Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Skeleton Road, by Val McDermid

Well written, with a three-dimensional and richly detailed exposition, embedded in the historical milieu of the Serbo-Croatian war of the 1990s, concerned with issues of mass murder, ethnic cleansing, sectional hostilities, with an interesting parallel between Scotland and Serbia, by all reckoning The Skeleton Road (2014; Val McDermid) should be a successful novel.  It left me cold.  A few of the characters, the professor of geography and the Croatian war hero Mitja Petrovic, were larger than life.  The intentionally diminished characters, especially the British detective Macanespie and primarily the Scottish detective Jane Pirie, were the most interesting.  If the novel had centered on Pirie more than it did, it might have been more of a success.  But it lacked something.

The first ominous sign is the fact that all the primary characters have distinctive two word names—Jane Pirie, Maggie Blake, Phil Parhatka, Tessa Minoque, etc.  For whatever reason, this immediately established for me an artificial and contrived narrative.  Then there are the parallel competing plots.  Then there is the opening scene, in which occurs a murder the solution to which becomes the justification for practically all the characters and events in the novel. There is the character who emerges late in the story as the mole and the murderer whom everyone is tracking.  There’s the final confrontation—predictable and formulaic—between the murderer and her adversary.  It’s formula.  Well executed, but formula. 

McDermid has a knack for developing minor characters.  Her most compelling characters are the ones who do not immediately fall into a glamorous mold.  Jane Pirie is interesting precisely because she doesn’t immediately seem to have the physical beauty, wealth, and brilliance that such characters as Maggie Blake or Tessa possess.  McDermid’s ability to develop an interesting and finally compelling character from a commonplace background is impressive.  For me, one of the most impressive characters in the novel was Pirie’s sidekick, the “Mint,” whom Pirie at first loathes as dimwitted, but who gradually develops into a figure who, if not brilliant, feels deeply and shows his loyalty to Pirie in various significant if unremarkable ways.  Both these characters seem real, far more so than do Maggie or Tessa or Mitja Petrovic.

As I advance in years (I suppose this could be called gaining in wisdom or deteriorating in mental capacity—the reader may choose) I have less tolerance for shallow or sloppy or half-ass or self-indulgent writing.  The novel Glow, mentioned in an earlier post, was not a bad book.  It was well written and in some ways creative, but in the end I couldn’t see the point.  It was just an exercise in good writing and technique, not literature.  I thought Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch was, at times, entertaining, and at other times impressive, but in the end it left me empty—it substituted the pyrotechnics of Tartt’s undeniably interesting and wide-ranging mind and her ability to write endless pages of narrative for art.  I’m sure she thought her book was art.  I certainly couldn’t have written it.  I couldn’t have written The Skeleton Road.  I appreciate what both Tartt and McDermid accomplish in their novels.  But they seem more an ordeal than a literary experience.

One major subplot is dropped, unresolved at the end of the novel.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Glow, by Neil Beaumann

Glow (2015), by Ned Beauman, is about the entanglement of the industry that designs and manufactures illegal drugs with freedom fighters and multinational corporations.  By standard definitions, those who manufacture illegal drugs are criminals.  In this novel, we deal not only with those criminals but with criminals who go to any lengths to promote and protect the interests of international corporations.  This interesting novel did not at first grab me, but eventually I found myself engaged.  I stayed up late reading, and then, at some point, my interest waned. 

Several of the leading characters in Glow are experts not only in the manufacture of drugs but also in the anatomy of the brain and of the chemicals and neurological processes affected by drugs meant to excite the brain for purposes of producing pleasure.  We’re much exposed in this novel to the chatter of these characters about the brain’s anatomy, and after a time the chatter becomes as tiresome as discussions about sports or about how to build a deck.  It doesn’t sustain the novel.

There are many mysteries here involving the nature of the white vans that cruise throughout London, kidnapping Burmese citizens, and about strangely behaving foxes.  There’s a beautiful young woman named Cherish with whom the main character Raf falls in love.  There’s a missing friend.  The plot rapidly thickens.  I found it increasingly difficult to follow the thickening tangle of events.  Is this my fault or the novel’s? 

One interesting device the writer employs is that of introducing a secondary character who then proceeds to tell a long story about himself or about someone he knows, and this provides information of importance to the general plot of the novel.  Such a device should seem artificial or contrived, but for the most part it works.  Glow is well written and intelligent, and every few pages the writer manages to trot out a new word—a word so unfamiliar that I had to look it up—and this should have been more of a distraction than it was.  There’s a cleverness in how this novel interweaves competing concepts and ideas—sometimes excessive cleverness.

