Monday, May 2, 2016

Last Stand at "Controlled Chaos"

So, this is my very last post here at the blog. I started out strong back in 2008 (I had 40 posts that year), but as the years went on and I got further away from shorter works, I found I had less to add to the site. I also noticed that the majority of visitors to the site were either GoogleBots cacheing my pages, or college students reading and/or plagiarizing my own college essays. Maybe if I'd posted more readily or done a little more self-promotion, I would have seen more traffic for my creative pieces. But, ultimately, I have no regrets.

It's been a good run - over 125 posts - and it's been fun to receive the occasional comment. But it's time to wipe the slate (and this site) clean so that I can focus all of my attention on the books I plan to publish over the next few years.

On Monday, May 16th, justinmcfarr.com will direct you away from Controlled Chaos and land at "The Bear Who Broke The World" blog. There, I will be actively blogging, adding to the few posts I have there now about the evolution of my very first novel. Please check it out when you can, as I move toward a 2017 publication with Wheeler Street Press.

I appreciate all the kind words I've received for the posts here. Thanks for all your support over the years.


Monday, September 29, 2014

Aggressive Fiction

It's officially Happy Monday, as my second published short story of the year is now available to readers of all types and tastes. Titled AGGRESSIVE FICTION, it appears in Issue No. 2 of The East Bay Review. Check it out now! Thanks.





Monday, January 6, 2014

End of Year Wrap-Up (2013)

So apparently I only surface on this blog once a year now, and that's to post my "best of" the books I read in the previous year. Well, if I manage to write any new content that isn't related to the novel I have been devoting all my waking hours to, then I will get back here more frequently. If not... wrap-ups once a year it is.




Now on to the list (culled from a measly total of 38 books read in 2013):


1) EVERY DAY by David Levithan -- hands down, one of the best books - YA, Adult or otherwise - I've read in quite a few years. Supple writing, astonishing characters, and a terrific plot with near-perfect pacing.

2) HYPERBOLE AND A HALF: UNFORTUNATE SITUATIONS, FLAWED COPING MECHANISMS, MAYHEM AND OTHER THINGS THAT HAPPENED by Allie Brosh -- funniest book I’ve read in a long time. The neuroses are firmly in place, the panel cartoons illuminate the anxiety of the narrator perfectly, and I laughed so hard milk spurted out of my nose. More than once.

3) WE LIVE IN WATER by Jess Walter -- a short story collection that treats misfits, the homeless, meth addicts, and people on the fringe of society, with unexpected compassion yet without sentimentality. And it’s funny as hell.

4) THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY by Jean-Dominique Bauby -- I read this ten years ago, and revisited it again last year. A wonderful, small book, by a man somehow larger than life.

5) GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER (or, PEARLS BEFORE SWINE) by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. -- not a perfect book, by any means, but reading even a flawed Vonnegut novel is still a terrific way to spend a few hours.

6) THE POLYSYLLABIC SPREE, HOUSEKEEPING VS. THE DIRT and SHAKESPEARE WROTE FOR MONEY by Nick Hornby -- these three collections of columns Hornby wrote for “The Believer” magazine are a reader’s dream. Separately, they’re fantastic, but together they add up to a literary journey that continually whet my appetite to expand my own library.

7) ELSEWHERE, CALIFORNIA by Dana Johnson -- a thoughtful, energetic novel about race, class, loyalty to family, and the desire to understand and appreciate ourselves on a deeper, less stultifying level than the path of discovery that the people in our lives choose and expect for us to follow.

8) TENTH OF DECEMBER by George Saunders -- not exactly the “best” book of the year, as many people had listed early in the year, but some quirky, interesting stories that certainly entertained.

9) PICNIC, LIGHTNING by Billy Collins -- another solid selection of poems by a writer who makes it all seem so effortless, when we know better.

10) WE THE ANIMALS by Justin Torres -- a voice that never rests, unfurling truths and wounds so rapidly that it is like a blur… until it all melds together into a complete picture of childhood sacrificed to madness, with no building blocks created for future nostalgia.

Of course, there were a ton of books I planned to read last year (many of which were on the prior post) that I never got to. So, no more promises here that I am sure to break - which means I'll secretly make plans to read a bunch of specific titles, but will save myself future humiliation by not listing them here.

