Thursday, June 30, 2005

James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime, 1967.

I came across an interview with Salter in Salon the other day, and it prompted me to pick up A Sport and a Pastime. I'm not sure what it was in the interview that intrigued me, but I thought that I'd take a look at this novel (and at three short stories by Isaac Babel that Salter recommends in the interview; they're up next in my to-read list).

Nor am I sure what to make of this novel. It's intriguing: the story of an affair, as recollected by a man who dreams after the male of the partnership. It floats from one experience of eating to another of sex to a drive in the country. In sparse, economical prose, Salter describes a relationship as confused as any I've ever seen, in which the principals use one another, love one another after the fashion of each, and generally don't know how to be nice to the other person.

It's a beautifully written book. What I found most interesting about it was the blurring of the narration, and the desire of the narrator both for Dean and to be Dean, as the narrator reconstructs the events of the book. It's quite a subtle bit of writing, and I'm glad that the Salter interview caught my attention and brought me to this novel.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. ed. Leslie S. Klinger. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1. 2004.

I decided to write about these stories now, having finished only the first volume of the two currently in print (the final volume, of the four novels, will be released in November), both because I feel I have a good handle on my reactions to the book as a whole, and because I've been reading it for quite a while now.

I had thought, when I bought the complete short stories, that this would be a nice set; that I could read a story before bed on those evenings when I wanted something fairly light, and that each story would take me no more than fifteen minutes or so. Because of the annotations by Klinger, that's not quite true. Some of the notes--explaining what's meant by Scotland Yard, for example--are likely only to be of interest to people who have no familiarity whatsoever with the stories. Few of the notes, though, are like that. Most offer some insight into what various people have made of the lives and careers of Holmes and Watson, and their peculiar relationship with Doyle.

Yes, that's right--the scholarship with which the notes concern themselves start by taking it as fact that Holmes and Watson were real people. Innumerable people have studied one aspect or another of the various stories over the years, both highlighting inconsistencies--which are themselves innumerable--and explaining them away. The notes point to this world of scholarship, offer a brief taste, and offer suggestions for further reading on the various convoluted points.

In short, the notes are fun. It takes me more than twice as long as I expect to read each story, but I'm intrigued by the depth of thought that so many people have given to the stories. When I was a child, I was obsessed with Holmes: I desperately wanted a deerstalker and a Meerschaum pipe of my own, to go about in tweed a la Jeremy Brett's portrayal of Holmes. I've never quite lost that sense of excitement I have when I open a Holmes story, that sense in which everything is so very real. Nor have I lost my admiration for Holmes and his ability to see, to perceive, and to piece together every seemingly insignificant detail in the pursuit of explaining the whole picture.

I'm enjoying Klinger's notes, and I'm re-enjoying the stories for the umpteenth time. I'm glad I bought the books.
Garrison Keillor, Love Me, 2003.

I picked this up on remainder when I was at my unfavourite store a few weeks back. I'd read it before, but I always enjoy Keillor, and it's hard to turn down a book you liked when you encounter it at a remainder table. Once, that is, you've overcome your dismay to find it remaindered, and the thought that you're really being mean to the author by buying it from such a space. Poor Mr. Keillor.

At any rate, Love Me is the story of Larry Wyler, a nice enough Minnesotan novelist who becomes successful as a result of his first novel, and decides to move to New York even though his wife Iris won't accompany him there. Wyler gets an office at his beloved New Yorker, rubs elbows with Salinger et al., and generally lives a nice bit of debauchery, but is unable to write. He takes a job writing an advice column as Mr. Blue (as Keillor himself once did).

The plot's pretty slight. There's the idea that the New Yorker is now being published by a Mafioso, a showdown, quite a bit of sex, and general longing for being able to tell good stories, and more importantly, to know the love of Iris once more.

All in all, the highlight of the book are the letters to Mr. Blue and the responses Wyler sends--spoofing quite a number of people, including President Bush, in an amusing way.

The book's a decent enough read, but nothing to get excited about. It's taken me quite a few weeks to get around to blogging about it.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, 2005.

I think Ishiguro is one of my favourite novelists writing today.
What's weird to me is that though I wouldn't miss one of his books for the world, I do find that his novels are hit or miss for me. His last, When We Were Orphans, while good seemed to be missing something. I never did care for The Unconsoled--there was something about it that never clicked for me--but I loved The Remains of the Day. Moreover, it's entirely possible that An Artist of the Floating World is my favourite novel.

What captures me first is how Ishiguro writes. His prose is clean, clear, and simple; it's elegant, and there's not a word out of place. I'm at a loss for how to describe the elegance of the prose style: there's an opacity to the writing that simultaneously conceals and reveals what is important to the stories.

Each of Ishiguro's stories is told by a person remembering, looking back on events and words and images that are both indelibly seared into his or her memory and at the same time, the narrator lacks a total conviction in the truth of how he or she remembers the past.

His books are about memory; or rather, they're about how to make sense of memories, and the stories deal with profound questions. How do you understand truth? Can you understand what's shaped the person that you are today? What use can truth have for a life?

Never Let Me Go is one of Ishiguro's best, and, to be crass and rate it, I'd slip it in just under An Artist of the Floating World. The story, that comes out in fits and starts, is told by Kathy H. She and her friends were students at an elite country school, Hailsham, and had experiences that shaped and bonded their group during their time there. Well after leaving, a large part of their identity is shaped by their memories of what Hailsham was like for them.

The problem with talking about this book is that it reveals pieces of information gradually, and the reader gets a better and better understanding of what Kathy's situation is, until finally one is left horrified, revolted, and profoundly sad. That is to say, these gradual revelations are the plot, and I'm about to ruin it for you. STOP READING NOW, if you're the type of person for whom knowing what happens is an impediment to enjoying a story.

The world Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy--like all students of Hailsham--are clones. They live in a world of about our own time that has cured cancer and other ailments, in part by having a supply of clones to "donate." After school at Hailsham, these elite students have some time to write a major essay, mature as a person, and then study to become a "carer" --a clone who will tend to the emotional needs of other clones, who, having ceased being carers, have become "donors." After four donations, the donors will "complete." And the outside world is largely uninterested in how the system works. The book is, in part, an interesting study of ethics--one that's been referred to by Martha Montello in a neat article called "Novel Perspectives on Bioethics"--but it's more interesting as a story (and the repeated references to science fiction in various reviews bother me: it's a story about people in a peculiar situation, and what's important is the people. This book is no more science fiction than some of Ishiguro's other works are historical fiction.).

As Kathy sorts through her memories of Ruth and Tommy, and how these two friends shaped her life--Ruth overpowering her and seeking to control her, Tommy always confused and nice, attractive (and attracted) and wrong about nearly everything--she tries to sort out the whys of how her life has been run--at Hailsham, at the Cottages after Hailsham, whether there's some escape from becoming a donor for her and for Tommy. What tears at Kathy is the same thing that she does to the reader, as she tells her story: she reveals bits and pieces, enough to make certain things clear while obfuscating the deeper truths behind what she's saying. Hailsham prepared the clones for their lives without ever explaining or preparing these people for their lives. Kathy tries to make sense of how truths unspoken alter, how their shape and import affects differently when implicit rather than when explicit. How implicit truths are not truths at all. Talking with Tommy, Ruth, and others, she's concerned about how shared recollections reshape.

Ishiguro, though a gifted novelist with a gift for beautiful writing and unflinching honesty, doesn't offer answers, in my view. He shows Kathy's struggle. He asks us to think about these struggles. But I come away from this novel torn and confused, unconvinced that these questions have possible answers and convinced only that they're worth investigating, and convinced that Kathy is a person: for the real question that emerges for her that is primary, that is key, is whether she has a soul.

I was so sad, and so startled when a donor finally dies--not completes, but is referred to as dying. The word "die" is used only once, and given that the book is about what it is to live, it deals also with what it is to die. Kathy's understated sadness, her coming to terms with the loss of Tommy and of Ruth, make her much like Ishiguro's other narrators--detached, in weird ways that prompt yet more questions.

Go read the book. You'll come away from it confused, and better for it. And while you'll be sad, I doubt you'll need kleenex: my own experience was that Kathy's detachedness will be somewhat infectious. More to wonder about.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Ed. Toby Forward & David Johnson, The Spiritual Quest of Francis Wagstaffe, 1994.

The book is a very funny series of letters from a "Francis Wagstaffe" to various bishops in the Church of England, and the responses of those bishops.

Most of the letters revolve around Francis's offer to let all those CofE-ers disillusioned by the upcoming move to ordain female priests join the church that he bought (by purchase thus becoming Archbishop, Primate, and Metropolitan of the Old Northern Catholick Church of East Riding). At any rate, from advice about toupees to getting gun salutes for his investiture to starting television programmes--Baywatch, only with people on missions in swimsuits instead of lifeguards--to casting about for advice, the humour in this collection was enough to keep me in fits. The solicitude and engagement of the bishops who wrote back is quite impressive indeed.