Red Pill – 3/5
This novel came out in 2019, but leads up to and ends at the 2016 US presidential race. There’s also plenty of energy connected to the Brexit vote too given that both Kunzru and his narrator are British. The novel begins with a writer being accepted into a fellowship program in Germany near the Wannsee building famous for the Wannsee Conference where Heydrich and Eichmann, among other Nazi officials, hammered out some of the details of the “Final Solution”. This, as you can imagine, is not accidental to this novel. The novel also circulates around the conference’s locality to the death site of Heinrich von Kleist, most famous for the short story, “The Marquise of O” in which a woman becomes pregnant through a rape she doesn’t remember, and cannot therefore name the father of her child, to much scandal, as well as the novella “Michael Kohlhaas” about a revolutionary leader from the 1700s. He also wrote two other amazing stories: one about a duel based on a divine sanctimony and about an earthquake in South America. So the novel spends almost all its time inside the head of our narrator, who is a writer of novels, and not an academic, but is writing some kind of book about lyric poetry that is based in research, but not scholarship. And this kind of book is shaky in its foreground already, but in the hands of the deeply unconfident narrator is next to nothing. The conference comes with serious strictures on movement and production, something our narrator hates, as his production has not only been “quantified” by “gamified”, applying analytics to writing.
He finds these structures inhibiting, and he also discovers that the conference is secretly video monitoring people, something that kind of horrifies him, and kind of not. He becomes obsessed with an American police show and its creator, and when he meets him, is deeply disturbed (and impressed) by the man’s wanton disregard for social justice and right-messaging and even more so by his cozening up to fascist ideology. This sparks a kind of one-sided rivalry as it turns out the writer’s resentement is no match for fascist strength. How can you reason with someone not bound by it? It’s a strange novel, and wildly smart and interesting, even if the thriller aspect of it is kind of not exciting. A hair of restraint would have turned this something more into a Don Delillo or William GIbson novel, which I think is more of the scope and aim here.
The Night Boat – 3/5
This novel takes place in the bay of a Caribbean island where an American diver is looking for salvage. In the opening scene, the diver, whom we learn for confusing reasons has run off to the island from a corporate job after the death of his wife and child (it’s a thing that has happened to him and explains why he’s on the island, but is not really meaningful or part of the story, anyway…). He finds a piece of metal buried in the sand and when he pulls on it, it turns out to be an unexploded depth charge. He barely escapes the impeding explosion, and the resulting blast unmoors a sunken German u-boat which rises into the bay. The mayor is pissed, but older inhabitants of the island recognize the potential danger. We slowly learn that that the Germany sub made its way to the island near the end of the war. The local Carib tribespeople fought off the Nazis and cursed them to become undead and they sunk the boat. Now awakened, the Nazis are pissed.
This novel is a great conceit turned into a bit of a slog through execution. It’s a shame too because McCammon’s first novel Baal has the same issue, of a much larger novel being kind of truncated into this much shorter, less good version. It’s also funny because it’s got me wondering if this novel was in the heads of the writers of the first Uncharted game, which involves among other things: an old Nazi sub, the undead coming back alive, and jungles and waters. Probably I think.
Enderby Outside – 3/5
Enderby is back! And he’s travelling the world! Which is definitely a problem. Nothing really happens in the first book, but at the end of things, Enderby has been ousted from his house by his step-mother. Now he’s on a kind of literary tour of the world, mainly through the Middle East and India (and other former British territories). He’s being confused for a man named Hogg and possibly implicated in the murder of a pop star (which he didn’t do) and so leaving the country is good for all. Like the first book, nothing much happens here, but the book is weird and funny. Namely though what Anthony Burgess has a achieved here is great. While we got snippets in the first book of what kind of poet Enderby is, we get a lot to work with here. Here’s the challenge: how do you write poetry that is not good or bad? Writing purposely bad poetry is very easy. And if you can, writing good poetry is also relatively within the skillset of a good writer. Nabokov hammered out the poem in “Pale Fire” and plenty of other writers have done the same. How do you write mediocre poetry, but on purpose?
Enderby is beginning to reckon with his own legacy here as well. He picks up a volume of “Minor English Poets” and begins to wonder where he fits in within the definition of minor. Is minor a status of fame or notoriety? Is it about quality? Is it about the achievement of a singular piece? Who knows. He’s not harboring ideas of greatness at least.
Katie – 3/5
Having read a handful of Michael McDowell now, I break his books into two categories. In one, you have the straightforward horror where a conceit goes on to murder a bunch of people. His novels The Amulet and The Elements fall into this category, with the latter being significantly better than the former. The other kind is the historical horror category in which there’s as much thinking and writing as horror. His long multi-part novel Blackwater is most squarely in this category. As is Katie, where we find a small town in the South before the Civil War being terrorized quietly by a family of miscreants. Katie is the daughter of the family and she is as terrible as any of them. She kills two members of another family sending them scattered to the North, where like all things American, the past can’t stay in the past. I didn’t enjoy this as much as Blackwater unfortunately.
Blue World – 4/5
This title novella from Robert R McCammon begins with a scene that is pretty upsetting, so be warned. It’s not a scene of violence but of desperation where a lonely man pays for half-time with a prostitute but still can’t manage to get off. It seems sad, that is, until it turns out that he is a murderer. Blue World, as you might imagine, refers to the world of vice in San Francisco in the 1980s. This novel seems to either pre-date or skirt around AIDS but instead focuses on porn. Our main character is a youngish priest who one night on duty in confessional meets a young woman with a sultry Southern voice who tells him about the death of her friend. She also mentions she works in porn and gives her name. His curiosity and desire get the best of him and he begins to look for her out in the world. He finds her first in films, having a terrible moment in a theater, and settles for finding a tape of hers. He watches the tape repeatedly. He begins to look around the city and eventually finds her, now in civilian clothes, and accidentally becomes friends with her. He invents a new name and a cover story and they get involved in various and complicated ways. But also, there’s still the killer to be aware of. While the priest and his new friends are getting acquainted, the killer is still making his rounds, and of course, their paths are converging.
Blue World and Other Stories – 4/5
The collection is very interesting, and I like Robert McCammon most among the other horror writers I’ve been looking into, trying to expand my understanding of the genre beyond Stephen King. The collection includes a story about a man who can control hornets, a man who steals a makeup box and becomes haunted by the movie characters it helped to create. We get stories of small boys with mysterious powers, violent families, and world-ending events.
It’s a mixture of a lot of different genres, and it’s also clear looking over Robert McCammon’s career, that while he is a prolific writer, he’s primarily a novelist, having written 25 novels in 40 years (some 600+ pages long) but only this one collection. Like all good writers of speculative fiction, it’s a shame, because his talent is there. One thing that also becomes apparent here is that many of these are stories that would have been novels in a different moment, contained down. Like Stephen King, he also has a deep fascination for old serials, and one of the other very good stories in this collection is a fake serial about a former serial star solving a crime he stumbles upon.
The Fight – 4/5
There’s a little meandering in this book that mars an otherwise near perfect book about boxing. For reasons that are inexplicable, Mailer decides this books needs to be a kind of analysis of Blackness in the year of our lord Ali 1975. This leads to confusing chapters looking into Bantu philosophy and other methods of looking before really settling into what’s great about this book. Mailer has access, and unlike George Plimpton, who also has access, he’s decided that its hard-headed American Jewishness that’s going to crack the code of American Blackness and boxing. It’s what made AJ Liebling so good, it’s what made Budd Schulberg so good, and it’ll be the same for Norman Mailer. That is of course in contrast to George Plimpton’s waspishness. He might even be right!
The book spends some time with both the George Foreman people and the Muhammad Ali people. Ali has the chance to win back the championship that he never actually lost, but was forced to vacate when he went to prison for refusing to go to Vietnam. Foreman has the chance to hold the title with no remaining questions. Foreman is younger, bigger, and stronger, and while he’s not dumb or anything, Ali is clearly craftier. Also Ali has to be craftier to win the match everyone agrees. Foreman also seems to represent general, generic pro-Americanism, in especial contrast to Ali’s feelings. And that the match takes place in Zaire under the dictatorship of Mobuto is another complexity happening here. I think it’s too early to know yet that Mobuto is who he would become and that the murder of Lumumba is still a little unknown.
But anyway! I don’t always love Mailer’s prose, but it’s absolutely singing in this book. The boxing match itself is some of the best writing I have ever read, and as he says, what else is genius but teetering on the edge of oblivion?
A Clockwork Testament – 4/5
This was supposed to be the end of the character Enderby, and does take place on his last day. Knowing that, you spend a long time in the novel trying to figure out how and why he is going to die. As an out of shape drinker and smoker who has spent his whole life eating English food, you can guess of course, but there’s some slipperiness here. Enderby has recently been commissioned to help turn a well-known long poem into a film script. The movie came out and among other things included scenes of rape, the debauchery of Nazis, sexuality and nuns, and other things. If this and the title of the novel makes you think about Stanley Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange, well, yeah, that’s the idea. Anthony Burgess famously hated Kubrick’s version. Part of the reason is that the original American publication of A Clockwork Orange cut out the final chapter of Burgess’s book. In that version, Alex goes through the treatment and when he tries to die by suicide in the penultimate chapter, he seems to have reversed the treatment. That’s where the American edition and the film ends, but in the original, the final chapter has Alex basically growing out of his violence. It’s not to suggest that that is what always happens to young people, but it puts the choice to reform back into the realm of free choice, or not, and not compulsory to the criminal reform system. Burgess also thought the movie glorified the violence, which it does to a certain degree, by putting so much in the narrative perspective of Alex, which is true, but it also makes the audience quite a bit more complicit in it. It also has the issue of softening certain elements of the violence in just enough to make it more palatable, which has the opposite effect of being horrifying.
Anyway, Enderby also doesn’t understand how it ended up this way. He also doesn’t like the idea that a) he’s being held accountable for someone’s else’s choices and b) how reactionary the criticism is. It’s a reminder that “cancel culture” is not new remotely in terms of reactionary criticism that aims at censorship, as opposed to critique.
Enderby’s Dark Lady – 4/5
This final volume in the Enderby Saga feels more like a one-off than more from the main story. I say that but then the more I think about it, there is no “main story”. All the novels feel like one-offs I am now thinking. Anyway, Anthony Burgess tells us in the introduction that he had thought he was done with Enderby but was pulled back in when he had an idea. In A Clockwork Testament, Enderby has been pulled to the US in order to help adapt an old long poem into a film script. Burgess says that when he thought about that idea, it basically came down to putting him in New York working on the film script, or to be putting on a play in Indiana. He went with New York, but then realized, putting a randomly British reprobate in Indiana is too good to give up. So Enderby is just alive, even though he wasn’t.
We begin the novel with the description of the plot of a play wherein William Shakespeare has just died and Ben Jonson is there celebrating his death. It turns out that among other things, Shakespeare was at work on a gunpowder play to put forth the idea of overthrowing the British crown. Shakespeare didn’t do this of course and instead wrote MacBeth the same year of the Gunpowder Plot suggesting he thought a thing or two about overthrowing the crown. So we pull back from this to realize Enderby has written this play, which he thinks is a kind of masterpiece, and he’s staging it in Indiana, where among other things, theater is not super well supported.
Children of the Night – 4/5
I used to wonder why no one wrote a good novel about vampires while also directly bringing in AIDS scare 1990s in the middle of it. Well it turns out Dan Simmons did. Well, to be fair, that’s not exactly what’s happening here, but AIDS is part of the plot here, while not being directly involved in the vampires. Instead, we begin in Romania after the collapse of the Soviet-supported government. International aid workers come across an orphanage where, to be it directly, children seem to be kept alive solely as a a kind organ harvesting thing. As you can guess, it’s not organs but blood that explain their captivity. In the midst of this we also begin to get narration from an internationally known billionaire, who we learn early in is the long-alive and long-vampired Vlad. He’s decided to hang up his fangs and let his long life come to a close via refusing to drink any more blood.
Anyway, one of the aid workers, a US doctor on her way out of the country comes across a young boy who seems to have some kind of immuno-disorder which only blood transfusions could keep alive. She is pressed into adopting him and taking him back to the US. She also befriends a handsome priest from the US, who we recognize from the other Dan Simmons novel Summer of Night, Simmons’s It-like novel. In the US our doctor is assaulted at home and her newly adopted son is stolen, which brings her back to Romania, pairing up with the priest to get him back. It’s a solid vampire story over all, which is also pretty grim and bleak.
Bethany’s Sin – 3/5
The title of this book comes from a curiously named Pennsylvania town where a writer and a young math professor and their daughter move to support the new teaching position. The writer is a Vietnam vet who’s only had middling success, but our math professor is working on her PhD and this position is a trial. When they arrive, it’s clear that the town of Bethany’s Sin has been revamped as a kind of planned community, despite being much older than that.
Our writer has visions from time to time from his trauma in war (both what he experienced and committed) and believes that something is deeply wrong with the town. It turns out that something is deeply wrong with the town. What is it? Well, I won’t tell you that, but it does involve a proto-feminist cult that empowers women at the cost of men and their vitality (so you know, feminism *wink*!)