Saturday, October 26, 2013

Bleeding Edge

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I paid for and preordered this book back in March? April?, which was months before I knew I'd be writing for CCLaP.)
Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon
Read: 16 September to 5 October 2013 
4 / 5 stars  

It is all too easy to dismiss Thomas Pynchon's most recent novel as another one for the "Pynchon Lite" pile, which is by no means fair to a book that can't help counting the likes of such heavyweights (both in the literary and literal senses) as Against the Day, Mason & Dixon and the undeservedly Pulitzer-snubbed Gravity's Rainbow among its older, beefier brothers. Bleeding Edge takes place in a world immediately surrounding September 11, meaning that it is finally a Pynchon book set in a time period with which all of its readers, especially its American audience, are familiar (this is, of course, assuming that there aren't any post-millennium-born kids out there surreptitiously paging through their parents' copies of a tantalizingly shiny-covered tome), thus minimizing the frantic research that usually punctuates a Pynchon novel's obscure cultural allusions and mathematical formulae rendered in high-minded gibberish, allowing for an appearance of simplicity and uninterrupted reading that may lull one into a false sense of knowing which way's up when Tommy P. is navigating the screaming that comes across the sky.

No, this is not a postmodern labyrinth housing a lunatic beast that is just itching to pummel the unsuspecting and unprepared with tricksy words and engineering metaphors. This is a love letter to New York City that knows all too well how the Big Apple can be a finicky--but ultimately rewarding--mistress. This is a September 11 story that does not cash in on a day burned into a nation's collective conscience. This is, quite possibly, the most from-the-heart novel Pynchon has written since Vineland--though it's still peppered with paranoid brilliance and an understanding of early-aught pop culture and tech savvy that most septuagenarians simply can't summon.

Bleeding Edge follows Maxine Tarnow, a defrocked fraud investigator and mostly divorced mother of two elementary-school-aged boys, on a madcap rush that scrambles atop NYC rooftops and dives to the depths of the as-of-yet unexplored nether regions of an internet the public was just beginning to embrace en masse. It is the standard Pynchonian detective fare in that it derives its own flavor from a cast of characters bearing Muppetesque monikers, a balance of humor and heartache that is nothing short of scientifically calibrated for maximum effect, a tangled web of paranoia surrounding a shady computer-security firm that only works itself into a tighter knot the more Maxine prods at it, and a healthy dose of parental concerns augmented by a Jewish mother's terminal worry.

While Pynchon's previous works had a tendency to spiral off into myriad directions, Bleeding Edge seemed more streamlined than its predecessors. An old acquaintance brings the questionable finances of an as-of-yet defunct dotcom to Maxine's investigatory attention before the pages even reach the double digits and the plot tirelessly tears ahead from there. Each question posed by our unflinching protagonist does, unsurprisingly, bring three more questions to the surface but there is a sense of overall connectedness and bigger-picture relevance threading its way through each new twist and turn that Maxine & Co. face.

Allowing the plot to remain unusually unfettered by carefully choreographed chaos and divergences, along with wrangling a comparatively small cast, allows Pynchon's writing to take center stage in Bleeding Edge. For all his ability to weave masterfully complex scenarios into a rich tapestry of life-imitating, intricately layered storytelling, Pynchon cannot ever get enough credit for simply being one hell of a writer. The man knows his way around the English language like few others do, deploying ten-dollar words just as easily as he plays casual comedy against understated devastation.

The events of September 11 occur more than halfway through the book, and the day itself is relegated to roughly three pages. It is tempting to submit to the urge that allows that day to dominate whatever it touches; however, Pynchon's deliberately tactful approach to encapsulating the day allows for its aftermath to come to the forefront, as its lasting effects and the inevitable changes it brought--especially to New York City and the areas close enough to both it and Washington, D.C. to feel the ripple effects for years to come--were the true test of a population's endurance. This is where so much of the book's heart comes into play, as September 11 and parenthood become inextricably linked: As we cannot protect our children from the unpleasant truths of life, we could not protect ourselves from one Tuesday in September that rocked everything we thought to be true more than a decade ago. For all of her professional acumen, Maxine is, at her very core, a loving Jewish mother who wants to give her boys the world and can't shake the guilt over such a world being a dangerous place that, like the parade of girlfriends they'll one day bring home to her, will never be good enough for them.

