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Mike’s Likes #1 (Book Reports — June, 2019)

(“Mike’s Likes” is the first book column for what will soon be a regular feature on this blog. Michael Barrett is a San Antonio critic and longtime college friend. He has been writing erudite cinema reviews at Popmatters for over a decade — I even did a long interview with him about cinema on this blog. Although Barrett is happy with the film critic label, he reads widely too. With his permission, I will occasionally compile some “book reports” which Barrett has recently posted on Facebook).

View Robert’s Roundups || View the Mike’s Likes Series ||View the Raves & Reviews series ||

BASIC BLACK WITH PEARLS by Helen Weinzweig

NYRB classic reprint, Checked out of the library!

The narrator is a cultured married woman who seems to spend her days flying the world for rendezvous with her spy-lover, who changes his appearance easily and communicates cryptically via National Geographics.

The novel’s present is a couple of weekends, one in Guatemala where he calls her on the phone to cancel and say he’ll meet her next weekend in Toronto, where she actually lives or used to with her family, and then that Toronto weekend as she wanders through her memories and fantasies of her life and repressed tragedies, until she magically comes to a resolve that may be as imaginary as everything else, for we suspect she’s refracting her experience through breakdowns and dreams. The ending involves a doppelganger derived partly from the author’s own life. It becomes impossible to know if she really travels the world for spy affairs–and if she does, whether she just sleeps with random lovers whom she identifies as the same person, or whether these are messages to herself, or whether she stays home and reads magazines.

The style is lucid and hyper-real yet bewildering and dreamy, esp. when she has a dialogue with a woman in a Bonnard painting that echoes the narrator of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” The whole affair becomes increasingly psychological and symbolic, with tossed-off nuggets like “I was afraid that I had finally capitulated to vacuity” and incidents like this (amid the curious punctuation, I must wonder why the semi-colon):

“When I was forced to come to a stop by a street photographer, a lean young man in a green corduroy suit who stood feet astride in my path, I became angry. He had apparently taken my picture. He offered me the print for a dollar. I uttered a sharp No! He could not have known that he copied a likeness I no longer wanted. He persisted in holding the picture up to me, saying, It’s no use to me. Nor to me, I answered. He tore it up before my eyes; tossed the glossy bits into the gutter. Perhaps, it occurred to me, through the ‘evil eye of the box’ the photographer had removed a soul that was weary of wandering. Despite the breeze, the pieces of my soul just lay there. Good, I said to myself. Good riddance.”

When the rats come out, or What a peste

Audiobook of Albert Camus’ THE PLAGUE, Checked out of the library!

My second recent visit to Oran after THE SHELTERING SKY. The most surprising thing is how this supposedly atheist/existentialist tract of alienation and desperation could so easily lend itself to a Catholic interpretation. The priest is presented as in dialectic with another character (not the narrator but the diarist) but they’re not so much opposites as alternate facets; both believe man is tainted by Original Sin, though the latter calls it the plague we all carry, the guilt of collaborating with civilization’s crimes. The priest is given two long sermons, the latter of which has him arriving at a potentially heretical-existential “all or nothing” theory of choosing God consciously. Both characters come to the same conclusion of committing themselves completely to their convictions and die of them. Much is made of the “crucifying” nature of the death contortions, which take about as long as the agonies on the cross, and the plague breaks its fever, as it were, on Christmas. The narrator-doctor is even watched over by a beatific mother. The finale of this essentially philosophical book, which aims to be a “factual record” in the manner of Defoe’s (invented) “Journal of the Plague Year,” pulls off two brilliantly orchestrated bits of melodrama.

Although the setting feels removed from time and space to accentuate isolation, to the extent that the action takes place in a French colonial town in Algeria (with no Algerians–that conscience was pricked with the murder in THE STRANGER), this can also be seen as a political commentary or allegory of the colonial adventure that Camus presumably foresaw swallowing up and depleting France, for several characters (like the priest) state that the town has brought its troubles on itself. This arguably makes it less universal than an exclusively and specifically French catastrophe. The one who’s glad of the plague is a criminal who wishes to escape justice. His implication is that when everyone’s in the same boat, all are alike and therefore it’s a town of criminals. No explicit political comments are made; it’s left implicit for those who can see to see, with remarks on the initial incompetence of officials and special disaster meted out to a magistrate. (This would be a very different reading from the more common one of celebrating French resistance to Nazis.)

