Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Light Years" by James Salter

I finished reading this on a plane ride. During the same trip, I watched the movie Boyhood. I mention this fact because the two narratives were in some ways very similar: meandering, lifelike, oddly compelling, encompassing the changes that happen to people over years, through childhood and also parenthood/adulthood. But they were also very different, and the biggest difference was probably the overall feel: Boyhood, while bleak or upsetting in parts, is basically optimistic, cheerful. Light Years, though studded with moments of sweetness and glory, is essentially a downward spiral. Age, it says, strips away everything, leaving you without children, without love, without hope. It's hard for me to express just how strongly I disagree with this view of life.

In spite of this philosophical flaw, however, I really enjoyed large parts of Light Years. James Salter is not a particularly famous name, but apparently he was one of John Updike's favorite writers, and it is easy to see why. His prose here is deeply sensual and evocative, and in the early chapters I felt as if I were living with Viri and Nedra and their daughters in the large, old, perfectly described house by the Hudson River in New York State. And what a pleasant life it was: endless summer days, delicious meals, champagne, intellectual conversations, interesting friends...

Certainly, the characters in Light Years move in a social circle several strata above those in Boyhood (and above mine, for that matter). But maybe this is precisely why they descend so quickly and inexorably into existential gloom? It has to be either that or the era, I think (1950s to 1970s: Light Years was published in '75), unless Salter was simply a depressive man. Certainly, the absence of financial worries and - in Nedra's case - work, does seem to leave them a little too free to make a gigantic, steaming mess of their perfect lives.

Nedra, the central protagonist, is a very difficult character to like. At the end of the second chapter, two visitors to the house talk about her on their way home. 'She's a very generous woman,' says the husband. 'Generous?' queries the wife. 'She's the most selfish woman on earth.'

Turns out they're both right. Nedra is certainly generous in her affections, physical and otherwise (and one of the novel's greatest strengths is the precisely evoked - and, frankly, very hot - sensuality of her bedroom adventures), but she also seems utterly indifferent to the effects her actions have on anyone else. Curiously, this is presented in the novel as some sort of triumph - how free she is, how courageous! - though I did wonder whether the author meant all of this ironically, whether the portrait of Nedra was in fact a sly character assassination of a cheating wife.

Either way, my fascination and pleasure in the novel were gradually dimmed as it went along. And in the end, for all of its stylishness and intelligence, Light Years left me cold.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

"The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene

I'm in the habit of reading books cover-to-cover, beginning to end, including all quotes and introductions preceding the actual text. Nerdy of me, I know, but it satisfies my completist bent. No matter how many times the intro has spoiled a book for me, it stupidly had never crossed my mind to change my habit (how can I *not* read the intro??) until I whined to Sam about the spoiler before this book. (Never mind what information is "given in the first chapter": I don't want it until I read it in the book!!) Sam's simple but brilliant advice? "Why don't you read introductions after you've read the book?" Once I'd gotten over my shock at this suggestion ("But they put it at the beginning!") I quickly began to see the wisdom of it, and I'm eager to try the new plan next time. (I just hope I remember it.)

Other than my intro/spoiler rant, I must admit that I knew even as I read that I probably wouldn't come up with much to say about this novella. It's not as if I didn't enjoy it--the story was interesting and thought-provoking and engrossing--but it was a bit of a downer that made me feel quiet and introspective. It told of an author, Maurice Bendrix, whose affair with Sarah Miles had ended abruptly two years before. His obsession with her, rather than titillating, was depressing and destructive.

This was my first foray in to Greene, and I appreciated his way with words and his unconventional perspective. His use of religious themes reminded me of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (although I don't recall any further similarities). I am drawn (though not in a chomping-at-the-bit way) to try more of Greene's works.

Note: the book cover pictured doesn't match that of the copy I read, but #1, I couldn't find a picture of this copy; #2, I was too lazy to take a photo myself; and #3, I like the cover pictured here better anyway.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan

My feelings about this one changed as I was reading it, from weary cynicism to excited wonder. I can't remember how I first heard about Goon Squad - I just knew that it was critically acclaimed. After reading the first two chapters, though, I was convinced that all that praise was just the usual empty hype. The writing seemed unremarkable to me, the tone that of the usual bored irony, the characters and themes tired, almost generic. A young kleptomaniac woman talking to her shrink; a divorced, middle-aged record producer with erectile problems and a difficult relationship with his son, who also has a shrink and is bothered by the cleanness and precision of digitally recorded music... None of this struck me as fresh or original or interesting, just a lukewarm rehash of David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, and a dozen other contemporary, quasi po-mo American authors.

But, as it went on, the book veered off at unexpected tangents, suddenly reversing twenty years into the record producer's past - an episode narrated by a girl with a crush on him - and then into the even deeper past of the record producer's mentor... The chapters are actually short stories, and you could read them on their own, or in any order you like, but their arrangement here gives each and every one of them added depth and allusiveness. Which is, I think, why the book improves as it goes along: because what Egan is creating here is not the usual flat, linear tapestry of narrative, but a sort of multi-dimensional sculpture, with tunnels and lenses and mirrors, characters and events magnified and reflected and inverted by the episodes that come before and after.

Somehow the writing seems to improve as it goes along too, although that may have been my imagination. Maybe I just got used to Egan's style, or maybe I realized to what extent her prose mirrored the characters whose viewpoints we were sharing? In any case, the real star of the show is not the book's style, but its structure. Which might sound boring, but isn't. In fact, I found it really thrilling. The usual metaphor for chronologically mixed-up narratives - a jigsaw puzzle - is inadequate here. Goon Squad is more like the three-dimensional chess that they used to play in Star Trek (and The Big Bang Theory). I found myself wanting to chart the characters' relationships and the timeline on a graph, the way one of the characters (a twelve-year-old boy with slight autism) charts the length and position of pauses in rock songs.

I didn't, of course, because I'm not that anal, and life is too short. But maybe Kathy will do it, when she reads the book? Or, more likely, she'll google it and find a chart that someone else has made. I'm too lazy to even bother doing that. I loved this book, though, and will definitely look out for other fiction by Jennifer Egan.