Friday, February 20, 2015

John Wick

In The Equalizer (2014; dir. Antoine Fuqua) a former highly skilled assassin emerges from retirement partially induced by the death of the woman he loved to combat Russian mobsters.  In John Wick (2014; dir. Chad Stahelski) a former highly skilled assassin in mourning over his lover’s death emerges from retirement to combat Russian mobsters.  It is not that one film has copied the other.  The idea of a retired assassin lured from retirement by personal affront or moral outage is an attractive plotline.  Even more so when the assassin is so skilled that there is little reason to doubt that he will succeed in defeating adversaries.  One difference between these two films is production values.  John Wick is competently made and tightly executed, but The Equalizer is a more artful film, with better acting (Denzel Washington), cinematography, and a more compelling backstory.  When the head Russian crime lord learns that his son has stupidly stolen John Wick’s car, killed his dog, and beaten him up, he groans because he knows from past experience that if John Wick decides to seek revenge, nothing will stop him.  In effect, that moment strips the film of dramatic tension—John Wick will win.  The film thus proceeds to show how John Wick does what he does.  There is much shooting and mayhem. Russian mobsters die left and right.  Even though the film begins with a scene in which John Wick, badly wounded in a deserted parking lot, passes out, thereby suggesting his death, as the film makes its way forward we come to suspect that even this scene will be followed by another in which John gets back up and moves on.  We are not disappointed.  John Wick depends for whatever success it achieves on two factors: one is that we in the audience enjoy watching evildoers destroyed; the other is that we relish violence of every sort, especially when we can delude ourselves into believing that violence that serves moral retribution is somehow violence justified. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Shadows in the Night, by Bob Dylan

After a long career of highly creative music that had a major impact on American popular culture and that as artistic expression will likely last for centuries, Bob Dylan has earned the privilege of his eccentricities.  We should be willing to indulge them, occasionally.  I knew of his fondness for Sinatra from his memoir Chronicles, volume 1, and in a number of recent albums he has written songs in the Tin Pan Alley style.  I think especially of “Beyond the Horizon” on Modern Times, which sounds like a Bing Crosby Hawaiian tune, and of the entirety of Christmas in the Heart, a part-serious, part tongue-in-cheek tribute to the American popular Christmas music tradition.  No one could have grown up when Dylan did and escaped the influence of the music that people listened to in those years.

The songs on Shadows in the Night (2015) are well performed, and it is interesting to hear Dylan put his imprint on works that Sinatra sang but that we don’t normally associate with him.  I’ve read commentaries about how Dylan comes across in these songs as emotional and vulnerable, about how the album really works and is fun and listenable.  The reviews, in fact, have been strongly positive.  There’s no doubt that in performing these songs Dylan seriously puts his heart into them.

From my standpoint, these songs weren’t written for Dylan’s voice.  The Dylan I respect and admire is a writer of songs, an interpreter of his own music.  He’s the masterful creator of Highway 61 Revisited, “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Cold Irons Bound,” Love and Theft, “I'm Not There,” and so many others.  If I recorded an album like this one, no one would listen to it, except perhaps my embarrassed family.  I couldn’t convince anyone to record it, unless I paid to have it made.  Dylan has a band, he has the financial resources, he has the reputation to persuade people to listen to whatever he records and produces.  (I will listen to anything he records.)  Now he has produced Shadows in the Night.  I have listened to it repeatedly, attempting to “get” what he is doing. But I can’t. I hope he’s got it out of his system.

The Children, by David Halberstam

The Children, by David Halberstam (Random House, 1998) is organized in chapters focused on the important participants in the sit-ins that began in Nashville in 1960.  The important participants in these events, such as Diane Nash and John Lewis, went on to become leading figures in the civil rights actions of the early 1960s.  Halberstam tends to devote one chapter at a time to these individuals, moving back and forth among them, so that we come to understand and appreciate them as participants in as well as leaders of the movement.

The account of young college students who came from various backgrounds, some of them privileged, some not, is a tremendous story.  In ways that few people their age today can imagine, they put their lives at risk, opposing a deeply engrained way of life that others were willing to fiercely, even violently, protect.  Their persistence and courage, their deep belief in nonviolence, changed America.

For many of these students, the high point of their lives was their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.  Afterwards many of them discovered they had suffered trauma, the equivalent of traumatic stress syndrome, from which it took years to recover.  Some went on to productive lives in politics, medicine, education, while others drifted.  Halberstam traces the arc of their lives and careers in detail.

