Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Cleaning Up in 2009

Hello, it's been awhile. You haven't changed a bit! Still the same as ever, I must admit.

No, okay, it really has been awhile. This blog has not been abandoned, all available evidence to the contrary. It's just been a rough year, folks. A rough rough year, and when you're going through stuff certain things inevitably get put on the back burner.

But I have, among other things, a new computer (let's hope this one lasts at least the three years or so the last one did) and at least some unfinished business before we start 2010 on, I hope, better terms all around. So that's why I'm calling this a housekeeping post: it's a housekeeping post, duh.

We're going to try to gear this thing back up on Jan of '10. We'll be focusing on George Macdonald Fraser (because I love Fraser and this gives me an excuse to reread what I have of him and get what I don't) and either Samuel Shellabarger or Keith Roberts, I haven't decided quite yet though am leaning towards Shellabarger.

But to put a capstone on things read this year:

John Buchan – PRESTER JOHN

Buchan's first famous book, anyway, this details a young man's adventures in Colonial Africa where the natives are getting restless. Interesting for being so standup and traditional, very much in the mold of the classic British Adventure story. Interesting too for having such an interesting villain – the bad guy is genuinely bad, no doubt, but not completely unredeemingly bad, in fact he's portrayed as being somebody with much merit, somebody whom, in other circumstances, would be a hero. This gives the story a certain poignancy that I do not remember in the Hannay novels. Book's biggest fault is that it goes on far too long, clearly missing it's natural endpoint – a long standing weakness of Buchan's, I'd say. (In fact I'd say one of the reasons I think HUNTING TOWER is his best is that's the only example of his I can find where the novel feels fully formed, completely done.) But it's surprisingly good, better than I'd hoped for, frankly better as a book than the Hannay novels, and recommended.

I also tried one last time to read WITCH WOOD, but bounced off it again and have said “Uncle”. There are those – I think Michael Moorcock – who admire this book, I think it made the Best 100 Horror novel list. Not for me, though, I cannot seem to get through it.

Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard

I revisted both of these boys authors this year. Burroughs does not hold up well, in fact it's kind of depressing to read him nowadays. He is very pulpy, in the worst, episodic notion of the term (ie, the episodes of his narrative feel like a string of beads, one after another, connected only by the chain of “and then that happened”). There is no internal drive to reading him at any longer than a few pages, Burroughs cannot seem to derive suspense over the long haul. His characterizations are shallow, to say the least; John Carter is just “adventure guy of that era” and Tarzan is a cross between that and “noble savage hooha we've all bought from that era”. I am not an especial admirer of Philip Jose Farmer, but I do agree with him in A FEAST UNKNOWN that the reality of Tarzan's (and Doc Savage's, although I'd argue Doc is inherently a more interesting character than Tarzan) likely existence has been edited out of the accounts.

The one thing I will say for Burroughs is that he can be quite funny, even sardonic. The best parts of THE CAVE GIRL is Burroughs writing about his hero with his tongue firmly lodged between his teeth. Unfortunately he didn't go further down that root – though I really do wonder if at heart he didn't see himself as something of a social critic ala Mencken.

Howard is quite a different matter all together. I got the two volume BEST-OF set and many of these stories seem absolutely fresh and modern, extraordinary when you contemplate the age in which he was writing. (The Thirties were a long, long time ago, friends.) Howard wrote about doom haunted protagonists who fight seemingly for basic existential reasons – because they can. The stench of their inevitable future defeat hangs over all of them, which gives it all a tragic aura. The general sense is that Howard's characters are in a Lovecraftian universe, which could roll over and kill them all in a heartbeat, if it wished. In a lot of stories Howard's protagonists, despite their action, really come across as almost spectators, see “The Tower of the Elephant”, for instance, where by the end you get the idea that the big story happened somewhere off to the side somewhere, just beyond what you could see.

