Monday, January 6, 2014

What I Read Over Christmas


The Christmas and New year period seems to be one of the few times nowadays when I get the chance to read books from beginning to end, one after another. In the last two weeks, I read: a book of short stories by Rob Davidson, The Farther Shore; two novels by Paul Auster, "The Book of Illusions" and "Leviathan"; a novel by Haruki Murakami, "Kafka by the Shore"; and I'm nearly finished a short story collection by Junot Diaz, "This Is How You Lose Her." They are all realist fiction, apart from the Murakami, and they would probably all be considered literary fiction, too, though on reflection I'm not sure if that applies to Paul Auster's novels.

I read a beautiful memoir by Auster last summer, "Winter Journal," and I enjoyed the voice so much that it reminded me I had never read any of his fiction and that I should take steps to rectify the situation. Two novels duly appeared in my Christmas stocking. A slight disappointment followed. I thought they were very fluently written, but I was surprised that the stories were so plot-driven, particularly after the meditative and reflective writing in the memoir. "Leviathan" seems to me to be the better book, though again there was a lot of action coming at the expense of character.

Same thing with Murakami. His short stories are genuinely weird and original, like a combination between Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, and the flat affect of the narrative voice in "Less Than Zero," Bret Easton Ellis' first novel. The novel-length Murakami, however, seems to be toying with the reader's tolerance of coincidence, magical realism, and pages and pages of banal dialogue. There is also a tendency to arrive at Moments Of Great Significance, where the formerly ordinary characters make oracular pronouncements, like they're characters in a Star Trek movie, or The Matrix.

Junot Diaz is great, of course, no problems with him. But I have to say that the writing I enjoyed most, and which took me quite by surprise, was "The Farther Shore" by Rob Davidson. I met him last year, and Patty has been urging me to read the stories ever since. I finally started the collection, thinking I would read a few and come back to the book, and I ended up reading most of them in one sitting. They are very much in the Raymond Carver mold--ordinary lives in which things start bad and get much worse--and that is intended as a compliment and as the strongest possible recommendation that you should buy and read this book. More than one of the stories end in a similar way, with a moment of extreme and shocking violence, and then the story breaks off. It's something that Carver did a lot, this ending of the narrative suddenly, a literary device that also serves the realist principle of conveying the sense of lives interrupted and continuing before and after the telling. But Davidson ups the ante even more, putting the reader in touch with sensations that are more like Jacobean tragedies than the conventional short story.

The stories reminded me of two things I've read about recently: Tolstoy saying (approximately) "Happiness is an allegory, unhappiness is a story"; and Junot Diaz telling young writers to spend the first part of a story building the house, and the second half of the story burning it down. So again, I urge you to seek this collection out. I promise you'll never meet a better literary arsonist.

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