Saturday, August 6, 2011

Summer reading

by Dawn Powell
A New York comedy of manners set in the Forties, it concerns a married couple comprised of a famous playwright and her husband, an academic who labours at his speciality in obscurity. Powell is one of the better comic writers we've had --a spikier Edith Wharton, shall we say--who provides momentum, atmosphere and rich, crackling dialogue in this many -character satire. This would be the sort of novel Tom Wolfe has been trying to write for years. We have here a situation where the fortunes of famous wife and unknown husband are suddenly and realistically reversed, a turn that reveals the shallow relations and loyalties, tied as they are to one's fortunes. Or lack of them.

by Brett Easton Ellis
I would be willing to accept the defense that Ellis’s quickie squib is in fact a satire of consumerism, a literary bit of photo realism if there was compelling art here. There isn't, however, and the defense falls apart. Ellis writes as if he had to submit this against a deadline, and he'd wasted his considerable lead time by living off his hefty advance. Ellis does a good job of diagnosing the narcissism of the eighties, but that by itself does nothing for either our understanding or empathy.
The emotionally neutered stretches of hacking, slicing, stabbing and bashing , juxtaposed against descriptions of material things that may as well have been photocopied from catalogues, is an interesting effect and achieves an ironic value soon on, but just as soon the effect is spent. And yet the detail goes on, as does the singularly flat line narration. Even the gross out factor wears thin and grows tedious; as with pornography, the power Ellis brings to the subject of hyper-violence isn't aesthetic, certainly. This reminds you of nothing else so much as someone taking pointlessly large doses of drugs in the vain hope of finding the rush and thrill of their first encounter. What Ellis has done is written a bad book who's only distinguishing element is that is all symptom. It does not deaden the reader to the horrors of psychotic violence, as most readers I encounter are sufficently offended and aghast at the amount of disheartening imagination Ellis can cast. Perhaps the ideal readership was supposed to folks like him, already deadened.

by Alan Lightman

Out of the DeLillo playbook, a business commuter gradually loses the use of his limbs, and his confronted with medical experts who disguise their inability to treat him and render a diagnosis by having him submit to yet more tests. A novel full of comic moments and sleights of hand-- the father's relationship with his son is sad stuff, two-hankie time-- but there is strong feeling of what the world would be like if all the things that we plug into stopped giving us the illusion of information and clarity and instead added to our anxiety, increased oh-so-slowly another ten or twenty degrees. Lightman isn't the most graceful writer, but this novel works rather well. One will note the shared concern with DeLillo, who wrote a kind blurb for this novel: nominally intelligent citizens who realize too late their trust in the priesthoods of specialists and jargon masters have not only not aided them in their real or imagined crisis, but in fact made their lives worse.

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