The Origin of the Brunists by Robert Coover

While browsing at the bookstore, I picked up the sequel to this book first. Imagine my surprise to find that there was nearly fifty years between the writing of book one (Origin) and book two (Wrath). For that reason alone, I had to read them.

West Condon. 1960s. Church Sundays and beers on the front porch. Italian immigrants and casual misogyny. Highschoolers making it in the back of cars. I was born in the mid-80s, twenty years after this book was set yet it’s remarkable how familiar the working class family community of West Condon feels. Shit I’ve completely forgotten about. The bad: men calling women “broads” or anti-Italian slurs. The good: a greater awareness and understanding of changing seasons, the smells, tastes, fresh spring sun on your skin. It was strange, unsettling.

The first 80ish pages of The Origin of the Brunists is a harrowing account of a mining disaster. Starting with miners filing into work for the night shift, taking the elevator down to the mine, and unbeknownst to them, their doom. I was again struck by familiarity. I worked the night shift for years, in a warehouse loading trucks. OK, maybe I’m dramatizing by comparing that to descending into the bowels of the earth, obliterating my lungs, and putting my life on the line daily, but still. I did almost drop a carburetor on my foot once.

Anyway, the shifting-point of views that demonstrate daily life in the mine and then the terrible disaster that rips it apart and kills ninety seven men is the best part of the novel. It can’t be overstated how miserable the role of a miner is whether it be 1966 or 2018. The novel flounders for a bit, following the disaster, is at its worst for 50-100 pages before it picks up the main thrust of the plot: Giovanni Bruno, the sole survivor of those trapped in the mine, is rescued and an emergent cult forms around the few words he can manage to dislodge from his oxygen-starved brain.

Origin feels like a proto-Stephen King novel. You know those books that flit between a dozen or more townspeople, immerse us deeply in their point of view, then move on to the next person, often displaying a contradictory angle to the person before? Needful Things, Under the Dome, etc. It’s a similar set-up here, except instead of greed and devilry, the town is afflicted by economic depression and religious mania. A specter hovers behind the Brunists. While the mine disaster is behind their rise in the most obvious sense (Bruno himself), it’s the economic and social reality behind it that truly drives it. Mining is a very dangerous job, but in some locations it’s just about the only job. Most of the early adopters of Bruno’s cult are widowed by the disaster or facing no prospects following the mine’s closure. It’s a search for answers/solace/community and especially meaning and closure that creates the Brunists, a cult slash religion that is absolutely sure the world will end soon. It didn’t end this weekend? OK, it’s for sure going to end next weekend. 

I liked this book a great deal. It didn’t completely blow me away, but the town felt so grounded that even had I not already become intrigued by the fifty year gap between them, I’d be reading the sequel. There’s a solidity to the prose that’s difficult to describe. West Condon happened. I need to know the next chapter. 

The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

“He is a scoundrel, else he’d not have taken such advantage of my innocence.”

“That only proves him human, as you shall learn.”

Ebenezer Cooke, virgin poet and nincompoop, is booted from his aimless life in London, for more or less wasting his time and his father’s money, and journeys to his famalial estate in Maryland to manage the Sot-Weed (old timey name for tobacco) trade. It’s 16XX. The colonies are at eachothers throats, living out the same petty-but-deadly religious conflicts as the old world, and the french and native tribes creep at the door. Plot’s afoot, intrigue abounds.

Part of the pleasure of The Sot-Weed Factor is immersing thyself in its sordid universe. Not just the period dialogue — your thou’s and marry’s and i’faith’s and anon’s. Much like Don Quixote, a novel The Sot-Weed Factor owes no small debt to, characters tell each other stories. A choice encounter in a stable leads to a freshly introduced character spinning a yarn a dozen pages long. These tales, entertaining in their own right, inevitably become entangled with the greater plot. Coincidences abound. If a character is mentioned at any point, they’re sure to show up later, often dramatically. Perhaps they’ll turn out to be a character already introduced. Indeed, the people of this universe can simply don another’s dress and adopt a manner of speaking to become someone else entirely.

