Monthly Archives: November 2008

Book Review: Ride With The Devil

Given this book’s subject matter, it would be very hard to avoid comparisons with Cormac McCarthy’s magisterial Blood Meridian. I suppose it’s not fair: BM is one of the finest novels of the 20th century. But, as in Peter Carey’s A True History of the Kelly Gang, it’s a comparison it seems Woodrell sought. Be a hell of a coincidence if he didn’t.

The first things you notice in Ride With the Devil are the stylistic similarities, the attempt to pull off a rustic-cum-Biblical dialect. In places it works, in others it doesn’t. (Did they use the word “okay” in the 1860s?) That’s the problem: you don’t fully buy in because you’re always aware of the intent, never quite sink yourself fully into the story because of how it’s being told. If the book were a constant dazzle of verbal pyrotechnics that’d be one thing, but Woodrell just doesn’t quite have the stuff. So you’re left with a story that never quite lifts off in a voice that never quite stops being stilted. BM is a masterwork because it accomplishes both, and seemingly effortlessly. Ride With the Devil works hard to get there, but doesn’t quite make it.

Also you notice the plethora of short paragraphs.

I generally don’t think too much of short, one-sentence paragraphs, because in drawing so much attention to themselves they usually unnecessarily accentuate the melodramatic.

Having said that, Ride With The Devil keeps the pages turning. Woodrell provides no cheap psychological answers to the riddles of his characters’ barbarous behavior. Not just because these things actually happened, but because the characters themselves are incapable of such understanding. Also, I appreciated the dearth of show-off details. No recipes for hogs-eye soup or loving descriptions of Navy revolvers. You believe Woodrell got these details right without being bludgeoned by needless trivia, as is often the case in novels of a historical bent. What details are included serve the story and not the other way round – a case of fiction writing history rather than the reverse. Woodrell has not fallen for that old trap. The brutal happenings are served up without relish but without flinching. You come away from the book with a sense of a time and place you are glad not to have lived through yourself.

On its own merits, Ride With The Devil would get a B+. Unfortunately, BM casts a long long shadow. In this case of familial resemblance, Woodrell comes off the poor, distant relation.

Rating: B-

And Thailand staggers on …

After more than 70 years of putative democracy, Thailand just can’t get it together. To try and trace out the byzantine paths of Thai politics seems a hopeless endeavor for an outsider. (The Economist takes a shot here.) It has evidently proved a hopeless task even for insiders.

The problem as I see it: in daily life here, confrontation is almost always avoided. Most people know their place and accept it. But when two parties of roughly equal strength refuse to back down, when face is on the line, the conflict becomes insoluble. The players of the Thai political game play a zero-sum game in a zero-sum culture. Either A wins or B wins. No halfway point. No common ground. You or me. Simple.

Now you have a toothless government versus a mob of mobile rabble. Neither can get the other out of the way, and neither will back down. Stalemate. My guess is that we’ll shortly see a third party play the deus ex machina and resolve the conflict. This third party has traditionally been the military. It was in the last coup d’etat in 2006. Order will be restored and everyone can go home until someone starts the whole hopper to going again.

What’s missing in Thailand, it seems to me, is a sense of something larger than yourself, a polity or a republic for which we stand. There is a lot of palaver here about patriotism but when the chips are down, no one is prepared to lose face and sacrifice for the good of either. On and on the country staggers, just another member in good standing of the banana republic club.

So here you have Thailand, pretty prosperous, mostly peaceful, fun-loving with a strong culture, a long history of independence, and (other than a pesky Muslim insurgency in the south) a history of peaceful assimilation among various ethnic groups. And yet the country has failed, again and again, to come up with a workable form of democracy. What hope then for Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh? Afghanistan or Iraq?

Goodbye and good riddance to the Decider-in-Chief and his vision of imposing democracy at the point of a gun on places radically unlike the USA, but is BHO going to be able to do any better? Can societies already rent by ethnic, religious, and regional hatreds be build democracies along American-guided and / or enforced, lines? Is it possible that different societies will opt for systems germane to them, possibly even non-democratic ones?

After all: what business is it of ours? Daily life in the village remains unaffected by the constant political chaos in Bangkok, a mere hour’s drive away. So why should I complain if they seem content to take whatever comes when it comes? The villagers could care less which talking head is bucking to run the show. Maybe that’s a foolish attitude, but none of them are dying of heart attacks. Or worried about their sons getting killed on dubious missions in occupied foreign soil.

I expect the foolishness here to drag on for weeks, even months. It might still be happening when we board a plane back to the USA. By then, BHO will be well into his first 100 days, hopefully busy righting some of Dubya’s more spectactular wrongs. We’ll be coming home to a place where the Republic is bigger than any one man or his pack of Cheney-dogs, no matter how bungling, blind, and cretinous. BHO’s election is proof of that. That, as much as anything else, is what makes the USA and Thailand different. And makes for one more reason why I’ll be glad to be back.

