Sundry weekend reading: Eco, historical fiction, realism snobbery

I used to have no weekends. I had two days off, one weekday and one weekend day, and I loved it. There wasn’t enough time to get away from it all, I could visit almost entirely empty museums, and it was easier to come back to work after just a day. Now that I have a weekend, I both sort of enjoy having two days off to myself and hate the fact that I am once again part of the masses who resent Sunday night and don’t want to go to work on Monday.

foucaultThis week has been annoying to say the least, and now Umberto Eco died, so it is not ending on a high note either. What I would really like to do is to spend an entire day tomorrow re-reading Foucault’s Pendulum, the book with which I used to obsessed at one point in my life. Yet for some indescribable reason, I no longer have a copy, so I am going to settle for another example of strange historical fiction, John Wray’s Lost Time Accidents.

To continue with the historical novel theme, here’s a great interview with Alexander Chee about his new novel, The Queen of the Night, and about how historical novels are still seen as lower-class fiction. You can replace ‘historical’ with any other genre fiction descriptor and it would still apply. The interesting thing mentioned therein is that realism fiction is seen as superior, but only if it’s produced by Northern American writers (so see, Eco was not in this category and thus got a pass to write whatever the hell he wanted). Read it, it’s a very good interview. And read The Queen as well, especially if you, like me, love your novels long, vivid, and detailed.

Speaking of historical scribblings, where would one submit historical weird horror? Asking for a friend.

Readings: Gold Fame Citrus and A Cure For Suicide

I finished Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins this morning, and as much as it pains me to say this, I did not particularly enjoy it. Oh, Watkins is an amazing stylist, and her sentences are very finely wrought (see me gushing as I was just starting to read it), but as a whole it did not work for me. I mentioned that I had originally thought of this book as a sister book to Paolo Bacigalupi’s Water Knife, but what it really should be compared to is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Yet where Watkins’s writing is much more beautiful on the micro-, sentence-level, St. John Mandel is just better at gestalt, at bringing it all together in a much more harmonious way.

As it got to the second part, Gold Fame Citrus got too disjointed, too weird but not weird enough. At one point I got a certain Canticle for Leibowitz vibe from it and was overjoyed, but somehow that did not go where I was hoping it would go. At another point, I thought this book would make a fine reread because occasionally it just refused to get into my head but left me with a hope of maybe giving it a second go. As I got closer to the end, however, I realized that I will probably never pick this book up again and finally, I started to think that maybe Claire Vaye Watkins is just better at shorter fiction. Well, I will always have Battleborn.

cure for suicideWith the second book I finished this past weekend, we have a case of perhaps too weird. Jesse Ball’s A Cure For Suicide is brilliant, but it did not surpass his Silence Once Begun for me. It had a good chance, though, because at one point his sentences seemed to come from my own internal monologue:

… I have never been the person I want to be. Even as a child, I was someone else. Every morning, for a lifetime — a lifetime! I have woken up in this body that I feel should not be my own in a situation not my own. Why should I not end this life.

A woman called the examiner comes to a village to meet a man called the claimant. The claimant was on the verge of death and is now supposed to recover under the guidance of the examiner. The claimant learns what a chair is for, how to dress himself, how to draw, how to interact with people. Eventually he is given a name.

A Cure For Suicide is a book about a life with no surprises (‘events are just events’), book about feelings told in an almost unfeeling, clinical tone. It’s about introverted avoidance, and yet also about empathy. At times it’s almost like a Socratic dialogue within a novel, philosophy within a fictional narrative. It doesn’t seem like it should be readable, but it is. In fact, the other day I was listening to So Many Damn Books podcast, and they were talking about how Jesse Ball’s books are perhaps best read in a single sitting. I didn’t quite manage one sitting, but I did it in two. I think the part with no paragraphs tripped me up. I know it sounds silly, but it jolted me and knocked me out of the book’s rhythm. I never regained it and sort of slogged through the last part of it.

I still say that Jesse Ball and Claire Vaye Watkins are among my favorite authors. I will still read the next thing they both write. It just didn’t work out this time.