The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion – Review

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The appeal of a memoir is typically one of empathy, of plunging and swimming inside in the life of another, becoming fully submerged in experiences far outside your own. At least, that’s always been the appeal in picking them up for me. It’s strange, then, that most renowned memoirs tend to be about lives whose experiences would devastate readers who try to become immersed; tragedy is seen as something we can learn from, something that can be understood and therefore prepared for, in case such horrendous events ever happen to ourselves.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, however, Joan Didion accounts the first year of her life without her husband John Gregory Dunne, who died of a heart attack at the beginning of 2004, and explains her feelings of numbness and the absurdity of trying to learn something from a black hole called death that’s left you far weaker than you ever would have been had it not appeared.

It’s a harrowing account, detailing the way grief erodes day-to-day experiences like an earthquake tearing apart the mantle of life. ‘I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world,’ Didion laments, and for a woman who values control as she does, this is truly damning.

As the book continues and you see her clinging to the pain like a limpet, as though to let go of it would be a betrayal to the man whose absence caused it. She explains how harrowing it can be to mourn in a society that values letting go, moving on, making the best of things. She didn’t want to make the best of things. She just wanted her husband back. I was reminded of a lyric from Mount Eerie about the passing of his wife, ending the song Death is Real:

It’s dumb
And I don’t want to learn anything from this
I love you
This isn’t a rational way of approaching things, I thought, but of course it isn’t; that’s why this book is so valuable: it shines a light on the irrational ways minds approach the world after tragedies, the strange thought-patterns that make sense to no one but yourself. Nothing about grief is rational, after all; it just is.
To those looking for a salve to spread over the wounds caused by the departure of someone beloved, The Year of Magical Thinking may not be what you had in mind. It’s an brutal account of grieving that eschews sentimentality and looks the rawness of death in the face. It isn’t, basically, a comforting read. It is a valuable one, though, and anyone who has experienced a tragedy knows the value in seeing the world from the eyes of someone who feels like you do, even if that feeling isn’t positive.

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle – Review

“It was later, lying supine and blind for days, faced with the choice of either inventing internal worlds or having no world at all to inhabit, when I started to fill in the details.”

There’s a game called Trace Italian, and you won’t win.

Like many, I was drawn to Wolf in White Van because of its author John Darnielle, lead singer of The Mountain Goats. He’s a songwriter with a cynical bent and arresting lyrics, capable of transporting his audience and making them feel a whirlwind of both positive and negative emotions through a single verse. I did wonder if his pithy style would translate to the long-form storytelling of novels, though — talent doesn’t always, after all, cross genre or medium.

Thankfully, this is a novel into which Darnielle put a lot of care. There’s a puzzle-like structure, as chapters are told in fragments from all over the protagonist’s life. Sean Phililps has a horrific head wound and a strange past that he doesn’t want to reveal, and his life is shown in snippets. He’s more than happy to talk about a game he’s created, though, a place where the rules are in your favour as long as you play thoughtfully—put another way, obsessives always have the advantage.

This isn’t a plot heavy story, and it works all the better for this. The style is slick enough that you glide through. The narrator’s musings on how, for example, wallpapers, the universe and pain are all intricately connected like threads in a blanket are fascinating enough on their own.

Darnielle uses poetic language to create unusual connections between situations and themes which my brain would never find without help. It’s gratifying to read, and gives the delightful tingle in your mind of “I got it!” which mystery novels normally provide. It also helps in convincing readers to empathise with a main character who can be more than a little bizarre.

Wolf in White Van shows the beauty in escapism, the desperate need which can build inside people for a world entirely different to our own. Escapism, after all, drives the vast majority of fiction writing, television and music. This novel doesn’t glorify it, though, and we see the dark paths that can open up when longing becomes obsession.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman – Review

“Because,” said Thor, “when something goes wrong, the first thing I always think is, it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time.”

