Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Dog

Joseph O'Neill's novel is a brilliant satire on many levels. He is bitingly, nastily funny about expatriate life in Dubai, sparing neither the foreigners nor the natives. By the same token, the legal and financial professions, globally operating millionaire families, "family offices," consulting, all become objects of the author's derision.

At a deeper level, however, the books is a frightening take on the loss of integrity and even of identity in a world fractured by the Internet and social networking. The unnamed narrator sends imaginary e-mails; obsessively googles his ex-girlfriend, stopping only when he fails to find her among the persons bearing her name; becomes himself the victim of “search libel” as malicious googlers manipulate the autocomplete algorithm so that his distinctive name comes up with “embezzlement,” “sexual harassment,” and other diatribes attached to it.

I wrote in a recent WIRoB blog post that historical and post-apocalyptic novels are so popular these days because it allows the authors to strip away the distractions of contemporary life that make it so diffuse. O’Neill, however, has succeeded in making that the subject of his novel.
All this rendered in a perpetually dazzling language that is so dense that even the relatively short book can take some time to read.

There is not much of a plot. Rather, the action is more like the twist of a kaleidoscope that throws the jumble of the hero’s life into a new pattern. A lawyer, the narrator leaves a job that has become uncomfortable after he breaks up with his girlfriend to become the Dubai-based director of a “family office” for the extended family of an old Levantine friend.

Inevitably, for all his pride in fashioning disclaimers and limiting his legal liability, he become involved in a probe of family dealings that leaves him vulnerable and exposed.

The disappearance of a casual friend that the narrator knows from scuba diving, Ted Wilson, appears to drive the narrative at the beginning, as it emerges that the friend was a closet bigamist, lending a certain fascination to the American wife who comes to Dubai in search of her husband only to leave disillusioned when a second wife surfaces there.

But this vanish person is really just another metaphor for the loss of self, and the hero’s fascination for Mrs. Ted Wilson is part of a fantasy life that blurs with real life through the power of the Web.
The narrative is one long interior monologue, with flashbacks gradually filling in the background that led to the hero’s presence in Dubai. It is unsparingly frank, as the hero discloses his activities with pornography and prostitutes, his own feelings of inadequacy, how he was in fact “cheating” on his girlfriend by withholding any emotional interaction.

Beneath it all, however, he is somehow searching for a shred of authenticity, if not exactly integrity. As the denouement approaches, he faces the choice of being bounced again to another country by events seemingly beyond his control, or accepting consequences that would in a technical sense be unjust.

He takes inspiration, in a final burst of irony from the author, in the example of Conrad Black, the newspaper magnate who was eventually jailed for a number of financial crimes. Imprisonment, the narrator muses, at least puts a limit to culpability. “It’s certainly true that so long as he’s inside, he can hardly be punished more.”

Netherland was a book about expatriates and rootlessness as well. Though different in style, this book is thematically very much in keeping with the other. To examine these themes, so topical in our times, in such wildly variant fashion is a virtuoso performance by the author.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Catching up

I've been neglecting my blogs. This is due in part to being busy with work. Also, I have the feeling blogging is a bit passe. And for this blog in particular I had gotten into a rut of viewing it as a book review blog, rather than a reading blog.

I have been posting only when I finish a book and if there are any readers they must be amazed at how few books I read. I don't read enough, but I read more books than I finish. For my book group, for instance, I usually make an effort to read some of the book, but I haven't finished that many.

I really liked Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne and read a good half of it. I loved his historical sense, his authoritative chronicle of the Comanches and the early Texas settlers and his vivid descriptions of the terrain. In our book group discussion, several participants said it went downhill in the second part with the actual description of Quanah Parker. That gave me little incentive to want to finish the book.

I also liked Night Soldiers by Alan Furst. I read about a third of it and may get back to it. Some book group members found it too brutal. I have to admit I was losing sympathy for the main character, as I often do for Furst's main character (liking is one thing, sympathy another). I did, however, appreciate his depiction of the deplorable Stalinist mentality, where the practice is so at odds with the ideal. The hero's recruiter in the Bulgarian village represented the ideal, while his training in the NKVD was the reality.

I've also been doing more reviews for the Washington Independent Review of Books -- two thrillers I was not too excited about. The first was Marc Levy's Replay, which was really juvenile, and the second was Ben Mezrich's Seven Wonders, which was more entertaining but pretty shallow. I've signed up for another one, The Empire of the Night by Robert Olen Butler, which will interrupt my reading of The Dog by Joseph O'Neill, a book I really like and will finish and review here.

