Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Kraken by China Mieville

I think the highest compliment I could pay Kraken, and it is incredibly high praise for me, is that it reads like the type of book that Tim Powers would write if he were an British Leftist rather than a Californian Catholic. There is a character who is drawn into a world of magical societies, and large scale conflict between them. There are the absurd ideas played entirely straight that manage to be both funny and effectively tense, scary and insightful at the same time. There’s a sense of endless invention; of what surely must be too many ideas going at once. No way they can land the plane. And if the final twist of Kraken seemed a little on the nose to me on this reread, it was no more so than the weird Jungian Communion scene at the end of Last Call (my favorite Powers novel). Mieville has cited Powers as a hero, so I’m sure he’d take that as praise. This is funnier than Powers. It also shares some DNA with Foucault’s Pendulum, in that the central joke is at the expense of the various apocalyptic cults that are fighting for their version of the apocalypse. If I described this as a Lovecraftian thriller I wouldn’t be lying. That said, Mieville is his own writer with a distinct voice, and ticking off things this reminded me of, or that seem to have directly influenced it sells it short. Here he’s being a little more playful than some of the other works I’ve read and it suits his style very well.

At the outset, Billy Harrow is a curator at the Natural History Museum and he has created a display of the first complete giant squid body anyone has found. He gives a tour to eager nature lovers and is shocked when the squid has completely disappeared, giant bottle and all. A special unit of the police who deal in supernatural/cultic crimes comes to investigate. The inital prime suspect is the Church of God Kraken. In their mythology the Krackens or giant squids are gods, and all the lesser squid are saints. But they are not the only apocalypse cult in London. There are the Londonmancers, neutral observer magicians tied to the city. There are supernatural gangs fighting each other, one led by the Tattoo, a gangster who was punished by being turned into a sentient tattoo on another man’s back and nonetheless rises back to power. There is a Familiar’s Union that is on strike. And this is not the weirdest stuff that happens. Anyone with any prophetic power sees that if the missing Kraken falls into the wrong hands the world will end.

I don’t want to spoil anything so I won’t go into much more detail about the plot other than to say that it is consistently surprising and enough happens to fill several books. If he had tweaked things slightly there are at least three series that could come out of this. The supernatural police squad (this seems least likely because Mieville seems to distrust the police), a series following Dane, a sort of fixer/soldier at large for the Kraken Church, and the further adventures of Billy Harrow. There could still be sequels should Mieville choose, but it is complete in itself.

After finally getting around to This Census Taker recently, and reading so much Lovecraft and Lovecraftian fiction last year, I definitely wanted to revisit this, and I’m glad I did. It is darkly funny, genuinely scary, has great prose and moves at an incredible pace. There are so many things happening, but Mieville trusts the reader to keep up and manages to pull everything together. I’m currently reading a book of Mieville’s short stories which is the last of his books that I have on the shelf already. I am very much looking forward to getting to more of them once my book buying fast year is over. I suspect I’ll end up revisiting a couple more of his books once I hit my goal of 75 books that I own but haven’t yet read for the year. I really loved Mieville’s work when I discovered it around a decade or so ago. I was discovering a lot of other authors around then and I think I may have sold Mieville a little short. He is one of the best working today, up there with Kelly Link, Caitlin Kiernan, Jeff Vandermeer, Neil Gaiman, George Saunders, Victor Lavalle, Carmen Maria Machado etc. among those who work similar territory. I loved this book.