You'll just have to take a trip back here next year to see what I read and liked in 2014. As always, I appreciate your visits. Thanks for stopping by and have a book-happy new year!



Thursday, January 31, 2013

End of Year Wrap-Up (2012)

Before January disappears, it's time to offer up a list of my favorite books from 2012. All of these were read during the past year, but were not necessarily published this year. I'm still playing catch-up from when Gutenberg invented the printing press - at the rate I'm going, I'll NEVER catch up.










Out of 55 books read in '12 (not including the hundred or so picture books from bedtime with the boys), here are my top 10:


1) THE FUTURE OF US by Jay Asher & Carolyn Mackler -- quite simply, the most thoroughly enjoyable book I read last year.


2) STEVE JOBS by Walter Isaacson -- a fascinating view of the Apple genius, in all his obnoxious, grandiose, exhilarating, and maddening moods of magnificence.


3) THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT by John Steinbeck -- the "master" playing with 1st and 3rd person in this narrative about a good man contemplating doing bad things. Lovely writing, with a narrator who is both root-worthy and frustrating at the same time.


4) THE ILLUSTRATED MAN by Ray Bradbury -- a collection of solid short stories by L.A.'s greatest sci-fi/fantasy writer. Great fun.


5) THE WHITE TIGER by Aravind Adiga -- the second time I've read it, and just as satisfying as the first. There's a reason it won the Man Booker Award.


6) A TIDEWATER MORNING by William Styron -- his prose is both complex and familiar, his characters accessible and distant, but the 3 stories that make up this slim novella are clearly remarkable.


7) THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET by Brian Selznick -- a one-of-a-kind book about hope and love and family and things that change your life forever.


8) DEATH AND TAXES by Dorothy Parker -- poems by the grande dame of bon mots.



9) CRAP AT MY PARENTS' HOUSE by Joel Dovev -- a very silly book, full of incredibly cheesy and horrifying photographs, accompanied by the most hilarious commentary. This is the bathroom-read of the year!


10) SIDEWAYS STORIES FROM WAYSIDE SCHOOL by Louis Sachar -- middle-grade fun, written by one of my favorite kid lit authors.



And a last one, written by a good friend of mine, so I'm kinda biased and therefore I add it here as the most awesomest book I read from last year and set it APART from the pack above -

DEAD MAN #11: SLAVES TO EVIL by Lisa Klink -- kick-ass action, blended with horror and a Robert Kimble / David Banner-like protagonist who moves from town to town serving up his unique blend of justice.


For 2013, a few books I'm really looking forward to reading:

The wonderful Kathy McCullough's second novel, WHO NEEDS MAGIC?, her YA follow-up to the fantastic DON'T EXPECT MAGIC

David Levithan's EVERY DAY

Fellow MPWer Marlene Leach's debut novel, THE INSCRUTABLE MR. ELIZABETH

Adam Johnson's THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON

Michael Ondaatje's THE CAT'S TABLE

Elizabeth Wein's CODE NAME VERITY

Various titles by Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Perrotta, Louis Sachar, Roald Dahl, Toni Morrison & Nick Hornby

And many more books by many more terrific authors. 

Gonna be a great reading year!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How to Tip Your Waiter

So, the new semester started at 'SC, and while I furiously work on my fiction and personal memoir assignments for class, here's another "How to..." video for your amusement.

Check out "How to Tip Your Waiter" and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

How to Pitch an Episode of TV

Here's another installment from the "How to..." series I just started. If you've ever wanted to try to land a freelance from a TV showrunner, here is a video that may help you.

It's called How to Pitch an Episode of TV.

Enjoy. And look for more "How to..." episodes, coming soon.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

How to be a Superhero

Here's the first in a new series of Web-stuff I just started working on, done with xtranormal.

Enjoy, and feel free to share it.

More of the "How to..." series coming soon.

video

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

NY State Summer Writers Institute

BIG ANNOUNCEMENT!!

So it's nice to have something extraordinary to announce here on this blog. The last biggie was my acceptance into USC's MPW program last spring. This time, it's --

I've been accepted to Skidmore College's New York State Summer Writers Institute for two weeks of intensive workshopping and networking. One of my professors from USC nominated me, and after submitting 15 pages of my writing, I got the acceptance notice and scholarship yesterday. I am totally humbled, and really looking forward to this opportunity.

