I’ll keep this one relatively brief, since I’d rather you spend the next minute of your life enjoying what’s behind door number one, either by clicking on the big type-laden image or this link right here. (There is sound, so if you’re supposed to be working on a spreadsheet or something, you might want to drop your volume a notch before clicking.) Yes, it is a Flash animation, which means neither you nor David Lynch can watch it on your iPhone. I apologize for that and I promise you I feel dirty over it. (If you have experience with getting Flash animations into a format suitable for upload to YouTube, please let me know–I’m pretty sure it involves rocket science, and rather than getting distracted by trying to become a rocket scientist, I’d rather buy you a six pack for pointing me in the right direction.) In any case, it’s a kinetic type animation, and it has nothing to do with books, despite the by-now-quite-tangential Henry Darger connection. It is the result of a project from the advanced vector design class I took over the summer, this being about one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve put my efforts into in some time, and, well, here it is. Let me know if you like it. And then, go buy a Vivian Girls album, so they don’t sue me for borrowing their song. (The album this song is from is called Everything Goes Wrong and it kicks all sorts of ass; I’m pretty sure I sold about three or four copies during the course of the class for which this video was made. I might suggest I’ve listened to this song perhaps even more than the band itself has listened to this song and I still love it. Strong endorsement.)
For the last two weeks, over lunch, I’ve been reading Imperial by William Vollmann. I’d actually started reading the book earlier this year, getting about 50 pages into it as part of a plan to read about 50 pages per week until I was done, before I promptly forgot the book existed after I had to move it off the coffee table and onto a high shelf, the quality of the hard cover being of a sort that my cat, it would seem, liked, at least enough to gnaw on, quite randomly, this being the sort of behavior that could not surprise me but which still took me off guard; he’d never eaten any of my other books. From time to time in the months that followed I’d notice the book, up there, near the ceiling, as I ran from one other priority to some other other priority, never thinking to actually take it back down during the slow moments to make good on the promises I’d made to myself when I’d first bought it, which is to say, to actually read enough of it before the paperback came out to warrant spending the cost of the hardcover (purchased either on sale or with a coupon or something I’m certain but still a fair dollar or two more than I’d be likely pay for a used video game, which, naturally, would provide far more immediate, gratuitous per-dollar-per-hour enjoyment than reading a chaotically long essay about immigration and irrigation in southern California) (and if there is a paperback version to come, which one would like to assume there will be, it has not shown up yet, at least, not according to my cursory glance at product listings on the Web). It was only a couple weeks ago that I finally took it back down and loaded it into my bag and took it with me to the day job, where it’s been sitting on my desk since, like some comforting dog, ready to attract the notice of neighbors, only to nip at their fingers when they go in for a pet behind the ears. Except, this book does not, in fact, despite its bulldog size, bite: it is, so far, I am willing to say, after 140 pages of semi-attentive, semi-distracted, sandwich-sauce-on-my-fingers, e-mail-buzzing-behind-my-head reading, about as compulsively readable a work by Vollmann I’ve yet to pick up and give an even semi-serious attempt at wading through—this is a book with so much love to give, can it help it if it puts its paws up on your shoulders, leans in deep, and slobbers all over your face? The sentences—that lovely fundamental unit of writing which, from book to book, paragraph to paragraph, Vollmann has (kindly) juggled with and (less-kindly) struggled with—are crisp, and have things to say, things to tell you, and never for a second lose sight of that fact; even if he goes long, even if he goes florid, it’s with intent to tell you something, to communicate facts and emotions to you, the reader, crushed under their weight of fur and bones. Yes, emotion: this may be a history, this may be a study, but it is an altogether, so far, a story, a human one, in which humans are creatures who do things that mean things to them—be it crossing a border, be it protecting a border, be it farming a land, be it sailing a river of shit, be it being in love, be it being out of love, be it writing a book. This is a book that for that reason is enjoyable to read, engaging, compelling; lunch time reading can be a trick, with everything waiting at the other end of the half-hour one might allot oneself if one is willing to feel like a bit of a slacker, and a book that does not compel can be an easy book to shove back in the bag in favor of answering a query or doing something else of value to somebody else. But Imperial, ah, Imperial—I want to remain in your embrace. Through the fatigue, despite the distraction, I will remain past the day’s goal of ten for an eleventh page. Or twelfth. Or another.
