Category: Literary criticism

Staring down the TBR pile

“I…am…not…afraid…of…you.”

Standing before a tower of unread books, feeling a bit queasy but also defiant.  These are books that have bedeviled me for months, years, decades.  Tomes I know will be excellent, enlightening, life-enhancing…as soon as I find time to read them.  Others are volumes I read many moons ago and want to revisit.  Some big, fat, brain-building Pynchon titles, a few of the early Cormac McCarthys; works I read when I was young, stupid and trying to impress everybody.  Now when I read them, I’ll be a helluva lot more worldly, slightly smarter and apt to grasp more than I did during that initial encounter.  Can you really comprehend the magnitude of Gravity’s Rainbow or Marcel Proust’s convoluted, gorgeous prose at nineteen or twenty?

Never in hell.  I’m convinced human beings don’t start developing adult-sized brains until they’ve turned thirty and have popped at least one kid.  A teenager reading War and Peace is like handing a mandrill an iPad. Seriously.

This past week I was visiting The Big City and had occasion (okay, I lurked) to listen while a couple of teenage girls discussed their school reading assignments.

“This book,” one said, stabbing a livid finger at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “ought to be banned.”

“Did you read The Englishman’s Boy?”

“Only the chapter I had to.”

“Me too! Catcher in the Rye sucked too. What’s the big deal? The Outsiders--”

“That was half decent.”

“It was o-kay. But the main guy is such a whiner…”

And so on.  Book club night at the Stephen Hawking residence it was not.

What were those gals doing, hanging out in a book store?  Waiting for the rain to subside?  I wonder what sort of books they actually liked?

* * * * *

I must do something about my To Be Read pile. Make that piles.  It’s getting scary.  We’re running out of space.  Books are double-stacked on the shelves, some even (gasp!) relegated to the floor.  Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, essays…good God, things have gotten completely out of hand.  I catch my wife looking at me, her expression cagy: pondering involuntary commitment? What are the legal hurdles?  How much can she get for all these fucking books?

And now that I’m hooked up to the library system through the internet, I can log on and troll for more books, secure them free, via inter-library loans.  If three weeks pass and I need more time, I can renew the tomes in question with a few taps on my keyboard.

Sweet.

Or perhaps not.  It’s like having after hours access to the world’s biggest bookstore.  I get messages as soon as another book is ready for pickup at my local branch.  Can’t wait to get down there, scoop it up and bear it home…

Understand, I already have dozens, scores of books—wonderful books, classic books—waiting to be read but I’m still ordering more.  Isn’t that weird?  Isn’t that, well, nuts?

It’s called bibliophilia, folks, and I’ve got it bad.

I’m a collector on the verge of becoming a hoarder.  When I find a good bookstore, especially a good used book store, my hands get clammy, my stomach churns and I feel light-headed, like I’m suffering from some kind of sugar deficit. I kid you not. I’ve heard junkies say similar things when they find themselves in the vicinity of dope or paraphernalia. A feeling of anticipation that leaves you weak in the knees.

Have to say, when I visited my last big box book barn I didn’t experience anything like that.  The “New Release” shelves didn’t turn my crank at all—the majority of the fiction seemed to be geared toward women, and particularly stupid ones at that. The most dreadful shite. Spotted a number of offerings in the history section, including David McCullough’s bio of Truman, but the prices scared me off. After all my browsing, over an hour in the store, I came away with one thin volume, a beautiful little Penguin edition of Stefan Zweig’s novella Chess.  That’s it.

Pitiful, ain’t it?

But, of course, it isn’t just books.  I’m no longer part of the desired demographic, and that goes for music, movies, television, you name it.  I’m an old fogie with a critical brain and a handle on his spending.  Not exact a walking advertisement for consumerism.

No, the ones the advertisers, viral marketers et al are after are the 16-25 bunch, the gamers and mall crowd, armed with credit cards and completely lacking impulse control.  Unmarried, no kids, disposable income, too much time on their hands. The morons that have kept Michael Bay, JJ Abrams and Bill Gates filthy rich and reduced the popular arts to public urinals.  Thanks, kids!

We have them to thank for the current state of publishing/bookselling.  The explosion of graphic novels, the flood of zombies and vampires and knock-off fantasy and franchise novels, and media tie-ins…can you say dumbing down?  That extended period I spent in the big box store was most educational.  It told me that in their efforts to cater to their sought after demographic, traditional publishers won’t just go for the lowest common denominator, they are willing, nay eager, to debase the language, alienate their traditional clientele and reduce an art form to mere commodity.  The rot is evident in every genre—what little “literary” fiction out there is getting harder to find, forced off the shelves by establishments that offer whole sections devoted to the excremental writing of James Patterson, Jody Picoult and the like.

I turn on commercial radio, flip through the TV channels during a rare hotel visit, check on-line movie listings for anything that might look promising and I feel old.  Nothing in the entertainment world speaks to me these days.  I don’t look forward to the summer movies or check to see who made the Oscar shortlist.  Ignore the bestseller lists, rarely buy a magazine or new book…and we’re the last family I know of who still don’t have cable TV.

I’ve been a reader all my life.  Forty years with my nose in books.  Books have always offered me comfort and consolation.  In childhood, they were a security blanket, helping me escape the depredations of reality.  As I got older, they became my primary sources of learning, as well as steering me down spiritual/mystical paths I might otherwise have missed. Without books, I would not be the person I am today.  I would be one of them:  mall zombies, semi-literates, half-simian.

All this might go a long way toward explaining that ever-growing TBR pile. I never stop seeking out new Masters, new teachers; men and women who can perform alchemy with the printed word, transmuting it into something more than mere sentences on a page.

A casual scan of the pictures reveals not too many of the books are of recent vintage.  Most picked up from thrift shops, secondhand places or on-line purchases; heavily discounted, showing the effects of their time in remainder bins or battered about in the mail.

New and old enthusiasms:  Samuel Beckett, Walter Kirn, Ken Kalfus, Richard Powers, Robert Stone, Raymond Queneau, Roberto Bolano, Fernando Pessoa, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Denis Johnson, Tom McCarthy, Terence McKenna, Georges Perec, Jorge Luis Borges, Gert Ledig, W.G. Sebald…and that’s just scratching the surface. These Jpegs hardly do my TBR pile justice.  It goes on and on…

When am I going to find time to read the gorgeous edition of Don Quixote Sherron picked up for me at least five years ago (translation by Edith Grossman)?  How about the three volumes by the incomparable Louis Ferdinand Celine that are only an arm’s length away from where I sit, typing these words?  Will I ever tackle Madame Bovary, War and Peace or the 1,000+ pages of The Collected Short Stories of J.G. Ballard?

Not as long as I keep adding to that pile.

How many titles are on the “Wishlist” I’ve kept in the same steno pad for the past twenty years?  Two hundred?  Three hundred?  The roster constantly revised; one title acquired and crossed off, three others added…

I’m a sick man.  Addicted to the printed word.  Always seeking out the best of the best, authors who present fresh perspectives, re-ignite the language, push the envelope thematically and stylistically.  Just when I think I’m making headway, someone mentions Ben Okri or Joseph McElroy.  How could I have missed them?  Fabulous, unprecedented talents, my collection incomplete without them.

