Have you ever found yourself straight at a party where everyone else is stoned on pot? That's what reading Chronic City is like--figuratively . . . and literally since most of the characters ARE always stoned on pot? I left the party before it was over, disappointed because I so loved Lethem's accessible and genuinely insightful and funny _The Fortress of Solitude_. _Chronic City_ is an episodic novel about nothing, but not nearly as much fun or as clever or, despite its pretensions, as knowledgeable of New York as that masterpiece about nothing, _Seinfeld_.
Hurston's novel is a classic and so hardly needs a review from me. But the reading by Ruby Dee (a classic herself) is so extraordinary that I cannot help but cheer out loud. I have seen hundreds of Broadway shows and thousands of films in my six decades, but, honestly, I'm not sure I have ever been audience to a greater performance. Ruby Dee gives every character a close-up; she paints a hue for every word to produce, somehow, a technicolor panorama that is palpable. I have listened to the hurricane chapter over and over. It's the showstopper in this tour de force. I can't listen again to the closing chapter; the catharsis is just too powerful to repeat. It lives in my heart though, and will forever.
It's Superman in ways we might have imagined, but never before read or saw. This Superman has sex, has to learn to fly, has to go through umpteen costumes before being given (from an unlikely terrestrial source) an indestructible one, and has wounds that bleed literally and metaphorically. The novel is absolutely empathetic to the original story and yet leaps out of bounds with inventive twists and turns. It's Clark Kent's Bildungsroman as he leaves Kansas on the road to self-discovery and, ultimately, his place in the universe. His place, by the way is a very specific, richly detailed and textured metropolis: New York City in the late 1930s. Lex and Lois are there, but far more interesting than they have ever been before in comics, films, or television. One probably has to have a fondness (but not a compulsive fanaticism) for the mythology of Superman to love this novel. I do love It's Superman and I love its astonishingly stylish reading on audio.
It is not a spoiler to reveal that Professor William Stoner, the eponymous main character, dies at the end of this novel since that fact is revealed to us at the outset. His demise, as described there, causes so few ripples, such a small wake (and I use the word purposefully), that we must wonder if the narrative of his life can be worth reading. But it is--because this terribly, achingly ordinary life is made to sound extraordinary by the power and passion of the writing invested by John Williams in the character. And this is fitting inasmuch as the only real passion--albeit not the only love--in Stoner???s life is literature.
As in the naturalistic novels of the late nineteenth century, our attention is drawn to the harrowing burdens of Stoner???s existence far more than to his very few glories. He is victimized at so many turns that it is hard to consider him a protagonist, and yet, ultimately, his graceful stoicism and kindness gain in us a certain respect--especially in those of us who have ever asked ourselves if our lives will have made any difference to the world. The novel is a painful answer to that question. But if beauty is truth and if the discovery of truth does make live worth living, then this beautifully-crafted work is worth reading.
Most reviewers discuss the science of this novel. But, for me, it's all about the fiction. The magic of fiction, resulting from our willing suspension of disbelief, is that we read (or listen to) a novel as if it were a book of non-fiction about actual people confronting real events. But what if the narrator of a novel claims to be its author and comments, from time to time, on the process of his creation of the very fictional characters and plot? And what if that plot forces its characters, most of them student-writers of non-fiction that they sometimes make up, to wonder if they or their DNA or science or the media have created them? (It never occurs to them that they are characters in a novel.) Then we have a maze of a book--another amazing Richard Powers novel both intellectually provocative and aesthetically satisfying. What Powers also does so marvelously well here is to invent Thassadit Amzwar (nickname: Generosity) who makes us feel so good, we need her to be real. But whether she is or not, there is more truth in this Richard Powers novel than in a month of cable news.
This beautifully-written story of an art dealer's mid-life, mid-career, mid-marriage crisis is, as we have come to expect in Michael Cunningham's fiction, rich in allusions, but, except for the big urn protagonist Peter Harris sells to his favorite client, I don't recall any mention of John Keats. But I kept thinking of the poet's tragic paradox by Peter's impossible attempt to find, in the ineffable beauty of sculpture and of a dangerous lover, an experience of the infinite he well knows is at odds with the temporary pleasures and pains of real life. Along the way, although far shorter than Jonathan Franzen's recent blockbuster, By Nightfall similarly makes us wonder if freedom is all it's cracked up to be.
I wasn't sure, as I heard the exposition introducing Patty and Walter and their neighbors, if all the praise for Franzen's latest was deserved. But, twenty-four hours of listening later, I join the chorus. The novel draws us in as a good soap opera does, but it is so much more: without a finger of heavy-handed didacticism, the novel ingeniously deconstructs the American obsession with freedom--personal freedom, economic freedom, political freedom, artistic freedom. Freedom here really is an American dream--hardly realistic or, when you get down to it, as this novel does, even desirable. The theme of Freedom isn't so far from that of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee": Freedom's just another work for nothing left to lose.
I have loved the gritty New York novels of Richard Price for as long as he has been writing them--several decades now. David Mamet has always gotten praise for the rough colloquial speech of his plays' characters, but, to my ears, no working writer captures real talk as does Price. (And so it's a gift to have a gifted Bobby Cannavale bring all these voices to life.)
On its surface, the novel is a police procedural, but it is character, not plot, that moves this book. The lives (victims, perpetrators, police, reporters) that bump into each other in its pages are anything but lush. Neither, of course, is the life of the Speaker in the Strayhorn-Ellington classic:
"I'll live a lush life in some small dive... /
And there I'll be, while I rot /
With the rest of those whose lives are lonely, too..."
But we come to care about these lonely, miserable people because Richard Price treats them all--even the villains--with understanding. I have always thought that no novelist outdid Anita Desai in authorial fairness to fictional characters. But Price runs the same amazing race in Lush Life making this a book with great writing and a great heart despite the bleakness of its landscape.
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