Random Thoughts on Random Books

I have short, not especially well thought out notes on some of the books I read over the past year sitting on my computer. I may have had an idea of working them up into full-size blog posts, but at this point that’s unlikely. (There are others I still plan to make an effort on! Eventually!) They’re cluttering up my drafts folder, so I thought I might as well give them a light edit and post them in one go.

Thomas M. Disch, The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of

The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, Thomas M. Disch’s critical survey of science fiction from 1998, is of wildly variable quality. It seems that Disch was by the late 1990s becoming the kind of guy who complains about “political correctness,” and the book contains one of the most mindless and least generous takes on Ursula Le Guin’s work I’ve ever read. (It seems in part to stem from a personal beef he had with her about a Norton anthology she edited.)

On the good side, I was more convinced by Disch’s identification of SF with con-artistry, a running theme throughout the book—not just big obvious cons like Dianetics and SDI/Star Wars, but the way SF fandom tries to wring plausibility out of dubious ideas like space colonization and post-apocalyptic survival. (He identifies the Baen/Analog set in particular as prone to promoting their fictions as achievable realities.) Also SF fans’ tendency to flatter themselves as uniquely intellectual, and SF itself as a “literature of ideas.” Disch argues for Edgar Allan Poe as the inventor of science fiction, partly because Poe was an inveterate hoaxer.

John Dickson Carr, The Crooked Hinge

I’ve read a lot of John Dickson Carr in the past year. I’d forgotten how weird he can be. The Crooked Hinge kicks off with a Tichborne Claimant scenario, except the claimant is claiming the identity of a guy who is alive and in possession of the ancestral estate. Then it adds rumors of witchcraft, and a decayed eighteenth-century zither-playing automaton which appears to be running around on its own. (Even though you know this is a Scooby-Doo/Diabolique deal where nothing is supernatural, the creepy stuff is genuinely creepy.) Halfway through one character turns out to be hiding a case of amnesia. And the solution involves another wild revelation that was, I guess, technically hinted at, but is still just so far out no one would think of it.

Honestly, not enough mystery novels are weird. I like golden age mysteries because they’re so batty; newer mysteries are invested in tedious stuff like “realism” and “internal consistency” and “three-dimensional characters,” when all I want is to watch eccentrics figure out Rube Goldberg death traps.

Occasionally Carr does a thing with his narration I associate mostly with old detective novels, a casual historical mode—he uses constructions like “Page always remembered her at that moment” or “As for what happened in the few seconds after that, Page is still confused in his mind.” Carr acknowledges the novel is being narrated and pretends the narrator has spoken with the characters without giving the narrator a specific identity. These days most third-person novels don’t acknowledge any narrator at all, so this is always striking when I come across it.

John Gordon , The House on the Brink

The House on the Brink by John Gordon, reprinted not too long ago by Valancourt Books, has a reputation as a great M. R. Jamesian novel—it has an eerie Engligh landscape and an ancient treasure with a revenant guardian. It was originally published as YA but I thought it worked from an adult perspective.

The word “liminal” gets thrown around a lot in discussing fantasy but this is a book about liminality and ambiguity. The plot is driven by something that might be an old log pulled from the riverbank, or might be an animate bog body. As we meet the protagonist, a young man on the border of adulthood, he’s trying to see both sides of an argument. The central theme is how much of life happens in these ambiguous between-states, and how people reach across those gaps.

The prose is spare with just enough detail; the novel manages a strong sense of place without actually describing very much. (Similarly, James tended to describe his ghouls with a few carefully chosen details.) There are only a handful of characters and the book spends most of its time in the heads of its two protagonists, moving freely between them while acknowledging they can’t see into each other’s heads as easily as the narrative. So despite an expansive landscape it also feels interestingly claustrophobic. Tense and dreamlike, and well worth reading if you’re into Jamesian horror.

Jay Cantor, Krazy Kat

I put Jay Cantor’s Krazy Kat down for weeks at a time, which may indicate how involving I found it (although apparently Thomas M. Disch liked it). It’s a novelization of George Herriman’s comic about a genderfluid[1] cat in love with a mouse who returns that love by throwing bricks, and the police dog who pines for the cat and arrests the mouse.

