Book Notes 2016.3

More random comments on recent reading, from Erdrich to Ligotti, and Ballard to Bulgakov.

J.G. Ballard, High-Rise (Norton, 1975). Striking dystopian/sci-fi by one of Britain’s most important writers of the last century.

J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World (Norton, 1962). Compared to some of his later novels, e.g. High-Rise and Crash, this work feels a bit leaden and overfilled with description. But given that it’s a novel about a world grown nearly uninhabitable due to global warming, it is alarmingly prescient more than 50 years after its debut.

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (Vintage International, 1996 [1966]). An unfinished masterpiece of Soviet-era Russian fiction by a writer who never lived to see the publication of his greatest work. Also a fascinating example of Russian magical realism.

Don DeLillo, Americana (Penguin, 1971). I may have read this novel, DeLillo’s first, when I was an undergraduate. On reading it now, I found the first 100 pages as engaging as any fiction I’ve come across in recent years. DeLillo’s remarkable talents are evident in almost every line here. The middle third of the book, mostly backstory, also shines at different moments, and is notable for its commentary on the horrors and hidden darkness of small-town American life. But at a point roughly when the protagonist’s road trip begins in earnest, the narrative quickly descends into a self-indulgent rant full of philosophical bon mots and occasionally insightful comments on American culture at a moment when it was experiencing a hangover from the ‘60s. The language continues to scintillate, and perhaps part of my reaction is due to a feeling that much of what DeLillo has to say here is now seriously dated. I still agree with the author’s key premise: the cinematic image, in all its diversity from film to advertising, has so mutilated American life that any notion of a “true” identity must appear in quotation marks. But is the tortuous ride DeLillo takes his readers on worth the trip? The author’s most recent novel, Zero K, is naturally more mature (DeLillo is now 80 years old), and though it still contains numerous examples of the novelist’s jazz-style improvisations (or passages that read like improvisations), it has a more settled quality even when it unravels the scariest textures of US culture.

Louise Erdrich, LaRose (Harper, 2016). Elegant, lyrical writing; fascinating characters; subtle, complex plot lines; historical texture—everything a reader expects from Erdrich. LaRose is perhaps 50 pages too long, but pacing and characterization pull the reader in their wake and lead to a finely drawn, memorable conclusion.

Mark Haddon, The Pier Falls, and Other Stories (Doubleday, 2016). In the title story to this collection, a pier breaks in half and sends scores of tourists and others to their watery doom in the English Channel. Not individual characters but the disaster itself is the protagonist in this fascinating but frightening tale. Even darker—but with character development and plot—is “Bunny,” which narrates the story of a morbidly obese man who is befriended by a young woman. In these and other stories, Haddon does “dark” as well as any writer out there today.

Allan M. Heller, 40 Frightful Fictions (Night to Dawn Magazine & Books, 2015). The writing is occasionally pedestrian, but this collection shows how flash fiction can establish mood and character in the horror/weird genre.

Heda Margolius Kovály, Innocence, or Murder on Steep Street (Soho Crime, 2015). Heda Kovály’s memoir, Under a Cruel Star, is a gripping account of how the author survived both Auschwitz during World War II and the Stalinist show trials in Communist Hungary. But her talents do not carry over into fiction writing. Channeling Raymond Chandler, whom she once translated, and set in Communist-era Hungary, this mystery lacks punch. The author chose to use hard-boiled language reminiscent of American noir writing of the ‘30s and ‘40s, but in her hands, the pacing and diction seem flat and imitative. I doubt it is a matter of translation. Above all, the author’s attempt to shroud characters and events in a veil of mystery does more to confuse the narrative than to heighten drama. Finally, it is not too much to expect that this novel would give readers insights into the peculiar world of Hungarian Communist society, but this never happens. The main theme of the story—no one is truly innocent and no one can finally be trusted—would just as easily fit Chandler’s or James Cain’s classic noir novels. In short, where’s the “there” there?

Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (Penguin Classics, 2015). Classic dark (very dark) stories by a cult figure in the horror genre. In comparison to Steven King’s entertainer/court-jester persona, Ligotti is the genre’s intellectual because of his attention to form and his philosophical influences. King is embarrassingly superficial compared to Ligotti. Of interest is that the Detroit-born author—again in contrast to King—established his fame writing not full-length novels but short stories and novellas. These tales do not make for pleasant reading, partly because the faux Gothic style, though understandable from a functional standpoint, seems over-stuffed and florid. Still, creepiness seeps through every line and makes Ligotti worth the effort.