But okay, no, for serious: Stoner, by John Williams, is a great book, and is one of the best reading experiences I’ve had this year, or even in the last several years. In part because of context: I was working on my next book review when I read this one, and I’d read that book once, the review title book, and that one did things to me that I could not entirely define for myself yet, and so I knew I’d need to read it again, but I didn’t want to read it again immediately–I needed to step away from it, for a moment, the way you might step away from a mirror only to return to it later to find yourself familiar in some surprising way, like deja vu refracted through a glass of thick water. And that review title does a whole bunch of complex things in intriguing ways, and for whatever reason, I picked up Stoner off the perpetually one-foot-tall TBR pile, and, I mean, it’s cliche to say you can’t stop reading a book, but, like love, it’s so damn real and completely not cliche when you’re actually in it, all the more so since I hadn’t been in that specific place in a while, it seemed like–I mean, I’d read some other good books earlier this year, but usually in a, well, this is great, but I can also go rack up some trophies on the PlayStation, too, and have a good time tonight as well, right? Not so, with Stoner. I spent my days at work looking forward to going home so I could read more of it. This book reminded me that I had forgotten slightly just what the fig leaf a good book is supposed to do: strip away your modesty, leave you emotionally naked before it, make you need it. It is a book that makes you become a person. And this from a book that from its opening paragraph seems like it’s got jack-all to do or go toward–I mean, it lays out the fact in the opening paragraph that the title character lives a life and then he dies and it didn’t much matter to anybody except maybe to him. Which is pretty much a huge bummer but, what, now I have to read a couple hundred more pages about this fellow? No. Please. But! The thing is, the opening paragraph is a feint, or perhaps a huge lie; because, yes, spoiler alert, you are reading about the life of a guy who will, by the end of the book, die, except, in the time you spend with him, in the time you spend reading Williams’s perfectly reasonable, perfectly paced, perfectly rhythmic, perfectly unostentatious prose, he, Stoner, comes to mean a little more to you than most strangers ever will. At least, so it seemed to go for me. And it’s sad but it’s so strong. If I was the crying sort, I probably would have, around the time I finished. But I did not cry, and I set it down, and I returned to the book about which I was due to write a review, and I felt recharged, and refreshed, and ready to take this world of literature on again, one book at a time. My craving was reborn.
And so, tell me, please, because I would like to know: what book has done that for you?
Stoner by John Williams is a great book. Please consider this a heartfelt, enthusiastic recommendation; please consider reading the book.
Books! I’ve read a few this year. So far. I’m not expecting much in the way of surprise between now and the end of the year, though–seems like it’s all sort of mapped out. Like, there’s this guy, you may have heard of him, Jonathan Franzen? Yeah, he’s got a new novel coming out in a week. I’m looking forward to reading it. I don’t care that the entire internet is already tired of hearing about Jonathan Franzen and the fact that he has a new book coming out. I’m still looking forward to reading it. Marketing: it works! Or it does not work! Either way! And there are some other things I’ve got roughly slated out, seems like; there’s a book I’m reading now, which I’m going to be writing a review of for a place other than here for later this year. (I’ve got another review slated to come out in about a month for a place other than here, which I’m really looking to seeing hit the streets, and for the book to hit the streets, because I want other people to read the book, and then I want them to read my review, and then I want them to either whole-heartedly agree with me, or violently disagree with me, such that discussion of a civil or uncivil nature may occur. It is a book that after reading it twice and writing a review of it I am still struggling with my feelings and opinions about it, and more so than many books I read, I want not to feel like I am in a cultural vacuum of my own making with this one. So.) (Also, yes, no, I do not talk about the books I am doing reviews of, while I am doing the reviews of them, or before the reviews come out; I do this in part out of a vague sense of professionalism, a vague sense that if I’ve got a word to say about the book I really ought to save it for the review, a vague sense that if I start talking a book up outside a review I will curse the existence of the review which the book is intended for me to prompt–for vague reasons, in short, but reasons none the less, all of which is unfortunate in that it makes it seem like a book’s got to be targeted for me to write about it anywhere but here for it to get any play from me, which would be fine, if I was writing reviews full time, which I am not, nor do I see myself doing so any time in the near future, or even a less near future, so. It’s a thing. A situation. A sitch.) (And yes, I do mostly realize my blog-post writing style of late (or of ever) sort of makes me look like a jerk–people don’t read, Darby, you jerk!–but that is okay because something has to remind me that there is more to life than succinct customer-focused messaging. Ahem.) (Oh, but yeah, like I was saying up there, you know that since I don’t talk about books I’m reviewing outside of the context of the review before the release of the review, that the fact that I’m even almost writing about a book before a review I’m writing about it has been released means that I am positively bursting at the seams to talk about it and see it talked about. I want more for this book from me. Whatever that more may be.) (Whatever that more ever may be.) And there’s a new Rick Moody book out? Which is a science fiction future satire or something? Whatever, sign me up. And I’ve got a stack on the coffee table which seems to perpetually remain at the same height however many books I take off of it. Which isn’t that many, lately, what with school, and school, and work, and life, and other projects, and things, but still, I know I do read books, I see the small pile of books I’ve finished, but, like, the “to be read sooner than other books that are also very much to be read” stack seems stuck, like some tower made of hands? That are playing that sandwich game? You know the one? So like, I take one medium size book off, and then Francine Prose writes a glowing review of some books by Hans Keilson, and then there’s two more smaller books back up on the pile? It’s a rough calculus. And, I mean, Summer of Dostoevsky ’06, right? Gonna wrap that one up any day now? Am I? Am I. Point being, there’s no sense in me not starting to wrap up the year now by finally getting around to talking about the books I’ve read over the course of the year. It’s future-leaning retrospective. Yes. Books. I’ve read a few of them this year. And a few of them, I’d like to talk to you about them. If I may.