Rereads, Library Books, Etc 2020

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Wife by Alafair Burke

Reading Alafair Burke for the first time was always going to come with an unfair comparison for me. I discovered her father, James Lee Burke, in 2018 and have read a half-dozen or so of his books so far. He has one of the best prose styles going in any genre. I’m a sucker for Catholic writers (Flannery O’Connor, Gene Wolfe, Tim Powers, Graham Greene, Walker Percy…) and Burke fits into that group easily. He writes mostly mysteries and I’ve enjoyed him immensely. At some point I realized that he had a daughter and that she also wrote crime fiction. I both wanted to read her, and wanted to do so without unfairly comparing her to her father. Fortunately I found a great place to start with her in The Wife, which I found at a library sale last year. Her prose is not as lushly descriptive as her father’s, but is nonetheless excellent. While both write novels that could be fairly described as thrillers their approaches are different enough that I was easily able to shake the urge to compare quickly. They write in different enough modes that the comparison wouldn’t even come up if they weren’t related. And she is, as one would hope, much better at writing believable women characters.

This book was published at the exact right time; it came out in 2018. While it was written before the allegations against Weinstein et al started to come out in torrents, it could not have been more relevant. A reductive way to describe the book would be to say, what if Gone Girl* had been structured around the concerns of the #metoo movement. That would do it a disservice, though. It handles a lot of psychological thriller tropes in a very satisfying and fresh way. While the comparison is apt, this is no mere knockoff. There are multiple narrative voices. Angela Powell, who jealously guards her past narrates a lot of it in the first person, and is an excellent use of an unreliable narrator. There are several other characters who are narrated third person, most prominent being Corraine Duncan, a detective trying to figure out who is lying. There are also emails and documents from Powell’s husband, Jason, and his lawyer. Jason, a high profile liberal talking head, is, at the outset of the book, accused of harassing one of his grad assistants. Shortly afterward, another woman accuses him of rape. The story plays out as Angela tries to sort through her feelings while trying to keep her traumatic past a secret. The reader, like the detective character, is trying to sort out who is lying; because someone is.

To go into much more detail would spoil some excellent plot twists, so I will refrain. I quite enjoyed the novel, despite its uncomfortable subject matter. Burke displays a real understanding of the nuances of how people feel when their loved ones are plausibly accused of sexual assault. It also understands the uphill battle facing any woman who accuses a powerful man of such acts. Those understandings play an uncomfortable counterpoint to what could be perceived as some more nihilistic elements and a low view of human nature. That slight dissonance, though, along with its relentless pace, keeps the book from being didactic. And its commentary hits all the harder for it. It’s a fully realized thriller, and I will certainly be seeking out more of Alafair Burke’s work in the future.

Highly Recommended (with a fairly heavy content warning as it deals frankly, though not explicitly  with sexual assault).

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 28/75

*I’m going off the movie, having not read the book.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Strange Bird by Jeff Vandermeer

Jeff Vandermeer has been a favorite for a while. Even though I love the early Ambergris novels best, his new stuff is consistently fascinating, often great, and I’m very glad that he’s grown to such prominence. This is a very short novel set in the same world as the recent novels Borne and Dead Astronauts. Those two novels could each be read as stand alones, though reading Borne first would let you find some easter eggs in the other. Dead Astronauts is my favorite of his non-Ambergris novels. The Strange Bird could work without reading Borne first. But it might be confusing as its action is concurrent with the earlier book, and the recurring characters would make slightly less sense, I think. Taken together the three books comprise an elegiac and beautiful portrait of the end of the world.

In my review of Dead Astronauts, I compared it to the poetry of Robinson Jeffers; Vandermeer’s tales of altered biology and the end of humanity share a little of the perspective that comes from an understanding of the impermanence of people as a species and one’s self specifically. There is a stronger sense with Vandermeer that we’ve already crossed the point of no return ecologically speaking than with Jeffers, but I experienced some of the same emotions reading both. The Strange Birds has more of a narrative than Dead Astronauts, but still . It is told in a second person stream of consciousness style that really works with the weird tale/ecological horror content. A genetically altered bird, containing some human and cephalopod DNA among other things escapes from a lab with a purpose, but falls into the hands of some of the villains from Borne. The central conflict of that book is playing out in the background of this one. There is a real horror here both in the experience of the strange bird and in knowledge that the human world is ending. But it is not a despairing book, which is a difficult feat, and what makes me file it in the same folder as Robinson Jeffers’ poetry. I like the other two in the series more, but this is an excellent story that fills out the world.

Highly Recommended, though you should read Borne first.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 27/75

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Nicotine by Nell Zink

Nell Zink is a writer that discomforts in a very real way. She deals head on with cultural issues in blunt ways, making farce where many writers would hold back. She is clearly of the left, but often satirizes the left. I first read her novel Mislaid in a book club several years ago. It played mostly as a farce around issues of identity. The club largely seemed nonplussed by or ambivalent about it. Someone in a different (online) book group said that the farcical nature of undercut any statement that could have been made about identity. I love farce, and I may have enjoyed it more than anyone else in the group. I think that actually helped it say something about identity. I liked it well enough to track down her debut novel, The Wallcreepers, about American bird lovers in Europe who gradually become eco-terrorists of sorts. I liked it slightly less, maybe because it was less of a farce. Still, I enjoyed both well enough that I bought Nicotine shortly after it was published, and several years later I’m finally reading it. I wish I’d read it sooner. Nicotine is as absurd and satirical as its predecessors. It is hilarious, particularly in the back half of the novel, and all the funnier because Zink writes it with a completely straight face, so to speak. But there is a grief that suffuses and grounds the whole and keeps it from being frivolous.

It starts with an abused child being rescued from a dump in Columbia. Twenty years later she is married to an older man, Norm, and the story shifts to her 11 year old daughter, Penny, and a very uncomfortable encounter between Penny and one of her half brothers, Matt. Norm is a sort of stoic/atheist/Jewish/shaman who works with chronically ill patients trying to help them cope with the fact they are dying. Matt, a total capitalist, thinks Norm is fleecing them. These two brief scenes have some shocking/funny imagery, but mainly exist to set up the rest of the book. Then the book jumps ahead just over a decade and Penny is in her twenties nursing her father as he dies. That death and grief grounds the rest of the book even as it shifts to a more comic tone.

The family dynamic is very uncomfortable. That discomfort is one of the book’s strengths, though. After Norm’s death there are four people, Penny, her mother and her two brothers who share ownership of several properties. Penny goes to live and improve on one of them and meets a group of squatters, all anarchists of some stripe and all outcasts from other protest groups because they all smoke. The house they live in that Penny’s family technically owns is called Nicotine. She falls in with the anarchists and they face off with her brother and each other.

What I love about Zink’s writing is that she manages to needle the left by pointing out their absurdities while still essentially being on their side. This partly works because she does not wink at the reader or use the characters to try to show how progressive she is. She is not concerned with the reader thinking she’s a good person or with pointing out how clever she is. Penny says at one point, "It's not my job to tell the story in a way that makes me look good," and that might as well be Zink’s motto. That approach makes the book work well; Zink’s characters all have strong political convictions, but they are real people, not ideological stand-ins. Not role models for piety. They are moral in that they are trying to sort through ethical questions, but they are not moralists. Or to the extent that they are, Zink undercuts them. So when the book has things to say about the power inequalities that exist between men and women, it’s in an admittedly absurd, but believable context. She’s not writing a tract or pamphlet, she’s writing a novel.* And the point is made more strongly because of that. That aspect of it reminded me of Frederick Buechner’s Bebb books written in the ‘70s about a corrupt con man minister and the people around him. Buechner, a believer himself was able to say some pretty profound things about faith because he was willing to mock some of its absurdities and focus on the novel and not the message. Some sectors of Christianity and some portions of the left do not have a sense of humor about themselves, and as such don’t realize how similarly they act. Zink and Buechner could not be more different as writers (though they both write excellent, moving and funny prose), but I’m glad they both were willing to poke fun at their ideologue colleagues. Their messages are put across much more strongly for not having been the point of their books.

