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Mikes Likes #4 (Book Reports March 2020)

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Occasionally I repost book reports by Michael Barrett who regularly posts film reviews at Popmatters. Two more columns by Barrett will be published in March.

Alienation of non-labor

Guido Morselli‘s THE COMMUNIST
Ebook checked out of the library!

Set in 1958-59 and written in the 1960s, this novel is a tenderly observed psychological portrait refracted through the struggle of political beliefs with daily reality, therefore becoming a broader portrait of Italy’s Communist Party by an author who remained aloof from politics and the world, yet who was clearly capable of engaging with it via research and imagination. However, some of his American details are off.

The protagonist spent part of his youth in America and had a failed marriage to a rich capitalist’s daughter who symbolizes a dual-personality America: prejudice and exploitation amid beauty, enlightened social concern amid disillusion, both personalities defined by industrious drive. Since returning to Italy after the war, he’s had success as a political organizer in Italy and now been “put out to pasture” by election to Parliament, where nothing constructive is done and his prickly relations with an estranged married woman come under strain. The book ends in transit.

Most chapters consist of discussions and thoughts on the collision of theory and such matters as the inevitability of labor, so it’s very much a book of philosophy and ideas as well as calm observation of life. We could say it’s about how people construct ways to interpret their world and guide their actions, even though these constructs can prove inadequate. This book can be both an act of empathy and also perhaps a translated self-portrait of a man in midlife taking stock and vacillating in a crisis of faith. Morselli also wrote more fantastical novels, all published after his suicide. As Elizabeth McKenzie’s intro states, our knowledge of this fact unavoidably informs our reception of them.

The novel has a cameo by Alberto Moravia and mentions some of the figures mentioned in Natalia Ginzburg‘s FAMILY LEXICON , and also some of the figures mentioned in Aleshkovsky‘s NIKOLAI NIKOLAEVITCH, a Soviet “science fiction” satire told by a vulgar postwar pickpocket who got recruited for experiments in artificial insemination.

From Hungary to Wales: The Rare Bits

Antal Szerb‘s THE PENDRAGON LEGEND,
Checked out of the library, thanks to Interlibrary Loan!

Having been recently delighted by Szerb‘s JOURNEY BY MOONLIGHT, I had to track down his first novel, esp. since it’s described as a fantastical thriller.

Longish but fast-moving, THE PENDRAGON LEGEND (1934) is a breathless farrago of gothic adventure-mystery-horror elements all garnished with humor and wrapped around the obscure enigma of an immortal Welsh ancestor who seeks the Philosopher’s Stone. The narrator is a callow Hungarian scholar in parody of the author who gets casually swept up in bizarre events and outsized characters. Martin Seymour-Smith calls it “a thriller sceptcially based in Rosicrucian intrigue, and is an alarming book.” It’s more light and facetious than alarming, and while it wouldn’t make you think Szerb was about to produce the profound MOONLIGHT, similarities pop up.

In both, the narrator comes under the romantic spell of brother-sister twins, although the siblings have a very different rapport in this lark from the fraught one in the latter. In both books, the narrator has entanglements with women he’s glad to be shut of and asserts that he’s not cut out for it. The afterword by translator Len Rix observes: “Both are the record of a spiritual journey, thoughtlessly begun, that ends in significant failure” (with the hero no worse for wear), told by “a fatally shallow ‘seeker’ whose blunderings bring him up against profound truths the significance of which he never quite grasps” and that the characteristic irony is “a mode of vision, in which a fiercely searching intelligence is balanced by a delight in humanity and an irrepressible playfulness.” Also, both posit a numinous mystery behind the mundane world.

Digging for obscurities thru Inter-Library Loan


Phil Stong‘s THE OTHER WORLDS: 25 MODERN STORIES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION
Michael Fessier‘s FULLY DRESSED AND IN HIS RIGHT MIND
Checked out of the library! [exhumed from the archives of a few years ago]

Novelist Phil Stong, of STATE FAIR (turned into a great Will Rogers movie and then a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical) edited a 1941 anthology of weird fiction, mostly from the pulps. It’s considered the first of its type and the first to gather pulp SF tales. Stong prefers Gernsback’s term “scientifiction.” His intro begins well and degenerates into randomness.

