Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘mcewen’

Infinite Ground–Martin MacInnes

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on November 3, 2016 at 9:33 am

Infinite Ground is a very sharp novel about sick politics, corporate infiltration of society, and good old-fashioned paranoia, a cross between Kafka and The Blob. It’s about late capitalism and spooky capitalism. It provides the frisson you get from reading about the Royal Bank of Scotland or the machinations of Essential Edinburgh.

A retired Inspector of police in a Latin American country is asked to investigate the disappearance of Carlos, a young, seemingly responsible office worker, who takes to hanging upside down in his office and then vanishes from a restaurant. Looking into Carlos’s firm, the Inspector finds that some of its workers are actors, hired to make the company look good and to spur on the real employees in terms of poise and drive.

This company, like many, has duplicate office facilities at a remove, in case of disaster or war: ‘He read it as an example of corporate anxiety. Their imagination of the apocalypse was limited and picturesque, affecting a distinct, geometrically precise land segment, allowing civilization to be transported elsewhere, uninterrupted.’ The idea of duplication, a horror genre staple, grows in the novel until neither the Inspector nor the reader can be sure of what is genuine.

The Inspector is assigned an assistant, a brilliant microscopist. She hoovers out of Carlos’s computer keyboard insect wings, jungle soil, and other substances that suggest Carlos doesn’t live only for his job. The Inspector is fascinated by her and for a while they rub along in a lively, almost rom-com exchange between police thinking and scientific metaphor.

In fact, her inventive speculations on micro-organisms exacerbate the Inspector’s growing paranoia, which threatens his investigation. At one point the playful narrative gives over to a fantastic list of what might have happened to Carlos: perhaps he never existed. Perhaps there are fifty or more of him (readers of Stanislaw Lem will enjoy this). Maybe he went walkabout because of food poisoning. Or his mother (she is one of the actresses) made him up.

The Inspector begins to wonder if Carlos was mentally and physically dissolving as a result of contact with some micro-parasite. He even wonders if he himself has contracted the same from his minute examinations of the man’s office. Eventually he decides that Carlos has wandered out of the city and into the forest.

Is the Inspector deranged? Next thing we know, he’s joined a silly tourist group in order to get quickly into the interior. He pays a lot of money, only to be faked out by phony ‘contact’ with ‘tribespeople’. One of them turns out to be the lady who runs the local coffee shop.

Now, strangely, the focus shifts from contingency and conspiracy to a story solely of the Inspector, suddenly alone in the forest, for what reason it’s unclear. (Most of the unexplained elements work here, though occasionally there’s a little too much Twilight Zone.) Is the intention to show him the near impossibility of Carlos remaining alive for long in such a place?

Thoughts of the investigation are abandoned as we watch the Inspector turn into a really icky Robinson Crusoe, eating bugs and worse, trying to keep from losing his marbles as he follows the morning sun. It’s scary: ‘There was less of him and he scouted for parts of the new vegetation reminiscent of his character.’

This novel sends up all kinds of rockets. In its South American atmosphere you will be reminded of Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps. The contemporary social and political unsureness is that of Javier Marias. Its really astute anatomization of employment itself will make you think of Ed Park’s Personal Days. In the biological and jungle horror there’s a lot of Sartre, Conrad and even HP Lovecraft.

Will the Inspector escape the forest? If so, in what condition, and into what world? This section of the novel is a little less satisfying – there’s a Planet of the Apes tedium to it. Earlier there were many exciting explorations of a lot of nasty micro-organisms that sound totally plausible and which are all ranged against us. One in particular takes over bugs’ brains, forces them to march to the sea, and then explodes their heads! You’re left hoping that this isn’t the one that bit this particular policeman.

What is the upshot of all this? You may well find in Infinite Ground’s meditations a sketch of things to come, post Brexit: ‘He took the conviction that this new, insubstantial world couldn’t be happening as proof in fact that it was.’


This review appeared in The Herald August 6, 2016

Salinger — David Shields & Shane Salerno

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd, Uncategorized on September 23, 2013 at 5:48 pm

The endpapers of this book are photographs of J.D. Salinger: in the front he’s young, in the army, at a camp table. This is actually a photograph of Salinger writing The Catcher in the Rye. In the back he’s old, at a supermarket, standing in front of bags of charcoal. The journey from one photo to the other is pretty extraordinary. This is not a literary biography, but a companion volume to a documentary film. It’s more a cabinet of curiosities than a book—quotations from letters and from his family, friends, admirers and detractors. The comments of the compilers keep everything on track—admirably so, and by the end you wish that David Shields would write his own book on the subject.

