Sunday, June 12, 2011

REVIEW: What I've Been Reading Lately

So this one'll be kind of oddball. I've been doing a lot of reading the past couple weeks, but none of the books has been as strange/wonderful or as perfectly fitting as most of the books I try and dedicate a full column to. But, not wanting to let all that reading go to waste, I still want to talk about them briefly. So instead (and, in part, inspired by the fact that my girlfriend got my Nick Hornby's Shakespeare Wrote for Money, which does the same thing), I thought I'd just do some short rundowns of the stuff I've been going through recently.

(Proper article next time, though. Either "3 Great Novels Written by Musicians" or an in-depth author profile).

The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler
This book is... different. It's intensely Victorian, like the ink was made from tea leaves and meat pie filling. However, one gets the feeling that, like Alasdair Gray's Poor Things or Alan Moore's From Hell, it's immersing itself so perfectly in the Victorian age in attempt to show the real Victorianism.
Just hollowed the old broad out and wore her as a suit.
The Way of All Flesh is ostensibly about the young man Ernest Pontifex and how he became a good, non-religious freethinker and charming gentleman just like Butler himself. The fact that the last 70 pages or so are about that makes me pretty sure Butler wanted us to take away that message. However, the real story-- the one that is far more emotionally powerful and forms the best parts of the novel --is Ernest's relationship with his abusive, overbearing father. Butler does an incredible job of showing the kind of power that a dominant parent can have over their child, and the scenes between Ernest and his father are far and away the most intense of the book.

Butler also does a great job of really digging into the roots of Ernest's father's cruelty, both in showing the origins of his need for power and constant affirmation of his importance (a childhood spent in the shadow of his own father, never having the courage to challenge those who were not dependent on him) and the reason's for his wife's meekness and the absolute need she has for her husband's happiness. Butler also ties these beautifully with Victorian ideals, making it absolutely clear that this domestic tyranny and cruelty is a natural extension of Victorian moralism and the sense of obligation.
"Have I mentioned that Jesus was a lie?"
The ending goes on for too long as Butler tries to make the story about religion and society instead of a fucked-up family-- if a good chunk of Ernest's college years had been removed, and the actual ending had been the moment where Ernest finally tells his parents that he doesn't need them and they have no right to control him, it would have been a much stronger book --but it's still a pretty great novel, and has some incredibly powerful moments in it.

The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks
Okay, I'm torn with this book. I really, really enjoyed it while I was reading it-- I picked it up at 11 at night, read the first 2/3rds, went to bed, and finished it immediately upon waking up --but I'm a little hesitant to wholeheartedly recommend it. In part because I'm not sure I want to go on record as having liked it.

The Wasp Factory contains some of the most brutal, fucked-up content I've ever read. Our narrator, Frank, is a teenage sociopath living on the West Coast of Scotland, getting drunk, killing animals, arranging their skulls on sticks along invisible ley lines, and reminiscing about the three children he murdered when he was younger.
Why are there people like Frank?
I don't mean to imply that it's just shock value, Bret Easton Ellis / post-Invisible Monters-Palahniuk style. This is a very, very good book. One of the most horrifying aspects of it is that we come to understand Frank's logic and, while never feeling that his acts of evil are right, the audience is able to see his rationale and understand the logic by which his world operates. At its core, I think it's a book about adolescence: to be 16 is to be creating a set of rituals, codes, and totems that are exclusive to you alone, and Frank, violent and brutal though he is, is trying to do this without the tools to do so in a way that prevents his rituals from being bloody and savage. He never takes joy in the three murders he committed, but recognized them as necessary acts for the pattern he sees in the world that no one else does. I mean, I just listened to a lot of Raw Power and took up the guitar, but the principle's the same.

That said... I'd be careful with this book, if I were you. It may be understandable and ring uncomfortably true, but it is still a brutal, brutal novel. I'm not even going to describe any of the most chilling scenes in it because I don't want to be responsible for putting them in your head. Just know that, if you do read it, there is a reason behind all of it and it does have a point. And it's a book you will almost certainly tear through in a white heat and be very, very glad to finish.
"I write about spaceships! And five-year-olds being blown to pieces!"
Wigfield: The Can-Do Town That Just May Not, by Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, and Paul Dinello

Several years ago, when the three of them were all just starting out as actors, the authors of this book did a TV show. It ran from 1999 to 2003. It was a parody of after-school specials called Strangers With Candy, and it was wonderful: surreal, strange, and operating by its own beautiful, inexplicable logic. It was easily one of the best TV comedies of all time and it's astounding that something as dark and weird as it ever made it onto television in the first place.
The character on the right never moves on camera and always makes that face.
Wigfield, their print follow-up, is not the same level of brilliant nonsense. It's still a damn fine book though.

Wigfield is the story of Russell Hokes, former highway line painter turned writer, who signs a contract to write 50,000 words about the disappearing American small town and rapidly discovers he can neither write about nor care about the disappearing American small town. Hokes's narrative voice is the best part about the book: he's a terrible, terrible writer who thinks he's a great one, and most of the book's best jokes come from his attempts to sound eloquent (and pad his word count), such as his claim that "with the future in my rearview mirror, I set a course for the past," or the fact that you can clearly identify the passages in which Hokes has attempted to use a thesaurus (usually in trying to find synonyms for "small town").

The town Hokes alights in, Wigfield, is "a charming architectural melange, the overall effect being that of a series of children's forts made from stolen highway equipment"-- a hastily-constructed shantytown/trailer park constructed at the base of a soon-to-be-destroyed dam as an obvious insurance scam. The book becomes an absolutely vicious satire on the "small town" and, moreso, on our love for the town. One of the biggest recurring jokes is the moment at which one of Wigfield's vaguely insane residents (there's supposedly a local serial killer, but it could be pretty much any citizen) will say something absolutely horrible, following it with a proclamation of small-town pride. Wigfield is essentially the worst place on earth, and Hokes is able to convince himself, and hopes to convince his reader, that it's "charming" and "quaint" just because very, very few people want to live there.
And then Stephen Colbert is in this picture.
Essentially, if you enjoy Strangers With Candy, or if Tina Fey's and Jon Stewart's endorsements on the back sound like pretty good advice, check it out. Wigfield is fun, weird, and, at times, unspeakably vicious satire. Also, it stops mid-moral because Hokes reaches 50,000 words, which is a pretty beautiful joke.

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