Underworld by Don DeLillo

It starts with a baseball game and spans a half century.

Here’s an interesting book in that it’s 850 pages and almost entirely plotless. Not so much a narrative as a collection of vignettes, usually following a collection of interrelated characters but not always. Indeed, these self contained stories about say, the Texas Highway Killer or the neurosis of lonely Sister Edgar are typically more interesting than the story of protagonist Nick Shay himself.

Early in the book, we learn that Nick, now in his fifties, had an affair when he was seventeen with a woman who is now seventy. At this point, I wondered what happened. This teenager and late twenties woman. 750 pages later, when this part of the backstory is actually revealed, I was nonplussed. I wanted to ask DeLillo why he suddenly thought this was a book that necessitated reveals, or backstory.  

It’s not. It’s little pieces of history, orphaned but inextricably linked, beautifully written. This is key. You can’t write this many words lacking the traditional hooks of a long novel without being a pretty amazing writer. DeLillo is surely that. His dialog is snappy and entertaining. His grasp on location and specific eras of time allow him to skip across the country and 20th century, immersing the reader in specific periods without bogging them down in detail. Even when he’s exploring an honestly lazy metaphor, he does so with such skill, you admire it anyway.

Consider the opening chapter, which is the most lovingly crafted description of a baseball game I’ve ever read. In 1951, the Giants shocked the Dodgers to win the pennant with Bobby Thompson’s walk-off homerun. DeLillo records this in keen, nostalgic detail: the player’s emotions, the crowd, the flu-stricken voice of the announcer, the kid sneaking into the stadium to catch a glance of history. I’m not much of a baseball fan anymore, but I cannot forget the communal and familial excitement of the game evokes. Red Sox games humming through the static of my grandfather’s radio is the background noise of my childhood. DeLillo channels that kind of nostalgia throughout his 60+ page description of the game, executing it perfectly. 

It’s very interesting to me what parts of literature persist is some timeless space, eternally relevant, and what ages and feels old. The baseball game, The Shot Heard Round the World, is the former. So long as baseball exists, it will resonate. But a major portion of the novel is dedicated to Cold War paranoia and The Bomb. It’s a pre-9/11 world, the cover eerily picturing a smoky black-and-white World Trade Center. Our paranoias are different now. Sneakier, less bombastic. I found it hard to truly dive into the constant paranoia and nuclear waste metaphors. Felt a bit like a relic. Academic somehow. Not that Cold War media can’t remain relevant — it’s hard to think that Dr. Strangelove, stylistic and shocking as it is, won’t ever not be striking — but DeLillo’s version surely lost something with time.

Underworld is a book wherein the individual parts are less than their sum. Or maybe they just outshine their sum. The sum or whole is irrelevant! Not the ideal situation for a massive novel, but still, I greatly enjoyed my time with it.

The Familiar Volume 4: Hades by Mark Z. Danielewski

famililar4This far in, my reviews will become much more specific. Previous entries: One Rainy Day in May, Into the Forest, Honeysuckle and Pain.

I’m starting to get worried here. The series has gone from front and center in the new section of Green Apple Books to requiring a kind of sojourn where I have to ask multiple people and look all over for the latest episode. “Looks like there is no review copies this time”, says the clerk. I fear for the series reaching 25 or whatever.

Which is a shame, because Volume 4 is excellent. It finally, finally, begins to get over the issue I had taken in the past few volumes: Too slow. Characters treading water. Hades drives the characters together, develops plot and mystery. Even Shnork, our most aimless character, coughing and driving his cab around for 3 volumes, receives the character development he sorely needed.

Nearly every chapter has some relationship to the greater plot. Anwar is still job hunting, but this thread now takes him down shadowy corporate wormholes. Most of the characters have now converged on LA. Ozgur meets half the rest of the cast, previously isolated. It’s all tense and well connected. Though not flawless. Erstwhile and supremely creepy hitman Isandorno spends most of the book with a mysterious woman, whose identity is heavily hinted at (and it’s intriguing), and then spends his last chapter doing nothing.

