The Magic Christian

Terry Southern The Magic Christian 1996 editionTerry Southern is an American novelist, Academy-award nominated screenwriter, and even later did writing for Saturday Night Live. He is praised for his satire and humor, and “The Magic Christian” has no shortage of luminaries singing its praises.

Not this reviewer. 


The novel revolves around Guy Grand, a billionaire who likes to spend his money to show how far people will go for money. He says everyone has a price, and he intends to find it. Would you eat a parking ticket for a few thousand dollars? Grand finds out, although whether or not that really says anything about the moral character of the individual is questionable. Would you swim in a cesspool of toxins for thousands? Again, he is trying to push the limits on how far one will go.
 
This is an interesting concept, but the point is quickly made, and so even this short novel becomes repetitive. Grand sets up a prank, we see the event occur, and then it is done. In between we are part of his conversation with this two live-in aunts and a desperate, socialite. Then back to another prank. While this repetition is tiring, it becomes irksome because many of the pranks say nothing about our moral limits. At the end he opens grocery stores, sells everything at loss in one night, closes it, and does it again. What does that say about anything? The same works for “The Magic Christian” prank, which is the name of an ocean liner he buys and refurbishes as an incredibly high end travel liner. Those lucky enough to get a place, gradually find themselves on a boat with people intended to make them feel uncomfortable, nothing to eat but potatoes, and a host of other problems. To what point? This says nothing about people and their moral limits. It does say something about Grand.
 
Grand himself is an interesting character. He sets up these elaborate plots for his own humor and often takes part in them, although unknown to others in the crowd. He clearly delights in making people uncomfortable. However, at times he is simply sadistic, which makes this his moral challenging of others questionable. Plus, he has no hesitation is using others, especially the disadvantaged, to meet his needs. He puts circus people on his liner and sends the bearded lady in to the dining room, naked. Funny? Well, to him perhaps, but only it only demeans her and embarrasses others — there is no moral lesson for others here. 
 
So, could Southern be actually hoping to have Grand stand in as the satirical character? Is he the one we are supposed to see ourselves reflected in? If so, he fails to make that connection, and as such the book fails. As a short story, this could have some potential, but the repetition and the failure to hold to his own thesis creates an incomplete novel.
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Tree of Codes

tree-of-codes Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Tree of Codes, is an unusual work. As opposed to creating a novel from scratch, Foer takes his “favorite book,” The Street of Crocodiles by the Polish-Jewish writer, Bruno Schulz, and cuts away that text to create a new novel.
 
It is a unique idea and raises the philosophical questions of what makes a novel, what is authorship, and even what is morally acceptable in taking work from others. Foer gives no authorial credit to Schulz, presumably because he sees this as his own work. This may actually be deconstructionism taken to its logical extreme.
 
In order to do this, Foer has worked with a publisher (Visual Editions)  to present the novel with the full pages, but every page is die-cut to show only the words he has chosen. The result is a book with tree of codes insidemany pages, but few words. As a work of art, it is interesting to see. As a literary work of art, it is an interesting experiment.   
 
But does it work? As a novel, no. The text he has kept is clearly constrained by what is already in the Schulz’s novel, so he is trapped within that structure. He can re-imagine the words in different ways and with different uses, but he cannot escape the structure. As such, he must create a story which can be found within a limited text (if we think of all texts as limited by their scope). He does not succeed in creating a full story.
 
I struggled with a way to summarize the book (best shot: son sees father’s demise at the hands of his mother), so I went in search of what others say. This was not a scientific survey, but a look at what a good Google search would bring up. Not surprisingly, almost everyone focuses on the physical safran-inside-tablebook or the idea behind the physical book, but not the narrative itself. Why? Because the narrative is not nearly as strong as the idea behind it.
 
It can be better viewed as a work of poetry, but with lines like  “Weeks passed like boats waiting to sail into the starless dawn, we were full of aimless endless darkness,” it even fails in that category.
 
This is a book worth looking at, and because it is short, go ahead and read it. But it has been noticed not for what it contains, but how it was created. When the act of creation exceeds the creation, then it says little for the creation itself.

Underground Nest

 

underground nestKathleen Maher’s novel centers around the dissolution of the proto-typical American family. Mom, dad, son, daughter. Dad is the breadwinner, a former Eagle Scout and Boy Scout supporter who teaches Political Science. The kids go through the normal growing pains, although the son does follow dad up the Boy Scout ladder. Mom stays home and lives a housewife existence rarely seen today. The daughter rebels — at times.
 
Not surprisingly, the “underground nest” of the title tells us that just beneath the surface, a nest of hornets await. Zach Severins is the dad, and beneath his perfect surface is an obsession with himself and what others think of him, a tendency to find sex outside of his marriage, and eventually a long-term relationship with a woman who moves in the top circles of Washington D.C.
 
Eventually, the surface collapses and we watch as Zach’s perfect life is exposed for the lie it is. To avoid giving away too much of the plot, suffice it say that everything unravels. The result is that Zach is forced to reexamine himself and given the chance to redeem his life. The novel ends before we see if a promising beginning is followed through, but I’m not convinced that two years down the road, he would not be in a similar situation.
 