This extends to the bizarre sexual character of the universe. A significant plot point is the protagonists hunting the secret journal of John Smith, wherein he details his perverse sexual exploits, beginning with Pocahontas. Pretty much everyone is under constant threat of being raped. From pirates, sailors, “salvages”, colonists, anyone. There’s actually a rape boat, the less spoken of the better. At times, it’s unclear whether you’re supposed to laugh or shiver.  Ebenezer’s virginity and how he may lose it, through force, love, or mad lust is a constant focus.  It is no exaggeration to say it that the various pornographic interludes are as core to The Sot-Weed factor as American history or period dialogue.

As a young writer, Barth’s interest lied in nihilism. Writing this novel led him to realize he was concerned more with innocence. Despite being around thirty at the onset of his voyage, Eben Cooke is innocent of the world. In part, this is due to his nature as bumbling protagonist, a device the novel embraces wholeheartedly to guide him from one folly to the next. But only in part. Other aspects of his innocence are more realistic and timeless. It is the privilege of his station as a wealthy Englishman that allows him to be innocent of, or shall we say ignorant of, the plight of virtually everyone else in the world.

Naturally, Eben must grow. He cannot remain an innocent nonce, clueless of the world, battered down repeatedly, captured by pirates, abused by gentlemen and common workers alike, forever. He is not Don Quixote.  While it takes many pages, the reader groaning at his latest dubious decision, he learns. Take this paragraph for instance, wherein Ebenezer is captured by an Indian-African alliance and about to be executed:

This conclusion, which the poet reached more by insight than speculation, was followed by another, whose logic ran thus: The point in space and time whereto the history of the world had brought him would be nothing perilous were it not for the hostility of the Indians and the Negroes. But it was their exploitation by the English colonists that had rendered them hostile; that is to say, by a people to whom the accidents of history had given the advantage–Ebenezer did not doubt that his captors, if circumstances were reversed, would do just what the English were doing. To that extent, then, that historical movements are expressions of the will of the people engaged in them, Ebenezer was a just object for his captors’ wrath, for he belonged […] to the class of the exploiters; as an educated gentleman of the western world he had shared in the fruits of his culture’s power and must therefore share what guilt that power incurred. Nor was this the end of his responsibility: for if it was the accidents of power and position that made the difference between exploiters and exploited, and not some mysterious specialization of each group’s spirit, then it was as “human” for the white man to enslave and dispossess as it was “human” for the black and red to slaughter on the basis of color alone; the savage who would put him to the torch anon was no less his brother than was the trader who had once enslaved the savage.

(Wise words from 1960. Don’t praise Barth too much though. Those very same natives are played as stereotypes and often the target of sexual gags.)

The writing is very good. Very, very good. I hope the samples I’ve pasted above illustrates this. It’s hard to read a small-print 800 page novel that isn’t pleasant to read or has a gripping plot and The Sot-Weed Factor nails the former and surprisingly flirts with the latter. Due to the holiday break, I’m only writing this now, nearly a month after I completed it, but the feel of the language, of being immersed within it is still clear and brings a grin to my face to briefly re-live it.

American Tabloid by James Ellroy

I nearly put this book down after the first few pages. The writing was snappy, stylish, quick. It also pulls no punches and the first chapters reveal a cast of protagonists engaged in brutal violence, seemingly amoral, openly racist, antisemitic, misogynist, you name it.

Ellroy is eager and emphatic to prove his opening sentence, his great thrust:

America was never innocent.

Our heroes, shake down men and corrupt cops and FBI agents on the fast track to losing their conscience, are either terrible people or on their way to becoming so. Murder, torture, corruption. Five hundred pages of it. It’s alleviated somewhat by the fact that these guys aren’t even the worst the country has to offer — the mob and the US government, often-hand-in-loving-hand, are worse. Never innocent.

This book is like six hundred pages. You can’t really do six hundred pages of complete revulsion. Well. I can’t anyway. So what happens? You reach a point, this sort of nadir of disgust, and then you float past it. Embrace it, maybe. America was built on corpses, worshiped corrupt heroes like the coward-womanizer John Kennedy, was in bed with organized crime while endlessly persecuting innocents, so who gives a shit? Stop hating Pete and instead cheer on his massacres. Microwave into the bathtub, alright, great. Burn it to the fucking ground.

