it was society's fault, maybe it was the fault of her family, she didn't know, but in the end she did the only thing she could and went off with the first man who wanted her."

Grégoire's stratospheric imagination is soon confronted with a far more terrestrial reality: "she was calling simply to invite me to a party -- and will it never end, this continual pinching of the flesh in disbelief?" A friend, Sophie, was holding a birthday party in which Grégoire's ex-girlfriend was selected to bring a mystery guest; hence, her call.

What follows is a heartbreaking journey into the mind. Grégoire wonders, "Was she trying to destroy me? Was she bent on my complete and utter annihilation?" This is soon followed by rapturous delight, as the lovelorn narrator stumbles onto the "realization" that "by calling me on that day...she was trying to pick up the thread of the story at just the point where it had been snapped in two, as if to say that all the intervening years had lasted a matter of seconds. And this changed everything."

Except that it didn't. Bouillier so perfectly and incisively captures the delusional qualities of unrequited love that he manages both to break the reader's heart and to give his own wild-eyed musings a sharply comedic hue. One can empathize with his plight as if one with his pain while simultaneously laughing knowingly at the ancient rite of romantic devastation and recovery. Rare is the author who can pull off such a feat, and rarer still, in that the subject is himself.

What takes place at the party, and the ever more evocative moments contained therein, is for the curious reader to discover. As for me, I will be reading more from Grégoire Bouillier.

Monday, August 23, 2010

#35: Start-Up Nation

In Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle, authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer attempt to unravel "where [Israel's] entrepreneurial energy comes from, where it's going, how to sustain it, and how other countries can learn from the quintessential start-up nation." Their goal is a noble one, and bolstered by impressive stats, such as this one: "In 2008, per capita venture capital investments in Israel were 2.5 times greater than in the United States, more than 30 times greater than in Europe, 80 times greater than in China, and 350 times greater than in India."

The authors, in searching for the values and impulses most influential in producing Israel's creative instincts, found an unlikely source: the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). "In the Israeli military," they write, "there is a tendency to treat all performance -- both successful and unsuccessful -- in training and simulations, and sometimes even in battle, as value-neutral. So long as the risk was taken intelligently, and not recklessly, there is something to be learned." Throughout their research, Senor and Singer return time and again to this same explanation, or some variant, to elaborate on the unique brand of innovation endemic in Israeli society.

What to internationals smacks of brazen effrontery is, at least according to the authors, merely chutzpah, that term so ubiquitous in descriptions of the Jewish people and so often bewildering to those unfamiliar with its meaning. "An outsider would see chutzpah everywhere in Israel: in the way university students speak with their professors, employees challenge their bosses, sergeants question their generals, and clerks second-guess government ministers." As an American, this disregard for hierarchy has a certain populist appeal, especially as the much-maligned "24-hour news cycle" has helped the government metastasize into an especially cantankerous form of reality television in which competence plays second fiddle to inflammatory rhetoric.

On the other hand, at times the reasons given for Israel's high growth look suspiciously more nationalistic than realistic. In one passage, an IDF major boasts, "If a terrorist infiltrates [an] area, there's a company commander whose name is on it. Tell me how many twenty-three-year-olds elsewhere in the world live with that kind of pressure." Indeed, he has a point. And yet one cannot help but notice that "the most moral army in the world" (as proclaimed by defense minister, and former prime minister, Ehud Barak) has had numerous recent run-ins leading to international condemnation (and possible criminal prosecution). Is this related to the unusually emphatic devolution of autonomy in the military? Perhaps this cannot be answered; and yet this question is left wholly unaddressed, even as the authors continually cite this very same individuality as a boon to the Israeli economy.

Start-Up Nation is a book worth reading, if for no other reason than the generous access afforded the authors by the likes of Israeli president Shimon Peres, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and even American general David Petraeus. The authors' perspective is one of nearly-unbridled enthusiasm, owing to the vibrant nature of Israel's start-up scene and the continuing promulgation of its inventive spirit. In this latter endeavor, Dan Senor and Saul Singer join the chaotic Israeli chorus that so deftly mixes fierce national pride with a heaping helping of chutzpah. If theirs is an accurate prognostication, the best has yet to emerge from Israel.

