Showing posts with label Dawn Powell. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dawn Powell. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 1, 2021


 THE LOCUSTS HAVE NO KING a novel by Dawn Powell

A New York comedy of manners set in the Forties concerns a married couple comprised of a famous playwright and her husband. This academic labors at his specialty in obscurity. While successful in this discipline, the husband works away in his obscure scholarly endeavors, known by virtually no one, saves for a handful of peers. At the same time, the wife is the toast of Broadway, blessed with hit after hit, loads of favorable reviews, and admiring tidbits in all the newspapers. Fate, or some other cruel force that loves to upset the smug and arrogant expectations, works so that the husband gains incredible notoriety for the research he's been pouring over for years, even breaking through to what was then the mainstream media. 

At the same time, the wife must deal with a box office bomb and negative reviews, items that have her reputation sliding quickly down the social ladder. Powell is one of the better comic writers we've had --a spikier Edith Wharton, shall we say, a funnier Thomas Hardy (think of Mayor of Casterbridge)--who provides momentum, atmosphere, and rich, crackling dialogue in this many -charactered satire. This would be the sort of novel Tom Wolfe has been trying to write for years. Powell's conference is crisp, curt, and telling in what it reveals about the characters, and the prose has a jazzy feel to it, a lightly worn eloquence that doesn't smother the momentum. Tall buildings, over-decorated apartments, and rattan-tat bustle of agendas being advanced abandoned Big Apple-style brings us a comedy of hubris. This is a city full of schemers and naifs, whose respective social positions are not repaired. Powell understands irony and contrives its use beautifully toward something resembling poetic justice.

More about Wolfe-as-novelist, he lacks the precision of detail, character quirks and reveals himself to be a rather drifting plotter. The arcs of his novels lack the efficient forward movement of Powell, who has the sense along with the Hardy as mentioned above that fate, triggered by seemingly insignificant gestures, remarks, or stray, condemning thoughts, results in reversals of fortunes, either comic or tragic. We are fortunate that Powell opts for the comic. Wolfe piles it on, sentence after sentence, clause after clause, until he suffocates the good ideas he might have hard. Powell keeps us intrigued as to how much deeper the characters in question can deepen the hole they're in. We have here a situation where the fortunes of a famous wife and unknown husband are suddenly and realistically reversed, a turn that reveals the external relations and loyalties tied as they are to one's fortunes. Or lack of them.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

3 Book Reviews

The Locusts Have No King --by Dawn Powell

The Locusts Have No KingA 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 labors at his specialty 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 -charactered 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. Fittingly, there are no actual heroes in this satire--even those who achieve much after a time of ironic and unfair adversity remain wholly human and subject to the fallible instincts of an egocentric world view. Dawn Powell is a joy t read.

The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock -- by David Weigel
I was not entirely a progressive rock fan during the 70s when the genre was at its peak and the music of the bands in this volume was at it's...busiest. I loathed the singers for the most part, thinking that while the frontman had decent enough voices, suitably trained to negotiate the usually overheated song structures, I could stand them rarely a whit. Save for Peter Gabriel of Genesis (and later as a solo artist) , the lot of them sounded over-earnest, wide-eyed with wonder, strangulated high notes offering the would be the wisdom of righteously and insanely stupid lyrics.

The Show That Never Ends by David Weigel I always had a wager with anyone who knew Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery well enough, or The Bard for that matter would feel compelled to harm themselves as a means to relieve the disgust that overwhelms them. On the other side of this genre, though, was a generally good musician and an honest desire to extend rock's instrumental bearings toward more complexity. Yes, ELP, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Genesis all moved in this direction, at best being brilliant wit the snap and zip of odd time signatures, odd keys and ensemble stretch consisting of many moving parts. 

It was delirious, and much of the stuff remains good cranky fun. David Weigel, a politics writer by reputation, is also a huge fan of progressive rock, and here expands on a series of fascinating articles he did for Slate some years ago on the history of this odd and painfully dated brand of music making. He interviews many of the musicians, he investigates the places from which they rose, and comes to consider how it was that a good many British musicians, seemingly at the same time, came to employ classical music complexity in the service of a bigger and busier kind of rock and roll. His conclusion, though not explicitly stated, is that it seems a case of the young musicians "getting back to their musical roots", of rediscovering the European classical heritage and making it their own. The book is especially fun and fascinating for the music fan who's been wanting more to be published about this under considered music. Weigel, to his Weigel, does not rate the bands--re realizes that he is a reporter, not a critic--and does his subject justice by sticking with the absorbing story laid out before 

Crackpots--by Sara Pritchard

Brief, lyrically written novella about an awkward young girl being raised by an eccentric family. Note that there is no child abuse or other hot-button stuff engineered in to make the book appeal to the Oprah book clubs, just a humorous and bittersweet novel of a girl, beset with any number of glum circumstances and embarrassments, maturing to a resilient adult with soft irony that gets her through the day. Pritchard is especially fine as prose stylist who displays a sure and intuitive sense of to change tone, shift perspectives, to blend the rush of poetic effusion and the dirty fingernail reality that faces these characters and this young woman; Pritchard is about understated nuance and working against reader expectations.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Summer reading

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.