The Week of Capsule Book Reviews Continues With Another Day of Predictably Good Books

imagesNine Stories by J.D. Salinger – Catcher In The Rye is another of those books that I hated in high school (where, due to a change in schools, I had to read it in both 9th and 10th grades), but loooved when I re-read it in college. I also really liked Franny and Zooey and even Raise High The Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (you know you’re a Salinger fan when you enjoy 70 pages of Salinger rhapsodizing about the utter perfection of one of his Mary Sues). I can’t say why it took me so long to read Nine Stories. I think I was just put off by the first story: “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.” I mean…it’s a great story, but there’s just something about it that’s so wrong. There is no reason why it should work. Anyway, once I got over that (which took about two years), I loved this collection. Salinger has such a warm, comfortable voice. You can just read it for hours, even when he’s talking about Buddhism and crap. Which he mostly doesn’t do in this volume! There’s so much good stuff in here. In “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” an 18-year old kid becomes arts instructor at a correspondence college and starts to obsess about the beautiful paintings of one of his students (who’s also a nun). In “The Laughing Man,” a narrator talks about the scoutmaster of the “Comanche Club” that he belonged to in his youth and how the scoutmaster used to tell him thrilling Lone-Ranger-type stories about a figure called the Laughing Man—eventually we see how the spiritual disintegration of the Laughing Man is paralleled by that of the scoutmaster. Just good, intricately-structured, warmly-written stuff. I’ve only rarely read short stories that were as purely enjoyable as this.

its-good-life-if-you-dont-weaken-seth-paperback-cover-artIt’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken by Seth – This Canadian graphic novel frequently makes those lists of best graphic novels ever. And it deserves it. I have to say that I was up in the air about this one for most of the time that I was reading it. There was something about the art style—very pale blues and reds and simple figures without much depth—that put me off. And the story is a bit slow. It’s about a modern-day cartoonist who becomes interested in the creator of a few New Yorker strips way back in the 70s. All he knows about the creator is his pen-name: Kalo. From there, the cartoonist slowly delves into Kalo’s history. But, at some point, everything clicked for me. The sparseness and colorlessness of the art meshed with the loneliness of the storyline. And the ending is so understated and so perfect.

driwerDrinking At The Movies by Julie Wertz – I don’t think I ever write about graphic novels that are not mopey autobiographical comics…in truth, that’s mostly what I enjoy. You can keep your Walking Dead and I’ll busy myself with comics about a cartoonist who moves from San Francisco to New York and spends a year just…I dunno…being miserable…drinking a lot…doing mid-twenties stuff…fighting roaches…quitting terrible jobs…squabbling with roommates. It’s just good times.

17728House Of Mirth by Edith Wharton – I love Edith Wharton, even if I can never remember which of her books is which. All of her books have such totally forgettable and similar-sounding titles: Custom Of The Country; Age of Innocence; House Of Mirth. But whatevs, this was my favorite of them all! It’s about a woman, Lily Bart, who is super beautiful and somewhat poor and lives by sponging off her rich society acquaintances. From her girlhood, she’s been trained to marry money. But…although she doesn’t lack for offers, she keeps putting it off. Every time she comes close to making a match, she swerves and turns away. And every time she comes close to falling in love, she swerves away from that too. What I love about Lily is that she’s not brilliantly self-actualized. She’s brave and she’s ingenious, but she doesn’t know what she wants. She needs money and she needs love and she can’t find both. There are no good solutions for her.

PicofDorianGrayPicture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – I wish that me and Oscar Wilde could’ve been friends. I wrote a few years back about how I think “The Importance Of Being Earnest” is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. And I love his essays. I’m not sure how right they are (“The Soul Of Man Under Socialism” seems, to me, very fuzzy and aristocratic), but he always words things so beautifully (and you can tell that he’s given a lot of thought to what he says). Oh yeah, and his only novel is the bomb. And, it’s kind of a fantasy novel! As you probably well know, it’s about a handsome young fella whose portrait is painted by a well-known artist. And then, for the rest of the life, the portrait ages instead of Dorian. Anyway, roughly 80% of this book is talking. A lot of it is witty, highly-mannered, vaguely philosophical talk. I’d be lying if I said that I remembered what exactly they were talking about, but I do remember that it was exceedingly funny, but that it had these undertones of despair. It’s a portrait of a place and a time and a people (a gay people, one might note); in many ways, I suppose it’s the depressing autobiographical comic of the 1890s. Anyway, it was an experience. I read it in one sitting, while on an airplane.

Are comedic novels supposed to be funny in the same way that stand-up comics are funny?

I like funny things. Well, not videos of cats. Actually, I avoid humorous Youtube videos of any sort. But I am generally capable of appreciating all other forms of funny media: musicals, jokes (even puns), stand-up comedies, sit-coms, etc.