Also, I've been writing a monthly blog for WIRoB, Words for Thought, which are musings about reading and how books fit into our cultural milieu.

So I am doing a considerable amount of reading, and some writing about it that doesn't appear here. I've decided to be more flexible about what and when I write here, so my posting should be more frequent -- at least until I give up on blogging altogether.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Last Policeman

Hank Palace has finally achieved his childhood dream of becoming a detective in the Concord Police Department. The only hitch is that shortly afterwards it was announced that a comet was on a path to collide with the earth in a few months, and was likely to destroy all life on the planet.

This "pre-apocalyptic" setting turns Ben H. Winters' police procedural into a psychological thriller. In many ways, the imminent collision with the comet is itself apocalyptic as the structures of industrial society gradually corrode and crumble. Companies go bankrupt, the telecommunications infrastructure collapses in pieces, and, not surprisingly, suicides spike.

So when a mild-mannered actuary expert is found dead with a belt around his neck tied to the doorknob -- the more efficient way of suicide by hanging, we are told -- it is logical to assume that he is simply another "hanger." But Hank is not comfortable with this verdict. The victim had shown no suicidal tendencies; there was no note; there were other bruises unaccounted for.

The question is, however, what does it matter -- suicide or murder? Why work hard to bring a killer to justice when everyone is doomed to die in just a few months? Hank's colleagues scoff at him and tease him about his unaccountable obsession. At one point, he becomes frustrated and tells the medical examiner that he may not be the type of person for an end-of-the-world scenario. To which she replies that he may be the only type suited to it.

This is the nub of the novel. What is it that keeps a man bound to duty even in the face of imminent catastrophe? An engaged reader is confronted with the question of how he or she would react in a similar situation. It is a tribute to Winters' skill as a writer in creating this improbable situation in way that you ask yourself this question seriously.

It is in a sense the human condition writ large, because each of us faces imminent doom. But our individual doom does not obviate the need for laws to govern society and police to enforce them. With life as we know it about to end, any prison term -- whether for murder or a minor infraction -- is a virtual life sentence.

This is the backdrop for Hank's investigation into the life and sudden death of the insurance employee who was a whiz at actuarial tables and an obsessive observer of the deadly comet's progress. Hank encounters a long-lost childhood friend of the victim who recently reestablished contact; his estranged sister, a midwife, and her husband, a preacher newly specialized in end-of-the-world counseling; a colleague at work who seemed unaccountably concerned about the victim; his boss, and others, any of whom could be suspect in what Hank stubbornly believes to be a murder.

All of this is told in a quirky first person, with Hank able to say things like "holy moly" with a straight face. He is sympathetic because there is at least a little bit of Hank in each of us -- an idealist who want to hold on to some shred of naivete and pursue a life that is above all honorable.

Winters apparently intends chronicle these last six months of life on earth in a trilogy, and has already published the second volume. What fun.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Dog Stars

Peter Heller's post-apocalyptic novel grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. It took a few pages to get used to the style -- paragraphs with extra separation and sentence fragments. But these are graphic and linguistic representations of the fragmented world left after a virulent flu and blood disease have killed most of the planet's inhabitants.

The first-person narrator, Hig, is himself fragmented. Much of what he cherished has been destroyed, but he goes on surviving without being sure why. He put a pillow over his wife's face at her urgent request to end her suffering at the end and has been emotionally shut down since then. Such consolation as there is comes from his dog, Jasper, and some activities that were hobbies before and now are useful survival skills -- hunting, fishing, flying.

He lives in a hangar at a small airfield in Colorado and patrols the "perimeter" he and his partner, Bangley, have set up in an ancient Cessna. For mankind has been reduced to savagery in a truly kill or be killed environment. Intruders are killed without any questions asked. Hig worries that Bangley, a weapons expert with an uncertain past, will eliminate him if he outlives his usefulness as a comrade in arms.

What disrupts this dystopian existence is a cryptic radio call he intercepts in the plane one day, indicating there may be a functional settlement in Grand Junction. Eventually, Hig sets out to track this signal and has his first encounter with other people that does not end in death for one side or the other and rekindles long-dormant emotions.

The first-person narration works well in this context. There are so few people, there is little for an omniscient narrator to know. Hig's flat, fragmented narration is nonetheless eloquent, sometimes lyrical and often poignant, without any pretension or artifice. The reader's enormous sympathy for his plight and the suspense of the story propel you through the book.

