June 28, 2011

Book 22: The Gum Thief

The Gum Thief
Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland has made his name studying the inner workings of ordinary people, those of us who live humdrum lives at the margins of society, who may or (as is usually the case with his characters) may not buy into the latest hype or trend. While The Gum Thief is a continuation of Coupland's ongoing exploration of generational mindset(s), its fondness for metafiction tends to cloud the main storyline rather than enhance it, allowing the book-within-a-book to take over the novel without necessarily enhancing readers' understanding of the character writing it. In fact, for a writer whose view of his characters is usually so astute, Coupland's inability to distinguish them or to allow them to speak for themselves is remarkable. Though the ambition evident in the book's mixed viewpoint structure is admirable, every character's epistolary voice carries the same tone and makes the same kind of observations that seem hackneyed rather than pointed. Indeed, Coupland's problem here may be that he has done too well in depicting the kind of detached, wry, wannabe ironic observations that made Generation X and its successors so poignant. Here, it feels as though the author is striving just a bit too much for authenticity, and what remains is a thinly disguised attempt to channel the voice of a cynicism the author himself may not fully comprehend. Readers get the overwhelming feeling that, ultimately, people just don't talk (or think) this way.

The overt ambitions of the novel are also evident in its chaotic narrative structure, which relies far too heavily on the main protagonist's authorial pet project, a truly wretched novel. While Coupland does an admirable job channeling Roger's angst throughout the invented Glove Pond, that angst remains self-pitying and, ultimately, uninteresting. Instead of gaining a better understanding through a subtle handling of narrative nuance, readers get backstory in large, frantic gulps that ring hollow more often than inspiring sympathy. Coupland has not created unlikely or unrealistic characters, but he has made his traditional cast of outcasts boring and difficult to care about as their tedious observations about the modern world fall flat. The book also squanders a glorious opportunity as the office superstore setting falls by the wayside rather than providing what should have been an ideal breeding ground for the kind of cynicism that springs here from other sources. Instead, Coupland relies more and more heavily on Glove Pond and its transparent cast, concluding the book in a truly unsatisfying ending that seems borne of the same malaise that colors the rest of the book. The book is not without its humorous moments, and shows promise at its beginning and, indeed, throughout; there may in fact be poignancy hidden herein, though it is difficult to pry out from the tenor of self-loathing that makes the book so tedious at times. Yet, despite this, the book is difficult to put down and it is only at the end that the reader is left completely disappointed; this is a book that seems capable of so much more than it delivers. The Gum Thief shows promise in its setup and at moments during its execution, but too-lofty ambitions and high reader expectations make the book fall sadly flat despite, or perhaps because of, its desperate desire to be witty.

Grade: C

June 20, 2011

Book 21: The Opposing Shore

The Opposing Shore
Julien Gracq

Military defeat can loom large in the memory of a nation, and the lingering effects of World War II upon France are evident throughout Julien Gracq's The Opposing Shore, a deeply introspective novel considering the effects of long-term peace and looming conflict. Set in the fictional, but distinctly Mediterranean, city-state of Orsenna and its outlying territories in a period just before industrial mechanization, the novel recalls, in its way, the dominance and eventual collapse of Rome. A far lesser empire, Orsenna grapples with a centuries-long history of stagnation, exemplified not least in an ongoing cold war with Farghestan, which lays on the opposite shore of an unnamed sea. Though the novel's long and introspective passages do an excellent job of portraying the somnolence of Orsenna and its officials, seemingly endless passages unbroken by significant events, they are equally likely to provoke the same reaction in the reader. The ratio of action to introspection makes the novel somewhat difficult to grasp; though, again, the tone and the mood of Orsenna and its Syrtes outposts are suggestively rendered through Gracq's prose. That the book is dominated by a kind of narrative haze is a bit frustrating, as the author shows an ability to raise the level of action without greatly deviating from the general tone of the narration; even the simple act of displacing some observations by couching them in conversation lightens the onus upon the reader. While Gracq's dialogue is certainly not the crackling sort, or particularly true to life, it does have an ability to force the reader to think more than the long, boring descriptive passages that dominate the prose.

