The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

executionerssongIt’s true. There really is nothing like it.

Eleven hundred pages of narrative journalism. Gary Gilmore is released from prison, tries to re-integrate while being a nuisance to friends and families, falls in love with Nicole Barrett, murders two innocent people for no reason, is put on trial and convicted, given the death penalty, refuses to appeal, is executed. In detail both scintillating and banal.

Unlike In Cold Blood, this is not a book trying to understand why Gilmore did the things he did. He spent half his life in prison and was trouble since he was a child. Truth be told, he was a huge asshole. Selfish and racist and manipulative, often under the guise of eloquent and grandiose language. Indeed, his spiel about why he never appealed his death sentence — because he was responsibly accepting his punishment as determined by the people — was a complete farce. He just didn’t want to live out the rest of his life in prison.

Generally the defenses of capital punishment — punishment, deterrence, removing a future threat — are kind of bullshit. But the last might have actually applied to Gary. If he got out, no one would be surprised if he hurt anyone again. Also, the typical criticism of capital punishment: that the state does not have the right to kill anyone, while still true and certainly disturbing when reading of the attorney general and co. scrambling into a rickety plane in the middle of the night to sprint through the Denver circuit court to avoid a stay of execution, does lose a bit of steam when the defendant actually does not want to die.

Yet, willing or no, sociopathic asshole or no, it’s hard to describe the execution as anything other than utterly wrong. On something almost like a primordial level, before you even get to moral. Killing another human, regardless of justification, is just psychologically damaging. The body rebels. Even the people who fought for the execution, or the men who voluntarily carried it out, either felt it was wrong afterwards or had to continously convince themselves they did the right thing. It was only the conservative Utah public, far from the body and blood and gunshots, that could approve with great moral righteousness and zero qualms. Despite a cynical and hobbesian notion of human nature that many subscribe to, we are simply not well-equipped for close-quarters human-to-human violence. It only becomes easy through distance and dissonance.

Don’t get me wrong though. This is not an opinion actively espoused by Mailer. The narrative is trying very hard (successfully) to be as impartial as possible. It’s a major strength of the book. No where is this more clear than in characterization of Nicole Baker. Teen mother neglecting her children, sleeping with pretty much anybody, messed up priorities, and firmly entrenched in the web of Gary Gilmore. There’s many ways this could go wrong. But Mailer’s clinical prose, striving to make the voice as close as possible to the real Nicole, slots the reader firmly into her state of mind. Makes it possible to understand how she was sucked into Gary’s web.

The book does have one clear weakness. After Gary is convicted, several TV producers fall on the scene trying to buy up the rights to all the prominent character’s stories. Chief among them is Larry Schiller. While it’s interesting, both the parasitic nature of the media and internal conflicts between money and morality layered therein, there is way, way too much Larry. One hundred pages too many. At least. The only point I would say The Executioner’s Song bored me was when it strayed too far from Gary and Nicole and the rest.

Great stuff.

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The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

golden-notebookTedious but interesting.

Anna, a writer of a one-time bestseller, keeps several notebooks — a journal, a novel, reflections on youth, etc — to maintain her sanity in a world in active opposition to her ideals. The book blurb and title would have you believe she combines all these into a golden notebook, however that only occurs in the final fifty or so pages of this seven hundred page book, which gives you a good idea as to how it’s paced.

Some classics resonate with time. Others are diminished by it. You can guess which I think The Golden Notebook is. In one of the prefaces, Doris Lessing notes that when the novel was first published, protagonist Anna was viewed as extremely “macho”. It’s just about impossible to get that impression nowadays so the effect is lost. Indeed, while heralded as a staple of literary feminism, and touching on misogynist elements of society that persist today, that portion of the novel feels out of touch with modernity. Largely because of how extremely passive Anna is. We recognize her situation sucks, but it’s hard to say exactly why she continues to sleep with these awful married men.

