Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Timothy Donnelly, _The Cloud Corporation_

A LONGISH WAIT -- seven years -- who does he think he is, Elizabeth Bishop? -- but worth it. Donnelly still has the capacity, demonstrated repeatedly in Twenty-Seven Props..., to keep you teetering off-balance while moving recklessly forward, ultimately landing you in some spot you never saw coming until you were already there.

I keep thinking I detect some of the same species of way-too-late-Romanticism that Harold Bloom detected in middle-period Ashbery. "In His Tree" seems a contemporary busted-quest poem, along the lines of Shelley's Alastor, Browning's Pauline, Rimbaud's Le Bateau Ivre or Hart Crane's "The Broken Tower."

I set out to find that thing, drawn down by an under-
water instinct true to the warp and weft of a small
false deafness, locked deep in the blue-green private
compartment broken up into shifts and strung
in accordance to the wiles of arachnid light, a light too
truant from its source to reflect a compact back

with fidelity: the sun its half-remembered lozenge
trapped among the birch.

I plucked this virtually at random, but it's a good sample of the pleasures of the volume: the whiplash-inducing enjambment of "a small / false deafness," the twisty syntax (does "strung in accordance" modify "compartment" or "deafness"?), the baffled engagement with the natural world... which baffled engagement makes one think of the Romantics again, as does Donnelly's juggling with religious feelings he's not sure what to do with:

a lifelong feeling that I feel now, remembering
down the highway half-hypnotized in the
backseat feeling what I feel now, and moderate

happiness has nothing to do with it: I want to press
my face against the cold black window until
there is a deity whose only purpose is to stop this.

("The New Hymns")

There are hi-jinks as well, such as a hilariously terrifying blending of phrases from Springsteen's "Born to Run" with phrases from the Patriot Act ("The Last Dream of Light Released from Seaports"). "Dream of a Poetry of Defense" works almost as well -- it blends Shelley's Defense of Poetry and the 9/11 Commission Report -- but the one blending the Beverly Hillbillies theme song with one of Osama bin Laden's addresses, ennh, I don't know. But the hits far outnumber the odd misses in The Cloud Corporation.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Jonathan Safran Foer, _Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close_

TO BE HONEST, I did not care for Everything Is Illuminated and had no plans to read Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, but then it ended up being one of the monthly selections of the book club, so... oh, well.

I enjoyed it more than I did Everything Is Illuminated. It certainly has what we could call a family resemblance. Oskar Schell, our narrator, is as richly provided with quirks as was Alex Perchov. We again have personal traumas nested within historical ones, the Holocaust in Everything, 9/11 and the Dresden fire-bombing in Extremely. In both novels, New World descendants come to terms with what happened to Old World ancestors.

I cannot quell my suspicion that J. S. F. is drawn to historical trauma and Old World settings because they all by themselves (he might hope) lend a gravitas that his fictions otherwise would not quite attain. For my money, Joshua Cohen blows him out of the water.

But I was fond of the almost Dickensian A. R. Black, his index cards and exclamation points, and I loved that Oskar was cast as Yorick in his school's streamlined production of Hamlet. I may give Foer's third novel, when it comes, a shot. I won't be letting him tell me what to eat, however.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Jonathan Franzen, _Freedom_

FINISHED THIS A few months ago, but you know how it gets once the semester starts... in any case, I emerged thinking Freedom certainly a good novel, but not a great one; not as compelling as The Corrections, I would say, which might turn out to be a great one. There is nothing in Freedom to match the streak of satiric fantasy that came up with Corecktall, for one thing, and more damagingly Franzen does not inhabit any of the characters of this novel -- save Joey Berglund, perhaps -- with the uncanny intimacy he brought to the Lambert siblings.

As for the comparisons to Tolstoy that were in the air a year ago... what were people thinking? After all, Tolstoy did write about an infidelity-racked marriage, so direct comparisons are possible. In the fascinatingly caddish betrayer with rare flashes of conscience role, the matchup is Richard Katz vs. Vronsky. No contest, really. There is no scene here to rival Vronsky's steeplechase on Frou-Frou. One gets the feeling Richard was supposed to be a swirling vortex of nihilistic energy, but he more often comes off as just a grouch. Moreover, his putative status as 80s indie rock cult figure is unpersuasive next to Jennifer Egan's much more knowing depiction of that scene in A Visit from the Goon Squad.

In the role of the devoted, conscientious, uncharismatic plodder occasionally capable of lashing out, we have Walter Berglund and Alexei Karenin. We can call it even, I suppose.

Then we have Anna herself and... Patty Berglund. Oy.

The best part of Freedom is the subplot with the Berglunds' son Joey, his doggedly (and doggily) devoted high school girlfriend Connie, and the dazzlingly well-connected rich girl who is the sister of his college roommate. Is it as rich as the Levin-Kitty subplot? Erm, no. But Franzen knows Joey to the bone, and everything about the character convinces.

Still -- if posterity ever wants to know how the white American professional class of the late 20th and early 21st century walked, talked, argued, and fought, what they read, watched, and listened to, they could hardly do better than to pick up Freedom. Franzen is not our Tolstoy, but he may well be our William Dean Howells.