Issue number 13 of The Collagist is up. As Matt Bell notes in his Letter From the Editor, it’s the one-year anniversary issue. Which makes it all the more exciting to be a part of it; in this issue, you’ll find my review of Drowning Tucson by Aaron Michael Morales. Here’s how it begins:
Fill your book with blatant, modern-day classic, critical thematic concerns and a reviewer ought to have no problem calling them out in an easily digested bullet-point format. So we have Drowning Tucson by Aaron Michael Morales, in which, yes, race, sex, class. Gotcha revenge and mercy. Hello violence and suffering. Welcome to the party pedophilia, prostitution, human worth and dignity. All the above are on display here, ready to be picked apart and analyzed in essays and articles about narrative success and structures and interests. I ought to be able to phone this review in while mowing the lawn next to the airport.
Except, this book hurt. And trying to find a way to talk about that without merely repeating over and over again that this book hurt presents a far greater challenge.
This was a tough book to write about, because my reaction was so strong. Hopefully that all comes through in a more clear way in the review itself. Many thanks to Matt Bell for helping push this one in the right direction in some key spots. I’m curious to see how others react to this book.
Also in this issue of The Collagist, you’ll find a review by Gabriel Blackwell of Termite Parade by Joshua Mohr. I wrote about Termite Parade on this blog, and previously reviewed Some Things That Meant the World to Me for The Collagist, and I’m excited to see Mohr continues to get good coverage (which I’ve been seeing a lot of lately for Termite Parade).
My interest in visual communication as a thing that people do for/to/with other people is, in the context of my life to date, a new one, one I did not see coming until maybe two years ago; partially schooled, partially felt, fundamentally stumbled into, it’s the sort of thing that, whatever genius or drudgery might actually going on behind my eyeballs, were I to open up my keyboard fingers and start blogging about it full-time, or even at a rate one might say begins to vaguely approach part-time, I suspect I’d probably at worst make a total ass out of myself and at best sound at least inoffensive even while feeling mostly like a total poser in the background the whole time. A little gained-relatively-late-in-life working knowledge of grid systems does not make for Steven Heller mark II, and I’m not entirely sure how well my 101 level art history papers from college would hold up in the cold light of shmermumbleteen years later. That sense of total-poser-feeling-ness would apply doubly to most any discussion of graphic novels, comics being something I did not grow up on, the way I suspect, rightly or wrongly, most adult-aged graphic novel/comic book people did. There was a stretch of years there in gradeschool during which I faithfully read the funny pages every morning–except of course for the boring ones for adults that used a lot more black ink and in which the people all looked like actual real grown-up human beings–and I had a couple Transformers comic books that never got me too far–as, if I remember correctly, I was gifted a set of issues one through three in a series of four, four being an issue I never found or, in those days before the Internet, had any clue how to find–but I was never sparked to make a hobby out of collecting comics or learning the back stories of comic figures the way one might collect, say, baseball cards with the hope of striking it rich by getting that mint-condition rookie card that would some day net one a million bucks. And while my interest in literature has both deepened and thinned over the last decade, and my interest in graphic design and art (because I am young enough and naive yet to suggest there’s no discernible difference between the two, even while I know well that saying such things in the wrong company would be much like tossing a lit grenade into a dynamite factory) and the creation (whether personally or by others) of both has grown steadily over the last few years, the graphic novel, the comic book, that creature that one could safely suggest might in some way be the absolute marriage of the two (or three) realms, has lagged somewhere back with my interests in breeding sea monkeys. If you put the things in front of me, sure, I’ll stir up the waters a bit, as I’ve done with a couple graphic novels along the way, here; Asterios Polyp for one, Black Hole for another–but I’m not exactly going out of my way to make friends at this party.
That said: holy shit, you guys, David Mack.