And feminism isn’t really the focus anyhow. The bulk of the book is a growing disillusionment of the English communist party in the 50s, as the Soviet dream fell apart and peoples across Europe came to know how terrible Stalin was. While it’s an interesting counterpoint to cold war America, since it was actually possible to openly be a communist without being blacklisted or imprisoned,  the text here is  highly specific and lengthy for a utopian mentality that barely exists* anymore. It didn’t feel necessary to read I guess I’m saying.

I finished it. Despite TEDIOUS being my prime descriptor. The characterization of Anna and the content did keep me going. I doubt I ever need to return to it.

*Yeah, yeah, there’s plenty of Marxists still around, but the specific ideal English communists treasured and its razor sharp focus on the Soviet Union is not the same thing.

The Recognitions by William Gaddis

the recognitions“–Reading it? Christ no, what do you think I am? I just been having trouble sleeping, so my analyst told me to get a book and count the letters, so I just went in and asked them for the thickest book in the place and they sold me this damned thing, he muttered looking at the book with intimate dislike. –I’m up to a hundred and thirty-six thousand three hundred and something and I haven’t even made fifty pages yet. Where’s your pants?”

This book is big. Simply noting it has 956 pages & tiny print does not do justice to the physical presence of the damn thing. It’s of a size you think twice about before packing in your bag for a hike. The size where you have to develop strategies of how you plan to read it on the bus when you can’t find a seat (answer: arm behind the spine with your fingers looped over the top, cradling it against your body like an infant). On top of this is the inaccessibility of the text itself — endless allusions to flemish painters, mithraic cults, obscure martyrs, not to mention the multitude of untranslated french, latin, spanish, german and more. 

The Recognitions in a nutshell: the final fate of the closest thing it has to a protagonist, Wyatt Gwyon, is entirely in latin.

The Recognitions is described as a book about art forgery. Nominally, it is, I guess. But if you asked me to describe it, which several people did after seeing me lug it around for a month, I’d tell you it was a book about vacuous art posers having amusing conversations in bars and parties in 1950s New York City, with occasional jaunts in Paris, Madrid, and Mount Lamentation, Connecticut. Also, the soulless zeitgeist and deadened spirit of our modern times and corrupt civilization.

Gaddis is among several other angry men of the 50s, declaring our society dead, slain by consumerism. You might call it phony, like everything from paintings to twenty dollar bills to novels to music that are made counterfeit over the course of this epic. The things is — all the terrible and occasionally correct things these guys were pissed off about happened. While we’ve eased up on some things Gaddis mentions like marketing drugs to children, we’re even more bombarded by constant marketing, consumer messaging, products products products. We’re living William Gaddis’ dread future. But, somehow, we survived. Art survived. Idyllic yearning for the past is now suspect. The whole thing feels passe. It’s almost self-congratulatory to be nodding your head along with Gaddis at this point. Like you just discovered Catcher in the Rye for the first time and found it found it shockingly new and illuminating.

Gaddis is especially angry though. He writes his characters to skewer them. We’re invited along to listen to them spout all these lines that the narrative voice pretty much loathes, follow them from one disappointment to the next, until Gaddis has virtually all of them try to kill themselves! This isn’t bleak, it’s caricature. I found myself wishing to grasp Gaddis by the shoulders, which I imagined slight and fleshless like Wyatt’s, and shake him while demanding “Then what is good, William??” Dedicated monastic life? Passionate flemish painters? Some sort of obscure and not entirely nailed down historic ideal that was probably bullshit in the first place?

The thing is, the reason I actually read this whole screed is that Gaddis manages to sell his hateful pessimism in an entertaining way. His dialogue is absolutely masterful — it’s a collection of unattributed lines separated by hyphens ‘–’. It strives to give the reader the impression they’re overhearing several different conversations at once and it works perfectly. Possibly the best application of unattributed dialogue I’ve ever read. He actually courts the vagaries of human speech — interruptions, repetition, filler sounds and words, the type of thing that generally isn’t readable — and it rolls right off the mental tongue.

This is all well and good, but what really drives this home is that Gaddis is funny. Even when he’s being an insufferable asshole, breaking the fourth wall by introducing a bestselling novelist just to mock him, he’s drawing laughs. Black humor abounds. He rivals Joseph Heller and David Foster Wallace in being able to sustain a single conversation for tens of pages at a time that is both deeply engrossing and hilarious. Indeed, the book is at its worst when it abandons the humor and tends towards solemnity, mercifully a rare occasion.

