The year of reading long, difficult novels

December 31, 2008 § Leave a comment

Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes
The Recognitions by William Gaddis
The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Where the Air is Clear by Carlos Fuentes
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Three Trapped Tigers by Guillermo Cabrera Infante
JR by William Gaddis

#1 Ken Kesey: Sometimes a Great Notion; an astonishing work of art; it must have smashed KK to have it ignored so. The skill with which he jumps around consciousness of characters, impressive. Adept at weaving stories, setting scenes and evoking atmosphere. Why he is held at bay by those who compile lists of Best Novels is beyond me. Same with William Gaddis. You want to see American novelists build on their advances in technique and novel construction. Kesey, ever tuneful, strikes many wonderful notes. Yet the theme of the brother antagonism, at times wanes. One brother so involved in the physical world, observing, watching, wondering – can he be so bound by obsession? OK. Anyway, wonderful to hear West Coast slang: Hey bub, Doohicky, rinkydink. Closing in on the mystery of Ken Kesey, all his themes were there, the nature of men and the nature of nature; he was the first to write about the Pacific Northwest; to make literature about it. He wasn’t sufficiently celebrated for his vision, for his art. His power, the slang, the bringing alive of what was not there before. Who else? Bernard Malamud in his big long Oregon novel, A New Life. But Kesey. Massive, ballsy, wonderful. I’m under the influence. Reading notes to the annotated One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Kesey stresses point of view as essential to the growing of a novel. Where Nest is compact Notion is diffuse. You can practically see KK running – even though many of the themes are the same: strength vs weakness, self-overcoming, west vs east, brothers-in-conflict, etc. You see his seriousness in Notion. Kesey’s artistic seriousness is plain. Strenuous even, maybe?

#2 Carlos Fuentes: Terra Nostra– so damn complicated; he’s got the Faulkner disease: wherein you empty out the thesaurus and the dictionary mix stir blend whip chop grate and hope that something edible comes out. A species of higher ventriloquism. Terra Nostra: Carlos Fuentes is determined to be placed in the Louvre or the Prado or the Madrid Museo de Bellas Artes…you often sense that Fuentes is writing books from inspiration based on his wide reading in history and coffee table art books or from spending time in museums. Where is the life felt, lived, tasted? The details in his novels, however good, seem second hand. But onwards, we go…will I get a masters degree for reading it? I am at 695 pages still at sea with this thing. It’s harder than hell to tell just what he is up to here. The novel seems to be some kind of historical monograph on the Spanish conquest of America and Spain’s failure to take the better of many roads when it seized European ascendancy in the 16th century; AND that Spain’s great writers – Cervantes, Fernando de Rojas – and artists had some idea of the correct road to take. Thus the blending of fictional and historical characters. Even so the book is striking me as monstrous and self-indulgent to a degree not to be believed. The effect is somewhat like looking at Niagara Falls for a year. Torrent of words. Terra Nostra is circles of themes, circular history versus fiction or fable, austerity vs lush tropical abundance, old vs new, ancient vs modern. Also that the thread of Spanish history has followed illusion while Hispanic ficcioners have followed what is reality; also power as the pathway to impotence/madness. However, Fuentes seldom stoops to illustrate those themes in other than chalky, literary inflated literary language. Fuentes tosses out contrasts and circles like so many language frisbees. While Felipe II was building the Escorial in Madrid, America was being discovered. During its Golden Age Spain turned its back on success and hope sacrificed all for gold. Crazy power-mad orthodoxies become prisons, wasting, unhygienic bodies in uncleanliness. The austerity of the Spanish king, Felipe II and the craziness of his wife Juana la Loca (La Dama Loca), ruling narrowly while a new world was being conquered and re-born. Fuentes would assert that the Golden Age fiction writers were writing reality while the living historical personages were living a fiction. And the style; heavy word showers; Faulkner as though the Mississippi had taken a turn into the Rio Grande and then into the Amazon…

#3 El Ontoño del Patriarca, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ powerful and ballsy novel (finally a novel which you can rightly call powerful). I now see it as a natural development from Cien Años de Soledad. Garcia Marquez has boiled off the charm, gotten rid of the cutesy stuff and matched method to theme. Portrait of a gruesome dictator, GGM inhabits his life and brain; it is a vast tidewater of slush and terror; a study of power and loneliness; GGM’s leftist politics aside, he has nailed forever the wimpyness, the smallness of dictators. Castro must read this and weep, as must Pinochet, Rios-Mott and all the bloodthirsty madmen who sick armed forces on their own unarmed civilians. GGM has torn off the mask of terror, the hollowness of the power-mad and given us the insides of these monsters, the puny lonely swamp-messes that they are…

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