That said, the book holds some valuable insights and a fair bit of philosophical entertainment for those willing to engage it with a certain level of intellectual depth. Indeed, The Opposing Shore asks much of its readers but does provide ample rewards in its exploration of political drowsiness and death. Though the action of the novel takes too long to get going by most standards, its pace (once begun) is appropriate, its constituent events serving to illuminate the book's well-established themes. Its characters, however, are a bit ill-defined and have obscure motives that do not suffice to explain occasionally puzzling actions. Readers are indebted almost solely to narrator Aldo's descriptions of character, given Gracq's hesitancy to insert dialogue into such an overtly philosophically-minded story, and his insistence on certain traits sometimes appears distractingly at odds with characterization evinced by observed action. Richard Howard's translation, while (apparently) admirably maintaining a tone and weight throughout, occasionally becomes distracting, as in the absolute overuse of the word "somnolent" and its derivatives. Hardly a page passes by without this word, however appropriate, occurring at least once, and while it may be the most befitting lexical choice its constant appearance serves more to distract than to enlighten. Even the sleep/wakefulness metaphors that dot the book tend to lull the reader into an occasional stupor, and though the book is undoubtedly a fine work of literature it fails to sustain significant interest at a consistent level. The Opposing Shore is an interesting exploration of a nation's long sleep and gradual awakening, as well as a convincing exploration of the power of artificial boundaries, though its focus on introspection over plot makes it slightly inaccessible and, perhaps, more demanding on the reader than is really fair to ask.

Grade: B

June 10, 2011

Book 20: Super Sad True Love Story

Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel
Gary Shteyngart

While I am not inherently predisposed to believe the seemingly universal fawning praises of the mainstream book reviewing media for certain books, neither am I wholly opposed to its opinions. Never, however, can I recall reading a book that received such high reviews but which was so disappointing and, in fact, just plain bad. Such is the case with the way overzealous, way too self-indulgent Super Sad True Love Story which, of all these words, really only contains a "story." This story, however, is underwhelming at best and ruthlessly disturbing at worst, predicated on a whiny older man's creepy obsession with a nearly anorexic 20-something in a thinly disguised dystopian "America" that consists solely of New York City. That Lenny, the book's primary (and alarmingly unsympathetic) protagonist and narrator, is a fairly obvious stand-in for the author, a circumstance that explains his ridiculous and otherwise entirely bizarre obsession with his Ohio-shaped bald spot (no, literally), in no way excuses the entirely wayward attempts of the book's hapless author. Shteyngart seems to confuse excessive, too-much-information detail and whininess with good, evocative description and daring character development; instead, Super Sad True Love Story is, like its disturbing and obsessive main character, a complete and insufferable mess.

There are redeeming qualities to the book, though they are few and far between. There are times when the author does show a true gift for the English language, although these gems are often lost due to the banality of the plot surrounding them or readers' disgust with the characters writing or participating in them. Some of the elements of Shteyngart's self-indulgent stab at dystopian satire are illuminating, such as his half-baked, pseudo-Bradburian vision of a post-book (but not, as the disarmingly false jacket copy so enthusiastically announces, illiterate) near future (one that cannot, despite the enthusiastic protestations of the jacket copy, ever conceivably occur "next Tuesday," given its own internal chronological reference points) and his keen perception of immigrants' affection for an adopted United States, but where the book goes for funny it inevitably falls entirely flat. Jokes and winks, such as they are, are wielded with as blatant an Obvious Hammer as I've ever seen, to the point where any satire in the book becomes completely ineffective as the author's obvious lack of talent for tact or subtlety overrides any poignant points he might actually make given a hint of restraint. Instead, the book reads like the product of a spoiled, indulgent, ne'er-do-wrong, holier-than-thou literary hack whose preoccupation with The Big Questions overrides concern for sympathetic characters, a sensical plot, and/or a setting that could, when treated with any degree of narrative talent, be painfully revealing. Likewise, anything interesting the author may have to say about society is swallowed in woefully self-aware and self-laudatory prose dripping with a look-at-me-I-am-a-literary-darling inaccessibility and pointlessness. The book has unlikeable characters: how daring! No. How insufferably stupid, vapid, and unreadable.

