Read: “Invisible”, by Paul Auster

There are a few authors who I’ll follow just about anywhere; Paul Auster is one of them. Over the past couple years as I’ve read his catalog, I’ve enjoyed his description of even the darkest and bleakest situations. Leah described his work as “primarily meta-fiction” when she first introduced me to Auster — and he definitely excels at that — but that’s only part of the appeal. In works like `Invisible <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_(2009_novel)>`_, Auster uses creates a fictional world that he then uses to explore how we think about identity, shared experience, and stories.

[Warning, the following may contain spoilers, although I don’t think they would degrade the actual reading experience.]

Invisible begins in 1967, when the protagonist, Adam Walker, meets a visiting college professor, Born, and his girlfriend, Margot, at a party. This chance meeting gives rise to a business deal, the celebration of which is marred by a mugging that turns violent. It isn’t until the second section of the book that we realize the narrator is not Adam, but a college friend, James, now a successful author. James has received the preceding section from Adam much later in their lives, as the first part of a book Adam hopes to write. This book, like Invisible, will have four sections — spring, summer, fall, winter. The sending of pages, the recipients admiration for the original author (James believed Adam would go on to greatness), and the eventual responsibility for publication all echo the story of Fanshawe in The Locked Room, part of The New York Trilogy, one of Auster’s earlier works.

Invisible depicts a progression, both mechanically and for its characters. The characters deal with a push-pull of good (intellect) and evil. The book describes an interesting tension between sex and justice, how they interlock and how we distance ourselves from our actions seeking both. Auster uses different voices to emphasize the distance, telling each part of the story in a different voice. The first section is told in the first person, second in the second person, etc. The fourth and final section is told from the perspective of another person through a diary, with Adam, the protagonist, absent except in reference. As the story progresses, the details fall away in another reflection of this distancing.

Invisible works for me on many levels: as a story, as moralistic exposition, as a demonstration of using the mechanics of writing to further a story. Most importantly, it was enjoyable to read and drew me into a world where the line of what I know and what I think I know is never quite clear.

date:2010-03-28 20:04:26
wordpress_id:1622
layout:post
slug:read-invisible-by-paul-auster
comments:
category:reading
tags:2009, fiction, read

Read: “Spooner”, by Pete Dexter

Spooner, Pete Dexter’s latest novel, is not as consistent as The Paperboy, but that does not make it inferior. Spooner tells the story of a boy, Spooner, and his step-father, Calmer. Spooner is not smart, is not handsome, and is primarily talented at causing trouble for others. Pissing in the shoes of others, rolling cars down the hill, and throwing eggs at cars: these are the things Spooner is good at. Calmer, a former Navy man, is good at just about everything, and is particularly good at being patient and trying to rescue those in need of redemption. Like Spooner’s mother, Lily, who sees the world first as a personal affront to her.

Dexter uses language in a way that lets you feel the words in your mouth and taste the idiom and “flavor”; in his hands, the language of the South (Spooner begins in Georgia; The Paperboy in Florida) does not feel impersonated or propped up, but real and present. Spooner contains exposition that made me almost giddy with pleasure, re-reading paragraphs out loud on the bus, looking like a crazy person, I’m sure. For example,

There was in every sport Spooner ever played, on every team he ever joined, an outcast. Some kid who had been plucked from the safety of home and homeroom and tossed, often at the insistence of his own father, out into the world. Unprotected. Often this kid was the fattest, dopiest kid in school, someone who had been it every day of his life on the playgrounds, shunned or insulted one day, beaten up the next, and was now introduced to the rest of his life, which was more of the same except better organized, with the degree of abuse he suffered depending mostly on the mercies of the adults in charge.

I don’t know if I was exactly that kid on the team, but I could certainly pick him out a mile away, and knew enough to keep my distance.

Spooner is told in the third person, but Dexter manages to convey the mental confusion and uncertainty the characters express in a way that reminded me of Paul Auster. Characters try to look at themselves and figure out what really happened: Did they really see what they think they saw? Where was the moment things went wrong? Could they have found another way through that situation? That ability to convey the introspection, uncertainty, and inner monologue of a character gives the story a depth: coming to the end of a paragraph is like coming up from under water, and you’re not really sure where you’ve wound up.

Spooner is not perfect; one section, in particular, doesn’t feel like it “fits” with the rest. As a whole it’s a great story about two characters who care a great deal for each other, an original, expansive rendering of the father-son relationship.

date:2010-03-06 10:04:46
wordpress_id:1525
layout:post
slug:read-spooner-by-pete-dexter
comments:
category:reading
tags:2009, fiction, reading, sfpl

Read: “Fordlandia”, by Greg Grandin

Fordlandia chronicles the rise and fall of eponymous rubber plantation established by Henry Ford in Brazil in 1927. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that it would be more accurate to say, “attempted to establish”. The book is a chronicle of the money spent, initiatives undertaken, and schemes hatched, all in an effort to wring profit from the Amazon and, at least in some cases, bring better living conditions to its inhabitants.

Fordlandia is really three, interwoven stories. The surface story is about Ford’s efforts to push the limits of his autonomous, vertically integrated manufacturing by establishing a stable source of rubber in the Amazon, along the Tapajós River. Rubber was one of the few raw materials that Ford did not own or control production of, and was concerned that a British-initiated cabal could raise prices in the American market. Grandin gives the reader context in the form of Ford’s previous success with Fordism in the US, which is particularly interesting given the decline of the automobile industry of late.

Below the surface of the main story are two others: the story of the people of the Brazilian Amazon, and their exploitation during Brazil’s rubber boom and bust, and the story of Henry Ford’s personal evolution from industrialist to agriculturalist to paternalistic social engineer. As Fordlândia failed to produce rubber, it increasingly became a social experiment, attempting to export an idealized midwestern social structure to the Amazon. Ford and his managers attempted to impose what they believed to be the optimal structure — both social and corporate — on the workers. The results seem to have been directly, inversely proportional to the amount of control they tried to exert. Ford believed he was saving workers from the exploitative system of indentured servitude pervasive during Brazil’s rubber boom, but failed to understand the social dynamics that would dictate whether his new system was actually a success.

I found Ford’s evolution to be a particularly compelling part of the story. His massively integrated manufacturing system helped move people out of small towns and into urban centers. Despite this and his seeming contempt for the past, he idealized Puritan, small town America in the extreme. This story of trying to re-establish something he was responsible for weakening was one of the more compelling parts of the book.

Grandin concludes with an epilogue, “Still Waiting for Henry Ford.” In it he sounds a cautionary note about ongoing attempts to “modernize” the Amazon. The engaging, insightful chapters preceding this allow it to avoid any hints of panic or exaggeration. The Amazon is still waiting for the promises of Henry Ford to come true.


While Grandin wisely does not attempt sweeping moral interpretation, it does seem that Ford truly believed he was helping the residents of the Brazilian Amazon. Unfortunately a complete disinterest in understanding their social and economic structure led to sub-optimal results.

date:2010-03-05 15:15:41
wordpress_id:1519
layout:post
slug:read-fordlandia-by-greg-grandin
comments:
category:reading
tags:2009, nonfiction, reading, sfpl