Category Archives: Books – Contemporary

“Roadwork”: King’s (Forgotten) Redemption

So, after being massively disappointed by Stephen King’s attempt at serving notice as a “literary writer” with “Lisey’s Story” (on the heels of reading the modest disappointment “Duma Key”), I started to wonder about my own fascination with and defense of King as a writer.

King was the first writer I truly loved, and I spent much of my middle school and high school years catching up on his extensive catalog (which, of course, has only grown since then). I was blown away by the worlds he created in his individual books, but also by the “intertextuality” of so many of the different books: his Castle Rock and Derry stories share so many characters and scenes and memories and settings…kind of like a grown-up’s version of the Marvel Universe. And “The Stand” is still one of my favorite books of all-time, a gigantic epic that–during high school–I would argue about with teachers. “This should be on the AP test!” I told them. “This is complicated, well-written, and is teeming with themes that are relevant to the time period, but are still universal. This is every bit as important as a Charles Dickens novel, and yet we can’t call it literature? We dismiss Stephen King as a popular writer?” Okay, I wasn’t that eloquent, but you get the picture. I loved King, and compared to “Crime and Punishment” or “The Bridge of San Luis Rey?” This book captured the fears of the Cold War, the arms race, the oil shortage…why wasn’t Stephen King a writer of literature, not just a popular writer? It made no sense to me, and made me love King that much more.

But then again…I was in high school.

So, after aging by more than a decade and after reading some of his more recent books and feeling disappointed, I started to have second thoughts. Maybe I loved King because I was 15 and rebellious. So I decided to read some of his earlier novels, books that feel unfamiliar to me, to try to make a better decision. And I’ll tell you what: I am ridiculously happy that I picked up “Roadwork.” It proves that, just because my tastes have been refined and my reading list has grown, I still knew something about good writing back when I was 15…I wasn’t a complete idiot after all.

“Roadwork” is a fantastic little book, first published under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman, that focuses upon a laundry worker named Bart Dawes, whose home and workplace are both scheduled for demolition under an eminent domain highway expansion. The book, quite simply, is Dawes’ tragedy. The man cannot cope with the destruction of his former life and world, and snaps. It’s a bit like “Falling Down” or “American Beauty” or even “Network”: he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore. And the book succeeds so perfectly because it is small (not bloated, like many of King’s less successful novels), it is sharp, and it allows the character to determine the story, not the other way around. In short, it is a character-based novel, and its themes are every bit as resonant as “The Stand.” Paranoia with the government, loss of faith in the government and in civilization. Dehumanization of the individual, even as society supposedly progresses. Violence as the only form of public protest that will gain attention.

“Roadwork” isn’t perfect, and King writes in his introduction to “The Bachman Books” that it was his least favorite of the Bachman works, but I thought it was brilliant. In fact, it reminded me quite a bit of John Updike’s “Rabbit Redux,” the second in the Rabbit Angstrom series: a blue-collar white man at the crossroads of cultural progress, his life slipping all around him, voluntarily choosing defeat. The tone is so dark, and that feeling of 1970s American despair is so thick, that you can’t stop thinking about the novel for quite awhile after you’ve finished. It truly captures the “spirit of the times.”

Okay. So Stephen King has redeemed his literary credentials…not that he–or the literary establishment–really cares about my ultimate judgment. I wrote in a review of “Lisey’s Story” that the book failed (in part) because it was so similar to one of his earlier novels, “Rose Madder,” but most people wouldn’t know because “Rose Madder” had been forgotten about…and that, years later, any author will have a list of Remembered Works and a fading list of out-of-print forgotten works. My individual opinion might not matter to the author or the world of literary criticism (he will be remembered no matter what I say, and my words will not sway the worldwide consensus), but I do hope that “Roadwork” will join that list of Remembered Works. It’s far too strong a novel to be dismissed or forgotten.

