Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Pages Against The Machine

Having said all that, a love of books as objects doesn’t always translate into the act of reading and I’d have to admit, if asked, that I’ve fallen out of the habit lately. Too often my eyes get tired and I find myself drifting off.

Curiously, though, I find myself at the moment surrounded by a good many more volumes than usual, so let’s have a look:

I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men simply because I wanted to know what to expect from the imminent film version by the Coen Brothers. As its title implies, the book is a meditation on where the country’s been and where it’s going. A crime drama involving a huge amount of cash, a seemingly unstoppable killer, and a now-retired Texas sheriff, it’s easy to see why it appealed to the Coens – in fact, you’re tempted to think that they must have influenced McCarthy to some extent, insofar as it slips so effortlessly into their previous work. It’s hard not to think that they saw an opportunity here to present the flip side of themes laid out in Fargo, Raising Arizona, and Miller’s Crossing. If you're afraid that we've already crossed the threshold into a new soulless and inhuman future, the book or the film will do little to allay your fears.

The narrative alternates between the story itself and the voice of the sheriff speaking directly to the reader, a voice that frequently strikes you as sounding a bit like Huckleberry Finn’s if he’d made it to the end of the twentieth century. I’m sure this didn’t get past the Coens, whose adapted screenplay throws in a couple of nods that are not in the original novel.

All told, it’s rather a bleak vision and the Coens have been very faithful to the book, which probably isn’t going to make it a crowd pleaser.

Without the crime stories produced by the great pulp writers of the 30’s like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain, the Coens would probably still be trying to finish their first screenplay. The Black Lizard Big Book Of Pulps, a huge paperback doorstop of a thing that runs over 1,100 pages, is a wonderful treasure trove of such stuff, featuring the hard-boiled detectives and duplicitous dames that figured in the stories printed by magazines like Black Mask and Dime Detective. I suppose a little could go a long way for some folks (“I didn’t like his face and I told him so,” opens Carroll John Daly’s The Third Murderer), but for me it’s just the perfect bedside book.

Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice is a collection of three articles by essayist Janet Malcolm concerning Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. I apparently missed their original appearances in the New Yorker, but I’m glad I caught up with them here, even if some of the information passed along is a little disturbing. It’s also a good crash course in who’s who in recent Stein scholarship and it seems as if I’ll eventually have to come to grips with a 700 page behemoth from a few years back by Ulla E. Dydo entitled Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises 1923-1934, supposedly a stunning and sympathetic reading of her work. Hopefully it’ll have a hard-boiled detective in it somewhere.

(In point of fact, Stein actually was a big fan of detective fiction and even tried her hand at writing some. The end result, however, showed about as much interest in finding the killer as Twin Peaks.)

Finally, there’s two new ones from a couple of old favorites. The Pleasures Of The Damned is the latest collection of poems from the late Charles Bukowski, this volume serving as a kind of best-of while including some previously uncollected work, and Mister B. Gone, a novella by Clive Barker.

When editor John Martin of the Black Sparrow Press would arrange the sequence of Bukowski’s poems for their book appearances, it was obvious that he often saved the best for last, like the finale of a fireworks show. To its credit, this collection includes a good many of those impressive and inclusive show-stoppers.

As for Mister B. Gone, Clive Barker continues his fascination with the idea of the word as flesh or the flesh as word (something that dates back to his Books Of Blood) in an entertaining tale narrated by a demon who regularly tries to cajole the reader into burning the book. The book's second half, in which the powers of Heaven and Hell battle over the invention of the first printing press (!) is full of the kind of phantasmagoria that Barker almost has a patent on now. Several lifetimes away now from the kind of stories that made his name, he now specializes in trying to place the reader in a world in which the physical and metaphysical have become interchangable and the landscape is awake with ghosts or memories or both. Even in a brief work such as this, Barker's mission statement, a unique urge to blend the flesh and the spirit, is stamped on every page. He couldn't be dull if he tried.


Anonymous uncle cleetus said...

It wasn't a total disaster, just not up to your standard level of brilliance. I am usually in awe of the way you can pull a thought together and make it entertaining and compelling at the same time. Did Lenny Bruce ever bomb on stage? Did Hemingway ever have a bad book review? How about Bobby Zimmerman at the Newport Folk Fest?

Hey- look at the poor folks who gave that Peace Sign Sculpture. Was it kitsch art at its best? Or was it on par w/ the Grape Nehi Leg Lamp in the window of Jean Shepherd's house on Cleveland Street? Actually- The inspiration for the purchase was that famous photo of John Lennon in front of the Statue of Liberty flashing his famous Peace Sign. Oh well...

Sometimes you can hit a home run- othertimes you hit a foul ball into the stands.

Friday, November 23, 2007 12:52:00 PM  

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