It’s hard to say if this is some kind of catharsis or an absolution of responsibility w/r/t the American present. I don’t know.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

man in the high castleI expected a book about the aftermath of a history where the Allies lost World War 2. While that is the setting of the book, what I actually got was many pages about running an antique business in mid-century San Francisco. And many more pages of characters pondering their daily reading of the I Ching

At first, I was intrigued. People getting by in Japanese occupied SF (many of the streets mentioned surround my workplace!) It felt like a good play-on-expectations for anyone expecting a book about Nazi America. Then I realized that’s all the book is. In other contexts, this could be fine. But I didn’t care one whit about these characters. The book makes a point to paint them all as horrendous racists, Japanese or German or colonized American. Though the first and last didn’t set up murder camps. Or kill everyone in Africa. Yes, in this history the Nazis unleashed some bio-experiment that killed everyone in Africa. Also, slavery was re-instituted in America, a point that is given maybe a paragraph of recognition. While having point of view characters on every side, it’s borderline unconscionable that there is no black character with a voice in the novel. It single handedly robs the novel of the moral authority it attempts to wield.

There’s plenty of high-concept philosophical mumbling, but it’s unconvincing and comes to nothing. You have one character going on about Nazi ideology and wishing they were gods, several enmeshed in the I Ching and Yin & Yang and maybe this is supposed to tie back to the idea of history and how we fit in it. Maybe history doesn’t matter and embracing how feeble and weak we are and potentially governed by the esoteric will of a several thousand year old book is the answer. The fact of the matter is that this is less a plotted novel and more Philip K. Dick’s endorsement of eastern mysticism. You have a man yearning to be part of a harmonious cosmos, one that obviates human agency as a meaningful factor. Embrace the wu.

(so long as you’re not African)

This was one of those books that I didn’t dislike while reading, but found myself waiting, waiting, waiting for it come together; for the narrative and thematic threads to come together and form something. A tangible plot. A philosophy or politic of interest. I was disappointed. There’s hints of something better, but they’re half baked or cast off by novel’s close. 

The Last Defender of Camelot by Roger Zelazny

Last_defender_of_camelotJust look at that cover.

Written in the 60s and 70s, wreathed in a halo of cigarette smoke, amidst the fallout of an assured nuclear war, this collection of stories embodies an era. An era where a man could make a living writing dozens of short stories a year — filling plentiful sci-fi/fantasy magazines to the point where he needed pen names to allow multiple stories in the same issue.

Roger Zelazny’s stories follow a peculiar cosmology. Humanity is almost always extinct, or else we’re on our way to being so. Typically there are now robots or some kind of AI machines trying to emulate, understand, or ritualize the acts of the long dead humans. Even so far as racing stock cars or turning into vampire bots. Take away the radioactivity and craters, and everything else about the post apocalyptic wasteland he evisions matches up with modern sci-fi writers post-climate change future. No nuclear warheads necessary like they were in the 60s.

Many of the stories are very short, though there are three longer novellas in the middle. The first and longest one, He Who Shapes, is unfortunately a super weak sci-fi noir tale. It’s the only story where the casual misogyny of the time and genre was really distasteful (to me). The second novella, the tale of former ex-con biker literally named ‘Hell’ as he tries to drive a rocket-launcher armed, spinning blade equipped armored car across a post apocalyptic US from the nation of California to the country of Boston, is so completely silly and ridiculous it somehow turns out compelling. The last, For a Breath I Tarry, a story of sentient machines trying to recover the memory of man in a frozen over future earth is by far the best. Unlike most modern writers, Zelazny can write a story that is quite clearly allegory or metaphor in a straightforward manner that embraces its own internal story consistency without feeling the need to wink or gesture at the reader ro point out how clever and/or deep he is being.

Zelzany’s prose is better than most genre writers, and indeed he has a little intro at the start of the book where he says an integral piece of him becoming a good writer was to stop insulting the reader’s intelligence. The sparse prose that often references classical verse becomes jarring and kind of hilarious/fun when a very silly sci fi trope suddenly bounds on to the page. It’s fascinating how the original sci-fi grandmasters all cite their inspiration as the literary greats — when I see modern genre writers list their influences, it’s typically just past genre writers.