The Plains is a narrative of obsessive recursiveness situated somewhere between the hilarious awkwardness of Kafka and the compulsive interrogation of Bernhard. Akin to Kafka, too, The Plains operates as an allegory. Or, more accurately, it has the feel of allegory, though deciphering the lessons in its parables is no easy task. To quote the book, it often seems “…a convenient source of metaphors for those who know that men invent their own meanings.”
The Plains is a work of unknowing, a travelogue of a journey toward alternate terrains and surrogate selves. An equally fitting title would have been The Planes, as every component of this text (narrative, setting, theme, etc.) is ultimately found to be multi-dimensional. It illustrates perfectly the platitude: “the more I learn, the less I know,” or, to pull again from the text itself:
“And I knew that plainsmen commonly consider all art to be the scant visible evidence of immense processes in a landscape that even the artist scarcely perceives, so that they confront the most obdurate or the most ingenuous work utterly receptive and willing to be led into bewildering vistas of vistas.”
Being led into bewildering vistas of vistas is as accurate and succinct of a description of the experience of reading The Plains as can be mustered. Confounding, to be sure, but The Plains is equally riveting and affirming. It’s a text I foresee frequently revisiting—each reading revealing entirely new terrain.
If nothing else, read The Flamethrowers for language. The vitality of the prose is breathtaking, and Rachel Kushner’s immense talent for description and relentless deployment of offbeat metaphor are extraordinary and bewitching. As to the plot, it’s a captivating examination of class, gender, and identity that utilizes as its subjects a handful of mostly—but beguilingly—fictional events and persons spanning the 20th century. Bits and pieces of odd but mesmerizing stories accrete haphazardly, offering moments of insight that are too brief to resolve, and it’s this open-endedness that prods the reader forward, however turbulently. And that’s how it needs to be, as the central story—the one of Reno the young artist; the quiet girl from Nevada; the intrepid motorcyclist; the patient narrator—is a messy one of indeliberate identity seeking, of a slow shifting from observation to action, and what it takes to ultimately force her hand is shocking but, by the novel’s end, inevitable.
Squeezing subject matter this historically, geographically, culturally, and politically vast into a few hundred pages almost inevitably leads to a disjointed narrative, and From the Ruins of Empire is no exception. That said, I wholly applaud the ambition and deep research that a text like this requires, and my reading was rewarded with a number of epiphanies–for instance, a contextualization of the shift from collective to individual jihad or how recent of a phenomenon nationalism is in China.
Most crucially, Pankaj Mishra offers a very necessary corrective to the (still!) pervasive, Western-centric view of colonialism/market economies/capitalism as progressive, just, and inevitable. Mishra’s alternative lens is not only good for viewing the past but also a useful tool when considering what the 21st century may hold. Thus, despite the occasional narrative hiccups, From the Ruins of Empire is a good general primer on the political landscape of modern–and, perhaps, future–Asia.
Memory lives on in mute objects and people, allowing occasional—albeit gauzy—glimpses into the past to those that seek and consider. In this examination of much that can’t be fully explained, W.G. Sebald proceeds with the rigor and research befitting a scientific study. He then packages his findings in a unique prose that is Bernhardian in structure but has a staid, almost 19th century tone and is coupled with documentary-like photographs that lack captions and are a touch too grainy to be considered definitive sources.
At times almost monotone, Sebald’s passages push forward despite bearing a tangible weight, yet there’s always a feeling that the text could combust at any moment. It’s this looming devastation that fills the book with ample tension, though the closest this comes to being realized is in the occasional moments of insight and clarity that Sebald affords us—be it a character, like Thomas Browne, that Sebald ties to seemingly disparate situations or the subtle yet horrifying connection between the Third Reich’s curriculum of silkworm rearing and their methods of extermination in the concentration camps. These are epiphanies of a sort, though the discoveries they offer are usually haunting and tend to offer no resolution. But therein lies the lure of Sebald’s writing: it’s impassioned, learned, singular, and honest to the point of never offering false hope.
A brief, manic history of humanity, the multi-layered saga of War & War follows provincial archivist György Korin as he seeks a “Way Out” of life’s war and violence. Built from long, discursive sentences akin to those of Thomas Bernhard, Krasznahorkai’s protagonist lacks the hyper-rationality of Bernhard’s narrators, relying instead on a high-octane illogicality that regularly drags the novel into realms of zaniness and absurdity. His buoyant comedy and refusal to succumb to myriad setbacks make it hard not to root for Korin, despite the creeping sense that his search for a prevailing peace is not only ill-fated, but the journey of a madman. At once engrossing and alienating, hopeful and miserable, epiphanic and befuddling, this coiled, convoluted novel—which emphatically eschews just about every literary convention—is strange and special and, thus, a struggle worthy of author, narrator, and reader alike.
I was interested in what I call the rhythm of memory–how people’s speech, inflections, and tempo change when they’re remembering something. Between that little transitional period when memory is not quite solid, you’re groping for it, and when it comes in strong, and then when it tails off again. I like these rhythms. –Annea Lockwood, Pink Noises
Identity is a force that can edify or destroy; it’s also an artificial construct, culled from class, gender, and race by society. That something so arbitrarily created can determine one’s fate is a devastating tragedy. This is what Light in August is about and why it is a powerful and important book.
Identity, even in death, is mutable Javier Marías tells us. This makes perfect sense coming from a writer (in)famous for his neurotic reconsideration of themes, ideas, and events as well as leading his characters through labyrinths of tautology, digression, and psychological investigation. Any and everything can—and, likely, will—become blurred in a Marías novel. Take, for instance, the author/narrator relationship: characters often possess variations on Marías’s first and last names…and isn’t that the same white dress shirt on the book’s cover that Marías is wearing in his author photo? Or, how about the distinction between dialog and thought? Both are usually placed inside of quotes and they often interrupt one another.
For Marías, everything is subjective and, thus, subject to ravenous inquiry and critique. Such dogged curiosity can come at a cost, however, and The Infatuations is reminder that some things might be better left alone. The more one investigates—the more we become obsessed with an idea or infatuated with a person—the more complex and messy things become. The deeper one digs, the murkier it gets; what initially seemed wholly implausible becomes inevitable; the real turns out to be quite unreal. After all, as the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction:
“Unlikely truths are useful and life is full of them, far more than the very worst of novels, no novel would ever dare give houseroom to the infinite number of chances and coincidences that can occur in a single lifetime, let alone all those that have already occurred and continue to occur. It’s quite shameful the way reality imposes no limits on itself.”
What we’re left with is a profound feeling of uncertainty. Even murder turns out to be not so easily judged. This novel has been billed as a thriller, and that’s absolutely true, though this has less to do with a conventional who done it (which is in here, sort of). Rather, it’s the doubt and hyper subjectivity that Marías cultivates throughout the novel that take root in the reader, leaving us quite unsettled. But don’t despair; it’s just a novel, right?
“Once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with.”