Where, exactly, does Shteyngart go wrong? While an author certainly shouldn't be faulted for attempting to explore what an extrapolation of our current digital-driven communication habits might mean, his attempt at describing an äppärät-driven word is as exaggerated as the unnecessary umlauts, and any salient points he makes about over-sexualization are surely lost in the book's prurient (and, frankly, disturbing) obsession with things like see-through "jeans" and synonyms for a woman's nether regions and unmentionables. Nor is the treatment of government much more cleverly drawn, Shteyngart appealing instead to the rabid anti-Cheneyism that may have worked in 2006 but which now seems laughably out of place. This is a shame, because some of the fears raised in this novel seem legitimately based on a cynical view of current trends, an Orwellian future disturbingly well-linked to our current situation but whose punch is lost in its pure absurdity. Cute little tricks the author seems to find clever, such as representing mega-conglomerations in nearly-unreadable and frankly untenable mashups of brand names (AlliedWasteCVSCitigroupCredit is an impossible name even after the requisite, and unlikely, mergers) or having non-black characters refer to each other as "Nee-gro" with no discernible context, are instead bulky and lazy, drawing attention to the author's brazenly displayed need for recognition.

That Shteyngart is receiving this desperately-sought recognition is disheartening, because among the poorly contrived satirical elements and disgusting main character, the plot and writing are full of holes, the plot holding less weight than the collapsing dollar holds relative to the surging yuan. There is no explanation given for the current political situation above a lazy attempt to scream at readers, "You're all morons! Look what you idiots are doing to yourselves!" and an attendant, implied, "I am the only one clever enough to see this coming! And look at the hip umlauts! Welcome to the future, we're Scandinavian here!" Moreover, though the book's conceit as a dual narrative between creepy Lenny's diaries and messages from object of his unbalanced affection Eunice Park is clever and does balance their two voices, it is inconceivable that any diarist writes in such flowery language. And if, indeed, readers believe dear Lenny does use such elegant phraseology and incorrect tenses in his daily writing, they must be forgiven for despising him even more strongly in the book's epilogue than at its onset, a seemingly impossible task for which Shteyngart must be lauded.

One particularly clumsy oversight has Lenny reflecting that someone who has not at this point in the narrative died, and whom he interacts with on a daily basis, as "always having had" a certain personality quirk, the implication being that the aforementioned party has died. Only someone with extremely severe egomania would ever write this way, and the worst part of the mess is that this is indeed shown to be possible for Lenny in the book's horrific epilogue, in which Shteyngart (in the guise of older, wiser, and thinly disguised (and, don't forget, bald-headed!) Lenny) oh-so-cleverly dismisses his own book as being written without forethought for publication. In doing so, the author not only fails to justify his own overwrought prose but also makes Lenny even more unlikeable than he already is; again, an almost unfathomable achievement.

Not all books must have entirely wonderful characters to be good or to be respectable, but a focus on such relentlessly, egregiously terrible human beings, who are supposed to be sympathetic, simply will not endear readers to a work. Lenny is whiny and dense, and when Shteyngart attempts to cleverly drop hints to readers he forgets that he is having his lead say things like, "Oh, it's odd this other character would talk this way…so suspicious," only to remain completely clueless about the revealed possibility until the post-action epilogue. There is nothing wrong with an author allowing readers to stay one step ahead of characters, but to have narrating characters openly and unambiguously disclose this information, only to seemingly forget it mere letters later, is just terrible and reeks of the laziness that plagues this book. Even the slang, which at first seems clever (not, of course, counting the bizarre and bizarrely äppärät-specific umlauts), is overdrawn by book's end, and more than one gaping plot hole is left to insinuation where some scraps of meaningful societal criticism could still be salvaged. This, of course, discounts the black whole gaping where the promised love story belongs, replaced with a flailing excuse for "love" so feeble it can't even pass for one of Shteyngart's frankly stupid attempts at satire and criticism.

