Month: September 2021

Knight’s Gambit

Knights GambitIn carrying on the idea of reading things I might not normally read, this past week I read Knight’s Gambit by William Faulkner (1897 – 1962).  I have never read Faulkner before, due to a number of reasons including my not wanting to.  American literary fiction older than the 1960s is really tough for me to force myself to read.  Heck, sometimes even some of it after the 1960s….  In any case, the reason I picked up this collection by Faulkner is actually because it is crime stories, in a sense. Well, the main character is lawyer Gavin Stevens and that could be argued because maybe the main character is actually Yoknapatawha County, Mississippi.  As far as these being crime stories, well, they fit that description about as well as they fit any other. Anyway, Knight’s Gambit was published in 1949 and contains five short stories and a novella.

Here is the truth:  I expected this to be pushing 2 stars; I expected to despise this entire book. Instead, I really enjoyed and appreciated (that is two different sentiments) the first five stories in this collection.  Those five stories make up nearly exactly half of the pages in the book.  Then I read the other half of the book, which is entirely the novella “Knight’s Gambit” for which the book is titled.  That rubbish was so bad that it literally obliterated my memory and interest of all the stories that I had read previously. 

  • Smoke (1932) (Harper’s, April 1932)
  • Monk (1937) (Scribner’s, May 1937)
  • Hand Upon the Waters (1939) (Saturday Evening Post, November 4, 1939)
  • Tomorrow (1940) (Saturday Evening Post, November 23, 1940)
  • An Error in Chemistry (1946) (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1946)
  • Knight’s Gambit (1949)

After I read Smoke, I was a little skeptical, because it seemed like the hero might be a dishonest – if even for good purposes – chap and I disliked that somewhat. It was a good story, though, because I really bought into it. I was friends with the characters, I could see and smell the courtroom, I was invested in the history of the situation. Since it is the reader’s first meeting with Stevens, the first impression is important. He was windy, he was maybe a bit of a hustler. He seemed also to have an insight into the other characters and their rôles that maybe feels a little unfair. The writing style was no problem for me whatsoever. I think the setting here is extremely well-written; one feels right there in town.

Monk is probably a little less than Smoke.  I like, though, that it portrays Stevens in a somewhat different situation than a room in which he is in the spotlight.  Monk is a story that seems to have been rewritten and re-composed dozens of times in stories and TV episodes since.  Something about it is not uncommon, but the story is still engaging.  Stevens’ questions and the narrative that sifts through the past come in a strong tone and contain a lot of vibrant colors. After reading these two stories, I was on my way to thinking Faulkner is a not a total waste of time.

Hand Upon The Waters is one of my favorites in this collection (the other being Tomorrow).  This story feels the most noir/crime. It has more suspense and upfront violence than the others do, somehow.  If one could consider Faulkner as edge-of-your-seat, this one would be that description. It has wild characters and a prop-item that is key to the story. This story contained, what I feel, is a lot of the truest representation of the other character’s responses to Stevens.  In the other stories it almost seems like Stevens is some prima donna who is adjudicating among people who everyone knows are backwoods, simple folk. In most cases, Stevens seems to be given a deferential respect that he deserves, but is not resented for. In this story, the other characters seem to choose to not be so cowed simply because an educated Harvard man is on the scene. 

You see, Harvard only means something to an already advanced class of people. You already have to have an appreciation or an impression of institutions of education and the differences between them for Harvard to mean something. Its an empty concept, not one of awe, to many in these stories. 

Tomorrow is another top notch story. I think it is my second favorite story – until I run through the storyline in my head, and then it becomes my favorite. I love how the history of the scenario is told – not overtold. I love how the narrators have opinions that color their explanations. I also love the sense of justice and loyalty that is heavy on every single page. Truthfully, the story does take some work from the reader, because having read all the collection, I see Faulkner moving more toward the prose in Knight’s Gambit and away from the slightly more spare and straightforward Smoke. Sometimes the convoluted and colorful manner of writing suits the storyline perfectly – as it does here.  I really liked Mrs. Pruitt and her pea-shelling while she told the story. I was right there on the porch.

An Error in Chemistry is also a good story – mainly for the characterizations and the sense of “it takes a village.”  However, as a crime story it relies on that annoying conceit that crops up here and there in fiction (written and on screen).  So, in 2021, I just could not be as impressed by this one – through no fault of Faulkner, I guess. The story just hinges on a thing that now has become cliché.  It actually suits that it was first printed in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The best parts of the story are the Sherriff and the whiskey and their importance to the story really cannot be overstated. So readers should ignore the silly crime and focus on the way Faulkner wove these other elements into this story. Once again, though, Stevens is a formidable hero.

Then the tragedy and disaster of Knight’s Gambit. Now, I am utterly sure there are American Lit experts out there who will extol the virtues of this story. I am sure there are French fanboys who will not even entertain hearing anything but praise for this novella. I am, however, a straight-shooter – just like many of Faulkner’s dear characters – and I will tell you that this is a heap of dung. At this point, if this is Faulkner’s “signature prose style” then he needed to stop.  This is a mix between trying to emulate James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and writing exactly how Southerners talk.  No one should write whole novellas how Southerners talk. Ever.  Now, there is a zeitgeist in the world that Southerners are “good salt of the earth” people. There is a manufactured belief that they are the lords of hospitality and good manners. Further, there is a sort of feeling that they are good cooks, good farmers, and good people. I sincerely honestly have yet to find the truth in these stereotypes/images that are proclaimed. Its all propaganda if you ask me.  I talk to Southerners a lot and lawd ha mercy, most o’ the time, I want the interaction to stop hurting me. Seriously, who in their right mind would write a story entirely as the stream of consciousness [I almost chose a different word than “consciousness” here…..] of Southerners? 

It is not quaint, insightful, or unique. Its tedious and unnecessary. In Knight’s Gambit the story is written in this “Southern” fashion and at this point Faulkner had placed Stevens on such a high-pedestal that the story is nearly all an homage to Stevens’ greatness and wonder. At the same time, the character in the story is actually pared down and reduced even further, so it is very difficult to even get ahold of what the heck we are all praising. 

Now, I don’t know how the war changed or affected Faulkner, but suddenly he seems to have developed the need to preach at the reader about his opinions, which on occasion blurrily become Stevens’ as well. And the storyline is utterly lost constantly in this mess. But there is also a Hispanic man and horses.  This is garbage. Avoid it. There ain’t nothin’ to be found in this mud, this dawg won’ hunt, y’all.

Anyway, I utterly recommend whole-heartedly for good readers to enjoy the five other stories in this book I think every good reader would enjoy them, or at least profit from having read them. Stevens – in those stories – is an excellent character to meet and know about.  Do not believe the hype about Knight’s Gambit. Seriously, its one of those “literary circles” pieces that demonstrates the “Emperor Has No Clothes” anecdote.

4 stars – for everything but Knight’s Gambit, which I refuse to recognize.

Concrete Island

Concrete IslandConcrete Island by J. G. Ballard (1930 – 2009) is the third Ballard novel I have read. It was published in 1974, I read the Picador 2018 edition with the Introduction by Neil Gaiman.  I did not read the introduction in this novel, because I dislike Neil Gaiman’s writing/perspectives a lot.  I understand he is a strong, prolific, and well-liked author, but I found it just so “expected” that yes he would write the introduction to a Ballard novel.

And from what I have already said, it is probably strongly noticeable that I am not Ballard’s greatest fan. I actually enjoy Ballard’s wordsmithing. I like his writing style, although I struggle a bit at how to describe it.  Here I am not talking about the tools of literary art, but more the actual “penmanship.” What I mean is, Ballard writes in a sturdy, heavy tone. Its exceedingly erudite, but not long-winded. It can be descriptive and use metaphors, but somehow it is also sparing or clipped. So, while he utilizes metaphors and overall satirical themes, I think the whole edifice of his novels are held by that same very sturdy and solid tone.

I have read three Ballard novels and definitely do not claim to be any sort of expert reader of his.  I do know that I feel like the three main characters I met are all the same person. Perhaps they are:  Donald Maitland, Robert Laing, Robert Maitland are their names.   All three of these characters are very independent personalities; outwardly cold and distant, projecting a sense of strength and power. I would not call them the stereotypical masculine archetype, though.  I feel that their projection of strength and power comes directly from their detachment and disassociation from society.   They are calculating, antisocial types.

In Concrete Island, Robert Maitland is a successful architect. He is thirty-five years old and driving his Jaguar home; he has exceeded a safe speed and has crashed it on page one of the novel. On page three the question is already asked, “Why had he driven so fast?” In the next paragraph:

Today, speeding along the motorway when he was already tired after a three-day conference, preoccupied by the slight duplicity involved in seeing his wife so soon after a week spent with Helen Fairfax, he had almost willfully devised the crash, perhaps as some bizarre kind of rationalization. – pg. 3

The readers have just gotten to the bottom of page three and we already know so much about Maitland. And, frankly, none of what is learned is entirely admirable or virtuous.  From this point on, all the critics and readers and experts can spend a lot of time dissecting this novel. For example, as a representation of a white-collar, amoral class of society, does Maitland speed because he is recklessly thinking “nothing bad happens to me or my kind”? Or, as suggested, does he willfully (almost subconsciously) cause the crash -as a sign that he is aware of his “white-collar, amoral class” and somehow this crash represents that class crashing?  Or does he crash because of some warped judgment that selects masochism over a fake façade of domestic sufficiency? Or is there an understated, but fierce desire to reject contemporary society and return to some primative and base survival-mode?

Is this 1970s “new wave” novel just 156 pages of revolt?

I think much is made of Ballard’s dystopian and tragic stories. I also think the symbolism and satire within these stories is at once very good and yet very heavy-handed. I think what a lot of readers love about Ballard is that he has provided so much fodder for them to make even more fodder. After all, there is an industry about this.  I am not always a huge fan of satire because though it can be exciting and counter-culture, I find that most of the time it turns bitter and caustic and feels like instead of subverting the society it aims at, it ends up devouring itself in its own venom.

As I read it, I did think it was a rewrite of a Jules Verne novel.  It is not and I have not read the Verne novel recently enough to even consider making any sort of comparisons. However, I feel a strong enough connection between these two novels that I wanted to mention it here.  Surely, all the readers of this blog are utterly familiar with Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1875)? LOL

The simple conception of this novel, the character’s situtation, the setting for the story – all as “island” is really significant, as well. Dozens of papers and opinions could be written on this matter. Naturally, one considers an island both as something isolated and surrounded by something else, as-well-as a pseudo-magical place – a getaway or a reserve. Sometimes Ballard plays with the standard definition, sometimes he uses it metaphorically here. Maitland thinks himself the island.  Of course, eventually, as the memory and significance of Maitland’s normal life starts to pale and fade, the reader is also supposed to consider that whatever happens here on this Island is actually the “really-real,” and the other outside world is the fake insubstantial stuff.

On page fifty two: “In some way, this act of concentration proved that he could dominate the island.” I think this is the first statement of dominance. Merely a page later this is reworked as Maitland thinks:

Nonetheless, his success in building even this shabby shelter had revived him, rekindling his still unbroken determination to survive.  As he was already well aware, it was this will to survive, to dominate the island and harness its limited resources, that now seemed a more important goal than escaping. – pg. 54

The desire to dominate, the notion that might-makes-right, and that this domination is success fills this novel – and maybe the other novels I have read by Ballard, too.  The concept is there throughout the storyline – if Maitland crashed purposively, then he had some “dominance” over Fate and Physics. If Maitland starts viewing his inability to escape as a desire to stay and become dominant, he shows his overcoming the situation/scenario in a different light. Subversive, maybe, revolutionary, maybe.  It gets especially convoluted if we consider that Maitland sometimes views himself as the island and so, does he also dominate himself? Yes, in the segments where Ballard writes about Matiland overcoming his physical ailments.

How much can be read into the idea that those who build are also those who dominate?  Several times in this short novel, Maitland “builds” (or has something built).  Is that the ultimate sign of his dominance?

