Thursday, July 27, 2006

Book Reviews: DeLillo, Chabon

Don DeLillo, Underworld (B+)
(from October 2004)

DeLillo has an amazing ability to tell three narratives at once. Chapter by chapter, this is his favorite technique, and his best, placing the paragraphs of that section together like a shuffled deck, a seemingly random delivery of three projections of an interspersed thought. I balked at it early on, but ultimately it comes off as surprisingly natural. It creates the effect, intentionally I believe, of a disconnected reminiscence which is a good fit for this mid-life nostalgia piece.

The style is not a hard read on the sentence level though, and comes off very atmospheric, with text washing over you in such quantity that the defects would have been unnoticed if I were enjoying it more.

Underworld is quite the collage, and no character misses their part, however minor or tangential he or she may seem. Some are funny; most strive for poignant. The dramatic tension is borne by the serious and distant protagonist as we delve slowly deeper into his life to discover what made him what he is. Like most lives, the tension decreases with time, and DeLillo astutely paints the story arc backward in time to escalate the drama as we read along. The general problem is that the story just doesn't contain enough of this momentum to sustain its size. Couple that with a comfortable and easy prose style, and the whole thing is eminently put-down-able. And as someone who has not lived the fifties, the deep, narcissistic nostalgia for that time at the expense of all others, is a little annoying. The boomer angst gets laid on really thick near the end.

Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (A+)

In his glancing piece on the NY Times best-of-the-quarter-century list, I caught my favorite dogma botherer comparing this to Don DeLillo's monster doorstop of a book, Underworld (as notable in its presence on the list as Amazing Adventures is in its absence). I'd have rather read this novel without the comparison rattling around my noggin, but I can see where he's coming from--they're both set in New York City, positioned in time on either side of the second world war. Both pull strongly for an iconic urban feel, slogging through poverty as well as riches and dropping names liberally. Both try to live in the glory of their golden ages.

But only one was an enjoyable novel populated with likable, interesting characters that I cared about.

Where Underworld was a gray, towering monster, crowded in with gables and looming gargoyles and trying hard to cram in all the gloomy city detail that DeLillo could muster, Amazing Adventures is a microcosm of Metropolis. It's a tidy city block, with hopes and fears, grime and splendor all captured without an assault of detail, a few streamlined and significant panels caught with a great comic artist's pen. For all DeLillo's efforts, Underworld failed to be very much alive, and frankly, his offensive idea that the nation's vitality ended in 1955 with his own felt like an apology for the dullness creeping in at every edge.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay follows fifteen years in the lives of two young cousins, Jews in wartime, one a natural pulp writer the other a gifted artist, in the golden age of comics, as they love, fear, marry, fight, and discover themselves. They're a natural partnership too, though they're only passingly aware how much they complement each other, and the book does a good job of expressing this relationship by following their times apart. (A natural paired reading may be with Christopher Priest's The Separation two entries above.) Chabon is a good enough writer to give it a touch of the comic book adventure (and he clearly loves the form), and if it's a little extravagant, I wouldn't call it excessive. It's not terribly optimistic either, though the tone makes it feel that way. Chabon is convincing in the idea that we're in the real story that lay behind all the grand hyperbole, and does a great job of it.

Oh, but for the record, I'm tired of how damn great New York City is for now, and tired of comic book hagiography too.

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