Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Woman's EyeA Woman's Eye by Sara Paretsky
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"What we have all learned in the last three hundred and fifty years is that the reading and writing are 'such things as belong to women'."
(Sara Paretsky, in the Introduction to A Woman's Eye)

The emphasized phrase that Ms. Paretsky mocks in the sentence above comes from the 17th-century A Puritan Opinion of Literary Women by John Winthrop. Indeed, it would be my impression that mystery/suspense/crime fiction has become about equally women's as men's domain in the 20th century. Female authors are as successful - if not more - as their male counterparts. For example, Denise Mina and Karin Fossum are among my top four mystery/crime authors of all time, along with Nicolas Freeling and Ross Macdonald, so maybe I am not guilty of preferring writers of one gender over the other. The disclaimer is needed, lest I am accused of sexism, as I do not much like the collection of mystery, crime, and suspense short stories written by female authors and titled A Woman's Eye. The set was published exactly a quarter of a century ago, in 1991, and edited by Ms. Paretsky. It contains 21 stories, some by well known authors, such as Ms. Grafton or the editor herself, and many by authors whom I have not heard about.

To me, Amanda Cross' Murder Without a Text is a standout in this collection. The story of an elderly female college professor accused of murdering a college senior is intelligent and funny. Being myself an elderly college professor, albeit male, I can appreciate the sharp and accurate portrayal of college sociology. The following passage about the young college feminists is still relevant 25 years later:
"[...] they are known to be an unruly bunch, [...] They spoke about early feminists, like me, as though we were a bunch of co-opted creeps [...]"
Sue Grafton's short story Full Circle is well written and interesting yet lacks plausibility when the mystery is solved by accident. Nancy Pickard's tale The Scar, a cool yet predictable suspense story that involves Maori customs in New Zealand, impresses with the heavy atmosphere of foreboding. While Gillian Slovo's Looking for Thelma is a nice homage to Raymond Chandler, both in the setting and mood of the story as well in the prose, it had been done better before. Carolyn Wheat's Ghost Station shows the author's great potential yet is wasted by formulaic touches, insistent repetition of phrases, and cheap sentimentalism. And finally we have Ms. Paretsky's own Settled Score, an interesting story yet one whose full enjoyment would require the reader to know most of the recurring characters from her novels, like Lotty or Mr. Contreras.

Although I quite enjoyed reading a few selected stories, I cannot recommend the collection because its overall tone is set by many completely unremarkable pieces. Of course, if the reader approaches the collection as a sampler from which to choose the authors to get better acquainted with, it may serve its purpose as long as one has the patience to read all the tedious stories.

Two stars.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

In Search of the Old OnesIn Search of the Old Ones by David Roberts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"With respect to the Anasazi, at least we have begun to know just how much we do not know."

I love the general area of Four Corners, where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet. My wife and I have traveled extensively there and we know many of the locations appearing in David Roberts' In Search of the Old Ones (1996), a book about explorations of the "Anasazi World of the Southwest." In fact, in one passage the author mentions the Pecos Conference that took place in 1994 in the Mesa Verde campground and we might have been on that campground at that time. This very interesting work reflects the author's quest to learn about the history of the Anasazi and to understand the Old Ones' culture.

The book is inordinately thought-provoking and inspires reflections on diverse topics. Mr. Roberts (Dr. Roberts, to be precise, as he has a PhD in English) sheds light on the Basketmaker and Pueblo phases of Anasazi culture and we read fascinating descriptions of various archaeological digs. To me perhaps the most surprising and unsettling aspect of the exploration of the Anasazis' past is its political dimension. The author feels obliged, already in the "Author's Note" that precedes the Prologue, to defend his use of the term 'Anasazi': he notes that there exists "a movement among younger archaelogists and some Pueblo people" to substitute the term 'Ancestral Puebloans' for 'Anasazi'. We learn more about this much later in the text: the Hopi - who are the descendants of the Anasazi - object to that name and prefer "Hisatsinom'. Even a sharper controversy concerns the archaeological traces of Anasazi cannibalism: many people, not only Native Americans, do not want to accept this as a proven fact. I find it sad that the identity politics and the so-called political correctness interfere with the research, which is the best tribute we can offer to the ancient ones.

