Category: Books

Reamde

 

Neal Stephenson and I go way back. Snow Crash, his breakthrough novel, was an enjoyably zippy future-tech adventure, overly hip and over in seconds. Over the years he learned verbosity and the ability to write more than was strictly needed, and this gave rise to Cryptonomicon. Then the Baroque Cycle came out and I gave up after only 200 pages, much to my continuing shame. Anathem has sat on my bookshelf, mocking me these past few years as I’ve ploughed through countless other books, all of them generally with fewer pages.

When Reamde was announced, I thought that my Kindle should be utilized to give Stephenson another chance. I would like to believe that my gamble paid off, although at Stephenson’s expense; against all odds, Stephenson has produced a pseudo techno-thriller: a jock in nerd’s clothing.

 

Jonathan Franzen – Sydney Opera House, September 13, 2011

(Working title: Franzen of the Opera)

A loose report of various things that may have been said at the talk.

It must be a huge burden to have people call you “America’s greatest living novelist” or “one of America’s greatest novelists” or “one of the greatest novelists”. I say this entirely without irony because, after being given that title, what left is there for you to say? Anything will be an inevitable disappointment, and none of it will be your fault. This is only true if the title was bestowed upon you; if you gave it to yourself, you deserve whatever you have coming to you.

 

In having written some pretty good books, Jonathan Franzen accidentally painted himself into a corner. His American novels became metonymous for the American novel. This gave Australians free licence to ask Franzen to deconstruct his country for our entertainment and edification. He was able to do this to an extent, but the evening was best when Franzen was being specific: why he writes what he writes, and how it all comes to be. Discussing the act of writing and what informs it is far more interesting than a simple oration on the general state of the nation in which it was produced.

John Dies At the End

John Dies At The End is not a novel, but a monster stitched together piecemeal from the detritus of David Wong’s mind over the course of several years. That it never delivers on the promise made by its title would probably not matter to the many readers unable to sustain patiences enough to stick it through to the bitter, bitter end. I stayed around, and let me say that it was so ridiculously not worth it that I practically embraced my Sookie Stackhouse chaser. John Dies At The End transmutes pulpy vampire novels into high art through sheer proximity; take Wong’s work and you can make anything entertaining by comparison. It’s a kind of magic, or alchemy at the very least.

There are several kind of misanthropies in this world: there is the kind that hates fun and the idea of anyone else having fun and must stop it at all costs (like me, telling you that this book is awful – I see this as more pragmatism than misanthropy); more sinister is the type of misanthropy embodied by Wong, which is based on the exploitation of humanity by utilising contempt for them to wring money from their all too willing wallets (this brand is also known as “capitalism”). While John Dies At The End was written by a man trying to kill the boredom of his low paying jobs, Wong has commuted that sentence to a presumably lucrative career as the editor of Cracked dot com, consistently one of the worst sites on the internet.


Club Dead

Sookie Stackhouse’s innocent abroad schtick was getting slightly on the nose, so I wrote an open letter to her based on the events of Club Dead. Bear with me, and try to forgive me for writing to a fictional character:

Freedom

 

It’s easy to say something like “when you come down to it, all American literary fiction is the same”. It’s incredibly trite and flagrantly untrue, but there is something in the work of authors like Jonathan Franzen and playwrights like Tony Kirshner that strikes me as indelibly American. I don’t believe that only Franzen could have written Freedom, but I am certain that only an American is capable of writing a novel not necessarily of this calibre but of this thematic texture.

If there’s one thing that Freedom has, it’s texture. Reading it is a frequent struggle against its characters and the society that they find themselves in, a hyper-real America that can have only been imagined by one on the ground suffering under its excesses and political metamorphoses.

The Corrections was published on September 1, 2001, and I’ve long harboured a belief that Franzen was probably upset that he had just missed out on infusing his novel with the post-September 11 shell shock that infected many authors in the intervening years. With Freedom he gets his own back, capitalising not only on September 11, but also the ensuing incursion into Afghanistan, the global financial crisis and even the rise of Obama. By waiting so long between novels, he’s had a lot to draw on – and six years can disappear in the space of a page.

Freedom is a good book. A divisive one, maybe, but still one worth the time to read.

Living Dead in Dallas

 

Sookie Stackhouse returns for round two, and Charlaine Harris decides that one story isn’t enough: she needs to nestle a second one inside the first, like some sort of weird matryoshka doll of bizarre pacing choices.

Dead Until Dark

 

Vampires! They’re goddamn everywhere! When they look back on the start of the 21st century, will they wonder what we were thinking, or will there be no fiction without vampires?

 

Of course, not all vampires are born equal. There are some that are unreadable, and there are those that offer themselves to you with no real challenge: vampires on cruise control. The Sookie Stackhouse novels (AKA the Southern Vampire Mysteries), which became the TV series True Blood, is one such vampire series; easy enough to read without causing much concern, but also without approaching greatness in any capacity.

 

Shrek!

Shrek! is the perfect antidote to the movie franchise that it inspired. Where that was a movie about discovering the beauty within and being a good “person” despite outer appearances, this is a book about being hideous in body and soul and revelling in it.

Shrek is a villain, not a hero. There are no heroes in Shrek’s world. It is glorious.

 

Written by William Steig, who was 86 at the time of publication, Shrek! tells the story of an ogre who is kicked out of home by his parents and terrorises the countryside while looking for a princess.

 

At 32 pages, there’s not much more it than that, but it’s worth mentioning that there is absolutely nothing of the Dreamworks film in this picture book beyond basic character designs. As a subversion of fairy tales, it works much better because there are no knowing winks to non-existent cameras, no waffles and, best of all, no Smash Mouth. I don’t know if it would be as subversive if the billion dollar franchise had never existed but, as the counterpoint to the bitter rantings of a man with a grudge against Disney, it’s brilliant.

 

Steig’s artwork is charming, and exactly as it appears on the cover. This is a very rough, hand made book. The dialogue generally rhymes and pretends to be set for a fantasy world, but it’s not important: Shrek is on a journey of self-realisation. Shrek suspects that he’s the greatest and most horrible, and it’s not until the ending that he gets it confirmed in the funniest way possible.

 

This incarnation of Shrek is truly like an onion; if you cross him he’ll make you cry. I wouldn’t have him any other way, and certainly not as a billion dollar franchise. Shrek! counts among one of the best dollars I’ve ever spent.

Juliet, Naked

As the vanguard of the last sixteen years of British literature, Nick Hornby has a lot to answer for. You can call what he writes what you like – “lad lit”, “dick lit” (as opposed to chick lit, obviously) – but that doesn’t make it any better than what it is: fiction about people who never bothered growing up and show no intention of ever doing so.

This isn’t true of his entire canon, but it holds up for both the instigator of the genre, High Fidelity and its spiritual sequel, 2009’s Juliet, Naked. Reading about people who choose to wallow in lives that they consider wasted is not particularly fun or illuminating. It’s High Fidelity 14 years after the fact: if you thought that collection of characters was developmentally arrested, you will not be at all impressed with this troupe.

A Visit From The Goon Squad

This cover kind of makes sense.I have no idea what this lazy technicolor yawn is supposed to mean.

 

As far as I can tell, you have to be an American to win the Pulitzer Prize. This comes as a relief to me, because I can criticise Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit From The Goon Squad without being asked “Where’s your Pulitzer, Mister Critic?” (If I were American, it would hang on the wall of my office, next to a copy of the prize winning article, “Why the world doesn’t need Superman”).

 

I can understand why A Visit From The Goon Squad won plaudits: it’s so painfully worthy. Substance abuse, daddy issues and the guilt of being upwardly mobile are all addressed within these thirteen short stories masquerading as a novel. These are themes that are so common in American literature that they have come to define it. I have to wonder if some authors feel discouraged if they have written a book without troublesome parents, casual drug use that turns catastrophic or, in the last ten years, at least passing reference to living in a post 9/11 world.

Egan doesn’t have to worry about any of that; it’s all in here, and she has the Pulitzer to show for it.