This Site Has… Become Something Else

I’ve decided to make a fresh start on another WordPress blog with a different account.

Why?

In the digital age of reading, it becomes anachronistic to hit someone with a hardcover book. Doing the same with an eReader, however, not only voids an expensive warranty but also produces an entirely different sound.

That is just one reason. But the important thing to know is that from now on, I’m posting on http://readyoubastard.com/ and with much better frequency.

I want to thank everyone who has read and commented on Thwok! for the past couple years, and I hope you continue to enjoy good books.

The Comedians by Graham Greene

I stole this book from the Peace Corps headquarters in Azerbaijan.

But who hasn’t? I recently made another trip overseas to see Kiersten, and one day we stopped by the PC headquarters in Baku. While its provisions are by no means extravagant, the HQ keeps a supply of donated clothing, equipment, and of course, books, for the volunteers take as they please. I’m not a volunteer, but when I see a Graham Greene novel on a shelf, my psychological condition compels me to grab it and attempt to justify to all witnesses my keeping it.

The fedora roof was a little-known hallmark of postmodernist architecture.

“Just take it,” said a nearby volunteer.

“Really?” I said. “But this stuff is for you guys. I’m not supposed to–”

“Please. Just take it.”

I like to think her insistence was based on the idea they have too many books already, and not a loathing for Greene. Either way, it’s mine, and it accompanied me on a sad plane trip back home.

In case you’ve never read Greene, he was one of the premier espionage novel writers of the 20th century. He had the uncanny knack for being in a country just before it would erupt in a civil war or revolution (granted, this was the 50s and 60s, so it was hard not to be in one). Perhaps the most famous example of these is The Quiet American, a prophetic indictment of American involvement in Vietnam.

The Comedians is drawn from his experience in Haiti during “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s reign of terror. The main character, who identifies himself as “Brown,” is an ex-pat who owns a hotel that stands empty (an everpresent, machete-wielding secret police isn’t conducive to a country’s tourism). He has been ruined by the Papa Doc regime but seems resigned to accept its atrocities as a bystander. But two other parties come to Haiti: The Smiths, American progressives who aspire to promote vegetarianism foreign countries, and “Major” Jones. Jones is an shady but affable chap who uses oddly archaic British terms and is doubtful to have ever been a Major at all. When Brown presses Jones for the reason he’s in Haiti, Jones coyly insists it’s for business.

Jones may be a grifter, a spy, or something similar, but whatever it is he’s terrible at it. “The Major” runs afoul of the dictator, and Brown reluctantly comes to his aid. This eventually threatens Brown’s relationship with his mistress–something he’s far more protective of than his decaying hotel and will go to desperate ends to preserve.

The Greene Plot Machine

Another arrogant, unhappy adulterer who is in a position to have his likable friend/rival killed. The Comedians is formula Graham Greene: this is The Quiet American, Haiti Edition. A bad book? No. But a duplicated plot cheapens both novels for me.

Also reappearing is Greene’s attack on US Cold War foreign policy, particularly America’s regrettable tradition of propping up tyrants based on their promise to kill Communists (and they never stopped at just Communists). He can be depended upon to refrain from preachiness, though, in his political message. He lets the heinousness of the Tonton Macoutes secret police speak for itself, and many of the incidents described in The Comedians are ones he’d actually witnessed–including the police interrupting a dissenter’s funeral to hijack the body.

If you’ve read The Quiet American, this is skippable, but the Haitian history is worth knowing. You might honestly choose to read one novel or the other based on the nation of interest. The Comedians an historically significant work, though, and was personally condemned by Papa Doc Duvalier, himself. But screw him. It’s chilling to read this knowing that Haiti’s tragedies would not cease even with the death of the dictator; his similarly vicious son would rule until 1986, and the 2010 earthquake would kill hundreds of thousands. (I found a Post-It in the back of my copy addressed to a Peace Corps volunteer from a fellow PCV recommending this book based on its perceived timeliness)

Reading this, though, I’m reminded that I want a Graham Greene for this era. Who is he/she, and where is this writer right now, blending morally complicated literary fiction with urgent foreign journalism?

Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith

Sometimes you read a sequel and find yourself half-incredulous of where you find the protagonist when the curtain rises. Granted, I wasn’t surprised that Tom Ripley, the sociopathic forger/imitator/high-class fraudster who got away with a couple murders in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, was living the good life in the French countryside and enjoying some steady income from a few rackets. What threw me was his being married, for one, and also his now having co-conspirators.