Unsurprisingly, the author dedicates a lot of space to the main mystery of the Anasazis' history: why did they abandon the elaborate cliff dwellings and the territory they had occupied for so many centuries? Archaeologists even try to pinpoint the date of the final abandonment to the year 1296. Theories abound as to the causes of the event: researchers mention environmental crisis in the form of a very long period of extreme drought, warfare with unknown enemy (there is a long-standing archaeological controversy about the defensive versus non-defensive nature of the cliff dwellings), and - the most fascinating theory - the Kachina Phenomenon, a social and religious paradigm that in the present times is one of the cornerstones of social and religious life for many Puebloans:
"kachinas [...] are reincarnated ancestors who act as messengers between the people and their gods."
Many, many other fascinating topics are touched. For instance, Dr. Roberts ruminates on whether the Native American civilizations were Dionysian or rather Apollonian in nature. He writes about figuration vs. abstraction in the ancient Southwestern art, and claims that "virtually all Anasazi designs are abstract." Readers interested in linguistics will find a mention of glottochronology, a "promising science that tries to link language change with the migration, dispersion, and intermixing of peoples."

From the above it may seem that the book is a research monograph. It is not that by any means. On the contrary, one could even call it an adventure book as the author vividly describes his explorations of seemingly inaccessible canyons, rock walls - Dr. Roberts is an accomplished and rather famous mountaineer - and pourovers (waterfalls in a canyon streambed). It is precisely this pervasive "adventure component" - which will be a great attraction to many readers - that decreases my overall enthusiasm about this important book. I feel the book meanders a little and the author is, somewhat unsuccessfully, trying to combine two rather incompatible visions of his writing: adventure text versus a sociohistorical essay. Still, I highly recommend the book.

Three and three quarter stars.

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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Vespers (87th Precinct, #42)Vespers by Ed McBain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"If thou hast thirst, then let thee come to the Lord Satan. If thou wouldst partake of the water of life, the Infernal Lord doth offer it."

Vespers, the forty-second (!) novel in Ed McBain's (Evan Hunter's) famous 87th Precinct series, was published in 1990 so by virtue of a "round" year number it became a part of my partial "McBain re-read project". And I am happy it did because I rather like this book despite my major disappointments with the series as a whole and some very weak installments that I have reviewed here earlier.

Father Michael, the parish priest, is in some kind of trouble; we don't know what is wrong and the mystery will not be solved until the very end of the novel. He is saying vespers in the church rectory garden but when he is about to finish the prayer someone stabs him to death. Detective Carella catches the case and leads the investigation with Cotton Hawes' help.

Multiple threads contribute to the plot as there are several people and organizations that apparently might have benefited from the priest's death. Obviously the most colorful thread is the one that features Church of the Bornless One, a devil-worship church which indulges in sexual orgies under the guise of "black" masses. The Satan followers' story tends to be hilarious rather than frightening, except for one particular aspect that is probably much more unsettling today than it was 27 years ago. The writing is surprisingly explicit but not in bad taste except for several utterly lame and cringe inducing phrases such as "nascent tumescence," a worthy candidate for The Worst Circumlocution Ever Award. (My entry in the contest, "throbbing turgid protrusion," wouldn't even make the long list.)

Another interesting thread - albeit completely implausible - involves Detective Willis' girlfriend who is pursued for her past misdeeds by professional killers sent from abroad. Unsurprisingly, drug dealing plays a prominent role in the plot but we also have something original - the issue of insufficient tithing by parishioners. What bothers me a little, though, is the author's pretense to depth in his writing. When juxtaposing conflicting versions of truth, Mr. McBain refers to Rashomon. Whoa! One would like to say "Wow, man, that's, like, really deep!"

What I like the most about Vespers is the author's utter cynicism showing in several fragments of the novel and particularly evident in the denouement and in the drug trade thread. Real motives of human behavior are often uglier than the crimes people commit and the clarity of this sordid realization in some way offsets the clichés, the implausibilities, and even the "nascent tumescence." Marginally recommended.

Three stars

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Perfect VacuumA Perfect Vacuum by Stanisław Lem
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"[...] And the only subterfuge the evasive Lem might still avail himself of would be a counterattack: in the assertion that it was not I, the critic, but he himself, the author, who wrote the present review and added it to - and made it part of -'A Perfect Vacuum.'"

Whenever I begin a re-read of a Stanislaw Lem's book I am afraid of disappointment. Lem was by far the most favorite author of my youth, some 35 to 55 years ago, and I have been worrying that in re-reading his works my enthusiasm may diminish for the Polish philosopher and futurologist who is best known for his incomparable science fiction books, such as Solaris. I am happy to report there have been no disappointments so far and A Perfect Vacuum (originally published in 1971) is one of the best books I have recently read, maybe even better than Lem's His Master's Voice which I rated with almost five stars.

A full review would take too much space so let me just offer a few remarks about this impressive work. A Perfect Vacuum is set up as an exercise in metafiction where Lem offers a collection of reviews of non-existent books. In the author's stroke of genius, the collection even includes a review of the book that contains the review - how's that for advanced self-referentiality? On a similar note, in the review of (fictitious) Gigamesh Lem provides delicious satire on literary criticism that indulges in looking for non-existent references: after all, it is true that any reference to anything can be found anywhere if one looks hard enough.

Lem creates the author of Gruppenführer Louis XVI who writes about artificial reality of 17th century French royal court created in Argentina by SS officers who escaped Germany. Any older Polish reader will immediately recognize this as satire on the so-called communist government in Poland that created an artificial reality for the citizens. A contemporary reader, on the other hand, may easily make a connection to the current situation when it seems that about half of all people are unable to distinguish the artificial reality of TV shows from the actual reality. Another fictitious book under review, Rien du tout, ou la conséquence, pushes the meta-literature to the extreme positions: narration is eliminated to the extent that only pure language remains. The piece also contains a hilarious passage about an author who wrote Don Quixote from the scratch and obtained exactly the same text as the one produced by Cervantes.

Now about my three favorite pieces. The review of De Impossibilitate Vitae, a fictitious work halfway between mathematics and total lunacy, is a playful take on probability theory (the subject that I teach, by the way). Lem presents the author's clear and convincing explanation that his existence is a result of chains of events so improbable that it is not at all possible for him to exist. Neither is it for any other person (De Selby's observations presented in The Third Policeman come to mind).

Non Serviam, perhaps the deepest piece in the set, reviews a book about personetics - science and technology that enabled people to create personoids, sentient beings that exist as executing programs, computer models implemented in software. Nevertheless they are completely real to themselves; they build their culture, philosophy and even religion that seeks to embrace the Creator of their Universe. Lem, as the reviewer, emphasizes the monumental moral and ethical dilemmas of those sentient creatures' creators. Alas he takes an easy way out and only glides over the crucial issue of the origin of self-awareness.

Finally, in New Cosmogony Lem quotes the Nobel Prize acceptance speech of a physicist and philosopher who is one of the pioneers of a new model of cosmology - Universe as a Game - where the oldest civilizations are the players who apply minimax strategies to construct the "laws of nature." It is also here that Lem, through the fictitious physicist's words, states the audacious yet utterly brilliant thesis that the expanding Universe serves the purpose of keeping the distance between new civilizations and the existing ones, which would cleanly account for the so-called Silentium Universi. Physics of the Universe as a by-product of sociology - it is not possible not to admire the author's (and the author's author's) cheek!

Despite Lem's usual hang-ups about sex, the piece Sexplosion exudes sheer hilarity with its memorable mentions of unchastity belts, sodomobiles, cybordellics, gomorcades (my own translations as I read the book in its original Polish version), and many, many other vehicles of pleasure. Perycalipsis is also a hoot with its spiritual masturbation, that is getting off on promises rather than releases. Phenomenal stuff!

Great book: funny yet deep and thought-provoking. In fact, now I love it more than 45 years ago. Despite my stinginess with top ratings here's the second one in just one week! Maybe I am getting soft in the head faster than I think.

Fours and three quarter stars.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

Poodle Springs (Philip Marlowe, #8)Poodle Springs by Raymond Chandler
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"He handed me back my gun, I put it under my arm so it would be there when the next guy wanted to take it away, [...]"