I discovered his work today via a post on Imprint (a designer community group blog I think is going to turn out to be worth following in the long run) about comic artists relating their work to graphic design (read as: their work is graphic design), which itself is an interesting post, but, whatever, enough about that for now, I’m over here being totally gobsmacked by Mack’s work, what I see of it on his website at least. (It’s only the stack of books on my coffee table that’s temporarily preventing me from creating a stack of books on my coffee table.) Stunning stuff, particularly the works which use some mix of watercolor-y wash work and collage-like elements. Stuff like that Death print I linked to up before (want! want!) and this and this and this and…you get the idea. Want.
I admit I was probably doomed to be a bit partial to this sort of thing; since being introduced to the actual practice of design via, of all things, watercolor paint, I’ve held a certain special yearning for the brilliant colors and translucent stains they make so good on, and my girlfriend’s interest in collage, along with a trip through found object art in a 3-d design course, have all rubbed off on me to good effect. I think. (If one considered “feelings of crippling guilt when disposing of good clean cardboard” to be a good effect.) And while I know there’s more to his work than these elements there’s enough there to draw me in and get me looking at what else is going on there: shifting styles, new approaches. I’m not even touching the idea of story telling yet: I guess, I don’t know, actually, but I guess there’s story telling happening here. I’m not even looking at the words on these pages yet, other than, as, yes, there are words, integrated into the spreads; they’re of the work, intrinsic to it, but I’m not actually looking at the story they tell yet, much the way I’ve managed to scarcely heed a single word of the lyrical content of a single song I’ve heard in the last twenty years though I wouldn’t give up my favorite vocalists for the world. So for all I know the stories totally suck, who knows, but I know as much that looking at these well-constructed pages, built up each in interesting, dynamic ways, makes me want to keep looking, longer than is perhaps necessary or healthy; and that tells me I’ve learned a thing or two along the way here about what design is and does.
All that said: I’m still feeling pretty poser-like, and I have to imagine Mack’s work isn’t the only work of it’s kind out there. If anybody would care to educate me on other designers-as-comic-artists/graphic-artsits-as-designed, please, the comments are open, and my eyes are yours to fill.
First up, the short version, from the perspective of someone who, after having written most of the original review before reading what anybody else wrote about the book, has gone back and read some of what other people have said, and has found himself wondering if he’s either entirely daft, or somehow really off the mark on this one
Back in 2005, which in Internet terms is like saying back when your grandparents’ grandparents were little tiny babies and we all used dial-up modems and we liked it, I had kind things to say about How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer, and I said them here and here. Today, it’s 2010, which in Internet terms is like saying newspapers are dead and we’re all livetweeting our own grandchildren’s college graduations from our flying cars, and many people have extremely kind things to say about Julie Orringer’s debut novel, The Invisible Bridge, as can be seen here, and here, and here. And here, and (to a slightly lesser extent) here, and (to a greater extent) here. Without having read every word written on the book, I sense it would not be off the mark to suggest the book as received near-universal praise from all who have reviewed it.
Which is good, and fine, because it is a strong book, and I also have kind things to say about it. But I also have unkind things to say about it, because, what may or may not have been said is that book is severely over-written. I mean, it’s a good book, overall, and I liked it, overall, and if you were into Underwater you’re going to read Bridge or have already read Bridge and nothing I say is going to convince you not to read Bridge, not that I’d want to. There’s a lot of good words in that book. But there’s also too many words in it. And it’s hard not to wonder whether the book would be the actual masterpiece that many want it to be, if only there was significantly less of it in its final form.
And then, the more vaguely review-like version, kept largely intact in its original form, aside from occasional edits, and a little bit of aside-action
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer is a good novel that suffers from being over-written. I suppose that how much it suffers depends on how one reads the book. Take your time with it, fall into it, read it when you want to, like a long Sunday drive through the country, and I imagine the extra words will feel less burdensome. Try to snap through the book on dollops of budgeted time, though, and it starts to be a bit of a drag.
The problem is that this is a long book that doesn’t entirely earn its length, getting there less through interesting content (of which, it is true, there is a surfeit—there’s true art hiding inside this under-carved sculpture) and more through repetitive, over-explanative text. It’s not a matter of preferring telling to showing; Orringer does both more than her story requires. By the book’s end, it’s hard not to imagine whether or not it might have been a masterpiece if only it had been a couple hundred pages shorter.
To be clear, I want to unabashedly like the book. (Anybody who liked How to Breathe Underwater, Orringer’s 2003 story collection, will. And we are legion!) And the book does offer much to like: the story is solid, ambitiously rendered and sincerely told, with a lovely arc, interesting characters and situations, an intriguing perspective on frequently trodden historical events, and abundant, well-researched historical detail. There’s an engaging, breathing world here, despite the stylistic choices, despite whatever setting-related baggage any reader might understandably bring to the table. That word “sincerely” is a carefully selected one. In our ironic, snarky, post-post-modern, selfish, cynical, let’s-be-frank less-than-reason-oriented era, the pure, straight-forward story telling on display here is to be lauded and encouraged. Even while calling for some concession to our fractured attention spans.