And the award for murkiest jacket design goes to...

This is the guy who spent months on his own European Grand Tour after murdering his acquaintance and assuming the victim’s identity. Part of the intensity of the first Ripley novel was that 25-year-old Tom was so utterly alone. He was the killer Raskolnikov was trying to be– nearly unflappable in his scheme to hide his crimes and faintly misanthropic to the end.

Now he has a practical Ocean’s Eleven of Idiots.

Tom is orchestrating a great art scandal: the famous painter Derwatt, once thought dead from suicide, is alive and producing pieces that continue to sell for the highest sums. In reality, Derwatt is dead, and Tom has another painter, Bernard Tufts, forging his former mentor’s work. The only other individuals in on the con are the two boobs who run the gallery and the man who oversees the Derwatt art school/supply arm of the operation.

Donning a fake beard, Ripley is called upon to assume the role of Derwatt in public (we’re going off the assumption that growing a beard would make you unrecognizable), because along comes an American collector who is convinced the new Derwatt paintings are fakes. The facade doesn’t hold up, and Ripley is interestingly more pissed that the American sees through his Derwatt performance than the forged paintings. Well, one wine bottle to the head later, Tom’s killed somebody.

Perhaps Tom has changed enough in the last five years that he can tolerate the meddling and dependence of a wife and some partners-in-crime, but even allowing that, Ripley Under Ground becomes a slightly different book from what I wanted. The crime caper of this sequel may not be as fun and inventive as the first novel’s, for reasons aforementioned, but there’s still some fascinating stuff going on.

Digging Himself Deeper

The forger Bernard is the hapless pawn in all this, which doesn’t go unappreciated by Tom: being himself a forger of identities, Tom sympathizes with the painter who must commit his artistry to being something other than himself. At one point Tom argues that the forger must be more skilled than the original artist; great art comes naturally to the artist, but the imitator must sweat and toil harder to produce the convincing fake.

What kind of painter would Bernard be if he didn’t have to be Derwatt? What kind of man would Tom be if he could live an honest life? Could he?

“Tom could have wept for Bernard… Bernard was as miserable as someone, who was not an actor, trying to act on a stage and hating every minute of it.”

Bernard is more like…us, and he cannot handle the identity crisis inherent in spending several years being someone else. Not only is Tom trying to keep the Derwatt operation from being exposed, he’s trying to keep his Talented Mr. Tufts from snapping and confessing everything to the authorities.

The Tom-Bernard interaction is a fascinating one, and it becomes darkly amusing when Tom cooly demands the neurotic artist to help him exhume a body and lie to the cops. But they are two false halves of the same dead artist, each with authentic skill that begs reevaluation of creations we dismiss as “fakes.”

The book’s events are far more morbid but somehow less disturbing: Highsmith is playing Ripley’s callousness for laughs now, having him literally rise from the grave to go take a bath and fix himself a sandwich. This robs the story of the gravity it otherwise deserves. People have toyed with the idea of canonizing Highsmith not only as one of the 20th century’s crime novel greats, but the American literary fiction greats. If she wanted to, she probably could have been. But in this second Ripley book I felt her shying a bit from the dark, personal cellar that made The Talented Mr. Ripley impossible to confine to a genre.

House of Holes by Nicholson Baker

Listen, if you buy this book, take the dust jacket off and throw it away. Because if you glance at the author’s head shot from time to time like I tend to do, that will cause problems with House of Holes. You don’t want to finish a story about a woman pleasuring herself on a penis tree and then be reminded it was written by Burl Ives.

If you stare at the hole long enough, then everything around it starts to move and... oh, never mind.

Nicholson Baker is no stranger to erotic fiction (Vox, The Fermata), and in the publishing world, his is qualified as literary. More on that later. He took a break from that with a nonfiction book on WWII and then tribute to poetry called The Anthologist, which I went sort of apeshit over. With House of Holes he returns to what I guess his calling always was as a writer.

The titular House of Holes is an eccentric compound where visitors are indulged in even their most ridiculous fantasies, especially some they didn’t know they had, ranging from sex with a headless person (for those who fear being judged by their partner) to crotchal transfers, where volunteers have their genitals exchanged with another’s and basically go from there. And then there’s a cinema multiplex known as the Porndecahedron. It’s fun. The whole book carries the tone of that scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” when Sir Galahad stumbles into Castle Anthrax.

