Archive for February, 2010

"Stillness Amid The Chaos"

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

The novella is more an acquaintance than a friend. It’s like someone you meet in a bar, have an interesting conversation with, then go your separate ways. Longer than a short story, it carries the burden of some degree of thought as well as action. Shorter than a novel, it’s granted permission to make its point without overindulgence in plot or characterization. Yet it still must meet the demands of fiction to create time and place and space where the reader can lose himself.

All those demands are met by Saul Bellow’s The Actual. Not surprisingly so, you probably assume. For certainly anyone who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Award (3 different times) must surely be able to turn out an appetizing novella. It’s not always the case. Often it’s more difficult to say something in a few words than a torrent of them.

The Actual is peopled with the old. The very old. The old in spirit. And those who are born old. The lovely thing about it though, is that it reaffirms what we all hope. That youth, however distant, is never forgotten. And while it can’t be recovered, it can be relied upon to make us feel that perhaps life was somewhat worthwhile after all.

The bare bones of the plot are these. A middle-aged fellow is taken into the inner circle of a man of immense wealth. He is valued by the rich man for his ability to observe what goes on between the lines. What happens when people are not speaking but reacting to things that have been said. Now that the old fellow is too ancient to make deals and build empires and rule vast armies of employees, he spends his time investing his energy in personal mergers and human acquisitions and the fallout they create. Within this orbit, the middle-aged man regains contact with his first love. Both have been married to others since they last saw each other, she, a couple of times. The intrigue, if you’re looking for some, is whether or not they’ll revive what they never really had in the first place. Or whether they’ll find something better. Or whether they’ll simply go their separate ways.

Of course, reading Saul Bellow for plot is usually a thankless affair. What really satisfies is his use of language, his insights into human nature, his descriptions of things real and imagined. The Actual takes place in Chicago, Bellow’s home for much of his life. There’s enough mention of Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast and the el (the elevated train) to ground you in the aura of one of the country’s most distinct cities. But it’s the people who populate the pages that make this novella memorable. The man who masks his emotions, the woman who can’t, the dead husband continuing to play tricks on his widow, friends and family, the elite who look for ways to do the impossible; to keep everything they have yet still be able to start all over again.

The Actual (of the title), Bellow would have you believe, is the sum of the feelings the story’s narrator has maintained for his unrequited love over the years. But you may, like The Fiction Fortune Hunter, find it’s really the author’s ability to create what he once said of art. “I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness amid the chaos.”

And Then…And Then…

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

Reading an action/adventure novel is a bit of paradox, isn’t it? I mean, if one wants action and adventure, why is one curled up reading a novel? Surely it must be better to go out and do some physical roughhousing yourself, or at least take in a movie where there are visceral thrills like car chases, explosions, mayhem, etc. Well, the fact is, if you’ve see all the decent action films, and frankly there aren’t really all that many of them, and you’re up for some cerebral exercise to stimulate the senses, the genre of action/adventure novel can indeed give your brain a workout.

Never a big fan of the aforementioned literary category, I do from time to time dip into it just to work up a good sweat in my medulla oblongata. And frankly I must admit to increasing my blood pressure and heart rate a bit while reading Owen West’s Four Days To Veracruz. It’s one of those pulse-pounding, page-turning, chapter-pinballing tales we’ve all come to know and love in this age of Tom Clancy novels with hero’s like Jack Ryan, and TV shows like “24” with hero’s like Jack Bauer…wait a minute, do I detect a pattern here? Must all action/adventures have a hero named Jack? No. But don’t be surprised if most of them do.

As it is, there’s not one Jack that I can recall in Mr. West’s tale of a young honeymoon couple caught up in drug running, serial murder, terrorism, international intrigue and political infighting. And that brings up another point. Why do most action/adventure novels have to incorporate multilayered plots to hold the reader’s interest? Wouldn’t serial murder alone do the job? Perhaps not. Anyway, let me get my bone-picking out of the way first before I go on to tell you why I actually liked this novel and you might too.

Straining credulity is something virtually all action/adventures do. And to the degree the author can keep that to a minimum, the more successful he or she is. Mr. West puts it to the test right away. Not only are his hero and heroine young, breathtakingly beautiful and head-over-heels in love, they also both happen to be superb athletes. Both, like the author himself, Eco-challenge athletes, who chew up Iron Man competitions like they were romps in the park. Of course, this particular facet of the characters’ backstory is important because they are literally going to be chased (mostly on foot) from Acapulco (on the west side of Mexico) to Veracruz (on the east side of Mexico). And I guess if they were regular slobs like most of us, credulity would not only be strained, it would be blown to bits.

Okay, so credulity aside, there’s also a rather by-the-numbers plot. The youngsters get mixed up with narco bandits. Not their fault, of course. To keep from getting raped (her) and getting killed (him), they have to blast their way out of the bad guy’s lair. When they do, and escape to the police, would you believe the policeman in charge turns out to be the bandit’s brother. So, of course, they have to shoot their way out of the police station, killing Federales and bystanders alike, and take it on the lamb. The rest of their story involves a devastating hike across the continent to avoid police, military, bounty hunters, dogs, children, the rest of the narco gang and the serial killer who’s been co-opted by the corrupt Mexican authorities to track them down, kill them and retrieve the encrypted phone the heros took with them on the lamb. Are you with me so far? Okay, lets put it this way. None of this is the least bit believable.

But…after a while (like all good action/adventure novels) you don’t care if it’s believable or not. The author (himself an ex-Marine and Eco-challenge racer) steeps you in such minutia about the escapees’ bodies being pushed far beyond the limits of 99.9 percent of all human beings, you just sort of go with the flow. And, (as you must in these sort of tales) he brings in one of the nastiest villains ever to drench a book’s pages with blood. And of course, there’s a mole in the CIA, or the DEA, or Homeland Security who’s helping the bad guys from the inside. But you don’t know who he is until chapter 70-something. Yes, you have to have lots and lots of chapters in an action/adventure novel so you can set up a situation, re-tell it from five different points of view, and keep the reader hanging from one chapter to the next.

The truth is, while I got a bit weary in the middle, and I got a bit seasick at the end by the seemingly unending endings, I had a good time. And isn’t that the real objective of an action/adventure novel. If it isn’t, it ought to be. The Fiction Fortune Hunter says thumbs up to Owen West’s Four Days To Veracruz. Just be careful that the thumb isn’t shot off, or lopped off, or…oh well, you get it.

Measuring Immeasurable Loss

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

A dying old man writes a letter to his stepdaughter. For whatever reason, he has decided she should know more about him than she currently does. What she learns is highly unlikely to endear him to her. But perhaps what she learns will give her a much broader perspective of the world and those inhabitants of it who just happen to be Russian. Such is the literary construct that frames the 2006 novel, House of Meetings by Martin Amis.

The old man is a well-off capitalist from Chicago who has gone back to mother Russia to die. There, he was a soldier in World War II, a gulag inmate after the war, and a profiteer and industrialist before immigrating to America and marrying the young woman’s mother. His return to his homeland is done both to help him come full circle and to inject him with the necessary infusions of sights, sounds, smells and memories that enable him to lay his soul bare.

He is, by his own admission, a rapist and a murderer. A particularly violent man when violence was called for. He freely confesses to being part of the Russian army that raped its way across Germany and Eastern Europe. Though he seems to take some solace in his inability to understand his fellow soldiers who killed their particular rape victims. And while he tells his sobering tale, he shows little, if any, signs of shame or regret for his particular offenses. Life is too big to apologize for. Things even out in the long run.

The majority of his story concerns his post-war years in the gulag where he was sentenced for making some ill-considered remarks about the government. Those were the days, in Russia, where Joseph Stalin and his communist regime were overseeing barbarism that dwarfed even that of Hitler. Stalin and his cronies literally planned, initiated and orchestrated the starvation of their own citizens. They created a virtual slave labor force of supposedly political criminals, malcontents and undesirables to mine from the earth those minerals that were necessary to provide the sustenance for the state to survive. Treachery and deceit were the underpinnings they used to hold up the socialist scaffolding. Students turned in teachers for saying positive things about the West. Neighbors turned in neighbors for keeping more than the government allotment of food those neighbors grew themselves. Sons and daughters turned in fathers and mothers to increase their own rations. Over 20 million died of starvation or depravation in forced labor camps.

It is within the above environment, that the old man recounts his years of loss. Loss of freedom is but the beginning. Loss of pride follows quickly. Loss of humanity is on its heels. Eventually, loss of essence closes in. He and his brother spend years both together and apart in the camps. The old man turns to cruelty and violence to survive. His brother refuses to. But eventually, when both are finally released, which one is the survivor and which is the walking dead?

The House of Meetings referred to in the title, is actually the chalet on the edge of one camp where conjugal visits are allowed. Within those walls, one brother has a reunion with the woman who is loved by both. A reunion that will haunt all three for the rest of their lives.

Martin Amis is one of England’s leading literary lights. As are most excellent authors, he is both loved and hated. Loved for the insights into humanity and the lack of it that make up the world. Hated for the way he refuses to lower his literary skills simply to make things “easier” for the reader. Prick up your ears and your vocabulary if you want to enjoy what Amis has to offer. There’s a lot of it. From early novels that won him acclaim, such as Money, London Fields, The Information; to later novels that often sparked derision, Night Train, Yellow Dog, The House of Meetings. He’s an author The Fiction Fortune Hunter often seeks out. Perhaps you should too.