The Double Life of Alfred Buber
I received this as a review copy from the Permanent Press, an excellent independent publisher based in New York. The Permanent Press is one of only a few literary independent publishers left who take the chance to publish serious novels by little known writers. I admire that. And I admire what David Schmahmann was trying to do here, though he ultimately comes up a little short.
The Double Life of Alfred Buber is the story of an attorney who becomes involved in the sex trade and, eventually, prostitution in Asia. He falls for a Bangkok bar girl and his troubles begin. The role of fantasy for the men involved in sex tourism (“this girl really likes me” or “I’m helping this woman”) and the nature of the relationships between the Westerners who frequent Asia and the local people, especially the sex workers, a large part of what this book is about and the conclusions are both obvious and disturbing.
Schmahmann is definitely a Nabokov fan and the book leans heavily on the style of Lolita. Narrated by Buber, who comes off as a less charming version of Humbert, it is hard, just like in Lolita, hard to know what to believe. Turns out, it is best to believe nothing and let the story unwind as it will. By half way through, you’ll be pleasantly confused, by the end, you might be a bit disappointed by the failure to wrap things up cleanly, and I guarantee you’ll feel a little dirty.
The sex tourist is a sad creature, but he is also a powerful one, and that is an aspect of this world I wish the book had focused on more. The book hints at this, but it isn’t explored enough. Buber is powerful attorney in the United States, but also sad sack who can’t find love. In Asia, he thinks he can be a hero, or at least buy love but again, he comes up short. Buber is Buber no matter where in the world he goes. This is a decent read. The descriptions of sex tourism in Asia are suitably stomach turning, even if the power relations are not explored enough, and the depiction of the drudgery of the commercial lawyers is well done. Schamahmann can write, I just wish he had ended the book in a more careful manner.
The Cold Six Thousand is the second volume of Ellroy’s “Underworld Trilogy” tracing the history of 1960s America through the lives of real and imagined gangsters. Written in an intense staccato style, the books are filled with conspiracies, bad men behaving horribly, and real and imagined dirt on most of the pivotal figures of the 1960s.
I enjoyed the first book in the series, American Tabloid. By turns exhausting and exhilarating, it felt like something new in crime fiction. The dirty machismo of much the genre boiled down to a thick tar of nasty violence. Ellroy’s books relish in violence and hatred. They’re not nice and can at times be difficult to read, but despite my conflicted feelings about Ellroy as a person and a writer, I enjoyed the hell out of American Tabloid.
The Cold Six Thousand is another story. American Tabloid ends with the assassination of JFK. The Cold Six Thousand takes us from the “cover up” of that assassination through to the deaths of MLK and RFK with extended stops in mobbed up Las Vegas and drug-fueled Vietnam. If anything, The Cold Six Thousand is uglier than American Tabloid, racism plays a key role, and it is hard not to think that Ellroy enjoys putting despicable dialogue in the mouths of his characters. It is all a bit much. The ultra short declarative sentence style that seemed new and exciting in American Tabloid is just tiring in the Cold Six Thousand.
But Ellroy can write, and the characters remain compelling. I wanted to put it down, but I didn’t. If you’re a fan of Ellroy’s you’ve probably already read this. If not, start with American Tabloid. If after that you haven’t gotten enough, you could give this a try. I should probably leave well enough alone and not read the final book in the series, Bloods a Rover, but I probably will. I can’t leave a series unfinished.
The Long Fall
Crime novels are very grounded in place. George Pelacanos’s novels sing of DC; Laura Lippman’s of Baltimore of Los Angeles, and until recently, Walter Mosley’s most famous crime novels were set in Watts. For the last decade of so the heavy hitters of crime fiction have mostly been avoiding New York. There is, of course, Lawrence Block, but I have not read him. In recent years the crime writers I read came to New York were Richard Price’s “Dempsy” novels: Clockers, Freedomland and Samaritan, which were set in a fictionalized version of Newark with the occasional glimpses of life in New York. Price has said that he set the novels in a fictionalized city because the real thing was too overpowering. I can see that.
Lately, there has been a bit of a return to New York. Price set Lush Life on the Lower East Side, up and comers Reed Farrel Coleman and Colin Harrison have both set their novels in Brooklyn, and now Mosley has started a new crime series in the City staring a new protagonists, Leonid McGill.
The Long Fall’s plot is a classic of the genre – private detective investigates a case that leads him into a conspiracy bigger than he imagined. Innocents are injured; the detective must get his hands dirty; justice must be done. If you read these novels, you know exactly what I am talking about. Mosley knows what he is doing; the plotting is catnip to crime novel fans.
