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.

Briefly noted: Undone — John Colapinto

Undone is okay and “John Colapinto Revives the Male-Centric Literary Sex Novel” got me to read it, but the novel is not particularly literary, not particularly sex-obsessed or even interested, and not even all that male-centric. So be prepared to be underwhelmed. I hate to recommend my own work, but if Undone seems remotely appealing to you try The Hook instead.

Undone is not really a page-turner like Gone Girl (and like the blurbs promise). Except among a small crowd of social justice warriors and English professors, it is not really scandalous. Still, like Gone Girl it does challenge the oddly dominant cultural narrative that women are pure and don’t do awful things and don’t manipulate others (including the media) by pandering to victimhood, and in this sense the novel does unsettle slightly contemporary New York Times and NPR thinking. That—not the sex itself, or the desire itself—is what the publishing machinery is talking about when it’s talking about the supposed scandal in Undone. The real discomfort is the challenging of the relentless victimhood narrative; that’s also how it’s like Francine Prose’s Blue Angel functions. Except Blue Angel is narratively more interesting and less obsessed with self loathing. Both do have writer-protagonists. Here’s Jasper, in Undone:

Typing fast, he began to sketch in the villain’s background, tracing his motivations to a childhood of deprivation and cruelty in an orphanage; he started to write notes on the grieving family, conceiving of them as a wealthy clan with deep New England roots. Freed from the agonizing writer’s block that had stalled him for weeks, Jasper wrote rapturously, without pause, stopping only when he heard the ringing of the doorbell.

The scene is very functional, but it’s hard to choose really evocative passages from the book.

I’ve heard guys say variations on the crude phrase, “No pussy is worth prison.” Undone maybe endorses this idea.

Should you read it? Maybe. As it is, reading about this wet rag flopping about is not quite satisfying, and the novel’s antagonists are not as brilliantly nasty as Amy in Gone Girl.

I want all the characters to be weirder and more obsessed and hazier and more like a fairy tale and more willing to go all the way. To be hard core. Being hard core is what’s admirable about a book like The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet. That book has some flaws that numerous critics noted at the time it was released. But it remains essentially literary and essentially hard core in a way most smut isn’t, and that’s what keeps it in the front of the mind when weaker novels are forgotten.

Based on this one I’d read the next Colapinto novel.

Briefly noted: Sweetbitter — Stephanie Danler

You may have read about Sweetbitter, which is a resolutely okay novel that you should not even consider unless you’ve already read and liked Kitchen Confidential and Love Me Back, both of which cover kitchen and restaurant stories (from page 9 of Sweetbitter: “When I got there they told me a lot of stories” about restaurants, Union Square, and New York). Like many New York novels, it has a masturbatory, self-important, and inward-gazing feel. Many of New York’s structural problems can be traced back to Matt Yglesias’s excellent book The Rent Is Too Damn High, but of course none of the characters in literary fiction ever read or know anything beyond what they themselves immediately experience.

sweetbitterYou will find many ridiculous lines like, “in New York City there are absolutely no rules.” The sort of lines that, spoken on a reality TV show, the literati would condescend to, justifiably, but here, in this package, it’s literature, or the sort of novel that makes literary moves. Maybe I’m unfair and the things that are profound or profound-seeming at 22 are different than the things that are profound or profound-seeming later. But there is too much, “Do you know what it means to be a server?” too much concern about “totems of who I was.”

There is also oddly little sex in a novel with too little else to recommend it. The protagonist, Tess, chases her own personal Mr. Big (although his name is appealingly Jake), and the results can either be predictable or more fairy tale than gritty realism.

I didn’t consciously realize until reading this novel and talking to a friend in the restaurant industry that the industry only really works for its employees if or when the employees get pre-tax food subsidies from other restaurants. Let me explain. Many mid- and high-end restaurant workers have an implicit or explicit deal you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours in which they give other “industry” people free food / booze, the value of which can probably add up to thousands of dollars a year, all of it untaxed. Since restaurant industry profits are notoriously low (some estimates are as low as 1 – 4%), some of the pay that would otherwise need to go to servers who’d get taxed on that pay instead goes to them in the form of food. And they expect that favor returned: On Monday you go to Joe’s restaurant, and on Tuesday people from Joe’s go to yours.

Still, it’s not worth reading the novel for that insight. It’s dubiously worth reading a novel with disconnected ejaculations like this all over the page:

“Appetite is not a symptom,” Simone said when I complained of being hungry. “It cannot be cured. It’s a state of being, and like most, has its attendant moral consequences.”

Okay, that’s deep, but so what?

There are good sentences, but they don’t add up to much. I neither regretted finishing nor skimming the second half. When people complain about “MFA fiction,” Sweetbitter is what they’re talking about. I’ll read the next thing Danler writes.

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