The story is interesting and Maher moves the plot along quickly and deftly. Where it suffers is in the characters, a group of somewhat two-dimensional people who must have more going on than what we see. As a result, the reader is often surprised at what is happening. After they separate, Zach and his wife, Beth, have an ongoing “angry sex” routine, but from we know of Beth, this seems out of character. Even the children seem to move in and out of anger faster than the normal teenager who finds out their dad has been having an affair.
 
Still, the novel raises questions about how we live our lives, and takes the side of living the well-considered life. It does so within a scenario many of us will recognize, which makes the possibility of actually taking some away from it all the more likely. 

 

The Illusion of Separateness

illusion of separtenessSimon Van Booy likes to write about the interconnectedness of life. Small acts by one person can dramatically impact the life of another, and neither person may even be aware of the connection. But that does not make the connection any less important. Recognizing that we are connected to others, and that those connections are important, should make us more conscious of how we live our lives.

In this most recent novel, “The Illusion of Separateness,” (slated for a June release) Van Booy goes directly after this theme, which he has raised in earlier works. This time we bounce back between World War II, 1968, and the present day, between France, and England, and the United States. We meet John, a recently married American pilot shot down over France who then forgets his past; Mr. Hugo, the man with a half-flattened face who chooses to forget his past; Amelisa, a blind woman who creates ways for the blind to experience museum displays, including one with the replica of a plane her grandfather John flew. There are more: Martin, an elderly caretaker at a home for the elderly, who is with the new resident, Mr. Hugo, when he dies. In classic van Booy style, the final chapter ties around to the first, and we find that these two have a connection neither could imagine.

If the book is frustrating at all, it is in the circling of the truth as you wait for Van Booy to connect the stories. You know he will, but he demands patience from the reader as he explores everyone’s story. However, what we see in this circling is that lives exist without the connections being known. We could be the ones living those lives, never aware of how we are connected to others, but still moving froward because of those connections.

“He realized this early on, and realized too that what people think are their lives are merely its conditions. The truth is closer than thought and lies buried in what we already know.”

vanbooyThis is Van Booy’s second novel, and he also has two collections of short stories out (as well as several other projects). His short story background is clear in this novel, where many chapters could stand alone. As the novel unfolds, the connections begin the characters become clearer. But Van Booy avoids any Hollywood style, clunky unveiling of the truth. In fact, the reader is privy to connections the characters never make themselves.

While this seems like a setup for a depressing novel, Van Booy is one of the most hopeful writers around. His other works have explored the theme of love, and he is not afraid to see love as the basis of a good life. Too often, writers focus on love as a setup for failure. But Van Booy appeals to the romantics in the world in that he believes in love.

Van Booy also separates himself from other writers in that he takes children seriously. In one of his previous short stories we see the love of children as the strongest of bonds, and he has not lost that awe of children’s capacity to love and feel.

Early in the novel, we meet young Sebastien, who has discovered the skeletal remains of what was John’s  plane, shot down over France. He thinks about showing this to the young girl he loves, he thinks about the pilot and the photo left behind in the plane, he thinks about what this means in his young life. “The teacher sometimes stops talking, and when Sebastien looks over, she is already looking at him, which means: Why are you looking through the window and not at me? But Sebastien is not looking through the window, but through the scrapbook of things that have pierced his heart.”

This is a line which could shoot down most novels, but in Van Booy’s hands, these lines work. He drops them throughout the novel and they flow naturally from the characters themselves. For Van Booy, every life has a story, and every story is important. That alone makes him unique among novelists, and makes his work worth reading.

You can learn more about Van Booy at his website.

Evil Water

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Danish writer Inger Wolf’s “Evil Water” is a taut, suspenseful thriller with unexpected twists and several wrong turns. Just when you think you have it figured out, you, and quite often the police, are wrong.

Wolf has published several books in Denmark, but “Evil Water” is her first English translation. Her debut novel, “Sort Sensommer,” was sold in several countries and was named “Most Exciting Crime Novel Debut” by the Danish Crime Academy in 2006. Live “Evil Water,” it features inspector Daniel Trokic, who is also the central character in several of her other novels.

The story focuses on the disappearance to two women with similar colored hair. When their bodies are found packed into two separate suitcases and buried in a farmer’s field, Trokic and his team try to find out who is responsible and why. Adding to the mystery is the letter “Y” which appears on them, and the rare, American flower growing out of their hair.

The tension quickly builds when they realize they are looking for a serial killer with an unknown motive. The crime element almost takes a back seat to the horror element, but this is no supernatural horror. Wolf is delving into darkest corners of the human psyche, and creates a death ritual which will likely keep you awake at night (and away from your bathtub). As other victims appear, Trokic and the others race to find another person before she becomes a victim. And just when they close in on the killer, Wolf throws you for another curve.