The point is, one has to adapt to and learn from life after trauma, as one can't become stronger without facing an event that demands personal growth and paradigm-shifting perspective tweaks to overcome it. Which is as close to a resolution as Bleeding Edge really has. Because sometimes things aren't neatly settled. People die but the world marches forward and will not stop as a courtesy to all the survivors who are left shaken and grieving. Unplanned growth is the universe's way of pushing us beyond our comfort zones to become the best version of ourselves. Admittedly, it is initially frustrating to come to an end of the book that leaves a trail of loose threads in its wake but the questions that this novel asks still don't have answers. And the questions aren't nearly as important as the discoveries made while searching for a solution, anyway.

The season's first Gobbler bowl

Behold, Wawa's Gobbler, one of the truly great things about autumn. There is no better way to enjoy turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site, though I purchased the book well before I knew CCLaP was hiring--which is to say that absolutely no one bribed me for a good review with free books.)

Cannonball, Joseph McElroy
Read: 29 August to 16 September 2013
5 / 5 stars 

While waiting for my white whale of novel--Joseph McElroy's Women and Men--to emerge from the murky depths of the internet with something akin to a realistic price tag in tow, I've settled for introducing myself to the writer's more readily available works the way one "settles" for Guinness when the bartender has never even heard of Three Philosophers. I finished McElroy's debut novel, A Smuggler's Bible, nearly a month before picking up Cannonball, his ninth and most recent offering: Reading two bookending extremes of a writing career in quick succession produced the effect of watching a new acquaintance transform into an old friend as endearing quirks became welcome habits, as a whisper of what will come crescendoes to a thundering boom of masterful storytelling.

Discernible plots emerge like a developing photograph's slow cohesion: a young man forges a symbiotic friendship with a younger immigrant of incredible talent before enlisting in the Iraq war, only for their paths to cross one more fateful time in that Fertile Crescent; recently discovered scrolls that may or may not be genuine accounts of Jesus from a contemporary's vantage point are revealed to posses great religious or political significance; familial ties are questioned, strengthened and redefined, especially in terms of when a friend becomes a brother, a father becomes a foil and a sister becomes an object of desire.

Cannonball is not written in the most invitingly accessible of styles--the plot is rendered in a first-person narration that initially feels like a shuffling slideshow of non-sequential images and impressions--but it is by no means impenetrable. This is a book that divulges its secrets in ravenous gulps rather than ladylike sips: Patience and greedily lapping up the book in 50-page guzzles are rewarded with a better sense of its pace and disjointed recollection.

McElroy is a writer whose plots and characters exist to move a thesis toward its inevitable elucidation. His books are not simply vehicles transporting his characters in linear, predictable joyrides through personal growth as they hurdle toward the happily-ever-after finish line. That's not to say that this novel is populated by uninspired archetypes who mechanically convey the writer's agenda, because that would be a lie; in fact, McElroy's minimalist approach to exposition proves that a deft hand can show so much by telling so little, as I left this book with a complete image of everyone who lived and died within its pages.

Several of the characters who play significant roles in Zach's life possess the kinds of talents that tend to forgive--nay, willfully gloss over--the perfectly natural failures of character that aren't exactly negated by finely honed skills. It is that mental difficulty in reconciling extremes and other seemingly at-odds elements that is the force propelling Cannonball: This is a book about dualities, how easily they come into existence and how unavoidable they are when no two people can ever see any one thing identically. Once the novel begins to grab hold of and run with this theme, every action becomes more significant, every word is made richer with layered precision, every character develops into something more believably human. We know that Zach is not a perfectly reliable narrator, that he possesses great abilities as well as a great capacity for lapses in judgment, but he is also a magnetically empathetic soul who puts the world together in such a familiar, non-academic way--as if he, too, were groping in the dark without the hand of an omniscient writer guiding him as both the bigger picture and his part in it come into focus--that such flaws make him companionable to a degree that sheer, awesome talent alone cannot.

This is a novel told in symbolic metaphor stemming from Zach himself: He is a gifted swimmer and diver, but it is photography that drives him, and, as the novel barrels ahead, it becomes more and more evident that the commonalities between these two pursuits hold the key to the heart of the story. Which is this: Universal understanding is a myth. No two things look the same to two people, much like a photo and its negative, like a concrete entity and its pallid, rippling reflection on water. Zach, who never had the crucial thing separates a competitive diver from an Olympian, who sees photography more as a mode of artistic expression than factual representation, stands at square opposition to his father, who seeks a champion in the water and a documentarian behind the lens, neither of which Zach is destined to be.