It’s a little weird, reading this, well after having written it originally; I think I was really upset by this book, by what I wanted this book to do, and it’s like, I kind of lashed out a little bit here, and I came off as seeming somehow much more harsh that I maybe intended to? Yet in retrospect I don’t regret what I said and I stick to my original reaction to the book, because I remember reading it, and I remember how I felt when I was reading it: I remember like I felt like this so-and-so book was never going to end. Even though I liked it! Or at least, even though I knew I was reading a good book. Did it feel a bit medicinal? A bit like having a prescription that you know you’re going to need to take daily for the rest of your life just to survive? A little. A little something like that.
And I mean I guess I hope it will become more clear by the end of the review why I felt that way, because I mean, it’s weird, that I would call a book too long, right? Some of my best friends are long books. I remember liking so much of Against the Day, which is probably as absurdly long a book as there is, and Pynchon is nothing if not an over-writer? And David Foster Wallace? And so on? But these other books are ones I would happily re-read even today, where as by the time I finished Bridge, I knew I was done with it and I didn’t want to go back. (Which, obviously, makes reviewing a book hard, in that, typically, normally, I would love to actually read a book twice through, once straight through, once as the review is shaping, but, here, with this one? No way.)
In a sense I’m glad the review for this book fell through, that the place it was going to be posted went fwoop, that this has become a little off-the-grid post on a blog I honestly have little idea how many people have followed through to from its previous incarnation, because having come off that Lethem review I did last year, I certainly didn’t want or intend for my next review to be another negative one, all the conversation around negative reviews aside. Like, it’s just too early in my so-called book reviewer career to become mister negativity, and plus it’s no fun to hate on things you wanted so bad to like, as a reader foremost before being a reviewer? Basically, there was a lot more gross feeling around this book than I cared to experience, which I think I’m only now beginning to try to truly purge with the posting of this post.
The book opens in Budapest in 1937 at the Royal Hungarian Opera House. Here, we meet Andras Lévi, a young Jewish man from “Konyár, a tiny village in the eastern flatlands” on “the night before he left for Paris on the Western Europe Express” to attend the École Spéciale d’Architecture. In Budapest, he sees the opera with his brother, Tibor. There,
…their seats were at the top of the house. Not for them the three marble-arched doorwards, the façade with its Corinthian columns and heroic entablature. Theirs was a humble side entrance with a red-faced ticket taker, a floor of scuffed wood, walls plastered with crumbling opera posters.
…introducing, in one fell swoop, thematic drivers of much of the rest of the novel: class structures and conflicts, the world of art and the world outside of art, experience and inexperience, the world that could be or should be and the world that is and could never be. In meeting Andras himself, we’re meeting the character on whose generally even-tempered, fundamentally likable shoulders the story will be carried for about ninety-nine percent of the remaining pages, as he finds love, hangs on to it by a regularly fraying thread, and suffers, a lot. (Spoiler alert: World War II happens.)
In focusing outwards on the next eight years of European history from Andras’s perspective, Orringer makes an admirable, even bold choice. Meeting the two brothers, the way we do, one could not be blamed if one expected some point-of-view switching to happen, by chapter or by section. (I did.) But we mostly stick by his side, occasionally breaking away to witness stretches of historical happenings or character back stories.
Of the enemble cast that drifts in and out of Andras’s life, Claire Morgenstern provides some of the most mysterious and heartbreaking back story. Ballet instructor, fellow Hungarian, Andras’s eventual lover, known to us in time as Klara, a woman with “a quiet, astonishing beauty—fine bones, a mouth like a smooth pink-skinned fruit, large intelligent gray eyes,” her history is slowly revealed during her lengthy courtship with Andras, which itself contributes to much of the length of the opening half of the novel, as they experience the tension of an entire continent arising around themselves. While their love story can be hit or miss, depending on one’s tolerance of and/or engagement with the ga-ga faces lovers make at each other and the drama they create for each other, it does, along with the time Andras spends not sleeping at school—honestly, I think he sleeps about four total hours in the course of two years—provide the necessary ground within which the far darker latter half the book takes root.
