Saturday, October 22, 2005

interlude: what i'm reading right now

Michael Cunningham:
I love Michael Cunningham's writing, generally, and have read each of his novels. His style has always been lovely, meticulous, seemingly delicate but with, at its core, a subtle desperation and power and loss.

In A Home at the End of the World he speculates, "I believed, at that moment, that I had never loved anyone but my parents and these two people. Perhaps, in the extravagance of youth, we give away our devotions easily and all but arbitrarily, on the mistaken assumption that we'll always have more to give." And later, "After awhile, we left the cemetery again. It seemed there should have been more to say or do, but the dead are difficult subjects. What's most remarkable about them is their constancy. They will be dead in just this way a thousand years from now. I was still getting used to it with my own father. The whole time he lived I had thought in terms of how we might still change in one another's eyes. Now we could not revise ourselves. He'd taken the possibility with him into the crematorium's fire."

In Flesh and Blood, he circles around the idea of inner- and outer-selves and how so often they don't come together exactly seamlessly at the edges. It is those small, sometimes almost inperceivable, rents in the fabric of our nature, the ordinariness and the outgrowing or escape or fear of that ordinariness, that interest him. Of the housewife, the prim and proper Catholic girl, he writes, "The most terrible beauty came out at night. In daylight the world was full of facts; you could live in a swarm of errands. At night, late, there was only desire or its absence, after the other stories had been pulled in off the streets." And of the housewife's son, "Smallness was over for him. He'd lost all interest in being lithe and clever, a monkey boy. At twenty nine, Will wanted size. He wanted to move with the ease and authority of geography. No more little thin-boy dance. He was tired of making jokes. He was ready to look a little dangerous, to need no apology."

I think part of why I love this writing so much is that, for all its delicacy and simpleness of structure, his characters are so strongly rooted in the real world, in errands and geography and dirt and cemeteries. And now I'm in the middle of Specimen Days, his latest work, and am having trouble getting through it. As with The Hours, he's channeling another writer, but it doesn't work quite as well with Walt Whitman as it did with Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf, with her unquestionable brilliance, was not what you would call a "wild" writer. And for all that I love Cunningham, he can't possibly match Whitman's exuberance and grace, and in a way it seems, in the end, that Cunningham's stories themselves embody the ghosts and emptiness that his characters fear. Specimen Days is lovely and delicate and ethereal, its characters struggling to be grounded, to take root, in a world that has moved beyond them somehow. Yet it's almost like an exercise in form, a meticulously planned wilderness, a beautiful garden that can't quite support its own weight.

But I'll have to confirm all these feelings when I actually finish the book.

Tad Williams:
The Otherland series is an over-indulgent look into the world of cyber fantasy, and at four volumes and over 3300 pages, I'm having trouble justifying to myself the amount of time, all the minutes and hours of my life, that I have invested in reading it. I'm getting on towards middle age now (scary thought though that may be, we do have to face reality some time), and with the hundreds, probably thousands, of books that are already cluttering up my apartment, or that haven't even been written yet, that I will fall in love with or be terrified by or merely like, a little voice in the back of my head is whispering, "This is what you want to read before you die?" And yet I'm 2800 pages in and so couldn't possibly stop now.

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