January 24, 2012

Your micro-review roundup: 24 January 2012

(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.)

Portnoy's Complaint, by Philip Roth

Portnoy's Complaint
By Philip Roth

Regular readers will remember that I'm in the middle of a long-term literary project right now, to read all eleven novels making up Philip Roth's autobiographical "Zuckerman cycle" in order to better understand the Postmodernist Era they discuss, from its start (right around Kennedy's assassination) to its end (9/11); but since so many of at least the early novels in the series concern themselves so directly with Roth's first big mainstream hit, 1969's filthy and funny Portnoy's Complaint, I thought it would be instructive to read that as well, to better understand the way that Roth's life changed because of it. For those who don't know, after an early start as a traditional, academic-style Late Modernist writer who was getting published in The New Yorker in the early '60s, this hilarious look at the sexual dysfunctions inherent in the New York Jewish lifestyle, and its inherent clashes against the prevailing "let it all hang out" countercultural mood, was exactly what mainstream America needed at the exact moment they needed it, just like Woody Allen was providing in cinemas at the same time; and so not only was it a hit with the usual intellectual crowd, but it broke through to become a massive general hit, an eventual Hollywood film, and even a tittering codeword among the culture at large, right at the same time that his fellow young New Yorker author John Updike was doing the same thing with his saucy novel Couples (the very first mainstream book to discuss the topic of suburban wife-swapping, after obscenity laws in the US getting relaxed just a few years earlier).

And to be fair, this is still a dirty, dirty book, with it easy to understand why merely carrying a copy around back then was enough to signal to anyone else that you could "dig it," which much like Woody Allen takes the image of the nebbish, self-deprecatory Jewish city boy and almost accidentally turns it into a new type of nerdy sex symbol, as we follow poor Portnoy's adventures as first an onanistic teen and then a goy-obsessed young man, flailing about in the high-minded hippie atmosphere around him but still managing to have crazy sex on a regular basis anyway. And it's easy to see why so many older Jews got so upset by this book too; because not only does it lay out a lot of the quiet little dysfunctional moments of the Jewish community to a large Christian audience, a direct predecessor to Seinfeld that I've discussed in more depth in my Zuckerman write-ups, but indeed a lot of its humor derives explicitly from all the neurotic hangups that were created among Roth's generation by all their uptight, obsessed-with-appearances, Holocaust-surviving parents, making it not just a funny sex comedy but an astute look at the first generation of Jews to grow up after World War Two, and the clashes that occurred when they first came of age in the countercultural '60s, which I'm sure made it even more of a must-read among the young hipsters of the time. A great, moving, blush-inducing novel that still holds up really well to this day, read it to understand what was getting your parents all squirmy in the years that they were having you.

Poser, by Claire Dederer

Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses
By Claire Dederer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

As part of my regular reading schedule throughout a year, I like to throw in some completely random choices sometimes just to shake things up, sometimes titles that have barely any connection to my own life and that I would normally otherwise never pick up; this book was the latest such random pick, and like a lot of others of this type, I found it okay for what it was, while acknowledging that those it's more designed for will probably like it a lot more than that. A former indie-rocker who still pals around with the founders of Sub Pop, Dederer's late pregnancy and other issues were adding a significant amount of stress to her life in the creative-class bohemian-bourgeoise neighborhoods of North Seattle where she lives; the rest of this book is a look at Dederer's attempts to add yoga to her cynical, black-jeans-wearing life, offering up plenty of comments along the way about her growing sense of "Enlightenment Lite" concerning the transition into motherhood and middle-age. But alas, this is too badly paced to appeal to a big general audience -- for example, the parts that describe the actual yoga positions go on way too long, and the book is filled with the kinds of pointless digressions (a ten-page description of an entire dinner party from start to finish, for example) that feel like they were added specifically to bump up this glorified magazine article into the size of a full-length book -- plus I have to admit, given that one of the main points is for Dederer to dish on her New-Agey-but-secretly-draconian eco-liberal neighbors, there came a point quickly where I started asking over and over why she didn't just, you know, move the f-ck out of North Seattle instead of writing a 300-page story about how much she hates it there. (And of course we all know the answer -- because she proves in this manuscript to be just as hypocritically guilty of this liberal-fascist behavior as all the people she's complaining about, yet another aspect of these types of "It's Everyone Else's Fault But Mine" memoirs that drives me in particular a little crazy.) But still, like I said, I suspect this will appeal more to those who find themselves in similar situations, which is why it's getting a high middle-of-the-road score today instead of the low middle-of-the-road score I usually give such books. It comes recommended in that specific spirit.

Out of 10: 7.9

First Cause, by Paul West

First Cause: A Novel About Human Possibility
By Paul West

It's extremely rare that I will bump up the score of a book here at CCLaP merely for its earnestness, the proverbial "A for effort" that I usually feel is just not deserved; but today is one of the few cases where I'm going to do exactly that, in that I found myself with a lot of respect for what author Paul West is trying to accomplish here, even if he mostly fails in these goals. A sprawling sci-fi epic that has a great New Agey conceit at its core -- that throughout history, a growing proportion of humanity has quietly come to realize the secrets to the next step of evolution, and that this group actually managed to invent space travel in the early 1900s, quietly shuttling off millions of believers to a nearby moon during the World Wars when they wouldn't be missed -- our tale takes place roughly a hundred years later, when some of the advanced quasi-humans decide to touch base again with their Earth relatives, with certain members of this group wanting to see if humans are enlightened enough yet to voluntarily join them, and certain others simply wanting to take the Earth over by force for their own purposes, the resulting chaos being a way to examine the current state of human morality Terence-Malick-style.

But that unfortunately turns out to be the biggest problem with First Cause, that West is not prepared to make the kinds of grandly fascinating statements about humanity that makes a story like this work; his conclusions are instead simply a series of easy cliches, delivered by a collection of sometimes badly cartoonishly cardboard characters, the melodrama so high at points that I kept waiting for a man in a top hat and long mustache to tie a blonde to some railroad tracks and then start singing about how she must pay the rent. Now combine this with way too much of a reliance on expository writing, so that it's more like reading a Wikipedia entry about the events that took place instead of just reading about the events taking place, and you're left with a book that I would normally give a thumbs-down to; but like I said, today I'm adding a bit to the score for sheer earnestness, with West currently having an ambition that's bigger than his writing skills, but with that certainly being better than the opposite situation. It takes quite a bit of forgiveness, but perhaps you'll enjoy First Cause as well for what it's aiming to be, maybe a little more than for what it actually is, and will encourage West to keep at it and turn in the better future work I'm sure he has in him.

Out of 10: 7.0

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:02 PM, January 24, 2012. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |