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Monday, May 30, 2011

Anna Karenina: Tolstoy Translates To Today

Anna Karenina (published in the mid 1870s) is a bit like a 130-year-old, still-in-use country house — the foundation is still solid and it still can be a wonderful escape. It's only the decorations and adornments that may seem a little outdated. But even so, they do little to distract you from the bigger picture: That it's a beautiful historical construction, whose purpose is just as relevant today.

If Tolstoy had been a 21st century American, he may well have been a staff writer for a sitcom like Friends or Seinfeld — pointing out the foibles and absurdity of everyday life, drawing out relationships between characters with a keen eye, especially as they rise and fall on the happiness continuum, all the while dealing with some rather big-picture issues; the meaning of life, i.e.

In fact, to me, the most interesting aspect of an incredibly interesting, fun novel is how these characters — especially Anna and Levin, the two protagonists, each struggle with metaphysical questions in different ways and how their choices, the results of those choices, and the search for truth (Levin decides life has no meaning but then sees Kitty, Anna feels her freedom stifled and wants to make Vronsky pay or he'll "regret it") combine to send them on roller coaster rides of happiness. One finds his answer (after a few precarious moments) and continues his ride, the other ends up underneath the train.

The supporting characters translate to today just as well, too — Stepan Arkadyich, Anna's brother, absolutely slayed me. He's that super laid-back, easy-going friend everyone has who's always trying to bring everyone together, who solves huge problems with his connections rather than with hard work, and who justifies anything he may have done to piss someone off by tossing off a "Sorry for partying, dude."

And, of course, everyone knows a Vronsky — he's the popular, athletic guy who is the first one you call when you have an extra ticket. But he's also got a bit of a dark side (to borrow from a State Farm commercial). He's got a different lady for each day of the week, but isn't willing to commit to any of them — mostly because they exasperate him. He doesn't truly understand them, especially when they begin to go crazy with jealousy.

Only the long discussions of politics and peasants, of foreign wars and farming methods — not critical to the plot's foundation — make it clear to the reader how old this novel really is. Still, this is a must-read for any literature fan. Contrary to somewhat popular belief, this is not a hard novel to read. (I mean, Oprah made it her summer pick a few years ago!) It's a straightforward story, and if you use an edition that lists the principal characters with all their names and nicknames, you've negotiated the only really major impediment to understanding the novel. I'm very happy I finally read it, but sad I put it off for so long.

Now, if somebody would just make a movie...

(I'm kidding, of course. Anna Karenina is one of most filmed novels of all time — at least 10 different versions exist. A British version from 1948 stars Vivien Leigh, who also had played Scarlett O'Hara nine years earlier in Gone With The Wind. A post for another time, perhaps, but Margaret Mitchell was clearly influenced by Tolstoy in some of her own themes and characters in Gone With The Wind. But if you've read this far, I'm probably not telling you anything you don't know.)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Top 10 Most Anticipated Books For the Rest of 2011

Last year at about this time, I was counting down the days to Freedom. This year, by contrast, there's no single to-be-published book that has even close to the pants-wetting anticipation that Franzen's brilliant novel carried. Still, collectively, there are several high-profile novels from big-name writers to be excited about that are coming out later this summer and fall. So, since many of you lucky jerks are at Book Expo America in New York this week, learning first-hand about all the great novels to be published in the second half the year, I figured I'd submit my own list (in ascending order of publication date, not necessarily level of anticipation).

10. A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, by Ron Hansen (June 14) — I loved Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy and Hitler's Niece, and Guilty Passion sounds like it continues his oeuvre of lucid novels crafted around a footnote in history. He's a really fun-to-read, under-the-radar novelist — I'd highly recommend checking him out, if you're not familiar.

9. Flashback, by Dan Simmons (July 1) — I will finally read Dan Simmons. I will finally read Dan Simmons. I will finally read Dan Simmons. I will finally read Dan Simmons. This actually sounds really interesting, too — part dystopian, part detective novel, part social commentary. Count me in!

