Briefly noted: Lonesome Dove — Larry McMurtry

Lonesome Dove is one of the best novels I’ve read, ever, and as much as I like physical books it may be easier to read on a Kindle: at more than 800 large, physical pages, it takes space. But that may be appropriate to the content, ranging as it does from Texas to Montana in the age of horse. I couldn’t decide whether the novel is any good until about 400 pages in, when a sudden-seeming shift happened. Lonesome Dove seems mostly comic, tonally, at first, with characters sitting around and speculating to each other. But then one finds that unexpected, brutal, and shocking shift, like a standard romantic comedy morphing into science fiction when the aliens land.

Don’t quit two hundred pages in, though you’ll be tempted to. As with The Name of the Rose, another of those fantastical, insane works I wish someone had forced me to read sooner than I got hold of it, patience is rewarded.

I’m reminded of James Wood’s remark about how good novels deploy “different registers:” “One way to tell slick genre prose from really interesting writing is to look, in the former case, for the absence of different registers. An efficient thriller will often be written in a style that is locked into place: the musical analogue of this might be a tune proceeding in unison, the melody separated only by octave intervals, without any harmony in the middle.” Richer novels are supposed to be polyphonic. Lonesome Dove isn’t. The narrative viewpoint scans from character to character, but they share a linguistic world that reflects their time and place. To Wood that’s a problem but to me it’s a shared world reflected in ideas and language. The common world has its own strange beauty, reflected in metaphors tied to the land and to fighting on horseback.

In Lonesome Dove characters often bury stories within stories within stories, sometimes in dialogue and usually not, describing the way things came to be. If those stories weren’t so damn interesting they’d be a crisis. But if “be interesting” is the first command to any artist, Lonesome Dove follows it. The world it depicts is implacable and hard and full of rational and irrational people. Like these:

The shadow of Augustus McCrae had hung over their courtship; Bob had never known why she chose him over the famous Ranger, or over any of the other men she could have had. In her day she had been the most sought-after girl in Texas, and yet she had married him, and followed him to the Nebraska plains, and stayed and worked beside him. It was hard country for women, Bob knew that. Women died, went crazy or left. The wife of their nearest neighbor, Maude Jones, had killed herself with a shotgun one morning, leaving a note which merely said, “Can’t stand listening to this wind no more.”

Leaving out the “a” in “It was hard country” seems odd but, again, part of the linguistic universe. One feels very rich, reading Lonesome Dove as a contemporary person with immediate access to infinite information, much as one feels rich and also terribly sad reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Other worlds exist now and have existed before, and it’s useful to remember them—and to think of how the future world will be different from the present.

Much of Lonesome Dove, on its own, seems basic, yet as a whole it’s beautiful. Like this:

The other men were easy to talk to, but they didn’t know anything. If one stopped to think about it, it was depressing how little most men learned in their lifetimes. Pea eye was a prime example. Though loyal and able and brave, Pea had never displayed the slightest ability to learn from his experience, though his experience was considerable. Time and again he would walk up on the wrong side of a horse that was known to kick, and then look surprised when he got kicked.

If I were James Wood I wouldn’t like “prime example” (it’s a cliché), but here it’s fine. The eye passes over it, and it’s the sort of cliché Call (who speaks here) would use. We see Call’s mind on horses, and we can generalize from the sort of person who is always surprised by a horse’s obvious behavior to a person we know, who is equally puzzled when he misses the obvious. Horses are as ubiquitous to Lonesome Dove as computers are to modern Americans.

There is an odd fatalistic determinism in the novel that is again not easy to parse out in a sentence quote but that is easy to feel. In the quote above we see that Pea Eye is who he is; the next paragraph starts, “Deets was different. Deets observed, he remembered,” as if that too arises from nothing. Almost no one in the novel has formal schooling, yet some minds race ahead while others are as lame as overriden horses. One sees other examples of this that I won’t share, because they spoil vital plot points.

It’s hard to say what you might expect going in, or what I expected going in, but whatever I expected wasn’t what I got. Usually novels about the west feel silly, pointless, and remote to me; this one is sophisticated, especially about ways of being and about gender relations. It’s never dogmatic, either: Augustus and Call are opposites in many ways, but the narrative voice never seems to choose one over the other as the two debate and act throughout the novel (in this respect the narrative voice is polyphonic, even if the characters think and sound characteristically similar).

