Sunday, May 25, 2014

Douglas Coupland, Worst. Person. Ever

American cover
I'm writing this review of Douglas Coupland's Worst. Person. Ever. shortly after a young man in California killed six people and wounded more than a dozen more, largely because young women wouldn't have sex with him: today, I'm having a harder time remembering why I kept laughing while reading this novel.

Don't get me wrong, I think that Lucy Ellmann's scathing review in the Guardian was tone-deaf and extreme ("It's hard not to feel revulsion for everything while reading this book--certainly the human body, sex, thoughts, animals, and life itself"), but then Ellmann's recent novel Mimi has been insulted in similar terms, and Coupland's narrator Raymond Gunt is himself tone-deaf and extreme. (After all, that's why Gunt keeps getting attacked, arrested, infected, sodomised….) By reading Worst. Person. Ever. without making room for satire or irony, Lucy Ellmann initiates something like a death spiral of loathing that Coupland managed to intensify by tweeting about her review … as well as by tweeting a link to a harsh review of Ellmann's own novel, in which she was blamed for many of the same things she was blaming him for.

For his part, Coupland told NPR that with Worst. Person. Ever., he had finally written "something that, you know, might actually damage a person's soul if they read it."

But I'm off track. Not a fun review to write, obviously, or I'd just write the damned thing.

Canadian cover
During Worst. Person. Ever., more than one character calls Raymond Gunt exactly that, the Worst. Person. Ever., and he deserves it. He's a deeply, deeply offensive man, with more prejudices than a cactus has spines and yet apparently ignorant of them, living in a social circle of people who understand him and whose prejudices rival his own. If Cards Against Humanity came in novel form, this would be it: filthy, disgusting, foul-mouthed, vile, entirely Couplandian, and mostly funny.

The thing is, a lot of the novel's energy comes from its being an inside joke that's way too intense for me today, with the flood of #YesAllWomen tweets building on the California murders. Ray and his friends are appalling human beings that shouldn't be alive, which is fine because they're only characters in a book, so they're not real and not alive: what are people so fussed about, seriously? Besides, since we're all appalled and disgusted anyway, we're not all versions of Ray, so really the racist, coprophilic, misogynistic excesses of Worst. Person. Ever. confirm our liberal feminist ideologies by triggering our disgust -- yay liberalism, yay feminism, as Ray might put it, right before shitting all over something that might once have been lovely.

If you've ever enjoyed playing Cards Against Humanity, or haven't played but could imagine enjoying it, then you're perfectly capable of enjoying Worst. Person. Ever.. The novel's ending, as is usual with Coupland, induces a bit of eye-rolling, and the characters are a little more cartoony even than they usually are in his novels, but really everything depends on whether you can read corrosive misogyny for laffs: on whether it's acceptable just to be better than the characters of the novel you're reading.

Today, after what Elliot Rodger seems to have done in Isla Vista, California, presumably with a more complicated backstory than we're all getting so far, I'm not going to mind if you refuse to make an effort to find laffs in misogyny.

(You want an actual review of the novel? Here's a thoughtful positive one; here's a thoughtful negative one. It's a good novel, provocative in good ways but reflecting a hateful world that you just might mistake for hateful characters.)

Friday, May 23, 2014

Louise Welsh, A Lovely Way to Burn

If the world was collapsing around you, bodies accumulating, civilization and social order falling away: could you catch the killer of someone you care about, if the police and government and military were focused on the orderly winding-down of the nation in the face of a death-dealing epidemic?

In A Lovely Way to Burn, Louise Welsh does a great job of capturing both the obsessiveness of a solitary investigator, overwhelmingly focused on the details at hand, and the scope of a world undergoing seismic change. The apocalypse might be happening here, but the novel isn't about that: the apocalypse is just background. Plus there's a tertiary plot around medical malpractice and distrust of the entire medical-industrial system, if you wanted more.

I'm torn, I should say, between reading the novel straight and reading the novel's layering as itself something like commentary. Stevie Flint is so focused on the case she wants to resolve that she just doesn't commit to the enormous transformation that the whole planet is going through, and that's got to be a comment on human egotism, doesn't it?

Other reviewers seem distracted by the layered effect of the novel: some readers want more apocalypse and think the mystery a distraction, some see the mystery narrative to be weakened by the strength of Welsh's representation of the end of the world. Those readers are weak. If you're able to like two or more kinds of novels at once (end of the world, murder mystery, medical drama), then A Lovely Way to Burn should occupy you pretty intensely.

Friday, May 16, 2014

William Least Heat-Moon, River-Horse

I've long admired the huge tomes of William Least Heat-Moon, which are larger even than the volume of pages that they occupy: at a little over 400 pages, Blue Highways shouldn't seem all that long, but it's the record of 13,000 miles of driving around the United States (mapped interactively here); focused obsessively on a single county in Kansas, PrairyErth: A Deep Map shouldn't feel that immense, but I gather than its 650 over-sized pages are entrancingly slow as a consequence of their richness. (Is it meaningful that it has inspired its own fandom movie, I wonder?)

I've long admired them, but I haven't read them. I've meant to, though, and I've finally begun, with my first completion being River-Horse: Across American by Boat, being a near-Quixotic first-world-problems memoir of a trip from New York City to Portland, Atlantic Ocean to Pacific Ocean, almost entirely by boat across the upper third of the United States. Like Blue Highways, River-Horse follows Heat-Moon's apparently focused wanderings in a determined attempt to learn what American means, while at the same time recounting his self-inflicted abandoning of a marriage. It's not about the marriage, or the separation, and yet neither book would occur without it, and neither one makes sense fully unless you keep in mind the tension between the coming into knowledge and the choice against marriage.