Howard is for the ages. He's not perfect, despite the insistence of the authors a lot of the stuff he ground out to pay the bills (Steve Costigan stories) are not especially interesting, mainly due to the face that he is not nearly as funny as he's trying to be, and I would certainly have replaced those stories with others. But at his best he is remarkably, amazingly good. A lot of reading Howard is like hearing a lonely man's desperate shriek of defiance into the void. Of course he knew the void would win, eventually, nobody who read him can have any doubt that it would've ended the way it did.

John O'Hara – And we'll end up where we left off, with this guy.

I had reviewed the two “critically approved” novels, finding a mild satisfaction in APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA and mostly grooving behind BUTTERFIELD 8. What was left were the big novels (A RAGE TO LIVE, FROM THE TERRACE, TEN NORTH FREDERIC) and the short stories.

My thesis on O'Hara is this: he's okay, not anything special. Despite periodic attempts to revive his career he's basically forgotten because he deserves to be. That said, if you want to understand American literature (a rather different thing than appreciating it) than O'Hara is an author you need to know, for whatever one thinks of the quality of his work, his influence is huge.

No, seriously, who does? Everyone says they do, of course, but this is just highbrow literary classism at work, nobody really goes around reading these things nowadays. I offer for exhibit one: which among you not in a graduate English program (a) heard of John O'Hara and hell (b) knew that Irwin Shaw was once well known for his high-falutin' short fiction? Yeah, that's right, NONE of you. That's not because you're stupid or ill-read; it's because their work lacks inherent interest.

I cannot remember for the life of me one of these O'Hara stories, like most stories of their ilk that rely on epiphanies and images, well, nobody remembers them. They seemed competently done as these things go, very well observed, but well, the point is whether these things should “go” like this, dig. I believe this whole direction was a bad direction for short fiction, innumerable writer's workshops to the contrary. Life may be best understood as a parade of tedium and ephiphanic moments, hell, who knows, but it sure don't work in art. Ridiculously, Howard will be remember when O'Hara is long forgotten because Howard had actually a more original vision of life, swords and sorcerors to one side.

This is one of the reasons why one must look at writing complete and in toto, free of preconceptions of highbrow/lowbrow. Whatever the trappings of Howard, go beneath the surface and he's just a more interesting writer than O'Hara. Having said all that, though, again, if you want to learn about American Literature you really need to know about these stories, I rather suspect this is the root from which that often dried-desiccated tree grew

The big novels are variations of the endless attempt in American letters from this period to write the Great American Novel Capturing Our Country In All It's Diversity. Crap, no matter how you want to look at it, although they're smoothly and competently done, and O'Hara is a fine observer in minature. You can read along A RAGE TO LIVE and nod and smile and mostly enjoy yourself on a page to page basis, it's just when taken in larger chunks it starts to smell, rather a problem when you're writing a big ol' book that's meant to be taken in bigger chunks. Another way to say it: O'Hara knew his world, but didn't really have much by way of thoughts about it, other than seemingly we'd all be better off if we had better orgasms, the naivete of which continues to amuse. Yes, I believe O'Hara must be the root source of this old chestnut in American fiction.

Does a big fat novel need thought? If you're trying to write a big fat Greatest American novel, then yeah, it sure does.

The one thing I do find interesting about the novels is that they are apparently a root (if not the root) of the modern American bestseller family dynasty kind of thing. We follow a family or a group of people through the years, watching their ups and downs, etc. Could PEYTON PLACE have existed without John O'Hara.

Though I think I much prefer Marquand's novels, as limited as they are often are in scope he's oddly more of an actual novelist.

As for the short stories, these are the Officially Approved output of O'Hara, rare you do not see an establishment critic, when this guy comes up, who does get all misty-eyed about the short stories. I read through most of THE COLLECTED STORIES which I believe is actually better understood to be THE SELECTED STORIES and they're basically “New Yorker” type literary short stories. Very much so, in fact I was rather surprised by it. I was expecting something like a highbrow variant of Dashiell Hammett, I suppose because so many hardboiled writers admire him; when this really is the founding document of Wallace Shawn-ism.