Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Icelander/Last Night in Montreal

I'd come across a reference to Last Night in Montreal somewhere online and when the name came up again later, I decided to check it out. The story revolves around Lilia, who has spent her life as a child abductee on the run with her father until she ventures out on her own as a young adult. She still has trouble settling in one place for too long, and when the novel opens, she has just disappeared from her boyfriend's apartment.

Emily St. John Mandel writes in a comfortably lyrical style, handily conjuring the American Southwest or a noirish frozen Montreal, where the boyfriend has gone to search for Lilia. He's led to Montreal by the daughter of the private detective who has spent much of his professional career tracking Lilia. The daughter, Michaela, has watched her parents' marriage crumble as her father spends weeks and months on the road and she eventually develops her own obsession with Lilia. This is where the novel ran into trouble--the private detective and his daughter never felt like they had much depth. Their back stories felt contrived and their dialogue never rang true. I never believed that the man would abandon his own daughter to continue his search.

St. John Mandel's flashback scenes between Lilia and her father, however, do an excellent job of evoking a growing relationship between a young girl and a father she doesn't know (he abducts her from his estranged wife's home). St. John Mandel also deftly handles the secret behind Lilia's abduction to keep me reading even though the frustration of the private detective scenes nearly drove me to bail out on the book.

Icelander is billed as an Agatha Christie mystery novel as written by Nabokov. A better comparison, I thought, was to John Barth. Dustin Long uses some of the same metafictional trickery to adorn a conventional plot line. I always felt that Barth's strength was his ability to play games with the reader and the narrative structure, yet put it within a plot dynamic enough to be a page turner. Long's approach involves a nameless heroine pulled into solving a murder mystery she has no interest in, a secret kingdom beneath the surface of Iceland (as well as its incestuous royal family), masters of disguise, anagrammatic names, doppelgangers, and even a character named Connie Lingus. Long is very good at creating a whole fabricated world of culture, complete with footnotes and asides. At times, the jokey names and winkwinknudge tricks grew tiresome, but some of the characters were intriguing enough (e.g. the dimwitted actor recounting his visit to the secret kingdom of Vinlandia) to keep the plot interesting. Long handles a variety of styles with a skilled touch--I look forward to reading something else from him.

Strength of Materials!

Finished The Dog of the South this morning and now I'm scheming to get hold of everything Charles Portis has published. What a twisted genius. I can't wait.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Dr. Reo Symes

From Dr. Reo Symes in Charles Portis' The Dog of the South:

The kind of people I know now don't have barbecues, Mama. They stand up alone at nights in small rooms and eat cold weenies. My so-called friends are bums. Many of them are nothing but rats. They spread T.B. and use dirty language. Some of them can even move their ears. They're wife-beaters and window peepers and night crawlers and dope fiends. They have running sores on the backs of their hands that never heal. They peer up from cracks in the floor with their small red eyes and watch for chances.

I had heard that Portis' novels were very funny, but when I started The Dog of the South, I expected something like the madcap, almost slapstick, sensibility of The Confederacy of Dunces. It's very different from that, with a more demented and subversive kind of humor. Portis has a sharp writing style that is perfectly attuned to the narrator, Ray Midge, and his random, weightless existence on the trail of his wife and her ex-husband, Guy Dupree, in the British Honduras.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Welcome Back

I have been horribly negligent to the grumbleblog faithful (Hi, Mom!) and there's no way I can recap all of the books I've read and shows I've attended since (yikes) April. I don't know what the hell's wrong with me--I have no excuses. Well, I do, but I won't go into them here.

I will at least try to list some of the highlights that I can remember. I know I read the excellent Home by Marilynne Robinson and now that I've finished off all of her fictional offerings, I just have to sit back and wait for her to complete another novel. I've read Charles Baxter's The Feast of Love (good, but didn't leave a lasting impression), Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies (excellent stories), Graham Swift's book of essays, Making An Elephant (good enough to make me want to go read some of his novels) and the first volume of War and Peace. I will get back to it eventually--the drawing room scenes can be a bit of a slog, but the battle scenes are pretty amazing literary accomplishments.

The shows are more of a blur. There was the impressive Conor Oberst at the Ottobar and the amazing vocals of Neko Case at the Ramshead as well as a smattering of shows by local bands that I just can't seem to recall right now.

Oh, and this week I read The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, the story of Philadelphia Eagles fan Pat Peoples' attempt to assimilate back into society after a long stint in a Baltimore mental facility. His comic and heartbreaking return to his parents' house, therapy, a manic depressive new girl friend and Eagles season tickets made for a hilarious read. Highly recommended (especially for Eagles fans).