May 31, 2007

Some Huck Finn reflections

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain, 1885

I'm about halfway through Huck Finn, and it's far more wonderful than I remember. Probably just because I'm older and have more appreciation for its beauty and vigor that I did when I was 17 or when I was 25. I used to take for granted that everyone was right when they said it was such a great novel, and of course it's an easy book to enjoy, but until now I don't think I really understood its genius. And I've read a lot more literature from the rest of the world now, so I get what makes it so richly American too.

- Those rapturous lyrical passages about the riverscape that just make me want to weep sometimes.

- The ten thousand layers of conflict, basically an attempt to encompass human civilization, so deftly tucked into a personal narrative.

- The loose, base, unfettered spoken language, jangling off the page.

- Characters that can be cartoons when they need to be, and yet never lose their resonance as breathing fellow human beings.

- That ironic humor that cuts so deep and makes you laugh so hard:

"Yes, gentlemen, you see before you, in blue jeans and misery, the wanderin', exiled, trampled-on, and sufferin' rightful King of France."

Say it out loud to really enjoy the poetry of it. At this moment, I can't think of anything funnier or more affecting than that. I'll write more when I finish the book, but man am I glad I'm reading this right now.

May 24, 2007


Paul Auster, 1986

I have quite enjoyed everything I've read by Paul Auster, which I'm ashamed to say doesn't amount to much. This short (under 100 pages) novel is the middle installment of a set called the New York Trilogy, and probably my favorite of the three.

There's a lot of great stuff going on in this piece, including a beautiful deconstruction of the postwar ennui-filled private eye genre, a love letter to Brooklyn Heights, and a meditation on 19th century American literature. It's put across in a flat, declarative style, not a single quotation mark, with sentences often in the passive voice, full of odd textural details of setting and state of mind. At points, it reads like it should be an allegory or roman a clef, but if it is, it's one that subverts itself at every turn.

Some of my favorite parts use the detective-story framework to contemplate what literature is in the world, the relationship between author and audience, the reflexive nature of narrative, the dual consciousness required in storytelling, and other highfalutin stuff like that. I don't generally have anything against the contemporary popular novel style, wherein any big themes are talked about openly in the prose itself, but it's nice to have something slightly opaque once in a while - good brain exercise, you know.

There's this nice passage, wherein one detective is talking to another about a surveillance job:

Does he know you're watching him or not?

Black turns away, unable to look at Blue anymore, and says with a sudden trembling of voice: Of course he knows. That's the whole point, isn't it? He's got to know, or else nothing makes sense.


Because he needs me, says Black, still looking away. He needs my eyes looking at him. He needs me to prove he's alive.

There's a certain kind of tragic pithiness in that kind of writing which is far from ordinary. It's as if the psychology and emotion are small, plain things to be pushed around and played with like words on a page. There's treachery, double-crossing, and self-doubt through the book, but on a higher level, there's just a sense of futility about even those elements, which evokes the late-40s milieu better than anything else. Thoreau, Hawthorne, and especially (hilariously) Whitman are presented as models for a human optimism and spirit of connectedness that seems almost farcical in the context of the world the characters inhabit.

I don't want to make it sound like a depressing book either. If anything, it's magical in the way it shows a path from being a ghost to being fully human. All crammed into 90-odd pages with time for costume changes, pulp-culture ruminations, and Jackie Robinson. This is one to read over and over.

May 20, 2007

Invisible Monsters

Invisible Monsters
Chuck Palahniuk, 1999

So this was an interesting read, by turns frustrating and insightful. It's my first exposure to Palahniuk (best known for having written Fight Club), and there were enough interesting ideas and well-written passages to get me to try another book another day.

At first I thought he was leaning too heavily on the "shock value" of body modification as a metaphor, but that smoothed out after a while. What didn't ever get easier to take were the couple of verbal/rhetorical devices that pervade the novel from start to finish. One of these - the use of the phrase "Jump to" at every change of setting - would have been mildly annoying but forgivable in a shorter novel, but in a 300-pager it's just tedious. Yes, I get that it fits with the overarching themes of the book, but come on.

On another dynamic level, Palahniuk quite effortlessly sets up a very unreliable narrator, whom I trusted less and less as the story progressed. It was really quite masterfully done, until the last 30-40 pages, when the whole thing explodes, all doubts are removed, and it felt like I was getting an authorial pie in the face. Again, I get it, but it comes across as trickery for the sake of trickery.

There are a few other gimmicks and structures like this, and their use reminds me of the aesthetic of some of the so-called minimalist composers. There's a certain ideal of obviousness - a feeling that the audience should always be in on the artist's tricks. Nothing wrong with this at all of course, but I have a harder time adjusting to the idea in a novel than in music, for some reason.

Of course this is also part of the point, I think. As readers, we're supposed to feel uncomfortable and know precisely why. Within the world of the text, personalities are disconnected things, made up of isolated cells which can be shuffled and reshuffled. Any sense of richness, unity, or complexity of mind is an illusion. A depressing concept to be sure, and one that rings just true enough to be highly disconcerting.

So there's quite a lot to like about the book, a lot of risks were taken, and it certainly got me thinking (which is more than a lot of books do for me). Maybe rough around the edges, but certainly a worthwhile read.

May 01, 2007


The Streets of San Francisco
A Quinn Martin Production, 1972-1979

Well I've been slowly making my way through the discs of Streets of San Francisco TV show that they just brought out on DVD. Before I get started on talking about it, I first want to say that I really enjoy the whole concept of renting TV shows a few episodes at a time like this, and even owning a boxed set of a show that you really like. I don't watch that much television because I don't find much to my liking on most of the time, so getting discs of a show I know I enjoy every time can come in handy when I want to be audiovisually anaesthetized for a while. Sometimes I'm just in the mood for a certain kind of entertainment, and these DVD sets are a great way to get a quick fix. Yes I know I should want to read Paradise Lost, but sometimes I'd rather enjoy some Alias.

Anyhow, Streets is definitely one of those shows I can nearly always get into the mood for. I grew up on the reruns in the late 70s and early 80s, and being born and raised in the town of the title, it always had a special resonance. I love the cop-buddy stuff between the costars, the exploitation of counterculture, the outrageous 70s clothes and hair, the drool-worthy glam shots of the city itself, the pretentiousness of its division into acts and usually an epilog (no "epilogue" for this hard-hitting cop show, no sir! we ain't Shakespeare! We're, like, maybe Eugene O'Neill or something). Despite itself, perhaps due to the straightforwardly generous Karlmaldentastic acting, there's a genuinely positive "healing the wounds of the 60s" vibe that's pretty addictive at times.

And the theme song.... in a class by itself. So perfect it almost makes my teeth hurt.

One of the best games to play, if you know the layout of SF pretty well, is to watch the car chases, and see how they turn a corner and end up five miles away in the next shot. Always fun to wait for the moment when Michael Douglas has to jump too - I swear he jumps over something or onto someone in every episode. There's definitely a good drinking game in there.

And if the plot ever starts to flag, there's always listening to the incidental music, which is enjoyable all by itself. What an entertaining show - enjoy it some evening instead of "When Gray's Desperate Apprentices Attack" or whatever.