Wolf creates so many threads and offshoots, that at times she seems to forget about them. But then, they suddenly reappear and fit neatly into place. She avoids the obvious, artificial solutions and patiently keeps piecing elements together, only to show that when put together, another piece is missing.

Trokic is a classic, hard-boiled detective, with an intense, quiet air about him. His character could use more depth, but since this is her fifth novel about him, perhaps the earlier novels introduce him more (but as of yet, these are not available in English). He has moved up in his career, but regrets needing to spend more time with budgets than investigations. And we see him balancing the need for a personal life with his on the case obsessive qualities.

Of the other characters, police officer and computer expert Lisa Kornelius is one of most interesting. A woman in an all male domain, she refuses to be beaten by another computer expert’s encryption techniques. And when she does break in, she also pushes the moral code for both personal and professional reasons. She questions whether what she does is illegal or immoral, and she has to balance that with whether what she learns could save a life. Her struggles with ethical dilemmas show a struggle few of us will face, but it is good to see a character asking questions for which there are not always answers.

While the Danish names make take some getting used to, you are quickly transported along in the investigation. Wolf intersperses police chapters  with those from the killer’s and victim’s points of view, but without revealing any of the mystery. As such, you have an extra step on the police, but the information is not likely to help you solve it any sooner.

In true crime thriller fashion, Wolf keeps you guessing right to the end. And you will guess wrong. But that makes the book only more interesting.

Wolf has publisauthor inger wolfhed the book with her own publishing house, Black Cat Edition, and it is currently available as an ebook. Her own website is in Danish, but check out her Amazon page for a short English introduction.

Solaris

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It is not often I stray into the world of science fiction, but my oldest son challenged me with a classic text as a Christmas present. It was a pleasant stray.

Stanislaw Lem was a Polish writer, and Solaris, published in 1961, is considered by many (and I’m in no position to argue) a classic of science fiction.
The novel is centered around psychologist Kris Kelvin, an expert on the planet Solaris, who visits there to study the ocean which covers the planet. He arrives to find one of his colleagues has just killed himself, the remaining two are acting strangely, and unexpected visitors are arriving. The visitors, it turns out, are created from their memories. In Kelvin’s case, he suddenly finds himself spending time with his wife, who killed herself after they argued nearly 20 years before.
But where do these creatures come from? It is interesting to consider that you could switch their appearance to a devilish influence and you have a horror novel. Instead, Kelvin and the others think the Solaris ocean is creating them. The ocean is a living being, and they attempt to communicate with it. Are these resurrected beings meant to curse them? Are they gifts from the ocean?
Their attempts at communication are constantly frustrated, and from what others say about the book, Lem is commenting on inability of humans to communicate with non-humans. His philosophical forays lend support to this, but like much good science fiction I’ve read, the real skill is in looking at humanity from a new perspective.
What do these appearances say about us as people? The creatures are human in nearly every respect, but Kelvin can tell that this is not his wife. Even if we can replicate the cells of our body, will we create the same person? Most interesting (but not fully explored) is the creature’s growing awareness of its own existence. This creature, resembling his wife, Rheya, knows she is not who she thinks she is. She has no past, yet she has a memory. How and why did she appear suddenly on the space station? We see her struggle with her own identity, similar to how a human would, but for different reasons.
It is in the raising of these questions, without attempting to answer them all, that Lem’s novel works so well. He uses a science fiction premise to examine one of our most perplexing creatures — us.

Niagara Falls All Over Again

ImageElizabeth McCracken’s novel, Niagara Falls All Over Again, is the complete package: strong plot, well developed characters, and several story lines which tie together well. There are so many ways in which this novel could have gone wrong, the fact that MckCracken pulls it off is a testament to her skill.

The novel is told to us by Moses Sharp, and Midwestern Jewish boy from a small town, who grows up to be the straight man in a highly successful comedy team. From his time on the vaudeville circuit, where he meets Rocky Carter, the driving force in his life, to his retirement from the entertainment business after making countless B-grade movies, we follow Moses throughout. Moses comes from a large family of sisters, but none dearer than Hattie, with whom he plans to go into show business. When that is no longer possible, he faces the choice of taking over his father’s clothing store (as expected), or heading out on his own.

He heads out and McCracken gives us a wonderful look at the vaudeville circuit as it was beginning to die. The hope and despair, the bizarre acts, the ability to improvise, and the dependence on each other, all show through. We follow Carter and Sharp, who resemble Laurel and Hardy in their descriptions (although they too are mentioned in the book), as they go to Hollywood and strike it rich. Professionally. Their personal lives are a different story and they take different directions, but to avoid giving away too much, I’ll leave you to the novel.

While are there are many elements of the book to praise, McCracken’s creation of Moses Sharp is the best. He is an intricately drawn person, especially tricky to do since he is the narrator. But he is an honest narrator and we see him for what he is — a good man with a not always good life and not always exemplary behavior. In other words, he is real.
I’ve praised McCracken’s novel, The Giant’s House, in another post. It is clear that she is a voice to not only read more of, but one we can watch for as she continues to create.