J.D. Salinger was born in New York; his father was Jewish and his mother Catholic. Shields contends that, religiously at least, the wires were crossed from the beginning, but three things made Salinger, made him and broke him: World War II, the harsh faith of Vedanta, and Oona O’Neill. Oona was the beautiful teenage daughter of Eugene O’Neill, seen in all the best places, even visiting the Stork Club after school. For a while she and Salinger were going out. He sent her long letters (as he did to every woman he was infatuated with, or wanted to infatuate). One day she stopped writing back, and the next thing he knew she had married Charlie Chaplin. Even to a confident young writer-about-town, having your girl go quiet and then to find she’s married the most famous actor in the world is pretty tough. He spent the rest of his life seeking girls who not only looked like Oona, but who were on the same shaky cusp of womanhood. He treated them terribly, interfering with their education, lecturing, hectoring, and imprisoning them, really. God’s gift to women.

The Second World War injured Salinger immeasurably; indeed the authors argue that he did not survive it, as a personality or as an artist. In 1941, America’s entry into the war meant the sudden cancellation of his first short story in the New Yorker. Things got worse: Salinger served in two of the bloodiest engagements of the war, Hürtigen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. He was present at the Liberation of Paris, but also that of Kaufering IV, a death camp near Dachau. A counterintelligence officer, he re-enlisted at the end of the war for a tour of duty in the ‘de-Nazification’ programme. As for many soldiers with similarly shattering experiences, it wasn’t going to be easy for Salinger to re-enter his old life, even if that was literary New York. ‘You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose,’ he said once, ‘no matter how long you live.’ As if coming back wasn’t going to be complicated enough, he brought home a German war bride as a present for his parents—and she may have been a Gestapo informant.

He began almost immediately seeking a way to make himself invisible, even terminal. Upon the publication of The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, he flipped. Unable to take the attention he was getting, he had his picture removed from the dust jacket, stopped reading reviews and vanished from the scene, holing up for the rest of his life in Cornish, New Hampshire, where he built a concrete ‘bunker’ to write in. The choice of the word is apt, as Shields points out, because Salinger was bringing the war home for himself. And he brought it home to us. The authors believe that The Catcher in the Rye is a disguised war novel, written in the throes of post-traumatic stress disorder. They explore the bitterness and underlying violence of its prose, and in one fascinating section trace the novel’s role in the ‘kit’ of several well-known assassins. (It’s not Shields’s and Salerno’s fault, but almost nobody in this book seems to remember what a brilliantly funny writer Salinger is.)

After reading the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Salinger became a follower of Vedanta. We are led to believe that he continued to write, for many years, concentrating on his fictional Glass family (to which his own families could never compare). He was writing about the Glasses in such a way as to disseminate the tenets of Vedanta. Vedanta has a timetable for your life; it abjures contact with women and money. (Salinger was always chasing women—he even ‘fell in love’ with actresses on sitcoms, and he had a pile of money, so actually it sounds like he was a pretty lousy follower.) In the end Vedanta offers retreat from the world and then a passport to oblivion. This seems to have made him grumpier and grumpier. Obsessed fans would actually go to Cornish and knock on his door: one of the best parts of this book is some of the conversations he had with these people, who were, of course, the feeby, dweebly fringe of his fan base. Most of them didn’t have a coherent question to ask; it’s as if they just wanted to gaze upon him. And he got tired of this. To one, after asking if he was receiving psychiatric treatment (having just met him) he said: ‘Nothing one man can say can help another. Each must make his own way. For all you know, I’m just a father who has a son. You saw my son go down the road. I’m not here to help people like you with your problems. I’m not a teacher or a seer. I’m not a counsellor. I, perhaps, pose questions about life in my stories, but I don’t pretend to know the answers.’ Unless you were a dark-haired, impressionable, literary young girl. Then he pretended to know the answers.

In case you missed the press coverage from the documentary release, Shields and Salerno claim to know something of what’s in Salinger’s famous ‘vault’, as a result of spycraft it seems: at the least, they claim, there is a saga of the Glass family, mostly about Seymour and narrated by Buddy; there is a manual of the Vedanta religion with ‘fables’ by Salinger; there is a love story of World War II; a novella in the form of a counterintelligence officer’s diary leading up to the Holocaust; and an expanded series of stories comprising a history of the Caulfields. No publisher for any of these has been named, and Salinger’s literary estate, which is run by his son Matthew, won’t even confirm their existence.

This is an excellently done and useful book—it might even be called fun. Thrilling, at least. And, overall, it is a very disappointing thing to read about an author that so many wished so much for. What could be more disappointing to read about J.D. Salinger than that he watched hundreds of hours of stupid television shows like Andy of Mayberry, or that he was a Republican? Either fact would support the idea he’d gone mad. The claim is that J.D. Salinger did exactly the wrong thing for himself, his readers, and for art. It’s a solemn accusation, not comfortably made, one feels, and it sticks. From Cornish he micro-manipulated the ‘fact’ of his reclusiveness, and just about everything and everyone else that he could. It was, says Shields, ‘such an extreme lab experiment’. Despite being an inept Svengali, a predator on young women, and a miserable, shell-shocked permanent adolescent who turned his back on New York for a life of paranoia and frozen peas, he was a gifted, multi-faceted artist who produced ground-breaking fiction that enthrals more readers every year. As Gay Talese said, ‘He was just a new man on the planet. And he carried us away.’


