Monday, July 31, 2006

Gee Willickers
"Town Smokes"
by Pinckney Benedict

With a name like Pinckney Benedict, how can you not be a writer?

Pinckney Benedict. Say it with me, everyone at once, "Pin-ck-ney Ben-a-dict-ttt". Now, wasn't that fun? The moment I heard it, I knew I had to pick up his book. Any book. Whatever! Imagine my convivial motions of gratitude when I found that his first published work was a collection of stories about the South, and not about the easy southern gentrified living associated with stories involving New Orleans ("The Big Easy"), but the back-country south where trailer parks and beer drinking blue collar men (women too) are as much a part of life as the overwhelming sound of crickets at night. Bonus!

These stories deliver. This is Benedict's first collection of short stories (the inside flap says, at the time of publication, he was enrolled in the graduate writing program at the University of Iowa - famous for big names). Even so, his talent is raw and unfettered.

Town Smokes is best when the dialogue isn't forced, which it is, at times. Still, it's pretty hard to write entire stories (which he does) with a country accent and make it believable, so kudos to Benedict for (mostly) succeeding. There are moments that briefly teeter on becoming cliche or too on-the-nose, but Benedict knows, skillfully, when to pull back. His talent really comes through in the suspenseful, devastating story Dog, about a man afraid to pull a dying dog out from underneath his trailer. The title story, too, is a superb coming-of-age allegory that's tender and tough at the same time. A boy struggling to get over the death of his father decides to go into town for some "town smokes", because he's sick of rolling his own tobacco, the way his father did. He realizes he doesn't belong, but that realization brings another, more profound one, and his choice is enlightening and perfect. And the first story in the collection won an award. That means it's good!

The people in these stories come alive with each story, so that by the end you have a whole imagined town, a vignette of the south that's hard to leave because it's so real. It's no escape for the people in these stories, but it's definitely one for me. Benedict is from West Virginia, beautiful country known for its rural ways. I love rural stories, they ignite something inside of me. I'm not sure if that's necessarily a good or bad thing, but I'll take it without too much analysis.

The cover's neat, simple, and conveys the book well. I especially like the saw. I know someone that wants to play a saw. I wonder why she doesn't?

Friday, July 28, 2006

Oh, He's That Dead Guy
"Epitaph of a Small Winner"
by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

In the introduction to The Floating Opera, John Barth writes that he was influenced more by Assis than anyone else in the formation and process of writing his first two novels.

By this recommendation alone, I had to pick it up. I'm glad I did.

Epitaph of a Small Winner's narrator is dead and writing, supposedly, from the grave. His method to write this novel postmortem is left out because "its relation would require an excessive amount of space and ... is unnecessary to an understanding of the work." The protagonist of the novel, Cubas, is a deceased writer writing from infinity, and although he has forever, he realizes we do not.

What results is a fantastical novel of ideas. The plot dawdles like a limp leg dragging, but since there isn't much (it's more of a commentary on life, an epitaph(!)), it's not much of a lag. Once the novel enveloped me in its twisted world, in the narrator Braz Cubas's folly-filled head, I found it hard to get out. I laughed a little, and I like books that make me laugh. Even a little.

Braz Cubas isn't quite the hero of the story, there is no real hero. He's just who the story's about. Nevertheless, he is a self-proclaimed pessimist who always gets what he wants. He's a scoundrel and a heathen, but you like him, you can't help but like him. The self-reflexive, metafictional, beyond the grave wit compliments heartily the narrator's ability to make fun of himself and the situations he's in. It's like Vonnegut in South America, only a tad less funny. There are 160 short chapters in about 220 pages, which leads to a lot of short bits of info smattered with a few devoloped instances in the life of the protagonist.

Still, the novel manages to be walloping fun. At the end of a long life he looks back at what he's accomplished, and reaches a rather deep and profound philosophical insight. Questions about the purpose of life linger after the novel's final pages, and, like the best of novels, its lingering is a good feeling, a satisfied one.

And, if for nothing else, this book is a great study of influence on John Barth. Reading Epitaph was a delight for the sheer pleasure of seeing where Barth got certain ideas, where he picked up some of his style, and how he improved upon a form he liked.

