Thursday, March 10, 2011

In a Literary Vein

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.


The Vicar of VHS said...

Good stuff. I received a kindle for Xmas, and I've been reading a lot more lately than in recent years--and with an MA in Lit, I really have no excuse for the nose-dive my reading habit had taken before that.

Though even when I was cramming for my oral MA exams, I was extremely put off by the "literary fiction" genre, which to my mind is as much a defined genre as noir or horror, with its own conventions and sometimes rigidly defined tropes. The most frustrating thing is just what you describe--so much of mainstream/literary stuff can be characterized as "a beautifully written piece in which nothing actually happens." :P I don't think it was always this way--heavy-hitting syllabus-weights like Faulkner and Steinbeck certainly weren't averse to a narrative hook.

I've been reading mostly genre and classics, and a little nonfiction. I love that I can get most of Balzac's HUMAN COMEDY cycle for free off Gutenberg etc. I've bought a couple of e-books too, so I guess the Kindle is doing its marketing job.

All this is just to say, I would love to hear more about what you're reading/have read on the site; it would be a good place for me to find book suggestions. :) I want to get into some old dimestore pulp, but don't really know where to start.

Anyway, keep us posted!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Vicar.

I don't think it's necessarily true of all literary fiction, but the literary fiction that I like these days has a strong genre element to it. Stuff like Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policeman's Union and McCarthy's Blood Meridian. And you're right. It didn't used to be that way. Literary and commercial fiction from mid century back to the 20s is very keen on story, for want of a better word.

As for what I've been reading lately? Hmm...I reread Cornell Woolrich's I Married a Dead Man a couple of weeks ago when I reviewed the 1950 movie version. Lots of Richard Stark books lately: Lemons Never Lie, Nobody Runs Forever, and Dirty Money. To Die For by Megan Abbot. Dennis Lehane's The Given Day, which will probably be a movie soon. Joe Haldeman's Old Twentieth. Black Hills by Dan Simmons (not one of the writer's best, truthfully). Telegraph Days by Larry McMurtry (also not one of the author's best, unfortunately). Covenant by John Everson, which is a kind of throwback to eighties horror novels. Jenny and the Jaws of Life by Jincy Willet, which is short stories; good ones. A couple of erotica anthologies by Susie Bright: X and Bitten. The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins.

Like I say, I have a habit. I listen to a lot of audiobooks on my commute to work and we have so many books at home that we don't have the wall space to shelve them all. And my partner is just as bad.