The kind of authors no longer being published by the trads and, thus, increasingly unfamiliar to today’s readers.

Creators capable of composing work that ennobles us as a species, presenting an alternative to the superficiality of the processed, plastic universe the corporate types are peddling, the reassuring sameness one is sure to find there.  Our souls would be impoverished without these artistes, our “culture” reduced to inanity and tiresome cant.  A nightmare I hope never to endure, a history I pray we avoid.

Photos by Sherron Burns

Book #50–“On the Natural History of Destruction” by W.G. Sebald

My “100 Book Challenge” progresses.

Just hit book #50, halfway there and still (barely) maintaining the pace necessary to hit the century mark by the end of the year.

Four or five books of note in the latest batch of reading, including Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (#42) Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (#46), John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance & Survival (#49) and W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction (#50).

The latter left me especially shaken.

What begins as an investigation into the dearth of postwar literature devoted to the suffering and deprivation endured by German civilians during World War II, gradually metamorphoses into a meditation on the limits of language. Sebald asks if mere words can do justice to the horror of an air raid, the obscenity represented by Auschwitz, the experience of being tortured. Do certain episodes defy and impoverish description and can any re-enactment, however well-crafted and best intentioned, achieve more than verisimilitude and clever artifice?

Sebald cites several artists—Gert Ledig, Jean Amery, Peter Weiss—who eschew decorum, ignore taboos, use their immense talents to conjure sentences that are impossible to ignore, that permanently imprint themselves on our consciousness. It is their authenticity that distinguishes them; these men are first person witnesses, their credentials impeccable. They have determined (sometimes after a long period of silence) that they are going to tell what they have seen without embellishment or elaboration. Their courage and honesty simply will not allow them to go into the darkness without making one last fruitless, valiant attempt to communicate to us things we would rather not know, that we’d rather see safely consigned to history’s back pages.

Ledig et al do their best but, even so, words often fail them and images, still shots of destruction, grotesque tableaux, are often substituted; these come in the form of vivid, descriptive passages, devoid of sentimentality, chillingly matter of fact. They bring to mind the stark, silent, black-and-white footage taken in the death camps. Amery chose the personal essay format to unflinchingly document what it means to be dispossessed, cast out and marked for death by fellow citizens. He refused to hide behind a fictional counterpart or allow a contrived plot line to dilute/adulterate his message.

In the end, Ledig/Amery’s efforts are doomed; even the most enlightened, imaginative reader is incapable of gaining more than an inkling of the physical and spiritual agony that can be inflicted by a well-trained torturer…or visualize what it’s like to enter a crammed air raid shelter after it has suffered a direct hit from a thousand pound bomb. We can only, thank God, experience these things vicariously, secondhand, from the safety of a comfortable arm chair. And, though it might pain bibliophiles to do so, we must acknowledge the paucity of language in the face of such incommunicable pain and loss.

Sometimes only a scream will suffice.

We know we can’t possibly understand what they’ve experienced but we feel, in the depths of what passes for our soul, that we owe it to the victims to at least try. Every single day.

Try.

“The Risk Pool” by Richard Russo (Book #14)

Uh oh.

My reading has tailed off of late, which means I have to pick up the pace if I’m going to make my quota of nine books a month.  Nine books a month times twelve months equals 108 books.  Which means Cliff succeeds at the “100 Book Challenge” and doesn’t have to hem and haw and make up a dozen different excuses why he couldn’t keep up and why he isn’t more committed to the celebration and preservation of the printed word, etc., etc., and so on.

Ah, but if only every book was as good as The Risk Pool.  I’d take the “200 Book Challenge” and make it with room to spare.

I’m a huge fan of Richard Russo’s work.  I think I found The Risk Pool on-line somewhere.  Maybe Better World Books.  I like dealing with them and their bargain bin is often pretty darn good.  Slowly but surely, I’m paring down my “wish list”; it currently takes up 4 pages of a steno notebook I keep handy.  Books I simply must own, by writers I admire without reservation.  Russo’s on that list, right near the top.  He’s a wonder.

The Risk Pool is his second book, an unbelievably good sophomore effort.  Mohawk, his debut, was excellent but The Risk Pool eclipses it.  It’s comparable in quality to Russo’s That Old Cape Magic and Empire Falls…but not quite up to the lofty standard set by The Straight Man, which I consider to be the author’s finest (and funniest) novel.  “Funny” is an operative word when one encounters a Russo tale because as well as being populated by flawed, wounded human beings and blessed by compelling plot lines, his works often provoke bleats of laughter…and that’s certainly the case with The Risk Pool.

Ned Hall is the narrator but, really, the central figure of the novel is his father, Sam.  Sam is a legend around the town of Mohawk;  he survived the Normandy landing and the Battle of Bulge, fought his way to Berlin…and returned home a changed man.  His young, blushing bride swiftly becomes disillusioned with his gambling and whoring, his determination to have a good time regardless of the consequences to those closest to him.  There’s a separation but Sam won’t hear of a divorce.  He remains a distant presence in his son’s life, at least until his mother suffers a breakdown and Ned finds himself his father’s ward, with all the complications accompanying that status.  Sam’s motley assortment of friends—drunks and local characters—give Ned a different perspective on life in Mohawk:  the perqs of winning and the cost, in human terms, of drawing the low card.

Looking for a book that is, at once, literary and a joy to read, a novel you can’t bear to part with until you’ve found out how it ends?  The Risk Pool satisfies on every count.  It is the kind of tome authors dream of writing and devoted readers pine after.  Beautiful and sad, subtle and powerful, filled with desperate, hope-filled people, who behave with the courage and foolishness their circumstances require.

Highest possible recommendation.

“Love & Hydrogen: New & Selected Stories” by Jim Shepard (Book #9)

I managed to read nine books in the month of January, which (barely) keeps me on pace for the “100 Book Challenge”.

The titles I tackled reveal the diversity of my tastes/interests:  Michael Palin’s latest set of diaries, Halfway to Hollywood, along with some readings on cinema (Dark Knights and Holy Fools), history, science fiction, theology, a novella by Roberto Bolano (Monsieur Pain)…

Yesterday I finished a collection of stories by one of the best English language writers on the contemporary scene, Jim Shepard.

Love & Hydrogen brings together close to two decades of Jim Shepard’s magnificent short fiction.  Here’s the citation I wrote up for Love & Hydrogen in my book journal:

“Jim Shepard is a marvel.  He and George Saunders and Ken Kalfus are the kind of writers who make you want to sweep everything off your desk and apply for a job as assistant manager at the local Dairy Queen.  Aesthetically, they make no mistakes, the scope and diversity of their work dazzles.

