February 28, 2012

Your micro-review roundup: 28 February 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.)

Spurious, by Lars Iyer

Dogma, by Lars Iyer

Spurious
Dogma
By Lars Iyer
Melville House

By all laws of the current literary market, the comedic novels Spurious and Dogma by philosopher Lars Iyer (comprising two-thirds of an as-yet unfinished trilogy) shouldn't really exist at all, and it's a testament to the suddenly hot Melville House that they've not only published them, but have been promoting the newest with all the pomp and resources usually afforded only to Stephen King potboilers; for these are not traditional novels nearly as much as they are the spiritual grandchildren of Samuel Beckett, absurdist and cyclical tales where the point is not really to see "what happens" but rather to wallow in the abstract pleasures of language itself. Comprised as a series of conversations between a philosopher who just happens to be named Lars and his doppelganger and frenemy known only as W., and with the story details grounded in just exactly enough reality to seem plausible (they live on opposite sides of Britain; W. has recently become a Malcolm-Gladwell-type popular public prognosticator; Lars is experiencing a mysterious mold problem in his house that threatens to take over the entire building), readers will nonetheless get quickly frustrated if expecting such silly things from these books as a plot or character development; instead, this is more like getting a glimpse of what it must be like inside the head of a college professor while they're in the middle of having a nervous breakdown, a series of funny yet sometimes impossible-to-follow rants and arguments between the two that reference as many obscure thinkers and experimental artists as Family Guy does '80s television shows (and many times just as randomly). I agree with a lot of other critics I've come across, that I immensely enjoyed these silly yet high-falutin' comedies, but can't imagine another human being who will as well; and for that many unrelated strangers to say the same thing is a powerful statement indeed, and makes one understand why the publisher has put such a big promotional push behind what's essentially the very definition of idiosyncratic writing. As you can tell, it takes a special type of personality to enjoy these books; but if you're already a fan of such things as Waiting for Godot and A Confederacy of Dunces, you owe it to yourself to at least take a stab at these frustrating but ultimately satisfying head-scratchers.

Out of 10: 8.8

Kino, by Juergen Fauth

Kino
By Juergen Fauth
Atticus Books

I recently joined a new service called NetGalley, an internet startup that aims to be the tech-savvy middleman between publishers who are handing out electronic ARCs (advance reading copies) and independent reviewers like me who are seeking out such ARCs; and this was the very first title I requested through the service, because it sounded like something right up my alley, a thriller about an old German movie from the 1920s that mysteriously appears on the doorstep of the filmmaker's granddaughter one day, after decades of assumptions that every copy had long ago been destroyed, which supposedly through flashback form was also going to explore the heady days of the Weimer Republic in that country, a brief window between the world wars in which radical liberals were put in charge of the government and experimental art was allowed to flourish in a way that few industrialized nations had seen before or have witnessed since. But alas, in reality this turned out to be more like The Historian meets The Da Vinci Code, two novels I've actually read in the past and have despised in both cases, a lazy exercise in empty name-dropping (hey, look, everyone, our narrator is talking to Fritz Lang! Oh, and now he's talking to Leni Riefenstahl!) that much like Forrest Gump only mentions these people merely to be mentioning them, not to give us even the slightest insight as to what it must've been like to be an artist within such an exciting, apocalyptic time in history (instead, see something more like Berlin Alexanderplatz); and with go-nowhere modern scenes that seem to exist only as a cheap framing device for introducing the flashbacks in the first place, until veering into ridiculously silly territory in the third act with the introduction of a shadowy Opus-Dei-type cabal of European cinema scholars slash professional assassins, who even in the 21st century go around destroying subversive films from the 1920s and killing the people who have seen them so that NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW THE AWFUL TRUTH (or, er, something like that). The kind of book that tries to convince you you're in Germany by occasionally having characters slip in "gut" instead of "good" in their English conversations, this is exactly the kind of hacky, dumbed-down mess I expressly try to avoid here at CCLaP, and I hope it's not an early sign that NetGalley is to become the place where mainstream presses dump their unreadable crap on an unsuspecting pool of amateur litbloggers. It does not come recommended.

Out of 10: 3.3

The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, by Patrick Somerville

The Universe in Miniature in Miniature
By Patrick Somerville
Featherproof Books

(IMPORTANT DISCLOSURE: I am a personal friend of Jonathan Messinger, a co-owner of the small press that put this book out. It should be kept in mind while reading this review.) There's a good chance that I'll be meeting Chicago author Patrick Somerville for the first time later this week, during the tsunami known as the AWP literary convention starting tomorrow, essentially America's second largest gathering of industry professionals after the ABA's annual BookExpo; and I wanted to make sure I had read this latest by him before that moment, in that I found his debut novel The Cradle to be only so-so, despite this author being passionately loved among most of my friends here in the local scene. And indeed, it's easy to see why after reading this newest story collection by him, put out by our pals over at Featherproof Press (agh, so many local connections today, it make me brain hurt), because it's everything that The Cradle is not -- strange, dark, magical, written in a distinctive and mature voice, and free from the need for a 200-page three-act plot, which to be honest is looking more and more like the main thing that tripped Somerville up with his last book. Regular readers know that I'm not a big fan of unthemed story collections, but I have to confess that I would be if more of them were like this, full of pieces just long enough and strange enough to be memorable unto themselves, instead of the mishmash of similar characters and blurry plots that most story collections feel like in my head after I've finished them; and in fact about the biggest criticism I have is simply that Featherproof really misjudged what the cover image should've been, going with a cutesy, quirky design that tries to invoke the spirit of Miranda July when in fact most of the stories in this book range from obtuse to out-and-out pitch-black. A must-read for both McSweeney's fans and those who appreciate the short-story format, it comes strongly recommended to those specific readers.

Out of 10: 8.9, or 9.4 for short-story fans

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:22 PM, February 28, 2012. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |