Monday, July 28, 2008

The Quiet American

I have recently converted to being a Graham Greene fan as a result of his small but perfectly formed novel, The Quiet American. I had read some Graham Greene before (Our Man in Havana) and was not particularly drawn in by his writing, although I could see that technically it was good. The Quiet American, however, really blew me away.

The Quiet American is narrated by the main character Fowler, a middle-aged English reporter who is living in Vietnam in the 1950s. The events take place during the war against the French colonialists just prior to American involvement in the Vietnam War. The 'quiet American' of the title is young aid-worker Pyle who meets Fowler and promptly falls in love with Fowler's beautiful young Vietnamese girlfriend Phuong. Despite their conflict over Phuong, Fowler and Pyle are friends, of a sort. However as Fowler begins to discover more about Pyle's actual work in Vietnam, their friendship becomes untenable and events reach a dramatic climax.

Fowler makes much of his role as a reporter (as opposed to a commentator). He tries to remain detached from the war that he reports on, refusing to take sides. This proves difficult though, especially when Fowler is confronted by horrific violence and bloodshed. For the reader, there are constant questions of how true Fowler's claims of detachment are. How much does losing Phuong colour Fowler's attitude to Pyle? And, since the story is told in hindsight, how much does Fowler's later knowledge of Pyle effect his retelling of the story? By the novel's climactic end, Fowler is forced to takes sides and realises that efforts to remain neutral are futile. He has realised that even doing nothing is in itself an act of choosing sides.

Greene contrasts Fowler's cynicism and detachment from events with Pyle's naive belief that he can understand and change the situation in Vietnam. Pyle stands as a kind of American 'everyman' in the novel. He has wildly optimistic and confident views about America's role in Vietnam and fails to read the subtleties of the situation. Fowler sees Pyle as dangerous in his innocence, describing innocence as a kind of 'insanity'. Pyle is less innocent than he seems but also more dangerous. His simplistic idealism reflects the kind of attitudes that got the US bogged down in an unwinnable war. Pyle is America on a post-WWII high, determined that the rest of the world share the democratic freedoms that they have. This is not in itself such a terrible goal, but is certainly one that can (and did) have devastating consequences.

The Quiet American is so successful partly because it is so relevant to modern conflicts. It foreshadows America's involvement in Vietnam and the quagmire of the war in Iraq. In fact, it stands as a useful metaphor of any nation hoping to blindly march in and show another country how it should live.

Graham Greene doesn't do great female characters and Phuong is very thinly drawn. Perhaps she is meant to represent Vietnam- she is a victim of the manipulation of others but in the end she endures, quiet and unknowable but unchangeable in a way. This is a small criticism though because Greene's real focus is the central relationship in the novel, the friendship between Fowler and Pyle. I find it hard to bring to mind a novel that so accurately depicts a male friendship. Theirs is an incredibly complex relationship. At times it seems that Fowler barely even likes Pyle but the final lines of the book, in which Fowler wishes he could talk to Pyle about what has happened, are incredibly moving.

There is so much in this novel and it is told with such beautiful simplicity. There is something astonishing in a novel that evokes a time and place so strongly and yet is so relevant to contemporary world politics. The Quiet American is a classic, and deservedly so.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Wonder Boys

What is it that I loved so much about Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys? It's hard to capture now that I try to write my thoughts down. In fact, I think it's the books that I really love that I find the hardest to blog about perhaps because it's those books that are hardest to disect and analyse. Part of me wants to keep the experience of reading Wonder Boys whole and untouched. On the other hand, I want to rave about a book that I love and encourage others to read it in the hope that they have the same experience. So here goes...

One thing that I love about this book is that it is so totally different in subject matter to the two other Chabon books I've read. Compared to the noirish detective fiction of The Yiddish Policemen's Union or the epic adventure of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, it could have been written by someone else. And yet... there is a certain consistency of style and language that Chabon maintains despite his amazingly wide-ranging subject matter. He writes with such confidence, with long winding sentences that never trip over themselves and feel fresh and honest and clever and... ok, I'm getting too breathily enthusiastic now.

