Dirt Music is a highly orchestrated chronicle of at least three lives that intersect the way roads in the vastness of Western Australia must intersect: at unlikely junctions that might be long anticipated but even longer, sometimes, regretted.
Boyd’s work is extremely competent, smart, well-wrought in every way, with fine writing too. Boyd is particularly masterful at employing very short sections to quickly establish and deftly and economically build up his narratives. Some of these stories are composed of paragraph-long sections representing distinct points of view that together produce a sort of pastiche of sensory data and information, and in this way lay out the drama involved.
It is a world of true revolutionary fervor and desperation in this country that McGrath recreates in the short space of sixty-one pages, as well as visceral and ideological animosity—the kind people are willing to kill and die for—towards the English masters, a time when Americans (that is, North Americans, or estadounidenses) were treated with the same brand of disdain that the European descendants in this country tend to reserve now, for example, for Latin Americans.
Robert Stone’s Outerbridge Reach is a magnificent book. And magnificent—with its roots in magnus, great, and facere, to make—is just the right word, le mot juste.
This novel is large and ambitious and although there is a point in the story at which the tension—that tautness in the long line that has been pulling the reader along from the very beginning—slackens a bit, and the reader is asked to accept one single almost cliché but largely inevitable development in the narrative, the story is otherwise almost flawless.
The first thing that impressed me was Stone’s command of the nautical idiom, not only the vocabulary, both nouns and verbs, for all those sailing and boat terms—auxiliary, mainsail, genoa, way point, sloop, swells, running lights, companionway ladder, rig, lifeline, unreef, hatch, the sea slight, wallow, bilge pump, back-siphon, seacock; and all of this within the first two pages—but the way Stone managed and applied this language to the many tasks of his narrative.
Accompanying this skill and accomplishment—and growing on me impressively as both reader and writer—were Stone’s command of both dialogue and character generally. And more specifically some truly marvelous juxtapositioning of observational lines for the most revealing and effective of psychological insights.
Strickland, the jaded film maker, for example had always wanted to make a film about just one person. Thinking of the starlet of a film he had made about the Manhattan underlife he muses:
With her…it would be a knotty work. How to penetrate that busy swarm of verbiage and gesture and find the shiny animal within? How to bring it stunned and dripping into light? But what a worthy lesson for the world to glimpse what thrived in the airless inner life of just one particular whore. It would be every bit as striking as your pet cemetery films. There would be the same uneasiness at what teemed there, under the crust.
Or at the beginning of the reader’s understanding of the marital stalemate and general malaise that Owen and Anne have accepted and almost come to terms with, a fundamental dis-ease with their lives and coexistence that has led her to drink and will lead him to solitude and death at sea, we are told of the origin of their love, from her point of view:
Years before, in a different world, they had met on the island…They had started dating the summer after plebe year and the ferry figured in their courtship…They had spent whole crossings necking on the same gearbox, starboard aft.
Now side by side, not touching, they seemed to be avoiding each other’s eye…For a moment she felt the remnants of that breathless romance strewn about her, demystified and ironical with time, exposed to the gray rain.
Later, when Stone starts setting us up for the inevitable affair with Strickland—the artist-at-all-costs—who begins to fall under Anne’s spell (which is probably as much a consequence of his narcissism and the film he has been hired to make as it is of her slightly faded charms) Strickland watches Anne at a party, flirting with another man.
Her presence made him feel irritable and frustrated; he had to consciously resist looking at her all the time. It was not usual for him to be reticent with women. Generally, he was happy to let them notice his attention and figure things out for themselves.
But later that same night, once he’s alone with Anne in a chauffeured car, “Strickland felt that she was wary of him.”
He regretted coming along now and being at such close quarters with her and so outside her life. He was taken with the thought that he might never, ever get any closer. The thought made him feel both lonely and angry.
That sense of simultaneous loneliness and anger, or Owen Browne’s own sense of estrangement from his wife and daughter as he climbs the stairs in the familiar house—“Things had a peculiar novelty that was both invigorating and unsettling”—might seem contradictory to some readers; but instead the paired emotions reported by the narrator conjure up a more complex and nuanced and therefore more visceral and true emotion that is easy for me at least to recognize and identify with as not only convincing but real.
In the space of a limited impression-piece I can’t do this novel justice. Robert Stone is a strong sure writer and just going through the book again and looking up the citations I also see the way he has so carefully and thoroughly layered in the supporting threads of narrative: Anne was probably a more capable sailor than Owen could ever hope to become; her father was a bastard who made his wealth by being ruthless, and though she doesn’t like him she will need him and his thugs in the end; the way Owen’s own father always complained about some unjust accusation that had sullied his honor; or the way that some of the best of the relationship between Anne and Owen dated back to the Vietnam War, when he was thousands of miles away from her and both of them were able to believe in themselves and their love for one another more easily, given the distance and the continual threat they lived under.
Once Owen sets sail on his doomed craft in a race he doesn’t really care about winning I felt as if Stone had written himself into a corner. I think this happens sometimes, while we work on stories that present such wonderful potential and excite us so much as writers and yet, sometimes, the place where the story wants and needs to go can become problematic.
In this case Owen alone at sea with only the well-established portent of the shabbily constructed craft and his lonesome thoughts sets up a narrative situation in which—until that negligent craftsmanship begins to actively threaten Browne—we are left with the dilemma of a single player standing alone on the stage. The pattern of the alternating chapters depicting Browne and Anne vs. Strickland and then, once Browne sets sail, Anne and Strickland vs. Browne obliges Stone to keep returning to the man in the boat, even if the chapters are necessarily briefer now.
But what can we watch him do? Or say? Or even think? Unlike Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea Browne is too much alone on the Nona, and doesn’t even have the fish he is fighting as antagonist, and someone he can talk to in ways that are dramatically effective. So that is one problem.
The other—and I think this is why the book didn’t win a major prize—is that Stone early on suggested and prepared the reader for the almost inevitable bedding of Anne by this very strange man Strickland. Though we have been prepared for this outcome, it feels to me a little too stereotypical: Anne obviously loves Browne a great deal but the marriage has run dry; Strickland is simultaneously presented as a very weird creature, almost misanthropic, and yet he easily finds women who want to sleep with him (the tiresome male fantasy); but Anne is not only alcoholic but deeply lonely, and therefore easy prey to Strickland whose motives for sleeping with her are conflicted.
That much though I can accept because the portrayal of Strickland as something of a die-for-his-art predator willing to take advantage of anyone and always looking for the means of doing this, despite his belated empathy for Browne, both the man and his perilous mission, is convincing enough. Strickland’s almost nihilistic ambivalence is something I can accept and relate to in a character. Browne’s character is obviously more solid, and even Anne comes across as believable in every way. Until she declares her love for Strickland, soon after they start fucking: “I do love you, you know.”
By this time we have passed through the inflection point of the novel, the point at which Browne enters the storm and discovers that his craft is being ripped apart as a result of the shortcuts the Korean manufacturers took and Strickland and Anne are simultaneously acting upon their pent-up desire for one another. For the space of several short chapters the book could barely hold my interest.
Once Browne sets out on his ill-conceived voyage to circle the earth in a race we never expect him to win there are only a couple of possibilities: he dies at sea, or stranded on some island, or he returns, eventually, to a life that was not made any better by his foolhardiness and stubborn determination to do something he had no business doing in the first place (or so we think). Or perhaps there is a third option: he really does discover that thing about himself that he set out to find and no matter what happens to his body he is vindicated with a strengthened soul?
After the lag in the drama, while Browne decides what to do, Stone takes command of his narrative once again. The novel finishes well and the last quarter or eighth of the book has the same power as everything leading up to that inflection point I mentioned.