Seeing Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology in a bookstore brought back a memory from childhood: I’d been lying on a sofa, around seven years old; the sun was peeking through the curtains, and boy-me was clutching a book of myths I must have received from Christmas, feeling, despite the warm weather, very, very cold. I had been amazed at how much the book was drawing me into its icy world. There was an ornate drawing of some sort on the left page of a man going into a cave, and the text on the right talked about how brave he was for entering somewhere dangerous. That’s all.

I have a poor memory at the best of times, and most of what I read as a boy has vanished as years go on, but I remembered this. I needed to find out which story it was which had stayed lodged within my sieve-like brain after all these years, and so I snatched up both a hard-copy and an audiobook of Gaiman’s retelling so that I could stay completed immersed in these stories over the following days.

Gaiman’s soothing tone works incredibly well with bombastic stories like the Norse myths, rather than the comparatively constrained affair of his novels. His work has always been most interesting when it ventures into the surreal, such as in the Sandman comics, and so I went in optimistic and wasn’t disappointed.

There’s such a sense of fun here that it’s hard not to be tickled at nearly every page by both the delightful tone and raucous interpretations of dialogue. Characters like Thor are just delightful to be around, acting as the comic relief in a book which I expected to take itself extraordinarily seriously.

Eventually, around halfway through the middle, I realised it likely hadn’t been a cave in the story from my childhood, but a mountain-side needing to be cracked open. I realised the man I remembered hadn’t been a man at all, but a God. I realised that it had been Odin, and that the version I was now reading—where Odin tricks, fucks, and abandons a giantess—was likely very different from the one I’d found as a child. It was no less entertaining for all that.

Nostalgia plays a part in why this drew me in so much I don’t doubt, but Gaiman knows just the right way to pace a short story, and so knows just where to tweak old tales to keep things zipping along for modern readers.

I think the reason that this retelling is such an astonishing success is that if there’s one set of myths tailor made to become a comedy, it’s the Norse ones. Its characters are both endearing and frustrating, lovable and appalling; their values are so different to ours that their struggles for glory come across as comical, and Gaiman plays up these differences to tap what could be alienating for amusement.

Laugh-out-loud funny is a term which is overused, but there was a moment here which had me shaking in the middle of a train, trying desperately to look normal and failing miserably:

Gaiman’s interpretation of the tale I had loved so much as I child, in which Odin drinks the mead of poetry, ends with a chase scene. A giant has turned into an eagle, and Odin needs to quickly lose him before entering Valhalla.

The wise, temperamental king of the Gods decides that sharting (yes, sharting) mead into his enemy’s eye is the best way to handle this situation.

I really, really liked this book.

Augustus by John Williams

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“It is fortunate that youth never recognizes its ignorance, for if it did it would not find the courage to get the habit of endurance. It is perhaps an instinct of the blood and flesh which prevents this knowledge and allows the boy to become the man who will live to see the folly of his existence.”

Augustus by John Williams retells the history of Gaius Octavius Thurinus, a young Roman nobleman who was the named heir of Julius Caesar. Stepping into a world of assassination, corruption and war, we read from the perspective of a large number of people as he attempts to remake the world as he sees fit. The world, however, makes those who strive for greatness pay a heavy price.

Despite the enormous power Augustus wields, what makes this novel interesting is the presentation of such an extraordinary person as relatable and sympathetic. This is an undoubtedly smart man who seizes circumstance with great skill, but is ultimately just a man despite pretensions to Godhood; he’s no more powerful or pitiable when left alone with his regrets than anyone else.

It’s impossible for me not to make comparisons with William’s prior novel Stoner, which I finished recently and thought was a masterpiece. Augustus is understandably very different in tone; it’s like taking in a bombastic orchestra after enjoying an intimate show by a single man with a guitar. Yet this still feels like the more warm novel of the two despite the grand scale and bloody subject matter; themes revolve around failure like in Stoner, yes, but there is a stronger focus on friendship and politics, with a warm humanism about the former and exasperation with the latter.