But I’ve always been a little mystified by comedic novels. I mean, I’ve read and enjoyed fair number of ostensibly comedic novels….but I haven’t found them funny.

I find it easy to recognize some kind of similarity between the feeling I get from a good joke (even if I don’t laugh at it) and a comedic song. But that feeling seems, to me, to be so different from the feeling that I get from comedic novels that I hesitate to call them the same feeling.

Out of all the prose works I’ve read, there aren’t more than a handful that I’ve found to be really funny: Simon Rich’s Ant Farm; Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens; and (at least when I read it like ten years ago) Dave Barry’s Big Trouble.

Almost all the other comedic novels I’ve read have seemed to me to possess nothing more or less than the typical qualities of a novel: complicated characters, interesting situations, well-observed social dynamics, etc. It’s true that in ostensibly-comedic novels, these things are exaggerated in certain ways, but most novels make heavy use of exaggeration and satirical elements as well.

For instance, 1984 is not considered a comedic novel, but in its cartoonish depiction of a world of doublethink, Big Brother, two-minute hates, and the like, the novel seems to be satirizing real world institutions in exactly the same way as, say, Catch-22.

As another example, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye (and, to some extent, Franny And Zooey) is about an intelligent but deluded fool who feels very estranged from the world in which he lives and goes wandering around a large city and criticizing everything around him; that’s also the same premise and technique of John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy Of Dunces. But the former is rarely described as a comic novel, while the latter is frequently described as one.

And that would be fine, if the latter novel was funny and the former was not. However, I don’t perceive that distinction. To me, 1984 and Catcher in the Rye are good in pretty much the same way that Catch-22 and Confederacy of Dunces are good.

I don’t recognize comedic novels as being funny, but there is something that I enjoy about them. I like their niceness and miniaturization. Most of life isn’t heart-rending and life-altering. Most of it is tea parties and little arguments. I think that ‘comedic’ novels tend to capture that pretty well and, in some ways, they feel more true than more ostensibly realistic novels.

The closest thing to a comedic novel is probably the romantic comedy film. Rom-coms are generally not that funny. Instead, they’re cute. They’re romances without passion. They’re dramas without bite. When I say it that way, it kind of sounds like I am slamming them, but I actually like the absence of passion and drama. I think that it’s an interesting way of portraying life. And since we don’t know quite what to call things that are ‘cute’ or ‘nice’ in this way, we call them ‘comedies.’

Recently, I have read five extremely good comedic novels and I am going to summarize my reactions to them below.

Vile Bodies
by Evelyn Waugh – One of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s a very fast-paced novel about petty English gentry in the inter-war period. I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel that was about precisely this milieu and time period. Or rather, perhaps I have (most of the Bloomsbury Group’s novels must be about these folks) but I haven’t recognized it because no one else has so skillfully drawn out matters of money and social relationships. This book is also told in a really interesting way. It’s composed primarily of very short–less than 500 word–scenes and has very abrupt transitions between scenes.

Decline And Fall by Evelyn Waugh – This is Waugh’s first novel (and my introduction to his work). I’m always surprised at the gall of some authors. Waugh wrote a novel that’s basically about an Oxford student who gets kicked out of college and goes on to do a bunch of things that are sort of like what Waugh did (like teach at a private school) but, of course, a lot sillier. I don’t think fiction ought to imitate real life in this way, because real life generally makes very little sense. This comes through pretty well in the novel. The only reason the main character does the next thing is because the author wants to talk about the next thing. Still, the novel turned out well (but I bet most novels that are like this one are pretty horrible). Also, Waugh’s

novels also tend to have horrific subplots that you should look for. People die between scenes for no good reason.

Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene – Because of his daughter’s extravagant pecuniary demands, a vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana agrees to become an informant for a British spy agency. But because he’s lazy, he just sends back doctored reports. This is only barely comic. Informants actually do this kind of thing all the time. But there’s something in the twisting desperation of the informant to manufacture a good life for himself and his daughter that is really interesting.

Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene – This book is about a boring fifty year old man (a retired bank manager) who meets his septuagenarian aunt for the first time and starts going on crazy world-spanning adventures with her. The most interesting thing about this novel is its sense of restraint. If I (or any other imitator) was to write a character like the aunt, we’d make her backstory outrageous and diverse. We’d put in everything into her backstory. We’d have her taming lions in Senegal and blasting off to outer space and saving the President from assassins in Tulsa. She’d basically be Pippi Longstocking. But although Graham Greene doesn’t reveal her entire past, he basically allows the reader to reconstruct a very coherent timeline from the aunt’s stories. Although she’s still a ridiculous character, her comprehensibility makes her seem much more realistic; she’s not just some crazy awesome Chuck Norris type who no real person could ever live up to.