Still, I hoped for more. This guy supposedly influenced several of my favorite authors afterall. But Wallace and Heller and DeLillo and Pynchon are all fueled by something other than crotchety malice and doomsaying. I don’t think a story has to be hopeful. Not at all. But The Recognitions is just kicking you in the face with the message that society is corrupt and art is dead forever over and over and over. It’s gleeful almost. 

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

crimson petalVictorian England. Plucky orphans getting by on the strength of their wits. Wealthy old men who just need to be taught a good lesson. Top hats and crinoline. Grinning chimney sweeps and slapdash policemen.

Right??

No. More like a brutal clash between the have and have-nots, wealthy hypocrites celebrating poverty and paying lip service to charity on holidays. Brutal oppression of women. Poor children forced into backbreaking labor. Cheap life, rich industry.

We follow Sugar, a nineteen year old woman and professional whore, forced into the sex industry at thirteen by her nihilistic mother. Sugar is determined to increase her lot in life and not spend it all on the streets, where she’s as like to succumb to disease as be strangled by a customer.

On comes William Rackham to the scene, heir to a booming perfume business. He’s Sugar’s salvation, and also one of those most hateable characters in all literature. William isn’t terrible because he drowns puppies or murders innocents. He’s not Jack the Ripper. Instead, he’s a spineless, self pitying coward, who abuses his wealth and privilege to the great detriment of everyone around him, while constantly self-justifying and also whining about everything. Watch him make excuses for himself while his whims deliver terrible consequences to those that depend on him. After traipsing around town trying to find the exact prostitute to sate his depravity, William comes upon Sugar. So entranced is he that he decides he must have her entirely for himself. That’s the plot of this enormous, dense novel.

It’s a good old fashioned epic. London is wonderfully realized, enchanting in its own grimy, bustling way. The witty, omniscient narrator is entertaining and delivers fashion lessons on the changing dress of the era, progressively more revealing and sexy to counter the more conservative societal outlook on language and politesse, and keeps it interesting. The cast is engaging and their philosophical quandaries compel. William’s brother Henry is another main character and a religious man tormented by the contrast between his faith and the London clergy versus the poverty in the streets. Faber is clearly interested in preachers in conflict, as it’s a major theme in his excellent The Book of Strange New Things too. I sometimes characterize books as “I can read them forever” or “I have to stop after a few chapters, because it’s too dense/harrowing/difficult/meandering.” Crimson Petal is clearly the former and I had long, multi-hour sittings where I did nothing but read.

Did it have to be 900 pages? Eh, not really. It’s quite good, but also extremely slow and repetitive at times. The story will seem to muck around for 50-80 pages and then suddenly accelerate and major turning points are covered in a few pages. I don’t begrudge it much, though. My bigger gripe is that the novel begins with an omniscient narrator speaking to the reader, establishing a metaphor that the book is a whore for you to use, and desirous to make you feel dirty for purchasing it and expecting a thrilling romp through Victorian London and not the filth the novel opens to. It’s great. The narrator pops in and out at times and the conceit is that the reader is following around the main characters at a safe distance. He makes jokes. But, bafflingly, the voice of the narrator almost entirely disappears in the final 35% of the book. And, partially due to that, the first three acts are superior to the last two. I was tapping my foot towards the end, ready for it to be over, but was still sad when I finally did finish and knew I was leaving these characters behind.

The majority of the characters, and almost all of the sympathetic ones are women. This book buries the axe in male privilege and the subtext implies that much of what William Rachman is capable of is not constrained to one hundred and fifty years ago, but persists today. He’s infuriating. Sugar is writing a novel about a literary facsimile of herself that lurks around London, torturing the hapless men who casually purchase women’s bodies for pocket change. The first line is “All men are the same.” The tone of the novel is often humorous but it delves seriously into the lives of its prostitute characters and examines what their life may have been, instead of using them as a set piece or for titulation, like media generally does.

