12-07-12:Mario Guslandi Reviews Jerome K. Jerome 'Weeds: A Story in Seven Chapters'
Still Elegant, Enticing, Insightful After 120 Years
British writer Jerome K Jerome (1859-1927) is mainly remembered for his humorous best seller Three Men in A Boat (1889), but his extensive output (eight novels, fifteen collections of short stories, two autobiographical works, over thirty plays and countless journal articles) testifies to his eclectic nature as an author. Although certainly a fine humorist, he wrote serious, mainstream fiction as well, not to mention a bunch of weird, macabre stories (e.g. the horrific "The Dancing Partner").
Victorian Secrets, a small UK-based imprint devoted to unearth lost and forgotten literary gems from the past, is making once again available 'Weeds,' a novelette in seven chapters, out of print for more than a century, that Jerome fist published anonymously in 1892, due to the uneasy attitude of Arrowsmith Publishing House about the book's frank portrayal of adultery in those prudish times. Today we can only smile when considering the restrained and delicate way used by Jerome to describe a furtive touch of hands, a quick kiss, with only a timid hint of what subsequently may have happened between the two lovers. Times change, but a good piece of fiction maintains its quality throughout the years and this is exactly the case with 'Weeds.'
Dick, a man happily married to the pretty and sparkling Daisy, gets unexpectedly but desperately attracted by his wife's young cousin Jessie. The story describes, in a gentle but precise fashion, the inner torment of a man irresistibly falling for a delightful female creature and the consequences of his infidelity and moral breakdown.
In this apologue about the frailty of the human soul, the precariousness of marital bond and the power of sexual attraction (all issues by no means outdated or unfashionable even for our disenchanted culture) Jerome exhibits his great ability as an elegant and dispassionate storyteller, endowed with a steady, enticing prose and an insightful narrative style. The effectiveness of the restraint displayed in Jerome in 'Weeds' can serve as a great lesson for the many contemporary authors who seem unable to describe a love affair without employing explicit and crude sex scenes where eroticism is overcome by pornography.
12-05-12:Lee Child Hits the 'Killing Floor'
"No laws to worry about"
If you get the voice right, everything else follows. Lee's Child's first novel, 'Killing Floor,' is an exercise in perfect pitch, a terse tale of terror narrated by a laconic giant with the deductive perspective of Sherlock Holmes. We meet Jack Reacher sitting in a café moments before he is arrested. He's a basic guy eating a basic meal. He'd probably prefer to be left alone, but his outlook on life includes a natural inclination to get to the truth of things, and once arrested for a crime he clearly did not commit, he's not going to rest until the guilty have been punished. As an ex-MP, he's well aware of how just how brutal crime and punishment can be. No longer a part of the military, or indeed, anything, he lives day by day and follows his own code. Readers cannot help but enjoy the ride.
Given Reacher's intense and often-mentioned physicality — he's 6'5", 250 pounds of well-toned muscle — it's easy to think that 'Killing Floor' might be an exercise in mindless violence. There's plenty of violence and a fair amount of action, but Child's first-person narration is endlessly intelligent in an ever-engaging low-key manner. Reacher, accused of some very brutal murders, seeks not just to prove his own innocence, but quickly decides to find and punish the guilty; "I had no laws to worry about, no inhibitions, no distractions. I wouldn't have to think about Miranda, probable cause, constitutional rights. I wouldn't have to think about reasonable doubt or rules of evidence. No appeal to any higher authority for these guys. Was that fair? You bet your ass. These were bad people."
The pleasures in Child's novel are many. Beyond Reacher's intelligent voice and his entertaining deductions, Child offers a fresh vision of America as a sort of suburban frontier. Margrave, Georgia, where the action unfolds, is a well-wrought quintessential southern small town with a secret, a rot at the heart of the town that has infected many of the residents. The scheme driving the murders that occur as Reacher tries to stop them and save those he has come to care about is really quite clever and still relevant. The plot offers both surprises and satisfactions.
Child's secondary characters are excellently drawn; there's a love interest, a good cop, an unwilling participant in a malevolent scheme and some truly nasty folks who might work well in a horror movie. All of them, however, are filtered through Reacher's perceptions and voice. That laconic, deductive eye makes everyone around Reacher seem just a little distant, even as the tension winds up, bodies accumulate and a timeline ticks down towards an event with unknown implications. The distance crated by Reacher's voice makes all of this seem both realistic and immediate. Child keeps every question in the readers' minds at bay by virtue of keeping engrossed in the story and the man.