In the end, the boat sails on Super Sad True Love Story the minute it opens, the book a self-indulgent mess masquerading as incisive social commentary. Within its jumbled pages are a series of half-baked ideas and wholly unlikeable situations, painfully rendered in prose stilted not by the deliberate misspellings of its writers (which, surprisingly, musters the closest thing to realism within this book) but by the insistence of its overbearing and ever-present author. In the end, the book fails on every promise offered in its offensively inaccurate jacket description and in its title: make no mistake, this is a flailing, unsympathetic, utterly unbelievable tale that mistakenly equates disturbing and disgusting sexual obsession (and a healthy amount of emotional abuse) with love and, worse, congratulates itself for doing so. Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story is not even elegant in its failure, instead representing a terribly self-indulgent literary cesspool receiving admiration for its uncreative pandering to the modern literati rather than for any inherent merit.

Grade: D

June 4, 2011

Book 19: Glitz

Elmore Leonard

I enjoy novels rich with intrigue and multiple levels of allusion, classics upon whom praises cannot be sufficiently bestowed. Sometimes, however, I just want to read a good book, one that immerses me in its story and characters and in its world. I have found the mystery genre particularly good for this kind of quasi-escapist reading, and within the genre Elmore Leonard is undoubtedly a master. In Glitz, he introduces us to a wide range of characters who occasionally come dangerously close to the stockroom but who are, at any rate, far from cardboard. The opening is a bit clunky as Leonard tees off with an expository back story, but policeman and protagonist Vincent Mora's recent brush with death is retold in a kind of pensive, stop-motion manner that becomes quite effective. Leonard has a good knack for scene-setting detail and infuses a good deal of irony into his character descriptions, an appreciated subtle touch in a genre that often reverts to the overt. Though he can linger too long on scenes that are not integral to the plot, Leonard's ear for dialogue rescues many wayward passages, which come alive despite seeming somewhat unrelated and which further serve to build rich narrative scenes in both San Juan and Atlantic City, the book's two main locales. Even though the book's focus lies squarely on its characters, with fortunate choices of location that tie in perfectly, these cities come alive through the dialogue of their inhabitants and in the implications raised by the events that drive the novel's plot.

Despite an ear for dialogue and an ability to tweak stock characters enough to make them come alive, Leonard's plotting leaves a bit to be desired as some changes come too quickly and the background to one pivotal early character meeting remains implausible at best at novel's end, entirely unexplained and making no sense though greatly influencing the later plot. Leonard does, however, have a gift for rotating points of view, juggling and presenting several characters' stories with a high rate of success and a low rate of confusion, though it must be said that some of the junctions can be a bit difficult to follow at times from a plot perspective. It isn't that the book is particularly intricately plotted, as the connection is rather simple and in fact fairly amusing, but occasionally it can be difficult to determine just how everything is slowly being pieced together. The connection is, however, quite clever and comes complete with some red herrings, no mean feat in a novel where the main antagonist is clearly known from the outset and is one of the book's most engrossing characters. Though the book's denouement and climax are surprisingly lacking, Glitz offers an enjoyable ride, taking readers through the seedy world behind the fading glitz and glamour of Atlantic City without resorting too much to stereotype and stock plots. Vincent Mora's unofficial investigative methods deliver a punch while reflecting some of the best features of a traditional procedural, and everything comes together nicely, if a bit predictably, at the book's conclusion. Glitz is a fully satisfying, if slightly less than perfect, character-driven mystery that makes for a fine, reasonably quick literary companion.

Grade: A-