Tuesday, September 26, 2006

WHAT I READ ON MY SUMMER VACATION, 1

Ah, youth!

This weekend was the Autumn Equinox and I managed to contract a lovely little cold, both of which facts seem determined to convince me that summer is gone. And what do you do when summer is gone? You reminisce about it, of course. So here I go in the first of what I presume will be 3 installments chronicling my summer reading (since I didn't do much else this summer I'd care to talk about). I actually read much more than can be covered by 3 installments, but, what the hell, that's all I'm up to at present, though there may be reversions to "things I read" at any point in the future.

Barry McCrea's The First Verse

I read this because I know Barry and he's a likeable guy who teaches Joyce and Proust to Yalelies and got his PhD at Princeton, so that's good enough for me. But also this, his first novel, is set in Dublin which I just visited for the first time in May '05, so I felt even more inclination to see what he would do with it. And I have to say that a feel for the newly affluent and chic Dublin is a main attraction of this novel; it gives a very clear-eyed, unromanticized but somehow loving view of the localities, many of which bristle with Joycean associations for such people as can't think "Dublin Bay" without thinking "Martello tower."

The world of the protagonist, Niall Lenihan, is not only full of names of places and pubs, it's also awash with text messages and the occult world of cellphone habitu├ęs. The novel's feel also seems to engage with one of Barry's other infatuations: Sherlock Holmes and tales of mystery. There is a mystery at the heart of this book, having to do with addiction to literature of a very uncanny kind, or with the whole notion of secretive activities that remind me of drug culture, though not-yet-out-of-the-closet gay culture is what's really the analogous experience for Niall. It's also a unique coming of age story that will resonate with anyone who bombed or nearly bombed in their first year of college (in this case Trinity) -- which is another exclusive society in and of itself, especially for those of us not preppy enough to be to the manor (or mannerisms) born. So there's a large learning curve for this protagonist, some nice work with literary allusions, and a few weird scenes of magical occurrence, for instance, walking on water -- a bit Peter Pan-esque that, now I come to think of it. Strikingly original, extremely readable, and I loved the use of the song that Orwell used in 1984 about the bells and what they say because it just seemed so damned cryptic!

Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude

The title comes from that place up in the icy regions where Superman has his headquarters set up and where he repairs when he needs a fix on his homesickness for Krypton. This novel by Lethem is also a coming-of-age story, about Dylan Ebdus, a kid in Brooklyn in the '70s. The references here are much less literary and much more pop-culture fixated, involving at one point a short insert chapter in which the protagonist dispenses liner notes for a box set of the work by his neighbor, Barnett Rude, Jr., a one-time Soul great who now pretty much just stays coked up all the time. There's lots of good attention to the friendship between the Jewish kid protagonist and Mingus the son of the musician (Dylan and Mingus, y'see?), beginning in the well-developed early chapters depicting the daily racial tensions on the street and at school. This is the kind of stuff Lethem shines in: giving the living, breathing feel of Brooklyn in its various manifestations through the years, presenting the knowing awareness of kids growing up with a mentality of life in a social minefield.

I wish though that he'd spent more time with the parents -- Dylan's absconded mother is kind of a cipher (no female characters in the book, really; Dylan's girlfriend, later, is a lit-crit-happy harpy -- who does actually get some good lines and knows just which CDs to throw at her slacker boyfriend), but the father working on his meticulous hand-painted film strip is an interesting subplot that brings in the more modernist avant-garde pretensions that comics and animation maybe have in certain quarters (and that maybe Lethem wants to take a pot-shot at, re: literary forebears). Lethem's also very good with a whole '70s dynamic of, at first, kid stuff like superhero comics and street games, then later drugs and music and graffitti art (as social ritual and competition), and shifts in sensibility as the kids age and the world gets uglier.

But the 'pay-off' of the 'magical realism' of this novel (in quotations because it isn't really that and I'm not sure Lethem's trying for it -- I hope not) makes for a final third that just goes wrong. Lethem is a very readable meister of the contemporary novel, fully informed about the world he (re)creates (except he does use a Talking Heads line anachronistically, nyah nyah), but he seems determined, in middle-brow novelist fashion, to "create excitement" -- which means: give us an ending that will make our hearts pound a bit before we leave the theater content with some kind of post-cathartic restoration of order. It feels like movieland to me, whereas the glimmering prose in the early going made me think maybe this guy was beyond all that. Maybe later.

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