When Raymond Chandler, the famous author of several novels acclaimed as masterpieces of the noir genre, died in 1959, he left few first chapters of his new novel featuring Philip Marlowe. Robert B. Parker, almost as famous an author of detective novels starring Spenser, undertook the task of completing the novel that Mr. Chandler had barely begun developing, and thus Poodle Springs came into existence in 1989.

Marlowe is now married to Linda Loring, one of the most memorable characters in The Long Goodbye. They live in an opulent mansion in Poodle Springs, a fictional desert town transparently modeled on Palm Springs. Linda is the daughter of an extremely rich tycoon, but Marlowe refuses to live off her money. He sets up his office in a less affluent part of the town and takes a local gambling mogul - who naturally has some crime connections - as his first client. Marlowe is to retrieve a large amount of money owed to his client by a well-known photographer addicted to gambling. Of course the story gets much more complicated and quite successfully replicates the most famous Chandler plots. While the combination of two murders, blackmail, some very noir characters, Los Angeles vistas, and Marlowe's self-deprecating humor reads well, the whole package feels quite a bit derivative.

Alas, Poodle Springs is not a good novel. And it is not Mr. Parker's fault. He does what he can but is unable to save the horrible dud of a setup. The first four chapters, written by Chandler, are simply lame. The dialogues ring artificial and false, there is no chemistry between Philip and Linda - even the obvious sexual attraction seems fake and forced - and the whole premise of the troubled marriage is implausible almost to the point of being ridiculous. Why try to resuscitate something that has so beautifully and memorably died in The Long Good-Bye? Would publishers' greed have to do anything with this? Nah.

I am not a fan of Mr. Chandler's work in general and have always been astonished by his stellar literary reputation, but I used to love his The Long Goodbye and many, many years ago it would have been on my five-star list. One of these days I will re-read the novel to check how much my sentiment has changed. Anyway, the beginning of Poodle Springs is so awkward and written so badly that it seems hardly possible to have been written by the author of The Long Goodbye. Everything good in this book - regrettably not much - is Mr. Parker's contribution.

Two stars.

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Friday, January 13, 2017

The Third PolicemanThe Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"[...] the savant spent several months trying to discover a satisfactory method of 'diluting' water, holding that it was 'too strong' [...]"

At my age there exists no greater pleasure in life - other than eating chocolate, of course - than finding a book that is so stunning in its arrogant and confident uniqueness that it takes one's breath away with its sheer audacity. And as a matter of fact the pleasure of finding a book that totally defies expectations lasts longer than chocolate, not to mention the fewer calories it packs. I have just found such an epitome of literary surprise in Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman (written in 1940, but not published until 1976). This is also the second funniest book I have devoured in the 60 years of my reading adventures. Only Śledź Otrembus Podgrobelski's Introduction to Imaginescopy, which has not yet been translated from Polish to English - and is most likely untranslatable - might be more hilarious.

In fact the two works do share some similarities: while Śledź's book is a scientific treatise on imaginescopes, devices that consist of a hole enclosed by any substance and used to expand human imagination, Policeman - in addition to the narrative layer - is an exposition of theories of a certain De Selby. Among other findings De Selby demonstrates that there is no such thing as motion (which can easily be proved by looking at any photograph), posits that nights are just concentrations of "dark air" that possibly could be bottled and stored for later use, and that the earth is sausage-shaped. (Here I must disagree: after years of working the math - the subject that I teach on university level - I had shown that the earth is a torus, a donut-shaped object. Alas, because of senility, I have forgotten my clever proof.) Yet De Selby's most comforting discovery is that death does not exist and is just an illusion. Of course, each comfort has its price: De Selby proves that life does not exist either but one has to agree that non-existence is a reasonable price to pay for immortality.

The plot is deliciously and totally demented as well: the nameless narrator (his soul is called Joe, though), orphaned early and raised in a boarding school, gets hold of one of De Selby's books. He acquires an obsession to commentate all works by the author and produce a definitive De Selby Index. Lacking financial means for the research he murders a wealthy man to steal his money. However, the dead man's money is not that easy to find and the narrator attempts to enlist the police to help him find the hidden cash. The policemen, though, are not your usual cops: they are only interested in human-bicycle relationships and in fact function under the assumption that bicycles and people contain interchangeable parts, which eventually allows them to merge into one entity.

