Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace

I have discovered the key to David Foster Wallace's work, and it lies solely with the reader. Give it the time it deserves. His writing is so deeply layered, with ranging perspectives and a raft of information, many of which seem to bear little connection to the plot. Time and patience, however, reveal the tapestry. I truly didn't want the book ever to end, because this novel about the IRS, of all things, became the exploration of so many conundrums of modern life that it seemed that it might in the end explain everything.

This is a posthumous work, painstakingly stitched together from the papers Wallace left upon his untimely death. The editor, Michael Pietsch, describes it as a labor of love, but it must have been Herculean. One can only imagine how great the novel would have been if finished; as it is, we are lucky to have it in this form, and it is fantastic despite its lack of polish.

Think IRS: I immediately conjure gray walls, tens of thousands of smudged, tear-stained pages, pen protectors, ashen complexions. Monotony piled upon boredom. Step into the halls of the Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, and you'll find all of that, plus interminable lines, endless, incomprehensible regulations, crushing bureaucracy, and Machiavellian office politics, for starters.

The minutiae of tedium - sounds like a great subject for a novel, no? And yet... it is endlessly fascinating. Sitting cramped in my airplane seat, hours from either departure or destination, I read about characters caught in a perpetual traffic jam, and felt remarkably unconstricted. There was that sense of familiarity, the sorrow at the futility of hours spent wasted on mundane chores, combined with relief at knowing that my life (your life) could never be this banal. Though, described in exhaustive detail to the outside world, who knows?

What is the book about? Lots and lots of people working at the IRS. It could be subtitled: A Human Anthill. Depictions of childhoods both traumatic and run-of-the-mill are echoed in descriptions of adult lives both mundane and poignant. There's an awful lot in this book; really you just have to read it to begin to see its depth and breadth and yes, I'll say it, genius.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

I'm probably not the last person on the planet to read The Hunger Games, but there can't be too many left. Nonetheless, my opinion...

The premise of this book is quite horrible - children battling one another to the death. I didn't think I would feel so sanguine reading the gruesome details, but this book is Hollywood all the way; the blood and gore seem like special effects. That said, there is still no way I'm taking my not-quite-eleven-year-old to see it. There's a lot you can gloss over when you're reading that would be downright horrifying on a twenty-foot screen.

This is YA done right, with the emotional life of the protagonist taking precedence over the mundane details, but with enough of those details to make it interesting. Katniss (possibly the worst name in popular literature) is the kind of heroine you want your girls idolizing: smart, strong, capable, and not quite in control of her emotions. The book is completely addictive, with non-stop action and lots of visual detail, making you feel like you're right there in the midst of it. The author dodged some pretty tricky bullets as far as her heroine's moral choices went, which admittedly is often the case in YA. Katniss certainly had to consider whether she was capable of brutal murder, but was mostly saved from being put to the test. I appreciate that a heroine can't go around killing everyone in sight simply in order to survive, but a little more moral ambiguity would have made me like the book more.

Like many dystopian fantasies, there's an odd combination of a technologically advanced society intermingled with something more Medieval, and it's a little hard to figure out how those two coexist. I was surprised to learn, for example, that Katniss' childhood home had a TV, as I had pictured it without electricity. I think some of this might be explained to better satisfaction in the sequels.

The end of the contest was a little anti-climactic, and the immediate aftermath rang very hollow to me. It reminded me of reality TV, where much of the tension is manufactured. Again, I think these events may be a setup for the next two books. Suzanne Collins says she didn't set out to write a trilogy; that the events of the Hunger Games demanded more exploration. I might believe her. I expect I'll read the next two, despite having been apprised of a few major spoilers. If they are as entertaining and fast-paced as this one it will be time well spent.

I've seen the movie trailer, and I think it will be great. Despite my insistence that 'the book is always better than the movie,' this one may prove the exception. Collins wrote the screenplay as well, which bodes well for consistency with the original. I'll just have to sneak out to see it so the 10-year-old doesn't suspect...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Gain, by Richard Powers

In reading this book, I learned more than I ever dreamed I'd want to know about several subjects: soap-making, and the chemical evolution of cleaning products of every kind; the history of marketing; the moment-by-moment reality of chemotherapy; the history of the financial markets in America since their conception; an awful lot about cancer and what causes it and how it takes hold; and a whole lot of other stuff that now escapes me. Such erudition! I am stunned, impressed, and educated.

This book alternates between two stories. The first is that of the Clare family: Three brothers start a candle and soap company in mid-19th century Boston. Their little experiment evolves into a multi-national chemical company, with various Clares and others paving history with processes both chemical and financial. Along the way they play an integral part in developing the concept of modern marketing.

The parallel story is of Laura Brody, mild-mannered real estate agent in Lacewood, IL, home of Clare International HQ. Laura has moved past her divorce and is managing her teen aged kids, ex-husband and new career admirably. Her story gives a personal face to the unintended consequences of industry and supposed progress.

The incredible thing about this book? It was fascinating. I don't read much non-fiction; I need a story to make facts interesting. I quite willingly devoured pages of chemistry, economic theory and history in this novel, and never got bored. Richard Powers has the rare ability to transmit his passion for science through language, and to make any subject he tackles interesting. I'm willing to bet that he's not only the smartest guy in any room he inhabits, but also has a better understanding of art, and its intersection with both physical and social science. This is, after all, the basis of humanity, but most of us don't embody it as fully as Powers.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

Another terrific Neil Gaiman book - is there any other kind? Anansi Boys is set in the same territory as American Gods, the nexus of humanity and godliness. In this case, the god in question thinks he is human, and only slowly comes to understand that his family is not just mildly dysfunctional, but is downright otherworldly.

Gaiman's ability to take on the voice of a character so decidedly unlike himself is uncanny. I understand that that is the job of the novelist, but still. The atmosphere ranges from the mundane to the bizarre, and I could always picture myself in the scene. There's something Everyman about Fat Charlie, which makes his realization of his godliness very satisfying.

The clumsy, always slightly-behind-the-curve child of a charmed ne'er-do-well, Charlie has no interest in revisiting his childhood home after his father's death. It turns out that some childhood fears are well-deserved; the frightening neighborhood ladies of his youth are in fact witches of a sort. As the layers slowly peel away, Fat Charlie is dragged into the realization that what he thought were dreams are real, and that he has a family unlike any other.

One of the things Neil Gaiman does really well is interweave the supernatural with the every day. The more fantastical elements of the story are counterbalanced with reality: difficult boss, demanding girlfriend. The result is a hero who provokes your frustration, but who you can't help rooting for.