It's immensely enjoyable, River-Horse, if you can buy into it and if you can set aside all of the conditions making it come about (particularly the leisure, the planning, the bankroll, as Randall Roorda noted in his extremely wise review). Even though I managed mostly to set aside all those things, the pleasures of the book have been surprisingly fleeting: intense at the time, but fleeting, as hard to keep a hold on as can be Heat-Moon's prose and occasionally near-encyclopedic knowledge:
The inside of the river was slick with frog skins, sharp with fish fins, a dim realm still warming from the long Dakota winter and ready to be shot full of the spurt and squirt of milt, the bottom alive and everlastingly creeping about and wanting nothing more than food, safety, and a little sex, as it the creatures were the dullest of desk-bound scriveners with no urge to find the mountains, to cross them down to the sea--those undertakings they left to the world above them, to migratory birds from rain forests and jungles, to humans who could only dream of the ill-lit under-river world. (p.305)
That being quite the turmoil of a sentence, but also just one long sentence among many.

River-Horse is a book that's easy to fall into, but easier to extricate yourself from than I'd like. Maybe it's just that I feel with this book what I've so often felt when confronted by declarative art produced by the American 1960s generation, namely that their consuming self-examination leaves their art inaccessible and meaningless to the rest of us, though apparently intimate and timeless.

Weird, the experience of not being able to recommend a book that you found pleasing, but that's where I'm at with River-Horse. A bunch of well-read, mostly well-heeled middle-aged men travel across America by boat, taking a trip that no one has ever done before in just this way, talking loftily about Literature and Culture, making self-confidently self-deprecating jokes about how Fate and Coincidence are helping them along: the book's aware and thoughtful about colonialism, but it sure as hell isn't an object lesson in decolonization.

Kind of like if the Rolling Stones wrote a protest song, which you know would get your feet moving and deserve to get lots of play, but would mostly just perpetuate the Stones industry. I've bought that album, but no matter how grinding the Keith Richards guitar or lyrical the Heat-Moon prose, the best I'm going to feel is conflicted.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

William Bryant Logan, Dirt

While reading the second book from mystic biologist William Bryant Logan, I found myself …. No, that's not right. Christian ecospiritual arborist? God's gardener? Gardening faithful?

Anyway, it's a remarkable book, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, even if it's not clear quite how to describe or characterize it (not even to decide whether it's an essay collection, an essay sequence, or a book: and I don't know how I feel about it also becoming somehow a movie). Logan really is an arborist, and apparently also a long-time writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. While these occupations may seem likely to represent competing drives, at least in some ways, in fact Logan manages in Dirt to burrow deeply into both soil and faith, reflections between the two spheres making the whole affair additionally profound.

Crucial to Dirt (and to Logan's method) is the way in which he sustains a narrow focus on whatever his immediate topic might be, often through particularly clear images:
To try to understand the soil by taking a few trowelsful and submitting them to chemical tests is like trying to understand the human body by cutting off the finger, grinding it to paste, and performing the same tests. You may learn a lot about the chemistry of pastes, but about the intricate anatomical linkage of systems--and about the body's functions as a whole--you will learn nothing at all. (p.177)
Logan makes this point in the course of placing soil at the intersection of atmosphere and inert matter, a synthesis of stardust and fire and nothingness. Clay, for example, doesn't really make sense chemically; if you think of clay as alive, then suddenly its odd properties of persistent moisture, plasticity, and friction become explicable. It's almost (though not quite, of course) the only way to explain clay's ability to evolve under pressure and over time into separate "clay species" (p.126), and Logan's not the only person wondering whether clay's ability to host developing long-chain organic molecules might make clay a precondition for life itself (or at least, forms of life depending on amino acids).

This is a book of protest against the despoliation of soil and country life (p.50); of love for those who appreciate dirt, like Virgil (p.164); and of immersion into the physical sciences, including human biology (p.55). For all those reasons, it's worth a great deal of all our time. If you're a person of faith, which emphatically I'm not, then it's worth even more of your time, in part because Logan does such a great job of contextualizing the tenets and shape of his faith within the natural structures of the world: soil, microbes, the human gut, and above all compost.

If you can buy into the book fully, and feel like you're learning from Logan rather than simply reading his words, then Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth just might change the way you understand the world, maybe even the way you live in it:
     While we live, we ourselves are inhabited. A full ten percent of our dry weight is not us, properly speaking, but the assembly of microbes that feed on, in, and with us. Our bodies are the kitchens where our food is cooked, digested, and then burned to cook us. We live until death in a perpetual fever, 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. When at last we are well done, we begin to cool, becoming food ourselves. More and more ordered, more and more stable, like a good piece of roasted meat, we are made ready. (p.55)
Remarkable, no? Christopher Hirst gets it more or less right in his review, even if he did make his point with a bit of a sniff: "Though Logan's passion sometimes comes perilously close to sentimentality, this monograph on an unlikely subject is a minor masterpiece of startling originality." What Hirst doesn't communicate is just how much fun this book can be, how much ecstasy there is for the reader to grab onto and share. You won't regret trying it, I promise.