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

nakedsingularityI just finished this novel a few minutes ago. Damn. It’s been awhile since I read a book so completely absorbing.

Casi is a young, all-star defense attorney in New York City. The plot, insofar as there is one, is Casi’s detachment with the system and seduction by the perfect crime, which he plans with some characters who begin to trigger suspicions of a very Fight Club-type twist. But the plot is totally secondary to the thematic weight of this dense novel. It’s a book of musings, of internal investigation of self. Primarily, this is a book of conversations. People talking to each other. The author talking to the reader. Casi talking to judge and jury.

They’re not the types of conversations that real people have, but the kind of big picture what-is-life type discussions that use vocabulary that even the most over-educated real people don’t regularly use. Characters jabber back and forth in 1-5 word phrases, in almost slapstick comedy fashion of mispronounced words and misunderstandings, and then launch into a several page soliloquy on the meaning of life, law, justice, existence, life after death, the universe. I’m not positive what makes this work, but I’d hazard it takes a specific kind of immensely witty & intelligent writer who understands deeply the way human conversations function and flow.  

A Naked Singularity owes an extremely heavy debt to David Foster Wallace. Most remarkably is not just how unbelievably in love with Infinite Jest this book is, but how often De La Pava succeeds at what DFW succeeded at. Many writers have tried and almost all have failed. It’s actually uncanny how similar they seem at times. There’s a sequence where Casi overhears two men having a conversation at a diner about how shitty they are to women that is the exact set-up as the stories in Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Wallace isn’t the only major influence, Delillo is as well. And it wouldn’t be a good law-room novel if it did not hearken to Kafka’s The Trial.

Indeed, A Naked Singularity is at its best when it’s in the courtroom or its environs (prisons, law offices, etc). There’s a real moral force behind Casi as he tries to represent people society has collectively discarded. A plot line later on delves into the baffling cruelty of the death penalty and it pierces, both Casi and the reader. When the book is focusing on family or media absorption (there’s a cadre of roommates obsessed with Television and philosophizing on entertainment), it’s not quite as good. In fact, I think De La Pava cheats a little bit here: The novel ostensibly takes place in modern day but the technology isn’t quite right — everyone is obsessed with Television and news stations and the internet, etc doesn’t quite exist. Events that would surely occur online or tasks people would fulfill with smartphones (which no one has) just… don’t. Even though the internet is occasionally mentioned. This was written in 2012, (not 1996 like Infinite Jest!). So yeah, De La Pava’s notes on television are cogent and interesting but it’s trodden ground and I wonder why he didn’t take on the same kind of issues with modern tech. 

De La Pava also deploys employs another DFW staple (or I guess to go further back, a Miguel De Cervantes staple): characters telling stories to each other that become as engrossing as the main narrative itself. One of Casi’s clients opts to become a criminal informant and launches into a thirty page long story of how he came into the drug trade. It’s completely absorbing — I experienced an almost physical jolt when he finished the tale and the book returned to the main narrative thread. Similarly, boxing is to A Naked Singularity as tennis is to Infinite Jest. At several points in the book, Casi purposely abandons his conscious thoughts and relates the story of boxer Wilfred Benitez, in scintillating detail. It’s a thread that runs the entire length of this lengthy book and it’s completely absorbing, like just about everything else written here.

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee (part II)

This is the second half of my review of Annals of the Former World. You should read the first part here.

annals

Wrapping up Rising from the Plains, McPhee explores the concept of ‘hot spots’. If you look at a geological map of the Pacific Ocean, you can see a chain of islands, underwater, extending from Hawaii most of the way to Asia. This is because there is an intense thrust of heat somewhere deep in the earth’s mantle — Hawaii, the Yellowstone Mountains, and portions of the Caribbean among others did not rise via plate Tectonics, but through these hot spots. The underwater islands are portions of Hawaii from the distant past. Eventually Kauai, northmost and oldest of the islands, will sink and new islands will arise southeast of Big Island and the chain will continue.

A hotspot lay under Yellowstone that conceivably traveled all the way under the US and fired Bermuda into the Atlantic.