Heller, a product of the Iowa Writers Workshop as well as a magazine writer and author of several nonfiction books, has a disciplined command of language. The prose, the story, the narration are extremely lean, trimmed of any distraction or unnecessary detail -- a kind of post-modern Hemingway.

Can a post-apocalyptic novel have a happy ending? Everything is relative when people are stripped of civilization. Suffice it to say Heller's view is ever so slightly more hopeful than that of Cormac McCarthy in The Road -- but there are no guarantees.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Bitter Cross

Simon Mawer's historical novel, his second, is a grim portrayal of corruption and betrayal. As with his later The Gospel of Judas, it is about an illicit love affair involving a man of God who betrays his vow of celibacy, giving the lovers a shred of happiness but dooming them to death and separation.

What's evident already in this early work is Mawer's wonderful command of language, a diction that is rich -- perhaps a little over-rich waiting for the discipline of later works -- and a literary quality that gives his prose a texture even as he tells a compelling story.

The story here concerns Gerard Paulet, one of handful of English Knights of Malta to survive Henry VIII's persecution of Catholics, who along with his comrades ends  up in exile at the order's headquarters in Malta. The Knights of St. John themselves are in exile, having been driven out of Rhodes to the small island in the Mediterranean that Mawer describes with the scorn of one who actually lived there.

His details of the knights, their galleys, their ships, the geography of the Mediterranean match a David Mitchell or Patrick Leigh-Fermor in their precision and arcane knowledge. Presumably the history, too, is accurate. It makes for a colorful background for the tortured affair between Paulet and the widowed princess of the island, Vittoria Pignatelli. It is, as with the affairs in Gospel and The Glass Room, an irresistible passion that brooks no denial -- not a choice, but a destiny. There is nothing Platonic about it, the happiness comes from carnal knowledge in defiance not only of Paulet's vows but the rigid social convention, which, as Vittoria's brother patiently explains to Paulet, does not allow a noblewoman like his sister to have an affair with someone below her station, for the knight is only "gentle."

The two lovers remain true to each other but there is distrust, which feeds on the betrayal of those around them as they are caught up in the intrigues of Renaissance Italy, the fight against the Turks for the control of the Mediterranean and Europe, and the dying throes of a crusading military order that has outlived its purpose.

There are intimations of the denoument because the story is told in the first person by an aged and broken Paulet, living out his days peacefully in the knights' priory in Rome. The author skillfully weaves the story backward and forward in time, maintaining the suspense not of what happens, but how and why.

Paulet is convincingly complex, torn as the protagonist in Gospel not only by the broken vows but the loss of faith as the joy of human coupling undermines belief in a religion that demands celibacy for its holy men. He nonetheless tries to preserve a certain semblance of honor, though his ambivalence in the climactic end of the novel leaves the reader uncertain how far he succeeds.

Much of the plot turns on his suspect "adoption" of a Muslim boy captured during a raid. His account of why and how he took the boy as his ward seems incomplete -- there is no sufficient motivation given. Later, given the turn of events, the reader begins to suspect that he is in fact an unreliable narrator, that he has not told the whole story.

The book is a downer. The cynicism is all-pervading, leavened with only the faintest glimmer of hope that the shared passion of Paulet and Vittoria is sufficient for redemption. It is, in the moral morass of Renaissance Europe, a true emotion, however many vows and conventions are broken. It sets the themes that run through Mawer's later novels, different as they are in setting and context.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Anthony Marra doesn't make it easy for the reader in this masterful novel, an amazingly accomplished work for a debut novel by a young author. But the payoff is there -- it is a truly moving, enlightening trip to hell and at least part of the way back.

The fact that his novel was passed over for both the Pulitzer and National Book Award shows the futility -- and perhaps the corruption -- of these literary prizes. Whatever merit one finds in the winners, it's worth keeping in the mind that the best books often get overlooked.

Marra leads the reader unflinchingly into the very depths of the inferno, describing five days at the very low point of the rebellion in Chechnya. The reader sees, feels almost, the deprivation, the misery, the fear, and ultimately the harrowing pain of people caught up in a war they never asked for.

Marra brings it down to a single village and town, to six main characters, and tells their story over the five days, flashing back to the past, and, innovatively, into the future. There is Akhmed, the incompetent doctor and would-be artist; Sonja, the ever-so-competent Russian surgeon; Natasha, her sister, sold into prostitution and addiction; Khassan, the local intellectual who treats Akhmed like his son; Dokka, Akhmed's neighbor and friend; and Ramzan, Khassan's son, who turns informer for the Russians.

