Thursday, September 25, 2014

Lawrence Block, The Sins of the Fathers (1976)

Block, Lawrence, The Sins of the Fathers, 1976

The Sins of the Fathers at Goodreads
The Sins of the Fathers at IBList

Rating:     8/10

For this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit In Reference to Murder.

An integral element in the private investigator novel is the urban world in which he exists. With Matthew Scudder the reader is immediately immersed in the gritty urban landscape, one shaped not only by the violent and chaotic society that upholds it, but by Scudder's own broken perception of the world around him. Whether New York or the outlying farmlands, wherever Scudder chooses to live that world, through his eyes, would become broken and damned.
Like many readers I was quickly immersed in the dark and gritty world of Matthew Scudder, excited that there are many more to follow. Before even half-way through Lawrence Block's first Scudder novel I was convinced I'd finally come across a character I wanted very much to pursue. Having now completed The Sins of the Fathers, I know I will read In the Midst of Death soon.

The novel contains two story-lines; the murder investigation of prostitute Wendy Hanniford and her roommate Richard Vanderpoel, and the daily existence of former cop Matthew Scudder. Most interesting was Scudder's world, his attitude toward the complex urban society he lives in, from its horrid crimes, corrupt police and the regular people who attempt to eke out an existence amid the chaos. I certainly enjoyed the mystery and the straightforward interrogative and investigative approach, yet the circumstances around the crime were enhanced by the world in which it occurred. Figuring out what really happened is not difficult, yet the reasons behind the crimes and the punitive act of revelation overshadows the reveal. It is not a who-dun-it, but focuses more on the tragic aspects of the crime, to the point that for once in such a novel I was extremely sympathetic toward the victims and understood the tragedies of the death not simply because death in the form of murder is tragic.

Though published in 1976, the novel is set in 1973: Wendy Hanniford signed a lease in 1970, which according to Scudder was three years ago. (p. 40) I'm not sure of the relevance of 1973, of setting it in the near past upon publication, as it seems to be a minor detail in the book. What is important is that the story is set in the 1970s, and not for any social reference. For one thing, the murder of Hanniford would today be solved quickly due to DNA testing. For another, there are small incidents that are dated, though these have no impact on today's reader.

First there is a visit to the bank. "It was my first visit since the first of the year, so they entered some interest in my passbook. A computer figured it all out in the wink of an eye." This is no longer impressive. The only thing that hasn't improved about baking since 1973 or 1976 is the amount of interest rewarded for allowing them to invest your money.

DNA testing and outdated bank computing is irrelevant since the poignancy of the novel is Scudder's world, the gritty, corrupt and utterly unsympathetic New York. Yet in this damaged world, our broken hero manages to exude sympathy, both while delivering sensitive information and while delivering painful punishment. Among the straongest scenes in the novel is when a young, inexperienced thief tries to mug Scudder, and though it has nothing to do with the novel's mystery plot, it has everything to do with Scudder and with Lawrence Block's New York.

A terrific read.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Jane Urquhart, The Underpainter (1997)

Urquhart, Jane, The Underpainter, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1997

The Underpainter at Goodreads
The Underpainter at IBList

Rating:     7/10

Like many a modern painting, The Underpainter grew on me steadily. At first I was a little disinterested, dulled by the cold, distant narrator, Austin Fraser. Though I did like the few early scenes featuring Fraser's friend George and some other supporting characters, it wasn't until after a hundred pages, when Augusta was telling her wintry tale of youth, play and the cold winter farm, that I became wrapped up in a cloak of interest.

Urquhart's excellent prose helped, but I was more fascinated by the ideas behind the tale, and by the fact that we were in the head of an easily dis-likable character. The Underpainter is Urquhart's fifth novel, book-ended between her two most successful works: Away (1993) and The Stone Carvers (2001). Though I haven't read any of her other books, I understand there was concern in her tackling a male first person narrator, and an American; the work might as well have been written by an American male.

Contrasting elements co-exist in Austin Fraser's art and life. Fraser believes that every aspect of his life must exist for and contribute to his art, and at the same time, thanks to the influence of the charming Rockwell Kent, he believes that every aspect of one's self must be invested in life, and the results should then be captured in art. Fraser is unable to invest in life as he is a reclusive, self-interested person, and hence what he captures in his art is controlled, whether a scene or a landscape, lacking spontaneity and "life." Moreover, the technique of underpaiting is his final attempt to mask that interpreted reality from the world. Not only is Fraser shut out from the world and people, his art is just as distanced.