 

Assembling California

For an extremely large percentage of the history of the world, there was no California. […] I don’t mean to suggest that California was underwater and has since come up. I mean to say that of the varied terranes and physiographic provinces that we now call California nothing whatever was there. The continent ended far to the east. Where California has come to be, there was only blue sea reaching down some miles to ocean-crustal rock.

This is a geological history of California, the newest segment of the United States. It’s also a story of settlers moving west, the doom of the Donner party, and especially the gold rush and the 49ers, a history of humanity directly triggering geologic events in a mad destructive frenzy to unearth more gold. It’s an excellent mix of history and science. As he wrote these books, McPhee learned better how to fluidly entwine the two. Like the Nevada books, my understanding was greatly enhanced by reading of areas I’ve lived/visited. It’s easy to image the miners shearing through the Sierras with high-powered hoses when you’ve actually driven by the pits they left behind.

McPhee travels with Eldridge Moores, a professor with an unlikely childhood in a tiny Arizona mining town, throughout the mountains of the Sierra Nevada and down through the central valley and over to the coastal ranges abutting San Francisco north and south. They do not remain state-side and revisit Moores’ old areas of study — Macedonia and Cyprus. Assembling California has a scope beyond the previous books, even while focusing on one state. The newness of California is fascinating and allows us to imagine how many other areas of the earth appeared in their infancy.

The book ends with a stirring present-tense account of what happened during the northern-California earthquake of 1989 (generally tied to San Francisco, it did greater damage nearer to its epicenter a couple hours south). Freeways collapsed on top of eachother, bridges swayed and lurched (the upper portion of the Bay Bridge smashed through the lower), skyscrapers jumped, bicyclists were thrown somersaulting through the air… it’s amazing only eighty-ish people died amidst such awesome destruction. The lesson here is that despite human and geologic time existing on such vastly different scales, they are still one and the same, occurring simultaneously.

 

Crossing the Craton

The last volume of this mammoth is much shorter and written considerably later than the others. It could only exist later because it relies on recent (for 1999) technologies that allow geologists much greater insight into the interior of the US — from Nebraska though Illinois (A.K.A. The Craton). For much of the history of science, the stable center of North America was considered to have been there, unchanged, since the fiery creation of the earth. Recent finds show that the craton came together like everywhere else: plates grinding and slamming into eachother with land aboard, little archipelagos and islands getting crunched together to form larger masses, ocean floor sliding under other ocean floor to melt and push up mountains. There’s mountains buried in Kansas, far below any human capacity to drill. Gravity surveys and isotopic dating allow us to see below.

This path pushes geology beyond the realm of rocks into astronomy and biology. It allows us to envision a world before plant life. It causes us to face the stunning truth that plenty of our modern rocks are reinforced or made of the fossilized shells of ancient vertebrates. It also gives us a vision of the early earth — extremely hot and withstanding the constant pummeling of meteors. Those same rocks are still there… somewhere. The oldest rocks any humans have discovered are around 4 billion years old, approaching the age of the earth.


This book was very long. I mostly enjoyed it. I worried throughout that I was not retaining enough. Indeed, a great fraction of this text passed through my brain and skiied beyond into the great blue yonder. Yet while camping this Memorial Day weekend, in northern California beside a river cutting into a mountain valley, leaping from water-eroded rocks that looked like ancient volcanic debris, laying down a towel upon pulverized rock and tracing the track of the river, I felt a geologic sense, an interest and understanding I owe to reading Annals of the Former World. It was only while writing this paragraph that I thought to look and confirm that the river I was staying on — The Eel river — was created by the San Andreas fault, which I was reading about while lounging on its shores.

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee (Part 1)

annals“The world which we inhabit is composed of materials not of the earth which was the immediate predecessor of the present but of the earth which. . .had preceded the land that was above the surface of the sea while our present land was yet beneath the water of the ocean. Here are three distinct successive periods of existence, and each of these is, in our measurement of time, a thing of indefinite duration. . .the result, therefore, of this physical inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”
– James Hutton, 1726-1797

I like to think of the world in other eras. The alien sweep of Pangaea. The frigid silence of glaciers blanketing the earth. Dinosaurs trudging through the the mud. Deserts that were swamps, mountains that were oceans. The incomprehensibility of deep time and the eons where no life stirred on earth. Or the sheer cataclysm of the great extinctions that wiped out most of cambrian life and later, the dinosaurs and their ilk. It evokes a sense of crushing awe. There’s a comfort in human insignificance, a giddiness to the unbelievably small time we’ve existed in earth’s history.