Indeed, there’s still quite a bit of teasing — we leave one character with a warehouse full of guns and an idea of what they’re going to do with them. Actually now that I think of it, there’s two characters with cliffhangers involving separate gun mysteries. But with the next volume referred to as the “Season 1 finale”, this feels appropriate, and I’m seriously looking forward to this fall.

The series has flirted with horror and continues to do so. Danielewski achieved notoriety through House of Leaves, of course, and his grasp on spatial horror remains sharp. Xanther’s little sisters are plagued by nightmares (surely the kitten is to blame…), and in one scene, one of them is crying and pointing at a corner, repeating “There is a ladder in the floor.” Instant chills.

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald

rings-of-saturnW. G. Sebald takes a walk around southeast England and ponders the inescapable decay of the world. Whether caused by humans, like Belgium ravaging the Congo, or through force of nature, as shown by a medieval town gradually eroding and falling into the sea, or weird fixtures of economics, like yet another defunct English town going down the drain after the fishing industry collapsed. Sebald draws a melancholy line through them all.

I love a good book of essays, and while that is not what I expected to find here, that’s what it is. Essays in the true Montaigne-made sense: examining singular topics to give greater insight into humanity as a whole. Rembrandt’s paintings. Portions of Chinese history I never knew of. A biography of Joseph Konrad or a continued adoration of Thomas Browne. Sebald finds trivial reasons to link these and many other topics to his wandering, and dives in it detail, then flutters to a separate topic, going through a nested set of essays several deep, before we return back to England.

In The Happiness Myth, Jennifer Michael Hecht notes that an awe and respect for death is one of the lesser known aspects of achieving happiness. While I wouldn’t be thrilled watching my home or local three hundred year old cathedral plummet into the sea, reading about those unfortunate souls who did, immersing myself in the knowledge that all things must decay, perish, crumble, yes, just like the planetary wreckage that became the real rings of Saturn, eventually leads me to a place of calm serenity. 

The same can’t be said for man-made catastrophe. The sheer amount of people slain by greed and madness in the Congo is incomprehensible. Literally worked to death. Lost to history. That just leads me to despair.

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out.out

Out.

Out.

It’s what our protagonists — four women working the nightshift at a boxed lunch factory — seek most. Not an escape from the extraordinary circumstances they eventually find themselves in, but the merciless daily grind. No money. Dependent relatives. Depression. Shit jobs. An oppressive and sexist society that prescribes its worse roles for women.

So when one of the women strangles her abusive husband, the other three casually agree to help almost without thinking. It either takes them out of the funk they’re mired in or provides the means they desperately need to get out.

This book is rough. Desperation is its most common tenor, enhanced greatly by the sticky August air and the constant black-circled exhaustion of the late night factory shift. Few of the characters are particularly likeable and while the protagonists generally don’t “deserve” the things that happen to them, they certainly did their share in putting themselves in bad positions. Not that there was much choice. Sexual violence is an undercurrent running throughout. Nearly all the men have some kind of vice or perversion that stalks them almost like a demon, always seeking to wrest control.

While ostensibly a crime novel, horror is the genre that fits best. A creeping horror that turns descriptions of grocery store aisles into nightmares.

Pink slices of ham. Red shoulder of beef shot through with whitish sinews. Pale pink pork. Fine-grained ground beef, red, pink, and white. Dark red chicken gizzards outlined in yellowish fat.

The novel’s great weakness is that the ending is miserable nonsense. It is balanced on attaining some sort of empathy with an absolutely monstrous antagonist. You know when you see a villain proclaim to hero “You’re exactly like me/we’re the same/whatever”, and about 95% of the time this is completey ridiculous and they’re either nothing alike or they’re superficially similar but the villain has done dramatically worse things? Yeah, that. Except worse given the way the sexual violence and acceptance of it undermines much of the main text beforehand.