Like certain works by Caitlin Kiernan, Samuel Delany or Phillip Roth, the book does get closer to erotica at times than I’m generally comfortable with. Like those writers, though, other aspects of the book work so well that I can easily overlook that. The prose is excellent. And again, it is very funny but has enough emotional heft to ground it. It has been a while since I last read her work, but if memory serves, Nicotine achieves a better tonal balance. Zink is fearless and has a unique voice. I'm looking forward to reading her most recent novel soon, and will almost certainly reread her other work.

Highly Recommended.
Owned But Previously Unread 2020 25/75

*On this metric (and only on this metric) it makes an interesting comparison with the next book I read The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash. Like Nicotine, I picked it up after really loving the author’s first two books, A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy. In those books you could tell Cash was influenced by Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard but not so much that he didn’t have his own voice. I look forward to rereading both at some point. I bought The Last Ballad when it came out because I liked the first two so well. Like Nicotine, it sat on the shelf for a long time only to be picked up now. It is an historical novel dealing with a Labor strike in rural North Carolina in 1929. Cash is too good a writer for it not to be an enjoyable read on some level, but it really disappointed me in comparison to his first two. It is a book that is overwhelmed by its ideology. For the record, I agree with I'd say 75-80% the book’s politics. But, except for the climax (which was quite well done) it had a preaching to choir/gospel tract of progressivism vibe that I found off-putting, maybe in part because I had just finished Nicotine. There are exceptions. Wendell Berry and Octavia Butler come to mind as writers whose books can be ideological to a similar degree and it bothers me less. But something about the way it’s handled in The Last Ballad just didn’t work for me. Cash is a very good writer and I will read more books by him and almost certainly reread his first two. I’m unlikely to return to this one though.

Pass/Mild Recommendation
Owned But Previously Unread 2020 26/75

Friday, April 17, 2020

This Census Taker by China Mieville

I first read China Mieville back in 2010, starting with Perdido Street Station. It’s been a few years since I returned to him, but, counting This Census Taker, I’ve read six of his books. The standouts were The Scar, a alternate world fantasy that, whether intended or not, had serious Moby Dick vibes (and was the middle volume of the loose trilogy starting with Perdido Street Station), The City and the City, which has an entirely unique mix of crime and fantasy stories (seriously, I haven’t read anything like it), and the Lovecraftian thriller Kraken. This Census Taker is up there with those, though I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by him.

It is an incredibly well structured book. The narration is mostly first person from the perspective of a child, though there is some narration from the same writer much later in life looking back. He has three books to write. The first is for figures and keeping numbers, the second is for others to read and the third is for secrets kept to himself, though obviously someone else could read them. There are a few moments that are told in third person, and even a couple in second. It’s clear that most of the book was written by the same person, but it is possible that someone else had edited it. This does make things ambiguous, but it doesn’t ruin the flow of the novel. It opens with the narrator running down the hill to a city built on a bridge having seen something traumatic. His father has killed his mother, or maybe she killed him. Or maybe they’re the same person and killed someone else. Because he is young and in shock, it makes sense that he doesn’t fully understand the world he’s in. Because the locals cannot confirm anything happened, he is sent back to live with his father.

The father is an outsider, he is mistrusted by the people in the town. But he earns a living making keys for people in the village for various purposes. It is unclear whether these hold some kind of magical power or if they merely activate some type of technology. The world could be a future Earth of sorts, or it could be an alternate world. There are things like flashlights, but people travel on horseback or by mules. The characters are all living in the aftermath of at least one major war. It’s ambiguous in the best way; that is, the premise and structure justify the ambiguity and the book doesn’t suffer narratively for it. It adds an eeriness, and the horror is greater for being on some level left to the imagination.

This belongs on the same shelf with Jeff Vandermeer, Kelly Link, Elizabeth Hand, George Saunders and the like. That New Weird/literary horror/magical realism strand of literature contains the writing I find myself most interested in these days. I’m fenced between Highly Recommended and Canon Worthy for this one.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 24/75

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Hide and Seek by Ian Rankin

I loved Knots and Crosses, Ian Rankin’s first novel featuring Inspector John Rebus, when I read it a month or so ago. I was impressed with the prose, the characters, the sense of place even as the thriller plot pulled me relentlessly forward. It is a legitimately great crime debut and I looked forward to more. I think my expectations were skewed going into Hide and Seek the second in the series, which may have affected the way I read it.