Writing As Taxidermy

Nietzsche outdoes Lorrie Moore. And basically everyone else. From The Gay Science:

I caught this insight on the way and quickly seized the rather poor words that were closest to hand to pin it down lest it fly away again. And now it has died of these arid words and shakes and flaps in them – and I hardly know any more when I look at it how I could ever have felt so happy when I caught this bird.

Leave it to the all-time master aphorist to thusly nail it down (though I do wonder a little why a dead bird is still shaking and flapping). I’d try to follow that act but I think I’d better not.

Bad Sex Award Handed Out

Wouldn’t have been my choice based on the samples, but Rachel Johnson won this year’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award:

Johnson was singled out for her novel’s slew of animal metaphors, including comparing her male protagonist’s “light fingers” to “a moth caught inside a lampshade”, and his tongue to “a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as not to miss a single drop”. Literary Review deputy editor Tom Fleming was also disturbed by the heroine’s “grab, to put him, now angrily slapping against both our bellies, inside”.

To me it’s not as amusing when it makes no sense. Well, probably wading through all that purple prose warps one’s judgement. Also of note, John Updike received a lifetime achievement award for his four consecutive nominations. Here’s the old pro on oral sex:

“She said nothing then, her lovely mouth otherwise engaged, until he came, all over her face. She had gagged, and moved him outside her lips, rubbing his spurting glans across her cheeks and chin. God, she was antique, but here they were. Her face gleamed with his jism in the spotty light of the motel room, there on the far end of East Beach, within sound of the sea.”

I was pretty lukewarm on Updike before this. Now I’m feeling downright chilly. And sort of wondering if after this many books you just start to run out useful descriptive words. A cautionary tale on the virtue of sloth …?

This Amusement Brought To You By Ayn Rand

Okay, it feels a little like picking on the kids who rode the short bus to school, but these personal ads of Randian disciples really set my tulip to cranking. I wonder how many other dead writers have the distinction of triggering whole columns in the personals section. My favorite:

My every action is guided according to my philosophy, and my philosophy is the philosophy of Ayn Rand … I never “hook-up” randomly, I never kiss a girl that doesn’t deserve mine. I have yet to find a girl deserving of my falling in love with her. But “other people” are secondary values no matter what, so finding someone is not a priority for me.

Surely no comment is required …? Except to repeat: if you’re fortunate enough not to find this amusing, please don’t waste any precious moments of your ever-dwindling lifespan trying to find out why. Please.

More Fun & Games: Bankok Airport Closed by plastic-clapper-wielding protestors

With the latest madcap hijinx of forcing the closure of Bangkok airport, the political situation here has returned to its usual state of ho-hum absurdity. You wonder how much longer this sort of thing can go on, and then you remember it’s been going on for a good, oh, 75 or 100 years already. What would be the point in stopping the merry-go-round now? Just when they were hoping to be called up from the Third World bush league to the Second World double-a league, too. Oh well.

I’ve repeatedly said to folks that just as politics aren’t why we’re going back to the US, they aren’t why we’re getting out of Thailand. But this sort of folderol is enough to make this political agnostic glad the wife’s green card application is in the works.

How About I Just Let Lorrie Moore Say It?

Apropos yesterday’s post here is Lorrie Moore saying what I was trying to say yesterday. Only, as you might expect, far more artfully.

How can it be described? How can any of it be described? The trip and the story of the trip are always two different things. The narrator is the one who has stayed home, but then, afterward, presses her mouth upon the traveller’s mouth, in order to make the mouth work, to make the mouth say, say, say. One cannot go to a place and speak of it; one cannot both see and say, not really. One can go, and upon returning make a lot of hand motions and indications with the arms. The mouth itself, working at the speed of light, at the eye’s instructions, is necessarily struck still; so fast, so much to report, it hangs open and dumb as a gutted bell. All that unsayable life! That’s where the narrator comes in. The narrator comes with her kisses and mimicry and tidying up. The narrator comes and makes a slow, fake song of the mouth’s eager devastation.

In a work of fiction the protagonist’s work will often supply the metaphors of a story. I kept/made this protagonist a writer so that I could present at the centre of the story the dilemma of making art from calamity – its difficulties, obstacles, absurdities. By having the main character be a writer, she could think in terms a writer would, and pose her problems in literary terms. And by doing that, the story can both go more deeply into its subject and also fly out from it completely, hovering above. I suppose this paragraph expresses not just a certain kind of muteness out of which one struggles to make art but also the safe and unsafe distances from which one does it.

*Note: Scroll to the bottom of the article to see it in its original context.