TALK by Linda Rosenkrantz

Checked out of the library!

For anyone who’s wished they had recorded conversations of their brilliant witty friends, at least one person went and did it.

The raw material, accent on raw, of Linda Rosenkrantz’s 1968 TALK is tape-recorded conversations among three arty New York friends from the summer of 1965. Two women, one of whom (“Marsha”) is recording these tapes, even when she’s absent, and a male homosexual painter (before it was cool to discuss such things casually and frankly) hash and thrash over every minute analysis of each other’s behavior and blather endlessly, sometimes hilariously about sex, friends, lovers, shrinks, art, abortions and the cat, roughly in that order, while lounging on the beach, interrupting each other, preparing and eating food, and hanging out. They’re full of exaggeration, one-liners, insight and witty play for each other’s benefit.

Apparently Linda/Marsha didn’t alter the tapes, only selected which ones to use from hundreds of hours, and they’re merely transcribed as play dialogue without directions or commentary. References to Warhol (whom they know personally) remind us that he believed a film is what happens when you turn on a camera and record whatever someone is doing, and that sometimes the camera alters their behavior and sometimes not. These friends are all circa 30 (one divorcee, who has just emerged from alkie rehab, is “punching 30”), reminding us also of the line in “The Great Gatsby” (quoted, though not that line) in which the narrator suddenly ends a chapter by remembering that it’s his 30th birthday. As Rosenkrantz reminds us in a 50-years-later note, this came out one year before Roth’s PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT and mortified her mother.

Related: Judy Berman reviews the book and a (paywalled) NYT profile/interview.

3 curiouser and curiouser not-long novels

Checked out of the library!

Ray Russell’s brisk THE CASE AGAINST SATAN reads like a blueprint for THE EXORCIST. In what may be a coincidence, one character is a Father Halloran, and someone with that name was involved in a 1949 case that allegedly inspired Blatty. Mostly dialogue or argumentative dialectic punctuated with grotesque moments. As an example of the author’s careful construction, a lengthy passage on “dung” might make us think he’s avoiding the word “shit,” and he is, but only so he can later use it to maximum effect in a single moment when it has the whole paragraph to itself. The argument carefully leaves itself ambiguous as it exposes what must have seemed especially shocking elements in 1962, but although the main priest states at the end that all the elements could have a rational explanation, he forgets to mention the catapulting against the wall and that fact that three people had to pry the victim off. The ingeniously handled climax tosses in a quick whodunit.

If Ursula Le Guin’s THE LATHE OF HEAVEN has a continual shifting of reality superficially similar to Philip K. Dick, the earlier CITY OF ILLUSIONS is an onion-peeler that keeps redefining what we should believe before revealing its final truth. The amnesiac lynx-eyed alien hero, who awakes naked and frantic in a forest and makes his way across a North America of a few millennia in the future, might foreshadow other amnesiac heroes like in Silverberg’s LORD VALENTINE’S CASTLE. A romantic picaresque full of vivid scenes, basic characters, shifts of setting that keeps a tight grip on the hero’s perspective even at his most confused. The fortuitous ending is based on tremendous mental powers and the ability to maintain two identities in one’s brain.

Barbara Comyns’ THE JUNIPER TREE, named after a Grimm tale, has a deadpan “naive” female narrator (as in the wonderful OUR SPOONS CAME FROM WOOLWORTH’S) calmly unrolling what seems at times like a fairy-tale romance, at times a realistic portrait of a single mother making her way in the world of antiques and junk, at times a casual reportage of tragedies that come out of the blue and are told with the same sense of detail and balance as the happier events. A world of vivid passing characters is conveyed in this rapidly moving tale.

How to live with loss in a science fiction universe

RE: Sarah Pinsker’s SOONER OR LATER EVERYTHING FALLS INTO THE SEA
Checked out of the library!

