Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Booklog, A Condederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of Dunces
John Kennedy Toole
Grove Press Trade Paperback, 394 pages

Stick the landing.

That's the advice that I got from this novel: stick the landing. I was reading through it, fully prepared to give it a merely so-so review, categorizing it in my mind as "one damn thing after another," when suddenly I realized while reading the last forty pages or so just how perfect the ending was shaping up to be, and how well it tied the entire rest of this messy, disorganized novel into a neat little bow. It made me understand that the book was written exactly as it needed to be -- there's little or no wasted verbiage here, despite appearances -- and that the book deserves its accolades.

For those unfamiliar with the context of the book, John Kennedy Toole wrote this novel in the early sixties and later killed himself. His mother discovered the manuscript in her son's personal items after he died, read it, and recognized it as a great book. She spent years pestering people in positions to publish the book to give it a read-through, and when the book was finally published, it won a Pulitzer Prize.

The book's protagonist is Ignatius J. Reilly (although the myriad characters surrounding him are given about as many pages as he is), a fat, oblivious thirtysomething who lives with his mother in New Orleans. He has a master's degree in some unstated subject (probably classical studies, given his appreciation for Boethus), and spends all of his time camped out in his room, writing pages upon pages of purple prose into notebooks, the earliest of which he can scarcely even remember the contents of. He also plays at the local arcade, and goes to the movies almost daily -- not because he likes the films, but to expose himself to the further depradations of modern society. See, Ignatius detests modernism, feeling that society reached its peak sometime during the Middle Ages, although he does seem to appreciate the conveniences of modern society a great deal.

Many have described Ignatius as depressed, and I'm not entirely sure I disagree, but to me his behavior seems more closely connected with some form of high-functioning austism. He is enormously intelligent, but completely and utterly self-centered, berating all of those in his life for slights real and imagined, and basically being a giant boor. He refuses to even go get a job until his mother, needing a thousand and fifty dollars to pay damages she owes after getting in a car accident, forces him to go pound the pavement. The majority of the novel details Ignatius's work habits as a filing clerk at a clothing factory and, later, a hot dog vendor.

As mentioned above, there is also a large supporting cast of various characters, all of them deftly drawn "colorful characters," but rarely dipping into caricature. Most affecting (and most central to the plot, as it turns out towards the end) is a formerly-vagrant black man who takes a sub-minimum-wage job sweeping floors at the local strip club -- he is often the voice of reason and wisdom in the book, but never steps near stereotype; he too has a wit and flash all his own, and his scenes are among the most engaging.

This book is described as a comedy, and perhaps the biggest flaw I found with the book is that I did not find it particularly funny. I am clearly in the minority here, but I found the overall sadness of the Ignatius character to be more prominent in his interactions, and while some of the situations he gets into are absurd or surreal, his actions are so grounded in his particular psychology that I couldn't find it in my heart to laugh at the poor guy.

Overall this turned out to be a very good book. I wish I could have enjoyed the humor a bit more, but that's probably a failing of mine, not the book. There's a lot here that I haven't even touched on -- this book is enormously rich in terms of local character and flavor, and most scenes are short, leading to a more engaging moment if you get tired of the one you're on. Keep in mind that there is a meaning to all this, and that there is a subtly-buried plot, and you'll do fine with the book.

It's a shame Toole killed himself. This book is so good that he could have had a long life of writing strangely tragicomic novels; he could have been a common man's Thomas Pynchon, or Phillip Roth with a Cajun twist. As the introduction notes, one of the real tragedies of the book is all the other books we were denied by the suicide of the author.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Booklog, Rant, An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, Chuck Palahniuk

Rant, An Oral Biography of Buster Casey
Chuck Palahniuk
Doubleday Hardcover, 336 pages

Well, you can't blame me for dallying. This novel was only released yesterday.