I'll be spending the last part of June and the first bit of July in Saratoga Springs, NY on the Skidmore College campus. There I'll be studying with both Joseph O'Neill (NETHERLAND) and Allan Gurganus (OLDEST LIVING CONFEDERATE WIDOW TELLS ALL) in two separate workshops. Other writers who will be there at the College during that session: Jim Shepard (PROJECT X), Claire Messud (THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN) and Phillip Lopate (TWO MARRIAGES).

I CAN'T WAIT!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Saving Private Ryan O'Neal

Day 7. In honor of tonight’s airing of the 82nd Annual Academy Awards, here’s a little parody piece I wrote in early 1999, shortly after SAVING PRIVATE RYAN was passed over for the Best Picture Oscar it deserved and should have won. This script was originally envisioned as a Flash web short, using .jpeg photos for the actors, animated in front of real-life backgrounds.

It’s juvenile, crude, and would have been perfect to watch with your dial-up connection to Icebox or JibJab 10 years ago. But, hey, here’s the script anyway.

Go Kathryn Bigelow and THE HURT LOCKER !!


TRULY TWISTED TALES

presents

"Saving Private Ryan O'Neal"


FADE IN:

EXT. ITALIAN COUNTRYSIDE - DAY

Six silhouettes emerge over a ridge, dressed in military uniforms from WW II. STEVE GUTTENBERG leads the pack, followed by ANDREW "DICE" CLAY, a wheezing WILFORD BRIMLEY, MAC DAVIS, ERIC ROBERTS and a hybrid being with two heads and one body made up of COREY HAIM and COREY FELDMAN.

STEVE GUTTENBERG
(stopping the squad)
All right, let's take a break.

COREY HAIM
Hair!

COREY FELDMAN
Makeup!

STEVE GUTTENBERG
Sorry, Coreys, but we're in the middle
of a war out here. We're on our own,
with no help from the outside world.

ERIC ROBERTS
What about craft services, Tom?


STEVE GUTTENBERG
My name is Steve. Remember, Eric?
Steve Guttenberg?

ERIC ROBERTS
Right, Bill.

WILFORD BRIMLEY
(in between deep breaths)
I could... go for... a Krispy Kreme...
right about... now.

ANDREW "DICE" CLAY
You old "Cocoon"-smelling fat fuck.
Shut uuuuupp.

STEVE GUTTENBERG
He's the guy you shouldn't remember.
The dope with the guitar.


MAC DAVIS
Me? Why, I'm Mac Davis, don't ya know?
I was big, back in the day. Hello?!
"Sting II"? Ringing the bells, I betcha.

Blank stares from everybody.

WILFORD BRIMLEY
I'm too... old for this... shit.

ERIC ROBERTS
This doesn't seem right, Hortense, what
we gotta do out here.

STEVE GUTTENBERG
I don't like this assignment any more
than you guys do, but we're being paid
SAG minimum, so that's good enough for me.


COREY HAIM
What's so special about this guy that --

COREY FELDMAN
-- we're supposed to sacrifice our own careers for him?

ANDREW "DICE" CLAY
I'm with these two fucking freaky
midgets here. My career's pretty much
in the pisser and I could use a serious
boost of my own. Sure, I'm a tub of
shit, I'm losing my hair and I don't
think my jokes have ever been funny -- but
blow me, I got feelings, too.

STEVE GUTTENBERG
We've got our orders and we're gonna
follow 'em.


ANDREW "DICE" CLAY
Guy does a hundred fucking "Police
Academy" movies, suddenly he's in charge, telling us when and where to shit. I don't get it.

ERIC ROBERTS
Tell you what I don't get. I've got an
Oscar nomination, but do the producers
and casting directors care? No, all
they see is Julia's little brother. She
flashes her pearly whites, she gets
twenty mil a picture and her own Oscar
nomination. I flash my yellow choppers,
I get cast as the psycho killer in a
direct-to-Cinemax flick. Does that seem
right to you, Arturo?

STEVE GUTTENBERG
Hey, I've done movies with kids, animals,
animated ghosts and Bob Goldthwait. I'm
pretty sure my opinion doesn't hold much
weight in any court.

From over the hill, a group of GERMAN SOLDIERS emerge.

STEVE GUTTENBERG (Cont'd)
Look out! Day players!

The actor-soldiers grab their guns and shoot it out with the enemy. All the Germans go down, but not before shooting off ERIC ROBERTS' thumb.