Love & Hydrogen displays scope and diversity all right:  in spades.  The stories transit spans of time, the subject matter encompassing everything from the final flight of the Hindenberg to ‘The Creature From the Black Lagoon’.  To my mind, any number of these tales could be included in an anthology of the finest writing of the past fifty years.  I’ve read that Shepard’s research is meticulous and that is evident in historical reconstructions like the title story, ‘The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich’, ‘Krakatau’, ‘Batting Against Castro’, etc.

There’s a shiver of authenticity present in all of his fiction, an emotional honesty that defies sentiment and still manages to be heart-wrenching.  No one in Jim Shepard’s universe is blameless, everyone complicit; perhaps it’s his version of original sin.  We quickly recognize ourselves in Jim Shepard’s peerless short stories and novels and that (among numerous other things) is what makes him so great.”

* * * * * *

…and along with that reading I’ve been spending most nights of late snuggled up on the couch with Sherron, watching one or two episodes of the first season of “Mad Men” (a Christmas gift from my sons).   Intriguing and addictive.  A little bit more of Don  Draper’s past swims into focus with each episode, some of the murkiness dissipating…and a very scary picture emerging.

Next month:  the first season of “The Wire”.

After “The Wire”, my friend Gene assures me, everything else on television pales in comparison.

We shall see.

Review of “The Reality Machine”

Well, what do you know:  an early Christmas present.

Corey Redekop is a terrific Canuck writer–his debut novel Shelf Monkey is anarchic, funny and viciously satirical.  Thus, I was mighty chuffed when someone directed my attention to a review he’s just posted of my 1997 short story collection The Reality Machine.

I’ve been searching for blurbs for the print version of So Dark the Night and Corey just handed me some on a silver platter, with little sprigs of parsley on the side.

Bless you, Corey…and don’t take too long with that followup to Shelf Monkey.

Helluva writer, that boy…

Recalling “The Gospel of St. Nicholas”

It’s been two years now, and a lot of posts in that interval, so maybe more recent readers haven’t seen my review of the legendary Gospel of St. Nicholas.

I love the notion of these “lost gospels” that keep cropping up.  One of these days, I’m hoping they’ll uncover some indisputable ur-text that begins with the words:  “Jesus and his buddies were pissing it up one night, tossing around ideas for a really cool religion…”

Enjoy the review and from the Burns family to all of you:

Merry Christmas and all the best in 2010.

The View From the Margins

astrojpeg.jpgI’m a Space Age guy, wired up wrong for the IT revolution that’s in the process of transforming our world into the inside of a video game. Me, I’m still stuck with Neil Armstrong on the Moon while the rest of modern civilization rushes toward The Great Singularity.

The Singularity is like the Rapture, dig, you get taken up, leave your earthly body behind and, like, evolve into a higher state. The difference is, with the Rapture you have to earn your way into heaven…the Singularity doesn’t discriminate. As long as your credit is good and you can afford the technology, you can spend the rest of eternity fucking Marilyn Monroe senseless in the honeymoon suite of the Hilton. Virtuality allows for limitless possibilities and is capable of reproducing any era, any conceivable reality. The interface between humankind and machines. The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

Stay tuned

Our family has finally joined the 21st century—yup, we now have a home internet connection, a computer on-line 24 hours a day. I’ve ducked and bobbed and weaved and tried my damnedest to avoid this day. So now we’ve got a window on the world, a valuable resource, an educational aid, a tool like no other in the history of the world—my question: when I turn the fucking thing on, what’s looking back at me?

But Sherron needs to get on-line because she’s doing her Master’s and the boys can use it for their homework assignments and research projects. And with all the weird, esoteric shit I put in my tales I can benefit greatly from access to the all-knowing, all-seeing Google.

Then again, it also means I can now spend hours fucking around on favourite sites like Senses of Cinema and Book Forum…or checking to see if there are any cheap plastic model kits for sale on eBay (don’t ask)…or “tag surfing”, looking for kindred spirits out there in cyberspace, posting comments on sites of interest, only looking up when I hear the boys’ bus stopping in front of our house after school…

What next? Cable TV? Stuck in front of the Space channel when I should be bending my brain on new fiction? Right now we have two channels and don’t feel we’re really missing anything. We, my family and I, aren’t the hippest people around. Not into brand names, fashions, trends. Big readers. About the only program we follow with any regularity is the new “Dr. Who” series. We’re completely out to lunch when it comes to what’s hot and what’s not.

Confession: I have no idea what’s on the bestseller list.

I can’t tell you one of the top-selling music CD’s or singles.

I don’t remember the last recent movie I watched. “300”? God, no wonder I haven’t seen anything since. The last new release I can remember liking is “Lord of War”. The opening title sequence of that movie is…stunning.

And these are not the least of my crimes:

I’ve never seen a single entire episode of “Lost”, “Amazing Race”, “Friends” or “The Sopranos”.

Have watched less than a nanosecond of “American/Canadian Idol”.

Reality TV? What the fuck are you talking about? It’s TV, dummy. None of it is real.

To those people who arrange their schedules around a beloved TV program or camp out overnight in front of their local theatre to be first in line to see the latest, greatest sequel of a sequel of a remake, let me ask you one simple question:

WHERE THE FUCK DO YOU FIND THE TIME?

timejpeg.jpgThere’s a line in a very under-rated little movie called “Those Lips, Those Eyes”. Frank Langella’s character is an aging actor, clearly talented but stuck in a shitty little touring company, playing to rubes. At one point he complains bitterly of his lot, shouting: “Time’s winged chariot is flying up my ass!”.

That’s the way I feel. I’m killing myself on this writing gig, going at it seven days a week, 6-10 hours a day, keeping up a murderous pace for months on end…and meanwhile looking over my shoulder, a la Satchell Paige, wondering what’s gaining on me.

You have to understand, the men in my family are prone to shortened life spans. And it isn’t the usual suspects—heart disease, cancer—that hand them St. Peter’s calling card. Oh, no. Details are hard to nail down; secrets are tightly kept in my family. It’s like an iron curtain descends. When you ask about what happened to Uncle So-and-So, dead at thirty-two, or cousin Fred, felled in his early forties, you receive unsatisfactory, even curt replies. “Lockjaw” or, just as likely, “Lepers got him.”.

And that’s it. No amount of questioning will pry loose anything more significant or helpful than that. “Some things are better left unsaid.”

It’s likely some old, half-forgotten scandal, a small nugget of shame but people act as if the government is involved.

Now, I happen to be a particularly morbid individual and so I look at this dismal track record (Burns male = early death) and I begin to consider my own circumstances. I’m forty-three, soon to be forty-four. What grim fate awaits me?reaperjpeg.jpg

Will it be (reluctantly, through tightly pressed lips): “Furnace explosion”? “Spontaneous combustion”? “Gangrene”? The suspense is starting to get to me.

It’s too bad. I think I’d like to live to a ripe, old age. Work right to the bitter end. Celine finished the last draft of Rigadoon, told his wife he’d completed the book and died that evening. That’s the way I’d like to go…but it’s unlikely I’ll be that fortunate.