And, as John McPhee elucidates in this behemoth, there’s a poetry in geology absent in other sciences, save perhaps astrology. Metaphor is absolutely required.

Annals of the Former World is not just one book — it’s a collection of five books. Each book selects a different part of the US to focus on, generally tied to Interstate-80. I’m only about halfway through. I plan to expound upon the first two and a half books and write of the remainder at a later date.

 

Basin and Range

Basin and Range takes place in Nevada — the contiguous mountain ranges and intermediate basins that make up most of the state. At one point, western Nevada was the coastline of America, and it’s the prime suspect for where the country will tear in half in the distant future, first creating a facsimile of the Red Sea and later becoming an ocean in its own right. This is the future of the Red Sea and the past of the Atlantic Ocean, which began as a rent between conjoined North America and Africa.

McPhee’s journey takes him along I-80 through towns like Battle Mountain and Lovelock and Winnemucca. I’ve driven this road myself, from San Francisco to Salt Lake City, and it was fascinating to see the history, both human and geological, detailed for this region, which I mostly found to be dusty towns whose primary feature was impoverishment. Having a real-life experience of the land is extremely helpful, but even then I can typically only grasp the macro-level of the geology that McPhee is describing. The book is written for any audience and the history, the big picture descriptions of past and future oceans and mountains, the basins and ranges thrust up and down throughout the earth are clear. The smaller scale descriptions of sandstone and quartz and which era they came from are a bit muddy for me. I can start glazing over when there is too much discussion of the finer points of sediment deposits.

In between descriptions of the journey, the text is peppered with history lessons on how geology grew as a science — the great revolutions of geologists rejecting the notion of biblical time (4-6 thousand year old earth) and the Great Flood, which people took as outright fact through much of western history. Later, the theory of plate tectonics. Or the many missteps in between. In addition, McPhee works as a biographer to the geologists he invites on his journeys. Basin and Range features a man named Deffeyes, who is characterized a bit like an obsessed mad scientist, with poofy hair protruding from the sides of his hat. Deffeyes is outfitted with a deep understanding of the actual basin and range and a plan to strike rich by excavating old silver mines that birthed small towns in Nevada and later ruined them when the silver ran out… but only for their 18-19th century technology, not for today’s.

 

In Suspect Terrain

The subsequent book is significantly weaker, at least from the perspective that I value. It takes place in Pennsylvania and parts of New York or New Jersey — states I’ve spent very little time in and thus areas that I can’t visualize from my own memories. There’s a lot of minutia and not a lot of history. McPhee’s companion for this portion of the trip just isn’t as interesting or eccentric as the ones in the preceding or following texts. Her big thing is that she is a skeptic — the theory of plate tectonics revolutionized the science, but geologists start using it as the answer to everything, which clearly cannot be the case.

I’ll be honest and say I’ve already forgotten large swathes of In Suspect Terrain.

 

Rising from the Plains

I am only halfway through book three and it’s already my favorite thus far. It chronicles Wyoming, a place I’ve never visited but would like to. The Rocky Mountains used to be submerged in earth (sand, dirt, mud, rock), and before that they were at the bottom of the sea. There’s marine life buried in the rock, as well as tiny jaws and teeth to three toed horses, the first tiny predecessors to our modern day mounts. McPhee builds on the descriptive prose of the first two books and I can follow the lay of the land and its intricacies with far greater acuity. Or maybe I just got better at reading.