This is just the beginning of strange occurrences - I will not take away the reader's pleasure to discover the demented things that happen next. Let me just mention that we have a tactfully depicted sex scene between a man and a female bicycle. We also meet a box-making craftsman who - having perfected his manual skills so much that he builds boxes small enough to be invisible even under a microscope - eventually manages to build a box half as small. Can you imagine that? Half as small! And what about the posse of fourteen one-legged men who tie themselves in pairs?

While not all passages in the novel are equally riveting I can reiterate with full confidence that this is the funniest book in English language that I have ever read. I hypothesize that it might be the funniest book in English ever written, at least until I read the same author's At Swim-Two-Birds.

Four-and-a-half stars and - gasp! - I am rounding my rating up! My first five-star book in almost half a year and 50 books.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Whose Body?  (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #1)Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"His long, amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola."

This cool sentence appears on the first page of Dorothy L. Sayers' Whose Body? (1923), but overall the novel has been quite a disappointment. I have had some trouble staying focused on reading as neither the story nor the writing - which is quite a surprise - captivated my attention. The novel is the first entry in the author's acclaimed series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey as well as my first contact with the famous amateur sleuth.

The body of a naked man with a golden pince-nez has been found in the bathroom of a house that belongs to an architect employed by Lord Wimsey's mother. Lord Peter, well known for his "hobby of criminal investigation" and his talent for solving crimes, rushes to the scene. Coincidentally (or not?) an important financier has vanished the same morning. Are the two cases connected? Police investigation led by rude and incompetent inspector Sugg is predictably on the wrong track; we follow Lord Wimsey's inquiry in which he is aided by Bunter the Butler and his acquaintance, detective Parker of the Scotland Yard.

I am wondering if Ms. Sayers is the first author who uses the trick - now a complete cliché - with the detective being aware of a fleeting thought that would solve the mystery if only it could be remembered:
"He pursued an elusive memory for some minutes, till it vanished altogether with a mocking flicker of the tail."
Luckily, on the next page:
"It happened suddenly [...] He remembered - not one thing, nor another thing, nor a logical succession of things, but everything - the whole thing, perfect, complete, in all its dimensions as it were and instantaneously; as if he stood outside the world and saw it suspended in infinitely dimensional space."
The good lord has an epiphany - by the way, this mathematician-turned-reviewer loves the "infinitely dimensional space" reference - and suddenly he understands everything. Soon the reader will also be privy to the solution via a well-constructed and slightly dramatic scene that features Wimsey talking to the guilty party. Alas the scene is followed by the lengthy confession - quite boring and a poor literary device.

To me the best scene in the novel is the inquest conducted by the coroner in the presence of a jury: I found it very interesting to learn the details of court practice from almost a hundred years ago. All in all, while I may reach for one more Wimsey novel, it does not hold much promise based on this one.

Two-and-a-quarter stars.

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Saturday, January 7, 2017

By Night in ChileBy Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] my cassock flapping in the wind, my cassock like a shadow, my black flag, my prim and proper music, clean, dark cloth, a well in which the sins of Chile sank without a trace."

While Roberto Bolaño's famous 2666 languishes on my shelf intimidating in its 900-pages volume his novella By Night in Chile (2000) has been just the right size for me - fewer than 120 pages! And it is a fascinating read despite the somewhat unusual form: the entire novella, except for its last stunning sentence, is written as one paragraph without any line breaks, and without dialogues. Although the reader needs to focus and pay closer attention than with more conventional prose the effort is richly rewarding.

The novella is a stream of thoughts, an inner monologue of Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a Chilean priest and a member of Opus Dei, but also a poet, literary critic and a teacher. He has "many things to say" and not too long to live. The monologue - which at times sounds more like a confession - offers the reader a vast and fascinating panorama of literary life in Chile, a landscape of events happening amidst political turmoil. These are the times of the left-wing government of Salvador Allende, its overthrow in the 1973 coup-d'état, and the establishment of Augusto Pinochet's right-wing military regime.