And once again we have Stone’s remarkable observational prose, revealing of both surface and depth at the same time:
He let her gentle and flatter him into making love. Wanting to satisfy him, she applied herself. She could feel him trying to excel, to impress her and bind her to him. Her own pleasure made her feel affectionate and uncritical, almost hopeful that they might somehow go on. But in the dark she knew better.
Robert Stone seems to be one of those writers who learned to write by actively living and loving in the real hard true world, where every apparent contradiction points to a fundamental axiom of being. The sort of writer I love to read.
Image by Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=518022
Since I first started reading 1Q84 I’ve been trying to precisely determine what it might be in Murakami’s prose that makes him such a popular—and highly regarded—writer. The words ‘ease’ and finally ‘casual’ kept coming to me: his prose has an almost—but not quite—chatty feel to it, because it is so casual and in many ways so effortless to read. Everything that is stated is stated frankly and directly, there is no nuance and little suggestion. Even when characters meet and talk to each other they understand exactly what the other is trying to say. So much so that, for example, when Tengo meets Fuka-Eri and Professor Ebisuno the plot is very neatly and tidily updated—between pages 330 and 340—as Tengo doesn’t so much listen to the man who has summoned him to a private meeting as tell the Professor what the Professor wants Tengo to know:
“By ‘they,’ I suppose you mean the Sakigake people?”
“But you must have some sort of plan in mind, I would think,” Tengo said.
“I do have some sort of plan in mind,” Professor Ebisuno said.
“May I guess what it is?”
“Of course you may.”
Tengo goes on to tell the reader through this stage conversation with Professor Ebisuno exactly what the Professor has in mind. Tengo interjects from time to time his complete understanding of everything the Professor means to tell him. And in this way the least trace of dramatic tension between these characters is eliminated. Resulting in a narrative that is in some ways a bit saccharine, despite the presumably purposeful strangeness of events.
While reading from 1Q84 last night I finally hit upon an understanding of this type of prose, which I liken to pop music. Because there is so little in this prose that really—on a line-by-line level anyway—challenges the reader. Even the rhythm of the prose, and the music in these lines, in the sentences, lacks any hint of real (never mind gritty) drama. Everything is just too clean. The words simply pour forth, far too easily, resulting in a trilogy that is 1,300 pages long.
Reading Murakami must satisfy the voracious reader’s appetite the way drinking tepid tap water satisfies the thirst of anyone who is only and merely thirsty and wants to chug it down and quench that thirst. It tastes neither better nor worse, like different wines, distinctive; and certainly not like malt whisky or a truly fine vodka: nothing with a little kick accompanying the pleasure of actually savoring a drink.
And out of this sea of nothingness, this bland landscape, where nothing really distinguishes itself, where none of the characters have any real depth and dimension at all, spring double moons and Little People who climb out of a sleeping ten-year-old’s mouth. They’re about the size of Aomame’s pinkie at first, although soon they become very busy growing:
They climbed down from the bed to the floor, and from under the bed they pulled out an object [an ‘object?’] about the size of a Chinese pork bun. Then they sat in a circle around the object and started feverishly working on it [how so, ‘working on it?’]. It [the pork bun-like object] was white and highly elastic. They would stretch their arms out and, with practiced movements, pluck white translucent threads out of the air [how so out of the air, I mean, out of nothing?], applying them to the fluffy, white object, making it bigger and bigger.
So it’s all fluff? Regardless, and before long,
the Little People themselves had grown to nearly two feet in height.
The only curiosity that I have with regard to what is going to happen next in this novel is that of seeing what it is the author has so leisurely concocted. The fantasy element in this book is of no interest whatsoever to me, and that may merely be my bias. Though I did feel as if the reflection upon our genetic purpose was the sort of fertile line of questioning that might have led somewhere.
Wouldn’t our genetic purpose—to transmit DNA—be served just as well if we lived simple lives…Did it benefit the genes in any way for us to lead such intricately warped, even bizarre, lives?