More interesting, perhaps, is the creation of the character of McGill. He is a private investigator, and in crime novels, PIs generally come in two types – those on their way down, and those on their way up. McGill is a little of both, morally he is on his way up. He isn’t taking enforcer gigs anymore; he isn’t setting people up for crimes they didn’t commit. But he is behind in the rent, drinking too much and cheating on his wife (who is cheating on him). It’s a nice juxtaposition. By being good he is doing bad. I am curious to see how it plays out in the other novels. Will McGill’s better angels lead him into financial ruin, or will he turn his back on the moral life and return to a life of crime. Mosley seems to be setting us up to watch McGill rise up again, but I could be wrong. Either way, it is a treat to see such a great crime writer set his stories in my city.
Worth reading for fans of the genre, especially those who wish more crime novels were set in New York.
The Quiet War, Paul McAuley
Fans of science fiction often try to place works in the genre into one or more subcategories. It is “space opera” or it is “cyberpunk”; it is “steam punk” or it is “military SF”. It is “Hard SF” or “New Wave”. These distinctions can be helpful to the reader picking up a book by an unknown author, I for one will take a space opera over a military SF novel almost any day, but the constant categorization is also terribly limiting.
Take the Quiet War. In one sense, it is a classic “space opera”. Shuttling between planets and factions, it follows various characters in the lead up to a war between earth and various breakaway colonies throughout the galaxy. Intricate plotting based around political and romantic entanglements? Sounds like space opera to me.
In another sense, it is very “hard SF”. McAuley is a former research biologist, and the book includes extensive discussions of various genetically engineered people, plants and weapons. (All of which are handled very well. Hard SF can too often descend into some sort of lab report where the authors flights of scientific fancy ramble on with little connection to the plot.)
And finally, the Quiet War is also a work which takes some of its ideas from the New Wave’s insistence on tying the “science” in SF to its political and social ramifications*. The “war” at the center of the novel is at least in part about what it means to be human. How far can we take genetic engineering before we have created a new species? What does it mean to be human? The sort of questions the book brings up around genetic engineering are the main reason I read science fiction; it gives us a place to toy with outlandish ideas and imagine problems and solutions which, while they may arise from far future conjectures, have analogies to the problems we suffer today.
But enough about how the Quiet War fits into the world of science fiction sub genres, was it a good book? Yes. McAuley can write, which is more than you can say for many genre authors, and the characters and conflicts he imagines here are captivating. I do wish he had spent more time on the social consequences his scientific speculation creates. But finishing a novel wanting more is a fine criticism to have of any work. There is apparently a prequel to the Quiet War, I will probably read it.
*I realize this definition of “New Wave” is very vague, I’ll write a lot more about how I view New Wave in the future.
The Passage is a seven hundred page vampire novel written by a novelist who graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop. That makes it a pretty rare bird. It is also a book I enjoyed tremendously. I imagine there is very little middle ground with this book. You either enjoy its epic scope, slightly showy writing, and meandering plot or you think it’s a bloated book by a guy who couldn’t make money with serious fiction so turned to genre literature to put his kids through school. I liked it, your mileage may vary.
The plot is convoluted and epic, but to put it briefly, and not spoil the fun, the U.S. government has created a sort of vampire. Not Twilight style sexy vampire, but really grody scary vampire. Anyway, the vampires get out, all hell breaks loose, and humanity has to fight… for its very survival!
There must be a thousand books out there with that basic plotline. What separates the Passage is the skill of the writing, which is well beyond what you see in most genre fiction, and Cronin’s ability to be good at both plot and character.
The plot versus character dichotomy is something I have written about before. I remember in undergrad my classics professor drawing a scale up on the chalkboard with “character” written on one side and “plot” on the other and saying, “works which focus on character are literature, work which focuses on plot are entertainment.” He was that kind of a dick. He wore a bowtie.
He also had a point. Too often what I find lacking in the genre literature (save the true crossover geniuses like Gibson, Price, etc) is a lack of proper character development. What I often miss when I read “serious” fiction is any sort of plot to care about. I am not particularly interested in cardboard cut outs rampaging through an alien world shooting lemurs with lasers, but nor am I particularly interested in reading something where two very well drawn individuals sit in a café in Brooklyn and talk about fucking “love” or whatever. Can’t I have three dimensional characters AND lasers? I guess I can, in books like the Passage.
Though there aren’t any actual lasers in the Passage. But you get the idea.