And it’s in that second half that the novel…well, doesn’t precisely take off, so much as switch dramatic gears, casting the open half in a shifted light. There’s plenty of dramatic tension in this world of unforseeable outcomes, between individual characters and the circumstances they are folded up into. The veil of identity characters drape over their lives is held to the light, its thinness revealed. Pretty much everybody, whatever trouble they may have made for each other previously, however they may have acted as foils for Andras earlier in the novel, is pretty much equally screwed. This is a novel in which The Bad Things Can Happen. Orringer is not afraid to land her punches, and nothing good that’s won couldn’t have been lost by luck or chance. As the bodies pile up and the distances between characters spread wide, as The Good Things seem farther and farther away, we are treated to a fresh reminder of how horrifyingly fucked up the Twentieth Century could be.
But: without reversing the previously claimed stance that Orringer doesn’t pull punches, she does bring a light touch to the proceedings that highlights a delicate theme of some essential strand of decency of human beings, the shocking moments of kindness that exist against the blackest backdrops. As war stories go (and even when, in the first half of the novel, it’s not really a war story, it’s still really hard not to read it as a war story) this one could have gone either way, and she walks a nice line between the darkness and the light. It’s a story the telling of which could have inclined but did not incline the teller to misanthrophy. It’s a story of a survival and its opposite. The tension between the two gives life to a novel so steeped in death.
- I probably could have cut everything but this section and called it a day.
- I really straight-up loved the architecture school sections early in the book. It would be fair to suggest that any bitterness or angst toward the book that seeped into the review came from the fact that the book took us out of that stuff and into the other stuff. Which, I mean, real talk, duh, of course, it had to. But I mean, that stuff just nailed it for me, so hard. Like, I’m more interested in architecture today than I was before I read this book. Suffice it to say Orringer did something really really right in there, even if it’s been so long since I’ve read that stuff that I’d have a hard time telling you what exactly it was.
Still: there are too many damned words in this book. The prose is over-written at times so flagrantly that it’s hard to understand why nobody called her on it during reviews, critiques, revising, editing. Or did nobody ask why she needed to spell everything out? Would symbolic and figurative weight have been more impactful than blunt explication? Unkind readers could see contempt directed at them by the prose, if it weren’t for the fact that even the extra words are so sincere, so straight-forward. Ultimately I think the over-writing is a sort of stylistic choice, one I would be hard-pressed to agree with.
Consider the following passage, from deep in the latter half of the book:
The confusion of the retreat toward Hungary begat strange convergences, foldings of fate that arose from the mingling of dozens of labor-service companies. Again and again they came across men they knew from the far-off life before the war…. A third night, stranded in a March blizzard, Andras found himself sharing a corner of a granary-turned-infirmary with the managing editor of the Magyar Jewish Journal…. The man was scarcely recognizable, so stripped down by cold and hunger as to seem only the wire armature upon which his former self had been built; no one could have imagined that this ravenous thin-armed man, his eyes glittering with fever, had once been a bellicose editor in an Irish tweed jacket.
Strange convergences, period. Men they knew, period. Scarcely recognizable, period. Less words make for better prose and—despite the above quote’s claims to the contrary—more imaginative involvement.
Consider the following passage, from a bit before the preceding quote, as the men in a labor camp company discuss a risky attempt to trade valuables for necessities. József Hász, a free-spirited artist, self-important playboy, and strong foil for Andras, has been caught up with Andras in the camps after spending years being bribed out of them:
But József Hász wasn’t laughing; he was scanning the circle, his expression shading toward panic as he failed to find an ally. Andras watched with a pang of empathy—and, he had to admit, a certain guilty satisfaction. Here was Hász learning once again that he was not exempt from the forces that shaped the lives of mortal men. In this orphanage in Ukraine, no one cared whose heir he was or what he owned, nor were they impressed by his dark good looks or his side-leaning smile. They were hungry; they needed someone to go to town for food; he fit their parameters. In another moment he would have to capitulate.
Guilty satisfaction…period. The rest, we know, or can infer.
At the risk of edging into pile-on territory, consider one additional example from earlier in the novel, set during a tense scene between Andras and Klara. (The daughter is neither Andras’s nor Novak’s.)
This wasn’t about him, he understood. It was about her own life, about how everything had changed when she’d become pregnant with her daughter. That was what had caused the veil to fall. When the waiter came she ordered absinthe for both of them, a drink she chose only when she was sad and wanted to be lifted away from the world.