The idea is that Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse witness the atomic bomb tests and decide they’re not three-dimensional enough to compete in a more complicated age; they run through a series of satirical set pieces as they try to become more rounded. Cantor is in part writing about the tension between popular art and high art, Herriman’s comics having at times been claimed for both—is Jasper John’s Flag a painting (high art) or just literally a flag (kitsch)?

I appreciated some of what Cantor is trying to do but all the satire feels obvious, exactly matching a science fiction fan’s stereotype of a mid–20th-century male literary author’s preoccupations—psychoanalysis, Hollywood, early seventies left-wing radicalism. Eventually Krazy and Ignatz imagine themselves as humans and it turns into an interminable and astonishingly boring sequence reinterpreting the central dynamic of the comics as erotica.

Which makes me wonder how the book might be received by modern fandom culture; this seems (with the caveat that I’m a non-expert) like the move most modern fan fiction is making. Despite all the interesting things you could do with unauthorized tie-in fiction, from pastiche to parody, it’s hard to find fanfic that is not entirely about how arbitrary pairs of characters ought to be sleeping together, and the resulting relationships are invariably less interesting and less complex than the relationships the characters had in the original works.

Which is what happens here: in literalizing the brick metaphor Cantor discards Herriman’s subtext, ambiguity, and playfulness. At a certain point Krazy and Ignatz are no longer Krazy and Ignatz; the story moves too far from what interested us about the characters in the first place. And although Cantor clearly wants to resolve that tension between high and low art—Johns’ painting is “both a flag and a painting”—leaving Krazy and Ignatz in human form unintentionally comes down on the side of high culture, where only certain kinds of characters can be “round.” At the same time, it turns Krazy and Ignatz’s relationship literal—the flag is just a flag. It’s the worst of both worlds.

Dorothy B. Hughes, The So Blue Marble

Dorothy B. Hughes is a mystery writer who spent some time in obscurity but returned to prominence due to reprints of her novels In a Lonely Place and The Expendable Man. The So Blue Marble isn’t as good as either of those but is fun; it’s a riff on The Maltese Falcon that feels like it was filtered through David Lynch. (The other books I just mentioned are more serious and grounded; all the Hughes books I’ve read are different.) The cast of The Maltese Falcon are eccentric but the characters in Marble are off-kilter in a story that pretends not to notice their weirdness.

Our Falcon here is a small blue sphere our heroine, Griselda, acquired from her ex-husband, which becomes the target of the weirdest people in New York. The prose slips into a dreamlike tone when Griselda is stressed—it felt like a series of associated details the reader pieces together as Griselda registers them.

The marble everybody is looking for is pulpy as anything, supposedly containing—despite being the size of an actual marble—a map to a treasure vault containing the secrets of solar power and gravity control. Just a delightfully weird book in the guise of a standard pulp noir, maybe not as accomplished as Hughes’ later work but still recommended.

José Eduardo Agualusa, A General Theory of Oblivion

A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa is about an agoraphobic woman living in Angola who bricks up her apartment during the Angolan revolution and, having forgotten the Amontillado, spends the next thirty years living on rain water and food she grows on her terrace. Despite her self-immurement she’s tangentially involved with several other interwoven stories that all come to a head in her hallway after she’s been unbricked.

It’s an excellent novel, but I felt weirdly disappointed when I googled the book and discovered it was based on a real woman—as though it would have been cooler if the author had made her up. (The book said she was real. But I’d assumed she was fictionally real, not real real, if you know what I mean.) At the same time I couldn’t stop wondering what the real woman’s real story was. So was I just in a grumpy mood, or do I prefer a clearer dividing line between fiction and nonfiction than I’d realized?

  1. This was a hundred years ago, so Krazy’s pronouns are sometimes “He” and sometimes “She” but never “They.” Cantor’s novel, like most adaptations, makes Krazy definitely female.  ↩

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