Sunday, May 08, 2011

Exquisite Prose, Hypnotic Landscapes: Two Reviews

I continue to be grateful that in this era of pop-writing and, what I frequently refer to as McBooks, there are still writers who create literary fiction that is gorgeously written and tell mesmerizing tales. I recently finished two books which fit the category of exquisite prose. One of them is a delicious read I would recommend to anyone, the other was more of a challenge for me -- I'm still not sure I understand it.

Robert Goolrick
Algonquin Books
ISBN-13: 978-1565129771
One of the most seductive, intoxicating books I have read in a very long time. The prose in this delicious novel is just superb. This is sophisticated story-telling with enough twists and turns to keep it exciting right to the end. Contrary to the opinion of some reviewers here, the tale is told with a sensitivity to the incredible longing of Ralph Truitt for the woman with whom he is falling in love. I never found the text to be excessively sexual -- the intimate scenes are beautifully told, tasteful and not at all explicit. What is so heart-wrenching is the yearning of a lonely man not just for love but to be able to forgive himself enough for his past sins to let himself accept love. I have to admit, I fell a little bit in love with Ralph.

Catherine is a wonderful character. She has lived a sexually adventurous life, not out of depravity but out of necessity -- as a way to survive and to care for her younger sister who, unknown to Catherine, was lost beyond Catherine's power to rescue her. But, despite her past and against her intentions, she succumbs to all that Ralph offers her -- his love as well as his gifts of material comforts and intellectual stimulation.

Antonio is the truly sad character in this story, a lost boy who should not have been lost, who, when he is offered an opportunity for redemption, is too wounded to accept it.

I loved this book -- the bleak landscape of a Wisconsin winter provided a perfect counterpoint to the heat of desire and the opulence of Ralph Truitt's world. This is the sort of book I will read again just to revel in its lush prose and poignant emotion.

Joseph Cardinale
Fiction Collective 2
ISBN-13: 978-1573661584

I found this book somewhat mystifying. The stories in it are beautifully written with a dreamy, existential quality that kept me reading even when I had no clue where the story was going. Therein lies the problem. Each tale is told from the perspective of a narrator who grows progressively older with each story, beginning as a boy playing with his sister and ending with a man caring for his beloved wife with Alzheimer's. Each story is told in exquisite language with imagery that feels mythic and a palpable longing for God, or whatever unknowable other is shaping the forces moving the lives of the people in the stories. Whether the narrator is the same person in each is unknown and it probably doesn't really matter. In one story he is a teenage boy stranded in a flooded world with only his mother and an orangutan. In another he is a young man talking to his father about the strange things they have seen. In more than one a woman/wife/lover named Marie is there but we never really know who any of these people are. In one story the narrator has recently lost his wife and taken up astronomy, in another she is elderly and dying.

All of the stories take place in mysterious landscapes which seem both lavish and bleak. The narrator ponders the mysteries of his circumstances in language both poetic and scientific: “I pictured a flat number line floating in space and spaced from zero to four hundred and arrowed out from both ends to the ends of the known universe. Sixty seconds for each minute. But the lines between the seconds were black holes with spaces at the bottom.” He frets over his place in God's plans and seems to worry incessantly that maybe one day God will just forget all about him and he will be lost forever.

There were several times while reading I thought, "Maybe I'm just not intelligent enough to understand this book." I still wonder about that. It's a collection of beautifully written, dreamy stories with a deeply hypnotic quality but, in all honesty, I'm still not sure if I missed something.

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