This novel is about Augustus as a man, yes, but is also about the way experience carves a person out of the mountain of their hopes and ambitions, discarding the rubble we used to see as our innate self. In other words: no matter how hard you try, the world and its coincidences and tragedies will shape you far more than you can ever shape it in return.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – Review

“We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday.”

On a cold night floating on the Thames, Charles Marlow regales his shipmates with the tale of his encounter with Kurtz. This was a man with what many saw as natural greatness, yet on an ivory expedition in Africa he was swept up in corruption and madness.

There are (likely unintentional) echoes of Melville in the heightened language and mangy characters, but where Melville used his beautiful prose to elevate you to the skies, Conrad pushes your face into the dirt. His descriptions of Africa and the long river the characters journey down are so vivid that, much like in The Drowned World by Ballard, heat seems to radiate from the pages. It’s almost enough to make you sweat.

There’s also an impressive tension which permeates the book; while the description of Africa itself is a twisted caricature of the continent, often veering into colonialist wet-dream, cutting dialogue and a constant sense of danger means that character interactions are always fascinating.

The very last section, which isn’t even set in Africa, is the most interesting. This may be because Conrad is far more engaging when he’s writing about people in general rather than specific individuals, as with the latter his tendency for caricature again shows its head (although Kurtz is an exception).

During a scene with Kurtz’s wife, it becomes obvious Marlow will live a life contaminated by the darkness both he and Kurtz immersed themselves in when they went into a foreign land with little sense of danger. Marlow went to Africa just to travel along a snakelike river, but the serpent bit him and the poison will never leave his blood. He saw the continent, and the people inside of it, as something incidental to his own personal journey, and was punished for his naïveté. Conrad makes it clear that corruption and violence never quite leave those who encounter it. The taint will always be in the back of the mind, whispering.

The Fall by Albert Camus – Review

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“A single sentence will suffice for modern man. He fornicated and read the papers. After that vigorous definition, the subject will be, if I may say so, exhausted.”

Albert Camus, the French-Algerian novelist and Absurdist, lived what many would describe as an eventful life. He fought in the French resistance during World War 2, won a Nobel prize before he was fifty, and essentially founded a philosophical movement which still holds sway today. As his legions of fans over the last century would tell you, although probably not with this phrase, he was an unquestionable badass who lived by his convictions.

It’s therefore striking how often his work focuses on the unexceptional. His characters are not naturally brave and strong; they are ordinary men put in difficult circumstances which are nonetheless everyday: disease, melancholy, death.

The subject matter of The Fall, as with much of Camus’ work, could be fairly called depressing. On the surface, it’s the tale of a fallen socialite with a lot to say about the nature of truth and self-deception. You’re at a bar one night (the novel is a second-person narrative) and a stranger wants to tell you about his life as a judge-penitent. You don’t know him, or have any way of verifying if he’s speaking the truth. He seems arrogant, but intriguing. Do you listen?

After watching a woman commit suicide one day, this man found his mind slowly unravelling. He didn’t try to stop her. He didn’t even move. The world has shown him that he is ordinary and selfish. He’s come to some radical conclusions about the universe in the last few years, so listen up.

Camus’ tone is as witty and dry as ever, and due to the abundant grin-worthy aphorisms this novel almost works as a black comedy. The narrator is so melodramatic and slimy that it’s extremely entertaining if seemingly bleak. Deception is a running theme in his tale, and you question just what you’re being told is true and if that even really matters.

This is the kind of book that doesn’t read well if the reader isn’t willing to grit their teeth and wonder just what the hell the author is trying to get across. Passive readers, much like passive people, don’t have much luck in Camus’ universe. With the short page length, though, it’s worth your time.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon – Review

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“The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger.”

This seemed like a harrowing if quirky war story. Then things got weird.

I couldn’t decide with how to describe my experience with this novel. It was… unusual. After glancing through the notes I took while reading, I realised that contrasting my early reactions to my later reactions should give a good idea how things went.

