Reviews by Author: O-R
Flann O’Brien's At swim-two-birds
I once received a story rejection that in part read, "I feel strange rejecting a story that made me spew coffee at least three times from laughing." I feel similarly strange in not giving this experimental-ish novel only four stars. In brief, the novel contains at least three novels only vaguely linked by a somewhat brilliant, somewhat slothful Irish Trinity student living with his righteous uncle. Characters come life throughout the novel, some intent on keeping their birth-author, if you will, asleep so that they can play hanky-panky on their own without his malevolent, if you will, strictures. At one point they contract with a Pooka to torture the man nearly to death, dropping a ceiling on his head while twisting his male nipples. And then . . . some of the uncle's pro-Irish friends discuss the strictures against dancing the waltz, which is "foreign." And then, some of the aforementioned characters tire of being cowboys and cattle rustlers (Ring an Irish mythical bell?) in the novels their author--who's been drugged to keep him asleep writes. Yet one of them named Shorty has the go-to of guns to solve any problem: "A bullet would put him out of his pain, it would be a merciful act of Providence." And the "Good Fairy," who travels in the Pooka's pocket, winds up welching in a game of poker--the fairy has no body and consequently no money either. Many of the scenes are rollicking and rolling both. BUT . . . some of the scenes derive their humor from a shaggy dog element that carries on . . . and on. Too long, at times, though of course frustration becomes the whole point of shaggy dog tales. Still. The ending is strangely out of sync with the overriding comedy, I must add--no more spoiler than that. Well worth reading, though! The best of O'Brien's that I've read so far.
Flann O’Brien's The Dalkey Archive
202 pages. As far as comic writing and style go, this novel pushes a five; as far as plot integrity goes, however, it skids a good deal, especially with the introduction of a posthumous James Joyce as a character just over halfway into the text. Mick, the protagonist, does offer a solidly entertaining trip as he moves from amazement with the occurrences and theories being proffered—time being halted, the end of the world, and the “mollyculer theorem” proving that men are transforming into bicycles through too much contact—into haughty consideration of becoming the next pope or at least a Jesuit. I’m hoping O’Brien’s other novels offer more, so at least this one got my curiosity up, and it is riotously funny for the first half.
Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
You might think that this “novel” would be showing its age now, forty years after publication. It’s not. And I have to wonder Just what made it seem so timely or zeitgeist-y during the hippie 70’s, for it’s certainly isn’t the easiest read out there. The Teachings of Don Juan, sure I can understand: drugs. This work? Zen, I suppose, and motorcycles, I suppose. But the latter, especially, is only a window-dressing concern.
Let me change spark plugs here. This is a great book. It is a great form-breaking book that pushes the novel to its limits, much as it pushes non-fiction to the same limits. It’s also a book that will last a good while, for its main concern is neither Zen nor motorcycles, but the concept of Quality. It’s a philosophy and almost-ethics book in disguise. And as Goldstein pointed out in her Plato at the Googleplex, neither of those is going away.
What makes it a novel is the unravelling mystery of Phaedrus, the narrator’s ego that was lost in “total annihilation ECS,” something that I’ve been assured by medical personnel exists only in this novel. BUT, the narrator did undergo electric-shock therapy, and he did lose part of his personality and memory. Phaedrus, however, is returning. Will he return as a monster, or as a worrisome genius? This question looms larger as the motorcycle trip across country continues.
Balancing that worry and the worry about Chris, the narrator’s son, are different discussions of just what quality means. These move from the earthly—quality surely can’t be found in a motorcycle mechanic who works with a blasting radio, for how can he concentrate—to the metaphysical—just why did Plato so hate the Sophists? Did they revere some form of quality that he and his pupil Aristotle found abhorrent?
And so the subject matter and the tone of this work tumble back and forth between earthly and ethereal. It’s a fine road trip, well worth taking. Just take it slowly, very slowly, and you’ll be rewarded. I have chapter-by-chapter notes, if you’re interested. Free.
Aaron Poochigian Mr. Either Or
A good many of contemporary novels in verse are written for young adults. This one certainly isn’t. It’s snarky, it’s fun, it’s compelling, it’s fantastical. Poochigian’s verse novel differs from the wondrous Dorothy Porter and the whimsical Jane Yolden in that both of those authors have chapters that stand somewhat alone as lyrical poems. Poochigian’s chapters provide, in this respect, more standard novelistic affairs that require the reader to continue for plot and development. And while Poochigian does share those last characteristics with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Byron’s Don Juan, he differs from them in that his verse does not take on a formal (other than being iambic pentameter) scheme of rhyme or stanza.
Briefly, Poochigian’s novel follows a on and off drop out college student cum FBI spy as he resolves two bizarre cases that threaten the world’s very existence—and acquires a smart Ph.D. lover/fiancé in the process! Poochigian accomplishes all this through second person narrative—and lest that style turns you off, rest assured that his narrator is not the typical angst-ridden type normally accompanying said form of narration. Oh no, the voice is completely camp and up-to-date. Here, from the opening when the protagonist first confronts a gang who’ve stolen an antique piece of art with a so very deadly curse: “a pretty normal horde of adolescents / stuck in the hood with nothing else to do. / Still, even kids can pack a piece or two . . .” And much later, this social commentary, “Big Burger owner Roger Teague is large ‘n’ / in charge, nicknamed the ‘Sarge’ and thrilled to pay / an hourly pre-tax wage of $7.50 / because it turbo-pumps his profit margin / and schools his crew of losers to ‘be thrifty’ / (the Boy Scout way). He likes to think that they / will send him thank-yous in the mail someday: / Thanks, Sarge, for teaching me what words like ‘earn,’ / ‘obedience’ and ‘duty’ really mean.
All in all, this novel is great fun with its combination of camp and onrushing plot. More, Mr. Poochigian, more!
Dorothy Porter Wild Surmise
This is the last of Porter’s verse novels that I read—though not the last she wrote; that was El Dorado. I first resisted this novel because it’s not as heavily plotted as her two mysteries (El Dorado and The Monkey’s Mask) or even her “psychiatric” novel, What a Piece of Work. BUT, Wild Surmise is perhaps her most moving novel. It features the heavy sensuality that Porter fans—and there should be many more—will recognize immediately. Briefly, this novel concerns a love triangle among Alex, an bio-astronomer whose conjectures about life on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, have garnished her popularity on television; her husband, Daniel, whose expertise lies far away in teaching poetry at university; and a second female astronomer, whose specialty lies in cosmological conjectures about the origin of the universe. Porter’s typical mix of dark humor and well . . . dark fit prominently in this novel.
For those not familiar with Porter’s work, here are my two-cent recommendations: If you are coming to her for plot, start with The Monkey’s Mask, which features a lesbian detective investigating the sexual murder of a college student. This one is probably her most heavily plotted (though that’s debatable; El Dorado competes mightily). If your interest lies in psychological plotting, What a Piece of Work features a psychiatrist who undertakes to revive and rehabilitate a state-run institution. If you’re looking for sensuality and poetry, well, Akhenaton might work best. That novel concerns the pharaoh who introduced monotheism into Egypt, a belief which didn’t sit so hunky-dory with the high priests, as you can imagine. Probably the most sensual of all her novels, the pharaoh runs through wives including the famous Nefertiti, and nearly everyone in his family. Lots of incest. And if your interest lies in character, this one, Wild Surmise, is your best bet. You’ll need to get all these as used books, unfortunately. Get this woman’s work back in print!
Bram Riddlebarger's Golden Rod
If you're a fan of Tom Robbins, this novel will be right up your alley. Whimsical with suitably whimsical characters and metaphors. And oh yes, a talking gun, squirrel and assorted other Robbins-esque oddities. Riddlebarger has a streamlining flair of his own, to be sure.
Tom Robbins' Jitterbug Perfume
As far as I've read in Robbins' works, this novel is his best. A compelling mix of fantasy--everlasting life, a walking but fading Pan (as in the demi-god), a mix of perfumers--a waitress in Seattle, her aunt in New Orleans, two brothers in Paris. And all searching for--well, love? the ultimate perfume to promote love? eternal life (which may not be all it's booked to be? Ah, where was I? Yes, a mix of fantasy and realism with genuine and nearly perfect Robbins' insights, asides, curses, stretched metaphors and similes. All pushing the theme "Erleichinda," aka "Lighten up." Oh, a bonus appearance by Einstein! Go Tom Robbins!
