Mikes Likes #3 (Book Reports Feb 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.

Two milestones of midcentury malaise

(E-Audiobooks checked out of the library!)

In keeping with Richard Matheson‘s mission of exploring the failures and phobias of the postwar American male chained to an expectation of suburban paterfamilias he proves unable to manage, THE SHRINKING MAN (here retitled THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN after the movie) presents a stark symbol for impotence and obsolescence, and he doesn’t neglect to mention the resulting sexual crisis. It’s a surprisingly sexual book, with desire and threat and frustration in almost every chapter in just about every wrinkle the situation could present. The movie concentrates more on the physical threats: spider (a black widow, and Scott understands his rage against it has a symbolic angle but he doesn’t quite grasp what it is), cat, etc. But those are struggles against nature while his most basic struggle is against himself.

The narrative flips back and forth between an agonizingly detailed (if not always easily picturable) odyssey of a desperate man just under one inch trying to survive in his basement (or his subconscious) and flashbacks to the journey here. Above all, it’s a psychological portrait of almost constant rage, humiliation and self-absorption that becomes increasingly pathetic and irritating as he becomes “a bellicose doll.” He understands that from his daughter’s POV, “in the actuality of pure sight, he was nothing but a horrid midget who screamed and ranted in a funny voice. ” He must be brought low b/c the implication is that even at a normal 6′ 2″ he must have been an often unhappy, demanding egotist. Matheson’s daring choice makes him unsympathetic much of the time, so that Scott can finally be dragged, hopeless, to the epiphany of the great last line.

Another title change is Jack Finney‘s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS from merely THE BODY SNATCHERS, but this 1978 revision of his 1955 novel renames the town from the fictional Santa Mira to the actual Mill Valley where Finney lived, and it updates certain details to the 1980s. He also tosses in an in-joke where the hero goes to see a good movie called TIME AND AGAIN based on his greatest novel. He has to leave without seeing the end, which might also be a nod to the fact that the property was in development forever without being made.

Looking over blogs about this book, it seems not everyone understands that two slightly different versions exist. They have the same optimistic ending, which is very different from any of the film versions, and that’s the most surprising element. Some readers are disappointed by its supposedly anti-climactic nature, but I find it fascinating.

Book report: The man who would not be king

OLIVER VII by Antal Szerb
Checked out of the library–thanks to Interlibrary Loan!

Continuing my obsession with Hungarian writer Antal Szerb, his last and lightest novel (1943) is a Ruritanian comedy that refers to Europe’s current war only by the most indirect discretion in references to “those days” when events like this gentlemanly souffle of mistaken identities were supposedly possible. The fretful monarch stages a revolution to drive himself into exile (a plot echoed in the middle section of Herbert Read‘s THE GREEN CHILD) and in Venice gets mixed up with con artists, one of whom calls himself St. Germain, descendant of the notorious Count. They make him masquerade as himself in a scam diplomatic deal that turns real. Lots of clever dialogue and farcical situations that could serve in a play. The novel implies that the trickster St. Germain is a fateful puppet-master who knows what he’s doing from the start.

Translator Len Rix traces the strong parallels with JOURNEY BY MOONLIGHT (including Venice and the hero’s quandary between two women, running away or going home) to point out that this variation comes to a more mature and forthright conclusion about accepting the destiny of one’s role with no shilly-shally or dilly-dally. Sadly, this moral decisiveness mitigated against the author’s “running away” when he had chances to leave Hungary before his death in a work camp.

Spooky tales of magic and mystery

W. Somerset Maugham‘s THE MAGICIAN (download)
(Checked out of the library!)

Maugham’s novel is a quaint melodrama, old-fashioned even for 1908, supposedly inspired by Aleister Crowley. The title figure is seen from outside by four proper Edwardians, two women and two men, who cross his path. The book’s romance is doomed and unredeemed, and the final chapter a revelation of grotesquerie after an anti-climactic battle.

The 1926 film (reviewed by me in Video Watchdog) alters the plot, providing a happy ending to function as an Expressionist link between Trilby and James Whale’s Frankenstein. (Trilby was filmed as Svengali at the same time as Frankenstein.) Wiki quotes Maugham’s self-critique decades later in which he finds the writing “lush and turgid” and thinks he was trying to imitate French decadent writing.

