Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Ben Okri's Realistic Magic

Ben Okri's novel The Famished Road (Anchor Books 1991) is part of a widening stream of contemporary African literature, written in English and in many other languages. Here there is a sense of traditional African narrative techniques conveying some of the sense of life in a poor, tough, semi-rural African town in the twentieth century. There is no attempt to romanticize this place where a father goes to his work "carrying heavy loads" and there is a palpable sense of the destruction and degradation of the forest on the margins of urbanization. Civil unrest, alcoholism and violence are present in this surreal world of magical causes and dreamlike descriptions. Yet the storytelling power and the engagement with the interior life of a young man trying to make sense of a difficult world, gives the phrase "wrestling with demons" some fresh force. I liked the way he showed how the local tavern owner made a lasting impression and the oblique way of showing the moral dilemmas of the young boy. But the critical point, I think, is that here we have an authentic African sense of magical causation that owes nothing to South American phantasmagoria and that, paradoxically, conveys a persuasive sense of real life on a real dusty street. A great novel, a cut above the merely very good.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Burdett's Bangkok Cop

John Burdett, Bangkok 8, Vintage Books, 2003. My friend Tom Jacobs gave me this paperback for Christmas a year or so ago, along with Alma Guillermoprieto's Dancing With Cuba, on the correct assumption that I view literature as a way of expanding my horizons. You will expand your horizons with this book, unless you're already immersed in Buddhism, the Bangkok sex trade, and transexuality (be honest now!). This is an extremely well-conceived book written (by a Westerner) from the point of view of a half-caste Thai policeman, an imaginative exercise few Western writers would dare try to pull off (I'm reminded of Anthony Burgess's massive novel Earthly Powers written from the point of view of a gay man). Burdett can do it because he's so passionately involved with Bangkok and with the East-West interface, and obviously with Buddhism as well. There is a fine noir atmosphere and lots of, shall we say, information about the sex bars of Bangkok that compels one to scrutinize Mr. Burdett's bookjacket photo from time to time. Unfortunately as any aspiring genre writer knows well-conceived is one thing and well-realized is another; the second half drags (pardon the pun) a bit while the author cranks us through the awful (high-concept) truth and the awful (high-concept) retribution and so forth. Still I heartily recommend this one for mystery fans of all, um, persuasions.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

McMurtry on Vidal

I draw your attention to Larry McMurtry's review of the new (and second) volume of memoirs by Gore Vidal, Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir, 1964 to 2006, in the November 30 issue of the New York Review of Books. I love the NYRB, but in particular I never miss anything by McMurtry or by Russell Baker, both brilliant and funny writers. Speaking of brilliant and funny writers, here the topic is Gore Vidal, one of America's most important writers who is now in advanced age and intimating mortality, apparently doggedly writing which comes as no surprise. McMurtry does a fine and sensitive job of conveying some of the elegiac spirit of the work, all the better coming from reviewer and author neither one of whom is known for delicate sensibilities. Anyway, let me get out of the way so you can follow McMurtry's advice to Amazon, and I quote: "But the best of the writing is much more telling than the Personality - or any Personality, is likely to be. I refer particularly to Julian, to Homage to Daniel Shays, and to the excellent Messiah, a book that's not remotely had its due," and further on, "In my opinion Palimpsest is about as good a literary memoir as we have." Well there you have it.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

First Post, December 12 2006

This is the first installment of Anderson Brown's Literary Blog. Here I will keep a reader's blog of books and articles, reviews and so forth that I am reading or thinking about. I read through a lot of novels and I've been wanting to set up a blog like this for some time, so this is a good day.