In the sequel there are echoes of the first book, but I think it could be read on its own. Rebus has gotten a promotion. As the novel opens, there is a murder in an squat house, and Rebus is pulled from duty and put on a planning committee for an anti-drug campaign. The murder has satanist overtones. The murder victim was known to be a male prostitute. The antagonists are Reagan/Thatcher era corrupt rich folks. In both books, Rankin is intent on exposing the seedier side of Edinburgh, and this book, that is extended to city-wide corruption on a scale absent in the first book. Moreso than its predecessor, the preoccupations of the book are very much of the 80s/early 90s. This isn’t a negative thing; it’s a good time capsule. Very strange to think that a book published when I was in high school is a period piece.

Overall, I really enjoyed this. It didn’t blow me away like the first one did, but is very nearly as good. I suspect if I read it first I might even like it more. I am looking forward to the other Rankin books I picked up sometime last year, even though they come much later in the series.

Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 23/75

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry writes trenchant essays and beautiful poetry. I have read both with great pleasure. My first Berry book was the collection Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, which is not bad entry point. It is a fierce argument for community and against the ravages of industrial level farming. Here I was introduced to his anger at both big business and big government. At the way modern Americans have been essentially turned into consumers. Railing against consumer culture was de rigueur for gen-x, but this was a different, refreshing approach to being anti-corporate. Similar themes can be found in his poetry, which is excellent. It’s simplicity and themes remind me of Anne Porter whose collection An Altogether Different Language (later updated with new poems as Living Things: Collected Poems), is among my favorite poetry. This is in part because in either a blurb or an introduction she was compared to Berry (likely the first time I’d heard of him in 1995 or 6 when I first read it). But the comparison is apt, and if you’ve read the poetry of one, I highly recommend the other. Dealing as he does with what is lost as we become more consumerist and less community focused both as individuals and as a culture, Berry’s work does have a nostalgic bent. I understand that someone might see that nostalgia as a way to dismiss his concerns as those of a cranky old luddite environmentalist who lives in the past. And, in a lot of ways, Berry’s view of an ideal world in which people work in communities, farming reverses its headlong arc into industrialization, politics become primarily local and people shift away from consumption as their primary mode of life is utopian; we are in a lot of ways past the point of no return. Yet, Berry’s stance is a compelling one and argues that to the degree one can turn away from these problems, one should. And that nostalgia is undercut by his insistence that steps can be taken to mitigate the destruction of the land that feeds us. It’s not wallowing in a mythical past. It’s modeling a way forward as well.

As much as I enjoy Berry’s essays and poetry, though, I love his fiction best. I’ve read most of it. It is all set in the Port William Membership, a small farming community in Kentucky. The term membership implies more than living in a community, though it contains that. It implies a commitment and a belonging that is, in large part, Berry’s biggest obsession. Through 30 or 40 stories and seven novels, he traces the history of the membership, both the place and its people. In each novel, different characters take the fore. The Coulters, Feltners, Catletts, Rowenberrys, Keiths and Wheelers become familiar. The earliest stories take place in the late 1800s, maybe even further back, and the most recent reach almost to the current day. As the reader encounters them in book after book and generation after generation they seem like real people. Port William is, in a way, a laboratory in which Berry can play out his ideas of community, fighting back against consumerism, and the way farming should work. Old school Port Williamites have a view similar to Berry’s, and they see those who want to industrialize farming as wrongheaded to some degree or another. Berry is making an argument in most of his fiction, but he rarely forgets to make it art and not a thinly veiled tract. The two characters I enjoy the most from all the fiction are Burley Coulter and Jayber Crow. So no surprise that this is one of my favorites of Berry’s books. The top spot belongs to A Place on Earth which also heavily features those two.

