Various Tails: Or, An Update on My Summer Reading

Various Tails: Or, An Update on My Summer Reading July 16, 2014

This year I answered not one but two of those hubristic “What do you plan to read this summer?” poll-articles. Last year I read exactly one of my “planned” (= “selected in order to bolster my public image,” really) books, and didn’t like it–you guys can hate me, but I did not get A Confederacy of Dunces at all, just thoroughly remained outside of it the whole time. I did read Two Murders in My Double Life eventually, and liked it.

But this year I’ve knocked off the lot (more or less) fairly early. How’d it go?

Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask. A grim book, surrounded by World War II and yet oddly removed from it. The main thing which struck me here was the consistency with which the narrator’s desire for a woman made him feel powerless, supplicant, while his desire for men made him feel violently powerful. Loving (? or wanting, being dazzled by) a woman revealed his human helplessness, whereas desire for men allowed him to feel the dominance of a pagan god, if only in the protected chamber of his imagination.

Junichiro Tanizaki, Quicksand. (I couldn’t find my copy of Naomi.) Humid, swoony tale of romantic obsession, at times splintering into satire. Another book about what a woman symbolizes to the one who desires her: We often love what the other person means to us as much as we love the other person herself. That symbolic or iconic love can drown out the individual reality of the beloved; or it can be turned in gentler ways, as when men look at their wives and see “the mother of my children,” with all that that means.

Yumiko Kurahashi, The Adventures of Sumiyakist Q. I read this because of Helen Andrews’s recommendation, and good grief, is it a bizarre book. An anti-book! Against the rationalism of Communism it opposes total absurdity. All meanings collapse; nothing is anything definite. “Q felt he saw something like a tear, or rather some kind of transparent fluid, coming from the socket of Doktor’s gouged-out eye.”

The satire ranges from black comedy to pitch-black. Cannibalism and rampant sexual perversity (there are some acute descriptions of the psychology of masturbation) are the lighter elements. The nightmarish final sequences, showing the aftermath of what might be Q’s longed-for revolution, is truly grim; the speech where he tries to argue against suicide is relentlessly bleak.

It took me a while to get into the rhythm of this book, but after I’d been immersed in it I started to find it funny in a sort of terrifying way. Absolutely worth reading if you do not recoil from it fairly quickly.

DC Noir, ed. George Pelecanos. Well this was a thoroughgoing disappointment. The worst ___ Noir collection I’ve read by quite a bit. I said I’d be interested to see which recurring themes emerged, and sure, yes, it turns out that the themes are a) Cash Rules Everything Around Me (DC Noir feels much more like Moscow Noir than like the other two “noir” collections I’ve read, Haiti and Indian Country, for this reason), and b) the District’s swift decline, long languishing, and sudden gentrification. I found myself checking each story for a timestamp, a calendar year–that turned out to be the most important thing to know in order to orient myself. Stories from the ’70s felt almost exactly like stories from the ’90s: different slang, different formulae for cocaine, everything else is familiar. That’s fairly accurate, according to what the old heads have told me. The District changed in the ’60s and stayed changed–the violence increased, but it stayed basically the same derelict Dream City–until the money started to wash in about a decade and a half ago.

So all of that is interesting from a sociological/hometown-history standpoint. Unfortunately the stories themselves are depressingly low-quality. They range from straightforward crime tales (of which my favorite was Lester Irby’s “God Don’t Like Ugly,” which redeems its pedestrian prose with a final lilting, saddened note of penance) to a Mafia thing which starts out as borderline racialized pornography. That story uses the word “rumptious” and I basically think “Uses the word ‘rumptious'” is not an inaccurate description of the collection as a whole.

AND YET, you know, I’m still going to buy DC Noir 2: The Classics at some point? Like everyone from this city I am a glutton for punishment I guess.

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