Interspersed with the geology is the history of a family. McPhee’s companion for this trip is David Love. His mother was a Wellesley graduate who became a school teacher in distant Wyoming in 1905, still the wild west, with students who had to travel sixty miles through devastating cold to reach the schoolhouse. She was an excellent writer and her captivating journals are excerpted throughout. Her husband and David’s father was a Wyoming cowboy, who spend at least one seven year stretch sleeping without a roof over his head, and was a miraculously successful homesteader in turn-of-the-century Wyoming, a land which is very cold much of year, reaches fifty below zero in winter, and has winds so powerful and unrelenting that houses with closed doors and windows fill with snow through cracks in the walls and keyholes.

The local and family history and how it entwines with the geology is masterful and I look forward to charging onward, both through millions of years of geological time and the infant history of inhospitable Wyoming.

 

If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.

Part II continues here.

Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko

almanacThere was not, and there never had been, a legal government by Europeans anywhere in the Americas. Not by any definition, not even by the Europeans’ own definitions and laws. Because no legal government could be established on stolen land. Because stolen land never had clear title.

Leslie Marmon Silko is pissed. Five hundred years of outrage. The colonization of the Americas goes beyond mere colonialism into the whites’ insatiable thirst for more and more resources, clawing the earth apart in search of more riches to deplete. The spirits are pissed too. At the destructive whites and at the native people who do not honor them*. Ten thousands years of Native American ancestors ready to unleash their sorrow and anguish in terms of droughts, tsunamis, hurricanes, you name it.

Which brings me to the plot. There’s a war coming. The details are hazy, and its many tellings are varied and contradictory, but the thrust of all prophecies is clear: at some undetermined point in the future, all the white people in the Americas will be swept away and its native peoples will reclaim the land.

Note: The book is like 800 pages and the war never happens.

This is a story of vignettes, of interlocking stories and characters. A coked out young mother searching for her child, twin Indian sisters (one a talk show personality who can find missing people, but only if they are dead; the other subtly declaring war on the US government in part by stockpiling an enormous amount of guns), an old, contemplative border smuggler gone soft, a mobster with a cadre of assassins and his real estate tycoon wife building water-strewn Venice in Arizona, a Native man refusing his past and obsessed with bulletproof vests, another man kicked out of his tribal lands after inadvertently allowing a Hollywood crew to film his peoples’ sacred stone snake…

The story of a character will unfold, we’ll get in their head and see their story, and then after a few sub-chapters, the story will swap to a different character the first one knew, then afterwards, another character that that character knew, and so on, deeper and deeper until the chain starts again. All lives are entwined, mostly in Tucson, Arizona and south of the border, but the story crisscrosses all over the US. They are marginalized peoples. Mexican and Native Americans. Black power vets looking to South African independence as guidance. The white people have some outsider qualities — brain damaged as a youth or a Vietnam war vet or a woman…

The characters are largely reprehensible, but some are much worse than others and the book slides into dangerous group-identity territory with its cadre of women-hating, gay sadists. (The only vaguely emphatic gay character kills himself.) There’s detailed descriptions of snuff films, of bestiality, of child abuse. With the length of the novel, this can get a little tiring; you’ll probably feel a little worn out. The extreme weight of all these terrible people gets heavy, maybe backbreaking for some.

I eat these kind of books up, when the characters are written well and engaging; everything from Game of Thrones to Catch 22. I love a fat, complex, multifaceted story. At times, Almanac reminds me of narratives like Pulp Fiction or Infinite Jest, but being written in 1991, it predates both. The style reminds me of Joan Didion. Not just because one of the main characters is a Californian white woman, with abortion in her past and lost child drama in her present, spinning out of control. Sentences are typically short and complete. There is repetition. Angles will change mid paragraph. It’s smooth and palatable and difficult content aside, it’s easy to get lost in.

 

*”The spirits allow you no rest. The spirits say die fighting the invaders or die drunk.”

Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes

terranostraThis book is physically daunting. It’s big. Dense. Heavy. Flipping to a random page reveals a tightly woven blanket of text, tightly packed and in small type. The prose is occasionally impenetrable. It took me a month to finish. Its themes are no less than Time and History and Religion.

