Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Book 6: Time’s Arrow

By Martin Amis (1991)

This is probably my third Martin Amis book. I was curious about Time’s Arrow mainly because it’s known as his “backwards” novel. Using Memento-style reverse chronology isn’t exactly an original literary device, as writers such as JG Ballard and Philip K Dick (faves amongst you 50-bookers) have used this gimmick in earlier works. But unlike them, this backwards novel was short-listed for the Booker prize.

As I’ve been meaning to read this book for several years, I had mostly forgotten what the premise was about, which was a good thing. The original title was supposed to be “The Nature of the Offense” and the story begins with the awakening of an old man in a U.S. hospital surrounded by doctors. From there, the reader quickly grasps that the novel is starting from the protagonist’s death and moving backwards in time, and soon learns that this man has been harboring a terrible and long buried secret. As the story regresses through the man’s life, he becomes younger and younger, goes through a couple of identity changes, returns to Europe, WWII is ending... or is it just beginning? And the reverse structure of the book begins to make sense.

Amis takes full advantage of the backwards device to reveal his crafty talents and show off his usual detached and savage irony. He even has a bit of fun sometimes:

The other guy stared at us, with raised, churning face. Then he did some shouting and strode out of there – though he paused, and thoughtfully dimmed the lights, as he left the room. We heard his boots on the stairs. The lady clutched me.
“My husband!” she explained.

Also interestingly was how Amis used the protagonist’s detached soul as the 3rd person narrator for the entire novel except for one section: when we finally arrive at where the nature of the offense took place. Only then does the novel switch to the 1st person. Once the protagonist reaches his younger state of innocence does the novel return to his detached and passive “inner soul” as narrator.

Amis can be known as a cold, pretentious and meta-fictional English writer, but the books I’ve read, like "London Fields" and "Other People: A Mystery", have always managed to surprise me in its twists and provoke some critical thoughts out of me. "Time’s Arrow" has definitely been one of the more interesting reads I’ve had in the past couple of years.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Book 5: Black Hole

By Charles Burns

Olman and I were visiting his sister and brother-in-law this past weekend, and this unusual graphic novel was brought out from a shelf. Right away I was intrigued by the black & white art and the premise of suburban teens in the 1970’s plagued by a horrifying STD that inspires grotesque deformations. I read the entire thing in a single evening.

Here’s a short online review that describes “Black Hole” better than I can at the moment: Black Hole Review

I included this as a 50-booker because “Black Hole” was such a rich and surreal reading experience. It really felt like I had entered Burns’ twisted and hallucinatory world where diseased, outcast teens run rampant in the woods and growing up is like a living Cronenberg-esque nightmare.

Critics liken the strange plague as a metaphor for AIDS, but for me, it’s more like a narrative device to explore the teenage psyche and societal behaviour toward aberrations, which the comic does frighteningly well. Also, the disease doesn’t behave like AIDS and is referred to very vaguely. Once it sets in, the disease doesn’t progressively worsen, or kill its victim. Rather it seems to either transform, or deform, the victim into a mutant-like, almost chimerical, creature.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Book 4: The Fortress of Solitude

By Jonathan Lethem (2003)

If "Motherless Brooklyn" was a quick compact read, this was not. I had to renew this bloody book twice. Then because my cat died, I was late renewing a third time and the library refused to renew it, as it’s now considered overdue. (see my Rant in wordsmiths) So I said, fuck this, it took me almost 3 months to read this tome, I’ll pay the 25 cents per day until I goddamn finish it!

"The Fortress of Solitude" has everything: epic coming of age tale, homage to a bygone Brooklyn; elements of magic realism, comic book fantasy, multicultural mish-mash, pop culture commentary and social critique. It’s kind of like a Brooklyn-ized version of "White Teeth" (Zadie Smith), or "Midnight’s Children" (Salman Rushdie). However, the core of the novel is the unlikely (yet likely) friendship between a black kid named Mingus and a white kid named Dylan.

Although rich in period detail and mood, I found it overly expository at times. It made for a tough read, especially at the beginning, due to lack of narrative momentum and its mellow chronological pacing. It began with Dylan as a young boy adjusting to a mostly black and Hispanic Brooklyn neighbourhood. Each section was devoted to a grade, or season, of Dylan’s life until he finally reaches high school.

When it dawned on me that every densely paragraphed chapter was going to represent a year of his teenaged life, I knew it was going to be a long haul. But even as I was tempted to skim through expounding paragraphs, there were worthy details I didn’t want to miss. TFoS is the kind of book that’s got enough cool shit that a former-geekboy-turned-hipster reader would perhaps devour and reminisce about.

Take this quote for instance:

Mingus Rude excavated four comic books from the closet floor: Daredevil #77, Black Panther #4, Doctor Strange #12, The incredible Hulk #115. They’d been tenderly handled to death, corners rounded, paper browned by hot attentive breath, pages chewed by eyes.

You can just tell that Lethem loves, even almost fetishizes, this kind of stuff!

And despite being a gawky white kid, Dylan’s privy to the cultural trends of his era. Through him, you get to experience childhood in the 1960’s, a time when kids hung out and played spaldeen on the street. During the adolescent 70’s, the two boys discover the world of comic books (and superpowers, even!). Through Mingus, Dylan gets exposed to hiphop and the delinquent pastimes of shoplifting, getting stoned and territorial tagging. When their friendship becomes estranged, he befriends geeks who memorize Al Jaffe’s Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions and spout lines from Monty Python. Then Dylan goes punk, catching shows at CBGB’s and dealing LSD on the Bowery.

Dylan eventually becomes a music journalist, while Mingus takes the more stereotypical and tragically “black” path via Requiem for a Dream-like descent into drug addiction, crime and prison sentences at Spofford, Riker’s, Elmira, and finally, Watertown.

Highlights in the book are the protagonists’ respective dads. Dylan’s father is a failed artist-filmmaker who fell into painting sci-fi paperback covers for a living. Lethem has a knack for finding humour in the sci-fi subculture, as Abraham Ebdus, much to his chagrin, finds semi-success at what he does, winning Nebula awards and spots as a guest speaker on esoteric panels. The background of Mingus’ father is less thought out. The background of Barrett Rude Jr’s musical career has its own chapter awkwardly inserted near the end of the novel instead of woven through the book. It’s a fascinating rise and fall account, but interferes with the flow of the narrative.

Jonathan Lethem is definitely one of the more original and interesting contemporary writers, and he’s got a wonderful way with words. It’s no easy feat to deftly weave (almost) so many disparate elements together. TFoS is a flawed woult-be masterpiece only because it tries to capture and chronicle so much.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Remembering Gunther

Rest in peace, little guy...

Feel free to visit his memorial