Allergy to book dust…

Bad paper cut

Whatever happens, it’ll have to be sudden, unpredictable and utterly preposterous. After all, I have a family tradition to uphold…

 

* * * *

 

News and Updates

 

This blog has grown rather large and ungainly. There are plans currently afoot to organize it. Nothing will be lost, just a reshuffling of the deck, posts filed under their proper designations, the home page slimmed down. If you can’t find something, drop me a line and let me know.

Had a busy summer, lots of writing, a few stories, many prose poems, everything still pretty much in the first draft stage. Seem to be scribbling constantly but there isn’t any focus, can’t latch on to a project that really engages my faculties. Plenty of candidates, no clear favorites. Some of the projects I have in the bin require enormous amounts of research, time and energy that I don’t possess right now. The failure to find a publisher for So Dark the Night has damaged my confidence and I feel daunted by any project longer than two or three thousand words. I spent three years on a terrific thriller that I can’t get anyone to seriously consider.

zinneajpeg.jpgIt’s…devastating. Hard to absorb, even after all this time.

Right now, So Dark the Night is under consideration at five different (very different) publishing houses, including Ace Science Fiction (New York), who have had the manuscript for over sixteen months. In all, I’ve contacted sixty-four (64) publishers and only a small handful agreed to have a look at it. Many begged off with form letters, saying they no longer considered unsolicited manuscripts. A few didn’t bother replying at all (despite the self-addressed, stamped envelope I enclosed).

Some good news though. Kelley Jo Burke, producer for CBC Radio’s “Gallery” program, bought my short story “Matriarchy”. It should air some time in the new year (I’ll post times and dates when I get the word). It’s a mainstream offering, set immediately after a funeral. I really love the story and it’s perfect for radio. Hope you’ll be able to tune in.

Also, miracle of miracles, someone actually accepted a poem of mine. You’ll find it at the Words on Paper site. Should take you about a second a half to read it. Go ahead, time yourself.

I note that Peter Watts didn’t collect the Hugo Award he so richly deserved for Blindsight. Peter really showed a lot of growth with Blindsight and I especially admired the way he was able to make the transition to the deep space environment (Peter’s an underwater guy, not of them thar physicist-hacks). Better luck next time, Mr. Watts…and there will be a next time, bet on it.

On a personal note, our albino hedgehog Ponyma is ailing. Yeah, I said hedgehog. You just knew wehedgejpeg.jpg wouldn’t have conventional pets, didn’t you? We have two of the buggers, part rodent, part pin cushion. Low-maintenance creatures, I’ll give them that. And they both seem very devoted to my eldest son. Even after two years I still shriek like a high school girl whenever one of the things ventures anywhere near me.

Losing a pet is tough and I think it will hit my son hard. Death rearing its ugly head. He’ll be angry, wanting answers. What kind of God allows wonderful creatures, good friends to die? Tough one. But we’re a family, we’ll get through it. And, who knows? Maybe they’ll manage to convince me to accept another oddball pet into our oddball home.

Does anyone out there know where I can lay my hands on an armadillo? A platypus on the cheap? Call this number…

* * * *

 

I’ve been playing lots of music lately, accompaniment for my aimless scribbling. Faves right now include Interpol (they just released a new album, “Our Love to Admire”), Grandaddy (“Just Like the Fambly Cat”), Aqualung (“Strange and Beautiful” ), Wolfmother, White Stripes (“Icky Thump” and “White Blood Cells” ), Jesus and Mary Chain, Elbow (“Asleep in the Back”), Beck (“The Information”), Ministry (“Rio Grande Blood”), Audioslave (“Revelations”), Eels (“Shootenanny”) and NIN (“Year Zero”).

dylanjpeg.jpgIn terms of my viewing pleasure, I found a site where they archive TV shows and you can tune in for nuttin’. Finally got a chance to see “The Mighty Boosh” after hearing rumblings about it for ages. Great stuff. And “Black Books” is wonderful—Dylan Moran should be declared a national treasure. And then I couldn’t help myself…I watched the very first episode of “Land of the Giants”. For old time’s sake. And reacquainted myself with “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”, a show I’ve always found hilarious.

A friend of mine (hey, Mark!) was good enough to send us a compilation of the Quay Brothers short animated flicks and that was smashing. I’ve also recently developed a passion for the films of Henri-Georges Clouzot. I’ve seen his three most notable efforts, “Le Corbeau” (1943), “Wages of Fear” (1953) and “Diabolique” (1954). I’ll take this guy over Hitchcock any day, folks. Sherron and I also viewed Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring”—very powerful. Not as visually arresting as we would have expected (Sven Nykvist was his cinematographer, after all). The vengeance von Sydow’s character wreaks at the conclusion of the film renders him almost an elemental force. And then the miraculous finale…

An author should plug a few books: I finished Margaret McMillan’s account of Nixon’s 1972 trip to China and didn’t find it nearly as interesting as her previous effort, 1919. And, yes, I made it through the last Harry Potter book. Let me quote from the notes I scrawled afterward:

Give the gal credit—Rowling brings back practically everybody for one final appearance, including the whomping willow and the Chamber of Secrets. Lots of battles and close scrapes—some of the magic of the movies has rubbed off on Ms. Rowling. Animated suits of armour leap off the walls and there are Star Wars type firefights in the skies over England…The conclusion seems to go on forever, another byproduct of a clunky, rather tuneless book. Rowling is determined to get the job done, gritting her teeth and winding things up with a flourish, trying her best to satisfy Harry’s myriad fans and wash her hands of the whole thing.”

I guess you can tell I wasn’t impressed.

darkjpeg.jpgBut I was impressed by Gerard J. DeGroot’s myth-busting take on the “real” story behind the events leading up to that great day in July, 1969, Dark Side of the Moon. I’ve been an astronaut buff for years but some of this stuff was news to me. Humankind’s greatest feat was achieved with the aid of Nazi war criminals (whitewashed for public consumption), the space race only an expensive diversion for successive adminstrations who couldn’t solve thornier issues like civil rights and poverty.

In my dreams, I’m the first man on Mars. I place my right foot on the dry, rust-coloured soil, making sure to leave a deep impression, an imprint easily visible to the folks at home. Settling my full weight on an alien land. Pausing, clearing my throat. “I claim this world in the name of the people of the planet Earth…and the corporate sponsors of this mission, which include WalMart, Sony, Compaq…”

Within five years there will be gigantic billboards on Olympus Mons.

The human stain, spreading ever outward…

marsjpeg.jpg

 

 

Burning Moonlight (Selected Readings)

(Reviews of Charles Simic’s Dimestore Alchemy, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man & Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse)


dime.jpgDime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell
by Charles Simic
(The Ecco Press; Hardcover; 1992)

Amazon.com

A remarkable and inspired short volume, consisting of prose poems devoted to the mysterious boxes Joseph Cornell conceived and constructed over the course of his life.