(A slightly altered version of this review appeared in the Sunday Herald, Sept. 22, 2013)

Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue
 – Mark Kurlansky

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on August 14, 2012 at 3:46 pm

Who started all this? Was it Laura Esquivel? Joanne Harris? There is now an entire category of novels, bubbling away in dark cauldrons, which seek to enfold you in chocolate, butter, pastry, marmalade, squid – books that try to smother you with some kind of goo and its lore, blind you to the fact that there is no art between their covers. The reader will drool over sexy mädchen slathered in butter, feel his chin drip with the oil of cuchifritos (look it up for yourself) and if only he can be frog-marched to the cooker fast enough, he won’t have time to reflect. His head will be throbbing with a surfeit of recipes and gushy facts, which in their rich illimitability will make him think he has … been somewhere? Learned something? Pick up a copy of Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue: O god it has recipes in it. Recipes and cute drawings.

Mark Kurlansky is the author of Cod, Salt and other attractively-conceived works of popular history. This is his first novel, set on New York’s Lower East Side in the moneyed dislocations of the 1980s, and there is nothing wrong with its lively materials. But he shows little awareness of the ways in which fiction can “instruct”, though that seems to be what he thinks it is for: just another form of history. He allows you no insights, lets you feel nothing immediate, and god forbid you should have to get up and go to the dictionary. Instead, he insists on coyly dangling a thing in front of you and then preciously “revealing” it, as a parlour magician might. He must gloss just about every noun and expatiate on every bit of history he happens to mention. He does this in such a didactic, numbing way that it seems totally unfair that not one of the characters who get shot to death (as a number of them predictably, tediously do) is the same kind of teacherish git as the narrator.

This is the indigestible problem about Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue, “A Novel of Pastry, Guilt, and Music”: it is unbearably cute, and it is not a novel, but a 300 page lecture about notes for a novel. Many times you will hear the dust being blown off a carefully saved-up anecdote, situation or image. This is fiction for people who don’t understand fiction and never will. People who collect things.

When he isn’t lecturing (“it was the saddest day of the year, the ninth day of Av, Tisha-b’Av. This was the day of Jewish calamity, the day of the destruction of David’s Temple in Jerusalem in 568 BC. Rebuilt, it was then destroyed by the Romans on the same day in 70 AD, never to be rebuilt until the Messiah comes. It is also considered the date of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain … Nathan had been up most of the night before”), he’s asking questions. These are in the mind of his protagonist, Nathan Seltzer (food name, get it?). A few of the questions Nathan asks are apt: with the arrival of developers and new money in the “old neighbourhood”, must he abandon his own history in order to save his family?

But there is a pretty raw nugget in the middle of all the carefree cooking, munching and lovemaking going on: Nathan, a Jew, is having an affair with a pastry cook whose father might have been a Nazi. Nathan seems incapable of reasoning or morals – he’s delighted to find that he can eat a lot of torte as long as he regularly screws both his wife and the pastry cook. (The usual message from the US: you can do whatever you please if you’re a fathead who’s thin enough.) What sticks in the throat is the nervous occasional insinuation of this pseudo-Wiesenthal sub-plot, an awkward attempt to justify the novel as serious, and not a rompy cookbook with a few psychos thrown in for the purposes of grit.

It’s a problem when the main character is an unpleasant, dull-witted nebbish, someone totally implausible, seemingly incapable of being loved by the others, or even of coming up with his own weird, Kurlansky-like questions: “Even Beethoven in the nineteenth century, when Germany was just an idealistic dream, understood that these beautiful themes would turn ugly, turn harsh, become goose-stepping. Or was that not what Beethoven meant at all? It didn’t sound like that when Bernstein conducted. Was Bernstein closer to Beethoven?”

There are aspects of Kurlansky’s writing that recall the gentle, looping seaminess of Steinbeck’s novels of the 1940s, an impression reinforced by the cute drawings. In talking about music there are hints of Oscar Hijuelos; at times the mise-en-scène is an attempt at the historical whirl of Grass or Marquez. But he depends too much on circularity and story-telling, which become precious and finally monotonous. What you are willing to take for plausible conjunctions and coincidences finally become just too convenient and annoying beyond any fictional use: the non-fiction novel is here.

If you like attending lectures and trying out recipes, you’ll make it to the end of Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue. Otherwise, to haul your ashes through all this hectoring lecturing really is torture. In a novel of New York, should you have to wait till page 83 to get a martini?


Guardian, 9 April, 2005

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