The Miyazawa stories, translated in 1994 by John Bester, are animal and pantheist fables (foxes are popular, also birds and frogs), supernatural anecdotes and mysterious existential parables. Some are clever and comical, with keen views on human foibles. The one about young crabs talking on the sea floor is ecstatically beautiful and gnomic. Some are realist tales, like the origin of a neighborhood wood planted by a mentally disabled boy who died young.

Soji Shimada‘s two novels concerrn a brilliant eccentric solver of locked-room murders in the early 80s. His Zodiac debut involves a three-part family massacre presented as a famous (invented) uncanny mystery of 1936 that begins with an artist’s bizarre confession of his intention to commit the murders, except he gets killed before they happen. This shows classic misdirection. As for the second book, the flummery and useless talk about the eccentric house and the walking golem puppet couldn’t fail to distract this reader by the halfway point from whom was most obviously guilty, and therefore anticipate the surprise of the third murder. Both crimes have their origin in Japan’s militarist era, with one referring to Manchuria and the other connected to war crimes.

Quick reads, because I like ’em short

Checked out of the library!

Guy de Maupassant‘s final novel, ALIEN HEARTS (“Notre Coeur,” our heart), is a work of Henry Jamesian psychological anatomy in which the love affair between a witty, intelligent, self-centered salon hostess and a witty, intelligent, self-centered dilettante is exposed as painful to the latter because the former doesn’t respond as all-consumingly as he wishes but regards him as a pleasing and flattering bibelot she’s collected and feels very fondly toward. A couple of passages imply that she’s never felt an orgasm, and also that she may be a latent lesbian who prefers the company of a female friend. Intended as the dying author’s (of syphilis) exposure of the hollow distraction of Parisian social circles, which has implicitly engulfed him and from which he files his report, with a quietly forceful cameo by a Rodin-like sculptor who steals his chapter.

The stories in Ray Russell‘s HAUNTED CASTLES:THE COMPLETE GOTHIC STORIES include the Victorian pastiche “Sardonicus” (whose characters are referred to in a couple of the other stories, such as “Comet Wine” about famous Russian composers and a Faustian pact), the 1960s New York fireside tale “Sagittarius” combining Edward Hyde and Jack the Ripper, and “Sanguinarius” narrated by Countess Bathory. They combine antiquarian conceits out of classic horror fiction with whiffs of sulfur and sadism in the tradition of cruel tales.

H. Beam Piper‘s LITTLE FUZZY (1962) supposedly explores the question of whether a race of critters has “sapience,” and it’s one long celebration of cuteness. One wonders how it would play if the aliens looked like horned toads and stank to high heaven. It’s less clear if the cardboard humans have sapience. The most characterized one is a Heinleinian Wild West prospector. The baddies are the corporation who own the planet; the deus-ex-luna saviors are the military who declare martial law and unveil courtroom evidence in the last act.

Richard Hull‘s THE MURDER OF MY AUNT (1934) is mostly the unwittingly self-revealing narration of an effete, effeminate, pretentious, dull-witted, lazy, overweight young man who decides to murder his battle-axe aunt in a Welsh village. The reader understands more than the narrator does as he works out one near-slapstick plan after another in a variety of inverted mystery indebted to the author’s inspiration in Francis IlesMALICE AFORETHOUGHT. Almost feels like murder by P.G. Wodehouse. The intro quotes from Dorothy Sayers‘ rave: “The insensitive might even find it as funny as it appears to be on the surface; the sensitive will find it painful, but continuously interesting and exciting.”

“He greeted Griselda as crossly as if she were a member of his family.” Writing swiftly and succinctly with waves of controlled hysteria, Dorothy B. Hughes‘ debut novel, THE SO BLUE MARBLE, cleaves tightly to the POV of a young divorced dress designer, formerly a Hollywod star, who drops into an uncanny thriller about deadly Italian twins seeking a whatsis of legend and lore. Characters include elite society, film stars, an evil teenage sister, a radio newsman, a prof of Persian antiquities and the police. Disorienting, senseless and foreboding with moments of psychopathic violence. Our heroine proves smarter and more resourceful than she seems at first, although she keeps clinging to her love for her ex-husband, which is par for the era.

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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