Mr. Cornell’s singular creations , some of which are reproduced in the book, were assembled out of found objects and thrift store knick-knacks. These “irrational juxtapositions” were the products of a man who received no formal training in the arts. Many relate to his obsession with 19th century ballerinas and film starlets that caught his restless eye. He was a surrealist by nature and temperament, although never a formal acolyte of the movement. A reclusive and intensely shy man, he counted among his acquaintances Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali.

In his brief Preface to Dime-Store Alchemy, Charles Simic praises the “genius and originality” of Mr. Cornell and, it is clear, his literary responses are homages not only the actual works but the man—and mind—responsible for them. A good number of the proems in Dime-Store Alchemy are reminiscent of the “automatic writing” championed by the surrealist movement. There’s an intuitive and unfettered quality to the pieces, the way they so successfully emulate the dreamlike world Mr. Cornell inhabited and delineated—fanciful, perplexing but never trifling or fey.

It is the perfect marriage of two great minds. Mr. Simic is a poet renowned for his minimalist approach to writing and that spare, unadorned style is well-suited for the task at hand. His enormous regard for Mr. Cornell’s vision and untutored talent is apparent in every word. There are sentences/stanzas (what does one call them?) that are perfect capsule summaries of the Cornellian universe:

“The father of our solitude is a child.”

“Making deities is what we do in our reverie.”

“To submit to chance is to reveal the self and its obsessions.”

“The forest is a place in which everything your heart fears and desires lives.”

“Every art is about the longing of the One for the Other. Orphans that we are, we make our sibling kin out of anything we can find. The labor of art is the slow and painful metamorphosis of the One into the Other.”

With Dime-Store Alchemy, Mr. Simic enters the mind of a master artisan and with great care and empathy offers a fitting tribute to an artist who made no great pronouncements, affected no airs and left only puzzling artifacts to mark his passage in the world. Out of his solitude he brought forth cryptic montages, evocations of lost times. His lonely endeavors led him to produce insoluble puzzles, boxes of trinkets and bric-a-brac, manifestations of a mind “without precedent, eccentric, original and thoroughly American”.

Mr. Simic respects the integrity and inviolability of Joseph Cornell’s secret and sequestered life while still managing to hint at the man’s motivations and sources of inspiration. The combined effect of these short pieces is a portrait that is graceful and impressionistic, respectful and convincing, as close to truthful representation as fiction can be.


falling.jpg

Falling Man
by Don DeLillo
(Scribner; Hardcover; $32.00)

Amazon.com

“These are the days after. Everything now is measured by after…”
(Falling Man; pg. 138)

The events of September 11, 2001 horrified the Western world and permanently altered its sense of invulnerability and comfortable complacency. Our way of life was now firmly within the crosshairs of cruel, resolute enemies, our cities and reservoirs and power installations potential targets for attack. A state of siege followed, emergency measures declared, laws enacted, constitutional limits exceeded, all in the name of national security.

In the six years since that sense of urgency and fear has abated but, as we are frequently reminded, threats still exist and plotters are hard at work in their secret lairs and redoubts, devising new means of inflicting terror and chaos on a grand scale.

This past week, while waiting for an appointment at my bank, I happened to pick up a copy of an American news magazine. I flipped through it and came across a three or four line dismissal of the latest Don DeLillo novel, which is set against the backdrop of the World Trade Centre attacks. The unnamed commentator curtly opined that although the book relived those terrible days, Falling Man was not the great 9/11 novel we’ve all (apparently) been waiting for…

I was appalled that one of America’s pre-eminent writers was accorded such shabby treatment—a few lines devoted to latest DeLillo?—but what bothered me most was that the reviewer believed Mr. DeLillo, an author of unsurpassed poise and intelligence, would give serious thought to attempting some grand, definitive take on September 11, 2001.

Falling Man, compared to Mr. DeLillo’s epically proportioned Underworld, is a modest offering, an account of how the events of that fateful day affected the lives of the Neudecker family: Keith, his estranged wife Lianne and their seven year old son, Justin. Keith worked as a lawyer for a firm in the North Tower, the second to fall, and his escape and odyssey through the rain of ash and debris make for harrowing reading. Those scenes frame the book, beginning and ending it, an effective structural device.

What Keith experiences that day has a profound affect on him. He is reconciled with his wife and child, although he maintains enough emotional distance to embark on an ill-advised affair with a fellow survivor whose briefcase he carried with him as the Tower threatened to collapse around him. Keith has little interest in returning to his pre-9/11 existence and gradually spins out of the close orbit of family life, taking up professional high stakes gambling and flitting about America in search of poker tournaments. Lianne is a freelance editor and serves as a volunteer with a support group for elderly men and women suffering the initial onset of senile dementia. It’s a tough assignment, watching week by week as her charges lose themselves, personality and memory on a steep “slide away from the adhesive friction that makes an individual possible” (Falling Man; pg. 30).

Forgetfulness and coping are important components of Falling Man. People, as a necessary survival mechanism, wish to escape the raw emotions associated with traumatic events; beta blockers are often prescribed to dull the intensity of searing memories. The “falling man” referred to in the title is a performance artist who suspends himself from buildings and venues throughout New York, assuming the posture and attitude of those who plummeted from the heights of the Trade Centre towers, ghastly images that remain with many of us to this day. His appearances outrage New Yorkers anxious to get on with their lives. He will not let them forget the last moments of those doomed men and women and is arrested, even pummeled, following his unannounced exhibitions.

While the intensity of 9/11 fades, the emotional and psychic effects of that day persist—for the survivors and everyone else old enough to remember. Keith’s reintegration with his family and society is, in the end, impossible to manage—he has seen things they will never understand. He is not a part of them, their lives, any more. Mr. DeLillo is too good a writer to provide a comforting conclusion to his novel and throughout his distinguished career has never resorted to treacle or, as fellow author Rick Moody puts it, “…appeals to sympathy (that are the) only allowable response. This is precisely how melodrama and sentimentality do their worst”.

Those expecting, like the anonymous reviewer, a big, soppy, emotional take on 9/11 (a la Oliver Stone’s bombastic “World Trade Centre”) had best look elsewhere. Don DeLillo would not be so stupid and deftless to attempt such a thing. In the days, months, years following the destruction of the towers, Keith Neudecker’s awareness of the small, insignificant gestures and details of life is heightened but, in the final analysis, the events of 9/11 do not ennoble him or make him a better person. Instead he chooses to remove himself from his family, the rituals and banalities of ordinary existence. It is Lianne who finds reluctant solace in such things, even returning to the church of her childhood despite intellectual misgivings, existential doubts.

“But isn’t it the world itself that brings you to God? Beauty, grief, terror, the empty desert, the Bach cantatas. Others bring you closer, church brings you closer, the stained glass windows of a church, the pigments inherent in glass, the metallic oxides fused onto the glass, God in clay and stone, or was she babbling to herself to pass the time?” (Falling Man; pg. 234)

Lianne’s spiritual groping is nothing like the certainty and religious fervour that possessed Mohamed Atta and his eighteen co-conspirators as they unerringly steered their planes into the Towers, making course corrections right up to the last second. Mr. DeLillo has Atta and his fellowship of death make fleeting cameo appearances at several points during the novel—he felt the necessity to at least partially convey the thoughts of those who served such pivotal roles in that day’s destructive narrative.

