The Castle of Crossed Destinies – 2/5 Stars
I knew it. I knew I was not going to like this one, and I made it about 20 pages in before I truly understood that the book was going to annoy. That’s a lot of annoying for a book that’s only 120 pages long. So the setup of this novel is that a group of people find themselves holed up in a tavern and unable to speak. This setup, which plays upon especially The Decameron, but also to some degree The Canterbury Tales, then goes on to where the various players in the story begin to tell their stories through the playing of Tarot Cards. The result is not a clear set of tales played at by the various members of the story. Instead, the stories are completely the suppositions of the narrator who is doing his best to interpret the cards and apply authorial intent to the author’s use of various cards but it becomes clear that the stories themselves are based on the interpretations of the novel’s narrator, not the storytellers themselves.
It’s a very interesting idea. However, it doesn’t hold up for 100 plus pages. It’s a short stories worth of ideas spread incredibly thin across 120 pages. And it’s made even more frustrating when it becomes clear that the novel was played out in real time by the author in preparation for writing the novel. But the result is not in proper scope to the amount of material produced. It never should have been a novel.
Nocturnes for the King of Naples -3/5 stars
This is a strange little novel written by Edmund White, an American writer. This novel takes place as a series of prose-poetic vignettes recalling a relationship between the narrator and a “you” a former lover. While the primary set up is that of a second-person novel, it’s more written an epistolary novel so the bulk of the action, even the second person aspects of it, are not written in that way that second person novels can often where thin, but instead are more so reminding you of the actions and feelings of the narrator and bringing you up to speed with his current life, status, and emotional state of being. I can’t cop to having read this book as carefully as it probably deserves. I am not a huge fan of overly poetic language in novels. A recent book I read chunks of but won’t be reviewing (because I only read the third of it that I wanted) breaks down the style of books in the 1930s between reporter/journalism type writers which includes more literary writers like Hemingway, Orwell, and Maugham with what he calls “Mandarins” that is literary stylists who focus on the impressionistic use of language, writers like Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, and Joyce. He ultimately decides that both school have values and setbacks and that the best of writing will be a marriage of both. I think perhaps a novel like Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel is one of those perfect marriages of the styles, or perhaps James Agee’s Death in the Family. This novel is more squarely in the Mandarin style and as such, I find my connections with it entirely dependent on whether or not the other aspects of the novel are appealing to me at the time I am reading it. The writing is skilled and interesting, but I found the overall experience to be somewhat draining at times.
Oh What a Paradise it Seems – 3 out of 5
Most of us about my age connect John Cheever squarely to a one-off joke in Seinfeld, where George’s would-be stepfather leaves his would-be stepmother because of an exposed affair with the recently deceased John Cheever, whose personal diaries were posthumously published showing that for much of his married life he carried off affairs with men. If you’ve not read any of his fiction, it’s odd, because his novels are usually spare investigations into topics–especially this one, Falconer, and Bullet Park–while his short fiction is a much more richly explored reading experience. That’s not to assess the quality of either as some of his novels are very good, while plenty of his short stories are not. If you want some interesting material “The Swimmer” “The Enormous Radio” and “The Good Husband” are great places to start.
This novel, under a 100 pages, would be a weird place to start and would likely give a fractured if not false view of who this writer is. For one, it’s the most modern of his novels, in that it’s a novel written in the 1980s about the 1980s by a writers who is squarely associated with the 1950s and 1960s, and the experience is slightly off-kilter of what at least my expectations of who this writer is. But it is very interesting to see what Cheever has to say about exponential growth in computer technology and mass media would have to be. I would say this is one to wait until you’re more familiar with his work, and so the fact that he was late in his career at this juncture is consistent with that.
Love – 3 out of 5
I can’t tell you much about Peter Nadas except that he is Hungarian and a contemporary writer and that he’s sometimes in the conversation for the Nobel. I can also tell you that this book was written in the late 1970s and is 130 pages, his other two famous published works translated into English run 700 pages and 1100 pages. So perhaps it’s strange to find that a man who had at least 1800 pages worth of novels in him (alongside several other novels) could find it in him to write such a short novel. And while at times I found some of this novel to be a little silly (while hoping that that silliness was a product of irony and not earnestness) I found this book to be a exercise in precision. This is a novel that takes place over the course of a late evening into the morning light in which nothing happens. Well, what does happen is that a man shows up at his lover’s house intending to end their affair, but then she get naked, rolls him a joint, and in the following hours of love-making and paranoid bliss he panics, he hallucinates (or really lets his mind wander) and he cannot for the life of him figure out what if anything his actual decision will be regarding their relationship.
What I found interesting about this is that the cross between the marijuana and his own sexual desire (which is entirely based on her availability to him) creates in him a kind of helplessness that even his own desire to be free of her for whatever reasons and so the resulting 80 or so pages of his “trip” is that kind of refusal to be decisive that most young men possess, where they want everything available to them and nothing that requires anything of them.
The Incendiaries – 1/5 Stars
This book, I am going to be honest, this book was a mess. This is the audiobook version of it, and had it been much longer than it was I likely would have stopped it, but part of its problem that it’s not long enough for what it’s trying to do.
So the story of this book is about a group of Asian-American college students at a private college in NYC that could be something like Sarah Lawrence involved in finance and also a Christian organization that becomes a cult and also music at the school.
For some reason this book has three narrative voices, and I don’t find them to be either necessary or justified by the narrative as it is. While it’s interesting to know some of the motivations of the two additional voices, the mystery at the heart of the novel, the role and scope of the “cult” group, makes these voices feel like too much and too distracting from what otherwise might work in the novel. There’s a weird kind of both underwriting and over-stuffing that’s happening in this novel. For one, there’s not enough book here. There’s a complete disconnect between the scope of the story and themes and the amount of story we actually get. For the amount of story the novel seems to be suggesting by the way it’s narrated, this book should be 400 pages. But it’s not. And the 220 pages that we do have has a lot of filler. For one, there’s a few elements borrowed from I swear like chain-emails or reddit posts about employees at Disney, an anecdote that’s used here in a kind of cliched or at least hackneyed way. Also, the main character works at a restaurant and not only does this not serve him or the novel at all, there’s a long scene in beginning that is a weird and unnecessary digression. It feels like lacking more of a novel, an old short story was shunted in to add to the story. It doesn’t work and when it happens it’s almost insulting. Also, the main narrator’s voice is chock full of nonsense style choices that are out of sync with the rest of his narration. For example, there’s a moment where he’s broke and using a credit card that’s not been activated yet in a kind of desperate way. But he takes the time to narrate the way the sticker clings to the card. It doesn’t matter and no he wouldn’t. He also “recalls” things from moments that make no sense and would not happen in the moment. It’s the kind writing that would fit better with a third person narrator but does not fit or work here. Also, he’s a musician in such a way that feels like it’s going to matter and it just doesn’t.
So the result is a novel that struggles to even define what it’s about. It’s a college novel about failed relationships, which is definitely already enough, but the need to make the failure of the relationship relate to this cult feels topical and forced and these are the least successful parts. I don’t know what explains this other than perhaps an editor thinking that adding more specific story to an otherwise banal and familiar story would make it better, and it just doesn’t. The voice is inconsistent, the narrative is unwieldy, and the part that’s supposed to be the most interesting part is possibly insulting and definitely unnecessary. Also, the novel is boring.