This is a good question, and one well worth pondering.
A man who finds joy in raping prepubescent girls, a powerfully built gay bodyguard, people who choose death over [blood] transfusion, a woman who kills herself with sleeping pills while six months pregnant, a woman who kills problematic men with a needle thrust into the back of the neck, men who hate women, women who hate men: how could it possibly profit the genes to have such people existing in the world?
But by relying upon this almost summary and puppet-like treatment of possibly complex characters Murakami simplifies everything once again.
In the end the feeling I get from reading Murakami is that this is a writer who writes to please himself, and not only that, but to entertain himself. From one night to the next I can barely recall the few references made to elements or details of either Aomame’s or Tengo’s pasts, not because I wasn’t paying attention while I read but, I think, because even while paying attention while I read there was so little to pick up on. I.e., no subtext. And practically nothing that I could chew on and mull over and look forward to during the next twenty-four hours, before I picked up the massive trilogy again and set it on my lap and carried on reading.
So pop literature it is. Easy listening. With plenty of white and highly elastic and expansive filling inside, like cotton wool, only stickier. Like cotton candy really.
(As always, this is only and never more than my humble opinion and I could, of course, be very mistaken. So I apologize to anyone who thinks otherwise.)
Image of Book Cover by by Haruki Murakami; published by Shinchosha – Unknown online image of the cover in question, Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23045360
As a writer I always read critically, on numerous levels simultaneously, and at least one of my roaming critical eyes is always turned back upon myself—and my own work, and what I might or might not be able to achieve—in comparison to what I happen to be reading at the time.
This happens every time I pick up a book, but it isn’t the only thing that happens. And I only mention it now because some writing is so impressive upon first contact with it that the writer in me feels overwhelmed to the point of impotence.
That was my initial reaction to the opening pages of The Riders. I was taken aback, and very excited, by the display of verbal virtuosity in these pages.
The cold breeze charged into the house, finding every recess and shadowy hollow. It rattled boards upstairs and lifted scabs of paint from the walls to come back full in his face smelling of mildew, turf, soot, birdshit, Worcestershire sauce and the sealed-up scent of the dead and forgotten. [Scully] scraped his muddy boots on the flagstones and closed the door behind him. The sudden noise caused an explosion in the chimney as jackdaws fled their fortress of twigs in the fireplace. His heart racing, he listened to them batter skyward, out into the failing day, and when they were gone he lit a match and set it amongst the debris.
This might not be the best example of what I mean, but in this fragment of the first paragraph of the novel the reader can see already how active the language is going to be, and how vivid at times: those “scabs of paint” flapping in the sudden violent draft occasioned by the opening of the long-closed door and returning to Scully all those odors of the abandoned musty cottage he has come to fix up, including the “sealed-up scent of the dead and forgotten.”
The sound of the startled jackdaws’ wings, battering out of the house and into the sky.
I liked all that, it made my pulse quicken. And the following paragraphs were dense with more of the same. And soon the character of Pete-the-Post, the good-natured friendly and helpful Irishman commissioned with the delivery of the mail appeared, to alleviate what might have become the burden of slogging through such a densely verbalized and occasionally impressionistic woods.
And Pete is brilliantly rendered, especially his speech, as well as the banter between he and the Aussie newcomer. Pete is not only the most sympathetic character in the entire novel but the most accurately portrayed, the most believable character in the whole book. And among other things we have, in these first chapters, a splendid bit of interplay between life and attitudes in Old Ireland and New Australia, a dichotomy of climates and their consequent cultures.
So Tim Winton’s novel gets off to a great start. And soon I was wishing I didn’t know what every reader who glances at the book cover knows before they begin to read the book: that this working class bloke Scully is fixing up a run-down cottage in the “Irish outback” because his pregnant wife Jennifer and their precocious six-year-old daughter Billie, with whom Scully has always been—judging from his reminiscences—particularly tight, were coming to live there, once they had sold the house they owned in Fremantle and returned from Australia. I wished, as a reader, that I didn’t know that only Billie would get off the flight from London in another few weeks, shortly before Christmas.