But absinthe didn’t have the same effect on him; it tended to play dirty tricks on his mind. He told himself it might be different here at Nice, at this dreamlike hotel bar overlooking the beach, but it wasn’t long before the wormwood began to do its poisonous work. A gate swung open and paranoia elbowed through. If Klara was melancholy now, it wasn’t because she’d lost her life in ballet; it was because she’d lost Elisabet’s father. Her one great love. The single monumental secret she’d never told him. Her feelings for Andras were chaff by comparison. Even her eleven-year relationship with Novak hadn’t been able to break the spell. Madame Bernard knew it; Elisabet herself knew it; even Tibor had guessed it in the space of an hour, while Andras had failed to recognize it for months and months. How absurd of him to have spent the summer worrying about Novak when the real threat was this phantom, the only man who would ever have Klara’s heart. The fact that she could sit here in a sea-green dress and those sandals, calmly drinking absinthe, pretending she might someday be Andras’s wife, and then allow herself to be pulled back to wherever she’d been pulled—by him, no doubt, that nameless faceless man she’d loved—it made him want to take her by the shoulders and shake her until she cried.
“God, Andras,” she said finally. “Don’t look at me that way.”
“You look as if you want to kill me.”
Yikes. We get it, and we got it before we ever picked up this book, and this book isn’t going to make us get it any more than we already do: dudes in love are total spazzes. It’s not the writer’s job to explain to us every last facet of the character’s mental machinations, but to show it happening, to get out of the way right after “paranoia elbowed through” and let the excellent, terse snippet of dialogue after the paragraph’s end do its magic. And yet this is not to say the prose left behind would be poor prose, as it’s not. It’s just, in context, relatively unncessary.
It’s possible, of course, this is less prevalent that I’m making it out to be, that some bad cases went down the wrong pipe choking me more than they needed to. And, after all is said and done, I did like the book, and I mostly actively wanted to keep reading all the way through to the end. But what’s aggravating is that for as much as there is to talk about here, all these deep veins of complex themes, enough to keep any self-respecting book club off and running past the end of the hour, I’m left more disengaged by the weight of the prose than engaged by the story it told. It’s style at war with substance, without easy victory on one side or the other.
III (Aside, in lieu of conclusion).
I never really figured out how to conclude this review, since as much as part two of it was the “why this book works” stuff, part three was what I really wanted to get across, and there’s some essential contrast or conflict between the two that can’t be easily wrapped up or resolved. Nor of course need it be. I mean, I probably shouldn’t have gone out of my way to sound like a condescending asshole here and there, but. I felt a little condescended to, here and there, in context, which might be the part of those quotes that don’t resonate well the way I intended them to, in the review; so often, it really did seem like I was seeing on the page what I already knew it my head, which I found annoying, grating even, as if the book was working against my desires and interests in some antagonistic way. I mean, this isn’t an art school film, this is a straight-up historical novel, right? So. I really have no conclusion. I want to read her next book, whatever it is; I do not want to read this book again, whatever it was.
First Up, the Short Version
I really liked Joshua Mohr’s first novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me; I reviewed it at The Collagist last year. Since then, he has published his second novel, Termite Parade, which I also really liked. It’s a different kind of book, though certainly written by the same author with the same interests. They’re both well-written books, quick but impactful, and I don’t mind recommending either of them to you if you’re looking for a good book to read.
And Then, the More Vaguely Review-like Version
With his second novel, Termite Parade, Joshua Mohr sounds the depths of the space between human decency and indecency; he does so to striking, engaging effect. It’s a project he began in his fine first novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me, which offered, in part, a heart-felt, grimly quirky look at a to-some-degree victimized childhood. Termite Parade stands as World’s wicked step-brother, compressing more complexity into a leaner, meaner package. Here, Mohr focuses on the wholly present-tense process of pain and its making. That people are dumb is no surprise, and it won’t shock anybody to learn that we do terrible things to each other: we’ve pretty much made a full-time job of making life more complex for each other than, strictly speaking, it really needs to be. By wrestling with the notion that, even though we can be the biggest tools going, people can still come off as redeemable is where Mohr gives his novel its literary-quality staying power.
The story is told by a core cast of three characters. These include Mired, who describes herself as “the bastard daughter of a ménage a trois between Fyodor Dostoevsky, Sylvia Plath, and Eeyore;” her boyfriend Derek, an auto mechanic who is “not the sort of guy who waxes philosophical or blubbers about the way his life ends up”; and Derek’s twin brother Frank, “an aspiring filmmaker” and “mastermind behind The Unveiled Animal, which will soon be a brand name synonymous with cinema.” The plot is sparked by a stark and, frankly, at least to this reader, surprisingly shocking act of violence, with each character relating his or her self-centered, questionable, conflicting view of the story.