“Look at the Birdie”: The Vonnegut Boxed Set

“Look at the Birdie” is the sort of quirky collection that feels more like the fulfillment of a curiosity than it does a meaningful and deliberate “collection.” It feels the same as an ultimate box set of Nirvana or Pearl Jam or even Rolling Stones material: some really good stuff, some polished songs, and then CDs upon CDs upon CDs of demos and B-sides and scratchy recordings that were never meant to see the light of day, that were only tossed together because there was a marketing exec who realized that there would be someone who could be convinced to buy it all.

We can recognize the talent in “Look at the Birdie,” but our overall opinion of the material is based entirely upon our love for Vonnegut’s really good stuff that we read years earlier. This is a book that we enjoy only because we enjoy “Cat’s Cradle” and “Welcome to the Monkeyhouse,” and we want–we really really want–new stories from that same trusted voice…or, at the very least, we want additional insight into how that voice developed. It’s a curiosity piece, just like those demo CDs, not a collection that can truly be enjoyed unless we’ve already fallen in love with the writer from his other work.

Obviously, of course, this is a book that gathers fourteen “previously unpublished short stories,” and obviously, it was published after Vonnegut’s death…so you can’t hold Vonnegut responsible for any of the book’s shortcomings. I mean, the guy had no real control here, right?

But still, when a publisher goes to the great trouble of collecting an author’s unpublished work and selling it in an attractive *commercial* hardcover, I feel it’s necessary to question whether this was an effort that truly builds the author’s legacy/library, or whether this was a cash-in. The answer? “Look at the Birdie” is fun enough, polished enough, to make us occasionally smile…but as part of the Vonnegut library, it really only warrants mention as the “previously unpublished work.” And while I loved the additional Vonnegut artwork included throughout, I thought the overall presentation of the book was fairly hollow; the introduction was pointless and gave little insight, a real let-down. In short, I just expected more of a book with such commercial aspirations. Had this been a scholarly volume marketed to libraries, then no complaints…but for the general reading public? Come on, Delacorte Press. Give me something more.

“The Road”

Since I just saw the film, here’s the original review I wrote of “The Road” from several years ago:

“The Road” is a damn-near perfect novel. I don’t know that there’s another American writer who can say so much by writing so little. Read through just a page of this book and analyze McCarthy’s prose: he will only use commas when indicating dialogue, and so the sentences have to be structured just right in order to work. The result is that ideas seem to always build upon one another logically, and the reader seems constantly propelled forward. All of the images, in addition, seem fresh and new. And check out how often he uses white-space breaks: he can write a single paragraph (a single image), then cut to another scene, and we fill in the blanks ourselves…the result here is that we are thoroughly immersed in the world, and we think we’ve read a whole lot more than we have. I’m not sure what I was expecting with “The Road,” but it is so strikingly different than McCarthy’s other works, but also remarkably consistent in its brilliance.

What Does Stephen King Need to Prove Anymore?

I was expecting big things from “Lisey’s Story,” and maybe the let-down I suffered upon reading the novel has less to do with Stephen King’s storytelling and more to do with my own inflated expectations. After all, I read this novel five years after its initial release, and in that time, it’s been lauded and praised, blurbed by Michael Chabon, held high as the shining moment when “Genre Writer Becomes Important Literary Writer.” But I suppose I’ve always considered Stephen King to be a genre writer *and* a literary writer, depending upon his ambitions, so maybe the problem (for me) starts there? Did he need to prove himself?

“Lisey’s Story” has an interesting concept at its core, one ripe for examination by King. Lisey is the wife/widow of a great literary author whose death has opened up a series of problems for her: first and foremost, what to do with his old notes and manuscripts? To whom should they be donated? And when a crazy and psychopathic fan appears, clamoring for the materials, how will Lisey react? All her adult life, she has been ignored, left in the shadows, while her husband has been adored in the spotlight. Will anyone even take her seriously now that he’s gone? Can she fight her own battles?

