May 7, 2010

Your micro-review roundup: 7 May 2010

(Because I make my way through so many books and movies for CCLaP, I regularly come across projects that are interesting enough unto themselves but that I simply don't have much to say about, or at least not enough to warrant an entire entry. I thought, then, that on occasional weekends I would gather up such "micro-reviews" and post them all in one large entry; they can also be found on CCLaP's main book and main movie archive pages.)

Special "I'm Disappointed In You, Hoo-Mons" Edition.

The Kindly Ones, by Jonthan Littell

The Kindly Ones
By Jonathan Littell
HarperCollins

Middle-aged French intellectual Jonathan Littell caused a sensation in 2006 with his infamous The Kindly Ones (finally published in the US for the first time in 2008), a thousand-page historical novel which attempts to take the most complicated look ever at what turned a bunch of otherwise boring, middle-class Germans into amoral monsters during the Nazi period of the 1920s through '40s (which, by the way, turns out to mostly be the same things that turned a bunch of otherwise boring, middle-class Americans into amoral monsters during the Bush years), chief among these reasons the culture of endless brutal public violence that was perpetuated in those days, said endless violence of which Littell faithfully reproduces in his own book, which is what mainly caused its infamy in the first place. But as I quickly realized when starting to make my way through it myself a few weeks ago, Littell could've actually accomplished this in a tight 300-page manuscript if he wanted; so what this doorstop mostly turns out to be instead is an insanely exhaustive examination of the jumbled bureaucracy that held Nazi Germany together, containing thousands upon thousands of offhanded references to the hundreds of sub-divisions within the party's executive structure and military setup, none of which are explained within the text itself but rather in a dense glossary at the end of the book. Seriously, Littell, you're freaking killing me here.

Also, Littell made the unfortunate decision to make our everyman narrator the perpetrator of a whole series of ultra-prurient sexual fetishes as well, references to which the narrator is constantly dropping into his recollection here of the war years, as casually as if he were discussing the weather (take for example his nostalgic reminisces about the solo nighttime forest wanderings he used to be able to take as a child, before mentioning that the main reason he treasures them is because he was able to indulge in his habit of auto-erotic asphyxiation without any interruptions); and this not only dilutes the book's main message (that most evil acts in history are not committed by inherently evil people, but rather normal people put into evil circumstances), but is also something I personally found profoundly offputting and completely pointless as well. The good parts of this book really are good, don't get me wrong, just that they're miniscule and surrounded by dozens of pages of needlessly disgusting or yawn-inducing fluff; and that's why I gave up on The Kindly Ones less than 200 pages into it, and recommend that you not even start it at all.

Out of 10: 5.4

What Will Come After, by Scott Edelman

What Will Come After
By Scott Edelman
PS Publishing

Early in the zombie story collection What Will Come After, author Scott Edelman actually flat-out states what exactly is wrong with penning a collection of zombie stories: "The writer types out many variations of this outline, because that is all he knows how to do, and when there are no more stories to tell, he's going to continue to tell them anyway. Some of his tales are set in city streets. Some are on country roads. Still others take place in zoos, in shopping malls and schools and airplanes. But whatever the setting, at their heart, they are all the same. Shuffle. Shamble. Shuffle a little more quickly. Run. (Well, as zombies run anyway.) Run, run, run. Eat!" But unfortunately, Edelman ignores his own revelation here, turning in a story collection that gets very tedious very fast: because he's right, zombies as a literary device are not that different from a natural disaster like a fire or a tornado, and there's simply not much to be said in a story about natural disasters besides, "Natural disaster hits town; humans in that town run away." This leads Edelman then into trying out a whole series of gimmicks in order to maintain our attention, which after all is what most zombie stories in general do; and so do we get a story about a dysfunctional family that are fleeing zombies, and a story about a bookish intellectual who is fleeing zombies, and a story about a theatre owner who is fleeing zombies, not to mention a whole series of ultra-gimmicky zombie mashups of famous older literary stories. ("It's John Steinbeck meets zombies!" "It's Shakespeare meets zombies!" J-sus, ask me how ready I am for that literary trend to be over!) A big disappointment from the normally great PS Publishing.

Out of 10: 4.8

At a Crossroads, by Kate Williamson

At a Crossroads: Between a Rock and My Parents' Place
By Kate Williamson
Princeton Architectural Press

Yet another adorably cute graphic novel from an adorably cute 24-year-old hipster containing not even the slightest single bit of substance whatsoever. In this case, it's a record of the nearly two years the author spent living with her parents again as an adult, after getting back from a year in Asia and not knowing what to do with her life next; but what could've been a funny and wistful memoir about growing up (or at least a bitter and illuminating one) is instead an endless factual list of pointless minutia from this two-year period, like literally reading an operations log from the most cutely quirky military ship in history, which not even on a single page delivers even a single solitary insight into the human condition, other than that the author has an unhealthy obsession with '80s band Hall & Oates. Tolerable, I suppose, if you're in the habit of f-cking 24-year-old hipsters and need an obscure pop-culture reference to aid your quest to get laid ("Kate Williamson? I love Kate Williamson!"); but if you're not in the habit of f-cking 24-year-old hipsters, you should avoid this like the plague.

Out of 10: 4.1

Antwerp, by Roberto Bolano

Antwerp
By Roberto Bolano
New Directions Books

For those who don't know, in recent years the new poster-child for American intellectuals has become the late Chilean author Roberto Bolano, for a whole perfect storm of small reasons: a former leftist political radical who wrote manytimes impenetrably dense yet poetic manuscripts, his rough-and-tumble life led to his early death just a year before the first of his dozen books started getting published in English, a combination of circumstances that apparently the NPR crowd can't get enough of. And indeed, I was a big fan as well of the first Bolano book I read, 1996's Nazi Literature in the Americas, an inventive speculative experiment in which he details Wikipedia-style a whole series of fake fascist intellectuals in both North and South America who never actually existed; but as I've come to realize while trying to make my way these last six months through his magnum opus 2666 (which I'm still only halfway done with), and have now seen confirmed in his very first book Antwerp, when lacking a compelling subject matter to hold a particular manuscript together, Bolano's writing tends to devolve into typical flowery academic horsesh-t territory, as if he was literally sitting there with a giant stack of other books in front of him while writing his own, picking random sentences from random volumes and writing them down in an random order and calling it "art."

Antwerp is especially bad at this, a collection of half-page unrelated semi-prose pieces that sound like they were written on the backs of bar napkins to prove to drunk girls how deep he was, and I have to say that if this is the kind of stuff I can expect from the rest of Bolano's untranslated oeuvre, then I'm not looking forward to the rest of Bolano's untranslated oeuvre whatsoever. I definitely plan on trying to finish 2666, and also plan on reading The Savage Detectives, easily his best-received book so far in the US, and like Nazi Literature containing a strong theme holding the entire manuscript together (young wandering South American political rebels, that is); but for sure from this point on, I'm going to be a lot choosier about which Bolano projects I decide to take on, a lesson I unfortunately had to learn the hard way in this case.

Out of 10: 2.2

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:40 PM, May 7, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |