Book Review: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

When I studied abroad in Germany, I remember one day stepping into a bookshop (to check out the English section–my German was and still is quite bad) and getting curious to see what translated English authors they had. There were the usual suspects–DeLillo, Roth, McCarthy–and then they had nearly a shelf full of Paul Auster. I vaguely knew the name, but had no idea he was that big. In the years since then, I’ve read up on Auster (though never actually dipped into his books) and am not sure why he is not as popular at home as he is abroad.

“The New York Trilogy” is my first book by him. It’s not a novel but rather three novellas with some odd connections between them. And, despite the name, this is not an “American” book: Auster is after something deeper here. Imagine a more mainstream Beckett with less humor and you’ll have an idea what this book is like.

The first novella, “City of Glass,” is the story of a mystery writer getting mistaken for “Paul Auster,” a detective, and tracking down a recently freed religious lunatic. The next one, “Ghosts,” follows another detective, this one tasked with watching a strange man writing each day. But is he the watcher or the watched? The last one, “Locked In,” features a man detailing his life after his childhood friend disappears and turns out to have left a treasure trove of unpublished literary masterpieces behind him. A current of metafiction runs through all of them tying the works together and exploring books by other authors, like Nathaniel Hawthorne (the childhood friend in the final novella is named Fanshawe, the title of Hawthorne’s first (and later repudiated) work).

Auster’s prose is sparse, but not so much as to be artless. Apparently this has become a problem in his more recent books, but here there are no such troubles.

Those interested in real detective stories, with conclusions and reveals about who really did it, should look elsewhere. Auster is using the conventions of the genre, but…to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say do not go into this expecting any sort of typical narrative arc.

This isn’t a perfect book but it still is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary American fiction (or just contemporary fiction in general). Others have said that this is the best place to start with Auster, and while this is the only one of his I’ve read, it did make me want to check out his other works. Definitely recommended.

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Book Review: Zero K by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo is one of the most acclaimed contemporary American writers, one of the so-called “Bloom Four” (named after the literary critic Harold Bloom; the others are Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, and Cormac McCarthy, all perennial Nobel candidates). But, of this exclusive group, DeLillo’s work is probably the most uneven. He rose to prominence with the publication of four novels–White Noise, Libra, Mao II, Underworld–and his early and later output has veered from quirky cult classic to “what the hell was he thinking?”

Zero K, his latest novel, is similar to his recent works, such as Cosmopolis and Point Omega, but better (and I say that as one of his few fans who loves Point Omega). It is not so much a plot or character driven book as it is an idea-driven one. Death permeates every page, as do theories about it. Abstract talk about violence and meaning also frequently come up, though never so concretely that DeLillo lays out his own thoughts with clarity.

The book opens with Jeffrey Lockhart narrating as he arrives at a strange facility near Kyrgyzstan to see his stepmother die, or, rather, see her final moments before she is cryogenically frozen so she can awake in a future where she might live longer. Jeffrey’s father, a billionaire businessman who walked out of his wife and son some years ago, plans to join her. The strange futuristic area they’re in creates some unease in our narrator. Its sleek interior is simply too sleek. Displays appear showing news clips of violence, usually silently, though out the halls so that violence and death are always with Jeffrey.

As the novel progresses, we return to America to see more of the narrator’s everyday life. Those hoping for a thrilling plot or even well developed or intriguing characters should look elsewhere, but what would be a death sentence to other writers DeLillo pulls off. The book knows it’s a meditation on death and language’s limitations and doesn’t try to be anything else. Gluing this together is DeLillo’s prose, which is, as always, incredible.

As for flaws, it’s not so much the novel is flawless as it just features flaws that are always present in the author’s books. The dialogue is still stilted as characters talk in the same poetic, abstract manner DeLillo writes in. There is a lack of satisfying resolution. Not much happens. Themes are repeated over and over again. But fans have surely come to expect all this.

This is a novel to be thought about. Once I finished it and started examining the plot, structure, thematic devices, and it became a bit clearer what DeLillo was after (or, at least an interpretation of what he is after), the book went up from three or four stats to a low five out of five.

I would not recommend anyone start DeLillo here, but this is definitely one of his better books. Those who liked White Noise or Underworld but were turned off by a few others works are advised to give him another try with this one. It’s not a masterpiece like those two books, but it’s far from being a mess like some of his others.

Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

I’ve recently been on a scifi/fantasy kick, reading everything I can get my hands on. One contemporary author who kept coming up was John Scalzi, particularly for his “Old Man’s War” series. The titles were a little long, however, and I noticed one of his shorter books, “Redshirts,” had won the Hugo award for Best Novel. Clearly it was a quality work.

Boy, was I wrong.

It starts out interesting. New members of a spaceship crew discover that they are side characters and that members of their kind die on almost every away mission. (For those that don’t know, this is a parody of Star Trek, where nameless crewmembers wearing redshirts almost always died on missions to give the illusion that the main cast was in danger.) It’s been done before, like in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” but the setting gives the idea a fresh breath. Scalzi’s humor also helps, as does his impeccable plotting.

Unfortunately, the story takes an…odd turn later on and never quite recovers. I won’t ruin it here but I will say that the twist pretty much ruins the book and unravels the existential fun of the first sections.

This is also a bizarre book in that it tries to be both light entertainment and philosophical, especially at the very end (the book’s full title is actually Redshirts: A Novel and Three Codas, which serve as epilogues for certain characters and also attempt to explore the implications of the universe Scalzi created). The book is light entertainment, but deep it is not. The writing is like a giant thing of cotton candy instead of a steak dinner: it goes down easy at first but after a bit you’re wishing for something more substantial, and finally you wish there wasn’t so much (where was the editor on this book? Plenty of conversations should have been cleaned up). It doesn’t help that Redshirts only takes a stab at seriousness towards the end, by which point such tone changes are jarring rather than intriguing. Ultimately, this mish-mash of different ideas hurts the novel more than if Scalzi had just kept things fun.

Fans of Star Trek will eat this up, as will Scalzi’s admirers, but for others, look elsewhere if you’re craving something scifi or want to try out Scalzi. This is one of the worst books I’ve read in 2016 so far. One day I’ll check out Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” series, but I need some time before I’m ready to read another by him.

Book Review: In the Cafe of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano’s oeuvre has an odd cumulative effect: the more books you read by him, the more you like him. The novels occupy special places in his body of work, complementing each other. But, other than a few highly acclaimed near-masterpieces (Missing Person, Dora Bruder, and Pedigree), all of these feel incomplete with taken alone, and sometimes even placing them within the context of his other novels is not enough to shake this feeling. Thankfully, In The Café Of Lost Youth belongs in the former category of near-masterpieces.

Those familiar with Modiano, however, might appreciate it more. It deals with all the typical Modiano tropes and themes: a dreamy recollection of years long past, Parisian locales, possible shady dealings, a detective, a mysterious young woman. If Modiano doesn’t click for you, it’s easy to get tired of the same old tricks, but here it works. He varies the formula just enough to make it new.

The novel begins with a typical Modiano narrator, a young student with a literary bent. He describes a café he begins to frequent, the regulars there, and an odd woman who attracts him. But 25 pages in, the point of view switches. There are four different narrators in total, including a passage narrated by the intriguing young woman. This allows Modiano to avoid a pitfall he frequently has trouble with. Too often he is too vague in his endings, not so much not answering questions readers have as not even providing the framework to know which questions to ask. By switching the point of view, he manages to give satisfying solutions to problems one narrator might not know which another reveals, while still evoking the mysterious atmosphere he is so famous for.

And, much like his other novels, this is incredibly short, with around 130 pages in my edition.

Though perhaps not as great as Missing Person or Dora Bruder, this is up there as one of the author’s best. Anyone—fans, those who tried a book and weren’t wowed, newcomers—are all recommended to take a look at this.