ERIC ROBERTS
They took my thumb, Charlie! My thumb!

He passes out.

MAC DAVIS
How about "Cheaper to Keep Her"? You
gotta remember that.

CUT TO:

INT. ITALIAN VILLA - DAY

The actor-soldiers enter the small, waylaid villa. They approach a group of ALLIED SOLIDERS sitting around a table, drinking wine.

STEVE GUTTENBERG
Anyone here know a Private Ryan?

A young, tousled blonde soldier steps forward.

RYAN PHILLIPPE
I'm Private Ryan.

STEVE GUTTENBERG
We've got orders to take you back with us. It's been rough for you, we know, losing your career and all, but --


RYAN PHILLIPPE
What? My career's over? But... how?
Why?

He starts to break down and cry.

STEVE GUTTENBERG
I know it's tough to hear it out loud
like this and I feel your pain --

RYAN PHILLIPPE
How could you feel my pain? Any of you?
I'm young, hot and the total "it" boy.
Nobody treats me like this, I'm Ryan
Phillippe.

COREY HAIM
Ryan --

COREY FELDMAN
-- Phillippe?

RYAN PHILLIPPE
I kicked serious acting butt in "Cruel
Intentions" and Reese Witherspoon gave
me a daughter. Check it!

ANDREW "DICE" CLAY
You knocked up a broad? See, me, I
thought you was a major fudge-packer.
Hickory dickory dock and all that. Ohhhh!

STEVE GUTTENBERG
You're not the right Private Ryan.
We're looking for Private Ryan O'Neal.

One of the other soldiers, RYAN O'NEAL, removes his sunglasses and puts down his glass of wine.

RYAN O'NEAL
I'm Private Ryan O'Neal. I heard
everything you said. But I'm not going
anywhere. I'm staying right here.

STEVE GUTTENBERG
Our orders are to bring you back to
Hollywood. You're getting a second
chance, Private.


RYAN O'NEAL
I don't deserve it. I mean, look at the
mistakes I made in my career. All those
Peter Bogdanovich pictures -- what the
hell was I thinking? Even my daughter
Tatum got an Oscar and what did I get?
Bloated, that's what. No, leave me here
to the life I deserve.


WILFORD BRIMLEY
We... can't do that... Private. You've
got... a career to... fight for.

RYAN O'NEAL
All of you deserve another shot, a lot
more than I do. Leave me here with the
fading memories of my glory days.

STEVE GUTTENBERG
If we can bring you back to the a-list,
we'll be accomplishing something, maybe
even redeeming our own bad career choices.
We can be responsible for re-creating a
future superstar.

COREY HAIM
Just think of us as the Quentin
Tarantino --

COREY FELDMAN
-- to your John Travolta.

ANDREW "DICE" CLAY
If that talentless, light-in-his-dancing-
shoes putz can do it...

STEVE GUTTENBERG
So can you.

RYAN O'NEAL
Yeah, but I don't deserve it.

STEVE GUTTENBERG
Then earn it.

MAC DAVIS
Okay, I got it. "North Dallas Forty."
Y'all gotta remember that one.

All the soldiers look at him, a bit of recognition shining through. Then --

WILFORD BRIMLEY
In... coming.

The screen explodes in a FLASH of bright white LIGHT.


CUT TO:

EXT. FOREST LAWN CEMETERY - DAY

RYAN O'NEAL, a bit older, stands in front of a headstone.

RYAN O'NEAL
All these years, since I got back to
Hollywood, I've been trying to live by
your words. I hope I've had a better
career since you sacrificed yourselves
for me. I just got the lead in "Ishtar 2"
and was single-handedly responsible for
getting the "Porky's" franchise going
again.
(beat)
I hope that I've... earned it.

He pulls a wad of cash from his pockets, sprinkles it on the grave. Starts to cry. Pulls more money out. Falls in a heap on the grave, crying like a baby.

CAMERA PANS UPWARD, leaving Ryan O'Neal crying, TATUM and GRIFFIN standing behind him.


FADE OUT

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Zeroville

I haven't posted a book review in a while, thought I'd share my thoughts on the latest one I've read. Jean-Luc Godard made a dandy little movie called ALPHAVILLE back in 1965. ZEROVILLE is a nod to Godard and his merry band of surrealist creative masterminds. It's on my recommend list.