The novel’s last sentences are strange and haunting.

There is enough in this novel to spend many years unpacking and experiencing it.

I fear to read the second one, for fear that the sequel won’t match the original, yet I also feel I have to do it.

Briefly noted: The Idiot — Elif Batuman

The Idiot is absorbing for 50 pages, the next 50 pages drag, and the rest is a slog. I read it because Batuman wrote the hilarious The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, which is an essay collection in which most of the essays are… 50 pages. Maybe not coincidentally. Read The Possessed or, even better, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History instead. You will find that in The Idiot

I had never heard of any Ottoman invasion of Hungary. As a child, I had been told that the Turks and Hungarians were related, that the Huns were Turkic, that both peoples had migrated west from the Altai and spoke similar languages.

In some ways the novel is about all the things the narrator, Selin, has never heard of. The novel captures well the feeling of not knowing anything, surrounded by others who don’t, but is that desirable in a novel?

There are implied problems in industrial and human organization, too:

The Constructed Worlds syllabus was a list of Gary’s favorite books and movies, without any due dates or assignments. We were just supposed to read books, watch movies, and discuss them in class. The discussions were never that great, because everyone chose different books and movies.

That seems predictable. Learning thrives off the right balance between order and chaos. Lean too far in either direction and things fall apart.

Much of The Idiot is an extended, awkward flirtationship between Selin and a slightly older guy named Ivan. Watching shy college students flirt for short periods of time is painful; watching it for hundreds of pages may be worse. Sex makes an appearance here and there:

“Sometimes I wonder about the man I’ll eventually lose my virginity too,” Svetlana continued. “I’m pretty sure it’ll happen in college.”

Yet for relatively well-off and fit college students, the characters seem to spend strangely little time wanting to get laid, maybe because Ivy Leaguers are too uptight or wrongly focused to do so. Ivy Leaguers have a reputation for being too neurotic, cerebral, and obedient to do it much, but I don’t know if that reputation is deserved or accurate.

Still, Selin is aware of some of her own position:

In the train station, people were drinking coffee and reading newspapers. I felt glad to see that life was going on—actual life, where people were working and staying awake and trying to accomplish things, which was the point of coffee.

About two-thirds through I skipped to the end and began to read backwards, wondering if maybe things would improve. No luck. It is very long for what it is. So much promise. In some ways the novel delivers what its title promises, however, and many of the individual sentences are well done. Still, if you want a college novel try Joe College instead, after you finish The Secret History. If you have recommendations for college novels, leave them in the comments.

Briefly noted: Underground Airlines — Ben H. Winters

You may have seen the good reviews, but I gave up after 50 pages, many of which look like this:

Underground Airlines

The premise is clever—the Civil War is averted and slavery persists in four states up to the present day—but the writing is not. One wishes to read instead Elmore Leonard, who is a master of the kind of style attempted here. Almost every page is overwritten. Many of the pieces in Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliche apply here too.

The Trespasser — Tana French

I don’t remember where I first learned about French, but “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels” inspired me to read The Trespasser. The novel is not bad and if you like the genre you might dig it—it’s not offensively written—but halfway through one feels like nothing much has happened, the dead girl, Aislinn, remains a cipher, and maybe a bunch of stuff will add up to something but maybe it won’t. Comparisons to Gone Girl are not quite apt because in that novel something changes virtually every chapter, and around halfway through the big reveal occurs.

trespasserIn The Trespasser things meander to no particular end. From a marketing perspective the endless comparisons to Gone Girl makes sense, but from a narrative perspective they rarely do. Gone Girl does seem to break the narrative pattern in a way that’s difficult to repeat, and that may help explain why it is so read and still so good.

Still, reading a competently executed book is refreshing, and there are crisp descriptions like, “Breslin likes thinking he’s Mr. Indispensable; he’ll show up just as fast for a shitty domestic as he would for a skin-stripping serial killer, because he knows the poor victim is bollixed until he gets there to save the day.” Arguably the part of the sentence before the semicolon could be omitted, with the reader left to infer it, but one gets a sense of someone whose virtue is motivated by self-love more than caring for mankind. We also get a lot of standard detective-fiction patter, like “I didn’t use to be like this. I’ve always had a temper on me, but I’ve always kept it under control, no matter how hard I had to bite down.” Why are tempers always under control and not over control? What does control of a temper mean, versus a temper having control? The kinds of standardized language one finds in the novel never gets to those questions. It’s actually hard to find really characteristic quotes because The Trespasser doesn’t stray far enough from its genre:

The point is, this isn’t the telly, where cops are all blood brothers and anyone who gets on the wrong side of a cop ends up dead in a ditch while the rest of us lose the evidence. I don’t have any squad loyalty.

The writing is often good but not quite good enough to justify the plot. I still await “the next Gone Girl.”

A surprisingly large amount of the novel describes the bureaucracy of police departments (which is a surprisingly large amount of many contemporary detective novels and maybe novels set more generally in offices). Bureaucracy may be the characteristic fact of life. See also “Bartlebys All.”

Briefly noted: The Map and the Territory — Houellebecq

The number of ideas in The Map and the Territory is too high to enumerate, and the novel is structurally weird, but it’s weird in a way that’s still functional. Like all of Houellebecq it’s fascinating, though not in a way that’s easy to describe, and it touches many Houellbecqian themes: The weakness of contemporary France; the need for tourism; the fight between stability and novelty; the status of the artist; the faux accepted role of the market as the arbiter of all value; the need to express sexuality and form relationships despite the futility of both acts. At least in this one a shocking unexpected terrorist bloodbath is not the denouement, however fitting and brutal it was in one of Houellebecq’s other novels.

Consider this:

Barely amiable in the first few minutes, the stocky estate agent went into a lyrical trance when he learned that Jed was an artist. It was the first time, he exclaimed, that he’d had the opportunity to sell an artist’s studio to an artist! Jed feared for a moment that he would declare his solidarity with authentic artists against the bourgeois bohemians and other such philistines who inflated prices, thus making artist’s studios inaccessible to artists, but what can you do? I can’t go against the truth of the market: it’s not my role. But fortunately this did not happen.

the_map_and_the_territoryThe notion of the “artist” has been made into a nostgalia item that was long ago marketized. Today’s artists still need cheap space, but they won’t find it in most “major” Western cities.

It may be that the best medium for a given time shifts. It was painting in the Renaissance, novels and what we now call classical music in the 19th Century, movies and what we now call pop music in the 20th Century, and maybe something like design in the 21st. Still, real artists ship and show their work:

You can work alone for years, it’s actually the only way to work, truth be told; but there always comes a moment when you feel the need to show your work to the world, less to receive its judgment than to reassure yourself about the existence of this work, or even of your own existence, for in a social species individuality is little more than a short piece of fiction.

Are we just neurons in a massive, transhuman brain, each of us thinking we are individual but actually just part of the mess, sending encoded messages from person to person via sound, light, or other mean? One sees Houellebecq’s taste for moving from the level of the individual outwards to the level of society or species. It’s a favorite move and one I see remarked on too infrequently.

It’s hard to convey the feeling of a Houellebecq novel from blockquotes alone, as the way sections connect do not feel like the way sections connect in other novels. Sometimes long times pass; few causal relationships, if any, are established. In that sense Houellbecq is a kind of anti-thriller, where everything is cause-effect in a way the real world isn’t.

Houellebecq’s pessimism seems easier to countenance given recent political events. One wonders if he will eventually be seen as a deeply political writer who connects the personal and political in ways that most trendy or PC writers don’t, or can’t.

Briefly noted: The Magicians, re-read, and the TV show

The Magicians holds up well (and the link goes to my original review). What stands out still is the relentless focus of Quentin on happiness: I’d guess that the word appears at last a dozen times, and maybe more, in the novel—too often for anyone who is actually happy to think about it. Quentin’s melancholia is a sort that, if it can be cured, cannot be cured in the ways in which he is attempting to cure it. Don’t be fooled by the magical trappings: the novel is still primarily psychological.

Between now and then The Magicians has been made into a disappointing TV show; that show has high points and funny moments but it cannot overcome a fundamental problem that is illustrative for other writers: it advances all of the characters’ ages by five to ten years, which defeats much of the point and pleasure of the book. The book is about coming of age. It is stuffed with references like this one, from late in it, when (I don’t think this gives anything away) most of the main characters make it to Fillory: “For all the glory of their high and noble purpose, it felt like they were going on a summer-camp nature hike, or a junior high field trip, with the kids goofing on and the two counselors looking dour and superior and grown-up and glaring them back into life when they strayed too far” (one decent definition of being grown-up is that you are no longer concerned with appearing grown up (or not)). It is hard to feel glorious and “noble” when you are being supervised by adults who’ve really seen the world, as Dint and Fen (their guides) have, or apparently have.