Jayber Crow is Port William’s barber. He was born there and lived there with his parents and then with some aging relatives. When they too died he went to an orphanage and then to a seminary, and eventually back to Port William having picked up barbering skills on the way. The next 40 years he served there in that capacity. The book is narrated by Jayber, old now, living by a river and reflecting on his life. Jayber’s voice is fully realized; funny, moving, dealing with Berry’s themes  (mostly) without being heavy handed. It reminds me a lot of another favorite book (one I read yearly for around a decade) Godric by Frederick Buechner. Godric is the story of Saint Godric narrated by himself to the person who is writing a hagiography of him, and he is horrified at the treacly sanitized version of his life that was the result. And that brings me to Berry’s other great theme: a religion that, while genuine, does not fit into a regular Christian framework. Berry seems to distrust organized religion as much as the forces of modernity.

This is the fourth time I’ve read Jayber Crow. On the first three read-throughs I hit a point early on in which I asked myself why I didn’t consider this my favorite of all books. This time I still felt the pull of those aspects of the book, but I had in mind the one thing that bothers me about the book; it’s unrequited love plot. Jayber Crow is in love with a woman named Mattie Chatham who is married to Troy Chatham, who is unfaithful to her. Jayber decides that in his heart and mind he will be married to her and be the faithful husband she doesn’t have in real life. She will never know of this commitment. This is the one false note to me in the book, and I had a hard time wrapping my mind around it the first few times I read it. It was central to the structure of the book and it was the one thing that really bothered me about it. Then I found out that Berry wrote the novel at least in part as a retelling of the Divine Comedy. In this schema Mattie functions as Beatrice to Jayber’s Dante. She guides Jayber back to his place in the membership, and a religious faith of a sort. Her husband Troy functions as the embodiment of all the forces of the world out to destroy the land in the name of industrial farming and consumerism. I love every other aspect of this book, but I would love to see Mattie’s side of things. I’d love to hear Marilynne Robinson’s take on her, for instance.

But Jayber’s path through the world is otherwise a delight. As a former fervent believer who is now agnostic, the parts where Jayber walks away from the organized faith resonated with me the most. Books like this or Godric are part of the reason I am agnostic and not an atheist. Jayber is an actual believer, but frames himself as protestant even by Protestant standards. Because the church in Berry’s view is part of The Economy and is complicit in The War and in the destruction of the land, Jayber seems to speak for Berry on matters of faith. Ultimately, Berry’s Paradise is not heaven, though it includes that, it is the membership.

And Jayber is an excellent travelling companion. His voice is a delight, one I want floating around in my head. Berry is a prose stylist of the first order; elegant without pretension, incisive without going full-on didactic, funny without undercutting the pathos that he does so well. When I read this I really want to go live in a hut by a river despite how terribly ill-equipped I am for that. It makes me question my choices that landed me working in a bureaucracy. (I love libraries, but they do exist within a bureaucracy.) Despite my misgivings about the Beatrice plot, this is firmly in my personal canon and is the Berry book I love the best, with the exception of A Place on Earth.

Rereads, Library Books, Etc 2020 6/35.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Number9Dream by David Mitchell

This was the only David Mitchell novel I hadn’t yet read. Even if I didn’t like it so well as Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten or Number9Dream it is a very good book. Mitchell’s prose is always great, and he is capable of writing in a number of modes and voices, and this is no exception. There are a myriad of influences on this. There’s a little bit of Secret Life of Walter Mitty. There’s a strong video game strain. There’s an exaggerated, hyper-violent Yakuza style innocent-getting-caught-up-with-the-mob story. There’s a diary of a WWII era kamakaze pilot. Even though I’ve only read three Murakami books, I could really see the influence. A Japanese main character who is obsessed with the Beatles and jazz. A title taken from a Beatles/John Lennon song. An effortless movement back and forth from the mundane world to a sort of fantasy until even the “real world” of the novel feels fantastic.

