Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Edward St. Aubyn, _Mother's Milk_

IT'S EASY TO understand all the comparisons to Waugh -- razor-precise prose dissecting the hypocrisies and cruelties of the English upper class, drily hilarious scrutiny of the spectrum of modern fatuousness -- but there is no pain in Waugh like the pain in St. Aubyn, nor anything like the same scrambling, desperate, self-defeating efforts to dull it, save perhaps in Waugh's late and (I think) under-valued Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Virtually impossible to imagine, furthermore, that St. Aubyn has a Brideshead Revisited in him. (I would read in a heartbeat any novel he writes about his Oxford days, however -- supposing he can recall those days clearly enough to write about them.)

Mother's Milk resumes the story of Patrick Melrose some time after the conclusion of the Some Hope trilogy. He has married, has two sons, and his elderly mother is about to leave the family's most valuable property to a New Age charlatan. The novel's four sections are set in the August summer holidays of four consecutive years, 2001 to 2004, and are mainly about the unravelling of the fabric of his life, relatively strong when the novel opens and on the point of disintegration in the novel's last section.

There is his mother's insistence on disinheriting him and his sons, for one thing; the near-total involvement of his wife in the nurturing of their second son, making her sexually unavailable, which precipitates Patrick's having a stupid and reckless affair; finally, his rapidly-declining, nearly demented mother's demand that he do whatever it takes to obtain legal euthanasia for her. Patrick starts drinking too much, and we wonder if we will glimpse again the Patrick of Bad News, three sheets to the pharmaceutical winds.

In the last few pages we have reason to hope he will recover his equilibrium -- there is his wife and children, for one thing. St. Aubyn is merciless on his fictional alter ego, Patrick (cf., again, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold), but his wife Mary is as genuinely loveable a character as one is likely to meet in a novel, and the sons are a delight every time they appear on the page. I cannot think of another contemporary novelist -- hell, any other novelist -- who has St. Aubyn's ability to enter into a child's point of view or who has represented so much of how a father's love for a child feels. Patrick has Mary, Robert, and Thomas at least -- one hopes he doesn't blow it.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

D. A. Powell, _Tea_

I HEARD THIS cited as a good example of a volume of poetry about illness, only to learn from the first sentence of the preface, "This is not a book about AIDS." An author is entitled to the first word on his or her book, but not the last -- nonetheless, Powell has a point. Tea is about the gay urban landscape of the 1990s (especially its Bay Area variant), which means AIDS is a kind of ground tone for the book, but no more (or less) the subject of the book than are the streets Powell walked, the clubs he went to, the music he danced to, the lover he lost.

The book was published in 1998, but takes a lot of its details from the 1980s, and reading it now thickens its temps perdus atmosphere. Names (Donna Summer and Sylvester, Halston and Beach Blanket Babylon, the Mineshaft) are savored, and the long-lines-composed-of-short-lines trick by some magic conveys speed, the tempo of the city, while at the same time lovingly lingering, stretching things out. The book even has its Albertine.

This may be one of those books whose fidelity to its moment turns out to be its greatest claim to the attention of posterity: a wall of Polaroids that seen from a distance becomes a tapestry.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Spencer Short, _Tremolo_

SOMEONE, ON LEARNING I liked Ben Doyle's Radio, Radio, recommended this -- I'm not sure what linked the two in this person's mind, however. Perhaps that Short and Doyle were friends? They were at the Iowa Writers Workshop at approximately the same time; both published their first books (Tremolo and Radio, Radio) in 2001, both with a bit of fanfare, Short's book selected for the National Poetry Series by Billy Collins, Doyle's winning the Walt Whitman Award. Tremolo's acknowledgements thank Doyle "for raising the bar."

I liked Tremolo, but it didn't remind me much of Radio, Radio, which struck me as more cerebral and less confessional (or simulating confession) than Tremolo, more interested in form, more oblique... not that there isn't plenty to like in Short's book, though: wit, ambition (the sonnet sequence "Bedbug Variations" and longer poems like "Subjectivity"), lightly-carried erudition, invention. The voice dances in and out of a wide variety of registers and is never less than entertaining, sometimes a good bit more.

Short has more fun with punctuation than most people allow themselves to have -- ampersands, plus signs, equals signs, a dash followed by a semi-colon (very 19th century), and something I don't recall having seen before, slashes used to indicate poetry line breaks used in the middle of a line of poetry. This is from "Four Meals a Day":

As one bears oneself
From one ruinous, urinous alley
to another/ As one kicks away
the burning crutch...

Since a slash in such a context usually means "imagine a line break here," being asked to imagine a line break in a poem, in a line which in fact kept on going as a line, gave me a peculiar but delicious frisson.

I would be interested in reading another book by Short, but there seems not to be one. It's been a rather long wait for a second book by Ben Doyle (now Ben Doller) as well, but he currently has a new book out from Ahsahta Press. Meanwhile, Short doesn't seem to be even on poets.org or poetryfoundation.org; nor was he in the anthology Legitimate Dangers, though a good many Writers Workshop folks of his vintage were. Did he call it quits, is he just biding his time, has he succumbed to the unhealthy habits occasionally alluded to in this volume? I know not. This is a good book, though.