Fraser is comfortable in an ordered landscape. He attempts to control the world and the people around him, possibly to create a scene in life that he can then transpose onto canvas. Like his paintings, hints of good peak out from the layers of selfishness. His love for his friend George is genuine; he is merely unable to understand the man, just as he is unable to understand any of the players in his life, which make it impossible for him control his environment, and hence impossible to control his art.

Fraser is summed up by Augusta, a former war-time nurse and the most interesting character in the book: ""Though so much of everything," she said, "is unexpected, Isn't it? Accidental--even if it's hard to believe that. Still, it's almost impossible to believe the opposite--that everything is planned." (p. 290) Moreover, he is a reflection of the man-shaped peninsula, The Sleeping Giant that bookends the novel: "Behind her the stone man slept on, unmoved by her journey, his body hard and rigid and unchanging. // Heart of granite. Bed of ice." (p. 333)

Just as Fraser is in essence the embodiment of his underpainting technique, his friend George is the embodiment of the ceramic he paints: fragile, easily shattered. Unlike Fraser's underpainting, George's depictions are sensitive and up front, though he is a complex man with many hard-kept secrets.

What is most interesting to consider in Urquhart's narrative technique is Fraser's purpose in setting down his story. It is difficult to accept that this narrative is a recollection of Fraser's, a memoir of his life, as he lacks the sentimental nature and the sensitivity to construct such an emotionally wrought narrative. Instinctively we approach the text with the belief that Fraser is less than a trustworthy narrator, and yet he is honest with his own deficiencies, and we accept that he presents his story without, in a sense, underpainting it. Perhaps there are hidden elements in his bringing an old acquaintance back to Ontario, but this is speculation. All this leads me to wonder if he is not a better writer than he is an artist, and maybe he should have replaced his brushes for the inkwell he receives from George early on.

Whatever Fraser's true calling, Urquhart masters the craft of writing in this somewhat conceptual novel, difficult to render and well accomplished.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Stephen King, Insomnia (1994)

Signet, 1995
King, Stephen, Insomnia, NY: Viking, 15 September 1994
___________, Insomnia, NY: Signet, September 1995 (my copy)

Insomnia at Goodreads
Insomnia at ISFdb
Insomnia at IBList

Rating: 4/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Preparing for a trip to India, one offering plenty of reading time due to extended commutes, I was searching for a lengthy yet quick read, something I don't need to think about and simply doze through. During my last trip to India I was pleasantly accompanied by Peter Straub's 1982 novel Floating Dragon, and decided that this time around I would carry something similar. I hemmed and hawed over stuff I had in a box of horror novels, and considered Straub's Mr. X (1999), Robert McCammon's Stinger (1988) and a couple of others I can't now recall. Settling on Insomnia was due partly on the fact that I hadn't read a King novel in a long time, and partly on the fact that my edition, found in a book sale reject pile, is completely battered, and I knew whatever I lugged around with me would receive a bit of a beating. Mr. X, also found in a reject pile, is quite pristine, and I am anal about my books. Even the cheapo paperbacks.

Insomnia is a lesser-known, little read and mostly neglected Stephen King novel. And for good reason. The novel is a plodding, generally uninteresting and often silly, over-sentimental fantasy. I often like a slow, plodding tale, but this one is padded with details that do little to serve the whole of the novel and nothing to build suspense.

Hodder & Stoughton, 1995
We are served up tension with the idea that our senior citizen heroes, Ralph Roberts and Lois Chasse, must save the world (or at least the Derry Civic Centre) within a matter of hours! (This urgency after a few hundred pages.) Pressed for time, at their wits' end, our swift heroes decide quickly to take a lovely meandering stroll through Derry toward their destination while thoughts are leisurely focused on their new abilities, like floating and becoming semi-visible, and their local haunts, like the neighbouring park where old friends play chess and argue about social matters which are related in so much detail that we forget what our purpose is and all tension is sucked dry.

(Yes, our elderly heroes develop powers as a trade-off to their sleeplessness. I won't discuss plot points so if you wish to for more story-line info, please see the myriad reviews on Goodreads.)

Characters abound by the thousands, and many are needless, barely mentioned, while some are arbitrarily done away with. One seemingly major character (I will avoid a direct spoiler here) is done away almost as an aside fairly early on, in such a way that I'm left with the impression the author just didn't know what to do with him and couldn't be bothered to re-write the first few hundred pages. Maybe he was also too bored with the work to invest in a re-read. (King has, since the book's publication, claimed not to have plotted the novel, and has also stated that a novel that is not properly plotted ends up lacking. Insomnia is in need not only of proper plotting, but some severe editing.)