The rabid faith of the terrorists was an important motivating factor, to be sure. It provided them with the moral rage they required to carry out their heinous acts. Their twisted beliefs, perverse interpretations of religious doctrine, precipitated enormous loss of life and suffering. Lianne’s grasp of the essence and necessity of God is, by comparison, far more tentative and precarious. For her, religion is a source of comfort for the weary, solace for the forlorn. Her faith, as flimsy as it may be, threatens no one and offers no possibility of harm or offense. In these dangerous, fraught times, that kind of spirituality is eminently preferable to literal truths and blind obedience.


pest.jpgThe Pesthouse
by Jim Crace
(Doubleday; Hardcover; $32.95)

Randomhouse.ca     Amazon.com

It always fascinates me when authors cross genre boundaries, boldly venturing forth into other branches of writing. Science fiction, in particular, attracts numerous mainstream scribes with its various and diverse worlds, the infinite permutations and possibilities they present. Sometimes the results are mixed—P.D. James’ Children of Men comes to mind, an admirable effort that turned on a neat concept but suffered from flaccid, bloodless prose and an overly optimistic resolution.

In some instances the dabblers achieve spectacular success and here I’m thinking of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things and, most recently, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. These offerings are thrilling reminders of what speculative fiction can produce when you combine creativity, intellectual vigour and transcendent prose. Literary writers are technically and aesthetically superior to their genre-dwelling colleagues, capable of composing evocative, daring prose, imagineering plausible worlds and fully-formed, three dimensional characters. The abilities of Messrs. McCarthy, Auster and Hoban reveal the weaknesses and bad habits many SF hacks have accumulated due to laziness, stupidity and the minimal demands of their eccentric fan base.

Count Jim Crace as another of the successful dabblers. The English author has never shied away from big ideas and never failed to deliver on them. His first novel envisioned a seventh continent and he provided it with a history, eco-system and topography, populating it with denizens boasting their own mythologies and unique stories. He has also taken us into the Judean desert and explored the psychologies and beliefs of the early Christian mystics who sought out their god in remote, hostile places and paid a daunting price for a face to face meeting with their pitiless deity (Quarantine).

The Pesthouse, Mr. Crace’s ninth novel, is his most ambitious yet. He presents us with a future America that has fallen from predominance, regressing to savagery due to some unknown, unnamed disaster. America is now longer a place to come to, a haven for the poor and weary, but a place to flee from

“…nothing familiar was in sight, not a single building, not a reminiscent shape, not even any cultivated land, and only the footings of ancient walls and lines of metal spikes, rusted thin, as evidence that this had once been farmed many years before but now was wilderness. People had been here in better times, had lived there possibly, had died, but there was little chance that anyone would come again. People were becoming scarce. America was emptying. The land was living only for itself.” (The Pesthouse; pg. 142)

The only “Americans” left to eke out an existence are those too old, infirm or unskilled to emigrate, board the tall ships that voyage across the ocean to the new, old world for a fresh start, a second chance…or, just as likely, a lifetime of indentured servitude. But what alternative is there? To remain in a lawless environment where raiders steal your last possession and slavers pluck up those hardy enough to work and kill the rest? Plagues are rampant, superstition rife, the structures of society and civility swept aside by the need to survive, safeguard those precious resources that make survival possible.

As they journey through this barren expanse, Mr. Crace’s characters bear witness to terrible scenes, experience close brushes with death (or worse) and come to see the “dreaming road” and fabled ships for what they are. Through the eyes of his protagonist, Margaret, we experience a world that has reduced her sex to mere chattel. She is thrown into a partnership of convenience with Franklin, a big man with the heart and spirit of a boy. A strange bond forms between them and, in time, they become a formidable team, determined to do what they must to preserve their undistinguished lives and cling tenaciously to whatever existence this blasted terrain allows. They will scratch out a modest future for themselves even if that means abandoning their dreams and reclaiming a past they thought they’d left behind. It is a courageous choice and possibly a foolish one but circumstances deny them all but the most meager aspirations.

The Pesthouse does not conclude in false optimism and for that we’re grateful. Margaret and Franklin are attractive creations but not entirely deserving of redemption. We do come to like and accept them, despite their character flaws and foibles, which Mr. Crace exposes with skill and discretion.

Science fiction hacks would have stretched this book into a fat tome (or even a bloated series), positing all sorts of strange societies and enclaves, straining our credulity with far-fetched accounts of mutants living in the crumbling ruins of abandoned cities, fantastical beings of all shapes and sizes. Jim Crace resists such silly notions and, instead, offers a credible vision of an America in decline, a ruined dystopia made up of the hopeless and unwanted. In this bitter landscape metal and technology languish and civilization and all its attractions exist elsewhere, on far, unreachable shores.

If the Americans are to prevail, restore their blighted legacy, they have daunting work ahead of them. History has been lost, science relegated to myth…it is only the will and strength of those who remain that will win the day. The prospects aren’t promising, Mr. Crace has seen to that.

In the end, all we can do is leave Margaret and Franklin to their difficult endeavors and wish them the very best. Better a life of quiet desperation than no life at all. For the odd, mismatched couple, that impossibly slender reed of hope will have to suffice…

Burning Moonlight (Selected Readings)

***Reviews of new books by Chuck Palahniuk, Haruki Murakami, Alessandro Baricco & James Othmer ***

fut2.jpegThe Futurist
by James P. Othmer
(Anchor Canada; PB; $19.95)

Amazon.com            Random House

Meet J.P. Yates, noted prognosticator and forecaster of things to come. His presence at conferences and corporate retreats is de rigueur, his opinions on THE NEXT BIG THING much sought after by world leaders and gilded CEO’s. But Yates, as our story begins, is suffering a crisis of faith: he no longer believes the future can be predicted and he’s tired of all the moral and philosophical compromises he’s been making in order to secure his lofty position and cozy lifestyle.

Not only that, but his fiancé has just dumped him. And. He. Never. Saw. It. Coming. A futurist who’s, yes, short-sighted. From the moment Yates opens the “Dear John” letter on the plane, everything starts to fall apart. A fierce bout of boozing leads to a rambling, incendiary speech before the well-heeled and well-connected in South Africa. It’s an attempt to commit professional suicide and it nearly succeeds. The next thing he knows, he’s getting stomped in his hotel room, shunned by colleagues and approached by two scary operators who claim to represent American corporate interests. Their names are, get this, Johnson and Johnson.