Epitaph of a Small Winner is a small winner. It's no strawberry shortcake or ice cream brownie sunday with extra fudge, but it will satisfy your sweet tooth. Barth fans especially should pick this up - it's a sure fire way to know a book is right up your alley before reading a single word.

The cover's a little dated, but the weird pictures interspersed throughout the book (although sparingly) more than make up for it.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Stop Whining!
"The Crying of Lot 49"
by Thomas Pynchon

In college, an old philosophy professor took me into the library. He stopped in an aisle between rows and rows of books, pointed, and said, "To read every one of these books, in this aisle alone, would take a lifetime." He was slightly exaggerating, but his point was clear. There's simply too much in this world to see, to do, to read, so you have to make choices. We make our choices based on what other people say, most times. Recommendations from friends, newsletters, authors we like, even, God forbid, the Amazon recommendation page (come on, you know what I mean). And it's not only books, but movies and drawrings and plays and everything else under the sun. We're all critics now, too, of everything, given the fact that we can write reviews and recommend things we like, and it's easier for us to narrow down what we like based on shared interests in someone's profile. But I digress.

I picked up Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 because I had heard it was a classic. Indeed, many refer to it as his "most accessible work." I tried, really hard, to like this book, because paid critics hailed it as an intellectual masterpiece, because I didn't want to proclaim "I don't really like it" and be scorned, because not liking something someone says is smart makes you dumb, right?

It's not the first time, of course. There are films hailed as masterpieces you're supposed to love that are just torture to get through. And just about anyone can make something that makes absolutely no sense that is high art just because it makes no sense. I have presently an image of a gallery showing in New York with rich intellectuals staring at a picture of a bull with no horns riding a man with beautifully rendered clouds in the background, all trying to make sense of the oddity, when one exclaims, "Brilliant, I'll buy it for $100,000!" and suddenly the obscure picture means something.

It was a big joke in film school: want to get attention, just make weird Bunuel-esque short films. People snap to attention like someone shoved a blunt object up their . Anything I enjoy that's obviously mainstream bull I shove off as a "guilty pleasure." But why? Because it makes us look smarter if we like something "intellectual", and denounce something as pure trash that has no inherent linguid value. Will someone please pull me back from my tangent!

The Crying of Lot 49 isn't trash, but I don't really like it. How's that? I will now kindly step aside to avoid being hit by lightning from the critic gods. Thank you (I curtsey). Its language alone is uncompromisingly deliberate, the prose insane and rock-starrish, and, if you do want to read it, at least it's short. It's a book both the product of and waypoint for the times. 60s counterculture is everywhere in this book. Free spiritedness, the underground, lovin', drugs, bands, and stamps.

Oedipa Maas, Lot 49's heroine, finds herself co-executor of her ex-boyfriend's estate, and while carrying out her duty, stumbles upon a conspiracy between the current postal system and an underground postal system known as Tristero. Clues are everywhere (mainly in the form of a muted post horn), and Oedipa becomes obsessed with discovering the identity of the Tristero, only to find that mysteriously everything leads back to her ex-boyfriend's estate, and, most notably, his stamp collection. Meanwhile, her husband Mucho Maas becomes addicted to LSD and estranges himself from their relationship, her psychiatrist Dr. Hilarius goes insane with paranoid delusions that Israelis are out to get him, and a number of other aptly named characters make appearances to mix things up.

Pynchon has a penchant for language, and his novel is a joy in that respect. It's fun to read aloud, and the character names are absurdly apropos (Mike Fallopian, Genghis Cohen, Pierce Inverarity, et al.), but the story is lacking, disjointed, and in the end, disappointing. I get the feeling that Pynchon was trying to flex his intellectual muscles rather than exercise his storytelling skills. It felt like a mish-mash of ideas and titillating fantasies that never went anywhere. Of course, it was a lot of fun in 60s films (see Candy or The Magic Christian by Terry Southern - hilarious and brilliant) but not so much when you devote about several hours to a book.

The cover's really cool, the conspiracy story very intriguing and eerie, but in the end, it's all for naught. Although I didn't like this book, I'm still interested in his other novels (especially Mason & Dixon and Gravity's Rainbow, to see how they stack up. There's never enough time...