Early on:

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Later:

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Much later:

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In the world of Gravity’s Rainbow, kindness is rare and cruelty is common yet absurd. Humans are constantly attempting to transcend both their physical and mental limits through sex, magic, and physics, and almost always fail; put another way, the characters are a variety of horny Icarus’s. Slothrop, an American in London during World War 2 and the protagonist, can predict rocket-explosions with his penis. He doesn’t realise this, but shadowy organisations around him do, and they want him under their control.

Thomas Pynchon, an American, writes better Englishmen than most English writers. He covers every subject imaginable. His prose can be mind-boggingly sharp; he can be erudite, beautiful and very funny all in one paragraph. He is, in short, brilliant. Brilliant people don’t necessarily write brilliant novels, though, and there were moments reading this where I considered that it might just be an extremely well-researched and well-written prank on readers everywhere.

The twisting sentences and obscure references can be extremely confusing, yes, but as with most difficult things, after prolonged exposure you can adapt and appreciate the challenge. I was really, really enjoying the experience; I wanted to love this book. My favourite moments were when the intensity paused and we were just allowed to breath in the sorrow of the confusing world which Pynchon writes with such wonderful prose: the sad fall of Pökler, who began as a well-intentioned scientist but finished utterly corrupted; anything to-do with Roger Mexico and his desperate love for Jessica, an engaged woman; the tragic tale of Byron the  Bulb, an immortal light-bulb (yes, an immortal light-bulb is a character) who appears almost out of nowhere several-hundred pages in for his own chapter, and then is only mentioned once after. However, touching stories like these were often followed by dozens of pages at a time which I read with a grimace and a strong instinct to throw the book out the window.

I realised I had been wrong in my assumptions about why this book is considered so hard to read around three-hundred pages in. It’s not just because of the challenging language; it’s the subject matter, the horrifying, tragic, fucked up subject matter. I’d never been angry at an author for making me read disgusting scenes before, but this book ‘accomplished’ that. The third time I found myself raging internally against Pynchon for writing something so repugnant but still emotionally affecting, I began to wonder whether this book was even worth the effort I was putting into it.

It was putting my mind through a wringer, and for what?

Well, a lot, as it turns out.

Meaning between one page and the next can be elusive. This novel has intentionally broken narrative cause and effect; events drift in a whirling state so that you will be left confused and occasionally frustrated. Because of this, though, it can make you look at the world around you in a fucked-up but fundamentally altered way for several-hundred pages; if that doesn’t appeal to you, fair enough, but if it does, you’ve got a novel ahead of you which you will likely remember for the rest of your life.

To say I had conflicting feelings while reading is an understatement, but I’m glad I stuck with Gravity’s Rainbow. If you have a strong stomach for, well, everything, it’s more than worth the considerable effort needed to finish it. Just expect to feel like your brain is melting and being rearranged in potentially damaging ways at some point.

The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe – Review

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“I felt that pressure of time that is perhaps the surest indication we have left childhood behind.”

The Shadow of the Torturer is an interesting but frustratingly inconsistent book. After a morbid tone for over one-hundred and fifty pages, with musings on the universe and the indifference to horrors such as torture which can be habituated during childhood, the narrator suddenly has a ridiculous monster-cart race through the centre of the city with a horny peasant girl. This was not a smooth or enjoyable tone shift.

Every time something in the novel impressed me it was followed by something objectionable: the world is imaginative while the characters feel stale; the setting is fascinating, but the plotting is tedious; the writing is carefully crafted and a joy to read, while the characters are anything but.

Men and women come across as fundamentally disconnected from events that are unfolding around them, and I don’t think this was a narrative trick to make a point. They react with mute fascination and then swiftly move on from whatever trauma has been inflicted on them just to keep the plot rolling; they become horny instantly because Wolfe would like a sex scene, not because it might be an appropriate human reaction.

