Tuesday, September 26th, 2006
I finished The Autograph Man today and found the ending very powerful. And let me just say that based on the two books I've read so far, Ms. Smith is the queen of the loose thread. There are so many bits of unresolved sub-plot as you get to the end, you cannot help but think there's no way these are all going to be wrapped up in any way approaching verisimilitude -- and feel a wave of relief at the end, when many are just left hanging. It does not feel willy-nilly either -- the threads that are left open are the ones best suited to keep the story in your consciousness a while longer, thinking about how it could move forward past the closing scenes.
Friday, September 22nd, 2006
I really like the pacing of The Autograph Man -- the movement can be furiously fast but at the same time you feel a kind of deliberation on the author's part, a conscious movement through the story -- the connections undergirding the text feel like the beams of a building's skeleton.
Thursday, September 21st, 2006
I am warming up to The Autograph Man. Thinking about what I meant by saying it was not serious, probably it was that I suspected there were not going to be any layers of meaning under the playful narration -- that's probably why I compared it to The Fan Man, which I remember enjoying a lot but not seeing any meaning in its play.
But now I am seeing those layers of meaning that I thought would not be there. So. Don't judge a book by its first few chapters -- I have read through Part I now and am just starting Part II -- and it seems to me the core of Part I was a non-verbal debate among Alex-Li, Adam, Mark, and Joseph over what the experience of being Jewish is. What hipped me to this was reading a post of Teofilo's that I happened on today, which describes a take on the Jewish experience that I think is very close to Mark's. Compare Teo's post to this passage:
...no matter what Mountjoy thought, he had not become a rabbi to please his father. In his own small way he had wanted to carry things forward. Like the continuity man on a film set. At the time, this was an analogy that had not satisfied Adam, who thought the call to the rabbinate should be entirely pure, a discussion a man has with God. But God had never spoken to Rubinfine, really. Rubinfine was simply, and honestly, a fan of the people he had come from.... This was the only way he had ever found to show it, that affection.
I am seeing now what this book has in common with White Teeth, which is that both books are about communities, the characters are seen primarily as members of their community. I liked that about White Teeth and it is coming in well here too.
Wednesday, September 20th, 2006
Yesterday I finished reading White Teeth and started reading The Autograph Man. White Teeth starts out great and just keeps getting better and better as it progresses. The ending blew me away. The vast quantity of threads left loose and hanging did not bother me at all, indeed it added something. My initial reaction to The Autograph Man was, it seems really fun and well-written, sort of like a more coherent equivalent of The Fan Man, but not a Serious Novel in the same way White Teeth was. Of course this reaction prompts me to do some thinking about what would make it serious or not -- I haven't come up with much yet in that regard. For now I am treating it as an analogue of The Crying of Lot 49 and hoping it grows on me the same way that novel has.
Thursday, September 14th, 2006
A couple of things about White Teeth -- God it is making me feel old! I am identifying closely, in parts, with Archie and with Samad, in all their flawed, petty weakness. From a little reading of her Wikipædia bio, Irie would seem to be the character that represents the author. I am reading the chapter that centers around her education right now, and finding it very powerful -- the description of her class reading Sonnet 127 seemed like kind of a set piece, but it moved me.
Tuesday, September 12th, 2006
I started reading Zadie Smith's first novel, White Teeth, on the train this morning, and got so wrapped up that I continued reading for another half hour after I got off the train, and came in to work a little late. I'm reading this on the recommendation of Jennifer Egan. And feeling a bit excited about how much contemporary fiction I have been reading lately -- Smith is five years my junior, where most of the authors I have read in my time are much older than I -- maybe this heralds a new day of my being more up-to-date in my literary tastes.
Monday, September 4th, 2006
The ending of The Russian Debutante's Handbook does not disappoint -- the last hundred pages are masterful -- I could not tear myself away. And look at this epigram from the final pages of the novel:
Somehow, Cleveland has survived, with her gray banner unfurled -- the banner of Archangelsk and Detroit, of Kharkov and Liverpool -- the banner of men and women who would settle the most ignominious parts of the earth, and there, with the hubris born neither of faith nor ideology but biology and longing, bring into the world their whimpering replacements.
Sunday, September third, 2006
So in Chapter 25 of The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Vladimir is looking at Morgan's wall. He sees a poster of The Boot, which is the only remaining bit of a gargantuan statue of Stalin which was destroyed after the republic of Stolovaya broke away from the USSR. "Beneath it, a Stolovan slogan: 'Graždanku! Otporim vsyechi Stalinski çudoviši!' Vladimir could never be sure of the funny Stolovan language, but translated into normal Russian this could be an exhortation along the lines of 'Citizens! Let us take the ax to all of Stalin's monstrosities!'" -- the meaning of this is not exactly clear to me. Stolovan is a Slavic language which Shteyngart has invented. Is the quoted phrase correct Russian which translates as given, and Volodya is speculating that the words may have different idiomatic meanings in Stolovan? Or is the grammar not-quite-Russian and the speculation is V. trying to figure out how to run the words together? It's a little hard for me to figure out how V. would be able to come up with that translation but not to be sure it was an accurate one.
Update: My esteemed colleague LanguageHat (of LanguageHat.com) comes bearing enlightenment:
It's certainly not Russian [he says], and I doubt it's some obscure Slavic language; it's presumably Shteyngart's invention. (For one thing, "grazhdanku" would be the accusative singular of the feminine form of 'citizen' in Russian, and it wouldn't be a plural nominative in any Slavic I've ever heard of.) "Stalinskie chudovishchi" would be 'Stalin's monsters' in Russian, so that's where that comes from; in Russian, otpor is 'repulse, rebuff,' and otporot' is either 'to rip off' or 'to flog, thrash' (though it also means 'to fuck' in slang), but there is no verb otporit'.
Also he confirms that I was right in my hunches about pronunciation.
Friday, September first, 2006
I'm feeling a lot of kinship with Vladimir Girshkin in The Russian Debutante's Handbook. The story is reading kind of like a fantasy of mine from my younger days, combined with reflections I've been thinking about lately to do with creative effort and getting by -- sorry about the extreme incoherence, it's all sort of impressionistic at this point.
I'm wondering about the correct pronunciation of Volodya -- I think it must be "Vo-LOD-ya" but frequently when my eye lights on it, I hear "Vo-lo-DYE-a". A similar question applies to Stolovaya -- whether the accent is on LO or on VAY.
Shteyngart has the best-ever jacket photo on this book.
Thursday, August 31st, 2006
The Russian Debutante's Handbook: not at all subtle, occasionally obnoxious. But there are moments that just sing. I think Absurdistan was the same way; but maybe Shteyngart is getting better at the subtlety, since I don't remember being as annoyed by his roughness when I was reading that.
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