Its first two sections, devoted respectively to strange new ideas and fresh variants of old ones, are fantasy and SF of humorous and even facetious tone emphasizing story over cardboard characters, including entries from Theodore Sturgeon (an ancient god), Lester Del Rey (ditto, Pan), Murray Leinster (4th dimension money trick), and Henry Kuttner (time travel to Shakespeare).

Two stories are by Mindret Lord, whose claim to fame is that his wife is a daughter of classic regional writer Hamlin Garland. Ralph Milne Farley’s “The House of Ecstasy” is in the second person–you are hypnotized. One of Eando Binder’s Adam Link robot stories is serious and full of melodrama.

Very curious and interesting: “The Adaptive Ultimate” by “John Jessel” (aka Stanley G. Weinbaum), about a woman whose experimentally advanced intellect turns her into a callous monster (beware), was adapted several times on radio, TV and even a movie (SHE DEVIL), thus indicating a raw nerve.

The third section is serious horror, mostly from WEIRD TALES, and includes Kuttner’s classic “The Graveyard Rats” and two by Manly Wade Wellman, including the still provocative “Song of the Slaves”. There’s a Lovecraft, a Jean Ray, one of Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin bits of garish nonsense, and two August Derleths.

I requested this book thru ILL specifically to track down a curious tale by Michael Fessier about the narrator’s recurrent fateful meetings with an old man in a black hat. I’d just been able to acquire his 1935 novel FULLY DRESSED AND IN HIS RIGHT MIND, also thanks to ILL. Fessier’s short story is very similar to his novel.

The novel is a weird, brisk anecdote in which the narrator meets an embodiment of evil (little old man who keeps showing up to cause mischief) and embodiment of beauty (skinny-dipping water nymph), both of whom have portraits painted by an artist friend. It begins with a great first paragraph (opening sentence: “I was standing in front of the Herald and somebody fired a shot and I saw a fat man turn slowly on one heel and fall to the sidewalk.”) and a promisingly uncanny first chapter and eventually bogs down for a hundred pages or so and the end peters out, leaving our hero safe from commitment.

The style is Hemingway-esque terseness (tersity?): “I never tried to argue with Peter. He was the janitor of the apartment house and he could do you a lot of favors. He could keep you supplied with light-globes and bring you some wine he got from his brother in Sonoma County. And he could be mean as hell and rap on your door if there was a lot of talking late at night and do other things to make you uncomfortable. If he thought hospitals killed people, it was okay with me. Anything anybody wanted to think was okay with me because for all I knew they might be right.”

That’s Chapter 7, and Ch. 13 begins: “And so that’s the way things were with me. Pestered by the little old man, trying to catch the girl in the lake, and supporting an artist who painted things and threw them away. It was all very goofy. It had never happened to me before and I don’t suppose anything like it ever happened to anyone before. But that’s the way it was.”

Unnerving tales for today

Brian Evenson‘s Song for the Unraveling of the World
Asja Bakic‘s Mars
Ted Chiang‘s Exhalation and The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate
Checked out of the library!

Evenson’s horror tales often feel like variants of each other, reworking existential themes on malevolent houses, breaking into same, glimpsing some Lovecraftian evil behind the veil, obsession with mundane details or impressions, sisters, parents, hideous transformation, people without faces, murderers, the narrator or protagonist’s madness and death. Three are about shooting films.

One original and refreshing story, about a drunken woman spotting a gold-suited stranger, has a happy end, or at least different from expected. Although most are tentatively set in our world, a few are on spaceships or strange worlds. A haunting one is a puzzler about a possible brother and sister living in a strange container with two doors, one to an outside wildness and the other to darkness. One is about being transformed into a monster in a post-apocalyptic world and another a female robot wondering about herself. The experimental joke “Trigger Warnings” mocks being afraid of or disturbed by fiction.

Translated from Croatian, Bakic’s tales could be described as Euro-existential shudders with elements of SF (writers are exiled to Mars, the heroine is a clone or a robot for sexual purposes), fantasy (a writer is still expected to be productive in the afterlife), or crime (murderers), often narrated by women writers. The author says she doesn’t write about the 1990s Yugoslavian wars she witnessed as a teen, but a couple of stories feel pretty directly based on that. One non-fantasy about a neurotic writer turns out to have a completely rational explanation for its mystery, and that’s the exception. A story told by a reporter investigating a “cult” ends, like the Mars story, on a discovery of her secret powers, so a partly dreadful self-knowledge is a recurring theme.