#34: The Thieves of Manhattan

It is tempting to those of us lucky enough to live in New York to regard all other terrestrial locations with a healthy measure of disdain, concrete-jungle style. Whether these streets make you feel brand new or merely terrified of the ubiquitous tourists, one is virtually forced to concede, via self-admission or the coercion of one's provincial fellow dwellers, that there is something special in the Manhattan air.

It was thus endlessly satisfying to read Adam Langer's incurably readable The Thieves of Manhattan, a brilliant send-up of the publishing industry that eviscerates its corporate villains in the same spirit (and methodology, somewhat) with which Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation once scorned Hollywood. As has been noted elsewhere, Langer's prose is so hip as to require a glossary (provided in the back): franzens are "the sort of stylish eyeglasses favored by the author Jonathan Franzen;" a hemingway refers to "a particularly well-constructed and honest sentence;" to woolf is "to move as rapidly as the speed of thought." (No word yet on danbrowning; that is, concocting a novel out of random amalgamations of nouns, verbs, and a mountain of italics so voluminous that one suspects the author has been monetarily incentivized.)

Most of the novel takes place on Manhattan's Upper West Side. As a resident of this neighborhood, I found myself nodding with delight over casual mentions of the Hungarian Pastry Shop or 106 Bar (although I have yet to visit the latter). Clearly Langer is a man familiar with his territory.

That territory is only partially geographical. Of greater interest is the author's irreverent poking and prodding of the esteemed literati. He labels sections with titles such as "A Million Little Pieces" and "Naked Came the Stranger," allusions to works of literature later exposed as frauds. To Langer, the line separating fact from fiction is prime comedic material, and he clearly relishes the zigzagging trail he weaves endlessly to and fro across it.

What, then, is The Thieves of Manhattan all about? Facially, it involves a failing writer, Ian, whose Romanian girlfriend, Anya Petrescu, begins to garner the attention of publishers with her short-story collection We Never Talked About Ceauşescu. (One can almost picture Langer's maniacal laughter as he penned that title.) Not only does Anya show literary promise, not only is her compilation "heartbreaking and beautiful and self-effacing and charming and hilarious," but "most of all, [it was] true." And so begins Anya's ascent into the upper echelons of the increasingly pretentious and self-absorbed world of commercial authors, whilst Ian's career fades ever faster.

It is at this point, near the book's beginning, that Ian meets Jed Roth, a mysterious stranger whose intimate knowledge of the publishing industry is matched only by his hatred for all aspects of it. Roth begins to regale Ian with tales from his days as a big dog in the world of books. The longer the story continues, the more hilarity ensues as Langer embraces the genres of the cheap and gaudy in his own writing. The end of one section reads: "'You can't leave when I'm talking to you, Jed,' Merrill said. 'Of course I can,' Roth responded. 'Because I don't work for you anymore.'" This is beautiful, and almost makes me want to reread some of my favorite dime-store fare. (Almost.)

I hesitate to say more, because reading this book is an experience unto itself, replete with ironic winks and over-the-top melodrama. The final section, as others have noted, goes on perhaps a few moments too long, but this hardly spoils the journey. Adam Langer has managed to wring true literature out of a terrible story, or perhaps it is vice versa. Either way, if The Thieves of Manhattan is to follow the path of all commercially successful books, it most assuredly demands a sequel.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

#33: The Lovers

The Lovers is a short book. Perhaps author Vendela Vida intended it that way, or perhaps it just happened naturally given the relatively short period of time that transpires within its pages. Yvonne is a recently widowed woman in her early fifties; her husband, Peter had been killed in a car crash two years earlier. As her solitary lifestyle and dwindling social appearances in Burlington, Vermont begin to capture the attention of curious neighbors, Yvonne recognizes the need for a change of scenery.

As it happened, her now-grown children, Henry and Aurelia, were chartering a boat from Greece to Turkey; Yvonne and Peter had honeymooned in Turkey nearly three decades earlier. And so, after much reluctance, it was decided: Yvonne would travel to Datça, Turkey, to stay by herself for nine days before meeting her offspring midway through their journey.