But the problem with “Lisey’s Story” is that it does not feel natural. For all of the complaints that I (and many critics, and many readers) have made about King’s “free-writing” style (he doesn’t plot out his books, and simply lets the characters take him wherever they will…hence, we have 600 and 700-page novels that–in a more strategic writer’s hands–would be 300 pages long), that style led to some fantastic work. Consider “The Stand” and “It.” Consider “Carrie” and “Needful Things” and “Desperation.” When King is having fun with his story, the reader is having fun. When he is over-thinking and, in the case of “Lisey’s Story,” trying too hard to be a literary author, we’re not having fun while reading. There were portions of this book that felt painful to read, labored, and I’m not sure I’ve ever said that about King’s work before.

There were also some of the familiar negatives associated with an author who produces 1-2 books a year, little aggravations that perhaps King isn’t even sure he’s writing anymore: the constant need to create “pet languages” and terms and “-isms” (it works in moderation, but here, it’s overwhelming and annoying, the “smucking” and “bad-gunky” and “Boo-ya Moon”), and the Supernatural World of the Protagonist’s Own Creation/ Mind. Honestly, as I read “Lisey’s Story,” I just kept thinking: this is “Rose Madder” all over again, but Stephen King doesn’t know it. Or, if he does know it, he realized it too late, and now he’s trying to dress it up in a new way so that we don’t realize it.

Hey, maybe in fifteen years, people will still be talking about “Lisey’s Story,” and no one will know that “Rose Madder” (or a dozen of King’s other books, many of which are forgotten…anyone remember “Eyes of the Dragon” or “Insomnia?”) even existed. But here, now, I know it. And I know what engages me in a great Stephen King novel: his own love for learning about his characters, his own love for their stories. And here? It felt like he was trying to prove something, not like he was in love with the story or the characters.

Best American Comics?

Each new year, it seems, the genre of “literary comics” (my term of choice is “graphic narratives”) grows and matures just a little bit. Thirty years ago, when the comics medium was dominated mostly by teenage/escapist fare, the most important evolution in the comics medium was the rise of “comix,” a sort of indignant response to the innocent animals and superheroes that many perceived to be the only subjects of comics books. We suddenly had dirty comix, animals engaged in sexual acts, characters whose faces looked like genitalia, anything to change the perception of the medium.

And then the 1980s, and Maus, and a Pulitzer Prize, and the 1990s, and a dozen well-respected graphic novels (even superhero comics receiving serious attention), and the 2000s, and graphic novels reviewed in the pages of the New York Times, and Houghton-Mifflin adding a “Comics” edition to their esteemed “Best American” series, and some literary journals (including The Florida Review, where I’ve worked for several years) adding comics as one of the literary genres we publish. Comics will always have the “kid’s stuff” perception, simply because so much of the market will always be dominated by superheroes and cartoon characters, but at this point, isn’t it foolish to argue that they aren’t respected as a serious artistic medium?

This is the main problem with The Best American Comics 2009. It has the same indignant attitude as the dirty comix of the 1970s, a lot of sexually explicit material, an R. Crumb piece, stuff that seemed appropriate thirty years ago (including an Archie-like piece called “Gropius” that is absolutely annoying, and appears five times in this book) when comics needed to change their perception, but which just seems irrelevant and stupid today.

(Gropius, apparently, is a well-reviewed collection…but at least one other critic agreed with my assessment of the material.)

To be fair, this book also includes some fantastic work from several cartoonists who really appear to be tackling interesting subject matter, and using the medium in a way that truly reflects the current culture. Kevin Huizenga is one of these artists, and his “Ganges” piece–an extended story about a guy caught up in the web bubble of the late ’90s, whose company doesn’t know what it’s doing, and whose employees spend their days and nights immersed in the video game culture–is brilliant, a perfect representation of the rise and fall of Generation X. Truly, it was the highlight of this anthology.

But too often, this book just seemed to be a collage of excerpted work that couldn’t recapture the energy or focus of the original, and stories and art that seemed to try way too hard to be “comix,” a genre that I wonder why we cannot move past. The “Best American Short Stories” series works well because we’re dealing with self-contained stories, not novel excerpts, and until the comics series can avoid the excerpted work, and avoid the temptation to include work that (to be fair) would have been included 15 or 20 years ago, had there been a “Best American Comics” series back then, it will feel disjointed and won’t quite live up to its potential. We don’t need to make up for all the decades during which comics were ignored. If you want to do that, create a “Best American Comics of the Century” (which would be fascinating). No, we need to see how comics are maturing and growing in the past year, and this anthology doesn’t yet feel like it is doing that.