Most of the stories are narrated by lesbians (two of them rock stars), and all are about the consequences of living with things lost: mothers, grandmothers (a nod to Ray Bradbury’s “I Sing the Body Electric”), an arm (the only story with a male protagonist), a husband (the story about a straight couple), an imaginary daughter (a nod to John Wyndham’s MIDWICH CUCKOOS, and this is one of two stories about sirens on rocks), a viable world. Two stories submerge the pulp adventure to a distant undiscussed memory that still has repercussions. One Stevensonian tale that’s really about self-acceptance is told by what used to be called a hermaphrodite and now is called intersex.

The last two stories are the funniest and most brilliant: “The Narwhal” (the only story not previously published) is about a road trip in a supercar shaped like a whale. “And Then There Were (N-One)” nods to Agatha Christie in a multiverse conference in which all the attendees are variants of the same person (named Sarah Pinsker, but the narrator isn’t “our” Pinsker who won a Nebula, but she’s there too) and somebody gets murdered. It’s about how we’re never satisfied with our choices, even good ones, and it’s not really a spoiler to say the lady-or-tiger ending is totally appropriate. Compare with Sean Farrell’s time-travel novel MAN IN THE EMPTY SUIT.

“Our Lady of the Open Road”, the least fantastical story here, is the one that won the Nebula, while a whopping four others were nominees–including “(N-One)”, in which the Nebula Award is used as a murder weapon (!) and which was also a Hugo nominee. In short, this book is a one-stop for recently acclaimed stories and a very gentle intro to SF for people who might be nervous about it.

When the honeymoon’s over, baby


Antal Szerb’s JOURNEY BY MOONLIGHT
NYRB edition, translated by Len Rix, Checked out of the library!

I can easily believe this is among the 20th Century’s most delicate and pleasurable novels, although it feels like a spoiler to call it a comedy and perhaps it’s really not. It’s a human comedy, or humane comedy.

This 1937 Hungarian work, also known as THE TRAVELER and (most literally) THE TRAVELER AND THE MOONLIGHT, is a kind of proto-existential odyssey about a hapless young misfit, chafing at working for his father’s business, who tries to cure his abnormality by marrying a woman who scandalously divorced her rich husband for him, but he semi-accidentally ditches her on the honeymoon for a dreamlike stay in Italy, as though he has Stendhal Syndrome. In a state of inertia marked by restlessness and panic, he reminisces about his youth with insular brother/sister play-acting twins (along with a brash scoundrel and a Jewish scholar who converts to become a Catholic monk) and indulges thoughts of the suicidal death-wish, which he discusses with a bombastic religious/literary Hungarian colleague and a Christian English doctor after a brief affair with a good-natured, gloriously stupid American “art student.” There’s a rich Persian “tiger” and surreal and absurd moments.

Could be accurately yet misleadingly described to sound like a gloomy plod, when in fact it’s funny and surprising, the work of an urbane witty man whose compassion for others, even at his most satirical and jaundiced, is based upon knowing and forgiving himself. Friendship and understanding are major themes, as well as love and gently observed despair. Although touching on grim topics, it wears them with the cosmopolitan irony we associate with Kafka, Kundera and other Eastern Europeans.

It’s a pleasure to be in the presence of this creative generous mind, whose other works include untranslated histories of Hungarian and world literature that make him seem like his country’s Martin Seymour-Smith. Speaking of whom, MSS’ Guide to Mod World Lit doesn’t seem to know this novel but remarks of Szerb’s history of world lit that its author “has been, of course, told off by everyone in the most grudging manner, even while they make use of it.” Szerb has also written a fantasy-thriller, THE PENDRAGON LEGEND. Must track down.

According a German source on Wiki’s page, when Szerb was sent to a labor camp in 1944 for his Jewish origin (though raised a Catholic), he rejected friends’ attempts to get him released on false papers, and that’s why he died there the following year. Let’s pause to think about that.

ALSO: I see more translations are coming.


Michael Barrett is a writer, librarian and critic based in San Antonio. In addition to writing film criticism for Popmatters, Rotten Tomatoes and other national publications, he has published two works of children’s fiction. You can follow his daily posts on his Facebook page (and read a long interview with him on this blog). For the last 10 years he has written a Christmas letter detailing things read and watched for each year. Periodically, his book reports from Facebook are reposted here as “Mike’s Likes.”

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