Sunday, May 20, 2018

The AssistantThe Assistant by Bernard Malamud

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Pain was for poor people. [...] Everything to him who has."

It is a challenge to review Bernard Malamud's The Assistant (1957), an acclaimed novel, virtually an "American classic." For instance, Time magazine included it in its list of "100 best English-language novels published since 1923," yet I have been totally unable to appreciate the novel, even if I admire the author's human-centered message. I strongly dislike the writing and the narrative style, and in fact it is difficult for me to even consider this novel a work of literary art.

The story focuses on a Jewish family trying to make a living in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood. Morris Bober, who has owned of a small grocery store for over 20 years, had come to America from tsarist Russia, having escaped pogroms and conscription into the army. The store is barely surviving: the profit is so low that Morris' daughter Helen has to help financially from her own meager salary just to keep the store afloat. When fancy delicatessen opens nearby Morris' "own poor living [is] cut in impossible half." In addition to the continual economic plight the store is held up: the "holdupniks" take hard-earned $10, and Mr. Bober is injured.

Into this story of struggle for survival of an immigrant family's dreams and human dignity, comes 25-year-old Frank Alpine, who has tried and failed to achieve success in the West and is now looking for a job and a future in Brooklyn. Frank falls in love with Helen and stays to help Mr. Bober with the grocery store. The morality tale of love and redemption is superimposed over the story of economic struggle.

A literary text speaks to me only if it is told in a aesthetically distinguished form. In other words, I do not much care about the story itself; all I care about is the way the story is told. While Mr. Malamud's tale is engrossing and realistic I am unable to perceive any beauty or grace in his prose. When I read novels from roughly the same period by, say, Vladimir Nabokov or Patrick White, I am awed by their magnificent prose and inspired by the sophistication of their literary art and richness of stylistic devices. Here, I feel I might as well be reading a newspaper story.

What's more, I do not want the author to tell me what the characters are thinking. I do not want the author to explain the characters' motives. This is for me, a reader, to figure out. A literary work of art is created as a collaboration between the author and the reader, and it is the reader who makes sense of the story. Not only are pages and pages of detailed explanations of characters' actions unneeded, they trivialize the author's message. The novel has a wonderful two-page fragment about Mr. Bober's conversation with a "macher". Fabulous dialogue! And then, the author spoils everything by explaining what all this was supposed to mean. For Heavens' sake: the readers have brains!

Of course, the above critique is relative to my understanding of the essence of literature. It might be my fault that I had to grind my teeth to finish the book despite its resonant message about human suffering and redemption.

One-and-three-quarter stars.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

SwitchSwitch by William Bayer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] this man was trying to create people as much as to destroy them. [...] He killed them, certainly. But to use the parts his own way. So in a sense we could say he was a creator. Destroyer and also creator."

William Bayer's Switch (1984) is one of the best police procedurals I have ever read. For about half of the novel the author manages to avoid the awful clichés of the genre. Also, he succeeds in setting up the plot in a way that compels the reader to continue reading until the very end, even if the last part of the book is not as impressive as the first.

We meet Lt. Frank Janek at the funeral of his friend, a retired New York detective who has committed suicide. After the funeral the Chief of Detectives hands Janek - who is considered a star detective - a difficult and bizarre case. Two women, a teacher in an exclusive school for girls and a call girl, were killed and their heads have been switched. It takes Janek and his team quite some time to find a connection between the two victims.

Meanwhile Janek is trying to find the reasons for his friend's suicide. As he zeroes on the "switch" killer, further linkage between the two cases emerges. The lieutenant gets romantically involved with Caroline, a successful young photographer who is helping him in the case. Atypically for police procedurals Caroline portrayal is better written than that of Janek himself: she feels a more real person than he does.

The chapter titled Criminal Conversation distinguishes itself with accomplished prose and psychological plausibility. But what I like the most is the growing network of connections between the two cases and between main characters in the plot. The reader will also notice that the title of the novel can be interpreted in multiple ways.

An outstanding procedural! Now I want to read the author's Peregrine, a novel - also featuring Lieutenant Janek - that won the Edgar Award in 1982.

Four stars.

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Saturday, May 12, 2018

In Between the SheetsIn Between the Sheets by Ian McEwan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"He stirred his coffee and watched the waitress who leaned against a counter in a trance, and who now drew a long silver thread from her nose. The thread snapped and settled on the end of her forefinger, a colorless pearl."

It is perhaps not surprising that having finished reading Ian McEwan's near-masterpiece On Chesil Beach just a week ago, I have found his collection of short stories In Between the Sheets a bit of a disappointment. It is one of the author's early works (1978) and the pieces read almost as if the author wrote them to practice his literary skills.

There is no common motif or theme in this collection of seven stories. The only commonality seems to be the author's curiosity as to how far can he go with narrative creativity. The first piece, Pornography seems to be the most "normal" of the seven. It is a cautionary tale for men about the dangers of double timing: cheating may be punished. The conclusion is totally hilarious and very painful to read, especially for men, I would imagine.

The second story, Reflections of a Kept Ape is one of my two favorites. Written from the point of view of a non-human, it is offbeat, fresh, and viciously funny as in the sentence (note the usage of the second verb)
"Our first 'time' [...] was a little dogged by misunderstanding largely due to my assumption that we were to proceed a posteriori"
I actively dislike the next piece, Two Fragments: March 199-, a story about a father and his daughter in post-apocalyptic London: not only am I bored with dystopian visions, but this one contains gratuitous "juicy bits" about pigeons' vaginas, dog's member, and chimpanzee excrement.

I find the fourth story, Dead as They Come the best. The narrator details the dynamics of his love affair: everything would be quite typical and probably boring save for one detail - the object of his affection is not animate. The next piece, after which the whole collection is titled is endearingly strange and quite disturbing. I would like it a lot if not for the author's adolescent obsession with effluvia: we read about wet dreams, vomiting, consumption of feces, anal boil, nocturnal emissions, double stream of urine, saliva glinting on a point of tooth, fecal core, and snot. Mr. McEwan was 30 at the time of writing this: this is the stuff of 17-year-old "men."

The penultimate story, To and Fro reads as a sort of chant, a monotonous drone. It is interesting but it is hard to say what it is about. Finally, Psychopolis, which coolly begins with a woman asking the narrator to chain her to the bed, quickly loses its grip on the reader and devolves into a parody of Southern California late 1970s parties. What the story does well is capture the psychotic character of Los Angeles. Using the voice of one of the characters the author utters a phrase that could be the motif of the entire collection:
"The idea, when it works, is to make your laughter stick in your throat."
Yes, the idea would be great, if it worked. Here, it works only some of the time.

Two-and-a-half stars.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Knots and Crosses (Inspector Rebus, #1)Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Rebus [...] was feeling like the detective in a cheap thriller, and wished that he could turn to the last page and stop all this confusion, all the death and the madness and the spinning in his ears."

Well, I appreciate the author's self-referentiality. While Knots and Crosses (1987), the first installment in Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus series, is not a cheap thriller, it is not a remarkable one either. About fifteen years ago I read two books in the series and found them moderately interesting and readable so I was curious about the first novel in the sequence. Alas, nothing particularly distinguishes this book. The Rebus series is customarily classified as "Tartan Noir," i.e. a genre of dark procedurals based in Scotland. I am spoiled by Denise Mina's novels, which are better written, more interesting, and - most importantly - not as clichéd as Rankin's works.

We meet Rebus, a Detective Sergeant on the Edinburgh police force, as he visits his father's grave in Fife. He then pays a visit to his brother Michael, a hypnotist who enjoys quite a successful career giving public shows. There is not much closeness between the brothers. Rebus is divorced and his eleven-year-old daughter, Samantha, visits him occasionally. Michael and Sammy end up playing important roles in the story.

Rebus is on the case that has shaken Edinburgh: several young girls have been abducted and strangled, but not sexually abused. The murderer seems to be sending clues to the investigating officers - knots and crosses. Rebus is haunted by his years in the military, particularly by the events that occurred while he was serving in the SAS (Special Air Squadron) unit, and the detective's "inner fragility" is one of the recurring motifs in the story. Another subplot recounts an affair between Rebus and Ms. Templer, a police liaison officer.

When reading the novel I felt that I had encountered the same plot in many other books: the detective with a troubled and traumatic past, the clues offered by the serial murderer, racing against time to save the most recent victim - all of these are common clichés in thrillers. True, Mr. Rankin offers a hard look at Edinburgh's criminal underbelly, and there is some tension in the plot, but the novel is quite far from satisfying the author's ambitions as evidenced by his reference to Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Moreover, the denouement is based on a rather cheap plot device and comes as a sort of anticlimax.

Two-and-a-half stars.

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Friday, May 4, 2018

On Chesil BeachOn Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] her whole being was in revolt against a prospect of entanglement and flesh."

On Chesil Beach (2007), my third novel by Ian McEwan after Amsterdam and The Child in Time , is the best of the three. Delightfully short, it offers psychological observations with acute realism and dead-on accuracy. An absolute opposite of a feel-good book, it cuts through the superficial pretense, through the thick layers of fictions people create about themselves, and uncovers the underlying bare bones of one's personality. Quite painful to read in several places and impressive in the scope of truth about human nature that it reveals.

The novel has an interesting non-linear structure of its five chapters. The odd-numbered ones describe events happening during the pivotal day of two people's lives, while the even-numbered ones go back in time to give an account of how they reached that fateful day. They eventually merge with the "current" time of Chapter One. The ending of Chapter Five is written from an over-40-years-later perspective and relates the further life trajectories of the characters.

It is summer of 1962: Florence and Edward, freshly wedded at St. Mary's in Oxford, are beginning their honeymoon day and night at a hotel on Chesil Beach on the Dorset Coast of England. Florence is a gifted violinist, the leader of a string quartet; Edward is a graduate student of history. There is not an iota of doubt that they are in love with each other. They are both anxiously anticipating the joys of their future lives together but while Edward is focused on his sexual performance on their initiation night - they have been basically chaste until the wedding - Florence is terrified of the sexual act itself, repulsed by its sheer physicality.

Chapter One, Three, and Five are bravura pieces of writing. The detailed psychological passages about the sexual act - Florence and Edward's deep kiss and the long scene beginning with his touching her inner thigh - are little masterpieces of prose, so painful to read and so true to life. They far, far, far transcend the frivolity of erotica and stupidity of romance. They show how different the boundaries of privacy are for different people and how difficult it is to merge the two "I"'s into a "we," without sacrificing substantial portions of one's identity. And yet there is a ray of hope, as evidenced by the phenomenal passage that begins with
"[...] a mere shadow of a sensation, an almost abstract beginning, as infinitely small as a geometric point that grew to a minuscule smooth-edged speck, and continued to swell."
All that about a lone hair in its follicle. Stunning!

The events happen on the backdrop of the early 1960s, the times of quite rigid social norms, times just before the cultural earthquake of a few years later. An elderly reader such as this reviewer (although he still is about 10 years younger than Florence and Edward) will be able to palpably feel the cultural restrictiveness of these times. This reader also greatly appreciates the references to the music by John Mayall and Alexis Korner as well as to Beethoven's early and late string quartets.

I would have certainly rated the novel with five stars if not for the atrocious last page. Maybe I am too obtuse but to me the last eight sentences of the novel constitute the author's attempt to explain the story and to give the reader suggestions about what it is supposed to mean. I passionately believe that the readers should work it out themselves. That's what great literature is about.

Four and a half stars.

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Monday, April 30, 2018

McNally's Secret (Archy McNally, #1)McNally's Secret by Lawrence Sanders

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"I poured a few drops of an '87 Mondavi Chardonnay into her navel and leaned down to slurp it out."

Time for another purely leisure read? Archy McNally comes to the rescue. Lawrence Sanders' McNally's Secret (1991) is my fifth but chronologically the first installment in the series. The author introduces the debonair Archy, the head and only employee of the Discreet Inquiries Department in his father's Palm Beach law firm.

The inquiries that Archy is discreetly pursuing concern the stolen sheet of rare stamps owned by the notorious Palm Beach high society woman, Lady Cynthia Horowitz, legendary for her numerous ex-husbands, short temper, and wonderful parties she gives. She also is a great conversationalist - as Archy says:
"[...] she couldn't have been a more gracious and fascinating raconteuse over postprandial brandies."
The seventy-year-old Lady Cynthia is the first person Archy talks to about the theft and - in a supremely whimsical passage - he is given an opportunity to see her wading out of a swimming pool
"[...] seeing that incredible nude emerging from the pool - Venus rising from the chlorine - I felt only an ineffable sadness, realizing I had been born forty years too late.
Lady Cynthia is also the employer of Consuela Garcia, Archy's recurrent love interest. But Connie is not Archy's current flame: he is smitten with a mysterious Ms. Towley, the owner of a convenient navel to drink chardonnay from, a woman seemingly "bereft of her senses." She is able to offer Archy "the most paradisiacal afternoon" of his life, presumably filled with a special kind of acrobatic gymnastics. And let's not forget that Archy is an old hand in all this; he is "the man whose pals had considered nominating for a Nobel Prize in philandering."

The plot is rather straightforward and Archy moves slowly in his discreet inquiries but the readers will likely enjoy a really major plot twist that occurs toward the end of the novel. I particularly like the resolution of Ms. Towley's thread: it transcends the comedy and almost reaches the level of reality.

The cover blurb screams "Sex. Lies. Blackmail." Indeed the novel delivers and rather in an unostentatious way. As usual, Mr. Sanders' prose is tactful, witty, and funny. We have delicate whimsy rather than repulsive physicality of many contemporary authors. While the flowery prose is not yet as accomplished as in the later McNally novels it is a joy to read for its frequent use of "SAT words", circumlocutions, and cool understatements as in the passage where Archy describes his gift for a couple of newlyweds: "two lovely polished seashells" that have "definite physical symbolism" in their size and shape. My marginal recommendation is mainly for the prose.

Two-and-a-half stars.

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Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Luzhin DefenseThe Luzhin Defense by Vladimir Nabokov

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Only much later did he clarify in his own mind what it was that had thrilled him so about these two books; it was that exact and relentlessly unfolding pattern [...]"

One must not expect every book by a great author to be a masterpiece yet somehow I feel disappointed having just read Vladimir Nabokov's The Luzhin Defense, not that remarkable a novel, quite far from the greatness of Lolita or excellence of Speak, Memory . The novel was written in Russian in 1929 and had to wait for an English edition until 1964.

The story begins with a little boy arriving with his parents at a train station: he is being sent to school and has just realized that he will now be called Luzhin, same as "the real Luzhin," his father. Withdrawn and aloof the boy is not able to adapt to school life: the teachers complain about his "lethargy, apathy, sleepiness and sluggishness." In fact none of these diagnoses are true. Luzhin just does not care at all about things that interest most people; instead he looks for patterns - elegant, harmonious patterns.

Accidentally he discovers chess and instantaneously becomes obsessed with it. Chess gives him the raw material to recognize, study, and process patterns in their purest simplicity. Quickly he becomes an expert chess player and his fame as a child chess prodigy explodes. He travels to many important cities in Europe to challenge the best chess masters and give simultaneous and blindfold play exhibitions. Finally he gets to play the champion, Turati. The account of this game is the narrative apex of the novel and foretells the further trajectory of events.

The other thread of the novel focuses on Luzhin's relationship with a woman who becomes strongly infatuated with his genius. And while I am entirely convinced by Nabokov's realistic portrait of Luzhin, I am not at all sold on the psychological characterization of the woman. Still, one might harbor a suspicion that Mr. Nabokov's lightness of literary brush was fully intended.

I am not as enraptured by the novel's prose, clearly not as superb as in Mr. Nabokov's best works. Perhaps the reason is that this novel was not translated from Russian by the author himself. On the other hand, the narrative structure of the novel, with its jumps and nonlinearities in time, is impressive. Readers familiar with Speak, Memory , the author's autobiography, will notice how the author "borrowed" certain people and items from his own life and fictionalized them in his novels. (We do not need to know whether the "borrowing" went in the other direction as well...)

As an ex-chess player I can vouch for complete realism of chess motifs. By the way, Mr. Nabokov was quite an accomplished composer of chess problems and studies.

Three stars.

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