The speed with which Maitland moves from wealthy architect to primitive is part of Ballard’s worldview, I think.  Obviously, everything about this novel is echoed or parallel to the novel High-Rise.  Honestly, it is kind of the same novel. It takes the same survival-satire-social subversion and instead of taking place in a high rise building, it takes place in the center of the “traffic” of normal society.

Anyway, there is a lot to wonder about in this novel, though none of it is necessarily positive or engaging. Most of it is dark and uncomfortable.  Ballard’s prose (being somewhat spare and cool) takes some of the sharpness off of these ruminations, however, at its core, this story nothing gentle and warming. Also, since I have read other Ballard, this novel is also nothing new and exciting.  I feel like Ballard wrote the same story and while I appreciate this, believe it or not, I am not very impressed, either.

The concepts are worthwhile to explore, but at the end of this, I feel it was an intellectual exercise of an expression of discontent with society. I am sorry that Ballard is discontented. It was not horrible to spend a few minutes reading his satire, but I am not going to remain there, on these isolations, with him.

2 stars

The Sound of the Mountain

The Sound of the MountainThe Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was first published in Japan as a book in 1954.  I am not an expert in anything, but I try my best to keep on learning and thinking! So, when I say that I think that this novel is one of Kawabata’s middle years works, take it with a grain of salt. I have read two of Kawabata’s previous novels and I enjoyed them.  This one felt, to me, like it was a turning point or a change for Kawabata.  I have no idea if that is true or not.

The novel takes place mostly in Kamakura, which is a city southwest of Tokyo. Kamakura is a very old city with tons of significant history, but in this novel it sounds mainly like a seaside rural town.  Everyday a couple characters take the train to Tokyo.   I looked at Google Maps and in theory you could drive or take a train to Tokyo (city center) in about an hour.  This works with the novel, it just seems farther away when I look at the map.  The author himself moved from Tokyo to Kamakura in 1934.

I once read this passage by Professor Van C. Gessel that stuck with me as a sort of rudimentary aid in understanding Japanese modern literature and I think it applies to The Sound of the Mountain. Gessel wrote:

Such a luxury is not afforded the reader of Japanese literature.  I realize this flies in the face of contemporary Western literary critical thinking, which insists that a text be surgically removed like a tumor from the author’s being for discrete dissection.  Works which cannot survive the operation are declared D.O.A.  Any mention of the author’s life brings cries that Oedipus’ mother is being blamed for his sins.  Nonetheless, I stand by my contention that Japanese fiction is written with the presumption that it will not be entirely severed from the life of the writer, and that readers will know something of the relationship between creator and creation. This is all part and parcel of the fundamentally autobiographical approach to literature that has been an integral part of the Japanese tradition since its inception.  – pg. 8, Preface, Three Modern Novelists, Kodansha International (1993)

Definitely, I think I have seen this approach in what little Japanese modern fiction I have already read and I think it is probably true, to an extent, in this novel.  The location in Kamakura is an obvious example, but at this point the author was fifty-five years old and probably some of the main character’s thoughts and feelings are autobiographical. The main character is Shingo Ogata who is sixty-two years old in the novel. 

The story is mainly told from Shingo’s perspective, in a sense. It focuses on his daily routines and his dreams and his thoughts about his family and the goings on in the neighborhood. Kawabata’s spare haiku-like prose is always praised for its style and beauty.  In this novel, however, I am not sure if it is Kawabata’s prose or just the mannerism of Shingo. Shingo is feeling old and his having difficulty with his memory.  He seems to have frequent waves of nostalgia and sentimentality.  He, in his age, is remembering and longing for times past – and he even questions the accuracy of those memories.  He purposely allows his mind to conflate those past times and people and events with current events. His thoughts are somber, confused, frustrated, and sometimes morose.  Shingo’s very thoughts are unsettled and peppered with mundane facts or tautologies. Very much like the spare matter-of-fact prose with which Kawabata writes, generally.