The universe of The Shadow of the Torturer is fascinating, and the society we’re introduced to really feels like it could have been around for millennia. It ends up seeming like a hollow ruin instead of a city, however, because it’s inhabited by broad caricatures instead of believable people.

 

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima – Review

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“Glory, as anyone knows, is bitter stuff.”

I picked up The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima because the author was a body-builder and martial artist who tried to topple the Japanese government through a rousing speech, and, when that failed, stabbed himself in the stomach. This was, admittedly, not the purest motivation to read a book. I was going by the logic that whatever a man like that wrote, it was likely to at least be interesting. I was right.

A sailor begins to realise that the greatness he has been grasping at his whole life may never come within reach. A widow tries to move away from the memory of her dead husband. A young boy, caught in the grandeur of his pseudo-revolutionary school chums, has begun to dream of violence.

This is a creepy novel, and that’s a compliment. There’s a sense of unease and looming disaster which is rare to feel outside of the horror genre, and this is particularly affecting because the characters seem normal, just in a strange set of circumstances.

There’s a dark influence from our protagonist Noburu’s friends. They long to be special, and are willing commit horrors to separate themselves from what they see as the brainwashed and inferior masses. Their minds are being warped by the terrifying influence of the Chief; that doesn’t mean Noburu’s not accountable for his actions, but it demonstrates the power of a strong group on an impressionable young man. This novel could be retold as a simple parable about the allure and dangers of fanaticism, which is ironic coming from an author with fascist sympathies.

The pacing is occasionally listless; it’s a short novel that feels long, but not unintentionally so. Mishima is willing to diverge into the mundane in a way that Western authors rarely would, and if it wasn’t for the malicious goings-on in the background it would almost be relaxing. Actually, this has been the case for every Japanese novel I’ve ever read. Hmm.

Characters drift lazily through their lives, but we get the chance to know them intimately. Everyone here is restless, searching for meaning or purpose; some try and find what they need through materialism, others through faux intellectualism, others through love but no one feels content. You keep waiting for some small crack in their lives to cause everything to break apart, and when the climax comes, there’s a satisfying and horrifying pay-off thanks to a well executed slow-burn of a plot.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion – Review

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“We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

If melancholy could be said to have a patron saint, it would be Joan Didion. She travelled throughout California during the 1960s to try and understand what she saw as a confused and desperate time. Not the cheeriest subject, but interesting nonetheless. There’s despair, as this book describes a world of tumultuous change and violence—yet, reading it decades later, there’s also poignancy. We watch social movements grow and gather momentum when we know they will fizzle out and die, having accomplished few of their goals; this is a useful reminder of how difficult it can be to see all ends.

Didion’s perspective on the 1960s is raw and fascinating due to its frustration. Popular culture often sides towards romanticizing Flower Power and the few moments of peace, but Didion reveals destructiveness unchecked naivete can cause. Hippies come across less as fantastical dreamers, and more like perpetually drugged up cliché factories desperate for the illusion of change in a society that seems fundamentally broken.

And then there’s the writing itself. Didion addresses the world with prose utterly devoid of warmth and yet stays emotionally resonant. She was one of the greatest stylists of the 20th century, with the eloquence of Nabokov and the restraint of Hemingway. You would have to be deliberately obtuse not to see her influence on some of the greatest essayists of our own time. Her sentences are devastating, delivering calculated punches to the reader’s solar plexus at just the moment for maximum impact:

“I could tell you that I came back because I had promises to keep, but maybe it was because nobody asked me to stay.”

There’s a moment in nearly every essay of Slouching Towards Bethlehem where Didion seems to lament the lost dreams of both her nation and the individuals who strive and usually fail inside it. The mood is of an extended eulogy for a land of moral decay which she doesn’t seem certain was ever better than now anyway.

It’s the 1960s without the kaleidoscope of modern pop-culture obscuring the nastier elements, and thus a harrowing but powerful read.