Diane Nash, whom previously I knew little about, was a beautiful, intelligent young women who dropped out of college to work in the movement.  She held important leadership and administrative positions, playing as important a role as many of the males.  Unfortunately, as was typical of the times, she did not always receive full credit for her contributions.

James Bevel, who for a short time was married to Nash, was a fiercely independent and iconoclastic figure.  Unlike many members in the Movement, who were willing to discuss their plans and negotiate and compromise before reaching consensus, Bevel believed his way was always the right one.  He was difficult to work with as a result.  Martin Luther King was particularly wary of him.  However, his fierce courage in the face of the worst forms of adversity made a major contribution.  He became an anti-war activist later in the 60s and drifted away from many other members of the Movement. Late in life he allied himself with the Unification Church and Reverend Sun Myung-Moon.

Above all others, the figure who stands out is John Lewis.  Although I knew of his participation in the Selma march, I was unaware of the important role he played in the Nashville sit-ins, and in the formulation of the nonviolent tactics of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.  He comes across as the most devoted and deeply invested member of the group.  He is a genuinely heroic American figure.

Marion Barry, like Lewis, came out of difficult surroundings in Alabama to participate in the Nashville civil rights actions. He held leadership positions during college on the NAACP and later for SNCC.  When he enters politics in Washington, DC, gradually rising to the position of mayor, he suffers gradual personal deterioration and becomes the center of political corruption.  Drug abuse, alcohol, sex, and money all brought him down.  His second term as mayor ended in a jail sentence.  He was soon after elected again to the city council and then again to the mayor’s position.

The book is too long and should have been compressed.  There are too many instances of repetitious information, of accounts being repeated.  This is by no means a fatal flaw, but it does make for slow going at points.  Especially in the final chapters, Halberstam spends too much time spinning out the lives of the various participants after the Civil Rights years are over.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

The Circle (Knopf, 2013), by Dave Eggers, is a latter-day version of 1984.  A company like Google and Facebook develops technology with which it collects information about everybody everywhere in the world.  It manufactures inexpensive but highly effective cameras and places them everywhere.  It pressures politicians to wear the cameras around their necks (this is called becoming transparent) so that their behavior is visible to anyone in the world.  The result is elimination of political corruption.  It places cameras in family homes, around the necks of family members, and thereby eliminates spousal and child abuse.  In public places, the cameras eliminate crime.

In the company called The Circle employees are expected to share information about everything they’re doing, and they’re expected to comment on the activities of others in the company—to send them “smiles” as a sign of approval.  “Sharing” becomes not merely a voluntary expression but mandatory, a way of life.  The main character of this novel, Mae Holland, is criticized by her supervisor early in her work for the company when she goes kayaking alone and doesn’t post about it to the company web site.  In this regard “The Circle” is much like Facebook, but while in Facebook one’s sharing of information is entirely voluntary, the Circle requires it.

The Circle describes how the company develops and grows and eventually takes over the world.  There isn’t much tension in the narrative.  A few people resist the expansion of the Circle, but for the most part it grows without opposition.  Therefore the novel lacks tension, suspense, and in the end a degree of interest. 

One problem is the main character Mae.  She lacks fiber, substance.  She graduates from college and goes to work for a utilities company, where she is unhappy.  She asks her friend Annie, who has a high-level job in the Circle, to help her find a place there.  Once she joins the Circle, she exhibits little will, virtually no awareness or concern about the all-seeing ambitions of the company, and in the end becomes a primary agent of its ubiquity.  She becomes the company’s first transparent employee, and then becomes its spokesperson, speaking to the millions of Circle followers as its transparent public face. Her ambition, combined with her narcissistic vacuity, makes her a fairly exasperating and unsympathetic character.  Her blindness to the needs of her parents, and her treatment of her former boyfriend, make her unlikeable.  But this is part of Eggers’ point, I think.  Individualism, privacy, one’s inner life—these all disappear in the Circle. He is worried they will disappear from our contemporary world as well.

One must admire the message in The Circle but not its presentation.  One expects some sort of dramatic showdown between the rapidly expanding Circle and a mysterious man who appears periodically, warning Mae of the dangers of the Circle. She never learns his name, even when they have sex, and we know that in some way he is an important figure.  When we finally learn who he is, as if we haven’t quite guessed already, it is a letdown.  For some inexplicable reason, he believes Mae can put a stop to the Circle if only she will inform her followers of how dangerous it has become.  The novel putters to a stop, and the Circle reigns supreme.