The Chilean politics enters the novella quite late, about the midpoint, but once it does it holds the reader's interest in a tight grip and leads to an extraordinary and powerful ending, when we learn the secret of María Canales' house. But before politics makes its horrific entry into the plot the reader is treated with several delightful and captivating stories. Very early in the text comes the hypnotic and almost hallucinatory account of an evening and night that the narrator spent with Chile's top literary critic and when he also met the legendary poet and politician Pablo Neruda. Father Lacroix's "literary baptism" will remain in the reader's memory. As will the story of a Guatemalan painter in Paris, the extraordinary tale of the shoemaker of Vienna and his Heroes' Hill project, and the account of the narrator's trip to Europe to study "the preservation of buildings of national historical interest, with special emphasis on the use of falcons". How can one not like the names of Mr. Raef and Mr. Etah, the narrator's "supervisors" in his European assignment? And the stunning tutoring sessions with his very unusual students?

Bolaño's "run-on" prose is impressive and, in fact, not as challenging as it might at first seem. Alas, I do not read Spanish to enjoy the original, but the English translation sounds to me completely natural. I have found many remarkable phrases, sentences and passages, such as
"[...] Chile itself, the whole country, had become the Judas Tree, a leafless dead-looking tree, but still deeply rooted in the black earth, our rich black earth with its famous 40-centimeter earthworms."
It is an honor to be privy to Father Lacroix's stream of consciousness and share his thoughts on the variety of levels, personal, political, historical, and artistic. Some of the monologue is framed as a conversation between the narrator and the "wizened youth." This literary device reminds me a little of my beloved author, Cees Nooteboom, and his literary games with time and passing.

(My personal favorite is Father Lacroix's sentence
"[...] for me nothing on earth could be more fulfilling than to read, and to present the results of my reading in good prose [...]"
Except for the "good prose" bit this could describe me as well.)

Extraordinary novella and beautiful writing! Strongly recommended!

Four and a half stars.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Eight Black Horses (87th Precinct #38)Eight Black Horses by Ed McBain
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"Sixteen horses were still alive when the two patrolmen got there. They were not actually screaming. Just white-eyed with terror and - one of the patrolmen described it as 'keening,' but he was Irish."

Eight Black Horses is the seventh installment in my selective re-read of Ed McBain's magnum opus, and the 38th entry in the "87th Precinct" series. This is one of McBain’s "Deaf Man novels" that feature an arch-villain and a criminal mastermind who in addition to committing crimes for financial gain wants to humiliate and hurt the police, in particular the 87th Precinct detectives, and especially Steve Carella. I find the clichéd, tired arch-villain motif a strong turn-off and despite some memorable fragments I am unable to recommend this novel.

The plot begins with the cliché passage depicting Monoghan and Monroe in their black overcoats at the murder scene: the body of a naked woman has been found, with a bullet hole at the base of her skull. Carella and Brown head the investigation but the 87th Precinct detectives are preoccupied with other events as well: they keep receiving mysterious letters apparently sent by the Deaf Man: the letters, in seemingly random order, mention eight black horses, three pairs of handcuffs, six police shields, etc. The narration keeps switching between the detectives’ activities and the Deaf Man’s exploits and all threads eventually lead to the climactic finale. At least 40 pages of the last third of the book contain the author’s lame attempts to extend the tension and delay the resolution for as long as possible: pages and pages are filled with irrelevant fluff that heavily taxes the readers' patience.

The memorable scene around the one-fourth point of the novel involves psychologically brutal seduction, intimidation and domination: hard stuff that combines raw sex and savage power. While difficult to read the scene exudes psychological realism. As if to balance this at about midpoint of the novel we have an interrogation scene that seems to be written by an aspiring author: awkward, artificial, and totally implausible. And how about the Deaf Man, this supposedly brilliant criminal mastermind, who uses inept helpers in carrying out his plans? In real life he wouldn't last long with associates that stupid.

The caricature of Richard Genero, now a detective but still a total jackass, is so cliché that it is not in the least funny. On the other hand the author displays some great if twisted sense of humor in two scenes that juxtapose sexual activities and death. But even these good bits can't save this wreck of a novel.

