So, I'm listening to Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole on audiobook right now. Ostensibly, it's about a location scout for a pig-farming combine searching out land for pig farms in Oklahoma; kind of a Local Hero narrative, I guess. I'm three discs in, and so far there has been a lot of lovely descriptions of the Oklahoma Panhandle area, some vividly imagined characters, and nary a narrative hook to be found. I'm getting impatient. I can't shake the feeling that Proulx is wasting my time. This stuff might be fine for short fiction, but I don't think you can sustain a novel on it. After three discs of this, I put it aside. If this is what passes for literary fiction right now, I think I'm going to head back to genre fiction for a while. I also need to apologize to Ang Lee for grousing about the way the movie version of Brokeback Mountain kind of dawdled along. Clearly, the source material is at fault.
By contrast, I also have Stephen King's Under the Dome on audiobook right now, too, and after the first three discs of That Old Ace in the Hole, it was a comfortable book to sink back into. (I read the hardback of Under the Dome last year shortly after New Years.) Whatever else Kings failings as a writer might be, hooking the reader is not one of them. The narrative sets its barbs in the reader within the first five minutes (roughly the first half of the first chapter) and yanks her along for the ride. The size of Under the Dome is daunting, but it's surprisingly stripped down. Anything that doesn't further the narrative is thrown over the side. Eventually, the thing develops the forward motion of a freight train. It doesn't let up. The book itself is one of those obvious allegories with which King sometimes indulges himself, this time taking up the notion of a closed ecology after a small Maine town is mysteriously walled off from the rest of the world by an invisible, impenetrable dome. King's dim view of humanity comes to the fore in this, in true Lord of the Flies fashion, and he brings this nastiness to grotesque life. It's almost like reading Seventies-era King, which is high praise from me.
Have I mentioned my book habit before? I've probably been remiss, because I have a book habit that makes my movie habit pale in comparison. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, too. In terms of dead trees, I've been carrying around Artemisia, Anna Banti's fictionalized biography of Artemisia Gentileschi, for the last week. The book is framed as a dialectic between the author and the life of the great artist, one of the very first women in the arts whose name we actually know (in part because she was a genius). This is pretty fanciful, given that very little is known of Artemisia, including the date of her death. We do know that she was raped by one of her art tutors and that she endured a very public trial. For myself, I'm pretty sure that the experience informs paintings like Judith Beheading Holofernes, an image she painted more than once:
Banti doesn't emphasize this, really, though it hangs like a pall over the whole narrative. It's a fascinating depiction, in any event.
My bedside book right now is Ramsey Campbell's Cold Print, a collection of the author's early Lovecraft-inspired stories. Some of the early stories like "The Church on High Street," the story the teenage Campbell first sent to August Derleth, aren't very good, but reading the stories in sequence is a revelation, because it demonstrates the process by which Campbell learned to write. Campbell provides a tour guide to the stories with a comprehensive introduction. The later stories are superb, especially "The Voice of the Beach," which Campbell rightly calls his most Lovecraftian in spite of an almost complete absence of the paraphernalia of Lovecraftiana. Well worth seeking out.