Natural Disasters, Graphic Novels, Blogs, Bio-Comics!

“A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge” is a graphic novel that demonstrates the underlying theory that made Art Speigelman’s “Maus” so haunting, memorable, and successful. In our current culture, saturated by televised images of destruction, we sometimes need to see major tragedies and disasters in a completely stylized way in order to avoid becoming desensitized. With “Maus,” Speigelman used cartoon animals to re-enact the Holocaust, and the effect was disturbing and sobering: mice slammed against the wall until their heads exploded by Nazi cats. It was as if our most innocent mediums were no longer safe.

Josh Neufeld might not have been attempting something so bold as “Maus,” but this series of graphic narratives (I use the term “narratives” because it is composed of seven nonfiction biographical tales, so while the term “graphic novel” is used for all book-length comics, this definitely isn’t a fictional novel) definitely helps us to see Hurricane Katrina in a new light.Yes, we’ve seen the CNN footage. Yes, we see Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke.” Yes, we are outraged. Yes, we feel for the inhabitants of New Orleans. But somehow these comics heighten that feeling by forcing us to confront fresh and different images. The storm is more malevolent, more of a physical manifestation when hand-drawn. The destruction more surreal, as if–when it occurs in the comic format–it is striking New Orleans a second time.

Neufeld’s work is significant for another reason, too, this one not just aesthetic. “A.D.” represents two interesting trends: first, Neufeld used highly journalistic techniques to piece together the story, interviewing real survivors and writing their stories, a practice seen in disaster movies and documentaries, but not (necessarily) a practice I’ve seen in comics and graphic novels. And second, he published this as a blog, first and foremost, and then collected it into the graphic novel. In short, this is a book that is highly representative not just of our times and of the major event framing our times, but also of the many different mediums that we currently use to communicate and to publish; it’s nonfiction, and it’s journalism, and it’s an artistic representation/reaction to a real event, and it’s comics, and it’s a blog, and it’s a book…Neufeld certainly covers his bases, here.

“Housekeeping vs. The Dirt”: Reader’s Guilt

Hornby’s introductory essay for “Housekeeping vs. The Dirt” should be required reading for anyone who experiences any conflict in his/her reading life, and for any student or teacher of English/Literature. In the academic world, we are constantly made to feel bad if we don’t read a certain amount each month, if we haven’t read certain key books in the canon, if we spend more time with television or film or video games than we do with text, if we support one genre over the next, if (in short) we don’t make ourselves absolutely miserable for the sake of being “well-read.” We must speak of non-literary work as “guilty pleasures,” as if we’re not allowed to enjoy what we enjoy. Hornby’s essay succinctly defuses this argument, and it becomes a running theme throughout each of his personal essays throughout the book: “Housekeeping” is the name of a highly literary novel, a true treasure and a piece of art, and “The Dirt” is the name of a disgusting and dirty biography of Motley Crue, a book that no one could confuse as artwork. Is it possible to enjoy both? Can one find a balance in their reading lives between the artistic and that which is simply enjoyable? Can each enrich one’s life in a different way, or is literature the only type of text capable of enrichment?

Hornby is always engaging, always entertaining, and always brings an average-man mentality to his work. Maybe a pretentious academic wouldn’t buy into his argument, but the majority of readers (those who appreciate art, but don’t think that sophistication should be the only thing to define their lives) can easily connect and relate.

This isn’t a new argument, either, not necessarily, but never before has the line between “housekeeping” and “the dirt” been so blurred, with authors such as Michael Chabon deliberately writing so-called “genre novels” as follow-ups to Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction. With weekly television shows (“The Wire,” “The Sopranos”) and graphic novels recognized as literature. With Stephen King (formerly relegated to the depths of “genre writer” only) editing “The Best American Short Stories.” It might not be a brand-new argument, but it is an argument distinctively of our time, when more and more people are reading and writing than ever before, and when it becomes difficult to tell a 19-year-old who reads The Wall Street Journal online every morning, then writes a blog about how the economic collapse has affected his hopes for a future career, that this type of reading and writing is not good enough.