ZEROVILLE:





In the hands of actors, writers, directors and producers, Hollywood is a dream factory, a place that cranks out wish fulfillment scenarios like assembly lines manufacture automobiles. In novelist Steve Erickson’s hands, Hollywood is a fever dream, a waking nightmare that elucidates the truth of the self that only movies can attempt to uncover. ZEROVILLE - the latest novel by CalArts professor, Los Angeles Magazine contributor and literary cult figure Erickson – delves into the mystery and allure of celluloid, where a master shot gives the audience its bearing, but the close-up scrambles all perspective and engulfs the collective psyche in freeze-frame moments spanning whole lifetimes.

At the novel’s start, Ike “Vikar” Jerome, a cipher-esque, idiot-savant film fanatic, arrives in Los Angeles during the summer of 1969 and quickly sheds a Philadelphian past to embrace his new home. With a huge tattoo emblazoned on his bald head – of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor from a scene in “A Place in the Sun” – and anger coursing through his body without restraint, Vikar hits the local art houses and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in an effort to discover his own destiny. He visits the famous Roosevelt Hotel, where he searches for the ghosts of D.W. Griffith and Monty Clift himself; gets hauled in by the cops while camping out in the canyons, a suspect in the Manson Family’s horrific Tate-LoBianco murders; talks film theory with a career burglar tied up in Vikar’s new Hollywood pad; and is swept into the drug-addled, free-love, film-obsessed Next Generation auteurs plotting their movie industry revolution from the sandy beaches of Zuma.

Vikar’s story spans a decade, with the very Chance the Gardner-like main character swept through Hollywood, Madrid and Cannes by outside forces who find themselves intrigued and spellbound by his presence. His bizarre physical appearance, his vexing, non-sequitur-heavy dialogue, and his earnest, “I like to watch” approach to the movies attracts figures great and small, famous and infamous. Verisimilitude mixes with literary license as Erickson’s fictional creation Vikar befriends thinly veiled Hollywood luminaries like John Milius, Margot Kidder, Brian DePalma, and even a pre-“Taxi Driver” Bobby DeNiro. The author is coy about some of the real life characters, discreet about others, and blatant as hell about the rest of the filmmaking crowd in his efforts to blur the lines between reality and fantasy, truth and conjecture.

While there is much satisfaction in the guessing game of “what’s that film?” or “who’s that actor/director?” which Erickson offers throughout the book, there is also an abundance of movie references that became tiresome even for me, a fanatical movie freakster. When everyone Vikar encounters knows the difference between a Howard Hawks and a John Ford picture, or identifies themselves as a cineaste with the ability to pontificate for hours on the slightest minutiae of a Bunuel film, the book becomes the literary equivalent of a Tarantino movie. There is storytelling skill, fantastic dialogue and compelling action within, but there is also unfortunately a level of showing off that the author indulges in which strips the novel of its fun and magic.

Those criticisms aside, ZEROVILLE is overall a remarkable novel that attempts to blur the lines between how reality shapes the movies and how the movies shape reality itself. The ideas are potent, the characters are engaging, and the ending manages to be mysterious, inconclusive and completely satisfying all at the same time. A Fade Out worthy of Fellini or Godard’s best.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

MFA Madness

Well, it's been a thrilling, frustrating, invigorating, anxiety-ridden, ultimately fulfilling ride since I began plotting my trip into the world of MFA applications. The first apps. were due in December and the last this March, and after a total of 16 submissions to both residency and low-residency schools, I have my acceptances and rejections in hand. And out of 8 acceptances, 5 rejections, 1 waitlist, and 2 schools I still haven't heard from, I'm starting my grad school journey this fall at --



Their MPW program is phenomenal, the faculty is tremendous, and I can't wait to get started.

Watch this space for more updates.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

End of Year Wrap-Up

Well, it's the end of December, with 2009 looming, inescapable and inevitable. So what better time to compile a list of my favorite books from 2008 than right. this. moment. All of these were read during this year, but not necessarily published this year. I try to keep up on the new releases, but there are so many great (and, let's admit it, mediocre) books from years past that it's hard to keep up with everything.



Out of 64 books read in '08, here are my top 10:

1) PAINT IT BLACK by Janet Fitch -- see the review to find out what all the fuss is about.