We all live, now, in a furious time.  Everything, literally everything, is a manic, wild flurry of information and action.  If, in 1954, Kawabata’s prose was subtle and haiku-like, reading it now has made those times seem even more distant and even rather impossible.  Shingo often just looks at things or has time to just….. think vague thoughts.  He thinks about a fallen chestnut, a plum blossom, a locust, etc.  These singular items blend into the more pertinent life relationships he has with his family and co-workers. And throughout my reading of this novel, I was frequently envious of how characters would “go and look at things.”  Nowadays nobody goes and sees the trees for the express purpose of seeing trees blossom. Literally, going to a place to see some natural and mundane thing is unheard of today. I cannot even imagine anyone saying, “oh, after supper, let’s all walk out to the wherever to watch the sun set from there” or “let’s walk past the empty field down the block because the weeds are flowering.”  Do not get me wrong, please – I truly, deeply, enjoy this. I am the one who wants to go look at “a tree” or “a nothing much at all.”  I just wish I had more time to do this. Frankly, in this novel, I think the days of the characters must be 30-40 hours long. How do they have time for newspapers, train travel, meals, tea time all the time, arguments, and then nature-gazing?!

I have written this review, thus far, as if I really “got into” and enjoyed and understood this novel. Unfortunately, that is not quite true. This is probably a very good book for some readers. But this is absolutely not a book “for me.” It did not work for me, it was nearly incomprehensible to me, and I cannot call it a good book from my perspective. I mention all of this to let everyone know that I know that my opinions are not dogma. I fully expect that there are readers who very much enjoyed this book and can easily explain/defend their admiration.

But for me this was a struggle. It even came with a very chilling electric-shock at the end (pg. 270), which was very relevant (again) *to me.*

Things I am horrible at (and “horrible” is a kind and light way of phrasing it): family. People. People in my family. Peopleing. Familying. This book, however, is 100% about family and people and relationships. Frankly, I disliked almost all of the characters in this novel. The only character that I might have liked a bit is the old woman, Shingo’s wife, Yasuko.  The thing is, I cannot even explain why I liked her best, perhaps it is because she is the most wry and grounded of all of the characters. She often struck me as smarter and sharper than any of the characters think. She deserves her own novel.

I really… I really just feel like I needed the floor plan to the house – to Shingo’s house, okay? Because, to me, the story feels claustrophobic and tedious and cramped. It feels like everyone is constantly in each other’s faces and places. And I need space, I want to breathe; back the heck up, characters!

I guess Kawabata is a really good storyteller. Because even in this translated edition, in this storyline that I utterly cannot comprehend or engage with, I was still immersed enough to actually now be complaining about the closeness of the family home and the struggles of time and the tedious human weather.

There is only one segment that I would give high rating to.  It is this art appreciation moment in the chapter “The Scar” in which Kawabata has Shingo thinking about an ink wash by artist Watanabe Kazan (1793 – 1841). Shingo sees this artwork at a friend’s house and is still thinking about the ink painting and the corresponding verse. The five or six paragraphs in this segment are utterly beautiful, insightful, and skillfully composed.  They contain layers of meaning and show a brilliance that is absent, I think, in the rest of the novel. 

Shingo knew of Kazan only that he had been impoverished and that he had committed suicide, but he could see that this “Crow in the Stormy Dawn” gave expression to Kazan’s feelings at a certain point in his life.

No doubt the friend had put the painting up to match the season.

Shingo ventured an opinion:  “A very strong-minded bird. Not at all likeable.”

“Oh? I used to look at it during the war.  Damned crow, I used to think. Damned crow it is. But it has a quietness about it. If Kazan had to kill himself for no better reasons than he had, then you and I probably ought to kill ourselves time after time.  It’s a question of the age you live in.”

“We waited for the dawn, too.” – pg. 209

This, and associated paragraphs, thrill me. I love how the Japanese of old had a connection between the décor of their house, let us say, and the natural seasons.  I love how, in this example, the friend has a painting of a crow – and does not seem to actually like it – the painting is displayed maybe because it is poignant, not because it is preferred. How unlike Western aesthetic, then and now!  I also like how Kawabata was able to utilize this painting in his narrative of Shingo’s ruminations on death and age. 

However, other than these brief moments, the novel is a loss for me. I think I am supposed to have opinions and feelings and ideas about the characters and their situations, but I do not. I do not even know what Kawabata is getting it – though I would guess maybe its about how Shingo is unable to manage the roles of the people in his family. Or something.  I mostly got the impression that the characters are pitiful and helpless.  The novel is nearly incomprehensible to me. A book about nothing and its annoying humans. It made me sad and frustrated.