8. Sex On The Moon, by Ben Mezrich (July 12) — Yeah, Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires was about as big a flop as The Social Network was a success, but I liked Bringing Down the House a lot — which incidentally, was about as big of a success as the movie 21 was a flop (at least in my mind — those floating, slow-motion cards were really irritating!). But I'm willing to give Mezrich another shot, and this sounds like a rather fascinating story. After all, if we learned anything from diaper-wearing Lisa Nowak's love-triangle meltdown, it's that astronauts make for some delightful drama!

7. The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta (Aug. 30) — The "chronicler of the suburbs" throws a bit of a dystopian twist into this long-awaited follow-up to The Abstinence Teacher — which was a bit of trudge. And, frankly, The Leftovers, has disaster potential written all over it because of its gimmicky plot hinge (lots of people have randomly disappeared). I'm going to give it a try, though. Perrotta's probably best known for the terrific movies made from his novels, including Election and Little Children.

6. Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier (Oct. 4) — I bet I'm not the only one who read the crap out of Cold Mountain, but totally ignored Thirteen Moons. But I'm willing to let Nightwoods be the tie-breaker — though, I have to admit, the premise (a woman in 1950s North Carolina caring for her murdered sister's twins) doesn't exactly get my pulse racing.

5. The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (Oct. 11) — Here is the mother lode! It's been nine years since Eugenides published Middlesex. Nine years: the exact same interval between Franzen novels. The hype for this won't be as huge, but The Marriage Plot will no-doubt still be a huge hit among book nerds, given that, according to The Millions, which published the first paragraph earlier this week, "the first paragraph sets the stage for what may be a very bookish novel." Woohoo!

4. Zone One, by Colson Whitehead (Oct. 18) — And here we have yet another post-apocalyptic/dystopian novel from a literary novelist. (Biting my tongue to keep cynicism at bay.) Anyway, I first read Whitehead two summers ago — his summer-y novel Sag Harbor is tremendous. And, it's arguable that Whitehead does some of his best writing on Twitter. He's a must-follow. 

3. 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami (Oct. 25) — Published in Japan in 2009, the much, much anticipated English translation arrives in October. It's a brick: 928 pages. I'm making it my goal this summer to become well-acquainted with Murakami's other much-loved books — including Kafka On The Shore, Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — to get geared up for this one.

2. 11/22/63: A Novel, by Stephen King (Nov. 8) — It's true, the man can tell a story. But let's hope this story, which chronicles a time-traveler attempting to stop the Kennedy assassination, is a little better than the abysmal Under The Dome.

1. The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco (Nov. 8) — Ever since I cursed and screamed my way through the damn-near-impossible The Name Of The Rose (I DO NOT care whether Jesus ever laughed or not!), I've wanted to try reading another Eco novel to see if anything else he's written is more accessible. I picked up Foucault's Pendulum and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana with the best intentions, but they're both still gathering dust. There seems to be a push-back against Eco lately, as some wonder how relevant he (and his massive ego, apparently) is to modern readers.

So there are mine. What did I forget? What's on your rest-of-2011 list?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Harold Bloom: Grumpy Old Literary Man

Most casual fiction readers, I'd be willing to wager, know delightfully little about critic and Yale professor Harold Bloom. Part of me wishes I fell into that category, too — it would've saved me a lot of money buying books like Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, Genius, and The Western Canon (all of which are still unread) to make myself feel smart.

But part of me is glad I stumbled across him as a bright-eyed reader several years ago. He is, after all, widely recognized as our foremost literary critic. He's also the ultimate literary snob — which in some respects is a good thing, as he makes sure we don't forget about his favorite American writers like Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy. And dude also loves his Shakespeare, and the more often Shakespeare is "publicized," the better, I say. But his snobiness can certainly rub casual readers the wrong way, since he often only makes non-nerdy-literary-journal-headlines when he's complaining about something.

Two examples: In 2003, when the National Book Foundation gave Stephen King its annual Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Bloom wrote a cantankerous op/ed for the Boston Globe titled "Dumbing Down American Readers" in which he called King an "immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis" and expostulated that if King is the criterion for distinguished, perhaps the Nobel for Literature should go to J.K. Rowling. Ouch. And speaking of Rowling, a few years before that he'd written that Rowling's "prose style, heavy on cliche, makes no demands upon her readers." Like 12-year-olds are putting aside The Sorcerer's Stone and thinking, "Man, I wish this book was a tad more literary."

Because we're such stupid readers with horribly short attention spans now, Bloom is famous for being one of the first to begin making the case that the novel (at least in the form he likes) is dying. That was one of the themes of the one book of his I have read, How To Read and Why. While the book is more a chance for Bloom to tell you about why he reads and what he likes, there are a few interesting take-aways. He spends a lot of time talking about how important irony is — in fact, Bloom makes the argument that it may be the single most important component of good literature. That's a notion I can get behind. Looking for irony and identifying the specifics regarding how characters change throughout a novel (in reading, another technique of major import for Bloom) have really informed how I've read novels after reading Bloom's book. And it's helped me read more intelligently, catch more subtleties and arrive at the end of a novel with a better understanding of what a novelist was trying to accomplish. That's to say, I'd highly recommend How To Read and Why for any reader.

I bring this up now because Bloom just published another book (titled The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life), which he calls his "virtual swan song," as quoted in a rather academic, rather lengthy article by NY Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus. I'll be honest, I could care less about Bloom making his name taking on New Criticism, etc., etc. Unless you're a literary criticism grad student or a total and utter dork, this stuff is as dull as the day is long. But what is interesting about him, and the point of the post really, is just to share what I know about Bloom, and to point out what an enduring — and, frankly, important — literary figure Bloom is. And that it's sad that he's winding down his career. If you've read him, chances are you either love or hate him, but you definitely have an opinion about him.

What's yours? Which Bloom books (or articles) have you read? What'd you think and why?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Literature for the Apocalypse: A Top Five

Yes, some Nostra-dumbass in California has predicted that we're all going to die tomorrow. You have to admit, the guy's theory —  spelled out humorously in this Esquire article — is nothing if not interesting in its creativity. Based on a literal interpretation of the Second Epistle of Saint Peter (for God, a day is like a thousand years), and given that God gave Noah seven days' warning before the first flood, and given that the flood occurred in 4990 BC (no idea how he settled on that year), this Camping dude "reasonably" concludes that 7,000 years later is 2011 (if you include year 0, presumably), and "May 21 corresponds to the 17th day of the second month in the Hebrew calendar, the anniversary of the original Judgment Day." Man, that is some A+ delusional logic!

So, of course, this has gotten me thinking about end-of-the-world literature. There seems to be a dearth, at least in my reading experience. Perhaps that's because Hollywood's got that market cornered, churning out awful blockbusters like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 just as fast as Roland Emmerich can churn out recycled story ideas. But here's a selection — and I'm interested in hear yours too. (Though there is a fine line between apocalyptic fiction and dystopian, let's try to stay as close as we can to the former.)

5. The Stand, by Stephen King — I'm no great King fan, but I read this in high school and loved it. You know the story here, right? A killer virus leads to a post-apocalyptic battle of good vs. evil. The characters — King's signature — really make this story, though. I still have nightmares about Randall Flagg. (Now seems like as good a time as any to mention that, yes, The Passage is also an example of the genre — just pointing it out now, so you don't have to comment about what an idiot I am for forgetting it. ;)  )

4. The Footprints of God, by Greg Iles — This smarter-than-your-average thriller has scientists storing a human brain on a computer, with near-disastrous results, i.e. the "Great Collapse" of the universe into a single consciousness. Sounds a bit fantastical, yes, but Iles is a master at bringing you along with him — delivering an impressive Philosophy 101 course along the way.

3. The Omega Theory, by Mark Alpert — I really enjoyed this thriller about a bunch of religious fanatics trying to destroy the world with a nuclear bomb so they can all go to heaven. The novel asks the question: If the universe is nothing more than an incredibly complex computer program, what could cause it to crash?