The lengthy conversations between characters and the genuinely uninteresting reflections of protagonist Ralph Roberts are among the easily expendable portions, and a pared down version of Insomnia might actually have been an above average read. There are some interesting elements that could have contributed to a half-decent novel, such as the idea that the elaborate emphasis on abortion is merely a ploy for something entirely different, and though his prose falters with alarming frequency, King manages nonetheless to create a mostly vivid geography.

Speaking of abortion, the subject is approached via many points of view, and in no way objectively. It is clear who the bad guys are on the abortion issue (though personally I have no qualms for this and I doubt King cares if he's potentially alienating any anti-abortionists). He does attempt late in the novel to present us with a semi-sympathetic anti-abortionist in the form of a diner waitress, in another needless scene. It is, however, too little and too late to generate any equality among the figures on either side of the debate. Besides, she quickly falters to become a less than likable caricature. If anything, however, King is genuinely sympathetic with the plight of battered women, and I think it is important for that reality to be presented in mainstream fiction.

Hodder, 2008
There is a cautionary lesson less than subtly embedded into King's arguments on spousal abuse and its consequences. Throughout the novel women ill-treated by men have an instinctive trust of other women and an instinctive distrust of all men. Our male hero Roberts reflects on this several times, again slowing the work, and is disapproving of this trust/mistrust issue. Roberts comes across here as naive, since of course battered women would instinctively mistrust all men they do not know, just as a battered animal would mistrust all humans as a result of being battered by one, just as all men would instinctively distrust women (or relationships with women) if in any severely way wronged by one. Any major traumatic event leads to fear, regardless of gender, race or one's role in the animal kingdom. Despite this logic King pursues his argument, and the women's shelter is infiltrated by a women as a result of the natural trust they share with all women. This character is mentioned shortly before the infiltration scene as a danger to Roberts, and then brings about the downfall of the shelter; she is clearly mentioned only to bring about this scene and only to bring about the argument that battered women should not have instinctive responses to strangers as a result of their gender. Perhaps that is so, but King is being punitive, less interested in exploring the nature of the mistrust, that the base human survival instinct is to protect oneself in areas where one has experienced danger, particularly when that danger is life-threatening.

Tossed into this mish-mash of a novel are some glaring errors. In 1992 Ed Deepnau is thirty-two years old while his wife Helen is thirty (p. 169), yet they kept all the vinyl records they purchased back in the 1960s (p. 84). What a thing for toddlers to do with their allowance. Later, Roberts receives a visual of May Locher's death, and there is a "companion" stabbed to death beside the old lady's death. What of this? Are we deliberately being misled to believe the culprits are cold-blooded killers by the visual aid of a bloodied corpse, a corpse that does not actually exist? Or is this part of King's lack of plotting, and he forgot about this moment entirely as he continued winging the novel on a whim. Shame on you Mr. King!

Luitingh-Sijthoff, 1994
Insomnia does appear to serve a minor purpose: to thread the ties of King's fictional universe. References to both the Dark Tower series and his far better lengthy novel It are splattered throughout. I haven't read any of the Dark Tower books but I get the gist of some of what it going on. On the other hand I have read and enjoyed It. I do not believe Insomnia is in any way improved by these references, nor do I believe these references improve the other works. It has been argued that some of King's obviously weaker works are artificially inseminated with references to his superior works, and I would not be surprised to learn that this is the case, at least with Insomnia . I haven't read enough of his novels to have a full understanding of his mythos, and (because life is short) I have stuck to those works that have received general praise, such as It, Misery, 'Salem's Lot, The Stand and The Shining. Reading Insomnia was a fluke travel decision, as was the unbearably awful Dean R. Koontz novel, Twilight Eyes.

For covers, that first Viking edition at the bottom is mirrored by two opposing coloured prints. I'm not sure if the two flip-coloured prints were released simultaneously, the way those for Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell were ten years later in 2004. I also don't see a significance to the two versions the way I assume there is one for the black and white of Clarke's work. I do like the first paperback edition, that of Signet (1995) at the top; with more detail and colour, this one evokes more mystery. There have been many covers and reprints, a surprising amount (but I guess it is Stephen King), and many of them quite good. The ghostly and full of implication Hodder & Stoughton pillow corpse and the simplistic death referential Hodder reprint from 2008 are both vastly different and quite good, though the second having a different significance to one who has read it, and is hence exclusive of the non-reader. But I'm partial to the cartoonish Dutch version on the left, from Luitingh-Sijthoff, translated by Eny van Gelder (1994).

Viking, 1994 (?)
Viking, 1994
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