2 stars

Green Tea and Other Ghost Stories

Green TeaGreen Tea and Other Ghost Stories is a Dover Thrift Edition by Dover Publications.  It contains four stories by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu (1814 – 1873).  I have the 1993 edition of this collection; Dover released an e-book edition with a different cover.  On the back of my edition the price is $1.50, but I have a used book sticker, too. I probably paid next to nothing for this.  I mention this because a reader wanting to read just a few good stories will have definitely gotten their money’s worth with this edition.  I am given to understand LeFanu was a somewhat prolific writer, but of the four stories in this book, only one is one of LeFanu’s famous works. The other three stories are much lesser known.

  • “Green Tea” – from In a Glass Darkly (1886)
  • “Squire Toby’s Will”  – from Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales (1923)
  • “Sir Dominick’s Bargain” – from Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales (1923)
  • “The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh” – from Dublin University Magazine (1838)

The stories are written in the style that I assume is typical of their times.  Sometimes this feels like it really suits the stories, sometimes it feels ridiculous. Most of the stories are told via a narrator or through someone who heard someone’s story.  In “Green Tea,” for example, the narrator is actually reiterating info from letters by a Dr. Martin Hesselius to a Professor Van Loo of Leyden. 

These are not fast reads and part of that is due to the typical Victorian lack of word economy making it stilted, too (this is the official description of it).  Part of the slowness, though, is because these stories all rely heavily on atmosphere.  In “Green Tea” the relating of the events by a doctor to a professor is an attempt to make the very frightening and oppressive angst seem even more elevated by describing it from a pseudo-scientific and clinical perspective.  Obviously, the reader is left to do a lot of the work here – do they believe, as the doctor clearly does, that this is all just just just explainable and diagnosable OR do they believe that this is a rare and supernatural occurence that cannot be explained away by the rationalist?  Its one of those situations where OF COURSE there is a reasonable explanation for all of this mania.  Right? 

“Green Tea” might be the closest to what readers consider to be horror.  It really derives its horror from the juxtaposition of the clinical with the unnatural.  When I read through it, I was somewhat unimpressed.  However, the element of the red-eyed ape is really disturbing and creepy. It is probably as terrifying as any violent, gory, scare-fest found in the horror genre because it is unexplained.  Being watched is often an element of a scary story.  The reader who can put themselves in the character’s place will get a lot of creepy thrills here. Imagine being in the room while the red-eyes glare…….

“Squire Toby’s Will” is probably my favorite of the bunch. I think that I liked it most because it is the grittiest and most noir of the bunch. Sibling rivalry, a wild and unruly rich father, and a loyal manservant named Cooper fill these pages with angst and struggle.  I liked the inclusion of the dog as the pivot point for the whole story. This story also has the most satisfactory ending, as well. Poor Gylingdon Hall with its creepy King Herod’s Chamber.  

“The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh” is on par with the others, but it is definitely a bit long-winded, which is exacerbated by the Victorian manner of speech. So, one of the characters, Lady D– says:

“I still must believe that some latent fever has affected his mind, as that owing to the state of nervous depression into which he has been sinking, some trivial occurrence has been converted, in his disordered imagination, into an augury foreboding his immediate dissolution.” – pg. 78

The words and meaning are easy enough, but heavens! that is a windy way to put that. Especially when all parties involved are sleep-deprived and in a state of great anxiety.  Do you think he is making a mountain out of a molehill? Or do we really want to go with: into an augury foreboding his immediate dissolution?  Still, look how charming this way of writing was! 

Anyway, I feel bad for all the servants and butlers in these stories. They are all included, named and described, in order to provide a witness to the events that occur.  I feel bad for them because they seem to have all been loyal and honest folk. Jones in “Green Tea” probably should have his side of the story told. But then Cooper in “Squire Toby’s Will” seems the most robust of the lot and he made out the best, in the end, as well. 