And I wished I didn’t know this because Winton does an excellent job of setting the reader up for Scully’s disappointment; but not—it has to be said—his utterly pathetic bewilderment and the choices he makes when only a tight-lipped Billie gets off that plane.
From that point on the novel, for me, begins to flounder.
The night before the anticipated arrival of the rest of his three-musketeer family Scully accepts Pete’s invitation to go out and have a drink. He drinks a little too much and sometime during that long night Scully wakes up and goes outside—naked beneath his robe, his sockless feet slipped into a pair of Wellies—and wanders into a strange scene below the ruins of the neighboring castle. Although Winton returns at the very end of the novel to that which is alluded to in this capricious dream-like visitation—after which Scully wakes up, the next morning, and finds his bedsheets littered with dried mud, so the reader knows at least that Scully really did wander down there that night—he provides no further clues at any time as to what this is all really supposed to be about (or perhaps it could be that I, as a reader, have become, by the time we get to that second and last castle-at-night scene with mute horsemen carrying flaming torches, that ends the book, so disillusioned with the story that I can’t be bothered to grant Winton the benefit of the doubt and indulge in any effort to try to figure out what this vision is meant to represent?).
From the arrival of Billie on page 89 I began to lose faith in the novel. Not only has Winton set us up for a relationship of complicity between him and the child, providing us—or those of us who are parents anyway—with hard-to-believe memories of how articulate and curious and eager Billie is (and my own daughter was and remains a great reader), so that we can only be baffled by her stubborn silence during the entire length of the novel, but Jennifer too remains not only barely explicable, if that much, but unjustifiable in every way (her behavior, her character, her ‘mysterious’ choice not to get on that plane to Dublin).
My response to Jennifer’s having abandoned Scully and their daughter is never moral indignation. What bothered me is that Winton plays with the reader, avoiding providing us with any little bits of relevant information or clues not because he couldn’t come up with them I suppose, but simply because he—as a writer—doesn’t want to. And that makes me feel used, and mistreated, as a reader.
Add to that my growing impatience with Scully and the choices he makes, his near total disregard for the child’s welfare, an impatience that soon morphs into boredom with him as a character. And add to that Winton’s forcing of the baffling metaphors:
The city was fat with taxi horns and bells.
The sound of bells roosted on the wind.
Something about a “fish sky,” whatever that is, or would look like, or smell like, on page 326, and air “so cold it felt like Coke going down your neck,” or the “hard Christmas air.”
Add all this up and the read becomes drudgery.
I hate to state in such unequivocal terms my disillusion with this novel but my intention in these mini-reviews is to be honest. What I have to say about The Riders is only ever my opinion, nothing more. This is a book that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and after having heard Winton speak on the radio I looked forward to reading his work. But this book is not for me.
John Smelcer’s The Trap tells the story of an entire people through the alternating points of view of two men, Albert Least-Weasel and his teenage grandson, Johnny Least-Weasel. Heightening this sense—and intention, no doubt—of a story striving to transcend the details of its own plot and convert itself into the larger and more encompassing story of a steadily vanishing way of life in a part of the country—the Alaskan Artic Circle—where Nature remains the primary force to be reckoned with are the almost didactic asides in the voice of the single omniscient narrator.
I’m hesitant to write a less than glowing review of Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters because I’m such an admirer of much of his other work. And the novel begins in a way that only raised my expectations. The fantastic dialogue—so cryptic and quippy and spot-on, revealing levels of tacit understanding between the speakers while leaving the reader both wondering and hurrying to catch up—is perfect for this fictional world of renegade turncoat spies and other outcasts that form an international class of interloping social detritus.