SPQR by Mary Beard

spqrRome. Oft cited as the foundation of western society, and thus a topic of perennial interest. From direct rhetorical links between Cicero and modern speakers (Barrack Obama for example), to the not-exactly tenuous link between gladiators and American football, to our conceptions of liberty and democracy. We return to them again and again in all kinds of fiction.

Beard picks apart the empire’s mythical beginnings, rising and falling Republic, and dictatorial ascension. Romulus and Remus were certainly made up, but what about the old Roman kings? How did the Senate start? In chronological order, SPQR attempts to answer these questions and plenty more.

Given our current political and social times, there’s Roman arguments that feel particularly relevant. One quote from a Roman orator declaiming all the non-Romans suddenly flooding the city easily matches the hateful rhetoric that xenophobic leaders the world round are currently spewing. I bookmarked this quote but then lost the book on an airplane which is the only reason I don’t type it out here. The question of who should be Roman and should not was a question that went on and on for hundreds of years, never truly resolved. 

Beard cautions against drawing too many similarities. She cites the prevalence of slavery at the time or their horrendously inaccurate view on medicine. I’d barely agree with Beard even there, as we still have such institutionalized levels of power, if not quite to the point of ownership.

Another point that Beard nails home is that we spend so much time pondering the personalities of Rome’s emperors, their sadism, excess, philosophy, bloody deaths. Yet, how much did that actually affect the regular people of the empire? Maybe not much at all. The problem is we know so much less about the non-wealthy of ancient times — they had less so they left much less behind. As a result, even with Beard’s digging we still don’t know much about them, other than some fascinating tidbits about bar culture apartment setup.

I enjoyed the book. It put things into a linear perspective I did not yet have, with all my knowledge of ancient Rome being a hodgepodge of history books and popular fiction. But I have to admit, at the same time, I’m just not sure why this book is so celebrated and great. It was a fairly straightforward account with some fascinating points. That’s it! I’m glad I read it but far from blown away.

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.

Dreamland by Sam Quinones

dreamlandHeroin like pizza and pills like candy.

This fascinating piece of long-form journalism details the simultaneous rise of heroin-dealing entrepreneurs from Mexico’s west coast and the gross spread of misinformation and corporate greed that led to doctors massively over prescribing oxycontin in the United States.

The scale of this problem, heroin/pill addiction, can’t be overstated. Largely white areas of the country have astounding levels of addiction and overdose death, well beyond deaths caused by car accidents. It can be easy to avoid if you live in a large city, but out in the suburbs and rural regions, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t know someone addicted to heroin. I traveled to Michigan for work last month and there were commercials and billboards everywhere about treatment. Unlike a bunch of other drugs, a heroin addict needs their fix everyday, or they risk crippling withdrawal symptoms. This combined with the cheap potency of the drug make overdose a constant reality.

Quinones outlines two major triggers for this:

  1. Until some time in the 80s, prescribing opiates, the fruit of the poppy seed (along with heroin) was anathema. Doctors and other medical professionals were concerned with the very real risks of addiction. Slowly, as ‘patient-centric’ care became more of a focus and pain-management became an important aspect of medicine, this stance was relaxed, particularly for those with terminal illnesses (where addiction is less of an issue anyway, for obvious reasons).

The problem arose when a confluence of factors led to the completely baseless notion that somehow opiates were actually not addictive. Purdue, the manufacturer of oxycontin jumped on an oft-misinterpreted editorial claiming only 1% of patients have a risk for addiction from opiates and marshalled their enormous sales and marketing engine to drill that number into the heads of all the doctors they showered with gifts. (This was before the laws of the early 2000s put a stop to the worst marketing practices of pharmaceutical companies.)

Somewhat predictable result: Unprecedented numbers of people are suddenly addicted to painkillers.