2. Everything Matters, by Ron Currie, Jr. — The first real example of literary fiction on my list, Currie's novel begins with its protagonist Junior Thibodeau born into a world of which he knows the exact date of its demise. So Junior has to go through life trying to make meaning out of a seemingly purposeless existence, or as he says at a particularly low point of his adulthood, "...life has never been any great f#$%ing shakes in my opinion. In fact, it's always seemed a messy and heartbreaking and overall pointless affair." With a few flaws, this is still a solid novel — I'd recommend it.

1. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy — This is the standard by which all post-apocalyptic, end-of-the-world novels should be judged. It is bleak, but beautiful.

So, if you have a second or two between finishing up the items on your bucket list before tomorrow, I'd love to hear about your favorite end-of-the-world books. What's on your list?

(Of course, if we silly sane people all are wrong and this Camping fellow is on the money, I look forward to seeing you all in the aisles of the Barnes & Nobles on the other side...)

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Morning With Thomas Friedman

We don't talk much about non-fiction here at The New Dork Review of Books, so I hope you'll bear with me for a post — because this was exciting. Last week, I got to hear one of my heroes speak live and in person. At a convention in New Orleans, NY Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman delivered a witty, profound, educational and immensely entertaining keynote about how America needs to take the lead in solving some of the biggest problems we Earthlings are facing.

If you've read any of Friedman's books — I loved both The World Is Flat and Hot, Flat and Crowded — or his regular column, you know he has an easy, conversational style and a way to make complex geo-political issues easy to understand without much prior knowledge. Not surprisingly, that is exactly how he speaks, too.

After he made it clear that he's no dyed-in-the-wool greenie (On writing Hot, Flat and Crowded: "I wasn't inspired by environmentalism, I was inspired by the fact that America has lost its groove.") he continued on to make two really interesting points.

First, he explained that what the Great Recession really was (is?) was both the market and mother nature "getting together to send us a message: 'The way you are growing is not sustainable.'" There were three key characteristics of the recession that apply to both mother nature and the market — underpriced risk, privatizing gains and socializing loss — that made this message painfully clear. The subprime mortgage crisis was clearly a case where risk was underpriced, but certain entities were still profiting hugely...and when it all came tumbling down, the bailouts for the banks funded by taxpayer dollars were the ultimate example of socializing loss. In terms of the environment, as we continue to use cheap (underpriced) energy sources like coal-fired electricity and foreign oil, we're creating huge profits for (in some cases) energy conglomerates and foreign petrodictators. And the socialized loss is climate change and its effects — because the detriments of our continued dirty-energy growth accrue to the entire planet. 

The second highlight was when he explained that, "when it comes to climate change, I'm just like Dick Cheney." That elicited more than a few gasps from the audience. But he explained: When Cheney was making the case for the Iraq invasion (which Friedman actually backed, but now regrets), he argued that if there was even a 1 percent chance that Saddam had nukes, we had do whatever was necessary to eliminate that potentially existential threat. Friedman called it a low probability, but catastrophic risk proposition. Well, doesn't the same logic apply to climate change, he said? The only difference is that there's much more than a 1 percent chance that climate change is going to cause catastrophic damage at some point in the future — so we should do everything humanely possible to mitigate that risk. And America needs to lead that charge.

Friedman spent the second half of his talk summarizing the arguments made in Hot, Flat and Crowded, so there wasn't much new there, for me anyway. He did acknowledge that there are still many climate change deniers out there (climate change is the "hot" part of Hot, Flat and Crowded) — "That's fine if you don't believe in climate change, that's between you and your beach house" — but the intersection of the "flat" (how interconnected the world is now) and "crowded" (overpopulation, and at a higher standard of living) are enough to show that our model of growth is not sustainable. If you're interested in this type of thing, I'd highly recommend that book. It's a very clear, concise explanation of why we do need a green revolution and why America has to lead it.

Now, back to fiction...

Any other Friedman fans out there? Which of his books have you read/enjoyed?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Instant eBook: A Publishing Game-Changer?