Hornby is the right writer for this argument because he feels like one of us, and his essays–though mostly just conventional text–are also daring at times, rife with self-deprecation, and not afraid to use charts and other font sizes…it’s witty without being too proud of its own cleverness. This is indeed a book for a generation who realizes that our time is allowed to be split between dozens of different mediums, and who realizes that–just like the line between “Housekeeping” and “The Dirt”–the line between the elements composing those mediums (art, text, illustration, video) are blurring into a world where anything is possible in literature.

Mixed-Media Fiction: Sink or Swim?

“The Raw Shark Texts” is an interesting concept that never really rises above “interesting concept.” It’s a breezy read, moves very quickly and sometimes develops real suspense, and the plot is well thought-out, but it still feels superficial by the very end. Perhaps this is because the characters feel as if they could have been plucked from any novel/movie about twenty-somethings, or perhaps this is because the majority of the text is told through dialogue and seems to ignore the truly complex interiority¬† that it could have explored…but either way, this feels like Bud Lite. It’ll get you through the night, but it’s never going to rise above and really challenge you.

The concept, as I said, is interesting: there exists beneath the “real world” a whole other plain of existence, perhaps another dimension (though–since this book lacks much interiority and real development–we are never sure of the real facts, just the character’s observations), and in this plain of existence, there are seas and seas of creatures who feed on thoughts and memories and ideas. Most often, our dimensions never really meet, but occasionally, when someone falls into heavy thought and abstract conceptualizing…the fish are drawn to that person’s mind, and the sharks begin feeding until the person becomes a hollowed-out shell of their former self. Really crazy stuff, right? Hall has developed a nice little mythology for his novel.

And I think the overall book serves as an interesting commentary on our times, on the youth generation. We have finally entered an age where we believe we can document everything that happens in our lives: we can take thousands of digital pictures, we can write daily status updates, we can (as I am currently doing) write reviews of each book or movie or album we digest, we can blog our thoughts…We feel lost when we haven’t documented our lives. We fear a life adrift, where we cannot easily load our computers and search through all of the pictures we’ve taken over the past year. What would we do if we lost all of this? What would we do if something had feasted upon our digital selves, erased all of those memories? No matter the danger and cost, of course, we’d try to relocate our selves, which is exactly the mission of Eric Sanderson, the novel’s narrator.

In theory, it’s all very relevant, and very brilliant. It even incorporates innovative fonts, images, and a full flip-book of a shark attack. Very Millennial Generation.

But ultimately, it fails for the same reason that “House of Leaves” failed. It doesn’t really know where it’s going. The end of “Raw Shark Texts” seems to imply that the narrator has been crazy all along, and that he’s imagined all of this happening, which is a real shame and a real cop-out. “House of Leaves” failed because it decided to deliberately confuse and obscure the narrative at the end (likely because Danielewski was himself lost), and “Raw Shark Texts” does the same. Where do we take this story, he must have asked. How do I wrap it up in a way that services both the character, and the commentary I’m writing? When a book tries to serve both character and commentary, all is sacrificed because the character becomes a puppet.

Hall had a chance to truly do something special, here. But in the end, while this is fresh and often compelling, it just turns out to be an interesting little novel, and that’s sad because it could have been much more.

Chabon as the (Long) Short Story Writer

“Werewolves in Their Youth” is a refreshing short story collection, mostly because Chabon is an author who is unafraid of telling a long story and allowing you to truly sink into the story itself. Too often, American short fiction in the past 20 years seems to place its sole emphasis on concision, almost as if the reward for writing/reading is in how much you can say in how few words, regardless of whether or not what you’re saying is even interesting, relevant, or enjoyable. If we can establish a character in 20 words, as opposed to a full page, we get some sort of award? To this idea, Chabon seems to say emphatically, “Fuck that.”