2. Heroin, like all hard drugs, used to have the perception of something you’d need to brave a dangerous ghetto to acquire. Maybe you’ll get shot. Dealers from the small village of Xalisco changed this business completely. By cheaply farming poppy in their native mountains, they carried it over the border and sold it from their cars, using customer-friendly marketing techniques not unfamilar to US corporations: an easily accessible phone number that triggered door-to-door service (Uber for heroin), manned by savvy and eager young men who would offer discounts or drill down on those who seemed ready to quit.

Put these two together and now you’ve got patients addicted to oxycontin who easily make the switch to heroin because it’s cheaper to buy than oxy (or no one will prescribe it to them anymore).

It’s a ghastly business.

While a stunning tale, the book does have its problems. Namely, it’s extremely repetitive. Quinones repeats the same point many, many times. Sometimes in very similar language. I understand he spent five years of his life on this and wants to insert everything he learned but many chapters are retreads of another. Still, it was a startling and detailed read that I’d highly recommend.

City of Bohane by Kevin Barry

cityofbohaneThe taint that emanates from the Bohane River seeps into the spirits of everyone in the city sprawled around it. Life is short & cheap, in the most Hobbesian sense. Filthy and crass. Children engage in their violent careers around the same age they do in A Clockwork Orange. Amidst the morass, aging gang-boss Logan Hartnett, the Longfella, fields challenges from all sides — vanquished foes resurfacing from twenty years past, disloyal lieutenants looking for a change of leadership, rival gangs getting uppity.

The plot is fun, but its centerpiece of “A patriarch wanes and a successor must arise” is not the sort full of twists, turns, and surprises. The characters aren’t flat or forgettable, but neither are they outstanding or memorable. It’s the style, the tone, the vernacular that shines. I can’t say this enough. Style, style, style. Even the flashy style of clothes the characters are wearing is a consistent aside in near every chapter.

Ol’ Boy wore:

High-top boots expensively clicker’d with gold taps, a pair of hip-hugging jodhpur-style pants in a faded mauve tone, an amount of gold chains, a heavy mink coat to keep out the worst of the hardwind’s assaults and a goatskin beanie hat set pavee-style at the crown of his head.

Truth of it — this was as suave an old dude as you’d come across in the whole of the Bohane creation.

“An amount of gold chains”. I love it.

But it left me in a weird spot. As I enjoyed this dazzling, clever language while it described the brooding, tactile city of Bohane, I found myself comparatively caring very little for the individual characters inhabiting it and the plots/wiles/etc they tangled each other in. When main characters started dropping, I was more like “Hm, OK, I see.” rather than expressing dismay, satisfaction, whatever.

Normally, this would be the sign of a bad or at least mediocre book, but City of Bohane is neither. It’s quite good. Just a bit empty.

Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar

hopscotchThere’s books you can’t put down, there’s books you can’t wait to put down, and then there’s books you sort of muddle and meander through unsure if you’re actually enjoying it or not.

Hopscotch, of course, is the latter.

Of the disaffected-intellectual in mid-century Paris genre, Horacio Oliveira is dicking around the city wondering over the nature of reality and carrying on a love affair with the Uruguayan, La Maga. Circumstances conspire to take La Maga away from Horacio, forcing him to confront how much his high-minded philosophy and personal elitism really mattered when compared to base body needs: love, human touch, etc.

The whole gimmick of the book is in the name: Hopscotch. You’re supposed to read until chapter 56, then restart at seventy-something and go in a 1-2-1-1-2 order back and forth through both the chapters you’ve already read and the new expendable chapters of 56+. I think the promise of this intriguing experimental quirk is what really got me going through all of the first 56 chapters, even as I started to flag and enjoy the book less and less. But once I actually reached that point, I discovered the hopscotch trick was actually pretty uninspired and uninteresting — not nearly worth reading through the whole book again. It’s the same damn book with some musings and vignettes sprinkled between them. 