Tom Robbins' Still Life with Woodpecker
277 pages. 3.5 of 5 stars Despite the forced similes and metaphors (“Hawaii was, indeed, a . . . living pap smear for the paradise flu.”) this novel has its enticements. The earnestness of the two main characters, Princess Leigh-Cheri and Bernard Mickey Wrangle, aka the Woodpecker, stands as one prime mover. The plot—as silly as it sometimes can be—stands as another. Then, hidden among those goofy similes and metaphors comes some nicely turned, insightful prose: “If you’re honest, you sooner or later have to confront your values. Then you’re forced to separate what is right from what is merely legal.” Or, “There is a peculiarly unattractive and discouraging common affliction called tunnel vision. . . . Tunnel vision is caused by an optic fungus that multiplies when the brain is less energetic than the ego.”
The characters? Princess Leigh-Cheri proposes a consortium of deposed royalty to advise the world. When that fails, she contemplates the design on a pack of Camel cigarettes and pyramid power. The Woodpecker is a self-proclaimed outlaw whose expertise lies in bombs—not for monetary gain or for political purposes, but to strip away the foolishness of the world. Well, maybe that isa political purpose?
The plot? Ah well, princess meets frog and falls in love. Complications—and surprises!—arise. The mostly short chapters aid greatly in compelling the reader, too. But when those chapters turn lengthy, reader beware! Some proselytizing a la Robbins is about to appear. This was published in 1980, so maybe wafts of hippie incense were still in the air? Go for Robbins’s Jitterbug Perfume, a much better novel.
Tom Robbins' Villa Incognito
With most comedy, there comes a certain amount of caricature. This is especially true of Tom Robbins’ novels. It is too true of Villa Incognito, wherein the four main characters are identifiable by sex—one is a pregnant female—but not by much else. And the remaining minor characters blatantly serve as plot-movers. One “main” character’s two spinster sisters even fall in this category. And the single identifiable antagonist, a CIA agent aptly named Mayflower Cabot Fitzgerald, fizzles as a threat. Look, there is certainly joy in reading recognizable Robbins traits: his wild metaphors and similes, his often acute insights (“for the Buddhists in the audience, Christmas was one of the peculiar American preoccupations—such as handguns, lawn care, and psychoanalysis”), and his joyful rambling asides. But in a novel this short (241 pages) all the previous become intrusive and cumbersome, without convincing characters and conflict to carry them through. While the opening and closing folk tale delivers the bulk of entertainment in this too short novel, and while the novel’s brevity may be tempting, a reader new to Robbins would be best served by starting with one of his earlier, lengthier novels. I recommend Jitterbug Perfume.
Betsy Robinson's The Last Will and Testament of Zelda McFigg
219 pages. Four stars. One way to read this novel involves seeing it as a tall tale, following the whacky and wild nigh impossible concatenation of events involving the narrator. Another way is to see it as inheriting the anti-hero(ine) movement of 60’s and 70’s fiction, for Zelda certainly fits that billing from the get-go: “until recently I weighed approximately two hundred thirty-seven pounds. I am four feet eleven inches in stature and I have not had sex. Ever. Also, I have never been anybody’s favorite, and this last fact, in my opinion, is an injustice of the highest order perpetrated by all persons I have ever met.” After this opening prologue we meet Zelda as a fourteen-year-old running away from an alcoholic mother—straight into the web of Mike the Poet. And then into his heroin-addicted girlfriend, And then to Vermont. True to her opening words, Zelda remains a virgin through all her travails. Ah, but she soon enough (in the plot, not in her life, for she has aged several years after stints as animal rights activist, a set designer for small production plays, a teacher’s aid, and then a teacher (illegally without a license) she soon enough, I say, meets the love and bane of her life, Donny. Donny is a native American, bastard son of a raped mother, supposedly living with his alcoholic grandfather. That “supposedly” brings in another tall-tale aspect. Donny and Zelda pair up to rotate around one another for the remainder of the novel, nearly three decades. The novel’s tone remains tall-tale-ish and comic for quite some time, gradually shifting into an anti-heroine mode. And that shift leaves the (anti)-heroine and the reader with the feeling that . . . “injustice of the highest order” is indeed inevitably plotting and plodding itself forward. Ah, life! Ah, young, blind love!
This is a fun, fast read, and Zelda as narrator will tug you along, like the sleep-walker she pretends to be, pilfering secrets in the houses of her adopted Moose Country, Vermont.