Mr. Othmer misses few opportunities to lampoon and skewer Western culture and its metastacizing tendencies. Nothing is too sacred and the level of cynicism is refreshing. In a not so subtle swipe at entities like the Gates Foundation, one of Mr. Othmer’s characters observes:

“(These) billionaires make me sick. They think now that they’re rich, they can satisfy their egos, alleviate their guilt, by thinking their accidental windfall somehow means they’re geniuses, cosmically ordained and therefore eminently qualified to solve the world’s problems—AIDS, loose nukes, illiteracy. They’re delusional enough to think that they matter more than others in a larger sense. They think, Now that I’ve made billions on a search engine that can locate highly specialized subgenres of kiddie porn at thrice the speed of light, I’m going to teach the world to read. When in truth they’re rewriting history to say that their original business models, the ones that made them obscenely rich, were not driven by greed and hubris but by some larger calling to transform the world.”

Zang. Somewhere Joseph Heller, Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut and H.L. Mencken are clapping and whistling in approval.

Yates can no longer serve the interests of consumerism and has no desire to advance the cause of the type of people the Johnsons work for. He wants out of the rat race, frustrated by his “lack of ability or desire to change the world”. But the Johnsons aren’t easily dissuaded and soon Yates finds himself jetting around the globe on some obscure mission for his spymasters, having close encounters with an Inuit fish-woman in Greenland and a fascistic telecom king on his island hideaway in Fiji. He witnesses a car-bombing in Milan and narrowly escapes death in the Middle East.

The Futurist is well-paced, cleverly scripted, as bitter as poisoned water. Mr. Othmer is a skilled and fearless author. Yates, despite his attendant flaws and weaknesses, is an endearing and credible creation. He truly wants to be decent, the kind of person his sturdy, honest father would respect. At its core, the novel really represents his pursuit of happiness, a calm, clear refuge in the eye of a monster hurricane, primal forces rushing safely by.

We look to the future for redemption, often forgetting to register the sins we’re accumulating here, now, acts of malice and negligence that make the notion of salvation seem so attractive…and so fleeting.


rant.jpgRant: An Oral Biography of Rant Casey
by Chuck Palahniuk
(Doubleday Canada; Hardcover; $32.95)

Amazon.com       Random House

Chuck Palahniuk has made a career out of fearlessly going where no one has dared or wanted to go before. In his best novels—Fight Club, Choke and Lullaby—he traverses these dark countries with bravado and imaginative leaps that are truly admirable. His nonfiction essays, collected in Stranger Than Fiction, reveal a man who is not afraid of casting that same unsparing glance at the real world and the places he comes from.

Rant, his latest novel, is composed of reminiscences and testimonials from over fifty individuals, each of them adding a piece to the puzzle that was Rant Casey. The opening line is a killer: “Like most people, I didn’t meet and talk to Rant Casey until after he was dead”. The men and women offering their views are drawn from every period of Rant’s life and provide conflicting versions of events. Some prove to be unreliable, self-serving narrators, if not outright liars. Then there are those who have formed a kind of latterday cult, with Rant Casey playing the role of unlikely savior. Collectively these people provide a tantalizing, if inconsistent, portrait of a very unique specimen of humanity:

-as a child Rant loved to stick his hand into any hole he could find and hope something would bite him
-the young rascal also concocted a money-laundering scheme using stashes of found coins and enlisting the help of…the tooth fairy
-he became infected with a virulent form of rabies and knowingly, enthusiastically spread the contagion to others
-at some point he stumbled across a method of defeating the “grandfather paradox’, learned how to travel in time and, oh yeah, possibly achieved immortality

In short, this Rant Casey fella was one unusual hombre.

Rant is, at times, compelling and chilling, depicting a plausible, unsettling view of the near future, a society where from infancy people are fitted with ports to “boost” sensory experiences recorded by others. It is a decidedly dystopian world where curfews divide “nighttimers” and “daytimers” and a segment of the population “tag” (crash) vehicles to get their kicks. It is a vision that will strike a resonant cord with fans of David Cronenberg, J.G. Ballard and, possibly, William Gibson.

But the final section of the book is confusing as Rant’s time travel scheme is debated and fleshed out by his acolytes and detractors. In a book so grounded in tactile sensations and spasms of gritty realism, the notion seems far-fetched and out of place. I also think that the voices of those testifying aren’t distinctive enough, they should be more dissimilar in cadence, tone and word choice. As a result they are often indistinguishable and that gives the book a one-dimensional feel.

Mr. Palahniuk is an writer of unquestionable skill and originality, his body of work provides ample evidence of his twisted talent. But in his last two efforts in particular, Rant and Haunted, we see a man trying perhaps a bit too hard to top himself. In the case of Haunted, he spared no detail, presenting us with scenes of graphic carnage and depravity that, ultimately, undermined the author’s best intentions. Rant is a creation of a different order and, while nowhere near as intense, it lacks a central core. It is a conceit, a concept rather than a fully-fledged novel.

The problem may lie with the format he has chosen. An account that features over fifty characters, offering a myriad of opinions and speculations, is bound to be unfocussed, lacking coherence. While no one expects a Chuck Palahniuk novel to boast a conventional narrative, peopled by folks we interact with every day, we do expect a good, entertaining read. Rant doesn’t fit the bill. As an exercise it is of interest but as a book it is a cold, uninvolving reading experience.


bar.jpegAn Iliad
by Alessandro Baricco
Translated by Ann Goldstein
(Alfred Knopf; Hardcover; $28.00)

Amazon.com          Knopf 

How dare Alessandro Baricco. The nerve of the man.

He has taken an acknowledged world classic and, gulp, tampered with it. Shortened it, hacked it to pieces. Cut out anything to do with the gods, pared scenes down, added narrative subjectivity and, worst of all, included additional material.

But despite his abominable behavior, this annoying display of chutzpah, Mr. Baricco’s Iliad works. Not always, there are modernistic interjections that annoy, as when Odysseus pipes up during one exchange: “We’ll let him go and when he gets closer we’ll jump him, all right?” (Pg. 67). How much of this is attributable to Mr. Baricco and how much of the fault lies with his English translator is debatable. Robert Fagles, my favourite translator of Homer, has been taken to task for committing similar sins. But the source material is so strong, the power of Homer’s original vision so sweeping and compelling that even this condensed, tarted up version draws the reader in and holds their attention to the last page.

Dividing the book into sections, each narrated in the first person by one of the principals was a risky move but it does have its merits. The characters, their motivations, strengths and weaknesses assume a more solid shape, shedding some of their mythical status. Odysseus, Priam, Agamemnon, Hector and Achilles are humanised, rendered more familiar to modern eyes and ears. Deleting the gods and emphasizing the human nature of the conflict imparts more emotion and real blood to the battle scenes.

Alessandro Baricco, it must be said, has his detractors. Many consider him a poseur, his works derivative or (tut tut) self-consciously “artsy”. I am familiar with him mainly because of his 2003 collaboration with the French musical duo Air. “City Reading” was a spoken word album (the translation, again by Ms. Goldstein, printed in the accompanying liner notes) set to music. It was a Western, a classic revenge fable with a twist ending.