I'm in a strange place with this novel. It's better than I expected from his last work, Haunted, which I felt would have worked much better as a book of short stories than as a novel, and good enough that I recommend it without many reservations, but it also has a number of structural and thematic issues that would probably be pertinent to mention in this review.

But I can't really discuss it. Palahniuk has written a novel that is elegantly constructed for I think the first time in his career, and one of the primary joys of reading it is to experience without spoilers the many red herrings and changes in meaning that the book undergoes as the plot unfolds. Suffice to say that this really could have been three or four books, in the hands of a lesser author, but Palahniuk integrates it all in a way that makes it wholly original, even unique.

Hell, it even has some thematic similarities to Against the Day, or at least a small portion of it.

The book is structured as an oral history of Buster "Rant" Casey, who we learn in the opening pages is a strange sort of celebrity who spread some horrible disease to "half the country" and is the leader of some weird cult. As the book continues, much if not all of that is brought into question by the various perspectives of the persons "interviewed" for the book, and by the end much of what we thought we knew about this character and the world in which he lives are known to be wrong. Maybe.

The oral history aspect feels like an affectation at first, a narrative technique that fails largely because Paluhniak's characters are similar enough to one another to make their voices indistinct. But gradually I realized that Paluhniak is using the technique to give us the "good parts" version of this novel, in which the narrative flow can move from scene to scene without showing a lot of the more dull interconnective tissue. This gives the book a velocity that is hard to resist -- I read the whole thing in about three sittings over the course of twenty-four hours or so, and it didn't feel like a forced read at all.

Palahniuk's fans are going to eat this up. There's a lot here that his devotees will enjoy, and there's enough here that is new to his fiction that he might even get some new readers, although it's really only in the last hundred pages or so that the real meaning of it all becomes clear. The gore factor is turned way down from Haunted, although there's a bit towards the end, and the worldbuilding done in the more speculative-fiction portions of the novel is pretty top-notch (although even that's probably saying too much).

If it seems that I'm discussing this novel without telling anything about it, that's because I am -- if anything that I've said above has interested you, read nothing else about this book (even the dust jacket) and start reading. I haven't always considered myself a huge fan of Palahniuk's writing, and there are some issues I have with this book, but overall this is a hugely confident and largely successful book, a definite step forward for the author, and while I don't plan to own this book immediately, I'll be thinking about it for a while.

Give it a shot. It's a good read.

Booklog, In Cold Blood, Truman Capote

In Cold Blood
Truman Capote
Vintage Trade Paperback, 343 pages

It's funny: this book took me about a week to read, has enormous strengths with only a few minor weaknesses, nearly singlehandedly invented the true crime drama, has at least tenuous connections to To Kill a Mockingbird, and yet... I just don't have a lot to say about it.

The story: Truman Capote saw an item in the news about the senseless slaying of a family of four in Kansas, was intrigued by it, and spent something like seven years putting together a definitive narrative about the events that transpired. He worked with Harper Lee to interview hundreds of people in the community and who knew the killers, and integrated the thousands of pages of notes into a compelling and even touching narrative that captured the lives of the two killers as well as the lives of those who were killed. It contains moments of great brutality and moments of great tenderness. And Capote may well have fallen in love with one of the killers along the way. (I have not yet seen Capote, but the writing of this book is the narrative focus of that Oscar-winning film.)

And yet... the whole thing is so straightforward and yet intimately interconnected that there's just not a lot of commentary I can give, without basically reproducing the whole book.

The book starts slow. It spends about eighty pages introducing two groups of people: the Clutter family, the four individuals who would be killed, and the two low-rent ex-cons (Perry Smith and Richard Hickock) who would do the killing. It introduces the reader into the rhythms of the lives of the principals, getting a feel for exactly what transpired that day, the ends Part One of the book without actually "showing" the crime. We pick up in Part Two with the discovery of the bodies, and the two criminals trying to find a place to hole up after committing the crimes.