Given the dire nature of the story, Reacher's physicality and the level of action, it helps that 'Killing Floor' has a deep and very mordant sense of humor. Revenge and humor are best served cold, and Reacher does so with an icy ease that is so enjoyable that it is very difficult not to laugh. We are certainly not laughing at Reacher, nor with him. It's just Child's ability to provide a pulse of pure reading pleasure that occasions these outbursts.
'Killing Floor' is an example of reading stripped down to the basics; story, intellect and character. That, and a bit of prescience with regards to the core of the mystery, certainly explains why a 1997 title reads perfectly well some fifteen years later. Let those pure powers flow through the voice of Jack Reacher and you have a guaranteed entertainment that is much more, but never makes a fuss about it. In fact, one might feel that were anyone to do so, to try to impart import to the tales of Jack Reacher, Reacher himself might come and talk some sense into them. Lee Child lets Jack Reacher and his exploits speak for themselves; quietly, without wasting words, in a voice that one is inclined to follow.
12-03-12:Justin Cronin Counts 'The Twelve'
The Tropes of Christmas Past and Future
Ultimately, what we bring to our reading is just as important as what is in any particular book. The novel can be a literary Sweden, neutral to all who care to enter it, and a mirror for the beliefs and inclinations of those who gaze within. Our agendas overwhelm those of the author, a statement that implicitly assumes that an author has an agenda. But when we read a book and find our own beliefs playing out across the canvas created by the writer, when we are so engaged that we feel a book was written just for us, then that is the time when an author's intentions are realized. When we make the story our own, the author has made his story ours.
Stories set in worlds that look a bit like ours, but aren't, have a head start in this regard. With 'The Passage,' Justin Cronin brought about the end of our happy lives and showed us what came afterwards; more of the same, turned up to eleven, with, of course, a backdrop of monstrous vampires. In 'The Twelve' he sidesteps the obvious chronological follow-up and gives readers instead a look at what was happening elsewhere while the characters of 'The Passage' were dealing with their not-so-shiny new lives. It's a smart move, an engaging novel, and a testament to a form that deserved resurrection, the 1980's horror epic.
'The Twelve' begins with a clever recap of 'The Passage,' told in King James prose, as a document from a religion in the far future. It's just the first of many cut-and-paste styles that Cronin will cut and paste to keep his epic-length novel from seeming epically long. Cronin's prose is a standout in this novel, because it is all over the map, literally. Cronin includes maps as part of his story, and they help move things along, help readers get a fix on the many stories he's got rolling along and break up the pages. But you'll also find diary inserts, news stories, all sorts of variety. In the straightforward narratives that comprise the bulk of the book, Cronin steers a passage between thumping adventure and literary introspection with a deceptive ease.
Like 'The Passage,' 'The Twelve' does a great job of taking pockets of the present and re-creating them in his post-apocalyptic America. We get a hero-survivalist in Denver, happy families frolicking in the field some 80 years later, and some twenty years after that, three communities; Kerrville, Texas, Freeport, Texas and the Homeland. One of these things is not like the others, but Cronin writes with the sort of neutrality that lets readers of all stripes find themselves in the heroes and the sorts of folks they might dislike in the villains. He gives us a gallery (and at the end of the book, a handy list) of great characters, some of whom we met in 'The Passage,' much later in the game, and some new characters as well. The way their paths cross and re-cross is entertainingly complex. Cronin does some very interesting things with the horror-epic-sequel form.
As with 'The Passage,' Cronin is pretty light on the monsters here. They pop up now and again to shred some extras, and perhaps some characters we might have expected would make it through, but this book is not about the monsters. It's about the survivors. You get a post-apocalyptic road trip, a bit of a spy novel, and families of blood and choice making their way in a world that makes ours look pretty kind by comparison. As a reader, you get the delightful prospect of putting the story together, and of finding your own beliefs, whatever they may be, projected into the future. Cronin's facility for being all things to all readers is not to be underestimated. He makes a whole lot of fun feel like a whole lot of fun, but something richer as well, a look at humanity with the special effects of our lives stripped away. He does so with his own special effects, but as readers, we're caught up in the commotion.
By virtue of the fact that Cronin sidesteps the usual chronological narrative conventions of the sequel, 'The Twelve,' while it is certainly best read after 'The Passage,' actually manages to sort of stand on its own and exceed the entertainment value of the first book, which is no small feat. Both books are, of course, monuments to the sort of book that we have not seen since the heyday of horror in the 1980's. They speak to the power of the form, those immersive prose mirrors that show us our hopes and our fears. The vampires in these books are afraid of mirrors. Perhaps, were one of them to read these books, they might find something truly terrifying within — us.
New to the Agony Column
09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity
08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]
Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]