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh – I also read Scoop. But I am blanking on what to say about it right now, so instead I’ll just transition directly into:


ASIDE: Is Dickens supposed to be comedic or what? I mean, do people find him funny? Do people find him dramatic? Dickens is so weird. It’s hard to know what to think about him. He’s pretty much his own entirely inimitable blend of the absurd and the dramatic. Nothing about Dickens is real and nothing about him is funny, but when you see his mannequins walk around, some kind of real emotion oozes up out of you. I guess that he’s sort of like a musical. If you stop to think about what musicals are (stories about people who just burst out into song in the most ordinary situations) then they start to seem really ridiculous. Maybe most forms and genres of media are pretty ridiculous if you’re not willing to embrace their conventions.

I would like to read a dull plotless novel, because all the plotless novels I’ve read have been too awesome

            I don’t think that any novel is really “plotless”. As long as you’ve got a character who moves around and performs actions, then there’s a plot. Normally, the term “plotless” is used in a pejorative sense, to refer to novels or films in which the action doesn’t increase in intensity (you know, the book doesn’t start with little fights and end with big fights….they’re just little fights all the way through).

But I am not using the term in that sense. I’m using it to refer to a number of books I’ve read recently that, while they are novel length, only possess about a tiny dollop of plot (maybe a short story’s worth), with the rest of these books being given over, more or less, to some kind of treatise, or lecture, or bizarre textual performance.

The most recent of these books, for me, was Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, which is about a middle-aged widower who really loves Gustave Flaubert and gets involved in an extremely minor and easily solved mystery. 80% of the novel is given over to the reflections of this guy–George Braithwaite–on Flaubert, and his attempts to build up some kind of composite mental image of what Flaubert was like as a man. These reflections include: a whole chapter on various animal metaphors Flaubert used (called the Flaubert Beastiary); a series of three chronology’s of Flaubert’s life, one triumphant one, one sad one, and one composed of extracts from his letters; an extended fictional monologue by one of Flaubert’s mistresses; a discussion of books that Flaubert wanted to write but didn’t get around to; and a long list of reasons to hate Flaubert (with counterarguments).

Now, all this Flaubertiana has some resonances with Braithwaite’s story (which exists in a sort of nimbus surrounding the death of his wife), but for most of the book, you don’t care about that. You just care about learning all kinds of fun shit about Flaubert.

And, for me, that seems to be the commonality between all the “plotless” novels I’ve read. In each case, there has been some resonance between the non-story material and the main plot, but the joy of the book has primarily come about due to my own engagement with the non-story material.

            A perfect example is the four David Markson books I’ve read (Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Reader’s Block, This Is Not A Novel, and The Last Novel). All of these books are primarily composed of various trivia about artists (as described in this blog post). Now…all of these have some kind of through-line, story-wise (particularly Wittgenstein’s Mistress). And people say that the reason they work is because Markson was incredibly skilled at choosing the right piece of trivia to put in the right place and at crafting resonances and themes that spanned across the book. And that is undoubtedly true. But that’s not what I was thinking when I read the book. What I was most often thinking was, “Wow, that is an incredibly nifty fact.”

And the same goes for the oldest plotless novel in my quiver: The Journal Of A Plague Year (which I blogged about last year). Once again, the joys of this novel are primarily the same joys as one gets from non-fiction. They’re the joys of learning something new about something really strange (in this case, plague-wracked London).

So this leaves me wondering…what would a boring plotless (or, rather, plot-sparse) novel look like? I would like to read a novel that is composed of numerous very interesting facts, but which nonetheless fails to cohere for me as a book. I think that would give me a greater appreciation for the artistry of the plot-sparse novels that I’ve read so far, because right now it feels to me like they’re mostly feeding off of the interesting nature of their nonfictional subject matter (and the freedom that the novel form gives them to present that subject matter in interesting and odd ways). And although that is probably not true, I would like to have some intuitive understanding of why it’s not true and of what Julian Barnes, David Markson, and Daniel Defoe are actually doing.

Regarding plot-sparse novels, I’m surprised that I can’t think of any SF novels which fit the bill. Considering how fond science fiction is of explication, I’d think there would be many. Certainly, the old-tyme utopia form (as in Thomas More’s Utopia or B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward) is chocked-full of plot-sparse novels. Maybe the closest I can come, for science fiction, is Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which is a book whose (somewhat nonsense) plot seems like an excuse to string together some fascinating digressions. However, I am sure there are better examples of plot-sparse SF novels.

In addition to the novels I’ve mentioned above, other novels I’d like to propose for “plot-sparse” status are: the second half of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, which is just a long philosophical dialogue; Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction, which is just a description of the eponymous character; and Dostoyevsky’s Notes From The Underground, whose first half is a lecture on political and personal philosophy. I suppose Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler also fits, a little bit, but in that case the interpolations are also stories, at least kind of. And Calvino’s Invisible Cities might count too, although it feels more like a story collection with a framing device. Oh, and there’s also Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, which is (at least partly) a series of lectures by a fictional professor. I haven’t read it, but I am planning to.

What other ones can you think of?