Terra Nostra follows an alternate history of Spain’s past, with King Philip II (El Senor, Don Felipe!) married to Queen Elizabeth. Sick of war and government, El Senor has dedicated his life to raising a necropolis to the dead where he plans to shut himself away from the world while slowly awaiting death and unity with God. His plan is stymied by a trio of identical youths, born with crosses imprinted on their backs and six toes on each foot. In this version of history, it is one of these youths who discovers the New World and the entire middle section of the book (separated into The Old World, The New World, and The Next World) is his journey and immersion in the myths and religion of the Aztecs.

Along the way we meet Don Quixote, Don Juan, view a literal transcript of the first page of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis written and stuffed into a bottle by this universe’s Cervantes analogue. We also hang out in ancient Rome with Tiberius in a scene reminiscent of the Pilate scenes of The Master and Margarita, and no doubt countless literary references I am forgetting or missed. The power of books and the written word — the past conversing with the future — comes up frequently. El Senor only believes what is written, not spoken.

The cast is a cadre of terrible, awful people. Murderers intent on genocide, rapists, oppressors of chaotic nature. The way Fuentes handles women is questionable even in this supra-cruel world peopled by the worst of scoundrels. And the way he handles the sole little person is downright deplorable. There is a lot of sex. The sex is weird. Sex with animals, sex with skeletons, sex with god-beings, sex without jaws, sex with the supernaturally elderly, sex with a Frankenstein-like conglomeration of corpse pieces… or did she not actually have sex with that last one but just fantasize about it? The very last scene refuses to disappoint this trend and the reader concludes the book amid bizarre, transformative, cosmic lovemaking.

As I mentioned, Time is the central theme of the novel. In Fuentes vision, time is not linear. Everything happening — El Senor building his necropolis, the pillaging of the New World, the apocalypse of 1999 (haha), Emperor Tiberius being a sadistic prick, The Crucifixion, the creation of the world in Aztec mythology — is happening at the same time. Will happened, but has happened, is happening. Multiple universes of slightly different results occurring in tandem. One scholarly character hypothesizes it’s impossible to become a full and integrated personality until you’ve lived several lives in several times and possible worlds.

There’s a question that runs through the book: if someone could live life over again, would they change the actions they took, the decisions they made? The negative outlook of the novel announces a resounding No. The New World is still raped and pillaged, destroyed and oppressed even though Don Felipe had a chance to alter it. The Spanish Inquisition is just as terrible. In the Year 2000, things have become even worse. In an effort to reduce overpopulation, countries have turned to depopulating measures that match a ‘national character’ — Mexico brings back the blood sacrifices of the Aztecs, France very rationally kills someone for every someone born. It’s a little silly and very dated. Overpopulation may have been a giant, apocalyptic concern in 1975 when the book was written, but I feel like we’ve moved beyond it as a serious fear in 2014. I hope in 2055, global warming based dystopia is a similarly laughable and outdated sci-fi future trope.

Finishing this book I feel like I am climbing, bleary eyed, out of a cave. No, not a cave, a pit. A dank and endless cylinder with stairs spiraling to its interminable depths. I’m crawling out of the mind of Carlos Fuentes and the depravity of Don Felipe and friends. The tone of the book, its self absorbed characters, its physical weight — these are the things that will stay with me, more than any triumph of theme or historic analysis. I liked it, but I’m not even sure I’d recommend it. It’s incredibly overwritten and longer than it should be. I am quite certain several sentences honestly do not mean anything and are complete word-salad nonsense. Yet I am also certain that it will stay with me, long, long after I’ve placed it back on the shelf.

Update from the middle of a Latin American Opus

I haven’t updated in a while and it is not because I am dead or not reading books (synonymous states). Instead, I am reading Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes — a 1000 page monstrosity that is possibly the most dense book I have ever read.

Seriously, look at this shit:

costaThat is a totally average page. There’s plenty with no paragraph breaks at all and nary a period. Comma Comma Comma. If anyone ever complains Infinite Jest or a Pynchon novel is inaccessible I ought to throw this book at them. But not literally as that would be dangerous.

It’s pretty good though.

As I am still a good 3-400 pages from completion and forgetting what writing a review is even like, I will write on some of the excellent movies I have seen in the past week in the next few days.