So what's Wonder Boys actually about? The narrator is Grady Tripp, a writer and academic who has written some very successful novels in the past but finds himself now stuck on an unfinishable novel called 'Wonder Boys'. Rather than writers' block, Grady has a kind of writers' diarrhoea and his draft has reached colossal proportions with no end in sight after seven years of writing. Grady is forced to confront his failure to complete the novel (and the possibility that maybe 'Wonder Boys' isn't really very good) when his debaucherous, lecherous, old friend and editor Terry Crabtree (played by Robert Downey Jr in the film version- what perfect casting!) arrives in town for a literary festival and to see when the book will be ready.

At the same time Grady finds himself tied up in the worries of his student James Leer, a troubled and talented young writer, and his mistress who just happens to be dean of the university and is also pregnant with Grady's child.

What follows is a few days of complete chaos as Grady, fuelled by alcohol and drugs, stumbles from one disaster to the next. There's a dead dog to dispose of, a shoot out, a stolen car, a wife who has left him, a Passover dinner, Marilyn Monroe memorabilia, booze, cigarettes, dope, and all the while the sneaking suspicion that Terry will uncover the truth about the unfinished manuscript in Grady's study.

Despite the chaotic messiness of the plot, Chabon never lets his material get away from him. This book is never self-indulgent and its free-wheeling plot is actually cleverly constructed to build the picture of a character who has lost control of his life. Chabon writes very well about writing in Wonder Boys, capturing the way we can lose perspective on our own work. Through the character of student James Leer he explores the constructedness of writing- James lives through old movies and uses them to construct much of his writing and, it is revealed, his life.

There is such a wonderful use of humour in this book as Grady's adventures descend into the ridiculous, but there is also a wonderful humanity. Chabon never loses sight of his characters, and while they might land themselves in cartoonish scenarios, they themselves never become cartoons.

This is a really hard book for me to describe mostly because I just loved it so much, and I'm not sure I've done it justice here. The most I can say really is go out and read it yourself if you haven't done so already.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Okay, I'll admit it. I'm in love with Michael Chabon. How did I not see this before when I read The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and thought it was only 'pretty good'? Clearly I was in denial because after reading The Yiddish Policemen's Union for my book club and then quickly following it with Wonder Boys, I can't believe I wasn't raving about Chabon years ago.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is Chabon's take on genre fiction, in this case the hard-boiled detective novel. All the usual factors are there: the troubled maverick detective, a body in the first chapter, crosses and double crosses and a plot that moves along at a cracking pace. Chabon works his magic to make something new out of this familiar terrain. The main way he does this is by setting his novel in a re-imagined world, one in which a homeland for Jews is established after World War II in Sitka, Alaska. Tension is created by the imminent 'reversion' in which the homeland will be returned to the US and the 'frozen chosen' of Sitka will be out on their ear.

The novel begins with the murder of a young, chess-playing heroin addict in a cheap dive of a hotel which also happens to be where detective Meyer Landsman is currently residing. Landsman becomes obsessed with solving the crime, despite the more pressing concerns of his own mess of a life, and it leads him into the dark and secretive world of the Verbover sect, a group of devout and corrupt Jews with their own plans for survival after they are kicked out of Sitka.

The plot is fast and clever but it is Chabon's use of language that really sucked me in. He channels Raymond Chandler and his ilk but then gives it a twist of his own. This is smart, funny writing that still has real emotional pull. Here's a taste from early in the book, introducing the main character:
According to doctors, therapists, and his ex-wife, Landsman drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with a crude hammer of hundred-proof plum brandy. But the truth is that Meyer Landsman has only two moods: working and dead... He has the memory of convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker. When there is crime to fight, Landsman tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket. It's like there's a film score playing behind him, heavy on the castanets. The problem comes in the hours when he isn't working, when his thoughts start blowing out the open window of his brain like pages from a blotter. Sometimes it takes a heavy paperweight to pin them down.

Chabon also litters the text with his own brand of Yiddish slang that gives the alternative world that he has created a feeling of authenticity. It is this attention to detail that makes Sitka really come to life.

There is a certain strange freedom with writing within an established genre. Rather than it being formulaic, I think a good writer uses the shared understanding between reader and writer to leap-frog straight into more interesting territory. In genre fiction there is less time spent on establishing just what the book is and more time getting on with the really interesting stuff. Or that's what Chabon manages anyway. Sure, there are plenty of badly written crime novels, but there's lots of really turgid 'literary fiction' and the whole snobbishness around genre fiction is really undeserved, especially when you read a crime novel as good as this.

In my next post: why Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys is my new favourite book. Yes, folks, it's definitely love...