Characters who are in the 22 – 30 age range are less likely to analogize their lives to summer camps or junior high field trips. This may seem like a minor point at first. In the show, the characters are still angsty, but at their age their style of angst no longer makes any sense, as they ought to have decently developed, decently resilient personalities by then. That they do not is the flaw the show never manages to overcome.

To be sure, The Magicians tv show does have excellent individual moments, but they don’t add up to much. The actor who plays Penny in particular is a standout (unfortunately, there is something off about the one who plays Quentin). Mostly, the show is an exercise in showing why HBO is so good at its shows and the SyFy channel is so not good at its shows. The Magicians as a TV show is a weak show with a strong one lurking obviously within it, which may be the most frustrating kind. The ones that are transparently bad are just passing phenomena. The ones that are transparently good offer their pleasures. The ones that could be good pain.

Moving On — Larry McMurtry

Moving On is at least twice as long as it ought to be and probably longer. Which is a shame, because there’s a pretty good book waiting, even wanting to get out, but it’s hidden. Even its author seems to be aware of its flaws. In the introduction he writes:

A rather puzzling thing to me, as I look through the book today, is that it contains so many rodeo scenes. Few novels, then or ever, have attempted to merge the radically incongruent worlds of graduate school and rodeo. I am now completely at a loss to explain why I wished to attempt this.

That “puzzling thing” remains to this reader. In that introduction he also says something odd:

In the late fifties, with no war on, the romance of journalism tarnished, the romance of investment banking yet to flower, graduate school was where many of the liveliest people chose to tarry while deciding what to do next.

moving_onI take McMurtry’s word that “many of the liveliest people” chose grad school at that time, but by the time I started that time had long since vanished and no memory or residue of it remained.

So why read it, or more importantly, why finish it? The novel’s dialogue is often excellent and a a keen sense of humor runs through. In the grad school section we get incongruity like this:

There was a keen look of concentration on [Clara’s] face as she considered William Duffin. Hank had seen the same look on her face the day before when she was trying to decide whether to do her Chaucer paper on the “Knight’s Tale” or the “Prioress’s Tale.” She reached out and held his genitals, still thinking.

That shift in moods from cerebral to carnal is characteristic, as the novel likes to juxtapose mind and body, high and low, love and indifference.

Moving On is also a time capsule. It was published in 1970 and is set in the ’50s or early ’60s. Some problems that seem contemporary have a long pedigree; for example, “vacations” have been awful for children for a long time:

Every other year her parents would decide to go west and would bundle her and her sister Miri into a Cadillac and spend two or three weeks hurrying between scenic spots while the girls read comic books or Nancy Drew mysteries and waited irritably for the Grand Canyon or some other redeeming wonder to appear.

Or, to take another example, Patsy narrates, “She had read a lot about loneliness and knew it was one of the great problems of modern life, but it had never been very real to her” (393). That ought to sound familiar to anyone who’s read 2000’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Or anyone who’s read the New York Times, which is filled with stories about loneliness and the loss of community and so forth.* The interesting thing to me is not the stories about loneliness but the technologies that we often blame for loneliness. I wonder if instead the loneliness comes from within us.

The narrative of ceaseless social and technological change is attractive, but it’s also less true than is commonly assumed.

Moving On is also unusual in that it portrays the boring, discontented parts of marriage and long-term relationships. At one moment Patsy is stuck out on the road with her boring husband Jim, and “She felt cramped and sat with her back against her door, her legs on the seat, the soles of her feet pressed against Jim’s leg. There was nothing to do but watch the distances, gray and wavery with heat, and so endless.” She’s talking about the car trip, but she’s talking about more than that, too. Outside of Mating in Captivity I’ve rarely read those kinds of stories in Patsy’s tone.

Unfortunately, the novel comes to seem “gray and wavery” and “so endless,” at almost 800 reasonably dense pages. It’s like a guest that outstays his welcome. A pity. Much of it is acutely felt and observed. Its length, though, makes it a curiosity more than a must-read.


* Search for the string “loneliness site:nytimes.com” and you’ll find many, many examples. Like: “How Loneliness Can Make You Sick — and Might Even Kill You,” which could have a few dates and words changed and still be the sort of thing Patsy read decades ago.

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