The writing itself ranges from insightful to borderline incomprehensible. There’s many passages in french, many references to I’m not even sure what. It’s only loosely moored to any sort of narrative consistency. Oliveira is an asshole, as are most of the people he encounters. At times, I’d be midway through a dense, interminable paragraph and look back at the past few pages and wonder what percent of them I truly understood, and what simply floated by. There’s a certain charm to the first, Parisian portion of the book that makes all of this work. Sort of. Plus, there’s La Maga. If trying the hopscotch method of reading showed me anything, it’s that the early book is way better. Once La Maga leaves and we’re anchored completely to Oliveira, it takes a gradual turn for the worse.

I’m sitting here reading back over this review and finding it as banal and boring as the book itself. Not an intentional feat. Hopscotch just didn’t elicit much of a reaction. If the rest of my life wasn’t so busy during Oct-Nov, I probably would have just put it down. This! This is me too bored to write anything interesting.

Lilith’s Brood (Xenogenesis trilogy) by Octavia Butler

liliths-broodThere’s a peculiar quality in media produced during the Cold War, especially the late five-minutes-to-midnight era. Not just the fear and hopelessness — that’s present in plenty of time periods and cultures. Instead, it’s the near-certainty that humanity had reached its apotheosis. That mutual self destruction was indeed assured. This is the end of the road. 

So when, prior to the events of Lilith’s Brood, the US and USSR have blown each other apart and the rest of the world is succumbing to the after effects, it’s no surprise. It’s a simple inevitability. But it’s what follows that I find truly peculiar to the time.

An alien ship approaches Earth, scooping up any surviving humans it can find. These aliens, the Oankali, spend generations seeking out new life to integrate with and mate/merge genetically. Starting with our heroine, Lilith, they plan to train squads of humans to return to a primitive earth and produce children with them. Any humans who refuse this offer are either permanently locked in stasis (to be experimented on) or allowed to return to Earth, but sterile. No more true humans are to be made.

Why? Science! Genetics! The Oankali are so fine-tuned at examining genes that they’ve concluded that humans are genetically inclined to eventually blow themselves up. It is the conflict of both intelligence and hierarchical behavior in all of us. Destruction is inevitable. This isn’t an alien conceit either — the narrative never challenges it. In the world of Lilith’s Brood, genes are everything, including the extinction of the species. Even when book 2 flirts with the notion that humans could have a future separate from the Oankali, that future too would eventually be doomed.

Sitting from the vantage of 2016, where we’ve averred mutual destruction thus far and managed to survive the catastrophic world-breaking powers we gained in the 20th century, the moral center of the book is off-kilter and never truly believable. Not that humans can’t be prone to violence. Certainly we see that is still a world-spanning problem every day. But basic behavior being purely guided by genes? Not just violence but gender roles, sexual assault, etc. The behaviors Butler takes for granted as genetic truths is what we would deride as biotruths today. In other words: mistaking cultural habits for genetic ones.

This whole set of notions is more of an attraction than a repellent. Butler is a great writer. Her prose is crisp and leads to a comfortable story flow. The Oankali are a wonderfully realized and believable set of head-tentacled, three gendered aliens. It’s science fiction that exists without the shackles of genre trappings. If it feels dated, well, it is 30 years old.

That is, until book 3 anyway. If you’re reading this series for the first time, I’d suggest skipping it entirely. The first book is the aftermath of destruction. The second is the rebuilding. The third is a smaller, first person alien story lacking any of the greater human conflict. It’s very repetitive, repeating many of the same alien biotrait stories we’ve read before. My opinion, not supported by the narrative voice in any way, is that the Oankali really are just galactic parasites. That their promise of human-oankali hybrids was a lie, because we can see from a first person perspective that their children are simply Oankali with a slight human veneer.

As you can see, even when describing what I dislike, it’s within the context of the story, rather than “the writing was bad” or “the plot didn’t make sense”. It definitely sucks you in.