I enjoyed “City Reading” and, despite some quibbles, I find much to praise in An Iliad. The end notes for the book are illustrative, as when Mr. Baricco elaborates on why Homer’s account of the siege of Troy retains its relevance to modern readers:

“The beauty of war…expresses its centrality in human experience, conveys the idea that there is nothing else, in human experience, that enables one to truly exist. What the Iliad perhaps suggests is that pacifism, today, must not forget or deny that beauty, as if it had never existed. To say and to teach that war is hell and that’s all is a damaging lie. Although it sounds terrible, we must remember that war is hell—but beautiful. Men have always thrown themselves into it, drawn like moths to the fatal light of the flame. There is no fear, or horror of themselves, that has succeeded in keeping them from the flame, because in it they find the only possible recompense for the shadows of life. For this reason, today, the task of a true pacifism should not be to demonize war excessively so much as to understand that only when we are capable of another kind of beauty will we be able to do without what war has always offered us.”

Poseur? Maybe. But he makes an excellent point, don’t you think?


murak1.jpegAfter Dark
by Haruki Murakami
Translated by Jay Rubin

(Bond Street Books; Hardcover; $27.95)

Amazon.com        Random House 

A rather modest offering from Haruki Murakami, nowhere near as metaphysical, surreal or genre-bending as most of his other efforts. Which is not to say After Dark isn’t an agreeable and thoroughly literate tale, it just doesn’t have the scope and virtuoso stylings of previous novels like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or, most recently, Kafka On The Shore.

Told in interlocking narratives, After Dark details one late fall night in Tokyo, as seen through the eyes of a variety of characters, some likable, others exhibiting sociopathic or criminal tendencies. Occasionally, Mr. Murakami employs a brilliant point of view shift where we float above the action like an invisible, omnipotent camera—it allows a cinematic overview, a device Mr. Murakami uses sparingly but to good effect.

There is something magical going on in Tokyo on this particular evening and the author gives us a hint when he writes that some locations and enchanted hours “open secret entries into darkness in the interval between midnight and the time the sky grows light. None of our principles have any effect there. No one can predict when or where such abysses will swallow people, or where they will spit them out” (pg. 168).

Ari Asai had slipped into one such dark place. One day she announces to her family that she is going to sleep and doesn’t appear to wake for two months. Her family holds out slender hope for her eventual recovery and the reconcliation her younger sister tries to initiate in the closing pages of the book is a moving scene. But before she climbs into bed with her ailing sister, nineteen year old Mari Asai traverses midnight streets, experiencing aspects of life previously denied her. She visits a “love hotel” and gets to know some of its denizens, rekindles a relationship with an aspiring jazz musician and has a brush with the Japanese underworld.

This is modern myth-making, possessing “equal levels of sorcery and functionality. It has been handed down from ancient times with darkness and sent back from the future with light” (pg. 49).

Mr. Murakami, like German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, can take a tale that is essentially a melodrama and infuse it with depth and textures that enable a rather simple story to transcend sentimentality and treacle. While the conclusion of After Dark is affirming, it does not tie up every loose end, resolve all the story threads or punish the guilty. That is to his credit.

After Dark is an excellent introduction to the work of this Japanese master and will undoubtedly lead astute readers to more challenging—and rewarding–efforts in his canon. It is not as intellectually demanding or menacing as some of his darker, more substantive efforts. Its charm is undeniable, however, and while it casts a brighter, cheerier light than many of his other works, it also presents an interesting contrast and shows Mr. Murakami to be an author of many moods and depths. So much the better.


Memo From an Unrepentant Blog Pimp

Okay, it’s time to ‘fess up. I’m a blog pimp. I push my blog on anybody, any site, any forum I come across. “Look atkirk.jpeg me!” I holler. “Ain’t I interesting? Ain’t I funny and spirited and thoroughly bad-assed? Ain’t I what you should be reading instead of debating who was the best Star Trek captain, Kirk or Janeway? And, by the way, isn’t it time you people put away the action figures and moved out of your parents’ basement…”

Fuck it. I’m tired of apologizing for having a terrific site that isn’t afraid to offend or make people think (often it’s one and the same). I’ve been trolling around in cyberspace for a good long while now and I see few author/writing blogs that even come close to mine. Sorry, but it’s the truth. Many people start their blogs with good intentions but fade after a few postings. Inactive. Dormant. Although I know the internet is literally infinite, there should be some method for disposing of sites that haven’t been updated in months, years. Some search worm that sniffs around until it comes to a stinking, flyblown carcass left unattended too long and devours it, right down to the bare bones.

Not me, I make regular postings and I like to keep things interesting. Controversial? Why not? Rattle some cages, fuck with people like sci fi techno-nerds, wannabe writers and half-baked intellects. Let them know that someone has wonder.jpegspotted them for the phonies they are and is willing to give them their just desserts. Do you like flashy movies with lots of special effects, scripted by a lamebrain who grew up friendless, alone, wanking over Wonder Woman comics? Do you spend most of your waking life on-line, searching out the latest pithy posting on the story cycle for the new “Battlestar Galactica” series or exchanging barbs with some asshole in Granby who refuses to recognize the mythic power of George Lucas’ grand, galaxy encompassing vision? Do you waste precious time trying to come up with something that rhymes with “Cthulhu” and “Quetzalcoatl”? Do books that challenge you to think offend you? Are you an academic afflicted with tunnel vision who believes anything written after Jane Austen is mere commentary?

Welcome to my shitlist.

If, on the other hand, you know what satire means, can recognize hyperbole and irony when they walk up to you and kick you in the nuts, “Beautiful Desolation” is the place for you. Tell your friends about this site, spread the word, add me to your blog roll. What the hell. At least once a week you’ll find something posted here that will make you smirk, wrinkle your brow in disappoval or out and out piss you off.

You’ll also find some pretty fucking good writing. Some terrific, mind-roasting short stories, written by a guy who knows how to put words together and make gorgeous music. My fiction wipes the floor with most of the crap circulating out there. Check out my tales and the excerpt I’ve posted from the best unpublished novel currently making the rounds. It’s called SO DARK THE NIGHT and brother/sister once you scan those first fifty pages, you’ll bedick.jpeg begging to find out what happens next. Are you looking for an author who’s a combination of Philip K. Dick, Ellison, Borges and the Brothers fucking Grimm? Dude, you just fucking found him. You want to wallow in shit, pick up the latest book by Crichton, Sawyer, Koontz or, God help you, Dan Brown. You want a reading experience you won’t forget, check out something by this Burns fella.

I’m not going away. Nossir. Call me a dolt, a bully, a boor, an elitist, shit on me as much as you want. I’m going to keep pushing this site on anyone I come across. I’ll pipe up in forums: “Hey, this is all very interesting but if you want something that will give your critical faculties a goose and get the ol’ grey matter fully engaged, check out my blog”. I’ll pimp and cajole and irritate until folks drop in for a visit just to satisfy themselves what an asshole I am. And then, hoo hoo hoo, boy, are they in for a surprise. I’m gonna fuck with their heads something terrible.

And I won’t apologize for that either.

danger.jpeg