This dialogue along with the suggestive—yet elusive—description of place enhances the strange yet very specific feel of post-civil war West Africa, where the story begins, a part of that huge and troubled continent that seems to be permanently awash in the residues of madness and poverty and the limitless tragedies these two incorrigible factors always spawn.
Having lived next door in Liberia right before all hell broke loose soon after the rigged elections of 1985 much of what Johnson describes is familiar to me. I used to dream of going back to Monrovia, dark and dangerous dreams imbued with the threat of chaos.
In Johnson’s novel Roland Nair—whose name alone conjures up Warren Zevon’s Headless Thompson Gunner, the archetypal white mercenary who ends up haunting all civil conflicts everywhere—is supposed to be Danish (just as Zevon’s character was Norwegian) even though he travels on an American passport. So from the very beginning nothing is certain, least of all anyone’s loyalty to anyone else.
Nair gets sent to Freetown by the NIIA (a fictional NATO intelligence agency) with the purpose of finding out what his old friend Michael Adriko is up to. Nair allows Adriko (with whom he served in some unclarified capacity in Afghanistan) to seduce him with his scheme to sell phony processed uranium, as well as his more mundane plans to marry a girl from Colorado—his former commanding officer’s daughter—in his native village, somewhere in the mountainous region of the Uganda-Congo border.
At the same time that Nair is betraying Adriko by not only keeping tabs on him—while reporting none of what he has discovered about Adriko to his bosses in Brussels—he is also falling in love with Adriko’s fiancée and betraying the NIIA by arranging to sell classified information to anyone willing to buy it.
So much for the premise of the story which pretty much ends where it began.
Long before that though the plot—what there is of plot in this study not so much of character, but of characters—derails. The fourth and final part of the book relates the captivity, release and breakdown of these characters, none of which can withstand much serious scrutiny. In some ways the book boils down—as far as what it’s supposed to really be about—to questions of loyalty and commitment. When Nair and Adriko reconnect somewhere in the Newada Mountains Adriko assures Nair that he was never involved with Tina, the lover Nair left behind in Europe:
“And I was never with Tina. Even if I was with her before you came along, I would have told you.”
“I believe you. I was crazy. And there’s something I want to say as well. Are you listening?”
“I hear you.”
I sat up and looked straight at him and tried hard to make him believe this—because it’s true—“I’d never grass a friend. I might try and steal his girl and leave him to drown in shit while—well, while running off with his girl. But I’m not a snitch. Never.”
When this same scene—in essence at least—was practically repeated a few pages later, and so close to the end of the book, it became apparent that Johnson was trying to insist upon a ‘meaning’ for his story that, although laid out from the beginning, the story itself was not that terribly concerned about. Once they do—spoiler alert!—make it back to Freetown on time to meet the buyers of Nair’s pilfered intelligence, Adriko says, “How much will you profit, Nair, how much money?”
“One hundred K US. That’s the price for betraying absolutely everyone.”
“But, Nair—you didn’t betray me.”
“Not quite. Not yet.”
“The slate is clean between us.”
“I tried to steal your girl.”
“I take it as a compliment.”
And so, in a sense, no harm was done.
The story finishes inconclusively, leaving in the air the prospect of another Nair-Adriko adventure, somewhere in the world. The problem is, the story’s playfully sardonic treatment of everyone and all things—while entertaining—leaves the reader wondering not so much what any of this matters, but rather, who cares?
p.s. The untimely early death of Denis Johnson on the 24th of May of this year makes me feel even worse about writing a less than glowing review of one of his books. I repeat: this is because I am such an admirer of so much of his work, the almost epic Tree of Smoke and the equally large-in-scope novella Train Dreams, even the curious and ghostly Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and Johnson’s first novel, Angels, which suggested the potential and nature and inclinations of this fantastic writer, as well as some of the stories in Jesus’s Son.
But some of the works that great writers produce are better than others, and even the greatest writers have produced less than fully satisfactory works. And a review like this one is nothing more than my own humble assessment and opinion, with which anyone is free to differ.