Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Ben Marcus, _Leaving the Sea_

TOOK MY SWEET time getting to this, partly because I had read about half of them already, partly because, you know, one worries...Marcus has been one of my favorite writers, perhaps even my very favorite among living writers of fiction, since The Age of Wire and String, and his becoming someone published in Harpers and The New Yorker carries with it a little of the anxiety I associate with hearing, decades ago, that the Replacements had signed  with Sire, or Sonic Youth with Geffen--the anxiety that Something Precious Will Inevitably Be Lost in this sweaty congress with the bitch goddess Success....

Leaving the Sea relieves me of that anxiety, however, I have to say. The Age of Wire and String, for all its deliciously bewildering strangeness, had hidden within it a tiny, realistic suburban family tragedy (the loss of the brother, the remoteness of the father), just as the suburban family tragedy of The Flame Alphabet had hidden within it the old deliciously bewildering strangeness (e.g., at every appearance of our old friend Thompson). The aspect of Marcus you notice first has shifted, but there is still a persuasive continuity in his work.

In the most nearly-apparently-normal stories here (the first four), that strangeness breaks upon the reader in the recurring trick of having the point-of-view character seem relatively ordinary, normal, and harmless in the narration, while the other characters approach and interact with the point-of-view character as if he were a dog with a reputation for biting, possibly rabid to boot. Their caution/fear is never entirely accounted for, creating an internal incongruity quite a bit like the family-drama-mediated-through-obscure-technical-vocabulary effects Marcus made his own in his early fiction.

Consequently, the older work here ("The Father Costume" and "Origins of the Family,"), with the old strangeness ("If you possess the long, white tubing instruments meant to prevent people from squeezing through small holes and disappearing, you have boning material, and you can begin to secure people to your team, insuring them against sudden departure"), can be set alongside the more recent, superficially more conventional stories ("From across the room, he saw his cousin Carla") without a terrible jar.

And then the volume wraps up with a workplace anomie story ("The Moors") that can stand comparison to The Pale King.

All of which convinces me anew that Ben Marcus is the real deal. The Ben Marcus is dead.  Long live the Ben Marcus!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Anthony Doerr, _All the Light We Cannot See_

GOOD LORD, DID I really not blog even once in August? Apparently not. How did a whole month just vanish on me like that? Disturbing.


This is last year's Pulitzer winner for fiction, as you probably know. Its main setting is the walled port city of Saint-Malo during its bombardment by Allied forces in the late summer of 1944, a few months after D-Day, its main characters Werner, a young German military radio operator, and Marie-Laure, a blind French girl of sixteen or so, living with her uncle after she and her father left Paris just ahead of the German army in 1940.

The larger part of the novel, though, is set earlier, as we learn through flashbacks how Werner and Marie-Laure came to be in Saint-Malo at this dire and terrifying moment in its history.

What I liked: both Marie-Laure and Werner are appealing. Marie-Laure's relationships with her father, her uncle, and the novels of Jules Verne are affecting; Werner's preternatural skills with machinery land him in an elite Nazi academy (highly reminiscent of the similar institution in Michel Tournier's Roi des Aulnes) and involve him in atrocities in the Ukraine and elsewhere, but he seems decent, at bottom, though less morally courageous than his sister or his friend Frederick.

Doerr tells his story in very brief present-tense episodes, most of only two or three pages--quick, revealing snapshots of his characters at telling moments. This keeps a fairly long (500+ pages) book moving along nicely.

Doerr has a gift for lyrical prose.

Doors soar away from their frames. Bricks transmute into powder. Great distending clouds of chalk and earth and granite spout into the sky. All twelve bombers have already turned and climbed and realigned high above the Channel before roof slates blown into the air finish falling into the streets.

One could object, maybe, to aerial destruction between aestheticized this way, but he gets some striking effects here--how silent the description is, for one thing, and the delay in revealing the cause of the amazing phenomena of the first three sentences.

What I did not much like: Werner and Marie-Laure have to cross paths, I suppose, and that crossing has to involve something that matters...but to have this occur due to a MacGuffinesque priceless diamond (Marie-Laure's father is a museum locksmith and...oh, never mind) and a Hollywoodishly villainous Wehrmacht officer...it all seemed a bit too screenplay-ready, I think. The guy wires of contrivance were all too visible. The ending is at least not as syrupy as it could have been.

Put me in mind of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain--big award, carefully plotted, well-written, cinematically adaptable, but perhaps not likely to linger in the memory for long. We'll see, I guess.