The community of Holcomb, KS (where the murders took place) is justifiably shocked by the brutality of the slayings, and since most people in-town believe the crime to have been committed by one of their own, a large amount of distrust forms among the local population. The actual killers, several hundred miles away by the time the bodies are discovered, bounce around from town to town kiting checks and hoping to find decent work.

They are eventually caught by a mechanism that is so out-of-the-way that I wouldn't dare spoil the surprise for those who haven't read it, and the crime is finally described by one of the men. Seeking what they believed to be tens of thousands of dollars, the murder of four innocent people nets the two men somewhere between forty and fifty dollars, including a silver dollar stolen from a young girl's changepurse.

Brought back to Holcomb for trial, they are given a mostly-fair but quick trial, sent to Death Row, and, eventually, hung. The book ends less than two pages after Smith's hanging, on a note of loss as the primary detective on the case views the Clutter farm.

Yet... there's so much more than this simple telling would indicate. In the hands of a skilled narrative artist like Capote, the people involved are fully human, full of desires and honesty and integrity and foibles, and if no one is quite fully evil, no one is quite angelic. The killers are portrayed as hugely flawed and perhaps mentally ill, but with dignity of their own, and while the book never excuses their crime, it makes the reader sympathetic towards their own plight.

Critics have speculated that Capote took many liberties with the circumstances of the crime in the past forty years. How the author could have had the kind of access needed to get the kinds of details he has on display here is bewildering. I have little doubt that at least some portions of this book were simply invented, or at least massaged into place by the incredibly talented author.

Reading this back-to-back with The Ski Mask Way just reiterated how insipid the latter book really is: while the main characters in 50 Cent's book are barely even two-dimensional, Capote's "characters" shine with all the complexity of real life. And while the ending of Ski Mask comes from nowhere, and the brutality of the crime is senseless and unnecessary, In Cold Blood makes a similar crime completely understandable, even necessary, for the two young men.

In the end, Capote's work is a masterwork, but a strangely cold one that leaves me not wishing for a reread anytime soon. Fans of true-crime novels will find one of the best ever written here, and it's a perfect example of how to use real events to create narrative tension, but it's also strangely disposable: once it's done, it's done.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Duckman on Youtube!

So it's been a few days since I've posted. I've been working a lot, and haven't really felt inspired. But what did I find yesterday before going in for a closing shift?

That's right -- Duckman on Youtube. In case you don't recognize it, that's Jason Alexander at the height of his Seinfeld fame as the eponymous character, with Nancy Travis as Bernice and Dweezil Zappa as Ajax. Tim Curry played King Chicken, but he didn't appear in the pilot episode linked to above.

The show ran on USA from 1994-1997, and I think it probably influenced me way more than a show like that should have. Nowadays USA is known for Monk and endless reruns of the Law and Order spinoffs (all of which is fine, and I enjoy greatly), but back in the nineties it was the place for cheesy eighties movies (good and bad) and made-for-TV schlock like Silk Stalkings. Duckman was a show that celebrated that kind of lowbrow sex and violence even while savagely satirizing it, got points for being having the anti-PC Duckman while showing his views to be just as flawed as those that he criticized (mainly through Duckman's own stupidity and the moderating influence of Cornfed), and even included highminded criticism of its own structure occasionally.

In later episodes of the show, organized religion came under pretty harsh criticism (the creators of the show are all strong atheists so far as I know) and Duckman himself is shown as an enthusiast of kinky BDSM-style sex. The show did a science fiction episode, a film noir episode, a "Vietnam movie" episode, even an "end of the world" episode. If at times the satire seemed to be more of a broadsword than a rapier, even that was part of the fun -- not until South Park would more sacred cows be toppled in a single half-hour cable program.

Yeah, it had its weak episodes. But it deserves better than to languish in obscurity, and it's right up there with Daria on my list of TV shows that should get the season-box-set DVD treatment soon.

So go watch the pilot, already!