Saturday, August 26, 2006

Book roundup

Sheesh, what a lame post title.

In the past few weeks I've managed to polish off some in-the-news literary-ish novels—Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, Jennifer Egan's The Keep (#17 on the Times' best-seller list as I type) and Bruce Wagner's Memorial—in addition to my usual subway diet of translated noirs.

Wagner's book I'm reviewing for Time Out, so more on it later. The Emperor's Children isn't great, but quite good. Messud captures a certain kind of ego-laden not-quite-young-anymore Manhattanites, as well as a self-absorbed star pundit always ready to shoot off about the heavy topics of the day. More intriguing than the plot, however, is why the book isn't great. Danielle's affair with her best friend's father reads obvious; Bootie comes across as paint-by-number plot device, not actual character. And everything is so goddam tidy! Messud can do drama but not tragedy. Actually, I'm not even sure she can do drama—what she's good at is dramedy. She's excellent at capturing details and specific, self-contained scenes (like the outré one in which Julius is caught cheating by his boyfriend) but the overall picture lacks heft and urgency.

The Keep is what happens when a literary writer does genre. Egan could have written a nicely packaged gothic suspense (and the passing allusion, conscious or not, to The Prisoner, is pretty cool) but she took it one step further by making it a book about writing, confinement real and metaphorical, and imagination, as it quickly appears that the story about Danny coming into a mysterious central European castle actually is a writing-class project by a prison inmate, and whether the tale has real-life roots is left ambiguous until the very end. The Keep looks more lightweight than The Emperor's Children at first, but in its own way it's as much of an achievement. You could also say that both books are written by skillful authors full of self-awareness about what they're doing. Both at times read like MFA honors' program projects in that they feel…deliberate.

As for the subway books (as in, the ones I read on my daily commute), Tonino Benacquista's Tout à l'ego collects short stories from the 1990s, but is far from prime Benacquista—I prefer his novels as his stories rely too much on a last-page black-humored twist (a tactic very reminiscent of Fredric Brown, a cultish author who seems better remembered in France than in the US these days). Benacquista's last couple of books (Quelqu'un d'autre, Malavita) have brought diminishing artistic returns just as his popularity has soared. He may never top early noirs such as La Maldonne des sleepings and La Commédia des ratés, but at least his screenwriting collaborations with director Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips and The Beat That My Heart Skipped) have contributed to the rejuvenation of French film noir

Arnaldur Indridason's Reykjavik-set Silence of the Grave is one of the bleakest, most depressing procedurals I've ever read. The background is domestic violence, and Indridason is so good at mood that you almost forget the holes in the plot.

Finally, Henning Mankell's The Man Who Smiled, which actually was written in 1994 but is just being put out by the Free Press. Inspector Kurt Wallander starts off deep in a depressive funk, matched by totally gloomy weather: Now that's what I call top Scandi noir! Unfortunately, reading this book also reminded me of how mediocre the newer Mankell offerings have been in comparison to his older stuff—in the recent Before the Frost, the Swedish master managed to turn Wallander's daughter Linda into one of the most annoying fictional characters in recent memory. If he has any sense at all, he'll have her killed in the line of fire in the next installment.


Marc Geelhoed said...

Thanks for taking on Emperor's Children. Always good to read a contrary point of view.

Joan said...

Not a ringing recommendation of The Keep, but I was already interested, so what the hell. I'm going crazy trying to just get through the 19th century in Kevin Phillips' Wealth & Democracy and I need some fiction that isn't one of the 90 million Alexander McCall Smith novels my mom keeps foisting on me.