The narrative shuttles back and forth through time and the reader has to fit the pieces together as they become available. In our book group, someone mentioned that Marra had been criticized for coincidences. But they were not coincidences, only cause and effect, as would have been clear in a chronological narrative. It is a narrative full of artifice, but so artfully done that the reader scarcely notices, caught up in the characters and their harrowing passage.

What is hardest for the reader is not this literary challenge, however, but simply the horror of the Chechnyan rebellion -- the torture, the maiming, the amputations, the "disappearances," the daily terror, the frightening randomness of life and death. It is the complete breakdown of civilized life, with familial devotion and some sense of honor the only threads that keep one going.

The title refers to a medical dictionary's definition of life as a constellation of vital phenomena and that is Marra's whole point. Life does go on, even in these horrific circumstances. There is a past, and there is a future, and the author gives glimpses of both. This is simply a very bad passage in that sweep of individual history. Half of the main characters survive and live on into quieter times; the other half are victims of fate's arbitrary hand. None of them is in control of their lives; they are only, barely, in control of their response to the hands they are dealt.

One of our book group members said he stopped after reading four-fifths of the book because he simply could not face going back to the Landfill -- the open pits where the Russians kept their Chechnyan prisoners for torture -- a second time.

When Marra has his characters look back to a time when buses arrived at busstops to take people to work, where the local hospital had one of the best oncology departments in the Soviet Union, when the deprivation of war makes one pine for "the relative generosity of totalitarianism," he raises the question of whether freedom is always worth it. It is not a rhetorical question. Were Chechnyans better off in the Soviet Union or even under the yoke of the Russian Federation? Were Iraqis better off under Saddam Hussein? Were Egyptians happier under Mubarak?

In our group, a recent visitor to Cuba said many people there had told him they were quite happy under Castro. The had the basic necessities of life and as much as their neighbors.

Marra doesn't broach any of these questions. He tells a story about people. But in showing every painful detail of their lives, he plants the questions in the mind of the reader. His characters are too busy surviving to philosophize. That is left to us after we've put the book down and taken a deep breath.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Telex From Cuba

Rachel Kushner's novel about American expatriates in the waning days of the Batista regime vividly describes the beauty and appeal of Cuba. She immerses the reader in the life of families attached to the United Fruit Company's sugar operations in eastern Cuba and the nearby nickel mine operated by the U.S. government.

Our book group read this on the recommendation of a member who read it before visiting Cuba. He liked it then and liked it even better re-reading it after his trip. The book made me feel like I'd visited Cuba, too. However, I have several issues with it. There are too many characters and too many points of view. Particularly bad, in my view, is shifting from one first person narrator to several other third-person POVs. The characters were not sharply enough delineated, so names and roles became a muddle for someone reading it over several weeks. There were vivid scenes and the narrative held together over several years because we are familiar with the arc -- Batista's ill-fated and corrupt regime succumbing to Castro's revolution.

What worked well was the depiction of how clueless the expats were, with their feeble complaints about the tropics, their racism and bigotry, their pathetic efforts to preserve a semblance of stateside life. The particular trap of the expat who is earning more money and/or living better than they could at home -- similar to the plight of the British couple in Hilary Mantel's Eight Months on Ghazzah Street -- was very well sketched. Several of the characters grew up in the eight years covered, but it is hardly a coming of age. Rather the author wants to view the corruption of the adults and their ambivalent relations with the Cubans and Haitians that worked for them through their innocent eyes.

The rogue arms salesman and sometime rebel, Christian La Maziere -- apparently an historical figure -- was the cynical counterpoint to this hypocrisy. He is actually more fully developed as a character than any of the others, but he is too sleazy and unsympathetic to really carry the narrative. Castro makes a cameo appearance but remains a blur. A popular courtesan, sillily named Rachel K, wafts through the book without making much of an impact.

Despite its strengths, then, the book ultimately was unsatisfying on a dramatic, aesthetic level. The epilogue was particularly flat -- too true to the disappointments of maturity as we learn the banal destinies of these kids grown up. I'm perplexed that this book was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2008, just as Kushner's second novel, The Flame Throwers, was also shortlisted. Who does she know?

The book was worthwhile for its depictions of Cuba but I'm in no hurry to read the second book.