Sunday, July 15, 2007

In praise of:

Falling Man, by Don DeLillo. Don DeLillo reminds me of Stanley Kubrick. Both excellent stylists, in love with ideas, whose work never seems to be about actual people. The characters are vehicles. Then, late in his career Kubrick made Full Metal Jacket, for the first time crafting authentic-seeming characters who were valuable in their own right. Falling Man is DeLillo's Full Metal Jacket: not necessarily his best (I vote White Noise and Dr. Strangelove.) but his most human.

The book, about a 9/11 survivor and his family, sounded like a mess. The wife, Lianne, is a book editor who teaches writing to Alzheimer's patients (get it? memory and forgetting, etc.), and the protagonist, Keith, a lawyer, is a sort of white-collar everyman. In the weeks after 9/11, Lianne intersects with a performance artist called Falling Man, a David Blaine type without advance publicity, who appears in public places to performing seemingly fatal leaps.

The premise sounded terrible and the reviews have been mixed, but Falling Man is something close to spectacular. There has been frustration that DeLillo, an idea man, doesn't come out with the kind of elaborate narrative or radical arguments that animated Underworld or White Noise. But DeLillo has written the first truly good novel about September 11. Now that the event has become material for kitsch and cheap sloganeering, when even mentioning it seems like a political statement, you forget how oddly and dramatically people acted out in the weeks afterward. Friends lost religion, switched political parties, abandoned lucrative jobs, talked about suicide. Every small act seemed significant and every idea seemed like a revelation. DeLillo renders this beautifully: the paranoia Lianne feels in hearing Middle Eastern music, the son's obsessiveness with Bin Laden and syllables, the fake rebellion of an interracial affair. I'm not sure what more the critics want this to add up to: You don't get much headier than screaming in the darkness, against what you think is certain doom.

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan. I generally dislike it when novelists insert themselves into a story, thrusting their voices into a book's warm, moist pages, ejaculating passionate phrases and then coming to a penetrating climax. After McEwan's egregious Saturday, a 200-page book (even one with small pages and large typeface) about a sexually repressed couple's wedding night sounded like a doomed exercise. I hated the excerpt that The New Yorker published earlier this year.

Its opening line:
They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and the lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.
It might as well have started, "Once upon a time." McEwan was going to spread his omniscient seed all over the story.

Yes, but this is a great little book, vast and wise beyond its limited place and subject matter. It's about sex only in the way that Atonement could be described as being about gardening. It's no story of innocence. Like Atonement, it centers on an impulsive act that torments the characters for the rest of their lives. The sex isn't salacious or overwritten; it's not a horror scene either. This book, it's tense and brokenhearted, superb.

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick. Disagreement broke out about Blade Runner in the comments to a recent post on here. I haven't seen Blade Runner, but I knew it was based on a Philip Dick novel, and that same week, someone else mentioned his work. The Library of America just published a four-in-one anthology of his novels, which I picked up on a lark, going in skeptical and as someone who doesn't like science fiction.

The Man in the High Castle is alternative history, set in San Francisco and the Rocky Mountains. The U.S. lost World War II; the Eastern half is under Nazi charge, while the West Coast is a Japanese protectorate. We never see the Nazis up close, but learn that their rule is brutal. Africa's population has been exterminated. The Nazis have sent men to Mars, but like the Soviet Union, these gestures are a mask for a crumbling society. By contrast, the Japanese function as benevolent dictators, focused primarily on efficiency and stability, coexisting uneasily with Germany. Like the Americans, the Japanese characters ultimately are sympathetic, despite unclean hands. Their rule is condescending at worst, but far from thuggish.

But the book isn't even really about that either, because there's a book within a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which, in the book's world, is itself an alternative history about the chaos that unfolded when Roosevelt and Churchill won World War II. The Japanese allow the book to be published, the Nazis want to ban it, and half the world is reading it. The Man in the High Castle turns out to be a book about how history is written by the winners, and the manipulation of fact, and false inevitability and why any of us reads or writes fiction in the first place. Plus, its plot is thrilling. On Chesil Beach and Falling Man are both very strong books, but this is the one to keep you up past 3 a.m.

Frost/Nixon. High expectations and high bias. Every few years I go through an episode where I fixate on a subject and tear into every book I can find. One of those subjects has been Richard Nixon.

I know a lot about this. I have strong views, and the striking thing about Frost/Nixon was that for most of the play, Nixon is depicted as a kind of eccentric grandfather figure, relatively harmless and puttering. The play's first 10 minutes are highly entertaining and effective exposition on Nixon's tenure and resignation. We're approximately three-fourths of the way through when Nixon's darkness surfaces, in a vaguely hallucinogenic sequence that sets up the play's final conflict.