The book was published in 1985, approximately one complete generation after Cop Hater , the first novel in the series that appeared in 1956. Yet except for superficial differences, mostly involving technology, not much changed in the City or in the police procedure. This helps in maintaining credibility of the author's trick who keeps the series protagonists' personal time run much slower than the time elapsed between consecutive novels.

One and a half stars.

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Sunday, January 1, 2017

DespairDespair by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"He appeared to my eyes as my double, that is, as a creature bodily identical with me. It was this absolute sameness which gave me so piercing a thrill."

An extraordinary novel but also one that I don't really like that much. Vladimir Nabokov's Despair, written in 1935 in Russian and then translated (twice!) by the author into English, is cleverly constructed and beautifully written yet it has left me cold: it has not been a compulsive read of the can't-go-to-sleep-before-I-finish type and I have had to work hard to keep my attention in many passages. Two potential reasons for my lack of enthusiasm: the novel may be too elaborately constructed to provide good reading and the fabulously rich, florid prose is definitely not to my liking.

This short novel is ostensibly a crime story told by one Hermann Karlovich, a German of Russian ethnicity. During his business trip to Prague he comes across Felix, a "tramp" who looks almost exactly like him. Hermann is fascinated with his doppelganger and devises a plan of a perfect crime that takes advantage of Felix' resemblance to him. Of course this is written by Nabokov so the criminal layer of the story, although prominent, only serves as a pretense to write about other, important things.

To me the most essential level of the (too) clever literary framework that supports the narrative is an enthusiastic celebration of language. Nabokov was trilingual: in addition to his native Russian, he learned English and French in his childhood. Despair confirms that he mastered the English language better than virtually any native speaker save for a really selected group of greatest writers. Nabokov exuberantly plays with words, phrases, and sentences, for example:
"I liked, as I like still, to make words look self-conscious and foolish, to bind them by a mock marriage of a pun, to turn them inside out, to come upon them unawares. What is this jest in majesty? This ass in passion? How do God and Devil combine to form a live dog?"
I feel that the author - gasp! - goes too far with his love of the language: the prose is ornate, too many words are used, at least for my unsophisticated literary taste. The florid language seems to be the goal in itself rather than a means to achieve something.

A prominent metafictional layer is present in Despair. Nabokov as the narrator writes about writing his story - which eventually becomes a sort of a diary - and the writing of the story itself becomes an integral part of the story, in some sense more important than the events of the plot. The narrator ruminates:
"I am sure to have unwittingly expressed certain notions in my book, which correspond perfectly to the dialectical demands of the current moment. It even seems to me sometimes that my basic theme, the resemblance between two persons, has a profound allegorical meaning."
The main structural axis of the novel seems to be the Hermann - Felix duality. But to me the most satisfying motif in Despair is the intentional ambiguity. The reader does not really know whether the events are true as described or whether they are the narrator's constructions. One of the most interesting themes is the relationship between Lydia, Hermann's wife, and her cousin Ardalion: not that the relationship is intriguing itself but Hermann's strange response to it. If he truly is - as he seems to claim - a perceptive observer of human behavior what does it tell us about the events as seen and described by him? This is to me the coolest puzzle.

A few passages in the novel may compel a reader to surmise political subtexts: for instance, the author refers to the new Soviet world
"[...] where all men will resemble one another as Hermann and Felix did; a world of Helixes and Fermanns; a world where the worker fallen dead at the feet of his machine will be at once replaced by his perfect double smiling the serene smile of perfect socialism."
Yet I do not think the author takes the politics seriously; he is just teasing us like in the rest of the book. All the time that I was reading the novel I had the feeling that Mr. Nabokov is winking at the reader.

I love good puns and the self-referential one than Mr. Nabokov's concocts as he - that is the narrator - contemplates the title of the novel he's working on is utterly delicious. He muses:
"'Crime and Pun'? Not bad - a little crude, though."
Indeed, not bad; and the author is coy in calling it crude.

A remarkable novel by a great master of prose. Just not exactly for me. Also, a perfect title to inaugurate this particular New Year!

Three and a half stars.

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