For all its frenetic pacing, Cannonball never feels rushed; there is no hurry to get to the next stop but there are a controlled urgency for understanding and a need for some sense of correlation between seemingly unrelated events that drive the narration. A scene of great chaos and destruction occurs about halfway through the novel that arrives so quickly and is such a turning point for the story that it takes Zach and the reader alike a few seconds to realize what's happening, as is often the case with those moments that change everything. It offers a slow dawning of realization that echoes how such moments of upheaval are processed and later recalled in the real world.

True to the dualities it encompasses, Cannonball is at once hotly emotional and coolly rational, capable of blending everyday humor with routine human tragedy, celebrating true talent and the virtues of incredible heart. Its curiosity is honest without being mawkishly earnest, its questions are sincere without erring toward saccharine sentiment. McElroy challenges his audience with unconventional narration and the occasional up-close look at some uncomfortable realities but he more than generously rewards his readers with a thought-provoking examination of how one things can have so many varied appearances from different angles, with a clearer understanding and through the increasing distance created by the onward march of time.

World War Z

World War Z, Max Brooks
Read: 5 to 8 October 2011
4.5 / 5 stars 

Like The Road, I bought World War Z so people would stop recommending it to me; also like The Road, a few years passed between purchasing and finally reading the book, the latter effort being choked with innumerable moments of vivid déjà vu wherein I wondered why the hell it took me so long to delve into such a disturbingly awesome novel (and so indulging myself in Halloween-appropriate reads already proves to be a brilliant move).

The most immediate success of WWZ is Brooks's ability to write believably in dozens of unique voices. No two survivors -- not even the military personnel -- have the same story, so it stands to reason that none of them should sound the same in their interviews: The only commonality in the various personal accounts is their palpable humanity. Each survivor's pre-war life and wartime experiences shape their narratives, and it's impressive how one character's ongoing internal battles can be so well hidden while others still are visibly dealing with their own psychological demons. Taking on the international element and offering the reader a global perspective only makes the zombie scourge more believable.

It is the worldwide perspective that makes WWZ an ambitious undertaking. Seeing each country's response, how national identities affected individual responses and how global relations played a role in every stage of the war offered an unsettlingly realistic look at a hypothetical tragedy.

Brooks really doesn't leave a stone unturned, and his impeccable attention to detail is another one of the book's strongest assets. He addresses everything from seeking refuge in a nuclear sub to some nations' return to isolation tactics to the environmental devastation of attempting to blast the undead back to the hell from whence they shuffled (OH HAI NUCLEAR AUTUMN) to the failure of standard wartime tactics in the face of an unconventional enemy to even the biologic composition of zombies, which becomes creepily relevant upon revealing the "quisling" phenomenon. Though, given that a staggering number of survivors AND undead have taken to the oceans, I'm kind of curious about the possibility of zombie sharks. Yeah, it sucks that the whale population is a notch below extinction by the end of the book but.... c'mon. Zombie sharks. Let's entertain that doubly insatiable flight of fancy, please.

The scariest part of this novel? How much it assured me that neither my country's government nor its people are even close to being adequately prepared for anything more traumatizing than a really bad week at work. The events that unfolded in these 342 pages had me wondering if the rise of the undead might be the bite in the ass that society needs to get its priorities in order. My fellow Americans worry me more than zombies do (but that's no recent development), which was more than enough inspiration to make sure that the zombie-apocalypse go-bag is up-to-date before heading to the range for target practice.

In the end, I came for the zombies; I stayed for the authenticity of the book's various human reactions.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Not even I could ruin pumpkin soup

I am pretty vocal in my dislike of both fall and cooking; however, pumpkin soup just might make me a little more tolerant of both.

Oh, you wanted a recipe? From the best of my recollection (because I started with instructions and deviated from them preeeeeetty quickly): 6 1/2 cups of pureed pumpkin; one quart of vegetable stock; roughly a cup of heavy cream; maple syrup, cinnamon and nutmeg to taste; mix together on simmer 'til smooth, or until you're powerless to resist the smell of cooking pumpkin; serve with a drizzle of cream and a dash of nutmeg. I'd say that this yields about 10 servings but I have no idea how to translate my monster portions into those preferred by more polite company.