2) OUT STEALING HORSES by Per Petterson, translated by Ann Born -- again, check out the review.

3) MAN IN THE DARK by Paul Auster -- masterfully written, an author in full command of his voice and his craft. The ending is a bit of a disappointment, but the whole package is terrific.

4) INDIGNATION by Philip Roth -- it's been a while since I've liked a new Roth novel, but this one was a return to form. Read the review for more.

5) LEAVING PICO by Frank X. Gaspar -- mainly known for his poetry, this first novel is full of rich, stunning details and a story that avoids potential cliches and instead gives truthful, real moments that culminate in a journey well worth taking.

6) THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz -- not sure it was worth the Pulitzer, but a terrific read. Check my review for more.

7) THE HOUSE OF PAPER by Carlos Maria Dominguez, with wonderful illustrations by Peter Sis and translated by Nick Caistor -- check out the short review.

8) MAKING A LITERARY LIFE: ADVICE FOR WRITERS AND OTHER DREAMERS by Carolyn See -- a must-read for anyone attempting to make a life as a writer. Top-notch advice from someone who really knows her stuff.

9) TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW FOR SURE by Dorothy Allison -- heartwrenching, disturbing and raw, this autobiography from the author of BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA is ultimately an uplifting and motivational read.

10) ELECTION by Tom Perrotta -- A really quick read, full of sharp dialogue and four different narrative points-of-view, all handled brilliantly by the author of LITTLE CHILDREN, one of my favorite novels.

I also liked quite a few of the novels I had to read for UCLA, including SUMMER by Edith Wharton, TARZAN OF THE APES by Edgar Rice Burroughs, THE PROFESSOR'S HOUSE by Willa Cather and GOD'S LITTLE ACRE by Erskine Caldwell. THE SUN ALSO RISES by Ernest Hemingway was also a tremendous read, my second go at his first novel. And lastly, I also really loved the writing style, if not the book as a whole, of DAS KAPITAL: A NOVEL OF LOVE AND MONEY MARKETS by Viken Berberian (check out the review).


For 2009, I'm looking forward to reading:

Janet Fitch's first novel, a young adult tale called KICKS
Barack Obama's DREAMS FROM MY FATHER
More stuff by Paul Auster, including TRAVELS IN THE SCRIPTORIUM & THE NEW YORK TRILOGY
Richard Price's LUSH LIFE
The first novel by my friend Alia Yunis, THE NIGHT COUNTER (coming out in July)
David Ebershoff's THE 19TH WIFE
Ethan Canin's AMERICA, AMERICA
Gayle Brandeis' SELF STORAGE
Andrew Winer's THE COLOR MIDNIGHT MADE
Marisha Pessl's SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS
Nicole Krauss's THE HISTORY OF LOVE

and anything else that crosses my path or excites my frontal lobe.

HAVE A GREAT 2009!!!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I'm Published Again!

So, I'm still tapping away toward the 50,000 word goal (a little over two weeks to go) in the NaNoWriMo deal, in addition to doing rewrites and polishes of short stories to submit to the M.F.A. programs over the next few months. So, creatively, very busy these days.

Also, my short story, SHATTERED BELIEFS has just been published in Verdad Magazine, and it was honored as the Editors' Choice. I'm very thrilled. Hope you can give it a read.



All for now -- more book reviews are forthcoming and maybe a few other surprises. Keep watching this space!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Indignation

Just finished Philip Roth's latest and wanted to post my review here as soon as possible. If you haven't read a novel by the author, you owe it to yourself to pick one up and see what all the hype is about. Personally, I'd recommend for first-timers THE DYING ANIMAL, THE GHOST WRITER or his first, GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, a novel with 5 short stories added. The new one is also pretty good, too. Read on.

INDIGNATION:





indignation / n : anger aroused by something unjust, unworthy, or mean.

Philip Roth’s 29th book (and the 15th of his I’ve read) is the best of the last few, similarly short, novels he’s produced. I thought EVERYMAN was a total waste of time, and saw EXIT GHOST as an interesting but not wholly successful follow-up to THE GHOST WRITER, but his newest really worked for me. The first-person narrator, Marcus Messner, possesses a voice that is equal parts brilliant, precocious, antagonistic and innocent. The time is 1951, the place is a small Ohio college, where this kosher butcher’s son from Newark has just transferred as a sophomore. The university is Winesburg -- an allusion to Sherwood Anderson’s fictional town and novel about rural town grotesques -- that is pure, Christian-valued, Americana. Of course, it’s the perfect place for a Jewish genius to get in touch with his intolerance, test his social and sexual mores, and escape the seemingly endless march of young American soldiers into the Korean War.