In the meantime, Yvonne whiles away her time reflecting on her marriage -- "she had decided long ago that it had been good...and after his death, it felt unnecessary to question the storyline" -- and rediscovering the country she'd enjoyed with her new husband a lifetime before. During the course of her stay, we learn about her relationship with Henry and Aurelia; the former embodied the ideal of a perfect son and was virtually worshiped by his father while the latter stumbled into teenage alcoholism and suffered through her father's emotional absence. Yvonne's guilt is split in a million directions; following Peter's death, "she could not admit that she took a tiny bit of pleasure in the newness of certain things -- of eating breakfast food for dinner, of shoveling the snow on the front steps herself, of not having to talk about Aurelia with Peter, of not having to avoid talking about Aurelia with Peter."

Soon Yvonne is forced to abandon her solitary confinement when she makes the acquaintance of Özlem, a younger, Turkish woman whose tales of romantic entanglements initially bore her older counterpart. This unlikely friendship is complemented by a much different one, with a young boy Yvonne sees collecting shells on the beach. Ahmet, despite being unable to converse with her, manages to bond with his older female friend in an easy manner which even the English-speaking Özlem could never replicate. Yvonne becomes Ahmet's confidante; he, her friend.

From here, the story twists in strange and sometimes perplexing ways, as Yvonne's internal turmoil is matched by high drama in the external world. Vida is an intricate storyteller; but even so, I found myself waiting for something to happen more often than not. It is a significant challenge to compose a narrative in which climactic events have already taken place prior to the story's opening; and while the author makes a valiant attempt, the final product is somewhat disappointing. The Lovers ends on a curious note, leaving me with the same guilty sensation of relief Yvonne had once felt herself.

#32: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Philip Pullman's provocatively titled The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is but one member of a collection of books known as The Myths Series. According to the blurb at the back of the book, this compilation "brings together some of the world's finest writers, each of whom has retold a myth in a contemporary and memorable way." Pullman is the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, which includes Northern Lights, also known as The Golden Compass or the atheist rebuttal to The Chronicles of Narnia. I'm not sure whether this qualifies him as a card-carrying member of the World's Finest Writers Club; but if The New York Times can laud John Grisham as "about as good a storyteller as we've got in the United States these days," I suppose it is only fair for Pullman to have his moment in the sun too.

Of course, he earns his adulation a bit differently than the author of legal thrillers. Where Grisham imbues his characters with deeply held notions, often religiously invoked, of justice and individual responsibility, Pullman veers instead towards iconoclasm, tolerating Jesus the human while lamenting the Christianity he spawned. If you're looking for groundbreaking material, you've come to the wrong place; this idea has been raised countless times before, not least of all in the thought-provoking (if a bit repetitive) biography Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road, by the estimable clergyman Paul-Gordon Chandler.

It is admittedly a bit rarer to find this emotional juxtaposition expressed in such unabashedly heretical terms. Jesus and Christ as twin brothers? In Pullman's deftly weaved universe, the former was a natural-born rebel from childhood, "getting into mischief, stealing fruit, shouting out rude names and running away, picking fights, throwing stones, daubing mud on house walls, [and] catching sparrows;" Christ, meanwhile, "clung to his mother's skirts and spent hours in reading and prayer."

As he approaches adulthood, Pullman's Jesus gradually takes the comforting form familiar to Sunday school conceptualizations. However, Christ, who -- at the urging of a mysterious Greek stranger -- takes on the thankless role of Jesus' stenographer, soon finds some aspects of Christ's teachings troubling and others pedestrian. To remedy the first ailment, Christ resorts to historical revisionism, heeding the Orwellian words of his Greek mentor: "History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history."

The second problem was a bit thornier. Recognizing the value of organization, Christ attempts to persuade his brother to embrace something resembling a formal movement. Jesus rebuffs him, however, preferring his spontaneous charisma to what he perceives as the stolidity of an intellectual bureaucracy. Fortuitously, the approval of Christ's enigmatic tutor allows for a bit of creative license. Thus, when Jesus scolds Peter for his belief in him as the Messiah, Christ writes instead that "Jesus had praised [Peter] for seeing something that only his Father in heaven could have revealed, and that he had gone on to make a pun on Peter's name, saying that he was the rock on which Jesus would build his church." (The Catholic Church should be duly horrified.)