All of these stories rely on what remains unexplained, what the servants saw and heard, and how the key causes and outcomes are left undefined.  I know a lot of readers might really dislike this sort of writing. I enjoyed it – it has its place. I would not want every story to be like these.  The fun and value is that a reader has to really get involved in the atmosphere and maybe that means not speed reading through descriptions of the forests and valleys.  The reader has to do work in their imagination, wondering at all the possible causes/outcomes and turning over the events in their mind, knowing that a definitive author’s decision is not available.  It is fun and interesting to ponder the rôle of the dog, the purpose and intent of the red-eyed ape, the mysterious Jacque character, et al. With some time on a quiet evening, a thoughtful reader could develop a hundred different re-tellings, subplots, and resolutions to these stories.

Another component to these stories is their setting.  Usually we have large manor homes and estate in Ireland.  Huge stone castles surrounded by forests and stone walls that enclose family crypts.  The stables are out back; occasionally we need the stableman to ready one of the horses.  The servants have always lived in these homes, waiting on these families. In the abandoned mansions, vines and rot have taken over and so it requires imagination to see them in their finest moments.  Sweeping staircases, portraits on the walls, candles being ported here and there by characters.  Do not forget the huge wooden and iron doors that are supposed to keep out whatever should not be inside.

Now, the last story in the book “Sir Dominick’s Bargain” is not one that I thought much of. It contained a lot of the elements of the other stories to make it just similar enough.  Here we have a gentleman traveling on horseback and he passes by the ruins of a castle, which he finds intriguing. After moving on to the next town and getting a meal at the inn, he returns to wander and peruse the ruins. 

Suddenly, a voice speaks to him – its an elderly hunchback with a lisp.  The hunchback proceeds to tell him the history of the ruins (because the creepy guy was raised there and his grandfather was also a manservant there long ago).  In fact, he begins his tale by pointing with his cane to a spot on the wall that he alleges is the skull and brain matter of the former owner, Sir Dominick Sarsfield.

I could not help thinking, as I read, about how this story plays out in contemporary times.  So, driving through small-town country roads, you pass by a crumpled building in ruins. Now, you might be intrigued for some reason. I know abandoned buildings and similar things have always had a niche following. Maybe when you stop for gas in the only gas station in town (that is charging a dollar more per gallon than reasonable), you ask the cashier about the place. I guess you drive back to get a better look – with your phone camera?  And maybe you find a place to park and are thinking of your Instagram/Facebook post and you go try to get some good shots. 

All the wood inside is pretty rotted and you are definitely sure you saw a few roaches. There are spiderwebs here and there. But no way are you just gonna sit a spell on the bottom of the staircase. You are probably more inclined to make a Google Assistant reminder to get a tetanus shot.  Anyway, as you are taking a pic of the vines mildewing around the wall, a voice next to you quotes some creepy verse. 

LeFanu thinks you are going to then hang around and hear the history tale of the place from the creepy hunchback with a lisp. 

Instead, its just more likely you are wondering:  wait, why is there a creepy dude here?  and instead of the “hallooo! don’t mean to scare you…. Hallooo?” calls that would alert someone to your presence, this little old guy quotes some verse? So, what really happens, is you pull your CWP firearm and drop your phone, trip over a piece of fallen debris, and wonder if you left the car unlocked.

3 stars

Gun, With Occasional Music

Gun With Occasional MusicI picked up my copy of Gun, With Occasional Music back in July of 2016.  It was originally published in 1994 and I just finished it today in September of 2021.  As I am having a shelf-clearing kind of year, I did not hesitate to yank this paperback off of the shelf; it has been hanging around for far too long.  Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem is also the author’s first novel.  Frequently, I see readers saying that it is a sort of mash-up between classic Raymond Chandler and stylish Philip K. Dick.  Such comparisons are really spot-on and it is not really difficult to see where/why readers say this:  Lethem (b. 1964) has also been an editor/compiler for some of Dick’s writing. 