What differentiates this from, say Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas or Slade House, is that while there are multiple narrators and the chapters each take a different style like those others, there is a first person narrator who provides at least half the narration of each chapter. And for all the stylistic flourishes and changes the book is essentially a coming of age, search-for-meaning story. The main narrator is Eiji Miyake, who is in search of his father who abandoned him, his mother and sister when the children were young. His sister has since died, his mother is in a mental health facility and has not spoken to him for years. The search for his father and, by extension meaning, is a through line probably makes the book his most linear excepting Black Swan Green.

The book also functions as a cautionary tale about magical thinking. As the tone of the story shifts from chapter to chapter so does Miyake’s sense of meaning, and what he wants. Despite the fantastical feel of even the non-imaginary events, he constantly is living in his mind, and it consistently makes things difficult for him. And yet, that fantasy world is an enjoyable place to spend some time, and the way in which Miyake changes as he navigates it is believable.

All in all, a very good book. Low to middle in my list of Mitchell novels, but that’s more about how well I like the others. Highly recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 22/75

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood

WH Auden is my favorite poet on the days that distinction doesn’t belong to WB Yeats, Robinson Jeffers or Anne Porter. I first heard of Christopher Isherwood, to pay attention to him at any rate, in a biography of Auden. They were friends and off and on lovers throughout their lives. I knew Isherwood was a writer as well, but hadn’t read anything by him until I stumbled on this at a library book sale four years ago. This blew me away. Then I read his memoir written late in life, Christopher and His Kind, Mr Norris Changes Trains, Goodbye to Berlin and A Single Man. Goodbye to Berlin is the basis (by way of a stage play, turned stage musical) of the movie Cabaret, and is what Isherwood is most known for these days. I’ve liked or loved everything I’ve read by him, but this most of all, and it is, for the nonce, one of the books I read every year.

This is an utterly successful novella/short novel. It is both a farce, and an examination of how to live in dangerous times with all the anxiety that can bring. It’s surface tone is light, but it carries an undercurrent of sadness that lingers. It begins with several pages of dialog as a fictionalized Christopher Isherwood, presumably the same version from the Berlin stories, takes a phone call from English movie people who want him to write the screenplay for a movie based on a failed musical, the titular Prater Violet (the Prater being a park/amusement park in Vienna). He affects not wanting the job, but takes it immediately. He’s working with a director called Bergmann, a Jewish director who has fled Germany as this in the mid 1930s and Hitler is on the rise. A lot of the farce is based on the fact that they think they’re too good to work in film (Bergmann says they are like “two married men meeting in a whorehouse”). There are smooth talking executives, movie fixers and craftsmen working on the picture. The absurdity of one person taking full credit for a work in a collaborative is well illustrated. The Coen Brothers films Barton Fink and Hail Ceasar share some DNA with this book. There is a real puncturing of the pretense of artists and calling attention to the craft of movie making here. It’s all very funny stuff.

But that farces is skating on the surface of a world that is about to plunge into World War II. The book was published in 1945 so even its first readers had knowledge that the characters could not have. It lends an earned melancholy to the book. Bergmann’s family is still in Germany, and Isherwood’s homosexuality is there, but hidden. These various subtexts give weight to Isherwood’s musings on why someone would choose to keep living in such bleak times. Unlike Pale Fire, another book in which the narrator weighs the possibilities of suicide, there is a real sense that Isherwood would keep going.

It’s an extremely relevant book, especially to anyone who loves movies (or books, or any art) and is alive now. The rise of various forms of nationalism around the world is alarming. How does one justify consuming or making art when there are such horrible things going on. Prater Violet answers that question mostly by example by both being entertaining and funny and by not letting the reader use it as just escapism. And by some real self examination. I cannot recommend this highly enough. When I envisioned this blog as a compilation of a personal canon, this book was very much in the inaugural induction class.


Annual Reread  2020 2/8
Rereads, Library Books Etc. 5/35