The plot revolves around Marcus’ attempts to separate himself, both physically and emotionally, from his suddenly tyrannical father, who has grown paranoid and distrustful, convinced of his son’s impending death at the hands of the big, bad world. Marcus rebels in the only way he knows how, by escaping five hundred miles away to a Gentile-filled campus where he blends in by disappearing altogether. He attends class, argues with his roommates, and focuses all of his prioritized energies on getting straight A’s and achieving the rank of school valedictorian. Complications, big and small, arise, leading the main character into a questionable romance with a labyrinthine girl, a number of confrontations with the soberingly thoughtful yet condescending Dean of Men, as well as a slew of other pursuits both intellectual and emotional.

The main conceit of the novel, beyond Marcus’ desire to avoid the war and distance himself from his father’s madness, is something I won’t reveal here, allowing the surprise and climactic discovery to remain a genuine twist for the reader to ponder and enjoy. Beyond Roth’s main hat trick, there are plenty of wonderful scenes and characters to revel in, with their compelling thematic thrustings and morally ambigiuous ramifications supplied to attack and dazzle the senses. The novel, like his earlier works, is about youth and the hope for understanding and the wish to be understood. Marcus is at once the polar opposite and a carbon copy of Alexander Portnoy, whose complaints were as important and vital to his being as Marcus’ indignation is to him. It’s been almost 40 years since Roth’s scandalous novel was published, and his newest proves that he still has the literary and controversial chops he had back then.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Actual

Time for another book review, this a novella from 1997 that I read in a few short hours.


THE ACTUAL:





In this novella by Pulitzer Prize- and Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow, obsession and denial are key ideas that inhabit a story without much forward momentum or plot. Harry Trellman, the first-person narrator, is Jewish but looks Chinese – a detail of his appearance that is revisited again and again for no truly discernable reason other than to illustrate how much of an outsider Harry is to everyone around him, including himself. In fact, physical appearance takes up much of the non-dialogue description, with every one of the sparse number of characters identified repititiously by similar, if not exactly replicated, specifics of physiognomy. It happens so frequently, in a barely-hundred-page book, that it seems Bellow must be after some deeper meaning, must have some compelling reason to continuously describe his spare cast. Whatever the reason, I think I missed it, so instead of striking my reader’s eye as profound, the technique became distracting, and finally irritating at a certain point.

The book starts out strongly, introducing a fairly enigmatic character in Harry, and even pretends for a moment to have an intriguing story at the point the narrator meets billionaire Sigmund Adletsky for a wary, suspicion-bent tete-a-tete. But by page seventeen, Harry’s association with the old moneybags is done and the focus shifts to Amy Wustrin, whose story carries practically the next third of the novel. She is an old flame of Harry’s, a woman he has never forgotten and who he continues to pine over, to the point of creating daily conversations with her in his much-too-sharp, currently-unchallenged mind. The obsession slant is nice, but it never really develops further than fantasy and backstory, with a scene of confession that comes late and fails to deliver anything dramatic or climactic.

In all, there is nothing very exciting or tantalizing in the book, despite attempts to delve into Philip Roth-style, sexually-graphic-prose territory that ultimately comes off as feeble and unimaginative. This is the first book of Bellow’s that I have read -- and I do plan to read more, despite my extremely lukewarm reaction to this short work -- and far be it from me to slam a multiple-award winner, but the book as a whole struck me as a dud. The shift from Harry’s p.o.v. to a sloppily constructed, and ill-advised narrative avenue into Amy’s mind was Bellow’s first misstep, followed by his abandonment of Harry’s direct relationship with Adletsky’s “brain trust” and finally, the excessive, mind-numbing attention paid to Amy’s ex-husband’s burial arrangements. The book takes off like a well-crafted and perfectly aimed bullet, careens into blunt storytelling practices, then ricochets irresponsibly off poorly constructed firmaments, managing to completely shred the narrative terrain. The bullet does its damage, then loses momentum and wedges into an endless scene between Amy and Harry that curtails its projected force prematurely, all without ever managing to hit its intended target.