I think this is a good novel. It was near five stars, but most of the futuristic elements needed to be explained a bit. Or, certain elements given a more substantial reason of being there other than to be quirky and unusual.  Here is a very tricky thing, though.  Any reader familiar with PKD (and at this point, I have read a dozen of PKD’s novels, so I am not a rookie) knows that he never gets bogged down in explanations.  Most of PKD’s novels are in media res and they have a lot of action and the pacing is very fast.  They also usually portray a future society that has gone awry in some way – but PKD never gives the history and detailed timeline for all of this.  So if an author wants to emulate or imitate that style, drilling into the history and causes of things that are widespread and common in the future society would be the opposite of how PKD would write the thing.  Part of the not-knowing how or why things got to be that way is part of the fun of PKD.   It is one of his main tools for shaking up the reader and making them feel dizzy and surprised.  Still, I think it is a valid statement to suggest that Lethem could have given us just a bit more on some of the aspects of his story without damaging that PKD methodology.  Put in a straightforward way, I agree that PKD’s style is to leave a lot of the historical explanations out – but then, talking, gun-toting kangaroos might need a little more than what the reader was here given.

This is tasty futuristic/dystopian noir. Noir is really built on tropes.  Many readers complained that the novel had all the usual tropes.   Yes, it did, I suppose, and that is why noir fans liked it so much.  Such tropes tend to be part of that noir subgenre.  This novel contains several of those revolting aspects that make noir darker and seedier than just any crime story. There are things that the story hints at that make astute readers want to pump the brakes. Such points are real risks that the author took, and I can appreciate that. (Example, what are these evolved animals and how corrupt are the physical interactions these future humans have with them? Taboos and immorality and…and. Are they still brutes if they talk and think and such? Maybe it’s a good thing the author left some of this open-ended and vague.)

Drugs are the norm; they are how society lives – everywhere and used by everyone. Except, no, not everyone. But the non-users are utterly rare and maybe the military forbids the powders? But these drugs are constant and on every page. Its not a pretty world. But the author slides in a cynical line or two about how these drugs ARE the dystopian control, not the Office (the bureaucracy of state police), which might be the face of that control.

The detective story:  a private investigator who is a real louse anyway, gets a case that ends up terribly. Like a good noir story, nobody is saved. It’s a bad day for everyone. This guy has a wry sense of humor, must have broken his knuckles a lot in his lifetime, and uses metaphors with skill and ease.  The metaphor thing is quite ingeniuously done here – this may be Lethem’s first novel, but he is not a novice writer. He was/is a very good writer.  There is dark humor here, but I think even using the word “humor” is overstating it.  Nothing here is laugh aloud, but there are moments where the grizzled noir reader might smirk and nod.

The writing is utterly engaging and the world-building, with its strangeness, is so curious….  The main character, Conrad Metcalf, is likeable and the reader definitely wants to know more about him and what has happened to him.  However, this not-knowing is, like the readers of noir fiction know, really quite false.  Readers actually DO know what happened, even if they do not know the specifics. They know because:  insert all the usual tropes or pick any you like best.  So, do not act like you do not know, reader. You very well do know; maybe you are just being a lazy reader. That being said, PKD and noir are not every reader’s cup of tea.  So, I can imagine a lot of readers who like a sort of  completely linear A-to-B procedural crime fiction being frustrated by this one. Part of the crime fiction genre is the reasoning and detection and fair-play methods that the reader follows along.  It might seem unpleasant to readers who expect detective work and instead are thrust into a PKD-style noir novel.

There are a lot of “cool” things in here. I mentioned the metaphors, but even the drugs have a neat twist to them (the personal blends).  ID cards and licenses and neat little things that developed the story plenty. Especially a P.I.s office that is shared with a dentist!  The “occasional music” is sharp, too! There are cool little things to enjoy in this story, but they tend to also be a little unsavory, yet their coolness factor is not diminished.

With more payoffs on a few of the elements, this is easily a five star read. Instead, some of the elements just seem too pointless. And this is certainly NOT a novel for *every* reader. It’s a bit repulsive at points. There are some crude moments, but at the same time, they belong.  None of it seems unnecessary – instead, it seems like shocking the reader for a moment and making them cringe. Then, not dwelling in the filth or dragging it out, but moving onward. The crudeness can be too much for certain readers, which I understand.  Unfortunately, noir that is sanitized is not noir at all. This one is all noir (the streets flow with powder and gin).

4 stars