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Wednesday Empires of Dirt

What I've Finished Reading

The Laughing Monsters. I like Denis Johnson, though his work was never the beacon for me that it was for a lot of people I know, so I read this book partly out of a sense of obligation despite some clear indications that it was going to be Not My Thing. Maybe that was a mistake.

I wrote a lot of words about The Laughing Monsters trying to figure out whether it's a deeply flawed novel or a joke I failed to get. There's a good chance that it's both, but I'll probably never know for sure.

Hard-drinking NATO guy (or something; his current official affiliation is deliberately unclear) Roland Nair turns up in Freetown, supposedly to keep an eye on his old friend, charismatic Ugandan con-man Michael Adriko. He gets drawn into Adriko's latest scheme to sell fake plutonium to arms dealers and return in triumph to his hometown with his American fiancee, Davidia. The scam fails and the triumphant return also fails. Along the way, there's plenty of mud and violence, amoral soldiers, fed-up missionaries, a grotesque rural cult leader, and lots of hotels with inadequate electricity and Internet connections. The descriptions of hotels are pretty good. The tiny vodka packets Nair rejoices in are also good. Adriko is a memorable character, lyrical and dangerous – even if the vagueness of Nair and the others sometimes leaves his charisma with nothing to hook into. Davidia and Nair's long-distance girlfriend/colleague Tina are so underdeveloped they barely exist. Davidia gets the occasional flicker of life out of how thoroughly Nair fails to understand her. Tina's just a name and a photo of some boobs.

Is that intentional? Is it some kind of genre-savvy spy thing, or a commentary on the exploitative imagination of the West, or something? Is Johnson being serious with all this seemingly boilerplate spooky heart-of-darkness forget-it-Jake it's-the-Dark- Continent business? And if not, what's he doing? I'm just not smart enough to tell you. If I read it two more times, I might be able to work something out, but I barely liked it enough to read it once.

Of course it's no good complaining that the narrator is “unlikable” when it's clear from Page One that great pains are being taken to ensure no one makes the mistake of liking the narrator, and it's pointless to mope about my failure to “connect” with a story about the indifference of history (or "Africa") to anyone's particular feelings. It wasn't for me; that's all.

It's also entirely possible that the extra-large print had a subconscious effect on my impressions – like maybe some part of my brain kept trying to read it as a YA novel and was constantly being surprised by all the rape and arms dealing and whatnot.

What I'm Reading Now

Prometheus: The Life of Balzac by André Maurois. It's a biography of an author I've never read, written in 1964 in a style that feels a little old-fashioned -- peppered with self-conscious epigrams about genius, women, and the relationship of women to genius -- but very readable and almost as exuberantly confident and charming as its subject. The elder Balzacs are supportive of 19-year-old Honoré, even if secretly they are skeptical about the idea of literature as a money-making venture. They have just set him up in romantic fake poverty in Paris for a trial run of two years, to "prove his talent." His first move as a Real Writer in Paris: attempt to develop a philosophy of life!! His second move: write a spectacularly earnest epic verse play about Cromwell and send it to a well-known dramatist! (Honoré's mother celebrates the occasion by making a beautiful copy of Cromwell in her own handwriting).

"He read it with care, but when Madame Balzac and Laure called on him to ask his opinion he suggested that the author's time might be better employed than in the writing of stage pieces. He added that he did not wish to discourage a young man and was quite ready to suggest to him 'how he should approach the study of belles-lettres'. The sheet of paper on which he had noted his private opinion of the play was lying on his desk. Laure got hold of it and passed it on to Honoré. It was a good deal more blunt: 'The author would be well-advised to try anything except literature. . ."

Honoré bounces right back, though. <3

I'm almost done with Under the Volcano and maybe next week I'll have something to say about it. It's virtuosic as hell.

What I Plan to Read Next

It's your turn, The Victim by Saul Bellow!

Also, DID YOU KNOW I am still reading Finnegans Wake; maybe eventually I'll even finish it. Does anyone ever finish Finnegans Wake, or do they just hop off the boat before it starts to go around again? Anyway, I will get to the part where the pages run out (at this rate probably sometime in 2017).


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 17th, 2016 12:22 pm (UTC)
Ohboy...The Laughing Monsters SOUNDS like a joke. Or like it should be a joke. Or maybe just an epic-fantasy of a teenager gone wrong. I dunno. O_O

Feb. 18th, 2016 01:45 am (UTC)
I think it's not as bad as I've made it sound, but then again, it might be? I don't entirely trust my judgement here, because I strongly suspect I'm missing something. Denis Johnson is a good writer and I expect him to have something interesting in mind when he writes a book, but that doesn't guarantee it's going to be successful, whatever it is.

Probably the book and I are both missing something.
Feb. 17th, 2016 02:21 pm (UTC)
Does Finnegans Wake ever end? I think maybe it just goes around and around forever, and no one ever finishes.

That Balzac biography sounds delightful, though. Does Balzac decide that the dramatist is a Philistine who doesn't appreciate his true talent?
Feb. 18th, 2016 02:01 am (UTC)
Finnegans Wake will go around as long as brain cells sing; it's the filthy dream-groundwater of all days' nights from Adam to the last man loafing (coincidentally also called Adam). It is the Song that Never Ends and they curse their tongues who started singing it not knowing what it was because now they'll damn well just have to go on singing it forever just because

Balzac is delightful! He's actually a little better than that -- he reads the blunt opinion and his youthful heart breaks a little but he concludes that verse drama is not his area. So he gets a job churning out gothic thrillers for a novel factory! (This is the beginning of a long career of overwork and sleep-deprivation).

He saves his really outlandish self-dramatizations for when he attempts to seduce the 45-year-old woman whose children he's been hired to tutor. (Do you want to know if he succeeds? He does! Despite being short, weak, scrubby, inexperienced and already partly toothless. Ardent love letters by the score and BOUNDLESS ENTHUSIASM cover a multitude of sins, apparently).
Feb. 18th, 2016 02:36 am (UTC)
Was Balzac the one who eventually started chewing coffee grounds because he had become such a coffee addict that he could no longer get his caffeine fix merely by drinking it? I may have the wrong French novelist, but I'm sure I've read about one of them doing this.

I am also envisioning young Balzac the tutor as the human equivalent of a little yappy dog. So enthusiastic! Sometimes so annoying! Yet strangely adorable!
Feb. 20th, 2016 05:47 am (UTC)
I don't know if that was Balzac, but I wouldn't be surprised. He's graduated from ordinary coffee to Turkish coffee to a kind of super-sludge, so probably crunching beans is the natural next step. He is RIDICULOUS about not getting enough sleep and destroying his health for the sake of a goal. Cormoran Strike should take lessons (no he shouldn't).
Feb. 17th, 2016 03:06 pm (UTC)
I could imagine 'The Laughing Monsters' as a 70's pulp novel put out to pay the bills and therefore not to be thought about as the author hasn't?

I read old NF books to find out what the author's personal view on the world is;)
Feb. 18th, 2016 02:14 am (UTC)
Could be! I mean, there are some mixed signals but that's as plausible an explanation as any. Like I said above, I don't really trust my judgement on this one, but I'm also not nearly invested enough to try to dissect it.

I know DJ did some reporting in Liberia before writing this book; I'm tentatively interested in looking it up (but not enough to bother right now).
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


blase ev

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