(And, now, here’s the kind of parenthetical aside I doubt I would have gotten away with had this actually become a review for a real publication: I say “surprisingly shocking” up there because this book, Mohr’s book, was one of my rebound books from 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, which I tried and failed to read earlier this year. The thing here being that the Bolaño book featured this whole section about violence done against women that’s meant to be this gut-shredding walk through misery but which I found sort of dull and uninspired, which, before I even go and put a period anywhere near this sentence, let me go ahead and clarify or re-clarify that I in no way support or tolerate the idea of violence against women and that my complaints about the book 2666 are solely to do with the book 2666 and the fact that I thought it kind of did it all wrong; and endless (or at times at least it felt endless) catalog of the results of horrible activity which frequently used the same damn sentences over and over again did little to inspire me to horrific contemplation of the state of mankind, or whatever, any more so than a glance at the morning paper would do. You can tell me that there’s some nonsense out there or you can show me that there’s some nonsense or you can make me feel the existence of that nonsense in my bones and 2666 went for the former, in my opinion. Whereas–and here’s the kind of statement that’s likely to be get me in more trouble than it’s worth but what the hell–Termite Parade actually showed me an act of violence and made me feel it in my bones in a totally simple, totally straight-forward way, a way which, alone, makes me think that Termite Parade might actually be a better book? Question mark? At least it is to me. At least to me, being a guy who, in a scant page or so, saw some nonsense go down, and could not for a second deny the fact that that nonsense is the stuff of which, you know, people are actually capable of? It makes you confront something about yourself, is what I’m saying. 2666 does too but not in the same way. Not for me. It’s totally disingenuous of me to couch all this language in “for me” and it’s also disingenuous of me to be trash-talking a book I gave up reading months ago and which I gave up much caring about a few fewer months ago but hey. This is how I blog now? Question mark?)
In part, this (ahem, “this” referring here to the multiple-narrator method through which the story of Termite Parade is told) serves to develop a portrait of Derek and Mired’s toxic relationship; as Derek puts it, “there was barely trust between Mired and me, and the trust we did have was heavy and rundown, a burden we lugged behind us like concrete shadows.” What would read as too thin (by which I believe I mean, too dull, or too standard, or just too uninteresting on its own to warrant an entire book for the telling) finds itself shaken up nicely by Frank, the story’s primary unbalancing agent, its vocal note of discord. His film project, the sort of idea likely smoked up by most modern-day film students (or, really, anybody with a cell phone camera and a head full of The Real World re-runs), is a sort of back-to-basics cinema vérité:
It revolved around the notion that the cinema needs to evolve past actors, scripts, contrived scenes, fraudulent emotion. Movies needed to shun closure and happy endings. There needed to be a convergence between mainstream filmmaking and documentaries. And with the blazing popularity of reality TV that developed in the late 1990s and early millennium, it seemed I might really be on to something. The public wasn’t craving actors anymore, but people in real situations, real people who weren’t pretending to feel sadness and anger and letdown but were learning to navigate the tangles and ignominies of everyday life.
Suffice it to say that reality is never enough and, given a spoonful of the stuff, Frank contrives to turn it into a glossy jar full of the quote-unquote stuff. Here’s where Derek comes to find himself standing at the mid-point between actual reality and what passes for it in front of a camera.
The story gains momentum as the twining plot lines spiral toward their collision. Mohr keeps a light touch through the proceedings, easing up a bit on the “Push Here for Stylistic Quirks” button he pressed more than once in his debut novel (which, I should note, never bothered me, but I feel compelled to, at least once, blatantly point out, because it’s likely to bug somebody). The whole thing kind of comes to revolve around notions of blame, this quirks-versus-not-quirks thing. Where hallucinations and memories might have served as big red EXIT signs for any sense of culpability on the part of the narrator of Some Things, there’s nothing equivalent in Parade; suffering, guilt, these are things people do to other people and themselves. A brief sequence of memories involving the boys’ father serves to underscore the fact that these are people of their own making. What happens to us does happen to us, yes, but we ultimately are how we react.
Get past the terrible (to be quite honest) cover art (which, to be fair, a cursory review of the artist’s Web site shows it’s not the execution but the concept behind the art that’s to blame) and the reader–once, me, and, perhaps, someday, you–will find a bracing story of complicity, of the misery we make for others and ourselves. Mohr tells the story with a stylistic terseness that keeps the proceedings snappy, and, without ever drawing answers, at least sketches in the idea that the answers are worth looking for, somewhere in the darker values. As one character puts it, after an awful lot of awful things happen: “We could figure things out, if you gave us enough time.”
Update to note, I just noticed the book comes out in July. (It’s June, if you’re curious.) Because I read the book earlier this year. And I wrote most of this post a while ago. Consummate professional that I am, I took all this and translated it into an over-riding sense that I was late to the game on the book. Like, oh, man, nobody’s going to care anymore! Oh no! When I’m now safely ahead of the timeline. By, like, a while. Oh no! Nobody is prepared to care yet! I’d say I feel like a jerk but I don’t, because it’s still a good book and you should still look it up when you have the chance. Anyways.