Archive for January, 2012

The Sense of an Ending

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

I had heard good things, so I read it.

For the most part, I liked it. It reminded me of Ian McEwan’s work in that for a while it seems as though you are reading something relatively straightforward, about what it is about, and then a sense of creepiness works its way in, and then you realize that it’s about something rather to the left of what you thought, and then everything darkens and you feel kind of horrible.

Not an altogether pleasant experience, but obviously not meant to be.

Where I snagged in Ending was in never fully buying the initial argument of its narrator. I won’t give too much away, but there’s a suicide in the novel, and the narrator presents this suicide as admirably rational—i.e., as the logical consequence of bold and right-thinking philosophy about life. And . . . not to my mind. The only rational suicide I can imagine is one taken by someone in great physical pain (or in some stage of a fatal disease) to spare further suffering.

Every other suicide I can imagine is deeply emotional, e.g., an act of great anguish, born of extreme depression; an act of shame (particularly but not necessarily in an honor culture); an act of intense fear (an inability to face something).

Anything I’m missing? I’d be curious to hear.

At any rate, it was a problem for me, this position that the narrator takes. And because the payoff of the novel at least partly depends on one’s having accepted that position, I didn’t experience the shock of the ending the way it must have been intended.

One more quibble: There’s a character who is purposefully mysterious. By the end, her mystery has largely been justified, so I can’t really fault Pfeiffer for using her as a plot device. Yet she’s tedious and hard to care about, and I kept wishing the novel would focus on something, and someone else. Instead, she’s essentially the center of the book. Bummer.

New Year, New Books

Friday, January 6th, 2012

2.5 weeks is a long time to travel, sliced thick or thin. And when you return to a house full of boxes, ennui has a way of wending itself through your veins. At the moment, I’m feeling very anti-box. At the same time, I’m entirely pro-new bed, so you can imagine where this afternoon might resolve itself.

But before any of that happens, I’d like to report on some holiday reading:

1) Sideways, by Rex Pickett. I’ve seen the movie three times—the first to review it—and after hearing Alexander Payne extoll the novel’s virtues on Fresh Air recently, I decided to read it. The result: I’m more convinced than ever that Payne is a genius.

The novel accomplishes two things. First, it creates the character of Jack, captured brilliantly by Thomas Haden Church in the movie. Second, it unearths a smart-funny line every paragraph or so. And THAT. IS. IT. The plot’s a mess, dissolving into slapstick. The writing is flabby. Miles is both unlikeable and too diffuse to truly come into focus. And the women are bizarrely naive, not to mention stereotypically hot—which, you know, snooze.

In the movie, Payne screws the plot tight, makes every character sympathetic, and infuses hilarity never achieved by the book.

2) Life on the Line, by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas. The writing is merely functional, but that’s beside the point: This book is about plot, and whoah, Nelly, the plot, the plot. Grant Achatz’s rise to star-chef status, coupled with his diagnosis of Stage IVb tongue cancer a few years ago, makes for fascinating reading, and it’s intensely gratifying to get a behind-the-scenes look at the origins and evolution of Alinea.

The only thing missing, and it’s clear that the writers attempted to get it onto paper, is a deeper understanding of Achatz’s creative process. It’s likely the kind of thing that Achatz hasn’t examined much; he’s not particularly introspective. I’d also have appreciated more about the technical aspects of his cooking: how he learned or came to imagine, for example, that he could bubble mozzarella?

3) Blue Nights, by Joan Didion. An excellent companion piece to The Year of Magical Thinking and equally as unexpected. As in, it’s not literally about the death of her daughter, as promised. It’s much more about who Didion is now, and what it’s like to live in her body, after both her husband and daughter died within a short time. It’s intensely brave and sharp and minimal, nearly poetry, while remaining essentially mysterious—or at least while consistently inviting mystery in. In a word: wow.