Ted Chiang‘s stories reflect a mind analytical, metaphysical, brilliant and generous. He picks a single idea from just around the corner and works every variation of it, thoroughly and surprisingly, usually in a very “today” context. Business transactions, self-knowledge and faith are recurring elements. The stories tend toward philosophical conclusions about embracing the positive aspects of life, and this too is refreshing. One is narrated by a parrot. It’s no surprise that Chiang’s successful in the SF world, and these are exactly the type of stories that would even intrigue people who “don’t read science fiction.”

The Hugo and Nebula winner The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate puts time travel within a beguiling pastiche of Arabian Nights tales-within-tales. Hugo-winning title story is narrated by a robot scientist who doesn’t grasp that he’s within a mechanically constructed universe; he discovers entropy by dissecting his own brain. “Omphalos” is told by a devout woman scientist in a universe that proves creationism even as astronomical discoveries shake her faith anyway; in other words, proof of God’s work doesn’t necessarily prove our assumptions about it.

Another Hugo story is about raising digital AI creatures, designed to be cute, to become self-governing and how this parallels child-rearing (also the subject of a Victorian steampunk tale). The terrific final story, which would make a good TV anthology episode, posits that people have the power to access their para-selves in alternate universes through laptops that create those parallel realities. These last two stories, as well as the anecdote about a free-will-thwarting game and the long story about recording the details of your life to substitute for imperfect organic memory and how this creates a mental shift akin to the transition from oral to written culture, attend to the influence of boom-and-bust marketing on techno-development and exploitation and vice versa. Even the Arabian Nights tale shows how technology affects capitalism.

Fear, sadness, loneliness, vitality, dreams, love


ALL OUR YESTERDAYS by Natalia Ginzburg
Checked out of the library!

A magnificent act of historical reportage via fiction, Natalia Ginzburg‘s novel is one long breathless express-train of boxcar-length paragraphs cataloging an Italian family’s personal (mis)fortunes during Mussolini. There’s not a line of dialogue in the book, or rather the whole thing is indirectly reported dialogue and thoughts, repetitious and incantatory and mesmerizing as countryside passing rhythmically before the windows, capturing anthropologically and without comment the cliches in which people speak and think, as transcribed with compassion and duty by a recording angel, or perhaps the wise village gossip. Everything is reported almost passively yet vividly, from the worst events to the most trivial details, the falling of bombs and sparrows.

You can feel the connections between this novel and her great memoir FAMILY LEXICON which was devoted to the strict truth and the same commitment to repeated words and phrases by which people express themselves and live; the main differences are this fictional family isn’t Jewish (one minor Jewish character comes to the fore near the end) and that the author gets rid of the parents right away so that siblings exist in a self-determined free-fall between the limits of the world and themselves. A book of bustling life and melancholy and the comedy of fearful and self-centered comings and goings, just as thoughts go back and forth and around, with displays of valor among the flawed and telling flaws among the heroes. Wow. This is more than writing, this is understanding.

Fast is loose


THE HUNTER AND THE TRAP by Howard Fast
Thanks to Interlibrary Loan, checked out of the library!

While Howard Fast is best known as a political-historical novelist, these two odd stories are philosophical fables. The first story is so reminiscent of Orson WellesTHE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND as to make you wonder if Welles read it, and at the very least shows how large was the legacy of Hemingway’s death in the ’60s and how they all heard the same rumors. The narrator is summoned to the arrival of a famous writer friend who’s a thinly disguised Hemingway: star novelist, heavy drinker, Spanish Civil War ambulance driver, interest in bullfighting (or matadors), big game hunter. His entourage consists of two sexually ambiguous people, including a woman called Diva. He instantly throws a huge society party, and when the party’s over he discovers he’s somehow transformed from hunter to quarry. The fact that he’s being “hunted” is greeted only as one more news story as the narrative becomes a parable of celebrity.

The second, longer tale is mostly epistolary with a drawn-out set-up about finding extraordinary children to test a theory that the next step in evolution gets strangled in the crib, as it were, by being raised by ordinary humans–not unlike my wacky theory of autism based on the mythology of Spock and Vulcan, and also not unlike certain SF stories of advanced children who achieve psychic gestalt, from John D. MacDonald‘s “A Child Is Crying” to Sturgeon‘s MORE THAN HUMAN to Wyndham‘s MIDWICH CUCKOOS. Posits that “naturally” raised children would be poly-sexual telepaths who learn to control atomic structures, as either humanity’s doom or salvation.


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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