We never experience Nixon's true menace or brilliance, but I guess that might be beside the point. It's not about Nixon the person as much as two men from the outside who lusted to be the ultimate insiders, and the artifice that comes with it. The play seemed to know Frost better than Nixon, but maybe I say that because I know Nixon better than the play knows Nixon, and sometimes knowing too much is a bitch. The play is highly entertaining and watchable, and the performances are strong, but its lessons on television are a little tired, and I waited for an explosion that never came.

Wilco at Hammerstein Ballroom, June 25, 2007. Wilco performs excellent live shows. Both performances I've seen from them, the band steps out livelier and more impassioned than hinted in their polished, carefully produced albums.

As much as I don't think that I love them -- like, fucking, love love them, like, Neil Young, Hold Steady, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, O.P.P. love -- it seems like once every couple of months I hear the right Wilco song at the right time and have a little moment of clarity. "Kamera" and "California Stars" are pop* songs as dream sequences, and there's all that floating melancholy of "Via Chicago" and "She's a Jar" and "Hell is Chrome," these near-perfect, like, post-modern secular hymns (and fuck, this post is getting pretentious, but that's life) that never get too tweedy, and then I see a kick-ass rocking show like the one at Hammerstein and ask myself, "Why the hell aren't they in my top tier?"

Work like Sky Blue Sky is one reason, I guess, and the feeling that individual songs evoke are unsustainable over a whole album (A Ghost is Born comes closest for me) and there's sometimes this sense of smugness in the band's product, that Jeff Tweedy, while not tweedy, kind of thinks he's the smartest guy in the room. It's almost like he overthinks. He never lets loose with the kind of passion you hear in Neil's "Powderfinger," or in "Like a Rolling Stone" or in "Sway." The blue, you see, is sky blue, never subterranean-homesick or tangled up. Sometimes precision is a shame.

The caution of this band's albums -- as good as they are -- doesn't show when it plays live. They know how to guide a crowd, and the undercurrent of stately adornment fades. So "Heavy Metal Drummer" feels like more of a celebration, and "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" is just a kick-ass song, and the blue tangles up just enough to position passion ahead of perfection.

*I don't use "pop" pejoratively.


dmbmeg said...

I got nothing. But O.P.P. is my song. Stop bogarting my song!

blythe said...

i had a serious philip dick addiction back in high school. i don't know how i missed the man in the high castle, but it's on my list now.

also, she's a jar. best wilco song ever. according to me. someday i'll see them live. turns out very few acts come through oklahoma. crappy.

crimenotes said...

Yeah, but Blythe, you get Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips in your backyard. You get to kick back with Stoops and Coyne and the Oklahoma bloggers and grill some awesome hot dogs in the backyard. I just get to see Wilco live once every couple of years.

"She's a Jar" is wonderful -- some might say "delightful" -- and I was really impressed with PKD. I'm going to mete out the rest of the collection so I don't read it all at once.

Anonymous said...

Hey, thanks! I am totally checking these out, as many people I work with can only summon up the pieces of trash from Oprah's book club when it comes to suggestions for reading, bleh.

Also, you are right on about Wilco. I know some of their stuff and like it, but my sister who is the total music expert loves them and says they are awesome live.

Good post...

JebusHChrist said...

I think Falling Man is DeLillo's best work. The premise is so ridiculous to me and yet he effortlessly took me somewhere I didn't necessarily want to go.
I haven't read Frost/Nixon yet. I think I need to soon before Ron Howard gets his hands on it.

Nice work here.

Also, Blade Runner still sucks.

CrimeNotes said...

If you need a general book rec, McEwan's Atonement is the best thing I've read in the last eight years or so. The three I wrote about here are all strong books, but man, is Atonement ever special.

crimenotes said...

Jebus -- Ever read "End Zone," about football and nuclear war? I read it in college so it's been awhile, but that and "White Noise" made big impressions. I re-read White Noise last year and thought that it held up well. "Falling Man" took me by surprise -- like you said, the premise sounded pointless and his last couple have sucked, so I almost skipped this over. I'm glad I didn't.

dmbmeg: O.P.P. isn't "your" song. It belongs to millions of people born in the late 70s and very early 80s. You have no claim to it. If you want to claim the Jingle Cats meowing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" as "your" song, or Junkyard Dog singing "Grab Them Cakes" on the WWF's wrestling album, or Cinderella's "Somebody Save Me," I will kindly defer.

MidWG: As a supplement -- doesn't Oprah recommend really good shit now, like "The Road" and "Anna Karenina" and shit?

JebusHChrist said...

I read "End Zone" last year. I dug it pretty hard.

"White Noise" was OK, but I think Keaton peaked in "Night Shift" and he's been in a downward spiral ever since. Except for "Multiplicity", which was pretty awesome.

Shorty said...

i just finished Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road' and I loved it...i'll be checking out Falling Man soon...nice job on the review...

Brooklyn Bitch said...

Ian McEwan's short story collection: First Love, Last Rights is awesome as well.