Four More American Reads

June was my month of reading mainly American authors and I’ve done quite well in terms of reading, not so well in terms of reviewing. Therefore, I’ll write four mini reviews in this post, before I turn to my attention to Russian authors next week.

Cowboyland = Sam Shepard: Cruising Paradise

Strictly speaking, geographically, this is not cowboy territory, since most of the short stories, flash fictions, fragments of prose are set in the desert areas of South Dakot and New Mexico, so cattle would starve in these locations. But it has that Western feel to it: rough and ready men (and women), loners, dreaming of escape, unable to fully articulate their feelings. Sometimes a child is observing these grown-ups and quietly damning yet forgiving them for their inexplicable yearning. Dust and gravel, shoddy motel rooms, half-abandoned diners and service stations… it’s a road trip through the America that time forgot. Anything but Paradise, in fact. Made me miss the sensitive cowboy that Sam Shepard clearly was.

More defeated adults = David Vann: Aquarium

The Virginie Despentes of the Northwestern United States, except it’s even more poignant when seen through the eyes of a twelve-year old. This is a tragic portrayal of life at the margins, for those who are barely making ends meet, for those who somehow fall through the cracks in a society that has barely any safety nets. Caitlin and her mother nevertheless have managed to find a modus vivendi for themselves – imperfect, no frills, but acceptable, with a little imaginative outlet and escape for Caitlin at the local aquarium (which takes the place of a babysitter until her mother can pick her up after work). But then their whole world falls apart when Caitlin meets a suspiciously friendly old man at the aquarium and discovers things about her mother’s past that she would rather not have known.

This was a really dark and terrible book to read. Beautifully written, completely moving, with perhaps a rather too rushed ending (with a tiny glimmer of hope that didn’t feel quite real). I was torn between feeling sadness at the mother’s almost neverending hard work and her whole mind and soul embodying anger:

Welcome to the adult world, coming soon. I work so I can work more. I try not to want anything so maybe I’ll get something. I starve so I can be less and more. I try to be free so I can be alone. And there’s no point to any of it. They left out that part.

But then I hear of the child’s bewilderment and suffering and cannot quite forgive the adult who makes her feel like that, no matter how damaged that adult is herself.

The worst part of childhood is not knowing that bad things pass, that time passes. A terrible moment in childhood hovers with a kind of eternity, unbearable. My mother’s anger extending infinitely, a rage we’d never escape. She had always been my saftey, the two of us piled together on the bed… To have this place become unsafe left nowhere else.

Not So Golden Age = Laura Lippman: Lady in the Lake

1960s Baltimore was not an integrated town and Jews and blacks are still made to feel like outsiders. Maddie Schwartz is a spoilt housewife who suddenly goes through an existential crisis and decides to change her life. She moves out of her comfortable home, takes a young black policeman as her lover and starts working at a local newspaper, determined to make her name as a journalist, becoming somewhat unhealthily obsessed with the death of a black woman whom she labels the ‘lady in the lake’. Lippman is good at rendering Maddie’s (and everyone else’s) muddy motives for wanting to investigate the murder. None of the characters are particularly endearing, even though we hear from each of them in turn, even the most minor ones. I was not smitten with the storyline, but felt it provided a nice slice of American life in the mid 1960s.

Gilded Age = Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr Ripley

I suddenly had a craving to reread this, and of course made full use of my newly acquired Folio edition from Second Shelf. Ripley falls in love with the lifestyle, the glamour, the privileged ease that Dickie Greenleaf exhudes from every pore (as well as with Dickie himself). It has also made me want to see the two Ripley films again: Alain Delon as the hugely ambiguous and magnetic Ripley in En Plein Soleil, and Jude Law as the charismatic, moody Greenleaf in Minghella’s more recent film. This is, needless to say, not the cover that I have on my Folio edition, but a pulp cover dating from soon after the original publication.

All that Fuss about David Foster Wallace

A few months ago, when I started getting serious about writing (again), someone pointed me in the direction of a website called ‘I Write Like’. Clever little robots analyse a sample of your writing (in English) and tell you which writer (living or dead) you most resemble. Imagine my surprise when it came up with ‘David Foster Wallace’ after I cut and pasted a chapter of my WIP.  Surprising, because: 1) my novel is crime fiction, and 2) I had never heard of this author.  (Yes, my grasp of contemporary American fiction is a little shaky.)  So I ignored this first result and submitted another text.

Same result.

By now, I was getting convinced that this was the default setting of the website, no matter what your input was.  So I tried a poem.  And got Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  What does one of the world’s funniest books have in common with my rather moody and depressing poetry?  Anybody’s guess!

So, although I was unconvinced by the analytical tool, this website did make me curious about David Foster Wallace.  I started reading up on him.  And boy, was there a lot of stuff written about him!  Most recently, a biography by D.T. Max entitled Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.  This, in turn, led to an outburst by Bret Easton Ellis on Twitter, culminating in him calling David Foster Wallace ‘the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation’.

Well, with an intro to like that, I just had to read the man himself!  Wouldn’t you?  (I am cheating a little bit with the timeline here: in fact, I had bought ‘Infinite Jest’ just before the summer holidays and intended to polish it off during my inactive, very long-seeming days on that nondescript beach in Greece that my husband’s family calls home.) I am about halfway through this doorstopper of a book: page 508 of its 1079 pages (including endnotes). And I can tell you two things for sure:

1) This book is not made for beach reading (although it is good for dipping in and out of).

2) I do not write like him at all.

Or at least I hope I don’t. Not that I disliked his style.  I was, by turns, amused, fascinated, bemused, indifferent, enthusiastic, critical, passionate and infuriated.  It is not an easy read and you have to be in the mood for it – which is difficult to sustain over that many pages.  It is a book breathtaking in its ambition: to capture all of contemporary American society, which is why it’s probably best read in several sittings, across many months.  Although individual passages glowed with insight and humour, although there was beautiful writing which made me want to reread and quote, I did find the cumulative effect rather wearisome.  There, I said it!  Does that mean I am siding with Bret Easton Ellis?

No, not really, because I don’t understand why he is attacking David Foster Wallace himself for the halo of sentimentality and mantle of sainthood that his readers and followers have bestowed on him. It’s like accusing Van Gogh of commercialisation because his ‘Sunflowers’ sell so well, or Shakespeare of insisting that people use his newfangled word inventions.

I may have no wish to write like David Foster Wallace myself, but I can still enjoy reading him (in small gulps).  If we only liked reading people like ourselves, the world would be a very bland place. I find some of the imitators of David Foster Wallace tiresome and pretentious.  I find all imitators tiresome, unless it’s a clever sequel or deliberate satire. And I dislike literary pretentiousness, so well satirised in the character of Monica in Woody Allen’s ‘To Rome with Love’. I am sure more have praised ‘Infinite Jest’ and its author than have actually read it or him.  Isn’t that what happens with other famous works such as Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman?

Which, by the way, all three happen to be heartbreaking works of staggering genius.  Not easy, but stick with them!

* Gorgeous new graphic design for Tristram Shandy at Fast Company: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1663094/wanted-tristram-shandy-gets-a-stunning-graphic-makeover