Last week, former Newsweek editor, current executive editor at Random House, and all around awesome dude, Jon Meacham, went on The Daily Show to talk about the Modern Library's re-release of Shelby Foote's classic Civil War Trilogy, to which he contributed a new introduction. Four minutes into the interview, though, Meacham switched gears to talk about an "instant eBook" he'd edited titled Beyond Bin Laden: America and the Future of Terror.

"How did you edit an eBook on the future of terror and Osama bin Laden's death?  It just happened on Monday!" quipped Jon Stewart. "I know, that's why it's called an instant book," Meacham replies. The book is a collection of entirely new essays written by high-level foreign relations and terrorism experts collected together with an intro by Meacham...and published five days after the event that inspired it!

Beyond Bin Laden is Random House's first instant eBook, and as best I can tell, the first significant instant eBook by any publisher. In my mind, this is an idea that could be an absolute game-changer in the publishing industry. Even if you're not totally sold on the eBook idea, the instant eBook is actually something entirely new — sort of halfway between a weekly magazine and a rushed-to-publication book. But because it's all original content written specifically for this new format, the instant eBook can actually be more flexible and limber than either. Publishers are acutely aware that the key to getting readers to pay for content is to give them something they can't find elsewhere and at a high enough quality that readers "can't live without reading." If done right, as struggling publishers are looking for new ways to package content and engage new readers, the instant eBook satisfies both of those requirements.

It's no surprise that this first instant eBook was the brainchild of the former editor of a weekly magazine — Meacham says he simply emailed each contributor and ask them to write something on very short notice. (If you're unfamiliar, that's how we magazine editors roll...giggle, giggle.) So production costs are minimal and the possibilities are endless — even for fiction. Imagine a newspaper holding a creative writing contest and publishing the winners in an instant eBook — not something they could do in the newspaper itself, and much quicker than publishing it as a collection in a magazine or book.

Beyond Bin Laden is only $1.99 and is available for Nook, Kindle and iPad. I don't even own an eReader yet, but I couldn't be more excited about this. What do you think? Is the instant eBook a potential game-changer or a gimmick?

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Tiger's Wife: Atmospheric, But Edgeless

"We're all entitled to our superstitions," a Franciscan monk explains to Natalia, a young doctor who is trying to understand the seemingly bizarre burial ritual of some Balkan villagers late in Tea Obreht's debut novel The Tiger's Wife. Later, Obreht drives home that notion of the intersection of superstition and fact, of the overlap of legend, history and memories: "He learned too that when confounded by the extremes of life — whether good or bad — people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening.” But unfortunately, this novel as a whole has a stitched-together feel as Obreht crosses back and forth between past and present, between legend and real-time story. And while the idea of the gray area between legend and reality is interesting, the story itself isn't.

Let's take a look: The story takes place in an unnamed country soon after the conclusion of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Natalia has traveled to a remote Balkan village to bring medicine to an orphanage. On the way, she learns that her grandfather, with whom she was very close, has died. Mysteriously, he had wandered off to a village Natalia has never heard of, leaving no explanation for his wife, daughter, or granddaughter.

Natalia, who narrates the story, reminisces about the two stories, or legends, her grandfather had told her as she's grown up, which, by remembering (and telling readers), she hopes might provide clues to the circumstances surrounding her grandfather's death. One is about a tiger that escaped from a zoo and lurked near the village in which her grandfather grew up during Wold War II. Another is about a deathless man her grandfather, who is also a doctor, has encountered three different times at various stages in his life.

As these legends unfold, the questions for the reader become: How real is either? Could these two seemingly unrelated legends really provide clues to why Natalia's rational grandfather would've done something so irrational and inexplicable as go off to die without telling anyone where or why?

Obreht skips back and forth between the present and these two legends, building on each by introducing new characters and circumstances. Obreht writes beautifully, with drama, atmosphere and extraordinary sharpness. Her spot as the youngest of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 is well deserved.

But the problem with this novel for me is that as clear and sharp as her prose is, the story itself is just as dull. The three strains of story never really live up to the original intrigue of the mystery behind Natalia's grandfather's death. As Obreht continues to build upon the legends, the initial immediacy of the mystery is lost. In addition, the individual strains of story have no real edge to them; for lack of a better word, the novel is just a bit bland. While lovely, Obreht's colorful prose tends to bleach the stories themselves because the mood is so dreamlike and surreal — an effect of the fact that we're always wondering the degree to which grandfather's stories are real personal history, allegories or just cute superstition-infused legends.

Obreht is an unequivocally talented writer, and no doubt other readers will get along with this novel better than I did. But this novel just didn't land for me. It reminded me a little of Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, a Booker-prize winning novel that many people loved, but of which I also wasn't a huge fan.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

My Top Five Literary Nemeses

The literary mood is darkening a bit over here. Neither of my two current reads — Anna Karenina and The Tiger's Wife — is exactly a cheer-fest. And there's still a giant Pale King-sized cloud hanging over my head. (To be clear, though, I'm not dreading reading it. I'm dreading finishing reading it.)

So what better way to raise my spirits than to sling some vitriol, right? If you've lurked around The New Dork Review of Books for any amount of time, you've probably noticed a passing reference here and there to my literary nemeses. But I've never really fleshed out specific reasons, so I thought I'd spend a post expounding upon those reasons — that is, why the five folks below (they're not in any specific order) generally make me crazy. Enjoy!

Brown, proud of himself.
5. Dan Brown — Let's start with the big kahuna. My being-bugged-by-Brown phase started right at the height of The Da Vinci Code mania. I actually enjoyed the book, but I started getting really irritated the more frequently I'd see Brown go on TV and, with a straight face and much earnest, talk about how the conspiracy theory he'd used as the plot of his fictional novel was very, very real. Talk about a guy drinking his own Kool Aid! And it wasn't even his own theory — he'd borrowed it from a book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and as a result, got sued for copyright infringement in England (somehow, he won, though). I've read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and even those authors admit at the end that nothing they put forth can be proven. Besides this, have you read Digital Fortress? It's my no-hesitation answer when anyone asks me about the worst book I've ever read. And to put a bow on this, Brown was more than three years late on his Da Vinci Code follow-up, during which time several employees at his publisher were laid off. And, THEN, The Lost Symbol turned out to be a total hack job.  

Right back at ya, buddy. 
4. James Frey — One of my biggest pet peeves is a big ego, and Mr. Frey has this in spades, as this wonderful article makes clear. The article also explains Mr. Frey's latest literary endeavor, which amounts to a sweat shop for writers. He gets all the credit and most of the profits, and the writers who did all the work have to sign ridiculous contracts that basically ensure the glory is all and forever Mr. Frey's. Therefore, it was with no small degree of schadenfreude that I watched the ultra-crappy sci-fi movie I Am Number Four fail miserably — that was the first film from a book his fiction factory produced. In addition, of course, there was that whole made-up-memoir and Oprah dress-down debacle. I was glad he got his comeuppance, but it's too bad it had little effect on his supernova-sized ego. Most recently, Frey published a novel (priced at $50!!) in which Jesus lives in modern times in New York...and is bisexual. Look, I'm not religious at all, but only a writer with such an I-don't-give-a-f$@k ego could have so little care for certain sensibilities and taboos.

3. Celebrities Who Publish Fiction — We've already been over this one in this post from last year...and that was even before Snooki published a novel! Writing a novel — or any fiction — is very difficult, and it boils my blood that publicists for air-headed celebrities hire a ghost writer, slap a famous name on the cover, and get published. It's the height of literary disingenuousness.

2. Michael Crichton — I don't mean to dance on a man's grave here (he died in late 2008), because I have enjoyed most of the Crichton novels I read...up until I gritted my teeth all the way through State of Fear, his 2004 novel that has a bunch of "eco-terrorists" purposely causing huge environmental disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes, to prove that global warming is not a myth. Look, The New Dork Review of Books is largely a politics-free zone, but to fully explain why Crichton is on my nemesis list, it bears mentioning that I write about environmental issues for the magazine I work for, and environmental issues are important to me. State of Fear is an absolute turd of unmitigated anti-environmental and global-warming-skepticism propaganda. There were even rumors when the book was published that noted anti-environmentalist Dick Cheney had used his bully pulpit to commission Crichton to write the novel.

Genius, just not my kind.

1. Cormac McCarthy — Alright, I can already hear your boos. But doesn't everyone have that one famous novelist everyone else is ga-ga over, but that you can't stand? For me: Hello, Cormac. I've never not remembered three books more than I don't remember his Border Trilogy. I know I read them. Don't have a clue what happened in any of them. They all seemed like pretty much the same thing, didn't they? And I absolutely despised Blood Meridian — it seemed like another version of All The Pretty Horses, only much more confusing and needlessly violent. (Disclaimer: I loved The Road!)

So there you have it. But before I go, I'd like to bring up a few honorable mentions: 

Honorable mentions: Jennifer Weiner, Borders executives, people who protest kids reading Harry Potter books because they have magic in them, Thomas Pynchon, Stephenie Meyer, book bloggers who do these things, Ayn Rand, blog hoppers who link-drop without commenting on content, Glenn Beck, idiots who post one-star reviews on Amazon to protest e-book pricing, Nicholas Sparks, your mom, people who don't like David Foster Wallace, Greg Mortenson.

Who are your literary nemeses? But to be fair, you have to post a good reason why this person or group of people bug you?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Who Can We Trust? A Look at Unreliable Narrators

The first time I saw the movie The Usual Suspects, I was absolutely stunned at the ending.** (See below if you're lost.) The trick at the end is a brilliant piece of storytelling — one which helped writer Christopher McQuarrie earn a well-deserved Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1996. That film was my first real brush with the concept of the unreliable narrator.

Later, in a college literature class, we read Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire — a total mindf#$k of a novel that also employs the unreliable narrator trick. The reader has to decide whether what narrator Charles Kinbote is telling us is real or just delusional fantasy. Of course, Nabokov is also responsible for probably the most famous example of the unreliable narrator — Humbert Humbert in Lolita, who almost succeeds in convincing his audience that his pedophilia is perfectly normal.

The concept of the unreliable narrator is pretty self-explanatory. Whether via insanity or just simple misinterpretation of reality, the unreliable narrator gives us a myopic or slanted or just dead wrong account of events. Some readers are turned off by an unreliable narrator, arguing that it's a dirty trick because the narrator is generally all we have to know the story. We're not conditioned to consider that the story is taking place inside a larger fictional framework. We are trained to trust that narrator implicitly. After all, if we can't trust the storyteller, how are we supposed to really understand or enjoy this story? 

I'd say that trying to understand what's going on from other intratextual clues is the enjoyment of such stories. You have to read between the lines, to interpret the "notes the author isn't playing." It's not always easy for the reader, especially because sometimes we have no reason to suspect the narrator is unreliable until some seminal event that clues us in. And then we have to re-look at the whole story in light of what we've just learned.

Can you imagine the craft and skill necessary to write something like this? That's the real mind-boggler, and it must be why there are so few good examples of this narrative technique. But one recent example, and the reason why the unreliable narrator's been on my mind lately, is Ida Hattemer-Higgins' novel The History of History. We're never really sure how sane Margaret is — as she tries to come to grips with memories she can't consciously remember. If you're a fan of the unreliable narrator technique (or just great fiction in general), I can't recommend The History of History enough. 

Are there other successful examples of the unreliable narrator you've come across? Anyone read Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost? I've had that novel on my shelf for years and never read it.

Is the unreliable narrator a technique you enjoy reading, or something of a turn-off? 

**(The movie came out in 1995, so it's past the statute of limitations for a spoiler alert, I think —  but it you don't remember or haven't seen it, Verbal Kint actually is Keyser Soze, and has been fabricating the story the entire time. And then, "And like that, he's gone.")