As Christopher Hitchens notes in his review in The New York Times, Pullman is attempting to make explicit the divorce of Christianity from its roots. But the end result reads a bit like tracing the cause of a marital infidelity back to the couple's lack of a Foreman grill. Christ, at times, substitutes for the devil, a journalist, and, weirdly, Judas Iscariot; in none of these roles does he truly take on any symbolic meaning. Philip Pullman has found and refashioned his myth of choice, with the primary corollary of further clouding Christ's position within an already complex historical tradition.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

#31: One Day

Serves me right for taking the existence of a New York Times book review as an affirmation of the author's grasp on plot. Or, for that matter, the English language. David Nicholls' One Day was so clearly written with the inevitable feature-film in mind that I'm genuinely perplexed as to why he didn't save himself some time and pen it in screenplay format from the start.

Never mind. He already did. It hits theaters next year, with Anne Hathaway starring. But back to the Times review. Liesl Schillinger wrote, "You may want to take care where you lay this book down," ostensibly to avoid being burglarized, although I can hardly imagine why anyone would risk incarceration for such a microscopic reward.

Nicholls' style of choice is italics, as in, "...and a silence followed while both of them thought oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God." In this case the exaggerated emotions were owed to the tingling sensation reverberating down Emma Morley's spine as Dexter Mayhew rubbed suntan lotion onto her back. Fittingly enough, I was spouting similar mental interjections by the time I reached chapter three of One Day -- only in agony, not ecstasy. This overt sexual tension, by the way, is a prominent motif in Nicholls' novel, which is always a bad sign, as are the expository thought-bubbles muddying the action everywhere. It's as if the author couldn't formulate a vehicle for conveying his creations' intentions without spelling them out in their entirety.

Unfortunately for his readers, Nicholls' characters do quite a lot of thinking -- 435 pages of it, in fact, interspersed with the requisite bursts of campy dialogue. Come to think of it, One Day could spawn some terrific drinking games. For example, take a shot every time you read "Dex and Em, Em and Dex" -- a tired literary trope that, according to Google Books, David Nicholls trotted out five times. It's almost as if he is trying to tell us something, that fox.

On the bright side, one need never fear having neglected to catch some symbolism here or conceit there: One Day hardly traffics in ambiguity. It goes without saying -- perhaps the only case in which Nicholls recognizes the value of omission -- that Dexter and Emma are meant to be together. Consequently, there is a definite sense that their eventual conjoining is a matter of "when," and not "if." Subtlety, in One Day, entails merely implying, instead of actually describing, what takes place once two lovers remove some clothing and climb into bed together. Actually -- "his hand was on the base of her spine, his leg slipping between hers," I read on page 7 -- even this is a bit generous.

But first, the requisite false hopes, punctured dreams, and the like. As this is a romantic comedy in book form, both Dexter and Emma must date their fair share of red herrings. And thus Chapter Twelve opens: "Then, without quite knowing how it happened, Dexter finds that he has fallen in love, and suddenly life is one long mini-break." Her name is Sylvie and, in Dexter's smitten vocabulary, "she is great, just great, just...amazing! She is beautiful of course, but in a different way from the others..." And here I will spare you the rest, for the sake of brevity and the prevention of mental decay.

Of course, Emma needs a worthwhile distraction to pass the time while Dexter dates his procession of disreputable women. To this end, she meets Ian at the restaurant where she works, Loco Caliente, and is beset with the vague notion that his is "a face that made her think of tractors." No explanation is supplied or, frankly, possible. Nicholls alternates buoyantly between bountiful exclamations on one page and perplexing similes on another; gradually, all words lose their meaning, buried under a cascade of childlike emotion punctuated by frequent bouts of excessive capitalization.

It is said that movies are almost universally poor representations of the books from which they were adapted. For the sake of future moviegoers everywhere, I sincerely hope David Nicholls is a better screenwriter than novelist.