Simply put, he’s a gifted storyteller, and his pleasure in writing is evident with every single sentence. There’s a lot to be said for the energy of a writer, I think, and again, I read far too much fiction that feels like work, and that feels like it was work for the author, too. No, even when a story is dark or depressing, I want to feel a love for language and a love for the art of storytelling. It’s hard to describe how this is accomplished, but Chabon does it.

While I disagree with the various reviews below mine that seem to suggest that his subject matter is narrow in scope (“the first few I read each involved an estranged couple that solved all their problems by having spontaneous, amazing sex…”: that’s a great summary of a single story, but in no way defines the book), Chabon does seem at his best when he’s writing about intensely curious characters, intensely obsessed characters (usually, obsession with pop culture is best), or immature men and boys whose immaturity threatens their ability to achieve anything important or decent. At the same time, though, these are characters and themes that are present not just in this collection, but in ALL of Chabon’s work. Consider “Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” or “Wonder Boys,” or “Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” and see if the above descriptions do not fit the characters in those novels. Criticizing his consistency in theme is akin to criticizing Scorsese for, like, only doing crime stuff.

For me, “Werewolves in Their Youth” is that rare short story collection that seems to understand and improve upon the many problems in contemporary short story writing. Is it perfect? No. While I love that Chabon will write 30-page stories without apology, he does tend to fall in love with his descriptions and similes a bit, and the stories can sometimes derail as a result. But it’s this imperfection that makes this collection fun. It doesn’t strive to be perfect, as so many other literary short stories do, and so it maintains its honesty and its sense of fascination with the characters and the situations narrated.

The Great Millennial Novel?

Finally, I think we have a book worthy of being called the first “Millennial Generation Novel.” Finally!

“Attention. Deficit. Disorder.” initially struck me as a gimmicky book, meant to capitalize on the popular Dave Eggers style of mixed-media, mixed-form, mixed-genre fiction. The sentences are short, choppy, and there are constant interruptions, introducing dictionary definitions and strange historical tangents. The author, Brad Listi, is obviously trying to re-create the experience of information overload, but the first few chapters just seemed so obvious. Why did we need 350 pages more, then? And would this novel wind up using the form for a real function, or was it–as I said–just a gimmick?

My thoughts changed several times as I was reading (which is an interesting statement, itself). Sometimes I felt as if the form lent perfectly to the character, as he attempted to figure out his life and was distracted at the point of every meaningful realization (perfect!). But sometimes I just felt as if the author was over-indulging in the interesting form that he had created.

Listi, though, manages to wrap this novel up perfectly. The characters and ideas all come together to finally give us (yes) a meaningful overall resolution, without forcing the character into tying up all loose ends in his life. Just as some decent movies are devalued by their sequels, I think that the conclusion to Listi’s novel strengthens all that came before it. In other words, the jury is still out until the final few pages, but it is a testament to the writer that he maintains the form consistently, and that there is a payoff to the information overload form (thus justifying the form itself, and rendering moot any question over “gimmicks”).

And this is the reason that this book is the first novel to honestly portray the youth generation of America, those ages 15-25 or so, the Millennial Generation. Dave Eggers, I think, offered us one of the best depictions of Generation X life with his “Heartbreaking Work,” but his “You Shall Know Our Velocity!” was a boring and stale attempt to do the same thing for a slightly younger age bracket. Every young writer, I think, dreams of writing an “On the Road” for his/her generation, and Eggers was no exception…except that his version stunk. Listi gives it a go, also, but actually manages to capture the intelligence and the restless energy of Millennials without condescending to them at all.

The Millennial Generation is one that, I think, everyone in the mainstream media is struggling to characterize (if for no other reason than marketing purposes), but few are actually trying to empathize with. Just because they’re privileged and entitled does not mean that they do not have real human issues…the glut of resources and options available to them has become frightening, crippling, and sometimes even the most basic decisions are impossible for them. “Attention. Deficit. Disorder.” is the first book to actually capture this condition, not to simply scoff at it or to be amused by it.