People usually find this place by being sucked down some random “Being John Malkovich” portal that happens to be a tumble dryer or even a hole punched in a business card.  A complete stranger might ask a character if she may de-pants him and watch him manhandle himself, or something to that effect, and the guy invariably says, “Okay.” Everyone has few, if any, reservations toward the bizarre sexual opportunities presented to them and the effect is hilarious. Would you like to go pussysurfing? Sure, why not? There’s little to fear in the world of House of Holes beyond a clitoris-stealing madwoman known as “The Pearloiner.”

Ironically, No Climax

It’s filthy without ever being nasty. Unless you like nasty. Do you like nasty? Do you? Well… maybe you should read a different book or something. This is like a silly, faintly sentimental version of Letters to Penthouse. So don’t expect any kind of character development or plot trajectory across the stories. It is what it says it is– “a Book of Raunch”– just one smutty tale after another, but still, part of my giddiness waned as this became more apparent. While there are some interesting things going on here, like the old question of whether sex can engender love as opposed to vice versa, it probably has more value as a collection of some pretty stupendous dirty talk. You’re likely to find more substance in a Christopher Moore novel and with almost as many impressive moves on the prose dancefloor. This doesn’t make House of Holes a bad book, but any “literary” designation is wishful thinking on the part of highbrow readers who in reality just like the sexy, funny stuff here.

This was enjoyable, but if I ever get the opportunity to attend a book signing where Baker himself reads from it, I’ll pass.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Short story collections don’t sell. You’d think that they would– if we’re to believe what people keep saying about the shrinking attention span of American readership.

So I started watching The Wire now that my friend is loaning me the DVDs, and while it took a while to get going, it’s living up to its reputation, without question.

Where was I? Right, so the question is, what do you do in this business if you’re a better short story writer than a novelist?

This cover is a stylized depiction of every drama teacher I've ever had.

You don’t need to change much, actually. You can turn a short story collection into a novel by taking a character in one piece and… ahhh, let’s say… making her the daughter of some other character’s boss from another. BAM–continuity! I’d like to think you don’t need to do that to win the Pulitzer Prize, but Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, both short-story-collections-as-novels, are the last two books to take the award for fiction. So maybe it helps.

I can tell you which one’s the better book, and it’s the one where the connections between the stories and characters are actually weaker.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is thirteen stories, most of which take place in New York and involve a whole nexus of characters. Arguably at the center of this nexus are former punk rocker Bennie Salazar– who met with success as a record producer but is struggling to break his obsession with the past– and Sasha, his assistant, a kleptomaniacal beauty with a checkered past (who is more influential to the other characters than her actual character seems to justify).

Half the connections among the characters feel unnatural, especially since we’re operating within a very large population and span of time. You could argue that the continuity is thematic. They’re all about the shared experiences of music, right? And time?

But my favorite story here, “Selling the General,” actually has nothing to do with either. In it, Dolly, the former queen of celebrity public relations is making a comeback by taking on the account of a genocidal dictator who, as one readily understands, is in great need of a PR consultant. Dolly convinces a Hollywood starlet to pose with the general to boost his appeal and dampen the indictment of his crimes against humanity, and the shoot goes terribly awry. On the surface, the story is a light, farcical send-up of the power of image and the media. But when you consider the starlet’s complicated motives and the reactions of Dolly’s scary little daughter, the story plunges into the realm of disturbing.

It’s brilliant.

Plenty of good stories here will go unmentioned, including a cute and surprisingly effective little number that’s written entirely in Powerpoint slides.

The other favorite of mine is the last piece, “Pure Language,” which to me reads like dystopian literature. The thing is a marvel– considering that it’s harder, in some ways, to convincingly predict what the world will be like in ten years than in fifty. Its plot marks the heavily orchestrated comeback of punk rocker Scotty Hausman, a derelict soloist who in 2021 spends his days fishing in the East River. And thanks to an army of bloggers paid to hype him up, thousands of New Yorkers gather to see a guy sit down and play a slide guitar. The crowd comes away lauding the stripped-down performance for being “pure.” But the event was constructed by a manufactured campaign of liars. Does that inauthentic gathering make the music, the experience less authentic? Like with Woodstock, “it may be that the crowd at a particular moment in history creates the object to justify its gathering.”

It’s brilliant.

Last year this book pulled the upset on the media’s million dollar baby Jonathan Franzen and his Freedom for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. While I really liked Freedom, Egan’s is the more deserving book. Both carry the “This is Us, America!” presumption that makes the award panelists go hard, but Goon Squad is perhaps more cerebral while being more widely appealing. Awards don’t guarantee an obscure author a lasting audience, but here’s hoping it does in this case.