Oct 9, 2008

A quad of reviews -Paul Auster, Sky Gilbert, Brian Evenson, Clifford Chase

Just some quick reviews today, to clear out the pile. But they're all good novels, with one certainly earning a berth on my all-time favourites list.

Man in the Dark
Paul Auster
Henry Holt, 2008

Paul Auster is a novelist known for taking chances. His
New York Trilogy is a classic of post-modernist weirdness. The Music of Chance is a sterling character study. The Book of Illusions is a spectacular, romantic ode. Auster is not known for shying away from a challenge. But Man in the Dark is unusual even by those standards.

It all takes place in the space of one night. August Brill is an author recuperating from injuries sustained in a car accident. As he suffers through a sleepless night, he thinks up a story in an alternate timeline, where the twin towers never fell, and the U.S. has been split in a civil war over the Bush-Gore vote debacle. As the night wears on, the plot progresses, only to be abandoned by Brill as his grand-daughter starts up a conversation about the murder of her boyfriend.

Even by Auster standards, the plot of Man in the Dark beggars description. It has little form, and doesn't resolve itself rather than merely end as the sun comes out. But Auster isn't being lazy; he uses the rambling narrative as a device to touch on issues such as war, love, fear, and hope. In one night, Brill covers much of what North Americans habitually stress themselves into knots over. There are no clear-cut answers, and Auster doesn't pretend to have a solution. "The weird world rolls on," one character mutters, and that's as good a summation of Auster's alternately frustrating and magical novel as any.


Brother Dumb
Sky Gilbert
ECW Press, 2007

Who is Brother Dumb? Many have speculated, but the best guess as to the identity of the famous yet unnamed memoirist Canadian author Sky Gilbert brings to life is
J.D. Salinger. He makes mention of his initials, his sporadic output, his past marriages, his forays in religion; I'm no Salinger expert, but the parallels between Brother Dumb and Salinger are stark and unmistakeable. I don't know why Gilbert would choose not to mention Salinger by name, but considering Salinger's penchant for suing people who use his name (see his famous wranglings with W.P. Kinsella over Kinsella's use of Salinger as a character in his novel Shoeless Joe), it's a safe bet that Gilbert did not want the hassle.

Anyway, the novel is not presented as a mystery to be solved: instead, it's a character study of a man who considers himself humble but is anything but; who says he has a love of people but hates everyone he meets; who yearns to be a silent monk ("Brother Dumb") but in reality cannot shut up. Gilbert's author is a crank, a crotchety old man, and it's no mean feat that Gilbert manages to make the coot likable.

Gilbert's pseudo-memoir is a study in loneliness, and an unflinching portrayal of the temperament of the artist. The author never apologizes for who he is, and indeed, cares far more for his fictional creations than his flesh-and-blood acquaintances. There's undeniable pathos in Gilbert's exploration of how far man will go to have his real life emulate his imagination. The author is a lonely, lonely man, and mostly of his own choosing, but if he's insufferable as a person, he's wonderfully entertaining as a character.


Last Days
Brian Evenson
Underland Press, 2009

This novel hasn't yet been released, but I can't imagine Brian Evenson being annoyed at some pre-publication praise.

Ostensibly a mystery,
Last Days concerns the travails of Kline, a police officer who has recently been parted from his hand (and not by choice). After a series of mysterious phone calls, Kline is forcibly convinced by a strange duo to return with them to their compound, as he is the only person capable of solving a crime. What the crime actually is differs from person to person. Oh, and every individual Kline meets is missing at least one body part. And they parted from their appendages most willingly. I don't wish to give too much away, but when you learn from the publisher that Last Days is a lengthening of Evenson's short story "The Brotherhood of Mutilation," you kind of get a hint as to where it might be headed.

The cover copy presents
Last Days as a "down-the-rabbit-hole detective mystery," and like Alice in Wonderland, Kline finds that his presumptions concerning morality and freedoms mean nothing in the situation he is in. Correspondingly, the reader is left as ignorant as Kline, and can only hold on. Last Days falls squarely in the genre of 'the condemned man who has not been told the charges', and is a sterling example of paranoid fiction.

What is
Last Days about? Is is a condemnation of fanaticism? Certainly, the acts of Kline's abductors are cult-like, but Evenson is more concerned with keeping the reader off-guard with left turns, misdirection, and some gut-churning violence. It goes without saying, I dug it a lot. Evenson's plot is unsettling and eerie, an equal mixture of Franz Kafka and David Lynch. As Kline winds himself deeper and deeper into Evenson's labyrinth (is the book really only 170+ pageslong?), his options for extricating himself become fewer, especially when he finds himself between warring factions. The ultimate ending, a complete abandonment of the self, is severe and uncompromising, somehow reminding me of the bleak despair of the finale of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, as Neville submits to his fate and becomes the monster.

Last Days is gruesome, perplexing, reprehensible, cruel, and freaking marvelous. I'll be tracking down Evenson's other novels ASAP.

Grade: A-

Clifford Chase
Grove Atlantic, 2006

When I stopped and thought about it, I was struck not so much by how much
Winkie reminded me of the works of William Kotzwinkle, but more by how few authors use Kotzwinkle as a template. Kotzwinkle has been a preeminent satirist for much of his writing career, and many could learn from his unique sensibilities. Yes, it's all well and good to emulate Vonnegut (register him for sainthood, in my opinion), but Kotzwinkle's novels offer delights both sublime and ridiculous. As does Winkie, a charming, shaggy, ultimately heart-rending tale of the yearning for freedom in a society that craves its scapegoats.

Winkie is a teddy bear with a dream: freedom. After decades of entrapment as a immobile object, Winkie takes it upon himself to leap to his feet and take action, running to the woods, living off the land, and somehow giving birth to a daughter, Baby Winkie. However, fate is indeed cruel, as Winkie becomes mistaken for a unabomber-style terrorist and is tried in a kangaroo court so outrageous it makes the Guantanamo trials seem reasonable and well considered.

Winkie is a bizarre little creature, both as cuddly object of childhood adoration and as literary object of my adoration. It's part allegory for the insane times we live in, with our fear of the other and our incessant need to blame others for our problems. It's part exploration of the outsider. But Winkie's true heart lays in Chase's plea for acceptance and tolerance. Winkie may be a bear, but he's far more rational a being than most people, and far more accepting of the world's mysteries. Winkie's journey is a journey every thinking being must take, and it's rather frightening that a teddy bear is more equipped to deal with the world than most functioning adults.

Winkie is, for me, that rarest of novels: a novel I wish I had written. There's magic in it.

Grade: A+

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